The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Soon we will be able to say about old Beijing that what emperors, warlords, Japanese invaders, and Communist planners couldn’t eradicate, the market economy has. Nobody has been more aware of this than Michael Meyer. For several years, he lived as no other westerner — in a shared courtyard home in Beijing’s oldest neighborhood, Dazhalan, on one of its famed hutong (lanes). There he volunteered to teach English at the local grade school and immersed himself in the community, recording with affection the life stories of the varied people who make up the fabric of this unique neighborhood, whose way of life is being destroyed to make way for shopping malls and high-rise buildings. With the kind of insight only a local can provide, The Last Days of Old Beijing is an invaluable witness to history, and brings the ebb and flow of daily lives on the other side of the planet into shining focus. (Back of the book)
Year of Publication
Number of Pages
384 pages
Walker & Company
New York
ISSN Number
Average: 3.5 (2 votes)


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Review of Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer

Field of Interest/Specialty: World History
Posted On: 06/13/2019

I read The Last Days of Old Beijing as a way to enhance my knowledge of Beijing's history, culture, and geography to prepare for the upcoming NCTA trip to China. I found Meyer's book to be a really fascinating look at the social dynamics and collective history of China in the past 100 years. The book tells of Meyer's experience as a volunteer teacher living and working in the historic hutong neighborhoods of Beijing just as the Chinese government is beginning to raze these neighborhoods as part of a city-wide modernization effort in preparation for the Olympics. Meyer provides a very detailed history of Beijing that is juxtaposed with an account of his neighbors and acquaintances he encounters (many of whom are forced to relocate).
The conflict rages throughout the book as Meyer tells the history of Beijing, is it ever justified to tear down historical aspects of a city to modernize? Where does one draw the line between modernizing and destroying history? In the Last Day's of Old Beijing, particularly in the last section, we are left to ponder a historical conflict between Mao's Communist Government and the advice of the only true Chinese scholar of architecture at the time. In his modern narrative, Meyer tells us of ongoing razing by a government that acts very similar to Mao. Meyer quotes a Chinese architect, Zhang Yonghe, "In comparison, the destruction during the Cultural Revolution is nothing..."
The history is enthralling- concepts worthy of further exploration in a World Cultures, History, or Human Geography Classroom. Perhaps the text may be too advanced for a high school student. An AP level student would probably manage just fine. Themes of Urbanization and Gentrification run deep throughout this book, as well as concepts of Chinese identity and history. I think I would find very meaningful uses of quotes and excerpts from this book in a unit on urban development, or perhaps a unit on the economic impact of the olympics of cities.
In terms of my preparation for the trip, I would highly recommend it -- A great resource for understanding the culture and history of Beijing.

Book Review: The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed Written by Michael Meyer, published in 2009 for Walker Publishing Company

Field of Interest/Specialty: Social Studies
Posted On: 01/03/2016

My name is Matthew Williams. This past fall (2015) I read Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing for my NCTA seminar class at the University of Pittsburgh.
Before I get into my review I should provide a little background about me so that the perspective from which I am reviewing this book is fully apparent - I am a ninth-grade World History I teacher at an all-girls Catholic high school in western Pennsylvania. At my school, World History I covers the contributions of global mankind from the Stone Age to approximately 1000 CE, with a major focus on the original river valley civilizations and some of the civilizations that sprang up near these origins, including Greece and Japan. Teaching at a single-ed private institution I am fully aware that my review and my ideas for how to utilize this material are somewhat different from many other educators. That said, hopefully my recommendations are still useful.
Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing is a book about a city (and a country) undergoing massive modernization and, in the process, removing much of its history and traditional culture. Essentially, it is a book about eminent domain and the people it benefits and marginalizes. Meyer writes to us as an expatriate American living in a Beijing hutong, the traditional Beijing neighborhood structure characterized by density, mixed use, and ‘human scale,’ daily threatened to be replaced by the relentless advance of ‘modern’ skyscraper and highway Beijing. The majority of Last Days is a narrative of Meyer’s interactions with a cadre of hutong inhabitants and the ways each is shaped by residency both within the hutong and the ‘modern’ communities to which each is ultimately displaced.
If you are teaching an upper level course that involves modern China, urban planning/law/policy, or the power of place in relation to human memory and identity, this has the potential to be an excellent source. Meyer’s interviews with residents and his descriptions of schools, restaurants, and other institutions within Beijing provide vivid, entertaining examples of the life led by the lower and middle classes of urban China. They give the reader a thorough explanation of how the neighborhood in which one lives can influence almost every aspect of life.
With regard to the issue of eminent domain, I could see the book or segments from it being great for comparison within a discussion on the urban renewal efforts of 1950s – 1970s America. Meyer unabashedly draws much of his philosophy about urban renewal in Beijing from Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book about the same topic only in 1961 New York City, making that book a possible companion piece.
That said, as a resource in a history classroom, especially in a ninth or tenth grade class, where you might only cover up to the Han Dynasty, Last Days is much less appropriate. Meyer does include four chapters, all entitled “A Brief History of Razing: Part _ “ interspersed throughout the book that step away from the main narrative to provide an historical overview of Chinese civilization and the development of Beijing in particular. And, it is feasible that they could be used in lieu of or in complement to other curriculum sources; these chapters succeed in providing context and also include some interesting myths and explanations. I found this especially true of the first history chapter in which Meyer discusses the mythical, geological, and archeological explanations for the development of Chinese civilization. Using these chapters, however, might be more work than it is worth. At least for me, they were somewhat hard to follow – Meyer’s narrative style works much better describing people he has interviewed and places he has been that it does in describing past people and events.