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Beijing Through Literature

We tend to get to know a place through its writers: Victorian England through Dickens, the American South through Faulkner, Colombia through Marquez and Paris via Baudelaire. And of course, Beijing is no exception, with rich literary heritage and plenty of associated sites of pilgrimage for the bookish backpacker to uncover.

The Ming-Qing


Source: Hopees

As the capital for most of the past 800 years, it probably stands to reason that the city of Beijing has honed more than its fair share of talented scribes. For instance during the Qing Dynasty, a disenfranchised drinker and bohemian called Cao Xueqin composed the epic romance known to the Western world as The Dream of the Red Chamber or A Dream of Red Mansions (sometimes also called The Story of the Stone). Today the epic novel – regarded as an allegory to the fortunes and foibles of the Manchu Qing – is considered one of China’s four great novels along with the 14th-century classics, The Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the 16th-century fantasy epic A Journey to the West. Indeed to many it represents the zenith of Chinese classical literature and its story is retold on television, in film and various pop culture mediums to this day.

The Cao Xueqin Memorial Hall is located in the Beijing Botanical Gardens at the foot of Fragrant Mountain towards the Western half of the city. A five-yuan entrance fee wins access to a rectangle courtyard and 18 rooms designed in the traditional Qing architectural style. The exhibition rooms display aspects of Cao’s life as well as recreating the world that influenced of A Dream of Red Mansions.

Revolutionaries and Modernisers


Source: theatresmithgilmore

After the fall of Qing Dynasty in 1911 intellectuals in Beijing soon grew disenfranchised with their new Republic, which was fragile and blighted by corruption. Following the end of World War One, the peace conference in Versailles failed to uphold China’s sovereignty awarding Germany’s colonies in Shandong to Japan. The political outrage led to protests from Peking and Tsinghua University students; the May Fourth Movement, which soon fed the thriving cultural scene as the New Culture Movement. With scholars like Communist party founders Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao as well storytellers and critics like Zhou Zuoren and his older brother Lu Xun, the ills of the nation were taken to task.

Lu, in particular, became a leading intellectual penning some of China’s best know stories of the period including the damning A Diary of a Madman and The True Story of A’Qu, both thinly veiled assaults of what Lu perceived to be the weaknesses of traditional Chinese culture. Many of his most famous essays were penned in a house in the capital during his 14 years of residency. The courtyard just west of Fucheng Gate is now dubbed The Former Residence of Lu Xun and houses a small museum dedicated to the great nationalist hero.

Other interesting former residences include that of Mao Dun, located at the back of Yuan’en Temple and Lao She, a discreet courtyard at the mouth of Fengfu Hutong. Mao Dun was the pen name of Shen Dehong, a novelist and critic who eventually became the first Minister of Culture after the foundation of the People’s Republic. His novella Spring Silkworms and novel Midnight both dealt with the economic issues leftist intellectuals perceived were blighting China. Lao She was more politically ambiguous, and his life would meet a tragic end after humiliation from the Red Guards resulted in his suicide. But his many books, notably Rickshaw Boy, won him much praise at home and abroad as Beijing’s Dickens, a laureate of the city and its downcast.  

Reform until Today


Source: The Beijing

Literature all but died during the mad days of the Cultural Revolution but since the reform began in the late 70s China has once again started producing noteworthy writers. Many of these writers have made Beijing their full or part-time home including Yu Hua, Mo Yan, Wang Shuo and Sheng Keyi.

Beijing’s many universities cultivate a vibrant literary community while the city abounds with a national chain and boutique bookstores, as well as some groovy book bars and cafés.

For English books, Wanfujing Bookstore and the Beijing Foreign Languages Bookstore, both on Wangfujing Commercial Shopping Street, sell a large selection of overseas books as well as Chinese books in translation.

Sanlitun, the traditional expat hub, is home to Page One, a flashy Singaporean chain bookstore, as well as The Bookworm, arguably the epicenter of international literary culture in the Chinese capital. The Bookworm regularly plays hosts to talks from foreign and local writers and holds a literature festival each spring. The food is not half bad to boot. In short, if you are of a literary bent a visit to Beijing necessitates at least a coffee in this unique bastion of the arts.

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.


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