Why are Chinese real estate developers obsessed with Europe?
You live in a community called Seine Mansion, buy your clothes and groceries at Florentia Town, and have dinner at The Capital Venice—and this is all a regular day in the life of residents of Tianjin, China. For a country definitely located on a different continent, it is amazing how frequently you run into European place names in China, especially around luxury housing communities and shopping centers.
Let’s face it: Chinese developers love to slap names that sound “European” onto prime real estate. The quotation marks are needed, because when the developer’s imagination runs wild, the place names end up with no regard for reality. When looking for an apartment in Xi’an, you may find yourself choosing between Downton Abbey, Europa Town, Oriental Milan, and Roman Sicily. The name doesn’t even have to refer to a place, as long as it’s vaguely associated with the West; Cappuccino and Mocha are also developments in Xi’an.
When you get tired of beverages and cities, the names of famous Westerners are also fair game. For inexplicable reasons, Hugo, Cézanne, and Monet have become patron saints for real estate all across China. A brief search for residential communities in China called after Monet on Baidu Maps, which is definitely not exhaustive, turns up 70 results. It may be that Chinese developers have a collective crush on 19th century French artists and writers—and this was partially proved in research by the Beijing Youth Daily in 2013.
By randomly sampling 240 residential communities in 12 Chinese cities, researchers found that of all the estates with Western-inspired names, 24.5 percent were France-related, making France the most beloved country among Chinese estate-namers. This was about six percent ahead of the United States, which ranked second. Germany, Italy, and Austria were also favorites. Predictably, there were no developments named after countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, or Latin America.
While most developers are content with mere suggestions of the West in their estate names, leaving the rest to resemble any regular Chinese community, some go a step further to create the illusion that the property owners are actually living abroad. In Shanghai, there is a Thames Town built to resemble a quaint British neighborhood, complete with red-brick cottages and chimneys, a chapel, a covered bridge, and shuttle buses that resemble steam trains. In Jiangyan, Jiangsu province, a small replica of the Arc de Triomphe stands in front of a community called Oriental Paris City. Hangzhou, displaying a similar zest for Parisian landmarks, has its own Eiffel Tower and a supposed reconstruction of the Champs Élysées at the foot of it, although right now the tower is still rising out of vast vegetable fields.
Home decor isn’t exempt from this pursuit of all things Western. “The European-styled Chinese home is usually pursued by the newly rich, because it looks expensive and luxurious,” Zhang Yi, a Beijing interior designer said. “Our more cultured clientele, or those who are really rich, would prefer something modern and simplistic.” In many cases, the socalled “European” home decor means an affront to good proportion and planning, a space crammed with multilayered satin curtains, giant chandeliers dangling in front of your nose, plants resting atop Roman pillars, and bronze angels frolicking in between. The typical Chinese apartment does not provide enough room for classical European decor, to say nothing of most Chinese furniture-makers’ knowledge of European aesthetic elements and how to tastefully combine them.
So where does this imagined Europe come from? Why do Chinese developers, and a considerable number of home buyers, consider European styles the epitome of class?
During the Republic period (1912 – 1949) of Chinese history, it was common for Chinese students and intellectuals to receive their education in the West—Qian Zhongshu’s novel, Fortress Besieged, spares no effort satirizing the intellectual pretension of these individuals. However, for a long time in China’s modern history, most Chinese people had no access whatsoever to the real Europe. Both poverty and policy made traveling abroad unfeasible, and people consequently had extremely limited cultural resources. In the meantime, China’s own gentry classes—the shidaifu (士大夫, intellectuals) and xiangshen (乡绅, country gentlemen)— were eliminated by numerous political movements, most egregiously in the Cultural Revolution, during which the nation’s Confucian tradition of nobility was smashed to pieces along with Confucius Temples. In such a political environment, only peasants without possessions and the proletarian workers were politically correct (and relatively safe).
This prolonged cultural starvation was why, when the 1980s and 1990s arrived, Chinese people were eyeing the Western world with unprecedented curiosity and open-mindedness. Young people devoured Western literature and philosophy that were once extinguished from the Chinese public sphere. Even the abstruse works of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger became sold-out market-based titles once they were translated. In pop culture, a remote, vague Europe was gradually being constructed out of the then extremely popular novels of Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Gustave Flaubert, and films like El Destino de Sissi and Roman Holiday. The Europe that appeared in the media was populated by castles, bucolic landscapes, and, in particular, the aristocratic lifestyle of its upper classes. These same adolescents who were enthralled by this romantic vision of Europe would grow up to become China’s first generation of real estate developers, who made their fortunes in the early 2000s.
If we go back a hundred years, China was not always thus hypnotized by an imagined Europe, though Western architecture has been imported into China since the late Qing Dynasty (1616 – 1911). During the Republic of China period, it was integrated into the Chinese architecture in subtle and creative ways, and Chinese architecture made some successful effort to adapt to the modern era and develop its own original style.
In the 1920s, when Chinese architecture first began to modernize, the earliest pioneers in this field were mostly Westerners. One of the first architects who contributed to the integration of traditional Chinese and Western architecture was Henry Murphy, who designed many landmark buildings in Peking University, Tsinghua University, Nanking University, and Xiamen University. Murphy was a powerful advocate for updating traditional Chinese architecture, and was hired by Chiang Kai-shek to renovate the then-capital city of Nanjing. Until today, the campuses he built are still reputed to be the most beautiful campuses in China, where Western architectural techniques and modern utility were fused with Chinese aestheticism.
In the 1950s, with the founding of New China, the well-known Chinese architect Liang Sicheng was another advocate of modernizing traditional Chinese architecture. However, his efforts were disrupted by the prevalence of Soviet architectural styles, as represented by buildings like the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum that now flank Chang’an Avenue in Beijing. Liang’s design, which advocated a balanced combination of Western and traditional Chinese styles, become politically incorrect. The Cultural Revolution followed shortly after, so the further development of Chinese architectural styles suffered an early demise.
Chinese architecture today seems to go to two extremes: They either make copies of classical European architecture—mostly clumsily but occasionally with stunning accuracy—or they are imitations of traditional Chinese palaces and imperial gardens. Although some rising Chinese architects are breaking new ground, Chinese architecture as a whole is still struggling for an identity.
It’s in this void of identity that European names and the crazy copycatting of European landmarks run rampant. However, the heyday of this trend may be gradually coming to an end. Apart from general antipathy from sections of the public toward the cultural pretension and meaninglessness of replicating Europe in China, in early 2016, the Chongqing government made an explicit regulation that residential communities will no longer be allowed to give themselves names that sound “foreign.” As a marketing strategy, European names are also starting to lose their appeal. “In recent years, first-tier city developers’ new favorites are names that indicate royalty in ancient China, such as “palace,” “mansion,” and the like. Yan Mei, a real estate sales representative in Beijing, told TWOC: “A European name is already starting to sound corny.”
Building Europe is a story from our issue, “Taobao Town.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.