Mon, Feb 06, 2012 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Historic status offers no protection in Beijing

RENOVATION THROUGH DEMOLITION:Those that want to protect China’s ancient cultural relics are fighting a losing battle against powerful state-backed developers

NY Times News Service, BEIJING

Even in its prime, the house at 24 Beizongbu Hutong was no architectural jewel, just one of countless brick-and-timber courtyard homes that clogged the labyrinthine heart of this ancient imperial capital.

However, for seven years in the 1930s, it sheltered one of modern China’s most fabled couples, Liang Sicheng (梁思成) and Lin Huiyin (林徽因), Ivy League-educated architects who had returned home to champion the notion that a great nation should hold dear its historic patrimony. It was Liang, the debonair son from an illustrious family of intellectuals, who urged the victorious Chinese Communist Party to preserve Beijing’s Yuan dynasty grid and its hulking city walls. Mao Zedong (毛澤東), the country’s unsentimental leader, thought otherwise.

So when architectural preservationists awoke last weekend to find that the couple’s house had been reduced to rubble, there was a predictable wave of outrage, but also a sense of helplessness that an official “immovable cultural relic” could be so easily dispatched by a government-affiliated real-estate company.

The cultural bureaucrats who oversee the preservation of historic sites in the Dongcheng district neighborhood were not particularly moved by the building’s demise, which took place furtively during the Lunar New Year holiday, a time when much of the country shuts down.

“A replica will be built,” one official unapologetically told the state news media.

In a city that has watched its centuries-old, low-rise fabric steadily be supplanted by soulless glass towers or, in some cases, pastiche recreations of the past, the destruction of 24 Beizongbu Hutong was a cruel irony given the passions of its former occupants. In a flurry of articles and editorials last week, the national news media denounced the demolition as a wanton violation of the country’s laws and an affront to Chinese history.

Even the normally stolid state news service, Xinhua, was sharp in its criticism.

“House Demolished, Culture Wounded” was the main headline on its home page on Thursday.

In one of several articles and editorials, Xinhua attacked the municipal government’s complacency.

“A cultural relic is destroyed and a new phrase is born,” said one commentary, a sarcastic reference to the city official who had described the destruction as “renovation through demolition.”

The editorial noted that of 533,000 landmarks documented by the National Bureau of Cultural Relics last year, 44,000 had already disappeared.

“Behind such cold figures, hundreds and thousands of pages of historical information have vanished alongside these buildings,” it said.

Even if distraught by the loss of a house he had tried so hard to save, He Shuzhong (何戍中), one of the city’s best-known preservation advocates, said he had found some solace in the unusually vociferous public uproar. The outrage, he said, was tied not only to the realization that Beijing had lost too much of its past, but also to a sense that the city’s frenetic pursuit of modernization and material excess had left many citizens feeling adrift.

“Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, after all, promoted the ideal that intellectuals and experts should commit themselves to improving society and the nation,” said He, whose nonprofit group, the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, successfully fought to have the house designated a historic landmark in 2009. “I think people find that modern China lacks that sense of devotion, which is why the loss of this building means so much.”

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