Old vs. Old in China

One of the things that you will commonly here from students here, often as they excuse problems with their country, is “China has a five thousand year history”. Then you will here expats wondering in response, “OK, but where is it?”

The historical things that remain are incredible and wonderful and, at times, well presented: places like the Terracotta Warriors or the Grand Mosque in Xi’an, or the less famous Sanxingdui in Chengdu. However, in terms of “living” history – the history of street plans, field boundaries, average buildings – China suffers from a destructive impulse, at least in the cities.

I will illustrate what I mean by describing our campus. The University we work at is split into three campuses, the old, the new and the brand new. The old campus, where we live, is no longer used for teaching and the majority of its land was sold to a developer in order to finance the brand new campus. So far, so good – knock down some old building to build ten premium high rise apartment blocks. Necessary, and a sensible use of land. Except, the old campus is the original site of the university – a munitions factory where students were sent to train during the anti-Japanese war. Chongqing was the centre of the resistance, and capital of China during the Japanese occupation, and this building marked a part of that. But, where is it? There is no sign, no mention no indication that it ever stood, the history encapsulated in that site – a history still very relevant to the Chinese who grow up on a diet of Japanese imperialism – is gone.

An example of what I mean by a preserved history could be seen in the Shambles in York. The original medieval buildings which made up this area remain, and walking through them is a similar experience to those who walked down the street in the past. The small independent shops, the bustle, the working market next to it, keep alive that history.

The desire to eradicate is pervasive, but at times in China it seems irresistible. Chengdu, where we lived last year is a great example. We met a Swiss man in Cambodia who said that thirty years before he had visited Chengdu and the main roads had been dirt tracks. – No longer is that the case. Chengdu is a grid plan made real. Everywhere you go is “just straight” or down here and a left. As such, you can only find historical places peeking out  as remnants. Everything else is a big new road and a big new building. Chengdu has been a city for thousands of years, I challenge you to feel it anywhere. The centre of the city, Tianfu square, used to be a series of palaces, similar to the forbidden city in Beijing, but aside from one small sign by the statue of Mao there is no indication of it.

Despite this vigorous change away from the old, China and the Chinese are still seemingly proud of their history. One way this manifests itself is in the creation of “ancient” streets or villages. There are those villages which are subsidised not to develop out in the country – presumably a blessing, any trip through rural China fits the stereotype, all old people and children eking out a living in their small holdings. Unfortunately, we have never (knowingly) visited a village such as this – we have, however seen the “ancient” villages. Indeed, anyone who has been to China has seen one, and if they’ve seen two has probably remarked “seen one, you’ve seen them all”.

This is because, despite the individual character of each place – in some, original crafts remain, such as a beautiful hand made umbrella I got – they are all the same. Every single one sells the same things, has the same shops – from Xi’an to Xichang you will see people beating sugar sweets with huge wooden mallets, fried creatures, tea shops, clothes shops, dress yourself up as an ancient shops. You know that here, at least something original is preserved in the buildings and the streets, but unfortunately the plastering of tourism is so thick that you have to really rummage to find things.

This was all typified perfectly in an afternoon we had the other day in Chongqing visiting two similar places – Shibati and Hongyadong.


First we went to shibati, translating roughly as eighteen steps, Shibati is an ex-residential area that leads down from the base of Jiaochangkou (near the old heart of the city) to the Yangtze river. The area has existed at least since the 19th Century – you can see it on a 19th century map. Since 2010 Shibati has been experiencing “reconstruction” and it is now completely derelict. It is still a small tourist attraction – enough for pop up stalls selling food and snacks – and is a really beautiful area, despite and because of the destruction. One feels that you are seeing something real fading. A magnificent all wood building being left to moulder, old paths and alleys collapsing beneath rubble.


A view from the top of Shibati



Some expats refer to “real” China – the stench from this toilet is that

P1050012.JPGThe area still retains its history, you can feel the idea of people walking up and down these streets – not least because at the top were the old people dancing, without leader, as individuals, it was the most charming of all the dancing I have seen in China and a smile was forced on me as we watched. The people dancing must have lived in the area – some buildings in shibati are, inexplicably for a modern city, still occupied.


The blurry man was the personification of dance

Obviously in my appreciation of this is a fetishising of poverty. The moving photos by Wang Yuanling, depict people living in hard circumstances very near the bottom of the pile of society. It is right that the area be developed, if that is what is happening, but would that development aid locals or will it become like the other place we went –  Hongyadong.


Hongyadong,before we say anything else, is an “ancient” street – so you’ll find yoghurt in branded bottles, sweet shops, tea shops, all the old familiars. There are restaurants, including some western ones near the top, and food stalls.


Hongyadong is a tower of buildings connected together which drop you all the way down to the river. The concept of the place is lovely, and at night, all lit up, it is quite magical. Other than that though it is simply another ancient street. Walking around it exactly the same experience as walking around any other. Any traces of the unique culture and society of this little district is gone in favour of chain tourism and small shops.


More than this Hongyadong is a “genuinely” ancient area, it was used throughout  Chongqing’s history as a military watchtower with its vantage points near the confluence of the two rivers. In particular there is a cave (called the Hongya Cave) which has been the sight of habitation for thousands of year – I know this because at the top was a sign. Unfortunately, I couldn’t actually find the cave itself as inside the building there is no indication of how to find it at all. If you missed the single sign written in typical Chinese history style “celebrating the ancient cultural endeavours of the people of the ancient dynasties”(also known as waffle) then you missed everything.

Oh, I suppose they celebrate that history by building a fake pirate ship?

Avast Qing Song, those scurvy knave Laowai be a-threatnin our true Chinese ‘eritage!

There are places where Chinese cities do manage to preserve the history in a meaningful way. The map of Chongqing is interesting, because the roads of the central part are the same as they have been for a long time, the Sichuan Fine Arts Institue here also looks after its old buildings and repurposes them as galleries and studios, and in Chongqing you have the “Eastern Suburban Memory” – the site of the first television tube factory in China!

History, as it is wrapped up in physical spaces and things, is a fascinating and endlessly intriguing aspect of any place. It is the irony of China that through the eradication of this history, one can feel like you are walking in a new city even though in it existed before the Romans came to Britain.

You can read a good summary of Hongyadong here.

And read a fascinating account of Chongqing during the late part of the 19th Century written by Australian G.E. Morrison, here.

To learn to enjoy the idea of the history of field boundaries and the like I recommend reading Michael Wood’s Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England  or watching his series about The Story of England, or The Story of China especially the episode about Xi’an.

– Jonny


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