The Nation


Book Review

Peking before the fall

A food peddler makes the rounds in Peking of the past.

A food peddler makes the rounds in Peking of the past.

Peace, even joy, filled the Chinese capital's streets before nationalist blood boiled over

Old Beijing: Postcards from the Imperial City

By Felicitas Titus

Published by Tuttle, 2012

Available at leading bookshops, Bt1,300

Reviewed by Manote Tripathi

Beijing at the turn of the last century was a rich and powerful city full of golden-roofed palaces, imperial gardens, temples, hefty walls and giant gates, built by the Ming emperor Yongle in 1420 and later expanded by the Manchu rulers. In the late 19th century these fascinating sights helped make Peking, as it was then known, the most popular destination in China for foreigners.

But you'd have been lucky if you were able to travel freely in China in that turbulent period, when the ultra-nationalist Boxers roamed all the big cities fanning the flames of a formidable xenophobia. Tourists had to be quite rich and well connected to visit with ease.

Westerners and the Japanese in Beijing were demanding but not feared. Disdain for intruders seemed endemic in the Han Chinese mindset of the time, with even the relatively tolerant Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty unhappy when foreign powers breathed down their necks. Much of that stemmed from knowing they were too weak to do anything about it.

The postcards found in Felicitas Titus' "Old Beijing" capture pockets of calm during this chaotic period, portraying the imperial city for the most part as a deceptively peaceful oriental paradise, full of wonders and worthy of a grand tour. It was a golden period for travel in China, whose capital boasted so many marvels of an exotic grandeur found nowhere else on earth - along with fabulous business opportunities.

Many of these sights, such as the massive encircling walls, vanished long ago. The book recreates a century-old tour of the city, all the places that would have been familiar to employees of the foreign firms and embassies but no longer exist. Titus, born and raised in Hankou, the old treaty port on the Yangtze River, is the daughter of a notable German exporter of Chinese tea, silk and animal skins. Her mother helped run the Anglican Blind School in Wuchang.

The family emigrated to the US after World War II, but here are their memories of a distant past, 350 postcards that provide an entertaining way to study the history of the era.

You see gorgeous palaces, the imperial family and the splendour of court ceremonies, alongside images of Tibetan temples and other religious sites. The Manchu rulers were devoted to Tibetan Buddhism and supported the lamas. And they were generally friendly to Westerners too - an Italian artist was even employed in the court.

The colourful postcards extend to Manchu fashion, defined by the butterfly hairstyle then in vogue. The streets were a frenzy of barbers, hawkers, performers, moneychangers, shoemakers and coolies. It must have been harrowing, but in the postcards it looks like fun, especially compared to dismal scenes from London of the same time, with its slums and paupers.

The Chinese of the postcards are often smiling, eating and drinking. Beijing seems like a city of joy - as it was in reality, relatively speaking, until the savagery of the Boxer Rebellion. The book has postcards of that insurrection and its murderous quelling too, depicting scenes of destruction.

The Qing's final years are well documented, with pictures of Puyi, the last emperor, both as a child and as the hapless, Westernised young man who represented a doomed dynasty.

"No innocent man," Titus writes, "could have suffered more inhumanity than Puyi, who was driven from one state of imprisonment to another, from one political torment to another, but who stood up valiantly in a spirit of detachment and intellectual independence."

Common travellers were better looked-after than Puyi. There were luxury hotels for foreigners by the early 20th century and ample opportunities for gourmet dining.

At least, through these postcards, you have the opportunity to relish the beauty of the past before it was stolen away forever.

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