On Chinese New Year, Beijing Loses Part of Its Memory: Adam Minter
On Jan. 26, the fourth day of the Chinese New Year holiday, most Chinese in Beijing, and across the country, were lazing and paying little attention to anything other than celebratory events. It was a perfect day to break the law.
The managers at Beijing’s Fuheng Real Estate, a subsidiary of a state-owned company, surely knew this. For years, they’ve wanted to demolish the former courtyard residence of Liang Sicheng, the undisputed father of modern Chinese architecture, and his wife and collaborator, Lin Huiyin, so as to build a 28-story high-rise on the property. Their attempt in 2009 created such national outrage that China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage felt compelled to name the house an “immovable cultural heritage.” It’s a low-level designation as historic sites go, but nonetheless one that requires a government-issued permit if a developer -– state-owned or not -- wants to redevelop the site.
If the managers at Fuheng Real Estate were in possession of a demolition permit, or a little shame, they might have waited until after the Chinese New Year to obliterate that old courtyard home. But lacking both, they hired a crew to destroy it last Thursday, when most of Beijing’s government officials and reporters were on vacation.
The demolition was an unabashed success. By late afternoon, word began to spread about it through Beijing’s heritage preservation community, setting off a modest furor that charted, briefly, on the trending topics of China’s microblogs.
For those microbloggers who could pull away from the holiday revelry, the demolition quickly came to symbolize a coarsening of a city that has already lost more than half of its historic residential housing stock, as well as a climate where commerce and corruption seem to always triumph over tradition.
"Heritage China," the pseudonym of a professional preservationist in Jiangsu province, stated on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog: “It turns out that our state-owned enterprises are ‘soul removers’ as well as ‘blood suckers.’”
The outrage is justified: During the six years that Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin lived in that courtyard home in the 1930s, they completed the seminal book, "A History of Chinese Architecture." It's a heroic piece of scholarship that covers six periods of Chinese architecture.
Liang was also an ardent Communist Party member. In the late 1940s and early 1950s -– at the behest of the party -- he developed a “national style” of architecture, perhaps most notable for its emphasis on large concave roofs. He also founded two of China’s best-known architectural schools, including the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Unsurprisingly, a few more influential voices interrupted their vacations to declare their disgust at the demolition.
Wang Xuming, a publishing executive and former spokesman for the Ministry of Education, tweeted:
[The demolition] humiliates government departments related to culture, cultural relics, city planning, the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and a Beijing spirit which advocates patriotism, innovation, tolerance, and cultivation of benevolence. How can a city do other things if it can't tolerate … the former residence of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin?
Despite the online backlash, neither Fuheng nor its powerful parent company, China Resources Corporation, explained themselves. That sorry task was left to Kong Fenzhi, the director of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage, who reportedly learned about the demolition from the media. He told Xinhua, the state-owned newswire, that according to his understanding, Fuheng Real Estate was merely trying to protect the site from celebratory fireworks that would light up the city that night in honor of the God of Fortune.
Using a phrase that has gained mighty currency on China’s internet, Kong described the destruction as a “temporary demolition for maintenance” that will serve as a precursor to a newer, better and (sort of) restored Liang Sicheng courtyard home in the future.
In response to this new turn of phrase, the writer Cuo Junshu took to Sina Weibo to express his considerable disdain:
The government and the real estate developer jointly promote a unique term: temporary demolition for maintenance … [T]hose liars are so stupid! What’s the difference between a maintenance demolition and a temporary rape? Can we call a newly-built house a former residence?
Online frustration at the demolition doesn’t only reflect Liang’s considerable accomplishments -- in large part, they reflect the bitter irony of his greatest failure.
In the 1950s, while serving as the Vice Director of the Beijing City Planning Commission, Liang argued vociferously with others for the establishment of a new city west of Beijing that would house industry so that the old city of Beijing could be preserved as a political and cultural capital. The city’s leadership, bent on economic growth, wouldn’t hear of it. Today’s crowded, traffic-jammed Beijing stands as a testament to their planning.
Tragically, Liang died in 1972 at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The same Communist Party that had commissioned him to create a national style of architecture in the 1950s had turned against him, deeming his embrace of Chinese tradition as counter-revolutionary. He died persecuted and broken.
Academics and intellectuals -- many of whom regard the foreign-educated Liang and Lin as cosmopolitan forebears -- took particular offense at this act of cultural thievery and provided some of the most biting commentary.
Meng Xianshi , a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, wrote on Weibo: “These two scholars [Liang and Lin] who tried so hard to protect the old Beijing city experienced political humiliation when they were alive. Now that they’re dead, Beijing gives them another such a lesson.”
And Qiao Jun, a dean at Nanjing University, compared the demolition to desecrating the dead -- one of the deepest taboos in Chinese culture. He tweeted:
Is there any difference between demolishing Liang’s former residence and demolishing his ancestral grave? There are only two kinds of people who dig up ancestral graves: the hateful and the lunatics!
Qiao didn't choose sides, but he closed his comments with a not-so-subtle dig at Beijing’s city planners: “Do you think that kind of person can build a tasteful city with culture?”
But late Monday, several news outlets began to report an unexpected twist to the story: Liang and his wife allegedly never lived in the house Fuheng Real Estate tore down. The Beijing Morning Post reported a woman named Wang Jue as asking the press, “How did my house become Liang's former residence?”
Liang's house was across the courtyard from hers, Wang asserted, and had been destroyed in the 1980s. Reporters on the scene had little means to evaluate the truth of the statement. Chinese netizens, ever keen to propagate or debunk a conspiracy, jumped on the news -- and then stepped back from it. True or not, the question of whether the house was destroyed last week or 30 years ago just emphasized the scale of the tragedy.
One pseudonymous microblogger distilled the issue with real poignancy: “What we protect is the memory of a culture, not a single family’s property. Culture is not wealth, heritage is not money, and Beijing is nothing without memory.”
That courtyard home demolished on Jan. 26, Liang’s or not, reduced Beijing by one more memory. Whether it served to reduce it closer to nothing is a question that Beijing’s city planners, and its real estate developers, will bear as an architectural legacy that may, sadly, last longer than Liang Sicheng’s.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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Adam Minter at email@example.com