SkyscraperCity banner
1 - 20 of 23 Posts

·
Registered
Joined
·
703 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
How the Chinese Communists destroyed ancient Beijing
From The Sunday Times
June 15 2008

City of Heavenly Tranquillity, Beijing in the History of China by Jasper Becker / The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power 1850-2008 by Jonathan Fenby



To the Chinese of centuries past, Beijing was both the centre of the imperial state and an architectural expression of the spiritual order uniting man and heaven. To the Chinese of today, old Beijing is but a memory. Part elegy and part indictment, Jasper Becker’s book on “this ancient, magical city” tells of its disappearance in just six decades since the communist victory in 1949.

A capital that survived the collapse of the empire, invasion by Japan and China’s civil war, has been conclusively doomed by the 2008 Olympic Games and by planners, speculators and foreign architects hungry for prestige. “It was filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable, it was the great Peking of early summer,” wrote the novelist Lao She, the Dickens of the city, as late as 1933.

Lanes of flowers and willows still led to quarters where courtesans entertained their admirers and painted boys sang operas as old as the Ming dynasty. Becker guides us to crumbling pleasure domes and gardens, turning each excursion into a pen portrait of characters who in turn animate a history of cruel splendour. He tells of a mighty general, dragged to an execution post where a man awaited with a razor to inflict death by a thousand slices, of an imperial concubine tossed down a well to die and of the sad end of Lao She himself, found dead in a lake during the Cultural Revolution.

Near Tiananmen Square, Becker traces the spot where the severed heads of would-be reformers tumbled amid the cabbage leaves of a vegetable market more than 100 years ago. In a pure Bertolucci moment, Becker discovers the last court eunuch eking out his days near the palace of the last emperor, Pu Yi, whose brother he finds living in a courtyard where wild flowers grow amid broken bricks.

For all its grim past, Becker clearly enjoys the sharp humour of old Beijing, relishes the bitter toffee apples sold on the street stalls, likes its raucous individualism, its humming alleyways, its ferment of poetry and politics. His lyrical lament for its passing prepares the way for a scathing attack on the architects of its demise.

Glossy magazines tend to rave about the new Beijing skyline. Becker, a resident critic of the Chinese dictatorship for almost 20 years, treats it as a cultural crime.

Chinese philosophers say that Beijing was different from any western capital because it expressed its culture in spatial harmony and stone. Its geometry illustrated the view of the historian John K Fairbank that while western civilisation was dynamic, driven by trade and warfare, Chinese civilisation was stable, agricultural and bureaucratic. With the Forbidden City of the court at its centre, Beijing supported a huge cast of aristocrats, soldiers, merchants, scholars, entertainers and common folk all woven into a rich urban fabric which lay essentially unchanged for 500 years.

Becker’s unapologetic opinion is that the communists, as a peasant revolutionary movement, set out to break the capital and its people. He says that a succession of party leaders sanctioned the demolition of the old city out of political vindictiveness and a numbing lack of aesthetic judgment. Mao Tse-tung first swung the wrecker’s ball in 1950, destroying the medieval walls. Grandiose party buildings arose. Ranks of apartments mimicked the cities of eastern Europe. Factories spewed contamination over carved dragon friezes.

It was President Jiang Zemin, a provincial engineer, who completed the reordering of the urban landscape. In 2001, the International Olympic Committee handed him a perfect excuse for radicalism by granting the 2008 Games to Beijing. Jiang discarded plans for conservation, ignored the pleas of the Chinese-American architect IM Pei (who, alone of his peers, emerges with honour) and razed whole districts to make way for broad, windy avenues lined by buildings of no distinction whatsoever.

Becker calls this a “collective punishment” for the Beijingers’ rebellion of June 1989, saying that Jiang presided over “the greatest act of historical vandalism in Chinese history”. It was also an act of vanity to compare with that of any spendthrift emperor.

Baron Haussmann’s restoration of Paris in the 19th century left 40% of that city’s urban fabric intact: just 5% of old Beijing remains. Only the Forbidden City, a few famous monuments and a small area of traditional homes are preserved. The cost has been human, too. A million people have left their homes. More than 1.3m peasants laboured on 7,000 building sites in the city, often cheated of their pay and obliged to work in dire conditions. At least 10 perished to build the Olympic stadium known as the Birds’ Nest, but officials have admitted to only six fatalities during the entire Olympic construction programme.

Becker’s writing reaches its best when he scorns the foreign architects who scurried to collaborate with the Chinese authorities. The recipients of official patronage make up a distinguished list — Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Sir Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Paul Andreu, among others. At one point the Chinese consulted Albert Speer’s son about the Olympic landscaping, which seems perfectly fitting.

Becker quotes the German architect Ole Scheeren, charged with executing Koolhaas’s design for the new headquarters of China state television, on the professional morality of working for the Chinese government instead of American clients. “It’s a choice between associating yourself with a regime that is on the brink of opening up and propelling itself into a positive thinking future, or associating with another nation that is at the end of its height, propelling war plans into the world,” said Scheeren. No doubt his choice was helped by the £300m on offer to house a state television network that, as Becker says, “had a record of putting out propaganda worthy of Goebbels”.

The westerners held no monopoly on crassness. The Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing devastated the Wangfujing district to erect a concrete and glass shopping mall which he named Oriental Plaza. Becker cannot resist observing that “there was nothing remotely oriental about it”.

A hundred and eight Chinese architects protested against Andreu’s egg-like design for the National Theatre, to no avail. The building, which drew rhapsodic acclaim abroad, is known to locals as “the big turd”.

The two lessons of Becker’s evocative, story-packed book are that public opinion counts for nothing against authoritarian whim and that the emperors had better taste than the present dynasty of suits.

Any inquiring travellers going to Beijing for the Olympics will find City of Heavenly Tranquillity a provocative, saddening companion. If their curiosity is whetted, they can turn to Jonathan Fenby’s 800-page history of modern China, rather a marathon run through 158 years of famine, war, revolution and reform.

Fenby, a former editor of the South China Morning Post and a biographer of Chiang Kai-shek, has evolved a taut, anecdote- studded style to tell a complex story in a fluent, direct way. He treads a well-worn path from the decaying 19th century to the communist revolution of 1949, stating that most of China’s flaws date to the imperial era and that violence has settled political disputes for most of its modern history.

Fenby has a good eye for a quote and repeats with relish the words of Robert Hart, the Ulsterman who ran the imperial customs, that in the late empire “the comical and the tragical have dovetailed”.

The later chapters, completing the saga from the death of Mao to the Tiananmen massacre and beyond, contain echoes of this refrain as “reformers” replace revolutionaries to a chorus of obedient propaganda.

The book is a great introduction for a general audience, well-paced, with vivid scene-setting and character sketches. If it has a weakness, it is an absence of Chinese primary sources, although Fenby draws extensively and with generous acknowledgement upon recent scholarship. Perhaps for this reason, however, while the facts are told with skill, the perspective remains that of an enlightened liberal European.

For example, Fenby says that the People’s Republic, politically, is in an authoritarian time warp that can be traced back to 221BC. He is referring to an era when the first ruler to unify China buried the scholars alive. Even ardent Chinese democrats would probably concede that the governance of modern China is a little more subtle than that.

The late 1990s saw the start of the demolition and rebuilding of Beijing — at an estimated cost of £100 billion. About 3m inhabitants have been evicted. In 1980 there were still 6,000 traditional courtyard homes, known as hutong: now just a few hundred remain. Only one of the 44 princely palaces, or wangfu, still exists in its entirety. “Imagine the outcry,” Becker writes, “if in less than a decade London underwent a similar transformation. If the West End, Notting Hill, Knightsbridge, Holland Park and the City of London were to be levelled and replaced by giant residential and commercial blocks. If every landmark — Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Pall Mall, Regent Street, Covent Garden, the courtyards of the Temple, the alleys of Soho — were to disappear at once.” There has been no international outcry to save old Beijing — nothing compared to the protest, say, which greeted the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. And now it is too late.
 

·
My Heart is with Beijing.
Joined
·
1,737 Posts
Partly right, mostly wrong.
While many beijingers are remembering the old gates and walls and achitectures, more of us are thanking olympics for the fast improvement of the city public transportation and modern/convenient utilities and buildings. I am so fascinated into beijing's modernity and the huge avenues dividing the districts. It is simply a paradise.
 

·
pooh bear
Joined
·
7,563 Posts
It's just mindless nostalgia. Seriously, I doubt most of the courtyard dwellers would want to return to the former slums from their commieblocks. Most of the hutong had no running water, were severly overcrowded, had terrible sanitation, smelled awful, etc... Anyway, huge amounts of Old Beijing are restored, Qianmen, forbidden city, and pretty much the whole area inside the 2nd ring road. He's just finding any way to criticize the Communist government, even with this great positive achievement. Slums are cleared, historical areas are restored. I don't think anyone will disagree with that.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
227 Posts
^^I completely agree. It is worth protecting and restoring those magnificent ancient buildings. No doubt about it. But not those slumps. Absolutely not. Many people who lived in those slumps before are very happy with the much better living conditions of their new homes, thanks to the government.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
14 Posts
What a load of rubbish. The writer was quick to point out that Beijing suffered from the collapse of the old empire, the Japanese invasion and the civil war. He went on and on about how the communists is killing the old Beijing. I am no fan of the CCP but hey! maybe the writer could at least acknowledge and spare a word for the damage his country inflicted on Beijing when he was recounting Beijing's past? If he did, I would see this as a relevantly balanced report and not another communist bashing propaganda rubbish.

I wonder what Beijing will look like today if the British didn't burn down our old Imperial Gardens and left laughing with our national treasures which can still be found in the British museum and some suburban homes in England. Those hutongs and pricely palaces destroyed by the Communists is nothing in terms of cultural and architectural significance compared to the old Imperial Gardens.

If that writer is serious about preserving the old Beijing and respecting its past glory, perhaps he could also write an article to demand the return of our national treasures which are still being displayed shamelessly in musuems in New York, Paris and London? Until he has done that, I won't believe a word from him about preserving old Beijing. He is just another hypocrite who pretends to care about the Chinese people and their culture. What he really enjoys is bashing the communists.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
14 Posts
What a load of rubbish. The writer was quick to point out that Beijing suffered from the collapse of the old empire, the Japanese invasion and the civil war. He went on and on about how the communists is killing the old Beijing. I am no fan of the CCP but hey! maybe the writer could at least acknowledge and spare a word for the damage his country inflicted on Beijing when he was recounting Beijing's past? If he did, I would see this as a relevantly balanced report and not another communist bashing propaganda rubbish.

I wonder what Beijing will look like today if the British didn't burn down our old Imperial Gardens and left laughing with our national treasures which can still be found in the British museum and some suburban homes in England. Those hutongs and princely palaces destroyed by the Communists is nothing in terms of cultural and architectural significance compared to the old Imperial Gardens.

If that writer is serious about preserving the old Beijing and respecting its past glory, perhaps he could also write an article to demand the return of our national treasures which are still being displayed shamelessly in musuems in New York, Paris and London? Until he has done that, I won't believe a word from him about preserving old Beijing. He is just another hypocrite who pretends to care about the Chinese people and their culture. What he really enjoys is bashing the communists.
 

·
pooh bear
Joined
·
7,563 Posts
^^Totally correct. He's just finding a way to bash the communists, even when their achievements are very positive in this aspect (slum clearing).
 

·
Banned
Joined
·
2,575 Posts
On the other hand, to call the old hutongs slum is a bit overstretched. They were just not well maintained and did not undergo modernisation due to poverty, neglect and overpopulation. A lot of the beautiful old buildings in Europe would have suffered the same fate if during the 70s, 80s up until now they did no undergo modernisation as e.g. adding modern hygien facilities and renovating the old substances without destroying the architectural form.

There are still a lot of old houses in Berlin that don't have central heating and individual bathroom, but in the last two decades a lot of them have added these features. My apartment in Hamburg is almost 100 years old and a bathroom was added in the 80s.

I would prefere to live in an old but modernised siheyuan than in any of those characterless highrises.
 

·
Banned
Joined
·
2,575 Posts
On the other hand, to call the old hutongs slum is a bit overstretched. They were just not well maintained and did not undergo modernisation due to poverty, neglect and overpopulation. A lot of the beautiful old buildings in Europe would have suffered the same fate if during the 70s, 80s and up until now they did not undergo modernisation as e.g. adding modern hygien facilities and renovating the old substances without destroying the architectural form.

There are still a lot of old houses in Berlin that don't have central heating and individual bathroom, but in the last two decades a lot of them have added these features. My apartment in Hamburg is almost 100 years old and a bathroom was added in the 80s.

I would prefere to live in an old but modernised siheyuan than in any of those characterless highrises.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
312 Posts
I agree that old are heritage that should be protected. China just as many development country often fail to realise the value of heritage. Prosperity and progress are seen as value of themselves. For heritage protection there need to be an education middle class that can sustain a heritage protection.

This is the case with china of today. After the extreme positive view of development are heritage and heritage protection becoming an important question. Cities like Suzhou and Yangzhou are being restored in a very good way. When I was last time in Bejing the Hutongs are getting more and more beautiful. Around Sichahai there are more and more restored quarters.

To the article: there are so much Hutongs in Beijing. Why do no-one pay attetion to the chinese efforts to actually preserve the hutongs. There have been many very good policies from the goverment to preserve and restore the hutongs. I will upload my Hutongsphotos in the future.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
703 Posts
Discussion Starter · #12 ·
On the other hand, to call the old hutongs slum is a bit overstretched. They were just not well maintained and did not undergo modernisation due to poverty, neglect and overpopulation. A lot of the beautiful old buildings in Europe would have suffered the same fate if during the 70s, 80s up until now they did no undergo modernisation as e.g. adding modern hygien facilities and renovating the old substances without destroying the architectural form.

There are still a lot of old houses in Berlin that don't have central heating and individual bathroom, but in the last two decades a lot of them have added these features. My apartment in Hamburg is almost 100 years old and a bathroom was added in the 80s.

I would prefere to live in an old but modernised siheyuan than in any of those characterless highrises.
Yes, I think the old hutongs are beautiful, full of potential and can be elegant restored.
Common guys, put away the flags.
When I was there in Beijing, those 'slums' actually reminded me a bit of the slum pictures in 19th - 20th century London. They could smiply just reduce its population or convert into luxury neighbourhood, shopping district like those in London, Paris, Vienna or Munich...well since china is no longer communist state.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
312 Posts
^^I completely agree. It is worth protecting and restoring those magnificent ancient buildings. No doubt about it. But not those slumps. Absolutely not. Many people who lived in those slumps before are very happy with the much better living conditions of their new homes, thanks to the government.
This is not completely true. Not everyone wants to move; and to see all hutongs as slums is simply just to easy and without knowledge about the treasures that hidden in the alleys. Many of the Hutongs that I have inspected are from early Ming-times. I think we need to understand the construction and the destruction of hutongs as a complex question. We have the orginal courtyard hourses that are often older.

The main problems with hutongs have been that what once belonged to one person have been built over. Now five families have built their houses in the hutongs. This means that it becomes a courtyard house without a courtyard. The people who lived in the courtyard (read: not the courtyard house) are often positive to relocation where people who actually lived in the historical courtyard houses have been predominant negative. The first one cannot claim posession but the second can. In many cases the problem have been with the later who have refused. Property developer have in many cases used violence to force people to move

The main aspect of tearing down the hutongs had litte to do with increasing the living standards but was rather a way for local politcians who have sold property to property developer. This meant that the tearing down of hutongs was often deals that were ruled by corruption and neither an interrest of heritage or the care of the inhabitants. Lack of transperancy is an inherent problem in the political system of china.

A second problem is the term slums: Slums have less to do with the houses but also to with clientel and social spectra that lives there. The government are just creating new slums in the suburbs. I saw rather an elite development where rich chinese people moves into the hutongs and poor people moves out to the poorer suburbs and thereby creating slums for the future. Hutong will be in the future a living style for the upper middleclass or the upperclass. This is in terms with gentrification similar to other large cities in the world.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
4,520 Posts
They don't have to preserve all of the hutongs. They should select neighbourhood(s) and perserve, restore the hutongs in it. As for the rest, I favour development as it bring more benefit to more people, rather than just benefiting those few who are landlords of it.
 

·
pooh bear
Joined
·
7,563 Posts
Pretty much all of the hutong inside the 2nd ring road are preserved; that's more than 50% of old Beijing. The author is talking out of his ass when he says only 5% are preserved, maybe he means the area of old Beijing compared to the whole 北京市。 The hutong between the 2nd and 3rd ring roads were just hastily built slums without much historical value; they are quaint to be sure, but not worth preserving compared to the 2nd ring road ones. The ancient city is inside the 2nd ring, the modern city is outside. Very clear deliniation, as more hutong are restored, it would look fabulous. Hopefully the next project is restoration of the city walls, that's a historical mistake but now they can correct it.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
312 Posts
Pretty much all of the hutong inside the 2nd ring road are preserved; that's more than 50% of old Beijing. The author is talking out of his ass when he says only 5% are preserved, maybe he means the area of old Beijing compared to the whole 北京市。 The hutong between the 2nd and 3rd ring roads were just hastily built slums without much historical value; they are quaint to be sure, but not worth preserving compared to the 2nd ring road ones. The ancient city is inside the 2nd ring, the modern city is outside. Very clear deliniation, as more hutong are restored, it would look fabulous. Hopefully the next project is restoration of the city walls, that's a historical mistake but now they can correct it.
The western media neglects to report any positive developments in the hutongs. Call it bias! I talk to people who thinks there are no more hutongs left. As a westerner I disturbs me this complete lack of objectivity. I have seen so many wonderful renovations project around Sichahai....The city wall would be a great thing!
 

·
Banned
Joined
·
2,575 Posts
^^

they have to demolish the erhuan lu in order to restore the wall ... that's going to be costly and demands a large amount of engineering and city planning.
 

·
pooh bear
Joined
·
7,563 Posts
^^they can demolish all the commieblocks next to it (ugly commieblocks just outside 2nd ring, really hideous), may be costly but worth it; anyway 1/4 of the wall still stands, they just have to fill in the gaps, plus they've done great restoration so far on the forbidden city, qianmen, qianmen lu (jie, dao?), and many hutongs.
 

·
Banned
Joined
·
2,575 Posts
^^

The problem is, where to put the traffic of Erhuan Lu? A tunnel would be difficult as there is already the ring line metro underneath. But I do support the restauration of certain parts of the wall near Tian'anmen.

BTW Beijing uses Jie more often than Lu, so Qianmen Jie. :)
 

·
pooh bear
Joined
·
7,563 Posts
Well only 50% of erhuanlu follows the inner city walls, they can restore the walls on the south edge of the inner city (not the south part of old beijing). And I meant building the restored wall next to erhuanlu, so there's no disruption, but there would be massive demolition of commieblocks and maybe some gaps near some big interchanges.
 
1 - 20 of 23 Posts
Top