Old Beijing in
21st Century
Globalized China

Ina Li (MUP & MPP ‘20, Harvard)

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Beijing is a city under constant transformation, from the imperial capital, the communist vanguard, the industrial center, the Olympics city, to the global metropolis today. Each transformation marks the end of a regime, a leadership, and a cultural generation, and the particular mix of ancient and modern physical structures is the outcome of past dominant political ideologies and different social environments. Ancient forms such as the hutong (traditional alleyways) and the siheyuan (traditional courtyard houses) are still highly involved in contemporary Beijing and are constantly given new identities to cater to the current political and social environment. The city has been the hot spot for the powerful to build their signature heritage: imperial Beijing was designed for the ancient royalties, socialist Beijing was modified for the Communist Party, and capitalist Beijing was established for the global economy. The history of city planning is indeed equivalent to the contemporary history of Chinese politics. Due to the complexity of the politics and Beijing’s ever-changing identity, the historic preservation tends to lag behind destructive forces and still remains problematic in many ways. Theoretically, the idea of preservation is recognized by officials. However, due to the influence of the new market economy, the complicated relationship between central and local governments, and the opaque top-down decision-making process, good concepts are rarely realized and implemented from the way they are suggested. This problem applies not only to historic preservation but also to many other cases that began with good intentions but ended entirely differently when power and profits became involved in the process.

It has been an unjust war in Beijing between the old and the new. For a true global city of the future, the old and the new should both have their places, forming a symbiotic relationship. Fortunately, there has been growing hope for the hutong preservation in terms of policy and public participation. With the growing market demand for the siheyuan and successful cases like the Nanluoguxiang neighborhood, the preservation of historic neighborhoods and the Old Beijing cultural heritage is proving to have an increasing economic value. More and more media coverage highlights the disappearing Old Beijing lifestyle; a growing number of boutique hotels in hutongs cater to young generations who consider the hutong life trendy and desirable, and the market price of the siheyuan in the Old City have gone up to 6 million U.S. dollars. It is clear that there has been a growing market demand for the Old Beijing heritage to come back as popular mainstream culture. As long as the property is secured from demolition, a great number of people are willing to invest their own money in restoring the siheyuan. The hutongs in the Old City are experiencing a new life cycle where the notion that living in a siheyuan is a symbol of status, has returned with the public’s growing appreciation of historic heritage and the establishment of more promising preservation policies.

The problem of hutong gentrification has been heatedly debated in recent years, as a number of dilapidated siheyuans were restored and transformed into exclusive mansions with luxuries like jacuzzies and underground swimming pools. Indeed, more regulations on fair siheyuan trades and appropriate restoration should be implemented accordingly to better protect the originally vernacular architecture and rent stabilized tenants. However, looking at this gentrification from a historical perspective, we see that this is in fact not a new phenomenon. Rather, the siheyuan is completing a life cycle by going back to the hands of the rich and the powerful as a secure open space for pleasure and leisure, just like it originally was in Imperial China. The reality is that the physical condition of many siheyuan and hutong is concerning and does require restoration, so, if this can be done with private money under proper guidance, it does not necessarily have to be so frowned upon.

The importance of historic preservation in Beijing goes beyond establishing a museum city full of cultural artifacts and is rather about preserving the physical structures at all possible means, so that future generations can connect with the history carried by the Old City, and at the same time infuse the historic space with new meanings, reinventing the space based on particular social backgrounds dominant with their times. This is the best way to keep the hutong alive. One can prune a dying plant, but as long as the root system is still there, a new life canal can grow its way back.

In the past six decades, layers of history and culture intermix and overlap in Beijing at an accelerating speed, creating social phenomena inclusive to contemporary urban China. Due to the intricacy of Beijing’s present urban issues, this post is in no way presenting a solution, but rather hopes to provide a greater historical, social, and political context of China, so that readers can better understand the city planning of Beijing and the current status of historic preservation from a more comprehensive perspective and therefore place them into ongoing discussions around contemporary China in a global context.

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