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The High Price of the New Beijing

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Vincent Thian/AP Images
The Qianmen shopping district in Beijing on the eve of the lantern festival marking the last day of Chinese New Year celebrations, February 2010

One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge–type street: its façades scrubbed and tarted up a bit too much but the famous stores still selling their century-old brands of cotton shoes, medicine, hats, and sweets. It was kitschy but the buildings were more or less real and the stores crowded with shoppers and tourists from the provinces.

Then I turned onto Qianmen Street, the main thoroughfare that starts just south of Tiananmen Square and heads to the Temple of Heaven. I knew that Qianmen Street had been renovated but in the past had seen only a glimpse of it. This time I walked its length, and was completely disoriented. The old buildings had never been beautiful—over the years, many had acquired garish additions and all were in bad repair—but they had an authenticity about them that was unmistakable. As I walked, I couldn’t find one of them.

In their place was something akin to a movie lot. The street was now lined with identical two- to three-story buildings, completely new and covered with a façade of traditional-looking gray stones. The bleakness was exacerbated by the all too familiar international chains that occupied the buildings: H&M, Zara, and Rolex. The only Chinese touch was a store selling Olympic souvenirs, illegal under the International Olympic Committee rules (which limit sales of official souvenirs until just a few months after the games end). But in a country where almost everything is pirated, from books and movies to cars and aircraft carriers, it felt real.

When I got to the end, I turned back and looked. Behind the new buildings were empty lots strewn with the rubble of demolished courtyard houses and stores. What had once been a warren of alleys and streets—one of the liveliest and most atmospheric in the city—was now mostly bulldozed. As I stood there, a couple walked by. In a heavy Beijing accent, the man asked the woman where they were. She replied, “Qianmen,” and he blurted out, “No way! How did it end up like this?”

Answering this question is the subject of a newly translated book by the Chinese journalist Wang Jun, a forty-two-year-old reporter for Outlook magazine, which is run by the official Xinhua News Agency. That may seem like an odd place for an independent journalist to work, but the agency’s insider status has long provided a cover for investigative reporting, especially when it touches on problems that the Communist Party knows it can’t afford to ignore.

Urban planning is one such subject. Over the past twenty years, it has been the source of widespread social unrest, with tens of thousands of citizens banding together in class-action lawsuits against land expropriation. The government eventually banned such legal action, but the topic is still one of China’s most sensitive. Real estate prices have risen so much in major Chinese cities that ordinary people can at best afford an apartment in a suburban housing tower. On some days, it seems that all people talk about is housing and the problems of living in Chinese cities.

I met Wang in the late 1990s when I was writing a book on grassroots unrest in China. Every few months he seemed to come up with new finds from the archives showing the long historical background to many of Beijing’s current problems. As a reporter, he focused on the link to events today but his work also highlighted deeper problems, such as the Party’s narrow vision of how to modernize China.

In 2003, Wang published Cheng Ji, or “City Record,” a surprising best seller in China that is now in its ninth printing. The book is akin to Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities—a classic that helped change the way people think about their urban environment. It became central for the country’s nascent urban preservation movement and has been referred to in almost every book on Beijing (and there have been many) published over the past half-dozen years. It stands as the most recent in a long line of books chronicling Beijing’s agony but, unlike most, it is by a Chinese writer for a Chinese audience. That says much about the country’s growing interest in its own history and the freedom to delve into at least some sensitive subjects.

The book is now translated as Beijing Record and is handsomely illustrated with rare photos of Beijing during its destruction in the 1950s. It mainly follows the travails of the architect and urban planner Liang Sicheng (then written as Liang Ssu-cheng), who fought in vain to save the old city. By telling Liang’s story, Wang describes not only the assault on Beijing by its new Communist overlords, but also how they lost the goodwill that many Chinese had had for the first well- organized government in a century.

Liang was part of a remarkable flowering of Chinese intellectual and artistic life in the early part of the twentieth century. His father, Liang Qichao, was one of the great reformers of the Qing dynasty, arguing in favor of a constitutional monarchy, modern education, and freedom of the press.1 Like his father, Liang Sicheng studied abroad and brought back modern research methods to China. It was largely through his work in the 1930s that China’s traditional buildings were scientifically dated and their architectural styles described in a systematic way. Some of his books from this period are still valuable, not least for his beautifully clear and precise cutaway drawings of famous temples and halls, which he was able to analyze and date for the first time.2

Liang married a glamorous classmate from the University of Pennsylvania, the architect and poet Lin Huiyin (then romanized as Lin Whei-yin, and the aunt of the American artist and sculptor Maya Lin). The couple became stars of the Republican era and of enduring interest to historical gossipmongers today because of Lin’s alleged romance with Xu Zhimo, a dashing and popular poet. They were also well connected internationally, making close friends with the founder of Chinese studies in America, John King Fairbank, and his wife Wilma.3 The government of Chiang Kai-shek appointed Liang as its representative on the board that designed the new United Nations headquarters in New York.

When Chiang’s armies lost China’s civil war in 1949, many of Liang’s peers fled to Taiwan. But others stayed on, hoping that the Communists would pursue the moderate policies they promised instead of the radical ideas their critics accused them of harboring. Liang and Lin remained behind, with the predictable, sad outcome.

At first, both sides tried to cooperate with one another. The Communists hoped to draw the couple into the new regime’s program. Liang and Lin helped design the emblem for the new People’s Republic of China, which included the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), the main entrance to the Forbidden City and the location where Mao Zedong declared the founding of the Communist state. They also helped design the Monument to the People’s Heroes on Tiananmen Square.

But Liang’s troubles began immediately. He argued against the emblem containing the Gate of Heavenly Peace because this would transform the old city into the new country’s focal point and location for its administrative center. Instead, he said the old city should be preserved and a government center built further west—an argument that set off a series of attacks on him. As Wu Hung so lucidly explains in his book Remaking Beijing, Liang’s plan was doomed because the Communist leaders wanted to rezero the city by moving its center from the emperor’s throne in the Forbidden City to the square in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace—Tiananmen Square. This would involve tearing down buildings and gates leading to the square and constructing a huge east–west axis in front of the gate—today’s Chang’an Avenue. Crucially, it also meant putting the entire government apparatus inside the old city instead of in a new administrative district. Tellingly, top leaders moved into a series of imperial leisure gardens next to the Forbidden City.

This decisive series of intellectual battles is also described by the Hong Kong academic Chang-tai Hung in Mao’s New World, a series of illuminating essays on the culture of the early People’s Republic. As Hung makes clear, Soviet advisers first supported efforts to center the new government in old Beijing. But even they were appalled at their Chinese counterparts’ fetish for gigantism. Everything had to be big: Tiananmen Square, Chang’an Avenue, and the “Ten Monumental Buildings” slapped up under the motto “faster, better, cheaper” for the tenth anniversary of the Communist takeover. As Hung relates it, Liang said prophetically: “Fifty years from now, someone will regret this.”

Wang’s book gives blow-by-blow detail on exactly how these regrettable steps took place. One of the most heart-rending was the fate of the Temple of Celebrating Longevity (Qingshousi). Built in the twelfth century, the temple featured a distinctive double pagoda. When Mongolian invaders built their capital in present-day Beijing, they rerouted the city wall to preserve the Buddhist temple. But when the Communists’ east–west boulevard was built, the temple (which stood next to today’s Beijing Book City near the Xidan intersection) was slated for destruction. Wang relates how Liang pleaded for the temple’s preservation but Mao’s engineers overruled him in 1954. The temple was destroyed and Liang fell deeper into disfavor and despair.

After his wife died of tuberculosis in 1955, Liang received another blow when he was designated a “rightist” and had to submit a series of humiliating confessions. In “struggle sessions” against the regime’s enemies, Liang publicly denounced friends and colleagues—whether by choice or because he was so broken is unclear. He later remarried and his new wife provided some support when the Cultural Revolution struck in 1966, with Red Guards hounding him on his sickbed. He died in 1972, aged seventy, of pulmonary heart disease.

Intermeshed in Liang’s story are telling anecdotes that Wang dug out of the archives. One describes the destruction of one of Beijing’s greatest gates, Xizhimen, or the Straight West Gate. Other highlights of his book include rare photos of the mighty gates as they were stripped down to their wooden skeletons. Wang even includes lists of how the material from destroyed buildings was reused.

The pointlessness of the destruction was conveyed by the Belgian sinologist Simon Leys, who in these pages wrote of officials who could never answer why they were tearing down the gates. Ultimately it all had to be done to conform to Mao’s increasingly radical view of erasing the past. As Leys put it:

It is not easy to foresee how future centuries will judge the Maoist rule, but one thing is certain: despite all it has done, the name of the regime will also be linked with the outrage it inflicted on a cultural legacy of all mankind: the destruction of the city of Peking.4
  1. 1

    See, for example, Joseph R. Levenson’s classic Liang Ch’i-ch’ao and the Mind of Modern China (Harvard University Press, 1953.) 

  2. 2

    One of his books, which was almost lost in the post-1949 turmoil, was reconstructed by Wilma Fairbank and published as A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture by Liang Ssu-ch’eng (MIT Press, 1984). A version of this book was published in Chinese as Zhongguo Jianzhushi, Tianjin: Baihua Wenyi Chubanshe (1998). To commemorate the 110th anniversary of Liang’s birth, Beijing’s Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press earlier this year published a bilingual collection of Liang’s essays, Chinese Architecture: Art and Artifacts

  3. 3

    A short biography of the couple before the Communist takeover is Wilma Fairbank’s in Liang and Lin: Partners in Exploring China’s Architectural Past (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994). The book focuses more on the couple’s early successes than their years of torment. 

  4. 4

    Simon Leys, “Chinese Shadows,” The New York Review, May 26, 1977. 

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