Reviewed by Stephen Mansfield Ancient Chinese history is as inseparable from myth as today’s official retelling of the past is indivisible from propaganda. In “Beijing: The Biography of a City,” Jonathan Clements makes an admirable job of disentangling truth from elaboration, finding historical foundations in much of the folklore. On the subject of Beijing’s water problems, he describes the supply as still unpleasant, slightly salty, a result of a dragon’s final revenge on the city, “hoarding all the good water at the Jade Spring in the hills, and leaving Beijing with nothing but the dregs.”
In its long history, Beijing has experienced worse terrors than water shortages. The Mongols, for one, put the city and its inhabitants to the sword, sparing nothing. Despite their famous arrogance and cruelty, they created a city of architectural good taste, of rectilinear roads, parks, gardens, irrigated lakes, and the impressive Grand Canal linking northern and southern parts of the country.