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Neglect of a neighbourhood: oral accounts of life in ‘old Beijing’ since the eve of the People's Republic


Oral accounts of life over seven decades in Dashalanr, a popular neighbourhood in central Beijing, reveal a social world that despite being shaped by the state's policies of social and political classification, housing and employment, has been resistant to complete appropriation by them. Based on research in the neighbourhood since 2005, and drawing on Xuanwu District archives, this article examines local residents’ accounts of long decades of hardship and neglect. With an analytical framework that links gender with temporality, place and space, it suggests ways in which their singular experiences can be read as historical narrative.

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1 Broudehoux, A., The Making and Selling of Post-Mao Beijing (London, 2004), 239–40.

2 Dai, J., ‘Imagined nostalgia’, Boundary 2, 24 (1997), 146.

3 For the political conflicts surrounding the rebuilding of the capital's centre during the 1950s see Wu, H., Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space (London, 2005), and Wang, J., Chengji (Records of a City) (Beijing, 2003).

4 Richard Belsky argues that in contrast to Shanghai, native-place lodges in Beijing were by the early Republican period increasingly seen as vestiges of the past, decades before they were condemned as ‘feudal remnants’ by the new government in 1949. Belsky, R., Localities at the Center: Native Place, Space and Power in Late Imperial Beijing (Cambridge, MA, 2005), 248–56.

5 Strand, D., Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s (Berkeley, 1989). The dazayuan where my local acquaintances live mostly date back to the early Republican era. A report in the Beijing Morning News (Beijing Chenbao) of 17 Sep. 1936 noted that ‘apart from those [courtyards] allocated for government use and those owned by the bourgeoisie, the rest . . . have changed from single to multiple family residences (dazayuan)’. A 1930s survey estimated that the average size of dwelling in these mixed courtyards was 2.6–3.7 metres long by 2.2–2.9 metres wide. Soon after 1949, 20% of all such houses were reported to be ‘dangerous, crowded, and leaking’. Beijing zhi, Shizheng juan, Fangdichan zhi (Beijing Annals, Volume on Municipal Administration, Property Annals) (Beijing, 2000), 32–3.

6 For a discussion of the literature on Shanghai, see Wasserstrom, J.N.'s review essay, ‘New approaches to old Shanghai’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 32 (2001), 265–81.

7 Urban History, Special Issue no. 3, 38 (2011).

8 Key exceptions are Strand, Rickshaw Beijing; Lu, H., Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century (Berkeley, CA, 1999).

9 Dong, M.Y., Republican Beijing: The City and its Histories (Berkeley, CA, 2003).

10 Lincoln, T., ‘Fleeing from firestorms: governments, cities, native place associations and refugees in the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance’, Urban History, 38 (2011), 457–74.

11 Chen, J., Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900–1953 (Princeton, 2012).

12 Dutton, M., with Lo, H.S. and Wu, D.D., Beijing Time (Cambridge, MA, 2008); Shao, Q., Shanghai Gone: Domicide and Defiance in a Chinese Megacity (Lanham, MA, 2013).

13 Prakash, G., ‘The impossibility of subaltern history’, Subaltern Studies, 1 (2000), 268.

14 All names in this article are pseudonyms, to protect the identity of my informants.

15 Even in its ruined state, this could be thought of as a local lieu de mémoire, although in contrast to Pierre Nora's elaboration of the term (Nora, P., Les lieux de mémoire, vol. I (Paris, 1984), local residents do not inscribe in it a broader notion of the nation.

16 For a description of Dashalanr's conditions in the mid-2000s, inherited from the 1950s, see Zhu, M. (ed.) Beijing chengqu jiaoluo diaocha (Investigation of Urban Corners in Beijing) (Beijing, 2005), 77–9, 213–17.

17 Of 124 families studied in Sidney Gamble's mid-1920s survey of 283 families in Beiping, 44% lived in one room, including 41 families with five to seven people. Gamble, S.D., How Chinese Families Live in Beiping (New York and London, 1933), 129–30.

18 Xuanwu qu dang'an guan (XWDG, Xuanwu District Archives) 13–1-34, 3.

19 XWDG 10–2-17, 7:199–102.

20 ‘On a rough estimate, the construction of a seven storey building of 1 million sq metres requires the demolition of 180,00–280,000 square metres of old buildings meaning the relocation of 20,000–30,000 people. So we not only have to resolve the housing issues for residents, but the influence on their employment and lives.’ This report went on to note that ‘there is an excessively high building and population density in the old city areas, so the numbers of buildings that will have to be demolished and residents who will have to be resettled are very high’. ‘Guojia jihua weiyuanhui duiyu Zhonggong Beijing shi wei “Guanyu gaijian yu kuojian Beijing shi guihua cao'an” yijian xiang Zhongyang de baogao’ (Report by the State Planning Commission to the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee on ideas about the Beijing Municipal Committee's ‘Draft regulations on reconstructing and expanding the city of Beijing’), 16 Oct. 1954, in Beijing zhi, 244–5.

21 Ibid., 219.

22 Ibid., 244.

23 State appropriation of provincial lodges (huiguan) for use as schools, kindergartens, factories and officies, as well as residential properties ironically meant that ‘despite all the rhetoric of destroying the past to build the new’ characteristic of the Mao period, the physical structures of the native-place lodges were for the most part much better preserved during that period than they have been during the subsequent decades of post-Mao reform’. Belsky, Localities at the Center, 257.

24 Beijing zhi, 208.

25 Meyer, M., The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (New York, 2008), 46. Local property owners have little recourse to law to uphold their opposition to demolition since the state owns all land on which property is built. See Hsing, Y., The Great Urban Transformation: Politics of Land and Property in China (Oxford, 2010). A plaintiff in a case against the Xuanwu District government in 2006 only prevented demolition because he managed to unearth a legal document drawn up years beforehand identifying his dazayuan as a ‘cultural protection site’. Personal information from the plaintiff, 17 Jan. 2010.

26 N. Ou, Meishi Jie (Meishi Street), documentary film (2006).

27 ‘ . . . critics of high-rise apartment housing often point to the indifference that characterizes relations between their residents. However, . . . in the one-storey courtyard houses, close relations among the residents do not necessarily mean intimate relations. Their interaction is forced upon them by tight circumstances and entails a fundamental disruption of privacy.’ Wu, L., Rehabilitating the Old City of Beijing: A Project in the Ju'er Hutong Neighbourhood (Vancouver, 1999), 114.

28 Prakash, G., ‘Introduction’, in Prakash, G. and Kruse, K. M. (eds.), The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life (Princeton and Oxford, 2005), 13; Roy, A., ‘Slumdog cities: rethinking subaltern urbanism’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35 (2011), 10.

29 For an early discussion about the neighbourhood committee's role in administrative control and political mobilization of local populations, see Salaff, J., ‘Urban residential communities in the wake of the Cultural Revolution’, in Lewis, J. (ed.), The City in Communist China (Stanford, 1971), 289324.

30 Margery Wolf famously argued that through producing children, particularly sons – her uterine family – a woman could claim public legitimacy in her husband's ancestral line, and nurture bonds with her sons that could underwrite her authority in family matters. Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan (Stanford, 1972).

31 Feuchtwang, S., ‘Theorising place’, in Feuchtwang, S. (ed.), Making Place: State Projects, Globalisation and Local Responses on China (London, 2004), 11.

32 Massey, D., For Space (London, 2005), 115.

33 Stafford, C., Separation and Reunion in Modern China (Cambridge, 2000), ch. 6.

34 Hershatter, G., The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2011).

35 Guo, Y. and Sun, L., ‘Suku: yizhong nongmin guojia guannian xingcheng de zhongjie jizhi’ (Pouring out grievances: a mediated mechanism for the shaping of the peasants’ idea of the state), Zhongguo xueshu (China Scholarship), 4 (2002), 130–57.

36 Hershatter, The Gender of Memory, 288.

37 Feuchtwang, S., After the Event: The Transmission of Grievous Loss in Germany, China and Taiwan (New York and Oxford, 2011), 14.

38 Ibid., 14.

39 XWDG, 13–2-4.

40 XWDG, 13-1-34, 4.

* Research for this article was supported by the British Academy and the Universities’ China Committee in London. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the late Zhao Tielin and his research assistant Huang Mingfang, without whom I would not have become acquainted with the people whose experiences contribute to this article. I am grateful to friends and colleagues for their critical comments as this article was taking shape, including Laura Bear, Angelina Chin, Stephan Feuchtwang, Gail Hershatter, Jing Jun, Rebecca Karl, Molly McPhee, Michael Rowlands and Jeffrey Wasserstrom. I also thank the editors and two anonymous reviewers for their insights. Most of all I thank my Dashalanr acquaintances for their willingness to share their stories with me.

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