Jonathan Chatwin Takes Us on a Stroll Down Beijing's Long Peace Street

By Bryan Grogan, September 17, 2019

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Jonathan Chatwin made his way to China in 2010 with a background in English literature, specifically travel writing. He’d previously written about and studied the work of Bruce Chatwin, a revered and adventurous travel writer who scoured the globe in search of stories. The former Chatwin’s landing in The Middle Kingdom was, in his words, “slightly whimsical.” Over time he became besotted, saying “I ended up becoming very interested in the country, as everyone does who comes here, right?”

With this background, his approach to writing about a country as large and shrouded in mystery as China differs slightly from the glut of English-language books that take in wide-ranging topics such as politics and history. His most recent book, Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China, focuses on Chang’an Jie, which cuts through Beijing, running past The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Zhongnanhai. 

Chang’an Jie stood out to Chatwin because of the flood of history that resounds around the street, in areas both seen and unseen. While he was keen to write something of book-length, he was also very conscious not to make any claims to expertise when it came to China. 

Image courtesy of Jonathan Chatwin

“I had written some history features, but was looking for a way to write something a bit longer but didn’t want to overstate my claim on insight into the country, which was the idea of having a very geographically limited journey,” Chatwin tells us. 

While that may be the case, the idea of attempting to record and explain the enormous history of this very significant and centrally-located street is mind-boggling. Chatwin is adamant, however, about his approach in writing. It is in parts journalistic, in parts a book of curios and fragments of his impressions. 

“I read a lot of China books and I review a lot of China books and I feel that, sometimes, they’re trying to make a claim to universality or trying to say that theirs is the definitive version of the story.”

Like any good travel writer, Chatwin’s aim is not so much to talk about the motivations behind historical events as it is to draw attention to the history that someone unfamiliar with Beijing might miss. He takes the role of an erudite travel guide, leading us along the road, past palaces, roadside barbecues and bridges and helping to enlargen our knowledge of the dim and dusty northern capital. 

Image courtesy of Jonathan Chatwin

In addition, Chatwin doesn’t aim to give an opinionated snapshot of a city, based on a few days or weeks spent in that place. Having lived in Beijing for years, his impressions of Chang’an Jie had been shaped by the times that he cycled down the street on his way to work, the times that he walked along the street in search of food and the times that he played tourist. As such, this travel guide is something a little bit different from what you might get from the ordinary travel writer, as it’s awash in his own knowledge of the history of Beijing and in his own interactions with the street as a resident there.

“The impressions that you gain, for a lot of travel writers who have written about certain cities as being friendly or unfriendly, generally these impressions are dictated by a number of personal experiences, such as whether the lady in the shop around the corner smiled at you when you paid.”

He occasionally interacts with people, but again the approach of compiling street-side opinions is not something that appeals to Chatwin too much. During our conversation he is emphatic about his wish to either go deep with his subjects, or to avoid extrapolating their opinions altogether. 

“I sometimes will read foreign correspondence on Britain where they’ve sent some poor foreign correspondent to Grimsby or Macclesfield and he’s had a couple of days there, done some voxpops, found some slightly racist locals and filed this report for the New York Times as a snapshot of Britain, and you know people did say that stuff, but what does it tell us about Britain. Probably not that much,” Chatwin tells us good-naturedly, poking fun at the modern preoccupation with ‘churnalism’ (churning out clickable content to meet deadlines). 

Image courtesy of Jonathan Chatwin

“China is many orders of magnitude bigger than Britain and I’m very wary of trying to take the conversations that I have with Chinese people and extrapolating from them as data points. In the book there were a few interactions inevitably but I try to stay away from that Q&A of telling people about the Cultural Revolution.” 

With this book in the bag, and a book tour of China in the rearview mirror, Chatwin has already moved onto the next project - Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour of 1992, a topic that he discusses with visible excitement. While he did spend this trip in China promoting Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China, he also trekked South China, in Deng’s footsteps through Zhuhai, Shenzhen and Hangzhou – aiming, perhaps, for something even more historically demanding next time out.  

To get your copy of ‘Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China,’ click here

[Cover image courtesy of Jonathan Chatwin]

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