Reasons to Love Beijing?

The whole Shanghai vs. Beijing debate is somewhat tired, I know, so I’m not interested in rehashing it. I’m not going to bash or gush over either city. Rather, I’ve had sort of a change of heart about Beijing, and I’d like to tell why. To be honest, the more time I spend in Beijing, the more I like it. But I doubt I’d ever voluntarily relocate to Beijing.

Still, if I found myself in any of the following scenarios, I’d definitely choose Beijing:

– If I were a student of Chinese enamored with the Beijing accent or couldn’t stand hearing other dialects (there are many such students, I know)
– If I were a student of Chinese that insisted on only the very best in Chinese pedagogy that the mainland can offer
– If I were a student of Chinese enamored with xiangsheng
– If I were really interested in Chinese politics
– If I were really into the Olympics (this one has a shelf life of only a little over a year, though)
– If I were an artist or musician of any kind
– If I were really into Beijing’s hutong and siheyuan culture
– If I had a love of baijiu, that vile white rice wine
– If I liked big cities but couldn’t stand the pressure of living in a very fast-paced city
– If I were rabidly anti-corporate (I’ve noticed that international chains like McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, and Pizza Hut are much more widespread in Shanghai than in Beijing)

The only one that comes close to describing me is the last one. I’m not real happy that the restaurants which surround my apartment near Zhongshan Park are nearly all chains; it’s hard to find a good, privately-owned restaurant around here. I noticed about Beijing this last visit that there are so many little cafes and bars still. (One of the things Dave misses about Beijing most, it seems.) The only bar in Shanghai I’ve ever really felt comfortable in is the old Tanghui, and it’s long gone. None of the others have that vibe, and most aim for a bigger, “higher class” crowd.

Another thing that does make a difference to me is the fast pace of Shanghai. I don’t like it. It gets under my skin and in my bloodstream. I can feel it happening, but I can’t seem to prevent it. Hanghzou was totally relaxing, and Beijing is a lot closer to Hangzhou in that respect. And yet, in that easy, relaxed atmosphere I feel like I could float along forever and never do anything with my life. One of the main reasons I choose Shanghai is closely related to the fast pace, I think: Shanghai is a better place to get into business. And because I’m in China for the long haul, I’m very interested in where work prospects are best.

I’m not the kind of person that makes a huge deal about where I live. I feel that I could be happy in most environments, if I’m there to do something I want to do. The bottom line is that I choose Shanghai because my wife is here and my work is here. I’m happy here. But every time I go to Beijing I see more reasons to love it, and I think that in another life I could easily see myself in the Beijing camp*.

*Worth mentioning: I’ve never been in Beijing in the winter or during a dust storm.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Shanghai might be good for most businesses, but Beijing seems to own the tech companies. All the big multinationals (tech-wise) have their China research and development centers based here (Google, MS, Yahoo, IBM, Intel, AMD, etc.). So if you’re a software developer, you’ll probably be more likely to find yourself in Beijing.

    I think the only exception are games, but game development studios seem to be spread all over China.

  2. If you like smaller foreign communities than Beijing is also for you. Spend 1-2 years in Beijing and go out allot and you’ll soon know everyone, or at least people who are friends with your friends.

    If you like Korean culture and Korean BBQ, then Beijing is also for you with the MASSIVE korea towns in WuDaokou and WangJing.

    If you like hiking then Beijing is for you with the closeby XiangShan and numerous mountain ranges in Hebei.

    If you have kids than Beijing has an advantage in better schools. (So I hear from Shanghai expats)

  3. You forgot “If you love being harassed by the local Paichusuo.” Foreigners who don’t live near Dongzhimen, Jiaodaokou, or Haidian, are often harassed by the Paichusuo. After my ex-roommate took care of his housing registration, I had two visits of five Paichusuo police early in the morning to check how many foreigners were in our apartment. There are also rumors on the forum that police have been stopping foreigners on the street to check their papers here and pulling them away to the Paichusuos.

    Shanghai is not more fast paced than Beijing for most foreigners. It depends on your job. You’re in grad school and doing When I was in Shanghai a month ago, most foreigners I met seemed to be teaching English 20 hours a week. In Beijing, everyone I know works around the clock for an NGO or is starting a business.

    … I guess you can tell that my recent trip to Shanghai made me miss the laid back English teaching lifestyle I led when I was there in college.

  4. Good list, though if one were truly rabidly anti-corporate there are tons and tons of other places to go to in China besides either Shanghai or Beijing. McDonalds and KFC are pretty damn ubiquitous though.

  5. iSwitched Says: June 25, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    *Worth mentioning: I’ve never been in Beijing in the winter or during a dust storm.

    That’s maybe the most important sentence in your post : I was in Beijing in December 2004, and the weather was SO cold, about -5 degrees Celcius, and a couple of hours before I was in Shanghai, we had about 15 degrees, that’s 20 degrees of difference ! And not to mention the wind in Beijing which, together with the sand from Mongolia (as they say), made the whole experience very difficult, specially if you go there to visit temples and everything, which are almost all in open-air …

    I have a friend who was a journalist in Beijing, he had been living in Beijing for 5 years with his wife and 2 young kids … they were also happy to get back home after all these years, simply because they were tired of, sort of, having to stay home for 1-2 days because of the bad weather conditions … Also having children suffering from air pollution is not very interesting either.

    Overall, I found Beijing to be more polluted than Shanghai, but I guess this might be due to the time period we were visiting both cities. I imagine Shanghai could be very polluted as well from time to time, but when we were there we had a pretty decent blue sky.



  6. While I won’t dispute “vile”, baijiu is distilled from grains such as sorghum. I think some kinds might have rice an minor ingredient, but baijiu is definitely not “rice wine”.

  7. First of, I agree with John %100 about baijiu. I’m sure it’s good for some things (if you wanted to take a take the paint off your walls in preparation for repainting, for example) but drinking isn’t one of them.

    Another thing: when my wife and I were visiting Beijing and Shanghai recently, everyone said that Beijing was more polluted (air-quality), but my wife (who has very bad asthma) found it easier to breath in Beijing.

    Finally, I enjoyed the restaurants and bars in Beijing more for many of the same reasons that John pointed out. Shanghai was awesome, but it was very international and metropolitan: I could have practically visited New York and had the same great experiences.

  8. … how come no one ever gives respect to the Guangzhou folks down in the Dirty South … I’m feeling a chip developing on my shoulder …

  9. 音弗丽娅 Says: June 26, 2007 at 4:53 am

    I haven’t been to Shanghai since 1993, so I think it’s fairly reasonable to say that I’ve never been to shanghai, therefore this is not exactly a fair comparison. I remember the first time I stayed in Beijing I really disliked it. I’m not sure if it was the urban sprawl, the crazy dust, or I was just tired from my trips (and it was also the last place we went to, so that means I had to leave the country, which all made me very depressed). The second time I was in BJ, it wasn’t half bad. I was surprised that I was kind of attached to the city when I really shouldn’t have been. I went to a hand full of cities around China that time, from the very north to the very south. Not that I like BJ more so than any of those other cities, but it wasn’t as bad as the first time I went. Granted it took us 2.5 hrs to get from one side of the city to the other side (and this is city limit we’re talking bout). But I did find that there was still a lot to do after staying there for over a week, which I don’t think I can say for many other cities I’ve been to.

    I liked Guangzhou, I thought it was a really nice city. About as over crowded as any place I’ve ever been too, but still, I like the feel of it. It’s kinda hard to explain, maybe it’s the trees, or the random buildings erected in the middle of parking lots, I’m not sure, but something about it feels nice. I think most people I know don’t like Shenzhen, but I really like the landscape (?) of the city. I found Nanjing to be completely disappointing, perhaps my expectation was too high. Either way, Dalian, hands down, is still the best city I’ve ever been to in China.

  10. What’s all this about the police checking foreigners’ papers and dragging them off to the paichusuo in Beijing? First I’ve heard of it. And it’s been a long time since any police officer paid even the slightest bit of attention to me.

  11. the last sentence… coughing

  12. Damn….Nanjing disappointing eh? I’m about to do a 10 month stint there. No worries though, I, like John said, adapt just fine.

  13. Ruthette Says: June 27, 2007 at 1:06 am

    I’ve been reading your blog off and on for a while… it often reminds me of what I loved about China!

  14. It does seem that Beijing has more of a bohemian culture than Shanghai. (But I only spent a week in each city.) A lot of indie/underground rock and is happening in Beijing right now, and I’ve heard the art scene has been exploding for quite some time. When I was there I also came across quite a few laid-back cafes and music shops.

    In Shanghai, the only similar area with a laid-back vibe I found was in the French Concession. Like John said, everything else caters to a more upscale, hip crowd. But maybe I’m mistaken, and there are pockets of culture I’m not aware of.

  15. @chriswaugh_bj: I guess the cops target randomly. My roommate got tagged just a few weeks ago. I’m guessing it’s more common in Beijing, especially around the universities since there are probably more visa offenders teaching on a student or tourist visa.

  16. Hi. Just moved with family from years in Berkeley to (5) years in Kathmandu and now to Shanghai. So as one might guess the 2 adults involved have been in a bit of shock since coming to Shangers. We have been here 6 weeks and a person of any depth is yet to cross paths with us. I can’t say much for BJ now although I taught at BeiDa for 2 years in the mid 90’s. But at that time I found bright clever cerebral alturistic bohemians. Not like KTM mind you but at that time I didnt know KTM and the extent to which folks can personify “bohemian” to its wiki definition (for lack of anyother yard stick).

    But Shangers now is thus far more disappointing than the level of which I was forewarned.

    Is it that shallow folks gravitate to places of where widgets are made and polished and marketed to the masses?
    Or is it that the reverberations of consumerism at a myriad of stages simply turns a soul to the darker side.

    At the moment feeling rather dishearted. Someone please remind me that, as Kerouac said…or was it Kesey….that there is no street or town or corner or place where bohemians can be found….usually staring at a small spot for hours.

    …or maybe I just made that up…. 😉

    Seriously… there any kind of a non-shallow crowd out there?


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