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Producing Hydraulic Heritage and Authenticity in Chinese Cities

30 minutes
Chinese cities are undergoing two contradictory processes: the demolition of old urban spaces and the preservation of heritage sites. For urban planners and local officials, old spaces are the antithesis of modernity. In the meantime, heritage preservation is used as a spatial tool of place promotion. During this decade, China has been actively competing for nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List. This goal allows central and local governments to claim cultural heritage as a living, legitimate, and authentic history—not only for the Chinese people, but also for people all over the world. The goal of this proposed research is to examine the production of heritage space in contemporary Chinese cities, where urban politics are culturalized and cultural preservation is politicized. This study aims to answer how modernization and heritage preservation co-exist in Chinese cities, and how the notions of heritage are manipulated in to the urban process. Theoretically, I ask: How is culture and history heritagized by different stakeholders during urban modernization process, and how do the politics of authenticity interact with that of urban modernity? Empirically, I ask: 1\. What is the relationship between heritage preservation and urban development in China today, and what ideological contradictions and social conflicts arise from their interaction? 2\. Who are the major actors in the dual projects of urban preservation and modernization? In this research, I focus on the preservation processes of ‘hydraulic heritage’—heritage related to historical waterworks. I chose the Dujianyan irrigation system in Chengdu, Sichuan and the Grand Canal in Beijing as my research sites. The two heritage sites are enlisted as World Cultural Heritage sites in 2000 and 2014 respectively. By examining and comparing them, this study brings a broader scope of discussion of urban politics and knowledge production of heritage spaces. This research is framed as a comparative project, in which each case individually and jointly emphasizes different analytical angles. First, it is an attempt to theorize ‘hydraulic heritage’. Hydraulic heritage has strong social and cultural implications on agricultural civilization and on the way of governing nature and society, especially in the context of “oriental despotism”(Wittfogel 1981). Moreover, as a specific kind of heritage, hydraulic heritage served or serves as infrastructure, which may be composed of diverse tangible forms such as waterways, ditches, weirs, buildings, bridges, and artifacts. The utility and diversity of this heritage, in terms of form and function, make it flexible in its uses in contemporary urban politics. In this sense, hydraulic heritage has potential in the production of heritage, theoretically and empirically. Second, this is a comparative study, which challenges the essentialist view that preservation is either a capitalist way to commoditize culture and history, or a nationalist way to claim the legitimacy of authorities, or a mix of both. This proposed study aims to provide insights into heritage production and modernization from a local perspective, especially because hydraulic heritage is often seen as a national and cultural icon of Chinese official history. In addition, a comparative perspective benefits this study by not overgeneralizing the preservation process of hydraulic heritage, which is theoretically underdeveloped. Third, this study requires detailed empirical studies of local communities to sketch the background of heritage preservation in the two Chinese cities. My proposed research sites are Beijing and Chengdu; both modern and historically rich. Beijing was the capital during many dynasties and is currently the capital of China. In addition to its political significance, it is the city that holds the most UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world. Chengdu, being relatively distant from the center of Han culture, features a self-sufficient economy with a diverse local culture in southwestern China. The two cities are historically and geographically important: They had and have different cultural and social tasks to complete. Therefore, this comparative study will further provide analytical perspectives on how hydraulic heritage preservation processes differ in the national center (Beijing) and the periphery (Chengdu).
UC Berkeley