Ask Mei

Demolition job

Where are all the old buildings?

The Chinese pride themselves on being an ancient civilisation. But you can hardly see any old buildings in their cities. China is all modern and glittering. How did this happen?

(Female reader, UK)

Indeed, we Chinese are very proud of our long-lasting civilisation but we are also hugely pragmatic and materialistic. Historically, the Chinese respected, cherished and even worshipped most things old. However, this changed dramatically after Mao Zedong took over in 1949. A lot of the old buildings were swept away to make way for the country’s political, military and economic development.

The most rampant destruction of China’s traditional buildings occurred over two recent periods: the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 and the Reform and Opening-up Era initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. During the Cultural Revolution (it really should have been called an “anti-culture revolution”), fanatical young ‘Red Guards’ heeded Mao’s call to destroy the “Four Olds”: namely, old customs, culture, habits and ideas. That often meant the destruction of ancient relics and architecture. What they did was not too different from today’s actions by ISIS in the Middle East. In Beijing alone, thousands of sites of historical interest were smashed to bits in the late 1960s. Tonnes of historical texts and books were burned. Temples, city walls and courtyards were torn down or converted to other uses. The nation’s long history of valuing ancient things came to a violent end.

But compared with this ideologically-motivated destruction, the pursuit of wealth and economic development during the reform era probably brought about an even more systematic bulldozing of China’s cultural heritage.

As you may know, traditional Chinese houses were usually single storey buildings made of brick, wood or mud. Few had indoor plumbing, toilets or proper heating. Most Chinese longed to move into Western-style apartment blocks with more space, indoor plumbing and better insulation. On top of that, we Chinese innately trust real estate more than most other asset classes. So when the government started to tolerate and even endorse the concept of private ownership of property (the formal Property Laws were only introduced in 2007), local governments, real estate developers and shrewder members of the general public jumped at the chance of this once-in-a-lifetime “gold rush”. The country experienced an unprecedented property bonanza, which saw real estate values rise by a multiple of 15 between 1987 and 2014.

It was during this period that the vast majority of China’s old buildings, temples, courtyards and hutongs were demolished to make way for modern skyscrapers, shopping malls, highways and rail lines.

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Wang Shu was quoted last weekend by the Financial Times as saying that 90% of our traditional buildings were destroyed in Chinese cities in the past 30 years. Some Chinese, including Wang, regret this relentless period of change and suggest – with a dry sense of humour – that China actually means chai-nar (拆哪儿) or “demolish where?”

Today when Chinese tourists visit European countries, they can sometimes be amazed by how old the towns and villages are. I plan to visit England again myself this summer. But I too have grown accustomed to China’s modernity and rapid development. When I checked the transport options, I was shocked to learn that there are no direct rail links between Oxford, Cambridge and the Cotswolds, for instance. How can there be no high-speed train between famous university cities like Cambridge and Oxford? Didn’t the British invent the railway system!

I am aware that many Westerners value their history and a more tranquil lifestyle over efficiency and productivity. Hence the huge fuss over the proposed HS2 high speed rail link in the UK. But most Chinese hold the opposite view. As reported in WiC282, tens of thousands people in Linshui in Sichuan took to the streets last month to protest that a proposed new rail line will bypass their county. The locals want the rail line because they want the economic benefits.

In his 1922 book The Problem of China, British philosopher Bertrand Russell praised the Chinese for cherishing history, spirituality and tranquillity – in contrast with the productivity-driven, materialistic West. How times have changed!

Mei attended university in Beijing in the late 1980s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China in the media and with two investment banks. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]


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