– Where are you from?
– I am from Shaanxi.
– You came to Beijing as a migrant worker. In Beijing, you must also get a bit of culture. This is a city of culture, right? The modern world was born in Europe, not in China. This time, the democratic wave is coming from Africa, is that clear to you?
The one reported here is a dialogue caught on the street, during a cold Beijing winter. A middle-aged man instructs a young migrant worker. As the city keeps on moving and transforming, it still keeps a somehow scholarly identity, although it does so with the sharp and rolled “r” of the real puthonghua, the dialect of the north that has become the national language.
The Beijing Olympics – [and] the first Expo in Shanghai – have been the largest showcases for China at a moment when the country was moving to the centre of the world stage. [The Olympics] have been an only partially successful experiment: in 2008, in theory a year blessed by numerology – 8 is an auspicious number for the Chinese and the Games began on 08/08/2008 –, the Dragon experienced a catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan and a revolt in Tibet.
The first revealed [quite literally] the giant’s clay feet: news about the collapse of a school which caused the death of local students were broadcasted around the world, and the attempts made by local authorities to conceal the story and hide the real cause of the tragedy – real estate speculation – amplified the negative effects of the earthquake.
The Tibetan uprising, which occurred in March, unleashed instead a wave of international criticism, with activists assaulting – among others – Chinese torchbearers carrying the Olympic torch around the world.
Thus, the Olympics somehow became China’s own celebration: Chinese fireworks for Chinese people.
Nevertheless – even without major events – at least for a decade Beijing has been attracting hopes and workforce from all over the planet. It has become a megalopolis.
In this process [Beijing] has been searching for a new identity. The first attempt was to modernize itself with the help of bulldozers. The city center – unique in the world – is divided into hutongs (alleys) and courtyard houses (at first, a whole siheyuan for a single family, later on, with the division of the courts among different families, everyone xiao yuanzi), has undergone since the early nineties an attack not dictated, or at least not only dictated, by real estate speculation, but by very rational purposes. In fact, in the city center – an area with one of the highest population densities in the world – lived about 2 million people [crammed] in “decent slums” (which is to say not displaying the social degradation of thousand of slums around the world) lacking [even] the most basic sanitation. The attempt was to replace the traditional one-floor houses with taller buildings (capable of containing more people) equipped with services. Meanwhile, many of the people who resided in the center were transferred to the fourth and fifth ring of the metropolis, in newly built neighborhoods.
The city center needed to “breathe”.
This attempt was encouraged by the fact that the ownership of old courtyard houses, already cut up into smaller units by Mao’s requisitions, was lost in never-ending lines. In fact, a family could occupy a house for decades and then be dislodged overnight by the administration. In such a situation, nobody had an interest in renovating houses, in keeping them in order: everything was precarious. While not necessarily showing an obsessive attachment to their home, Beijingers residing in center of the city were fully integrated into their hutong’s life – their neighborhood – which offered a form of small community, identity, protection and mutual help. Thus, while many have accepted to move, others have resisted and this is how the first conflicts came into being.
Today, especially after the flourishing of so-called “cultural districts” – of which the most famous one is 798, a former chemical factory dating back to the fifties built in Bauhaus style by the “brothers” of East Germany – the city authorities have realized that in order to give an identity to the new global metropolis they can
focus on culture rather than on concrete and bricks or, at least, that the two things can go hand in hand (supporting each other). We have witnessed a shift of creative intelligence to the hutongs: the contamination between designers and old ladies, between trendy restaurants and taverns where chuar (kebabs) are roasted in the open air; between alternative foreign and Chinese youngsters, with the latter often just as alternative as the former (if not even more). A process of gentrification in some ways similar to that experienced by dozens of other cities in the world. With one difference: here, the original inhabitants continue to be the majority.
The question is now to understand how Marco Polo’s ancient Camblau (by the way, among Sinologists there are rumors that he was a bit of a liar) intends to carry on with its unique history. What kind of new culture does the capital of China express? One imposed from above or one arising spontaneously from the interaction among all its new souls?
We report a few answers, some of which are paradoxical. Architect Xin Qi reveals that “China today has no culture”, which is why he feels free to create freely, without the burdens that his European colleagues have to bear. Others attempt instead to find answers to modern problems in old traditions, such as Confucianism and Taoism. Others shun the direct control of the state’s cultural industry, walking paths that run along the boundary between underground and public: they create journals, festivals, exhibitions. Writer Xu Xing, [for example], told us with a laugh: “The government has no hope with its cultural development. Unless they make me Minister of Culture, of course”.
All of [the people we have interviewed] basically “do something”. An approach that combines the proverbial Chinese pragmatism to a new, exciting, awareness of being at the center of the world. In Europe and especially in Italy, we have partially lost this kind of energy. But maybe it just depends on how much money is available.