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Spirit of the old and new Beijing
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17:24, July 18, 2008

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With the Olympics approaching, Beijing, the host city for the Games, has been in the forefront of media attention. Among the bewildering masses of reports and commentaries on the capital city, many are centered on the construction. In particular, the architectural breakthroughs Beijing has made in recent years could expect both praise and abuse from different perspectives.

While the majority of global media tout Beijing's changing face and its new look, some critics are complaining that with so many skyscrapers mushrooming, Beijing is losing itself.

The case remains, however, that Beijing has not been stripped of its past and time-honored history as the authorities have been trying to change the old city's skyline. Acting on the idea “to innovate old buildings while preserving their old look," the architects have in the past seven years recovered and innovated many historic sites, cultural relics and traditional Beijing residences like the Hutong and Siheyuan. If you take a stroll downtown nowadays, you will have this inexplicable feeling that you are passing through a time portal in Beijing, as you can see the oddly-shaped, glass-covered edifices with an air of modernity; and novelty vying for public attention with historic buildings, subdued in luxury and style but fully expressing power and grandeur.

Despite the efforts made by relevant authorities to construct a new Beijing while preserving its historic and cultural elements, some critics have incessantly described these high-profile projects as nothing but expressions of the country's economic clout; and they contend that although architects aspire to create building that enlighten or transform civilization, they seem to remain isolated splendors with little impact on society. The construction of a new Beijing, in their view, is the destruction of the old Beijing culture and could make Beijing culturally obsolete by demolishing so many old things.

But why does the innovation and reconstruction in Beijing's city proper prove so desirable? The reasons may lie in the facts that Beijing, a historic city, also the capital of the largest developing country, needs to advance with the times and society. Given the remaining backward infrastructural conditions in Beijing: dilapidated Hutong residences, underdeveloped road networks and an out-of-date city layout, the Beijing government has for years made hefty investments into the innovation of the city's older section, where a vast number of Hutong and Siheyuan – symbols of old Beijing culture – remained in poor condition.

Siheyuan, a courtyard with single-story houses lining the four sides, was traditionally Beijing residential housing for one extended family; but now has to be shared by more than ten households as a result of the population boom after 1949 – the founding of new China. Many Siheyuan, in poor condition and with substandard sanitation, have been demolished in recent years out of humanitarian concern.

Years of construction efforts have turned the old city section into a new one, with a unique and historic touch, well-maintained in coexistence with a more enlightened reading of how the future might unfold in the ancient capital city. While the flurry of construction work has reshaped Beijing considerably since the city won the Olympic bid seven years ago, Beijing is by no means losing itself. Instead, some of the most impressive architectural symbols of a new Beijing remain in good harmony with the unique appeals of old Beijing culture.

A city roamer can marvel at the Olympic Stadium, or the Bird's Nest; and the National Aquatics Center, or the Water Cube, both of which lie 10 miles north of the city center along its ancient ceremonial axis; and puts them on par with the Forbidden City in national importance. He might just wander into the marrow lines, or Hutong, to experience Hutong culture and the gentle living tempo of Hutong people, ordinary Beijing citizens. He can get a bird's eye view of the new Beijing standing on tope of the CCTV tower, or go to the well-preserved, innovated, ancient market places like Liulichang to reminisce on the old flavors of Beijing's former business hub.

Old Beijing is not vanishing, but revitalizing from an injection of new blood. Beijing will be always taking pride in its fine traditions and continuing legends.

By People's Daily Online

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