Young history buff helps preserve Beijing’s past and culture

SONG ZHUANGZHUANG, 28, works in architecture and urban design andis using social media to increase public awareness in rediscovering the beauty of Beijing’s history and culture and to highlight the need to preserve it.

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 February, 2017, 7:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 February, 2017, 9:21am

Song posts drawings, articles and graphics on his WeChat account DiduhuiBJ, or Visualising Beijing, to illustrate the life and history of the capital and is working on projects to help publicise the city’s heritage. He spoke to Catherine Wong.

Watch: Visualising Beijing: taking a look at the capital from another angle


how did you become interested in Beijing’s cultural heritage and eager to promote it?

I grew up in the old city of Beijing, and have always had an emotional attachment to the city. My family has lived here for generations. My grandparents lived in a traditional courtyard house in Beijing when they were young and told me of the time when there was still a strong bond between neighbours and among the local community. They would reminisce about how the entire neighbourhood would gather at the house of the only family who owned a television. I never experienced times like that, but I was fascinated when I heard these stories and became interested in discovering the beauty of our culture and preserving it.

You used to petition government agencies to preserve the city’s heritage. Is this still your approach?

Those of us involved in cultural preservation are always under the illusion that everyone is against us. Property developers are of course our biggest “enemies”. Even residents in the area don’t see the need to preserve old architecture and think we are standing in their way of earning compensation if a building is removed. This reality is quite discouraging. This is why I started thinking about alternative ways. While it’s important for activists to strive for cultural preservation, we need society to first understand the value of this heritage. Otherwise, it’s difficult to progress. So education is key. Since our target readers are young people, we use more fun and interactive ways to engage them. For example, we did a feature on where all the city walls went in Beijing and told them how the city developed over the years. Earlier activists tended to see heritage as separate from modern development. I tend to see it as a continuous development. On our WeChat account, we try to avoid making criticisms because there are many people out there already doing this. We want to promote knowledge in a more positive and optimistic way.

What inspired you to put drawings of the city’s heritage on WeChat?

My high school geography teacher took us around old neighbourhoods and buildings in Beijing. Realising education was the key to cultural preservation, five years ago we initiated an education programme in some senior high schools in Beijing to teach about architecture and urban planning. But I found lectures and workshops could only reach the small number of pupils who attended the course. So I turned to new media. With another designer, we produced infographics about Beijing and published them in books and online.

What projects have you been working on?

A publisher noticed our courses for high school pupils and approached us about producing a book of graphics explaining the city’s landscape. It was published last September. Recently, we approached the Beijing MTR Corporation for a cooperative project to mark the opening of the new Line 16. We designed a series of graphics explaining the whole construction process. As this was our first big project, we didn’t charge anything, but we hope to attract similar projects for government or public agencies involved in everyday urban life.


What is the most difficult aspect of your work?

The drawing part is easier and usually only takes one to three days to complete. Most of our time is spent on research. A lot of information is not available in public records so sometimes we have to gather first-hand information ourselves. For example, we once did a feature on where all the vegetables sold in Beijing came from. We visited the biggest wholesale market in the city and asked vendors about their produce. We thought their answers would be representative as 70 per cent of the city’s vegetables and 90 per cent of its fruit are sold in that market.

You studied urban design in the United States. How did that influence your ideas?

US cities are very different from those in China and I love the diversity in different American cities, especially New York. It’s like a museum of anthropology with its diversity of people and architecture. Chinese cities are relatively monotonous, especially in newly developed areas. The difference arises from land policy. Private ownership in the US encourages people to build their homes according to their own tastes, whereas in Beijing, most buildings are built collectively.

What are your future plans?

We hope to do more projects with government or public agencies that are closely involved in people’s daily lives, like the post office or the city water supply department. We are interested in raising public knowledge – for example, the reasons for Beijing’s terrible traffic jams. We hope people can understand the city better and make better choices to avoid traffic congestion.