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Modernization’s Red Bulldozer: The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in China

2019/08/16
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Five minutes was the amount of time it took for me to come up with this title. Five minutes was also the amount of time it took for a bulldozer to destroy a century-old house that my family used to live in.

But before I jump into my family’s story, I’ll start with a preface.

The words “modernization” and “China” didn’t always seem to have a correlation in the eyes of many. In fact, those two words might as well have been opposites. Before they “stood up” to the world and stamped a red footprint into the craters of the economy in recent decades, China was, decidedly, not a modernized “threat” to many Western powers on the global stage.

I remember watching the news as a kid and occasionally seeing American news analysts duke it out over China. One would be urging cooperation and mutual benefit, counter to the other disgusted-looking analyst across the table who would warn that China was an imminent threat that could spell out the downfall of the United States’ supposed position of power in the world. Whew. The words “modernization” and “China” together, coupled with that word “innovation,” would be tossed around like the glances of adults at the dinner table upon hearing the jargon of economic analysts once more.

At first, China modernizing seemed perfectly good to me. As an American kid, I remember having a distinctly pro-American point of view. I thought it was great that China was becoming more like the United States, modernized with high-rise buildings and the latest technology and whatnot. A terribly naive and misinformed point of view, but one which caused me to believe that modernization was overwhelmingly a good thing for Chinese society.

I am Chinese and have a large amount of extended family who live in China, and have always felt closely connected to them. Whenever I came to visit, I had no reason to believe that China was somehow “lagging behind” the United States in any way. I had both this terribly misinformed idea of Western supremacy as well as this glorified idea of China inside my mind. Both of these thoughts combined together caused me to believe that without a doubt, modernization was the best path forward for China to join other major powers on the world stage.

However, I was foolishly ignorant in believing that modernization could only be a good thing, not knowing that my own family was going to be impacted by it. China being spurred to modernize and “innovate” has created changes in society, which have been rapid and at times unforgiving. However, because many of these changes occur in the lower echelons of Chinese society, they often go unnoticed and unsaid. The changes that are being made are analogous to a train continuously chugging along the tracks, stopping for nothing — not even countryside villages, ancestral homes, or cemeteries.

Don’t get me wrong; modernization has transformed the lives of millions in China and raised an incredible number of people out of poverty. But that does not mean it is an infallible policy. Though my extended family in China has benefitted as well, they have also suffered as a result of rapid industrialization and modernization.

My father and his family originally lived in a village by the ocean in the Shandong province of the People’s Republic of China, one in which everyone bore the same last name. The houses were built by hand hundreds of years ago, from stone and brick, and withstood the test of time, adverse weather, and generational shifts. My family’s house was comprised of five tiny rooms, and had stood that way since it was built over a hundred years ago. Though they moved out of it decades ago, it became a tradition to visit the house every few months or so, placing new photos on the weathered walls and checking on the trees that always sat in front of the tiny home.

When I last visited in 2016, my extended family told me that the house was going to be torn down by the local government. When I asked why, I was simply told it was because of “industrialization,” “development,” and “modernization.” In other words, the Communist Party of China had an ambitious plan to raze several villages in the area in order to build a new city, complete with high-rise buildings and, well, “modernized” facilities. The people who still lived in the village would be relocated to apartment buildings, and the houses promptly destroyed.

I remember feeling incredible dismay when I heard this, along with a crushing feeling of both guilt and helplessness. To believe that modernization was somehow a “cure,” one in which all people would only benefit, was such a shallow way of thinking. And I realized in that moment that I had benefitted from an outsider’s view before then, one that allowed me to somehow analyze China’s progress objectively instead of emotionally. One that disallowed me from feeling empathy for those who suffered for the country’s supposed progress and one that made me forget about those who were left behind.

Almost two months ago, the house was torn down. A bulldozer crashed through the walls, bringing hundreds of years of endurance down to pieces of rubble within a few minutes.

“This house has stood for so long, just to be destroyed in a matter of minutes,” my father said sadly as he sent over a photo of the rubble. The bulldozer, claw arched proudly over what had once been, seemed to almost boldly stare at the camera.

Truly, the destruction of cultural heritage is an issue that quietly plagues the modern world as we know it. We’ve seen how time and time again, terrorist groups and authoritarian regimes have tried to destroy peoples’ cultural identity to ensure that aspects of history displaying opposition to the regime are wiped away, in turn strengthening legitimacy for the aforementioned groups. We’ve seen the terrible destruction of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and symbol of Syria’s multiculturalism, in 2015. But we rarely hear about the times when the destruction of cultural heritage occurs not as a result of malicious intent, but instead, of neglect and perhaps an overpowering desire to seek modern advancement. And it’s not just in China. For example, city planners in Rome have chosen to build a new subway system close to the Coliseum where ancient Roman villas were recently uncovered in 2017, thus increasing the chance of the destruction of these relics.

But beyond the storied temples and famous heritage sites around the world, the small villages and towns that are destroyed to make way for something “more advanced” quietly disappear, their history slowly erased as the previous inhabitants and their descendants forget. They are erased, washed away from the slate of history.

Yesterday I passed by the village entrance, marked by a large stone which bore our last name, along with the Chinese character for “home.” The stone still proudly stood there, but behind it, none of the houses remained. There were just rubble, dust, and bulldozers. And silently, I wondered if those in charge of this project thought they were bettering the lives of the villagers who lived within, or if they simply wanted them out of the way to build something greater to replace the “simple,” agrarian lifestyle of the village.

Oftentimes, when we look forward, we forget to look backward. And I think that’s one of the largest problems innovation and modernization can bring; while they can work wonders, they leave people behind. Then the question remains, like that infamous trolley problem: is it better to sacrifice some to save the rest?

I still remain ignorant in the fact that I’ll never truly know the reasoning behind all of this. The issue of the destruction of cultural heritage often goes swept under the rug, and it is my hope that there will be more awareness around how modernization can also directly affect people’s lives in an emotionally adverse way. Inadvertent or not, destruction is destruction.

I just can’t help but wonder if the people who live in this new urban development will ever know what the dirt they stand on meant to generations past: how it watched births and deaths and the rise of modern China.

(Melissa Deng, Student at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service)

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