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Beijing, Evolution of a City

A City of Contrasts: Balancing Tradition and Modernity in Beijing

Beijing, with its three thousand years of history, still represents an extraordinary center of attraction for the whole of China and still carries the half-erased traces of its big influence: it still is the great capital, the place where the destinies of innumerable generations have been forged and destroyed. 

The visitor who thinks that he can fully relive the past of Peking, Kublai Khan’s Peking, or the Ming’s relatively more recent Peking, will be disappointed: this city has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times that it is very difficult to recognize the remainders of older times.

And nowadays, exactly as it happened in the past, it is about to lose part of its memory and have it substituted with a big and extremely ambitious idea of modernity. Peking’s structure has changed, in just a few years, from one based on the hutong, the labyrinth-like streets that used to be the city’s backbone, to a hyper-modern one, made of glass and steel skyscrapers, eight-lane streets, and ever-moving cranes.

The series of alleys and little streets that branch off the lake Houhai has been spared, maybe due to its touristic importance; this is one of the most fascinating districts in Peking. In spite of the fact that the area is situated at the heart of the city, one has the feeling of being in a village, far away from the frantic chaos of the rest of the metropolis. Here life still follows the slow and comforting traditional ways: the siege brought upon the past of China by modernity has not started yet.

Unfortunately, elsewhere the price that has to be paid for these fast changes is very high: besides losing entire districts which their charming old looks, the city has lost a thick net of human and commercial relationships which were connected to the ways of living in the districts themselves, and this second loss is maybe more dramatic than the first one.

The fact that the square courtyards called Siheyuan and the small one-storey houses resting against each other have both disappeared means that all of the personal histories and all of the working chances that were connected to these places have also disappeared. The hutong is running the risk of disappearing, swallowed by real estate and building speculation, as well as by the new lifestyles. These streets, built according to the rules of Feng Shui, the doctrine that stresses the relationship between the geometrical shape of the city with that of the cosmos, are a maze crammed with life.

The modernization plan has inevitably also reached the district that surrounds the Niujie street, the street of the oxen, which is mainly inhabited by the Huizi, who are Muslims. The most ancient mosque in the city is here, a temple characterized by a weird architectural structure, that fuses Arabic and Chinese elements in a way that almost cannot be told one from the other.

It is areas like these, maybe also due to their cultural difference from the surrounding ones, that are the favorite victims of the modernization process. Caterpillars and bulldozers are working full time, destroying and demolishing things, opening the way for future China, rich, modern, and hopefully a little bit more democratic. But today, without the certainty of what the future has in store for us, one has only the impression to face a huge, endless open-air building site: whole districts now have the ghastly look of bombed zones, and the empty areas now prevail on those that still have buildings on them. This modernization, which has been imposed from above, has costs that go beyond the simple changing of the urban structure.

It is the life of every single Chinese that is now changing, and each one of them has to deal with unbridled state capitalism and the slow destruction of the traditional cultural system which, in spite of its defects and the fact that it had already been deprived of some of its contents, was still able to guarantee a certain degree of continuity. China is undergoing a period of strong transformation and renewal in every field, from the economic to the social one, and is experimenting with new forms of liberalization.

These changes are influencing China’s cultural life in ways that are more and more tangible, especially when it comes to young people, who have all at once discovered both the splendors and the miseries of the Western way of life. If consumerism seems to have become the illness of a whole generation, the clash meeting with Western culture has also given important results. There’s a growing number of young intellectuals who feel the need of criticising this era of drastic changes and transitions.

Wu Dao Kou, north of Peking, is one of the quarters more cosmopolitan of the capital. The story of this agglomerate is the mirror of what is happening all over the country. The recent past is demolished in the name of a necessary modernization, but it all happens too fast and it risks confusing the residents. Where this heap of rubble lies, 4 months ago rose a vivid market. The population of this area has started again its activity in the surroundings, leaving the area’s heart to the demolition teams.

Napoleone Mainardi, 2001
Foto: Matteo Damiani, 2007-10

Topics: Wu Dao Kou,beijing,beijing modernization,china modernisation,china,hutong,beijing images,beijing photos,traveling in Beijing

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