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The High Price of the New Beijing

One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its façades scrubbed and tarted up a bit too much but the famous stores still selling their century-old brands of cotton shoes, medicine, hats, and sweets. It was kitschy but the buildings were more or less real and the stores crowded with shoppers and tourists from the provinces.

Then I turned onto Qianmen Street, the main thoroughfare that starts just south of Tiananmen Square and heads to the Temple of Heaven. I knew that Qianmen Street had been renovated but in the past had seen only a glimpse of it. This time I walked its length, and was completely disoriented. The old buildings had never been beautiful—over the years, many had acquired garish additions and all were in bad repair—but they had an authenticity about them that was unmistakable. As I walked, I couldn’t find one of them.

In their place was something akin to a movie lot. The street was now lined with identical two- to three-story buildings, completely new and covered with a façade of traditional-looking gray stones. The bleakness was exacerbated by the all too familiar international chains that occupied the buildings: H&M, Zara, and Rolex. The only Chinese touch was a store selling Olympic souvenirs, illegal under the International Olympic Committee rules (which limit sales of official souvenirs until just a few months after the games end). But in a country where almost everything is pirated, from books and movies to cars and aircraft carriers, it felt real.

When I got to the end, I turned back and looked. Behind the new buildings were empty lots strewn with the rubble of demolished courtyard houses and stores. What had once been a warren of alleys and streets—one of the liveliest and most atmospheric in the city—was now mostly bulldozed. As I stood there, a couple walked by. In a heavy Beijing accent, the man asked the woman where they were. She replied, “Qianmen,” and he blurted out, “No way! How did it end up like this?”

Answering this question is the subject of a newly translated book by the Chinese journalist Wang Jun, a forty-two-year-old reporter for Outlook magazine, which is run by the official Xinhua News Agency. That may seem like an odd place for an independent journalist to work, but the agency’s insider status has long provided a cover for investigative reporting, especially when it touches on problems that the Communist Party knows it can’t afford to ignore.

Urban planning is one such subject. Over the past twenty years, it has been the source of widespread social unrest, with tens of thousands of citizens banding together in class-action lawsuits against land expropriation. The government eventually banned such legal action, but the topic is still one of China’s most sensitive. Real estate prices have risen so much in major Chinese cities that ordinary people can at best afford an apartment in a suburban housing tower. On some days, it seems that all people talk about is housing and the problems of living in Chinese cities.

I met Wang in the late 1990s when I was writing a book on grassroots unrest in China. Every few months he seemed to come up with new finds from the archives showing the long historical background to many of Beijing’s current problems. As a reporter, he focused on the link to events today but his work also highlighted deeper problems, such as the Party’s narrow vision of how to modernize China.

In 2003, Wang published Cheng Ji, or “City Record,” a surprising best seller in China that is now in its ninth printing. The book is akin to Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities—a classic that helped change the way people think about their urban environment. It became central for the country’s nascent urban preservation movement and has been referred to in almost every book on Beijing (and there have been many) published over the past half-dozen years. It stands as the most recent in a long line of books chronicling Beijing’s agony but, unlike most, it is by a Chinese writer for a Chinese audience. That says much about the country’s growing interest in its own history and the freedom to delve into at least some sensitive subjects.

* * *

The book is now translated as Beijing Record and is handsomely illustrated with rare photos of Beijing during its destruction in the 1950s. It mainly follows the travails of the architect and urban planner Liang Sicheng (then written as Liang Ssu-cheng), who fought in vain to save the old city. By telling Liang’s story, Wang describes not only the assault on Beijing by its new Communist overlords, but also how they lost the goodwill that many Chinese had had for the first well- organized government in a century.

Liang was part of a remarkable flowering of Chinese intellectual and artistic life in the early part of the twentieth century. His father, Liang Qichao, was one of the great reformers of the Qing dynasty, arguing in favor of a constitutional monarchy, modern education, and freedom of the press.1 Like his father, Liang Sicheng studied abroad and brought back modern research methods to China. It was largely through his work in the 1930s that China’s traditional buildings were scientifically dated and their architectural styles described in a systematic way. Some of his books from this period are still valuable, not least for his beautifully clear and precise cutaway drawings of famous temples and halls, which he was able to analyze and date for the first time.2

Liang married a glamorous classmate from the University of Pennsylvania, the architect and poet Lin Huiyin (then romanized as Lin Whei-yin, and the aunt of the American artist and sculptor Maya Lin). The couple became stars of the Republican era and of enduring interest to historical gossipmongers today because of Lin’s alleged romance with Xu Zhimo, a dashing and popular poet. They were also well connected internationally, making close friends with the founder of Chinese studies in America, John King Fairbank, and his wife Wilma.3 The government of Chiang Kai-shek appointed Liang as its representative on the board that designed the new United Nations headquarters in New York.

When Chiang’s armies lost China’s civil war in 1949, many of Liang’s peers fled to Taiwan. But others stayed on, hoping that the Communists would pursue the moderate policies they promised instead of the radical ideas their critics accused them of harboring. Liang and Lin remained behind, with the predictable, sad outcome.

At first, both sides tried to cooperate with one another. The Communists hoped to draw the couple into the new regime’s program. Liang and Lin helped design the emblem for the new People’s Republic of China, which included the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), the main entrance to the Forbidden City and the location where Mao Zedong declared the founding of the Communist state. They also helped design the Monument to the People’s Heroes on Tiananmen Square.

* * *

But Liang’s troubles began immediately. He argued against the emblem containing the Gate of Heavenly Peace because this would transform the old city into the new country’s focal point and location for its administrative center. Instead, he said the old city should be preserved and a government center built further west—an argument that set off a series of attacks on him. As Wu Hung so lucidly explains in his book Remaking Beijing, Liang’s plan was doomed because the Communist leaders wanted to rezero the city by moving its center from the emperor’s throne in the Forbidden City to the square in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace—Tiananmen Square. This would involve tearing down buildings and gates leading to the square and constructing a huge east–west axis in front of the gate—today’s Chang’an Avenue. Crucially, it also meant putting the entire government apparatus inside the old city instead of in a new administrative district. Tellingly, top leaders moved into a series of imperial leisure gardens next to the Forbidden City.

This decisive series of intellectual battles is also described by the Hong Kong academic Chang-tai Hung in Mao’s New World, a series of illuminating essays on the culture of the early People’s Republic. As Hung makes clear, Soviet advisers first supported efforts to center the new government in old Beijing. But even they were appalled at their Chinese counterparts’ fetish for gigantism. Everything had to be big: Tiananmen Square, Chang’an Avenue, and the “Ten Monumental Buildings” slapped up under the motto “faster, better, cheaper” for the tenth anniversary of the Communist takeover. As Hung relates it, Liang said prophetically: “Fifty years from now, someone will regret this.”

Wang’s book gives blow-by-blow detail on exactly how these regrettable steps took place. One of the most heart-rending was the fate of the Temple of Celebrating Longevity (Qingshousi). Built in the twelfth century, the temple featured a distinctive double pagoda. When Mongolian invaders built their capital in present-day Beijing, they rerouted the city wall to preserve the Buddhist temple. But when the Communists’ east–west boulevard was built, the temple (which stood next to today’s Beijing Book City near the Xidan intersection) was slated for destruction. Wang relates how Liang pleaded for the temple’s preservation but Mao’s engineers overruled him in 1954. The temple was destroyed and Liang fell deeper into disfavor and despair.

After his wife died of tuberculosis in 1955, Liang received another blow when he was designated a “rightist” and had to submit a series of humiliating confessions. In “struggle sessions” against the regime’s enemies, Liang publicly denounced friends and colleagues—whether by choice or because he was so broken is unclear. He later remarried and his new wife provided some support when the Cultural Revolution struck in 1966, with Red Guards hounding him on his sickbed. He died in 1972, aged seventy, of pulmonary heart disease.

Intermeshed in Liang’s story are telling anecdotes that Wang dug out of the archives. One describes the destruction of one of Beijing’s greatest gates, Xizhimen, or the Straight West Gate. Other highlights of his book include rare photos of the mighty gates as they were stripped down to their wooden skeletons. Wang even includes lists of how the material from destroyed buildings was reused.

The pointlessness of the destruction was conveyed by the Belgian sinologist Simon Leys, who in these pages wrote of officials who could never answer why they were tearing down the gates. Ultimately it all had to be done to conform to Mao’s increasingly radical view of erasing the past. As Leys put it:

It is not easy to foresee how future centuries will judge the Maoist rule, but one thing is certain: despite all it has done, the name of the regime will also be linked with the outrage it inflicted on a cultural legacy of all mankind: the destruction of the city of Peking.4

* * *

What caused this self-destruction? From the mid-nineteenth century onward, China suffered a series of traumas that exposed its inability to compete economically or militarily with Western countries’ and Japan’s potent combination of the scientific method and industrial capitalism. A series of reformers tried, and failed, to meet the challenge, hoping to import Western technology while keeping traditions intact. But the inflexibility of the imperial system and the continued humiliations visited on the country by Western countries and Japan discredited these measured efforts. Finally, the Communists, the most radical of those advocating change, took control. For them, the problem was the past, all of it, including language, art, architecture, religion, politics, family structures, dress, music, and so on.

Like nothing else, Beijing exemplified this vilified past. The entire city—all twenty-four square miles of it, from its layout based on geomancy and mythology to its tens of thousands of tree-shaded courtyard homes—was China’s traditional belief system incarnate. As the Australian writer Geremie Barmé put it, Beijing was “one of the most extraordinary monuments to any civilization in the classical world.”5 That meant it had to go, although the old city of Beijing was enormous and the campaigns didn’t completely gut it.

By the end of the Mao era in the late 1970s, Beijing was still recognizable. When I first lived here in 1984, the city had been flayed but there were still thousands of hutongs, or tiny alleys lined with courtyard houses. And the residents still behaved like the people described by the writer Lin Yutang in his 1961 Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China. They ate the same food, had the same hobbies, and talked with the same sharp, precise accent.6 Everything was dilapidated and in disrepair but it was possible to imagine the city reviving as the Mao era receded.

What happened? Hatred of the past (or at least ignorance) still had an effect, but the Party now tries to establish its legitimacy by claiming it is a protector of Chinese culture. At least officially, the government endorses preservation. And yet the destruction continues unabated.

Two reasons are often given. One is that in China the physical building itself is not as important as its idea. As Thomas Campanella notes in his book The Concrete Dragon, completely rebuilding historical structures, often in different forms, has a long tradition in China and other Asian countries. Chinese will often point to a temple that just ten or twenty years ago was rebuilt from the ground up and still speak of its thousand-year history. This sort of thinking allowed Beijing planners to level Ox Street, the city’s traditional Muslim district, and rebuild it as a series of high-rises—and with a straight face still call it a historic district.

And yet the support for the efforts of Liang and Wang show that many Chinese don’t buy this cultural argument. Destruction is destruction and they fought to keep old buildings as products of China’s great civilization. Wang has written vehemently about the recent Qianmen project and is hardly a lone voice. Beijing and other Chinese cities have a small but potent group of historic preservationists who struggle to protect old buildings and traditional ways of life. They rarely get a hearing in the official press and their NGOs are harassed, but a significant number of educated urbanites agree with them.

Another argument, the one used by authorities, is that for better or worse, cities like Beijing need urban renewal; and the condition of old buildings in Beijing is in fact atrocious. Tiles have fallen off so many roofs that in some neighborhoods corrugated iron is the most common roofing material. Residents have running water but toilets are often public squatters that leave little privacy. The only real improvement over the past half-century is that coal heating has been replaced by electric radiators.

But this begs the question of why the poor are being evicted instead of having their homes modernized. In the United States, urban redevelopment was seen as a way to get rid of “slums” and attract back to the cities well-to-do residents who had fled to the suburbs. In China, inner cities already are the most popular places to live and the class warfare over who will be evicted and who will get housing dwarfs anything that happened in Great Society America. In a typical case of American redevelopment—Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle and Lower Hill redevelopments—28,000 largely poorer people were displaced in the name of urban renewal. Campanella estimates that in a project of equivalent physical size in Beijing, 180,000 people would be evicted from their homes. Indeed, 180,000 Beijing residents lost their homes in 2003 alone. As Campanella puts it: “This is human upheaval on a scale seen previously only in time of war or extreme natural catastrophe.”

* * *

It is often argued that the poor at least get better housing than they had. And in fact there are new satellite cities with apartments that have indoor toilets; and many are better heated in winter. But this sort of either/or question ignores other possibilities—for example, that Beijing’s old city, or at least a considerable part of it, might have been modernized and its inhabitants allowed to stay. What has happened instead is that Beijing has developed into a two-tier city: a global capital elite in the center and ordinary people on the periphery.7

This trend is accelerated by deep-seated problems in China’s governing system. Chinese cities have no taxing authority and rely on the central government for transfer payments. But an increasing number of social programs have been imposed on the local level, such as much of the dibao welfare system that is being established across China. The funding gap is being met by real estate sales. Municipalities sell the land to developers, use part of the proceeds to pay the poor to move to remote suburbs, and use the balance to fund their operations. According to a recent estimate, 76 percent of urban funding is accounted for this way.8 This means that governments have an interest in expelling the poor and paying them as little as possible. Recently, authorities have pledged to pay evictees market prices but without controls on their decisions, it is hard to have confidence that such promises will be kept.

Reforming this system would require political change that in the current climate seems unlikely. The central government is loath to give local governments too much money or the right to raise taxes because it accurately sees them as unaccountable and endemically corrupt—as is the central government. A recent series of spectacular corruption scandals in major Chinese cities has highlighted this problem.

Unbridled state power also explains the shifting architectural styles found in Beijing. Early in the 1950s, new buildings like the Beijing Exhibition Center were built in the Stalinist style to show fidelity to the country’s new patron, the Soviet Union. Later, monumental buildings like the Great Hall of the People added national elements (usually glazed tiles and sloping roofs) to show that the Chinese Communist Party was breaking with its elder brother. Now the regime hires star architects to give the imprimatur of global capitalism. Thus we have Rem Koolhaas’s headquarters for the state’s television propaganda apparatus, or Herzog & de Meuron’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium.

Although these buildings now seem radically different from those of the 1950s, they reflect the Party’s need to derive legitimization from big, spectacular projects. The buildings themselves are almost ceremonial in function; their goal is primarily to glorify the state. Just as the Great Hall of the People isn’t home to a real parliament, the Bird’s Nest isn’t a real sports stadium—as soon as the games ended, its temporary identity as a sports venue ended. Today it is wildly popular with Chinese tourists, who walk around it looking at artifacts commemorating the Olympics, the kind of reverence toward state power that officials sought from the beginning of the People’s Republic. “To retain their grip on the people, Communist leaders turned China into a vast apparatus for generating propaganda,” Hung writes in Mao’s New World.

Campanella, an urban planning professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes that pre-Olympics China was in the midst of the “greatest building boom in human history.” But as Robin Visser in her recent book Cities Surround the Countryside points out, wiping out the old in favor of the new is hardly novel. Few, she argues, seem to wonder at the “tremendous suffering, convulsions and loss of historical substance. Cities acquire distinctiveness by acquiring features over centuries.”

* * *

A long Chinese tradition deplores the destruction of cities. In the twelfth century, a book called Records of the Dreamlike Splendors of the Eastern Capital lamented the loss of the Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song dynasty. As for Beijing, even in the Qing dynasty, when the city was at its peak, its Ming-era history was eulogized by a seventeenth-century work, Record of a Remembered Dream of the Capital. More recently, the city has given rise to a genre of books published by Westerners bemoaning or simply describing its passing.9

These works are more than just warnings against pathos. They also show how cultures survive in different forms. It takes a bit of sleuthing and imagination but some of the old principles still hold sway in Beijing. The ring roads are still built in concentric circles, with the walls of the Forbidden City as the first circle. The old north–south axis, which ran from the imperial throne room through key buildings and gates, is also respected in Liang’s Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Bird’s Nest. The city still feels flat and open—far different, for example, than the much denser and vertical Shanghai. People are still forthright and blunt, something Lin Yutang noticed before the Communist takeover.

The Communist core is also timeless in its own way. Tiananmen Square has been little changed since the mausoleum to Mao Zedong was built in 1977. As Wu puts it in Remaking Beijing, it is the city’s “conceptual centre,” the scene of staged events like parades, floats, and the political theater of minorities in costumes entering the Great Hall of the People for the annual session of “parliament.” Peasants on vacation snap pictures, and there are occasional protests. Otherwise the square has maintained its eerie, otherworldly feel, a stage as contrived as the ceremonial life that once went on in the neighboring Forbidden City.

Moreover, people like Wang Jun help rebut the arguments that China is in the grips of an incurable inferiority complex toward its own culture, or that the destruction represents the final break with the country’s millennia of history and culture. He and others show that many are working to bring the past to light.

Their successes are few but all the more precious. The home of Wang’s great hero, Liang Sicheng, was slated for destruction until Wang organized criticism of the local officials who had approved its demolition. It is a small, modest victory, as is the temporary halt to plans to level the Bell and Drum Tower neighborhood. Perhaps it will still be possible to squint one’s eyes and conjure up a city that is lost but not entirely gone.


  1. See, for example, Joseph R. Levenson’s classic Liang Ch’i-ch’ao and the Mind of Modern China (Harvard University Press, 1953.) 

  2. One of his books, which was almost lost in the post-1949 turmoil, was reconstructed by Wilma Fairbank and published as A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture by Liang Ssu-ch’eng (MIT Press, 1984). A version of this book was published in Chinese as Zhongguo Jianzhushi, Tianjin: Baihua Wenyi Chubanshe (1998). To commemorate the 110th anniversary of Liang’s birth, Beijing’s Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press earlier this year published a bilingual collection of Liang’s essays, Chinese Architecture: Art and Artifacts

  3. A short biography of the couple before the Communist takeover is Wilma Fairbank’s in Liang and Lin: Partners in Exploring China’s Architectural Past (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994). The book focuses more on the couple’s early successes than their years of torment.

  4. Simon Leys, “Chinese Shadows,” The New York Review, May 26, 1977. 

  5. Geremie Barmé, introduction to In Search of Old Peking by L.C. Arlington and William Lewisohn (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1987 reprint), p. v. 

  6. Lin Yutang, Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China (Crown, 1961). 

  7. This idea is explored in a very passionate and convincing essay, “Delirious Beijing: Euphoria and Despair in the Olympic Metropolis,” by Anne-Marie Broudehoux, in Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk (New Press, 2007). 

  8. Nanfang Zhoumo, January 13, 2011, available at www.infzm.com/content /54644. Accessed April 12, 2011. 

  9. Susan Naquin describes these “dream” books in her unparalleled book Peking: Temples and City Life 1400–1900 ( University of California Press, 2000). For recent books by foreigners, see especially Michael Meyer’s unsentimental work of literary nonfiction The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (Walker, 2008), which was reviewed by Richard Bernstein in these pages, March 26, 2009. 

Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based writer who specializes in civil society, culture, and religion. For thirteen years, Johnson worked at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a page-one feature writer...
Reviewed in This Article

Beijing Record: A Physical and Political History of Planning Modern Beijing
by Wang Jun
World Scientific, 512 pp.

Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic
by Chang-tai Hung
Cornell University Press, 352 pp.

Cities Surround the Countryside: Urban Aesthetics in Postsocialist China
by Robin Visser
Duke University Press, 362 pp.

The Forbidden City
by Geremie R. Barmé
Harvard University Press, 251 pp.

The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World
by Thomas J. Campanella
Princeton Architectural Press, 334 pp.

Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space
by Wu Hung
University of Chicago Press, 272 pp.

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This article was first published in the June 23, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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The People’s Republic of Rumor

RICHARD BERNSTEIN

A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

China: Politics as Warfare

JONATHAN MIRSKY

Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?

IAN JOHNSON

Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)

PERRY LINK

Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing

IAN JOHNSON

The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi...

PERRY LINK

The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star

IAN JOHNSON

In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!

RICHARD BERNSTEIN

The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny

SIMON LEYS

Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

China Gets Religion!

IAN JOHNSON

This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds

IAN BURUMA

Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The Past and the Future

FANG LIZHI

Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?

JONATHAN MIRSKY

On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China

AMARTYA SEN

1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo

PERRY LINK

1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds

JONATHAN MIRSKY

July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful

IAN JOHNSON

In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers

ORVILLE SCHELL

It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

The Passions of Joseph Needham

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics

ORVILLE SCHELL

The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

Casting a Lifeline

FRANCINE PROSE

Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Mission to Mao

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)

PERRY LINK

Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

A Little Leap Forward

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...

AsiaWorld

IAN BURUMA

1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

Found Horizon

IAN BURUMA

1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West

IAN BURUMA

Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer

IAN BURUMA

“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace

IAN BURUMA

1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery

ORVILLE SCHELL

1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan

IAN BURUMA

Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment

JONATHAN MIRSKY

The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End

IAN BURUMA

Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster

JONATHAN MIRSKY

In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

The Last Days of Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.” —Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People...

Keeping the Faith

FANG LIZHI

On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age

JONATHAN MIRSKY

Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

The End of the Chinese Revolution

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan

NATHAN GARDELS

Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Passing the Baton in Beijing

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Rules of the Game

JOHN GITTINGS

On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards

JOHN GITTINGS

Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier

JOHN GITTINGS

In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a...

A Mao for All Seasons

MARTIN BERNAL

A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

DISCUSSION

The Other China

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

On the same late fall day in 1991, two stories about China appeared in the Western press. One announced that thirty-five drug dealers had just been executed in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, probably by a single police bullet fired into the back of each man’s neck....

The Chinese Miracle?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Over the last few months the news and reportage about China have become almost incomprehensibly divided between two points of view. According to one set of reports, China is now confirmed as an economic “colossus,” shaking off all the trammels of the past, yearning to host...

Is There Enough Chinese Food?

VACLAV SMIL

1.Many Americans think they know something about Chinese food. But very few know anything about food in China, about the ways in which it is grown, stored, distributed, eaten, and wasted, about its effects on the country’s politics, and about its importance to the rest of the...