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‘Modern Beijing is no palimpsest city: its evolution is one of wiping off and replacing’

Danwei index

Is the ubiquity of ‘culture’ in the conservation and reuse of former industrial danweis related to a desire to conceal historical traumas and the political dimension of urban change?

In 1979, the New York Times correspondent Fox Butterfield reported from Beijing about how difficult it could be for a foreign journalist to get a reservation for a hotel room in China’s capital city. The prestigious Peking Hotel on Chang’an Avenue – a structure originally built in 1917, enlarged in the socialist years with two modern wings, and by then the only large hotel in Beijing to accept foreign visitors – had refused his initial request for a room on the grounds that the hotel did not accept demands from individuals, but only from work units. ‘Every Chinese has a unit’, Butterfield explained to his readers. ‘It provides him with the necessities of life – housing and ration cards – gets his children into school and offers welfare in his old age. At the same time, it gives the Government a convenient way to monitor everyone’s activity. Without a unit, you are lost.’ In the end, Fox was able to obtain a room, but only after a quite complicated search for a bureaucratic body that could serve as his reference unit while he stayed in Beijing.

Work units (or danwei, as the Chinese word for them goes) were everywhere in Mao and post-Mao China. The danwei system served as a blueprint for the reorganisation and expansion of Chinese cities after 1949: it presented the double advantage of controlling the movements of the urban population while organising the access to goods and resources in the context of a planned economy. Danweis could present themselves in a variety of sizes and shapes: in many cases, however, they were – and still are – recognisable for their Modernist architectural language and for a spatial arrangement that isolated them as true cities within the city, complete with everything from workplaces to housing, from schools to associative centres. Some danweis, such as those centred around universities or hospitals, are still a powerful presence in Chinese cities; nevertheless, the economic and social reforms carried out from the 1990s have largely weakened the role and influence of many of them. If one keeps in mind to what extent danweis were a recurrent topic in writings penned by Western observers of Chinese cities during the 1970s and 1980s, it is surprising to note that present-day descriptions of urban China have often come to overlook their presence.

Shougang Ertong General Machinery Plant

Shougang Ertong General Machinery Plant

Source: Jia Yue, 2014

Shougang Ertong General Machinery Plant, Beijing. The northern gate of the former production area.

Recent international interest for the architecture of Beijing has mostly been driven by a nearly obsessive quest for purity: Westerners complaining about the sudden disappearance of the oh-so-charming traditional setting of the city’s hutong alleys, or Chinese architects studying the essential traits of a ‘Chinese conception of space’ as a source of inspiration and legitimation for their work. In such a context, danweis are interesting because of their hybrid spatial qualities. There is no better place to escape narratives based on the dual, over-simplistic opposition between hypermodernity and tradition than in the parts of Beijing built at the heyday of Chinese socialism. These were a mixed, impure affair from the very beginning: made up in equal parts of imported Soviet formulas, international circulation of neighbourhood planning ideas, post-CIAM housing experiences, and Taylorism filtered through collectivist ideology. This is not to say that they did not also bear some specific, ‘Chinese’ traits: these were particularly visible in the compound configuration chosen for many work units, which provided a translation of a traditional mode of spatial arrangement based upon the combination of urban enclosures. Nothing in danweis exists if not in a contaminated form, which is why these parts of the city can provide a vantage point for the observation of contemporary Beijing as a whole.

To explore the danwei areas that still exist in Beijing – and they are legion – can be a frustrating and time-consuming affair, but also a revealing experience. You will find yourself wandering for hours around the walls or fences that surround the larger sites, or trying to find a way to sneak through the rare gates, watched over by severe guards that will let you in without batting an eyelid (a Chinese friend observed that they are best understood as decorative statues). You will move from one compound to another by circumnavigating large islands of newly built superblocks, or by crossing the large ring-roads that provide a precious reference for orientation in this unmeasured landscape. Modern Beijing is no palimpsest city: its evolution is mostly based on the wiping off and replacement of its juxtaposed parts – a contamination between the two chiefly Modernist techniques of the tabula rasa and the collage. The surviving traces of the urban past are not stratified under one’s feet but rather hidden in plain sight, as a plurality of urban fragments removed from their original context that acquire a new sense in their reciprocal tension.

Textile Factory  Beiing

Textile Factory Beiing

Source: Jia Yue, 2014

No. 2 Textile Factory, Beiing: the production area after the transformation in ‘Legend Town Culture Creative Industry Park’

The reorganisation of Beijing in danwei units under Mao coincided with the strongest effort to turn the city into an important centre for industrial production. As short-lived as the effort was, it had a considerable impact on the urban fabric and also on the experience of the people living in it, for many of which the new compounds provided a first step towards an assimilation of urban rituals and practices. Until recently, many underused or decaying former industrial danweis were demolished without much of an afterthought, but a different trend appears now to be prevailing, one that associates an increasing appreciation for ‘industrial archaeology’ (this old-fashioned European notion has great currency in China) with an exploration of the potential of the creative economy. The reuse of the 798 electronic factory in Beijing as an artistic centre – a bottom-up initiative quickly turned into a top-down policy – has served as a prototype for countless attempts to turn danweis into specialised creative clusters, either in Beijing or in other cities.

Is this interest in the conservation and reuse of former industrial sites driven by an interest in the memories of the working class that originally inhabited these spaces? Not necessarily: the construction of a public discourse about the memory of the socialist years and the tangible and intangible heritage left by them is still an elusive and sensitive topic in China. In today’s globalised Beijing it can be difficult to find even a trace of those factories that were once displayed by the Communist Party as showpieces of the advancement of socialism – for example, those included in the ‘six factories, two schools’ programme under the Cultural Revolution.

Textile factory beijing

Textile factory beijing

Source: Jia Yue, 2014

No. 2 Textile Factory, Beiing: the residential compound

Many recent transformations of former industrial danweis deploy interesting strategies for the conservation of factory sites but are also contributing to a loss of the mutual relationship that existed between workplaces and other parts of the compound: take for example the conversion of #2 Textile Factory into a creative cluster renamed ‘Legend Town’, where the new design of the place has affected only the area of the production building, leaving the largely dilapidated and impoverished residential slabs nearby to their own destiny. On another level, the articulation of open spaces between the buildings of former danweis may lend itself to the design of a nearly European system of ‘streets’ and ‘squares’, close to the taste of a new middle class of professionals and executives. Crossbreeding between different urban cultures is, once again, the point: these spatial memories are rooted in a place and in the experience of specific communities but they also look as if they were borrowed from other cities and are treated, somehow, as someone else’s memories.

In a recent pamphlet against contemporary Berlin, published in French under the title Order Reigns in Berlin, philosopher Francesco Masci deplored that ‘absolute culture’ is turning what used to be the most political of cities – the very symbol of the confrontation between East and West under the Cold War – into an inoffensive theatre of individual caprices. Beijing – despite its Wall – is no Berlin, yet it would be difficult to find another global city in which the confrontation between the West and the East (the latter term referring simultaneously to the two ideologies that have mostly shaped the interpretation of modern China, namely Orientalism and Communism) takes place in such a direct way. One may wonder whether the ubiquity of ‘culture’ in the conservation and reuse of former industrial danweis is related to a desire to conceal historical traumas and the political dimension of urban change. Will Beijing’s work units serve as the resting place for the ‘creative city’, the laboratory in which this urban notion will ultimately reveal some of its hidden totalitarian implications? Or should we authorise ourselves to adopt a more curious, if not more optimistic stance? Possibly what is happening in the transformation of these sites is a large-scale experiment in the manipulation of consolidated techniques of urban regeneration from which something unpredictable will emerge at some point – something that could influence our understanding not just of Chinese, but of contemporary Western cities. The answer is there somewhere, but I am not sure I want to find it.

The book Beijing Danwei: Industrial Heritage in the Contemporary City, edited by Michele Bonino and Filippo De Pieri, is now out for Jovis (Berlin). The book includes essays by Pierre-Alain Croset, Gary Hack, Thomas Herzog, Weidong Li, Boying Liu, Jian Liu, Duanfang Lu, Li Zhang, Wenyi Zhu, and a visual essay by Yue Jia and Maria Paola Repellino.

Lead Image: View of No. 2 Thermal Power Plant, Beijing. Photo by Jia Yue, 2014