Concrete Ancients

Alex Jasinski

© Copyright 2018 by Alex Jasinski

Runner-Up--2018 General Nonfiction

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

This is a piece based on my travel experiences in mainland China (and influenced by three years spent living there) and focuses on the theme of authenticity and cultural heritage. While the original idea sprung out of a very specific trip I took a couple of summers ago, the idea behind this piece has since grown in size and scope. I hope readers will be able to relate to the issues described therein, as I feel that the questions and challenges addressed here remain pertinent wherever we go. 

History in contemporary China seems to be anything but set in stone.

The historic city of Nanjing, the former capital of the Chinese Republic, is home to various museums, including some absolutely vital ones such as the Nanjing Massacre memorial or the Nanjing Museum near the Purple mountain. It also fields museums devoted to more niche though still intriguing subjects, such as the reconstructed ship devoted to commemoration of Muslim seafarer Zheng Ke, a site of famous river crossing or a gallery dedicated to the humiliating 1842 treaty of Nanking. It is there, among these smaller sites and less travelled routes that the contemporary and very liberal approach to history becomes most apparent.

The case of an Ancient Bronze Mirror from June 1997 – and yes, it is eleven years old – humorously encapsulates struggles of Chinese heritage. The question of legacy and provenance seems secondary to the answers necessitated by the general narrative and image pursued by the central government. The plaque describing this ‘ancient bronze mirror’ insists that the manufactured artefact is “the mirror of history” and at least that part of the statement is authentic. The talk of prosperity and change of dynasty is not just smoke and mirrors, so to speak, but an actual reflection of an undergoing process. Nor is this process restricted to ancient bronze mirrors – one of Tianjin’s top attractions is a former villa turned into an incredibly kitschy ‘Porcelain house’ – a Gaudiesque grotesque monstrosity decorated with pottery shards that is home to discarded pieces of furniture. Despite its novel status and being absolutely derivative, Porcelain House (瓷屋, also known as China House) attracts a steady stream of visitors with newest iPhones who seem simultaneously amused and bemused by this oddity.

Younger metropolises such as Shanghai, Chongqing or Shenzhen are incredibly modern and dynamic multiverses that didn’t accumulate enough history that could serve as solid foundations, so what little there is becomes fetishized and adorned with commemorating plaques, as is the case for the largest of the aforementioned settlements, Shanghai. These plaques, found on numerous buildings across the Bund as well as other areas of concessions, not only provide a local stamp of authenticity and testify to the port’s colonial past, they are also cogs in a broader machinery of story-telling. Buildings that once belonged to oppressors become re-appropriated as historical founding stones for a city that prides on being an international business hub.

That would be too simple. Way too simple, I thought. I had to take a closer look at this phenomenon, see how provincial towns were dealing with this nation-wise narrative-building. I had to visit the peripheries. So in the summer of 2016 I took a plane from the busy and sweltering Nanjing to the capital of Yunnan province, Kunming. Yunnan is one of China’s border provinces, a meeting place of Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar mainland China and Tibet, and a popular tourist destination for Chinese and international visitors alike. Where else can you go from a jungle to Himalayas in under a day? Shielded by the world’s highest massif, Kunming boasts fantastic average temperatures, ranging from 15 to 24 degrees Centigrade and an absence of regular four seasons. This is a region of hundreds of edible mushroom species, natural wonders and world-renowned pu-erh tea.
Yunnan is one of a kind. Peripheral for the better part of history, with its own Kingdom of Dali between 10-13th Century, Yunnan became more important during the second Sino-Japanese war, although that sudden increase in status did not bring about wealth and so it also ranks as one of the country’s poorest regions. Despite its peripheral status, Yunnan did not escape the above-mentioned cultural changes. If anything, its low GDP, geographic position and reliance on few industries and services made it more susceptible to quick changes than some other regions.

My Yunnan itinerary had me travel from Kunming to Dali, moving northwards from there, to Lijiang and fabled Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Autonomous Tibetan Prefecture. It is a common enough path, with plenty of impressive natural wonders along the way, and opens a possibility of visiting Lhasa with direct planes departing from Diqing Airport near Shangri-La. It is also possible to travel from Shangri-La to Sichuan, although that means spending approximately 16 hours on a bus going down some of the narrowest roads high up in the mountains. If that does not make one think twice, the sheer temperature amplitude might – the difference between the wind-swept, cool Shangri-la and muggy southern Sichuan can exceed 20 degrees during the day and even more so at night.

Kunming was always of some importance to the region but it is only now that its primacy is undisputed. As a capital of the whole province and its urbanized centre, Kunming serves as natural entry port for most Yunnan explorers. Its colonial heritage is still present, as exemplified by one of the finest restaurants in the city – the 1910 La Gare du Sud (South Station) restaurant, which offers a wide variety of local specialties in surroundings that stays true to its French heritage. The fact then that, unlike most of Chinese culinary traditions, Yunnan offers cheese plays seems particularly fitting. The concealed nature of the restaurant as well as its uniqueness within the landscape definitely serves as an excellent example of unobtrusive adaptation and integration of history and modernity. But perhaps at the heart of the matter in that case is the realization that the place has been reinterpreted, it no longer serves its original purpose and hence got repurposed. At the same time, no cultural coercive isomorphism was present, meaning that unlike some of the other places, 1910 La Gare du Sud was neither rebuilt from scratch nor has been forced to become a locale of clichés and stereotypes with a stamp of approval from the central government. A concrete ancient it is not.

How do I envision such concrete ancient then? The whole idea came to my mind upon visiting two quintessential tourist locations – the lakeside town of Dali and the UNESCO-protected Lijiang. Together with the aforementioned Shangri-la, these three cities form a key to understanding Chinese approach towards cultural and architectural heritage and its place in Chinese tourism. Yet the idea goes deeper and manifests itself across the whole country in various new ‘heritage’ old streets or shanty towns – they are all tourist baits that not as much recreate a feel of a bygone era but simulate it based on layman’s understanding. They are romanticized, repetitive, commercial and frequently bear a stamp of approval from either local or state authorities. Concrete ancients are a sham, but at the same time they are also a window into modern understanding of what ancient culture ‘ought to look like’. There are no simple, poor man’s knock-offs or misinterpretations, no – they are monumental undertakings that frequently transform localized areas and provide good source of income. They are, to some degree, a form of rewriting history.

There is no train going directly from Kunming to Dali; the one that goes to ‘Dali’ in fact stops in Xiaguan, an industrial zone good ten kilometres south of Dali proper. Fortunately, there is a bus connecting the two zones and so the journey from the train station to the old city becomes a transformative narrative of dilapidated buildings and insipid urban structures gradually disappearing from view, as the characteristic Dali architecture – with its low storeys and slanted roofs - takes over the land and imagination.

At its heart, Dali is a historical wonderland turned into a hippie paradise, with its wide range of Western-style cafes and restaurants more reminiscent of Shanghai’s French Concession than Kunming. At the peripheries, it is a tale of that gradual transformation and expansion of ‘historical’ frontier, as any new architectural projects in Dali are supposed to follow the rules established by the original core. This implies that unlike some other old towns that become living memorials, the city centre of Dali remains an active urban element that shapes its surroundings. New hotels, inns, shops, restaurants, you name it, everything should follow the architectural template unless exempted for whatever reason. Somehow Dali, despite abounding in commercial ventures and constant upselling, still manages to easily charm newcomers, in large part thanks its wonderful positioning betwixt high mountains and the Erhai lake as well as genuinely infectious enthusiasm found among the people from various walks of life who made this mountainous town their home. It should come as no surprise then that it remains popular as a tourist destination and as such, it is seen by the government as a success they would like to emulate in other places. But even Dali itself cannot match the luminous example set by Lijiang, the commercialized tourist hub par excellence. Famed for its proximity to Jade Dragon snow mountain and Lashi lake, and prized for its fresh salmon, Lijiang already seemed to have a lot going for it before I even considered architecture or history of the place. However, the reality of the old city proved to be far from what I had conceived in my mind.

 Lijiang is loud. Rushed. Overcrowded. Garish. Crude. Expensive. Wherever you look, there are restaurants, pubs, bars or street vendors occupying the quasi-historical huts and abodes. It is nigh impossible to tell what is authentic and what is not, and what once was authentic but has since acquired a shiny veneer of commercial disrepute. Not that at any point during my trudge through the main one of the city’s old centres did I feel at ease to stop and ask that question. Personal space and reflection are luxuries one won’t find easily among Lijiang’s snickets and ginnels.

But the real tragedy is reflected in the architecture of the place. While parts of Lijiang and especially of its centre Dayan are indeed old, most of it has gone significant reconstruction or renovation so that it appears venerably old and respectable, whilst playing into preconceptions that most Han Chinese hold about old architecture and how it should look like. Gentrification process in the city centre has pushed out minorities, and those who remain are either hopelessly facing the sweeping tide of commercialisation or riding the said tide by offering trinkets and souvenirs. Local cultures that used to be the guiding spirits of the place, like the Naxi people, become reduced to specialty museums and curios. The place has abstracted its people. Instead, it created an enclave of historicized commerce, where people can sit down and imbibe overpriced drinks of their choice in a setting that feels authentic yet is not. Baudrillard would talk about hyperreal and simulacra but Lijiang is different. It’s reality is one crafted to fit stereotypes and to reinforce them, while at the same time providing a steady revenue and commercial appeal. It’s cultural tourism at its most lucrative.

If Dali has succeeded for now thanks to its free-spirited and slightly misfit entrepreneurs and Lijiang has grown monstrous with its rampant commercialisation and trivialization of its local people, what would be the narrative of Shangri-La I wondered. It turned out to be a phoenix city –most of the original, intact structures were destroyed in 2014 during a major fire that ravaged 70% of the town. By the time I set my foot there, most of the city had been rebuilt. I was looking at houses that looked and felt old but were anything but that. One could say it was a moored fleet of Theseus. But city like Shangri-La had no choice – it had to rebuild itself in a way that plays into our preconceptions since tourism is effectively the only industry left this high up in the mountains. Ruins may look romantic or truthful, but provide no shelter and no place to live. However, one could say that in the sudden absence of wooden foundations, the people of Shangri-la have become true bearers of history of the place. This can be glimpsed during a ride in a ramshackle public bus that runs between the city centre and Sumtsenling Monastery, with Tibetans hopping on and off the bus busying themselves with their everyday lives.

That prompted an ever-pressing question – how faithful is reconstruction to original? Archaeologists and museum curators frequently encounter this question but answering it never gets any easier. In case of artefacts, some are reassembled in such a manner that added elements intentionally stand out colour-wise so that they don’t deceive a viewer with regards to their provenance or initial state of the object in question. Others look wholesome only to be signed off with a meaningful one-word explanation ‘replica’ or ‘reconstruction’. But architecture in China does not seem to necessarily follow the same set of principles. When taking into account hundreds of water towns across China, it may be difficult for an unaccustomed eye to distinguish a real water town from a 21st Century doppelganger as evidenced by Ancient Gubei Water Town, which transplanted a southern style water town template into new, northern territory and nowadays ranks as a regular tourist attraction. But Gubei is an extreme version of this trend in cultural development. More common would be injections of ‘look-alikes’ into authentic surroundings, as is the case for Enshi Shi (city of Enshi, the seat of Enshi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture) and its emerging district of swanky apartments accompanying the development of the city’s monumental museum, likely a by-product of central government’s trailblazing ‘Western exploration programme’. Such creations are derivative of existing templates and preconceived notions of what such a settlement would look like back in the day and are adjusted according to the contemporary living standards, without much regard for possibility of idiosyncrasies or historical accuracy. Examples can be found, in various forms and provinces, all across China from Yunnan and Jiangsu to Inner Mongolia and Qinghai. At first they provide a welcome respite from omnipresent concrete apartment blocks that haunt city limits. However, it doesn’t take long to realize that they not much different from their functional counterparts . They just happen to appear old or distinguished. But I feel that this pervasive change that has been seeping into the China’s cultural landscape is a pernicious one. The question we might have to start asking when encountering new relics might have to be – is this a stone ancient figure or a concrete one? I pray we will always be able to tell the two apart.

Alex Jasinski, a 27 year old Pole and loving son of Mitteleuropa, was born in Wroclaw, Poland, but bred in Prague, Czech Republic and educated in the mysteries of zoo archaeology at the University of York, UK where he specialized in ants and termites. Afterwards, he taught English in Nanjing for three years and is presently studying at KU Leuven in Brussels. He writes poetry in Polish and English and loves W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Robert Burton, Kashiwa Daisuke, Lagavulin and Suzhou cuisine.

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