The Old World
The Great Wall (the actual wall, not the restaurant named for it) is impressively large, to be sure. But it is not particularly old. The partially restored wall seen today is the one that dates from the Ming Dynasty, not the far older original. In other words, it was built beginning in the seventeenth century. Standing structures in Europe date from a millennium or more earlier.
So it’s fair, I think—or at least interesting—to note that the Great Wall is a pretty crude affair, in terms of architecture and workmanship, in comparison with Roman ruins of nearly two thousand years earlier, let alone the contemporaneous structures throughout Europe, many of which have been continuously occupied since before the Great Wall was begun.
By the same token, the palaces and shrines we saw in China, impressive as they are, differ from European buildings of a similar age in more than their design aesthetic. They are in many ways less: less modern in function; less ambitious in design; less refined in execution. Oh, there is spectacular artistry to be sure. And some of the difference stems from a different philosophical worldview. But there is still something that says maybe the Chinese did invent paper, fireworks, and pasta; maybe their written history goes back further than Europe’s; but somewhere along the way—centuries before 1949—they began to follow a lower, slower road. Feudalism loosed its grip on Europe long before it did so in Asia. And you can see that just by looking at artifacts.
The new Old World
Today, though, China is in a headlong rush to its version of modernity. In Beijing, the sort-of-old hutongs continue to be demolished in favor of modern high-rises.
Having seen smatterings of what passes for a traditional lifestyle in the hutongs, I must conclude that this process, though painful, is necessary. It’s clear there is little place in modern Beijing for the poor. They are so ill-accommodated, so marginal in their existence in the old hovels (once proud homes of the middle class but now, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, hardly livable at all) that it would be a service to them to move them into decent, subsidized housing and finish the demolition job that time and poverty have begun. Usually I’m on the side of preservationists, but not this time.
When China decided to embrace capitalism and build a modern city, they had two ways to go. They could have gone the cheap knock-off route (in the way that the Joseon Dynasty palaces in Korea were cheap knock-offs of the Ming palaces in China). But instead they chose to leapfrog the West with even more gratuitous excess. We stayed in a deluxe hotel room (at an affordable, discounted price) that could have been a movie set for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I’ve lived in smaller apartments. Much smaller apartments. Throughout the city there are architectural wonders beyond those built for the Olympics. Modern luxury apartments are spacious, air conditioned, comfortable, and beautifully landscaped. In fact the whole city is beautifully landscaped (amazing what you can do when you have dollars to burn and labor is cheap), with an expanding network of modern roads (many of which are, in the Chinese tradition, unnamed, and none of which have stop signs) that can almost accommodate the ever-increasing traffic congestion.
My Cold War–era social studies textbooks…
didn’t convey what China was. And televised Olympics coverage didn’t really convey what China is. Nor do I think that a week in one city gave me any sort of comprehensive overview. I saw what I saw. I know there’s much more I did not see.