Dr. Ines Eben v. Racknitz – How to preserve the old architecture internationally

Author Dr. Ines Eben v. Racknitz
Published September 2020
Dr. Ines Eben v. Racknitz © www.jansiefke.de

You are a member of the CITYMAKERS culture & identity incubator team “Wuhan Narrative”: Can you first of all introduce to us briefly what you project is aiming to achieve?

The “culture and identity incubator team Wuhan narrative” acts on the assumption that culture is at the heart of the livable city and also expresses the state of social, civil and urban development. Additionally, it represents contemporary as well as traditional values of a society. Cultural heritage then is part of a city’s identity and contains “cultural narratives” that are embedded in the built environment, architecture from all epochs for example. It can be read, interpreted and understood within the society and by outsiders. The team wants to make the cultural memory of the city of Wuhan, and particularly Hankou, visible for the citizens of Hankou as well as for tourists. Among the “visions”of the team are the protection of heritage, the reconstruction of its history and the development of formats for education. By bringing cultural memory to life and make it relevant for the people, the city can be seen as an “open campus” rather than a museum. Also, a discourse on “material culture” is being proposed and emphasized, in contrast to non-material heritage. The material heritage, as it is preserved in the architecture of the city of Hankou, thus becomes a platform on which local and international activists engage in a common project and travel back through a common and shared history of Europe and China.

What is your particular lens as a historian and your interest and contribution to the project?

As a historian with a focus on China, my interest in Wuhan is not solely focused on the European colonial history but particularly on the historical background of the period in China during the time of the German presence in Hankou (1895-1917), and also after the war. Rather than looking at things from a Chinese or European perspective, I propose to look at the project from a “Hankou perspective”: From this perspective, the running of business, culture and politics, the cooperation and antagonisms of people, be they European or Chinese, comes into focus. Under investigation then is the daily life of a “treaty port” that is situated far away from any “colonial metropolis” like Berlin, London, Paris and Moscow. “Trade city life“ and „treaty port life“ thus appear as an intertwined history, entangled, and it becomes clear, how the theories developed in Europe were put into practice far away. Often, European settlers would build their settlement on pre-existing Chinese structures, whereas later, Chinese would take over European structures, originating in the “colonial era”.

My contribution to the project is a narrative in this fashion, keeping the perspectives of all parties involved by collecting a variety of source materials in archives and elsewhere. A historical narrative will thus be constructed that regards and takes into account evenly the Chinese as well as the European perspective.

You have just come back from a research trip to Wuhan – what did you do there? What is your research method?

I was kindly received in Wuhan and introduced to the city by Mr. Yang Fang, who runs an NGO which aims at the preservation of historical buildings of different historical periods of the city. During three days, Mr. Yang Fang explained to me several “layers” of cultural history of the city, among them, on the first afternoon and evening, a tour of the “foreign concessions”, of which the German part and what is left of it are only a very small part, existing next to a much larger Russian, British and French quarter. The city of Wuhan and its role during different eras (from ancient times to the “Japanese war of resistance” during the 1930s) was the topic of the second day, on which we also visited the summer villa of Mao Zedong and the famous university campus.

On the third day, I was able to participate in an “oral history project” on historical buildings of Hankou, during which Mr. Yang Fang interviewed older citizens of Wuhan about their experiences and life during the second half of the 20th century. Mr. Yang Fang is joined in his NGO by a highly competent and professional team of volunteering experts, whom I met on the first day, and who kindly joined our tour of the “Foreign Concession”. Every single one of them has done so much over the years to preserve the historical heritage of Hankou. Among them were Professor of Architecture Prof. Francesco Maglioccola, a specialist of historical building preservation, and Prof. Wang Hanwu from Hubei University, an expert on the history of Wuhan, as well as Mr. Chensi, who is the very best photographer of historical colonial architecture of Hankou and has edited a book on the subject, Ms. Wang Yang, a teacher of German at the University of Wuhan and an art student. At dinner in the evening, we were joined by Mrs. Hu Liuming, a writer, whose novels are set in historic Wuhan and Hankou. Thus, these three days provided me with a rich cultural background of the colonial period.

Can you share some observations and first analysis: How does the city treat its urban cultural heritage?

From the discussions at dinner and the first evening, I gained the impression, that the preservation of “cultural heritage” in Wuhan is fraught with problems. Firstly, the city government prefers the “red history” of the city, which means the history connected with the rise of the Communist Party. Other alternative narratives are deliberately being neglected. However, the colonial history is being restored in a commercially exploitive way, either not historically correct or with improper materials. Thus, a “tacky” version of old Hankou is being re-built, without taking into account historical or architectural circumstances. It is the task of the small and dedicated group around Yang Fang to remind the “city officials” of alternatives, that might be more expensive, but more durable in the long run. For example, the old and original materials, staircases, walls, stones etc. should be preserved instead of be being ripped out and thrown away.

Any surprises you came home with?

I profited greatly from the expertise of Prof. Francesco Maglioccola, who explained to me the material structure of the houses and taught me how to differentiate the old from the new. I was particularly intrigued by his narrative, of how the Chinese architectural structure was integrated within the colonial buildings after the German and other colonial residents of Hankou had left. Also new to me was the library of a Catholic priest, who had been resident in Hankou since the late 19th century, and which was preserved by Prof. Maglioccola. This library certainly has the quality of a “forgotten story”. In addition I particularly enjoyed the Russian style architecture, which makes up the largest part of the concession.

Looking from a comparative European- Chinese perspective: In terms of cultural heritage what are the differentiating characteristics one has to keep in mind when working on a cross-cultural project like yours?

Two things: firstly, in China, it seems, that at the moment, political culture as well as mercantile interests are taking precedency over issues of historically and culturally accurate preservation. Cheap structures are quickly being put up and old ones destroyed. Secondly, in projects like ours, the discourse on the question of how to preserve the old architecture internationally must constantly be kept up and maintained. The model of NGO also seems to be under political observation and maybe other ways of supporting them have to be considered.

Dr. Ines Eben v. Racknitz is associate professor of Chinese history at Nanjing University. She has studied sinology, history, and literature in Germany, China and the United States. Her interest is in late Qing Chinese history, imperial culture, entangled Western and Chinese history, and also in the colonial history of treaty ports like Hankou. She divides her time between Nanjing and Berlin and hopes to provide a historical narrative for the project.