1995 / 4月
Chang Chin-ju /photos courtesy of Vincent Chang /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Over the course of history nothing that happens is really new.
Like those of Taipei today, the residents of ancient China's cities worried about fires and about how to dispose of their garbage and waste water. And they likewise needed green spaces, parks and other leisure facilities. The ancients lacked today's understanding of technology. Yet studying the history of earlier cities may provide some valuable lessons for the people of today.
According to a survey carried out by the Department of Budget, Accounting and Statistics of the Taipei City government, residents' biggest gripes with Taipei are about public safety and the lack of parks, green spaces and other leisure facilities.
They also worry about where their garbage goes, and how long it will take to clean up the Tanshui River. Still more causes for their grief: Illegally parked cars and motorcycles, sidewalks crowded with vendors' wares, and all those things about Taipei that make the city ugly and impede ease of motion.
How did urban administrators of ancient days tackle these problems?
The Welcome Restaurant fire in Taichung that took the lives of over 60 reminded Taipei City officials that the city has had its own string of major fires at saunas, KTVs and elsewhere. Taipei's rate of death and injury from fire is 157 times higher than New York's and 60 times higher than London's. Chang Ching-sen, the newly appointed head of the Department of Urban Development (DUD), described the city's fire fighting capabilities and its public safety controls as "tragically inadequate."
In the history of Chinese cities, fire-fighting measures were most thorough during the Song dynasty. Song cities resembled those of today's Taiwan, with residences and places of business mixed together, streets less than fifty paces wide with alleys branching off them, buildings that rubbed up against each other, and great diversity within the population. With the city so tightly packed, fires spread quickly. This made fire fighters essential public servants.
And so the court established a complete system for detecting and extinguishing fires. The Maple Window Notes (Feng Chuang Xiao Du) describes how the city of Bianjing (now Kaifeng) built army patrol stations every 300 paces, with manned lookout towers up top and 100 soldiers stationed below. Equipped with rope ladders and other tools, they would quickly put out fires.
Bianjing enforced strict fire-prevention measures. Candles and lanterns could not be lit at night, and, for big officials and common folk alike, permission was required to use fire in religious ceremonies at home. During the rule of Ren Zong (1023- 1059), the prime minister Di Qing one night held a religious service and forgot to report it. In the middle of the night a scout reported this to a neighborhood chief, who reported it to a magistrate. By the time the neighborhood chief and the judge hurried to the scene, the fire had long been put out, but afterward there were still criticisms among the officials. Finally Di Qing had to ask for a transfer and leave town. While it would be impossible to prohibit the entire citizenry from cooking at night, the city's emphasis on public safety is well worth emulating. It was not a case where, as a Chinese expression goes, "officials warmed themselves by bonfires, while the people could not light their lamps."
Recently the German Magazine Der Spiegel published an article that quoted a local environmentalist as saying that Taiwanese were "living in a pigsty." Afterwards, another environmentalist joked that pigs have one up on people in Taiwan because at least pigsties here all have proper sewers for their waste water, whereas in greater Taipei, which holds one-third of Taiwan's population, only 20 percent of buildings with human inhabitants are so connected. Instead, the waste water of household upon household is discharged into rivers without first passing through waste processing plants.
Who knows, if our ancestors were to get wind of this, they might well think that future generations had caused them a great loss of face.
Archaeologists have discovered remains of underground sewers amid the ruins of Qin, Han, Sui and Tang dynasty cities both large and small. They were made from fired clay, not reinforced concrete as are modern sewers. But when such pipes in these cities were connected one after another, they formed rather comprehensive sewage systems.
Chiang Meng-lin once described Beijing's sewage system as a great engineering achievement of the past: "To release the city's waste water, the system made use of underground channels that were much like the road tunnels built today. By the end of the Qing dynasty, these sewers were all silted up, but the system of inspecting the sewers once a year for needed repairs was continued until then. The inspectors would enter the sewers, looking from end to end for any places that needed to be patched up."
Mainland Chinese experts on traditional Chinese cities note that before the Yuan court established its capital Beijing, its builders first laid underground sewers that followed the lay of its land. Only then did they lay out the various districts of the city.
Even if it lacked underground sewers, the Song dynasty capital of Bianjing had 253 open-air sewers. To prevent people from throwing garbage in them and clogging them up, the city had regular inspection patrols. Song dynasty law designated 60 strokes for those who dumped garbage in the sewers. Lax enforcement would get inspectors the same penalty.
But the city of Bianjing was concerned with more than merely keeping sewers clear. With its network of criss-crossing channels and rivers, the city faced the constant threat that these would rupture and cause flooding. And so the court would directly order city inspectors to demolish illegal structures that blocked or threatened this network.
During the rule of Ren Zong, the city government could petition the court to remove from office mandarins whose illegal structures obstructed the sewage system. A family of one powerful official built a garden near the Huimin River that caused the river to silt up. Impartially applying the law, the legendary Judge Bao promptly destroyed the garden and said the next time an official's family dared to build on the riverbanks, he would recommend the official be removed from office. "With a good sewage management system and vigilant enforcement of the law," wrote Zhou Baozhu in his book on Song Dynasty Bianjing, "the city often had floods, but they were not disastrous."
The Bian River allowed Bianjing to prosper during the eras of the Five Dynasties and the Song. When talking about a panoramic painting depicting river life in Bianjing, the art historian Chiang Hsun has said, "By looking at this painting today, you can begin to understand how important the river was during the rule of Hui Zong in the Northern Song. The emperor asked the painter to study the river's wheat barges and the lives of the shopkeepers and residents on the riverbanks and turn his observations into a painting. Every time I look at it, it makes me want to further understand the relationship between cities and people."
Many cities are built on the banks of big rivers. If the city is the body, the river represents the veins and arteries circulating its blood. Unfortunately, in Taipei it is no longer possible to feel that close connection to the water. Yet Taipei only became an important city because of an important river, the Tanshui. "Now dikes have sealed the river off. Add to this occlusion heavy water pollution, and one no longer has a sense that the river is nourishing the city's body by circulating its blood," says Chiang Hsun with a sigh.
A beautiful river also requires a clean ground surface. Marco Polo observed of cosmopolitan Beijing: "Whether they be idolaters or Christians, moslems or the adherents of some other faith, corpses were all buried outside the city, which did much to make it a sanitary place."
In the Five Dynasties era, when Houzhou Shizong was expanding Bianjing, he also forbade burying bodies or building brothels in the new city districts. This was done not only to maintain order and cleanliness in the newly constructed city, but also in the hope of leaving room for future growth. And in the Warring States era, the state of Qin once decreed that litterers would be punished.
And what about disposing of solid wastes, which causes major headaches for Taiwan's cities? In the past, Chinese cities were still encircled by farmers' fields. Because the garbage of the past was largely compost, with little that was hard to decompose-- unlike today--city wastes could be used as fertilizer outside the city, raising agricultural productivity. Such was the symbiotic relationship between city and surrounding countryside.
In Chinese Architecture and Town Planning, Andrew Boyd describes how private operators would collect the excrement from residences at night and haul it in carts out to the outlying farms. It's too bad that today's garbage problems are more complex. With the demise of agriculture and speculation on urban land driving up the price of farmland as well, country villages all want to become cities. It's not only that the old urban-rural symbiosis will not solve current garbage problems. Nowadays, cities and counties can count themselves lucky if they are not at war with each other over how to deal with solid waste disposal.
Estimates put the number of street vendors in Taiwan at 310,000. In Taipei they are already half as numerous as the owners of other businesses. A Department of Budgets, Accounting and Statistics survey estimates their average turnover last year at NT$1.18 million, but reported earnings don't reach 7 percent of this. This not only creates unfair competition for shop owners; it also deprives the government of tax revenue.
In classical China, urban commerce boomed from the Song dynasty on. Its cities were much like those of Taiwan today. Vendors noisily hawked their wares and lined the streets with their stands, narrowing the arteries of traffic.
Concerned about the shrinking streets, the Song Emperor Zhen Zong ordered Xie Dequan to return them to their original state. Xie started by razing the houses of some highly placed officials. Confronted by a storm of protest, Zhen Zong backed down and rescinded the order. But Xie petitioned the emperor to reconsider, explaining how certain high officials were building illegal structures and then renting them out to storekeepers. Not destroying these buildings would invite the citizens' ridicule. Zhen Zong submitted to Xie's request, and the high and mighty were once again targeted first. The proper widths of streets and alleys were registered and even posted along roadsides.
But the figure who was most successful in razing illegal structures was Zhou Shizong of the Five Dynasties era. Before Bianjing was made the capital during the Song dynasty, it was an important transhipment center for grain, at the intersection of the Grand Canal and the Yellow River. With population growing fast, the city's residential districts were jam-packed and bursting. To meet the demand for new housing and commercial space, Zhou expanded the city and simultaneously widened the streets of the old city, which had become so clogged by illegal structures that large carts could not even pass through some of them.
Because the situation was serious, with illegal structures greatly impeding traffic, he found it necessary to take forceful action, razing buildings and making people move. As in Taiwan today, Zhou Shizong's moves to tear down buildings and rebuild the city drew protest. Though possessing total authority, a virtuous emperor was wise to tread carefully when rebuilding a city. His strategy was to pacify people by saying, "Rebuilding the city will indeed have a big impact on people's lives. I am willing to take complete responsibility for the voices of complaint, but after the city has been reconstructed, everyone will benefit."
Zhou Shizong was not all talk and no action. To reduce dissatisfaction, he decreed that residents of city streets 50 paces wide could dig wells, plant trees, and construct shade canopies within five paces of their property. On streets that were 25-30 paces across, greenery was restricted to within three paces of the residence. He dredged the Bian River, and then to prevent the riverbanks from once again being illegally used, permitted residents near the river to plant elms and willows on its banks and build terraces and pavilions. These made the city more beautiful.
In his book City Planning in Classical China, Yang Kuan points out that allowing residents to plant trees, dig wells, and erect canopies in front of their homes to within a tenth of the width of the street, not only made the city more green; it also made for easy access to water and demarcated the streets with trees and wells, thus preventing illegal building.
By eliminating the illegal structures from streets and riverbanks, one also made the cities more green, thus killing two birds with one stone. Yet Zhou Shizong was not the first emperor to allow citizens to plant trees on the street, and the greenest ancient Chinese city was not Bianjing.
During the Eastern Han dynasty Wang Mang decreed that "residences within the city walls without trees will be fined three lengths of cloth."
Chengdu in Sichuan was ravaged by wars at the end of the Song and Ming dynasties. Li Shijie, the governor of Sichuan during the rule of Qian Long in the Qing dynasty, redesigned the city streets and then ordered people to plant peach and willow trees between rows of hibiscus, which made the whole city, "lush and green like a forest, and during spring and fall as beautiful as a landscape painting."
In Science and Civilization in Ancient China sinologist Joseph Needham noted that when looking out from high spots in Beijing, one could only rarely see a roof among the trees. Because the trees were so numerous, the city still had much the character of a garden. Most people found it hard to believe that Beijing had a higher density of trees than the country around it. "From these high vantage points, the city appears much like a forest, with only the roofs of the most prominent buildings sticking up above the trees. This shows how Beijing has managed to reach a high density of population while still preserving a feeling of seclusion." [Retranslated from the Chinese]
In The Western Tide Jiang Menglin says, "In accordance with long-standing imperial orders, only the planting but not the felling of trees was legal in Beijing. After a while, everybody forgot about these decrees, but they helped to foster habits of planting and protecting trees." He holds that this example shows how systems themselves may be long forgotten but live on in spirit in people's hearts.
Besides the tree-lined streets, the gardens of private residences also played an important role in the cities. Zhou Bao-zhu points out that these were enjoyed by common folk as well as the upper crust. After the Ming dynasty, most residents of southern Chinese cities lived in cramped quarters, but they still tried to keep small gardens. Thus gardens have long made the Chinese urban environment more beautiful.
Today the Taipei metropolitan area is twice the size of Paris, but even when you include the Yangming National Park and the Mucha mountain districts, it has only 2.47 square meters of green space for every city resident, less than one tenth the figure in Paris. And forget Western cities; Taipei can't even match up to most Asian cities.
When Huang Ta-chou was mayor of Taipei he encouraged everybody to plant trees so that city would lose its reputation as a "concrete jungle." For a while a lot of public buildings had a wall or two covered with vines. It's only too bad that the air pollution in the city is so serious, and the curb-side trees so mistreated by shopkeepers. Their roots are shallow too, and so the several typhoons that hit the city last year left it that much grayer. When friends and lovers meet, too often their only options are KTVs or MTVs, notorious fire traps.
And because parks, green spaces and other leisure facilities are in short supply, and sidewalks are crowded with illegally parked motorcycles, lovers can't even walk together holding hands.
Perhaps all of Taipei's officials have forgotten that Confucius said, "Warriors and scholars alike are now tense, then loose." Managing the city is like managing the nation. Leading nervous and hardworking lives, we need to relax, and cities need to devote more space to our leisure.
When building a city in ancient China, the government would often maintain large tracts of open space within the city, containing farmland, gardens, wooded hills and springs. This was done not entirely to avert crisis if enemies surrounded the city. Nor were these vast tracts awaiting future development. Instead they would be developed as parks or major sight-seeing spots (especially where there was water), and they would become much loved by city folk. In an area south of the city, Chang'an set up a beautiful hibiscus garden near Qujiang pond. This became a playground for both emperor and common man. Jinan's Daming Lake inspired Liu E to write his Travels of Lao Can.
Dongjing Menghua Lu describes Bianjing on Tomb Sweeping Day, "Green spaces were as crowded as a marketplace. Picnics were spread out under trees and in gardens everywhere, and people invited each other to feast. The singing and dancing girls performed until late at night."
After the Southern Song established its capital in Hangzhou, the West Lake area became famous for its scenery. It became a favorite place of leisure for emperors, generals, ministers, and wealthy landlords and merchants, and was used by common city residents and visitors to the capital as a large park. Foreign envoys, businessmen and monks would also go to the West Lake and offer incense in its temples. The pavilions and temples from various eras were well maintained and numerous, as these lines attest: "By West Lake, where the green slopes are studded with pagodas, when will the singing and dancing stop? Drunk on the warm winds, the visitors forget that this is Hangzhou not Bianjing, forget that they have fled the north."
Besides spending your leisure time relaxing in the parks, you could also go to the busy city centers. After Buddhist temples were erected-in great numbers during the Sui and Tang dynasties, many temples built gardens, which became places for the urban residents to go in their leisure time. The residents of Tang dynasty Chang'an made temples into tourist attractions. Possessing works by famous painters and calligraphers and beautiful grounds famous for their plants and flowers, they were places where tourists would congregate, where poets would recite their verse. The temples of Chang'an went a step further by building stages for musical and operatic performances. And operas were also staged on the plazas and streets of Chang'an.
A special feature of city life during the Northern Song dynasty, was the "wa market," the red light district of a city where street performers would put on shows much like they do in major European cities today. The difference was in scale. Some wa market plazas could hold thousands. With the wa markets, performers grew very busy and honed their skills. Performances included the telling of stories and riddles, singing in various styles, variety shows, and puppet and shadow puppet shows.
In Beijing's Tianqiao Plaza at the end of the Qing dynasty and the beginning of the Republican era, you could watch operas, peep shows or magic shows and listen to book critiques, stories told with musical accompaniment, and comic cross-talk. And you didn't have to pay a set ticket price, but rather gave as much as you liked. It was very democratic, quite unlike theaters with their boxes and different grades of seating.
With new governmental and social structures, the problems that are faced by today's cities are already quite different from those that were faced by the cities of China's past. The prosperity that has come with science and technology has also made problems much more complicated. Take the pollution problem, which is largely caused by motor vehicles. The most capable of emperors would still probably find that a difficult problem to tackle. Yet, science and technology have also given us more means to solve our problems. Otherwise, why would the people of other countries feel secure in looking down their noses at Taipei?
In any case, there are some needs of urban residents that will never change. Hsu Hong, a professor of history at Taiwan University, says that over the course of history there is little that is completely new. Everyone wants to lead a comfortable life. Cultures may differ, but people share the same principles. They need similar facilities and the same basic regulations. From this vantage point, the people of Taipei do share something with the ancient folk of Chang'an, don't they?
A drawing of Kaifeng, capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126) shows how the river flowing through the city was intimately connected to the lives of the residents (courtesy of the National Palace Museum). Taipei was able to become a major metropolis because it also has a major river (the Tanshui) running through it. However, the Tanshui today is seriously polluted and choked with garbage, and people feel no sense of attachment to the river. (photo by Huang Tzu-ming)
There were already sewers for carrying off waste water designed into cities of the state of Chi in the Spring and Autumn Period. In the photo you can see spaces between the bricks which functioned as filters to keep out impurities and keep the water flowing.
Gardens were an important part of traditional Chinese cities. The photo shows the Summer Palace in Beijing.
With huge numbers of cars generating air pollution, modern cities face far more complex problems. The photo is of Shanghai.