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Traditional Communities Demolished as China Modernizes

“It’s not a simple right or wrong, it’s a whole new way of thinking.” -Edward Burtynsky, from Manufactured Landscapes on the industrialization of China. TAIZHOU, China- At times it seems as if China is one colossal construction site. The old is being replaced with the new and the new is being replaced with the newer. The [...]

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“It’s not a simple right or wrong, it’s a whole new way of thinking.” -Edward Burtynsky, from Manufactured Landscapes on the industrialization of China.

TAIZHOU, China- At times it seems as if China is one colossal construction site. The old is being replaced with the new and the new is being replaced with the newer. The sounds of jackhammers, saws, industrial trucks, and sledges smashing concrete to bits are so constant that you quickly become immune to them: even the loudest of noises coming out of the plethora of construction sites becomes part of the background static — unnoticed, virtually unheard. I cracked a joke that the Chinese don’t clean buildings when they get dirty they just tear them down and build brand new ones.

China is expected to build 50,000 new skyscrapers in the next 20 years.

Like an aging actress, over the past forty years China has undergone so many face lifts that it is virtually impossible to recognize it for what it once was.

Video of what modernization in China means

Please watch this video. The visuals tell the story.

“I don’t know this place anymore,” spoke an elderly man who spent his life in Taizhou. His hometown was bulldozed and a new city built up from the ruins in just a handful of years. He doesn’t go out of his home much anymore as what he finds outside is virtually foreign territory.

Much of China has been in a constant state of being bulldozed, rebuilt, and reshaped — transformed like the ever changing patterns in a kaleidoscope — since the country first opened up to economic reforms since 1978, but when the older neighborhoods with the traditional styled ground level houses are turned into seas of high-rise apartments this transition is at its most shocking.

The old style residential neighborhoods in China tend to be mazes of single story brick houses build eave to eave with terracotta roof tiles and front doors that opened right onto the street. These are places where families and friends coalesce daily, where people walk over to each other’s homes to see what’s cooking and to share news and gossip, where multiple generations would live and die together under the same roof. These are communities in the true sense of the term.

The making of the New China

But it is these communities that are among the most prone to get the hack of modernization: for over forty years China has been bulldozing them and putting up grey concrete high-rises in their places, knocking down virtually the  entire the country in the process. In the country’s larger cities these brick walled, terracotta roofed, ground level dwellings have pretty much been wiped off the face of the earth, but in the smaller cities they can still sometimes be found in ever shrinking pockets — often surrounded by high-rises and modern concrete and rebar buildings. It is only in the far of countryside and remote areas of China that the traditional neighborhoods still exist unfazed.

On occasion, these traditional neighborhoods are preserved as historic relics for the purpose of tourism, but this often means reconstructing them into something they never really were. What is of interest to me are the traditional, ground level communities in the smaller cities of China that are still functioning today in the face rapid economic progress as construction projects envelope them. Many of these neighborhoods are either in the active process of being demolished or are next on the chopping block of modernization.

Modernization in China

It is in these traditional communities that I enjoy wandering through most in this country. The reason for this is simple: there are people in the streets, hanging out, talking with each other. They talk to me as I pass, sometimes they invite me in for a cup of tea. The people are accessible here, they seem relaxed as they sit with their friends and family on benches and chairs that they set out in front of their homes. When people walk by they greet each other, sometimes joining together to shoot the shit. They wonder what I’m doing walking through their neighborhood and I tell them, I ask questions, they answer and, oftentimes, laugh at me. Sometimes they show me around.

Contrary to the New China — which all right angles, straight streets, flat walls — old Chinese neighborhoods were build under a much less precise urban planning initiative. They are made up of meandering alleyways, askance buildings, laundry, flower pots, and dead ends. Many of the older residential communities looks as if someone took a handful of Monopoly houses and scattered them upon a table: walls, doors, and roofs pointed every which way. These houses typically contain a single extended family unit. The streets in these older neighborhoods are often too narrow and windy to allow for automobiles to pass, the only shops are those operating out of the front of homes, the only restaurants second as a family’s dining room, and this imparts a lifestyle that is down shifted a couple of gears from the usual intensity of the modern Chinese city. But what I like most about these communities is the fact that the architectural structure and street scape allows for people to easily interact with each other, which is a gold mine for the curious traveler.

Nobody has ever been invited up for a cup of tea in a high-rise apartment.

Speaking generally, the Chinese are almost notorious for being sociable — they are not afraid to talk to strangers, to put it mildly — but the setting must be right for the best parts of this character to come out. In the new China — which has quickly become a sea of high-rises and modern, cubist buildings — the streets are for bustling: anyone who stops forward progress is in danger of being run over. People may yell out at you or stare in the streets of these urban monstrosities, but the context for a sit down chat does not often afford itself. The high-rise apartment also does not impart a particularly sociable mood. It’s “elevator culture” through and through: nobody talks in the corridors, nobody makes eye contact, the residents exit their homes, make haste for the elevator, and exit the building — and then do the same upon their return. No conversational gauntlet to run here. Simply put, the corridors of Chinese high-rise apartments are not for hanging out in. When walking through the old neighborhoods the people are not only moving through the streets but are living there. The doors of homes are open, and the residents are socializing, relaxing, watching the world go by together.

During one of my walks around Taizhou I noticed an entire traditional style neighborhood that was in the process of being demolished. The buildings were all old, street level residences, and many had already been pulverized. This was a government project to modernize the community. The old one — which could be hundreds of years old — is to be leveled and a new neighborhood built upon its ruins. I looked over the street postings which showed the building plan, and it became apparent that high-rises would not be going up here; rather, what appeared to be a replica of the neighborhood that was being torn down would go in its place. I could only guess that it was another attempt at creating an “old” street where people can go and pretend to be in ancient China, eat noodles, and buy yellow wine. But the real old China had to be destroyed first.

As I walked into the neighborhood it became quickly apparent that this was a community that would very soon be no more. Many of the houses had already been transformed into rubbish heaps, and the few that remained looked like the byproducts of a bombing raid or major earthquake. A few of the houses that still stood contained elderly stalwarts now homesteading the places where they probably spent most of their lives.

Replacing the old with the new, the new with the newer

“What do you think of the old communities being destroyed? What is the impact that it has on the society when the people are move to apartments?” I asked my friend Ava, who is a 30 something year old Taizhou native.

“I think it is not too good. People like the old houses,” she replied.

“When the people’s homes are demolished what happens to them?”

She told me that they are relocated into new apartments and/ or are paid off.

“They can be paid up to a million yuan, so it could be good for them.”

She then told me about how the family of one of our mutual associates were given three new apartments because their house was demolished as part of a government modernization project. She continued to explain how, when calculating the exchange of new housing for old, factors such as how big and how valuable the old house was comes into play.

“Do they like to sell?” I asked.

“Yes, they get a new apartment,” my friend replied with exasperation, as though I was some kind of fool.

China is nothing if not inconsistent, vast, incomprehensible from any single point of view. I have read piles of reports about how people whose homes are relocated — such as in the damming of the Yangtze River — are not compensated fairly while at the same time there are piles of reports about people making out big time when being relocated from an old home to a new one. But, regardless of proper compensation, the transition from the ground level, traditional neighborhoods to high-rises changes the society.


Remove an “in the streets culture” from homes at street level and it becomes a “behind closed doors culture.” This is what is happening across China. When those old, street level homes are bulldozed and replaced with modern high-rises this not only creates an architectural change but a social one as well. With each old neighborhood that is reduced to rubble there is an old culture that goes with it. The way people act and interact with each other is directly connected to the architecture in which they live. No longer can the traditional home front shops operate in high-rises, no longer can  people sit in front of their homes hanging out and talking with their neighbors, no longer can a traveler walk by someone’s front door and be invited to sit down for a chat. People become closed, sequestered, private in their apartments where they were once open, talkative, and friendly when they lived on the ground with a door that opened directly onto the street. The contrast is startling.

I spoke nostalgically about the traditional communities with Ava, and she shared my sentiment, but was able to view the situation with typical Chinese pragmaticism:

“The old houses are nice but they are old and they don’t have toilets. They don’t have toilets!”she emphasized, “That is not good.”

Her point was dead on. The old neighborhoods are old — very old. They are run down, they were not build for the modern city, they are from another era than the one that has grown up around them. The people in these neighborhoods need to use public bathrooms that are spread around the community, they stand in opposition to the modernization project that has swept eastern China. There is also another fact about these old neighborhoods that really drives the pragmatism home:

“Lots of people are coming to the city.”

Taizhou has undergone massive development over the past couple of decades. Long term residents say that a new city was essentially built during this time. “There was nothing here 20 years ago,” I’ve been told. Taizhou was the birthplace of China’s current president, Hu Jintao, and it is being massively developed in his honor. This means bulldozers, sledgehammers, and dump trucks: out with the old and in with the new.


It is a point of simple fact that you can fit far more people into high-rise apartments and modern buildings than you can into the traditional houses per square meter of ground space. People are crammed into towering apartment blocks in China for a reason: a lot of people are moving to cities, they are very crowded places. 40 years ago the population of China was 90% rural and only 10% urban. Now, 51% of the population lives in cities. This fact is even more staggering when you consider that during this time period the population of the country more than doubled, rising from 500 million to over a billion. It is predicted that by 2035 70% of the Chinese population will be urban dwellers. The onward roll of modernization in China is also to some degree an onward role of the practical.


You would expect rampant modernization and urban face lifts in the major cities of any developing country in the world, but, in China, the rampant urbanization and “race for the sky” apartment blocks has even washed over the small cities. Urban China began removing most of their ground level communities or restoring them into tourist attractions long ago, but sometimes you can still find a neighborhood of brick and wood houses pocketed in between skyscrapers and high-rises. These places are relics from another age, and, as I found in Taizhou, their days are numbered.

China is now a country of right angles, a cubist’s dream.

Old China is disappearing fast, but what lies beneath old China is even older China, and on and on into deep history. Chinese history is a record of cities being destroyed and being rebuilt, of ancient modernization projects, mass relocations, and urban face lifts — processes that seemingly happen like the changing of the seasons. What we are seeing in China now is extreme — the world has never known urbanization on this scale — but the framework of the process is perhaps typically Chinese. This is what is done here.

It’s not a simple right or wrong, it’s a whole new way of thinking.

But is it really?

Filed under: Articles, China, Globalization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3705 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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2 comments… add one

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  • Brian P May 4, 2012, 11:31 am

    I think it’s almost an unfair question: asking people if they received fair compensation for their house. At the top level, China is still often a command economy. When there is no market, or if the government is allowed to set the price or control development, then people have no idea what fair value is.

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    • Wade Shepard May 4, 2012, 8:14 pm

      Hello Brian,

      It’s my impression that there is a very clear sense of value and what constitutes a fair trade here — especially in the case of being relocated from one housing type to another. China now has a free market economy regardless of the various methods the government attempts to curb it. Sure, they can have price control policies but they can’t really control supply and demand. No country on the global economic system can.

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