China's One-Man Culture Keeper in His Spare Time, an Ambitious Beijing Factory Worker Races to Record Folk Ideas and Values Incorporated into the City's Historic Arches and Neighborhoods, Many of Which Are Being Razed to Accommodate Urban Renewal

By James L. Tyson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 11, 1991 | Go to article overview

China's One-Man Culture Keeper in His Spare Time, an Ambitious Beijing Factory Worker Races to Record Folk Ideas and Values Incorporated into the City's Historic Arches and Neighborhoods, Many of Which Are Being Razed to Accommodate Urban Renewal


James L. Tyson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 revolution.

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 "progress."

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," he says.

Over the course of several months he slipped out of the factory with dozens of yellowed books on history, art, and other taboo subjects.

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. …

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China's One-Man Culture Keeper in His Spare Time, an Ambitious Beijing Factory Worker Races to Record Folk Ideas and Values Incorporated into the City's Historic Arches and Neighborhoods, Many of Which Are Being Razed to Accommodate Urban Renewal
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