History in the making

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 November, 2010, 12:00am

At first sight, the city of Datong, in Shanxi province, seems to have little to set it apart from other burgeoning, third-tier cities in the mainland's vast interior. Its downtown skyline is crisscrossed with construction cranes swinging back and forth. The streets below teem with compact, domestic-brand cars. Electric scooters jostle with hawkers' carts stacked with fried dumplings and peeled pineapples.

A closer look at those construction projects, however, reveals how this northern city is different. The structures taking shape have gently curling eaves ending in traditional figurines of stone. Everywhere you look, replicas of ancient monasteries and watchtowers are rising above the dust and bustle.

Datong was until recently known as China's coal capital but, long before that, it was the capital of a vast, ancient empire. While other mining centres vie to achieve more modern and efficient production, Datong is in a hurry to get away from its principal industry by rebuilding its past.

Locals attribute today's frenzy of Ming- and Qing-style reconstruction to the city's mayor, Geng Yanbo, who is pushing through a bold plan to refashion Datong's economy. By moving away from a reliance on a single resource, Geng wants to cash in on China's burgeoning travel industry by transforming Datong into a centre for tourism. He started on his post-industrial plan two years ago, with a controversial development of the city's most famous relics: the Buddhist statues of the Yungang Grottoes. Now he is poised to move into its final phase - the complete demolition and rebuilding of the old city in imperial style.

His vision is not without opponents. Replicating an entire ancient city will involve the forced relocation of thousands of residents. And Geng's plans have landed him in trouble with the central government on at least one occasion. Far away in Beijing, urban planners have grave doubts about the practicality of the mayor's grand scheme.

But Geng is a hero to many in Datong. For them, he is the mayor who has arrested their dirty old town's decline by giving it a new and clean direction.

Among his supporters is researcher Hou Tongsheng, who notes that the budget of the city's cultural department over the past two years has exceeded that of the previous 30 years combined.

'Our city is rich in history,' he says. 'Datong's culture is a clean, renewable resource that we have no choice but to develop.'

Over green tea in the Economic Research Centre of the People's Government of Datong, just east of the old city, Hou gives a history lesson on his city's decline.

Datong is in the north of Shanxi, the mountainous province that is the country's traditional coal-mining heartland. The modern city's heyday was in the 1960s and 70s, when coal accounted for more than 90 per cent of the nation's primary energy consumption and 10 per cent of it was produced in Datong.

Foreign visitors once wrote of soot-belching collieries and ubiquitous black dust. Some even described Datong as the ugliest town in the world. But, for locals, the city had glamour. Its miners were paid much higher wages than workers in manufacturing centres such as Qingdao and Shanghai. For young women in the market for a husband, a Datong bachelor was quite a catch.

The city's prosperity suffered with the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping. To encourage light manufacturing in the new special economic zones such as Shenzhen in the early 80s, the market for consumer durables was liberalised. Yet state planners held the price of coal artificially low to power the new economy. Often it sold at a rate that did not even cover the cost of replacing equipment. This pricing policy goes a long way to explaining the state of Chinese mining today.

'Coal was the last market to be freed from state control,' Hou says. 'We produced a vital resource and its value was taken by the country. Its value was not returned to Datong.'

Coal prices were eventually freed in 2000, but that did little to save a worn-out city. By then, Datong's deposits of higher-quality, Jurassic-period coal were wearing thin.

In July 2008, the government appointed Geng, a Shanxi native, who transferred from the provincial capital of Taiyuan. Both local and national media have lionised him for his traditional virtues, hard work, modest living and deep knowledge of Chinese culture.

Geng was not available for an interview but every adult on the city's streets seems to have something to say about him.

'Of course I know who he is. There have been big changes here since he came,' says a taxi driver. He cites a big improvement in Datong's roads over the past two years. On the mayor's development of Datong as a tourism centre, the driver says he has no opinions. Yet he concedes the new, old-fashioned buildings going up make him proud of his city.

The subject of coal is more provocative. 'There's none left.' he says. 'The only jobs now are in big pits. All the smaller ones have been closed down because the government says they're unsafe.'

In the city centre, opposite the Yungang International Hotel, a tobacco vendor claims to have no opinions on Geng and his plans. But insists everyone else does.

'Some people say nice things about him,' he says, 'but not the ones whose houses are being torn down.'

The shopkeeper says there has been a continuous stream of people trying to take legal action against Geng and his government. He also says he has seen several demonstrations against the mayor in the city's central Red Flag Square.

Geng's grand plans have also received critical attention from the central government's State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH), which took umbrage at the mayor's first major project..

Every year thousands of tourists - and an increasing number of monks - visit the Yungang Grottoes, 16 kilometres to the southwest of the city. Yungang's 252 caves and more than 51,000 statues and carvings of Buddha were chiselled out of a cliff face more than 1,500 years ago.

Back then, northern China was ruled by a Mongolian dynasty called the Northern Wei, whose emperors believed in both Buddhism and Taoism. Datong was their capital for a century; a cosmopolitan metropolis of a million people at the eastern end of the Silk Road.

'The grottoes served the function of achieving political control through religion,' explains official guide Cui Xiaoxia. 'They were China's first national Buddhist project.'

In 2001, Yungang was named a Unesco World Heritage site.

In April last year, Geng broke ground on an ambitious development of this cultural gem that is largely finished. At the main entrance to the grottoes, visitors pass through a museum constructed in Northern Wei style and down an avenue lined with Buddhist obelisks, each with a six-tusked stone elephant as its base. They cross a stone bridge leading to a palace built on stilts, in the middle of an artificial lake. Triangular and crescent-shaped roof ornaments mark the style as Northern Wei. This will house craft shops and restaurants when it opens next year.

Geng's extensive use of replicas raises issues concerning cultural heritage.

'Once I've seen the detailed plans I'll have a fuller understanding but, what I can say, is that this is not about protecting an old city,' says Professor Mao Qizhi, an expert in urban planning at Tsinghua University, in Beijing. 'This is about creating mock-old buildings, or fake relics.'

Three months after construction started, the Science and Technology Daily ran a story on the Yungang development. The national newspaper's publicity drew attention not only from readers nationwide but also from SACH. The bureau immediately dispatched a party to investigate Geng on suspicion of violating national cultural-protection laws.

Some officials asked why Geng had not applied to SACH for planning permission. Others fretted that moisture from the lake could cause a collapse of the grottoes' cliff face.

Speaking to national magazine Oriental Outlook, a Datong government official confided that if Geng had applied to Beijing for permission, he might have had to wait 10 years and it still might not have been granted. Datong, he said, did not have that long to save its economy. In any case, Geng was merely following through on a pledge to improve the site, made to Unesco as a precondition of gaining World Heritage status.

Geng was summoned to Beijing to explain himself. In the same article, Oriental Outlook reported how this meeting prompted a mass demonstration in Red Flag Square. On September 5 last year, thousands of people travelled to the city centre to sign a petition supporting their mayor. Geng was allowed to return home, with no more than an order to modify his development by making the artificial lake slightly smaller.

The Northern Wei collapsed in AD535. Yet Datong had one more spell in the sun before the 20th century. For three centuries from AD907, it was the western capital of two other Buddhist dynasties of Mongolian origin - the Liao and the Jin. The best-preserved Liao temple in China is the Huayuan Monastery, in downtown Datong. It is the site of Geng's second development.

On summer evenings, swallows wheel around the flat, heavy-looking roof of the monastery's grand hall, which has an architectural style that marks the build- ing out from those of other periods. Inside, five huge gilded statues of Buddha line a wall. In the darkness, monks burn incense and make offerings of fruit in bronze bowls.

A cacophony of drilling and hammering breaks the silence. The monastery's already sizeable grounds are being tripled and halls and towers are being built in the style of China's last dynasty, the Qing.

Beyond Huayuan's eastern edge there is a mock-imperial shopping complex and a mosque, undergoing a renovation and expansion that is by no means its first.

There has been a mosque here since AD628, according to Yang Fazhen, deputy president of the Shanxi Islamic Association. It's proof Buddhism wasn't the only religion to spread along the Silk Road.

A walk east from the monastery, along Datong's main street, passes Taoist and Tibetan Lama Buddhist temples, as well as Catholic and Protestant churches.

At the end of the main drag, a hulking, three-storey Ming-style watchtower is visible through the dust and pollution. This is at the centre of Geng's third big project - the complete rebuilding of the city walls.

Few cities in China still have their old walls. Xian, in Shaanxi province, and the well-preserved World Heritage city of Pingyao, in Shanxi, are rare examples. The wall around the old centre of Beijing was torn down in the 60s to make way for the capital's second ring road and underground railway.

Like Beijing and Xian, Datong is one of a handful of mainland cities laid out in a square grid centred on a north-south axis. Engineer Pan Guojin, in charge of the wall's reconstruction, says this planning dates back to the Tang dynasty (AD618-907).

The fortifications surrounding Datong's square layout were not demolished. The wall fell to pieces through neglect. Residents took most of the wall's bricks to build houses in the 50s, although the rammed-earth inner core remained.

'In those days, people were more concerned about keeping warm and getting enough to eat,' Pan says. 'There wasn't enough money to care about heritage.'

He says Ming-dynasty bricks were salvaged from the demolition of these 50s houses. They were studied and their dimensions formed the basis of the standard brick now used for the wall's reconstruction. Millions have been kilned.

So far, one side of the square wall has been rebuilt. At 14 metres high, it's an imposing structure. When the other three sides are finished, in three years, the wall will be more than seven kilometres long.

A three-tiered tower over the eastern gate looks outwards and down onto a barbican. Two mammoth ramparts curve around to meet at a second, outer gate. Pan uses the expression 'catching a turtle in a jar' to explain this feature. It's easy to imagine invaders inside, having breached the outer gate only to be trapped and then flattened by an angry hail of rocks and boiling oil from above.

To the west of the wall, the inner city of Datong is an expanse of single-storey, traditional courtyard dwellings. Most were built in the 50s, together with some higher blocks erected with help from Soviet engineers. This area will be redeveloped next.

At the centre of Geng's grand blueprint is the concept of 'one axis, two cities'. The axis is the River Yu: the old city to the west of the river is earmarked for historical development. With a few exceptions, such as the 60s city hall, the area to the west of the Yu will be flattened. The mock Ming- and Qing-style structures that will be built here will be developed as a cultural showcase of imperial-era lifestyles and art forms, such as paper cutting, furniture making and opera. The hope is Datong will become like Pingyao - a draw for tourists in search of an authentic ancient Chinese experience.

But there are people who will have to make way for this, including a 36-year-old car mechanic who lives with his wife and children in a traditional, ramshackle courtyard house separated from the city wall by a dusty expanse of wasteland used as a rubbish dump. The mechanic, who declines to give his name, says his house has been condemned but he has not been given his marching orders because no replacement accommodation is available.

He says families relocated so far have been compensated not with money but with an apartment in one of the many high-rise blocks under construction outside the city. Although his new home will probably be better than where he lives now, its location will have its disadvantages and he is not looking forward to the move.

Asked for his verdict on mayor Geng, he says, 'He's very charismatic. It's a good thing our city is being restored and the environment improved. But he doesn't care enough for the ordinary people, who will bear most of the burden.'

No officials from the Datong government were available to comment on the rebuilding plan and nobody familiar with Geng's grand vision accepted repeated invitations for interviews.

During the day, the lanes of the old city swarm with activity. Vegetable sellers ply their trade from carts piled high with aubergine, bitter gourds and shiitake mushrooms. Workers at lunch in grimy restaurants knock back baijiu liquor and wolf down steamed buns.

In the evenings, the main road north of Red Flag Square becomes a dusty maelstrom of taxis and scooters. Uygur women hawk hami melons between stalls selling pirated books and cold noodles. The square is crowded with groups of young men playing jianzi, kicking a weighted shuttlecock back and forth.

If Datong's bustling lanes are demolished and its laobaixing ('old hundred names', or common people) relocated, what will happen to the city's soul? When the four square kilometres of the old city have been rebuilt as a cultural zone, will it simply turn into a theme park, lifeless after hours?

'Presenting a historical culture is not like preserving a relic,' says Mao. 'It's not simply a matter of putting an object in a showcase and polishing it from time to time. For a historical culture, you need people who are going to live and work in a place. I don't think people today - especially young people - would feel comfortable living in a medieval environment. They would prefer a modern apartment.'

Mao explains one of the fundamental lessons of his discipline - why planned cities often don't work.

'Given enough time, the superior features of a city will accumulate. They tend to be preserved while mistakes are demolished and replaced,' he says. 'Organic growth is best. Every era of buildings has its own worth. That is the richness of any city.'

A planned city built in an old, historical style will present its own set of challenges. Successful examples are rare, if there are any at all.

Geng is seen by many Datong residents as the city's saviour. Yet his plans are likely to stir up controversy well into the future.