Beijing immensity

Everyone raves about the disappearing HuTongs, the traditional alleys of Lao Beijing and their oh-so-typical charm.

For me, Beijing urban aesthetics is much more about the massive urban highways bordered by tall, modern building

These huge avenues have a practical function: traffic. They also serve a symbolic function. They lead into the wide horizon, structuring space, signifying control over a huge continental empire, extending in all four cardinal directions.

The southern cities of China – Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing, etc – are the heartland of Han country. Beijing, the northern capital, has always been a border city. You can see the Great Wall running on the mountain from Tian An Men Square on a clear day; sand flies in from the Gobi desert in the Spring. Beijing is an imperial interface between the wild nomadic people of central Asia, and the delicate, sedentary Han Chinese. Beijing’s open aesthetics of wide avenues could be read as a tribute to the open steppe, reminding the country of its mixed origins, in the orderly patterns of South-Eastern rice fields; in the open immensity of the North-Western steppe.

These straight avenues might also be seen as a pure expression of control: the natural curviness of the world is straightened by the abstract geometry of power. These huge urban freeways contain and limit the body. Jaywalking is a serious hasard on a double five lane highway. People are channeled to the safe overhead bridges; getting trained to follow the given path.

Chinese history repeats over and over: the wild people of the open steppe take over the rich, settled empire by violence – or fear. But in order to stay, they have to adopt the structures of the Han. These unruly riders have to submit eventually to the restricting laws of the orderly world, as embodied in its northern capital city. Han culture assimilates them – its delicacy, its control. They become domesticated.