The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed
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A fascinating, intimate portrait of Beijing through the lens of its oldest neighborhood, facing destruction as the city, and China, relentlessly modernizes.
Soon we will be able to say about old Beijing that what emperors, warlords, Japanese invaders, and Communist planners couldn't eradicate, the market economy has. Weaving historical vignettes of Beijing and China over a thousand years Michael Meyer captures the city's deep past as he illuminates its present, and especially the destruction of its ancient neighborhoods and the eradication of a way of life that has epitomized China's capital. With an insider's insight, The Last Days of Old Beijing is an invaluable witness to history, bringing into shining focus the ebb and flow of life in old Beijing at this pivotal moment.
gates and walls. The run-down mansion where I live shows traces of its former owner’s wealth. The heavy double-wooden doors retain coats of lacquer, though the painted couplet has been rubbed away. Unknown hands chipped off the guardian lions carved atop the twin rectangular stones anchoring the doorframe. Lotuses and clouds painted in bright primary colors fade on the lintel. Rusting hooks that once held halyards to raise red lanterns poke out from weeds growing in the furrows of the tiled
the new rulers evicted thirty thousand households from inside the city walls, many moved east, settling in the area of present Dazhalan. The city’s walls were enlarged to a perimeter of thirty miles, punctured with twelve gates. The new emperor imprisoned a rival court in the temple that gave my neighborhood’s Prolong Life Street its name. A captive there said his situation felt like “looking at the sky from the bottom of a well.” Much of China’s architectural heritage exists only in the mind,
fifty-five feet wide at the bottom, tapering as it rose, and made with masonry instead of rammed earth. The wall was not a perfect square, as dictated by code, but had a dog-eared northwest corner to accommodate a small lake in its path. The city had nine gates, each guarded by twin defensive towers joined by a semicircular wall. Planners enlarged the capital’s grid from nine districts with 400 streets to thirty-six districts and 1,170 streets. Of these, 459 bore the name hutong. To suppress the
poverty, no matter how picturesque. The new campus featured modern classrooms, heated dormitories, expanded fitness areas, and safer, paved roads. The school had the funds to hire foreign teachers and no longer depended on volunteers. In 2001, the capital’s Olympic-bid slogan called for a “New Beijing,” but the city’s makeover had already been under way when I arrived in 1997. Shopping malls, high-rise apartments, and roads replaced the hutong, destroying landmarks both historical and personal.
Feng said, and consumption—be it the latest cell phone or a new car—was a way to maintain face. He hoped his initiative would teach children that “the charm of a culture is its individuality. The boredom of a culture is similarity.” He authored a handbook for distribution to village schools that included a sample ethnography and survey forms to be returned to his office for collection into an encyclopedia. “The government is good at protecting relics like the Great Wall or the Forbidden City,”