Beijing is a city with a distinct literary culture. This comes from its role as a hub of education, but also of culture. Politics plays a role too, with government literary organizations contributing to the cultivation of literature (though not always good). An example of this would be Mo Yan, the recent nobel prize winner, who is based in Beijing and a leader in these organizations, though his work is often situated in his rural home province (and not Beijing). There are many bookstores in Beijing, ranging from large state run corporate stores to small independent and alternative bookshops.
Some of my favorite Beijing literary pieces, all in translation, are:
Cao Xueqin author of the classic Dream of the Red Chamber lived in the Western Suburbs of the city. Some of Pu Songling's Strange Tales from the Chinese Studio are set in the capital, notably the story of the painted skin.
Rickshaw Boy written by Lao She in the 1930s is a classic tale of class oppression of a lowly rickshaw driver in Republican Beijing, a city that is called "filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable". Lao She is an interesting character, who wrote many interesting books, including one piece of early Chinese science fiction and social commentary about a man who goes to Mars and meets a country of cats. A western educated writer a teahouse in Beijing is named after him. He was struggled against by Red Guards in the 1960s and committed suicide. Learn more about him in this LARB article.
Qian Zhongshu who wrote the famous Fortress Besieged was faculty in my department at Tsinghua for many years (we also share an ancestral hometown).
Some more recent works that present the contemporary city include A Thousand Years of Good Prayer by Yiyun Li, Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo, The Fat Years by Koonchung Chan, Beijing Doll by Chun Sue, and Beijing Coma by Ma Jian. Li's book of short stories contains different evocations of the city, as well as themes of migration, including one story collectively told from the perspective of a village where many Eunuch's were born, another telling of a gay man returning from overseas who can't bear to tell his mother his orientation, and of growing up within a government courtyard. Guo and Chun's books both present portraits of alienated young people. Ma's book looks at the events leading up to Tian'anmen. And Chan's book presents a dystopic and powerful Beijing as global hegemon, just slightly in the future.
Two foreign writers who write beautifully about Beijing are Peter Hessler and Michael Meyer. Both were former Peace Core volunteers and spent nearly a decade in the city, Hessler writing for the New Yorker and Meyer teaching in a Hutong school. Hessler's Oracle Bones and Country Driving both present portraits of changing Chinese society with insight and heart. Meyer's book, Last Days of Old Beijing, is one of the key texts for understanding changing life in the Hutongs.
Two historical accounts of Beijing from the early and mid-20th century in final years of the Qing Dynasty and Republican period are the controversial memoir Decadence Mandchoue by Sir Edmund Backhouse, which might be tall tales or might be the truth, and Peking Story: The Last Days of Old Peking by David Kidd. The recent Midnight in Peking by Paul French tells of the mysterious murder of a British girl in 1937, a case very similar to Los Angeles' Black Dahlia and proposes a solution. I took a walking tour with French of the locations where this mystery played out and many of the sites and buildings are still there.
Other interesting books on Beijing include:
Sound Kapital by Matthew Niederhauser is a literary and photo record of Beijing's music scene in the 2000s.
Art Historian Wu Hung's Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of Political Space, which looks at the different manifestations of the square through time, weaving personal narrative and visual art.
Madeline Yue Dong's Republican Beijing: The City and its Histories, a book that I have for some reason carried back and forth to Beijing numerous times.
Michael Dutton, Stacy Lo, and Dong Dong Wu's book Beijing Time has some interesting conceptualizations of the city. . . there are mentions of the recycling cities and of Beijing's ghosts
Judith Farquar and Zhang Qicheng's Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing, is a book I just bought and am looking forward to reading
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