Republican Beijing: The City and Its Histories

This review was just published on MCLC.  I am using Dong Yue's book for my course.  It is the best single publication on Republican era Beijing, which compared with Shanghai has received precious little attention.  The only problem with this book is that it is currently only available in hardcover, for a whopping $55.  Would that U Cal Press put out a paperback version with more maps and photos--perhaps including an appendix comparing the Republican era sites mentioned in the book to what they have become in Beijing today.  Unfortunately the book isn't as accessible to the general reader as, say, David Strand's book _Rickshaw Beijing_ which is available in paperback and makes for good undergraduate reading material.  However I do highly recommend it for people interested in modern Beijing and in modern Chinese urban history.


Reviewed by Timothy B. Weston

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2007)

Madeleine Yue Dong . Republican Beijing: The City and Its Histories.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. pp. 380. ISBN
978-0-520-23050-7 (Hardcover). $55.00.

Life in Beijing and Shanghai today increasingly resembles life in modern
cities elsewhere in the world. Indeed, confronting contemporary urban China
makes it difficult to entirely escape the teleological notion that
modernization acts as a steamroller process leveling local cultural
formations. In her study of Republican Beijing between 1911 and 1937,
Madeleine Yue Dong takes on the thorny question of the teleology of
modernization in a direct and bold manner. Republican Beijing consists of
three three-chapter sections, entitled "The City of Planners," "The City of
Experience," and "The Lettered City." The conception and arrangement of
these sections enables Dong to build a layered understanding of Beijing's
Republican history that encompasses the separate but linked worlds of the
city's political leaders, its wealthy and poor, and some of its outstanding
scholars and writers. Dong is dissatisfied with scholarship that treats
Republican Beijing merely as a transitional moment between the city's
imperial past and its Communist and post-Communist futures and provides a
creative reading of the city's Republican era that takes the period
seriously for what it actually was rather than for what it no longer could
be or what it was to give way to in the decades to come. One of Dong's goals
is to reveal the many ways that life in Republican Beijing was connected to
the city's past. At the same time, she does not shy away from the question
of Beijing's future--indeed, one of her main arguments is that people use
whatever resources are within reach to construct the best possible lives for
themselves in the now and for the now to come.

Fundamentally it is this question of the resources that people had at their
disposal that shapes Dong's study of Beijing between 1911 and 1937. Writing
against a historiography of modern Chinese cities dominated by studies of
Shanghai, China's most Westernized and modern urban center, Dong argues that
Beijing, while poorer than Shanghai and unindustrialized, was also modern in
the Republican period, even if it was less obviously Westernized and
appeared to be still tethered to tradition. For all that Shanghai had a
catalytic effect on the transformation of Chinese values and material
culture, we cannot understand the emergence of modern China through studies
of that city alone. Dong's study provides a valuable alternative case with
which to think about urban life during a specific period of Chinese
modernity. That said, Shanghai hovers in the background of this book,
playing the role of China's more thoroughly modern other for Dong just as it
did for some of those who called Republican Beijing home.

Dong combines social, cultural, and intellectual history, but at heart this
book revolves around section two, which focuses on Beijing's complex social
history. That history was fundamentally shaped by the once-glorious imperial
city's turbulent early twentieth century political history. For Dong, it was
Beijing's difficult socio-economic circumstances that determined what
resources its inhabitants had to work with to craft their lives. I
appreciate this approach, and am persuaded by Dong's argument that Beijing
was very much caught up in the currents of the modern, world economic
system. Beijing was not a major industrial or financial center at this time,
and in fact lost much of the economic status that it once enjoyed in north
China to fast rising and more Westernized Tianjin, whose history, Dong
shows, had a direct bearing on that of Beijing. As Dong makes clear, though,
appearances can be misleading. Beijing was thoroughly penetrated by foreign
goods and, through them, by the vicissitudes of the global economy.

For some, Beijing's entanglement in the global economy presented
opportunities to make riches. Furthermore, the city's municipal leaders, or
"planners," who were closely tied to the city's business elite, were
motivated by a desire to construct a modern, Western-style city, complete
with up-to-date forms of transportation, state of the art hygienic
facilities, palaces to consumerism, and nationally-minded citizens. For this
small elite, the physical and mental structures of the city's imperial past
were obstacles to be cleared in the name of a modernity that they both
believed in and were able to benefit from. To these people, the
availability, domination even, of foreign imports, was a positive, for they
had the means to purchase and enjoy them. Like the foreign community in the
city, and foreign tourists wishing to see the "old" China, Beijing's Chinese
elite was able to shop in the city's modern department stores and to dine in
its fancy restaurants. For a slice of the population, Beijing offered the
accoutrements of global modernity.

Yet most of the city's residents were poor and for them the modern
"experience" was out of reach. The city's loss of political centrality not
once, but twice, during the period under study bled Beijing of wealth and
service jobs. Ordinary residents were too busy trying to survive to take an
interest in elitist projects designed to forge them into modern citizens.
Many people viewed the construction of a modern city by those in thrall to
Western enlightenment ideas as an assault on their livelihoods and at times
actively resisted top-down social engineering projects. Without new-style
industries to employ them--those being concentrated in Tianjin and
Shanghai--Beijing's residents had to rely on other ways of making a living.
Ironically, the city developed a vibrant handicraft industry at the very
moment when it was becoming more deeply implicated in the world economic
system. The commodities produced by that handicraft industry in kind
(towels, leather goods, socks) and in the type of labor employed (small
workshops with simple machinery) more closely resembled a traditional
economy than a modern one. However, this handicraft production was, as Dong
states, "not simply a holdover from the imperial period: rather, it was a
new phenomenon under a new economic system" (p. 135). Modernization did not
imply a one-way street toward Western forms and greater technological

Here we get to the heart of Dong's argument about Beijing's socio-economic
circumstances in these decades: people made do with what they had at their
disposal and often that made the city's economy appear backward and
traditional. To explain this, Dong employs the concept of recycling, which
she develops through a fascinating discussion of the sprawling market and
entertainment center of Tianqiao ("Bridge of Heaven"), located at the
southern edge of the city but easily accessed because of its location at the
terminus of a modern streetcar line. Although it echoed the old-style temple
fairs that dotted Beijing in the imperial period, Tianqiao was not a site of
religious observance. Decidedly, its development resulted from modern
economic forces, for the market was constructed as a catch basin for the
majority of Beijing's residents, who could not afford the expensive
Western-style facilities in the city's center (at Wangfujing and Dongdan)
built after 1911. Through her treatment of Tianqiao, Dong shows that Beijing
witnessed the emergence of a tiered and geographically differentiated market
system, one for the elite and the foreign and another for the majority of
the city's people.

Yet both literally and figuratively Tianqiao was at the heart of what Dong
imaginatively characterizes as a vast circulatory system that knit Beijing
together. The goods for sale at Tianqiao were castoffs from the city's
wealthy and from its past. Reusable pots and pans, clothing, daily use
items, and the like entered, left, and then reentered Beijing's economic
life stream, providing a means of livelihood (sometimes more than once) to
those at the lower end of the economic ladder. In other words, the poor
lived off of the rich. As recyclers the poor were dependents, to be sure,
but Dong is adamant that this system provided the poor with a degree of
agency, both because shopping for good deals required a discerning eye and
skill at bargaining, and because those who went to Tianqiao could purchase
cheap forms of entertainment there that appealed to their cultural tastes. A
person visiting Tianqiao could make decisions, find entertainment that spoke
to his or her worldview, and take part, at the lowest level, in an
integrated market economy that involved Beijing's rich and poor alike.
Visiting Tianqiao did not transform people into modern citizens who felt a
sense of belonging to a nation, but it did offer them a way to survive amid
the rapid social and economic changes that were transforming their city.

In the last section of her book, "The Lettered City," Dong changes
direction, no longer focusing on the socio-economic factors that led to
Beijing's becoming a divided though ultimately singular urban system, but on
cultural and intellectual history, specifically on different writers and how
and why they depicted the city as they did. There is good reason for this
shift, for Republican Beijing witnessed an explosion in the number of works
describing the city, and it was the elite who left the richest records. Yet
the last section of the book is more abstract than those that come before
and, to this reader, less satisfying. Just when Dong has brought us close to
the lives of the majority of Beijing's residents, those about whom we have
previously known so little, she pulls back to engage the more familiar
imagined worlds of the educated elite. There is certainly value in this
approach, for through her analysis of writers' depictions of the city Dong
is able to discuss Beijing's relationship to imagined pasts and futures, and
to the nation as a whole. Still, the effect of moving directly from Tianqiao
to writers' desks is to suggest that the poor, the vast majority of the
city's population, are best handled in a quasi-metaphorical fashion, rather
than in a careful and detailed way, such as that of Lu Hanchao's powerful
Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century

As Dong shows, writings about Beijing advanced in a number of different
directions during the period in question; the city's meanings were neither
stable nor homogenous. Dong surveys three separate literatures on the city.
First, she studies works by Western and Western-trained sociologists (for
example, Sidney Gamble, John Burgess, Li Jinghan, Liang Qizi, Mai Qianzeng
and Yan Jingyao) who unearthed vast amounts of data on the city's lower
classes and who criticized the city's administrators for their failure to
address poverty, crime, and prostitution. These scholars possessed an
enlightenment mentality, wished to see Beijing develop along Western lines,
and its residents transformed into public-minded citizens. In this they were
generally in agreement with municipal "planners," though they were
frustrated by city leaders' corruption and insincerity about accomplishing
their stated goals. In contrast, local historians such as Qu Xuanying, Zhang
Cixi (Zhang Jiangcai), Lin Chuanjia, Chen Zongfan, Yu Qichang, Qi Rushan,
and Jin Shoushen, determined to record Beijing's history in encyclopedic
detail, were less concerned about Beijing's future itself than they were
about the loss of knowledge about the past as Beijing developed in new
directions. Elaborating on the model of personal accounts of daily life
written in the imperial era, local historians fetishized details (places,
foods, and forms of employment) in an anti-historicist manner that cut off
the city's past from epoch-making historical events. In meticulously
recording the everyday practices of the past these scholars formulated a
timeless Beijing that was itself the subject of history, one that had
continuous local cultural specificity irrespective of changes in political
regimes. Their focus on and celebration of aspects of Beijing's past that
the state was seeking to demolish, Dong contends, can be understood as a
form of resistance to the modernizers' vision.

Lastly, Dong looks at works by "new intellectuals" from outside Beijing who
took up residence in the city during the Republican era. Inevitably, men of
letters such as Chen Duxiu, Zhou Zuoren, Yu Dafu, Lin Yutang, and Gu Jiegang
contrasted Beijing with other cities they knew, most notably Shanghai. Over
the course of the Republican period, these writers went from being strangers
to Beijing to people who felt very much at home in the city. Though they
tended to share the enlightenment worldview of the sociologists and were
often highly critical of the city for its seeming lack of modern
development, the new intellectuals developed a deep emotional attachment to
Beijing somewhat reminiscent of that held by local historians. However, the
Beijing the new intellectuals loved was one in which people like themselves,
members of the cultural elite, enjoyed high status, not the street-level
Beijing that the historians chronicled. The new intellectuals contrasted the
privileged position they held in Beijing with Shanghai's relentlessly
commercial environment, wherein men of letters were lost in the crowd and
where everyone was in a hurry, unlike in Beijing, where the pace of life was
more relaxed. To be sure, to the new intellectuals Beijing was backward. Yet
it was also a place they enjoyed living in, and thus for them an important
symbol of a value system and way of life that had a national, not a
particular local, meaning.

Dong's decision to conclude with a discussion of Lao She allows her to end
on a graceful note. Lao She understood the language of the modernists, those
who wanted to create a new, Western, and modern city, but, consummate
humanist that he was, this greatest of Beijing writers loved the local
people for who they were and the city's particular culture for what it was.
Lao She was caught between intellectual systems, and it is perhaps for that
reason that he so successfully captured the pathos of Republican Beijing.
The people in his stories were indeed living through a time of rapid
change--dare I even say during a transitional moment. But through all the
challenges and loss that this implied, Lao She's Beijing ren nevertheless
displayed dignity, resourcefulness, and cultural self-confidence, which
returns us to Dong's larger argument: people craft their lives out of what
is given to them, and those lives must be understood for what they were, not
misunderstood as examples of a quaint and outmoded world. Between the
collapse of the Qing dynasty and the onset of Japanese occupation, forces of
modernity rocked Beijing and ordinary people had no choice but to fashion
modern responses. The fact that modern, Republican Beijing in so many ways
looked traditional, especially compared to Shanghai's more Westernized
development at the same time, is an important point: modernity articulates
in different ways depending on local histories and prevailing socio-economic

        Timothy B. Weston
        University of Colorado, Boulder