Tag Archives: space

Walls and doors

4 Nov

The main function of most official buildings is to symbolically structure space. Distinguish an inside from an outside, or establish a cosmic centre point.

The main point of focus for tourists in Beijing is a door – Tian An Men, the door of Heavenly Peace – which leads into the – walled in – Forbidden city, under the auspices of late President Mao.

The structure of the Chinese capital is clearly centered on the Forbidden city, the real and symbolic centre of imperial power. Yet, in imperial times, the religious centre of the country was slightly further South, at the Temple of Heaven. Also the forbidden city itself does not have a clear centre point – godly statue, tomb, or the emptiness of an inner shrine. Visiting it is more like a pilgrimage inside a maze, walking by a succession of temples and houses, along courtyards and through doorways, without ever reaching a clear destination, or feeling ‘that’s where it is’.

The Chinese word for China means ‘the Middle Country’. Accordingly (?) the main symbol of the country is not a centre point, but a great wall, marking the limit of that ‘middle ground. That wall, itself, may have served a symbolic function, as much as one of defence: it runs along mountain tops, underlining the natural landscape surrounding China.

The Great Wall is not one continuous piece of masonry, but a scattering of constructions, built at different periods in different places, which make sense as a defence mechanism, but only roughly connect. Even in the core sections, in the Northern section of Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, the wall is not continuous. Sometimes a moutain was high enough to be deemed inpassable, and the wall stops half-way down its slopes.

Walls and doors may the ultimate symbolic monuments of continental cities. Along the coast, in seaports, people are more likely to build up – a lighthouse or a Colossus, to serve as a beacon indicating the safe harbour for incoming ships. The Pearl of the Orient, in Shanghai, may have that symbolic function. And we may monitor the shift of China from a continental to a sea power – if it happens – by following the dominant imagery: walls and temples on a mountain top, or beacons and skyscrapers along waterways.

Or, maybe, the maze like quality of the Forbidden city and the Great Wall will combine with the intricacies of the Chinese natural and artificial river system, and give rise to a specific Chinese space symbolism, adapted to the information age and in line with a a certain national tradition, with no central point of focus – but a network at the core.

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Crowds

19 Sep

Some things you know about, as a fact, a linguistic statement, something you can repeat, or answer a quizz with. But it’s not emotionally there, integrated. You don’t follow the consequences of it. It’s not part of how you build a world in your head. And then, when you finally experience that thing you’ve always known in the abstract, you feel really dumb, and think: ‘How come I never saw that before?’

I had that very feeling, three weeks into my third Chinese trip, when I suddenly realised: ‘hey, there’s a lot of people in China.’

China is a crowded country, and I fully came to grasp it when walking towards Alliance Francaise from Nankai University, along a kind of bridge underpass. I thought – hey cool, a secret place. But as it turned out, about a thousand bikers and pedestrians already knew my secret place; a peddler had heard of it, and set up his business on the pavement there.

Chinese city planners must have a hard time thinking of the crowds, and their movements, especially with a rising number of cars on the road. The huge roads are often congested, and crossing them is like a 3D Wii war game. But sometimes, between two beats in traffic light rhythm, like the sudden quiet in the eye of a storm, you catch a sight of pure empty space, for a few seconds – the hollow form of the crowd, in negative.

One thing I’d like to explore more is how Chinese intellectuals have theorised the tension between the crowd, the anonymous mass, and individuals. At a book shop in 798, I saw a book of LeBon’s work, that French sociologist who wrote about the crowd in the early 20th century. What is the reception in China of Elias Canetti’s Mass and power? How exactly do books about the cultural revolution – Yu Hua’s and others – articulate the submission of individuals to the power of the crowd? How do Chinese individuals, in a world of masses and all powerful family networks, resist the pressure of the collective? How do people, still, stand as one, playing their single role in life’s theatre?

If anyone has anything about this question – please post it here in the comment – or if you find a text in Chinese, submit it to the Marco Polo Project.

Public space

2 Aug

One of the things I find remarkable about China is how the people take over public space, or semi-private space, for their own needs, shamelessly. Although it can be seen as a form of undue appropriation, it is also a form of wisdom, in an over-crowded country.

This can take many forms. Hanging clothes on a street sign, because it’s there anyway, and it won’t detract from its function.

Using the side of the road for a little breakfast place – the cars won’t run right into you, and the pedestrians can use the other side of the road.

Or, stranger still, using the river as a swimming pool (it’s probably cleaner than the public pools, say Aaron, although there are dead fish around).

More surprising is using the bridge as an open air changing room (the photo’s a bit too blurry to perv, but yes, the man on the left is naked). This is probably the weirdest, for our privacy obsessed culture like ours. But when you think that taxi driver often pee on street corners – facing the road – changing under a bridge will seem pretty mild.

This is cultural, but has legal implications. How does it work. Who owns public space, and how is it regulated, in countries where this does not happen? Is it a law enforcement question – does the police simply not care? Or are the regulations different. And if they are – is there anything we could learn from China?