Editor’s note: Arrol Gellner is currently on an extended stay near Shanghai. Following is one of a series of columns comparing the built environments of America and China.
China is a nation of baffling contrasts. It’s a place that practically defines the notions of culture and permanence: Consider the Great Wall, or the ancient garden residences of my adopted hometown, Suzhou. And yet today’s China is better known by its mad scramble for status and wealth, its penchant for superficial glitz, and its monumental indifference to quality.
In Nanjing, a glittering new railway station unveiled just a few years ago is already falling apart, thanks to modern China’s typically hasty workmanship. A new station just being completed in my adopted hometown of Suzhou no doubt awaits the same fate.
The main reason for the dismal quality of China’s built environment is the invariably breakneck construction schedules imposed by local governments, which serve to aggrandize the officials in charge, but at the cost of both careful planning and decent quality.
Commercial work suffers the same problem, though in this case it’s because investors want their profits and don’t much care what happens afterward.
Still, a visit to any one of Suzhou’s many ancient garden residences — four of them are World Heritage sites — should convince even a hardened skeptic that China’s current deficiencies are just a momentary blip in its astonishing history.
Most of these gardens date from the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and they exhibit sensibilities so refined that, truth be told, the West has yet to equal them in beauty and livability. Here, landscape and shelter are so artfully joined that it’s often difficult to tell where indoors begins and outdoors ends.
Like most traditional Chinese buildings, these garden residences are designed with fastidious attention to both solar orientation and sensual experience. Often, I’ve visited them on ferociously hot and humid days, only to find myself almost supernaturally transported into a cool realm of shade, fragrance and beauty the moment I passed through their portals.
Granted, in ancient China, as in the Old World, only an elite few had the privilege of such gracious living — but that is, alas, how we measure culture’s high-water marks. Nevertheless, the elevated living standard of China’s most fortunate ancients makes the lives of their European counterparts, miserably hunkered down in their dank castles, seem downright barbaric.
To keep China’s current situation in perspective, Suzhou has 3,000 years of recorded culture. By contrast, a mere six decades have passed since China’s Maoist revolution, and only half that many since China reopened to the world.
One can endlessly argue the present government’s strengths and weaknesses, but one thing is certain: China is no worse off under Communism than it was under the humiliating subjugation of its prior colonial masters — a time when the entrance to a public park in Shanghai’s British quarter could freely post the advisory, "No Dogs Or Chinese."
Sixty years is just a heartbeat in the history of such a proud and ancient culture, and it would be a mistake to presume that tomorrow’s Middle Kingdom will resemble the peculiar socialist/materialist hybrid we know today. Though we can only infer what lies ahead for China, the brilliance of its past is crystal clear.