Republican Beijing:
The City and Its Histories

By Madeleine Yue Dong

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.

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 sophistication.

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 (1999).

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 realities.

Timothy B. Weston
University of Colorado, Boulder