This is the fourth book review in our Urbanography series and the first one read as an electronic book on my Kindle.
Trying to sum up such a vast book in a few hundred words is not an easy thing. This book by M.A. Aldrich contains an amazingly detailed account of the history of Beijing, but in a unique format – by means of a personalized tour of the city, neighborhood by neighborhood, temple by temple, and dynasty by dynasty. The level of detail and research that went into completing this monumental work is staggering. While it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, there are times where the devil is the details.
This is not to say there is anything incorrect about the details, it is just there are so many facts, names, places, and dates, that they begin to morph into a giant blob of data that can be overwhelming and sometimes confusing, especially to a relative novice of Chinese history. But, do not let that stop you from reading this book. If there is anything (and everything) you ever wanted to know about Beijing, this book is the place to find it. The author does a great job summarizing the influences and factors that shaped China’s world-class capital city.
Based solely on reading the book, I agree with Mr. Aldrich that the most recent waves of “urban redevelopment” that occurred during the Cultural Revolution and now taking place under the guise of modernization have harmed the city’s cultural sights and traditional features that made it so special in the first place. Throughout the book, the author implies two key questions:
- How many bland concrete and glass office blocks are really necessary? and
- When do you reach the point of no return when it comes to destroying community character in the name of “so-called” progress?
It is obvious from his commentary that Mr. Aldrich believes a lot of the true heart and soul of Beijing has been irrevocably lost. If so, this is sad and unfortunate. However, he also tries to accentuate the positive whenever possible.
As an urban planner, the questions posed about progress are important. In my own opinion, progress just for the sake of progress is pointless, unless it incorporates and honors the cultures, traditions, and customs of the place – otherwise community character is obliterated. Once lost, it is very hard to regain something as vague and undefinable like a “sense of place” or “community character.”
I recommend this book to all, but especially to planning professionals and engineers. The ideal of “context-sensitive design” is universal, no matter the hemisphere or culture. In Beijing and China particularly, this means honoring, respecting, and retaining the symmetry and balance envisioned in the city’s original design.
A Search for a Vanishing Beijing it is not a book that you are going to breeze right through over a holiday weekend – it is one that needs to be absorbed and pondered while reading, because it has a lot of important things to say.