Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations
in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films

By Yiran Zheng

Reviewed by Lena Scheen
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2018)

Yiran Zheng, Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Literature and Film Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016. v-xviii + 149 pp. ISBN: Hardback 978-1-4985-3101-6 • $79.00; ISBN: Paperback 978-1-4985-3103-0 • $42.99; ISBN: eBook 978-1-4985-3102-3  • $40.50

It was a map of Beijing that sparked Yiran Zheng’s interest in the subject for her book Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Literature and Film. Looking at the city’s distinctive spatial structure of “square-like loops” (x), formed by its major ring roads, she noticed how one can read the history of the city in its architectural shape; from its centermost area, still largely consisting of narrow alleyways (胡同) lined with traditional Beijing-style courtyard houses (四合院), through the three- to four-story Soviet-style apartment blocks built from the 1950s to the 1970s (between the 2nd and 3rd ring roads), to the modern high rises that have sprung up since the 1980s (between the 3rd and 4th ring roads), and the recently built townhouses and single-family houses (outside the 4th ring road). In Writing Beijing, Zheng takes three of the city’s representative urban spaces—courtyard houses, military compounds, and (post)modern architecture—as the basis of the book’s three-part structure. Each part itself consists of three chapters. The first chapters of each part (chapters 1, 4, 7) investigate particular buildings and architecture as “representations of space” and analyze how they “reflect, embody, and implement power relations, such as power of the state and power between different social groups” (xii). The second chapters (2, 5, 8) discuss representative writers and filmmakers whose work either prominently features the particular space or reflects how residing there influenced them. The third and final chapters of each part (3, 6, 9) analyze literary representations of these urban forms in novels and films, “namely, how the city is perceived and presented in literature and film, as well as why they choose particular spaces to carry their imaginations” (xii).

Part I of the book focuses on one of the work unit (单位) types created during the Maoist period (1949-1976): the military compound 军队大院, an urban space that “culturally represents communist revolutionary culture” (3). “Besides large living areas, the [military] compound residents also had beautiful environments, free water, electricity, and individual heating systems, convenient transportation and shopping, cheap haircuts and baths, as well as frequent amusements such as movies and dancing parties” (7). These living conditions were significantly better than those of the “common” Beijing residents living in the hutong and other single-storied buildings, “which had no tap water or private toilets, and were usually far from their workplace” (6). The military compound gave rise to a new elite class to which the Compound Cultural Group 大院文化圈 belongs, a label Zheng gives to writers who grew up there and whose “nostalgic” (3) narrations of their childhood memories have influenced China’s cultural industry, from fiction and film to TV. While Zheng consistently speaks of a “group,” the only writer she actually mentions and discusses is Wang Shuo 王朔, the best-selling author known for his nihilistic, hooligan fiction depicting the lives of alienated, semi-criminal youth who roam the streets of Beijing after the Cultural Revolution. Growing up in a military compound as the son of a doctor and an instructor in the Political Institute of the People’s Liberation Army, Wang belongs to the so-called “new aristocrats of the PRC” 共和国新贵 (11), which is the reason Zheng joins forces with other Chinese scholars who take aim at the often-used label of “common person fiction” 平民小说 for his novels.[1] Zheng argues that both Wang and his fictional characters do not belong to the “common people” or working class, but are in fact representative of the elites who were confronted with the decline of their privileged positions after the death of Mao Zedong. In this, she follows scholars like Yusheng Yao, who also argues:

These former aristocratic youth became marginalized only in Deng’s era of economic reform, when China was changing from a political to a commercial society. Although the most characteristic attitude and style of the adult hooligans—playfulness (wan’r) and fast talk (kan)—were not fully developed until they became marginalized adults in postrevolutionary China, they can be traced back to the youth counterculture that the aristocratic youth hooligans created during the Cultural Revolution. This youth counterculture was driven mainly by the desire of teenagers born into the political elite to seek status, power, and freedom.[2]

Both Zheng and Yao claim to challenge the readings of “Western” scholars like Geremie Barmé, whom they take to task for leaving “the origin of Wang’s hooligan characters during the Cultural Revolution largely unexplored” (Yao 433) or even “misunderstanding” Wang Shuo’s class background (Zheng 13). When citing Barmé as someone who labels Wang Shuo as a writer of “common person fiction,” Zheng leaves out the second half of the original sentence: “yet at every turn he can be seen as threatening and at times defiling the official canon.”[3] And, in In the Red, Barmé even writes:

Certainly, Wang Shuo popularized elements of Beijing’s underclass, but it was an underclass that had been digested by the party’s armybrat elite to which he belonged. At one time, the party appropriated the voice of the peasantry and dispossessed proletariat. In the late 1980s, popular writers like Wang Shuo commercialized the language of Old Peking and its lower classes and claimed it for themselves.[4]

In other words, her reading and Barmé’s are not as at odds as she suggests. The difference, however, is in Zheng’s radical materialist approach in analyzing Wang’s work exclusively from his socio-economic background. For example, when discussing Wang Shuo’s celebrated political irony—in particular through his parodying of official party discourse—Zheng repeatedly emphasizes that irony in his writing “simply reveals the extraordinary position of the writer” (14):

In fact, in the Cultural Revolution, people who spoke that discourse seriously were from the lower classes. Because they were powerless, they worshiped the political authority, needed to use that discourse to prove their loyalty (either voluntarily or compulsorily), and eventually became victims of that language of violence. On the contrary, those New Aristocrats of the PRC belonged to the ruling social group. They dared to despise this formalism because they had such a “genhong miao zheng” (red-root rightsprout) background, which made them easier to forgive and less likely to be judged or punished. (15)

While not entirely convinced, I am intrigued by the (unintended?) suggestion of reading Wang Shuo’s ironic use of official party language not as a mockery of the state, but of the working class who appropriates the language of the very power that holds it down.

Part II of the book focuses on the Second-generation Beijing Flavor Writers 第二代京味作家 and how they “configure Beijing as a traditional and masculine city by embodying this configuration in Beijing’s typical architectural models[,] such as the siheyuan and the city wall” (50).[5] Though potentially novel, Zheng’s conception of the relationship between the “masculinity” of Beijing and the siheyuan urban form remains unclear. Otherwise, the figuration of Beijing as the “masculine,” “traditional,” and “Chinese” city versus Shanghai as the “feminine,” “modern,” and “Western” city has a long history in the Chinese cultural imagination. Instead of critically reflecting on this problematic dichotomy, however, Zheng merely reconfirms it, asserting that in the works of the Beijing Flavor Writers, female characters are masculinized, which brings her to the cringeworthy conclusion:

However, if we examine the full text and the writing style of Beijing writers, we may conclude this “desexualization” and “masculinization” indeed can be taken as a compliment for Beijing girls. In fact, in this way, writers can give some male-specific good characteristics to those women. According to their writings, Beijing girls are generous, straightforward, selfless, independent, decisive, and sometime insensitive and tactless. In the Chinese literary tradition, some of these words are not used to describe women often, because typical women in literature are usually depicted as dependent, indecisive, and sensitive. (80)

More compelling than the opposition of Beijing and Shanghai along gendered lines is how nostalgia binds these two cities together. Both collectively mourn the rapidly disappearing local urban forms (the siheyuan in Beijing and the longtang 弄堂 in Shanghai), and—most important—the lifestyles they sustained. Moreover, as the subchapter “Demolition: Change of Human Relations” alludes to but fails to develop, this nostalgia is as much about the loss of a local culture as it is about the shock of China’s all-encompassing modernization drive and its consequent transformation. Read in this light, the stories of Wang Shuo and, for example, the Beijing Flavor writer Chen Jiangong (discussed in chapter 6) share some fundamental characteristics that Zheng overlooks: both employ black humor and irony in their detached portrayals of post-Mao Beijing, and both evoke the sense of disillusionment and cynicism felt by Chinese youth in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.

Part III is dedicated to the city as a space of globalization. The opening chapter describes the city’s building boom over the last decades and its obsession with “western-style” architecture. The chapter questions how, in the domestic discourse on globalization, “global” is automatically equated with “western” and often “used as a signifier for certain economic, political, social, and cultural processes which actually exclude large parts of the world” (94). For example, when discussing the rise of suburban upscale townhouses, Zheng writes:

Not a single house is named after an African city. It is also hard to find a Southeast Asian style architecture. Apparently, what the real estate developer uses to attract potential clients, or what potential buyers are actually pursuing, is the lifestyle associated with more advanced economic entities. (94)

Yet, the book itself reveals a similar blind spot, such as when Zheng writes: “As an embodiment of Chinese tradition, some architecture in Beijing is unique and distinguishes the city from all other western cities” (49, emphasis added). Echoing the common idea that globalization leads to the erasure of local identity, the chapter laments the loss of the city’s “Chinese” identity, summarized in the peculiar questions “after these changes, is Beijing still Beijing? Are Beijing people still Beijingers?” (89) It begs the question: what else could they be? The chapter is followed by an introduction of the last group under discussion: the Beijing Floater Sixth-generation Filmmakers 北漂第六代电影人. A hybrid appellation coined by Zheng, this group is comprised of Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯, Wang Xiaoshuai 王小帅, Zhang Yuan 张元, Guan Hu 管虎, Lu Xuechang 路学长, and others (90). The Sixth-generation Filmmakers are known for their low-budget, underground or semi-official films often portraying the new urban generation, whereas the term “Beijing Floater” is cyber slang for well-educated migrants who choose to live and work in Beijing, but who do not have a Beijing hukou (household registration), thus denying them access to various social services. “On [the] one hand, a globalized Beijing provides them the opportunity to succeed in the international film market. On the other hand, without Beijing hukou (residency), they also have a feeling of being excluded and marginalized in this big city” (90).

In the final chapter, Zheng zooms in on the struggles of migrants chasing their “urban dream” in the films The World 世界 (2008, directed by Jia Zhangke) and Beijing Bicycle十七岁的单车 (2001, directed by Wang Xiaoshuai). “For these migrants,” Zheng observes, “it is easy to come to the physical city but much harder to be ultimately assimilated into the city of which they have always dreamt. They are attacked by cruel chance without mercy. Their urban dream eventually comes to an end” (125).

Writing Beijing covers a wide range of issues related to contemporary Beijing and its literary imagination in fiction and cinema. Despite its numerous errors, which point to a considerable lack of editorial oversight, its interdisciplinary approach and accessible and personal writing style make it of interest to the general reader, as well as to students in the fields of China studies, urban studies, and literature and film studies. Considering that the analyses of the novels and films are largely informed by an extensive Chinese-language scholarship, the book is of particular interest to those readers who want to get a better understanding of the domestic discourse on contemporary urban fiction and cinema.

Lena Scheen
NYU Shanghai (上海纽约大学)


[1] See, for example, Wang Binbin王彬彬, “Zhongguo liumang wenhua zhi Wang Shuo Zhengzhuan” 中国流氓文化之王朔正传 (A true story of Wang Shuo and his Chinese hooligan culture). Yuehaifeng 月海风 5 (2000): n.p.

[2] Yusheng Yao, “The Elite Class Background of Wang Shuo and His Hooligan Characters.” Modern China 30, no. 4 (Oct. 2004), p. 435.

[3] Geremie Barmé, “Wang Shuo and Liumang (‘Hooligan’) Culture.” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs no. 28 (Jul. 1992), p. 33.

[4] Geremie Barmé, In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). 76.

[5] Zheng includes the writers Chen Jiangong, Deng Youmei, Han Shaohua, Liu Xinwu, Su Shuyang, Tie Ning, and Wang Zengqi. She borrowed the term from Wang Yichuang: “Beijing Flavor Literature must tell [about] things in Beijing, describe Beijing customs, use Beijing dialect, and reflect Beijing people’s mentalities” (xvii).