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Reviewed by:
  • Beijing: A Concise History
  • Yamin Xu (bio)
Stephen G. Haw . Beijing: A Concise History. London: Routledge, 2007. xii, 212 pp. Hardcover $150.00, ISBN 978-0-415-39906-7.

The main part of this book (pp. 1–133) is divided into an introduction and ten chapters that each deals with a particular period of the long history of Beijing and its surrounding area. The rest of the book (pp. 134–203), excluding a bibliography and an index, covers many practically useful subjects related to the city's history, culture, and scenic sites. Readers can find in this part descriptions of Tian'an Men Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and other imperial parks, important temples, religious sites, museums, the Great Wall, imperial tombs, local food, and the so-called "northern barbarians" that were closely related to the city's history. For example, readers are introduced to—in addition to the internationally renowned "Peking Duck"—tanghulu, a type of popular snack that every local Beijinger knows.

In the introduction, Haw has placed Beijing in a historical context of long interactions between China proper and the northern frontier. Haw points out that as a northern capital, which the city's name means, Beijing was originally built by different non-Chinese groups while the capital of China proper was located in areas of the south, either closer to the Yellow River or down in the lower Yangtze delta. Haw also discusses in the introduction various historical names of Beijing, different methods for Chinese characters' romanization, the differences between "Peking" (which is the Roman alphabetic script of a historical pronunciation of the city's name) and "Beijing." Readers new to Chinese history and culture will also learn what pinyin romanization is and how to pronounce standard Chinese.

In Haw's presentation, the history of Beijing and its surrounding regions is as old as the human race. In the first chapter, Haw defines the geographic locations of the prehistorical Beijing area, where many sites of early humans from the Paleolithic to Neolithic periods were found, including that of the famous "Peking Man." One theme running through the history of this period, from Haw's view, which reflects the influence of Owen Lattimore, has to do with the question of whether the Beijing area was within or outside of the Chinese cultural sphere. Although the archeological evidence presented in the book largely confirms the former scenario, the Beijing area, as discussed in the second chapter, was constantly exposed to the nomads in the northern frontier, particularly when the center of the Chinese civilization moved to the south, following the occupation of North China by those nomads in the early fourth century. From the pre-Shang period to the Sui unification, the Beijing area was caught in long battles between the agricultural Chinese people and their northern nomadic neighbors. [End Page 455]

The next chapter presents the same story, albeit in different times, when the Beijing area alternated between being an important Sui-Tang military base for northeastward expansion and being dominated by the Khitans and Jurchens when Chinese were pushed, again, to the south. On the other hand, the old city of Youzhou became a real "northern capital," though under Khitan and Jurchen rule. Chapter 4 of this book deals with the major development of Beijing, which was constructed by the Mongols as the capital of all of China under the name of Dadu (great capital). Hardly a Chinese city at all—in this time when Mongols put the southern Chinese at the bottom of their political hierarchy—Yuan Beijing was instead under heavy foreign influences.

When Beijing did become not only a Chinese city but also a capital under the Ming, Haw explains in chapter 5, it was so far away from the Chinese heartland and so close to the northern frontier that it was never completely freed from the threat of nomads. Beijing seemed to be a city well suited for the Manchus, who not only conquered the heartland of China, but also confidently commanded various nomadic groups in the northern and northwestern frontiers. Haw highlights in chapter 6 the cosmopolitan nature of pre-nineteenth-century Qing Beijing, when the city...