The ancient neighborhood of meandering alleyways and centuries-old grey brick homes that occupied this area for hundreds of years had already been demolished, cleared away –effectively erased from the slate of modern China. There was only one reminder that this ancient neighborhood ever existed at all, and that was the house I was standing in.
TAIZHOU, Jiangsu, China – “Beijing has lots of preserved buildings, why can’t Taizhou?” Mrs. Zhang asked as we stood on the second floor outdoor patio of her home.
It was a moot point in her case, as her house now stands alone as an isolated island of old China in a sea of rubble. The ancient neighborhood of meandering alleyways and centuries-old grey brick homes that occupied this area for hundreds, if not thousands, of years had already been demolished, cleared away –effectively erased from the slate of modern China.
Now there is only one reminder that this ancient neighborhood ever existed at all, and that was the house I was standing on the second floor patio of. The building itself is a mixed-era agglomeration, having an old, 100+ year old grey brick section connected to a more modern, very well-kept three story home. The place was relatively large, containing 800 square meters of floor space, and once served as a small hotel. It too is on the chopping block of progress, and is set to be demolished — as soon as Mrs. Zhang and her family can be routed out.
The Zhang family, who can trace their lineage back to Taizhou for over three hundred years, have been living on this property for more than a century. Though their ancestors probably never could have anticipated the red banners that are now draped over the home protesting the impending demolition and “Where is the justice?” spray painted upon the outside of the old courtyard wall. They probably also could not have foreseen the day when their tight knit, closely packed community of hutong-like alleys, little shops, and streets full of neighbors would be smashed to rubble and cleared away to be replaced by an array of 30+ story luxury apartments.
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As the last remaining “nail house” in this area, Mrs. Zhang and the 7 other family members who live with her go about their days in the middle of a construction zone. The house now conspicuously pokes up out of the middle of a large dirt field that has been cleared, flattened, and prepped for development. Backhoes and bulldozers are busy at work all around them and the developer has personnel monitoring the house day and night.
All of Mrs. Zhang’s neighbors have already been cleared out and relocated to apartments or temporarily to hotels, though some of them still hang around, continuing to use the ruins of their old community as a place to meet and commune with their former neighbors. The Zhang house has become a symbol of resistance to the rampant development and the wholesale destruction of traditional communities that has completely changed the face of Taizhou in a mere five years. It has also become a focal point for ongoing, low-intensity protests. A handful of previously evicted members of the neighbourhood return daily, and they have set up a little booth outside on the street to air their story to anyone passing by willing to listen. They say the demolition was illegal, that they were forcibly evicted, and that their homes were destroyed without their consent.
“Like thieves they did not wear their uniforms when they took the people away and destroyed their homes,” Mrs. Zhang explained. Other people who once lived in this village echoed the same story: they don’t know who the goon squad was that gave them the boot, but the assumption is that they were plain clothes chengguan. At any rate, they were acting under the orders of the local government.
For now, the Zhang’s ancestral home still sits in the shadow of a towering high-rise complex that sprouts up from the Wanda Plaza shopping mall across the street. This area is quickly being redeveloped to be the new commercial center of Taizhou’s Hailing district. The family was offered a touch over 2 million RMB ($322,000) for their 800 square meter home, which they say they have no interest in.
“My family has lived here for generations. We don’t want the money,” Mrs. Zhang explained, “We don’t want our house destroyed. We just want to live here.”
Dalian Wanda Group Corp., which owns the Wanda chain of cinemas and shopping malls, is headed by Wang Jianlin, the richest man in China. His company has bigger plans for what was once Mrs. Zhang’s community, and intends to build another forest of upper end high-rise apartments there to compliment the ones they already have on the other side of the street.
“Those apartments are like a cage, they’re just a cage,” Mrs. Zhang said as she pointed up to the characterless, standard issue towers that rose above us into the sky.
The Dalian Wanda Group is the corporation that’s currently building a $4.9 billion to $8.2 billion mega-entertainment center and the world’s largest film making enclave which is touted to be China’s version of Hollywood. So while China’s richest man was greeting Leonardo DiCaprio, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nicole Kidman, and John Travolta in September, an ancient community was being reduced to rubble on his behalf in Taizhou.
I asked Mrs. Zhang what she would say to Wang Jianlin if given the opportunity, and she thought for a moment before responding:
“I would tell him that everybody has their own dream. Not everybody wants to live in an apartment. We don’t want to live in a cage.”
Though even Mrs. Zhang knew that this dream was unattainable. She knew that she and her family will soon be flushed out of their home and sent off to live in an apartment with the rest of the former residents of her now non-existent neighborhood. I asked her how much time she thinks she has left, to which she replied, “Maybe one day, maybe one month, maybe right now. We do not know.”
Numerous times Mrs. Zhang stated that she and her family were willing to protect their home with their lives. These cannot be written off as empty words in light of the fact that since 2009 at least 53 people across China have resorted to self-immolation to prevent the demolition of their homes and many more have died in other ways trying to do the same.
Jiangsu Taizhou has a history that stretches back to 117 B.C. and it still has a relatively high amount of traditional neighborhoods for a rapidly modernizing city of its size in the economically vibrant east of China. These neighborhoods of age-old winding alleyways, terracotta roofs, and grey-brick houses now seem to stand as yet-unconquered territory as the modern cityscape has closed in around them. They are tucked away in patches behind overly modern shops and apartments, and are generally only accessible to the outside world via narrow dark corridors that inconspicuously connect with larger roads.
But these communities have been getting axed with regular frequency. Entire neighborhoods are falling to the demolition crews one after another. In one stretch north of the Podzijie shopping complex a massive 100+ year old section of the city has been smashed to bits and cleared away last year. To the north of that, the wreckage continues all the way to the Xintongyang canal. It is clear that the end is near for the city’s remaining traditional communities.
More on The China Chronicle: Taizhou Demolishes a Traditional Neighborhood then Builds a Replica of it
It is in these old communities that the traditions of China continue to live on, but this is a way of life that’s also being sledge hammered into oblivion. The traditional neighborhoods of this country are full of life, talk, children playing, clothes drying, food cooking. These are places where families and friends coalesce daily, where people walk over to each other’s homes to see what their cooking for dinner and to share news and gossip, where multiple generations live and die together under the same roof. The community ethos in these places are thick: the residents seem to always be in the streets, sitting out on benches in front of their homes that invariably have their front doors wide open. In the apartment complexes life is very different.
“We go into our apartments to hide,” a Chinese woman who grew up in an old community once told me.
While it is true that many people who live in traditional neighborhoods and villages throughout China enthusiastically take the relocation package the government offers them and move to modern apartments when their homes are selected for redevelopment, there are still many others who wish to stay in their old, ground level homes and stick to their more traditional ways of life.
For over forty years China has been bulldozing these traditional communities and putting up rectangular concrete block buildings and apartment towers in their places, virtually knocking down and rebuilding the entire country in the process.
A 2012 national survey showed that most of China’s traditional villages have already been destroyed and redeveloped. It is estimated that there are only around 12,000 traditional villages left, which is a mere 2% of the total number of villages in the country. Traditional communities within the bounds of modern cities, like is exemplified in Taizhou, are of course even rarer.
According to an article in Want China Times, “40,000 cultural relics have disappeared over the past three decades, half of them constituting traditional architecture.” Feng Jicai, of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Association, who put together a list of China’s traditional villages worth saving, said that 80 to 100 ancient villages disappear each day.
According to Feng:
An “ancient village” is defined as a village which possesses unique historical and cultural value in terms of art, architecture and folklore, that has existed for a certain number of years and remains intact.
Only 2,000-3,000 villages in China are currently ranked as having their intangible cultural heritage intact. This number is down from 5,000 in 2005.
Though some rumblings about China’s rapidly dwindling traditional communities are starting to take hold. In an article recently published in the China Daily entitled “China set to protect historic villages,” the director of the rural construction department of China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development was quoted as saying, “It is our responsibility to protect these traditional villages, which helps to protect the diversity of peoples.” He added that the central government may soon introduce measures to prevent the demolition of traditional villages.
President Xi Jinping is also picking up on the conservation refrain, and last July declared that it is vital to prevent massive demolition and reconstruction in rural areas, though it is very unclear how this would fit into the country’s broader urbanization and development drive — considering his statements were not mere lip service. Whatever the case, there is at least a flicker of a concept that traditional villages are becoming endangered throughout China and that they are not just archaic, run down refuges of the poor and old that should be razed to the ground, shoveled into dump trucks, and removed from existence as the country marches behind the bulldozer into the future.
This is not to show progress or development in an inherently negative light. To the contrary, preserving traditional communities, ancient buildings, intangible culture, and social diversity is a form of progress, and is a hallmark attribute of some of the most developed and modernized countries in the world. But, as one local Taizhou resident put it to me, “Fixing them costs money but destroying them makes money.”
Whatever is the case, for most of China’s traditional neighborhoods it’s already too late. I looked out from Mrs. Zhang’s second floor patio at some of her former neighbors who were standing out in the distance, sifting through the rubble that had once been their homes, their community, their way of life.
“This is our roots,” Mrs. Zhang proclaimed in exasperation, “Chinese culture cannot be replaced by money. In Beijing the old culture is preserved. What a pity to destroy this.”