Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Bejing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City

I'm glad I grabbed Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic Citya couple weeks ago to compliment my Olympic Fever.

Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City traces the history of the city from around 916 when it was one of five capitals in early China. There had been a city there since around 221 BC when China began to form into what we'd consider a nation.

This book is packed with facts about how the city was organized, where different groups lived, the impact of changes throughout the city and its relationship to the rest of the country. The focus is always on the city, but through that one learns about the government, politics, architecture, and daily life. For example, China was unique amongst nations because the leaders wisely always subsidized food and protected its safety. Thus when famines struck centuries ago, everyone would still eat and there'd be fewer riots and trouble. Also, it wasn't till recently that people considered themselves Beijing-ren (like New Yorkers). So many who lived there considered themselves rather transient and identified more with their hometowns.

I learned about Emperor Yongle, who has been compared to Augustus Caesar, who found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. Yongle ruled during a time when fire destroyed the city and he elevated Beijing to a new level of magnificance (p. 24-25).

I was particularly touched to read about a Western educated architect Liang Sicheng who argued passionately to save the outerwall of the city when Mao and the Communists took power. He saw its beauty and historical significance. Yet during his campaign to save it, it was already being knocked down before those trying to preserve it were told.

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