Caught between two worlds
China features massive amounts of diversity. From the rocky peaks of the Himalayas in the West, to the desert crossings of the Silk Road in the North, to the lush rice and tea fields of the South, China offers distinct landscapes and a rich cultural history that is distinctly its own. Its people embrace its Chinese identity, yet it is quickly shifting away from its roots, and quickly progressing towards something that it has yet to achieve: full development and Westernization. As a result of these transitions, China has become caught between two worlds, one that is industrially advanced, glitzy, and modern, and the old world, where people continue to live as they always have in a traditional Chinese setting.
I recently got back from a trip to Shenzhen, a still fairly new city at the bottom of China that parallels any seaport city in the West in terms of modernization and development. It lacks any of China’s historical or cultural charm, so its primary purpose was industrialization, a city where Chinese nationals could go to find employment opportunities. However, due to its prime southern location on the sea and just a subway or ferry ride away from Hong Kong and Macao, it became an attractive place for foreigners to live and work. As I wandered through the upscale shopping malls, ate Western food on outdoor patios, and gazed upon world monument replicas at ‘Window of the World,’ I couldn’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia, like I was re entering a world that I was familiar with, but one that I had left almost a year ago and was no longer really a part of.
Only when I accidently came across a few blocks of ‘China’ as I had lived in it for the past several months did I begin to once again feel at ease and more relaxed. The feeling made me realize that China was really a country caught between the old and the new. On the one hand, trying to maintain a distinct Chinese identity through cultural practices, languages, and an overall traditional lifestyle, while also emerging on the world stage as an economic powerhouse with a need to appeal to foreign markets and visitors. The result has been the rapid development of such modern and westernized cities such as Shenzhen and Shanghai, which are home to China’s elite, wealthy business people, and expatriates. Not so far away from these metropolises are the much smaller cities, such as the one I was living in for most of my time here.
It is these smaller cities where people living in more traditional ways can be found. Many of these places offer their own local practices, including a dialect that is often incomprehensible from the standard Putonghua. While a minority of people might live within a small pocket of wealth in these places, the overall majority lives in small apartments and operates a family-run business such as a restaurant or convenient store. Simple luxuries such as washing machines and flush toilets cannot be found in some of the housing and many people do their washing in the nearby rivers and use public washrooms. People enjoy simple activities to pass the time such as card games or Chinese checkers, and it is not uncommon to see groups of men playing outside their homes. By night, public squares and gardens are transformed into places for socialization, where scores of people gather for dancing. It is also not until after dark when these places become the most vibrant. The lights on the sides of buildings turn on, the sidewalks fill with people and the stores remain open, blasting their music hoping to entice some late night shoppers.
The balance in between
Most big cities in China include both Mandarin and English in public areas and even offer an English menu at local restaurants, but English is scarce in the smaller cities, and the local dialect often spoken instead of Mandarin, especially among the older generations. A few of the bigger cities in China have managed to keep a fairly strong balance between their modernizing and traditional roots. Hangzhou exemplifies this, not only between traditional and modern, but also with nature. Its West Lake is its most famous scenic attraction, outside of the main city and surrounded by flowers and trees whose leaves gently brush the surface of the water. Near the lake are a number of different temples, pagodas, and monuments that were built during the dynastic age and preserved, while farther outside the city exist the tea plantations and rice fields, where rural cultivation still exists.
Despite this homage to nature and history, the city of Hangzhou is filled with all the conveniences of modern life, including shopping malls and western bars and restaurants. A similar balance can be found throughout China’s middle cities, such as in Xi’an and Nanjing, where special attention has been given to preserving the historical legacies of these imperial capitals, while also developing a modern city around them.