Smash All Old Things

A popular Red Guard slogan, “smash all old things” reflected a state-of-mind to get rid of items that reminded people of old China, and instead, keep focus on the future. I think it is a fitting title for what I want to discuss. Part reflection, part history lesson, I wanted to use this blog post to look a little at forces that have shaped urban form in Beijing. After spending a few weeks wandering the city streets, I am struck by the odd juxtaposition of the very pedestrian friendly old Beijing hutongs (胡同), and the massive superblocks of new Beijing development that devastate the urban fabric. I won’t spend long reflecting on hutongs, Christine did a good job in her earlier post, but instead will look at how large developments have taken center stage in Beijing’s development over the past 60 or so years, and are quickly replacing hutongs.

A hutong can refer to either a street or neighborhood where the individual housing units are called siheyuan. These housing units are rectangular housing structures built around a central courtyard. These structures originally housed one family, but as the city grew, so did the number of families. Hutongs are a wonderful examples of mixed use developments, where access to a restaurants, markets, etc., is never more than a short walk away. This creates a wonderful community for those living there, and an enjoyable experience for those curious enough to explore them. Distinctly Beijing–they can be found elsewhere in the north, but not in such large quantities–these communities are unfortunately being quickly demolished as Beijing, and the rest of China, is caught in rapid urbanization.

With the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the rise of Mao in 1949, the nation’s capital was chosen to remain in Beijing.  Drawing heavily from Soviet influence, self-sufficient working units, danwei (单位), began to pop up around the city, replacing the existing urban form. This included the hutongs. These danwei were large segmented communities where people lived and worked, usually separated from other compounds by exterior fences. As policies changed and development continued, these danwei became less prevalent. They are instead now being replaced by superblocks, which served similar purposes. The continued development of these behemoths has occurred for many reasons. 1) They can house large quantities of people. 2) Local governments make a sizable portion of revenue through the selling of land rights. The central government owns the land, but leases it out to private parties. Local governments take a portion of this sale. Typically, the larger the plot for sale, the more the local government can make. These large plots are usually found on the fringe of cities, and such development have contributed to sprawl for many cities. 3) Because these developments are in demand, developers can make a profit from their creation. The idea of a gated community, your own private space, I think is very appealing for many.

Lastly, and not necessarily a reason for the continued development of these superblocks, more an interesting note, sprawl is exacerbated because these large plots are normally single use plots. Contrary to the multi-use developments being pushed nowadays, these large scale single use plots reinforce reliance of vehicles for mobility, and lessen the appeal of walking.  Along these lines, as China opened to the world, automobile manufacturing and consumption became an important economic focus for the Chinese government. Because these developments lead to sprawl and are often surrounded to 4-lane or 6-lane roads, they indirectly promote car usage. These developments tend to isolate people and make it difficult for pedestrians to get around, only furthering the promotion of private vehicles. Car ownership is also viewed as a sign of middle-class success.

Heavy razing of the hutong’s began in the 1990’s as Beijing was striving to develop its image as an international city. However, in trying to develop its new identity, Beijing began erasing its old one. Hutongs are unique to Beijing, and reflect an old Beijing that centered was around ones’ community.  Exploring these communities has really been enjoyable, and I am upset when my leisurely strolls now take me past large superblock developments that I know replaced something that was far more pedestrian and community friendly.


One thought on “Smash All Old Things

  1. Yiping says:

    I agree with you that the change is really sad. Bigger blocks = less street = more buildable land = more development revenue. And further, this is place where land is publicly owned… so in all, it is market principle. Ask your colleagues, maybe they think differently. Most Chinese think highrise building stand for being modern.


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