Beijing’s Transformation

From a walled city to a modern metropolitan, from a closed culture to globalization and from ancient teashops to modern cafeterias and from birdcages to subways; the road to modernity has been a very long one for Beijing. There is a plethora of driving forces for the drastic changes that Beijing has undergone.

There are huge contradictions about the way common people react to these changes and about how the new Beijing measures up to their vision of their city. This dilemma of choosing between tradition and modernity, between old values and new ethics and between age old culture and the world order, is not unique to Beijing.

Developing countries, particularly oriental ones, are often faced with these difficult choices on the road to progress. The choice has to be made and made judiciously. Beijing’s cultural ethos is very closely related to the walls which were symbolic of so many things in Beijing’s culture, such as social status, direction, space, class, privacy and even prejudices. The changes that took place in the mindsets of people who were at helm, and the changes that were responsible for Beijing’s new look, can be tracked through the treatment meted out to these walls in different eras.

The city was earlier enclosed within walls and the courtyards were separated from each other by walls. The walls contributed to Beijing’s mystery and charm that was part and parcel of its magnificence. But the first step towards modernization of Beijing was the flattening of these walls which had stood for so long as a symbol of Chinese culture in vogue in Beijing at that time. Right after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the onslaught of modernization was brought on and the walls were the first to feel the brunt of this modernization.

The walls were pulled down to make way for fast tracks and western style buildings. This was the beginning of the end of old Beijing with its aura, cultural heritage and glorious history. Mao, in association with Soviet communists who had money, technical know-how and a vision, laid out extensive plans for the modernization and industrialization of Beijing. Though the Soviet Union and China fell apart in 1960, the foundation of the plans had already been laid and the modernization proceeded on similar lines. Factories were built in and around Beijing in large numbers.

Rural agricultural faced a setback because the peasants abandoned the villages in order to join the urban work force. Worker’s settlements sprang up like mushrooms and Beijing became a modern industrial city of the world. The air which was earlier pure and healthy, now became smoky and has till now not been able to regain its earlier freshness. The walls now symbolized feudalistic attitudes to the new generation who were more for rapid industrialization. Hence the remaining walls, temples, courtyards, teahouses and pleasure houses, were sheared down.

Their place was taken by dull and drab official buildings, standardized stores, apartment buildings and so on. Even holiday rituals were not left untouched. From folk fairs, the generation graduated to parades and rallies. Beijing was changing and changing rapidly. The walls were later sacrificed for the need of materials for civil defense and subway lines. Mao’s obsessive fear about Soviet invasion, caused tunnel digging to become the national occupation, in the 1970’s. The tunnels dug during that period still lie under the city.

In a way, the walls that were once the awe inspiring feature of Beijing’s architecture now lie forgotten under the city. Historical reasons were at the forefront in the causes of Beijing’s makeover from a conservative, mysterious and culturally rich society to a modern, global village with loads of modern architecture and almost no historical heritage to speak of. Elitist Chinese architect Liang Sicheng wanted Beijing to grow to modernism but still remain in a delightful sync with its rich culture by concentrating the modernization outside the walled city.

The plan was a beautiful orchestration of the divergent forces of tradition and modernity but the plan was laughed off for being too idealistic and impractical. Had it been implemented, Beijing would have had a different look altogether. The Chinese population, by and large, is divided into two major sectors- one segment consists of people who are all for modernization even if it comes at the cost of culture. The other genre is of people who believe that old cultural traditions must not be shed off like extra baggage in the long journey to progress.

They must be preserved, nurtured and slowly evolved into what may be a great culture in the times to come. This conflict is foremost when we come to understand the psychology of people in developing countries about what they feel is the right way to attain development of economies and nation building. Beijing’s Urban Planning Commission member Hou, with his respectable credentials, firmly believes that architecture of any city should reflect the theme of the era.

Chinese architecture, for centuries, was only reproducing itself and had made little progress. It had become stagnant and modernization calls for modern architecture as well. There are a lot of people who conform with the above views, people who believe that modernization is the new mantra and no country should be weighed down by its past. For many, the destruction of old values and ethics and old architecture does not amount to cultural vandalism simply because they believe they no longer serve any purpose in the modern world.

All the things, artifacts, architectural wonders, rituals and values that are obsolete and impractical and unsuited to modern life styles, must die a natural death and people must not pine for them or be nostalgic. In the opinions of this new brigade of people, change is always for the better and we must learn to accept it in order to be in sync with the times. The old timers, conservationists, intellectuals and even some students, on the other hand, are less than happy about Beijing’s changing skyline. They are the cult who believes that modernization need not come at the destruction of old values and traditions.

They still believe that Chinese architecture is still contemporary and practical, Chinese rituals are still relevant and Chinese values are still capable of illuminating the correct moral path to any individual. They believe that modernization of Beijing could have proceeded on different lines, tracks that would have ensured that the old traditions would have blended beautifully with the new traditions that came in with globalization. Chinese culture would then have been a colorful melange of values old and new, would have shed it weaknesses and evolved into a great culture.

Development often brings with it loads of difficult choices which have to be made and made correctly by the people who hold the reins. If these choices are not made judiciously and the common people are not comfortable with them, we will get to see a divided society on the question of how good the progress is. Beijing is undergoing that phase today, where its citizens are into an intense conflict about whether the development is the need of the hour or is it just a burden on the culture and tradition which have worked for so long.

The development has taken place so fast that people did not get the time to come to terms with it and were left wondering and gaping at what was happening to their system and to their ethnicity. By the time people realized that new values had infiltrated their society, it was already too late and they were left to adjust to the surroundings as far as they could for their own good. However, increasingly large numbers of people believe that development had to happen and the way it happened is of no consequence.

New traditions and cultures are all part and parcel of this package and should be accepted as such. In all, this genre has no regrets about anything except the few minor mistakes like the deterioration of Beijing’s skyline which even they regret. By and large, the conflict is immense, the debate is still on and the result is eagerly awaited so that the road for future can be chartered insightfully. Such discords are common and all countries have either faced it at some point of time in history or are still into it like China.

At the essence of such conflict is the vast difference in public opinions and their mindsets. Some are more akin to changes and take to them positively; others are averse to them and look at everything new with raised eyebrows and in suspicion. Hence the divided opinion about the sweeping changes accompanying the progress is somewhat expected. The people in power have to create an environment which is conducive of changes and take most of the people with them in the long voyage to progress.

Public opinion will always be conflicting as such a vast number of individuals cannot think alike. But the operative word is ‘majority’ of the people. It is possible to create a favorable opinion in the minds of most of the people about what is happening around them and they have to be convinced that some good will come out of it. The development should be paced in such a way that the changes are not too drastic too fast and the people are allowed to adjust slowly to the changes. There are not two views about the fact that the cultural heritage of the countries is to be preserved.

The rituals need to change a little bit to be more relevant and practical in the fast paced world. But the required changes in the ritualistic part to culture have to evolve and not coerced on the people. Only if the changes take place slowly will they be incorporated into the existing structure without creating ripples upon the surface of the calm water. It needs to be understood that what has been going on for a long time will take a bit of time to be mummified and we cannot and must not expect it to disappear as soon as we wish it to or as soon as something new comes up.

On the road to progress, a fine balance and harmony needs to be struck between tradition and modernity. Beautiful old architecture, artifacts, and some delightful customs need to be remembered if only for the sake of tourism. The developing countries need to uphold their culture for posterity. It may sound cliched that the coming generations need to know their forefathers and their ancestral traditions; but in truth it is very important for the future that the progeny know, respect and appreciate their past.

In the fast road to progress, we need to know about the values that made life livable, the customs that called for celebration and the traditions that created compassion and insight. The question Beijing is facing now is of great importance and needs to be dealt with properly by the people who have the power in Beijing. The city is in the throngs of a cultural crisis and in order to stop another Cultural Revolution from taking place, something needs to be done and done fast. What has been destroyed cannot be replenished but whatever still remains can be preserved.

Beijing has too great a culture to be left to the elements of modernity. It needs to be preserved carefully so that it can be a legacy to the coming generations. No doubt, modernity is the need of the hour but the overlooked fact is that even cultural preservation is a requirement. If this fact is realized in time, maybe Beijing can be a utopia, with the desired blend of culture and globalization; like a beautiful modern city where relics of golden past have been carefully and passionately preserved.

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