Human nature was just so much infinitely malleable putty

City of Heavenly Tranquility, by Jasper Becker

I don’t like abandoning books. I used to take it as a point of pride in fact that I never abandoned them. Those days are long past. Now I don’t hope a bad book will turn into Tolstoy on page 205.

What’s frustrating about Jasper Becker’s City of Heavenly Tranquility is that it shouldn’t be a bad book. It’s a non-fiction study of Beijing, it’s history and how that history is being lost today in a wave of new construction. It’s written by Jasper Becker, who wrote Hungry Ghosts – an excellent account of the horrific mass famine created by Mao’s policies in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Becker knows his material and he can write. What went wrong?

City of Heavenly Tranquility is essentially a form of travel writing. Becker visits places, interviews people, writes what he finds and gives it a historical context. It’s not quite reportage, but nor is it intended merely to entertain. Becker’s core thesis is that historic Beijing is being wilfully destroyed by a Chinese bureaucracy that is utterly indifferent, even hostile, to the priceless heritage it is annihilating.

Imagine the outcry if, in less than a decade, London underwent a similar transformation. If the West End, Notting Hill, Knightsbridge, Holland Park and the City of London were to be levelled and replaced by giant residential and commercial blocks. If every landmark – Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Pall Mall, Regent Street, Covent Garden, the courtyards of the Temple, the alleys of Soho – were to disappear at once. Imagine the outcry if in less than a decade New York underwent a similar transformation. If Wall Street, Central Park, Greenwich Village, SoHo, the Bronx, the Upper East Side were to be levelled and replaced by giant new residential towers and commercial office blocks. If every landmark – Times Square, Madison Square Gardens, Radio City – were to disappear at once.

That’s an absolutely valid subject for a book. The Chinese authorities, and probably a fair few of the Chinese public, would have counterarguments but there’s nothing wrong with a healthy debate. The trouble then isn’t the concept. It’s the execution.

In the first chapter Becker describes how he is shown round a housing development intended for the new urban rich:

‘I like it, especially the fake fireplace. This is real luxury,’ I said politely. ‘Later, I will show you the landscaped garden, the vast lawn, the children’s playground, the European fountains, the stylish sculptures, the beautiful flowers, and the underground car park,’ she said.

It’s a well written passage. As the conversation progressed though I found myself wondering how true it was. Becker is shown round because he’s pretending to be a prospective buyer. He isn’t openly there as a journalist. That’s of course normal, but his text purports to be what was said. Did he take contemporaneous notes? Write it up immediately afterwards? Or has he reconstructed it, written essentially what was said, if not the precise words?

The line between reportage and fiction can be a slippery one. That though is a reason to take extra care and to be clear with readers how you’ve drawn that line. I wasn’t far into the book, but already I had concerns about the accuracy of what I was reading (I also thought quietly satirising the vulgarity of new money a bit easy, but that’s a far lesser point).

Becker has little time for modern China, which he sees as brutal, vulgar and undemocratic. Against the brash present he places the fruits of 5,000 years of civilisation. What’s being lost, for him, is immense. What’s being gained in return is tawdry. Here he puts the special nature of Beijing in perspective:

in Beijing the two great strands of Asian history are united: the settled urban civilization, steeped in Confucianism, and the wilder world of the Huns, the Mongols, the Manchus and other nomadic peoples who roamed the steppes of Asia, living in felt tents.

The problem with all this is the question of alternatives. It’s easy to deride rapid development and its costs. I stayed in a hutong (traditional alley area) and I’d be sorry to see them all go (most are already demolished to make way for new apartment complexes). That said, I don’t have to live in one full time. If I did I might be a bit less keen on history and a bit more on good plumbing.

It’s clear that China’s modernisation has a cost. It’s clear too that decisions have been taken which future, richer, inhabitants of Beijing will sorely regret. Popular protests against demolition of beloved sites or buildings are brushed aside. The beautiful is being cast aside for a needlessly ugly pragmatism. Still, it’s important to remember that this isn’t just a tourist destination. People have to live there.

Far from Beijing’s ugly pretensions to modernity, one felt a little freer and in such a haunt of ancient peace could savour an unchanging China fixed for ever in a romantic decay.

I like romantic decay as much as the next man. Probably more than many since I am on occasion of a somewhat melancholic bent (despite being generally cheerful, I guess I’m cheerfully melancholic). That said, a tourist’s romantic decay can be a resident’s slum. China isn’t a theme park.

Were my only issue with Becker’s thesis (much of which I was persuaded by, just not the naive romanticism of quotes like the one above) then I wouldn’t call this a bad book. A book isn’t bad because I don’t agree with it. The much greater problem is the inescapable whiff of cut-and-paste.

My suspicion, though only that, is that this book is a collation of magazine articles edited together into one work. A chapter would mention Mongol rule, then another would mention it again as if for the first time (which if each chapter were a standalone article it would be of course). A section would talk of how the Mongol khans hid their tombs so well that they were never found, and then another would introduce the same factoid again without recognition of the previous reference.

Equally the quality of the chapters varied widely. Some are marvellous. The description of the Ming court eunuchs and their conflicts with the mandarins were absolutely fascinating:

It was only natural that the mandarins felt contempt towards eunuchs, whose chief qualification was a willingness to submit to castration, while they had to pass very competitive examinations.

So good were these sections that if Becker decided to write a book about the Chinese imperial court generally I’d buy it in a heartbeat. The following is just one, slightly salacious, example:

The sexual practices of the imperial court make for the oddest reading. Court astrologers were employed in determining the optimum hours for sex, based on cycles for yin and yang, in the belief that with the right timing the result would be a boy. Then, after the second meal of the day, a eunuch would present the emperor with a silver tray with bamboo slips, each with the name of one of the concubines. The emperor would turn over the name of his choice and she would then be brought at the correct time, wrapped in a blanket. It was the duty of the eunuch standing in the alcove to shout after a decent interval, ‘Time is up’, followed by the advice: ‘Preserve your imperial body, Sire!’ If there was silence after the third call, then the eunuch would step in to carry the woman out, only pausing to ask if the emperor wished her to bear a child. If the answer was yes, then he would record all relevant details in a notebook.

Becker also writes persuasively about the crimes of Lord Elgin, who ordered the burning of the Summer Palace and so robbed the Chinese people and humanity generally of a great treasure. Elgin was a barbarian, and Becker is right to condemn him. In another section though you get journalistic filler like this:

Many of the men – more than thirty, some said – who had helped Howard Carter open Tutankhamun’s tomb had died in mysterious circumstances. Some believe they succumbed after inhaling deadly bacteria trapped in the Egyptian tombs: could that happen here in China?

Against which I wrote a one word comment (it was “bollocks”, kindle preserved my notes on that passage for posterity).

The end result is a book that has great things with it, but that isn’t the sum of its parts. There’s two or three different books here, and they sit poorly together. It was that along with the repetition that made me wonder if it was cobbled together from assorted articles, some good and some less so.

Ultimately the origin of the book doesn’t matter. What does is that I got so irritated by it that I stopped reading it. It’s been over a year now since that decision, and I don’t see it changing at this point. I’ve had a part draft of this review kicking around since February and since I had a free moment it seemed a good time to post this one up.

I read City of Heavenly Tranquility on my kindle, as mentioned above. The kindle edition is unfortunately extremely badly formatted, containing many errors such as “sturdyirongates” being written as one word. If you are interested in the parts about the Imperial court and the eunuchs I’d strongly advise getting a physical copy. Also, for the record, the quote I’ve used as the title of this piece is a view Becker ascribes to the bureacrats, not one he at all supports.

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7 Comments

Filed under History

7 responses to “Human nature was just so much infinitely malleable putty

  1. I like the ‘preserve your imperial body” part. I’m curious about the question as to whether or not he wished her to ‘bear a child.’ Obviously she was already pregnant or not regardless of whatever the emperor wanted, so I can only assume that his response (yea or nay) indicated whether or not anyone paid attention.

  2. You know what I think about abandoning books: there are so many good ones out there and our reading time is limited, so why surrender pleasure to a vain I-never-give-up pride?

    Apparently this book is in the middle of the river: it didn’t choose his bank (Fiction or Non Fiction) and drown from indecision. You expect accuracy when you read non-fiction.

    On the changing of Beijing, I rather agree with you. Of course it’s important to preserve major buildings from the past but as you say, people have to live in the city. It can’t just be a museum.
    Haussmann did something similar to Paris, when you think of it. Now everybody raves about haussmanian avenues in Paris but they were done by destroying historical parts of the city.

  3. Emma: I used to soldier on with a book as a point of pride, but now I’m not so much of a stickler. I have discovered, however, that sometimes it’s just not the ‘right’ time for a book. There have been a few instances when I’ve put a book aside with impatience only to find that I throughly enjoyed it a month or so later. So I tend to try a book twice (after putting it aside and picking it up later again). If it doesn’t work the second time, it’s time for the old heave-ho. There’s an exception to this, though. Sometimes I can’t stand a book and I know no amount of time will change that.

    I’ve been thinking about reading a book on Haussmann lately.

  4. Guy I do that too. Third time I start The Custom of the Country. So far this one seems the good one. However no more Herta Müller for me.
    I think a book on Haussmann could be fascinating.

  5. I can’t recall Guy. It was the best part of the book, but too much else was unpersuasive for the good bits to really stick.

    Emma, Huysmans sometimes takes aim at Hausmann. He’s of Becker’s view, that something precious is being destroyed in favour of something brutal and indifferent to human level concerns.

    Crossing the line into fiction is something which I think every writer of reportage needs to guard against (or embrace perhaps, as so often it’s a question of knowing where you stand and not crossing lines inadvertently, advertently is potentially a different matter though still risky).

    I have occasionally put books aside to return to later (usually due to fatigue, but occasionally because I can see it’s good but a terrible choice for what I want at that time). It’s rare though. As thankfully is abandoning books entirely. Still, sometimes that is just the best course.

  6. Fascinating review – the more so as you’ve been there. The cobbling together of books from old articles rarely works well – the decision of whether to edit or not has no easy resolution – if you edit out the repetitions it can lead to other inconsistencies or even falsehoods.

    In my view life it too short to “soldier on” with bad books and I abandon them gleefully with a metaphoric fling across the room.

  7. Tom, it was a great holiday and I did some great reading. This just wasn’t one of the highlights. I could be wrong on the cobbling together, but even if I were it wouldn’t change it feeling that way

    A metaphoric fling across the room, quite right. An actual fling would likely frighten the cats and perhaps damage the tv (and I’m attached to the cats).

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