How Chinese cities lost their elegance

Shiqiao Li says a reason for the bad architecture that litters Chinese cities is a failure to connect the cityscape with the essence of traditional Chinese thought, as seen in its writing system

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 4:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 July, 2014, 4:16am

In the past 100 years, China has marginalised its own intellectual and institutional frameworks developed over 2,000 years. It happened through the successive revolutions and reforms in the 20th century, sometimes for good reason, sometimes as acts of defiance.

Legitimate or not, it happened amid tremendous pressure to acquire the technological, scientific and institutional efficacy that the West had demonstrated. The sweeping changes included the ways in which Chinese cities were designed and constructed, thus defining in many important ways our daily lives.

Today, one question lingers: have we overdone it? One thing is clear: in marginalising Chinese tradition and falling short of wholesale importation of Western cultural and political ideals and institutions, Chinese cities have become, in one sense, the scrapyard of half-hearted emulations and acts of resistance, appearing to be neither here nor there.

In the meantime, traditional cultural and political ideals haven't just gone away; in their marginalised position, they reappear quietly and persistently in modified forms. For instance, traditional courtyard houses and gardens, so exquisitely described in literary works such as the Dream of the Red Chamber, returned in the forms of the work unit ( danwei) and the residential compound ( xiaoqu). The act of circling and walling spaces in cities corresponded to the ward system that had been central to the traditional Chinese image of cities, at least since the Tang dynasty.

It is, of course, both impossible and unnecessary to undo the development of scientific knowledge and cultural institutions in China over the past 100 years. We should imagine the Chinese city in multiple dimensions; there is an excellent chance today to reintroduce dimensions of Chinese culture, not as something canonical, vernacular, exotic, supplementary or alternative - as they are routinely portrayed - but as something equal and legitimate, among all possible ideals of knowledge and politics.

As the French theorist Bruno Latour argues, imagining in a singular dimension of purified "scientific knowledge" is both illusionary and damaging; the root of our current global financial crisis and our suicidal exploitation of the environment lies in the mistaken belief in the fundamental divide between human and nonhuman. This divide has been constructed through the purification of scientific knowledge into ideology.

Chinese thought has never conceived this ideological purification of scientific knowledge, and thus offers an amazing chance to revise our way of life, perhaps to liberate us from oppressive monetary systems and relieve the pressure to further destroy our environment.

Sinologists Marcel Granet and François Jullien suggest that the Chinese way of thinking works on the level of "concrete universals"; in other words, it does not demand a level of abstract meaning beyond the objects and phenomenons themselves. Chinese culture does not need an abstract god to function.

Hence, Shao Yong, the celebrated Song dynasty scholar of I Ching, wrote: "There is a thing of one thing. There is a thing of ten things. There is a thing of a hundred things. There is a thing of thousand things. There is a thing of ten thousand things. There is a thing of a one hundred million things. There is a thing of a billion things." And well-respected Song dynasty thinkers Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi suggested: "Ten thousand things all have their own principles, and it is easy to follow them but difficult to go against them"; "outside dao there are no things and outside things there is no dao". Such thoughts are alien to the canons of Western thought that demand "reduction" into laws; anything short of this would be hard to qualify as "knowledge".

It is this "intellectual conflict" that gives Chinese thought a unique advantage today; we have a chance to know and appreciate how many things there are in the world, and how we should live with each of them. The consequence of this simple difference is immense.

In my latest book, I argue that the crucial instrument to sustain this "thing-based" Chinese thought lies in the way the Chinese writing system functions, again, not as abstract alphabets, but as real things - 49,000 of them according to the authoritative Kangxi dictionary. The Chinese writing system was on the verge of being abandoned in the 20th century, but it resisted and survived.

You don't have to be a structuralist to know that language is both a way of communication and of thought. The Chinese system, unlike the alphabetic languages, emphasises writing instead of speech; it places the centrality of meaning and significance in writing. Picasso once said: "If I were born Chinese, I would not be a painter, but a writer. I'd write my pictures." The Chinese artists Xu Bing and Qiu Zhijie, in their Book from the Sky and One-Thousand-Time Copy of Lantingxu, dramatically played out the power of the Chinese writing system, both in shaping a way of life, and in producing exquisite beauty.

The force of the Chinese writing system - it takes a long time and great deal of endurance to learn and sustain the use of it - is deep, slow and strong; I would call it "figuration", a force to shape both the body and the work, and it is both about the Chinese characters and the shape of things. It is about penzai (bonsai) instead of trees, about Taihu stone instead of mountains. Writing is at the centre of the built and natural environments; one cannot imagine entering a traditional Chinese garden without writing, or visiting a scenic spot without textual narratives being carved onto the landscape.

The close connection between writing and the city can be seen as one dimension of Chinese thought that needs to be re-assessed today. We face a lot of "bad writing" in Chinese cities. I believe the separation between "architecture" - a very Western concept - and good writing in 20th-century China contributed to the rise of both "bad architecture" and "bad writing" in Chinese cities. It added significantly to the scrapyard of half-hearted projects littering Chinese cities.

Understanding the Chinese city through Chinese thought and the writing system is one of many ways in which we can engage with a revision of intellectual ideals in China. This is certainly not a nostalgic project of revival, nor a reassertion of intellectual canons; rather, it is a project of "reflective creation", a way of projecting possible paths of different and appropriate thoughts at fundamental levels.

Our current crises demand nothing less than a fundamental rethinking. Thinking with China, if one can move beyond conservative politics, offers a productive opportunity.

Shiqiao Li is Weedon Professor in Asian Architecture at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is Understanding the Chinese City