The High Price of the New Beijing

One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its façades scrubbed and tarted up a bit too much but the famous stores still selling their century-old brands of cotton shoes, medicine, hats, and sweets. It was kitschy but the buildings were more or less real and the stores crowded with shoppers and tourists from the provinces.

Then I turned onto Qianmen Street, the main thoroughfare that starts just south of Tiananmen Square and heads to the Temple of Heaven. I knew that Qianmen Street had been renovated but in the past had seen only a glimpse of it. This time I walked its length, and was completely disoriented. The old buildings had never been beautiful—over the years, many had acquired garish additions and all were in bad repair—but they had an authenticity about them that was unmistakable. As I walked, I couldn’t find one of them.

In their place was something akin to a movie lot. The street was now lined with identical two- to three-story buildings, completely new and covered with a façade of traditional-looking gray stones. The bleakness was exacerbated by the all too familiar international chains that occupied the buildings: H&M, Zara, and Rolex. The only Chinese touch was a store selling Olympic souvenirs, illegal under the International Olympic Committee rules (which limit sales of official souvenirs until just a few months after the games end). But in a country where almost everything is pirated, from books and movies to cars and aircraft carriers, it felt real.

When I got to the end, I turned back and looked. Behind the new buildings were empty lots strewn with the rubble of demolished courtyard houses and stores. What had once been a warren of alleys and streets—one of the liveliest and most atmospheric in the city—was now mostly bulldozed. As I stood there, a couple walked by. In a heavy Beijing accent, the man asked the woman where they were. She replied, “Qianmen,” and he blurted out, “No way! How did it end up like this?”

Answering this question is the subject of a newly translated book by the Chinese journalist Wang Jun, a forty-two-year-old reporter for Outlook magazine, which is run by the official Xinhua News Agency. That may seem like an odd place for an independent journalist to work, but the agency’s insider status has long provided a cover for investigative reporting, especially when it touches on problems that the Communist Party knows it can’t afford to ignore.

Urban planning is one such subject. Over the past twenty years, it has been the source of widespread social unrest, with tens of thousands of citizens banding together in class-action lawsuits against land expropriation. The government eventually banned such legal action, but the topic is still one of China’s most sensitive. Real estate prices have risen so much in major Chinese cities that ordinary people can at best afford an apartment in a suburban housing tower. On some days, it seems that all people talk about is housing and the problems of living in Chinese cities.

I met Wang in the late 1990s when I was writing a book on grassroots unrest in China. Every few months he seemed to come up with new finds from the archives showing the long historical background to many of Beijing’s current problems. As a reporter, he focused on the link to events today but his work also highlighted deeper problems, such as the Party’s narrow vision of how to modernize China.

In 2003, Wang published Cheng Ji, or “City Record,” a surprising best seller in China that is now in its ninth printing. The book is akin to Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities—a classic that helped change the way people think about their urban environment. It became central for the country’s nascent urban preservation movement and has been referred to in almost every book on Beijing (and there have been many) published over the past half-dozen years. It stands as the most recent in a long line of books chronicling Beijing’s agony but, unlike most, it is by a Chinese writer for a Chinese audience. That says much about the country’s growing interest in its own history and the freedom to delve into at least some sensitive subjects.

* * *

The book is now translated as Beijing Record and is handsomely illustrated with rare photos of Beijing during its destruction in the 1950s. It mainly follows the travails of the architect and urban planner Liang Sicheng (then written as Liang Ssu-cheng), who fought in vain to save the old city. By telling Liang’s story, Wang describes not only the assault on Beijing by its new Communist overlords, but also how they lost the goodwill that many Chinese had had for the first well- organized government in a century.

Liang was part of a remarkable flowering of Chinese intellectual and artistic life in the early part of the twentieth century. His father, Liang Qichao, was one of the great reformers of the Qing dynasty, arguing in favor of a constitutional monarchy, modern education, and freedom of the press.1 Like his father, Liang Sicheng studied abroad and brought back modern research methods to China. It was largely through his work in the 1930s that China’s traditional buildings were scientifically dated and their architectural styles described in a systematic way. Some of his books from this period are still valuable, not least for his beautifully clear and precise cutaway drawings of famous temples and halls, which he was able to analyze and date for the first time.2

Liang married a glamorous classmate from the University of Pennsylvania, the architect and poet Lin Huiyin (then romanized as Lin Whei-yin, and the aunt of the American artist and sculptor Maya Lin). The couple became stars of the Republican era and of enduring interest to historical gossipmongers today because of Lin’s alleged romance with Xu Zhimo, a dashing and popular poet. They were also well connected internationally, making close friends with the founder of Chinese studies in America, John King Fairbank, and his wife Wilma.3 The government of Chiang Kai-shek appointed Liang as its representative on the board that designed the new United Nations headquarters in New York.

When Chiang’s armies lost China’s civil war in 1949, many of Liang’s peers fled to Taiwan. But others stayed on, hoping that the Communists would pursue the moderate policies they promised instead of the radical ideas their critics accused them of harboring. Liang and Lin remained behind, with the predictable, sad outcome.

At first, both sides tried to cooperate with one another. The Communists hoped to draw the couple into the new regime’s program. Liang and Lin helped design the emblem for the new People’s Republic of China, which included the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), the main entrance to the Forbidden City and the location where Mao Zedong declared the founding of the Communist state. They also helped design the Monument to the People’s Heroes on Tiananmen Square.

* * *

But Liang’s troubles began immediately. He argued against the emblem containing the Gate of Heavenly Peace because this would transform the old city into the new country’s focal point and location for its administrative center. Instead, he said the old city should be preserved and a government center built further west—an argument that set off a series of attacks on him. As Wu Hung so lucidly explains in his book Remaking Beijing, Liang’s plan was doomed because the Communist leaders wanted to rezero the city by moving its center from the emperor’s throne in the Forbidden City to the square in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace—Tiananmen Square. This would involve tearing down buildings and gates leading to the square and constructing a huge east–west axis in front of the gate—today’s Chang’an Avenue. Crucially, it also meant putting the entire government apparatus inside the old city instead of in a new administrative district. Tellingly, top leaders moved into a series of imperial leisure gardens next to the Forbidden City.

This decisive series of intellectual battles is also described by the Hong Kong academic Chang-tai Hung in Mao’s New World, a series of illuminating essays on the culture of the early People’s Republic. As Hung makes clear, Soviet advisers first supported efforts to center the new government in old Beijing. But even they were appalled at their Chinese counterparts’ fetish for gigantism. Everything had to be big: Tiananmen Square, Chang’an Avenue, and the “Ten Monumental Buildings” slapped up under the motto “faster, better, cheaper” for the tenth anniversary of the Communist takeover. As Hung relates it, Liang said prophetically: “Fifty years from now, someone will regret this.”

Wang’s book gives blow-by-blow detail on exactly how these regrettable steps took place. One of the most heart-rending was the fate of the Temple of Celebrating Longevity (Qingshousi). Built in the twelfth century, the temple featured a distinctive double pagoda. When Mongolian invaders built their capital in present-day Beijing, they rerouted the city wall to preserve the Buddhist temple. But when the Communists’ east–west boulevard was built, the temple (which stood next to today’s Beijing Book City near the Xidan intersection) was slated for destruction. Wang relates how Liang pleaded for the temple’s preservation but Mao’s engineers overruled him in 1954. The temple was destroyed and Liang fell deeper into disfavor and despair.

After his wife died of tuberculosis in 1955, Liang received another blow when he was designated a “rightist” and had to submit a series of humiliating confessions. In “struggle sessions” against the regime’s enemies, Liang publicly denounced friends and colleagues—whether by choice or because he was so broken is unclear. He later remarried and his new wife provided some support when the Cultural Revolution struck in 1966, with Red Guards hounding him on his sickbed. He died in 1972, aged seventy, of pulmonary heart disease.

Intermeshed in Liang’s story are telling anecdotes that Wang dug out of the archives. One describes the destruction of one of Beijing’s greatest gates, Xizhimen, or the Straight West Gate. Other highlights of his book include rare photos of the mighty gates as they were stripped down to their wooden skeletons. Wang even includes lists of how the material from destroyed buildings was reused.

The pointlessness of the destruction was conveyed by the Belgian sinologist Simon Leys, who in these pages wrote of officials who could never answer why they were tearing down the gates. Ultimately it all had to be done to conform to Mao’s increasingly radical view of erasing the past. As Leys put it:

It is not easy to foresee how future centuries will judge the Maoist rule, but one thing is certain: despite all it has done, the name of the regime will also be linked with the outrage it inflicted on a cultural legacy of all mankind: the destruction of the city of Peking.4

* * *

What caused this self-destruction? From the mid-nineteenth century onward, China suffered a series of traumas that exposed its inability to compete economically or militarily with Western countries’ and Japan’s potent combination of the scientific method and industrial capitalism. A series of reformers tried, and failed, to meet the challenge, hoping to import Western technology while keeping traditions intact. But the inflexibility of the imperial system and the continued humiliations visited on the country by Western countries and Japan discredited these measured efforts. Finally, the Communists, the most radical of those advocating change, took control. For them, the problem was the past, all of it, including language, art, architecture, religion, politics, family structures, dress, music, and so on.

Like nothing else, Beijing exemplified this vilified past. The entire city—all twenty-four square miles of it, from its layout based on geomancy and mythology to its tens of thousands of tree-shaded courtyard homes—was China’s traditional belief system incarnate. As the Australian writer Geremie Barmé put it, Beijing was “one of the most extraordinary monuments to any civilization in the classical world.”5 That meant it had to go, although the old city of Beijing was enormous and the campaigns didn’t completely gut it.

By the end of the Mao era in the late 1970s, Beijing was still recognizable. When I first lived here in 1984, the city had been flayed but there were still thousands of hutongs, or tiny alleys lined with courtyard houses. And the residents still behaved like the people described by the writer Lin Yutang in his 1961 Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China. They ate the same food, had the same hobbies, and talked with the same sharp, precise accent.6 Everything was dilapidated and in disrepair but it was possible to imagine the city reviving as the Mao era receded.

What happened? Hatred of the past (or at least ignorance) still had an effect, but the Party now tries to establish its legitimacy by claiming it is a protector of Chinese culture. At least officially, the government endorses preservation. And yet the destruction continues unabated.

Two reasons are often given. One is that in China the physical building itself is not as important as its idea. As Thomas Campanella notes in his book The Concrete Dragon, completely rebuilding historical structures, often in different forms, has a long tradition in China and other Asian countries. Chinese will often point to a temple that just ten or twenty years ago was rebuilt from the ground up and still speak of its thousand-year history. This sort of thinking allowed Beijing planners to level Ox Street, the city’s traditional Muslim district, and rebuild it as a series of high-rises—and with a straight face still call it a historic district.

And yet the support for the efforts of Liang and Wang show that many Chinese don’t buy this cultural argument. Destruction is destruction and they fought to keep old buildings as products of China’s great civilization. Wang has written vehemently about the recent Qianmen project and is hardly a lone voice. Beijing and other Chinese cities have a small but potent group of historic preservationists who struggle to protect old buildings and traditional ways of life. They rarely get a hearing in the official press and their NGOs are harassed, but a significant number of educated urbanites agree with them.

Another argument, the one used by authorities, is that for better or worse, cities like Beijing need urban renewal; and the condition of old buildings in Beijing is in fact atrocious. Tiles have fallen off so many roofs that in some neighborhoods corrugated iron is the most common roofing material. Residents have running water but toilets are often public squatters that leave little privacy. The only real improvement over the past half-century is that coal heating has been replaced by electric radiators.

But this begs the question of why the poor are being evicted instead of having their homes modernized. In the United States, urban redevelopment was seen as a way to get rid of “slums” and attract back to the cities well-to-do residents who had fled to the suburbs. In China, inner cities already are the most popular places to live and the class warfare over who will be evicted and who will get housing dwarfs anything that happened in Great Society America. In a typical case of American redevelopment—Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle and Lower Hill redevelopments—28,000 largely poorer people were displaced in the name of urban renewal. Campanella estimates that in a project of equivalent physical size in Beijing, 180,000 people would be evicted from their homes. Indeed, 180,000 Beijing residents lost their homes in 2003 alone. As Campanella puts it: “This is human upheaval on a scale seen previously only in time of war or extreme natural catastrophe.”

* * *

It is often argued that the poor at least get better housing than they had. And in fact there are new satellite cities with apartments that have indoor toilets; and many are better heated in winter. But this sort of either/or question ignores other possibilities—for example, that Beijing’s old city, or at least a considerable part of it, might have been modernized and its inhabitants allowed to stay. What has happened instead is that Beijing has developed into a two-tier city: a global capital elite in the center and ordinary people on the periphery.7

This trend is accelerated by deep-seated problems in China’s governing system. Chinese cities have no taxing authority and rely on the central government for transfer payments. But an increasing number of social programs have been imposed on the local level, such as much of the dibao welfare system that is being established across China. The funding gap is being met by real estate sales. Municipalities sell the land to developers, use part of the proceeds to pay the poor to move to remote suburbs, and use the balance to fund their operations. According to a recent estimate, 76 percent of urban funding is accounted for this way.8 This means that governments have an interest in expelling the poor and paying them as little as possible. Recently, authorities have pledged to pay evictees market prices but without controls on their decisions, it is hard to have confidence that such promises will be kept.

Reforming this system would require political change that in the current climate seems unlikely. The central government is loath to give local governments too much money or the right to raise taxes because it accurately sees them as unaccountable and endemically corrupt—as is the central government. A recent series of spectacular corruption scandals in major Chinese cities has highlighted this problem.

Unbridled state power also explains the shifting architectural styles found in Beijing. Early in the 1950s, new buildings like the Beijing Exhibition Center were built in the Stalinist style to show fidelity to the country’s new patron, the Soviet Union. Later, monumental buildings like the Great Hall of the People added national elements (usually glazed tiles and sloping roofs) to show that the Chinese Communist Party was breaking with its elder brother. Now the regime hires star architects to give the imprimatur of global capitalism. Thus we have Rem Koolhaas’s headquarters for the state’s television propaganda apparatus, or Herzog & de Meuron’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium.

Although these buildings now seem radically different from those of the 1950s, they reflect the Party’s need to derive legitimization from big, spectacular projects. The buildings themselves are almost ceremonial in function; their goal is primarily to glorify the state. Just as the Great Hall of the People isn’t home to a real parliament, the Bird’s Nest isn’t a real sports stadium—as soon as the games ended, its temporary identity as a sports venue ended. Today it is wildly popular with Chinese tourists, who walk around it looking at artifacts commemorating the Olympics, the kind of reverence toward state power that officials sought from the beginning of the People’s Republic. “To retain their grip on the people, Communist leaders turned China into a vast apparatus for generating propaganda,” Hung writes in Mao’s New World.

Campanella, an urban planning professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes that pre-Olympics China was in the midst of the “greatest building boom in human history.” But as Robin Visser in her recent book Cities Surround the Countryside points out, wiping out the old in favor of the new is hardly novel. Few, she argues, seem to wonder at the “tremendous suffering, convulsions and loss of historical substance. Cities acquire distinctiveness by acquiring features over centuries.”

* * *

A long Chinese tradition deplores the destruction of cities. In the twelfth century, a book called Records of the Dreamlike Splendors of the Eastern Capital lamented the loss of the Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song dynasty. As for Beijing, even in the Qing dynasty, when the city was at its peak, its Ming-era history was eulogized by a seventeenth-century work, Record of a Remembered Dream of the Capital. More recently, the city has given rise to a genre of books published by Westerners bemoaning or simply describing its passing.9

These works are more than just warnings against pathos. They also show how cultures survive in different forms. It takes a bit of sleuthing and imagination but some of the old principles still hold sway in Beijing. The ring roads are still built in concentric circles, with the walls of the Forbidden City as the first circle. The old north–south axis, which ran from the imperial throne room through key buildings and gates, is also respected in Liang’s Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Bird’s Nest. The city still feels flat and open—far different, for example, than the much denser and vertical Shanghai. People are still forthright and blunt, something Lin Yutang noticed before the Communist takeover.

The Communist core is also timeless in its own way. Tiananmen Square has been little changed since the mausoleum to Mao Zedong was built in 1977. As Wu puts it in Remaking Beijing, it is the city’s “conceptual centre,” the scene of staged events like parades, floats, and the political theater of minorities in costumes entering the Great Hall of the People for the annual session of “parliament.” Peasants on vacation snap pictures, and there are occasional protests. Otherwise the square has maintained its eerie, otherworldly feel, a stage as contrived as the ceremonial life that once went on in the neighboring Forbidden City.

Moreover, people like Wang Jun help rebut the arguments that China is in the grips of an incurable inferiority complex toward its own culture, or that the destruction represents the final break with the country’s millennia of history and culture. He and others show that many are working to bring the past to light.

Their successes are few but all the more precious. The home of Wang’s great hero, Liang Sicheng, was slated for destruction until Wang organized criticism of the local officials who had approved its demolition. It is a small, modest victory, as is the temporary halt to plans to level the Bell and Drum Tower neighborhood. Perhaps it will still be possible to squint one’s eyes and conjure up a city that is lost but not entirely gone.

  1. See, for example, Joseph R. Levenson's classic Liang Ch'i-ch'ao and the Mind of Modern China (Harvard University Press, 1953.) 

  2. One of his books, which was almost lost in the post-1949 turmoil, was reconstructed by Wilma Fairbank and published as A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture by Liang Ssu-ch'eng (MIT Press, 1984). A version of this book was published in Chinese as Zhongguo Jianzhushi, Tianjin: Baihua Wenyi Chubanshe (1998). To commemorate the 110th anniversary of Liang's birth, Beijing's Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press earlier this year published a bilingual collection of Liang's essays, Chinese Architecture: Art and Artifacts

  3. A short biography of the couple before the Communist takeover is Wilma Fairbank's in Liang and Lin: Partners in Exploring China's Architectural Past (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994). The book focuses more on the couple's early successes than their years of torment.

  4. Simon Leys, "Chinese Shadows," The New York Review, May 26, 1977. 

  5. Geremie Barmé, introduction to In Search of Old Peking by L.C. Arlington and William Lewisohn (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1987 reprint), p. v. 

  6. Lin Yutang, Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China (Crown, 1961). 

  7. This idea is explored in a very passionate and convincing essay, "Delirious Beijing: Euphoria and Despair in the Olympic Metropolis," by Anne-Marie Broudehoux, in Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk (New Press, 2007). 

  8. Nanfang Zhoumo, January 13, 2011, available at /54644. Accessed April 12, 2011. 

  9. Susan Naquin describes these "dream" books in her unparalleled book Peking: Temples and City Life 1400–1900 ( University of California Press, 2000). For recent books by foreigners, see especially Michael Meyer's unsentimental work of literary nonfiction The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (Walker, 2008), which was reviewed by Richard Bernstein in these pages, March 26, 2009.