The World of Chinese - - FRONT PAGE - BY HATTY LIU

China's pub­lic parks are a lit­tle odd in that they aren't re­ally pub­lic; there are walls, gates, fences, and guarded open­ings—not ex­actly wel­com­ing to all. These high walls keep out the riffraff and help peo­ple ad­just to a chang­ing so­ci­ety, but some are telling their lo­cal of­fi­cials to tear down the walls and let the peo­ple in.

Imag­ine a park that has no barrier from the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hood, noth­ing to pre­vent you step­ping right off the side­walk into the park from any di­rec­tion.

This is hardly a rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­cept in ur­ban de­sign, and you’d be for­given for think­ing it is, in fact, the dic­tionary def­i­ni­tion of a pub­lic park. Af­ter all, 19th cen­tury ar­chi­tect Fred­er­ick Law Olm­sted, leg­endary de­signer of that gold stan­dard in ur­ban parks, New York’s Cen­tral Park, once ar­gued be­fore a panel of Amer­i­can social sci­en­tists that the word “park” should only be used to de­scribe a “sim­ple, broad, open space of clean greensward”, to which “peo­ple can eas­ily go” and would pro­vide “the great­est pos­si­ble con­trast with the re­strain­ing and con­fin­ing con­di­tions of the town”.

A land de­vel­oper in Shang­hai’s Xuhui District, how­ever, asked the read­ers of lo­cal po­lit­i­cal mag­a­zine, The Pa­per, to make just that leap of imag­i­na­tion last year. Their an­nounce­ment of plans to make an open-ac­cess, fence­less green space on land do­nated by the lo­cal gov­ern­ment in the district’s new CBD was en­thu­si­as­ti­cally

Chi­nese ci­ties struggl e to imag­ine pub­lic parks with no walls


re­ceived by lo­cal media, which pro­moted it as a cen­ter­piece of mod­ern­ized city plan­ning and Xuhui’s own ver­sion of Cen­tral Park.

Back in 2009, the Guangzhou gov­ern­ment’s “give the park back to the peo­ple” move­ment had the same bright idea, propos­ing to tear down the walls around three of their big­gest ur­ban parks. In their case, how­ever, the plans were tem­po­rar­ily halted due to an out­cry from lo­cal res­i­dents.

One el­derly Guangzhou res­i­dent sur­named Chen com­plained to the Yangcheng Evening News: tear down the walls, and you can no longer call it a park. His ar­gu­ment was a lin­guis­tic one—the char­ac­ter 园, for gar­den, is the Chi­nese word for “pub­lic park” (公园, pub­lic gar­den) uses the

rad­i­cal, which comes from the an­cient ideo­graphic rep­re­sen­ta­tion for en­clo­sure. Other citizens trans­lated his con­cern into more prac­ti­cal terms: with­out walls, what was to pre­vent the park from be­com­ing a “free ho­tel” for the home­less, or a wretched hive of crim­i­nals who could en­ter and es­cape at will?

En­cour­aged by of­fi­cial di­rec­tives to add recreational ar­eas and green spa­ces to the ur­ban land­scape, ci­ties in China are in­creas­ingly build­ing so­called “open-style parks” (开放式公园). But the his­tory of truly open-plan, pub­lic-ac­cess parks in China is short, and the learn­ing curve they present is steep.

Un­til the early 2000s, most “pub­lic” parks in China—de­fined sim­ply as parks not re­served for use by any dan­wei (单位), or work unit—not only had walls and fences but charged ad­mis­sion to en­ter. In 2002, Shang­hai and the city of Zhuhai, Guang­dong Prov­ince, be­gan to of­fer free ad­mis­sion to a lim­ited num­ber of their parks. Beijing fol­lowed in 2006.

How­ever, the ter­mi­nol­ogy of “open­style parks” is mis­lead­ing; in most cases, even with­out a ticket of­fice, the parks have re­tained guarded en­trances, open­ing and clos­ing hours, and en­clo­sures all around the perime­ter.


Beijing’s Ming Dy­nasty City Wall Relics Park is a spe­cial case. By the stan­dards com­mon to Chi­nese land­scap­ing, they’ve gone and put walls on the wrong side. Com­pleted in 2006, the park con­sists of grassy knolls, wind­ing paths, and flow­er­ing shrubs but­tressed against one of the last re­main­ing sec­tions of Beijing’s an­cient for­ti­fi­ca­tions; on the other side, the grass runs straight up against the side­walk be­yond. In the morn­ings and af­ter­noons, com­muters like to take short­cuts through the park in­stead of bat­tling crowds and car ex­haust on the side­walk.

“Strictly speak­ing, that makes us an open-style green space, not an open­style park,” the man­ager of the park of­fice, sur­named Shi, told TWOC. “The only part that ought to be called a park is the South­west Cor­ner Tower, where we have an en­trance gate and a ticket booth for peo­ple who want to climb to the top or ad­mire the an­cient build­ings.”

This Oc­to­ber, when Shang­hai’s Xiangyang Park was re­opened by the Xuhui District gov­ern­ment af­ter ren­o­va­tions, which in­cluded the re­moval of the park’s outer walls, the re­sponse from the com­mu­nity was luke­warm. “They don’t un­der­stand that the wall it­self is a part of land­scap­ing, it’s ar­chi­tec­ture,” a long-time park vis­i­tor was re­ported to com­plain by a lo­cal news blog, Shang­hai Guangcha. Chi­nese land­scap­ing scholar Yang Han has also pub­lished pa­pers that have been gen­er­ally ap­prov­ing of the open­ing up of China’s ur­ban parks, re­fer­ring to the trend as the nat­u­ral ac­com­pa­ni­ment of mod­ern, ur­ban so­ci­ety’s recreational needs; how­ever, he has also ar­gued that walls should not be “blindly re­moved”, be­cause their long cul­tural and sym­bolic his­tory, as well as ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails, make them an in­valu­able “Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tic” in land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture.

Walls have played an in­dis­pens­able role in the two an­cient styles that in­flu­enced the tra­di­tional Chi­nese land­scap­ing, the “im­pe­rial gar­den” and “literati gar­den”. Im­pe­rial gar­dens orig­i­nated from early im­pe­rial hunt­ing grounds, which were walled off to all users ex­cept for the em­peror. These later evolved into private re­treats in which the em­peror could re­lax and en­joy his di­verse, of­ten ex­otic col­lec­tion of plants. As with City Wall Park’s cor­ner tower, there is a sense the gar­den being a place to pre­serve and show­case ob­jects of his­tor­i­cal in­ter­est.

The “literati gar­den”, of which the private gar­dens of China’s Jiang­nan re­gion are the most fa­mous ex­am­ple, fa­vored a sim­pler aes­thetic con­sist­ing of na­tive plants and more nat­u­ral­is­tic ar­range­ments. Built with a phi­los­o­phy of “high walls and deep court­yards”, they were meant to be se­cluded spa­ces for the scholar’s lit­er­ary and spir­i­tual contemplation, in­flu­enced by the so-called “her­mit cul­ture”(隐逸文化) in the tu­mul­tuous North­ern and South­ern Dy­nas­ties (420 – 589) pe­riod. Un­der this cul­ture, ed­u­cated men were en­cour­aged to re­treat from po­lit­i­cal life and cul­ti­vate their moral qual­i­ties in na­ture.

An­cient reli­gious be­liefs also gave an im­por­tant spir­i­tual func­tion to the walls; they were sup­posed to keep the sup­ply of qi within the court­yard, while gates al­lowed the qi to cir­cu­late in a con­trolled fash­ion.

Step­ping into a Chi­nese park still feels like dis­cov­er­ing a private sanc­tu­ary: res­i­dents walk slower and with­out fear of being run over by bikes, while the sounds of the city are muted be­hind the old melodies play­ing on the ra­dio as the se­niors dance. But Zhang Jie, a land­scape en­gi­neer at­tached to the Parks and Green­ing Man­age­ment Bu­reau of Chang­sha County, Hu­nan Prov­ince, is not sure that such a place ought to qual­ify as a pub­lic park. To him, they fail to in­cor­po­rate the first char­ac­ter of 公园, which is 公 (pub­lic).

Screened be­hind walls and fences, re­cre­ation takes place out of the sight of passersby, in­stead of being in­te­grated into each res­i­dent’s sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence of the city. This is a mode of life that Zhang calls “par­tic­i­pa­tory”. It was with the in­ten­tion of in­creas­ing the par­tic­i­pa­tory char­ac­ter of their com­mu­ni­ties that the Chang­sha County gov­ern­ment, ear­lier this year, gave the or­der to re­move the walls

not only around their pub­lic parks, but private recreational yards be­long­ing to all pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions with the ex­cep­tion of the mil­i­tary.

“It has been the tra­di­tion in China to build walls that clearly mark [off] each unit,” Zhang said. “We see it evolve from the im­pe­rial gar­den, the si­heyuan (四合院, tra­di­tional court­yard homes), to, in mod­ern times, ev­ery dan­wei that had to have a big court­yard and se­cu­rity guard to re­strict peo­ple’s ac­cess.”

The mo­ti­va­tion be­hind Chang­sha County’s new mea­sure was po­lit­i­cal. “Our county has al­ways ad­vo­cated ‘get­ting close to peo­ple’s hearts’, and there’s no better way than to wel­come them to our spa­ces,” Zhang said. It may seem odd that a gov­ern­ment in mod­ern China, which al­ways claimed to have been founded by the peo­ple, would have a tra­di­tion of re­stric­tive court­yard-build­ing at all. How­ever, this prac­tice has its ori­gin in mod­ern China’s sys­tem of dan­wei, which un­til re­cently was the or­ga­niz­ing frame­work of all ur­ban res­i­dents’ eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties, liv­ing ar­range­ments, and by ex­ten­sion, re­cre­ation.

A dan­wei’s court­yard used to con­tain all the ne­ces­si­ties of ur­ban life: in ad­di­tion to the build­ings where peo­ple worked, they pro­vided hous­ing for the work­ers. The big­gest ones also had their own schools, can­teens, clin­ics, mar­kets, as well as spa­ces for in­door and out­door ac­tiv­i­ties: au­di­to­ri­ums, squares, and parks. It was pos­si­ble to live your dayto-day life with­out ever leav­ing the unit’s gates and the com­fort of what an­thro­pol­o­gists call the “ac­quain­tance so­ci­ety”.

These days, while many uni­ver­si­ties and mil­i­tary units are still set up like this, most ur­ban res­i­dents of China find them­selves liv­ing in their own apart­ments and cross­ing paths with strangers at ev­ery turn. In essence, this forces Chi­nese ur­ban res­i­dents to ad­just to a con­cept of “pub­lic space” where they must co­ex­ist with and re­spect the in­di­vid­ual needs of oth­ers, rather than the so­cial­ist “com­mu­nal space” in which they shared with oth­ers a sim­i­lar, state-man­dated style of liv­ing.

To Zhang, this is a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment in help­ing res­i­dents “get to know their neigh­bors, their city, their gov­ern­ment”. How­ever, it’s also the source of much of the con­tro­versy in re­sponse to open parks in ci­ties like Guangzhou and Shang­hai, as res­i­dents’ un­ease to­ward pub­lic space spills into the last re­main­ing in­sti­tu­tions that sym­bol­ized the old style of gov­er­nance and se­cu­rity.

Zhang said that he has not re­ceived any feed­back from res­i­dents anx­ious about their safety and the suzhi (素质), or “qual­ity” of their fel­low park vis­i­tors af­ter the re­moval of the walls, though he ad­mited that open parks are

po­ten­tially more chal­leng­ing to make safe and or­derly for users.

Shi was also re­luc­tant to com­ment on the safety pro­ce­dures of the City Wall Park, ex­cept to con­firm they had sur­veil­lance cam­eras and a team of se­cu­rity guards pa­trolling the premises. “The safety pro­ce­dures we take in this park are the same as any closed park in Beijing, it’s all stan­dard­ized, though I would ex­pect that [a park like] ours take a greater in­vest­ment in se­cu­rity,” she said. In all the years she has worked at the park, she said there has never been any safety in­ci­dents re­ported.

The views from the ground are mixed. On a week­day morn­ing, a knot of lo­cal res­i­dents ex­er­cis­ing at the City Wall Park shared their im­pres­sions of the park’s good points and bad. They unan­i­mously said that ease of ac­cess was the main rea­son that they come to the park, some of them com­ing ev­ery day. “I live nearby, and there is ab­so­lutely no space for ac­tiv­i­ties in our hous­ing com­mu­ni­ties,” a woman sur­named Fang told TWOC. “The man­age­ment here has been es­pe­cially good lately, it’s a very large park but the guards pa­trol it on foot and bike.”

Shi be­lieves that her park has been more or less free from con­tro­versy due to the se­cu­rity in­vest­ments taken by Beijing as a whole. “Each city has their own con­cept of safety, a dif­fer­ent thresh­old for ac­cept­ing these open pub­lic spa­ces,” she said. Res­i­dents of Guangzhou, a city with a higher pro­por­tion of mi­grants and rep­u­ta­tion for crime, would prob­a­bly have dif­fer­ent con­cerns about their safety com­pared to the cap­i­tal. Fang agreed that the im­pres­sion of pub­lic safety is not purely due to the pres­ence of guards but the suzhi of Beijing res­i­dents. “This is a nice neigh­bor­hood,” she stressed.

How­ever, on the east­ern sec­tion of the City Wall Park, wedged against the busy east­ern Sec­ond Ring Road and cut off from Shi’s of­fice by rail­road tracks, an el­derly res­i­dent named Yu had the op­po­site im­pres­sion of park man­age­ment. “It’s chaotic on this side, ev­ery­one sits on the grass, picks the flow­ers. In the sum­mer there are al­ways peo­ple here and there spend­ing the night in the park,” Yu said. He also re­lates this to the char­ac­ter of the neigh­bor­hood—“we’re close to [Beijing] Rail­way Sta­tion, there’s a huge float­ing pop­u­la­tion pass­ing through here”—as he, like many ur­ban res­i­dents, be­lieves that ru­ral mi­grants lack the ed­u­ca­tion and aware­ness of how to share space with oth­ers.

But he isn’t sure that walls are the so­lu­tion ei­ther. “Could you solve the prob­lem if you put a fence by the side­walk over there? You can’t re­ally say, I think it has more to do with the moral qual­ity of so­ci­ety.”

Zhang be­lieves that the trend in so­ci­ety is to­ward more open spa­ces, not less—and it doesn’t just ap­ply to parks. He pointed out that in Fe­bru­ary this year, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment re­leased a se­ries of new ur­ban plan­ning guide­lines, among which it was pro­posed that hous­ing de­vel­op­ers will no longer be al­lowed to build hous­ing com­mu­ni­ties closed to out­side traf­fic, and ex­ist­ing com­mu­ni­ties as well as re­main­ing pub­lic dan­wei will grad­u­ally see their walls opened. In­tended as a mea­sure to re­duce traf­fic con­ges­tion in ur­ban ar­eas, the pol­icy caused back­lash across the coun­try as ur­ban res­i­dents balked at let­ting strange cars and peo­ple into the last strong­hold of com­mu­nal space in China. “Open­ing up space is an in­evitable step in open­ing up the coun­try, build­ing a mod­ern city,” Zhang said.

Those that al­ready em­brace (or are re­signed to) this new mode of liv­ing are at least op­ti­mistic. “In this park, ev­ery morn­ing, they have a broad­cast say­ing, ‘ac­cord­ing to Beijing city reg­u­la­tions, it’s pro­hib­ited to walk dogs or ride bikes through the park,’ but look at this—they’re every­where,” said an­other City Wall Park reg­u­lar, sur­named Bai. A fel­low ex­er­ciser sur­named Lai added, “some­times [the dog-walk­ers] have ar­gu­ments with the guards.” Both seemed amused by this, rather than wor­ried.

“They can’t do any­thing about it: when you’re walk­ing or bik­ing on the edge of the park, who’s to say if you’re in the park or on the side­walk?” Bai laughed. “The park is safe as long as Beijing is safe, there are good peo­ple be­cause Beijing has good peo­ple.” That’s per­haps the high­est praise a pub­lic park can re­ceive—it has be­come wed­ded to the city’s own iden­tity.

Much of the City Wall Park can be en­tered di­rectly from the street

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