The relationship between modern China and its history is an uneasy one, largely due to the Maoist Cultural Revolution that ran a decade from its traumatic beginnings in 1966. A major thrust of that movement was to erase tradition, culture and the bourgeoisie. Along with them went art, music, literature, dance, personal expression and what ever didn’t fit the new order.
In came the (supposed) great leveller and provider of Communism – and forcibly so. As we have subsequently learned, some “tiers” of this level-playing-field end up living lives that are more equal than others, but that’s another story.
The prevailing mindset was (and is) not so good for the imposing edifices of the past then, with their centuries-old magnificence jutting blatantly out of the urban and rural landscapes. As such plenty have been demolished and built over in a bid to erase the past, fuelled by such propaganda slogans as “Destroy the old world; Forge the new world.” It is perhaps surprising that anything remains.
I was speaking to someone who had seen this first hand, the dwindling commodity that is the past and with some glimmer of hope he revealed a certain, begrudging shift in “policy”, largely thanks to the tourist trade. Yes, people will pay money to see your old stuff. Suddenly it has a value – the capitalist notion of this epiphany being somewhat overlooked. So in Beijing and other notable locations somebody, somewhere put the brake on. Well, partially.
Indeed, in the capital for example you may find ranks of performance artists in front of the Temple of Heaven, re-enacting ceremonies from ancient dynasties, no doubt to the sound of Chairman Mao turning in his grave. It seems that the most blatant (and therefore most notably missed) examples of the old world are the ones most likely to survive, those in turn being the places and buildings that most flock to see, logically enough. So it’s looking relatively good for the likes of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace at least.
However, there is still a sense, a desire among those who are aware of history’s precarious existence here to “get there before the bulldozers do”. They lurk like phantasmagorical packs of steely beasts, in the shadows, picking at the smaller, vulnerable edges of the culture that won’t be so easily missed. The Hutong, for example, housing in traditional courtyards that may have housed all: celebrity, artist or “little guy” throughout their long existence. Perhaps across hundreds of years.
These get devoured, flattened and replaced by apartment blocks, skyscrapers, shopping centres or modern edifices inscribed with such communist branding as Starbucks or McDonalds. Sorry, what?
Hutong can still be found, in clusters huddled like nervous goats, waiting for the inevitable. They are a sidestep off the main street, down the alleyways sometimes dingy, occasionally resplendent and announcing their past with pride. Picture terraced rows of small/medium sized blocks, now tobacco or craft shops, bars, snack shops, emporiums of curios or traditional/modern clothing and more. Places to wander, each maintaining its authenticity whether bedraggled or bejewelled.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 114) Arrival Beijing #3
[Photo by ivan walsh]