Republican Beijing: The City and Its Histories

Republican Beijing: The City and Its Histories

Republican Beijing: The City and Its Histories

Republican Beijing: The City and Its Histories

Synopsis

Old Beijing has become a subject of growing fascination in contemporary China since the 1980s. While physical remnants from the past are being bulldozed every day to make space for glass-walled skyscrapers and towering apartment buildings, nostalgia for the old city is booming. Madeleine Yue Dong offers the first comprehensive history of Republican Beijing, examining how the capital acquired its identity as a consummately "traditional" Chinese city.

For residents of Beijing, the heart of the city lay in the labor-intensive activities of "recycling," a primary mode of material and cultural production and circulation that came to characterize Republican Beijing. An omnipresent process of recycling and re-use unified Beijing's fragmented and stratified markets into one circulation system. These material practices evoked an air of nostalgia that permeated daily life. Paradoxically, the "old Beijing" toward which this nostalgia was directed was not the imperial capital of the past, but the living Republican city. Such nostalgia toward the present, the author argues, was not an empty sentiment, but an essential characteristic of Chinese modernity.

Excerpt

The modern city is not only a locale of social difference; it is marked by a “complex overlap of temporalities. ” A generation ago, Fernand Braudel insisted on “the plurality of social time, ” speaking of the “many-stranded and contradictory notions of time in the lives of men, which make up not only the substance of the past but the very fabric of social life in the present. ” Perhaps because he offered such a powerful example of the importance of la longue durée in his great book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II (1949; English edition, 1972), historians have focused on that aspect of his notion of time in history. But for him the social world was made up of many temporalities, many histories, and the social life of cities exemplifies his point, which was, in part, a statement about the relation of past and present.

Madeleine Yue Dong's book Republican Beijing reveals the city to be an important site for experiencing multiple temporalities and bringing them into relation. Thus the city offers a place, a laboratory, for exploring the cultural history of temporality as it finds expression in everyday life and in artistic representation. Dong elaborates the place of the past in the present; her important theme is the centrality of the past, of history, of memory, even of nostalgia in the modernizing and selfconsciously modern city. It is an important contribution to the study of modernity as well as of tradition, or history, or, as tourist offices call it, “heritage” in modern cities.

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