As China is six hours ahead of France, I didn’t find out about the fire at Notre Dame until I woke up on Tuesday morning. By the time I got to work, my WeChat Moments had lots of posts about the fire. WeChat Moments, or 朋友圈 (friends circle) in Chinese, is where you can post pictures, comments and links for all your WeChat friends to see. A Parisian friend posted the view from her childhood bedroom window, with Notre Dame in the background. Chinese friends posted pictures of themselves outside Notre Dame on their holidays or while studying abroad in Europe.
I started to feel slightly weird about these photos. The fire wasn’t even out and already there was a heady mix of grief tourism and wealth flaunting. “Look how well-travelled and cultured I am! Check out the international education my parents paid for! Behold my appreciation of foreign architecture!” Making a fire in a church the other side of the world all about you and your selfies seemed, to me, to be a very Chinese millennial response.
My friends were unanimous about how sad it was that it was in flames. There were lots of references to its age, its importance, its beauty and why we need to preserve cultural icons like this. I knew it was wrong to judge my friends but I couldn’t help thinking about all the cultural icons they didn’t care about. China is proud of its long history (find me a foreigner in China who hasn’t been told about China’s 5000 years of history…) but there aren’t as many old buildings in China as there should be, due to wars, the cultural revolution, natural disasters and things not being built well in the first place. In Shanghai, old buildings are torn down to be replaced by gleaming (for now) malls or apartment buildings, or fake old buildings. Out with the old, in with the new; then out with those as the poor building regulations means it’s all falling apart only a few years later. More new things! GDP! Yay!
That’s not to say there aren’t some old buildings in China, though. One example is a mosque in Xinjiang almost the same age as Notre Dame – or was, at least. The Keriya Mosque was built in 1237 and was demolished last year by the Chinese government as part of the ongoing ethnic war against the Uighur people. You can see before and after pictures of the mosque here. Reportedly, 200 of 800 mosques in the region have been demolished. None of my friends have mentioned that they’re sad about these buildings being destroyed, if they even know anything about it.
At least my friends were sad about Notre Dame. Elsewhere on Chinese social media, some netizens (how I hate this word) were posting that the fire was karmic retribution for the destruction of the Summer Palace, an imperial park, in Beijing. At the end of the Second Opium War, the British and French looted the Summer Palace and (after two British journalists were killed) the British burnt the palace down. This event is taught in great detail in Chinese history classes and it horrifies Chinese people to discover that it’s not mentioned in British schools. Is there space in the British curriculum to cover every atrocity the British carried out, and would this even make the top five atrocities? Should British history cover British atrocities (personally, I think it should), even at the expense of studying anything else (personally, I don’t think so), and does it matter to this line of thinking that the Chinese curriculum doesn’t cover anything bad that China (or the Han majority) has done, past or present?
The fire was extinguished. I read about all the money pouring in to restore it, about the trees grown in Versailles especially for the eventuality of ever having to replace the wood in the roof. I stopped caring about a church I’d been to twice. Memes were shared.
My first thought on seeing a photo early on Tuesday morning was that it might be terrorism and it made me sick to my stomach – not just the act itself but what the reaction might be in an already incendiary Europe. I then found myself ‘relieved’ that it was just a giant fire, and when I thought back to how I felt reading about Grenfell, it felt almost insignificant, if you’re allowed to say that about the destruction of a national icon. I suppose nothing exists in isolation, and no reaction is without a thousand other influences.