The Cosmic Diagram

Zhang Hui, Blue Print. Second Floor 2014, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 250 cm Courtesy Long March Space
Zhang Hui, Blue Print. Second Floor, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 250 cm
Courtesy Long March Space

“The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest of control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity), and insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organization.”

Beijing’s unique nature lies in the way that it has provided a scene for a different vision of collectivity than has existed in western metropolises (and, if western is taken as an indication of aesthetic and political form, that includes Hong Kong and Shanghai). In other words, Beijing’s built environment represents the most thorough attempt to create an alternative form of modernity: completely distinct, while equal in value, economic force, and political space. In the agora, a crowd forms; with a different configuration of public space, a different public materializes. At the heart of the city, Tian’anmen Square, which seems to anticipate in its early-1950s creation Barthes’ orientalist fantasies about the “void at the center” (which he wrote about Tokyo), has become the definitive public space of modern China.2 As a spatial metaphor, it is tantalizing: a vast plateau for the massed crowd, precisely parallel to the seat of power. This architectural form and its contradictions are indicative of the dialectic of power of post-1949 society: at once intensely hierarchical and anarchic, a site of regimented herds or a site of explosive commonality; a site which translates into Chinese Benjamin’s idea that civilization and barbarism are coterminous. Here is our civilization: here is our barbarism.

Huazi, Beijing, Beijing, 2009, photography, 40 x 60 cm Courtesy the artist
Huazi, Beijing, Beijing, 2009, photography, 40 x 60 cm
Courtesy the artist

Of course, the empty windswept plain of Tian’anmen was one of the first instances of hutong demolition, but the idea that destruction of the old was a necessary antecedent to production of a new had taken form ever since the initial revolutionary moment, even in architectural planning circles in Beijing. Take Zhu Qiqian, town planner of the post-Xinhai Revolution decade; his most famous gesture was to smash a section of the city wall by way of advocating new roads, the beginning of what would become our ring roads today. From time immemorial, Beijing was considered by mystics, poets, and urban administrators to be a cosmic diagram, a space whose physical design, patterns of circulation, and architecture corresponded to physical, natural, and cosmic hierarchies: a manmade mirror of the cosmos (what Hegel would call the Spirit). It was logical, then, that those men whose education in the Chinese classics had been so thorough as to make them recoil—Zhu, as well as Liang Sicheng, Lu Xun, Shen Congwen, and Mao Zedong—would, aware of the cosmic value of this piece of land, prioritize its physical reconfiguration as essential to the revolutionary project of reimagining what it meant to be Chinese. As a modern Chinese psyche was to be created, an urban space to summon up the spirit of the new would be necessary.

Huang Rui, Keywords: Cruellest, 2013 Oil on canvas, 105 x 75 cm Courtesy Boers-Li Gallery
Huang Rui, Keywords: Cruellest, 2013, Oil on canvas, 105 x 75 cm
Courtesy Boers-Li Gallery

Beijing was, and remains, this cosmic diagram. Vectors of intersection between populations and structures here are unique. Extending Wu Hung’s conception of Tian’anmen Square to Beijing as a whole, we could say that the city’s meaning “[is gained] by reinterpreting a traditional architectural structure, but … [is derived] primarily from its physical immensity.” The city has been worked over endlessly, even flayed, while preserving a distinct identity. Today, Beijing’s identity is no longer really about the clichéd signifiers: the Forbidden City, candied hawthorns, or the gruff addition of the consonant “er” to the ends of words; rather, it is a platform for a peculiarly populist vision of universalist politics—offering access to the universal. As with the architectural void of our downtown, the dream of collective life converging with political power is forever apparently close but always parallel, never convergent.

Huazi, Beijing, Beijing 2009, photography, 40 x 60 cm Courtesy the artist
Huazi, Beijing, Beijing, 2009, photography, 40 x 60 cm
Courtesy the artist

The Chinese people have stood up, defying the Asiatic mode of production, and Beijing is the platform that supports their weight, with Tian’anmen as the theatrical center of it all. When Mao Zedong stood on a revolutionary podium in the Tian’anmen Square of 1949, Liang Sicheng heard these words with his own ears; they would change his life. Zhu Qiqian’s schizophrenic destruction of architectural structure in order to discover the human kernel inside would be repeated—on a massive scale this time—as the reconstruction of the capital commenced with a new intensity. Liang, with an urbanist’s awareness of future traffic jams, suggested that the government seat be moved to Wukesong, but, for better or worse, Mao insisted on Zhongnanhai as the seat of power. The cosmic energy was simply too great to abandon; besides, everybody knows that, if energy is pulsing around with that level of intensity, it has to be harnessed by somebody. You can’t just build a fruit market at the point where sky meets land; and so, even at the risk of reincarnating pre-revolutionary modes of rule (and exposing himself to critique for this), the new government remained where the old one had been.

Peking, 1890s-1900s, 16.2 x 10.5 cm Gelatin silver print cabinet card Courtesy Ge Lei
Peking, 1890s-1900s, 16.2 x 10.5 cm, Gelatin silver print cabinet card
Courtesy Ge Lei

The logic of the monument, as with the logic of the palace, is a logic of inequality; either everyone lives in the same type of place, or they don’t. Marx’s vision of inequality—what he calls Asiatic—is clear enough3: palaces, constructed by slaves, surrounded by villages producing commodities of various kinds, including humans. Valid or not, this vision was accepted as an heuristic by many prerevolutionary Chinese intellectuals, and as such possesses a certain social truth, as those perceptions evolved into post-revolutionary planning and architectural politics. Old traditions were insistently updated, as when Peng Zhen, mayor of Beijing in the 1960s, suggested that Peking Opera characters be updated:

“Something like 600 million and more workers and peasants are engaged in a great revolutionary struggle; they are engaged in a revolutionary movement of unprecedented greatness and construction of historic proportions; isn’t it well worth putting all this on the stage? Is it really only those few ancients who are worthy of being portrayed on the stage?”

The stage on which the drama of new collective life was to be enacted was, of course, Tian’anmen. When Mao Zedong said that Tian’anmen should become a forest of smokestacks, he was clearly not suggesting that downtown Beijing become the sole industrial base of the country; rather, that Tian’anmen was the symbolic center of the country, and that whatever happened there would be relevant to everywhere else. So, too, with the endless parades and demonstrations of the 1960s: when Mao said that Beijing was the only place that he had really been able to change, Tian’anmen was the space in which these changes became social fact.

Thomas Child, Peking, 1870s-80s, 10.5 x 6.3 cm Courtesy Ge Lei
Thomas Child, Peking, 1870s-80s, 10.5 x 6.3 cm
Courtesy Ge Lei

Human, All Too Human

It is disputed how much Beijing’s population and footprint have grown since 1949; what is clear is that this growth has been immense, and continues. Alone among first-tier Chinese cities, it combines an intense aesthetic and historical specificity with the generic capital of “capital”; as the seat of a people’s republic, its spaces necessarily belong to the people—and not just locals. The city of two million residents and 700 square kilometers in 1949 is today estimated at almost twenty-two million residents spread across 16,410 kilometers. The bulk of this territorial expansion transpired in that first socialist decade; city planners aggressively sought to expand the urban population. What was once a symbolic center of China is rapidly becoming a symbolic (and real) center of the global economy, even as the powers here enshrined defy international norms ideologically, informationally, and even in economic structures. The cosmic diagram that the Chinese revolutionaries insisted on inverting continues to direct flows of energy in the opposite direction to everybody else.

Huang Rui, Keywords: Again, 2013, oil on canvas, 105 x 75 cm Courtesy Boers-Li Gallery
Huang Rui, Keywords: Again, 2013, oil on canvas, 105 x 75 cm
Courtesy Boers-Li Gallery

Let us return to the space: a dialogue between a closed fortress and a broad plateau for collectives to gather (on certain special holidays, enormous vulgar flower pots are placed in the square). It’s unnecessary to recount all of the waves that have flowed here: of people, of emotion, of everything. It is clear that, as early as 1993, the global potential of downtown Beijing as a structure in which to locate a new politics was identified by leading western (or is the word “international?”) philosophers. The peculiar face-off between power and emptiness (an emptiness that desires to be materialized as presence, as the “whatever singularity,” the crowd that demands only to exist) has been the starting point for a new politics in the Middle East, in the Invisible Committee’s Europe, in Occupy’s New York, London, or Hong Kong. The energies rising from the earth, gaining in force exponentially as they pass from one person to another, ignite a new vision of the relationship between individual and crowd, and between structured and unstructured visions of the social.

Huazi, Beijing, Beijing 2009, photography, 40 x 60 cm Courtesy the artist
Huazi, Beijing, Beijing, 2009, photography, 40 x 60 cm
Courtesy the artist


The people and objects of a continent are brought into contact with one another in a rationally ordered system; as in psychoanalysis, the hidden things of human life, gathering dust for ages, are now all exposed in the single platform of the city. Their collisions seem dramatic, but they aren’t accidental; with time, we become accustomed to each other.

This cosmic diagram, which allows for the intensification of experience, may bring the experience of the human to a limit; of all the thousands that there are, this nomadic plateau will lead to an entirely different vision of the collective from the one which we patiently endure now. Fewer walls, more doors, infinite access. The skin, dried out by liquor and wind, a waxy encasement for a physical interior, will become an interconnected hive of sensation—press anywhere to activate.

The capital city, a promised land in search of a people, swirls through the heart of the continent like a tornado: persons, objects, concepts, materials of all kinds are sucked into this maw, crushed, reprocessed, emerging in completely different forms: grains of rice transformed into jelly, fragments of ore turned into motorcycles. Rivers are sucked dry; at the walls of the city, sand piles up, along with a neurotic heat that whines through the afternoon. We will build the walls. We will tear them down. We will repeat.