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Notes From China: American Preservationists and Planners Visit historic Chinese Cities to Study Effects of Modernization 

12-09-2015 17:35

In January 1997 Weiming Lu, executive director of the Lowertown Redevelopment Authority in St. Paul, Minn., asked if I would be interested in joining a team of city planners and preservationists on an exchange with counterparts in China. Sponsored by the Center for East-West Arts Exchange at Columbia University, the purpose was for U.S. and Chinese professionals to share experiences and insights on urban planning through on-site visits and discussions.

The eight-member U.S. team was to explore three ancient cities--Yangzhou, Changzhou, and Changshu--in the Yangtze Delta. For two weeks the team would look at the effects of modernization on each city`s historic character, historic sites, and--to the extent we could begin to understand these--cultural traditions. Each city has written history of more than 3,000 years, and each was undertaking extensive economic development efforts. The exchange was to begin with briefings in Beijing and end with debriefings in Shanghai.

The leader of the Center and of the exchange was Professor Chou Wen-chung, a noted Chinese-American musical composer, writer, and advocate of U.S.-China comparative studies. Professor Chou had worked for 15 years to develop the Center in the belief that a chasm of ignorance separates Chinese and Americans, and that both have much to gain by better understanding each other`s history, ideas, and current issues. Besides Professor Chou, Weiming, and myself, the team included Gerry Adelmann of the Illinois and Michigan Canal Corridor Association, Peter Harkness of Governing magazine, Ruth Knack of the American Planning Association, Bob McNulty of Partners for Livable Communities, and interpreter Ken Ho.

Having focused my work on historic preservation in the United States for nearly 25 years, I saw this as a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity to explore a huge country with an ancient culture vastly different from my own and a nation going through massive efforts to modernize itself. I would not be disappointed.


As a historic preservationist, I should no doubt begin with some reference to the 5,000 years of history in China and its reflection in the cities we visited. Yet the overwhelming first impression on arriving in Beijing was one of modernization--dynamic, rapid, and all too often, ugly. Hoards of automobiles speed on new freeways. Waves of bicycles, motor scooters, taxis, and cars flood tree-lined city streets, including special side lanes. New buildings, from drab high-rise apartments, glitzy office towers, and freestanding hotel complexes to massive shopping emporiums dominate the downtown. Only when we took a short drive from Beijing to walk on the Great Wall, parts of which date from the 7th century B.C., and see its 5,000 kilometers disappear over the horizon did the power of ancient China begin to be understandable. Only when we entered the awe-inspiring realm of the Imperial City, with the Forbidden City and Imperial Palace, did we begin to experience the richness and traditions of China`s long history.

This sense of initial dominance of the modern, and later discovery of the historic, was true, in varying degrees, of our visit to each of the three study cities.

Leaving Beijing, we saw indications of development in the surrounding countryside which was dotted with clusters of recently constructed two- and three-story houses. These straight forward, stuccoed structures were usually built in tight rows separated by only a few feet. The starkness was almost reminiscent of New England salt-box houses. Although bereft of any distinguishing color, the houses were often capped with a handsome tile roof including distinctive cresting with conscious allusion to the ornate roofs of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties.

I noticed several things about the extensive building outside the cities.

First, the clustering of houses evidences great care to intrude as little as possible on the ubiquitous productive agricultural land. Any area more than a few square yards in size is under cultivation. Verdant fields of grains are offset by bright yellow squares of canola plants and smaller plots of vegetables.

Second, development is so much less intense, and seemingly controllable, than the sprawling development surrounding most U.S. cities.

Third, the intense density we see here is not typical of the entire country. The Yangtze Delta is the most densely populated and most economically well-off region in China.

As we entered the actual cities, we passed new industrial plants, office complexes, and new residential developments. The most intense development was by far in Changzhou, with a thriving industrial area and huge banners over the city`s entry proclaiming the importance of hard work, productivity, and modernization. In contrast, the unscarred greenness of the Yushan Mountains extends a half-mile through the remnants of the original city wall into the Old City in Changshu. Indeed, this handsome city with its mountains and waterways is known by the ancient saying: "ten lis of green mountains, half of which extend into the city." (Lis are Chinese miles.)

In each city, despite the disappointing aesthetics of most new construction, downtown is still downtown. Purposeful chaos fills the city streets. In contrast to Beijing, bicycles and motor scooters predominate, although they compete vigorously with horn-blowing taxis and, less frequently, with private cars and buses on the main streets and with a stream of pedestrians in the narrow residential lanes. One-room shops and street vendors line the most lively shopping streets, while rows of plane trees arch overhead, creating a delightful canopy of green for blocks on end.

On the principal streets large new commercial buildings pay little heed to aesthetics, at least in a Western sense, but are alive with people and activity. Most heartening were the expanses of parked bicycles, and the virtual lack of private automobiles and their parking lots. My question to Chinese planners would be to imagine that all these parked bicycles were automobiles and then imagine the effect of such numbers of cars on their cities--much like a bomb exploding.

All in all the government policy of concentrating retail activity in the downtowns and, on a smaller scale, in selected residential areas is succeeding.

So too, is the overall effort at modernization in the three cities, but at a huge price. While density is high, the basic infrastructure often primitive, and pollution a severe problem, we saw no evidence of starvation and little of hunger. The people we saw were, with few exceptions, industrious and purposeful, sometimes to the point of brusqueness. We saw literally hundreds, if not thousands, of shops and vendors selling goods and foods of great variety. Food and retail street markets thrive. To all appearances, small businesses are flourishing in this part of China.

Nearly as striking as the activity and entrepreneurial efforts is the caring of the Chinese for their children. My morning walks took me by at least three schools. Scores of parents converged at the gated entrances to deliver, whether by foot, bicycle, scooter, or car, a neatly dressed bright-eyed child. At one school I watched as the lines of greeters--four girls and four boys on either side--welcomed students. At a day-care center I witnessed each child stop and open his or her mouth wide for a hygienic spray. During the day adults carry or otherwise transport babies and small children in their arms or on their backs, or on the handle bars or rear sets of bicycles and scooters.

After these initial impressions, we began to discover the history, cultural traditions, and historic places of the three cities.

Historic sites in these cities are, of course, not as well known as the Imperial City or Great Wall. Nevertheless, they are often gems, ranging from ornate Buddhist temples and towering pagodas, to elegant houses and tranquil gardens of important historical leaders or wealthy merchants, to ancient tombs and archeological sites. With one unfortunate exception, the maintenance and stewardship of these sites are very good.

The extent of visitation and use of these sites by Chinese, as opposed to foreign, visitors surprised me. This was most evident at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing where Gerry Adelmann and I were the only two Westerners amid a huge crowd of Chinese. It was also apparent at a marvelous historic recreation area, Slender West Lake in Yangzhou, where Chinese strolled along the paths in groups; or Yancheng City, the protected archeological site dating from 1,000 B.C. outside Changzhou, where classes of school children visited; or Yushan Park in Changshu, where children thronged the area, although eating ice cream was certainly a major attraction.

Ancient temples were a particular delight. Most impressive was the Xingfu Temple on the edge of the Yushan Mountains, where we could walk discretely among the monks and novices as they went about their activities. We also visited Tianningsi Temple in Chanzhou, where scores of worshipers, mostly older people from the rural areas, made monetary donations to participate in the worship ceremonies during the annual festival and to pray for their ancestors.

I must mention, however, the temple converted to the City Museum in Changzhou. A portion of the temple had been torn down and, in a brutal case of facadism, an adjoining row of structures demolished, leaving only the fronts, so that a new four-story apartment building could be built flat against the front wall of the ancient row.

The temples we saw are either operating freely or maintained as museums. In most of the temples we visited, the primary statuary had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution (1965-76). Today, with replacements constructed, the temples are places of worship and heritage.

China has established systems for designating historical sites. The national government designates those of national significance, the province those of provincial significance, and the municipality those of local significance. Historic sites of national significance cannot be harmed by anyone without clearance from the national government, including an advisory committee. To date, the various government entities have designated more than 10,000 historic sites as significant.

In theory, this is a more rational system than our National Register and local government designation. In practice, however, the consequences of national designation for resources other than individual sites become blurred in China. Both Yangzhou and Changshu are designated national historic cities and the designation encompasses the entirety of the old cities of each. Yet extensive demolition and massive modernization continue.

Also blurred is the issue of original materials. Visiting a model residential area in Beijing, we were told that a particular block had been "renovated." We quickly saw that, at least to these Chinese, "renovated" meant torn down and rebuilt with deference to the form of the original structure. In several instances, the original historic structure has been torn down and a replica constructed. In other situations where the original is gone, such as the City Wall crossing the Yushan Mountains which was torn down during the Cultural Revolution, reconstruction has created an important new landmark. Or, at the Ming Dynasty home in Changshu, we saw some original ceiling beams, but it was unclear how much of the rest of the house was original material.

The use of original materials is an issue on which Western and Eastern values seem to differ. For the Chinese, the form, whether a city plan or an individual structure, is of primary importance. For Westerners, we want to see and touch what was actually there, in part to be sure that what we see, including the form, is authentic.

The more complex manifestation of this issue is in saving historic neighborhoods. Again and again, we saw residential neighborhoods, often dating from the 1800s but with occasional 1600 and 1700 structures mixed in, and, despite the deterioration and crowdedness, found their age and character appealing and valuable. Although Chinese planners and other officials sympathized with our point of view, they felt the solution was to build anew, keeping key design elements of the old. They believed it was necessary to clear the old in order to construct the sewer and water systems needed, widen the narrow lanes, introduce green space, and reduce crowding by building at least three-story structures. When pushed, they also pointed to the "poor construction" of the old structures and the continual adaptations that had altered their original form.

We, in turn, argued that the neighborhoods were special and selected ones should be rehabilitated. In our view, a new infrastructure could be introduced into existing housing, density could be reduced, and the resulting neighborhood would keep not only the beauty of the original, but the appealing flow of living from courtyard to enclosed structure and from family to family.

Most poignant was a wonderful neighborhood along a canal in Changshu. We envisioned retaining its historic character. The Chinese envisioned a tree-lined canal with appropriate new housing.

Perhaps these two different strategies exemplify the question of how one does a comparative analysis of preservation approaches in the East and West. There is always the danger, especially for the Western preservationist, of arriving in the East with a mental checklist based upon our values and approach to preservation. The essence of this is our Secretary of Interior`s Standards for Rehabilitation. Is the original fabric being maintained to the extent feasible? Are new additions or infill construction differentiated from the original, yet compatible in design? In the case of historic sites I continue to believe strongly in keeping all possible of the original. The Chinese pay some lip-service to this, but do not seem to give it high priority, citing poor original construction, changes over time, and logistical obstacles.

Beyond temples and historic houses, China has created a philosophy and reality of gardens that are complex and valuable. Throughout the centuries, China has constructed superb gardens in confined spaces complementary to important houses, or tea houses built specifically to enjoy the view of the surrounding garden. At each turn of the visitor`s walk a new experience awaits. Century-old rock formations created by the ebb and flow of water create allusions of human and animal forms. Plants and foliage take on symbolic meaning, such as the chrysanthemum for good fortune. Calligraphy and symbols add further dimensions of meaning. And, "borrowed views" allow the garden to incorporate distant mountains, pagodas, or other features beyond the garden`s physical boundaries. Especially pleasing is to stand in the central garden of the Yushan Park in Changshu and view the Xinfeng Pavilion on the Yushan Mountain.

China today protects and enjoys its gardens and parks without apology. "Original fabric," in terms of ancient rocks, is central to the garden, while the species of plantings continues as before.

The Chinese have a great opportunity before them. Their growing economic success can provide the means to again value and protect China`s historic sites, character, and cultural traditions. Their communist form of government, with state ownership of all land and other powers, provides the opportunity to manage sprawl and other development in ways that benefit family and community life. The challenge for the Chinese, then, is to continue their rapid transformation to a market economy while learning how to regulate the impacts of for-profit business activity so that economic activities complement their heritage, cultural traditions, and family structure.

Publication Date: Spring 1998



Author(s):Peter Brink