On Nov. 18 last year, the western city wall of Datong, an industrial sprawl home to more than 3 million in northern China’s Shanxi province, was buzzing with activity as a throng of people gathered to celebrate its completion. The wall’s restoration spanned eight years and was the result of colossal investment from the municipal government.
Local media have tended to view the wall as a milestone in Datong’s ongoing transition from its traditional role as an industrial city to a tourist destination. A popular tourist route now winds its way through the city and its surroundings, beginning with the Buddhist grottoes of Yungang to the northwest, skirting the Huayan and Shanhua temples in the city center, on toward the Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple in Ying County, around 100 kilometres to the south, and finally to the Hanging Temple in the city’s southeast.
Few people are aware, though, that in 1933, two of China’s greatest architects, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, followed this exact route while investigating Shanxi’s ancient architectural structures. That year, they were accompanied by Liu Dunzhen, a leading researcher of ancient architecture, and Mo Zongjiang, who at the time was Liang Sicheng’s main assistant but later became a famous architectural historian in his own right. Their enthusiastic participation was a testament to the esteem that the Society for Research in Chinese Architecture (SRCA) has for Datong.
From the fourth to the sixth centuries, Datong was the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty. Later, it became the western capital of the Liao and Jin dynasties. However, by the time Liang and Li led their expedition to Datong, the city had fallen on hard times. In his later report on the expedition, Liang described how, when visiting the Yungang Grottoes, the four explorers had to hole up in a nearby hovel belonging to a family of peasants. The dwelling had no windows or doors, leaving it exposed to the bitter cold of northern Shanxi’s winter nights. After a night spent huddling together for warmth, the team awoke to find themselves chilled to the bones.
Keeping the team fed was another problem. After their first day of surveying Shanhua Temple, the historians couldn’t find a single restaurant in the whole city. With no other option, they bought some flatbread, which they munched on in the back of their truck. The next day, a government official took them to the restaurant where their meals for the next few days — noodle soup, three times a day — would be prepared.
Liang and Lin spent three days surveying the Yungang Grottoes and six days sketching Ying County’s Sakyamuni Pagoda. Then, for the remaining 20 days, they made detailed sketches of nine architectural structures at Huayan and Shanhua temples, and surveyed three Ming-era lookouts and bell towers in Datong’s city center.
Before embarking on their journey to Datong, neither Liang nor Lin had predicted just how groundbreaking their findings would prove to be. For example, they discovered that part of Lower Huayan Temple had been built as long ago as the 11th century, during the Liao Dynasty. At the time, the society knew of only one older wooden structure: the Guanyin Pavilion of Dule Temple, near Tianjin on the coast.
In 2004, I took a trip to Datong. By then, the city had become a bustling and prosperous town and a strategic hub in China’s booming industrial development. Of the ancient structures that Liang and Lin had sketched way back in the 1930s, only the Haihui Hall of Lower Huayan Temple had been totally destroyed, back in the early ’50s. It was reassuring to see that so much of the region’s ancient architecture had survived the ravages of the Mao era, when many relics were razed in the name of socialist progress. Unfortunately, however, the once awe-inspiring city wall lay in ruins, while its ancient gates and lookout towers had disappeared without a trace.
In 1933, Liang took an aerial photo of Shanhua Temple. Although the courtyard was surrounded by a chaotic jumble of crude urban dwellings, the four halls still stood tall and majestic against the city skyline. When I made my first trip seven decades later, I climbed the ruins of the wall near where the south gate used to be and attempted to take an expansive photo of Shanhua Temple from a similar angle. The temple looked the same as always, but now it was encircled by soaring skyscrapers. Just behind the Hall of Sakyamuni was a brand-new shopping mall, an immense glass curtain glistening under the sun. The temple, which for over 900 years had loomed over the city, now seemed so unspectacular and plain.
Standing on the crumbling battlements of the city wall, I couldn’t help but think that if the old quarters hadn’t been torn down, if Datong’s development had been more sensitively managed and urban planners had respected its history, then perhaps Datong would still be as breathtakingly beautiful today.
I never suspected, however, that Datong’s lost relics could be reproduced — though that is exactly what happened. Beginning in 2008, Datong’s municipal government began an ambitious urban revival movement whose core focus was the restoration of the city’s Ming-era wall. This once-imposing edifice and its moat were built in 1372, but were reduced to rubble in the 1950s as locals tore down the remnants of China’s imperial past. Who would have thought that 60 years later, a movement with the exact opposite purpose would sweep across the nation, and that this movement would be led by Datong?
An outside view of Liang Sicheng Memorial Hall in Datong, Shanxi province, March 17, 2015. Courtesy of Gu Cun
In the past decade, I have visited Datong many times. With each visit, I’ve seen the city wall’s brick veneer rise, layer by layer, until its restoration was finally completed last November. In addition to repairing the wall, Datong’s municipal government also demolished newer buildings in favor of replicating older ones: In the city center, new structures have been supplanted by replicas of the former four-arched gates and bell towers. Not only have the Huayan and Shanhua temples been revamped, but several new temples have also recently been erected.
Once defined by its disorderly urban planning and poor environment, Datong’s ever-changing image has led to a more nuanced debate about China’s historical revivalist movement. Supporters of urban regeneration praise the movement for protecting the city’s traditional culture, giving their hometown a much-needed face-lift, and improving the environment in which the city’s residents live. Critics, however, say that the movement is a waste of money and labor, that the restored buildings don’t live up to their former glory, and that the municipal government has failed to properly compensate and relocate displaced residents.
Organizers claim that Datong’s renovation project has realized the dream that Liang conceived for Beijing’s old city back in the 1930s: to protect the city walls and ancient city center, and to develop new suburbs outside the city to ensure that modern architecture does not clash with the old. In recognition of Liang’s influence, the city of Datong has built a memorial hall in his name, just outside the east gate of the city wall.
Standing in the memorial hall, where construction was completed in 2011, I can’t help but wonder what Liang would think about the replication of Datong’s old city. Perhaps we can view its reconstruction as a tribute to Liang’s contribution to Chinese architectural history. From the outset, however, the restoration project was always a belated attempt to restore a sense of history to a city that tragically laid waste to its own past. Surely Liang would have preferred to see Datong’s ancient relics protected according to a clear, coherent plan, instead of the somewhat sterile replicas that now occupy the old sites. But at least these replicas are better than nothing.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Traditional and modern buildings stand side by side in Datong, Shanxi province, Nov. 9, 2014. Li Kun for Sixth Tone)