Why Buddha Laughed

China's first laughing Buddha, Felai Feng Gottoes, Lingyin Temple, Zhejiang

China’s first laughing Buddha, Felai Feng Gottoes, Lingyin Temple, Zhejiang

The Chan — Zen — sect runs China’s wealthiest temple. Near ritzy Hangzhou (subject of this Beauty, Crowds, Wealth, Beauty post), called Lingyin, 1,700 years old, English name “Soul’s Retreat.” It’s a wooded valley in the Wulin Mts., along a stream tourists were wading in. The cliff walls rising beside it were carved 1,000+ years ago into amazing Buddha reliefs, two of which laugh heartily, big ‘bellies large enough to contain everything in the world that people cannot bear.’

Smaller of the two laughing Buddhas at Lingyin Si

Smaller of the two laughing Buddhas at Lingyin Si

In its heyday (around 900), the temple and monastery held 3,000 monks. It has been destroyed either 10 or 16 times: in ’26 during the warlords period. In ’66 the Red Guards tried to destroy it, but the locals lined up and had a standoff that August, (they also pasted Mao posters on the cliff carvings) until Zhou Enlai closed it, for its protection.

Felai Feng grottoes, LIngyin Si: Beautiful carvings, about 1,000 AD

Felai Feng grottoes, LIngyin Si: Beautiful carvings, about 1,000 AD

Lingyin: The famous Guanyin (Kwan Yin) tryptich

Lingyin: The famous Guanyin (Kwan Yin) tryptich

The temple halls beside here ascend the mountain, and hold China’s largest wooden Buddha (circa 1954, covered in gold), at 82 feet. The temple hall is the tallest single-storey building, with apparently, an 110′ ceiling. It’s widely called the country’s “wealthiest” and the most important Buddhist temple in Southeastern China. Since ’00 it has held an important library of Sutras.

Deng Xioping regularly came here, and Jiang Zemin apparently personally calligraphied the tablet inscription out front.

But why DOES Buddha laugh? This is a far cry from the somber, tranquil, otherworldly Buddhas we normally see. It is also a very Chinese image. Aside from the famous quote (belly holding what is intolerable), and “He laughts at him who deserved to be laughed at”…what’s the origin of this character? This embodiment?

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou

Kenny and Felai Feng grotto buddha, Lingyin Si         (Jill was here)  (Jill was here)

There’s a local (now widely known) folktale about a magical wanderer with a big belly, who worked wonders. He carried a cloth sack of treats, candies and fruit that he gave to children and the hungry. At his death, it was revealed he was a Buddha. He is revered  as the laughing Buddha, protector of the poor and weak, Buddha of happiness, generosity and wealth, and in Shintoism (where the tale is local) as well as in Taoism where he is the God of Abundance.

He is one of about 330 carvings here, considered the best in the South along with Dazu (subject of a post last year) near Chongqing. (Once led by fallen Mayor Bo Xilai “Bye-bye Bo Xilai”– whose son Bo Guagua was, The Times reported today, is to attend Columbia Law School. With what funding, no one is quite sure.)

China's largest wooden Buddha, Lingyin Si near HAngzhou

China’s largest wooden Buddha, Lingyin Si near HAngzhou

Lingyin Si bamboo forest

Temple curtains

Temple curtains

It is Chan (Zen) Buddhism, maker of mysterious koans. Here is one from Lingyin Si, inscribed as part of a couplet on a pavillion sitting beside the brook:

“When does the spring become cold?”

lingyin 2 beautiful carvings

Teacher, Friend, Son of Artists

Xiao Xiao's mother's art

Xiao Xiao’s mother’s art

Kenny art vincents mother2art vincents motherhad a wonderful “tutor” in Qingdao who took care of him while I was teaching, a part of the university compensation (which was also room & board and a lot of lovely perks like trips, and kindnesses like dinners); you could say it that way. Or it was a part of Chinese hospitality. Or it was part of an authoritarian system we saw in Beijing, where students are ‘volunteered’ time-consuming institutional duties that are anything but voluntary.

Upshot, this magnificent young man, a grad student (they say “post-graduate”) in translation specializing in the petroleum industries, and his fiancee, same field, were our companions and especially, Xiao Xiao and Kenny were often together. He kicked Kenny’s ass in badmitton, and recruited guys to play basketball at all hours of the day and night. They ate in Sichuan, Dongbei, and local restaurants around campus. They made silly movies using an iPad app.

And we learned Xiao Xiao’s parents are both noted artists: his father has a studio at Beijing’s 798 and runs an art complex there. His mother’s work (above) is traditional style, and she’s a calligrapher.

And his father’s work is below. His grandmother in Fujian was a village teacher. His grandfather hid the village’s “cultural relics”–treasures from the temple — during the Cultural Revolution, and suffered terribly as a result. Now the relics are in temples and museums.

art vincent's father

Interfaith Work, JuBu style?

Craftsman, Aleppo souk, Syria

It’s not the first year I spoke from the bima (platform) during High Holy Days, but it was my first time leading a meditation, JuBu style! Happy! I stole it from the JuBu Institute for Jewish Spirituality* . I don’t think they’ll mind.

I led 3 services for older kids, on Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, and people didn’t end up hating me. They didn’t yell anti-Arab insults, or pelt me with hate-mail, as after my earlier experiences on the bima. It all didn’t contribute to my leaving the synagogue eventually. So this was big. And I trace it to China. In a roundabout way…

We talk about the akeda these holidays–the binding of Isaac, the famous/awful Biblical tale of Abraham taking his precious boy to a mountaintop prepared to sacrifice him. Religious violence supreme (at least potentially; he never does it), a topic never more relevant, more potent, more begging to be talked about than that very week, when Islamist fanatics killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and two other young men working there. The temptation, irresistible to many on the Jewish-supremicist end of things, is to say, ‘Well, clearly our God spares Isaac. Our religion values life. We don’t kill innocents.’

My take has long been very different. Let’s look within. Let’s look at our tribe. Today especially, at what our long-prayed-for homeland has become. And how amazing I finally found a rabbi, my rabbi, who explained that there is a way to say this from the bima without making everyone hate you. Step one, be generic.

“Say ‘We know every religious community at times has engaged in inexcusable political violence,’ ” he said. The only reason we don’t do it ourselves these days, perhaps, is that “we’re not deeply religious enough to be seduced by this.” But we still have to watch out. We’re capable of it ourselves, for sure. And we have to recognize we’re capable of it–that, in  his words, “hatred and violence is not one-directional. Rosh Hashanah is that saving grace that reminds us, is the necessary cleansing process telling us, not to think that killing is what god wants.”

Step two is, paraphrasing the Pirkei Avot: “It’s not a mitzvah or to say things that won’t be heard.”

It’s just ego to be up there pushing buttons.

We get to riff on the Torah portion, this is expected. I’d wanted to talk about settler violence against Palestinians, now officially “terrorism” to the U.S. State department. Many died in these rampages last year; about 200 were wounded. Just a week before, a roving gang of young Jewish settler terrorists left a boy in critical condition.

Rabbi said no. To be heard, change the victim this time. Start slow. Talk about the recent spate of ultra-Orthodox Jewish attacks on Israeli girls and women–spitting on an 8-year-old girl for not dressing modestly enough. Move the listener closer to introspection, to understanding, instead of getting up their hackles. Instead of moving them (and myself) farther away. Even if it’s not making exactly my precious (ego’s) point.

And then involve everyone in constructive interfaith work. In November, we’re doing a Jummah (Friday prayers)-Shabbat joint week-end I’m working on, with a mosque here.

I think I could hear this because of China. Lecturing in Xinjiang, spending two days with two Muslim women who were forbidden from going to the mosque, whose kids couldn’t learn their language in Chinese schools, yet who decried the violence there, and who are determined to translate key Turkic texts into Chinese, into English, from their base in big Chinese universities, to preserve what’s being lost. Watching a few of my students dip their toes into an indigenous Buddhism hardly seen since their great-grandparents’ generation. There’s no battle line drawn (any more) between faith and atheism. What would be the point?

Where would I get generating more hostility? It doesn’t end up moving anyone.

*I learned about the Institute for Jewish Spirituality from my friend, “Sisterhood” blogger Debra Nussbaum Cohen around the time of this post.

This week’s tragic destruction of the ancient souk of Aleppo has wrenched me. I took these photos there in 1991.

Aleppo souk, 1991

 

Seeing Like Painter Wu Guangzhong

Wu Gorge by Wu Guanzhong

“Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guangzhong” (1970s through early 2000s) is in its last week-end at the Asia Society in NY. We got to see the artist’s landscapes, combining tradition, as he uses old-time ink and rice paper, with abstract contemporary aesthetics, moreso in his later works – huge bold black strokes and colorful confetti points that recall Jackson Pollock. (Wu died at 90 in 2010.)

He was brave. He’d studied in Paris for 3 years and it was potentially fatal during the Cultrual Revolution that he was both Western-influenced and departed from the Socialist Realism demanded of art by that era’s fanaticism. According to the Times review of a few weeks ago, he destroyed a decade’s worth of work before the Red Guards could get to them. Still he went to a labor camp for a few years. Later, he was embraced and flourished at home.

After visiting Chongqing, built now of skyscrapers — so big a city it has the status of a province – but it’s still steeply perched on mountainsides leading down to the Yangtze River, with some old neighborhoods (small) preserved, we really enjoyed Wu’s vision of Old Chongqing:

This is our vision of Ciqikou (磁器口 or Chongqing Ancient Town), not even a recreation but actually real.

Wu also painted Zhouzhuang, a very popular 900-year old village this time in the East, an hour from Shanghai in the river delta, with 14 stone bridges. Sometimes it’s called the “Venice of China.” Here:
We saw it this way (it’s film – shot w/ some weird, probably expired old disposable):

Yesterday I got an email from a former student from the massive southern city of Guangzhou. I mentioned enjoying the hummingbirds & bunnies in my garden in the US. He said he’d seen those — once. So thru Wu’s ink paintings, once again we’re gravitating with a heavy heart to the old, straining to know what has disappeared, and yet feel joy and wonder at how Wu’s vision is at once postmodern and ancient – as China is, all the time.

PS We’re back in the US, but will keep blogging, there’s plenty to write, plus lots from travel in Shanxi and the Mongolias (Inner, Outer) that never went up. If you want an email notice, click “sign me up” on the right. Thank you so much, our 800 or so subscribers, we never expected that. Wish I could serve you all cold sesame noodles.

Chongqing Narratives, Up Close

Night, Chongqing’s Yangtze river shoreline


Chongqing, mid-May, 2 weeks after popular, charismatic governor Bo Xilai (Chongqing city is considered a province) disappeared into some secret jail somewhere, his wife charged with the suspected murder of a British family friend. A month earlier he’d been sacked from his job, with Prime Minister Wen Jiaobo’s ominously announcing that a danger was brewing of a “return to the [chaos of the] Cultural Revolution.” Bo was a “high-flying princeling, a son of one of Chairman Mao’s revolutionary comrades, who hoped to become one of the top nine figures at the Communist Party Congress to be held this autumn” but his pedigree offered no protection. We were jazzed about walking into the scene of this LeCarre novel, excited to see war-time capital Chungking, and the river featured in a 1956 children’s book we read, The House of 6o Fathers, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, about a little Chinese boy swept away in a sampan during the Sino-Japanese war (who befriends a downed U.S. airman from the Flying Tigers, in nearby Hunan).

Narrow old streets by the river


Home of Bo, famed for steep mountainous gorges beside the giant Yantze, capital of the West, Chicago-like, overnight expansion (well, over 10 years) into a hilly wonder of high-rise steel. Sichuan hotpot where even ‘medium’ is a challenge, featuring those great brain-altering peppercorns (we received 5 packages as a gift). It was a chance to think about the politics of the place–about the narratives that have taken hold around Bo, and whether (and how) ours differ from our hosts’, who lived it all up close.

With Fulbrighters Jan & Pat Munday, Montana eco historian

I’ll add that a lecture trip with kids in tow was distracting and cost me focus. But I want them to see China. I wish I could say they’d behaved better. Earlier bedtimes would have helped. Still, they were loved (so people claimed); 4-6 student volunteers minded them over pingpong while I spoke to the largest groups ever, a nice way to finish, at Southwest and Sichuan Foreign Studies U, and having given these talks for 7 months, I have my message down. Laser focus or no, advocating for a watchdog media is as good a message as I could hope to deliver!

The boys and my lecture poster.

The first Bo narrative came from our host, a public health and contagious disease professor who cooperates with UMDNJ, a man so avid about educational exchange, he invited a journalist to talk to his lab! (-and arranged lectures in journalism departments). Each day he assigned 5 different students to accompany us, and be exposed to our crazy Western ways. He described a friend, a higher-up in Bo’s office, who said his boss would phone to rant angrily at 3 or 4 a.m. The words the friend used to describe his boss: bizarre, eccentric, cruel.

Speaking at Sichuan Foreign Affairs U


But our host cared less about that than Bo’s budget. He was glad to see him gone because he considered his public spending fiscally unsound. Did the sacking simply reflect internal Party politicking without wider resonance, or did it embody a shift in course of the giant ship called China? A shift, for sure, he said, for the better.

Banquet; that better not be a beer.

Another Bo narrative you won’t hear, at least we didn’t, in Chongqing: The “FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS” one. I’m wary myself when the insight on China begins that way, as in this FT analysis: “For thousands of years Chinese politics has been punctuated by violent internecine struggles played out behind palace walls but almost never have they spilled out into the public arena in such a spectacular way.”

Audience for my talk. How many U.S. news organizations have shut down?


Then there is “the Chongqing Model is Over” storyline. This is popular in investment bank notes. It suggests the neo-Maoism Bo at least mouthed (who knows what he really believed…) is done for. Like his ‘Sing Red’ campaign (folks in big groups singing old Party hymns outdoors)…we’ve seen that. Like his public investment in low-income housing, perhaps with funds confiscated from capitalist businesses, including 2 expropriated Hilton hotels. (The developer was charged with bribery and prostitution).

Rooves of old Chongqing


I don’t actually buy the “Robin Hood Is Dead” storyline. China’s growing wealth gap is a huge problem, on everyone’s lips. Keeping the lid on discontent will require more, not less, public investment, maybe in housing. And staving off much-feared economic slowdown will require continuing priming of the pump, call it neoWhatever. Third and most importantly, while Chinese President Hu Jintao, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, are on the record opposed to subsidized low-income housing, and all sorts of state-owned-enterprise monopolies (esp in banking, where they’ve strangled small-biz development, for one), SOEs are entrenched power blocs, grown larger and more powerful through mergers, run by supermen. Those vested interests remain a powerful force in favor of more of the same. Bo or no Bo. The students and profs I spoke to in Chongqing agree, particularly about the vested interests part.

Georgie, a partner of UMDNJ.


There’s widespread agreement around the narrative that Bo’s fall Highlights China’s Growing Wealth Gap. Sacking him – whatever micro-secret-faction ultimately triumphs–helps the Party overall save face. Bloomberg reported recently the Bo clan is worth at least $136 million. That “fuels perceptions of corruption in the Communist Party and deepens social tensions over China’s widening wealth gap.” So he had to go. Even if that Ferrari his Harvard son drove only once was borrowed.

Temple, elevated highway, Yangtze


Finally there’s the Bo narrative as the story of The Horrors of Succession Struggles in Secrecy–a storyline where we and the Chinese differ, because for so many here (except the rare out-and-out democracy activist), it’s hard to imagine anything else. For months, from when Bo’s deputy sought asylum at the U.S. embassy in February, till the Bo scandal itself broke in mid-March, Party leaders were utterly silent. Did this mean they were divided? Or is it just how things work when there’s no forum for political debate, no consistent operation where things proceed predictably, according to known laws? Where there’s no public method for hashing out differences in the ‘town square’ (offensive as that dialogue often becomes, in today’s America)? That absence, that silence, is perhaps the most bizarre difference from America you notice and feel here. What’s going on? Who knows. Try checking out the Weibou gossip, which may be true, but who knows? Who’s up and who’s down and why? It’s anybody’s guess. You share links, scan scholarly journals, browse (translated) perhaps-reliable Twitter feeds, for a glimpse of “truth.” Is it? Maybe! Leading up to the October Congress in which 70% of those in power will be replaced here, the stakes are high and good information—reliable, vetted, factual, accurate–is hard as ever to come by, Weibou notwithstanding. And it’s more than weird, it’s scary. As The Economist points out, authoritarian rule through backroom secret deals always carries the scent, the possible edge, of violence. “As recently as 1989, a succession struggle was waged in blood on the streets of Beijing.”

And we were singin’ ‘Bye, bye Bo Xilai. His son don’t drive a Ferrari, he’s a really nice guy.’ And all the Party members were drinking Moutai singing, ‘This’ll be the day my career dies. This will be the day my career dies’…”

Wedding Photo Shoots

As we passed these shoots in a Beijing park, one after another, kids seemed surprised they weren’t traditional Chinese weddings.


They’re surprised mainstream Western things (McDonald’s, poufy white dresses) are fashionable, though they seem mundane or trite to us.

Cultural imperialism — & China’s century of cataclysmic breaks from its past — aside (if that aside makes any sense), Chinese things seem much more interesting & precious than they’re treated.  We’d have expected more overt appreciation.

Girl Talk

Mao banned long hair.

We only discuss important things at class lunches–food, flowers, whether moving overseas solves a mid-20s life crisis (yes).

But here are 3 bits I’ve observed lately:

1) Underarm lightening deodorant.
All the big Western brands — like bullshit artist Dove — market these. Advertise them constantly, and skin lighteners generally, including some banned in the West (or, about which warnings have been issued regarding known dangers). Disgusting. But just for the underarms. Really?

2) Hair and more hair.
I did the math: 98% of my women students have long hair, really long. I looked into it. Women were required to cut their hair short during the Cultural Revolution (and wear men’s clothes, preferably fatigues, a ‘glorious’ look being in fashion, while girly-ness was bourgeois). Make up was also banned. For little girls, no ribbons or bows. That construction of femininity was politically repressed. So the long hair, the teensy high voices, the high heels you see absurdly walking up mountainsides? Political statement right back at ya.

3) Undies
People who decry China’s lack of innovation have clearly not seen northern-Chinese women’s longjohns stores (whole stores), remarked on earlier. The elaborate variety is hard to describe – shapes, colors, fabrics, amounts of padding, levels of dressiness, with body-molding to make you bigger or smaller in six different ways…while keeping you warm. But it’s spring now and guess what, non-longjohn undies are even more amazing. Not (at least around campus) so much black lace, goth-vampire. I mean kaleidoscopic gumball craziness. So bright, so fun, so wacky-cartoony, so anime. I have no interpretation yet. Just throwing it out there!

Dumpling girl!

Beijing, Destroyed

Beijing Central Busn. District


In the aftermath of Xi’s visit to the U.S., some thoughts on China–trying to understand its exercise of power, self-reinvention through destruction … the meaning of all this new-ness all around in this rising superpower. From my vantage point in Beijing, on my 6-month anniversary here.

Take the Marais, the Latin Quarter, Montmartre in Paris, so many parts of London, Rome, NY’s W. Village or the Meatpacking District, Copenhagen’s Medieval quarter — great cities, alive, conjuring a sense, an experience, of history. You walk it, see it, feel it. Same with the Middle East’s walled medinas — Jerusalem and Cairo, Aleppo and Damascus, Fez and Marrakesh.

Old City Wall of Fez, Morocco

Not so Beijing.

You’ll look hard to find China’s ancient majesty. It’s tucked away, almost an amusement park. Beijing has cool new buildings (the Olympics’ Bird’s Nest and Water Cube; CCTV “Big Underpants”) but what most characterizes Beijing is…miles and miles of already-cracking nondescript newness. Ugly flyovers across 8-lane mid-city highways. It seems contradictory yet Beijing is overpopulated yet barren. Beijing, despite China’s amazing excitement and energy, the humor and art, vitality, great food, is largely depressing if you love cities. Just try to find a pedestrian route through this seemingly improvised sprawl.

“Beijing is defined by congestion, lack of public spaces, discontinuous neighborhoods,” writes Michael Meyer, author of the excellent The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (2008). Which this post is all about.

Beijing from the Jing Guang Bldg

Meyers explains why it’s so bad, while chronicling the razing of Beijing’s few, precious, surviving old neighborhood alleys (or hutong). (It must be said that original hutong homes have no plumbing; residents use public bathrooms. I don’t ever idealize that kind of poverty and hardship. They needed to be renovated–not demolished.)

Chinese for "Destroy," painted by authorities


Why has Beijing been destroyed? Meyer’s research found, for starters, there was (& remains) comparatively little professional capacity, relative to the need: No Chinese architecture department until about 1930. “Building” long considered a lowly trade. Few decision-makers even now understand preservation, sustainable development and planning (re: resource use — god let’s hope that’s changing fast), nor architectural heritage. Some important advocates raised loud voices here; big-name Western foundations offered expertise, to no avail. Or too little, too late. China, built of wood, rotted away.

From Meyer. Why Old Beijing was destroyed:


1. It reminded people of feudalism, which they hated.

European architecture carries you to different eras. (A cathedral is “a portal back to a specific time and its politics, arts, ethics, economy.”) In China, materials and design remained largely unchanged for 2,000 years. It’s all about one hated period: feudalism.


2. The city had a celestial function. Once obsolete, no reason to save it.

Beijing for millennia had a cosmic raison d’etre. “European cities grew organically [around] food production, transportation, and governance.” Not so Chinese cities, Meyer explains. Planned from scratch as administrative centers, great cities simply were home to a high-ranking official. A capital “existed as a medium for the emperor to communicate with the universe through rites, balancing the harmony between the celestial and the earthly.” Harmonizing yin and yang forces, feng shui, the Earth’s five elements. Confucian hierarchy, Taoist balance, determined layout and location. When beliefs died, there was no reason to save the infrastructure, preserve the history, salvage the urban grid or revisit traditional design.

Old Beijing



3. A century (the 20th) of self-hating envy of the West

In the early 1900s, many Chinese studied in America (including Sun Yat-Sen’s son, Sun Ke, who went to UCLA and Columbia) and came home to modernize the southern port, Guangzhou (Canton), with deputies likewise trained in America, “where the nation’s wide, paved roads designed for cars made a lasting impression. On their return, they ordered the pulling down of Guangzhou’s 800-year-old wall…[even as Canadian and American architects] urged an adaptive architecture [melding] modern engineering with traditional Chinese building traits.”

Chaoyang, Beijing (CCTV Bldg)



4. Embarrassment at China’s poverty.

Rich Americans seek out high-priced old Amish barn siding: it’s a precious decorative accent. Here old wood = slum. “You must understand the terrible inferiority complex that comes with poverty. The only desire is to look modern.”

CCTV Building, "Big Underpants"



5. Successive Chinese empires wiped out what they conquered.

The tradition of razing goes back to the emperors. Conquer-and-raze was a millenia-old tradition.

Wall remnant; Beijing


6. War


7. The Cultural Revolution


Of course. “Destroy the old world; Forge the new world.” Along with torture, murder, and public humiliation, Red Guards vandalized or burned down an astonishingly large fraction of China’s heritage. Many temples have been (are being) rebuilt and restored. I lack data but they’re a small bit of what was lost. We look hard to find and visit them, as do many Chinese tourists and pilgrims.


8. Communist (sometimes Soviet) ideology.

Beijing had two rings of walls: the inner surrounding the imperial palace, the outer around the city. A 1953 city government declaration said the Old City walls “serve feudalism and the imperial era.” Soon the outer was gone. (A crusading architect at the time, Liang Sicheng, said it felt “like having my skin torn off my bones.” He was in the papers this week when his own home was razed, despite its status as “an irreplaceable cultural relic.” [See under: “Rule of Law, problems with”.])

Beijing City Wall Museum

In 1953, under the CCP slogan, “Learn everything from the Soviet Union” a cadre declared (per Meyer), “The major danger is an extreme respect for old architecture.” So went not just wall but gate towers, ceremonial arches. He quotes a People’s Daily (CCP party organ) editorial of 1957: “The people all want to use their hands to destroy! You destroy a gray brick, I’ll pull down a piece of stone. Citizens of every district help pull down the wall.” Today, instead of gates, gargantuan intersections. Meyer found that Soviet advisers actually urged preservation of parts of the wall, to no avail.

A few years ago, about a kilometer was reconstructed — between a highway and a housing block.

Beijing City Wall remnant


9. ‘Urban renewal’ (quote-unquote) — hastened by the Olympics.

With Beijing’s Old and Dilapidated Housing Renewal program, “Neighborhoods that had survived the fall of imperial rule, the Republican era’s modernizations, Japanese occupation, and Mao’s industrialization fell to a faceless foe. The Hand moved through the hutong after dark, surreptitiously marking courtyard homes ‘Destroy.’ ”

A typical hutong (alley)


10. And why does it happens so fast? Party politics. Bureaucrats’ ambition..

Meyer explains: “Rapid clear-cutting [is] the preferred method over selective thinning of buildings. “It’s about time… Speed. For the officials in charge, the faster they demolish old structures and begin new projects, the faster they can declare to those above them, ‘Look what I’ve accomplished.’ There are no paths to career advancement for ‘Look what I saved.’ ”

Consumerism in mod malls, says a famous, gifted Chinese architect (hutong-raised, trained at Berkeley, who hated the dead suburbs he saw in America, and now is head of architecture at MIT) — isn’t just a priority. Newness, consuming, is a way of life. Not of the opiate, brainwashing, shallow sort. Though it may devour 7 earths (that don’t exist), Chinese postmodern self-expression through consumerism is about choice where none existed before. It’s about experiencing freedom, exploring a new world. Life for once as a series of open possibilities.

The world’s robust new superpower, embodied in Beijing destroyed, is managing its own fate.

Another City, Old & New (Xiamen)

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