A friend of mine working in Beijing for an urban planning think tank once said to me that for anyone in the urban planning industry, China is the only place in the world right now worth working. Every once in a while a news story comes out which hammers this point home–the replica of Manhattan currently being built southeast of Beijing is one of the best examples. I can certainly say that owning a bicycle has allowed me to confront this city’s enigmatic urban landscape in a new way. Navigating the city at ground level, I inevitably come across something surprising, even travelling to a location that I had previously visited many times before by taxi or subway. This weekend, I made the rather dubious decision to bike to 798, the famous art district off in the distant wilderness northeast of the Fourth Ring Road, to represent Teach For China at a social entrepreneurship event. On the way I was struck once again by the variety of, and sometimes nearly incomprehensible, ways in which architects and urban planners in this city have decided to make use of public space.
I was riding back from the art district along Xiaoyun Lu 霄云路, a major northeast/southwest thoroughfare, when, reaching a corner, I stumbled across a deserted stone square lined with uneven, broken stone structures, looking for all the world like a crumbling Roman amphitheater–or at least a theme park replica of one. The stone paving, slick with the low drizzle that had been coming down all day, was covered with bas reliefs of ancient Chinese characters.
The park opened out from the nearest street corner, where I saw the main entrance was marked by a massive stone tablet declaring the name of the park: 石林广场, “Stone Forest Square.”
Just a few blocks southwest of Stone Forest Square, I came across a public space done up as its polar opposite. I did a double take when I first came across the sculpture of the woman driving a chariot in the picture below. Crossing the street, I saw that the chariot was the centerpiece of a whole park laid
out in an imitative European style, complete with carefully groomed hedges and a row of Arc du Triomphe miniatures. These made the archetypal red Chinese lanterns hanging from the interspersed streetlights–perhaps hung in honor of this weekend’s Mid-Autumn Festival–even more incongruous. The park marked the entrance to a swanky new apartment complex. While a lot of new, expensive Chinese apartment complexes are saddled with grandiose names, often of American or European places (I have a coworker who lives in a “Palm Springs”), this complex had received the sleek, modern title “No. 8 Xiaoyun.”
The contrast of these two parks–one done in an imitative ancient Chinese style, one a gaudy European replica–just a few blocks from each other, was incredibly striking. It was one of the best reminders I’ve seen in a while of the strangely egalitarian way in which Chinese culture seems to navigate a whole range of cultural influences–since the full range of external cultural influences flooded into the country simultaneously several decades, a whole range of cultural tropes are drawn upon equally and with no sense of hierarchy between them. Not as grandiose as a replica Manhattan, sure, but still a stark reminder that no one uses their public space quite like the Chinese do.