Tonight I went to The Bookworm at Sanlitun to watch a friendly verbal joust, a debate over which is more interesting -- Old Beijing or Old Shanghai?
And the two debaters were Derek Sandhaus, who wrote Tales of Old Beijing and Graham Earnshaw, author of Tales of Old Shanghai.
All in good fun, the debate was divided into three sections, pro-Beijing, pro-Shanghai, anti-Beijing and anti-Shanghai, then last comments from each before we the audience voted on which we thought was better.
Sandhaus launched the debate, explaining that the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties were based in Beijing, the centre of the Middle Kingdom, and the powerbase of the country. It is also the centre of Chinese culture that was not influenced by foreigners in any way unlike Shanghai.
Earnshaw begged to differ, saying Shanghai was much more interesting in that Shanghai was nothing until the Opium Wars and through trade concessions forced the port city to open and develop from a boring fishing village into what it is today. He added that it was more cosmopolitan because foreigners were more integrated into society and everyone got a chance to make something of themselves.
However, Sandhaus rebutted, saying the Chinese who fled to Shanghai in the 1800s and for about a century, were treated like second-class citizens in Shanghai, as they were at the mercy of the French and international governments for safety. He also added Shanghai was filled with gangsters, opium traders, and prostitutes, making it a seedy place to be.
Nevertheless, Earnshaw did point out that during this period in Shanghai, many young single women went to the city as a chance for them to create new lives for themselves. Shanghai at the time represented something new and while most of these women ended up as prostitutes, this was the first time in history single women were able to make a living on their own and have their own identity.
He went on to slag Beijing as being full of villagers from Hebei and then the giant bureaucracy placed on top of the city like two different solitudes. He joked the only way to climb up in Beijing was to have your genitals cut off...
Sandhaus admitted that much of old Beijing's architecture has disappeared, with the destruction of hutongs and the old city wall that is now Second Ring Road. Chairman Mao ordered the destruction of it more as a statement than for practical reasons, trying to show that the Communists were signaling a new era in New China.
When it comes to sightseeing in both cities, an audience member said Beijing seems to win hands down for all the historical sites, whereas Shanghai doesn't seem to have much other than the Bund, Xintiandi, the Yuyang Gardens and Pudong.
But Earnshaw said that when George Bernard Shaw visited Beijing and was asked if he saw the Great Wall, he observed it was like any other wall...
There was also a question from the audience about the Soong family and their influence on the two cities.
Earnshaw replied Charlie Soong was quite the entrepreneur, printing Bibles just as people were interested in the Boxer Rebellion, and his three daughters marrying well. However, the Sino-Japanese war changed everything for them, leaving Soong Ai-ling and Soong Mei-ling to become what he called "negative characters" in that their relationship with Communist China went sour, whereas Soong Ching-ling was feted by the CPC.
If it wasn't for the Sino-Japanese War, he continued, there would be no Communist China and the fate of the Soong family would have completely different.
In the end through a show of hands, Old Beijing won over Old Shanghai by only a few votes, probably because the home crowd was in the audience. It was all in good fun and enlightened me with more of each city's history... though Shanghai's sounds much more interesting...