I read Ian Johnson's piece, My Beijing: The Sacred City, with interest since I too first lived in Beijing as a student (in 1991) and then spent ten years there (between 2005 and 2015).
Some excerpts with my comments:
"I studied Chinese language and literature at Peking University from 1984 to 1985 and biked over to [the Ritan park] area because it had become the country’s chief diplomatic district and one of the few places where homesick Westerners could buy chocolate and postcards."
Nutella. That's what we bought (and hoarded) in 1991 ... only available at the Friendship Store.
"I came for the croissants, but stayed for the tree-lined streets and the Temple of the Sun."
My son went to school at Fangcaodi, which was originally set up for diplomats' kids. When we would ride the electric scooter through that tree-lined area every morning, I'd tell him, "there are no other streets like this in all of Beijing."
"I ended up moving into one of the diplomatic compounds and the neighborhood became my home."
He doesn't say what the rent was in 1994, or how it changed over the seven years he lived there. I'm sure today it's thousands of dollars a month, even for a small place.
"This was a time when Chinese parks rarely had grass. Instead, the hard-packed dry earth of arid Beijing was raked by crews every few days. It was odd but had an austere beauty that set off the ginkgo and persimmon trees that lined the paths."
Parks in Beijing still have no grass and there's nothing beautiful about that hard-packed dry earth ... Johnson is clearly a glass-half-full kind of guy. To get that one photo with green grass in it that accompanies the article must have been a real trick shot.
"But this need for green space clashes with another trend in China: the surrender of public areas to the rich."
This is true. I used to visit Longtan Park, which was near our apartment, and goons with earpieces used to chase me out of areas that had been "privatized." It really got my dander up, but there was no way to fight back, 没办法.
"[There are] high-end restaurants, an exclusive social club, a German beer garden, a yoga yard, a strange antique furniture store ... commercial activities that don’t belong in this great old park"
These "money-spinners" have been there for ages and they're on the periphery; I saw no harm.
"I even listen for the screech of the tacky children’s amusement park with its half-broken choo-choo trains."
Those "tacky" amusement parks, with their derelict rides, which can be found in all these sacred parks, were some of my favorite places ... and my kids spent many hours in them (at 30 cents a ride).
"But over the past decade or so, Chinese have been searching for meaning in their lives."
Now that they can afford to, lol.
"The admission fee of $6.50 [to the Daoist Temple] does keep out many people...."
45 kuai is a pretty high bar, it would keep me out for sure.
"Beijing is still the capital of an authoritarian state. Beijing’s message is still the state’s message, perhaps not perfectly but still audibly."
True. But old Beijingers are a pretty rowdy bunch and are quick to tell you what they *really* think, if you're a foreigner who speaks Chinese, like Johnson does.