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Interview with Matthew Hu Xinyu July 2, 2008


Matthew Hu Xinyu (Photo by Liu Bowen)

Why did you join the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP)?

I was originally working in cultural tourism, so I had been visiting a lot of sites in different parts of the country. I saw the destruction and demolition of many cultural heritage sites. And I learned that people's awareness is definitely a very important factor in the fate of these beautiful places. Many sites such as the hutongs are old, but a lot of people consider them not to be of great importance, compared to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall. CHP's approach is to convince people that the less-well-known historic sites are also worth preserving.

Your colleagues told me that since a building boom that began in the mid-1990s, nearly 2,000 hutongs have been replaced by high-rise apartment buildings. Of the roughly 1,100 that remain, 600 are in "protected" areas, while 500 are still in jeopardy of being torn down. Why do you personally feel that the remaining hutongs are worth preserving?

I'm very interested in history. That's the primary reason I joined this organization. These neighborhoods carry a very important part of history that cannot be found in archives or in books. Once you go into a community and talk to the people, you can understand the history not only of a building, but also of a group of people. And that's a very important part of our culture.

How do people in general feel about saving these sites?

Most people consider these cultural sites not to be of great importance because they live there and they know the comfort level is not comparable to any of the high-rises. For example, living in a high-rise apartment, you have a bathroom, toilet, and central heating, but living in this kind of one-floor bungalow house [siheyuan, or courtyard house], in a hutong, you don't feel the same way. Many people have a very difficult life. And many people from the outside observe this kind of life. They are convinced that these houses are not worth preserving because it's so difficult living there that nobody would want to.

But the fact is, the current condition of the courtyard houses and hutong areas is the result of many complicated reasons. There are political reasons, economic reasons, architectural reasons, and technical reasons. But it doesn't mean that these sites are not worth preserving. If the government invests more money in them, in these hutong areas, and other cultural sites located in different parts of the country, in the countryside, in the local communities, then this kind of cultural heritage will be preserved.

Another reason is the fast economic growth. These kinds of cultural sites are not going to bring enough revenue for most of the residents or for the interest groups. It's easier for them to have these sites demolished, and give them to the real-estate developers. Then they can tax the land, tax their estate. So that's the most difficult part.

Has it been hard to change people's minds about preserving these areas?

It is actually not very easy. What I have been doing now is approaching some student groups and volunteer groups, and also we want to approach the media, talk to the journalists. We want them to pass on the relevant message to the public.

Do you think your organization will be able to save the hutong neighborhoods that are not in "protected" areas, or do you think the pace of construction is just moving too quickly?

I think that what we can do is...we are not sure how much we can save. That's one part of our research. We would like to know what the pace of the development is. And what we can do is to raise awareness through talking to the media like you--to raise awareness among the public, not only in China, but also in the world.

Who do you think has had the most interest in your work?

I think that the local communities are getting more and more interested, but so far, the largest support is still from the international groups. Because I think the awareness of this kind of cultural heritage preservation is still not so well taken in China.

Why do you think that is?

Because China has gone through so many traumas. Historically, we have had numerous disasters, both natural disasters and wars, since the Opium War. So the economy of China has not been developing in a very healthy way for the past century. And I think that the Chinese economy only started taking off since 1978. And people today are focusing more on economic gain instead of cultural heritage--because for them, protecting our cultural heritage is not going to have immediate income. So that's probably the reason.

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The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center's offices are housed on the grounds of a former temple called Bai Lin, which was built in A.D. 1347. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties it was a prominent place for the study of Buddhism. By the mid-twentieth century, however, the complex was used for different purposes, including as a branch of the Beijing Public Library. Some nearby elderly residents also have memories of attending primary school in a section of the temple and playing outside while the monks prayed. Today, people who live in the neighborhood are only permitted to visit Bai Lin once a year in June, on National Cultural Heritage Day. (Photos by Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center)

Are there also environmental factors in Beijing that threaten local sites? What about the city's infamous pollution?

Acid rain can destroy some of the stone parts of cultural heritage sites. Actually, if you look into the courtyards in hutong neighborhoods, many parts of our yards are made of stone. And because of acid rain, some parts of them are peeling off. You can see the old carving, but if the last renovation was done in the Qing Dynasty, at least a hundred years ago, it's peeling off. This kind of acid rain is destroying ancient sites.

Does the government ever provide financial assistance to hutong residents?

It depends. There's a micro-circulation policy by the government, by the housing department. For example, in a historical preservation district, housing department people will go into a courtyard, talk to the local residents, and find out their opinions. If all of them agree, maybe 10 families, 11 families, if they all agree, they will sign a contract. The government will then go in and renovate their house without cost. But they need to find housing, for example, for three months, during this renovation. And the cost is on their own. The house moving is on their own. This is one type of government assistance.

Were many hutongs destroyed specifically during the Olympic stadium construction?

No, actually, most of the stadiums were built outside the old city. So, as far as I know, I don't think any of the stadiums were built in the old town.

You are also starting projects in other parts of the country. What's going on with major sites like the Great Wall?

The problems with the Great Wall mainly have to do with the construction of new roads [through parts of it] and the improper activities of local residents. I have seen some residents making holes on the wall to create a shelter for themselves to hide in during the rain. Or sometimes they need a sheep pen--a place to keep the sheep--so they build one using a section of the wall. And they dig a hole in it to make it a door. There have been a lot of cases like that. This kind of wall is not a stone wall like we picture in our mind. There are many sections of the Great Wall that are not made of stone, but of [mud-brick] earth from the ground.

Sounds like you have a lot of work to do all over China! As for Beijing, what do you think is the future of the hutongs?

I hope that those in the protected areas will stay where they are. For those outside the protected areas, I hope that there's a way to have them officially protected as well.

But are you hopeful? Do you think many more, right now, today, this year, are in danger of being destroyed?

Quite a few of them. I think that overall, in general, the conservation effort in Beijing is still the strongest in China. In principle, I'm positive.

The Great Wall

CHP's projects extend beyond the preservation of Beijing's hutongs. The growing organization is also working to save the Great Wall, sections of which have been damaged or destroyed over the past 50 years by local residents, environmental factors, and the construction of new roads. Although they look quite different, all of the sections of the wall shown below date to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and were most likely built in the 1570s. The variation in style is due to the terrain and locally available building materials.

Photos 1, 2, 3, and 4 were taken in spring 2002, when Hu visited parts of the wall in northern Shanxi Province with a National Geographic photographer. These pictures indicate that the Great Wall consisted of many fortresses that served as strongholds during wars. Most of the fortresses in the area of Beijing, however, have been demolished in the past few decades to make way for much-needed highways.

The following four photos depict sections of the wall that were constructed on the Loess Plateau and are made of fine yellow earth. They were originally covered with bricks. After the population grew in the 1960s, however, local farmers started to remove the bricks and build their houses on the side of the wall. Residents told Hu that to create sturdy walls for their new dwellings, they had to pound the Great Wall's fine earth heavily and repeatedly--a process that hardened and compressed the material to 30 percent of its original thickness.

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1: Facade of Deshengbu Fortress north of Datong
2: Fortress wall of Deshengbu
3: Herding sheep in Laoying Fortress
4: Local villagers live in cave dwellings made from the wall of the Laoying Fortress.

Photos by Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center

Photos 5, 6, 7, and 8 were taken in the north Yanshan Mountain range in Beijing.

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5: This section of the Great Wall, between Mutianyu and Jiankou, shows natural erosion on top of the wall, where bushes and small trees have started to grow.
6: A reconstructed part of the Great Wall at Mutianyu
7: A wild section of the Great Wall north of Beijing; photo taken in early spring
8: A watchtower with only one side of the wall still standing

Photos by Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America