The Hutongs and China’s introversion

In the first part of this article, we saw how the key to the building of the Great Wall of China lies in China’s historical introversion and xenophobia. The design of living spaces in China reflects the same desire of excluding the “other”. The trend survived the dynasties of imperial rule, the proletariat revolution, the Cultural Revolution, Deng’s reformation and the present capitalism-without-democracy, euphemistically called Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. Yet, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Xi Jinping is demanding that the gates of living spaces be smashed to facilitate the intrusive state.

In the book, Streetlife China, Dutton describes the old Chinese city street as “Walls within walls and, behind those walls, more walls”. The walled city was divided by alleys called hutongs in a way that one could not go from one hutong to another without going out onto an arterial road. The hutong insulated a micro community from the other hutongs. Each hutong had a gate and generally a nameplate on it. The houses on a hutong were based on a courtyard pattern with houses of a clan around the courtyard with a single opening to the hutong which otherwise had blank walls on both sides with no windows opening on to it. The entry to the hutong was regulated with outsiders needing permission to enter and the gates were closed at night. The pattern strengthened the bond within the clan and between the clans on the same hutong, all having the common desire to protect their clans from outsiders.

The courtyard in these Chinese houses has been contrasted with the open space of western societies. In the latter, the house sits in the middle of the open space with a view from all sides. On the other hand, buildings with no view of the outside surround the Chinese courtyard. In turn, the buildings are surrounded by walls. While the western design is symbolic of openness and inclusivity, the Chinese courtyard is introverted and exclusive.

The Chinese Emperors ruled over a hierarchy that had the clan as the lowest unit. The control was maintained through the head of the clan and all such heads on a hutong ensured the rule of law in their microcosm. With the Communist revolution, the hutongs presented an ideal structure for social control by the state. A party minder in the hutong could report to the party all happenings that took place in the alley and could convey the diktats of the party to all the families living there. The communists continued to rely on the filial bond for social control with consequences for any dissent visiting the entire family. The party further encouraged snitching on the neighbours to prevent the households on any hutong from ganging up against the party apparatus.

The revolution demanded that the cities transform from decadent consumption centres to centres of production and the new slogan was, “production first, livelihood later”. This was in tune with the communist philosophy that the reason for the existence of the individual is to serve the commune. Thus, the new form of the urban space was the “work-unit” compound (danwei) where families lived, mostly with community kitchens, and worked within the same walled compound. Such compounds had social amenities including play areas, shopping area, school and library. Again, each such compound had gates with regulated entry that were closed at night. Each compound had a manager from the party and the life and work culture was maintained as per the directives of the party. Such compounds were everywhere in Mao’s China and many of them exist even now with their guarded gates although some of the walls along the arterial roads have shops opening on the road.

With the advent of capitalism and respect for private property, this millennia-long continuity of introverted living spaces with hierarchical social control metamorphosed into urban gated-communities, similar to those in western cities. Of course, in China, everything is larger than life and some of these gated communities are so huge that they cause a long detour for those living outside. One such gated-community, Tiantongyuan, in north Beijing, has 400,000 residents. Even for an insider, it may take up to half an hour to reach a facility at a stone’s throw from his residence but beyond the perimeter wall. This is not a bother for the party. What bothered them was that these high-rise blocks, insulated behind locked gates, were getting beyond micro-level party control. With roads, security, power, parks, schools, healthcare and other facilities inside these communities being maintained by residents, these represented a threat to the patriarchal state. If allowed to continue, the next stage could be a transition from the inward-looking society to one yearning for freedom from the rigid party control.

In 2016, the state issued new regulations that internal roads in these communities should gradually open up to the public, ostensibly to ease traffic congestion. Simultaneously, a prohibition was declared for constructing such communities in future. In cities like Shanghai, 80 percent of communities are gated. The residents protested, with some even pointing to Beijing’s Zhongnanhai, the gated-community where senior leaders of CCP live. Protests in China, however, have limited scope and life. The communist state cannot survive if it cannot watch people. Beijing is said to have 1.5 million registered neighbourhood “volunteers” maintaining surveillance over their neighbours. These vigilantes were very effective in hutongs but they face professional hazards in prosperous gated-communities.

Introversion used to have a negative connotation in the western world till two decades ago. With liberalisation of western thought, now we hear about the comparative advantages that introverts enjoy. Susan Cain in her 2012 book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Cannot Stop Talking” cites Lincoln, Darwin, Einstein, J.K. Rowling and even Bill Gates as introverts. Teachers in the US used to discretely comment on the introvert Chinese students, particularly in English language classes. The same teachers now say that these students are better listeners in the class as compared to whites or blacks who prefer to gossip in the class. It is now recognised that there have been very successful introvert artists and writers, Van Gogh being a prominent one. Yet, as the Chinese begin to publicly celebrate their introversion, we need a note of caution. Certain kinds of introversion makes a person so determined to achieve his goal that he crosses the boundaries of rationality, believes in his omnipotence and becomes unstoppable. Adolf Hitler was one such introvert. We can only hope that the next such megalomaniac is not already emerging in introverted China.
Source : Daily World

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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