The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY JEREMIAH JENNE

In a Manchu “ban­ner vil­lage” in He­bei, res­i­dents are hap­pily de­mol­ish­ing their homes to make way for an “Old Town,” an ex­er­cise in preser­va­tion that echoes a grow­ing trend in which the past is repack­aged for the con­sump­tion of tourists, at the ex­pense of his­tory

Just in­side the south­ern gate of Fenghuang­tai vil­lage (凤凰台村) in He­bei prov­ince, con­struc­tion work­ers are pick­ing through the rub­ble of an old court­yard home.

In front of the de­bris, the street has been stripped of its pave­ment, leav­ing a dusty sur­face which threat­ens to turn into a quag­mire as rain be­gins to fall. The own­ers stare at the wreck­age of their for­mer home and the bro­ken street with a happy mix­ture of an­tic­i­pa­tion and ex­cite­ment.

Their vil­lage is go­ing through a pro­found meta­mor­pho­sis. Work crews are sweep­ing away all rem­nants of the old vil­lage in prepa­ra­tion for a gleam­ing “Old Town” which pur­ports to cel­e­brate the rich his­tory of Fenghuang­tai, or “Phoenix Gar­ri­son.”

In the new Old Town, gates and walls will have a uni­form ap­pear­ance. The street will be repaved with “his­toric” stones re­cently pur­chased from a build­ing sup­plier in Shi­ji­azhuang, the nearby pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal. The vil­lage tem­ple, ven­er­at­ing Zhenwu (真武, “The Per­fected War­rior”), a de­ity in Chi­nese pop­u­lar re­li­gion as­so­ci­ated with North­ern­ers, has been com­pletely re­built; Red Guards had razed the Qing-era orig­i­nal dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion. Across from the vil­lage gate, a swampy area along the banks of the Yihe River is be­ing ex­ca­vated. Even­tu­ally, it will be a car park and ser­vice area for tourists.

“The hole in the ground is where the five-star re­strooms will be in­stalled,” Mr. Guan en­thu­si­as­ti­cally tells TWOC.

His fam­ily runs a homey guest­house just in­side the south­ern wall. The

rooms are con­sis­tent with vil­lage inns and ru­ral B&BS through­out China (the au­thor spent the pre­vi­ous evening in a large room with two beds, an enor­mous desk, and—of course—a mahjong ta­ble with the tiles ready to go) but the kitchen is spec­tac­u­lar, and Mr. Guan’s fam­ily serves some of the best food in the area.

They, too, are ex­cited about their prospects in the new Fenghuang­tai era. More devel­op­ment means tourists, which mean more peo­ple learn­ing about Manchu cul­ture—or at least a very par­tic­u­lar pre­sen­ta­tion of that cul­ture—and, of course, more rev­enue for the res­i­dents.

Fenghuang­tai is one of a dozen set­tle­ments in Yix­ian county, He­bei, that sur­round the West­ern Qing Tombs (清西陵). Na­tives of the vil­lage are the rem­nants of Manchu ban­ner troops and of­fi­cials, once as­signed to pro­tect the tombs, with each vil­lage re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing a par­tic­u­lar burial site.

For nearly 120 years, the com­pany at Fenghuang­tai guarded the fi­nal rest­ing place of Em­press Xiaoshengx­ian, the mother of the Qian­long Em­peror. Also known as the Em­press Dowa­ger Chongqing (and a ma­jor char­ac­ter in sev­eral TV series in re­cent years), the em­press was beloved by her son and given her own mau­soleum near that of the em­peror’s father and pre­de­ces­sor, the Yongzheng Em­peror.

Like many of the elite “ban­ner peo­ple”—who, dur­ing the Qing era, in­cluded not only eth­nic Manchus but also Chi­nese and Mon­go­lians—the Fenghuang­tai com­mu­nity fell on hard times when the last Qing em­peror ab­di­cated in 1912. Tech­ni­cally, the terms of his res­ig­na­tion re­quired

the con­tin­ued main­te­nance and pro­tec­tion of his an­ces­tor’s tombs, but the in­sta­bil­ity of the early 20th cen­tury made such a task nearly im­pos­si­ble. Sev­eral of the East­ern Qing Tombs, an­other im­pe­rial com­plex lo­cated 150 kilo­me­ters north­east of Bei­jing and close to ma­jor traf­fic routes, were opened and robbed dur­ing this time.

The West­ern Qing Tombs fared a bit bet­ter, pro­tected as much by the iso­la­tion of Yix­ian county as the du­ti­ful at­ten­tion of their for­mer guardians. The tombs in Yix­ian also saw the fi­nal two im­pe­rial in­tern­ments of the Qing Em­pire. In 1913, the new Re­pub­lic of China su­per­vised the com­ple­tion of the tomb for the Guangxu Em­peror, who died in 1908. Over 80 years later, the re­mains of his nephew, China’s last em­peror Puyi, were moved from Bei­jing’s Babaoshan Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Ceme­tery to a hill­side in Yix­ian not far from his late un­cle.

But the same iso­la­tion which helped to pre­serve the West­ern Qing Tombs has also worked against ef­forts to de­velop the site for tourism. The 13 tombs of the Ming em­per­ors, con­ve­niently close to Bei­jing and the pop­u­lar Badal­ing Great Wall site, have long been over­run with tourists look­ing for a bit of his­tory be­tween all the gift shops.

It is clear that the res­i­dents of Fenghuang­tai vil­lage are ea­ger to cash in on their own prox­im­ity to the past. Like most for­mer gar­ri­son vil­lages, Fenghuang­tai is just a few hun­dred yards away from their des­ig­nated tomb. The newly re­con­structed town cen­ter is hoped to pro­vide ac­com­mo­da­tion for trav­el­ers look­ing to sam­ple the lo­cal cui­sine—in­clud­ing Manchu spe­cial­ties like veni­son—and ex­pe­ri­ence “tra­di­tional” Manchu cul­ture.

Yue Xiao­hong, a li­censed tour guide and travel pro­fes­sional who grew up in the county, has mixed feel­ings about these changes to her home­town.

“The peo­ple who live near the West­ern Qing Tombs have de­vel­oped a lot of tourist ameni­ties in or­der to make money and I feel happy for them,” she told TWOC. “But at the same time, I’m con­cerned about the kind of over-devel­op­ment that has hap­pened at other cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal sites around China. I think we need to set a bal­ance be­tween devel­op­ment of tourism and the pro­tec­tion of im­pe­rial relics.”

The past two decades has seen a pro­lif­er­a­tion of sim­i­lar “Old Towns” across China. Tourist hotspots like Pingyao in Shanxi, and Li­jiang in north­west Yun­nan, of­fer ide­al­ized re­pro­duc­tions of his­toric spa­ces. Both cities have had dif­fi­culty balanc­ing his­toric preser­va­tion and restora­tion with the de­mands of devel­op­ment.


Ex­ces­sive com­mer­cial­iza­tion in Li­jiang’s Old Town, for ex­am­ple, has threat­ened its sta­tus as a UNESCO his­tor­i­cal site.

Old Towns typ­i­cally fea­ture re­pro­duc­tions of his­toric build­ings, some­times with only a ten­u­ous con­nec­tion to the struc­tures and land­scape that ex­isted in the past. In Bei­jing’s city cen­ter, for ex­am­ple, old homes and busi­nesses have been bricked over or de­mol­ished to make way for “Cul­tural Zones” which seek to pro­tect the city’s “in­tan­gi­ble her­itage” at the ex­pense of tan­gi­ble his­tory. Qian­men, a dis­trict just south of Tian’an­men Square re­made into a Dis­ney Main Street ver­sion of a Repub­li­can-era Bei­jing neigh­bor­hood, serves as a cau­tion­ary tale of this sort of “preser­va­tion.”

Some ex­ist­ing struc­tures will be pre­served at Fenghuang­tai: The old watch­tower stands solemnly along the main high­way through the val­ley, just as it has for cen­turies. A short sec­tion of the orig­i­nal de­fen­sive walls stretch across a marshy area just be­yond the new park­ing lot.

Nor is ev­ery vil­lage in Yix­ian county due for a makeover. A few hun­dred me­ters down the high­way is Taihe vil­lage, which once guarded the tomb of the Yongzheng Em­peror and re­mains much as it has for decades. Dirt roads and crum­bling walls may not make for great brochure cen­ter­folds, but they do con­vey a gen­uine sense of his­tory lack­ing in some of the nearby makeover towns. Along the walls of the city, one can read the his­tory of the res­i­dents’ at­tempts to main­tain old struc­tures, with 18th-cen­tury bricks sup­ported by more re­cent ad­di­tions from the 19th and 20th cen­turies.

Whether most tourists will care is a mat­ter for de­bate. Cer­tainly, many in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors to China be­moan a lack of “authen­tic­ity” at China’s his­toric sites. “I thought China had a long his­tory, but it’s hard to find any ac­tual struc­tures older than the last few decades. So much has been re­built, then passed off as ‘an­cient,’” one re­cent vis­i­tor to Bei­jing re­marked.

To­day the West­ern Qing Tombs are in the mid­dle of their own ren­o­va­tion. The tomb of the Guangxu Em­peror is cov­ered in scaf­fold­ing. The fi­nal rest­ing place of his beloved “Pearl Con­cu­bine”—pos­si­bly killed on or­ders from Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi, his aunt—is closed for ren­o­va­tions. His­tory is be­ing cleaned up for con­sump­tion. Per­haps the ac­tual struc­tures, raw and un­re­con­structed, would raise too many ques­tions. Why for ex­am­ple, were so many tem­ples and shrines, now lauded now as cul­tural land­marks, pre­vi­ously de­stroyed—and by whom? Why has it taken over a cen­tury to sud­denly con­clude that Manchu cul­ture is some­thing worth pre­serv­ing, even cel­e­brat­ing?

Tour guide Yue be­lieves there should be a “broad view” to preser­va­tion that stretches be­yond dress­ing up phys­i­cal relics. “Pre­serv­ing also means Manchu cui­sine, his­tor­i­cal ar­chi­tec­ture, Manchu cus­toms, an­cient rit­u­als and other as­pects of Manchu cul­tural her­itage,” she said, “so that 100 or 200 years from now, our de­scen­dants can have the same op­por­tu­nity to ap­pre­ci­ate the West­ern Qing Tombs as we do to­day.”

Back in Fenghuang­tai, work­ers erect so­lar-pow­ered street lamps to il­lu­mi­nate an an­cient vil­lage made new. The new-old vil­lage shrine glows with can­dles and in­cense. Manchu cul­ture has sur­vived here de­spite nearly a cen­tury of war, tur­moil, po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, and not-so-be­nign ne­glect. It re­mains to be seen if its pack­ag­ing and mar­ket­ing for tourist con­sump­tion will be the sal­va­tion of this her­itage, or will ul­ti­mately sub­sume it into a cheesy and com­mer­cial­ized tra­di­tion­al­ism. But that’s a chance the vil­lagers are will­ing to take.

A stained-glass por­trait of Qing Em­peror Yongzheng greets vis­i­tors at the Rushed re­pairs and in­spec­tions West­ern Qing Tombs in are com­mon be­tween matches Yix­ian county, He­bei

The shrine to Zhengwu is the cen­ter­piece of Fenghuang­tai, com­pletely re­built af­ter the orig­i­nal was de­stroyed by Red Guards

Newly con­structed Old Towns are be­com­ing a fix­ture of lo­cal tourism. These sites of­ten fea­ture ide­al­ized re­cra­tions of the past— en­hanced with sou­venir stands and fast-food out­lets

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