Movies, books, and songs to capture the essence of Beijing and get you in the mood for travel

Movies

The Last Emperor (1987)
Biopic of the last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi, who took the throne at age 3 and then fell into a life of addiction, manipulation by the Japanese, and eventual obscurity. Writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci shot the film on location in the Forbidden City.

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
1930s tale of a 19-year-old woman who is forced to become the fourth concubine to a powerful man when her father dies. Sad story, with evocative, breathtaking scenery.

Farewell My Concubine (1993)
This epic movie follows two childhood friends from their rise in the Peking Opera, to the woman (Gong Li) who came between them, to their survival from persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Dense, dramatic overview of China's late 20th-century political turmoil.

Beijing Bicycle (2001)
The theft of a messenger's hard-earned bicycle sets off a chain of events illustrating the clash of Beijing's poor migrant workers with the new middle class. The symbol used—a bicycle—is fast-disappearing in Beijing as a mode of transport, but it's an apt message for a growing urban problem.

Hero (2002)
Most of China's (and Hong Kong's) A-list stars appear in the first—and the best—of Zhang Yimou's recent martial arts trilogy. Storyline imagines an assassination plot against Qin, the king who wages war to unite China in 221 B.C. Much of the action takes place in a convincing replica of the Forbidden City.

The World (2004)
Funny, episodic film about the plight of 20-somethings who came to Beijing to work and perform in World Park, a real-life amusement park with replicas of world monuments such as the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramid.

Books

The Past and the Punishments: Eight Stories, by Yu Hua (1996)
These contemporary short stories by Yu Hua (To Live) are preoccupied with the meaning and dissemination of punishment, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.

Waiting, by Ha Jin (2000)
Far from home, a married doctor falls in love with a single nurse. Year after year, he returns home to ask his wife for a divorce. Beautifully calibrated modern-day novel about the perseverance and endurance of passion and the Chinese spirit.

The Drink and Dream Teahouse, by Justin Hill (2001)
This novel traces how three generations are affected by the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and other late 20th-century events. Cast of sweet and funny rural eccentrics wryly illustrate the clash between Communism and capitalism, traditional and modern, young and old.

Rice: A Novel, by Su Tong (2004)
Personal melodrama reflected extreme social turbulence in the literature of 20th-century China. Accordingly: adultery, blackmail, murder, and incest pervade this dark novel by Su Tong (Raise the Red Lantern: Three Novellas), about a depraved 1930s gang leader exacting pricey revenge against society.

The Garlic Ballads, by Mo Yan (2006—new ed.)
Mo Yan (Red Sorghum) writes with aching, even shocking lyricism about a garlic farmer's plight against a corrupt government when his lover dies and he is wrongfully imprisoned.

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present, by Peter Hessler (2006)
A loose collection of well-observed essays about contemporary China by a Beijing correspondent and decade-long American expat.

Music

Compilations:

Best of Chinese Pop 2005
The latest anthology contains best-selling songs such as "Mouse Loves Rice," a pop hit successful enough to launch a website, a barrage of covers, and a counter-song ("Mouse No Longer Loves Rice").

The Best of 12 Girls Band
This wildly popular girl band plays pop and classic Western and Chinese songs on traditional Chinese instruments.

Chinese Traditional Zheng Music
This relaxing collection showcases musician Hong Ting's technique with the konghou, a harp-like classical instrument.

Dragon Songs
Acclaimed Chinese pianist Lang Lang's recent album is an unusual blend of East (traditional Chinese orchestra) with West (the artist's concert Steinway).

Hei Bao (Black Panther)
A gorgeous, early 1990s fusion of rock and pop ballads by one of China's seminal rock bands.

The Little Red Record
A propaganda-minded collection by the Chinese Red Army Choir harks back to the rosy hopefulness of early Communism in China.

The Red Army Is Not Daunted by the Difficult Long March
A "revolutionary," or Maoist propaganda opera performed by the PLA Zhanyou Song and Dance Ensemble. Imagine the nasal twang of Chinese opera powered by a melodramatic women's chorus.

Selected Chinese Opera
Fu Ling Wang and Wang Yuzhen soften the ordinarily shrill music with lilting voices and pop-like accompaniment.

Splendid Jubilant New Year: Collection of Chinese Festival Music
Jubilant indeed, this collection of Chinese folk songs—performed by a full orchestra of classical instruments—is intended to ring in the new year.

Who is Cui Jian?
China's top rock bands pay tribute to Cui Jian, the "Father of Chinese Rock." CMCB's rap-like "Nothing Do I Have" (yi wu suo you) is a revelation.

Classic Songs:

Our ten favorite classic songs include a children's song, rock ballads (including rap and heavy metal renditions of two popular classics), hit pop songs, including covers of American alternative and jazz songs, Chinese classical music, and a Maoist-era propaganda song:

  1. "Two Tigers" (liang zhi lao hu), Traditional
  2. "I Have Nothing" (yi wu suo you) by Cui Jian
  3. "Nothing Do I Have" by CMCB
  4. "The Box" by Twisted Machine
  5. "Don't Break My Heart" by Hei Bao
  6. "Mice Love Rice" (lao shu ai da mi) by Yang Chen Gang
  7. "Take Five" by 12 Girls Band
  8. "Liuxing" (cover of the Coldplay song "Yellow") by Zheng Jun
  9. "Yellow River Piano Concerto" (huang he xie zhou qu) by Yin Chengzong
  10. "The Brilliance of Chairman Mao" by The Chinese Red Army Choir

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