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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Juliet Bredon,

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

Why 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.” 


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

By John Blofeld,

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

Why 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.

A Death in Peking: Who Really Killed Pamela Werner?

By Graeme Sheppard,

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

Why 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.


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

By Virginia Anami,

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

Why 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.


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

By Michael Meyer,

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

Why 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.


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