(mis)Representing Beijing: A Review of _Beijing Time_ by Dutton et al

In an effort to cash in on the Olympics, a flurry of books has been published recently on the topic of Beijing. These include several histories of the city, such as Geremie Barme's _The Forbidden City_ and Lillian Li et al, Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City as well as books by Stephen Haw and Jasper Becker, all of which have come out in the past year or so. It seems that everyone is rushing to the publisher to get their Beijing book out before the Olympics hit in an effort to boost sales. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does have the potential pitfall of creating a bunch of hastily written thinkpieces.

I haven’t read any of these books so I’m not qualified to say whether or not this is true of those authors I’ve listed above. However, while perusing the shelves of Garden Books in Shanghai, I did recently bump into Michael Dutton’s book, Beijing Time, which also fits into this category of ‘get the damn thing out in time for the big games’. Published by Harvard in 2008, _Beijing Time _ is a study of the contemporary city with references to both its imperial and Maoist legacy. The book waxes philosophical in places--the title should be a dead giveaway--about what photographer Greg Girard has called the “hard flow of time” through the city. Girard was talking about Shanghai, but the term is equally applicable to the national capital, which has seen many great upheavals over the ages, not least of which are the upcoming Olympics.

I first visited Beijing in 1988, when the city and country were just emerging from the revolutionary days of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. There was only one KFC, bicycles were everywhere, and cars almost non-existent. I lived in Beijing in 1996, when the city’s hedonistic side was beginning to come out, and Sanlitunr was beginning to earn its reputation. I lived there again in 2007, as the city rushed to finish its vast infrastructural preparations for August 8 ‘08, and cars and their exhaust pipes were now literally choking the ring roads. While not an expert in the city’s history, I have taught courses on the subject, and I do feel that my experience in Beijing, some of which has been recorded on this blogsite, qualifies me to make some personal judgments about Dutton’s take on the city.

First, let me tell you about the good things about this book and why you should read it. It’s very engaging and thought-provoking. Dutton is obviously writing for a broad audience, though he does make liberal assumptions about the reader’s background knowledge, and passing references to historical and contemporary Chinese society abound. China experts will find themselves on familiar ground. Those without a background in Chinese history, society, and culture may be lost in places, but probably will be curious to learn more. Dutton’s writing style is full of sardonic wit. He’s not afraid to poke fun at just about anybody and anything, from Mao’s bloated body “rotting” in his mausoleum, to the “con artists” at Panjiayuan or 798 who make a living by exploiting foreigners’ endless fascination with Maoist revolutionary kitsch.

Overall the book does a good job of providing the reader with a feel for the “hard flow of time” through the national capital. We learn how and why the “Ten Great Building Projects” were undertaken in record time during the 1950s, and how Mao succeeded in pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes by completely rebuilding Tiananmen Gate where his portrait famously rests without anyone but the workers who did the job in the know. How thousands of workers kept this secret from the Chinese people for 30 years is anyone’s guess, but Dutton chalks it up to revolutionary fervor and the peoples’ undying love for their fearless helmsman.

In one of the best parts of the book, Dutton takes us on a tour of an old Hutong neighborhood to talk about one of his favorite subjects—local neighborhood security. Dutton was one of the first researchers from abroad to dig deep into this sensitive topic of local policing. Last year one of my Dartmouth student groups researched the topic of policing in Beijing and found that it was extremely difficult to get any information about the subject, and that the local police were unwilling to provide much if any assistance, so even today this is no mean feat.

The rest of the book covers themes of waste and recycling. Dutton takes the reader to Bajiacun, a recycling center where the waste of contemporary capitalist society is continually put to other uses by a team of indigent migrants working round the clock sorting through vast stinking piles of rubbish. He then does the same for Panjiayuan, the famous antique market in the southern part of town, where flashlight-wielding connoisseurs poke through piles of detritus to find nuggets of gold. Most of the things for sale there are fake antiques and Maoist kitsch, but occasionally a real antique is mixed into the pile without the seller knowing, or so goes the urban myth. People will also spend countless hours sifting through discarded books and letters to find precious artifacts, such as rare photographs or letters by famous authors. The power of both of these recycling centers to connect imperial-revolutionary past to capitalist-commercial present and their metaphorical meaning for the city itself are not lost on Dutton, who makes numerous references to Walter Benjamin and his theory of the ragpicker.

Another form of recycling comes in the way of the dakou or “sawgash” CD. In the ‘90s, these reject CDs from the West began pouring into the city and country by the thousands. Selling them on the black market was a great way to make money, and inadvertently introduced Beijingers to music they never would have encountered otherwise. I recall how jazz musicians in Beijing in the mid-90s learned a lot of their music by collecting dakou CDs of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and so forth. The same was true for other styles of music, including rock. Today the dakous are still around if you look hard, but most people prefer to download music from the internet.

Finally, Dutton takes us to 798, once a munitions factory on the eastern edge of town, now a set of galleries featuring the latest Chinese contemporary art. Again, the theme of recycling is apparent here. First there is the re-use of the space, which had fallen into neglect after the Mao years, and eventually found a new purpose as a showcase for art. Second we have the recycling of Maoist iconography into a form of commercial capitalism through the work of Chinese artists. This has been going on since the ‘80s when artists first learned to cut and paste Mao icons onto incongruous backgrounds. The recipe is simple: take a Mao, add a Coke, Pepsi, KFC, or MacDonalds sign in the background, and voila, avant-garde art! Nobody takes this stuff seriously anymore, but it can still be found all over Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere.

Here is one place where I find that the research of Dutton and his Chinese assistants falls short, or as the Chinese like to say, you dai jia qiang. To be sure, 798 is no longer the progressive art studio complex that it was a few years ago; it has upscaled into a posh gallery district with plenty of Western-style cafes and restaurants. But there is a lot more to the scene there than Maoist kitsch, and one can still find representative examples of some of the best art in China and abroad if one knows where to search. The Long March Art Gallery, Contemporary China, and many other galleries do a wonderful job of presenting great Chinese art, most of which has nothing to do with Maoist kitschography. So in this sense I believe that the book mis-represents the art world of 798, and of contemporary China.

I have similar reservations about other parts of the book. In his effort to criticize the capitalist development of the city, Dutton overlooks some of the positive aspects of commercialization. In his chapter on Jiaodaokou, he decries the “disneyfication” of some of the old hutong neighborhoods, mentioning that of Nanluoguxiang, which in recent times has sprouted a number of boutique stores, cafes, and bars out of the original homes. Fair enough, but one should also keep in mind that this sort of commercialization is one of the only ways that these neighborhoods can be preserved. As is made clear in the book and everyone who knows Beijing already understands well, the hutong neighborhoods, which more than any other feature of the city defined everyday life for centuries, are being relentlessly destroyed (chai) to make way for the new high-rises and department stores. If made commercially viable, some of these neighborhoods might be preserved into the unknown future, and that can’t be too bad a thing.

I also found the section on dakou CDs and the punk rock scene very superficial. The dakou phenom is definitely worth mentioning in a paragraph or so, but spending a few pages on it seemed overkill to me, especially since dakou have lost their cache since around 2000 when China discovered mp3s. Dutton spends some time talking about Cui Jian, but mislabels him as a “punk rocker.” Disappointingly, he doesn’t mention any other Beijing band by name. What about Brain Failure, the New Pants, re-TROS, SUBS, or any other of the numerous great bands that have emerged since the late ‘90s?

In his zeal for recycled products (aka dakou), Dutton takes us into the student enclave of Wudaokou, but his description of this area is thoroughly disappointing. I kept expecting to see D22 or Propaganda crop up in the analysis, but it seems the author and his research assistants have no interest in checking out any of the bars and clubs that they so callously dismiss as part of the hipster commercialization of the city, although we are treated to a nauseating round of karaoke in a section that could describe any city or town in East Asia in the past two decades. Moreover, the book claims that Houhai is the big hip nightlife district of the city. Nothing could be further from the truth. Houhai may fool the tourists, but any clubber in the city knows that Chaoyang West Gate and Sanlitunr are the places to be.

This gets back to my original critique, which is that too many people are pumping out fast products in an effort to cash in on the Olympics.  I’m sure we’ll see a similar thing happen with the Shanghai Expo in 2010.  Clearly this book had a deadline and the author rushed to meet it.  Deeper analyses of many of the phenomena covered so cursorily in this book can be found in other books, such as Wu Hung’s masterful and wonderfully candid study of Beijing, which is referenced in Dutton’s book, or Madeleine Yue Dong’s treatment of the theme of recycling in her book on Republican Beijing. There are also plenty of studies on Beijing’s art world, and many good studies of the rock and punk scene though surprisingly little after the 1990s, which may help explain my criticism of Dutton's treatment of this scene.

That said, this book was obviously never meant to be an original work of scholarship, but rather a broad, thoughtful, and approachable sketch of the city for a wide readership. In that respect I think it succeeds, and the author should be commended for getting it out in time for the big games.