Beijing remains traditional in 20th-century Chinese literature


A boy poses in front of the Drum Tower in Beijing, a popular topic in 20th-century Chinese literature about the city Photo: Chang Rui/PROVIDED TO CSST 

Scholars of urban literature generally agree that in the portrayal of cities throughout 20th-century Chinese literature, the image of Beijing, capital of China, is aesthetically consistent. In her work Beijing: The City and People, Zhao Yuan, currently a research fellow from the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that from the dawn of the modern era until today, literature about Shanghai has always been reinventing itself, but in literature about Beijing, the city can easily maintain its aesthetic quality for unified perceptions and paradigms in literature.

This aesthetic quality usually means that despite its spatial status as a city, one of the largest cities in the world, Beijing is remarkably well anchored in time with a rich traditional history, and it generates rural memory in terms of cultural experience. In affective experience of Chinese literature, Beijing is often depicted as an ancient capital, demonstrating classical aesthetic features like composure and elegance. 

Unique image

A city image like Beijing’s is obviously unique within modern world urban literature. Renowned literary critic Walter Benjamin described modern metropolises as a magical epitome of modernity and regeneration of myths. In modern European literature, cities have superseded distant places and isolated islands as destinations in wandering adventure stories, set against the romantic and classical rural life.

Since modern Chinese literature learned from modern European literature, the two schools share a dual structure in modern narratives, characterized by modernity and tradition in time and the city and the countryside in space. As such, writers have created a series of bustling, prosperous, and changeable urban images, contrasting with rural areas that are mostly quiet, plain, stagnant, and traditional. In so doing, they have constructed a spatial experience of 20th-century China that was transitioning from tradition to modernity. 

In these universal narratives, Beijing, a city in the course of modern history, becomes a cultural icon of traditional China instead, which has distinguished it in modern Chinese history and literature. This salient particularity was continually appropriated and classicized over the past century, which unavoidably gave rise to stereotyped labels.

In light of historical developments over the past century, Beijing, apart from being an ancient capital, was the cradle and center of the New Culture Movement and was devastated by warlord scramble and Japanese aggression. After being designated the capital of the newly founded People’s Republic of China, it underwent a slew of modern changes in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. Over the 40-odd years since reform and opening up, it has gone through numerous changes and dealt with a variety of new problems as the top megacity in China. Nonetheless, in 20th-century Chinese literature, “ancient capital” was almost a unified aesthetic label for Beijing. 

Mental sustenance

In the first half of the 20th century, modern Chinese writers were confronted with the realities of foreign aggressions and raging warfare, as well as cultural predicaments featuring the expansion of Western learning and the decline of tradition. Leading a drifting, unstable life in China or feeling lonely in foreign countries, they often looked back and delineated Beijing as an ancient capital that could comfort their souls and convey their homesickness.

Faint pigeon whistles from the deep sky, slow and rustling camel bells ringing on the street, a millennial memory of red walls and time-honored temples, and the trivial, ordinary life of native Beijing residents constituted the impeccable hometown of Lao She in his essay “Missing Beiping” (Beijing was known as Beiping in history). 

It was also the poetic, peaceful “hometown capital” portrayed by Zhejiang writer Yu Dafu in his “Autumn in the Hometown Capital.” Although Yu Dafu’s real hometown was picturesque Jiangnan (areas south of the Yangtze River), he called Beijing “hometown capital,” regarding Beijing, instead of Jiangnan, as a carrier of his nostalgia and yearning for home.

Zhang Henshui, in another instance, lived a tough life in Beijing, but he dubbed the city “paradise-like” when wistfully describing it to friends after leaving it, particularly the “dull clank” of camel bells ringing. 

In his 1948 full-length novel Four Generations Under One Roof, Lao She took a microscope to Beijing’s most bitter period in history. Interestingly, the city under his pen, with longstanding solemn sceneries and ritual customs, was consistent with the one romanticized in “Missing Beiping.”

Although the author shifted from sheer nostalgia to critical appreciation and regretful nostalgia, Beijing’s aesthetic characteristics remained unchanged. Both appreciation in criticism and nostalgia in regrets were subtle in his text, making Lao She’s reflections on traditional culture distinct from other works of the same period and on the same subject. New history didn’t tear down or abandon the respectful ancient capital, but endowed it with new strength to resist aggression, expediting its rebirth. 

Through this lens, Beijing became a unique city in the grand history of 20th-century China, when the country saw urban-rural division and dramatic social changes. Calm, graceful, and warm, the city silently held out against the violently fast flow of time, reckless cultural transformations, and cruel social changes. When writing about Beijing, pioneering intellectuals saw their inner world grow less complicated and the image of the city imprinted in their texts became classic and even an aesthetic memory of unity, which was carried forward by later literary generations.

After new China was founded, Shanghai quickly embraced the new theme of social reconstruction in such texts as Zhou Erfu’s novel, Morning in Shanghai, while Beijing only had one story about the people’s government renovating the environment, in Lao She’s drama script “Longxu Ditch,” and the story revolved around amiable, kind-hearted Beijing residents—as usual. 

Into the 1980s, society and literature were both revolutionized, as the vicissitudes of Beijing also came under writers’ pens. Liu Xinwu’s novel Bell Tower and Drum Tower and Deng Youmei’s Snuff Bottles still zoomed in on traditional imagery of the ancient capital Beijing: historic buildings and traditional folk customs. They both recounted the rise and fall of the millennium-old city, as in other works. The bell and drum towers remained majestic, dignifiedly immersed in the city’s ups and downs over time, while the fine, delicate culture contained in exquisite snuff-bottles were etched in people’s souls. This was why Liu Shaotang likened Beijing-themed fiction to rural literature. His comparison is not rigorous and has invited controversy, but it somehow fundamentally reveals a certain aesthetic consistency in 20th-century Chinese literature when writing about Beijing.

Interpretations in literary history

Beijing’s deeply rooted image as an ancient capital is not only embodied in literary creations, but also in interpretations throughout literary history. Judging from its distinct aesthetic features, the ancient capital Beijing should not be a metropolis in the history of modernity. Based on the intrinsic logic of literary history, however, it is a spirit summoned by modern metropolises and a reflection from them.

Aesthetically, Beijing is classical and culturally, it is traditional, but depictions of its classical and traditional nature arose from and coexisted in the magical mirror of modernity history and modern metropolises: only when modern metropolises are rootless, bustling, and fickle, is the ancient capital Beijing stable, composed, and graceful. 

Therefore, when constructing the memory of Chinese literature and modern history, scholars of literary history pay greater attention to the typical, pure ancient capital Beijing, ignoring other more sophisticated dimensions of the city. For example, despite his deep love for and attachment to Beijing, the city in Lao She’s writings could be a conformist, devastated area once occupied by Japan or a dark space that engulfed laborers like the rickshaw boy Xiangzi. It also harbors stinky sewage ditches, hooligans, and traitors.

In the late 20th century, Wang Shuo delineated an image of Beijing not as an ancient capital. He epitomized the city in neighborhoods for families of those who worked in the army, and shed light on a group of children growing up in these neighborhoods, who had no “ancient capital complex.” To them, Beijing was simply a political center where natives spoke the Beijing dialect. 

In recent years, Beijing is also typified by the drifter girl, Chen Jinfang, a character in Shi Yifeng’s works, and the concrete, perceptible Anxiang Road in the city’s north under the pen of Wen Zhen. They have broken through fixed descriptions and enriched the image of Beijing as a cultural icon in the history of modernity. However, in existing accounts of literary history, Beijing’s ancient capital image is so thoroughly established that these new works were seldom incorporated into the overall vision of the city’s literary image, though they were well received.

If these sophisticated dimensions in literary history are going to overshadow the interaction between literature and history on more dimensions, then both Beijing and literature today must discover and present more possibilities. 

Today, Beijing is a megacity accommodating roughly 30 million people. It boasts commercial centers and cultural venues common to metropolises around the world, but it also has retained numerous hutongs and ancient buildings which have withstood the test of time. It gathers elites from all of China, but it also sets stage for ordinary laborers who struggle to survive each day.

Today in Beijing, there are no camel bells ringing, but we can still hear pigeon whistles and the Beijing dialect, though these sounds are intermingled with a variety of other dialects, Mandarin, and languages of countries and regions across the globe. 

Today in Beijing’s daily life, douzhi (mung bean milk), remains a morning delicacy, but the specialty is juxtaposed with ubiquitous transnational food chains like KFC and Starbucks. Today in Beijing, the traditional handcrafted statues of tu’er ye (Master Rabbit) still shine in market stalls, but they now share a display with Legos and robots.

Nevertheless, it remains the ancient capital Beijing, yet contemporary and lively with countless unique spatial dimensions and cultural levels, where approximately 30 million people live, either happily or miserably. The “ancient capital” shouldn’t be locked in time as a massive cultural museum. It should carry today’s warmth and concrete beings to join emerging narratives about the present and the future in literature. 


Lu Yanjuan is a professor from the Institute of Marxist Theory of Literature and Art at the Chinese National Academy of Arts.

Editor:Yu Hui

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