The Road to Beijing’s History

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In An Armchair Traveller’s History of Beijing British author and historian Jonathan Clements conveys a brief account of the history of Beijing from prehistory to our contemporary age – through its fluctuating fortunes under a dozen dynasties. From Mongolian chiefs and the glorious Ming emperors, whose tombs can still be found on Beijing’s outskirts, the book gives us the opportunity to experience Chinese history itself. The book also emphasises the city’s precarious heritage in the 21st century as modern construction wiped out vast chunks of the old city to pave way for residential areas for twenty million people.

Whether you are a Sinophile, or you simply want to find out more about this city that has been presented in Western media more for its soaring levels of pollution than its rich culture and complex history, come and join us at London’s Asia House on Tuesday, 18th July when Jonathan Clements will be sharing his insights about the past and present of Beijing through the pages of his book published by Haus Publishing.

Tickets on sale here.

Smoke and Mirrors

pallavi-7304-166191724_stdWhen Pallavi Aiyar first arrives in Beijing, she is a baffled plus-one, trailing reluctantly behind her future husband. After serving time as an English teacher to an eager but snooty class of yuppie students, she falls into journalism, writing for The Hindu. Just as her tales of Beijing street life exhaust the possibilities of quirky neighbours and intercultural misunderstandings, she is suddenly propelled into a new narrative, speeding off with business delegations, reporting on politicians and pushing herself further afield in search of new stories in Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China.

Writing primarily for an Indian readership, Aiyar’s touchstones for Chinese history are a refreshing world away from most other China hands’. She visits the Shaolin Temple and the White Horse Temple, centres of early Buddhism back in the Silk Road days when the Chinese still regarded it as a foreign, Indian import. She lampoons the culture clash of Chinese banquets, where hosts honouring their guests with sea slugs and chicken feet are baffled by the dietary requirements of teetotal vegetarians. She approaches “unique” issues with even-handed objectivity, pointing out that there are provinces in India with far worse boy-girl birth ratios, even without a one-child policy. And she offers the Indian version of everybody’s Beijing traffic horror stories, pointing out that, to visitors from Delhi, Chinese roads are impressively calm and peaceful.

img-1-small480Books about Beijing are ten-a-penny and often sadly samey, but Aiyar is unafraid to go that extra mile. Many, myself included, have reported on the presence of a Bad English Hotline before the Olympics, designed to hunt down the worst mistakes on signage. But Aiyar is the writer who actually calls up to report an error, only to discover that the woman on the other end of the phone doesn’t speak English.

Every decade produces at least one kick-arse account that has an angle valuable enough to work as historical reportage, and Smoke and Mirrors deserves to be shelved alongside Michael Meyer’s Last Days of Old Beijing, for offering important anecdotal details of the first half of the first decade of the 21st century, from SARS to the preparations for the Olympics.

This is an immensely valuable perspective, dragging the reader off from traditional journalistic angles, which, as Aiyar herself points out, are usually white, western ones. She has since turned the tables in similar fashion on Europe itself, which she approaches with occidentalist glee in New Old World, and brought insightful comparisons in her account of the smogs of Beijing and Delhi in Choked. Since she is now based in Tokyo, Japan is sure to follow.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Armchair Traveller’s History of Beijing. Smoke & Mirrors: An Experience of China is published by Fourth Estate. See Clements and Aiyar in conversation at Mumbai’s 2016 Times Litfest here.

Armchair Beijing

41A5LcKbTvL._SX268_BO1,204,203,200_Comments are in for my new Armchair Traveller’s History of Beijing, from some impressively heavy hitters.

“This book is like having a friendly, knowledgeable companion taking your arm as you wander through the back alleys and boulevards of one of the world’s great cities. Clements wears his learning lightly, and his informed but inclusive tone makes this the perfect book for the visitor to Beijing.” — Rana Mitter, author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction

“Beijingers, both Chinese and foreign, mourn the Chinese capital’s rapidly-disappearing traditional alleys but few of us appreciate Beijing as a city that has lasted through 2,500 years of building and destruction. Jonathan Clements’ tour of the city starts with Peking Man and a jovial candy seller, and moves on through the Chinese dynasties with a readable flair. He comes well-stocked with tales that will be new even to long-time residents. It’s a book for a warm teahouse on a cold winter afternoon.” — Lucy Hornby, China correspondent, Financial Times

“It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Jonathan Clements to compile a readable account of Beijing. Authoritative yet deliciously irreverent, his history of the city is an essential companion for the visitor and a treasure trove of vicarious delights for the chair-bound.” — John Keay, author of China: A History

“If New York and London dominated the global imagination in the twentieth century, Beijing is already in the process of usurping them in the twenty first. An extraordinarily exciting city, possessed of enormous optimism and expectation, it has a long, fascinating and complex history. Jonathan Clements unpeels the onion that is Beijing and in a highly readable and informative book gives us a wonderful glimpse of the history of a compelling city.” — Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World

“…direct, well-written history, that travels at a steady pace from Peking Man to the ill-fated opening of a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City… if you’re after some interesting facts to impress friends and visitors with, this is the book for you.” — That’s Beijing

“Jonathan Clements evocatively captures the contradictions and complexities of contemporary Beijing while rooting the city in its broader historical context … Covering such a wide swathe of territory is no easy task, but Clements does so skilfully and often wittily, weaving together myth, factual data and vivid details … Clements’s written is lyrical at times, but there are also moments of jocularity in unexpected places. When introducing the Beijing Zoo, for example, he wryly notes that “dogs are available for rental, for anyone who wants to… rent a dog.'” — Times Literary Supplement

Available now from Amazon UK/US.

"I have not told the half of what I saw."

Although they may be self-indulgent and self-regarding, I’ve really been enjoying everybody else’s round-ups of the ten years since the numbers rolled over from 19– to 20–. Herewith the last decade as it looks from here.

2000. In the first week of January, I discover that I am not going blind after all. Instead, the screen is dying on the laptop I have used since grad school. The purchase of a new desktop unit brings the internet into my home for the first time, and with it, an avalanche of Amazon parcels. Manga Max magazine is shut down in July, two days before I receive a Japan Festival Award for editing it. I write six episodes of Halcyon Sun, and briefly work on an IMAX movie project that falls at the first hurdle. Then, I’m hired to storyline and then co-script a console game that has been part-funded by a crazy arms manufacturer.

2001. The mad game is cancelled, apparently because of 9/11. By this time I am already working on another console project, writing three new “episodes” for a much-loved sci-fi franchise. It is only after the voices are all recorded, with the original cast, that the manufacturers decide to pull the plug. Something to do with the game being a stupid idea in the first place. All this gaming money gets funnelled into the Anime Encyclopedia, which eventually breaks even for me in 2007. I love working on that book so much that I look forward to getting out of bed every morning (a condition regularly repeated over the following years — I really do love my job). My first trip to America: Atlanta, for the book launch.

2002. Having superb fun working on the Dorama Encyclopedia. I am a presenter on the Sci Fi channel’s bizarre and mercifully forgotten Saiko Exciting, which first involves me reading the anime news, and later speed-translating and performing modern pop classics into Mandarin. I am offered the editorship of Newtype USA seven times, but decline because I have just got my dream job: a publisher has commissioned my obsession of many years, Pirate King. First DVD commentary, for Appleseed; I’ve since done many more for Manga Entertainment, Momentum Pictures, Artsmagic and ADV Films. Consultant on the first season of the TV series Japanorama. Film festivals in Italy and Norway.

2003. Working for a famous toy company on the “story” that will accompany their new line of toys. Fantastic fun, and very educational. Back to Japan for the first time in years, Kyoto and Tokyo; Dallas for another anime convention, and Turku, Finland. Writing the Highwaymen novelisation, and a whole rack of Big Finish scripts, including Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Sympathy for the Devil. Start learning Finnish, because life’s not difficult enough.

2004. Sign a deal to write a book a year about China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. This year, Confucius: A Biography. Back to Atlanta for another anime convention. Buy half a flat in London.

2005. A Brief History of the Vikings presents a fantastic excuse to poke around old sagas for a few months. Present my History of Japanese Animation lecture series at the Worldcon in Scotland, and later sell it as a series of magazine articles. I also write a massive 12-part History of Manga for Neo magazine. Start writing the Manga Snapshot column, which is still running five years later. Publication, somewhat late, of my novel Ruthless.

2006. The First Emperor of China. Off to Xi’an and Beijing. A new edition of the Anime Encyclopedia. Consultant for The South Bank Show on anime, although I am largely ignored. Write the novella Cheating the Reaper.

2007. Got married — honeymoon in Estonia after Mrs Clements vetoed Georgia. Wu. Not a book title that is easy to bring up on search engines, although you can hear me doing a great interview about it here on Radio Four. Before it’s even published, there are excited feelers from a TV company, which hires me to work on the outline of a 16-episode drama series based on the early Tang dynasty. Nothing comes of it, although I do spend the money going to Japan to get materials for another book: Nagasaki and the Amakusa archipelago.

2008. Beijing: The Biography of a City is published. But my next book, Christ’s Samurai, is left in limbo when Sutton Publishing can no longer afford to pay for it. Luckily, Haus Publishing has decided it wants a massive multi-volume history of the Paris Peace Conference, and has me writing the biographies of the Chinese and Japanese representatives. Big Finish scripts for Highlander and Doctor Who. Titan Books ask me to start this blog.

2009. Switzerland for the Locarno Film Festival. Back to Japan for a month getting materials for three new book projects. Then Shanghai, Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York on the way home. Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy is a Christmas bestseller… in Finland, although it goes down a storm at the launch in London’s Finnish Institute. Big Finish scripts for Robin Hood, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who. My collected articles and speeches appear as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I am rendered poor as a church mouse by an exploding boiler.

2010. Next year, I am supposed to be going to Taiwan for the filming of Koxinga: Sailing Through History, a documentary for National Geographic. I have two big publications coming on Admiral Togo and A Brief History of the Samurai — although if it’s got more than 300 pages, can we really call it brief? I’ve got a deadline for another book in January, and after that, who knows…?

I don’t know about you, but that little list sure scares the hell out of me. This, I guess, is the flipside of those cheery little adverts in the broadsheet press, that trill “Why Not Be a Writer?” That’s why not. Because unless you love your job so much that you need to be dragged away from it, you will never put in the required hours. And yet, like Marco Polo, “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Happy New Year.

Game On

Nothing describes the Chinese transition into capitalism quite as well as the Beijing Olympic mascots. Five little critters swarm all over the Beijing merchandise, in a move that guarantees a Pokémon style supermarket sweep for any parents at the games. Oh yes, you’ll have to catch ’em all, and since there are five of them, that’s five times the foreign currency for Beijing. Behind the scenes, the multiple mascots might have been intended to prevent any single Chinese region from speaking for the whole. You can’t have just a panda, as that only means Sichuan to the Chinese. Can’t have just a swallow, as that’s the symbolic bird of the Beijing region. A fish is too Shanghainese. What about a big red personification of the Olympic flame? What about a politically-sensitive Tibetan antelope? What about all of the above, darting across the merchandise like a squad of colour-coded Power Rangers.
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