Destruction in the name of progress

Kashgar, China, a city often on the map for historians (especially historians of the silk road) has recently come to the attention of many around the world because of China’s newest policy: tear down the old town to save it (a good explanation of what is going can be found in the NYT article). Essentially, the government argues that because the foundation underneath Kashgar is quite unstable (many of the houses are up on platforms, and it is hollow underneath), they need to tear it all down and rebuild it for safety reasons, in case there is an earthquake. They plan to rebuild the old town in a traditional Islamic style, thus maintaining its original ambiance.

A few interesting things about this current decision. The earthquake argument is understandable to some, and confusing to others. It seems to me that the reason for giving this justification for tearing down the old town would sit well with many Chinese and the international community because of the recent disaster in Sichuan. The Uighers of old town, however, while probably not surprised, find this justification confusing or humorous (according to the Uighers around the old town I talked to). They have lived there for over 1000 years, and the old town has survived many earthquakes and has never fallen down. According to one woman I spoke with, she explained that they saw it as a tragedy to their history that they could do nothing about, and they all strongly feel that they were not given accurate justification for why their homes were taken away from them. They also, at least those I talked to, saw this as a direct attack on their culture, a way for the Chinese to further demonstrate their power over the region in light of growing tension and animosity.

But destroying things in the name of progress is certainly not new for China. It was a common practice of the 1960s and 1970s, of course, but the Beijing Olympics and the coming Shanghai Expo saw similar situations: peoples’ houses torn down with little compensation. Many of Beijing’s old hutongs are still inscribed with the kiss of death, the character “chai.” But this destruction in the name of progress differs from these other situations in its direct relation to cultural autonomy and ethnic tensions. Furthermore, if the Id Kah mosque is any indication of how the new Kashgar Old Town will look, it is likely that it will turn into a Lijiang-type tourist old town with little resemblance to anything except another stop for Chinese shoppers and photographers.

As far as this relates to ethnic tension, The Uighers I spoke with about this situation feel relatively hopeless. But it will be interesting to find out how this will affect a city that already feels more Central Asian than Central Asia itself. Perhaps it will spur on new problems, or it will exacerbate the failure an already dying cause.

And as far as the concept of destruction in the face of progress, it is unlikely that this will end any time soon, as cities constantly upgrade. While this resembles most developing countries, I believe, as China takes this concept to a new scale, it is quite representative of current cultural phenomenons regarding a national understanding of progress. China has been trying to define progress for nearly a century, through education, through politics, through revamping of culture, and throughout the 20th century, many have argued that destruction and replacement is the best way to solve nearly any problem. While it may be a stretch to connect this with the destruction of Kashgar old town, it represents this overall way of thinking, that “new” is always better. Of course this is not limited to China. But any kind of nostalgia for old things is lost on most Chinese people; even in Hong Kong, where it seems everything is new and modern, the people rallied together to save the clock tower in Tsim Sha Tsui, a recognition of the importance of old buildings.

Perhaps this overwhelming desire for the new represents a maintainance of theories of development that were common in the early 1900s, that the most developed countries were the best, and development meant “new.” (even look at publication names: New Life, New Youth, New Women, etc.) Now, instead of worrying about new ideology, this effort of modernity through the new is all put into infrastructure and material things. It will be interesting to see how long this continues, though it is unlikely that the constant construction will end anytime soon (I currently count 5 cities working on new subway lines, and I have no doubt that there are plenty more). However, for the sake of history, I hope that the Chinese cultural understanding of “new” and “modern” will begin to shift.


  1. It would be nice if it was for progress. But this destruction was just for the good name of the government officials, and their desire to leave a legacy. You can’t call what is happening a progress at all.

  2. While the term I used here is used in the propaganda, I think you have to look at the term the way they see it. It seems that for “historic sites” the fact that the buildings themselves aren’t original don’t matter all that much (like Lijiang, or countless temples, or even Xintiandi in Shanghai). It matters that the “original style” is maintained, at least for Chinese tourists. So for them, rebuilding the old town, and “saving it from earthquakes” is progress. It looks cleaner and better for tourism. So I think it depends on who you ask. Obviously, historians wouldn’t consider this progress, and it is very clear the political motivations behind this move.

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