Beijing, Architecture, and the Chinese People

I first became interested in Chinese architecture when I read journalist Ian Johnson’s book Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China about one year ago. The book is a well-researched account of three different situations where Chinese people are standing up for their rights within the confines of Chinese policy and government philosophy. Through Johnson’s accounts of conversation with Chinese people living in Beijing, I learned about the paradox between Beijing’s lasting cultural history and its modern changes, growth, and aim towards leading China into the 21st Century and into a significant role in the world. Beijing is a city rooted in culture and history, but arguably, the changes taking place rapidly in Beijing and across China are jeopardizing both those aspects of the nation. One of the focuses of Johnson’s research was the tearing down of the city’s hutongs, which are narrow streets that run throughout the city. Think of a hutong like an artery pumping through a city—it’s lifeblood, and home to millions of its citizens. According to many accounts, the government is confiscating homes within these neighborhoods that have housed many generations of families, dislocated those residents to slums miles away, ultimately compensating for grossly little of what was taken. Attempting to present their case to a court, petitioning groups of Beijingers have been making slow progress (with much failure and many setbacks) towards retrieving compensation—or at least increasing awareness of this process. The 2008 Olympic Games and the overall development of the city contribute to the death of the hutongs and other sources of Chinese society and culture.

I did not forget what I had learned, and came to China and Beijing curious as to what I might really find or witness. Indeed, across the city, it is evident of the vast changes taking place in Beijing, the construction of buildings, high rises, major highways, and the destruction of things that may have previously occupied that space. The city’s appearance is a representation of China: its identity truly hanging somewhere along the spectrum of agriculturally-based developing nation and one of the world’s next dominating powers.

Fortunately we took a tour, via rickshaws, through several of the hutongs. I was able to peek firsthand into these vessels, these intimate neighborhoods where government officials live behind ornate gates, next-door to laborers who might live with several families. What I saw were real people, living everyday lives in this major city, and I found the proximity of living quarters to be very communal—and therefore wholly Chinese. We got to visit one the homes (although I think it involved the residents’ ability to market their goods to an even greater audience, most specifically American tourists), see the interior, and feel for ourselves the atmosphere of close-quartered living. It was my favorite part of our visit to Beijing, and one of the most memorable things for me thus far. I liked the personal connection I felt to the city and its people, and I also felt that I had a slight piece of insight into what might be missing if the destruction I’d read about continued, and at the same pace.

I enjoyed the visit, in its personal affect of me; it was also an important experience in that I have both the journalistic research of others and my own personal experience and feelings on this one aspect of a modernizing China. It has stirred a reflective, rather reluctant emotion, a mix between celebration of culture, sadness about the homogenization that comes with globalization, longing for this historical, intimate community, and pity for the same community’s current condition and predicament.

For the history class I took in Zhengzhou in May, I wrote my final paper on the relationship I had discovered between Chinese and their architecture. Further traveling through China brought several new insights related to the close connection they have to their history, and the implications it holds, and this interested me because of what I had learned and seen. Looking to their past as guidance for present and future, the Chinese as a society are widely influenced by their nation’s history, and within this, their architecture. I found this to be an interesting paradox, as China moves ever-towards becoming fully modern.

I wonder, is it possible for China to maintain its same relationship with its history— and incidentally, its architecture—while growing more capitalistic with each new towering high-rise or all-inclusive shopping center?

I continue to ponder and analyze this question, each time I walk along a city street or watch the bustling life blur past the window of our little bus.