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25 October 2013
“Most Chinese people do not enjoy the beauty of ancient real ruins. Instead, they like dazzling new high big things…”
This is a comment by Chinese heritage conservationist He Shuzhong who attributes part of the blame for the recent catastrophic restoration of a set of delicate centuries-old murals in north-east China to the Chinese public’s aesthetic philistinism.
The murals in question are in the hall of the Yunjie temple built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) at Chaoyang, which is situated about 300 kilometres from Beijing in Liaoning Province.
They have recently been painted over with crude modern cartoon-style characters to replace the original decaying classical figures.
In the words of Wujiaofeng, the blogger who first publicized the damage, “The last trace of history in the temple has been erased.”
According to a report by Tania Branigan in the London Guardian on 23 October 2013, the necessary approval for the restoration was not sought from the provincial government and the work was carried out by an unqualified local firm.
Two officials are said to have been sacked as a result of the damage while a third has been reprimanded.
According to the Guardian report, He Shuzhong claimed that most restorations [in China these days] were over-restorations. Experts as well as officials lacked understanding of the value of cultural remains, he claimed, and did not appreciate the need to preserve the original work instead of recreating or altering it. They also wanted to finish projects quickly, he said, whereas correct restoration required research and took time. “China’s modern circumstances… lead to the situation where either no one cares about the cultural remains or there is over-investment and over-restoration.”
Taking the same line, Chinese archaeologist Li Zhanyang condemned local government officials involved with restoration projects as “uneducated, unreasonable and ignorant of the law”. They even applied the term “restoration” to new projects. “We have the law but we don’t implement the law,” he lamented.
This is just one example of the philistinism that has been systematically eroding three and a half millennia of Chinese culture during the past three and a half decades since the death of Chinese communist party chairman Mao Zedong (1883-1976).
Following Mao’s death, the collectivized economy developed since the establishment of the communist People’s Republic in 1949 was rapidly dismantled by his effective successor as leader, the revisionist Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), who swapped revolution for reaction.
Deng’s mission was to replace the Eastern-style communism of China’s economy by Western-style capitalism red in tooth and claw. The focus henceforth was to be on the self-promotion of the individual regardless of what happened to their neighbours. Social ties were dissolved, social darwinism – the survival of the fittest – became the order of the day. The Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was replaced by the Ayn Randian injunction “From each according to his skills, to each according to his contribution”. In contrast to the communist bias against self-enrichment, Deng informed the masses: “It is glorious to be rich”. The extensive, if minimal, social security developed under Mao was abolished in accordance with Deng’s mantra: “We must smash the iron rice bowl”.
There is no question but that, in terms of capitalist expansion, the results of Deng’s policies in China have been spectacular.
The impact on the cultural sphere, however, has been catastrophic. The botched restoration of the temple murals at Chaoyang is a microcosm of the devastation that has occurred.
Examples include the “restoration” work at Badaling on the Great Wall of China and also in the sanctum of sanctums, the Imperial Forbidden City in Beijing. In another act of crass vandalism, the capital’s characteristic hutongs (narrow lanes lined by courtyard dwellings for communal living) have been bulldozed into oblivion, the communal houses being replaced by brick and plate-glass office blocks often thrown up by western architects who did not have a clue – or a care – about Chinese building traditions.
Philistinism of this ilk is not limited to Eastern China. According to media reports, much of the age-old Uighur city of Kashgar (Kashi) situated at a historic Silk Road junction in the shadow of the Pamirs, has been razed to the ground – to be replaced in part, unbelievably, by a Disneyland of fake folkloric imitation Uighur-style structures.
Of course, it is not just the Chinese who are turning their backs on their historic cultural heritage. This appears to be a feature common to many societies in the transition from relatively isolated agricultural or proto-industrial economies to modern global capitalism. We can see this in the Middle East – the surreal Blade Runner cityscapes of Dubai are a good example – and also around Moscow. It seems to be characteristic of the lack of taste of the nouveau riche class.
The motto seems to be: “Out with the Old and in with the New”.
And over-restoration is not peculiar to China either. As the Guardian report points out, the recent ham-fisted touching- up of an ancient image of Christ in a church at Borja near Zaragoza in Spain was so spectacularly bad that the botched restoration has itself become a tourist attraction!
We give the last word to architectural buff Prince Charles of Wales, heir to the British throne. His Royal Highness (HRH) has made no secret of his view that enthusiasm for the present need not entail contempt for the past.
And so say all of us!
Ladies and Gentlemen, raise your glasses and let us drink a loyal toast to HRH the Prince of Wales!
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
4. Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
5.Ladder (21 June 2012)
6. A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
7. A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.