Introduction to Beijing
Beijing. Peking. Bei (北) Jing (京). Northern. Capital. I
The name speaks of the deep past of history. Of dynasties, imperial power, the Ming Emperor surveying his land from the throne in 1420, the year the capital was moved from the Southern Capital of Nanjing (南京) by the Yongle Emperor. It was the center of all Chinese power, which at the time was the greatest in all the world (and may quickly be becoming so again). But even before that Beijing existed, in different forms and different settlements going back thousands of years. There was Ji a city-state founded in the 11th Century and the Yanjing (燕京) of a few centuries later (which the local beer brand is named after), and later the Dadu of Mongolian rule during the Yuan dynasty.
These layers of the past still inform the present. They are held in the dust and earth of the city: In the Beijing of imagination, in the organization of the city, in the place names, and ruins of palaces, temples, and city walls. When walking through the old quarters of the city, through the maze of Hutong alleyways, you can feel the weight of all this time, as well as a connection to it. This history hangs in the air. . .
But then the Northern Capital is other cities too. There is the Communist Capital of the more recent past. That city of large monuments, state-planning, industrial factories, work units, the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s portrait, unrealized utopian dreams, and Tian’anmen square. That is Beijing too. These are the layers of the new “dynasty”, whose history is rapidly changing and transforming as China emerges into the 21st century
And now it is something else as well. A global metropolis of over 20 million people (and no doubt many millions more if you include uncounted internal migrants), which is at the same time looking inward to China and outward to the rest of the world. Many things cross in this Northern Capital. Both that past and the future that China is hurtling towards. As before, all power runs through Beijing, emanating out of the closed doors of Zhongnanhai now, rather than the Forbidden City. Capital flows through the city too, from state-owned companies and China’s banks, as well as all the gleaming towers of transnational business who have made their homes in this now capitalist wonderland. As world power shifts, has shifted, towards the Pacific Century and the rising Dragon of China (to speak in clichés and global ideology), Beijing is at the center of whatever this means.
But Beijing is also a city of culture. Both Chinese culture and a global culture moving through it, carried by the constant circulation of people. Ideas and images flow through it, art markets and music scenes, film and other media, all projecting outward what it means to be Chinese. Old forms are re-made and shown to the world, in spectacles like the 2008 Olympic Ceremony. Soft Power radiates from this. But there are local cultures and creation, oppositions to static and hegemonic defintions, that are being made here in the present.
Beijing is also a city of people. Old Beijingers, government officials, students, taxi drivers, rural migrants, ethnic minorities, crazy artists, punk rockers, businessmen ex-pat foreigners, each one of them living life under Beijing’s heavy sky.
Lastly, it is a city of contradictions. Again, between the past, the present, and the future. Between China and the world. Between communism and capitalism. Between central state power and something else. Between blue skies and oppressive smog. Between life and non-life as seen in the pollution that’s currently reaching hazardous levels. All of these things are deeply in play. They are still being shook out and defined. But whatever happens, Beijing, this Northern Capital, is one of the capitals of the coming decades, and thus all of us in the world need to pay attention to it.
Welcome to the Northern Capital. This critical reading of the city will dig into some of these contradictions. It will do this through analysis, but also through image, photo and video, fragments of media, portraits of specific places, as well as journeys into memory. It will investigate Beijing through these lenses, and hopefully show why it is a city that I love, in all its light and dark, in its utopian aspirations/hopes and dystopian realities. I have spent years there, walking its streets, interacting with its people, exploring its limit points, becoming imbued with its dust clouds, imperial grandeur, political power, and history.
Beijing is a state of Be(ij)ing integral to the 21st century. The answers to some of the world's crisis points run through it. Issues of class, scarcity, pollution, population food quality, political will, and on and on. How Beijing answers these questions will help the rest of us answer them. . .
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