[REVIEW] “History is Often Chilling: Reviewing Jonathan Chatwin’s Long Peace Street” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

{Written by Susan Blumberg-Kason, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Long Peace Street A walk in modern China By Jonathan Chatwin

Jonathan Chatwin, Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China, Manchester University Press, 2019. 364 pgs.

It’s difficult to think of many streets in the world that encompass as much of a country’s history as Chang’an Lu in Beijing. Jonathan Chatwin has written a stirring narrative about this street and its history in his new book, Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China. He takes two days to walk from the western edge of Chang’an Lu to the eastern side—before it becomes a highway—and devotes one chapter to each of the highlights along his route. And thanks to a highly engaging map of the street created by his wife, Kate, it’s easy for readers to keep track of his walk. The inside back cover also includes a map of the Forbidden City, one of the stops on Chatwin’s walk.

In addition to celebrated sites like the Forbidden City and Tiananmen, the ones that stuck in my mind speak to lesser-known bits of history. For instance, the 1967 Hong Kong riots are a big part of its history, but this turmoil also had implications in Beijing. Chatwin recounts how the Red Guards stormed the British embassy in Beijing after the Hong Kong government arrested 23 communist journalists for inciting riots in the British colony. Chatwin’s narrative of that evening is chilling.

I tried to imagine the scenes here on that dark, hot night in 1967; the air still and carrying the cries of the Red Guards, who chanted Sha! Sha!—Kill! Kill! as they entered the compound. Through the windows of the registry to which the British had retreated flames flickered. Liquid was poured through the window—was it petrol or water? Water. As the smoke got thicker, and realising they needed to get out, the British left through the back door and were absorbed through the crowds, who rained blows on their head and shoulders.

History is often chilling, whether it’s something as frightening as the Red Guards or something more hopeful like when someone speaks up against cruel political policies. Toward the beginning of Long Peace Street, Chatwin visits the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, the former site of a resting place for returned eunuchs. In this chapter we learn that most of the PRC founders are buried (or their ashes are scattered) in their hometowns. But in the case of Peng Dehuai, his ashes are interned in this Beijing cemetery.

The three-act tragedy of Peng’s life seemed to me to exemplify the tumult of the Mao era, and the remarkable human cost attached to trying to do the right thing at a time when the simple virtues of morality and empathy counted for little.

It’s estimated that more than 60 million people died during the Great Leap Forward, but when Peng tried to warn Mao about the dangers of this policy, Mao took Peng’s warning as a personal affront.

[Peng] was taken to Beijing, where in January of 1967 he was paraded in chains and a dunce hat. Peng had been the defence minister in the early years of the People’s Republic and spent seven years in prison—just for speaking up— before he died at the age of seventy-six.

Peng was rehabilitated years after he died and to honour him posthumously, his ashes are now interned at Babaoshan. It’s not that these stories are unknown, but historians who write in English usually focus on PRC founders like Mao and Zhou Enlai. It’s refreshing to read more about those who took the risk of speaking out, even if they didn’t know it would be so fatal at the time.

As Chatwin walks along Chang’an Jie, he wonders if Beijing as a capital can withstand all the new construction. Many of the city’s older buildings were destroyed in the 1950s when the Stalinist buildings went up, yet the old hutongs mainly remained. Now as the hutongs are torn down for modern high rises, will Beijing’s identity change? Two years after Chatwin’s walk, he returns to Chang’an Jie and takes a look around at his starting point in the book. And he’s pleasantly surprised.

Coming back, I had expected to be confronted by unrecognizable modernity, to have my mental image razed and replaced. In this story of the new Beijing, that was what this revisiting had promised. But, beyond the bridge and the now-blank landscape to the east, little had really changed.

For readers who have visited or lived in Beijing, it seems like many of the places Chatwin writes about are ones that have been around for many years, sometimes going back centuries. Yet there are others, of course, that are new like CCTV’s “Big Pants” building. As much as China has physically changed over the last forty years, Chatwin proves that many of Beijing’s historical sites have stayed the same, and those don’t only include Tiananmen and the Temple of Heaven.

On a personal note, I haven’t been to Beijing since 1991. When I tell that to most people who know the city, they say it’s like I’ve never been there. But while reading Long Peace Street, I felt like Chang’an Jie seemed very much the same as the Beijing I first saw in 1988 and again three years later. Beijing is fortunate to have Chang’an Jie and readers are fortunate to have Chatwin’s Long Peace Street.


Susan Blumberg-Kason.jpg

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone WrongHer writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)

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