When walking around the hutongs of Beijing or the French Concession in Shanghai, it’s hard not to think about the way things were in China before its modernization drive.
Shanghai-based media executive and old China hand Graham Earnshaw first visited China more than 30 years ago and has borne witness to many of the changes that have shaped the country’s recent meteoric rise.
One of Earnshaw’s newest projects is Earnshaw Books, a publishing venture with an extensive catalogue of books about China as it once was, including Tales of Old Peking and Tales of Old Shanghai. WildChina spoke with Earnshaw about his experiences exploring China’s past:
WildChina (WC): How did Earnshaw Books come into being?
Graham Earnshaw: There is something special about books – by which I mean the package of ideas and experiences, not the physical artifact. I also have a lifelong fascination with China. The idea was to create a publishing imprint to provide a view on China’s history and culture, to create a independent China-related publishing house with worldwide visibility and credibility. We’re a short way up the hockey stick at this point.
WC: When you first visited Beijing and Shanghai, how palpable were their pre-PRC histories?
Graham Earnshaw: I first visited Beijing and Shanghai in 1979, and the pre-1949 past was very much visible in both. Most of Beijing was as it had been. The big exceptions were the Tiananmen Square area, which involved the destruction of Qing dynasty palace buildings in the late 1950s and the desperately tragic demolition of the city wall in the early 1970s. But the hutongs and the feel of the streets were, I am sure, very similar to what it would have been like in the past.
Shanghai in 1979 I hated, because it was a city with a magnificent past, clearly visible in its buildings, all of which were slowly disintegrating. Shanghai was full of ghosts of the past. They dominated.
WC: What are some of your favorite tales from old Beijing and Shanghai?
Graham Earnshaw: There are so many great stories from both cities. I am particularly fascinated by the interaction of Chinese and westerners, so the whole Boxer incident in 1900 is fundamental to understanding Beijing. As for Shanghai, there is a memoir from the English writer Aldous Huxley who visited the city in 1926, which for me sums up my of my feelings about China:
“I have seen places that were, no doubt, as busy and as thickly populous as the Chinese city in Shanghai, but none that so overwhelmingly impressed me with its business and populousness. In no city, West or East, have I ever had such an impression of dense, rank richly clotted life.”
WC: What hasn’t changed about these two cities over the years?
Graham Earnshaw: The basic psychology of the people has not changed. And also the feel of the air.
WC: Where are your favorite places in Beijing and Shanghai to connect with history?
Earnshaw: In Beijing I like to walk through Tiantan [Temple of Heaven], starting always at the south gate so the sun is not in your eyes. In Shanghai any back street will do.
WC: Widespread demolition and rebuilding have dramatically changed the faces of these two cities, which one do you think has done a better job of preserving its historical legacy?
Earnshaw: Shanghai for sure. Beijing was a lost cause the moment the wall was gone.
WC: What plans does Earnshaw Books have planned for the coming months?
Earnshaw: We have a number of really interesting books coming up, including two novels, a previously unpublished memoir by English eccentric Edmund Backhouse and a reprint of a fantastic book called Willow Pattern Walkabout, which features drawings by the late Australian cartoonist Paul Rigby from 1958.
WC: What’s the coolest thing about running Earnshaw Books?
Earnshaw: Getting requests to do Q&As like this. Books resonate with people. It is good to bask in the resonance.
Photo credit: The New Yorker
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