“On a sultry August day I set out to walk a straight line across Beijing.” So begins Jonathan Chatwin’s Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China. The street, called Chang’an Jie in Chinese, “runs arrow-straight and ten lanes wide in some places,” bisecting the heart of Beijing.
The book spans two days in which the author walks the length of Long Peace Street, some 19 miles, from west to east. The narrative unfolds in response to Beijing’s built environment. Reading it, one journeys alongside a guide both erudite and entertaining.
There are many books on travel in China and also on Chinese history. This one blends both. A timeline at the front of the book begins with the Boxer rebellion, in the summer of 1900, and ends in 2018 when “China removes the two-term limit on the presidency, allowing President Xi to remain in charge indefinitely.”
Chatwin explains that though the twenty-first is often thought of as the “Chinese Century,” the twentieth, where the book’s focus lies,
was something very nearly the opposite of that, a period in which the country was brought to the precipice, and forced to contemplate the nature of its existence.
Long Peace Street, Chatwin writes,
punctuated as it is by the relics and reminders of this traumatic period—offers an opportunity to stroll through the country’s modern history; a history ordered not chronologically, but rather, physically.
An illustrated map inside the front cover (drawn by the author’s wife, Kate Chatwin-Ridout) shows the route, which runs from the now abandoned Shougang Iron and Steel factory, past Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, into Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Legation Quarter, and finally to the Central Business District.
Beijing, one of the world’s most fascinating cities, is arguably one of the least decipherable to foreigners. Anyone who has been to Beijing, which is huge, infamous for its dust, pollution and traffic, will appreciate the labor of love writing this book must have been. The central conceit of the book—a kind of street level approach to history—keeps the readers on their toes while weaving a rich and well researched tapestry. (Sources and notes are included for those who want to go deeper).
In describing his approach, Chatwin says
The street came to seem to me the equivalent of a geological core sample, in which, just as each layer of the cylindrical rock relates the story of a physical era, so each intersection, each building, each sign and statue seemed to have something to say about the decades of turbulence which begot modern China, and which continue to crucially influence the way the country views itself and its future.
Drawing on sources from the Ming and Qing dynasties to the present, Chatwin hits the “high notes”. The Great Leap Forward, Great Famine, Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square are all there, but told in unexpected ways. I particularly liked Chapter 4 “Babaoshan Ghosts—the cemetery—the life of Peng Dehuai—return to Hunan”. Where better than “the resting place of the founding fathers of China’s Communist Revolution” to dig up some really ghoulish stories?
Like many of the sites Chatwin explores, the Revolutionary Cemetery overlapped with China’s imperial past. This land, we learn, was for centuries a Daoist temple, provided by the Emperor “as a place for retired eunuchs to live, with a special building given over to the housing of their severed genitalia.” When the state took it over for the cemetery in 1951, “the eunuchs who remained were apparently handed their genitalia and sent on their way.” But that is just the beginning of the chapter, which through a discussion of who is buried there and who not, unearths some of the plot twists of Mao’s regime. Peng Dehaui, who at one time held the rank of Defense Minister under Mao, and unlike the eunuchs, still had balls enough to criticize Mao for the Great Famine, when 30 million people lost their lives partly as a result of trying to meet Mao’s unrealistic steel quotas (see the chapter on Babaoshan Iron and Steel) wasn’t allowed to be buried there. Then he was, only to be disinterred and sent to Hunan where he was born, to be buried, as an attraction in a burgeoning Red Tourism industry.
And how many of us know where Jiang Ching, Mao’s famously cruel and power-hungry wife, is buried? You’ll have to buy the book to find out.
Voices from the past merge with voices from the present, including the author’s. Yet Chatwin’s style is descriptive rather than offering critique. His restraint is curious—why show us that Xi becomes president for life in the timeline and say nothing of it? It seems a little too cautious; for a book about the architecture of Beijing is, at some primary level, about the architecture of power.
There are only three mentions of Xi Jinping in the book, excluding the timeline, though one of them is amusing in service of a description of the CCTV headquarters.
The most famous symbol of Beijing’s rebirth as a commercial metropolis is the so-called ‘Big Pants’ building housing China’s state broadcaster, the aptly named CCTV. Looking perhaps more like a pair of ungainly robotic legs, it bestrides this part of town… The CCTV headquarters was also one of the projects Xi Jinping had in mind, it seems, when in 2014 he gave a speech criticizing the proliferation of what he called ‘weird’ architecture in China.
While Chatwin does flick at “paranoia around security” near Tiananmen, he does not elaborate on the apparatus of the Chinese surveillance state, except very quietly, at the end of the book. In a passage in the last chapter, Chatwin sums up,
Modern Beijing is a mess, a glorious mess. Noisy, endlessly sprawling, confounding to navigate, and echoing with the muffled shouts of those who chafed against its impositions: physical, spiritual, political. Rather than hearing those voices, the city seemed instead to rouse itself now only for the promise of more change; change without considered thought, without anything but a call to action, a picking up of hammers and pickaxes and drills…
Then he thinks that perhaps the history and culture of the previous centuries would somehow ground the city and “keep it still from spinning away from itself in this continuous revolution.” But then, second-guessing himself, he adds,
Or perhaps that was merely the wishful thinking of a romantic outsider, and in fact, like Theseus’s boat, Beijing today had been remade into something entirely new: a suitable capital for a country in which the past has become a police state. And maybe that did not matter: maybe this new capital of New China suited a new world. The more I considered the question, the less sure I was.
That remains an intriguing question.