The best books about old Beijing

Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.


I wrote...

At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

What is my book about?

It’s 1949 at Revolutionary University. Chinese students spend all their waking hours in political meetings—when they’re not hauling feces from the latrines to the manure fields. Jump to 2015. Chinese endure endless meetings at the hands of bosses and are required to keep their cellphones on around the clock and pick up at once—or be fined. They live in a technological utopia while enslaved by the same structures of psychological control of over half a century earlier. Underlying the myth of a “New China” are the contemporary Middle Kingdom's numerous continuities with its past. This wide-ranging collection, which includes essays on old and modern Beijing, reaffirms the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Peking: A Historical and Intimate Description of Its Chief Places of Interest

Isham Cook Why did I love this book?

Even though it was ahead of its time, Juliet Bredon’s Peking, published in 1931, is less well known than Arlington and Lewisohn’s comparable guide to the city, In Search of Old Peking released in 1935, both books written by longtime expats fully informed of their adopted country; Bredon was niece to the famous China Customs official Sir Robert Hart. Both books are chock full of historical detail and passionate about their subject matter and still serve well today as guides to Beijing’s temples and palaces. Bredon’s is the more eloquently written and captivating, and for me, the more personable companion in guiding the armchair traveler through Peking’s labyrinthine lanes. Along with her expert advice on buying antiques, I can relate to her spontaneous descriptions of street life as if I were sitting next to her in her rickshaw: “Who can forget the delicious surprise of his first journey through Chinese streets, unable to make the rickshaw runner understand anything but gestures, frantic gestures to stop anywhere, everywhere, since all is unspeakably pleasurable and new.” 

By Juliet Bredon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Peking as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Step back in time to Beijing as it was in the 1920's as Juliet Bredon guides the reader to a magnificent time of the past. The more one studies this fascinating city, old, proud and secretive, the more one realises the tantalizing difficulties of learning, even from the Chinese themselves, anything but the merest outline of its history and monuments, many of which are in existence today. Who can forget the soft enchantment of Buddhist temples, the green peace of tombs haunted by fearless things, "doves that flutter down at call, fishes rising to be fed?" Having lived in Peking…


Book cover of City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking's Exotic Pleasures

Isham Cook Why did I love this book?

English expat John Blofeld spent two decades in China (1932–51) before living out the last three of his life in Thailand. A renowned scholar of Buddhism and Taoism, Blofeld (like fellow expat Sinologists Edmund Backhouse and E.T.C. Werner) effectively disappeared into the woodwork, consorting almost exclusively with locals and mastering both vernacular and classical Chinese. In his City of Lingering Splendour, he looks back on his sojourn in the capital in the bustling 1930s-40s. But in contrast to standard accounts of Beijing’s palaces and temples (such as by Bredon and Arlington & Lewisohn above), Blofeld evocatively spotlights the often overlooked secular sites, the bathhouses and restaurants, opium dens, and bordellos, along with his connoisseurship of Chinese tea, thus conferring important archival value on his portrait of the city. This is also the side of Beijing I can relate to – the dark side, the underbelly of the great city – and even now lined with artisanal cafes, I’m still drawn to the old lanes.

By John Blofeld,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked City of Lingering Splendour as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In his early twenties, John Blofeld spent what he describes as "three exquisitely happy years" in Peking during the era of the last emperor, when the breathtaking greatness of China's ancient traditions was still everywhere evident. Arriving in 1934, he found a city imbued with the atmosphere of the recent imperial past and haunted by the powerful spirit of the late Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi. He entered a world of magnificent palaces and temples of the Forbidden City, of lotus-covered lakes and lush pleasure-gardens, of bustling bazaars and peaceful bathhouses, and of "flower houses" with their beautiful young courtesans versed…


Book cover of A Death in Peking: Who Really Killed Pamela Werner?

Isham Cook Why did I love this book?

Graeme Sheppard’s account of the 1937 murder of Englishwoman Pamela Werner, A Death in Peking, has been overshadowed by Paul French’s more widely known Midnight in Peking, unfortunately so. Whereas French builds his case on dubious claims and sensationalizes his narrative with gothic embellishments centered around the haunted “Fox Tower” where Werner’s body was supposedly found (a location contradicted by contemporary newspaper accounts), Sheppard sticks to the facts and arrives at a strikingly different and more convincing conclusion regarding the identity of the murderer. And if French’s page-turner is modelled more on the mystery novel genre than true-crime reportage, Sheppard’s starker account is nonetheless equally engrossing in its pursuit of the truth. In the process of his methodical sifting of the evidence, he brings to light an old Beijing grounded in reality. I myself have conducted guided tours of the old Legation neighborhoods and their sheer geography compels the truth.

By Graeme Sheppard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Death in Peking as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The brutal murder of 19-year-old Pamela Werner in the city of Peking one night in January 1937 shocked the world, but the police never found or named the murderer. A best-selling book, Midnight in Peking, declared the murderer to be an American dentist, but English policeman Graeme Sheppard, 30 years with Scotland Yard, decided that conclusion was flawed, spent years investigating all aspects of the case and came up with an entirely different conclusion. So who did it? Who killed Pamela? This book provides never-revealed evidence and a different perpetrator.


Book cover of Encounters with Ancient Beijing: Its Legacy in Trees, Stone and Water

Isham Cook Why did I love this book?

American turned-Japanese-citizen and wife of a Japanese ambassador, Virginia Stibbs Anami thoroughly researched and expertly photographed hundreds of ancient spots in and around Beijing between 1983-2003 and assembled a perfectly conceived jigsaw puzzle of a book. Finagling her way into places normally forbidden to foreigners and to Chinese as well, Anami writes with a beautiful economy, whether of a temple with an ancient tree over 1,000 years old, an equally old stone stele with a fascinating story behind its inscriptions, or the remains of a long-forgotten waterway or channel, even revisiting the same spots over the decades to see if they'd changed (often for the worse). It all adds up to an impression of great depth, and with the accompanying crystalline photos, a book that’s more than the sum of its parts. What captured my attention most of all is the care about her subject matter and her attention to detail showing through on every page.

By Virginia Anami,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Encounters with Ancient Beijing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An interesting and informative account of many of the architectural and landscape details of Beijing. The pages are crammed with useful information about the city, featuring interviews with what the author calls 'Unforgettable People': ordinary Beijing folk who have some link with the trees, stone and water of the city. With color photos and index. Author Virginia Anami is a Scholar of East Asian studies. Her interest in traditional Chinese culture, especially that of the ancient capital of Beijing, has taken her on frequent bicycles tours of Beijing¡¯s streets and lanes in her leisure time, and on drives to the…


Book cover of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Isham Cook Why did I love this book?

Books on Chinese cities by foreigners have long lamented the redevelopment juggernaut’s steamrolling of old buildings and neighborhoods (Juliet Bredon’s Peking for one). Meyer’s exhaustively researched study of the Beijing neighborhood in which he lived in the early 2000s takes this a step further to a grassroots political call for action, before “replicas replace architectural heritage across China.” By illuminating his neighbors’ lives and their histories and reaching back into the city’s past, Meyer attempts to immortalize the disappearing Dashilar neighborhood literally in the form of a book, which if nothing else will be of future documentary value. Driving the old-vs.-new dichotomy too hard, however, obscures the more interesting question of how Chinese cities today are creatively blending the old and the new, as again they have long done in the past. As a longtime Beijing resident, I am stuck with the present and nonetheless find that history doesn’t stop but carries on even in the sleekest brewpubs which will one day in the future be lost to the past.

By Michael Meyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Last Days of Old Beijing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Journalist Michael Meyer has spent his adult life in China, first in a small village as a Peace Corps volunteer, the last decade in Beijing--where he has witnessed the extraordinary transformation the country has experienced in that time. For the past two years he has been completely immersed in the ancient city, living on one of its famed hutong in a century-old courtyard home he shares with several families, teaching English at a local elementary school--while all around him "progress" closes in as the neighborhood is methodically destroyed to make way for high-rise buildings, shopping malls, and other symbols of…


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


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