PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am

Beijing Walks: Exploring the Heritage

By Don J. Cohn

Odyssey (HK$200)

'The likes of Hong Kong and Taipei have their virtues, but lack 'the script' that tells China's story of the past thousand years,' writes China scholar Don Cohn.

Throughout much of its history, Beijing, or the 'vast curiosity shop', as Cohn puts it, has served as the capital of the empire, be it Mongol, Han, Manchu, republican or communist.

Now, thanks to the frenzy of destruction and reconstruction, Old Peking is crumbling into the dust from which it came. Beijing Walks commemorates what has been lost and celebrates what remains, charting six walking tours of key historic areas of the capital: the Forbidden City, the former Legation Quarter, Beihai Park, the Temple of Heaven, the Confucius Temple and the Summer Palace.

Cohn lived in Beijing for five years during the early 1980s and has visited the city more than 200 times since. Many of those visits have been tours to the region, which Cohn has led. He has also written, edited or translated more than 50 books, articles and reviews on Chinese culture.

The literary tour transports the reader from brothels to pavilions and temples, stopping off at the Marble Boat and Divine Music Bureau, while still finding time to dissect the love lives of emperors.

In one passage, Cohn describes the damage caused to the Long Corridor. Originally built in the 18th century by Emperor Qianlong for his mother, the corridor has had many makeovers, becoming ever more baroque.

'During the Cultural Revolution, all the bourgeoisie and reactionary figures and scenes in the Long Corridor were covered with white paint in anticipation of replacing them with images of revolutionary heroes, but that was not carried out,' Cohn writes. How strikingly that throwaway sentence conveys the vacuum at the heart of Mao Zedong's grand plan.