Over 75 Percent of Historic Residences in Beijing Fail Preservation Standards
Over 75 percent of historic residences in Beijing fail to meet preservation standards, the Global Times reported this week.
Global Times cited a government survey released last month which concluded that of the 332 listed historic residences in downtown Beijing, only 80 met official standards cultural relics.
At issue is who is responsible for maintaining historic structures which are – frankly – old and badly in need of repair and renovation.
A 1982 law requires that owners of historic houses be responsible for the upkeep of the site. But enforcement has been lax, and many of the historic sites are now home to multiple occupants who argue that they just live there and shouldn’t have to take on the financial burdens of historic preservation.
Tellingly, most of the 80 structures which did meet the standards were occupied by the descendants of famous prior residents, had been converted into museums, or have been entirely closed off and under the control of various state agencies.
Many of the now historic homes were confiscated during the Cultural Revolution. The buildings and courtyards were then reallocated to people who now only have residential rights but not title to the property.
A good example is the home of Tian Han, located on Xiguan Hutong in Dongcheng about 200 meters east of Moroccan sports bar Cuju.
Tian Han was one of the most famous dramatists and playwrights of the Republic Era. In the 1930s, he turned his hand to writing movies, including the 1935 film Children of Troubled Times which included a rousing little musical number based on a poem by Tian Han and set to music by the composer Nie Er.
That song, 'March of the Volunteers,' became a popular song of resistance during the Sino-Japanese War, and in 1949 was named the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China.
For his efforts, The State Council awarded Tian Han the courtyard at 9 Xiguan Hutong in 1953 and Tian lived there with his family for 13 years. But in 1966 the family's idyllic hutong life came to an abrupt end after an article in the People’s Daily criticized one of Tian Han's operas. That editorial would become one of the opening salvos of the Cultural Revolution. In December of that year, 50 years ago this month, Tian Han was arrested and put in prison where he died two years later at age 69.
Tian Han's family was evicted from the courtyard, and 9 Xiguan Hutong became a dormitory and residence for the China Theater Association. While the front gate is still a good example of hutong architecture, the remainder of the structure is in critical need of repair.
The reticence of current residents to foot the bill for maintenance is only part of the problem. Once a site is cleared and ready for restoration, there is also the issue of where to find craftspeople with the skill and knowledge necessary for high-quality restoration work.
Even Beijing’s most famous historic residence, the Forbidden City, has had to deal with problems of substandard repair work. According to a report published this week in the South China Morning Post, Forbidden City authorities in 2014 suspended museum renovations citing untrained workers and contractors using shoddy materials to renovate the nearly 600-year-old palace.
In recent years, the palace has struggled to locate preservationists, restorers, and craftspeople with the necessary skills to carry out complicated repairs as part of a campaign to renovate and open nearly 90 percent of the Forbidden City to visitors by 2020.
Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing since 2002. He leads educational walks of Beijing for The Hutong and maintains the history, culture, and travel website Jottings from the Granite Studio.
Photo: Jeremiah Jenne