China, a Land of Contrasts

Extended excerpts from four recent pieces on China. It’s impossible to generalise about a country of 1.4 billion people, but there are plenty of interesting nuggets here.

The quiet revolution: China’s millennial backlash (Financial Times, semi-paywalled) by Yuan Yang:

Faye Lu, a Beijing-based businesswoman, chose the Chinese new year after her 30th birthday to come clean to her family. At the biggest social gathering in the Chinese calendar, she prepared a New Year’s Eve feast for her parents and 20 relatives — more than 10 dishes including roast fatty pork, pork ribs and fried pickled cabbage. The feast, she knew, would give her the right to make a speech.

“You have taken care of me for 30 years,” she told her guests seated at the table. “I am very grateful to you all. I have had the opportunity to travel and to get to know many different cultures, who have different attitudes to marriage. And I can see that despite their differences to us, they are still happy . . . ”

Lu was circling around a problem: as an unmarried 30-year-old, she is seen by her parents and their contemporaries as a “leftover woman”. At the end of her speech, she presented a veiled request: “I am so grateful to you for not bothering my parents too much to ask when I am getting married.”

[…] Han Han, the 35-year-old novelist most celebrated by millennials, wrote on his Weibo microblog earlier this month, “Success isn’t about how many millions you earn. From a billionaire to a gardener, art editor or a programmer . . . everyone has their role and their destiny, each has their own kind of happiness.”

Han was reacting to what he called the “anxiety peddling” of an article headlined “Your Contemporaries Are Leaving You Behind”, about another influential millennial, Hu Weiwei, the 36-year-old founder of bike-sharing tech start-up Mobike. The piece contrasts the careers of Hu with what it calls the “mediocre” lives of her peers who fall short of such success. “You said we’d walk the paths of our youth together,” the author writes, imagining a dialogue between two classmates, “but you went and bought a car.”

China’s One-Man Show (Jacobin) by Doug Henwood interviewing Isabel Hilton:

There’s no shortage of corruption. Without pushing this analogy too far, if a member of the mafia is arrested and charged with a crime, you don’t really ask if he’s a criminal. You ask how he lost his protection. And if someone went down during this anti-corruption drive, the question was which power did he represent? Which faction did he represent? Why him and not any number of others?

[…] I think the ultimate vision is a restoration of the sense that China is the center of its world. That was the way China felt about itself for many centuries, partly because it didn’t really go very much farther. There was a brief period in the Ming Dynasty when ships went up and down the coast of Africa, and there was always land-based trade along the Silk Road, but China was content to treat the states and its neighbors in the immediate region as tributaries that paid homage to China as the great regional power. It was 20 percent of the world’s economy, which is pretty much where we’re heading back to.

China wants to restore that position, but it also wants to preserve its own system of government against rival systems of government. In pursuit of that, China is steadily setting up parallel institutions. Its own, as yet small, multilateral investment bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, is devising rules that suit China rather than rules that have been part of the postwar order.

I think we’ll see China increasingly building a world that suits China, but trying not to overreach.

Sundays in the Park With Bagoong (Taste) by Max Falkowitz:

At 7 a.m., the first ladies have set up camp, flattening corrugated boxes into floor mats and erecting hip-height walls to mark their camps. By 10, they’re out by the thousands, scattered along sidewalks, encamped in parks, and perched above the street on skyways. In the shadows of the most expensive real estate in the world, these women have constructed a city of cardboard. And as they chat in Tagalog, swap mobile phone pics, and set up board games, they unpack their lunches. Hong Kong’s well-to-do families may be off brunching at dim sum, but here on the streets on a recent Sunday afternoon, it’s all adobo and bagoong.

Over 300,000 domestic workers live in Hong Kong—4 percent of the 1,000-square-mile city’s 7.3 million population—mainly women from the Philippines and Indonesia. “Helpers,” as they’re called locally, typically clean house, run errands, buy groceries and cook meals, and keep an eye on children. They get one day off a week, and most spend their day of rest attending church and participating in a citywide outdoor feast.

Imperial history and classical aesthetics by Dan Wang:

China did not trigger its own industrial revolution. The first imperial dynasty was established 2,000 years ago, and the civilization has something like 5,000 years of recorded history. Did life change much for the average person throughout most of that time?

Not really. Dynasties came and went, but the lives of most people changed little throughout millennia. The overwhelming majority of people earned a meager living by farming their small plot of land throughout the entirety of their short lives, just as their ancestors have done and as their descendants would continue to do. Some people would move to settle new lands; some people would be conscripted to fight enemies; some people would die in bouts of famine, disaster, or warfare. These are typical misfortunes that have afflicted people everywhere in the world.

The richer parts of China developed an impressive commercial culture and a sophisticated economy in arts and crafts. But given their lack of industrialization, these offered only marginal improvements in overall living standards. I read somewhere that the populations of Nanjing, Suzhou, Beijing, and a few other cities had not grown from the Song to the Qing, a 1,000 year interval. Isn’t it astonishing that such a thing is even plausible?

[…] It’s difficult to find evidence of historical monuments in Chinese cities today. Most large Chinese cities look similar in the same ugly way, with big apartment blocks, wide avenues, concrete everywhere. How is it that the splendid cities of the past have all been reduced to such dreadful streets and buildings? Contrast that mess with the well-preserved cities of Europe, which have kept the churches, monuments, and sometimes even whole streets in as marvelous conditions as when they were first built.

Disregard of the material past is a tragedy for the modern traveler. What did the Tang capitals of Chang’an and Luoyang look like? We have to use our imaginations and be guided by the texts, for these cities offer very little guidance when we examine them today. But Leys argues that this failure to maintain historical monuments is in fact a sign of vitality: “The past which continues to animate Chinese life in so many striking, unexpected, or subtle ways, seems to inhabit the people rather than the bricks and stones. The Chinese past is both spiritually active and physically invisible.”

My heart trembles with nervousness whenever an essayist invokes geist. But perhaps Leys is on to something here, and instead of trying to grasp Chinese history by seeing, we ought instead do so through listening.

How good are monuments as guides to the past, really? Perhaps very little at all, and the continuation of intangible traditions is more valuable instead. Most Chinese know the same sets of stories and parables everyone is told growing up; the actions we see in paintings and read in books follow a logic that still makes sense; I’m personally struck that I’m familiar with the characters in centuries-old scrolls, unchanged as they’ve been throughout millennia.

Instead of building magnificent pyramids and churches out of stone, Chinese have accepted the time wears down all structures. Eternity can inhabit not the building but the spirit. Thus, in addition to mostly neglecting to maintain structures, Chinese have been extraordinarily active in burning, vandalizing, and utterly destroying the material heritage of their past.

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