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Looking for heritage in the ordinary

[ 2009-11-18 14:04]     字号 [] [] []  
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Last week, I learned from online reports that the nearly century-old Xunlimen Railway Station in Hankou, Hubei province, had been demolished for commercial development. The news saddened me, for I spent my childhood in its vicinity.

During the 1950s and 1960s, my family lived in Xunlimen, after which the primary school I attended was also named. Every day, I passed by the railway station on my way to school and back home. The station was used for goods, not passengers, and I often slipped into it after school to play.

I loved seeing the railway staff in impressive uniforms, some of who were neighbors, waving red and green pennants to usher trains in and out of the station. The porters instilled a sense of awe in me as beads of perspiration covered their muscular bodies while they carried goods on gangplanks from the wagons to the platforms. I often peeped through gaps in large crates trying to see what was inside.

Once I saw a giraffe in a flatcar eating the leaves of a tree off the tracks. More often, I tried to catch crickets from within the cracks in the platform or gleaned soybeans that had dropped from torn or loose sacks. Back home, my grandmother would bake the beans for me. It was fun.

The station was built in 1916. For my generation, it bore witness to the time when the newborn People's Republic underwent a fervent campaign to develop its economy after decades of war and the people confidently began rebuilding our country despite the poverty and hardships they faced. For me, the station was part of my childhood memory.

When our cities try impatiently to change their appearances, tearing down old buildings to erect high-rises becomes inevitable. But after many years of controversy, there is a common understanding that historically significant buildings should be protected. Efforts in this regard, though, seem to be focused on "important sites" such as high-ranking officials' mansions and gardens, temples and celebrities' residences. Scant attention has been paid to buildings such as the Xunlimen Railway Station, which are commonplace architecture and are related only to common people's lives.

I feel sad about the station's demolition not only because of nostalgia. What I am worried more about is whether we really have developed a correct understanding of what protecting historical and cultural heritages means.

For many years, we seem to have made efforts to preserve, and often refurbish, mansions, gardens and temples, only to allow people to take photographs or worship there, and earn a fat income from tourism. Little thought, however, has been given to the cultural and historical meaning of those buildings. That explains why a goods railway station like Xunlimen, which did not look magnificent and had no relationship with any celebrity, was torn down.

In fact, what we can inherit from an old building is a spirit of belonging, a kind of mood and geographical character.

They represent the memory of a particular period, a record of people's daily lives and human relationship, subsistence philosophy, social customs and the ethics people developed in ordinariness.

Maintaining such buildings is maintaining our cultural tradition and spiritual heritage.

Cultural heritage helps us foster a fine spiritual quality.

Such spiritual pursuit of real beauty will help us develop a more kind human nature, which will make us treat each other with more amiability and love - we will have less psychological impulses to become selfish and thus help society to become more peaceful and harmonious. This is an intangible heritage, more valuable than all the profit generated by clamorous tourism.

Therefore, keeping an old ordinary building like the Xunlimen Railway Station, which has been witness to people's aspirations and efforts for a better future, is not assuaging someone's nostalgia.

Instead it is an effort to preserve a national spirit - the lifestyle of the common people.

E-mail: liushinan@chinadaily.com.cn

About the author:

刘式南 高级编辑。1968年毕业于武汉华中师范学院(现华中师范大学)英文系。1982年毕业于北京体育学院(现北京体育大学)研究生院体育情报专业。1982年进入中国日报社,先后担任体育记者、时政记者、国际新闻编辑、要闻版责任编辑、发稿部主任、《上海英文星报》总编辑、《中国商业周刊》总编辑等职。现任《中国日报》总编辑助理及专栏作家。1997年获国务院“特殊贡献专家政府津贴”。2000年被中华全国新闻工作者协会授予“全国百佳新闻工作者”称号。2006年获中国新闻奖二等奖(编辑)。


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