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Here at China Beat, of course, we spend a lot of time trolling the web for great commentary on China. If you follow us on Twitter (as over 3500 people do, which we really appreciate), you’ll get a daily rundown of the articles we find interesting. But in addition to tweeting individual story links, we wanted to call special attention to two new blogs and one reinvigorated podcast whose RSS feeds are worth grabbing:

The Economist recently launched a dedicated China section in its print magazine, the first time a country-specific section was added since 1942 (when the country under examination was the United States). To accompany the new section, the magazine has also set up Analects, a blog for its China correspondents. In addition to short posts on topics in the news (lately, the National People’s Congress and the increasingly convoluted Bo Xilai saga), Analects also ran a lengthy article by Gady Epstein on the history of Economist coverage of China, extending back to 1843. It’s a lively, enjoyable read in which Epstein carefully points out that China correspondents of the past got as much wrong as they did right (and vice versa).

• The other new China blog—very new, actually, as it just launched last Thursday—is, a group blog whose contributors include Jeremiah Jenne, Dave Lyons, Will Moss, Brendan O’Kane, and Chinese journalist YJ. Read an introduction to the site (and explanation of its name) here, then follow @rectifyname on Twitter. Notable posts so far include “The Game of Thrones Guide to the 2012 Transition” (Part I, Part II) and “I Apologize if Anyone Felt Killed,” on Mike Daisey’s non-apologetic apology to This American Life listeners.

• The Sinica Podcast, co-hosted by Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn, has been around since 2010 but has ramped things up lately, thus meriting its inclusion in this post. They now have a Sinica Twitter feed as well as a Facebook page to interact with listeners. Recent guests include a number of China Beatniks, such as Geremie Barmé, Jeff Wasserstrom, Paul French, and Rob Schmitz. As a bonus, each podcast ends with the hosts and guests offering reading (or viewing, or attending) recommendations—not always China-focused—that are always worth checking out.

For the past several years, we’ve organized an informal meet-and-greet at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting, the “China Beat Breakfast.” That won’t be taking place this year, unfortunately, though consulting editors Jeff Wasserstrom and Ken Pomeranz will be at the meeting in Toronto this weekend—so say hi if you see them. We do, however, want to share highlights from the conference with our readers (as we’ve done in previous years) and would appreciate some help from you in making this possible.

Tell us about the panels you go to, the China Beatniks you meet, and the cool publications you see in the book exhibit. Send us an email (thechinabeat[at]gmail[dot]com) or tweet at us (@chinabeat) and we’ll put together a crowdsourced post to run next Tuesday. If you’re going to the meeting, have a great time in Toronto!

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Death was not uncommon on the streets of Peking in the winter of 1937. Beggars froze on the sidewalks; suicides occurred regularly as despair engulfed people; competing warlords openly carried out assassinations to eliminate their rivals. Japanese soldiers and tanks roamed freely, ominous signals of carnage to come.

But even in such a context, the body discovered next to the city’s Fox Tower on the morning of January 8, 1937 stood out. Pamela Werner was not a vagrant, or a warlord; she was a nineteen-year-old British resident of Peking, a boarder at Tientsin Grammar School, the adopted daughter of E.T.C. Werner, a former British diplomat. And Pamela’s death was not accidental: she had suffered a severe head wound and been stabbed repeatedly before the killer had removed her heart.

Who killed Pamela? This was the question that rippled through Peking’s small but tight-knit foreign community, and it lies at the center of Paul French’s new book, Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. Pamela Werner’s murder was never solved, but French, a longtime Shanghai resident and versatile author, has reopened the 75-year-old case and pieced together an impressive array of evidence to offer an explanation of why and how the crime occurred.

By 1937, Peking had become “a relic,” French writes, “a one-time capital that was now far too close to the Japanese war machine” (p. 9). The city’s Legation Quarter was emptying quickly as well-heeled residents sent their families home to Europe and the United States. Those who remained represented a mix of diplomats unable to depart until their governments recalled them, and stubborn Old China Hands with no intention of fleeing their adopted homeland.

The Werners did not quite belong to either group: E.T.C. had a reputation for being odd, often leaving his daughter alone in Peking while he traveled to Mongolia on research expeditions, and he had a shadowy past, marked by dismissal from the British diplomatic corps and the mysterious death of his much younger wife when Pamela was five years old. Independent and rebellious (though French does not exactly spell out what form this rebelliousness took), Pamela had been expelled from a number of Peking’s private schools and finally sent off to board in Tianjin. Father and daughter lived in a hutong neighborhood outside the Legation Quarter, remaining adjacent to but not part of the expat world.

Diplomats and Sinophiles were not the only foreigners in Peking, however much they might have preferred to ignore the presence of the city’s other expatriate community. This group encompassed a hodgepodge of penniless White Russians, Japanese and Korean drug smugglers, and an array of chameleon-like figures who discarded names and nationalities whenever the law got too close and they needed a fresh start. Peking’s underworld occupied the “Badlands,” a neighborhood to the east of the Legation Quarter.

Pamela Werner’s death, French reveals, brought together these two worlds. Yet many at the time refused to see the connection, initially suggesting that her savage murder had been the work of a random Chinese vagrant or even one of the “fox spirits” rumored to haunt the tower. The facts soon undermined the vagrant theory: an expensive platinum-and-diamond watch remained on Pamela’s wrist when her body was found, and an autopsy revealed that she had been killed elsewhere and her body dumped at the Fox Tower. The dismemberment of her corpse, a process that could have taken hours, also indicated that her murder had not come about by happenstance. Pamela had known her killer, and her death had been motivated by something other than robbery.

But what that motive was, and who perpetrated the crime, eluded the detectives investigating Pamela’s murder. Colonel Han of the Peking Bureau of Public Safety and Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis, brought over from Tianjin’s British Concession to observe the investigation, quickly ran up against a number of impediments. The forensic science of the day could only tell them so much about the events leading up to Pamela’s death. Witnesses disappeared or refused to talk. The British consul ordered Dennis to confine his investigation to the Legation Quarter, despite the fact that Pamela’s body had been found outside the district. And eventually, as China slipped into war with Japan later that year, Pamela Werner’s murder slipped into obscurity. Though her death had shocked Peking and made headlines around the world, it eventually became overshadowed by the violence to come. “Peking,” French comments, “was obsessed with its own survival” (p. 149). Everything else took a backseat.

For one person, however, solving Pamela’s murder never became any less important. That person was her father, E.T.C., and it is his own investigation of the case that has enabled French to assemble a logical and compelling answer to the question of who killed Pamela Werner. French explains in a note at the end that while researching his book he came across over 150 pages of E.T.C.’s correspondence, in which he detailed the results of his inquiries and the leads his own private detectives pursued after the police closed their official investigation without resolution. French then followed E.T.C.’s paper trail and came to agree with his explanation for Pamela’s death.

French reconstructs these events with sympathy and style as he elegantly recreates the world of Old Peking and explains the significance of Pamela’s death for the community around her. And while her murder may officially remain unsolved, Midnight in Peking more than satisfies French’s desire that “some sort of justice, however belated, be awarded her” (p. 251).

Dear China Beat readers,

Happy 2012! We’re now back from a short winter break, but things will look a bit different at the site as we move into a new year. As many of you know, the four editorial board members—Jeff Wasserstrom, Ken Pomeranz, Kate Merkel-Hess, and myself—work on China Beat in addition to our day jobs (Jeff, Ken, and Kate all teach full-time; I’m researching my dissertation and also helping to develop a very cool new site at the Asia Society). What we’ve found, in recent months, is that we’re all being pulled in many different directions. After a lot of discussion, the four of us decided that we need to scale back the China Beat project for the time being. What this means is that we’ll only be posting at the site once a week (on Tuesdays), and we’ll be focusing our efforts on informing our readers about new and forthcoming China-related books, through excerpts and author interviews, as well as book reviews produced through our collaboration with Twentieth-Century China. While we will still also feature occasional article-type commentaries about China, you’ll be seeing a little less of that for the time being.

We hope to have China Beat up and running at full strength again sometime soon. For the moment, we hope you continue to enjoy our content; we’re very excited about the excerpts, interviews, and reviews we already have in the pipeline. It looks like 2012 will be another excellent year for China books, and we look forward to helping you learn about as many of them as possible.

Thank you, as always, for your support of China Beat, and have a happy new year.


Happy holidays to all our readers and contributors from the China Beat editorial team. We’ll be taking a short holiday break, returning with new content on January 10. We wish all the China Beatniks out there a happy and healthy 2012—thank you for another year of enthusiastic support for the site!

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