Theater of Cruelty

The marketization of China's economy

Beijing from Below. Stories of Marginal Lives in the Capital'sCenter
Forfatter: Harriet Evans
Forlag: Duke University Press (USA)
CHINA / On the edge of the republic, the cultural revolution and market capitalism: Beijing from Below provides a unique insight into China of today – through life stories belonging to the urban people who have not found a place in either official history or official economic progress.


By chance I read the new one oral history-pearl Beijing from Below parallel to the somewhat older novel Murder of a red heroine (2012). These are two books that wonderfully complement each other's themes, each from its own big city and its own decade of China's ricochet into global market capitalism.

The first book, written by the British professor emerita of Chinese history, Harriet Evans (not to be confused with the bestselling novelist of the same name), is an intimate portrait of a number of poor and marginalized residents in the Dashalar district south of Tiananmen Square. (Tiananmen) based on countless interviews and conversations from the mid-2000s onwards.

The second is written by the Shanghai-born crime writer Qiu Xiaolong and is the first in the series about the investigator Chen Cao, who in this novel must try to solve the murder of a «national model worker» and at the same time navigate the political intrigues in the years immediately after Tiananmen- the massacre, and the so-called opening of the economy in the 1980s.

Those whose families were politically persecuted during the Cultural Revolution got through Deng Xiaoping's reforms during the 1980s provide an opportunity to return to the surface – and thus have the opportunity to take on both heroic and villainous roles in the 1990s Shanghai, which Qiu Xiaolong examines through the crime genre.

Tian'anmen Square.

New political winds

Conversely, Harriet Evans shows how some of Beijings most vulnerable families have experienced Chinas historical transformations – including the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping's reforms as well as China's new ones claim to fame as an economic and cultural superpower – as one long navigation through various forms of precarity.

For the people Evans interviews, the new political winds have offered neither reparation for the violence of soul and body to which they were subjected during the Cultural Revolution, nor their share of the economic progress that China has enjoyed at the level of GDP in recent times. On the contrary, the recent transformation of the nation of China ends up wiping out the existence of these city dwellers in a neighborhood to which their family history, for better or worse, has been linked for generations – for some since the time before Mao and the People's Republic.

Tiananmen Square

Both books provide a unique insight into the social geography of China's two most iconic cities, which ordinary visitors would never know. And while Murder of a red heroine depicts the class-producing political bureaucracy of the party state from what might be called the center of society, depicts Beijing from Below it, yes, from below. Both take place near Tiananmen Square: The first in the political sense, as the murder investigation takes place quite shortly after the massacre of the students, which led to internal and sometimes unpredictable clashes in the Party and surroundings, and the second in a concrete spatial sense. As Evans notes:

"The contrast between Tian'anmen Square's forgotten surface of destruction and distortion and its incipient presence as a center of global power captivated my attention when I first visited Dashalar in 2004, a dilapidated neighborhood just southwest of Tian'anmen Square."

Until 2017, Evans repeatedly visited – in the first years in the company of the locally based photographer Zaho Tielin – various households in this neighborhood, which in connection with the preparations for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 were subjected to cultural heritage (i.e. construction of, what someone has called a Disney version of what the neighborhood once looked like) and ten years later another tangible state refurnishing in which the last remaining original residents were relocated.

Read in at least three ways

Beijing from Below thus describes an urban area that no longer exists, but which until very recently made up the whole world for hundreds of thousands of people, whose economically marginalized lives made the great movements impossible, and whose lack of mobility paradoxically sent them on a journey they had not even chosen.

They have never had access to climb the ladders that the Party has set up for selected sections of the population.

Now old Mrs. Gao, who for almost a century has dragged herself and her family through the most difficult conditions, is Hua Meiling, who after a few years in prison for prostitution became even more rap-jawed if possible: the self-taught calligrapher and local historian Wang Wenli – and all the others we get to know in the book, spread for all to win.

The people in the book have in common that most of their lives they have lived on around 10 square meters or less, that they have supported themselves most of their lives by odd jobs – although some of them have had permanent (low-paid and primarily manual) ) worked for part of their adult lives before the marketization of China's economy – and that they have never had access to climb the ladder, which the Party has set up for selected parts of the population. They also have in common that they have been given no place in the official history, and that the impact points of the official history take on a new and displaced meaning in their life stories.

Beijing from Below can be read in at least three ways: As an almost literary depiction of a series of lived lives, where in all their ordinary uncommonness is surprising and predictable and captivating and heartbreaking and not least despite; as an exquisite example of the subversive power that lies in oral history, when the method is used to challenge the power of archives and official historiography; and finally as a gifted criticism of the party state in particular but also of the state in general and thus at once a corrective to the party state's own narrative about itself and to the West's predictable criticism of "communist" China.

In its essence is Beijing from Below a testimony of, how class divide is produced, and how it is experienced by those who find themselves at the bottom, and who in creative and persistent ways try to make their lives meaningful, dignified and often just livable.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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