Rebranding History in Beijing

If one walked around the old, seemingly timeless neighbourhoods of Beijing five or six years ago, they would have seen the character “拆” (chai) spray painted on some of the grey shabby walls of hutongs or traditional Chinese family homes. 拆 is the verb for “destroy” or “to pull down.” Once that mark appeared on any given home, it was only a matter of time before it would be bulldozed and made into whatever the government wanted.

Zhang Yue, in their essay “Steering Towards Growth: Symbolic Urban Preservation in Beijing, 1990-2005,” outlines some of the destruction and renewal Beijing has undergone for the sake of urban development.[1] Zhang describes how Beijing’s real estate development has washed away  – both literally and metaphorically – the city’s historical and cultural DNA. Out of the rubble of many Beijing hutongs has risen massive shopping complexes or high rise office buildings. Traces of the Beijing’s ancient heritage have completely evaporated in many parts of the city.

In the early 2000s, local residents and others lamenting the disappearance of the historic parts of Beijing were appeased by the local government through projects aimed at rebuilding the city’s grandest historical buildings. Coinciding with this effort was the construction of the immense Olympic park north of the city centre. Zhang highlights the reconstruction of the Ming-dynasty south city-gate, Yongdingmen, as the epitome of the government’s cultural preservation effort.[2] Beijing, throughout its many centuries of history, has been built around an auspicious north-south axis, based on the geomantic practices of Feng Shui.[3] Yongdingmen is the base of the axis, while the Forbidden City lies at the heart and the Olympic Park at the head. Rebuilding Yongdingmen at the same time the Olympic Park was taking shape helped to complete Beijing’s power line.[4] The north-south axis was displayed as the pulsating vein of Chinese history – from its cultural grandeur and its deep historical origins to the flourishing world power it has become.

Zhang questions whether Yongdingmen was rebuilt for its cultural and historic authenticity or merely to prop up the image of the city as it became a destination for tourists and world leaders alike in the wake of the Olympic games. While the heart of Beijing’s city life – the hutong – is plagued with destruction, grand buildings and tourist traps like Yongdingmen have risen in its place. As Zhang says herself: “symbolic urban preservation prioritises monuments over urban texture, exploits the economic value of cultural heritage without protecting it, and entertains visitors at the cost of the original inhabitants.”[5]  In effect, Beijing’s rich historical landscape has been appropriated to serve the commercial and political needs of the city as China has assumed its place as one of the world’s foremost powers.

 

 

Bibliography:

Zhang, Yue. “Steering Towards Growth: Symbolic Urban Preservation in Beijing, 1990-2005.” The Town Planning Review 79, no. 2/3 (2008): 187-208. www.jstor.org/stable/40112754.

Meyer, Michael. “The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.” St Michaels Publishing, 2008.

[1] Zhang, Yue. “Steering Towards Growth: Symbolic Urban Preservation in Beijing, 1990-2005.” The Town Planning Review 79, no. 2/3 (2008): 187-208.

[2] Ibid

[3] Meyer, Michael. “The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.” St Michaels Publishing, 2008.

[4] Zhang, Yue. “Steering Towards Growth.”

[5] Ibid

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