“China’s Glorious New Past”

It’s hard to explain how fast this country is developing to someone who hasn’t been here.  Your favorite restaurant disappears, old housing blocks are replaced by brand new high-rise apartments, entire districts rise from the ground overnight.  The battle to preserve ancient neighborhoods and cultural sites is ongoing, and sees both victories and defeats.  Ian Johnson from the New York Review of Books blogs about the changes sweeping through one city:

I’ve been in China long enough to know the futility of nostalgia for old cities, but I was still shocked when I recently made a trip back for the first time in ten years. Datong is now booming, thanks to the region’s rich coal reserves, which have created a class of coal barons as wealthy and crass as any character on the TV show “Dallas.” As with most Chinese cities, Datong is in the grips of rampant real estate speculation, with poor people evicted from their homes in the old city, which is being torn down for new developments. (This is a topic I explore in the context of recent books on the destruction of Beijing in new piece for the NYR.) Datong is famous for a noodle known as daoxiaomian—in traditional restaurants, cooks deftly shave strips off a big block of dough, shooting the noodles directly into a pot of boiling water. My favorite restaurant had of course been leveled, and the only option was a faceless fast food chain that went by the invented English name Eastwheat.

What’s surprising is how all this happened. Over the past few decades, Chinese cities have seen their historic centers erased by a generic vision of modernization: broad boulevards and highways, office towers and luxury flats. In Datong, that vision had its day in the 1990s and 2000s. Now, this old-fashioned coal-mining city is on the cutting edge of a new urban development strategy: recreating an imagined, glorious Chinese past. I’d seen this in parts of Beijing, especially around the Qianmen area—an old central neighborhood of shops and restaurants that had flourished through the early twentieth century and was rebuilt in faux-historic style in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics—or at the Xintiandi shopping mall in Shanghai. But Datong is something else. It’s not only a few shopping districts that are being recreated, but vast swaths of an old city that just decades earlier had been obliterated in a fit of auto-cultural genocide: rampant, unregulated development in the name of modernization.

The efforts are centered on rebuilding the once-magnificent city walls. Most stretches had come down in the Mao era and the rest were destroyed to make way for new buildings in the 1990s. Now, they are being rebuilt, mostly from scratch. Already, half of the center of Datong is encircled by the the new walls, which are a full scale replica of the originals: thirty-nine feet high and sixty feet wide at the base. Every few hundred yards are watchtowers and every few watchtowers,a hole punched in the wall for traffic to pass through. There’s little evidence that traditional methods or materials are being used, despite claims to the contrary. Construction cranes line the wall like siege engines, depositing pallets of freshly baked red brick that fill in steel-reinforced concrete pillars. Grey stones cover the skeleton to give it an old look.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this trend began but it seems to be driven by tourism. Over the past decade, well-preserved old cities like Pingyao (240 miles south of Datong) have become major tourist destinations thanks to their city walls and old streets. But there’s also a deeper sense in China of the country having lost too much in the past century of destruction. The revival of Confucian thought, for example, is a way of finding out how Chinese did things in the past—before the country’s experiments with fascism, communism and authoritarian capitalism. City walls and the like are a more concrete manifestation of this desire to turn back the clock.

I can’t blame people for wanting something other than the generic high-rises that stretch on towards the horizon in cities like Shanghai- very little of their architectural heritage made it through this century intact.  It’s hard to say whether or not this trend makes sense:  plenty of the recreated sites are visibly fake, and some feel pretty depressing.  Other times they’re pulled off really well and break the feeling of sameness that a lot of cities here have.

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