A Beijing state of mind
But inside is a warren of artists’ studios, galleries and performance spaces, as well as bars, restaurants and bookshops. There are striking Modernist sculptures and delicate ink paintings with artistic roots that lie in a Chinese tradition of calligraphy dating back several centuries before Christ. Artist and poet Fan Xueyi, who calls herself Sunlight in English, works with water and ink, her verse and imagery each complementing the other. “I think that by experiencing Chinese poetry and art the foreigner can see something of the essence of our culture, which is about achieving a harmony between life and nature,” she says. Fan is pragmatic when considering the rampant materialism of the new Beijing. “You can get rich quickly but you can’t have taste or sophistication quickly. But as people become rich, they’ll need finer things in life and will learn to appreciate art more. It will drive art forward in China.”
It is impossible to separate food and art in Beijing – Chinese cuisine is a great national art form. “To the people, food is heaven,” the old proverb says. In my time, I have sampled fiery pork dishes in the Cultural Revolution Restaurant, an emporium of questionable moral taste given the vast numbers of people persecuted in that era. I have devoured Mongolian hotpot while listening to Beijing opera in the upstairs room of a small café, where devotees proudly showed me photo albums of their favourite stars. And I have eaten a delicate turtle soup while watching dancers from the Dai ethnic group, of subtropical Yunnan province, flutter mothlike to an ancient melody wafting forth from a battered cassette player.
One of the jewels of Beijing’s traditional architecture and cuisine, the Mei Mansion, is set in a 200-year-old courtyard and named in honour of the great Beijing opera singer, Mei Lanfang. Mei always played women’s roles and is said to have maintained his feminine appearance by avoiding fatty foods. The resident chef here belongs to the same family that cooked for Mei. The cooking stresses the original flavours of the ingredients: there will be no hot spices to mask the stewed pig’s head, the meatballs and crab, or steamed fish.
But my favourite dining experience is to wander along the prosaically named “snack street” in Dongcheng district, or through the nearby night market, which vibrates with life after dark. The air is filled with the calls of the stallholders offering everything from the ubiquitous noodles to spicy Sichuan soup and Shangdong-style pancakes, deep-fried crickets and scorpions. With Lijia as my guide, I can eavesdrop on the back-and-forth banter of cook and customer in accents from all over China.
In purely economic terms, Beijing in the 21st century resembles what Manhattan meant to the “tired, poor, huddled masses” of Europe in an earlier epoch. It is a giant magnet, pulling people from across China’s vast hinterland in one of the greatest migrations in human history.
According to a recent estimate, one in three Beijingers is a migrant worker and many are employed in service industries. They form a silent army that sweeps the streets, waits on tables and cleans the hotel rooms of tourists. The state has tried to stem the flow, steadily rolling back the number of residence permits given to newcomers. Yet they keep coming.
One of the great challenges they face is education. By one estimate, there are 300 migrant schools catering to 500,000 children. Beijing is the great crucible of social reinvention, and every child learns that hard work at school is a potential escape route from poverty.