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Controversy Should Not Detract from Beijing Olympics, Says Historian Lillian Li

Controversy Should Not Detract from
  Significance of Beijing Olympics,
Says Historian Lillian Li

by Alisa Giardinelli

In the days and weeks leading up to the Olympic Games, much of the focus has centered on controversial issues such as pollution and censorship. While regrettable, those issues should not take away from the enormous significance of the event, says Lillian M. Li, an authority on Chinese history and the author of the first full history of Beijing in any language.

Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City


"Many outside China have used the event to focus their criticism of the Chinese government," says Li, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot Professor of History and author of Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; paperback, 2008). "My hope is that these controversies will recede with the start of the competitions and that in the long run, the Beijing Olympics will be regarded both in China and abroad as a significant and positive milestone."

In Beijing, Li, with co-authors Haili Kong, professor of Chinese language, literature, and film at Swarthmore, and historian Alison J. Dray-Novey at the College of Notre Dame in Maryland, trace the city's history from its earliest days to the present. Ironically, that history illustrates that neither its open nor closed aspects are anything new.

"Beijing's closed nature was embodied in its multiple walls and gates, especially in the Forbidden City, but it was also always a magnet for envoys, traders, officials, and scholars," Li says. "In recent years, it has been more open than ever, with international trade, the internet, and now the Olympics. But openness has its definite limits and some aspects of political life in particular remain decidedly forbidden."

Li, a founder of Swarthmore's Asian Studies program, is also the author of China's Silk Trade: Traditional Industry in the Modern World, 1842-1937 (1981) and Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s (2007). In 2005, she was a visiting scholar at Beijing University.