December 31th, 2005

Ou Ning contributed a Story of Zhang Jinli to the magazine of Kulturstiftung des Bundes

The Story of Zhang Jinli

Ou Ning

September 4, 2005, while I was chatting with a couple of women in front of a small copy shop on Zhangshan Hutong in the Dazhalan Area of Beijing’s historic Qianmen District, a middle-aged man came up on a bike and greeted them. The women asked him, “Well, how is the demolition and relocation of your house going?” The man replied, “I contacted some journalists to come tomorrow. Why don’t you all come have a look?” After saying that, he left. That was the first time I saw Zhang Jinli. I didn’t know who he was at the time, nor about the action he was considering carrying out.

The next morning, I was shooting those demolished old houses on Meishi Street when the old man running a grocery store nearby told me to hurry to no.117. He said someone was going to hang up red banners on his roof. I immediately made my way there, and found a crowd of on-lookers already gathered there. A red couplet had just been put on the house’s gate posts, which read as follows: “The National Bureau of Land Resources is unreasonable in the issue of demolition and relocation,” “The court has stepped aside on the issue of demolition and relocation.” The horizontal banner in the middle read “Who can determine who is right and who is wrong for us?” Then, I perceived Zhang Jinli who, with a pile of Xerox copies in his hands, was distributing them to the crowd. When he saw that more and more people were gathering, he quickly ran back inside to get an even larger horizontal banner. And in a swift and agile manner, he ran to the rooftop and strung it up. On this six- or seven- meter long banner was written, “The demolition company has falsified agreements. The National Bureau of Land Resources has made judgments against the law. It is difficult for the weak little people to survive.” Signed by “Zhang Jinli, an inhabitant to be removed and relocated.”

This was the first time Zhang Jinli put up public resistance to defend his own rights as a removed inhabitant. At that time, the demolition and relocation process on Meishi Street had already been going on for over eight months, and all you could see around you were crumbling walls and rubbles. With his neighbors all moved away, Zhang Jinli’s house looked like an island rising out of a sea of ruins. In order to obtain reasonable relocation compensation, he was put under enormous psychological pressure, and stayed alone in an almost emptied world. Deprived of the bustling atmosphere of bygone days, his daily life at No.117 Meishi Street was like being exposed naked to the world, as if a layer of skin had been peeled off. That day, when he hung up banners and slogans for the first time, when he looked at his house scheduled to be demolished and listened to neighbors and on-lookers commenting on him, he experienced mixed feelings of excitement and apprehension.

Zhang Jinli was born here in 1958. When he graduated from high school in 1978, he went to Daxin in the suburbs of Beijing to work with peasants as part of his ‘reeducation’ process. Then, he started to work at the Beijing Steel Factory in 1980 and resigned in 1991 to open a restaurant of his own, which he has been running until today. The building at no. 117 Meishi Street is the private property his father, Zhang Hongqun, acquired in 1954. Zhang Hongqun first ran the Hongxing Tailor’s Shop here. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the building was taken over by the Ministry of Housing, but was given back to them after the Cultural Revolution, when the government implemented the policy of private property. The building was turned into a restaurant in 1984. When Zhang Jinli took it over in 1991, he changed the name to Jinli’s Restaurant. Specializing in North Eastern cuisine, the restaurant’s business went quite well. Today, Zhang Jinli lives alone in the rear part of the building, and is representing his aged father, as well as a sister and three brothers who had already moved elsewhere, to fight for the relocation compensation. He and his wife have already divorced; his daughter Zhang Xin is studying at Jiaotong University in Beijing, and only comes back here on weekends.

Being the host of the 2008 Olympic Games, the Beijing Municipality decided to transform and reorganize some 300 ‘villages-amid-the-city’ and urban ‘corners’ in Beijing which are considered dirty, chaotic and poor (according to the sixty-first work meeting of the Beijing Mayor in 2004, the number of localities in question was 343,) and the Dazhalan area was one of the first on the list. According to the “Investigation of Urban Corners in Beijing,” a report published by the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences in July 2005, in the Dazhalan area, the population density was 45,000 persons per square kilometer; the housing was over-crowded, with many dangerous and old buildings posing a serious fire threat; there was a shortage of water and electricity supply; the hygiene was deplorable; the public security situation was worsening; the market was inundated with counterfeits; and there was a huge number of migrant workers living on less than 8 RMB a day. In short, the Dazhalan area had turned into a typical slum. Owing to its location adjacent to Tiananmen Square, Dazhalan’s problems became even more acute. The first measure taken by the Beijing Municipality was to improve the infrastructure and relieve traffic pressure in Dazhalan. December 27, 2004, the Municipality started the transformation and expansion project of Meishi Street, aiming to widen the street from eight meters to twenty-five meters. Zhang Jinli’s house happened to be one of the buildings scheduled to be demolished.

According to the urban planning of the Beijing Municipality, Nanxinhua Street to the west and Qianmen Avenue to the east of the Dazhalan area were to be transformed into commercial pedestrian streets. Their reason was as follows: As a secondary traffic artery, Nanxinhua Street cut through Liulichang Street, and divided it into two parts, destroying the unity of this famous ancient cultural and commercial area. In the same way, Qianmen Avenue, another secondary traffic artery, had been a bustling commercial district originally, all the more reason to transform it into a pedestrian street. When these two secondary traffic arteries had been both turned into pedestrian streets, in order to ease the traffic pressure in the Dazhalan Area, the Municipality chose to widen and transform Meishi Street. The reason was: “There are few valuable cultural relics or architecture on this street. Thus, the demolition and relocation work would encounter fewer obstacles.” Zhang Jinli didn’t know much about the urban planning of the government; his main concerns were: What compensation could he get for having his building demolished? How would he live in the future?

Meishi Street was a north-south oriented street. Its northern end met with Dazhalan Street (the most bustling street in the Dazhalan area, which has the largest number of old, long-established stores), accordingly, the bustling atmosphere of Dazhalan Street continued onto Meishi Street, which was brimming with all sorts of shops and attracted a flow of visitors. In addition, the cost of living and working being relatively low in this area, it was fairly easy to gain a foothold doing business here. Even though Zhang Jinli’s restaurant stands alone in the middle of ruins today, it still attracts a roomful of clients every day. His business runs extremely well, and this is exactly what he won’t give up easily: He cannot live without the hustle and bustle of Meishi Street! He was born and grew up on this street, and has made his living running a restaurant here. He had served as the representative of the small private businesses on Meishi Street for fourteen years consecutively. And every year, he would be the first to offer financial assistance to the elderly who lived alone. He feels a strong affinity with this street, and is reluctant to leave. His biggest wish would be to move back to Meishi Street later, and to own a property of an equivalent value here. However, what is at issue here is the transformation and expansion of a road, instead of real estate developers requisitioning land for commercial development. Thus, the move-back policy does not apply to him. The only offer made to him is some financial compensation.

Zhang Jinli doesn’t think himself a troublesome, insatiably avaricious citizen who only seeks to oppose the government. He actually supports the urban development and transformation project of the government, and consents to move away. However, he insists that the compensation must be reasonable. For him, the estimation of the value of his property made by the demolition company mandated by the government was extremely unreasonable. First of all, it didn’t recognize the commercial character of the building (commercial buildings enjoy a compensation plan more advantageous than residential buildings). Secondly, the surface of the building that the company would pay compensation for was inaccurate; it did not include the courtyard, doorways and a room in the south wing (these spaces had not been registered in the property certificate because of the historical circumstances during the Cultural Revolution). Thirdly, the property should have been valued according to the market value on the demolition day published by the government (December 27, 2004); however, the demolition company made the appraisal based on the market value in 2001, and chose to ignore the evident fact that the market value of land and housing had increased dramatically over the past few years. Zhang had resorted to all kinds of legal means to try to plead against the unjust treatment he had been subjected to in the process of demolition and relocation, but never received a satisfying answer. As a last resort, he decided to put up banners and slogans on his rooftop, to let his story go public, and to seek help from the media and society.

That day, although one or two journalists did show up, they came mostly as private individuals. They followed Zhang Jinli’s action with interest, but could not report his story—because the government has stipulated that demolition and relocation controversies should not be covered at will. Zhang didn’t feel discouraged at all, he was already satisfied with the fact that some journalists came and were concerned about him. Besides, other relocated residents on this street also showed up. The fact that neighbors discussed and commented on his case made him feel they were standing by him. All this had reassured him and made him more solid. What he cared the most was the reaction of the demolition company, the Community Committee and the Housing Committee. However, even days after the public protest, they didn’t send anyone over as a response to his “action.” Therefore, he made several more banners, with white cloth this time, and added them into the red banners already in place. He also found a mannequin thrown out by a clothes shop, and dressed it up with a t-shirt, on which was written: “I strongly demand to see Bao Gong (also known as Bao Qingtian, or Blue-Sky Bao, who was a famous judge in ancient China, renowned for his fairness and integrity)!” He hung the mannequin from the roof with a rope. In the days that followed, his action turned out to be more and more violent, and he became the widely known “dingzi hu” (or a troublesome tenant or householder who refuses to move away and bargains for higher compensation when the government requisitions their land for an urban construction project) in the Dazhalan Area.

We started to follow the development of this affair when we got to know Zhang Jinli on September 5, and have regarded him as a crucial element in our project to research and document the Dazhalan Area. We gave him a digital video camera (Sony DCR-TRV10E), and invited him to shoot his own life and events. He learned how to use this camera quickly, and started to document his daily life and protest actions with great enthusiasm. From the footage he had already shot, we saw Zhang Jinli on a more global level: his energy and vitality, wisdom and tenacity, feelings and convictions.

Zhang Jinli got up early every morning, and then went to the Tao Ran Ting Park to do morning exercises. He would hand the camera to well-known friends nearby, taught them how to use it, and asked them to shoot the various skills he possessed, such as: walking with both his legs and arms stretching down to the ground, climbing trees, bending his body and limbs at will, as well as the Three-Emperors Cannon Boxing that he is especially good at. The Three-Emperors Cannon Boxing is a school of martial arts widely practiced in Beijing. “Three Emperors” refer to three legendary emperors in ancient times: Fu Xi, Shen Nong and Huang Di. “Cannon” means the boxing is as heavy and violent as a cannon. At the end of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and early days of the Republic of China (1912-), China was in a turbulent situation, and most of the Three-Emperors Cannon Boxing masters made their living running establishments providing a bodyguard service or martial arts studios in Beijing. They attracted many followers, and made the Three Emperors Cannon Boxing a mainstream branch of boxing in Beijing. Today, the principal school of the Three-Emperors Cannon Boxing in Beijing gathers more than six hundred regular followers. Zhang Jinli started to learn martial arts when he was fourteen, and at the age of twenty-two, he started to practice the Three-Emperors Cannon Boxing under the guidance of Master Dong Yinjun, the chief master of the sixth generation, and became a key follower of the boxing school. People nicknamed his master “Big-Spear Dong”, for his excellent manipulation of big spears that could measure up to four meters long. Master Dong is the person who has had the most influence in his life. Zhang Jinli is normally a kind and courteous person, who has a gentle and amiable nature, and always feels a sense of gratitude towards people. However, when problems crop up, he will stand by principles, and defy power without fear. This character is closely related to the fact that he has practiced martial arts over a long period of time. Concerning the issue of demolition and relocation, he has decided to defend his own rights firmly, to fight hard for them relying on reason and logic, and never to give in. What has given him the support to do all this is this powerful spiritual force that still exists among the people today in an implicit way.

With a camera in his hands, Zhang Jinli even went so far as to regard himself as a tourist one day, and has observed and recorded the Dazhalan Area where he had been living for almost fifty years through the camera lens. Starting from the Arrow Building, he shot long-established stores on Dazhalan Street such as Tong Ren Tang (the oldest company in herbal medicine with a history of over 300 years), Zhang Yi Yuan Tea Leaf shop, Rui Fu Xiang Silk shop, Nei Lian Sheng Shoe store, Da Guan Lou Cinema, etc, and went all the way down to Meishi Street where there was rubble everywhere, and finally to his precarious house. He shot this house where he had written protest slogans on the outer walls, after that, he went on to shoot the restaurant’s chef and waiters, as well as his young daughter. The camera’s lens moved extremely slowly, as if it were reluctant to move away from its subject. At the same time as he shot scenes, Zhang kept on muttering words like “Have it recorded,” “Keep it as a souvenir,” expressing a strong desire growing in his heart to document and a consciousness to preserve records and evidence.

When the staff of the Community Committee and the officers of the local police station started to take down the horizontal banner on his rooftop, he pointed the camera lens at them. As soon as he saw the car of the government officer who was coming to inspect the demolition area on Meishi Street, he started singing “Without the Communist Party, There is No New China.” Although he had put down the camera, he had left it turned on, and recorded the sounds. He also set up the camera in a position to shoot himself writing banners and petition materials and in the end, he made a gesture of “victory” to the camera lens.

The government uses its power to redistribute public resources and interests in the large-scale movement of urbanization. The story of Zhang Jinli can be regarded as the epitome of the situation when an ordinary citizen ‘gambles’ and negotiates with the government on an uncertain outcome. Over recent years, there has been a wide demand for preservation of historical relics during the process of urbanization and transformation of old cities; however, people hardly pay attention to the rights of citizens. For the transformation and expansion of Meishi Street, the government put much stress on the protection and preservation of historical relics in the entire Dazhalan Area; on the other hand, most of the residents on this street were asked to make sacrifices for this urban planning. The neighborhood life and the human relationships that these residents had built up over the decades were simply torn apart mercilessly. In the future, the street where they make their living on will be occupied by traffic, and most people will therefore feel disoriented. A citizen like Zhang Jinli who formerly led a simple life by running an honest business is now forced to start his life all over again due to the relocation of his housing. Even if he manages to obtain higher compensation through protest and fighting for his rights, the fact that the property belongs to his father, and therefore that every family member has an equal right to the inheritance, the share of compensation he will receive in the end will be insufficient to allow him to cover his living costs. In any case, it is always the under-privileged citizens who make sacrifices for the government’s transformation projects. Therefore, the government should do its best to be as fair and just as possible in the demolition and relocation process, and to guarantee the relocated residents a possibility to freely express their opinions.

The modernization of a city is not merely embodied in the number of skyscrapers it has, how developed its traffic network is, or how convenient its living and working infrastructures are, but also whether it can create equal opportunities for each of its citizens, whether it can create a civil society that its citizens are highly identified with and involved in. China is a country that was governed by emperors for thousands of years. As a result, even though there has been an emergence and development of a consciousness about the rights of citizens in recent times, it has not been able to change the collective unconsciousness of a whole nation. The Dazhalan Area can be considered as one of the first places to create a model for a civil society. It has been Beijing’s commercial center and a gathering point for people since the Ming Dynasty. In the early days of the Qing Dynasty, the rule that only the Manchu people were allowed to live in the inner city forced a larger number of people to move to this area. In 1909, the “Beijing Pictorial to Awake the World” (Beijing Xingshi Huabao), one of the first media to analyze and criticize abuses of the time, and to act as society’s watchdog, chose to set up its office in the Dazhalan Area. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, when the monarchy collapsed, all kinds of underground groups coexisted in the Dazhalan Area. In early days of the Republic of China, the modern idea of free trade was introduced to Dazhalan, and with it, a consciousness of civil rights also started to emerge. Today, we still can see a large number of modern commercial, financial and residential architectural styles very different from the imperial style. But the most important point is that we have seen a form of invisible popular heritage embodied in an ordinary citizen like Zhang Jinli.

We have edited the material shot by Zhang Jinli from October 12 to 21, 2005 into a documentary, and screened it at the exhibition in Beijing. We gave the camera as well as the exhibition opportunity to Zhang Jinli, hoping to let him present his own story to the public directly. We don’t want to speak in his place, because doing so would probably only allow us to show our thoughts, and not be true to his demands. Up to today, the camera is still in the hands of Zhang Jinli, and his protest and resistance has still not resulted in an outcome. We wonder when his house will be demolished….

Guangzhou, December 26, 2005.
(Translated from Chinese by Yu Hsiao-hwei,Paris)

Zhang Jinli and Master Dong Yingjun, after winning champion of The Three-Emperors Cannon Boxing at Stadium of Xuanwu District in 1983.

Group photo of Class of The Three-Emperors Cannon Boxing in 1985. Zhang Jinli is at front 3rd row, 7th from left.

Zhang Jinli' s wedding photo in 1986.

Zhang Jinli in martial arts, pictured by anonymous journalist.

On September 28, 2005, sewer of Zhang Jinli' s restaurant got blocked, he went under to dredge by himself.

Map of expansion and rebuilding project of Meishi Street.


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