Nearly everywhere I’ve been in China so far (with the exception of Pingyao) is in a state of destruction and reconstruction, with each town and city wiping out its own history for profitable ventures and high rises in a quick and dirty thirst for modernism.
I found this to be most noticeable in Datong, where you immediately enter the centre of the city via a completely reconstructed and bland city wall, where rubble piles greet you on every road corner and cranes dangle high in the distance. Out the window of the truck, I distinctly remember passing hutong type streets that were nearing the last stages of complete disappearance, wondering about the effects of displacement amongst families whose memories and way of life spanned generations. When we arrived at our guesthouse a void of flat land opposite stared right back at us as men worked tirelessly replacing roof tiles from ancient buildings onto the structures of new.
Not only was I bored of seeing this, it made me rather sad, and so I made it a mission to find whatever parts of the old Datong I could find. Sometimes I am annoyed at myself for not coming to China sooner – would I have seen more than what I am finding today? Instead I listen avidly to stories from older travellers who came here in the 80s and 90s who tell tales of a China whose history was more apparent, alive and accessible, although still being reconstructed in parts.
Preservation – A Different Meaning
To most people, preservation means saving the old – a form of restoration that ensures that all is not lost forever, even if a little modern support is needed. While understandably some structures will naturally crumble to ruin or have to be removed for safety reasons, in China preservation means pulling down the entire ancient building and constructing a brand new one in its place using the same style so that it looks old, but actually isn’t.
The only saving grace is that sometimes some of the old materials are used. Maybe. Altogether, this results in different brick work and tiled decor, brand new and shiny paint artistry, huge doors and a loss of the gritty but cosy atmosphere that defines a Chinese neighbourhood. To top it off, the new building will normally have its life set out to be a restaurant or a shop – a means to attract more tourists and hope the cash keeps flowing while the locals are moved to the nearest high-rise.
I would rather visit China for a 100 or 1,000 year old structure, not one built last year to sell me overpriced dumplings and tourist tat glossed with a higher price tag. China, please stop it. People lament the loss of history from when Chairman Mao bulldozed his way through the country’s legacy, so why continue?
Finding The Old
While you can visit the very impressive Buddhist caves out-of-town and find old temples and the Nine Dragon Wall a few yards from the McDonalds and the thriving modern shopping streets within, scattered around are some old neighbourhoods still intact – where a community spirit still thrives unbroken by the destruction of the town outside of it. Sure, some buildings are dirty and run-down (in comparison to what we are used to), the roads unpaved and the air tinged with a smell denoting a lack of sanitation, but all-in-all everyone appeared happy and content. People who have been calling this place home for many years: those with a sense of purpose in their communal space, a business to run, a family to look after, an extended family close by, and a long-lasting friendship with trusted neighbours. Life buzzed all around us; a simple yet beautiful way of life I rarely see in overdrive back home.
Sitting opposite three old ladies on a curb on a random street corner, eating produce purchased from the market stalls and small shop vendors, we communicated only with smiles as young children emerged from nowhere to giggle sheepishly and use their limited English in practice – a generation who won’t be living there much longer, a generation who will be forced into a whole new way of life. Who’s to say that their second home won’t be pulled down in a few years when a more profitable idea comes to mind?
Every country develops in the need to grow and prosper, but in 20 years or so, who’s to say if China will have anything of its past remaining apart from the existing handful of structures kept back for the tourist eye. Greed isn’t worth ugly architecture and a displacement of people. Come and see what’s left while you can, because it appears to be vanishing rapidly.