When Ancient Meets Modern

Written by Brooke Fisher, (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) Student Correspondent CET Beijing: Intensive Language, Spring 2017

What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word, ‘Beijing’? Do you think of Tiananmen Square, with its large Mao Zedong portrait, the Forbidden City, a city within a city, and street vendors peddling their wares? Or are you more inclined to think about the Bird’s Nest, clean, modern subway lines, and fast food chains on every street corner?

A visit to Beijing is not complete without a visit to Tiananmen Square.

To be honest, none of these answers are wrong. All of these things exist in today’s Beijing, a city with skyscrapers and hutongs, KFC and Peking Duck. To say only the ‘Old Beijing’ stuff is authentic discounts all the hard work that has gone into transforming Beijing into the city it is today.

Beijing is a city constantly on the brink of change, a city constantly evolving, never content remaining stagnant. I know that I were to return to Beijing in the next five years, the entire city would be like a stranger to me, new and unknown. Yet I would still be able to find my way easily to the heart of the city and experience the majesty that is the Forbidden City, or visit the Temple of Heaven in all its vibrancy. It’s truly a unique experience to go from a place like Lama Temple to a rooftop view in only one day.

In Chinese, there is a saying known as 古今并存 (gujin bingcun). It’s hard to translate properly over into English, but the meaning is basically the ancient and the modern coexist. Calling Beijing home for the past few months has really opened up my eyes to the various ways that cities can go about modernizing without jeopardizing the most important historical artifacts. It’s a fine line to walk between these two concepts, as preserving history leaves less room for innovation and change, but to sacrifice one for the other is never the best option.

You can see how this modernization affects Beijing most acutely by visiting hutongs, or traditional Beijing alleyways, such as Nanluo Guxiang, a street rife with Western and foreign-style restaurants, churros, and of course, Starbucks. Though the architecture is reminiscent of many people’s preconceived notions of Beijing, the true inside is completely devoid of tradition. For some, this reality comes at a cost: developers buying places within hutongs that still have occupants living there and placing a hipster bar right in the middle. It’s definitely cashing in on Westerners wanting a “traditional” feel of China, but also can become a hindrance to the daily lives of Chinese still living in these areas. While I’m not saying this kind of development is inherently wrong, I do think we shouldn’t forget the problems they can create as well.

We live in an increasingly globalized community whether we like it or not. We cannot expect, as foreigners, to come to another country and only see remnants of the past. Globalization isn’t just a concept for the Western world, but for the entire globe. Is it upsetting to hear Starbucks once tried to open up a café in the Forbidden City? Yes, but change does come at a cost. We can argue and petition when things like iconic landmarks such as the Great Wall are messed with, but what about when it comes to everyday Chinese peoples’ businesses and homes? Where are their advocates? They say all progress is change, but change is never certainly progress.