井底之蛙

10/3/2007

More on public history

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:05 pm

I posted a while back on how the Chinese are more aggressive in re-building historical sites than one would expect in the West. Angela Zito explains some possible the reasons for this. Cities were architectural representations of the harmonious order the emperor was imposing on the cosmos, and thus re-building them was one of the things emperors did.

the building and rebuilding of the city also actuated again and again in the act of construction the cosmic principles of the city’s design. Thus a new dynasty inevitably signaled the emergence of order from chaos by building projects. Later, the continuous “restoration” (xiu) of the architecture of one’s fore bearers combined filial respect with sagely rescue of pattern from decay. (p.133)

In a footnote she claims that the government of the PRC thinks like this and their “notion of preservation ..emphasizes the metaphysical whole of a building rather than its material parts. As long as these are faithfully reproduced in situ, guidebooks and local people will inevitably report that the building is ‘original'” I think this is an interesting insight, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with it. I think she is right in saying that re-building was important traditionally because it displayed the ruler (or the local elite) as creators of cosmic order. To just leave things alone was to leave them in the past, and since these things are not yet museum-ized in China (to use Levenson’s term) you almost have to fiddle with them.

I’m not sure that something has to be in situ or all that faithfully reconstructed. To some extent this is true of any site anywhere. Mount Vernon has been painted any number of times since Washington died, and I suppose that other than the main timbers most of the wood has been replaced. If authority says this is it than this is it, for most purposes. This is the throne of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in Nanjing

Taiping throne

I know of no pictures of what the Taiping throne looked like, and I am sure that not a single ounce of wood in this thing is “authentic” and yet here(Nanjing) it is. I wonder if part of what encourages this manic reconstruction is, as Zito claims, a desire to make the state look like preservers of the patterns of the universe, or of this case the past. Given the Communists’ role in destroying so much of the fabric of China’s history they may feel that it is particularly important to reconstruct the past.

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