When the mushrooms emerged in the city, Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo was one of the sensitive souls noticing the sprouting fungi in a flowerbed. His eyes were not yet well adapted to town life. Artificial attempts trying to grab his attention all failed, except this species standing there all seasons never escaped his eyes.
The mushroom hunters in Beijing are very different. Their eyes have properly adapted to the urban spectacles. The entrenched ring roads, the buildings outlined with LED lights, and the wide streets without billboards. The sight-seeing of the city is marked by its incomparable monochrome smoothness. Undoubtedly, when a giant green mushroom spikes through the pattern of such scene, it is hard to miss.
Just like all other unofficial activists in town, mushroom hunters, although fascinated by their discoveries, don’t dare to confront the mushrooms in the street directly. Posting questions online is their usual approach, although we don’t know how many curious questions have been asked before the internet recorded them.
What is it exactly? The people who first noticed it were immediately puzzled by its appearance. It’s not that they couldn’t recognize it as a mushroom, but it was a big mushroom, made out of fiberglass or acrylic, as if it’s a new species of fungi evolved in response to its urban loci. Or maybe it was some kind of secret phallic worship? Why was it designed like this? If it was just another chimney, why did it not look like a chimney?
None of these questions have ever been officially addressed, that’s for sure. Nowhere. All the official websites, travel pamphlets about Beijing have never mentioned this giant mushroom. Not a hint of it can be found.
Some clever people connected it with the underground. Maybe it is connected to the subway, they guessed. Based on their understanding, the subway is the underground network. The mushroom grows out from the ground, so it must be connected with something from the underground. Unfortunately, this hypothesis does not explain the smoke that comes out of the big green crown in winter nights. It is impossible that there would be smoke or steam coming from the Beijing subway. They couldn’t provide an answer.
At some point in history, the urban planning of Beijing was influenced by Soviet aesthetics, which to a great extent has become the foundation of Beijing’s aesthetic. It may be worth noting that, in some of the Russian legends, mushrooms are believed to be animals. They quietly move across the earth, following their own logic, which humans not yet understand. Since it is unrecorded what time the giant mushroom appeared, nobody knows if they are a left-over from a soviet influence on the city: it’s giant, and it might be quietly patrolling around.
By mid-November of every year, the myths of the Beijing mushroom culminate. Smoke gushing out or sometimes just sporing in the deep winter’s night and reawakening the addiction of this ancient city.
Finally, there was a mushroom hunter, a very curious one, who finally decided to go through the mist, when it rose again from the giant mushroom endlessly, leaving no solid clue in the air. The mushroom hunter stepped onto the flowerbed and got closer to the crown, immediately, he was overwhelmed by heat.
The mushroom hunter retreated with an answer—the Beijing mushroom was thermally active.
This mushroom hunter, or should we call him the mushroom finder, prefers to remain anonymous. “It feels like hell,” he summarised the experience, as well as the smell of sulphur.
It might be difficult to harvest it from the landscape, nonetheless, the Beijing mushroom is marking Beijing’s timescape. The smoking Beijing mushroom shows the unique seasonal pulses in the capital city of China. As a typical northern China city, Beijing uses 15%-18% of its total energy consumption for heating.
The role of mushroom in nature is to increase the plant’s extraction of nutrients from the soil. Following this understanding, Beijing mushroom, as a thermal-active agent, should be connected to the power-plant that deliver energy into the urban system.
China has the largest district heating (DH) system in the world, covering more than 200,000 km, providing heat to nearly 9 billion square meters of building space. The area of heating is framed by the north-south boundary (南北分界线) drawn by Zhou Enlai in the 1950s, on the Huai river in Henan. For the last decades, people from southern China have been actively complaining about this boundary as the weather is getting colder in winter.
From 2004 to 2016, due to the rapid urbanization and population increase in the Jing-Jin-Ji agglomeration, the district heating energy consumption of the building section (DHEB) increased by 120%.
The Beijing mushroom marks the premium of the heating district, they bloom in the heating season when the centralised DH system switch on to heat up local homes, usually from mid-November to the next early spring. Their “mycelium”, which has expanded as a part of the geography under the urbanization of the Jing-Jin-Ji. In this megalopolis, residents, mushrooms and the DH system together form the eco-system of energy consumption.
The absurdity of encountering a huge mushroom in the middle of a disciplined city is mesmerising. Unlike other mushroom hunters, the Beijing mushroom hunters tend to capture the inter-relation between this particular species in relation and its surroundings. The hunting of Beijing mushroom is not about finding it, digging it up, or owning it, but to capture the mediacy of the Beijing mushroom in the urban landscape.
The Beijing mushroom always appear in relation to the most common, urban elements. Yet because of the natural nature of mushrooms, it reconstitutes a unique landscape from the cityscape. The Beijing mushroom captured by the mushroom hunters offers a glimpse to the gaps of the official urban planning – with the unidentified object being reframed into the urban discourse, new subject of discussion emerges beyond the tailored horizon.
It has been captured in front of a glass façade, with the distorted reflection of night light amongst a flowerbed of exotic plants; It has been discovered hiding in the middle of a temporary garden that has no entrance; It has been seen next to a huge road sign without destination, as if the mushroom is offering a trip through a hidden channel; and more.
The landscape is being randomised and recreated at every moment, there is nothing to be remembered from any certain frame of the urban spectacles when everything is a spectacle, not a single mushroom, a miracle or a mushroom hunter himself.
Anna L. Tsing marks mushrooms as the reminder of good fortune amidst the terrors of indeterminacy. The Beijing mushroom, standing in the city like totems, reminding people about the potential meanings about the weather, the surroundings, and all the ineffable.
According to an unofficial archive of the Beijing mushroom, one spotting was reported as followed:
Although it is believed to be related to the heating system, for most of the encounters, especially in summer, the function of Beijing mushroom still remains as a mystery to the passer-by. We cannot blame them since, for so many years, not a single official, or an expert has ever spoken out about the design or denied the rumours that the mushroom are animals moving around town. The consequence of such a mystery, as it grows in total opaque of indeterminacy, with unofficial sources of explanations, is simply magical.
This summer, Shilifen, a popular blogger on Weibo posted a picture of a Beijing mushroom he spotted in the hutong area of Beijing and received over 1,000 comments.
As trivial as they might be, these comments imagined possibilities outside of the existing channel of reality. The mystery of Beijing mushroom become a permanent riddle that welcomes collaborative imagination of the city. Just like the green mushrooms in Super Mario, it empowers adventures.
For the next two years, or the next twenty years, the Beijing mushroom may still remain a mystery, and the systematicity around it will develop, into an organic network like a mycelium that wanders around the silent night, digesting the opaque in the city and the megalopolis.
Text: Yu Gong 宫羽
Photography: Zhangbolong Liu 刘张铂泷
Zhangbolong Liu, artist, translator. He has won Ryan R. Gibbs Award for Photography (Baton Rouge, 2014) and Shiseido Prize (Three Shadows Photography Art Center, Beijing, 2014). His recent shows include The Isolated and the Destroyed at Taikang Space, Beijing (2020); Diagonal at Magician Space, Beijing (2020); Quasi-Nature: Bio Art, Borderline and Laboratory at Hyundai Motorstudio Beijing, Beijing (2019). His curatorial practice include The Imagination of a Museum at J:GALLERY, Shanghai (2018).
Yu Gong was born in Beijing. She is interested in space and she has been to many places. She became a researcher at the Terraforming program of Strelka Institute, Moscow. She now works in Shanghai as an innovation strategist.