china in two weeks--Beijing help

Aug 24th, 2004, 07:55 AM
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Peter, my post about good source for China history is serious. Even though I don't agree with everything you said, I think some of your points are refreshing and interesting. I was often frustrated with the difficulties to get reliable information regarding to history and world affairs.
xgao is offline  
Aug 24th, 2004, 10:06 AM
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For a readable single-volume history of China, albeit only from part-way through the Ming onwards try The Search for Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence.

Spence has also written individual titles on the Kangxi emperor, the Taiping Rebellion, on one of the first Chinese to visit Europe, on how Jesuit Matteo Ricci managed to be the first to gain permission to reside in Beijing, and on a case of treason during the reign of the Yongzheng emperor. All are very readable.

On the whole question of the history of the relationship between China and outsiders, The Sextants of Beijing by Diana Waley-Cohen is much more interesting than its daft title suggests, and deals with the passage of technology and ideas in both directions. Needless to say, as with other countries, very little happened in China in isolation and the influence of neighbours was as strong as Chinese influence in the other direction.

I'd agree that there's a great deal of dreadful material on the events in Tian'an Men Guangchang, especially the worst of the look-at-me 'journalism' by foreign reporters such as that idiot Kristof fro the New York Times. But for a more mature view of the events and in the broader perspective of various other behind-the-scenes efforts to introduce a little plurality into Chinese politics (all of which were set back or destroyed by the student demonstrations) read Black Hands of Beijing by George Black and Robin Munro.

I've just started Retreat of the Elephants--An Environmental History of China by Mark Elvin, which looks promising, and considerably more poetic than its title suggests, although rather distressing, too.

For contemporary politics there's so much choice: The Tiananmen Papers, Li Zhisui's account of Mao Zedong, and even from within China there's Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha (in characters, if they appear:


which was selling fast until banned, and is now selling even faster in bootleg copies. It shouldn't be hard to get someone to obtain one for you (mine's on it's way. You can find a few pages at

Peter N-H
PeterN_H is offline  
Aug 24th, 2004, 12:45 PM
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Thanks. I flipped through Li Zhishui's book on Mao. (These types of biographies should be discounted and I never quite like them.) Saw one edition of Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha. (So you read Chinese well.) I think I know current affairs relatively well. I am more interesed in the accounts on history, which is harder to get to the trueth due to historical distortions.
xgao is offline  
Aug 24th, 2004, 04:05 PM
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I guessed for sure that Jonathan Spence's book would be at the top of Peter's list - after all, Spence (another Britisher), engages to a certain extent in revisionist history, slanted in favor of Great Britain or Europe.

That said, it's difficult to write modern history without some kind of slant. There are historians of "modern" China who slant towards the Communists; others who slant towards the Nationalists; others - who consider themselves "patriots" and slanted towards neither, however, do tend to slant towards the modern concept of "nationalism" and therefore are anti-Manchu, anti-Qing, who all of a sudden have become "non-Chinese, non-Han"; still others want to interpret Confucianism by layering on some modern school of philosophy, thus rendering the original almost unrecognizable; still others try to interpret Chinese history from the European point of view or the Marxist point of view or... and on and on. Who was it that said "You can't really write 'history' until 200 years have passed since the events"?

Apart from this aside, Jonathan Spence's writings are a wonderful read, mainly because he writes such beautiful English. If you agree with his world view then it's a fantastic read. The volume on the Kangxi emperior is a gem.

For myself, having been blessed during my youth with the presence and company of some of the greatest scholars (European, Asian, and American) of Asia in the 20th century, and having at one time struggled to learn classical Mongolian, Manchu, and Tibetan (yes, and Chinese as well), I offer - with some hesitancy - the following list of authors whom I consider as having a more objective view than most:

These are for "general" reading, as there is a wealth of scholarly articles and books on specific aspects of China.

The dean of American scholars on Chinese history was John K Fairbank. He teamed with Edwin Reischauer on a two volume work on East Asia; Fairbank did the China part and Reischauer, an equally eminent scholar, did the Japan part. These two volumes are getting to be a bit "old" and in need of an update, but they are still pretty thorough and somewhat objective. Fairbank later authored another history of China which was finished just prior to his death in 1991. Although this later volume has more of modern China in it, my own preference is still for the older two volume production. Fairbank and Reischauer have both been criticized for their pro-American approach and justifiably so.

A more accessible book is by Theodore de Bary (Columbia University), "Sources of Chinese Tradition", which are translations from the original Chinese with valuable comments added. de Bary's volume is an excellent introduction to Chinese culture and thought. He has also compiled two other volumes "Sources of Japanese Tradition" and "Sources of Korean Tradition". If you want to understand classical China, this is the best one volume easy guide. I call it "accessible" because each translation is a stand-alone work and so the entire book is in digestible chunks.

Michael Sullivan of Oxford University has written several excellent books on Chinese art. A wonderful book of his, "The Arts of China", is a great introduction to the Chinese arts. A bigger work along the same vein is Robert Thorp and Richard Vinograd's "Chinese Art and Culture".

For a book on one Chinese art: the Chinese garden, try Maggie Keswick's "The Chinese Garden". I believe that anyone who visits the palace-gardens or the gardens of Suzhou should read something about Chinese gardens, otherwise, just touring them (especially when some of them are to soome degree in a delapidated state) might be a bit of a mystifying experience.

Anything by Frances Wood, curator of the Chinese section at the British Library, is especially objective and well done. Her Blue Guide to China is very detailed, has a number of wonderful anecdotes, and, IMHO, is the best travel guide to China in terms of explaining China's culture at each historical site. Second best guide is the Rough Guide to China.

If you want to read Chinese literature in translation, my own personal preference is for Arthur Waley's works as well as the translations of Chinese poetry by Ezra Pound. Arthur Waley also translated some Japanese classics, such as "The Tales of Genji", as well as a Mongol classic, "The Secret History of the Mongols." Having struggled through classical Mongolian, I really appreciate the way Waley translated the "Secret History", a very difficult work to translate.

If you can read Chinese, you could try and access the official histories for each dynasty. This could conceivably occupy you for the rest of your life - lo!

Recently, in Marin County, I had the good fortune to listen to Simon Winchester and Jan Morris in person and then obtain a signed copy of Simon Winchester's "The River at the Center of the World [about the Yangtze River]." I'm looking forward to reading Winchester's book. Jan Morris had wrote a book on Hong Kong, which unfortunately I could not have signed. I'm looking forward to reading that book as well. BTW, Simon Winchester wrote the very popular "The Professor and The Madman", about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. He's very enjoyable to read. These are "light" reading material for me, rather than scholarly works.

Well, there's my list off the top of my head. Everyone has favorites and I'm certain others will add to this list or post a comment/objection to one book or another on my list. The literature on China is enormous and the writings in Chinese is equally voluminous. Whatever you pick, I hope you will receive enormous pleasure in reading it!
easytraveler is offline  
Aug 25th, 2004, 06:32 AM
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Thanks Easytraveler. Now I get your point on Jonathan Spence and Peter even without reading Spence's book I'll start with John Fairbank's book on China and Japan (I am going to Japan in September, so this book will help.) It would be interesting to see how a relatively more objective Western point of view on China differs from the Chinese point of view. Interestingly just read an editorial on yesterday's WSJ comparing Li Peng and Lee Kuan Yew.

xgao is offline  
Aug 25th, 2004, 11:06 AM
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Who is Peter N-H?

I'd like to ask questions regarding our second trip to China and have did so prior to our first visit. I and others have been stung by his remarks and I have been rebuked (by him) for singling him out as unkind.

I guess I have been on the Australian board too long where information is imparted with intelligence, humour and grace. If the answer comes back that he gives really good information (which could be true) can you imagine how much better it would be if he treated us as equals. What a difference it would make if he didn't make some of us feel stupid.

Could anyone tell me what Peter N-H's credentials are without having to ask "himself" to reply? I've followed up on his website but couldn't pinpoint if he lives in China (I know he has business there according to his posts), is he Chinese? Is he one of those recruited volunteers whose job it is to write for this forum (if this is done)?

Are others reluctant to post due to some of the scathing answers given?

Cheers! I have my head covered.
michi is offline  
Aug 25th, 2004, 12:11 PM
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Sorry for the typos: "some" and "dilapdated" (Oh, groan! "dilapidated")and any other typos.

xgao: You are most welcome! I'd like to suggest that, before you buy any of these books and if it is at all possible that, you go to a major library and see if it has these volumes. It's a lot of money to invest, sight unseen. Fairbank and Reischauer may be accurate with their information, but they are kind of dry and pedantic to read.

At the library, you may find another history of China that will be more readable.

At the moment, I'm half-way through Simon Winchester's "The River at the Center of the World" and find it most enjoyable. Winchester used to be a journalist, so he knows how to write to attract readers, unlike the ponderous academics.

And dear me, I didn't mean for people not to read Jonathan Spence, who has written a very important work on modern China. It's a far far better experience to be led down the garden path by Spence than to be beat about the head and shoulders by the Chinese Marxist and Communist writers with their sledgehammer brand of propaganda. I encourage you to read Spence if you want to know about modern China, just understand what his "slant" is.

If you are interested in modern China but before the Communist era, try any of Frederic Wakeman, Jr.'s (UC Berkeley)works.

There are so many many good books on China and the "Far" East, but there are also so many god-awful ones too.

michi: "Who is Peter N-H?"

As far as I can determine - and I could be very wrong - Peter N-H is Peter Neville-Hadley. He has authored/edited several guidebooks to China. In the year 2000 Cadogan "Beijing" volume, this is what is said about the author: "Peter Neville-Hadley first visited China in 1986, returning repeatedly to visit new areas while improving his Mandarin. He contributed to the second edition of Cadogan's Central Asia guide, before spending two years crossing and re-crossing the country and writing China, The Silk Routes for Cadogan. He writes regularly on China and other Asian destinations for periodicals in the UK, Canada, Hong Kong, China and Japan. This new Beijing guide is the product of three extended periods of residence in the capital over a period of 18 months, and a fourth during final corrections as the book went to press. Originally British, he now calls Vancouver home, and even occasionally spends some time there."

I do offer Peter Neville-Hadley my most profound apologies if he is NOT Peter N-H. (It would, of course, be a most extraordinary coincidence to have two people writing on China, both named Peter and both have a hyphenated last name, of which the first two letters are both N and H).

Peter has excellent travel-related information to give, mainly because it is up to date, like which train to take, etc. However, there are other posters, like rkkwan, Cicerone, Kathie, and several others, who are equally knowledgeable and who are much more civil in their tone. So, ask away, and I'm certain the others will be more than happy to assist you.

Me, too, I've got my head covered as well. C
easytraveler is offline  
Aug 25th, 2004, 01:10 PM
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I will certianly read Johnathan Spence's book as well. That's how one gets a balanced view anyway.
xgao is offline  
Aug 26th, 2004, 01:21 AM
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Michi -- In response to your question, I have stopped posting on Beijing because of Peter N-H. It's just too disheartening and depressing to be constantly cut down by his ultra-superior attitude. Perhaps I am just another "airhead expat," but I do live and work in Beijing and feel that my experiences could be somewhat helpful to visitors. Yet, according to Peter ALL expats live in a "bubble" -- thanks for judging my lifestyle without even knowing me! -- and are therefore unqualified to offer advice. Maybe it's my own loss, but I barely read the Asia board anymore. For me, Peter N-H has made an open forum, which should be crammed with diverse and varied opinions, insufferable with his arrogance. His advice is fine (as good as any guide book) but it's just not worth the attitude. Sorry to get this off my chest, but I've felt this way for a long time.
petitepois is offline  
Aug 26th, 2004, 10:27 AM
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Petitepois- I've been wondering how our Beijing ex-pat is doing-how are you? Please do come back-many people would like to hear from you, particularly me!
Spygirl is offline  
Aug 26th, 2004, 08:08 PM
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Yes, Peter's contributions not infrequently contain condescending put-downs, but let's keep a sense of perspective here. Are we such sensitive flowers that a breath of disapproval by one poster can drive us away? If you don't like what he says, fight back. Don't be bluffed.

Second, let's bear in mind that few if any contributors to these forums provide so much advice gratis - consider the work entailed in mailing out the hutong walks info to all comers, for a start. Some Fodors forums (Europe especially) are infested with people who put other posters down but provide no offsetting value.
Neil_Oz is offline  
Aug 27th, 2004, 01:22 PM
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Dear Neil,

I've tried to accept the good information provided as you suggest: "Are we such sensitive flowers that a breath of disapproval by one poster can drive us away? If you don't like what he says, fight back. Don't be bluffed."

One doesn't fight back in this case, I tried once, Neil, and I've never been good at taking condescension well and will probably go to my grave lacking that skill. If you can't find my prior posts it's because I registered under one name and it worked for awhile but later I could not get into the forum. Eventually I changed to "michi" which seems to work.

We had some good information for our China trip last year (including Beijing hutons) from this forum but reading some of this author's posts disturbed me, not so much due to content (but sometimes) but for lack of respect for the view of others.

We are thinking of a second trip to China so that's why I'm back.

PS. Neil, try reading Stephen Leacock's "Literary Lapses." He's a Canadian died 1944). It's quite an old book but one I think you'll enjoy - hilarious.
michi is offline  
Aug 27th, 2004, 01:46 PM
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Beijing Hutongs

Spelling error in last post. Although we wanted to go the Beijing Hutongs on our last day in China, I was not feeling well so stayed close to the hotel.

To our happy surprise (serendipity perhaps) we chanced on a rather small hutong right behind the hotel. When I later compared photos with postcards of the more well known ones, I found many similarities although the one we saw was much smaller. But that had its advantages by being do-able. We saw children playing in a small school courtyard, groups of neighbours chatting, and even a gentleman who was either thrown or just came tumbling out of one of the small homes. Veggies drying in the sun, some working, some lazing - one of our trip highlights.
michi is offline  
Aug 27th, 2004, 03:42 PM
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Michi, I've now realised that MY post contained a put-down! Where will it all end? Sorry, all I meant is that IF people think they're being bullied, the best way to deal with that problem is common knowledge. (Er - am I doing it again? After your very complimentary reference for the Australia forum I'll have to watch my Ps and Qs.)

Thanks for the Leacok tip - I'll try to dig that one out of the local library. I think I read something by him once but a long time ago.

While on the subject of Canadian writers, I STRONGLY recommend Will Ferguson's "Hokkaido Highway Blues", an account of his hitch-hike from one end of Japan to the other - very funny and (to this ignoramus, anyway) seemingly insightful. He also wrote a book called "Why I Hate Canadians" (don't worry, it probably won't send your blood pressure up - I'm sure the title's tongue-in-cheek).

To drft a little off-topic, another very funny travel writer is the Englishman Pete McCarthy, author of "McCarthy's Bar" and "The Road to McCarthy".
Neil_Oz is offline  
Aug 27th, 2004, 05:11 PM
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Peter may have an air about him and make some people mad at times, (myself included) but he is often the first one to offer his advice and does so even tho we posters ask the same questions over and over. Is everyone so thin skinned? Is Peter Arogant? Maybe Knowledgeable? Absolutely. Let a 100 flowers blossom and a 100 ideas compete. Or something like that.
okminty is offline  
Aug 27th, 2004, 07:34 PM
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Hi Okminty

With all due respect, Peter is not the only knowledgeable person on this or any travel forum who answers the same questions over and over and over and over and over....

Enough said. I have it off my chest (such as it is). Let those intimidated contributors reemerge and provide us with their views.


PS. Neil, I'll send you my Literary Lapses by Leacock if you can't find it. I'll contact you and give you my email address.

michi is offline  
Aug 27th, 2004, 08:13 PM
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Did I say Only? Did I say thin skin? Now that i have that off my chest.... I do not think that my wife and I could be going to China independantly without these and other forms and I think we all owe a big thank you to Fodors and Frommers and others that allow these to thrive. Again I thank everybody for their input. Will try to put in a report when we get back in October to see if I still feel the same. Let the debates go on.
okminty is offline  
Sep 5th, 2004, 03:08 PM
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This is one very useful thread.

CONDECENSION: It's hard to deal with emotions via email. Peter sounds blunt but seems well informed. Nevertheless, I could be wrong. I am a newbie so will withhold judgment.

WESTERN OPRESSORS: This is one of my most favorite topics. Why? When some Westerners decry the ruin brought about by their ancestors on "other" cultures, they fail to credit those "other" cultures for:

1. Their considerable strengths.
2. Their own follies.

It is almost as if quaint and helpless "other" societies were set upon as they nursed their babies and tilled their fields, noble, defenseless and cowardly.

T'aint so.
Poppa is offline  
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