This is what time travel must be like. I’m standing on a narrow street in Chengdu, capital of the Chinese province of Sichuan. I first came here in 1985 and memories of that visit are so vivid they compete with reality.

It’s a fresh day in the early spring of 1985. The street is lined by two-storey houses made of timber and roofed with curved, grey tiles; their walls are painted a sober brown. The shop signs mostly date from the anti-capitalist 1970s: black characters on a white background. A few brighter, hand-painted ones show glimmerings of entrepreneurship, now that the Government is encouraging market forces.

Most older people are dressed in blue or grey Mao suits, and the young in faintly awkward approximations of 1970s Western styles. Bicycles pass constantly, bells ringing. There is little other traffic. Up trees and on roofs loudspeakers rehearse cheerful tunes and good news accompanied by piercing crackles. Children play on the pavement, tightly wrapped bundles of colour: yellow woollens, red nylon trimmings, embroidered purple bootees. The one-child policy is comparatively new, and these little emperors look as if they’ve had all their parents’ hopes packed into them. I smile at a baby and a proud mother appears from nowhere and thrusts him into my arms. Before I know it I am surrounded by people: discussing me, discussing the baby, discussing the discussion. An old man holds forth on Foreigners and What They Are Like, turning to me now and again to shout questions in broken English. The baby starts crying for his mother.

New laws allow farmers to sell excess produce and keep the profits; and there’s a small street market on one side of the road. It’s hard to imagine this one making much money for anyone – all it sells is garlic. Old ladies in padded jackets sit in a line, each accompanying a sharply lit pyramid of dry, white bulbs.

Sichuan has been a permanent part of China since the tenth century: before that, it was twice an independent kingdom. It is a border region – Tibet lies immediately to the west – but one with an important place in Chinese history. In 1985 the area is a test-bed for the ‘opening’ of China to market forces and the outside world. The reforms are being spearheaded nationally by Chairman Deng Xiaoping, who is Sichuanese, and tested locally – in advance of the rest of the country – by his protégé, the provincial Party Secretary, Zhao Ziyang.

In 2001 a new dual carriageway cuts across the street. Further along are two new office blocks, one half-finished, the other with a fake baroque doorway and a liveried goon. It’s early summer, hot and humid. The market extends either side of the new road and down several side streets: stacks of vegetables, piles of eggs, trays of fresh tofu. Fish swim in big plastic tubs of water, aerated by hosepipes. The shopfronts advertise their wares in big gold plastic characters, with hand-painted copies of well-known logos.

Shoppers have to cross the new road if they want to visit the whole market. People stand at the roadside or between lanes, waiting for the next break in the traffic. Elderly men in Mao suits. Young couples in khaki shorts and T-shirts. Girls up from the country with plucked eyebrows and bright lipstick. Two young punks, their flame-red PVC trousers matching their dyed hair, stand looking vacant on the kerbside. I want to take their picture and go up to them to ask if they mind. As I reach them, I realise just how out of it they are. I ask in three different ways, but they stare blankly into space. I give up. Afterwards, I’m not sure if they knew I was there or not. Drug problems are not unusual among the young. Opium is grown and trafficked from the borders of Yunnan, the next province to the south. People blame the problem, and rising youth suicide rates, on a combination of the one-child family policy and modernisation. They say this generation were overprotected by their parents; that they are not emotionally equipped for the new insecurities: rising unemployment, an expanding underclass and an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor.

Deng Xiaoping is dead, but China more or less sticks to the reform programme he initiated. Zhao Ziyang is missing, probably under house arrest: a senior Politburo member and Deng’s presumed successor, he tried to negotiate with the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 days before Deng sent the tanks in.

I’m going to retrace my route of 1985, but with the benefit of a little preparatory reading. I’ve got the highlights with me: photocopies of historic maps, passages from books and journal articles. I head first for a district which, in 1985, contained many attractive old houses. People catch my eye as I pass on my rented bicycle, mildly surprised to see a foreigner in this part of town.

Here they are: streets of single-storey buildings, their finely carved doorways set in high, windowless walls. I remember how struck by them I was 16 years ago. They looked how China was meant to look: exotic, secluded, refined. One particularly striking doorway had caught my eye. Through the open door, a courtyard, where an elderly couple were looking after some children. Embarrassingly, I invited myself in. They were welcoming, in a bemused way, showing me round and offering me tea. The house had been divided between many families after the Revolution, but its basic structure hadn’t been altered. There were two courtyards, the second grander than the first, with rooms set around them in a regular way. Each space seemed to relate to the others in a carefully gauged hierarchy. The building, I noticed, had once been covered in writing: the old calligraphy, mostly scratched out or replaced with fading Maoist exhortations, could still be seen on either side of every doorway and on the eaves of many of the rooms. I wondered what the words meant.

I’ve now found the grandly carved door again, but it’s shut. The old houses are being demolished further down the street and new blocks of flats stand just a hundred metres from the carved door. Building workers sweat in the heat. The new houses will have decent heating and hot water, phone lines, mod cons. No more shared kitchens and bathrooms.

Suddenly, the old houses look insubstantial, with thin walls of grey brick and dry timber frames that collapse easily into their own rubble. An archaeology of interior decoration flaps dryly on the exposed walls: colourful posters of Shanghai skyscrapers and pretty girls overlie Party leaders and smiling peasants, themselves pasted over faint calligraphy and the settings for vanished domestic shrines.

Next on my route is Wenshu temple, Chengdu’s biggest Buddhist place of worship. In 1985, a group of young Chinese tourists giggled in nervous, mocking embarrassment at a superstitious old woman at prayer. Today, worshippers of all ages crowd round every altar. Some are plainly pilgrims, others are just popping in on the way back from work. A middle-aged father crouches beside his son, patiently showing him how to offer incense.

On my last visit the incense sticks and thick red candles were neatly arranged as if little used. Today, dollops of red wax fall into protective tubs of water, and the smoking incense sticks make a hedgehog of the pagoda-like metal structures into which they are placed. Last time they looked like handsome museum pieces; now they are functioning ritual utensils.

When I first visited, I noticed that the layout and architecture of the temple was broadly similar to that of the old house, if on a larger scale. And as in the house, calligraphy covered columns, entrances, eaves. Now, however, the writing is less of a mystery to me. The poised characters always looked beautiful, but now each shape has a sound, and each sound a meaning. I can see why Chinese friends tell me that looking at calligraphy can be as satisfying as listening to music. The architecture of the building recedes and becomes merely an elegant setting for poetic and philosophical allusion. It is the history and interrelationship of these inscriptions and their authors that many Chinese guidebooks concentrate on, rather than the history of the temple itself.

There’s been a Buddhist temple and college on this site since the fifth or sixth century, but these buildings are no more than three hundred years old. There has been a lot of work done here since 1985. The temple has doubled in size, and the new part is covered with invitations: this is a model of the pagoda we want to build, make your donations here; when you’ve finished in the temple, why not try the restaurant?

I’m heading on now, looking for some shopping streets, each of which in 1985 was given over to a specific type of business. As I get close the crowds thicken and I have to push my bicycle. The going is hot and slow, but I feel relatively anonymous. Sixteen years ago I drew small crowds of onlookers. The first two streets I reach used to be dominated by carpenters and calligraphers. Spring sunlight lit densely decorated bedsteads and finely carved cupboards. Today, the carpenters have been replaced by DIY shops selling paint, lino and kits which promise ‘traditional’ circular doorways or wildly moulded ceiling decorations. Check-out girls doze at the tills. In the street of calligraphers, however, the pace is frantic: the place is home to more than two hundred mobile phone shops. Some even sublet the space outside their doorways to groups of peasants who flog fake pagers, customised ringtones and ripped-off SIM cards. The façades of the shops are covered in shiny metal, but occasionally a carved beam-end or symbol-stamped roof tile peeps out. Perhaps these, too, were once grand, traditional houses.

I’m struck by something I’ve sensed in other Chinese cities. There is none of the sense of slow accretion, of layers built up over hundreds of years, that one gets in historic cities elsewhere in the world. Of the buildings in Chengdu only Wenshu temple is much more than a couple of hundred years old.

Now I’m heading towards the centre of town: here’s the business district, site of the city’s first shopping arcade, built in 1909 by a modernising city administration. In 1985, bleak department stores with unhelpful staff dominated this area. Behind them old houses and narrow streets survived. Today, the area is unrecognisable and I lose my way completely among skyscrapers of reflective glass and steel.

Among the banks and offices are theme pubs, shopping centres and discos. I find a theme pub in the form of a life-size, perfectly realised traditional village, built on the fourth floor of a cavernous entertainment complex. Real swans paddle unhappily past the fake shrine in a corner of the village pond; pools of sick and spilt alcohol sit beneath the neon-lit thatched eaves of the houses. In a shopping centre, bored gangs of youths play video games. Some of them have spiky hair, flared trousers embroidered with dragons, and T-shirts with English slogans on them. ‘Free Tibet from Chiniese [sic] occupation,’ I read in amazement. I translate for them: the look of urban boredom vanishes and they run home in horror to change. I’m left wondering what mischief is afoot in the T-shirt factories of Chengdu. The disco itself is run for profit by the People’s Liberation Army. Waitresses in uniform take your orders, shouting over the techno. Chinese rappers dressed as the Blues Brothers work the crowd. Ecstasy, speed and cocaine are available if you know who to ask.

I stumble with relief onto Renmin Lu – People’s Street – Chengdu’s main north-south boulevard. The Jinjiang Hotel is still there: a 1950s concrete monster which used to be the city’s most opulent building, where the nomenklatura stayed, met and networked. In 1985, Party cadres, foreigners and a few businessmen came and went freely; everyone else was refused entry. Today, anyone can stay, for 1100 yuan a night: double the local average monthly wage. The Jinjiang looks different too: it’s been remodelled and now has the bland anonymity of an international hotel, with a patisserie, chic indoor shopping arcade, and doormen who stare down their noses at a foreigner on a bicycle.

Still, they don’t stop me and I make my way to the cavernous banqueting hall, its coolness a relief. I remember the room echoing as groups of officials made elaborate play of seating arrangements; then echoing more as feasting gave way to drinking, and the losers of fast-paced games of scissors-paper-stone were obliged to knock their drinks back in one. Just such a group is sitting down now to play the latest drinking game. There’s a special phrase in Chinese for the ‘hot bustle’ – the re nou – of a good night out, and even formal gatherings aim to generate a sense of collective well-being, crossing barriers of status. There is a well co-ordinated crashing of glasses on the table and the cry ‘shang wang!’ – ‘surf the Web!’ – before glasses are ostentatiously emptied.

I walk into a wall of humidity as I leave the air-conditioned hotel and pull into the sweaty mass of cyclists pushing north up Renmin Lu. The boulevard bisects the city. It is two lanes wide in each direction, with an extra lane for bicycles. In 1985, the bike lane was packed, the other two empty apart from the occasional lorry, bus or limousine. Now the traffic crawls all day. In the heat-haze of the middle distance stands a huge statue of Chairman Mao, waving benignly south down Renmin Lu. Behind him is the Provincial Exhibition Hall, its grand Stalinist greyness just as I remember it, except that it now has propaganda billboards on the roof.

This was the centre of the ancient city. The earliest map of Chengdu dates from the Han dynasty – nearly two thousand years ago – and shows a square, walled city with a bell tower at its centre, where the Mao statue and the Exhibition Hall now stand. The tower rang out the key hours and stages of the day, bringing order to the life of the city. Roads ran north, south, east and west from it – the north-south axis now followed by Renmin Lu.

In the 14th century the Ming emperor demolished the bell tower, and built a palace for his provincial viceroy on its site. It was a large complex, a city within a city, open only to senior officials. It, too, faced south, its front gate a symbol of state power and order in the city, just as the bell tower had been and the Exhibition Hall is now.

Early in the 17th century, the city was razed in an anti-Ming uprising. Not long afterwards the dynasty fell to an invading confederation of tribes from the Siberian border – the Manchu. They rebuilt Chengdu, turning the central enclosure where the Viceroy’s Palace had been into government offices.

When China became a republic in 1911 the decaying central complex was used for schools and offices. Then, when the Communists took power, the palace was finally demolished, the Mao statue and Exhibition Hall built, and the north-south road turned into a grand boulevard.

However often the buildings here have changed, this has always been Chengdu’s symbolic centre of power and order, approached by the city’s most important road. Different regimes expressed this power in very different ways, and flattened what had been there before. Yet there are still traces of patterns established well over two thousand years ago. As it splits to enclose the statue and the Exhibition Hall and, behind them, a new sports stadium and Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, Renmin Lu follows the site of the walls of the vanished Viceroy’s Palace. Traffic roars where movement was once restricted.

Maps of Renmin Lu from the 18th and 19th centuries show its north-south alignment obscured by houses at its extreme north and south ends. The Communists, however, emphasised its ancient importance by building the south-facing Mao statue and Exhibition Hall. The idea that such symbolic buildings should face south dates from China’s oldest principles of city planning, and reflects even more ancient geomantic beliefs. The remaking of Chengdu both looks powerfully ahead and reinforces feudal principles.

The point where Renmin Lu splits to encircle Mao, the Exhibition Hall and the stadium is right in front of me, but something doesn’t look right. Perhaps it’s the light, which seems to thicken by the minute, or the pollution, which makes my eyes water. I go on for a few metres before the shock of a city transformed hits me yet gain. Between me and Mao is a great square, its lawns watered by sprinklers. Nests of scaffolding and towers of steel spread across the horizon, dwarfing the Exhibition Hall. No wonder I was confused: a block of nondescript buildings has vanished.

Office workers tuck into bowls of instant noodles, ties loosened in the heat. Migrant workers doze on park benches, exhausted by long hours on building sites and in sweatshops. Troops of police march around, observing the crowds. It’s a copy of Tiananmen Square, I realise, and built in full knowledge that squares made for the people can be taken over by them: no wonder it’s so conspicuously policed. It may not be coincidence that the square makes the city look more like Beijing: Chengdu, the capital of a province that is about the size of France, is a regional power, competing with a handful of other cities to be the dominant force in western China. This vast, strategically vital and underdeveloped region has great mineral and natural wealth, but it also faces a number of political problems as a result of nationalist movements in Xinjiang (Chinese Central Asia) and Tibet. From where I stand, I can read the propaganda billboard on the Exhibition Hall: ‘Grab the chance to develop the West! Stride ahead the Sichuan way!’

There’s an extraordinary new building, almost as big as the Exhibition Hall, on the east side of the square, a confection of curved eaves and pavilions on a big two-storey block, its pointed arches covered in marble inlay. I’ve heard about this building: it’s Chengdu’s new central mosque. The houses which used to stand in front of the Mao statue were occupied by a substantial community of Hui, China’s largest Muslim minority. The Hui are scattered throughout several regions of China, and are generally distinguishable from the Han majority only by their religion. They have long been a challenge to a regime which prefers to define cultural difference in terms of race, and to cope with it by creating ‘autonomous’ provinces. Among the houses in front of Mao was a small mosque and the Hui community insisted that if the mosque was to be demolished, the Government had to build a replacement. The scale of the new building has caused resentment, confirming the Han Chinese belief that minority groups get preferential treatment.

I try to go in. A young man on his way out politely asks if I am Muslim. As the answer is no, I am turned away. Outside the Holy Places of Islam, this seems to happen only in Chinese mosques. I caught a glimpse of the writing over the main entrance to the prayer hall: Arabic and Chinese calligraphy brought deliciously together.

It has finally started to rain so I shelter beneath an arch, and gaze out at the tower blocks and the square. I think about the drive west from Chengdu. After barely an hour, a colossal escarpment rises out of the haze of the plain. Western Sichuan is a contested landscape, neither truly Sichuan nor Tibet. The map marks ‘Autonomous Counties’ of Tibetans, Hui, Qiang and other minority groups. Their villages are scattered among the mountains, with defensive towers emerging from tight nests of brightly painted stone houses. Moorland ridges are thick with grass and flowers, mountain passes marked by crumbling Chinese forts and groves of fir and birch wrapped in prayer flags. Windowless, freezing buses crawl up potholed roads.

In the valleys are Chinese towns, their protective walls still standing, and within them, finely carved wooden houses and the concrete blocks of offices and shops. Only a few generations ago, those who weren’t Han or Hui Chinese were turned out of these towns at night. Outbreaks of ethnic unrest were not infrequent, with settlements sometimes razed to the ground. Chinese garrisons would then ride out on retaliatory missions, forcefully emphasising the fruitlessness of rebellion. Many of the town gates still stand, the wood cracked and decaying. Perhaps the decaying city walls are now tourist attractions. It seems as if nothing lasts very long in China. The country appears to be at once extraordinarily old and terrifyingly new, both everlasting and permanently on the brink of collapse.

Low cloud obscures the tops of the Chengdu skyscrapers. The rain tumbles out of Tibet, as do the waters that feed the city and irrigate the surrounding plain. People rush past the mosque with their heads down. The new square is nearly empty now, apart from a party of schoolchildren sheltering beneath Mao’s arms. Neon lights flash in black pools of water. All around me, the city moves into the future.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences