James Fallows: The Danger of Romanticizing China's Past





[James Fallows is a National Correspondent for The Atlantic. A 25-year veteran of the magazine and former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, he is also an instrument-rated pilot and a onetime program designer at Microsoft.]

Last April, the British writer J.G. Ballard died at age 79. By chance, on a trip to Shanghai a few days earlier, I'd seen the house where Ballard had lived as a boy in the 1930s, before the Japanese invasion and the experiences that gave rise to his unforgettable novel Empire of the Sun. I described the visit here, along with photos of how the house looked, 70-plus years after the Ballard family had fled, in its new role as a fancy restaurant....

Westerners have to be careful in waxing nostalgic for China's "good old days," especially when this involves artifacts of the colonial era known as the "Hundred Years of Humiliation" in China. But it's objectively true that the early 20th-century architecture and street layout of Shanghai's old "Concession" district make the city distinctive in the world and provide much of its style and very self-aware sense of elegance....

My specific point is simply to note the fate of one structure that has a lasting role in world imaginative history. The larger point, for ongoing discussion, is the complicated relationship between a culture very aware of its thousands of years of history, and the ever-changing forces (eons of poverty, a decade of chaos in the Cultural Revolution, the dawning of a new kind of prosperity-driven chaos now) that have made people uninterested in, unsentimental about, or unable to preserve the physical artifacts of that history. I am glad that I saw this house in the "old days" -- a full 11 months ago.


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