Tag Archives: beijing

Berlin to Beijing and Back Again

By Tong Lam

Near the northeastern edge of Berlin, in what was once part of East Germany (aka the German Democratic Republic or GDR), is a place called Mörderberg (Killer Mountain), which contains a cluster of derelict buildings. Abandoned since the 1990s, they were once the barracks of the GDR’s Volkspolizei-Bereitschaft (People’s Police on Standby), which was under the command of that now-extinct country’s fearful Interior Ministry. During the final weeks of the GDR when massive demonstrations broke out in Berlin and elsewhere in 1989, these buildings were at the center of action, serving as both the barracks of paramilitary riot policemen and as an overflow prison for anti-government protesters. These days, sitting quietly in the middle of a vast and tranquil green field, the buildings and their grounds are surrounded by a tall metal fence, lined with rusty signs in German warning that the site is off limits. Yet, not unlike the Berlin Wall in the period just before unification, the fence, however menacing-looking from a distance, is full of holes and gaps. For those who, like me, are interested in reading history against the grain, the combination of the warning signs and gaps are an invitation to explore. And when I finally visited this place with a German friend earlier this year, I was mostly drawn to the stories and memories hidden inside these otherwise charmless prefabricated structures. Continue reading

hutong door

Two Views of a Beijing Hutong

By Christina Larson

“Two dogs?”

A girl came up behind me wearing the bright blue and red track-suit school uniform of Beijing Number 5 high school, situated to the side of the alley I live on in central Beijing. She admired my larger dog, who came up to sniff her hand. In any country, walking dogs is a good way to meet strangers.

We heard a horn behind us, and moved out of the center of the narrow alley to the steps in front a small grocery, busy restocking.

“People are so aggressive these days!”

“These hutongs (alleys) aren’t really designed for car traffic,” I said, blaming the wealthy parents of her classmates for bringing their SUVs down our pedestrian streets. Continue reading


Diary of a Summit: Thoughts on Life in Beijing During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum

By Mengfei Chen

Last week, China’s President Xi Jinping hosted the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing. For Xi, it was a diplomatic coming out party. Like every debutante, he left nothing to chance. In the weeks leading up to APEC, Beijing implemented a comprehensive plan aimed at presenting its best face to the foreign visitors. Much of this plan targeted Beijing’s infamous smog. As the forum opened, it appeared the efforts had payed off. Beijing residents dubbed the color of the sky during the forum APEC blue, a color one popular commentator called “beautiful but fleeting.” Continue reading

Ash Pick Up Artist photo

How to Be a Male God: Beijing’s Pick Up Artist Scene

By Alec Ash

Xia’er, a 22-year-old music graduate from Hunan Province, is short, with a boyish complexion and no steady job. He is an average catch.

Cirl, professional Pick Up Artist, has a ripped body, the confidence of a god, wears sparkling jewelry, and does magic. He is a ladykiller.

Cirl exists in Xia’er’s mind, also known as Studtown. If you let Xia’er keep talking, you might make the same mistake of thinking he is Cirl. If you let him do his magic tricks on you, and have two X chromosomes, watch out, you’ll be another notch on his wall the next morning. If you’re a guy, it’s OK. He will teach you. Continue reading


Love, or Nearest Offer: A Vignette From Beijing’s Marriage Market

Photo: Mr. Sun browsing the marriage market.

By Alec Ash

Mr. Sun is 67, with a helmet-shaped mop of silver hair, half his teeth missing, and a generally ragged look to him. He’s an old Beijinger, and lives near the east gate of Tiantan Park, not far from the Forbidden City. Every Sunday, he goes into the park — but not for a stroll. He’s there to browse in the marriage market, looking for a match for his daughter. Continue reading

larb blog night heron

Tricks of Two Trades: A Q&A on Writing News Reports and Spy Novels with Night Heron Author Adam Brookes

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I’ve known Adam Brookes since 1999, when we met in Beijing where he was covering China for the BBC, and I’ve followed his career with interest ever since.  When I learned that Adam, whose latest reporting assignment has been the Pentagon, was trying his hand at a spy novel, I was intrigued. Then, after reading an advance copy of Night Heron, I was impressed. I found it a gripping read, well deserving of the strong reviews its been getting in varied periodicals.  (In his review of the book for this publication, Paul French aptly described the book  as a “genuine page turner” by an author who is “excellent at describing contemporary Beijing” and knows how to “grab us from the start” with clever plotting.) I recently caught up with Adam and asked him a series of questions about his shift from working in journalism to writing fiction, which he was good enough to answer via email in a thoughtful and detailed way: Continue reading

Wang Zihao, photo credit Dou Yiping

Why Study Journalism in China?

Photo: Wang Zihao. © Dou Yiping

By Lu-Hai Liang and Dou Yiping

China’s journalism schools, like those in many countries, are packed full of students preparing to join an industry where the supply of graduates far exceeds the number of positions available.

The press may be perceived as the fourth estate in the West, but some journalism students in China follow a “Marxist view” that includes supporting party principles, criticizing the “bourgeois concept of free speech,” and maintaining correct “guidance of public opinion,” according to an article on the China Media Project’s website. Continue reading


Graffiti in Beijing

By Cutler Dozier

A skinny 21-year-old Beijinger with shoulder length hair, wearing baggy jeans and a worn t-shirt, stares through his paint-speckled glasses, transfixed by the stack of multicolored graffiti cans arranged in front of him. He goes by the name WEK, and is deciding what colors he will use to paint his name on various walls and shop fronts around the city. He is part of a booming graffiti scene in Beijing and is possibly the most prolific graffiti writer in mainland China today. Continue reading

marble boot

Troubled Waters

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

On a recent visit to Beijing, I spent a few hours one Saturday afternoon wandering the grounds of Yiheyuan, or Summer Palace, in the city’s northwest. The “palace” — generally called the “New Summer Palace” to differentiate it from an earlier one that foreign armies destroyed in 1860 — is not a European-style royal complex, with one massive central building anchoring the site. Rather, the grounds are sprawling and dotted with small pavilions where the emperor would relax in the company of his family and friends. Kunming Lake serves as the center of gravity in the garden, inviting visitors to sit and contemplate its depths or venture out in one of the boats available for rental.

I, as always, wound up at the lake’s oddest feature: a marble paddleboat permanently “docked” along the northern shoreline. The Marble Boat is a legacy of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908), one of the most reviled characters in modern Chinese history. Cixi entered the imperial household as a concubine before rising to serve as co-regent for her young son upon the Xianfeng Emperor’s death in 1861; when her son died in the mid-1870s, she installed her toddler nephew on the throne, assuring herself another regency period. Cixi, therefore, was de facto ruler of China for almost all of the latter half of the nineteenth century, an era when the country faced unprecedented foreign threats and mostly failed to handle them. Even before her death, which would come only three years before the Qing Dynasty fell, Cixi found herself the object of blame for the country’s troubles.

The Marble Boat has long served as shorthand for all that was wrong with Cixi’s rule. A scenic spot for small parties, it was constructed with funds intended for the imperial navy, which Cixi convinced her nephew’s father to divert to the Summer Palace project. Cixi hoped that the palace would be completed in time for her sixtieth birthday in 1894. The celebration had to be canceled, however, when China became entangled in a war with Japan that year — a war that China would lose, in part, because the Japanese were the superior naval power.

It makes for a good story: “We needed a navy, and all we got was this marble boat.” But it’s a simplistic narrative that draws Cixi as a one-dimensional Dragon Lady, a demonic figure who seized power and then didn’t know how to wield it. Further contributing to this sinister vision of Cixi is her allegedly insatiable sexual appetite, rumors of which were spread by Sir Edmund Backhouse, a British con man who claimed to have had an X-rated affair with the empress (recounted in a lurid memoir not published until 2011, Decadence Mandchoue, though his stories circulated earlier).

Make no mistake: Cixi was certainly a ruthless politician, and it’s possible that she played a role in her nephew’s death, which preceded her own by a day (in 2008, forensic scientists found that he died of arsenic poisoning). But over the past century, Cixi’s reputation has been so blurred by a film of “Confucian chauvinism and Orientalist aspersion,” as Orville Schell and John Delury aptly put it in their new book, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, that few inside or outside of China have recognized her efforts to right the country’s course, halting and incomplete as they were.

Cixi is the only female figure that Schell and Delury spotlight in their book, each chapter of which is a capsule biography of a personage who sought to further China’s pursuit of wealth and power between the early nineteenth century and today. The pair present an evenhanded assessment of her rule, pointing out that while Cixi failed to sponsor a massive overhaul of the Chinese government similar to the Meiji Restoration in Japan—which might have helped steer China through the rough waters of the late 19th century—she did approve smaller reform projects and was far from the knee-jerk conservative that her detractors, both past and present, have claimed. Cixi’s biggest shortcoming, Schell and Delury suggest, was not a blindness to China’s struggles in a changing world, but a lack of decisiveness concerning how best to address them.

Schell and Delury make a solid, if cautious, case for rehabilitating Cixi, but their chapter on the empress dowager will likely be overshadowed by China-born but longtime Britain-based author Jung Chang’s just-released biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (which I have not yet read). Chang, author of the mega-bestselling Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and co-author of a controversial biography of Mao Zedong published in 2005, promises readers a complete reassessment of Cixi, one that emphasizes the empress’s forward-thinking, outward-looking moments. She speaks of Cixi as a champion of women’s liberation and China’s modernization, and absolves the dowager empress of guilt for all her alleged sins, including her nephew’s death.

It is surely past time for new insight into Cixi, to look beyond the Dragon Lady archetype and consider her years in power with a fresh eye. But to give her credit for “launching” modern China seems to me a step too far. Popular opinion might have allotted Cixi a disproportionate amount of blame for the Qing Dynasty’s fall, but she does deserve at least some of it. Though she tried to navigate China through the turbulence of the late 19th century, Cixi’s efforts were hindered by her blind spots and hesitations, as well as her desire for personal glory and love of luxury. The Marble Boat’s presence in the New Summer Palace stands as an all-too-real reminder of Cixi’s shortcomings and Marie Antoinette-like episodes.

In interviews linked to her new book, Jung Chang makes clear that she wants us to see Cixi as a fearless seafarer, heroically leading China as the country embarked on an epic journey. Schell and Delury favor the view that I also support: of Cixi as a nervous sailor, curious about what lies beyond the horizon but unable to shake the conviction that in the end, she and her country would be safer if they remained at port.