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City of Heavenly Tranquillity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 October, 2008, 12:00am

City of Heavenly Tranquillity

by Jasper Becker

Penguin, HK$330

Vanished hutongs, demolished courtyard houses, wicked emperors, brazen eunuchs, crazed ideologues and mournful poets - Jasper Becker's elegant, wistful elegy, City of Heavenly Tranquillity: Beijing in the History of China, is a book about a city that no longer exists, one that has disappeared in record time.

Becker, who has written exten-sively on China and is a former China editor of this newspaper, has spent more than 20 years living and working on the mainland as a journalist and writer and therefore has wide experience on which to draw when it comes to telling the capital's story.

This is a history book, but it subtly interlaces the architectural, social and political life of the city in a way that brings the disappeared to life. There is relatively little new information, but Becker's writing is fresh.

The city built by the Emperor of Perpetual Happiness, Yong Le, who is credited with creating most of Beijing's most famous landmarks - the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Ming Tombs - lasted unscathed for almost 500 years, until 50 years ago, when its unravelling began with Mao Zedong's orders to tear down its walls and towers.

Tales of hubris abound in Beijing's annals. Beijing deputy mayor Wu Han, in defiance of a local curse, had the tomb of emperor Wan Li excavated in the 1950s in the hope of finding the kind of treasure Egypt's pyramids had yielded. Instead, they found slim pickings and the curse worked its way through the ages: Wu's opera about the brave Ming dynasty official Hai Rui, who wrote letters criticising two emperors, was read as an attack on Mao. Wu died in uncertain circumstances after being dragged before screaming Red Guards in the Workers' Stadium during the Cultural Revolution. Mao had his revenge.

Today, Mao's preserved body still lies in a huge tomb in the centre of Beijing. No one has yet dared to desecrate it, says Becker.

There are tales of treachery and disappointment too.

Becker outlines the glittering rise and horrific fall of dramatist and novelist Lao She, best known for his novel Rickshaw, as emblematic of the city's fortunes during Lao She's life. Born in Beijing of Manchu descent, he was associated with the Bloomsbury set, teaching at what is now London's School of Oriental and African Studies. He left America to return to China after 1949, but was denounced during the Cultural Revolution and is suspected of having committed suicide in a lake in the north of the city.

The lake has since been filled in and covered with high-rise buildings; similarly, the sense of a vibrant, multi-faceted past being buried beneath steel and concrete is strong in this work.

There are repeated, insistent comparisons with modern scenarios to make Beijing, and its story, as real as possible to readers living outside what used to be the city walls, or the new ring roads.

'Imagine the outcry if, in less than a decade, London underwent a similar transformation. If the West End, Notting Hill, Knightsbridge, Holland Park and the City of London were to be levelled and replaced by giant residential and commercial blocks,' writes Becker.

In his view, the fate of old Beijing was sealed in 1997, eight years after the crushing of the student-led democracy movement in the city. The man responsible was then president Jiang Zemin, who arrived in the city, secretly and without mandate to rule, in an unmarked car. 'In some ways the destruction of Beijing and the eviction of its residents can be considered a collective punishment visited on a population that had dared to rebel,' Becker writes.

City of Heavenly Tranquillity opens with a trip to Xanadu, Kublai Khan's glistening capital, introduced to western readers by Italian merchant traveller Marco Polo and immortalised by Samuel Taylor Coleridge when it was transformed by the poet into a legendary, mystical land.

Becker's Beijing has a similarly ghostly quality and even though many of the tales of relocation and destruction are set within the past decade, you leave the book without doubt that these places have vanished utterly, just like Xanadu. In one hilarious section, Becker and veteran China correspondent Jim Pringle find themselves in all manner of trouble in Xanadu, or Kalgan or Zhangjiakou as it is also known, much of it related to drinking fermented mare's milk and to a mischievous, seditious Pringle post-prandial speech, in which he describes parallels between the plight of the Scots and the Inner Mongolians.

The next day Pringle reads from Coleridge's poem as they look down on what was Xanadu. 'We laughed out loud at the sheer pleasure of being there,' Becker writes.

City of Heavenly Tranquillity is strong on the historical accounts of the city's genesis, but it is personal elements such as these that bring this history of Beijing to life.

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