The best single-volume introduction to the people of China and their world is Jasper Becker's The Chinese. Longtime resident of Beijing and former Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post, Becker delivers an immensely readable account of how the Chinese got to be who they are today; their preoccupations, thoughts, and fears; and the ludicrous posturings of their leaders. The Search for Modern China by acclaimed historian Jonathan Spence is a hefty account of China from the late Ming Dynasty to the mid-1980s. Do not confuse this well-written and highly accessible book with the drab styles found in high-school history textbooks. This is a fine and well-researched account of this country's past 400 years.
Old Beijing can now be found only in literature. The origins of many Western fantasies of the capital, then called Khanbalik, lie in the ghostwritten work of Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo. Dover Publications' two-volume reprint (1993) of the Yule-Cordier edition is a splendid read (although only part of Polo's time was spent in Beijing) because of its entertaining introduction and footnotes by famous explorers attempting to follow his route. Ray Huang's ironically titled 1587, A Year of No Significance is an account of the Ming dynasty in decline; written in the first person, it paints a compelling picture of the well-intentioned Wanli emperor trapped by a vast, impersonal bureaucracy. The parallels with the present regime are striking. Lord Macartney's An Embassy to China gives a detailed account of Qing China and particularly Beijing at the end of the 18th century. This should be compulsory reading for modern businesspeople, as it prefigures WTO negotiations. Macartney's prediction that the Chinese would all soon be using forks and spoons is particularly relevant. Hugh Trevor-Roper's Hermit of Peking, part history, part detective story, uncovers the life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, resident of Beijing from the end of the Qing dynasty into the Republic, who knew everyone in the city at the beginning of the century, and who deceived them all, along with a generation of China scholars, with his fake diary of a Manchu official at the time of the Boxer Rebellion. A serviceably translated bilingual edition of Lao She's Teahouse succinctly captures the flavor of life in Beijing during the first half of the 20th century. The helplessness of the characters in the face of political movements is both moving and prophetic. John Blofeld's City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking's Exotic Pleasures describes the seamier side of Beijing in the 1930s, by someone who took frank enjoyment in its pleasures, including adventures in "the lanes of flowers and willows" -- the Qian Men brothel quarter. In the same period, George Kates, an American, lived more decorously in the style of a Chinese gentleman-scholar in an old courtyard house of the kind now rapidly vanishing, and gives a sensitive and very appealing portrait of the city in The Years That Were Fat. Ann Bridge, the wife of a British diplomat in Beijing, wrote novels of life in the capital's Legation Quarter in the 1930s (cocktail parties, horse racing, problems with servants, love affairs -- spicy stuff in its day, and best-selling, if now largely forgotten). Peking Picnic features a disastrous trip to the outlying temples of Tanzhe Si and Jietai Si (but one well worth undertaking yourself). The Ginger Griffin offers the adventures of a young woman newly arrived in the city, who attends the horse races and who has a happier ending.
David Kidd, another American, lived in Beijing for a few years before and shortly after the Communist victory of 1949, and gives an account of the beginning of the city's destruction in Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China (originally All the Emperor's Horses). Perhaps the best example of the "hooligan literature" of the late 1980s is Please Don't Call Me Human by Wang Shuo. There's little plot to speak of, but it's a devastating and surreal parody of Chinese nationalism, all the more poignant in the wake of the Olympics. Red China Blues, by Jan Wong, is one of our all-time favorite memoirs. Wong initially came to Beijing as a young and fervent Maoist in 1972 and became one of only two international students allowed to study at Beijing University during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Years later, she returned, older and wiser, as an international correspondent for the Globe and Mail in 1988, just in time to witness and report on the Tian'an Men protests of 1989. Black Hands of Beijing, by George Black and Robin Munro, is the most balanced and least hysterical account of the Tian'an Men protests of 1989, putting them in the context of other, better-planned movements for social change, all of which suffered in the fallout from the chaotic student demonstrations and their bloody suppression. Frances Wood's Forbidden City is a short and thoroughly entertaining introduction to Beijing's main attraction.
The past few years have produced many fine books and memoirs from some seasoned Beijing hands. Michael Meyer's The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed is a thoughtful memoir of the author's experience living and working in one of the city's famed hutong. Peter Hessler was the Beijing-based New Yorker correspondent for several years. His second book, Oracle Bones, is an insightful look into the lives of young Chinese migrants and colorful personalities from old and new Beijing. And finally, my delightful co-author Jen Lin-Liu tells a mouthwatering tale of modern China as viewed through the country's rich cuisine in her memoir Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.
It is a source of frustration to some Chinese filmmakers that foreign audiences are easily duped. The most internationally successful films about China -- Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor -- wallow in marketable clichés. The China presented by these films exists almost solely in the simplified past tense, a mélange of incense, bound feet, and silk brocade designed to appeal to foreign notions of the country as unfathomably brutal and beautiful with an interminably long history.
Up until the late 1990s, much of the blame for this belonged to the government, which allowed the export of only those movies unlikely to provoke criticism of the present state of things, regardless of what they said about the past. Recently, however, films that deal with modern China, complex and often comic stories about everything from politics to relationships to harebrained attempts at moneymaking, have found their way to foreign viewers.
Beijing sits at the center of the Chinese film world and serves as the setting for most of the best films now being produced in China. Many of these cannot be seen even in Beijing itself except at small screenings unlikely to attract the attention of state censors. But those with access to a decent video rental shop will find a few.
Even Blockbuster carries copies of Shower, Zhang Yang's at times sappy but ultimately enjoyable story of a Beijing bathhouse owner and his two sons (one of them mentally handicapped) struggling to maintain a sense of family despite pressures of modernization. The film's depiction of a doomed hutong neighborhood and the comic old characters who inhabit it won smatterings of praise in limited U.S. release and criticism from the Chinese authorities, who claimed it was antiprogress. Director Feng Xiaogang tried and failed to make it big in the U.S. with Big Shot's Funeral (Da Wan), featuring a (figuratively and literally) catatonic Donald Sutherland. But in a previous film set in and around Beijing, Sorry Baby (Mei Wan Mei Liao), Feng displays a defter touch in a romantic comedy featuring bald-headed comic Ge You at his brilliant best.
Among the earlier generation of films, two that deal specifically with Beijing were big hits at Cannes, and you should have no trouble finding them. Farewell My Concubine (Ba Wang Bie Ji), directed by Chen Kaige and starring the talented Gong Li, is a long bit of lushness about a pair of Beijing opera stars more dramatic in their alleged rivalry over a woman than they are onstage. Zhang Yimou's unrelenting primer on modern Chinese history, To Live (Huozhe), also with Gong Li, traces the unbelievable tragedies of a single Beijing family as it bumbles through the upheavals of 20th-century China, from the civil war through the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and into the post-Mao reform period. More difficult to find (particularly with English subtitles), but very much worth the effort, are 1980s productions of Lao She's darkly satirical works, The Teahouse (Cha Guan) and Rickshaw Boy (Luotuo Xiangzi).
Only specialty shops will carry In the Heat of the Sun (Yangguang Canlan de Rizi), a smart and deceptively nostalgic coming-of-age film about a pack of mischievous boys left to their own devices in Cultural Revolution-era Beijing. Penned with help from celebrity rebel writer Wang Shuo, it was one of the first pictures to break free of the ponderous melodrama that dominated Chinese cinema through most of the 1990s. Life for migrant workers on the margins of Beijing is captured in the bleak but dryly witty The World (Shijie), set in The World Park in the southwestern suburbs of Beijing. At times it borders on melodrama, and much of the subtlety is lost in translation, but Jia Zhangke's film craft delivers a satisfying reverie on alienation, fantasy, and trust. If the film inspires you to "see the world without leaving Beijing," take bus no. 744 from opposite Beijing Railway Station to the terminus.
The documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace is obligatory viewing for anyone hoping to understand what transpired in 1989. If all you recall is a statue of liberty and talk of democracy, you're in for a shock.
The vapid, factory-produced syrup of Mandopop (think Céline Dion by way of Britney Spears sung in Mandarin) blares out of barber shops and retail stores throughout Beijing, as elsewhere in China. But like Washington, D.C., and London, China's capital is ultimately a rock-'n'-roll town.
Godfather of Chinese rock Cui Jian, somewhat of a joke now as he clings to fading fame, got his start here in the early 1980s. A decade later, Chinese-American Kaiser Kuo, frontman for the no-longer-existent headbanger outfit Tang Dynasty (Tang Chao), helped kick off a pretentious and fairly derivative heavy metal scene. (Kuo now plays guitar for original, local Beijing band Spring & Autumn, or Chunqiu). But it wasn't until a shipment of Nirvana CDs found its way into local record shops in the late 1990s that Beijing finally developed a genuine musical voice.
Nirvana's Nevermind inspired nearly every Chinese kid who heard it to pick up a guitar and start a band. Investigations into Kurt Cobain's roots led to punk, which made its first major appearance in Beijing in late 1997 at the Scream Club, a sweaty dive in the Wudaokou neighborhood. It was a natural response to Beijing's swaths of urban decay and post-Tian'an Men political disillusionment, and American pop-culture magazines as big as Details quickly tapped the snarling, mohawked youth -- most better at posing with their instruments than playing them -- as easy symbols of China's new lost generation.
Beijing's punks were probably never as concerned with political protest as they were made out to be, and are even less so now as they enjoy the fruits of small-scale fame. But they continue to draw relatively large foreign audiences, and a handful have actually begun to produce music worthy of all the attention. The vulgar but talented Brain Failure (Nao Zhuo) and ska-influenced Reflector (Fanguang Jing) -- both born at the now-defunct Scream Club -- have each recorded listenable songs and evolved beyond just spitting beer in their live shows (though you can still expect the occasional shower). Also on Scream Records, the all-girl pop punk group Hang on the Box (Gua Zai Hezi Shang) sings in charmingly accented English.
Chinese musicians wanting to produce significant popular music suffer from the same dreadful self-consciousness of working in a foreign idiom as do artists in other imported media. Some try desperately (and without much success) to create "rock with Chinese characteristics," while others opt to simply lay Chinese lyrics over melodies lifted, sometimes note for note, from Western CDs. Even the most creative of efforts will sound suspiciously derivative, and those that don't usually appeal only to Mandarin-speaking foreigners who delight primarily in their ability to understand the lyrics. The other major barrier to the local music industry is piracy, particularly the ready availability of music downloads. Most band members still have day jobs.
Second Hand Rose (Ershou Meigui) has an eponymous full-length CD (available only in Beijing), an excellent effort that stitches together Chili Peppers guitar, folk instrumentals, and sardonic errenzhuan opera-influenced lyrics ("I'm a name brand cigarette / I've been stuffed in the mouth of a poor man") into one of the very few uniquely Chinese sounds you'd actually want to hear. The band's live performances, built around the raised-eyebrow theatricality of cross-dressing singer Liang Long, are among the most entertaining musical experiences not just in China, but anywhere.
For information on when and where the above bands might be playing, check music listings in Time Out, the Beijinger, or City Weekend, available free in hotels, bars, and cafes where foreigners gather. Currently, Yugong Yishan is the best live music venue in Beijing, hands down.
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