Forum Journal & Forum Focus

A Planner Looks at Preservation in China (or the Simulacrum Thereof) 

12-09-2015 17:35

In October 2005, I had the opportunity to visit the ancient city of Xi’an, where, at the invitation of ICOMOS China, ICOMOS held its 15th General Assembly and Scientific Symposium. This marked the second General assembly in Asia; the first was held in Sri Lanka in 1993. The theme of the symposium was “Monuments and Sites in their Settings: Conserving Cultural Heritage in Changing Townscapes and Landscapes.” Delegates participated in multiple sessions and attended special events marked by great pomp and ceremony, which were orchestrated by the Chinese Committee.

Yet as delegates convened in Xi’an’s sparkling new conference center to consider the theme of preserving the setting of heritage structures, sites, and areas, historic buildings and their settings were being destroyed nearby. And for those of us who visited other cities during a post conference tour, it became clear that much of the cultural heritage of China is at risk.

During our visit, the city government was demolishing the ancient streets and buildings that framed the city’s historic Drum Tower. This tower, built in 1380 near the center of the city and adjacent to the ancient Muslim quarter, is now confronted with a McDonald’s built without the benefit of significant design review. Through an adjacent gateway, the Muslim Quarter has been decimated to a Potemkin-like street of tourist shops. The density of housing that gave the district vitality has been bulldozed in the last seven years, and indeed the bulldozers were still at work when we were there. About the only authentic and tranquil place in Xi’an that still remained was the adjacent Great Mosque dating from 742 A.D., where ancient linked courtyards revealed a combination of Islamic gateways with scriptures and Chinese architectural motifs. But around the Drum Tower less than a block away, new buildings in a generic “old Chinese” style with uplifted eaves were rising to form a new ersatz “context” for the monument.

According to Michel Bonnette, a French Canadian World Heritage Coordinating Committee member and former planner for Quebec City (who will be hosting the next conference in Quebec in 2008), the Chinese desperately wanted to have this conference in Xi’an. The committee’s slick video presentation to the delegates at the beginning of the conference emphasized the concept of preservation and development going hand-in-hand, and showed restored monuments and also cloverleaf freeways. However, the post-conference excursion planned by the Chinese travel agencies for the convention delegates revealed that the result of this mentality is rapidly changing the face of old China.

The Post-Conference Tour and Other Cities

In city after city that we visited, a few monuments, often re-created or restored beyond all evidence of authenticity, were all that remained. The settings were largely gone or were re-created simulacrums. There was little interpretation to tell visitors what had changed, what was real, and what was created.

Certainly there were extraordinary new things to see. The roads to the airports at Shanghai, Beijing, and Kunming were lined with millions of trees. New parks showed sophisticated designs which were astonishingly well executed and brilliantly maintained, such as the new park on Hengshon Road in Shanghai or the police memorial park in downtown Kunming. New pedestrian walkways in Beijing and Kunming were lined with gleaming towers. A long march of high rises from the domestic airport in Shanghai into the downtown makes the relatively tight cluster of Manhattan skyscrapers seem like a village.

But the preservation of settings appeared to our delegation of planners, architects, and archeologists to be an exercise in creating marketing opportunities. The charming old towns that delegates did see, Dali and Lijiang in Yunan Province, feature wall-to wallshops, and the low-hanging tiled roofs and paved stone streets with fresh streams running alongside are merely a backdrop for the bustling shops and restaurants marketing to the increasing numbers of tourists. Since its designation in 1997 as a World Heritage site, Lijiang, with some 17,000 residents in the old town, has seen its annual number of tourists (mainly from China) rise from half a million to four million a year, and that number continues to increase.

Both towns are rebuilding historic monuments dating from the 17th century. A gateway tower destroyed when the Moguls breached the walls in Dali, and the entranceway to the reigning Mu family’s palace complex in Lijiang demolished during the Cultural Revolution in the 1950- 1960s, are now crisply back in situ. But the bridge on the edge of the market square in Lijiang, which used to be a simple sloping structure crossed by horses and camels at this terminus of the Silk Road caravan route, is now an elaborate stepped white marble affair, resembling those of the gardens of Sozhou near Shanghai. The new bridge is the work of a “restoration” architect four years ago who also added white marble dragons at the edges of the stream bed. The view of the bridge and stream is a most popular postcard, but the cofferdam below the bridge that used to be employed to flood the descending square aftermarket days to clean the streets is now gone—and with it, the memory of a centuries-old custom.

On a more dramatic level, Kunming, the terminus of the Burma Road, is awash with new buildings, and all that is left at the city center, which is marked by restored heavenly gates, is a new entertainment precinct composed of replicas of generic architecture —a kind of consumer district for young trendies going to clubs and restaurants at the city core.

Buried in this district is one old mansion which serves as an office for the development corporation that has done over this little district. Only blocks away, two ancient pagodas have been linked by a new street of “old buildings” (not yet opened) which will house shops and restaurants. This and a few crumbling streets where the old market still thrives are about all that remains to remind one of the low-scaled Chinese city that stood here only 20 years ago. Instead of being able to experience an authentic Chinese city, our group was taken to a theme park where, in true Disney World fashion, we were treated to re-creations of village complexes by the different minority groups that make up much of Yunnan Province’s population.

Our guide, who, like several other Chinese we met, had parents who were banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, seemed apologetic when he said farewell at the airport. He mourned the loss of the old buildings and said, “How can we face the next generation after all of this destruction? Please help us. Let the world know our concern.”

At the conference we had learned from a Norwegian scholar, Amend Sanding- Larsen, who had documentedthe setting of Lhasa in Tibet, that of the 700 whitewashed buildings that stood at the foot of the Portola Palace 20 years ago only 150 still stand.

And some of us who went to Beijing after our tour were told that only 1,000 of the 3,000 hutongs (narrow streets or alleys surrounded by courtyard houses) were still left. The walls around Beijing were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and replaced with a ring road. The hutongs, which accommodate the intricacy of life in courtyard houses (that could be modified to reflect a variety of living arrangements), are belatedly being recognized by the Beijing planners as an important tourism resource for rickshaw tours. However, of the remaining 1,000 hutongs, some 40 percent are still scheduled to be demolished.

The government is spending $90million restoring the Forbidden City and other Beijing monuments, but the newly lacquered pavilions in glossy mandarin red and the new paving stones in the courtyards have destroyed the patina of age that these Ming Dynasty buildings have acquired over time. North of Beijing, at the most popular viewing site of the Great Wall, a bobsled ride reached by a chairlift mars the most sinuous view of the walls.

Still some traces of the past are being saved in a few Chinese cities. The scale of the French Concession in Shanghai—the tree-shaded neighborhood where Europeans lived in the 19th and early 20th century—remains remarkably the same. A small sampling of wonderful early 20th-century buildings mark the famous Bund district where European commerce provided the financial backbone for the glamorous lifestyles of old Shanghai. In contrast, across from the Bund on the new walkway along the river, one could sense the energy of young China in the fantastic shapes of new skyscrapers across the Huangpu on the Pudong skyline, sitting on what was swamp land only 15 years ago.

Some of our ICOMOS delegation reflected about the jarring juxtapositions of the authentic and the artificial. One noticed the plastic flowers in the vases on the shrines of the oldest Tibetan temple complex in Beijing side by side with the ancient statues of Buddha. To the keepers of such places, the idea of preserving an authentic setting often associated with smells and grime may be hard to understand, reflecting the fact that their cultural aesthetic isn’t the same as our reservation aesthetic. The Chinese planners find it much easier to sweep it all away and put a few generic bits of architecture back with modern facilities. But in the end, will it satisfy tourists from abroad?

Dr. Robert a Wong Leung, dean of Shunde Polytechnic, a tourism management school in southern China, said, over dinner at the old Imperial Restaurant in Benhai Park, that her efforts to visit all 21 World Heritage sites in China were unsuccessful. There was no cultural tourism agenda among the 15 Chinese travel agencies that she contacted. This reflects the experience of our group of ICOMOS conference delegates, who found ourselves on the post-conference tour without a knowledgeable guide who could explain what was happening to the old cities. In our case, our protest led to the addition of a teacher, Mr. Mu, who took us around the old city and told us the stories of the re-creation of that Suzhou-style bridge. He appeared pleased that we wanted to know the real story. But “real stories” will disappear as those who know them die off and the new ersatz fabric tells no tales but makes attractive postcards.

While this trip involved many new experiences, I think one of the most important lessons learned was how quickly an authentic place can be tarted up, how history can be lost, and how mass tourism creates new perils. And most critically, how the cultural landscape of China, which somehow escaped the Cultural Revolution, is now being so transformed as to be only a simulacrum of the real.

Publication Date: Summer 2007


Author(s):Ronald Lee Fleming, A.I.C.P.