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Dìxià Chéng: the “Rat Tribe” who lives in the Underground City under Beijing

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The Rat Tribe: this is the name given to thousands of people (estimates vary between 150,000 and a million) living under the ground in Beijing, in what is called the Great Wall of the Underground.
Dìxià Chéng, the Underground City, stretches under the heart of Beijing for 85 square kilometers, at a depth that varies between 8 and 18 meters, even if the real size of this huge complex of tunnels and bunkers has never been made Note.
It must have been the safe haven for all six million inhabitants of Beijing, in the event that the Sino-Soviet clashes over territorial boundaries had resulted in war. In 1969, when the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union seemed a remote hypothesis, the Chinese leader Mao Zedong wanted to protect himself by ordering the construction of an underground city that would be able to resist attacks of all kinds, both conventional both biochemical and nuclear.

Within ten years, between 1969 and 1979, 300,000 Beijing citizens, sometimes equipped with only manual shovels, dug the huge shelter, which could be accessed by about 90 doors, hidden inside the shops that they overlooked the main streets.
Dìxià Chéng was not structured as a simple shelter, but as a real city: there were clinics, restaurants, schools, theaters and even an ice rink. And then warehouses for cereals and oil, and even an area dedicated to mushroom cultivation. President Mao exhorted the citizens of Beijing with the words “Shenwadong, chengjiliang, buchengba“, meaning “digging deep tunnels, storing food and preparing for war”.
Dìxià Chéng was never used for the intended purpose, and in the ’80s, when the process of economic liberalization began, some parts of the underground city were transformed into shops and offices, but especially in homes, which were rented to the great masses migrants who moved from the countryside to the city, or to residents who could no longer afford to pay increasing amounts for an apartment “above ground”.
It was the “rat tribe”, a world totally separate from the one above, where it was thought that only poor people could live, condemned to obscurity and dirt.

In 2010 the Beijing authorities decided that within two years all the residents of the underground city had to find another home. An impossible decree, whose deadline has been extended to 2017. At the beginning of last year, only a third of the Rats’ Tribe had left the bunkers, while it seemed more and more complicated to find a solution to the problems that arose both for the tenants, not able to pay higher rents, both for the owners, who did not want to give up that source of income.
In this difficult situation, Zhou Zishu, a designer who created a start-up aimed at transforming a part of the underground of Beijing, inhabited by the dark Rat Tribe, into a community called Digua Shequ (Sweet Potato), where there are also a library, a reading room, a social area, a play area for children, shops and a gym. All places designed to allow an exchange and interaction between the inhabitants below and those above, an opportunity to overcome the distance between different social classes.

According to Zhou, it is probably that many people will continue to live in the bunkers, due to the many interests at stake, but hopes that the Digua Shequ model can be re-proposed in other areas of the Underground City. It also wishes one of the people who has lived there for 14 years: “I lived in Beijing for 14 years. Before, I did not know any of the people who lived downstairs. Now, we all know each other “.

The Digua Shequ 地瓜社区 community centre

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