A Sense of History

Have you heard about pieces of the Great Wall being used as stones for building houses?  Or historic buildings being converted for use as community centers (or whatever)?  There is a great furor among China enthusiasts everywhere about the destruction of the old hutongs (residential alleys) to make way for  high rises and beautiful public works projects in preparation for the Olympics. 
 
 
    
  (I don’t think I’d enjoy living here!  ) 
 
 
 
 
                           
 
 To see the scale of this building, notice the size of the people standing in front
 
This new concert hall would not fit in the scope of my camera
The reflecting pond goes around it completely, to enter you must pass through an underground tunnel
 
 Olympic mascots
 
 
I once read that this lack of — let’s say respect — for historic sites is because unlike the West, where historic buildings are revered for what they were, or for their beauty, or for what they represent, buildings and places in China are viewed in a purely utilitarian sense:  what is the best use for this resource at the present time?  Past use is irrelevant, if it has no present function now.  If we need a foundation for our present house, well this old wall is no longer functional so we can use it for the foundation.  If we need a rec room, well so be it.  (Likewise, if we need an "historical monument," by golly one can be arranged!) 
 
On a recent trip to the archaeological ruins of the palace garden of the Nanyue King in Guangzhou, there is a corner of the site where the fabulous old stones of the foundation, huge slabs cut and laid with remarkable precision, had been used as part of the cellar for a house in the 1800’s.  Of course, now an entire city block of the downtown of Guangzhou is devoted to preservation of this bit of archaeology, with active digs in progress, surrounded by multimillion dollar high rises.  It is very expensive to set aside relics — that perhaps no one really cares about — in the name of preserving the past.  The Museum of Textiles is housed in the old silk guild building in the Liwan District of Guangzhou.  It contains documentary photos of the extraordinary effort and engineering it took to lift the entire building and move it 300 meters to make room for a modern road. 
 
But overall, people don’t seem to care so much about that past.  I sense there is a great deal of pride about prior accomplishments but, unlike some cultures I’ve been in, there doesn’t seem to be much caring about exactly how far back any particular event or monument extends.  The details of history are more or less irrelevant:  It happened in the past.  Okay.  Let’s revere it (or revile it, or not care about it) and move on.  What’s next on the agenda for today?  When I was there, the Museum of Textiles had a very nice display of rock carvings for sale and a gift shop.  Every mountain or high point seems to have a temple on it, but I have yet to see a temple in any populated or touristed area that has much sign of religion in it, they have been converted to use mainly as hotels, shops, and restaurants. 
 
               
 
(These are photos of the cable car station at Fragrant Hill Park in Beijing, but I recognize telltale signs that this building predates the cable car and had a religious use.)
 
My very first encounter with this sort of general focus on the here and now came as a result of my amateur interest in anthropology.  The site where Maba man was discovered is fairly close to where I live.  Yet not one, single ordinary person that I’ve spoken with here has any awareness of that nor interest in that.  At first I thought it might be a translation issue so I used the term "cave man," but no, the people knew what cave men were, they simply had no interest in that.  It was a foreigner who sent me basic instructions on how to get there, along with some photographs she had taken, showing the site has been markedly "improved" for public consumption by use of extensive dioaramas and colored lights built into the cave site.  (Given this alteration, and the half day train ride involved to get there, coupled with the lack of detail about precise location and directions, and the logistical issues related to finding the place and navigating there alone, . . . I haven’t been there yet.) 
 
Yes, the average person knows the imperial dynasties in much greater detail than me, and even I have become educated in the differences between Qing and Ming.  But my impression is that these huge spans of history and things historical are not the objects of much interest in and of themselves, they are all just generically "old" and part of our wonderful and illustrious past.  Like the ancient vases at the museum we went to on our anniversary, they were all very beautiful but nothing was marked with any kind of description regarding where it was found or how it was dated.  That very collection was donated and preserved by way of funding from an overseas Chinese.  The imperial fabrics at the Forbidden City, in contrast, do not appear to be protected from ravages that will be dealt by oxygen and moisture in the open air of the wooden buildings.  Of course this changes when something receives the Olympic or World Heritage site spotlight (and can then be exploited for tourism). 
 
Well enough of my ranting observations.  I only observe in this instance, I don’t judge.  When a culture goes back 6,000 years, one can hardly blame that culture for needing to live in the present even if that is right on top of the past.  If every historic site were worshipped, there might not be any place for the present to exist.  Yet . . . it still strikes me as being very different from my own culture.  In my personal narrative, unlike a Chinese person I cannot say precisely how many generations my family has lived in a certain historic location, but my culture nevertheless attempts to preserve what there remains of primary source evidence concerning how colonial farmers lived.  I can go to my local museum or historic farm and get a glimpse of my collective past. 
 
Anyway, this is a beat-around-the-bush way of getting to one of those "I can’t believe this" experiences I recently had in Beijing.  I was the honored guest to a tour of a hutong residence that is being renovated for modern use.  It is one of those fortunate ones spared from destruction to make way for big buildings, slotted and given government money for refurbishment and preservation.  Next to the renovation project, I noticed the wall between this residence and the adjoining one was being demolished, or modified.  As an amateur archaology buff, I quickly recognized two distinct walls which would have had very different dates of construction.  One was made of brick, and one was made of stacked stones.  My understanding is that brick has a "shelf life" of maybe two hundred years max before it starts to deteriorate and crumble, but the stone wall appeared to be much older.  So I ask, "How old is that wall?" 
 
Admittedly, part of the issue is that my ability to communicate must always go through a translator.  And I’m asking a young 20-ish secretary who is with us because she can speak some English.  Her reply, "It is very ancient."  I ask for clarification, how old is it exactly?  She checks with her boss, the person in charge of the building and renovatons.  Then she says,  "It is maybe Two Hundred years old."  So, I point to the stone wall and ask, "What about this wall?"  The answer:  "The same.  It is all about 200 years old."  So I ask, "How old is this Hutong?"  The answer:  "Maybe about 200 years old."  I ask:  "How old is Beijing?"  The answer:  "Maybe about 800 years old."  Here’s a photo.  You tell me?!  What do you think?  How old is this wall?  Also, is Beijing really just 800 years old?  Somehow I thought . . .
 
             
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1 Comment

Filed under Cross Cultural Issues

One response to “A Sense of History

  1. nashan

    i like the ancient China sense.

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