BEIJING, China—Beijing is perhaps the most intimidating example of the modern city that I have ever seen. Highways ranging from 10 to 14 lanes run straight through the center of the city, and major roads can only be crossed through underground passages. The exhaust of factories and cars creates an impenetrable smog and there are tall, concrete apartment buildings and shiny new office complexes as far as the eye can see.
Yet, sometimes, you’ll manage to stumble upon an entirely different world. If you get lost or off the main track, you might happen upon narrow, winding streets with small, traditional houses and a hive of activity. People are outside playing cards and talking to the neighbors while sidewalk vendors hawk basic goods and tasty foods. The smells, sounds, and sights of these hutongs, traditional alleyways and narrow streets of Beijing, paint a sharp contrast to the silent and heartless concrete jungle that makes up a large portion of the city.
Now this is not to say that much of the development is welcome; a modern city with amenities and accommodations fit for the 21st century is something that everyone deserves to live in, and economic development inevitably will bring about urban transformation. But sometimes, in the interest of preserving a special part of China’s heritage, the government should set aside areas as protected for historical purposes and make sure that they stay as they were.
A connection to a country’s history and origins is essential for forming a national identity and informing views on the past and future. In the old neighborhoods of hutongs, everyone hangs out with their neighbors and a strong sense of community develops. People internalize the neighborhood and it becomes a part of their experience and their life. As the entire nation moves to apartment buildings, its important to preserve some of the old city to still have that understanding of what a traditional Chinese community used to be, and what, exactly, progress has meant for the society.
A recent New York Times article documents how the historic Gulou neighborhood, north of Tiannamen Square, will soon be demolished to make way for the “polished tourist destination” of “Beijing Time Cultural City.” Residents are mixed on the changes, but some intellectuals and historians are fighting to save the space. As Yao Yuan, a Peking University professor, puts it, “this is not about preserving a historic monument. It’s about saving a living, breathing community that has evolved organically over hundreds of years.”
The Gulou area is one of the last neighborhoods of its kind in Beijing; its loss would be another blow to the heart of the city. Granted, this will mean a few less apartment buildings and maybe the loss of a tourist complex and new department store. Yet with its staggering growth, China will have no lack of any of these amenities even if it does set aside some areas for preservation. The small sacrifice now will have immense returns when this generation’s grandchildren are still able to see a little bit of old Beijing.
Ravi N. Mulani ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Winthrop House.
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