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.





Scenes from a Forbidden City…

Beautiful day for a tour of the Forbidden City. After a week of punishing miasmic doom clouds hanging over the city, Friday’s pissing of rain and the return of some good north winds  cleared up the sky nicely.

Tiananmen Square is basically Beijing’s version of Times Square: The kind of place tourists flock to and locals avoid at all costs. Lots of tourists today. How do I know they were tourists? Only tourists take the “Laowai” picture. Beijingers would rather tattoo the Japanese flag on their forehead than be seen fawning over foreigners.

There’s increased security around the Forbidden City. Anyone approaching along Chang’an Boulevard from the east or west is funneled through these narrow checkpoints. Today the line on the eastern side was backed up beyond the Tiananmen East subway stop. Doesn’t seem like there’s an express lane for obvious tourists either.

Recommendation is to go through Tiananmen and use the underpass to cross from the south side of Chang’an Boulevard to the Forbidden City.

Security tight around the square as well, but the police automatically wave through anybody who does not look like a poor Chinese farmer with a grievance.

Saw some of those too, though.

One elderly couple was being harassed at a checkpoint and the old lady went completely fucking ape shit on the police officer.  There was screaming, yelling, threats, and finally she gave the police officer the kind of shove that in the developed world means “Let’s do this, bitch.”  Didn’t see the end result because the police closed ranks and hustled everybody away.

Finally, there’s a rope just inside Tiananmen (the gate) that corrals all incoming visitors to the righthand side and prevents anybody from trying to travel south through the gate.  Previously, you could walk through Tianamen and then turn around and walk back, or even, on occasion, walk through the Forbidden City side gates and then head south and out into the square.  In recent years they police have been known to yell at you if you try and do this but now they have any actual rope barricade.


Wealth and Power at Capital M

FuQiang 强: Wealth and Power. Together they are shorthand for a state with sufficient strength to repel enemies from without and of sufficient prosperity to provide a level of sustenance for those within.  

In his book Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, co-authored with Orville Schell, historian John Delury argues, “For Chinese reformers since the early nineteenth century, these two characters have repeatedly stood in for the profound desire among China’s cognoscenti to see their country restored to the kind of greatness their ancestors had once taken for granted. Above all, these patriotic Chinese yearned for their nation to be able to defend itself against foreign incursion.”

Wealth and Power was my favorite Chinese history book of last year and I even used it as a core text in my Modern Chinese History class this past fall. Not every chapter is a winner, but the decision to select key figures to represent their ‘age’ and then give each figure their own section makes the book an ideal choice for the upper-division undergraduate classroom.  Several choices are inspired, in particular Feng Guifen over the more obvious choices of Zeng Guofan or Li Hongzhang; Chen Duxiu rather than Lu Xun; and Zhu Rongji instead of Jiang Zemin in the post-Tiananmen era.

John Delury appeared today in Beijing as part of the Capital M Literary Festival.  Answering questions from moderator Ed Wong of the New York Times, Delury argued, as he does in the book, that ideology in China has for the most part become subservient to the quest for wealth and power, and that this wish to ‘return’ as the dominant regional power, something he argues  many Chinese see as the natural state of affairs in East Asia, is coming close to completion. In effect, the restoration has succeeded.

During the Q&A session, I asked about the role of modernity. While rejecting the hoary old trope of “Western Impact” and “Chinese Response” as the driving force of modernization in Chinese history, it can still be said that this search for wealth and power could be also described as a search for modernity, and in particular a modernity that is also fully, or mostly, a Chinese modernity. This is a common predicament for many countries in the developing world, particularly those once subjected to imperialist subjugation or oppression.

Imperialist countries use the lack of development as partial justification for actions which are inherently exploitive. Whether couched in a discourse of “uncivilized” or “backwards,” the implicit, and often explicit, narrative is that the colonized other lacks modernity and should welcome ‘modernizing forces’ regardless of the ancillary costs.

(Ironically, the Chinese government is repeating this pattern in its relationship with its own ‘colonized’ regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang, but that’s a subject for another post…)

The result is that reformers in subjugated societies begin their search for ‘modernity’ by internalizing the colonial critique of their own culture.

For example, foreign writers would castigate Chinese people for things like spitting on the ground or binding their women’s feet, calling these practices backward, barbaric customs which are unhygienic and antithetical to a modern society.  Chinese reformers seeking to modernize China then first looked to eradicate those practices seen (by foreigners) as ‘backwards’ or antithetical to modernization.

Regardless of whether or not the practices described should have been eradicated or not, the result was  the standard for a ‘modern’ society was ultimately  defined by foreigners/Westerners.  That which looked foreign/western was perceived to be modern, that which was traditionally Chinese was often rejected as backward or getting in the way of modernity.

In the case of foot binding or infanticide that probably was a good thing, but this way of thinking reached its catastrophic apogee during the Cultural Revolution when all that was old was targeted for destruction with devastating results for China’s cultural heritage.

Don’t worry, I phrased the question a good deal more succinctly this afternoon, asking how a quest for a particularly Chinese modernity fits with Delury’s thesis of wealth and power being the driving force of modern Chinese history.

Delury to some extent punted, but I suspect it’s because he was looking at ‘modern’ more as a periodization while I was thinking of modern as a particular, although often chimerical, condition of society.  Delury argues that the ‘modern’ in China has such negative connotations because of the association of the period with humiliation and catastrophe of the ‘modern period’ that Chinese are to some extent trying to move past modernity.

I would disagree, even allowing for periodization, if only because the idea of ‘modernity’ and ‘modernization’ is so central to not only official rhetoric on development but also in popular discourse.  Modern/urban/wealthy is good. Poor/traditional/rural not as much.

If I had a critique of Delury and Schells’ book, it would be this: While wealth and power are no doubt central to many Chinese understanding of China’s development, neither can be separated from an understanding of modernization that needs, if it is to be acceptable, to be somehow removed from foreign critiques of China and foreign standards/assumptions of what a modern China should look like.

Put another way: I argue the central thesis of modern Chinese history is the search for a nation/state that is powerful, wealthy, and united, and a society that is both fully modern and fully Chinese.  It is a difficult challenge, but I argue that since the Opium War almost every Chinese leader and intellectual has grappled with this very question. The answers about HOW to do this are often shockingly different.  Chiang Kai-shek’s answer to how to accomplish this task looks very different from those proposed by Feng Guifen or Mao Zedong, but the question remains constant.

Introducing modernity in to this equation helps to bring dissenting voices more fully into the conversation. Delury and Schell’s last chapter focuses on Liu Xiaobo and Delury argued that to some extent Liu represents an outlier, arguing that there were more important considerations (human rights, civil society) which trumped the search for wealth and power. Other, less incarcerated, writers have made similar points, decrying GDPism as trumping public health or civil liberties.

But although Liu Xiabo (or Xu Zhiyong or Wang Hui) might argue that GDPism/wealth/power is not a preeminent concern, all three are very much engaged in a search for a Chinese modernity.  In fact, one criticism of these intellectuals, particularly from the left, is that there view of modernity is a little too close to that prescribed by Western critics of the Chinese regime.

Whether one agrees with Liu Xiaobo’s vision of a Chinese society guided by constitutional reform or Xi Jinping’s vision of a country where everybody can achieve the “Chinese Dream,” the search for a Chinese modernity continues.


A Qing historian reads the newspaper…