"Beijing Time will not suit those who are after clear answers to city problems or those who desire a precise guide to iconic buildings for a tourist itinerary," says co-author Michael Dutton. "Instead, it is designed for those people who want to linger in a place and to dream a little about what the quotidian might hold for larger questions of life." We asked Dutton to expand upon how Beijing Time unveils a metaphysical city that doesn't exist for the average Western tourist. Instead, the book reveals the city as "a cosmologically informed machine"--a series of passageways designed by ancient planners to properly regulate the flow of qi, or spirit, so that harmony between the elements is maintained. It's impossible to see without the proper mindset (or an experienced guide like Dutton), but it's there, exerting its pull on the minds of residents and perhaps on your own, even if you don't yet know it.
Below is what Dutton had to say about Beijing Time.
Beijing Time is for the cerebral tourist. It’s for a person who wants to wander through Beijing, in the tradition of Walter Benjamin or jump into the imaginary as Italo Calvino does. It offers a slightly quirky and somewhat offbeat look at the Olympic host city and takes the reader from an examination of the symbolic nature of city space through to the daily enchantments of backstreet life. Along the way, it explains how trash contributed to the development of a punk sub-culture, how rag-pickers and ghost markets constituted signs of a city constantly recycling "things" and ideas. It looks at how graffiti is more often than not a form of guerrilla advertising in a society obsessed with degrees and certificates and how Beijing came to have its own subterranean city beneath its streets and boulevards.
Beijing is a city of paradoxes and contradictions. At 798, the leading contemporary art market in Beijing, avant-garde and dissident artists pay premium rents that prop up the last vestiges of an ailing socialist enterprise. At an ‘authentic’ traditional Beijing restaurant, the very idea of tradition is being re-invented, while in the downtown neighborhood of Jiaodaokou, a Maoist style campaign is underway to clean the streets in order to attract more foreign tourists to a self described "Old Beijing." Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, bulldozers tear down some of the last vestiges of "Old Beijing" to ensure that the city looks like the future by the time the games arrive. Beijing Time examines these things as part of the many layers of city time that exist simultaneously in this complex and often contradictory place. Winding its way through such contradictions, paradoxes and problems, Beijing Time attempts to speak to the question of what it is that makes this city tick.
For the Beijing authorities there is only a bright future, which begins with the hosting of the upcoming Olympic games [ed. note--we've got a book on this]. For the authorities, hosting the Olympics has become a watershed moment. It’s a coming out party for a city that points to the way of the future. It is for this reason that, in the very heart of the capital, they have installed a gigantic timepiece that counts down the seconds to when the Olympic games will begin. As this countdown gets closer, the air is thick with a mixture of pollution, excitement, anticipation and nervousness. Beijing is putting on its best face. Commissioning a range of massive building projects such as the extension to the subway, the spectacular pearl shaped National Grant Theatre, the extraordinary CCTV building, the amazing new airport and, of course, the many new and wondrous Olympic sites, such as the "bird's nest" and the "water cube," helps present an image of Beijing as the city of the future. Here is an image of Beijing that the Chinese tourist bureau wants to sell. It is an account in which the spectacular, barely completed architectural creations of today are joined to an already rich building stock—the Forbidden City [ed. note--we've got a book on this too], the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs—to forge an image of the city as futuristic, but built on the ground of a glorious past.
Yet this image of the city, according to Beijing Time, has skipped a beat. It has ignored the power of China’s more recent history to leave an imprint. It has ignored the way in which, for over 30 years, Beijing was thought of, not as the city of the Olympic slogan "one world, one dream," but as a site of an ongoing two-line struggle. Even a cursory glance at the inner city architecture reminds us of this very different alternative future once envisaged for Beijing, which opened onto an entirely different perspective on this city. It was as different from today as it was from the traditional China it fought to overthrow.
In old dynastic Beijing, the central concern of city planners was to ensure that the flow of qi, or spirit, coursed through the city’s veins. Building works were merely part of a gigantic cosmologically informed machine that channeled the flow of qi down a south-north axis that ran from the Temple of Heaven through to the Forbidden City. Nine gates regulated this flow of qi opening and closing to the beating of drums and chiming of gongs from the Bell and Drum towers built in the north. The flow of qi not only reinvigorated the city but, more importantly, it promoted harmony with the elements. It was just this focus on harmony that was disrupted by the revolution of 1949, and it was this revolution that also changed the flow of qi.
Throughout the 1950s a series of iconic building work took place along an west to east corridor that ran through the centre of the city. It was in this way that the Avenue of Eternal Peace supplanted the south-north axis. Yet more important than changing a directional flow, the communist party shifted "spirit" away from metaphysical discourse, into one in which human spirit was central. What had been a qi of harmony now turned into one that fuelled political intensity and struggle and it was as part of that struggle that this "Old Beijing" was built. Out of this struggle grew the idea of comradeship and, out of that, grew a way of life that find a depoliticised family resemblance in the forms of neighbourhood that still exist in contemporary Beijing. Beijing Time takes the reader to such neighbourhoods as it follows the path of this multifaceted qi from a spirit of harmony to one of struggle, from one of struggle into one of community. Its in chasing this spirit, that we have cause to spend time with the residents of the backstreets, follow the path of the police on their beat and join the local neighbourhood committee in discussions of their lives, their districts and their futures. Beijing Time will not suit those who are after clear answers to city problems or those who desire a precise guide to iconic buildings for a tourist itinerary. Instead, it is designed for those people who want to linger in a place and to dream a little about what the quotidian might hold for larger questions of life. Beijing Time is one such reflection on the city.