All posts by Jeremiah

Menace to society.

Beware of Dog!

“When I awoke the Dire Wolf/Six hundred pounds of sin
Was grinnin’ at my window/All I said was “come on in”
Don’t murder me/I beg of you don’t murder me
Please don’t murder me!”  - Robert Hunter

One bitter November evening, the management office of our apartment complex in Beijing pulled a half-frozen and fully-starving puppy out from one of the rubbish bins. It was an ugly thing, as if Seth Brundle had tested his device by tossing in a bat, a squirrel, and a baby harp seal and then throwing the switch.

Really. Her mouth was so crooked it looked as if somebody had stood ten feet away and threw a fistful of teeth in the general direction of her face. 

But the puppy needed a home and the management office knew we were suckers.

Two years later we have a dog. It was only later we found that she was stupid, too. In two years, she has learned to “sit” only about half the time you tell her to and that’s it as far as “tricks”. I would say she’s as dumb as a rock but I would hate to presume about rocks. 

The dog is also gassy. She perpetually smells like old soup.  I’m starting to worry that the next fart will have the Chinese government swooping in to plant a flag in her butt and declare her colon “Inalienable Chinese territory with concomitant mineral rights.”  

Nevertheless, she is sort of cute — in an ugly, stupid, and malodorous way — and despite her many flaws, you wouldn’t think of her as a menace to society or really to a menace to anything larger than a caterpillar.  

My neighbors disagree. 

I have seen many grown women (and even a few men) throw themselves against the side of the elevator in terror when they realize they are being hoisted aloft in a confined space with…well, my dog Snickers. 

Menace to society.
Menace to society.

Walking her down the street and watching people recoil in absolute terror, you’d think I was unleashing a dire wolf rather than a 10-pound mutt who just three weeks ago figured out that the thing which follows her around everywhere (Read: “Her tail”) was attached to the rest of her.  

There are many theories as to why people in Beijing are terrified of dogs. The Beijinger earlier this month posited a few of their own ranging from the prevalence of rabies in China to the fact that many Chinese never grew up with pets. Both of these make sense for older residents, but parents — at least in my neighborhood — seem intent on passing their fears on to the next generation.  

Two nights ago I was taking Snickers out to the only square meter  in the entire city of Beijing where she feels comfortable evacuating her bowels. On our way, we passed a woman and her tween daughter.  Since it was dark, she apparently had not spotted black-and-brown Snickers until it was too late and my little dog had already approached within 10 meters of this women’s precious offspring.  The mother began screaming and yelling at her daughter to get behind her.  At first I was alarmed — until I realized she was screaming about Snickers.  

Mind you, I’ve seen people in my complex roll out into traffic without so much as a glance in either direction and their children balanced on the handlebars, but I digress…

I wish I could say that this woman screaming was an isolated incident but it happens with some regularity.  For whatever reason, a shocking number of people are terrified, actually overcome with fear, by….Snickers.

Frankly, I think in the dim recesses of her pea-sized brain, the dog is secretly happy. “Yeah, that’s me. Ten pounds of Bad Ass.”  I can’t wait until the day comes when we return home to New Hampshire and our dog encounters a moose.  My prediction is that she’ll poop twice and then die. 

Nevertheless, for now we live in Beijing. She’s registered, not too big, refuses to be used as a tool of Western propaganda, and is kept on a leash when out in the civilization. I guess that means she’s legal…but apparently still dangerous.  



Book Review: The Incarnations by Susan Barker

How many lifetimes does it take for two souls to truly bond? Susan Barker’s remarkable book The Incarnations is a time-bending fantasy with an unknown (and possible unreliable) narrator sweeping us down the rabbit hole of history.

The story begins, as do so many journeys in Beijing, in the back of a taxicab driven by a man whose existence is defined by 12-hour shifts and a faded registration card on his dashboard.  But this driver, Driver Wang, has a past — a few of them in fact — and a mysterious stalker eager to reconnect.

These connections play out against a series of lavishly described and well-researched (allowing for a generous helping of creative license) historical backdrops which include the pleasure quarters of the Tang capital of Chang’an, the fall of the Jin capital Zhongdu, the Ming court, the Opium Wars, and the Cultural Revolution. Given the dramatic contexts for each of the incarnations, it is little wonder that the relationship between Driver Wang and the narrator is a fraught one. Just how fraught though is not revealed until much later in a semi-surprise twist ending that shouldn’t come as too much of a shock for those paying attention. Less observant readers will be flipping back though to find hidden clues while even the most perceptive will enjoy (and will likely not expect) a second twist just before the novel’s end.

Barker’s flights of historical fancy contrast with her depiction of today’s Beijing: A grey monotony shot through with the anxieties of living in modern China.  There are anxious parents. Anxious spouses. Anxious lovers. Sex and status drive characters mad, while friends, family members, and neighbors filter in and out of scenes. The characters in the present-day scenes are often petty and parochial and their relationships are at varying stages of decay and dysfunction. A tawdry affair between Driver Wang and a lover from his (much more recent) past adds to the mystery surrounding Driver Wang’s stalker although it does little to make Wang an especially sympathetic character. Wang’s relationship with his wife, father, and stepmother are equally frustrating and unhealthy. In such an environment, it is hard not to wonder what the future holds for Wang’s daughter Echo — one of the few likable figures — especially as the last few pages suddenly cast this minor character in a whole new and unexpected light.

If the descriptions of time and place tend toward the florid, it is only to avoid being overshadowed by the dramatic (and often tragic) circumstances of the vignettes. Barker’s recreation of post-Mongol invasion Zhongdu (present-day Beijing) and the grinding cruelty of life under siege and slavery are well-rendered. The shocking tale of Zhu Houcong, the Jiajing Emperor [r. 1521-1567], is vividly described with just the right amount of embellishment.

Other scenes work a little less well in their historical context. A story of sorcery and eunuchs set in the Tang era reads like one of the weaker tales from Pu Songling’s collection.  The Cultural Revolution plot, although important to setting up the novel’s ending and big reveal, feels like any number of similar stories, both fiction and non-fiction, of the chaos and cruelty from that time. Mind you, that’s probably the right approach when describing the era, but the familiarity makes it a little less compelling reading than some of the other past lives.

I enjoyed Susan Barker’s book. The descriptions of life in present-day Beijing are graphic and feel real to me. The historical sections are bold and outrageous but still seem sufficiently grounded, the weight of recurring tragedy perhaps sufficient to keep the stories from flying off into the rococo realms employed by most contemporary Chinese authors of historical fiction. The ending, while not entirely surprising, was still done well and the reaction of the main characters to the twist delivered a suitable emotional payoff. While a bit of a downer generally, it has, at its core a mystery which is always fun and, if nothing else, it made for stellar vacation reading. Definitely recommended reading.


New and Recommended: The Night Watch by Beijing Postcards

Beijing there’s maybe proud of their history, but with all the changes in the city over the last few years it’s hard to imagine historical Beijing. Even at night, in the middle of the city’s hutong the creep of modernity, in the form of vintage boutiques, jazz bars, and cafés offering ill-defined menus of western food and coffee, pushes back of the edges of our imagination of what it might have been like to stand in the same spot 130 years ago.

One outfit in Beijing is trying to change this.  Beijing Postcards is a local company founded by two historians from Denmark, who collect visual interpretations of China including old photographs, prints, maps, and, yes postcards, to try and re-create the Beijing of yesterday.

They also do tours, including the highly anticipated event The Night Watch, done in cooperation with Bespoke Beijing, begins this week, :

Picture the scene…

The sun is setting over the dusty hutongs surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers. The families that live there are settling in for the evening. Merchants from outside the Imperial City hurry to pack up their wares and ready their carts…

Suddenly a thunderous sound fills the evening air. The bang, bang, bang of an enormous drum reverberates across the city 108 times. Then silence.

Every night the same thing. A reminder – for those who needed it – that gates across Beijing were being heaved shut and that its residents should return to their own neighbourhoods. And if they didn’t? They would fall foul of the Banner Watchmen – a band of Manchu soldiers who would patrol the hutongs with disciplined regularity – whip in hand – to ensure that the curfew was observed.

Little did they know that outside of the walls the world was changing.

China was changing.

This is the story of what happened next.

The historian Susan Naquin once described imperial Beijing as “walls within walls without.” It was a city that favored “security over convenience.”

And where there were no walls, there were gates.

These gates would be opened and closed according to the sound of the capital’s heartbeat: the great drums which boom forth from the Drum Tower. The drums kept the time and marked the watch. According to their sound, the local gendarmerie would open and close the passages, allowing people to travel into and throughout the capital.

During the Qing Dynasty, the gendarmerie consisted of over 33,000 men, about two-thirds of whom came from the Eight Banners and about one-third were from the green standard army consisted mostly of Han Chinese soldiers. The commander of the gendarmerie was always a Manchu or a Mongol military official. From their headquarters at Mao’er Hutong (near Nanluoguxiang), this early public security force mediated disputes, kept watch over the city’s gates and walls, and acted as principal agents of order in the capital.

Some of their duties would not seem out of place in modern Beijing including enforcing residency permits, keeping the streets clear of beggars and an authorized vendors, and making sure that restaurants and stores did not have tables or displays which spilled too far out into the street.

But their responsibilities were often more expensive than those of the modern police force which in the early 20th-century replaced them. Members of the gendarmerie also served as guards for palace processions, acted as health inspectors, coordinated fire brigades, and even operated soup kitchens.

They could be corrupt, that was for sure. They were often brutal and callous in carrying out their duties. But they were certainly a presence. At the ends of every street and  hutong, behind every gate, there was somebody who stood, at least in theory, between residents of that neighborhood and whatever terrors the night may have held.  They walked their beats, carrying a large rattle crew sound echoed through the walls of the homes along the way. The rattling both a warning to trespassers and in some ways a comforting counterpoint to the bass notes of the drum blooming further away in the center of the city.

It was a city very different from that of today and kudos to Lars and the rest of the team at Beijing Postcards for making it comes to life.

I am told that it is a limited-edition walk which means you should definitely try and catch it while you can. The cost is 300 RMB including the walk, a pre-walk drink, and a very special post-tour visit to Beijing Postcard’s hidden hutong gallery.

Tickets are still available for tonight’s (Sunday’s) walk and for walks on Thursday, May 1 and Sunday, May 11.  For more information on the walk and to purchase tickets click here.



DRAY-NOVEY, ALISON J.  (2007) The Twilight of the Beijing Gendarmerie, 1900-1924 Modern China 33: 349

NAQUIN, SUSAN (2000) Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400–1900. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.