This is not the first time I have visited the Grand Courtyard to Gan in Xinanli, a crossroad north of Sanshanjie metro station. On a balmy weekends nearly 20 years ago, way before Line 1 thundered beneath Nanjing for the first time, my parents took me to the gutted place, where the mouldy air funnelled between wooden doors that barely hung.
The courtyard, also known as “ninety-nine and a half rooms”, is the largest private property in China’s history, and it belonged to the Gan family that once prospered in the midst of the Qing Dynasty.
Before it was enlisted under state protection of cultural heritage, Gan’s mansion, having survived years of dire straits and the Cultural Revolution, was so tottering that a flick of fingers might shudder and galvanise it into dust. But this was was Gan’s mansion, with the original function of each room being intact that making a voice by even a pitch higher than it should could disturb the owners swaying in their silhouettes of sands. Decrepitude struck the impression as a gift of the time that demands reverence on the spot and runs visitors’ imagination to full extent.
Over the next 20 years, however, investment has flushed in China’s real estate and resuscitated forgotten corners such as Gan’s mansion. Wine bars and steak houses have sprouted up one next to the other in the area of Xinanli, which is now a full-blown business hub for the leisure of expats, higher middle class and its wannabies; whereas the family house, sitting still a little down in the alley, is now a folk museum that includes a bit of everything and turns, therefore, into nothing.
Having CCTVs implemented in every corner of the roof against the cemented walls, Gan’s courtyard is now a recreation of history for recreational purposes, and it feels recreational only for those who are not acquainted with the Chinese culture. Gifts shops, tea houses, and random introduction of silk production where presents a picture of Einstein next to the one of birds; the last straw that crushes the mansion’s soul is not the years of destruction it has withstood, but the reconstruction that was meant to buttress its roof.
Surely, having consumerism as a great global context, it is everyone’s priority to monetise. While the mentality gives away the building of these gift shops and tea houses; no question asked, it fails to guarantee their efficacy, not even money-wise. Besides newly arrived foreigners, who else are we fooling and expecting to actually pay the exorbitant price for a thumb of clay? But we head on nonetheless, with eyes forward, driving relentlessly to the demise of our culture, while at the same time managing to turn the suicide mission into one hell of a boring ride.
Predicated with our history of borrowing ideas worldwide, what is stopping us now from borrowing the idea of a heritage tour or historic theme park that actively engages visitors? A little research deep into Gan’s family would be sufficient for quite a storyline that unfolds itself by walking visitors across the ninety-nine and a half rooms. Where did the half come from? What intricate changes took place in the family’s relationship with the last generations of emperors? Why is every front door facing north? And while visitors exercise their furtive imaginations as they descry the room where the young master Gan was alleged to have took on his twelfth or so mistress, admission prices could go way up without compromising historic facts or the purpose of place. But why aren’t we doing it?
Affiliated with the state owned Jiangsu Broadcasting Company, Gan’s mansion, like many other heritage sites, together with their employees, are known as the “In-system”, or “Tizhinei” (体制内). Jobs held in such organisations are, as often as not, sinecures, in which the only duties are paperwork and obedience. So there is no surprise to see a hundred members of staff behaving like one, let alone effort at change.
Besides, why bother with trying anyway, while it has already secured a four and a half star-rating on TripAdvisor? Puppet shows and silk clothing entirely extraneous to the family’s history are good enough for foreigners readily enticed by anything that is painted in red. Not to mention that it has never been our intention to invoke in-depth reflection on the family’s rise and fall regarding the political shifts of wind.
As it stands, the cultural tour of the status quo may be tedious but it comes without risk. Stability, after all, is the primo concern, ahead of both money or history.