Ephemeral China/Handmade China


  • Xing Ruan




A China that is in a frenzied state of economic boom and potential social instability, which is most vividly represented in its architectural and urban developments, is, I hope I will convince you, ephemeral. A quite different China, perhaps is not so visible as its new buildings and cities, is metaphorically ‘handmade’. I should like to extend the meanings of the handmade to the more stable and long lasting attitudes towards social life, and even mortality. My sources for the second China are partially from literature (not from architecture). With the construction boom since the mid-1990s, mainstream Western architectural journals and galleries have been racing to expose new architecture in China; celebrity Western architects have been winning major commissions in China: the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games is a case in point. The sheer quantity and speed of China’s development, as evidenced in architecture and urbanisation, causes an ‘unbearable lightness of being’ (to paraphrase Milan Kundera). Does all this then suggest that China, as solidified in its buildings and cities, is no longer ‘handmade’ in the sense that memory and a sense of history are redundant (particularly for a country that has a recorded history of more than 5000 years, which have been so lovingly recorded in handmade artefacts)? The true meaning of the handmade, which absorbs labour — an ‘honourable labour’ as Joseph Conrad lovingly put it in his Mirror of the Sea, as well as memory, like that of a home, is a static artefact, which harbours our changing emotion, the frailties of human life, and indeed, the growing awareness that comes with time of our mortality: the handmade offers the necessary enshrinement of life’s vulnerability. Let me assure you, the seemingly fast-changing China, as represented in its new architecture and city forms, as well in its frenzied urbanisation and booming economy, is but a smoke screen. It is, in other words, ephemeral. The other China is, or has to be, handmade.

Author Biography

Xing Ruan

Xing Ruan is Professor of Architecture, and Chair of the Architecture Discipline Group at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. His recent books include Allegorical Architecture (2007), New China Architecture (2006), and Topophilia and Topophobia: Reflections on Twentieth-century Human Habitat (2007, co-edited with Paul Hogben). Xing Ruan has written on a wide range of topics concerning legible relations between humans and the built world; he has also published in some of the world’s leading scholarly journals, as well as professional magazines. He is co-editor, with Ronald Knapp, of the book series Spatial Habitus: Making and Meaning in Asia’s Architecture. Born in China, he received his architectural education from the Southeast University in Nanjing.