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China Daily:Now here, gone tomorrow

来源:China Daily 05/05/2009 page18    作者:Mu Qian     2009-05-18
nowherechinadaily

Not many people know that a mosque once stood on West Chang’an Avenue of Beijing, opposite Xinhuamen, the main gate of Zhongnanhai, the seat of government.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) built the mosque for his beloved Fragrant Concubine, a Muslim from Xinjiang. Sitting by the window of her residence called Baoyuelou – today’s Xinhuamen – she could look out to the mosque on the other side of the street and remember her hometown.

The mosque was demolished around 1930, but a white marble arch belonging to it remained in East Anfu Hutong on West Chang’an Avenue. After the founding of New China in 1949, the arch moved inside the compound of a building housing a PLA regiment, and has been there for the past half century.

This arch is now facing the uncertainty of being demolished or moved again, along with 778 traditional Chinese courtyard houses and 42 work units, with the government announcing a project to widen West Chang’an Avenue by the end of August.

While the residents are mostly anxious about the compensation they will receive, some people are more concerned about the historical buildings that are going to vanish.

When 63-year-old Li Jinchen went to West Chang’an Avenue on a recent Saturday, he found a bulldozer hard at work on the 102-year-old post office located there. “It was this post office that delivered letters and newspapers to my home, and I used to buy a lot of stamps here for my collection,” says Li, who lived near the post office for 50 years before his courtyard house was demolished in 1999.

Now here, gone tomorrow

Running east to west through Beijing and passing in front of Tian’anmen Square, Chang’an Avenue, or the Avenue of Eternal Peace, is one of the most important roads in China. It was built between 1406 and 1420 as part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) layout for Beijing’s Imperial City.

In Li’s childhood, Chang’an Avenue was soaked in the atmosphere of old Beijing. Along it lay mostly low-roofed houses, except for the two towers of the 700-year-old Qingshou Temple where today’s Beijing Book Building stands. Two pailou (traditional wooden archways) decorated the east and west sections of the street. Li recalls Xidan as a lively night market of food stands.

The towers and gateways have long vanished and the steet is now lined with huge, modern buildings. The section to the south of Xinhuamen used to be the widest part of the old Chang’an Avenue, but is now the narrowest, following the repeated widening of the other sections. The government has announced that after the new widening project, the number of lanes in this section too will be increased from eight to 10, as in other sections of the avenue.

“I understand that Beijing has to modernize, but I hope the government will make proper arrangements for the protection of cultural relics,” says Li. “Though the buildings of this area do not come under national or municipal-level protection, some are still of important historical value.”

Li has taken hundreds of photos of this area – of the marble arch of the defunct mosque, of a gray brick wall with carved patterns built in the 1910s, and of the stone posts in Dongshuan Hutong where Qing Dynasty ministers tied their horses before entering the Forbidden City.

Li has been training his lens on Beijing’s changes for more than 30 years, but for the last three years, besides keeping a personal record, he has also been contributing to the protection of China’s cultural heritage.

Li joined the website www.memoryofchina.org in 2006 and is now moderator of its Beijing sub-forum. After photographing West Chang’an Avenue, he posted his photos on the forum. They triggered a hot discussion among members of the forum, most of whom expressed concern and regret at the loss of a historical site.

Now here, gone tomorrow

The website www.memoryofchina.org is dedicated to protecting China’s cultural heritage and documenting the momentous changes that have taken place. It started in 2006, and now has more than 14,000 registered members who exchange information and updates on the fate of cultural relics in their home towns.

“We try our best to protect our cultural heritage, or at least document them, which is also a kind of protection,” says Zhang Jinqi, executive director of the website.

In recent years, a number of such websites and organizations have emerged in China, such as www.oldbeijing.org, Volunteer Team of Protecting Architectural Heritage of Tianjin, and Association of Photographing and Documenting the Old Town of Suzhou.

Most of these groups are founded, and run, by volunteers who see it as their responsibility to do something about the rapid disappearance of buildings and artifacts in the blistering pace of China’s modernization.

“Many traditional buildings have gone silently from our lives. For example, more than two third of Beijing’s hutong have been demolished in the past 50 years,” says Liu Zheng, a 29-year-old graduate student of cultural heritage protection with the Chinese Academy of Arts. “As a native Beijinger, I had always been keen on documenting old Beijing, but it was only after I joined some volunteer groups did I begin to work with more purpose.”

It was also Liu’s work with these volunteer groups that made him decide to apply for post-graduate study in cultural heritage protection.

Many of the volunteers are not satisfied with just documenting the changes that are occurring, but are also trying to influence them.

For example, from July 2007 to January 2009, www.memoryofchina.org organized a project for public participation in protection of cultural heritage, which involved hundreds of volunteers in five cities: Beijing, Tianjin, Chengde and Jizhou of Hebei province, Suzhou of Jiangsu province, and Xiangfan of Hubei province.

After researching and documenting the historical districts in their cities, the volunteers organized educational activities, which attracted people from all walks of life to join in the work of heritage protection.

Organizers of the project also invited experts and government officials to their symposium, to give policymakers an insight into popular opinion.

Now here, gone tomorrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, an NGO that works to assist communities to preserve local culture, has carried out a number of projects, such as Strengthening Media’s Role in Cultural Preservation and Friends of Old Beijing, which work through a network of volunteers to increase awareness of conservation of Beijing’s historical areas.

They have earmarked the second Saturday of June as “the day of cultural heritage”. On this day, they release an annual report on the state of protection of Beijing’s old districts, and submit it to the Beijing municipal government. According to the center, these reports have been consulted by government organizations such as the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the district planning bureaus.

Zhang and other core members of www.memoryofchina.org have helped several members of the CPPCC National Committee make proposals about heritage protection. These include one on the protection of the Qianmen East area of Beijing by famous writer and artist Feng Jicai, and one on Beijing’s old guildhalls by Shan Jixiang, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

“Non-government forces will play a decisive role in the protection of China’s cultural heritage,” says Wang Jun, author of City Records (Cheng Ji), a popular book about the transformation of Beijing in the second half of the 20th century. “Their participation in the protection of cultural heritage is part of the building of a civil society.”

 
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