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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Beijing: history of a forbidding city

BEIJING: The Biography of a City, by Jonathan Clements. Sutton Publishing, 2008, 158 pp., $26.95 (cloth)

Reviewed by Stephen Mansfield Ancient Chinese history is as inseparable from myth as today's official retelling of the past is indivisible from propaganda. In "Beijing: The Biography of a City," Jonathan Clements makes an admirable job of disentangling truth from elaboration, finding historical foundations in much of the folklore. On the subject of Beijing's water problems, he describes the supply as still unpleasant, slightly salty, a result of a dragon's final revenge on the city, "hoarding all the good water at the Jade Spring in the hills, and leaving Beijing with nothing but the dregs."

In its long history, Beijing has experienced worse terrors than water shortages. The Mongols, for one, put the city and its inhabitants to the sword, sparing nothing. Despite their famous arrogance and cruelty, they created a city of architectural good taste, of rectilinear roads, parks, gardens, irrigated lakes, and the impressive Grand Canal linking northern and southern parts of the country.

To a city beleaguered by floods, famine, droughts and periodic uprisings, came foreign predators, most notoriously the British in the role of what Clements calls "drug pushers for an entire nation." The city has had some near escapes. On the brutal aesthetics of the early Communist era, Clements describes palaces turned into dormitories, ancient city walls demolished, whole areas of traditional housing razed to make way for Soviet-inspired blocks. In 1966, Red Guards in a murderous mood were ready, had it not been for the intercession of Premier Zhou Enlai, to reduce even the Forbidden City to dust. With the massive upheavals of contemporary China, you wonder if Beijing residents have ever enjoyed an extended period of repose.

The writer leads us down Beijing's long corridor of time, where strata of geology are overlaid with strata of culture. An awful lot of history, interpretation and fruitful conjecture are compressed into this short book. Clements has written a commendable introduction to Beijing, but one senses that the author has a great deal more to say on the subject.

With an architect's eye for the city, the draftsman's gift to blow up, retract or remove the walls and roofs of buildings, entire blocks and districts, he allows us to peer in at the inner design mechanisms. This he does to great effect when describing the structural complexity of the Forbidden City. Clements delves below the street grids to the subterranean secrets of Beijing, the little spoken of Underground City. Built by thousands of conscripted laborers on the orders of Chairman Mao, this hollowed out maze, designed as a nuclear shelter, is testament to the paranoia of Chinese-style leadership. The site is one of the few tourist attractions the Chinese are not encouraged to visit. Misinformation is rife, and "Those few Chinese who are prepared to discuss it at all fall victims to their own country's media blackout."

In ancient practices and pretexts permitting the extermination of entire armies, households, servants and concubines, in the intractable policies initiated by rulers resolute in their belief that they enjoyed the mandate of heaven, we see a pattern in the policies of modern China. Clements illustrates how vulnerable cities are, how closely linked they are to the character of their rulers.

There is a level of self-determination, however, beyond the powers of the authorities. The slowly persuasive gravity of history witnesses the city gradually, persuasively getting its own way, maintaining its dominance over the political and cultural landscape of the country. "China," as Clements puts it, "is a pragmatic civilization. It works its magic on its oppressors, and it has time to do so."

The city's problems, its political ghosts, have still not gone away. With the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square within living memory, Beijing has had to work hard to counter its image as "a city of terror and pomposity." With the Olympics already sinking into the pit of history, have Beijing's sins finally been forgiven? Only time will tell, a commodity the city has in abundance.

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