architectural thinking — from the nanjing sun yat-sen memorial to luohu train station

One of the highlights of the XLarch Masterplanning the Future Conference was Wang Yun (王昀)’s keynote speech that periodized the development of Chinese style architecture, arguing for an internationalist approach to architecture, rather than an ideologically charged use of architectural symbols.

As an architectural style, Chinese classicism was invented by western trained architects who upon returning to Nationalist China received commissions to build “Chinese style (中华风格)” buildings during the decade of 1927-1937. These buildings had large, Chinese style roofs, windows and decorative details, and sometimes included stylized gardens. The Nationalist capital, Nanjing was the location of some of the most important examples of this style as well because commissions not only represented individual client preferences, but also the determination of government leaders to create a recognizable Chinese public architecture.

One of the most important examples of Chinese classicism is the Nanjing Sun Yat-sen Memorial, which was designed by one of China’s first starchitects, Lv Yanzhi (吕彦直). Lv also also designed the Guangzhou Sun Yat-Sen Memorial before his untimely death in 1929. The Nanjing Memorial reinterprets traditional themes through choice of material (reinforced concrete and mosaic tiles) and through the secularization of traditional symbols (animals become geometric shapes, for example). In addition, the Memorial layout abstracts and represents Nationalist China as the difficult realization of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s three principles of the people (三民主义) — nationalism, democracy, and public welfare. To reach the Memorial proper, for example, there are 392 steps going upward, each step representing one million Chinese, and together representing the population of nationalist China. These steps are broken by eight flat platforms, which represent the fragmentation of China by warlords and civil war. However, when one looks back on the stairs, all one sees is a flat surface, an optical illusion that promises national unification.

The Nanjing Sun Yat-Sen Memorial provides a lexicon for understanding Chinese Classicism during the Nationalist era, including the reference to the Lincoln Memorial (1920) by way of the seated figure of Dr. Sun (1926-29). Not unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Lincoln statue also dominates a neo-classical building, albeit through references to Greek architecture. Indeed, both the Sun Yat-sen and Lincoln Memorials use the respective classicism of their countries to assert timeless governance, even as they commemorate leaders who governed countries divided by civil war.  I show the following images of the Nanjing Memorial with the caveat that they are not architectural — an architectural photo has amazing resolution, geometric composition, and absolutely no people, unless, of course, the figure contributes to architectural exegesis. My snaps, however, aim to emphasize just how popular this site is and thus how it continues to shape the visceral experience of being in “China” through a particular architectural style.

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How does the Nanjing Memorial relate to Shenzhen?

This architectural lexicon has been picked up, tweaked and redeployed throughout Shenzhen, but as a private rather than public source of architectural symbols. The Luohu Train Station is the only exemplar of public Chinese Classicism that has been built in Shenzhen in the Reform Era. The other large example of post Reform classicism is the Hongfa Temple in Fairy Park, which is arguably political in its adamant denial of any political message. Certainly, in its assertion of the reintroduction of official religion to civic life, Fahong was as ideologically charged as the train station, which signaled China’s opening to capitalist countries. However, with the exception of these two buildings, Chinese Classicism in Shenzhen is limited to decoration in urban villages, where many handshakes have tiled roofs, restaurants, and the odd sculpture, such as Nvwa Holding up the Sky in Shekou, which is a socialist realist rendering of a mythic theme.

All this is interesting because given the explicit modernism of Shenzhen’s public architecture, the rediscovery or explicit use of Chinese tradition and roots are often used in neoliberal arguments for alternative forms of architecture and historic preservation. Chiwan comes to mind as do struggles for some form of preservation in urban villages. These efforts contextualize the design and construction of key civic architecture, including the Civic Center and central axis, which has the ideological expression of Reform and Opening (here, here, and here). Importantly, both the relentless modernization of Reform era public buildings and the alternative movement to construct a classical past for Shenzhen ignore Maoism, which nevertheless continues to inform the built environment.

yes, we’re grumbling . . . (about recent web closings and what not)

It’s been a while since I’ve translated a text message, but as those at the Center scramble for power and internet access became extremely dodgy three days ago, text messaging has become more a more reliable source of information. Sigh. Indeed, the long text that follows speaks to the dissatisfaction and resignation that often creeps into daily conversations; it certainly hints at the extent to which non-compliance and minor sabotage may characterize administrative and business life throughout Shenzhen, and Shenzhen I’m told, is one of the “easiest” places in China to achieve one’s goals in the public sphere.



Principles of “resolving the issue” Chinese style

The Secretary resolves leaders’ problems, the economy resolves political problems, appeal [to others] to resolve foreign relations, peace resolves military problems, the Party resolves non-Party problems, scams resolve problems of understanding, political movements resolve moral problems, supervision resolves cultural problems, policy implementation resolves market problems, printing money resolves the debt problem, municipal administration resolves social problems, banquets resolve face problems, forced razing resolves construction problems, planning resolves birth problems, “my father is more important than your father” resolves future problems [qiantu puns “road” and “future direction”], the lottery resolves problems of getting rich, low quality resolves the medical situation, adulteration resolves food and drink problems, discharging waste water resolves education problems, shanzhai production resolves science and technology problems, plagiarism resolves education problems, sleeping together resolves movie star problems, singing songs resolves military rank problems, gangsters resolve public safety problems, buying a political appointment resolves promotion problems, corrupt officials resolve anti-corruption problems, expropriation resolves stock market problems, blocking the internet resolves public opinion problems, “I believe” testimonials resolve doubts, muddying the waters resolves harmonious society problems, weapons of the weak resolve problems of realizing the people’s will. . . and to resolve problems of staying in touch, let’s text!

weibo protests Shenzhen police action against migrant workers

Follow-up on last post: there have been weibo posts about Shenzhen’s decision to force 80,000 people out of the city.  Of note, the incident has led to Lu Xun spirited condemnations of “Chinese character”. A few translations from the past 1/2 hour:

Shi Shusi‘s summery: 深圳为了确保大运会顺利举办,确定“黑八类”予以驱逐本身是个闹剧,而不少人在俺的博客留言对此政策表示拥护则是个杯具。他们不是神马强势阶层,仅仅有幸没被列入驱逐黑名单——类似阿Q面对更弱的小D,肆意欺凌,没有任何慈悲和怜悯。这证明深圳此举是有一定群众基础的,这有些令人绝望。

In order to insure safety at the Universiade, determining “a playoff list” to determine who is banished is a farce, and many people posted that those upholding the policy were in a bad play [sic]. The ones upholding the policy aren’t the advantaged, but rather the lucky ones who didn’t get black listed — like when A Q faced the even weaker Little D, wantonly humiliating him, without compassion or sympathy. This shows that the policy has a wide base, making some people despair.

  • 说明当权者成功的一面。许多人不知不觉中成为阿斗,成为帮凶,到自己也深受其害是才发觉周围已没有人再为自己呐喊了,华夏民族的悲哀。This just goes to show one side of success. Many aren’t aware that they’ve become fools and accomplices until they discover that there is no one around to yell for help when they are in trouble. This is the sadness of Chinese people.