Debra Bruno

An ambitious former mayor started gutting the historic city center and replacing it with replicas. Then he left town. 

DATONG, China—This is a city with an image problem. Ask people in China what they think about Datong – once called the most polluted in China – and you’ll learn they either love it or hate it. Few Chinese are lukewarm about this place.

Part of the problem is that there’s plenty to love and plenty to hate, but Datong doesn’t seem to be winning over the haters. In the heart of Shanxi province, China’s coal belt, Datong boasts a ring of coal mines and the soot-laden air that goes along with them. Yet it’s also one of China’s ancient regions, famous for the Buddhist art in caves not far from the city and a hanging monastery, built in 491, that draws busloads of tourists each year.

In the last few years, Datong has made a massive push to draw those tourist groups to its inner city, a place that was first settled in the Han dynasty around 200 BC. It's all part of an ambitious plan to raze the old city and replace it with a new “ancient” Tang-style city, surrounding it with newly built ramparts. What’s drawing scorn is that, along with other problems, the new ancient city seems to be more of an idealized place – what China would look like if no actual people lived in it – than a literal recreation of historic Datong.

An old home in inner Datong is covered with placards announcing the new development. (JE McNeil)

Unlike Pingyao, another city in Shanxi province, Datong no longer has much of its “historic fabric,” says Han Li, director for the China program of the Global Heritage Fund, an international nonprofit focusing on historic preservation. Although the city is “trying to recreate something that was there in the historic period,” it’s not doing it with 100 percent accuracy, she says. In fact, the city is razing some of the historic housing in its center because it doesn’t date to as ancient a period as the renovators wanted. “Some criticize it as an imagined historic style,” she says.

In contrast, UNESCO designated Pingyao a World Heritage Center in 1997, calling it an “exceptionally well-preserved example of a traditional Han Chinese city, founded in the 14th century.” Datong City hasn’t made it on to UNESCO's list of world heritage sites.

Many of the recent changes in Datong have come thanks to the city’s former mayor, Geng Yanbo, who became known as Demolition Geng (Geng Chaichai, or Geng Smash-Smash) after he took office in 2008.

“Let the old remain old, and turn the new into newer,”Geng wrote in a 2010 article quoted in the Chinese newspaper Global Times. His initial efforts got him named an “outstanding person” for “cultural heritage protection” by the China Cultural Relic Protection Foundation in 2011.

But his plan, which was projected to cost as much as 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) over six years, also led to reports in May 2011 of violent clashes between demolition workers and residents resisting eviction from their homes.

Left: The ravages of time play out on the face of this Buddha. Center: The stone columns at the entrance to the Yungang Grottoes outside Datong. Right: A pagoda in the inner city of Datong. (Debra Bruno)

Geng’s plans included a new “ancient” city made up of bricks layered on top of poured concrete on the outside, with a hollow interior, says Dai Yue, who works on historic preservation in Beijing for the Dongcheng Historic Cultural Preservation Office and has visited Datong to investigate the city’s renovation process. The warrens of modest homes that had grown up over the years, along with factories and stores situated inside the boundaries of the old city, would all be gone.

In its place would be a complex of temples, plazas, and buildings built in the old style. “Maybe Datong had been a beautiful ancient city,” says Dai Yue. “But when I get to a city, I want to see this whole process. That’s a living city, not a Disneyland.”

China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage, part of the Ministry of Culture, requires local governments to submit plans to the central government, after which experts are brought in to review proposals. Then the government will either approve or reject the plan, says Jane Lu, a national manager at the agency. But Datong is “an interesting case,” she adds. “It’s difficult for me to say something.”

Just five or six years ago, Datong looked nothing like a historic city, she says, with many buildings “not harmonious” with historical authenticity. Therefore it’s difficult to say whether the mayor was right or wrong, she says.

Datong today is straddling the divide. Tourists walking around the inner city on a spring evening find the renovated areas mainly devoid of people, a rarity in China. The streets near the Drum Tower, which sits surrounded by a fence in the middle of an intersection, are quiet, except for a row of clothing stores that compete for attention by blaring pop music through open doors.

Left: Roof, rubble, and newer brick makes up this doorway in Datong. Center:  alleyway in inner Datong. Right: a rubble-strewn home in Datong. (JE McNeil)

The rest of the inner city is half rubble, with residents living along garbage-strewn streets, next to the massive new temples and pagodas. Most Datong residents would be happy to move out if they were compensated for their homes and given a new place to live, says Dai Yue, but the process seems to have been halted or slowed with the departure of Geng in 2013, when he was appointed mayor of Taiyuan, a city of four million, also in Shanxi province.

Before he left, Datong residents marched in the streets to protest his departure, holding up signs that read, “Mayor Geng is good!” and “Datong is your unfinished monument,” according to photos on the website ChinaSMACK. But others complained that the protests were orchestrated by the government, and that if residents resisted Geng’s departure, it was because they were more worried that he would leave them with a mound of debt.

Over in Taiyuan, Geng seems to be wreaking more havoc. There he’s been nicknamed “Point the Finger” Geng, because wherever he points, that home is demolished, according to The Telegraph. In that article, one Taiyuan resident suggested that a bomb blast at a Communist Party headquarters in November that killed one person might be linked to unhappiness over the mayor’s policies.

As for Datong, its limbo state makes it a less-than-exciting spot to visit. Even its most famous caves, at nearby Yungang, tend to suffer in comparison with the Buddhist caves in Dunhuang, in China’s west. Yungang’s Buddhist and bodhisattva statues have been exposed to the elements for centuries, and many of the statues lost their heads during the years the Japanese occupied Datong and afterward during the Cultural Revolution.

Geng Yanbo’s solution to draw tourists to Yungang was to construct a grandiose visitors’ center at the entrance to the grottoes, complete with a massive temple complex, artificial lake, an avenue lined with carved stone columns, rows of trees propped up with wooden slats, and the requisite gift shops.

Geng “understands the importance of cultural heritage,” says Han Li, “and sees it as a resource for the city to develop. But then he gets too aggressive in how he pursues it and doesn’t really take the advice of professionals.”

Even though the Yungang Grottoes were named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001, which means that changes to the landscape around the site must be subject to review, Geng moved forward with his plan to add the visitors’ center.

The effect today is bizarre: visitors must walk or take a shuttle bus through pristine grounds before reaching caves holding ancient Buddhas carved from stone beginning in 460 AD. Many of the statues still sit in the bright sunshine, facing in the direction of one of Datong’s coal mines.


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