Olympism and nation-building from a cultural perspective : Beijing Olympics and the traditional hutong neighbourhood

Luo, Jialing

(IOC Olympic Studies Centre Postgraduate Research Grant Programme 2009)

The research paper discusses the cultural aspects of the Olympics and that of the host city Beijing in terms of its urban transformation from an imperial landscape characterised by siheyuan and hutong to a modern image incorporating features such as avant-garde architecture and skyscrapers. It attempts to identify the driving forces underneath these physical changes. In particular, based on the... Plus

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    Summary
    The research paper discusses the cultural aspects of the Olympics and that of the host city Beijing in terms of its urban transformation from an imperial landscape characterised by siheyuan and hutong to a modern image incorporating features such as avant-garde architecture and skyscrapers. It attempts to identify the driving forces underneath these physical changes. In particular, based on the traditional neighbourhood of South Gong and Drum, the paper analyses how this area was redeveloped to represent Beijing culture during the 2008 Olympics; what kind of culture was presented; and how this affects the local residents. In a broader context, the paper examines the reinvented ‘new culture’ of Beijing, which, while connecting itself with other homogenous world cities, largely cut itself off from its own irreplaceable past and tradition. Rather than organically developed and massively participated, which a culture is supposed to be according to Raymond Williams, this new culture is a political discourse of state-planned modernisation. The paper hopes to draw attention to the following points: 1. The cultural dimension of the Olympiad forms ‘a spiritual component’ of the modern Olympics, replacing the religious aspect of the ancient Games involving the worship of Zeus. While the cultural Olympiad was essential to fostering a sense of unity among the city-states of ancient Greece, the Modern Olympics are intended to promote a common identity for humanity on the basis of respecting and celebrating differences, revering antiquity and tradition, and full participation. 2. Hutong was built at the same time as Beijing was built from scratch by the Mongols in the 13th century, when Kublai Khan (1215-1294), grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan Dynasty, conquered China and chose the site of the present-day Beijing for its capital, Dadu. Beijing was a Mongol creation, but on the basis of Chinese ideas about how an imperial capital city should be laid out, which was prescribed in the classics Rites of Zhou more than two thousand years ago. 3. The imperial walled city Beijing and its hutong that gave rise to a symmetric layout of old Beijing was meticulously arranged (in terms of city walls, orientation, central north-south axis, grid pattern, etc) to reflect traditional beliefs and cosmology. They could be perceived as a value system with profound meanings that persisted for a few hundred years through the Mongol Yuan (1271-1368), Chinese Ming (1368 -1644), Manchu Qing (1644 -1912). Hutong and old Beijing also survived at least half of the 20th century through the Republican Era (1912-1949) until the New China, when they started to be demolished. No matter in terms of architecture and urban planning, or of traditions of a people, hutong neighbourhoods were unique and irreplaceable historical and cultural heritage that should be preserved. 4. The fact that modernity is put in place at the sacrifice of a precious cultural legacy diminishes its reception and popularity. There is no doubt that Beijing would have been much more fascinating to foreigners if its historically constructed culture and tradition had been adequately preserved and exhibited. 5. As discussed, the ‘new Beijing’ is a modern Beijing, and the new Beijing culture is a state-planned modern culture. A new culture, when invented as an ideological tool to showcase and create an intended image and status, bears no value and depth, and runs the risk of becoming what Debord (1995: 131) describes as “the meaning of an insufficiently meaningful world”, in which we all live. 6. While recognising the rapid improvements in infrastructure and facilities, the modernization of Beijing at the expense of its irreplaceable traditions and heritage is worth debating in a wider social context beyond academia and the Olympic Movement. 7. The new image of Beijing presented during the Olympics is open to diverse interpretations. What is certain is that while the construction of Beijing eight hundred years ago was part of the imperial programme of the Mongols (Steinhardt 1988: 72), transforming Beijing today is meant to symbolise the return of the Chinese empire. The emergence of new Beijing is once again a political discourse. Chinese traditions were once the best resort for Kublai Khan to legitimate his alien rule in China. Today’s shift from this tradition to the modern practice of the architectural exploitation of city space is a contemporary version of such nation-building. To conclude, as widely acknowledged, the Beijing 2008 Olympics was a success. Its ceremonies, organization, security work and athletes’ performance were all impressive. The Olympics-related education in terms of Olympism, the Olympic Movement and the history of the Olympics, etc was also well arranged and conducted. It was without a doubt that China made enormous efforts to cooperate with the IOC to deliver a high quality Olympics, together with its accompanying cultural and educational programmes. However, this should not mask the problems that I discuss here, since reverence for tradition and heritage, acknowledging and cherishing a unique culture to keep it alive, and the participation of all are important aspects of general humanity essential to both Olympism and nation-building. A nation draws its strength from a culture rooted in history and tradition. Nation-building is, to a great extent, a cultural matter.