The other day I went to the American Consulate in Guangzhou and, before returning to Shenzhen, I visited the Western Han Nanyue King Museum. Like my visit to Xi’an, this visit helped clarified some of the contradictions that animate the construction of Shenzhen by indexing both national trends and regional specificity.
Located on Jiefang Bei Road in Guangzhou, the Museum of Zhao Mei, second king of the Nanyue State of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-24 A.D.) is the oldest and largest Han mausoleum in Lingnan. The simple act of walking through the museum suggests the way architecture not only sutures one era to another, but does so by highlighting the radical differences between eras.
The site was discovered in 1983 when developers began leveling Elephant Mountain in order to build needed housing. At the time, Guangzhou and the other 13 coastal cities were still a year away from reforming and opening the local political-economy. This is important because the housing built at the time, housing which now surrounds the museum was built under the Maoist work unit system. Consequently, Stalin inspired apartment buildings surround the museum’s modernist silhouette.
The museum complex consists of two main buildings—the exhibition hall and Zhao Mei’s mausoleum. Architect, Lu Yanzhi won the Liang Sicheng prize for its striking modernism. Green grass and sculpted topiary set off the buildings’ red stone base and glass pyramids. Walking from the exhibition hall toward the mausoleum chamber, however, my eyes kept moving from the set scene toward the spill of Stalinesque housing and Maoist factories. Two kinds of cognitive dissonance kept my eyes darting from the museum complex to the surrounding environment. First was the obvious difference in upkeep between the museum’s well-tended garden and the neighborhood, which seemed to be crumbling. Second was the City’s glorification of ancient history and the implicit denial of the importance of both Mao and Stalin to Guangzhou. After all, in order to build the museum, a building project was put on hold. Yet the surrounding neighborhoods will be razed as soon as it is economically feasible to do so.
I suspect several factors contribute to the social production of these differences. One might be historical age. 25 years really isn’t all that much in comparison to 2,200. Another might be rarity. There is only one mausoleum and many, many crumbling monuments to Stalin. There’s also a hint of elitism—tourists and political leaders agree that dead kings continue to matter more than living commoners, even as the museum implicitly sutures contemporary Chinese society to past empires without actually acknowledging the Cultural Revolution.
All these contradictory impulses animate Shenzhen, of course, but they seem so much more obvious in Guangzhou, where a longer urban history makes it both easier and harder to erase the recent past in favor of imperial glory. On the one hand, there actually are significant archeaological sites in Guangzhou which make imperial claims seem viable. There are several interesting sites in Shenzhen, but they’re either far away from the beaten path so unvisited except by foreigners or rennovated beyond recognition; Shenzhen’s imperial claims (except for Diwang and that’s imperialist of a different kind) feel contrived. On the other hand, Shenzhen has more or less successfully razed traces of the Maoist past. A few Mao heads remain on older village walls, but Mao-era buildings, especially of the industrial urban kind didn’t fit into Baoan County’s plan, so there wasn’t much past to deny, unlike in Guangzhou. But again, precisely because Guangzhou has this deep history and the odd archaeological site, the city might gets tied up in debates that Shenzhen easily sidesteps with the claim, “There was no history here,” moving right along with the task of building a modern international city. All this to say, that even if erasing history seems pretty straight-forward–raze a building here, don’t mention the factory that used to be over there–it doesn’t follow that its easy to rewrite the past simply because garbage accumulates despite our best intentions. The stubborn fact of unwanted (or once-wanted-now-denied) buildings and highways and stores now vexes Shenzhen leaders intent on handling the municipality’s urban villages, ironic remnants of Shenzhen’s earlier boom, which doesn’t count as “history” and so, by definition, needs to go.
The social differences staged by the museum and its immediate environ are lived on the steps to the museum entrance, where recent migrants sell artifacts to tourists. The day I visited, three young men from Gansu tried to tempt me into purchasing animal skins. (I’m not sure if they were real or not, but suspect the latter simply because in Shenzhen all the folks who traffic in wild animals have gone underground and one needs a personal introduction to eat alligator and badger.) When I asked who bought their skins in this heat, they laughed and said, “People like you.” They helpfully offered to take my picture for the memories; I took theirs’ for the same reason. Come tour theWestern Han Nanyue King Mausoleum