New vs. Old

While in France this summer visiting my girlfriend’s (now fiancé’s) parents, we visited the medieval city of Provins, which has a 12th-century cathedral that is still in use. I don’t know if that amazes you, but it does me. In the U.S., if something is two hundred years old we organize tours to see it; in France, a 12th-century cathedral is barely even a tourist attraction. This contrasts sharply with China as well, where a tourist attraction is a tourist attraction with a capital T, with tee-shirts, costume photo sites, and in the case of the Badaling section of the Great Wall, a long slide by which visitors can get back to the bottom. And if we’re going to learn to relate to each other, it’s important to think about some of the reasons for this state of affairs.

Look a little closer at the perspective on old and new in France, China, and the U.S. and you come away with some interesting realizations. After I left France this summer, I went to the States for a few weeks, beginning with a three-day stay in Chicago to visit some friends. We took the architecture tour downtown, and if you’re ever in Chicago I highly recommend it. It’s a boat tour down the river that takes you past the famous skyscrapers and other buildings in the downtown area while a guide narrates the story behind their construction. It really is fascinating. And yet it’s fascinating in a completely different way from France. One of the unique characteristics of the U.S. over the years has been the almost obsessive encouragement of new things and ideas. Take Chicago, for instance. In the fire of 1870, roughly two-thirds of the city burned to the ground. During the succeeding decades the city leadership took this cataclysm as a chance to remake Chicago as something completely new, and if you ever take the tour you’ll get an appreciation for just what it meant to build a twenty-story building in the late-19th century. The idea that they should rebuild the city in roughly the same image, or at least by preserving the historical buildings in the city, was trumped easily by the idea that the new Chicago should look nothing like the old.

The trouble is, Americans tend to have a hard time with their history. It’s a giant mélange of immigration, expansion, and highly disturbing clashes between peoples who would not have ever mixed in any other place. Everyone in America came from somewhere else (even, if you hold to this particular view on prehistoric humanity, the native Americans themselves), and when the defining characteristic of your nation’s history is the idea that everything is, and should remain, new, then it’s awfully hard to know what to do with your history. Do we honor the architects of our Constitution by capitalizing the words Founding Fathers and demanding everyone march lockstep to their vision, as though Thomas Jefferson were Moses, or do we honor the current needs of the nation by branding the same men a bunch of racist bigots and reduce their contribution to a minor page in the grander political story? If you’re constantly updating, there’s not much room to learn how to live with your history.

Interestingly, roughly the same level of destruction occurred in Paris after the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 as occurred in Chicago. The civil war that followed (I’m using the term loosely because it really only involved Paris) added to the destruction wrought by the Prussian artillery, especially with the fall of the Commune, the members of which burned whole sections of Paris as part of their defense strategy. The cathedral of Notre Dame itself was only saved by a bureaucratic technicality. Yet if you go to Paris today you’ll be immediately struck by how historical, how OLD the city feels. Nor is that due to the historical landmarks, like Versailles, or the Parc du Luxembourg; there’s an obvious air of historicity about the city, as though its inhabitants have spent generations making sure it felt that way, which isn’t far from the truth. Rebuilding the city after the Commune so many years ago, the government and residents didn’t see it as an excuse to experiment with the new, but as a duty to venerate the old. Anything that threatens to alter the proud historical character of Paris is either hotly debated or, if carried through, quite often detested. People still alternately writhe or purr over the Centre Georges Pompidou, for example.

Then there’s China. Chinese people have a stormy relationship with their history. While they are intensely proud of the intellectual and creative legacy of the Tang and Song dynasties (rightfully so), they are intensely embarrassed by the past two hundred years or so. The former birthed stunning art and innovation, and the poetic works of people like Li Bai and Du Fu, while the latter birthed the Opium Wars, the Japanese Occupation, and almost a century of deprivation and oppression. During the nine years I’ve been in China, I’ve found very few things that are true for a vast majority of Chinese people, but one of those things is an almost desperate need to prove to the outside world that China belongs in the pantheon of great modern nations. As such, although there are TV shows and movies about ancient culture, nobody really celebrates it. Saying you enjoy the TV adaptation of the classic novel Dream of Red Mansions is not at all the same thing as saying you appreciate that part of your own history. Nowhere is this more evident than the massive renovation projects currently underway at countless historical sites around China. Now when I, or for that matter most westerners, go to a place like the Temple of Heaven or the Great Wall, we want to get a sense of age. We want to see cracks in the wall, whole sections of some of the buildings crumbled into heaps, paint faded and dusty, because for us that carries an air of authenticity. It’s as though, by walking over an unrestored section of the Great Wall, with weeds poking through the untended stone steps, we’re actually standing in a distant century. This is not the way many other people in China see it. For them, the Temple of Heaven is far more beautiful if the paint is vibrant and new, the walls sturdy, and the buildings like they were in the beginning. A crumbled building doesn’t indicate venerability and age; it indicates workmanship that couldn’t last through the centuries. An unrestored section of the Great Wall isn’t a passport to a distant century; it’s a reminder that China’s history is full of things that broke and didn’t work, and if you want to be seen as a modern power, a host of broken-down ruins is something to fix, not something to display. Put another way, people want to visit the past, but in the fullness of its glory, not its venerated old age.

And here’s the thing: crumbling relics are all fine and good for people whose history has been a more-or-less steady ascent from (pardon the simplification here) undeveloped to developed, from ancient to modern. You can stick your chest out proudly about the cathedral at Notre Dame when you’ve also been at the forefront of intellectual innovation for most of the modern era, but an interesting aspect of historical pride is that it’s often closely connected to present contentment. Mainland China has really only had a period of steady ascent for something like 35 years (I would argue that the events in the late ’80’s count as a pretty major hiccup, but I’m simplifying for the sake of argument). Before that? Check out this roll call, going in reverse order from 1976: The Cultural Revolution, the catastrophic famines of the 1950’s, a civil war, World War II, well over a decade of active occupation by the Japanese, political corruption and upheaval during the period following the collapse of Sun Yat-Sen’s dream republic, more upheaval under Yuan Shikai, a few years of relative stability under Sun Yat-Sen’s leadership or tutelage, another war, the Boxer Rebellion, the forced establishment by foreign powers of treaty ports and concessions on Chinese soil, and pretty much the same kind of thing all the way back through the Opium Wars. People, that’s about 150 years of chaos, violence, oppression, invasion, and starvation. How would you approach that? A better question is: if that’s what your country had on its recent history docket, would you be more interested in “preserving” history or in kicking open the doors and letting in as much fresh air as possible? If you’d care to put it crudely: when your country has been keeping pace with modernization for centuries, a Starbucks is reason to gasp in shock and dismay, but if you’ve been ground under the bootheels of foreign powers and your own government for centuries, a Starbucks is a pretty exciting thing.

This is important to bear in mind as we move into a period of history when, frankly, no one can possibly predict which nation will emerge as the new power, or even if a single nation will so emerge. We have the U.S., which I would say is constantly looking forward while trying to figure out what it means to have the history we do; we have France (and along with it the EU), which looks forward tentatively, not convinced that the future is an improvement on the past; and we have China, which is almost desperate to keep its eyes fixed forward, so much so that it modernizes its history. As Americans, we would do well to remember a lot of this when approaching these nations. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s inherently good, and just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s inherently honorable.




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