Zheng, Yiran. (2016). Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films. Lanham MD: Lexington Books.
In recent years, the dialectic relationship between tradition and globalization has become even more visible in the urban spaces of Beijing. In the majority of news reports highlighting economic and cultural attractiveness of Beijing, we may find seemingly disconnected expressions, such as ‘greatness of imperial history’ and ‘rising center of global economy.’ This implies that there is a significant temporal gap taking place, and thereby, and points to the drastic urban transformation of the nation. Yiran Zheng’s recent book, Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films (2016), also acknowledges this presentation of Beijing. The conceptualization of Beijing as “the fusion of “traditional” Chinese city and a modern international metropolis” is one of the central themes that is constantly brought up in the book.
By this point, it is also important to note where all those urban spaces are located in the spatial structure of Beijing. According to the author, the area showing a concentration of typical Beijing buildings or courtyard houses is geographically located near the center of the city. Then, the next layer of architecture that loops outside the center is dominated by three to four story military compounds constructed under the guidance of Soviet experts. Thereafter, in the outer layer loop, there is new architecture and urban spaces that were built in the global era. Based on the three types of urban spaces identified above, the book largely consists of three parts: the first part focusing on military compounds (chapter 1,2,3), the second part concentrating on the typical building or courtyard house (chapter 4,5,6), and the third part exploring some examples of Beijing’s new architecture and urban spaces (chapter 7,8,9).
However, when considering the geographical map of Beijing and the structure of the chapters in the book together, Zheng does not fully explain why she organizes the three parts in such an order; namely, starting from military compounds to typical traditional Beijing housing, and ending with contemporary buildings. In the introduction, Zheng notes, “Beijing has been transformed from a traditional imperial capital city to a political center of communist China, then into a cosmopolitan metropolis (p. x).” The structure of the book does not seem to illuminate this transitional and changing character or flow of the city, but captures the configurations of the city in specific moments framed within the specific literary works. In that sense, to meet the author’s aim of this book, it is more persuasive to organize the parts and chapters in a geo-temporal order, moving from the central area of traditional housing to the outer area of contemporary buildings developed in present day China.
Each part of this book has three sections (chapters). In every first section, Zheng explores the architectural and spatial qualities of specific urban spaces. Then, Zheng discusses some representative writers and filmmakers in every second section, and finally in the third section, the author analyzes the configuration of the city in the literary works. Throughout the parts and chapters, Zheng uses different sources from different disciplines, such as urban studies, architecture, literature, cultural studies, history studies, and sociology. And Zheng also makes a balanced use of sources between foreign and Chinese authors. Zheng’s cross-disciplinary and cross-national use of sources is what makes this book interdisciplinary and allows it to retain a more balanced point of view.
In this study, the methodological framework is inspired by Lefebvre’s theorization of space. Lefebvre (1991), in his book The Production of Space (1991), proposed the spatial triad to understand the production of space and its embedded power relations. The triad divides space as: spatial practice (producing physical space), representations of space (conceived space), and representational space (lived space). According to Lefebvre, our spatial experience in space consists of these three interrelated elements (Lefebvre, 1991). Zheng specifically points to two of the spaces in this triad, representations of space and representational space, to formulate her methodology.
Within this framework, she emphasizes the intermediary role of artists (writers and filmmakers) between these two spaces. To be more specific, writers are influenced by urban spaces and architectures that are the “representations of space”, reflecting the ideology and expectations of designers. At the same time, writers and filmmakers respond to and reflect on those “representations of spaces” through their use of symbols, signs, and images in their literary productions. Thus, they create literary and filmic texts that refer to the space lived in by artists, “representational spaces”. However, except for brief explanations about the framework in the introduction and conclusion, the author actually does not conduct an extensive engagement with spatial theory, which she bases her work upon. It would have been more helpful if Zheng had continued to connect her discussion to her framework while discussing different type of urban spaces. By doing so, it would have been more apparent how the dialectic relationship between the three moments shown in Lefebvre’s spatial triad can be manifested and applied in this study as well.
Most interestingly, as noted in the beginning of the book, the concept of the coexistence of local and global in Beijing is an important issue for Zheng. This is clearly addressed when the author says that “the “ideal building” should be both modern and Chinese.” (p. 99). Zheng’s personal voice and position towards the relationship between the local and global in cityscape becomes especially prominent in Chapter 7, where Zheng discusses modern and postmodern architecture in the global era. These include the “three new symbolic architecture” in Beijing—National Centre for the Performing Arts (the Giant Egg), National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest), and CCTV New Main Building (the Gate).
In Chapter 7, Zheng is concerned about Beijing becoming “a common metropolis with no distinct cultures” (p. 91). According to Lefebvre, the urban spaces of Beijing produced within the context of global capital are Abstract Spaces, which are homogeneous and transparent, showing the orders and power hierarchies of capitalism (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 50-51). The Abstract Spaces of these new contemporary buildings of Beijing are shown in their symbolic architecture marked with the dominant activities of the cities (Castells, 2005). The three new buildings mentioned above are examples of the symbolic architecture that Zheng criticizes for its disconnection from the surrounding local context and environment. In that sense, Zheng also demonstrates that these designs are not “Chinese” because they were built by “non-Chinese” designers, which I thought was a bit difficult to understand (p. 102). Although this may be partially true, the concern should not lie in the nationality of designers, but with the strategies used in incorporating this symbolic architecture within the local city at large.
The book is, in general, interdisciplinary in its approach and provides a broad socio-cultural and political context on urban issues of Beijing. In addition, the book is approachable because it does not use discipline-specific academic jargons and is written in an illustrative and descriptive manner. It is clear that Zheng wishes this book to be read by broad range of students and scholars who are interested in the city of Beijing. Zheng also achieves this by consistently and systematically reiterating the important points throughout the introduction, the beginning and at the end of each chapter, and the conclusion; the structure of the writing is easy to comprehend. Finally, the book is very narrative and poetic in that it smoothly introduces us to the artists’ world of imagination. Thus this book creates another “representational space” that is lived by its readers, who have or have not been to Beijing, and encourages them to engage with the mode of imagination of the urban spaces of Beijing.
Jeongwon Gim (University of Alberta)
Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.
Castells, M. (2005). Space of Flows, Space of Places: Materials for a Theory of Urbanism in the Information Age. In B. Sanyal (Ed.), Comparative Planning Cultures (pp. 45–63). New York: Routledge.