August 5, 2008

Monuments to the New, New China

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When I look through both American and Chinese history, I see a common thread in our shared pre-occupation with monuments. Americans have the countless presidential monuments in D.C. as well as war memorials, not to mention our grand public works projects such as the Hoover Dam and Interstate Highway System that represent our belief in power and hope for America.

When the average American thinks about Imperial China, he/she probably thinks of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall. All these are symbols of the power and prestige of their respective dynasties, and the greatness of the Chinese nation. Following the declaration of the People’s Republic in 1949, Mao built his own grand monuments. He planned and had built Tiananmen Square and the Martyrs’ Monument within it, as well as the giant Great Hall of the People and the Museum of History.

After the “Reform and Opening” began in the 1980’s, the Communist Party has been looking for new monuments, ones that represent the power and prosperity that’s come since Mao’s death. For the Olympics, it’s found them. Whether it’s the monumental Bird’s Nest or the Water Cube, the Olympic venues have a grand quality to them, from their impressive approach from along a highway to the shear size and creativity of design. And then there’s the China World Trade Center and the new headquarters of China Central Television (CCTV). The China World Trade Center will be a 74-story skyscraper and the tallest building in the city. The CCTV headquarters is more post-modern in its design; it looks as if someone took a segment out of a cube. Both these buildings are located in Beijing’s Central Business District, a growing forest of brand-new complexes designed to be the hub of Beijing’s commercial sector. The National Theater, on the other hand, is located closer to the traditional heart of political power, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Nicknamed “the Egg,” it is a half-sphere surrounded by a reflecting pool, giving the impression that it is a whole egg floating in the air. All of these buildings serve as monuments to what the Communist Party sees as China’s future, the future of a global power and a continuation of the heritage of centuries.