MADE IN CHINA

中国制造

The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - BY GINGER HUANG (黄原竟)

You live in a com­mu­nity called Seine Man­sion, buy your clothes and gro­ceries at Floren­tia Town, and have din­ner at The Cap­i­tal Venice—and this is all a reg­u­lar day in the life of res­i­dents of Tian­jin, China. For a coun­try def­i­nitely lo­cated on a dif­fer­ent con­ti­nent, it is amaz­ing how fre­quently you run into Euro­pean place names in China, es­pe­cially around lux­ury hous­ing com­mu­ni­ties and shopping cen­ters.

Let’s face it: Chi­nese de­vel­op­ers love to slap names that sound “Euro­pean” onto prime real es­tate. The quo­ta­tion marks are needed, be­cause when the de­vel­oper’s imag­i­na­tion runs wild, the place names end up with no re­gard for re­al­ity. When look­ing for an apart­ment in Xi’an, you may find your­self choos­ing be­tween Down­ton Abbey, Europa Town, Ori­en­tal Mi­lan, and Ro­man Si­cily. The name doesn’t even have to refer to a place, as long as it’s vaguely as­so­ci­ated with the West; Cap­puc­cino and Mocha are also de­vel­op­ments in Xi’an.

When you get tired of bev­er­ages and cities, the names of fa­mous Western­ers are also fair game. For in­ex­pli­ca­ble rea­sons, Hugo, Cézanne, and Monet have be­come pa­tron saints for real es­tate all across China. A brief search for res­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ties in China called af­ter Monet on Baidu Maps, which is def­i­nitely not ex­haus­tive, turns up 70 re­sults. It may be that Chi­nese de­vel­op­ers have a col­lec­tive crush on 19th cen­tury French artists and writers—and this was par­tially proved in re­search by the Bei­jing Youth Daily in 2013.

By ran­domly sam­pling 240 res­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ties in 12 Chi­nese cities, re­searchers found that of all the es­tates with Western-in­spired names, 24.5 per­cent were France-re­lated, mak­ing France the most beloved coun­try among Chi­nese es­tate-namers. This was about six per­cent ahead of the United States, which ranked sec­ond. Ger­many, Italy, and Aus­tria were also fa­vorites. Pre­dictably, there were no de­vel­op­ments named af­ter coun­tries in Africa, South­east Asia, or Latin Amer­ica.

While most de­vel­op­ers are con­tent with mere sug­ges­tions of the West in their es­tate names, leav­ing the rest to re­sem­ble any reg­u­lar Chi­nese com­mu­nity, some go a step fur­ther to cre­ate the il­lu­sion that the property own­ers are ac­tu­ally liv­ing abroad. In Shanghai, there is a Thames Town

O A Y built to re­sem­ble a quaint Bri­tish

O A Y neigh­bor­hood, com­plete with red-brick

Y B N cot­tages and chim­neys, a chapel, a

O I T A R cov­ered bridge, and shut­tle buses that

T S U L re­sem­ble steam trains. In Jiangyan,

L I Jiangsu prov­ince, a small replica of the Arc de Tri­om­phe stands in front of a com­mu­nity called Ori­en­tal Paris City. Hangzhou, dis­play­ing a sim­i­lar zest for Parisian land­marks, has its own Eif­fel Tower and a sup­posed re­con­struc­tion of the Champs Élysées at the foot of it, although right now the tower is still ris­ing out of vast veg­etable fields.

Home decor isn’t ex­empt from this pur­suit of all things Western. “The Euro­pean-styled Chi­nese home is usu­ally pur­sued by the newly rich, be­cause it looks ex­pen­sive and lux­u­ri­ous,” Zhang Yi, a Bei­jing in­te­rior de­signer said. “Our more cul­tured clien­tele, or those who are re­ally rich, would pre­fer some­thing mod­ern and sim­plis­tic.” In many cases, the so­called “Euro­pean” home decor means an af­front to good pro­por­tion and plan­ning, a space crammed with mul­ti­lay­ered satin cur­tains, gi­ant chan­de­liers dan­gling in front of your nose, plants rest­ing atop Ro­man pil­lars, and bronze an­gels frol­ick­ing in be­tween. The typ­i­cal Chi­nese apart­ment does not pro­vide enough room for clas­si­cal Euro­pean decor, to say noth­ing of most Chi­nese fur­ni­ture-mak­ers’ knowl­edge of Euro­pean aes­thetic el­e­ments and how to taste­fully com­bine them.

So where does this imag­ined Eu­rope come from? Why do Chi­nese de­vel­op­ers, and a con­sid­er­able num­ber of home buy­ers, con­sider Euro­pean styles the epit­ome of class?

Dur­ing the Re­pub­lic pe­riod (1912 – 1949) of Chi­nese his­tory, it was com­mon for Chi­nese stu­dents and in­tel­lec­tu­als to re­ceive their ed­u­ca­tion in the West—qian Zhong­shu’s novel, Fortress Be­sieged, spares no ef­fort sat­i­riz­ing the in­tel­lec­tual pre­ten­sion of th­ese in­di­vid­u­als. How­ever, for a long time in China’s mod­ern his­tory, most Chi­nese peo­ple had no ac­cess what­so­ever to the real Eu­rope. Both poverty and pol­icy made trav­el­ing abroad un­fea­si­ble, and peo­ple con­se­quently had ex­tremely limited cul­tural re­sources. In the mean­time,

China’s own gen­try classes—the shidaifu (士大夫, in­tel­lec­tu­als) and xi­ang­shen (乡绅, coun­try gen­tle­men)— were elim­i­nated by nu­mer­ous po­lit­i­cal move­ments, most egre­giously in the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, dur­ing which the na­tion’s Con­fu­cian tra­di­tion of no­bil­ity was smashed to pieces along with Con­fu­cius Tem­ples. In such a po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, only peas­ants with­out pos­ses­sions and the pro­le­tar­ian work­ers were po­lit­i­cally cor­rect (and rel­a­tively safe).

This pro­longed cul­tural star­va­tion was why, when the 1980s and 1990s ar­rived, Chi­nese peo­ple were eye­ing the Western world with un­prece­dented cu­rios­ity and open-mind­ed­ness. Young peo­ple de­voured Western lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy that were once ex­tin­guished from the Chi­nese public sphere. Even the ab­struse works of Hegel, Ni­et­zsche, and Hei­deg­ger be­came sold-out mar­ket-based ti­tles once they were trans­lated. In pop cul­ture, a re­mote, vague Eu­rope was grad­u­ally be­ing con­structed out of the then ex­tremely pop­u­lar nov­els of Alexan­dre Du­mas, Vic­tor Hugo, and Gus­tave Flaubert, and films like El Destino de Sissi and Ro­man Hol­i­day. The Eu­rope that ap­peared in the me­dia was pop­u­lated by cas­tles, bu­colic land­scapes, and, in par­tic­u­lar, the aris­to­cratic lifestyle of its up­per classes. Th­ese same ado­les­cents who were en­thralled by this ro­man­tic vi­sion of Eu­rope would grow up to be­come China’s first gen­er­a­tion of real es­tate de­vel­op­ers, who made their for­tunes in the early 2000s.

If we go back a hun­dred years, China was not al­ways thus hyp­no­tized by an imag­ined Eu­rope, though Western ar­chi­tec­ture has been im­ported into China since the late Qing Dy­nasty (1616 – 1911). Dur­ing the Re­pub­lic of China pe­riod, it was in­te­grated into the Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture in sub­tle and cre­ative ways, and Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture made some suc­cess­ful ef­fort to adapt to the mod­ern era and de­velop its own orig­i­nal style.

In the 1920s, when Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture first be­gan to mod­ern­ize, the ear­li­est pi­o­neers in this field were mostly Western­ers. One of the first ar­chi­tects who con­trib­uted to the in­te­gra­tion of tra­di­tional Chi­nese and Western ar­chi­tec­ture was Henry Mur­phy, who de­signed many land­mark build­ings in Pek­ing Univer­sity, Ts­inghua Univer­sity, Nank­ing Univer­sity, and Xi­a­men Univer­sity. Mur­phy was a pow­er­ful ad­vo­cate for up­dat­ing tra­di­tional Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture, and was hired by Chi­ang Kai-shek to ren­o­vate the then­cap­i­tal city of Nan­jing. Un­til to­day, the cam­puses he built are still re­puted to be the most beau­ti­ful cam­puses in China, where Western ar­chi­tec­tural tech­niques and mod­ern util­ity were fused with Chi­nese aes­theti­cism.

In the 1950s, with the found­ing of New China, the well-known Chi­nese ar­chi­tect Liang Sicheng was an­other ad­vo­cate of mod­ern­iz­ing tra­di­tional Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture. How­ever, his ef­forts were dis­rupted by the preva­lence of Soviet ar­chi­tec­tural styles, as rep­re­sented by build­ings like the Great Hall of the Peo­ple and the Na­tional Mu­seum that now flank Chang’an Av­enue in Bei­jing. Liang’s de­sign, which ad­vo­cated a bal­anced com­bi­na­tion of Western and tra­di­tional Chi­nese styles, be­come po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect. The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion fol­lowed shortly af­ter, so the fur­ther development of Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­tural styles suf­fered an early demise.

Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture to­day seems to go to two ex­tremes: They ei­ther make copies of clas­si­cal Euro­pean ar­chi­tec­ture—mostly clum­sily but oc­ca­sion­ally with stun­ning ac­cu­racy— or they are im­i­ta­tions of tra­di­tional Chi­nese palaces and im­pe­rial gar­dens. Although some ris­ing Chi­nese ar­chi­tects are break­ing new ground, Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture as a whole is still strug­gling for an iden­tity.

It’s in this void of iden­tity that Euro­pean names and the crazy copy­cat­ting of Euro­pean land­marks run ram­pant. How­ever, the hey­day of this trend may be grad­u­ally com­ing to an end. Apart from gen­eral an­tipa­thy from sec­tions of the public to­ward the cul­tural pre­ten­sion and mean­ing­less­ness of repli­cat­ing Eu­rope in China, in early 2016, the Chongqing gov­ern­ment made an ex­plicit reg­u­la­tion that res­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ties will no longer be al­lowed to give them­selves names that sound “for­eign.” As a mar­ket­ing strat­egy, Euro­pean names are also start­ing to lose their ap­peal. “In re­cent years, first­tier city de­vel­op­ers’ new fa­vorites are names that in­di­cate roy­alty in an­cient China, such as “palace,” “man­sion,” and the like. Yan Mei, a real es­tate sales rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Bei­jing, told TWOC: “A Euro­pean name is al­ready start­ing to sound corny.”

THIS PRO­LONGED CUL­TURAL STAR­VA­TION WAS WHY, WHEN THE 1980S AND 1990S AR­RIVED, CHI­NESE PEO­PLE WERE EYE­ING THE WESTERN WORLD WITH UN­PRECE­DENTED CU­RIOS­ITY AND OPENMINDEDNESS

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