If you have not realised that Mao was one of the great evil figures of the C20th, you have not been paying attention. If you have not realised that revolutionary socialism is an utter failure, except as a means for grasping total power, you have not been paying attention. Jasper Becker’s City of Heavenly Tranquillity: Beijing in the History of China is a jeremiad of outraged pain at what the Beijing regime has done to its capital city, a city where the author has lived for years as foreign correspondent and clearly loves.
When considering political institutions, the key thing to remember is that intentions change (or fail to be achieved), but the means remain. If the means of unchecked power are constructed, then they will be used whatever the original intentions. The economic policies of the Beijing regime may have changed dramatically over the years—from the conventional command economy of the 1950s, the mad will-worship of the Great Leap Forward, the deliberate anarchy of the Cultural Revolution, the return to a more conventional (if somewhat exhausted) command economy, followed by the accelerating shift to a corrupt, if dynamic, crony capitalism from 1979 onwards. The power of the Party, and the ability of its leadership to loot China, remains.
Becker sees the contemporary rushing destruction of old Beijing as a punishment for popular resistance which culminated in the Beijing massacre, noting the regime has spent far more on destroying and replacing old Beijing than healthcare. After providing some revealing statistics (p.8), Becker notes that PLA is the only army in modern history to mount an assault on Beijing (p.10). What has been going on is the physical destruction of memory (p.11). An acceleration of a trend that began from the start of the People’s Republic, for old China was seen as the enemy of the modernisation project (p.12).
Becker makes the revealing observation that both Moscow and Beijing started out as places to deliver tribute to nomad conquerors (p.16). Northern China has a history of pastoralist dynasties. Beijing is the end point of that grand engineering achievement, the Grand Canal, whose purpose was to deliver tribute northwards to a city that was neither on a major river nor a sea port (p.16).
There is an argument the region worked “best” when the two monopoly rulerships (the Han dynasty in China and the Hun rulership in the steppes) managed each other (p.19). Pastoralist rule has reached into Western poetry, since the Mongol summer capital Shangdu = Xanadu, where, indeed, “Kublai Khan a stately pleasure dome decreed”.
When the Mongols conquered China, a minister of the conquered northern rulers, Ye-lu-chu-cai (not himself an ethnic Han but Khitan) recommended taxing the peasantry, rather than exterminating them and clearing the land for grazing, thereby becoming an object of veneration for centuries (p.31).
The Ming replaced the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty and ruled obsessed with the nomad threat, creating what we now think of as “The” Great Wall of China. (In fact, merely the last and greatest of a series of walls.) Historical evidence is that C15th inhabitants of Ming Beijing ate better than residents of People’s Republic Beijing did in the 1950s or 1980s (p.41).
But, as Ming rule decayed, the common symptoms of regime decline set in: food riots, declining finances, increasing corruption, collapsing commerce (p.42). Becker takes us through the iron, alienating cage of routine and goldfish bowl privilege that Ming emperors lived in and the struggle of eunuchs (who owed everything to the Emperors) versus mandarins (who had more connection to the wider society).
A perennial problem of dynastic empires—the ruling clan consuming more and more resources—also manifest under the Ming, as Ming princes of the blood were given tax-exempt land: part of (the ibn Khaldun pattern of) the ruling regime losing of control of its agents and declining social resilience (p.76). In the end, the Manchus (Qing) swept in past a Great Wall bereft of soldiers.
Becker notes that the Opium Wars are still resented (Pp83ff). They destroyed the Middle Kingdom's conception of itself, even though various internal C19th rebellions killed far more Chinese (p.87). He also notes that the Chinese behaved duplicitously and cruelly, something that is not remembered (Pp88ff). What lingers is the insult felt by having to treat foreign Powers as equals. Traditional Chinese outlooks provided no way to conceive of proper behaviour incorporating foreigners that was not based on the foreigner’s presumed inferiority.
Becker also notes that Qing China was an expansionary imperial power, and still very much a nomad/pastoralist Manchu regime (p.86).
Jesuit reports from the Ming court had encouraged European interest in things Chinese (Pp92ff). Western responses to China have tended to be polarised between China as rational, exotic, enlightened and China as tyrannical, cruel, backward, obscurantist. Becker notes how few foreigners there were in China in 1900 (Pp105ff).
Modern China has become a world where the past has no value (and therefore cannot be learned from) (p.102). Meanwhile, senior Party officials appropriate antiques for themselves (p.104).
As the above implies, Becker’s narrative takes us back and forth between the present and the past, with each illuminating the other. The weird, controlled, endlessly monitored lives of Chinese emperors is a continuing theme. Becker notes the the Manchu nature of Beijing ("the Tatar city") (p.128) and wonders if memories of that were partly driving Mao's animus to old Beijing. Becker takes us through the People’s Republic’s fluctuating attitude to Manchus and other minorities (Pp133-4).
We also get insights into Chinese lives, such as the joyless incompetence that Maoism inflicted on ordinary death (Pp 135-6). Then back to the past and Kaiser Bill being horrid (Pp 154-5) followed by the life of a remarkable courtesan.
Back to the present, and the corruption that is the hallmark of bureaucratized autocracy has settled in dramatically (Pp 160-1). Then more of Mao's mixture of "refined poetic sensibility, contrasted with utter ruthlessness" (p.162). The mystery of why Mao chose Beijing as the capital (p.165), the regime’s immediate acquisition of palaces as dwellings for the Party elite and how the reality of the success of the People’s Republic was of military conquest with limited popular support. A regime which rapidly displayed its intent to control and change (p.166), such as in the extermination of dogs, who represented private/individual loyalty (p.167).
The ultimate goal was the transformation of humanity from our current (unsatisfactory) nature to an imagined future purity (p.177).
One of the features of the very hierarchical structure of imperial China was the status regulation of buildings, regulating what level of person could live in what size dwelling with what features (Pp 186-7). A feature not exactly entirely absent from the People’s Republic.
In the People’s Republic, the logic of utopianism-in-power operated in all sorts of ways. For example, collaborating writers were the Cultural Revolution's first victims (p.210). There are also moments of humour, such as Brecht amusingly misunderstanding Peking Opera (Pp224-5).
Given the regime’s war against the past—and thus its war against Chinese culture—extensive Western collections meant much was preserved that would later otherwise be lost. (Hong Kong and Taiwan also provided refuges.) What China experienced was the rejection of the past by an all-powerful state: when the latter was the real legacy that needed to be rejected.
A persistent theme of the book is how senior Party people looted China – from the beginning of the People’s Republic (‘People’s Republic’ being, like ‘Democratic Republic’ a term which indicates its opposite) but intensifying during the Cultural Revolution. Becker also covers the deliberate and systematic destruction of Tibet's cultural legacy, which was pursued with particular intensity (p.244). The gold and silver bullion looted from Tibet and melted down may have helped the Party survive the disaster of the Great Leap Forward.
The Party’s attempts to create new ritual structures to replace those being repressed has largely been a failure: a failure of logos to abolish mythos.
Mao inherited an intact city that had avoided destruction both in the war against Imperial Japan and the civil war against the Kuomintang and proceeded to make an appalling mess of it - an industrial city without sufficient water but with awful pollution. Post-Mao has not been an improvement, such as in Deng's admonition to follow Hong Kong created imitations, including a service economy Beijing without port or stock exchange (p.286). Sadly, Deng's reforms provided the funds to destroy old Beijing. Beijing's Olympic bid was supported as aiding modernization and liberalization: the effect was opposite of that (p.289).
In the contemporary changes to Beijing, the malign influence of Le Corbusier is very clear. Beijing has become a huge, rather ghastly, mass experiment in the awful wrongness of Le Corbusier's ideas (p.294), with Le Corbusier followers extolling the vision the regime’s funds allowed them to engage in, since they shared a notion of buildings deliberately severed from the past (p.295). All this “progressive” architecture has accompanying art also completely unconnected to China’s history, culture or popular wishes. So a modern Chinese artist finding no one understood his work without the explanatory text (p.296).
The whole thing becomes so From Bauhaus to Our House with the regime acquiring new defenders from fawning progressive artists. After all, both love the future because it is the canvas for their grand visions: while the past is full of the achievement of others, so has no value. Hence, of course, in crucial ways they failed even to match the achievements of the past: many of the new buildings working much worse for their locations than Ming buildings (Pp298-9).
But Beijing has always expressed a problematic relationship between regime and people: for example, only non-Han were permitted to live within city walls under Qing (p.302). This is a story which shows again and again how means are so much more important than intentions. What the elite wants is the constant watchword of Beijing and so much of its destruction and failure flows from that. Becker notes Victor Segalen’s prediction that modernity would produce conformity and banality (p.325), a prediction that the Beijing regime seems to be very successful at fulfilling.
City of Heavenly Tranquillity is a profoundly informative and perceptive book of passion and despair. In his book about the steady destruction of a city he loves, Jasper Becker tells us so much about Chinese history, the Chinese state and the depredations of the current Beijing regime. And he does so in a way which leaves you with great sympathy for what the Chinese people have endured and still endure.
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