Wednesday, November 24, 2010

No Such Thing as Ancient

Also last Friday, after our morning visit to the Urban Planning Museum, we also went to Qianmen, the area just south of Tiananmen Square. Qianmen street is on the north and south axis of the city, which runs through Tiananmen, the Forbidden City, and now the Olympic Green as well. The street was remodeled as a pedestrian street for the Olympics, and looks insanely cool. We had a guided tour of the area with a Chinese scholar who studies the area, which was really informative.

Right near the entrance to the street is a little Starbucks in a building that looks very traditional - one of the coolest Starbucks I've been in. The whole street looks the way you imagined it looking back in the early 1900s when it was a primary street of the city, with lots of shops and the very first Beijing duck restaurant! It was insanely beautiful and exactly what you would imagine Beijing to look like.

Which is exactly the point.

Prior to the Beijing Olympics, the government decided to make the street a major pedestrian thoroughfare, something of a tourist spot. This plan included widening the street, which isn't exactly easy. You can't just pick buildings up and move them back two feet. Most of the buildings were demolished, and along the entire way, there were two of the 40 or so that were the originals. Everything else had been demolished to make way for a 'cleaner' representation of the past.

But in many ways the street is just a front - behind it, the hutongs (courtyard houses) and older buildings still wind their way in a weird maze, a complete contrast to what's on Qianmen street proper. There's a lot of history behind some of the houses, and people still live in the area, though so much of it has been demolished to make space for newer buildings.

It's something I've thought about recently - so much of the 'history' of Beijing isn't as historical as it would seem. So much of it has either been wrecked in wars (it happens..heck, it happened to the White House!), or demolished, or just fallen into general state of disrepair, and then is rebuilt. The Forbidden City isn't even as old as it would seem - most if it has been restored/rebuilt since the mid 20th century. It's kind of a weird concept to adjust to, that what I'm seeing isn't completely what it was historically. In the case of Qianmen, it's changed dramatically. But maybe if it contains the general idea of the place - the essence, if you will - it's okay? I don't know, it's just something I've been thinking about.

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