More on public history

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.


  1. Coming in halfway through this debate, it may be that I’m getting the wrong end of the stick here, but…
    This seems like kind of a western-centric question to be asking. Refurbishing old, valuable buildings (whether for continued use or simply for historical/artistic appreciation) is surely a normal thing to do – as evidenced by the fact that many western monuments are also carefully maintained and repaired when necessary. The more salient question would be: why do some monuments in the west (ones in quite a tightly defined state of half decay) not get rebuilt? And the answer would presumably revolve around romantic notions of history (“gothic ruins” – some full disclosure here, I got dragged around lots of England’s semi-repaired castles by my dad when I was a kid, and I’m working out my anger still!), and academic archaeological curatorship of certain historical sites.
    Why China rebuilds can be answered quite simply by saying 1) it’s a money spinner and 2) people like to connect in tangible ways to their history and to create narratives.
    The place I find most interesting in this respect is the army of terracotta warriors. I’m not sure whether its relative lack of rebuilding is due to a more academic approach to the site, or because at that depth of history it’s difficult to create a meaningful connection (and doubtful whether anyone would want to, given the reputation of the first emperor).

  2. Sir; may I suggest that the concept of historical ruins is not well-established in East Asia? For example, in Japan, the shrine at Ise is burnt down every two decades or so and rebuilt. And things like the 2000-year old Confucius Temple cannot simply be left as historical artifacts; the thing was an active tool of the state for hundreds of years; if it gets run down, how could the Emperor pay homage at a ruin?

    Perhaps it could simply be a different notion of history. To leave things as they are does mean that the ruins are historical; they are a part of the past, not part of the present. If they’re refurbished and rebuilt day in and day out, it suggests that the past is still part of the present; that the institution the structure represents is still alive.

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