Distressing China

Xian has a historical district. Actually it has several, and all of them are sort of new. I was not here 20 years ago, but I assume like elsewhere in China the major tourist sights like the Wild Goose Pagoda were here, and you could go into them but right around them would be just an ordinary Chinese neighborhood. This was not a good way to benefit from tourism, so a lot of of these “historic” districts have sprung up. They seem to be getting better at it. One that interested me is the one outside the Forest of Steles (碑林)

You don’t see a lot of foreigners there, since the Forest of Steles is a bunch of big stones with Chinese inscriptions that are all in Chinese. The shopping street seems to be aimed mostly at Chinese tourists, since they sell a lot of calligraphy supplies and such that would perhaps not interest foreigners. They have classical poems written on the ground, which would also not make sense to most foreigners. Wang wei

Still, if your main target is tourists some things are always the same Chinese or foreign. Lots of traditional-looking buildings, narrow streets, etc. Stele street

This one is more recent and a bit better done than some of the others. As I have discussed before, many Chinese sights are much more obviously reconstructed than would be accepted in the West. Xian’s historic district seems to be a bit later (completed in 2009) and they seem to have worked at making things look more authentically old. These hitching posts look weathered. Hitch

I think they may have planted grass on this roof, since it takes a while to grow.1Grass roof

Here is a signpost that is really odd. The top of it looks “old” but the middle section looks like it has been repaired with concrete. Old sign

In fact the whole thing is brand new, as far as I can tell. It seems that what Chinese want for “past -y ness” is starting to become more ‘authentic’ or at least more like what you find elsewhere.

  1. Sorry for the pictures, by the way. It was pouring rain 


  1. I’ve been fascinated by the lack of genuinely old ruins in China, I mean the lack of Europe’s Roman ruins (some of which are nearly intact buildings and roads) and Greek temples, and the various equivalent sites in India. I think even in Mexico you are more likely to find older ruins than in China.

    Is my perception accurate? Is it due to the Chinese building in wood, or due to the upheavals that tended to accompany falls of dynasties?

  2. Ed,

    Your perception is correct. You will see basically no Han or pre-Han buildings in China. Most of the pre-Ming stuff is likely to be Buddhist, since they were more likely to build in stone or brick. Most early Chinese buildings were wood over a rammed earth platform. You can see the platforms sometimes, but that is about it

  3. I was just in Xi’an for a few weeks this summer and the Beilin/Forest of Stelae Museum and the surrounding district was one of my favorite places. When I was at the Shaanxi Provincial Museum I picked up a packet of postcards to send to different people back home. The one card I kept was of the Drum Tower because it still showed houses sitting right up next to it and not the modern plaza with the Starbucks. For me its an interesting testimony to how transient things are in Xi’an, and therefore I would predict in some other major urban areas in China as well.

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