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Financial Times,  Weekend March 29/March 30, 1997


Stitching up old Peking -- new city of 1,000 cuts

Tony Walker wonders why a rich past is being desecrated in favour of grey, stolid architecture

"The true magic of Peking, the city as monument to the past, is lost to us forever. Yet it is in this loss that ,we can perhaps find some reason for the callous disregard with which the citizens of the city witnessed the glories of the capital pass away."

The sinologist Geremie Barme is not the first, nor will he be the last, to lament the death of a great city by a "thousand cuts". The Chinese are beginning to speak out, more in sorrow than in anger, at the continued desecration of a city which, until the 1950s, had remained remarkably intact through more than five richly textured centuries since its establishment under the Ming dynasty in 1421.

In Search of Old Peking* by L.C. Arlington and William Lewisohn, written in the 1930s, described a city rooted in antiquity. "The magic of Peking, the world-wide fame and charm of this city of enchantment, spring from an enduring source," they wrote. "For nearly three centuries it was the capital of a mighty empire ... on its embellishment they [the Ming emperors) lavished continual care and attention and expended vast sums of money.

And yet by the early 1950s, Mao Zedong and his peasant revolutionaries would begin to refashion an ancient walled city of grace and charm. into the image of New China - grey, stolid and totalitarian. Although the decades of reform since China opened up to the west in the late 1970s have inspired new architectural confections of reflector glass and white lavatory tiles, they are hardly likely to represent a high point of Chinese civilisation.

Nothing symbolised more the decision to cast aside the past than the demolition of the city wall and its 16 gates which defined the ancient capital. Along with this despoliation came the construction of what were known as the 10, "great monuments" to the new Maoist state, including the Great Hall of the People, and the creation of vast, featureless Tiananmen Square in place of a smaller, walled expanse.

The wall's removal put paid to any hope that old Peking would be preserved for posterity, and virtually ensured the city would become what it is today - a sprawling third world metropolis encircled by ring-roads, overpasses and high-rise workers' dormitories.

Liang Congjie, son of architect Liang Ssucheng, recalls his father's opposition to the removal of the wall. In fact, Liang Ssucheng had proposed a new capital be built to the west, leaving old Peking intact behind the existing walls. "In my father's view, the city wall was the main symbol of Peking. He was very brave in his opposition to the removal of the wall, accusing those responsible of committing a crime. What he didn't realise was that it was Mao who wanted the wall removed.

"In this," adds Liang, "Mao was a very contradictory character. He liked old things, old books, old paintings. Yet he hated the old city wall, while insisting on living in a traditional walled courtyard house." Liang Ssucheng, the outstand- ing architect of his generation, was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) for his attachment to "feudal", or old, ideas. Interestingly, the official press is beginning to question the decisions taken in the 1950s to remake Peking. In a recent commentary, China Daily praised calls by the city government to rebuild sections of the wall, but gently chided those responsible for its demolition.

"The then policy-makers thought they made a correct decision. They acted with good intentions: the city had to expand, and the roads widen. But were there opposing voices at that time? Did decision-makers listen carefully to those with different views?" says Liang.

The head of Friends of Nature, a conservation group, Liang says the city's destruction continues to this day and, if anything, is accelerating with the boom in construction of new office and apartment buildings. "Things are getting worse and worse," he says. "The authorities have lost control. You can see it's real chaos as far as the style of architecture is concerned."

Residents pour particular scorn on a new railway station in the city's west, an enormous structure of indeterminate architectural style and exceedingly poor quality construction; on the Women's Federation building on the city's main boulevard, an extraordinary confection of white tiles and green-tinted windows; and on the practice of local architects to add a green oriental-style "cap", or roof, to buildings in line with instructions from city planners.

The so-called "green cap" came after criticism that featureless office buildings springing up all over the city did not reflect Chinese characteristics. This gesture has far from mollified the critics, including Shu Yi, son of Lao She, author of the classics, Rickshaw Boy and The Teahouse. Shu is incensed by the bulldozing of thousands of hutong, the traditional courtyard-style dwellings, which were the setting for this father's writings. "History is being wiped out before our eyes. Soon, there will be nothing left," he says.

Gao Demin, chief auctioneer for Guardian Auction House - China's Sotheby's - is another who laments Peking's changing face. He dates the beginning of rapid change to 1976, the year of Mao's death, the arrest of the Gang of Four, including Mao's widow, and the end of the Cultural Revolution. It was then that high-rise apartment buildings began to be built. By the early 1980's, with the opening up of China under Deng Xiaoping's policies, the first office tower blocks started appearing on the city's thoroughfares, a process which continues to this day.

Gao uses a Chinese phrase tian fan di fu - heaven and earth is being turned upside down, to describe changes overtaking Peking, and not all for the better in his view. "This is a city of mess. It will take at least another 10 years to clean it up" .

Gao is especially critical of the tendency towards "gigantism" in the city's architecture with each new generation of rulers. In this latest period, the Beijing West railway station is one example, another is the Oriental Plaza development on the main boulevard, east of Tiananmen Square.

Funded by Hong Kong tycoons, Oriental Plaza has been scaled back from its original grand design because of strong opposition from conservationists like Liang, but even in reduced form it will dwarf other structures, nearby, including the Great Hall. The plaza's shopping malls, office towers and residential complexes will span 600,000 sq metres of prime real estate, compared with the Great Hall's 110,000 sq metres.

It will also overshadow other "monuments" such as the Forbidden City, Beihai Park and the Beijing Hotel which crouches next-door like a forlorn, somewhat shop-soiled layer-cake. The hotel, which began with the French-designed section completed in 1917, has had three additions over the years, each worse than the last - Russian-inspired in 1954, eastern-bloc in 1974 and Hong Kong in the late 1980s.

"It's already too late to save Beijing's architecture," says Liang. "These days, it's just like a mixed pot of chop suey."

To Geremie Barme there is nothing really surprising about what has happened " ... to regard the physical remains of the past with indifference seems to be characteristic of Chinese culture. For it is in a literature redolent with allusions and literary references, rather than in the ephemeral works of man, that China immortalised her past."

* From the introduction to the 1987 edition of "In Search of Old Peking": L.C. Arlington and William Lewisohn, Oxford University Press.