China’s Glorious New Past

In the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson revisit the gritty industrial city of Datong for the first time in ten years and is shocked by what he finds:

Over the past few decades, Chinese cities have seen their historic centers erased by a generic vision of modernization: broad boulevards and highways, office towers and luxury flats. In Datong, that vision had its day in the 1990s and 2000s. Now, this old-fashioned coal-mining city is on the cutting edge of a new urban development strategy: recreating an imagined, glorious Chinese past. I’d seen this in parts of Beijing, especially around the Qianmen area—an old central neighborhood of shops and restaurants that had flourished through the early twentieth century and was rebuilt in faux-historic style in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics—or at the Xintiandi shopping mall in Shanghai. But Datong is something else. It’s not only a few shopping districts that are being recreated, but vast swaths of an old city that just decades earlier had been obliterated in a fit of auto-cultural genocide: rampant, unregulated development in the name of modernization.

The efforts are centered on rebuilding the once-magnificent city walls. Most stretches had come down in the Mao era and the rest were destroyed to make way for new buildings in the 1990s. Now, they are being rebuilt, mostly from scratch. Already, half of the center of Datong is encircled by the the new walls, which are a full scale replica of the originals: thirty-nine feet high and sixty feet wide at the base. Every few hundred yards are watchtowers and every few watchtowers,a hole punched in the wall for traffic to pass through. There’s little evidence that traditional methods or materials are being used, despite claims to the contrary. Construction cranes line the wall like siege engines, depositing pallets of freshly baked red brick that fill in steel-reinforced concrete pillars. Grey stones cover the skeleton to give it an old look.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this trend began but it seems to be driven by tourism. Over the past decade, well-preserved old cities like Pingyao (240 miles south of Datong) have become major tourist destinations thanks to their city walls and old streets. But there’s also a deeper sense in China of the country having lost too much in the past century of destruction. The revival of Confucian thought, for example, is a way of finding out how Chinese did things in the past—before the country’s experiments with fascism, communism and authoritarian capitalism. City walls and the like are a more concrete manifestation of this desire to turn back the clock.

Datong’s efforts began in 2009 and officials say they will invest more than one billion yuan, or about one hundred and fifty million dollars, over four years. Like most projects, the money is borrowed from local banks, which are partly controlled by local political leaders. The money is to be repaid by selling land—which the city controls—to real estate developers.

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