1995 / 4月
Chang Chin-ju /tr. by Robert Taylor
The author of A Biography of Liang Sichen, published in the early years of the Republic, said that when she first went to Beijing from her home in the countryside, her father instructed her that she should enter the imperial city through its main gate-- Zhengyangmen--for only then would she be able to appreciate the memorable south-to-north axis around which it is laid out. The whole imperial grandeur of the city is spread out before one along that axis. Her father told her: "That axis is what will impress you most about Beijing. You must walk the whole of its length, and then you can call yourself a citizen of Beijing."
Hsia Chu-joe, a professor at Taiwan University's Graduate Institute of Building and Planning, explains that walking Beijing's most evocative axis is like an initiation ceremony by which one becomes a naturalized Beijinger, just as when one goes to Paris it is de rigueur to ascend the Eiffel Tower for a bird's-eye view of the city. "As for what the initiation ceremony is for Taipei," Professor Hsia muses, "I'm not too sure. Maybe if you go to a beer house and get blind drunk, or get stuck in a Taipei traffic jam for three or four hours, then you're initiated. Perhaps that's something for us to think about!"
This scholarly opinion is in no way intended to eulogize planned imperial cities, for how a city takes shape is not what matters--cities "grow," and the cities which engrave themselves on our memories are not usually those constructed by one person or at one time.
Beijing is a city which has gradually grown over more than five centuries, and its twisting water-courses and five marble bridges were not added until the 17th century.
"Beijing has a multitude of colors and characters, with the old and the new intermingled. It has the flavor of imperial dynasties, the flavor of ancient history, and a Mongolian flavor. Merchants come with their camels to Beijing from Zhangjiakou and Nankou, entering through the ancient city gate. There the serenity of the countryside combines with the comforts of the city, and the streets are laid out just right so that when pulling cabbages in one's garden at dawn one can look up and see the majesty of the Western Hills, even though one is but a stone's throw from a large department store." The great humorist Lin Yutang loved Beijing for another reason too: "No matter where you go, you're never far from a general store or a tea-house."
In an age when the new-fangled motor car was vying for favor with the donkey-cart, Lin Yutang described Beijing as "an ideal city, where everyone has space to breathe."
Landscape designer Kuo Chung-tuan often tells her students that in Taipei she sees no sense of time. People have hurried to roughly destroy many things. Today some say that "the Japanese town planners deliberately destroyed Chinese culture, so we don't need to preserve buildings from the Japanese occupation era." But in fact this all stems from the fact that we don't like to have history or memories in our city. Only a city which retains memories from different ages can tell its story in full.
Chao-ching Yu, associate professor in the Department of Architecture at Chung Yuan University, has said that a city does not take shape by accident, nor can it be created from any perfect blueprint. The power many cities have to move us comes from their own individual history.
Hu Nai-an said that as a child he once rode in a horse-cart to the clatter of hooves through Fengyi Gate, into the old city of Nanjing. This ancient imperial city, which in former times variously bore the names of Jianye, Jiankang and Shitou Cheng, and which is tinged with the golden dust of six dynasties, fills one with many imaginings. Rich "city memories" give a city the power to move us, and places with that power also have evocative sounds and smells.
Sights of the Ancient Capital describes how in the city of Hangzhou, which since time immemorial has been a center of crafts and commerce with a population of over a million, "the sounds of bow on string and of recitations often assailed the ear." Hangzhou was a city with at least one or two schools large or small in every street and alley, so the sound of culture could be heard wherever one went.
In Suzhou, "The fragrance of apricot blossoms wafts from the grove deep in the alley," filling one with yearning, just like the smell of fresh-baked bread which draws one to bakeries on Paris streets. Twenty years ago, walking along Taipei's Tihua Street one could savor the fragrance of tea, and even with one's eyes closed one would know one was passing a tea merchant's shop. But sadly, today the city is full of the roar of traffic and all one can smell is the stench of exhaust fumes. Taipei has even been described as a place where one needs to wear a helmet and gas mask.
The Tang dynasty poet Tu Mu (803-c.852) describes Nanjing with the words "Myriad Southern Dynasty temples-how many halls in the mist and rain?" When the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci came to Nanjing in 1595, the 23rd year of the Ming dynasty Wan Li emperor's reign, he judged it the greatest and most beautiful city in all the world. The late Chen Cheng-hsiang, a well-known scholar of culture and geography, described the Nanjing of the 1940s thus: "In late March at Nanjing by the lower Yangtze, the peach and plum trees blossom, and in April the catkins begin to fly." His memories of the city are vivid ones.
Meanwhile "in Beijing in March, the ice on Beihai Lake is melting; the soil thaws by day and freezes by night. Plants sprout, and the elms break their buds. Then the buds of the mountain peaches and willows swell, bees appear, and the wild geese fly north. . . . With the coming of April, the wild peaches, crab-apples, mulberries and walnuts blossom by turns; then in May the peonies come into flower, and catkins dance on the breeze. The fifth lunar month in Beijing is like flame: the pomegranates and oleanders in the courtyards flower a fiery red."
The Qing dynasty Seasons in Beijing also records how in the fifth lunar month in that city, "the pomegranates bloom bright and the locals all take pleasure in growing oleanders in their courtyards. Among the pomegranates and oleanders they are sure to place vats in which scarlet goldfish swim. Almost every family follows this practice."
No wonder Chiang Meng-lin, who lived in Beijing for 15 years, said that when he thought of the past, "even the dust which blows through Beijing is rich with happy associations." Hsia Chu-joe says this is certainly not merely homesickness: "From this we can see that a good town has many qualities."
What kind of memories, then, will today's cities leave behind?
"City memories" are events and things that constitute the collective consciousness of a metropolis' residents. Many Taipei people have strong memories of New Park, the city's first park. The park is now the site of the memorial to the February 28 incident. (Sinorama file photo)