Images © Tong Lam
The Ordos Dream
by Tong Lam
When travellers enter the terminal building of the Ordos airport, they immediately see a mural at the base of the ceiling featuring a smiling Genghis Khan, who seems to be welcoming them into his empire. The departure hall, which looks like a yurt, further conveys a sense of local history and culture as imagined or perhaps invented by its architects. This idea of Ordos being an all embracing, outward-looking, expansive, and ambitious Inner Mongolian city is equally prevalent in Ordos’s Kangbashi new district, an instant city that has been designed to showcase the region’s newfound wealth.
The new Ordos city, while a very contemporary creation, incorporates many elements of imperial urban design. The city is made up of concentric circles. Cutting through it is a central artery, nearly 3 kilometers long and 200 meters wide, linking the municipal government complex at the one end and the financial district at the other. Meanwhile, the central plaza in front of the government complex (known as Genghis Khan Square, of course) is a vast space that is 1.6 kilometers long and 400 meters wide. At the center of it are two sets of gigantic statues with figures linked to stories of Genghis Khan’s birth and his heroic conquests. Then, further along the central axis, in addition to a library, a museum, a performing arts center, and a theater, there are additional statues of the Great Khan and known or imaginary figures and animals associated with his life and myth.
To be sure, these monuments and statues do not merely articulate a sense of Mongolian heritage and pride. In some cases, their designers also try to emphasize the idea of ethnic harmony and reconciliation between different ethnic groups, especially between the Han and the Mongols. The celebration of China’s minority cultures in various cultural establishments here, as elsewhere in China, is done in a way that symbolically reinforces the political domination of the Han majority. Yet, just like China’s imperial past that constantly returns to haunt the present, there is something in Ordos’s urban design and architecture that seems to suggest a geopolitical vision that is greater than the People’s Republic or even the idea of China in general. Symmetrical, stately, grand, sublime, and uncannily empty, in its central district at least, Ordos looks more like the capital of an imaginary 21st century Mongol empire than just another prefecture-level city in a part of the PRC known as Inner Mongolia. Near the southeastern end of the central axis, there is even a theme park displaying sculptures from all over Asia, presented as if they were trophies of the Mongols’ imperial conquest. These are leftover from an Asian sculpture exposition hosted by the city a few years ago, but their inclusion and placement near the core of the metropolis is telling.
Nevertheless, whatever sense of an old type of “imperial” power urban planners of the new Ordos are trying to project, the overall effect is quite benign. While many of the statues and monuments have serious and dignified appearances, some, like gigantic statues that stand on a chessboard the size of half of a soccer field, are playful, humorous, and have a sort of postmodern feel to them. Even the happy Genghis Khan portrayed in the airport mural seems too friendly to be ferocious, which makes his imagined empire less formidable than the historical one he created was in its day. In the end, Ordos’s global outlook seems driven by touristic concerns rather than a renewed sense of imperial ambition. Still, one wonders to what degree the imperial fantasy revealed in the design of Ordos is an articulation of the desire for greatness that finds resonance with the central government’s recent discussion of the “Chinese Dream,” a cultural project that calls for a national renewal that will transform China into an all-round great power.