Professor Lillian Li kicked off the History department’s new Cities and History Colloquium on Friday with a lecture entitled “Beijing: History and Identity in the Olympic Age.” Her talk, given to a large and enthusiastic gathering of students and faculty, talked about Beijing’s long and complicated history as the symbol of power and authority for centuries of Chinese rulers, maintaining its status despite China’s transformation from powerful empire to Communist republic to the modern superpower of today.
The history and image of Beijing, Li said, has always been controversial. In 1989, it became the focus of international attention after protests in Tienanmen Square led to the massacre of demonstrators. More recently, as the site of the upcoming Olympics, Beijing has been under scrutiny as the government tries to rapidly clean up the city’s pollution and other problems. While China tries to project a new “international look” for the city, international critics are on the lookout for the controversial downsides of modernization efforts.
The power of Beijing as a symbol, Li argued, goes back as far as the city itself. It was the capitol of most dynasties, and most emperors made the Forbidden City their home. Even those who opposed to the imperial system were impressed by the power and authority that Beijing represented.
For example, in 1911 when the Qing dynasty was overthrown, republican leaders who were otherwise interested in getting rid of symbols of the old regime decided to keep the Forbidden City intact. Similarly, when the Communists took power in 1949 they too opted to adopt Beijing, the imperial capitol, as their center of power.
In the mid 20th century the government sectors of the city underwent a period of heavy modernization to create a city center that served the needs of the Communist Party. Open spaces for parades and large office buildings were created quickly, transforming the heart of the city. Li showed photos of some of these buildings that suggested an uneasy architectural truce between Chinese and Western styles.
Despite these midcentury building sprees, the majority of Beijing went untouched until the 1980s and ’90s. At that point, with the commodification of the housing market, people no longer wanted to live in small historic houses, but in comfortable modern condos, or in the suburbs. Thus, in the last few decades, many acres of Beijing’s historic residential areas have been rapidly demolished to make way for new construction. While there are now groups that are attempting to preserve some of the historic districts, it is a difficult process.
On the other hand, there is the issue of too much preservation. One of Beijing’s most historic sites is actually a ruin, the remnants of the Old Summer Palace which was destroyed by the French and British. As a ruin, it is popular with tourists, but some people are interested in restoring the buildings to their former glory.
Li and other historians protest this plan on the grounds that the historical significance of the Summer Palace lies precisely in the fact that it was destroyed, and that to rebuild it would be both costly and pointless. Meanwhile, ironically, the city of Shanghai is reportedly planning on rebuilding the entire complex as part of a theme park.
This raises the question though of what exactly the goal of Beijing’s architecture should be. Should the city focus on preserving its historical buildings as they are, or should money be spent on restoring them and maintaining them as museums? Or should the focus be on creating a new, modern city that will point the way towards a new Beijing?
That is certainly the plan of the current leaders, who have been working on reworking Beijing’s image in anticipation of the upcoming Olympics. Most people are probably familiar with the centerpiece of the games, Beijing National Stadium, the huge “bird’s nest” building designed by the Swiss firm Herzog and de Muron. While nothing about it suggests that it is “Chinese”, its designers hope that it will become as much a symbol of Beijing as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris.
In closing, Li reminded the audience that when Baron Hausmann redesigned the city of Paris in the 1800s, his master plan involved destroying huge areas of the medieval city and replacing them with a planned network of streets and buildings. Hated in his day, his design for Paris is now inextricably linked with that city. Whatever we may think of the “new Beijing” now, only time will be able to judge whether the new image succeeds.