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Beijing Looks Back Volume 61 Number 3, May/June 2008
by Eti Bonn-Muller
photographs by Liu Bowen

Old and new compete for the city's soul as dust settles from Olympic construction.


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Extensive work is underway to stabilize the exteriors of the Forbidden City, the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) imperial palace in Beijing. The project is expected to be completed in 2020 to coincide with the 600th anniversary of its construction.

On the eve of the upcoming Games, I have come to see how this continuously evolving capital is balancing its rapid pace of real-estate development with historic preservation, a dilemma many modernizing cities face. For more than five decades, development has taken overwhelming precedence in China, a phenomenon that started in the 1950s when Mao Zedong began demolishing countless ancient sites in Beijing and throughout the country to make way for much-needed transportation infrastructure. For instance, Xizhimen, one of about a dozen colossal Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) stone gates that once protected the old city, was torn down in 1969 to make way for a new subway station. "It was such a shame because that gate and its walls were in the best condition," says Li Zhiyan, a specialist in Chinese porcelain and ancient kiln sites, who was a researcher at the Forbidden City Palace Museum at the time. "Today when Beijing residents pass the site, they always stop, look, sigh, and wonder why they had to tear down that gate."

Another blow to the city's architectural past came with a building boom that began in the mid-1990s and accelerated with the 2001 announcement that Beijing would host the 2008 Summer Olympics. Profoundly affected by the new construction were the hutongs--"alleyways" flanked by courtyard houses--that are Beijing's oldest residential neighborhoods, a vital part of city planning since the founding of the capital during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). In 1949, some 3,000 hutongs stood in Beijing; today, only about 1,100 survive, the rest destroyed to make way for high-rise apartments on the city's most prime real estate. "It's really hard for Beijing residents to endure the recent changes," says Bo Songnian, professor of Chinese history and folk art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. "Many old streets have completely lost their original look." Today, the pace of construction in the center of the city has slowed somewhat, perhaps because so much of it has already been built up.


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Hutongs, or narrow alleyways flanked by courtyard houses, have been a vital part of city planning in Beijing since the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). A building boom that began in the mid-1990s has replaced nearly 2,000 of these traditional, old-style neighborhoods with high-rise apartments, which many feel is a great blow to the city's architectural and cultural history.

The lull is good news for the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP), a grass-roots organization whose current principal interest is preserving the hutongs before they disappear. In 2002, the government declared 25 old areas in the center of the capital "protected," meaning that no new high-rise apartments could be built there. Each area contains between 20 and 30 hutongs. Yu Meng, project manager of the CHP, calls the action "a milestone." The number of protected areas has since risen to 33.

Why are more and more Beijingers concerned with preserving their cultural heritage? One reason may be that the country is in a better economic position today than it was 50 or even 15 years ago--and people finally have the luxury to look back. "We are happy to see a modern Beijing," says Li Zhiyan. "But now that people here are having better material lives, and there is a sense of more stability, they are beginning to feel nostalgia for the past." Bo Songnian agrees. "Beijingers have great feelings and attachments to ancient cultural sites," he says. "They feel a great sorrow when they see an old site being destroyed."

Education may play a significant role, too. "Everyone now thinks it's very important to protect our heritage," says Li Yin, a conservator at the Palace Museum. He has already seen changes at the Forbidden City. "In the past, people liked to sign their names on a wall when they visited; but now, the general public is very annoyed when they see anyone doing it," he says. "And from the government's point of view, the concern is not just about protection, but how to promote historical education, cultivate love for our country, and work on the business side of it to develop tourism."


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Old and new collide throughout Beijing: The National Grand Theater (above left), the Great Hall of the People (above right), and a hutong neighborhood (center) lie to the west of Tiananmen Square, a stone's throw from the Forbidden City.

City archaeologists have been heavily involved with the Olympic construction since 2004. The Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau surveyed more than a dozen locations over 16 million square feet where the Olympic stadia stand today. Over the course of nearly four years, archaeologists excavated some 700 tombs dating from the Han to the Qing Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 1911) at the sites that were to become the National "Bird's Nest" Stadium, the Olympic shooting range, and stadia for swimming, basketball, baseball, and other events.

The site of this summer's Olympics marks the northern tip of the axis that has expanded to bisect the ever-sprawling city of Beijing for nearly 700 years. A half-dozen of the capital's best-known landmarks, including Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, line up perfectly to the south of the stadia. This historic divide is the capital's "Dragon Vein," its north-south orientation influenced by feng shui, the Chinese practice of aligning structures to achieve a harmonious flow of qi, or energy, which dragons were once believed to exhale. Theoretically, the buildings that straddle this line are ensured success and prosperity. Today, the vein also throbs at points with up to eight lanes of cars and trucks that exhale a thick, gray exhaust, instead of qi.

The nearly complete stadia form a tableau of twisted, shimmering steel beams, dazzling reflective metal surfaces, and concrete. They are the latest additions to a brand-new cityscape, an awkward architectural collage of buildings overlapping in so many different styles that they serve as painful reminders of the nation's decades-long quest for development without a cohesive plan for reconciling the capital's old and new buildings. This is "New Beijing," the modern city poised to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

In this metropolis, it is clear that China's past and future are inseparable. "Naturally, it's essential to move forward," says Li Boqian, a preeminent archaeologist and professor at Beijing University. "But which way do we choose to proceed? That's where history comes in. We must draw lessons and experience from it. Only then can we find a better way to look to the future."

Eti Bonn-Muller is copy chief at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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