CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 14, June 2008


No. 14, June 2008

Beijing, the Invisible City

This fourteenth issue of China Heritage Quarterly takes as its focus Beijing the Invisible City. Material will be posted up to late August 2008, with updated and expanded contents being added to the site during the weeks of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad held in the Chinese capital.

At a time when the city of Beijing is more visible than at any point in its dynastic, Republican or recent history, we consider the heritage of invisible Beijing, aspects of the city that cannot so readily be discerned. This issue is also about a Beijing unrealized, as well as the lost city and its heritages.

We feature the historical investigative journalist Dai Qing's 2007 Morrison Lecture, both in English and Chinese, in which she discusses the 1948 'peaceful liberation' of Beiping and the plangent fate of some of the ancient city's men of letters. Other features introduce unrealized plans for Beijing that date from the 1900s (the late-Qing era) and through the period of high socialism; there is also an account of the Beijing Underground (as well as its 'cousin', the Pyongyang Metro), and a short discussion of the beginning of the end of the walls of Beijing during the 1910s (see 'The Silver Shovel of Zhu Qiqian'). We also discuss the heritage of the planned evisceration of the city and its rebuilding, in both word and image. In 'Hidden Mansions' readers are introduced to some the parts of the city that are sequestered from the public, the secret Beijing known not merely to the 'cashed up' cognoscenti, but also to the nomenklatura and their progeny. A photographic essay by Lois Conner in Features, and an essay on the Beijing City Planning Exhibition Hall by Kelly Layton, in Articles, depict the city made manifest through images and models.

Continuing with the discussion of New Sinology that has been integral to the China Heritage Project since it was founded in 2005, in Articles we reprint Pierre Ryckmans' (Simon Leys) 1986 Morrison Lecture, 'The Chinese Attitude Towards the Past', and publish a new essay by the editor entitled 'Worrying China & New Sinology'.

In light of the devastating and tragic 12 May Wenchuan Earthquake, we are also publishing a report from colleagues in Sichuan on the impact of the earthquake on the built heritage of south-west China.

This issue is produced under the aegis of Geremie R. Barmé's 'Beijing as Spectacle' project which is supported by an Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship and The Australian National University. The oral historian Sang Ye has made crucial contributions to a number of papers in the following. Previous issues of China Heritage Quarterly related to the 'Beijing as Spectacle' project are 'Yuan Ming Yuan, The Garden of Perfect Brightness' (Issue 8, December 2006) and 'Wangfu, the Princely Mansions of Beijing' (Issue 12, December 2007).

During July-August 2004, many commentators in the Chinese media remarked on the fact that the Olympic city of Athens was the site of ancient ruins as well as being the centre of modern Greek national aspiration. They were quick to draw parallels between Athens and the Chinese capital of Beijing, which will host the 2008 Olympics. While the tourist sites and the commercial possibilities of an ancient city that could prosper as the centre of the greatest global event envisaged by government, business, athletes and cultural activists were the focus of these reports, journalists overlooked the historical irony that links the two Olympic cities: while Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce) is infamous as the man who stripped the Parthenon of its marble frieze, it was his son, James Bruce, the eighth earl of Elgin, who led an Anglo-French expeditionary force to Beijing in the autumn of 1860, culminating in the destruction of the extensive imperial palace-gardens of the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanming Yuan) in Haidian—now the university district celebrated as China's 'Silicon Valley'.

Fig. 1
The imperial study at Chengde, where the emperor died shortly after the destruction of the Garden of Perfect Brightness

The razing of the garden-palace was an act of immense political significance and one regarded as marking the symbolic beginning of the end of dynastic power in China. Today, the site of the Garden of Perfect Brightness has become the official 'national ruins' of China. Ironically, the destruction of the Garden, and the change in imperial policy that resulted from it, also marks China's entry into the modern international world. From that time in 1860, the city of Beijing has been central to the ways in which China has projected itself, and engaged with the world.

Fig. 2

As well as being a political and cultural epicentre for centuries, Beijing has also been a city of display and spectacle for much of its history. From imperial capital, during its short life as the centre of the nascent Republic of China (1910s), as a 'lost city' under Japanese occupation (1937-45), to its return to prominence as the capital of the People's Republic founded in 1949, Beijing has been the place for the public demonstration, both literally and metaphorically, of what it is to be Chinese. In particular, under the People's Republic the city has projected, to use Guy Debord's well-known formulation, a 'self-portrait of power'. It is a power that is multivalent, one that in the years since the end of the Cultural Revolution period (c.1964-1978) through media, cultural revivals and economic force has defined and disseminated a cultural identity for the nation as a whole.

The invisible city also contains hidden lives. They mystique of the old brothel quarter is recaptured in an excerpt from the unpublished memoirs of Edmund Trelawny Backhouse. His Decadence Manchoue creates a Beijing of sexual intrigue and political plotting pursued in the fin de dynastie ambience of Qing rule. Too shocking for readers of the past, it will be at most amusing for those familiar with the sybaritic entertainments of Beijing as global metropole today.

The invisible life of the city, and the death of Old Peking, is hinted at in Dai Qing's moving Morrison Lecture, presented at The Australian National University on 5 September 2007. It turned out that there was a scheduling clash, and the matter of Dai Qing's controversial reputation. Rumour has it that the Chinese Embassy in Canberra instructed patriotic Chinese to avoid Dai Qing's public lecture and go instead to the airport to greet the Chinese President Hu Jintao with the waving of national flags. In the event, Dai Qing's speech was well attended and she spoke of the cultural and literary milieu of Old Peking, the role of a few key individuals in trying to preserve their beloved city and their plangent fate.


For us, the invisible city is the intangible heritage. It lies in encounters over three decades with figures like Wang Shixiang and Yang Xianyi, Wu Zugang and Wang Daguan .... Not all from Beijing, but all with a love for the city, its private culture of literary exchange, humour, patience in the face of political fiat, moral turpitude and rapid change. They are a Beijing that has all but disappeared, but

The new heritage Beijing is in many ways an imaginative reconstruction. In 1980, the Liuli Chang area was demolished and replaced by an idealized Ming-Qing version of a cultural street. Its orderly shops kept in tourist-proof repair were a sign of things to come. Later, to find old Beijing people would visit the streets reconstructed at Beijing Film Studio for making period movies, or the various theme parks around the city. In recent years Nan Luogu Xiang has become another heritage site for tourists. The new Qianmen Street which opened in early May 2008 is the latest addition to the old city's ersatz preservation. News reports make much of the fact that old photographs were used extensively in the imaginative reconstruction of the street, finished in time for the August 2008 Olympics.

Hedda Morrison....

Non-Beijing people ruled over the re-development of Beijing from the 1950s. the failure of Liang Sicheng and Chen Zhanxiang's '49 Plan to gain approval put the seal on the fate of the city. As I have noted elsewhere: [quote Forbidden City] on Peng Zhen, etc....

In their comments on the Occidental city, Buruma and... (see Occidentalism, esp. p. 47) remark that it was Shanghai that was seen by the communists as the centre of dangerous influence in China. Of course, the world of the 'semi colonial' past was a problem, but Mao Thought equally emphasized the lurking threat of the 'semi feudal' stain in China. While feudal remnants were dealt with constantly in the countryside, the old imperial capital of Beijing was targeted as the centre of the dynastic and feudal tradition. It was seen as emblematic of the past and its gradual destruction was designed to transform the city totally into something that belonged to and represented New China and its Communist Party leaders. That destruction, under various guises and supported by various plans for urban renewal and development has continued to today. The aim remains, at its core, about extolling a new China and, apart from retaining a few representative heritage sites it has concentrated on destroying the old city, its life, communities and culture. It has been a marked success.

While much of what was Beijing has been hidden by waves of redesigning, zoning, demolitions, Beijing has an international face that cannot be denied. The Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Canberra is an example of the eclectic structure... The new I.M. Pei-designed Chinese Embassy in Washington, the largest foreign chancery every built in the US, has been described as something of a McEmbassy, reflecting the nouveau-riche taste in architectural style so often witnessed in Beijing and Shanghai over the past decade.

International designers have delighted in working on projects in Beijing that would be near-impossible elsewhere. One prominent designer remarked that working under the aegis of the Chinese authorities gave him a sense of what it must have been like to work for the pharaohs in ancient Egypt. It is an extraordinary remark, but it does reveal the afflatus and importance that architects can readily display (see Deyan Sudjic, The Edifice Complex).

Jan Wong in her recent book Beijing Confidential (Beijing Confidential: Lost and Found in the Forbidden City, Sydney: HarperCollins, 2008) talks about another invisible Beijing. This is the city of the pre-1990s boom. Not only is it physically transformed beyond recognition (and our review of Wang Di's book on Red Strutures includes a few images of the disappearing heritage of the city's high-socialist-era buildings), but the landmarks and the memories of the Maoist era are also distorted, blurred and forgotten. In a society in which history is selectively commemorated, in which large areas of the recent past are available only for selective remembrance (Dai Qing and example)... then the past becomes not a foreign country (to use David Lowenstein's line) but a lost continent. Jan looks for old classmates, and one in particular, but her search in the city of her youth (she was a student there in 1970s) has been transformed physically, and the people also moved so many times that it is difficult not only for her to find her bearings, but for her to contact anyone. It is a city of mobile lives and connections, not merely one in which many people move around in vehicles bought with the wealth of the boom era, but one in which people are changing their phone numbers and addresses at a rate that makes it difficult to keep up with them. The older neighbourhoods have been transformed by demolition, or heritage make-overs, but lives have been transformed so that stasis is for many a rarity. This makes much invisible....

Disappearance of old areas, see NY Times graphics on Xianyu Kou at Qian Men at: Film.... A Disappearance Foretold 2008/85 min Location: Beijing By: Olivier Meys and Zhang Yaxuan

Qianmen is a popular neighborhood in the very heart of Beijing just south of Tiananmen Square. Due to the 2008 Olympic Games, the city decided to "rehabilitate" the 500-year-old labyrinth of small streets, home to more than 80,000 people.

The film follows this long process of transformation from one reality to another. Sequence after sequence are pieces in the portrait of a neighborhood, a story of modern China.

We offer two Morrison Lectures. One, given last year by the former journalist and historical investigative reporter Dai Qing, is on the topic of the 'peaceful liberation of Beiping' (later Beijing). In it she discusses the role played in the hand over of the city to Communist forces in 1948 by a group of idealistic and passionate men of letters. Their fate, and that of the enlivening spirit of the old capital's literary and intellectual culture, provides the context for our consideration of Beijing. It is a shadow city, one with a heritage linked to the many eras of earlier Chinese culture. It is one that one could argue still exists in the fragile tissue of the modern metropolis. In this context we are reprinting in the Articles section of this issue the 1986 Morrison Lecture given by Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys), then a Reader at The Australian National University. In it Pierre offers his thoughts on the shadow and substance of Chinese architecture and, by extension, culture. In his discussion of what he calls the 'Permancence of Names' in the context of China's physical cultural heritage, the author provides us an important perspective for our discussion of the heritage of both the invisible and the ineffable. We offer Pierre's thought-provoking meditation as an addition to our work on the topic of New Sinology. Also in this context, we are publishing a recent key-note address by Geremie Barmé entitled 'New Sinology and Worrying About China'.