In the aftermath of Xi’s visit to the U.S., some thoughts on China–trying to understand its exercise of power, self-reinvention through destruction … the meaning of all this new-ness all around in this rising superpower. From my vantage point in Beijing, on my 6-month anniversary here.
Take the Marais, the Latin Quarter, Montmartre in Paris, so many parts of London, Rome, NY’s W. Village or the Meatpacking District, Copenhagen’s Medieval quarter — great cities, alive, conjuring a sense, an experience, of history. You walk it, see it, feel it. Same with the Middle East’s walled medinas — Jerusalem and Cairo, Aleppo and Damascus, Fez and Marrakesh.
Not so Beijing.
You’ll look hard to find China’s ancient majesty. It’s tucked away, almost an amusement park. Beijing has cool new buildings (the Olympics’ Bird’s Nest and Water Cube; CCTV “Big Underpants”) but what most characterizes Beijing is…miles and miles of already-cracking nondescript newness. Ugly flyovers across 8-lane mid-city highways. It seems contradictory yet Beijing is overpopulated yet barren. Beijing, despite China’s amazing excitement and energy, the humor and art, vitality, great food, is largely depressing if you love cities. Just try to find a pedestrian route through this seemingly improvised sprawl.
“Beijing is defined by congestion, lack of public spaces, discontinuous neighborhoods,” writes Michael Meyer, author of the excellent The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (2008). Which this post is all about.
Meyers explains why it’s so bad, while chronicling the razing of Beijing’s few, precious, surviving old neighborhood alleys (or hutong). (It must be said that original hutong homes have no plumbing; residents use public bathrooms. I don’t ever idealize that kind of poverty and hardship. They needed to be renovated–not demolished.)
Why has Beijing been destroyed? Meyer’s research found, for starters, there was (& remains) comparatively little professional capacity, relative to the need: No Chinese architecture department until about 1930. “Building” long considered a lowly trade. Few decision-makers even now understand preservation, sustainable development and planning (re: resource use — god let’s hope that’s changing fast), nor architectural heritage. Some important advocates raised loud voices here; big-name Western foundations offered expertise, to no avail. Or too little, too late. China, built of wood, rotted away.
From Meyer. Why Old Beijing was destroyed:
1. It reminded people of feudalism, which they hated.
European architecture carries you to different eras. (A cathedral is “a portal back to a specific time and its politics, arts, ethics, economy.”) In China, materials and design remained largely unchanged for 2,000 years. It’s all about one hated period: feudalism.
2. The city had a celestial function. Once obsolete, no reason to save it.
Beijing for millennia had a cosmic raison d’etre. “European cities grew organically [around] food production, transportation, and governance.” Not so Chinese cities, Meyer explains. Planned from scratch as administrative centers, great cities simply were home to a high-ranking official. A capital “existed as a medium for the emperor to communicate with the universe through rites, balancing the harmony between the celestial and the earthly.” Harmonizing yin and yang forces, feng shui, the Earth’s five elements. Confucian hierarchy, Taoist balance, determined layout and location. When beliefs died, there was no reason to save the infrastructure, preserve the history, salvage the urban grid or revisit traditional design.
3. A century (the 20th) of self-hating envy of the West
In the early 1900s, many Chinese studied in America (including Sun Yat-Sen’s son, Sun Ke, who went to UCLA and Columbia) and came home to modernize the southern port, Guangzhou (Canton), with deputies likewise trained in America, “where the nation’s wide, paved roads designed for cars made a lasting impression. On their return, they ordered the pulling down of Guangzhou’s 800-year-old wall…[even as Canadian and American architects] urged an adaptive architecture [melding] modern engineering with traditional Chinese building traits.”
4. Embarrassment at China’s poverty.
Rich Americans seek out high-priced old Amish barn siding: it’s a precious decorative accent. Here old wood = slum. “You must understand the terrible inferiority complex that comes with poverty. The only desire is to look modern.”
5. Successive Chinese empires wiped out what they conquered.
The tradition of razing goes back to the emperors. Conquer-and-raze was a millenia-old tradition.
7. The Cultural Revolution
Of course. “Destroy the old world; Forge the new world.” Along with torture, murder, and public humiliation, Red Guards vandalized or burned down an astonishingly large fraction of China’s heritage. Many temples have been (are being) rebuilt and restored. I lack data but they’re a small bit of what was lost. We look hard to find and visit them, as do many Chinese tourists and pilgrims.
8. Communist (sometimes Soviet) ideology.
Beijing had two rings of walls: the inner surrounding the imperial palace, the outer around the city. A 1953 city government declaration said the Old City walls “serve feudalism and the imperial era.” Soon the outer was gone. (A crusading architect at the time, Liang Sicheng, said it felt “like having my skin torn off my bones.” He was in the papers this week when his own home was razed, despite its status as “an irreplaceable cultural relic.” [See under: “Rule of Law, problems with”.])
In 1953, under the CCP slogan, “Learn everything from the Soviet Union” a cadre declared (per Meyer), “The major danger is an extreme respect for old architecture.” So went not just wall but gate towers, ceremonial arches. He quotes a People’s Daily (CCP party organ) editorial of 1957: “The people all want to use their hands to destroy! You destroy a gray brick, I’ll pull down a piece of stone. Citizens of every district help pull down the wall.” Today, instead of gates, gargantuan intersections. Meyer found that Soviet advisers actually urged preservation of parts of the wall, to no avail.
A few years ago, about a kilometer was reconstructed — between a highway and a housing block.
9. ‘Urban renewal’ (quote-unquote) — hastened by the Olympics.
With Beijing’s Old and Dilapidated Housing Renewal program, “Neighborhoods that had survived the fall of imperial rule, the Republican era’s modernizations, Japanese occupation, and Mao’s industrialization fell to a faceless foe. The Hand moved through the hutong after dark, surreptitiously marking courtyard homes ‘Destroy.’ ”
10. And why does it happens so fast? Party politics. Bureaucrats’ ambition..
Meyer explains: “Rapid clear-cutting [is] the preferred method over selective thinning of buildings. “It’s about time… Speed. For the officials in charge, the faster they demolish old structures and begin new projects, the faster they can declare to those above them, ‘Look what I’ve accomplished.’ There are no paths to career advancement for ‘Look what I saved.’ ”
Consumerism in mod malls, says a famous, gifted Chinese architect (hutong-raised, trained at Berkeley, who hated the dead suburbs he saw in America, and now is head of architecture at MIT) — isn’t just a priority. Newness, consuming, is a way of life. Not of the opiate, brainwashing, shallow sort. Though it may devour 7 earths (that don’t exist), Chinese postmodern self-expression through consumerism is about choice where none existed before. It’s about experiencing freedom, exploring a new world. Life for once as a series of open possibilities.
The world’s robust new superpower, embodied in Beijing destroyed, is managing its own fate.
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