Build one up while I knock one down: the fate of Beijing’s cultural heritage

A few years ago in a Beijing taxi, my father asked the taxi driver whether he knew of any 古迹 (relics) in and around Beijing that were lesser known but worth a visit. The taxi driver turned around and in a typically Beijing manner said ”古迹 有什么好玩的呀,现在都要住高楼大厦,没人要那些古迹,没用! There’s nothing interesting about relics, everyone wants to live in high rise modern apartments these days, no one needs those old things, they’re useless!  My father’s reply resonated with me profoundly at the time and still sticks with me today, “可不能那么说呀,你想,那些古迹是上百年前的人花多少功夫慢慢建起来的。每个老房子上的一砖一瓦都是这样盖出来的,而且他们的手艺, 是花一辈子学到的,技术更是一代又一代传下去的。咱们不能一瞬间,一锤子就把他们代代积累的文化拆除掉吧?Those old things were built by people who lived hundreds of years ago, slowly, using lots of hard work. Every brick, every tile on every old house was put together like this, and furthermore, they spent their lifetime learning and perfecting their craft, the skills passed down generation by generation. We can’t just in one moment, one smash with an axe, knock down their collective culture like this“. The driver said nothing more, only smiled in acknowledgement.

My father’s words, recalled at particular moments, can still bring a tear to my eye. The great modern Chinese architect Liang Sicheng (1901-72), back in 1949, tried to persuade Mao Zedong and the Communist Party to preserve old Beijing when the party was planning its future capital, but to no avail. Liang and fellow architect Chen Zhanxiang proposed a new urban plan that recommended building a new government and its administrative centre to the west of the old city, using Gongzhufen (公主坟)as the eastern point of reference. Beijing city was at the time still extensively fortified by city walls, and Liang’s plan would have perfectly preserved Beijing as a “cultural and historical centre”. Mao, however, staunchly rejected this proposal and was adamant that the new capital was built on old soil as the ultimate symbol of victory over the feudal system and the defeat of the Qing dynasty. He also saw the city walls (of which there was an outer and inner), its gates and towers as a physical reminder of the repressions of old society, its citizens confined by imperially set boundaries. The walls were subsequently torn down for the building of the second ring road and railway, as well as for general “city expansion”.  Old Beijing began to be eaten away, bit-by-bit, in line with the “transformative thinking” of the newly formed People’s Republic: “destroying the old and building the new”.

Today, over 60 years on from Liang’s proposal, urban Beijing has expanded well past its 4th ring road, and is over six times larger than old Beijing city. It is the general consensus in the urban planning field that had Liang’s foresight been adopted by the Communist Party, urban development would have seen much greater success, and it would have provided the flexibility for new and diverse districts and centres to spring up unhindered by the mould in which the current city has rapidly grown out of.

The night before demolition on the city wall of Beijing began, Liang Sicheng was said to have sat atop it and wept in despair for the last days of his beloved city. He said of the dismantlement: “拆掉城墙,你们会后悔的,五十年后,历史史会正明我是对的 – you will regret dismantling the city wall, in 50 years time, history will prove I am right”. Liang’s then wife, Lin Huiyin, another prominent Chinese architect, also warned of the destruction of the wall and gates: “有一天,你们后悔了,想再盖,也只能盖个假古董了 – one day, when you regret this, and want to rebuild, you will only be able to create a fake relic“. Their ominous words sure enough ring chillingly true today. Only last month, the head of Beijing’s Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage Kong Fanzhi announced that it was to rebuild six historical structures, most of which are city gates (Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911)) in order to “make up for historical loss”. Beijing will be investing over one billion RMB on restoring architectural relics this year, the largest it has ever made.

Before the Communist party cleared the wall and its gates on a large scale, they had been standing for over 500 years, yet overnight in 1950, demolition began. Liang Sicheng likened the effect on him to torture: “拆掉北京的一座城楼,就像割掉我的一快肉;扒掉北京的一段城墙,就像剥去我的一层皮” – tearing down one of Beijing’s city gates is like slicing off a piece of my flesh; pulling down a section of the wall is like peeling off a layer of my skin. I may not be able to feel the great architect’s sentiments to its full affects, but many a times have images of continued destruction filled me with a sense of powerlessness and despair. If Liang were alive today, I imagine it would be agony for him to witness how modern development has, and continues to consume his ancient city, erasing its distinctive and lines and wrinkles, including the hutong alleyways that were once the fabric of its landscape. Thank goodness he isn’t here for that – compare pictures of old Dongzhimen gate with that of today, now a roundabout intersection, and the reality is brutal – there is no resemblance, as if the whole area was bombed flat and reconstructed based on a new world order.

Yet even now, 60 years on from his infamous words, we are not able to ensure that Liang’s legacy is fully preserved. In a move that seemed the ultimate insult to injury,  three months ago over Chinese New Year, Liang Sicheng and his wife’s former residence at 北总布胡同3号 (No. 3 Beizongbu hutong) from which the couple completed important pieces of research, was stealthily torn down by housing developers Huan Run(华润). The consequential outcry at the unlawful destruction of a building that had only a year ago been labeled an “immovable cultural relic” has since prompted Beijing Dongcheng district to order the rebuilding of this siheyuan (traditional courtyard home), as a correction to a “mistake” that should never have occurred in the first place. Hua Run (华润) group has been fined 50,000RMB for its audacity, a meager punishment for such a severe criminal offence.

Those familiar with the state of endangered buildings in Beijing will easily recognise the “stamp of doom”, a white circled “拆”  (“demolish”) painted onto walls and doors of buildings to signal its downfall and invokes major panic among preservationists.  The recent Liang incidence and the outcry it caused has put greater pressure on the government to act in a more considered manner, at least on the surface. On March 28th, Beijing Xicheng district announced that it had decided not to demolish 砖塔胡同 (Zhuanta hutong), one of the earliest hutongs in Beijing,due to its famed former residence, the renowned Chinese writer Lu Xun (鲁迅) who lived there from 1923-1924 at number 84. While many welcomed the decision, it was a mere small triumph in a district where a significant number of hutongs are still under the threat of “拆”. Change seems only reactive – just last week, demolition began on three hutongs in Xicheng district: 小珠帘胡同(small pearl bead)、三道栅 (three lane gate) (Sandao 鲜明 (Xianming), in an area designated for redevelopment. The textbook response to questions of why some hutongs and courtyards are being torn down is that they do not have “身份” or “identity”. It’s however hard to comprehend how buildings with over 500 years of history can lack in “identity” – if that is the case, what chances do any of us really have…

History sadly shows that it has been the “Chinese” way to “destroy the old and build the new”, to wipe out traces of a previous imperial rule when a new leader takes over. Dynasty after dynasty, rulers destroyed buildings and cities that signified the landscape of a power that came before. During the late Qin Dynasty, Xiang Yu, a military leader and political figure, ransacked and burnt the ancient capital of the Qin dynasty and its majestic Epang Palace to the ground when he took over Xian Yang near present day Xi’an, in 206BC during his power struggle with Liu Bang the first emperor of the Han Dynasty. Along with the city, the imperial library that housed the sole copies of large numbers of important books and scriptures from pre-Qin eras was lost forever. The city of Luoyang in Henan province, twice a capital in Chinese history, suffered the same fate, most severely the second time round when the Xiongnu forces defeated the Jin dynasty in AD 316 and razed Luoyang to the ground. In these cases, the destruction of a landscape is seen as a clear symbol of victory over the predecessor as well as the necessary elimination of a contesting legacy.  But in today’s China, neither are architectural relics a symbol of threat, nor do they represent something abhorrent – long gone are the days when they may have been looked upon with contempt or signified an oppressive rule. There is a general understanding of the importance of preservation and a rapidly growing appreciation for cultural heritage amongst the Chinese public, which makes the ongoing demolition of these structures, for the purpose of real-estate and financial gain, both unjustified and extremely short-sighted.

The Beijing taxi driver’s mentality is no doubt still echoed by many ordinary Beijingers these days who want a piece of the pie that is China’s economic boom; but luckily, there is a staunch contingent made up of intellectuals and citizens who can look past the superficial transiency of modern progression to that which actually defines China. What is lost today will remain forever gone, along with the craftsmanship and spirit of a rich heritage. In an increasingly homogenised society and globalised world, it will be a country’s history and traditions that truly distinguish it in the future, and that luckily is something that China still has. A budding generation of young conservationists are on the rise, willing to fight for the future of their heritage; you only have to look on Weibo to know their sentiments towards the ongoing erosion of historical neighbourhoods. They strive, at least, to ensure that when in time, the rest of the people, as well as future generations, realise what these relics stand for and are ready to take them seriously, they won’t be filled with regret and ask why nothing was ever done.


International Women’s Day Beijing

Happy International Women’s Day (IWD) from Beijing!

Of noteworthy observations from today:

– How widely acknowledged the occasion is in China – IWD is a much more established celebration in China and men and women will wish women happy IWD. However, the essence of the occasion here in China is much less about equality, more about general appreciation of women and mothers and wives.

– One month ago today, my landlord (25, university graduate) gave me a 100 yuan reduction (£10) on my monthly rent because of my sex, “boys earn more don’t they”, she said rhetorically. I happily took the discount, have I betrayed my beliefs? Shall I print the words “HYPOCRITE” on my head today?

– I curiously wandered into the “Singles Club” opposite my gym the other day. The club is for singles to mingle and is the physical attachment to their online dating website. You have the option of making a one off payment for a “until you are married” membership for 1990 Yuan (£190). As part of IWD celebrations, a special event is being held at the club for single women to meet men… IWD = Valentines for singletons?

LOVE brings Beijing to a standstill

Feb 14th – a bitter cold day, an even bitter colder evening. Yet for a generation of young couples in Beijing, nothing could cool the heated anticipation for a day dedicated to love, lust and romance – St Valentine’s. Although a thoroughly non-Chinese tradition, Valentine’s Day is embraced by a generation of young urban mainland dwellers with whom it is rapidly gaining popularity, so much so that this year’s occasion saw Beijing’s transport infrastructure brought to its knees.

Beijing, 14th Feb morning: girls with large grins on their faces walked the streets of the city centre carrying in their bosoms complimentarily large, and sometimes rather “tacky” bouquets of red roses. Perhaps some are genuinely struggling, but many seem to wear a heavy gait in their walk or ever so slightly drag their feet to convey a proud difficulty in bearing the immensity of the gesture they have received.  While in the West, many would be embarrassed by such conspicuousness, it is rather “Chinese” to bask in the glory – of possessing such conscientious boyfriends. This is particularly the case for a generation of young people able to express their feelings much more freely than their parents ever did; parents who lived through the cultural revolution where love and affection were hidden, not condoned by a society concerned with hard work and equality, not the vanities of pre-communist  “bourgeois” indulgences. Open expression of sentiments were frowned upon, and clothing that accentuated the differentiation between the sexes was denounced – men and women wore the same unisex Mao uniforms (the Zhongshan suit), variations of which became “the fashion” in Communist China.

Decades later, on 14th Feb, 5.30 pm – as evening loomed on Valentines day in Beijing, there were clear indications of what was “to become” later that evening – the queue outside Chaoyangmen Metro Station in the east side of town poured out onto the pavement and people squeezed through narrow barriers to get underground. For those like myself who dread the thought of getting caught in such a mass undertaking, the cab is usually an option – but clearly not today. In fact, the inviability of any vehicle on the road (apart from maybe the bicycle or motorbike) was very much evident by the languid edging forward of traffic.

As part of the frenzied buildup to Valentines day, restaurants ranging from fast food chains to hotel gourmets introduced “Valentine Dinner Packages”, with candle lit dinners being especially popular. Candles themselves were fast selling out in supermarkets and shops as those celebrating at home wanted to create the same romantic ambience as a restaurant environment. Many hotels restaurants also offered special follow on stay and post Valentine “Breakfast in bed” packages. Others trying to bolster sales included supermarkets, many of which held special activities including prize draws and performances throughout the day (e.g. below).

8.00 pm, after having bounced from one destination to another, it’s time to get home – a further attempt at cab hailing fails and illegal cabs (with red lights in the window to resemble the “for hire” lights of legal taxis) are out in force, stopping at the corner of every road in front of passengers, trying to exploit an outstripped supply chain. Eventually I get onto a bus at a relatively quiet out-of-the-way station and lo and behold, it is packed and barely moving.

9pm – My destination bus stop is over pouring with people. the only free moving thing in sight was the heart-shaped balloon bobbing up and down, unrelinquished even in such moments of frustration and inconvenience.

Balloon flying high despite the reality showing the romance - at bus stop (3rd ring road) 9pm

Official statistics on Feb 14th from Chinese media reported that Valentines Day 2012 broke all previous Beijing public transport records – the underground was used by 7.57 million passengers, with lines 1, 2 and 10 being hardest hit, carrying 1.5 million,1.4 million and 1 million passengers respectively. It was said that many people had hoped to avoid the clogged arteries of Beijing’s roads and chose instead to use the more reliable metro system, which unfortunately failed to deliver in many cases – emergency stops were operated on line 5, and numerous incidences of trains “not stopping” at designated stations were reported on other lines. China’s microblogs (equivalent of twitter) full of comments conveying how Valentine’s day was “shattered” as couples were not able to even arrive at a pre-arranged destination to spent the evening together, or the inability to do so romantically – “This Valentine’s Day was thoroughly spent on the third ring road”, the male in question went onto tell how he and his girlfriend were forced off the bus and had to “walk” all the way to their destination, normally a 15 minute metro ride. Other comments bemoaned the damage to flower bouquets as a result of the dense squeeze. According to passengers out and about past 11pm, the situation both on the road and off had not eased up; for much of the night, Beijing’s traffic was in deadlock.

Traffic at a standstill - 9pm

For more pictures of the congestion in Beijing both above and below ground, see:

And what part did I play in all of this? I was merely attending to much more urgent matters and necessities – finding somewhere to live in Beijing that wasn’t someone else’s home. Even that had to be curtailed as the landlord was in a rush to get away – to her Valentine.

Everyone’s cashing in… on the Chinese

Location: Wuhan City, China
Remember C&A? Well they withdrew from the UK circa. 2000 and stepped onto the China scene later in the decade

M&S finds its footing in China’s luxury food and clothing market – selling itself as quintessentially English, which certainly speaks to those with money and aspiring to live the lifestyle of the western middle class

And finally… who wouldn’t want to shop in Teenie Weenie…?

The dragon arrives with a bang

Next door neighbour

I’ve learnt in the past day that sound (unlike smell) does not conjure up old memories for me – of all things I remember about Chinese New Year from my childhood: frantic dumpling-making, the hustle and bustle of family gatherings, the squeeze of everyone on the sofa, copious amounts of food, pungent smells of gun power, there is one thing I had thoroughly let sieve – the sheer earth shattering noise marking the arrival of each new year.

Gunpowder symbolises Chinese invention and ingenuity (as well as Western manipulation for a less friendly cause) and manifests itself in the form of good old fireworks displays on NYE, as is in the West. In China, firecrackers ( are equally popular and are more accessible for the average family, as they are compact, easy to manage and can be bought in large quantities. On the one hand they exhibit less-than-worthy visual effects (bar splashes of yellow light as below), on the other, they are ultimate noise makers – acidic, head-splitting sound effects. Their original purpose to ward away evil spirits.

Fire cracker unfurled and lit in the local neighbourhood

The noise begins on the morning of NYE, and continues throughout the day, culminating in a show case of ratchet making at midnight. The incessant pounding becomes inescapable, each lighting executed with the sure repayment of reverberations to make your innards shake. There are your average crackers which let off sharp rifle shot noises, and then, there are the new generation cannon-like types you hear shooting off somewhere too close for comfort, where conceivably rooftops could be blown off with such force. The most disturbing part in all of this is the lack of visual warning – seeing does not come before believing – there were moments where the pounding became so stifling I envisaged it being not much less intrusive than living in a war-zone. Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating – it’s absurd – i hear you say, but imagine this: the biggest festival in China, the population: 1.3 billion, of whom half (probably an underestimate) buys some form of firework whether small or big (a tentative comparison to Christmas trees or presents), the lack of health and safety laws and prohibition for personal use, and suddenly it is all more than likely that China’s large cities, for one night a year only, echo the sounds of a transient battle field.

The aftermath - remnants of fire crackers