At the end of a network of quiet alleys just to the east of Beijing Railway Station sits Kuijiachang Hutong—Armor Factory Alley. Few stumble across it; you have to search it out. In imperial times, as the name suggests, this was an area dedicated to the manufacture of munitions and the paraphernalia of war. It is not stretching the historical association too far, I hope, to link the street’s former purpose to the explosive power of a work of journalism completed on this hutong in the 1930s, for few could dispute the international impact made by Edgar Snow’s 1937 work of reportage, Red Star over China.
In 2006, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman penned a now-notorious column titled “The Taxi Driver”. In it, Friedman recounts a cab ride from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in which, to Friedman’s disappointment, the driver neglects to engage in conversation with his eminent passenger.
In 1931, a time of economic and social turmoil in America, The Epic of America by the historian John Truslow Adams was published. In it, Adams coined the term “American Dream”, which embodied for him the differences between the old and new worlds of Europe and America.
To imagine the Shanghai of the 1930s is to frame art-deco frontages on chiaroscuro streets, behind which noirish figures from a polyglot demi-monde sip whiskies and soda. The city in this era has an imaginative power in the Western mind beyond that of any other place in China, fuelled by an intoxicating cocktail of equal measures myth and reality. Paul French, a long-time resident of the city, now returned to London, offers two complimentary portraits of the place and those westerners pulled inexorably toward it in his new books, City of Devils and Destination Shanghai.
Writers of all stripes tend to dislike discussing their formative years and experiences. Getting to grips with the job of translating one’s understanding of a subject into something publishable tends to be painful enough, without then raking over the process in retrospect. This can lead to a sense, however, that somehow writers arrive fully-formed, with a gift for observation and understanding which requires little practice or refinement. This feeling can be particularly acute in regard to those who write on China, the “university in which no degree is ever granted”, to adapt Stanley Karnow’s phrase, where the gulf between ignorance and understanding often appears so vast.
A few years ago, President Xi Jinping gave a speech which offered his views on the role art should play in Chinese life.
How does one quantify something as ephemeral as faith? We have become familiar with accounts of China which predicate their analysis on statistics—hard numbers seeming one of the few means of offering an objective view of the scale and complexity of the country. And certainly when it comes to faith in modern China the numbers are striking: 300 million people, or thereabouts, now consider themselves a follower of a faith of some kind—almost a quarter of the country.