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Culture Refines a City's Style

By staff reporter HOU RUILI

In the past decade, the proportion of China's urban population has increased 3.2 percent annually, giving it the fastest urbanization rate in the world. Of the global cities whose population exceeds 500,000, 236 of them, or one quarter of the world's stock, are in China. Construction projects in cities are reducing the architectural remnants of their traditional culture. The impulses that drive urbanization and modernization seem to contradict the values associated with cultural preservation. What is China's approach to this dilemma? With this question China Today interviewed Lü Pintian, a researcher with the Chinese National Academy of Arts and a member of the National Experts Committee for Protecting Intangible Cultural Heritage. As a veteran scholar on Chinese culture and arts, Lü Pintian champions mastery of all forms of cultural expression, believing the arts to be the touchstone of social culture and ecological balance. He advocates "reinvigorating handicrafts and activating folklore" as basic tactics for protecting China's intangible cultural heritage. His academic works have won much acclaim.

China Today: What problems has China's high-speed urbanization exposed?

Lü Pintian: On the whole, China's urban construction is governed by a vision of supertall buildings and structures in extraordinary and astonishing styles to highlight the image of the "new city" or "cosmopolis." Such pursuits in urban construction neglect the practical functions of buildings as well as the issue of construction costs, and foul up a city's cultural lifeblood – its unique environment and how people use the city in daily life, causing endless aggravation. It is common now for grotesquely shaped behemoths to disturb an area's organic integrity – the patterns of settlement and movement, its established social life and what we might call urban ecology. This goes against nurturing a city's "cultural image" or "cultural atmosphere." The pursuit of a flamboyant architectural landscape has pushed out spaces for street venders and for the handicrafts industry featuring a "front shop with a factory at back." As a result, the districts which locals lived in for generations, have walked around since the early ages, and felt a deep bond with, now seem "out of touch" to them, no longer the place they called home. Nowadays, Chinese cities, indeed many world cities, have a glut of heterogeneous visual attractions, which, I go so far to say, make people disturbed and restless – the victims of a psychological disease of place. If this trend is not curbed, in the near future the existing diversified regional architectural forms and varied settlement modes will be destroyed, damaging the intangible cultural heritage that are closely linked to them.

China Today: Can you go into more details on the impact of large-scale urban construction on city residents?

Lü Pintian: Urban planning now gives more consideration to economic development, to corporations and social entities, public transportation infrastructure and material conveniences, than to the issues preserving cultural legacies and the traditional lifestyle. In fact, sometimes these intangibles are totally neglected. Not surprisingly, this will destroy the environment in which traditional Chinese culture has thrived.

Let's look at one example. In urban residential zones apartment buildings have replaced the traditional courtyard house with a central hall and wing buildings. This traditional architecture was linked with Chinese people's attitude toward life, which emphasizes the golden mean of the Confucian school, and is also associated with certain rituals and etiquette common to this lifestyle. The central hall is the enclave for rites such as ancestor worship and the reception of guests, penetrating a family's living space with cultural traditions and social consciousness.

During Spring Festival, Chinese people used to put up door gods on gates in pairs. This practice has died away with the extinction of double doors in urban homes.

In public life, the Lantern Festival was marked by a mass gala, and people would hold various activities spontaneously, such as dragon lantern dances, float parades and theatrical performances. Nowadays, even though the size of cities is expanding, the streets are almost exclusively for automobiles to pass through instead of for people to congregate. Spaces large enough to hold traditional cultural activities are now scarce.

The Qingming Festival is a holiday for people to pay homage to the deceased. In the past people burnt offerings at the tombs, such as paper figurines and ghost money. This custom, which is an accumulation of cultural habits and reflects the psychological orientation of the Chinese masses, is now prohibited for the sake of safety in densely populated cities. In the future, urban construction should consider the continuity of intangible cultural heritage, and show respect for the traditional lifestyle of the masses.

China Today: If a city's competitive power properly includes both an economic and a cultural front, what is the role of culture in a city's development?

Lü Pintian: A city is not merely a place where people work, but a place where they live, and so it must be a space that expresses aesthetic values, where people can communicate cordially and where their experiences are pleasant, carefree and refreshing. Therefore, the competitive edge of a city is not its contribution to the GDP, neither the height of its high-rises nor the width of its avenues, but its overall livability. After all, a city is a space of human settlements, and a living homeland. Besides material conditions to satisfy, people have cultural and psychological pursuits that include harmonious interpersonal relations, friendly neighbors, and a stable, tranquil and peaceful existence. These cultural and psychological pursuits are intimately linked to the nature and structure of the places they frequent, the city they inhabit. Therefore, in competitions between urban centers, cultural connotations and historical charm are a city's "soft power."

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VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us