The house was torn down, finally.
After years of tag war between land developers, government officials and activists, former Beijing residence of deceased architects, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin was torn down in January this year. Though it made a splash online, because Liang and Lin are pioneers in the restoration and preservation of ancient Chinese architectures in, it didn’t come in surprise to me. After all, uncountable houses suffered the same fate.
The city of Beijing keeps refreshing itself with nonstop construction every day, aiming to become a world-class modern capital. However, its unique history and style are vanishing.
For me, who come from southern China, the picture of Beijing came through literature and television dramas. That picture was quaint, with hutong (narrow alleys formed by row of traditional residences), antique walls and white pagoda tree flowers. So when my first holiday in Beijing arrived in 2010, I could not wait to dash into the city and search for her beauty.
I had a good time in the beginning. I went to Nanluoguxiang, one of the most famous antique districts in Beijing. There I saw vermilion quaint gates and old-style houses and tasted traditional Beijing food. There were moments when I believed I was experiencing the real Beijing. Only when I got closer to the hutongs, I realized I was wrong. Hutongs less trodden by visitors were shabby, even wrecked. In Siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences along these hutongs, newly-built small houses packed the yards, long gone the unique style and its cultural connotation. Seeing the hustling visitors on the main street, I suddenly got the feeling of being cheated. The whole district looked like a huge setting for television dramas.
Over the years, many traditional buildings had been torn down in the name of developing the city. From 1949 to 2003, the number of hutong decreased from 3,250 in 1949 to 1,571 in 2003. I was disappointed, because these buildings are the essence of Beijing’s beauty.
People who support the demolition may argue, “History moves on and building an international metropolis takes price.” That sounds sensible, but it isn’t really so. Last winter I went to Washington, D.C. for an internship, there I found the argument a fallacy.
One day I was strolling in the central part of the city when I saw a plain stone house alongside a main avenue. Looking around, I found the avenue lined by the headquarters of several federal agencies, and large museums including the National Gallery of Art. How could this small and plain house be part of them? “The Old Lock Keeper’s House,” read the sign on it. From the following introduction I got to know the house was erected around 1835 as the eastern terminus of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal when it was extended to connect to the Washington City Canal. Although the canal had stopped operation long before, the House was kept as a reminder of the original Washington City Canal.
That impressed me. In the capital city of the United States, among those majestic monuments and museums, a small house was kept, simply to give its residents a window to the past. Later I found this the tradition of the country. In Boston a “Freedom Trail” threads through all the historical sites. Following the trail, I felt being connected, to the city’s struggle and endeavor for freedom. Even at Harvard University, I saw its aged, plain school gate sitting there in harmony.
However, when I stood right before the former residence of Liang and Lin, I sense only pains and awkwardness. These building, torn down or to be torn down, were like scars, lying on the city.
When it comes to architecture, Beijing has its achievements. Just look at the National Stadium with its innovative design, the National Center for the Performing Arts with its shining dome, but none of them represents the city’s past.
Ancient wall tells the past; hutong tells the past; siheyuan tells the past, but step by step, they are gone. Someday when people here turn to the past, they might find nothing but pictures. That’s sad. History means more than pictures.
Maybe it’s time for those city planners to halt a second the bulldozers. It’s time for them to envision Beijing without a single piece of the past. Modern? It is. Complete? It is not.