China Beat Archive



Pierre Fuller

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September 1, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright September 1, 2008 Pierre Fuller. Used by permission.


A Financial Times news brief lay buried in an inside page: At the very moment a few weeks ago when Olympic medals were awarded in front of adoring crowds, “two elderly women” were jailed for seeking permission to demonstrate against “being forcibly evicted from their Beijing homes” back in 2001. And who knows what now stands in the place of these pensioners’ loss – faux Italianate villas? an IKEA? pavement?

Stories like this make a timely book of journalist Jasper Becker’s history of the Chinese capital, City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China from Oxford University Press (and from a division of Penguin in the U.K.) – not the news of the razing of much of old Beijing, which largely began in the 1950s, but its near completion by a “new” China stepping ceremoniously onto the world stage.

Becker’s premise of the near total destruction of Beijing’s charm – and the rise of phony Ming-throwback facades for tourists – is impossible to dispute. His book bounces back and forth from episodes in Yuan or Ming Beijing to a real estate agent called Sunshine showcasing a $400,000 penthouse in the Middle Sea Purple Gold Garden, a forestry professor eager to talk about stock options, and “The casual ugliness of so much of the Yuanming Yuan… the tacky funfair, a dreary zoo, a so-called ‘primitive people’s totem park’ and amusement rides featuring Snow White.” (84)

But just as media coverage leading up to the recent Olympics suggested China was the inventor of smog, Becker would have it that the Chinese also founded kitsch.