WHILE most Beijing residents rush through the capital's golden
and crimson archways, Zhang Zhenhua steps into their broad shadows
and into times gone by.
For eight years the factory worker has trudged down Beijing's
hundreds of gray-stone alleys, chronicling details of old
neighborhoods and pailou or decorated arches.
Most importantly, Zhang has preserved the folk ideas and values
behind Beijing's worn walls by recording the homilies that Chinese
carved or scrawled on their gateposts before the communist
Notebook and camera in hand, Mr. Zhang devotes all his spare time
to his self-appointed mission. He manages to stay one step ahead of
the wrecking ball.
Beijing in the past decade has smashed to rubble many pailou and
small neighborhoods that had stood for centuries. In their place,
the city has thrown up concrete apartment blocks resembling
cardboard shoe boxes upended against the skyline.
Zhang admits his notebooks cannot stop the bulldozers. But they
can ensure that the capital's historic neighborhoods do not crumble
into complete oblivion, he says.
"There are so many old, magnificent, and priceless buildings and
neighborhoods in Beijing," according to Zhang, a founder of the
Society of Beijing History, Geography, and Folk Customs.
"Being members of the younger generation, we should learn more
about our cultural heritage," says Zhang, a worker at a factory that
makes machines for the textile industry.
This is not the first time Zhang has preserved part of old
Beijing from the communist leadership's obsessive campaigns for
In the mid-1960s, Zhang heeded the call of Mao Zedong and joined
millions of youths across the country in the Cultural Revolution
(1966 to 1976), an ultra-radical firestorm aimed at destroying all
vestiges of traditional China.
Like other Red Guards, Zhang quit high school and took to the
streets in massive, militant demonstrations. But as he watched
fanatics melt down ancient bronze Buddhas and destroy other cultural
relics, he began to have misgivings.
Rather than challenge the young iconoclasts, Zhang volunteered to
work at a paper factory that was assigned the politically glorious
task of turning stacks of old, "reactionary" books into pulp.
"The destruction of so many fine books was unbearable to watch,"
Over the course of several months he slipped out of the factory
with dozens of yellowed books on history, art, and other taboo
At home, living among the rescued books, Zhang began to read and
gradually acquired a harlequin version of the education that had
been so severely disrupted.
After a tour in the Army, Zhang returned to his hometown and
began cataloging Beijing's huddled alleyways or hutongs, the long
and narrow neighborhoods that fleck the sprawling city. …