roots, preservation

April 5th, 2009

It’s definitely too early in the morning to be trying to get all intellectual, but this post of Professor Crane‘s got me remembering a couple of things. And this has turned into a long post that proves a claim I made in class the other day: I could very easily write 2000 or 3000 words on how writing class is boring. The students didn’t believe me, but the proof follows the jump:

My first impression of Taiyuan, as I stumbled out of the railway station under the weight of all my worldly goods and treasures, tried, and not for the first time on my oddysey from central Norway to Taiyuan, unsuccessfully to contact my school to let them know I was about to arrive, then found myself a miandi taxi, settled a price, and rattled off down the main drag, was of a drab, blandly modern city, a place that after Liberation had gradually replaced it’s pre-revolutionary self with something that recalled nothing older than Mao’s proclamation from Tiananmen of October 1, 1949.

And my impression, at least of the built city, was largely accurate. Taiyuan could muster up plenty of buildings from every period of the People’s Republic, but somehow the only buildings older than that- at least, so far as I know- were the old library in Yingze Park, the Twin Pagoda temple just southeast of the railway station, some monastery on the western side of the tracks north of the station that I could never find, Jinci temple in a village just soutwest of the city, and a couple of European-looking buildings on the grounds of Taiyuan Normal University (their history page contains a couple of cool photos).

Sure, there were the industrial slums around where I lived, whose factories were still using steam locomotives for everyday industrial purposes, and whose houses and roads certainly looked like they hadn’t seen any repairs since the fall of the Ming. But was that another case of the Pingyao Syndrome- too poor to build modern houses, then UNESCO goes and declares you a World Heritage Site so you’re stuck with the old houses you don’t want? Or was it just the sheer volume of dirt, soot, coal dust and poverty? Whatever, I seriously doubt those houses were anywhere near as old as they looked. Pollution ages buildings quickly, and when I say ‘dirt’, I mean don’t none of you in Beijing or Tianjin complain about the dry climate or dust being blown around until you’ve spent a spring in central Shanxi.

But then I got exploring and I noticed that around the downtown area a lot of these modern buildings had facades done in a traditional Chinese style. And one street- 食品街, food street, if I remember rightly- had a traditional-style archway at its entrance. Surprisingly little food was sold there, though, but that’s another story. So although Old Taiyuan seemed to have been replaced with Liberated Taiyuan and then Reformed and Opened Up Taiyuan, clearly at least some people were trying to preserve elements of Chinese tradition in these crazy, mixed-up modern times.

Changsha, when I lived there, had taken a different approach. The modern buildings were unabashadly modern and there seemed to have been no attempt made to incorporate any element of traditional China in the new. There were, however, large areas of traditional housing still standing in the downtown area- although something tells me those houses weren’t going to last long, and I’d be surprised to find them if I went back. There also seems to me to be a lot more preserved history. On the campus of Hunan University at the base of Yuelu Shan was the Yuelu Academy, opposite which was a lecture theatre dating back to the late Qing- and which I remember seeing still in use. There was the Daoist temple on Yuelu Shan, and somewhere up in the north of the city on the eastern bank of the river, a Buddhist temple with a large statue of Guanyin that the boss took all us foreign teachers to one day- and both temples were active places of worship. There was a section of city wall preserved in Tianxin Park. I remember a street with several shops selling antiques- something I did not find in Taiyuan, although I’m sure Taiyuan has its equivalent. And of course, there were all the different pilgramage sites, those places Mao hung out, studied in, taught at in his younger days. I never went to Mao’s old school, but the Aiwan Pavillion on the slopes of Yuelu Shan is simply beautiful any time of year, as is Orange Island for those times you want a river-level perspective.

Alright, so I’m sure that if you count up the number of historic places I’ve named for both those cities, the number won’t be so different, but Changsha left me with the impression of a modern city preserving key historic sites, while Taiyuan seemed to have disposed of almost all its pre-Revolutionary history but had some people incorporating its traditions into the modern city. But those are mere impressions.

Then one day early in my time in Taiyuan, a student asked me what I thought of the city. I mentioned those traditionally-designed facades on modern buildings and compared that with Changsha’s lack of such things. The students’ response startled and confused me:

“So you’re saying Changsha is more modern than Taiyuan?”

Huh?! No! I was saying I was quite impressed that at least some people in Taiyuan were trying to incorporate their traditions into the modern city, and that that strikes me as being a Good Thing.

But China seems to have been caught up in this cult of the Modern. Modern means progress. Modern is good. In this cult, anything old- and old takes on a very odd definition of “more than 5 years ago”- is by default Bad. It seems to me to be a very American phenomenon, but it’s also quite powerful in New Zealand and, I’m sure, many places around the world. I can understand this cult and its popularity, but it has gone too far. Modern is not always good. Pollution is modern. And I don’t understand the need to abandon history and tradition. Tradition is not always good and it must change with the times, but it does include many good things that deserve to be preserved. And besides, learning about the bad aspects of tradition allows us to learn from it and progress, whereas simply abandoning tradition condemns us to forgetting then repeating our past mistakes. And in its Chinese edition, this cult of the modern seems to involve a blind worship of Western (“Western” usually meaning “American”) material progress, which strikes me as being utterly absurd. Wouldn’t it make more sense for China to study the science, technology and philosophy of the West and then apply it to China’s own particular culture and situation? Tacky copies of Western clothing, architecture and interior decoration don’t make you modern.

Then again, I am seeing in China these days the same reaction to the cult of the modern that has risen in the West- the fetishisation of “indigenous” cultures. “Indigenous” in scare quotes, because I doubt just how much of what is fetishised is actually what it is in its original cultural context, if that makes sense. Or, in simpler terms, Orientalism didn’t die. It just changed its clothes.

Prof. Crane’s description of Nanluoguxiang reminded me of that sometimes astounding gap in perceptions. Bars and cafes simply are a foreign concept, even if their design is rooted firmly in Chinese tradition, and quite a recent introduction (or perhaps re-introduction?) at that. Perhaps China is in the process of adopting the bar and the cafe and adapting them to Chinese culture, just as it is doing with many foreign styles of music and art, but if so, it’s still very much in the early stages of the process.

Hmm… Perhaps I need to clarify the difference between “tacky copy” and “incorporation“. You get the idea.

Perhaps I need to include Tianjin and Beijing in this, to be fair.

Tianjin seems to be taking an entirely different approach, in that large swathes of the former international settlements are being renovated, repaired or rebuilt, while a new, modern city is being built around Tianjin’s historic heart. It doesn’t really appeal to me, personally, but I like the approach, or the principles of the approach.

Beijing, on the other hand, seems to have spent years mostly just bulldozing old communities and replacing them with modern, the modern usually being utterly flavourless and equally at home in any modern city around the world. Either that or a ridiculous, tacky aping of something Western. Then, of course, the Spectacular, the Big “Hey, look at me!” Statement has been appearing. And it is spectacular, and, in a way, cool, but it’s hardly conducive to building a real, human city with a strong, vibrant community. And then there are patches of preservation- and I don’t mean just the big museum pieces, but patches of old hutong community that have been preserved. But all too often, that preservation means bulldozing then rebuilding, only to be labelled “ersatz”.

Actually, I have to say I quite like the way Nanchizi and the pedestrian section of Qianmen Dajie now look, although last time I was at Qianmen it felt deserted, like a newly-built ghost town. Hopefully, though, the buildings will be filled and life will return to the street. The stretch from Zhushikou south to Tianqiao, on the other hand, seems to have been completely killed off. Then from Tianqiao south to Yongdingmen there’s a big new park, totally open, which last time I was there seems to have been firmly claimed by the local community for the local community.

I guess my worry here is what the “preservation” does to the local communities. Does it kill the community, leaving nothing but a dry, sterile museum piece? Are poor people being exiled to outer suburbs where they have no roots, no friends, and nothing to catch a hold of, while their former communities are replaced by gatherings of nouveaux riches? Or is it going to revitalise the place? I simply don’t know the answers to these questions, but I am interested in watching how this all plays out.

But now I have raised a new question in my mind, one that is tangential and should be dealt with elsewhere, but here it is: Why do I naturally think of architecture, cityscapes, and manufactured objects first? Culture, history and roots go far beyond what is built or made.

So: What of the less tangible aspects of this question and their preservation?

Prof. Crane starts his post with an art exhibition out at 798 (by the way, I like the 798 approach to the use of old structures). I simply don’t know enough about art to comment, though. Come to think of it, I don’t really know enough about Chinese art, music, literature or performing arts to have much to say. Odd that I would feel more comfortable rambling on about cityscapes than about things closer to my own education and experience.

Music’s an odd one. So much of it is flavourless, mass-produced pap, but there is also plenty of good music being made here. There are plenty of musicians trying, with varying levels of success, to incorporate Chinese tradition into modern musical styles. But listening to Neocha’s Next, it seems 90% of the music is entirely Western, to the point where more than a few of the songs are sung entirely in English. I like a lot of what Next plays, and I can understand it as a response to the sheer, sudden modernity of cities like Beijing, but I have to admit it is a little disappointing. And it is worrying to hear so frequently of the danger so many different Chinese operas are in of simply disappearing.

But there are rays of hope, too. Is Guo Degang helping revitalise xiangsheng? Has Xiao Shenyang’s sudden superstardom gotten more people interested in errenzhuan? I don’t know, but I’d like to hope so.

These questions are hardly unique to China, though. Surely every country and culture faces the same problems. There are things worth preserving, things that should be discarded (though remembered, lest we go repeating our mistakes), and things that will come or go as they please. But what is preserved can’t be preserved as a museum piece, frozen in time to never change. Tradition, to remain useful, to not be discarded, must move with the times, be updated and adapted.

Prof. Crane ends his post with Daodejing 24, but his post had me thinking more of water, which is always the same stuff be it cloud, fog, rain, river, lake or sea, but which effortlessly adapts to its changing circumstances throughout its cycling through the ecosystem.

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