In his introduction to this new biography of Yuan Shikai, Patrick Fuliang Shan makes reference to the long-held view of Yuan as a stereotypical historical villain—or, in Chinese, fanmian lishi renwu. The Chinese phrase is perhaps the more apposite, as one literal translation would be “a person on the wrong side of history”. Whatever one’s view of Yuan Shikai, who rose to governmental and military power in the late 19th century before becoming China’s first permanent president in 1912, it is fairly uncontroversial to assert that he ended up, on a few occasions, on what would later come to be viewed as the “wrong side” of various historical moments. 

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.

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.