Beijing (1950s) / Liang Sicheng – a Saint or Utopian

In the early 1950s, against demolishing the city wall of Beijing, other voices included modifying the wall into a high-speed streetcar system, modifying the gate towers into museums or connecting the city walls with adjacent areas into greenbelts (Lu, 2006, p. 133). Among these proposals, the Three-Dimension Park supported by Liang Sicheng was the most famous. With a 10-metre-wide footpath on top of the city wall, gate towers refurbished into reading rooms and teahouses, moat for skating in winter and fishing in summer, the utopian image of this Three-Dimensional Park sounded fascinating.

In fact, Liang Sicheng wrote extensively for the preservation of the legacy of Beijing city in the early 1950s, yet many of his utopian blueprints were denied. Beijing went through revolutionary changes exactly against the will of Liang Sicheng. The old Beijing was chosen to be reconstructed rather than preserved intact.

Because of the denial of the Liang-Chen Poposal, Liang Sicheng became a hero of pathos in the eyes of the later generations. Many of us, as modern-time reviewers, are used to interpreting the story in such a version that Liang Sicheng was the only one conscious and conscientious when all other architects, politicians and engineers were ignorant and that he fought to deter the tragedy yet in vain because of that stupid political environment.

Nowadays, Beijing faces numerous urban dilemmas that distress its citizens. When this city troubles us, many of us are used to complaining about the decision maker in the 1950s and conjecturing that Liang Sicheng’s proposal could have saved us from this misery and suffering. The fact is that, when people have tasted the negative consequences of one decision, the alternative one, which was abandoned, was likely to be yearned and even sainted; people then feel painfully regretted for not having chosen the alternative one as if that alternative was unassailably perfect.

When ethical inclination overrides objective intellect, the logic threatens to be wrong. When Liang Sicheng failed, people make him as the symbol of justice and praise him as a saint, getting self-gratification out of their lyric expression of Liang Sicheng’s pain. The process of this interpretation, in my opinion, is overly emotional and thus somewhat naïve.

The Liang-Chen Proposal can be in fact far from being mature. It may lack implementing condition in the initial period of New China, both economically and mentally. In that era of scarcity, the feasibility of Liang-Chen Proposal can be serious doubted. Especially after the Korean War broke out in 1950 when scarcity was even aggravated, the abortion of Liang-Chen Proposal would be a historic necessity even if it had started (Zhu, 2014). Plus, even if the ancient Beijing city were preserved under Liang Sicheng’s will, different types of ambivalence might still be faced up during the later stage of evolution of the city (Lou, 2014). Similar to many utopian planners, Liang Sicheng constructed his theory on the basis of thorough optimism, neglecting the material restrictions and believing in the goodness of human beings. Like Ebenezer Howard and like Tony Garnier, he assumed that human beings shall end up with a perfect balance between development and quality living, yet a system in perfect balance never exists – balance is accidental while contradiction is eternal.

Imagine that if Liang Sicheng were lucky enough to realize his proposal of heritage preservation, would we regret nowadays, as well, that the Soviet proposal was denied and that China missed the golden opportunity of industrial development? Would we then complain about the city wall that had survived in Liang Sicheng’s preservation?

And isn’t it arbitrary to surmise an alternative world that “could have being perfect”?

 

Bibliography:

Lu, D. (2006). Remaking Chinese Urban Form: Modernity, Scarcity and Space, 1949–2005. New York: Routledge.

Zhu, T. (2014). Liang Sicheng and His Era. Guangxi: Guangxi University Press.

Lou, Q. (2014). Liang Sicheng is not a saint. the Beijing News.

2 Comments on “Beijing (1950s) / Liang Sicheng – a Saint or Utopian

  1. Wow…I really like this one. Someday I commented on Kelly’s post and I said that it truly was a tragedy that the city wall was demolished, however there must have been a reason that they removed it. This post has a deep understanding about humanity, and can view Liang’s idea more objectively. You wrote about the shortage of Liang’s blue print, but then I’m curious that what was the good effect of demolishing the city wall…

    • Thanks for your comment! I actually agree that the demolition of the city wall was a pity, but I think the preservation itself of the city wall needs financial and educational support. Especially in a period when residents themselves already started to remove bricks and soil out of the city wall because of the shortage of material and mental immaturity of the public. The city wall might be demolished throughout the accumulation of such piecemeal and chaotic destruction even if the government did not ask for the demolition. Preserving the city wall needs providing the public with sufficient building material and architectural education, which was difficult when in 1950s China was only on the starting point of its way towards modernity as a third world country. There were other reasons like political reasons out of ideology and engineer’s reasons for traffic efficiency, all of which could be doubted though, but the price on preservation itself was a solid problem in my opinion. I was elaborating on the topic concerning the city wall in another post of mine if you would like to have a look, haha!

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