Wang Di was born in Beijing in 1963 and has seldom left the city in the following years. His experience and his photography fundamentally problematises our western understanding of what is traditional in China’s capital. ‘I didn’t manage to catch a glimpse of the ‘old Beijing’ that people have been talking about,’ says the photographer. The first round of urban refurbishment in the 1950s had turned the decorated archways and the old City Wall Gate into history, rarely to be glimpsed even in text books. According to Di, during the Cultural Revolution, when everything old was supposed to make way for the new, it was difficult to find even a photo of those things.
Di says: “The ordinary architecture in my mind, such as the mass-constructed Russian style offices and residential buildings of the ’50s, the simple housing of the ’60s and during the Cultural Revolution (they are shabby both in form and in function because of the extremely tight budget), and the generic residential condos that sprouted up in the ’70s, made stronger marks in my visual memory than the so-called Ten Great Buildings or other famous urban landscape. They were directly relevant to my daily life, and deep down in my heart, they constituted some of the warmest images of this city.”
For a generation of Chinese the demolition of this unassuming architecture creates a rupture of memory and of identity, even if people would prefer to forget the past. Of course the rapid economic development in the past ten years or so has drastically changed the look of Beijing. Ordinary buildings are often the first to be bulldozed in the mass urban demolition. The situation has direct effect on the basic living environment of Beijing and the way individuals identify with it. Di says he now worries that he won’t be able to identify with his home city some day, without ever having left it. ‘It’s this fear that prompted me to photograph these buildings and this fading Beijing in my memory, a city that belongs to me,’ he says.
Yet it is not simple nostalgia at work here. The Chinese built these buildings to established Soviet principles of square footage would be allotted per capita. Ideologically, these were equivalent to the new Soviet architecture. They were designed for functionary organs of the national government, and built upon Soviet ideals of community. For the large part they weren’t popular, at least in Beijing, because they exceeded the average income of commoners. They were also as much of an imposition in their time as is the current wave of Westernisation. In their time, they were a symbol of power for the new China. They were the new Beijing. Half a century later, and things have changed. In his novel Discussions With our Daughter the writer Wang Shuo describes the city’s Soviet architecture: ‘whoever wants to see the fundamental changes that have happened in China over the past several decades, I take them to west Beijing to see how the former cornerstone of the regime lives nowadays.”
Nostalgia is not always an option. Some people want to see these buildings torn down for what they represent.