Unfolding Beijing

July 8, 2021   •   By Lavinia Liang

THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE TRENDING ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO. 30.

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I knew Beijing back when there was a pomegranate tree and something that counted as a front yard. In the kitchen annex, my grandmother and my aunt sliced cucumbers in half over the sink and taught me to eat them raw, juice running down our summer-parched chins. My grandmother told me about the rats that got in sometimes and how she killed them with her feet. I raised tadpoles with my first cousin in the tiny yard by placing them in cooking pots and feeding them rice, and we cried when it rained and we had to keep them outside. When they died, eventually, without ever growing legs, they died with little white pieces floating off from them — white matter that looked strangely like the rice we had fed them to keep them alive.


I knew Beijing in dreams and slivers — I was not born in Beijing and lived there only a short time. I was five or so the first time I visited; I remember a public toilet hole I almost fell into; a red bucket for bathing. In subsequent years, I would visit again, each visit spaced apart just enough for imagination to fill the gaps, like water. There was a hotel just down the alley, rounding a corner to comfort. When I found out over 10 years later that the hotel was real and not a constructed memory — although it had since closed for good — I was surprised.


“It is possible to long for a place you’ve never visited — to spend a lifetime nostalgic for a life you’ve never lived,” Catherine Chung writes. For Chung, that place was the famed Wudang Mountains in central China, a place that filled her childhood fantasies. To apply the first part of Chung’s idea — “a place you’ve never visited” — to how I feel about Beijing seems inaccurate. I have been to Beijing; in fact, I moved there for a year after I graduated from college and I loved saying that I lived there. But the nostalgia that Chung describes is still relevant to my relationship with Beijing — “nostalgic for a life you’ve never lived” — because I left the city.


Not long after I returned to the States, I opened a new library book. It was autumn, and the darkness outside belied the hour. “I walk through new commercial complexes constructed at Guomao, which look at once like big awkward gangsters gawking at one another […] and I think, I belong here,” I read in Xuan Juliana Wang’s story “Days of Being Mild,” collected in Home Remedies. What haunts me is the possibility of having stayed in the city, and of returning, and of ever possibly comprehending where a city is headed by only knowing what is has previously been.


Guomao! I know that place, too, I thought. Sitting backward on a northbound train, I nodded and smiled stupidly.


And then I knew what I was going to do.


I was going to collect all the English-language fiction on Beijing that I could.


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“I see an injustice: a Parisian does not have to bring his city out of nothingness every time he wants to describe it. A wealth of allusions lies at his disposal, for his city exists in works of word, birth, and chisel; even if it were to vanish from the face of the earth, one would still be able to recreate it in the imagination,” Czesław Miłosz writes in his memoir, Native Realm. “But I, returning in thought to the streets where the most important part of my life unfolded, am obliged to invent the most utilitarian sort of symbols and am forced to condense my material.”


This city of which Miłosz writes — the “city of his youth” — is Wilno, or Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. This passage surfaced often in my mind as I began collecting, though I wondered if I really had Miłosz’s same claim to obscurity. After all, I was concerned with Beijing, a city that Marco Polo had visited in the 13th century and described as “so vast, so rich and so beautiful, that no man on earth could design anything superior to it.” It is also the current capital of the most populous country on earth. A city that, while hardly ever described in Polo’s terms today, is nevertheless acknowledged as a place with which to be reckoned; a “behemoth,” in the words of Chinese British novelist Xiaolu Guo. Jonathan Tel understood this same sense of scale and gravity when he repurposed John Updike’s famous quote for the fictionalized foreword of his own story collection The Beijing of Possibilities: “Beijing is the center of the universe […] ‘The true Beijinger secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.’”


With a history of several millennia, and home at present to over 21 million people, Beijing should be akin to Paris in at least some regards. Beijing is a city steeped in grandeur and exoticism, especially to foreign eyes. Given its political significance and its mythology, Beijing should be accessible in its symbolism; it should hold a treasury of referential works.


I say should. Because while I found a wealth of nonfiction books about Beijing available in English — biographies about the historic dynasties and their plumped-up palatial intrigue, photographic volumes of the hutongs where my grandparents lived, alternately dubious or surprisingly acute foreign policy analyses — I was confronted also by the comparative paucity of natively English or translated English literature about the city.


I did discover many novels and stories about places in China that were, well, not Beijing. This was heartening, because just as we do not truly need more books about or taking place in New York, we do not really need any more fiction about or taking place in Beijing. It is already the dominant setting for much, if not most, of Chinese-language literature and film. Rather, the world needs more stories about AIDS-afflicted villages in Henan, brutal winters in the Rust Belt of the Northeast, and e-waste dumping grounds in southern Guangdong. China, so often perceived as monolithic — and Beijing, often a metonymy for authoritarianism — needs variety, awareness, and humanity.


Yet, still, I continued searching for books that humanized this one particular city and revealed its specific nuances. I wanted stories that told me what I already knew and books that challenged me to leave myself behind. I desired what the filmmaker Edward Yang was once said to have done for 1960s Taiwan — to create a “completely immersive world.” A world that would allow me to join personal memories to a larger collective of memories and, in so doing, make sense of them.


One story, early on, provided such an opportunity: Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” — which was the first story by a Chinese woman to win the Hugo Award and is collected in the English-language anthology Invisible Planets. In the story, Hao considers a Beijing divided into three “folds” so that the occupants of each fold never meet those who live in the others. At certain points of the day, the city flips so that one section hibernates underground. The story follows Lao Dao, a waste worker who crosses from his home in the Third Fold through the churning machinery of the city to the First Fold, where the lawns are pristine and cash comes in 10,000-yuan bills.


The story reminded me of my own time in Beijing. I, too, had navigated the folds of the city when I taught the children of migrant laborers, dined with local friends at a restaurant near our gym, and then attended gatherings that required a foreign passport — all in a week’s time.


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Beijing itself has become a fiction. Let me get that out of the way. The city, like the nation for which it so often is a stand-in, is reducible to various fantasies. An economic fantasy — as a promise of financial betterment to migrants from all over the country; the culmination of the last 40 years of rapid development. A political fantasy — the appearance of total control. “Living in China is confusing now,” the Chinese novelist Yan Lianke once aptly said. “It can feel like being in North Korea and the United States at the same time.”


Fiction writer and former Beijing-based journalist Te-Ping Chen sharpens Yan’s observation by identifying the effects of this reality on contemporary literature. “China is just a place that demands […] surrealism, the hyper-realism, as well as the realism,” she says. “It’s a place where the government literally will decide when it’s going to rain […] which seems like a detail straight out of a science fiction novel, but it’s real life in Beijing.”


Chen’s own fiction engages head-on with these multiple “genres” of reality. Take, for example, her story “New Fruit” from Land of Big Numbers, the local setting of which is unnamed, and yet which evokes so easily the publicly intimate life of Beijing’s hutongs, or alleyways. One woman, for instance, is known for gossiping while she squats on the communal latrines. The whole story is told in the collective first person: we. The entire community observes and participates, much as things truly are in hutong neighborhoods. One day, in a surrealist turn of events, a hybridized fruit appears on the streets, and eating it causes its consumers to experience particular emotions. The first crop of fruit helps its consumers develop sunnier dispositions; romances even rekindle. But a later crop causes darker feelings, like remorse, to surface. The power of “New Fruit” lies not only in how convincingly it portrays a nonexistent fruit, but also in how it toes the line between traditional “realism” and the hyperrealism that Chen attributes to China. If the weather can be custom-tailored to the extent that it is in Beijing, why can’t fruit?


A similarly absurd but firmly realist foil to “New Fruit” is the story “Lulu” from the same collection. “Lulu” follows fraternal twins who take separate paths — one becomes a professional video game player and the other a political activist. Lulu, the political activist, is living in Beijing when she is eventually detained, interrogated, and beaten. Upon her release, she resumes her online activism, and is subsequently arrested. There is no wiggle room in “Lulu”; no possibility of hiding behind a symbolic object, as there is in “New Fruit” — the threats to Lulu’s life and the injuries she sustains from her interrogation are real. Her twin brother asks her to stop what she is doing, even as he understands that their reality, one which does not tolerate dissent, is untenable. He knows, too, that both of their lives — his, withdrawn into virtual worlds, and hers, hyperreal and high risk — are two extreme responses to that reality.


Beijing’s visibility as a city means that it often functions as a totem for this everyday social dissonance that can be found throughout the country. In Xiaolu Guo’s Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, the young narrator Fenfang, who calls herself a “peasant,” moves to Beijing in a classic attempt to reinvent herself. She counts herself among the millions of China’s so-called “floating population” of rural migrants who have moved to urban areas in search of opportunity. During her first day there, Fenfang hears a mother and daughter arguing in a nearby house. Suddenly, the door flies open and both women rush out, only to be immediately hit and crushed by a van in the street. To Fenfang’s shock, the driver of the van pulls the mother and daughter into the back of his vehicle and, “without saying anything or looking at me, he drove off.”


Guo’s novel is a modern view on the impersonal side of the city, its injustices, and its breakneck speed of both change and daily life. Lao She — the pen name of Shu Qingchun and one of the preeminent Chinese literary figures of the 20th century — provides a look at 1920s Beijing through his novel Rickshaw Boy. Many of the scenes in Rickshaw Boy are miserable. The protagonist is the poor, orphaned rickshaw driver Xiangzi, who encounters misfortune again and again until he simply gives up trying to be ethical or good. Beijing is also a character, and is described simultaneously as “filthy” and “beautiful,” “chaotic” and “idle.” Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth and Rickshaw Boy, although written in vastly different contexts and very different Beijings, contain similar ideas: Beijing is unforgiving. It is often inhumane, and it often makes no sense.


There are volumes of English-language “Shanghai literature” on my shelf, too — like André Malraux’s Man’s Fate and Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart. But Shanghai is Shanghai; it is clear in the Western imagination. It has not wavered in the same way that Beijing has, so constantly out of focus. Shanghai has the Bund, for goodness’s sake, and its past is not muddied with the unspeakable nor its present reduced to being a synonym for totalitarianism in a foreign news headline.


“Foreigners have always come to Shanghai in order to feel that they are living on the verge of the future,” critic Moira Weigel claims. In contrast, I think people come to Beijing seeking the past — to make sense of it.


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As my collection grew, I found that a sizable proportion of available Anglophone literature on Beijing focuses on one particular matter: the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma tells the story of a young protestor who falls into a coma and prepares to awake 10 years later, Rip Van Winkle–style, to an unrecognizable China. Baoshu’s novella “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear,” collected in the science fiction anthology Broken Stars, features a narrator who participates in the protests with his beloved. Ha Jin’s The Crazed closes with the protagonist’s attendance at the demonstrations, while Hong Ying’s Summer of Betrayal begins with the protagonist fleeing the aftermath. Yiyun Li’s Kinder Than Solitude features a character who is involved in the 1989 protests and who, shortly after, is poisoned, almost to death. Meng Jin’s Little Gods opens on a bird’s-eye view of the capital on the eve of last day of the protests, preparing us for what we, but not the characters, know is imminent: “From above, the heart of the city is easy to see. Beijing is a bull’s-eye.”


Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing recounts in detail those fateful months: the before, the during, the after. Thien describes the elasticity of the days and nights leading up to June 1989, when the whole city seemed to “come together,” in a book that spans generations and continents and grasps at a national history. The tale is told through the lives of three talented musicians — the most talented among them a young composer named Sparrow. Thien’s ambitious novel is set in a number of locations, including Vancouver, Shanghai, a village outside Changsha, another village called Bingpai, a village in Guangxi, and the beautiful and perilous western deserts of Gansu.


But the story’s most demanding moments are set in Beijing. Beijing’s importance is first foreshadowed in the name of the street on which Sparrow and his family lived when he was a young student in Shanghai — Beijing Road. The story homes in on Beijing like a compass pointing north. Upon returning to Beijing Road in Shanghai after the Cultural Revolution, Sparrow’s mother finds her entire family missing. In her despair, she smashes all the crockery in the house: “She did it carefully, disposing of her favorites immediately, all the while singing: ‘Comrades, amputate the branches and tear down the leaves…’ Her neighbors thought she had lost her mind…”


Years later, in Beijing itself, Sparrow’s daughter Ai-ming finds herself swept up in the fervor and yearning of the pro-democracy movements. In the midst of the Tiananmen protests, Sparrow thinks to himself: “What had any of them done that was criminal? Hadn’t they done their best to listen and to believe? There was nothing in his hands and never have been.”


A collapse of time and distance is briefly triggered in the mirrored absurdity experienced by mother and son. The text asks readers to consider: Have things always been this way? And will things ever be different?


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Some parts of daily life and society are changing; that much is true. Buildings and structures everywhere in China are being torn down to make way for new developments. Residential, commercial, and even touristic “heritage” sites are all being dissembled or remade or both. The journalist Peter Hessler, writing for The New Yorker in 2007, wrote about how “chai,” or demolition, has become its own sort of “culture” in China over the years. The Chinese character for chai, 拆, has become the literal writing on the wall: it appears on structures overnight as if written by invisible hands; sometimes the character is spray-painted, sometimes it is chalked. There had been talks for years about “chai”-ing the houses in my grandparents’ neighborhood when, suddenly, at the end of my time in Beijing, they came for my grandparents’ house.


One of Hessler’s neighbors in Beijing used to say, “We live in Chai nar.” The phrase sounds like “China” to the Anglophone ear, but in Chinese it means, “Demolish where?” As Hessler writes: “It was only a matter of time before the government chai’d more buildings in our area, but [my neighbor] never dwelled on the future. More than four decades in Chai nar had taught him that nothing lasts forever.”


Nothing lasts, but collecting, perhaps, is a way to counteract that: to stop time, to hold, to embody; to encompass the wholeness of something — of a city, and its corresponding imaginary. And to retain the truth of history. If authorities attempt to rewrite the past, then the burden of keeping alive the stories of individuals — and the truth — falls, at least partially, to writers. Throughout the course of my collecting, I have wondered how much I lose in pursuing works about a Chinese city that are either written natively in English or are translated into English. But if Chinese is not currently a viable language for truth, then perhaps other languages can be cradles for the time being. And I see now that I am also learning and knowing Beijing from the outside in. Folding and unfolding. Two actions that — as Hao Jingfang may very well also know — when seen from different perspectives, might just be interchangeable.


In those final days of my grandparents’ house, I wandered through the gutted residences and took pictures of everything. A single Croc shoe that had been left behind. Suitcases filled with papers that were already half-dust. A plastic pitcher, still upright. I asked the demolition workers if I could take a picture of them on break. I was terrified of forgetting anything. Simultaneously, I was fearful that, like Dai Wei from Beijing Coma, I would remember everything but have nothing to show for it; that I would forever “wander back and forth through the space between [my] flesh and [my] memories.”


As Susan Orlean observes in The Library Book: “In the library, time is dammed up — not just stopped but saved.” Orlean may be considering the library as a location as much as the library as an idea, but of course, what is a library if not a collection?


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I think now that one, or perhaps the, reason English-language literature on Beijing was difficult to find is because Beijing is difficult to write about. Because it is difficult to love. I can’t think of a single foreigner who has told me that they loved Beijing; perhaps they found the city striking or imposing or interesting, but not lovable. Folks will first tentatively ask, “And did you like your time in Beijing?” before they explain to me why they didn’t enjoy theirs. Young Chinese people tell me that they’ll do their time in Beijing and then they’ll leave. Go south to Chengdu or something, where the weather and social conditions are fairer.


“There was something terribly unromantic about falling in love in Beijing,” Peter Tieryas Liu writes in a story titled, simply, “A Beijing Romance” and collected in Watering Heaven. The city, with its harsh superblock architecture, and the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square as its hollow hearts, poses in direct contrast to the soft, traditional romance of — and here, the same unwarranted comparison — Paris. As a character in Little Gods observes, wrestling with her own biases and fear of those biases: “The scale of infrastructure here surpassed the ability of my body. Beijing was not built for humans, I thought — and here my mind completed the idea, even as I heard my other self saying, What a derivative, Western thought — but for military machines.”


Beijing is unromantic, and difficult to love, and hardly livable, and absurd. “And yet Beijing was the most romantic city I’d known,” continues Liu’s narrator in “A Beijing Romance.” Why? Because: “Several million people were squeezed into the metropolis that was undergoing constant surgery on its ruptured streets [but] somehow, beneath the grandeur of it all, there was love: strident, audacious love.”


Beijing’s beauty comes from its hallmark of perseverance — of persisting and finding the heart to continue giving to others amid the city’s sheer magnitude and harsh living conditions. Collecting the literature of Beijing helps us to keep the past alive, and to capture and hold close the real, human lives that have passed through the city. It provides an entry point for us to begin to make sense of that history, both social and personal; as the protagonist of Xu Zechen’s Running Through Beijing says, upon being released from prison: “Anywhere was fine as long as it was in Beijing.”


Most importantly, however, creating this body of literature is a way forward. Nothing lasts. But these stories show where we’ve been. These stories leave a trail for others to follow — and show them where to begin.


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Lavinia Liang’s writings have appeared in The Guardian, TIME, Catapult, VICE, and elsewhere.