China’s Heritage Policy: Missing a Step

The 18 steps (十八梯) in Chongqing form a wonderfully atmospheric alleyway. It’s one of many older streets sunk down amongst the thrusting skyscrapers of this rapidly growing city which feel saturated with history, in contrast to the modern development all around.

Clambering up the steps, I feel like I’ve found the traditional China I’ve been searching for. Old grey bricked buildings dating back to the Ming dynasty tumble crookedly down the hill on each side, their open doorways offering glimpses of interiors cluttered with objects worthy of a museum. A few trees spread out branches into the streets, their roots crawling around the brick walls of these buildings.

I pass an old man sitting on a shady step with a cup of tea by his side and a newspaper spread out. Further on, a lady squats in that typical Chinese way and hacks with a cleaver at dark red meat laid on a board on the steps. Climbing higher, there’s a small massage place that has men sat outside with their bare torsos covered in wooden cups.

The street has such immense character, nicely captured in this film by BBC journalist John Simpson. But now this is going to be lost as the area is redeveloped. When I hear about this planned demolition, I feel sad and angry.  I want to do something to stop the destruction of an area in which I can see so much value. There’s an issue here though. What right do I have to tell the Chinese how to approach preservation? I feel paralysed, both immensely sad about the loss of a historical site that I can see as very valuable asset but also powerless to do anything.

This is the way I feel about the treatment of historic properties across China. The best I can do is try to understand why people might want to knock down these neighborhoods, and perhaps write an article like this one expressing my own views. I would like to ask somebody involved in heritage work in China why there is such a disregard for history. Since I haven’t managed to do this yet, the rest of this article remains my own speculation. I apologise if it’s inaccurate with regard to the real explanations for this disregard for history.

First, I feel there is a huge difference in perception. What I perceive to be valuable, the traditional character and atmosphere of historic places, many Chinese simply see as a burden. Traditional neighborhoods prevent traffic from flowing through the city efficiently. They are unhygienic. They are low in density. How can China cities become modern and advanced, how can they provide high living standards for their people, if they continue to treasure areas like this? Perhaps the most advanced city in China, Shanghai, has achieved its level of development in part through readiness to sacrifice historic sites in the name of progress. Or so this line of thinking goes.

I speculate that the mentality extends further than this. I believe that Chinese people haven’t really developed what might be called a historical consciousness. They have learned in school, and perhaps through personal experience, that history is something which is always bad. They have essentially learned to shun history rather than celebrate it. History is associated with poverty — with a time when the majority of Chinese were rural peasants. As well as being a burden, it is connected to memories that most people would rather forget.

This I believe makes it difficult for Chinese people to value history in itself. History is seen only to have value when it can be used in some way, either to make money, to attract tourists, or to gain politically. During the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies, history was exploited as China made much of the 4,000 years it has been developing as a civilization. Similarly, a glance at the different tourist focused articles in China Daily indicates that the Government, and the people, are happy to celebrate the ancient history embodied by the terracotta army of Xi’an, or the Forbidden City, when they can draw foreigners to visit the country and spend money.

Some might wish that the same value could be attributed to areas like the 18 Steps. But valuing these areas because of the commercial or political gains they can bring may be equally destructive. Streets such as Jingli in Chengdu, which perhaps once had character like that of the 18 Steps, have now been converted into kind of historical theme parks. The different, rebuilt Ming dynasty buildings are converted into shops selling assorted ‘traditional’ trinkets and snacks. History becomes another commercial tool, a gimmick to draw people into spending money.

Instead it is necessary to start seeing the intrinsic significance of areas like the 18 Steps. This place embodies a way of life that has persisted in China for hundreds of years. It is a fantastic sociological specimen and also a brilliantly atmospheric place to visit. These should be reasons in themselves for keeping it.

This entry was written by Nicholas Olczak , posted on Friday October 08 2010at 11:10 pm , filed under Architecture, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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