What happened to China’s historical buildings?

When I hosted a group of European visitors the other day, one of them asked a question that I think many of you might have been wondering about, “What happened to China’s historical buildings?” Considering the historical centers of many European cities, it’s an understandable question.

Note: Some of China’s best known cities like Xi’an and Beijing have a number of ancient buildings given that they are historic capitals, but throughout the country they are considerably harder to find.

The Communists destroyed it

The Party is often the scapegoat when it comes to explaining many of the choices made in modern China. In this case, not entirely without reason, Chinese temples and artifacts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but other works were well preserved.

However, a majority of well built properties that managed to survive both the Japanese invasion and the civil war (more than 30% of Nanjing was completely destroyed) were occupied by gov’t officials or used as army bases, and still are. In Nanjing virtually all historic buildings that were protected serve one of these functions.

Places like the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace in Beijing serve not only as popular tourist attractions, but as reminders of the waste of China’s past imperial rulers. In Suzhou many of the old homes and gardens of merchants have been opened to the public. The Party now gains far more by protecting these as symbols of historical injustices. Also Chinese local officials are looking more to tourism to meet “green” GDP goals, hence more of China’s past being protected.

The recent push to promote Chinese culture is also sure to help protect some of China’s less well known historical buildings that would otherwise be neglected.

Modernizing Rush

Another idea put forward by the group of tourists was that China was simply in so much of a rush to develop, that they were tearing down their old buildings to make way. To be clear, this is a major factor in places like Beijing, that have large areas of traditional homes and alleyways. However, not every Chinese city was as populous as Beijing. From what I have seen of maps from the turn of the century, the majority of China’s cities are built on top of former farmland, not hutongs.

While Europe rebuilt in traditional styles after the wars, China was strongly influenced by Soviet architecture, and focused on cement apartment blocks and factories, instead of reconstructing the past. It is important to keep in mind that China’s modernizing efforts are not constrained to the last 20-30 years, but have been ongoing since the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

While China’s rush to develop in the last few decades is certainly a major factor in the destruction of the buildings that had survived everything else, it is not the only reason that China doesn’t have the same quantity of historic buildings.

Traditional Chinese Construction

I believe that one of the biggest factors in the lack of historic buildings in China has less to do with destruction and more to do with construction. Consider that the majority of China’s buildings at the turn of the century (throughout the country), would have been mostly mud-brick homes for peasants. This kind of building simply does not last.

Nanjing ~1900

It was only China’s wealthiest families that could afford to construct buildings that would actually withstand a century of revolution. Within this class of buildings, architecture never reached the structural strength that one sees in European historical homes and shops.

This is not to say that Chinese construction is not equally impressive, but is vastly different when it comes to durability. For some reason, Chinese builders who made magnificently arched stone bridges, worked mostly in other materials for home construction. The stone walls and foundations are the most visible remnants of the past, but gone are the shops and restaurants that would have been carefully crafted from wood.

Perhaps if things had been slightly different, China would have adapted more permanent structures. China’s massive interior made the moving of stone slabs for construction such an arduous and expensive task that only the emperor could afford it. Or possibly due to the fact that China closed itself off at the very moment that Europe made some of its most impressive advances in architecture, stone structures in China never reached the same heights.

So as the West designed buildings that could stand for hundreds of years, China continued making elaborate wood monuments that could never last. When visiting China’s shiny new cities it’s easy to get the impression that everything has been plowed under to make way for the new buildings, but in reality the most impressive architectural feats are still standing.

10 responses to “What happened to China’s historical buildings?”

  1. Ndaru says:

    What happened to the walls that used to surround Chinese cities?

    • mrchopstik says:

      Probably the same thing that happened to the walls that surrounded many of the older cities in ancient Europe and the Middle East – they either fell to conquering armies or fell apart after time.

  2. mrchopstik says:

    This is an interesting subject, Tom. I have a couple of architect friends I’m going to pass this onto who may have some additional insight/questions. Personally, I’m more familiar with the destruction of the hutongs in Beijing (just because they’ve become something of a cause celebre in the West) but hadn’t considered the historical ramifications of the structures that were built in the past and the fact they just weren’t necessarily built to last. I suspect this is the case in many other places outside of China, too.

  3. Interesting post. I hadn’t considered why I never saw many historical buildings in my travels throughout China except for DongBei, Beijing and Xi’An. I also never considered how much waste there was in the constructions during the great days of Empirical rule in China, i.e., Tianeman Square, Summer Palace, et al. The Chinese gov’t is obviously more concerned about constructing more modern buildings (many of them the tallest in the world) that gain the attention of people globally rather than preserve what’s left of its historical buildings. It seems that China has lost its interest in what made this country so great throughout history with its desire to greedily chase money, power, status and knowledge. I’m not so sure this is a good thing for China in terms of the impact it will have on its culture, people and land.

  4. Ndaru says:

    Probably. I saw in a documentary about Japanese invasion on China, where the Japanese soldiers celebrate their victory outside a city wall (probably Xian). I wonder if many other cities walls also survive at least before 1949.

    Now that cities expand and there are no immediate danger of invasion (not that they are going to be useful in modern warfare), I wonder if the communists preserve those walls. I mean, those are structures that were built to last centuries.

    • Shawn says:

      I think they’ve been pretty thorough about keeping things like the old style city defensive walls and gates from being torn in recent years. Though a lot of that was lost in the first half of the 1900s. Beijing still had its ancient walls until at least the early part of the last century. Believe they were torn down in the 1950s or so. there is a city called Pingyao I think, which has the most complete surviving fortifications in China, with most of them still standing.

  5. Ndaru says:

    Don’t forget the recent destruction of the old part of Kashgar. Buildings that survive centuries of peace and turmoil with its winding alleys, were razed by the communists and replaced with apartment blocks.

  6. Lao Why? says:

    I would also add that there is probably the normal amount of thievery that goes on once structures outlive their use. The Roman Colisseum, for example, has its shape today because many of the stones were taken by locals to be used in their homes. The Great Wall’s unrestored sections are a good China example. This happens in all societies. Given China’s tumultuous last 150 years (which is the period that most countries of the world awakened to making efforts to preserve historical structures) I think it is understandable. To be clear, I would argue that China’s loss of historical buildings is as much about lack of funds and lack of attention (which provides the opportunity for petty looting) as it is about Japanese invasions or red arm banded Red Guards trashing symbols of the old.

  7. Interesting post, I also never considered why there were not more culturally significant buildings around – even in my young country (New Zealand) we have a lot of pre 1800 houses and shops in a number of cities. I didn’t consider the difference in housing construction to be a significant factor here until your post, thanks!

  8. Shawn says:

    I recall a plan from a few years back to tear down 90% of Shanghai’s old buildings, most of which were built of brick with terra cotta roof shingles. So I don’t buy that most of the well-built historical stuff is still standing. In poverty alleviation efforts many historical villages have also been torn down or abandoned.

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