Ni hao from China once again, I’m writing this from the lovely town of Pingyao, SW of Beijing which represents something of a microcosm of the rest of the email as its virtually the last ‘old Chinese’ town of any size but this means there are lots of tourists too - all of which I’ll write about later. I spent most of my time in the last few weeks in the big, terribly nicknamed cities that are dotted along the Eastern seaboard and seeing some of the many millions which make up the population up close. Getting onto a packed provincial train at 02.23 last night I was reminded there really are a lot of people here...
Whilst I did love Japan I did struggle with the portions so it was great to return to China and indulge my Count Fosco like appetite once again, after getting the boat from Japan and taking my last look at the ocean for a while I arrived in Shanghai where its downtown joins the likes of Hong Kong and Tokyo on the list of fascinating cities I’ve been to recently. For around 100 years until the end of the Second World War various coastal ports in China were nicked off them by the European powers as the country went through something of a semi colonized period; Shanghai competed with Hong Kong as the most important and is certainly a city where you feel the different eras of the city all around you. Thanks to the laid back boulevards and villas of the French Concession area, the city got the usual lazy nickname of ‘Paris of the East’ (shared with 8 or 9 other Asian cities) and being a port as well as the widespread Orientalism prevalent in the West at the time developed something of an unfair reputation for China as an exotically ‘sinful’ place with stories of the opium dens and ‘Shanghai girls’. An updated but equally lazy nickname is ‘the New York of the East’ (shared, ludicrously, with Jakarta) as the city has grown to be probably the financial capital of Asia with a bustling populace paired with the soaring ‘scrapers above.
Visually one of the nicest things about the city is the way it’s developed a clever symmetrical architecture along the river showing off its past and present, on one side is The Bund with its famous colonial era buildings and on the other is the financial district of Putong which topped by the stratospheric Shanghai World Financial Centre is reminiscent of Lower Manhattan. They even sell ‘I ♥ SH’ t-shirts- though I can’t see them catching on in the same way.
With all the $ flying around the city is ground zero for the new, wealthier China; perfectly summing up modern China in the city centre is the Chinese equivalent of Rodeo Drive improbably flanked by a statue of Marx and Engels on one side and the site of the 1st Chinese Communist Party congress on the other. Like its multiculturalism though I felt the affluent centre was something of a false front, almost like it was bolted on as the real, near endless city can be found in the suburbs. And like most Chinese cities this isn’t quite so impressive and certainly not very interesting.
I spent much of the early part of this trip in The Philippines and Indonesia which, certainly outside of Africa host some of the least likable urban areas in the world. Therefore seeing nicer cities has definitely been one of the best things about travelling in the more developed world in the last few months. Aside from the cleanliness and lack of danger they’re easy to get around as they all have metro systems built since the ‘80’s and has put in perspective how bad the systems in New York and especially London are- got the technology too early I guess. In China though I think they’ve taken the modernization program a bit far in urban areas and whilst they’re somewhat orderly and fairly comfortable they’ve also had a lot of their character stripped away too.
Spending the last few weeks in the Eastern heartlands of the Han Chinese I’ve had a good view of quite how many of them there are; despite India’s best efforts recently China is still the most populous country in the world and it’s held that rank for a long time.
China does huge engineering projects very well: more recently the Three Gorges dam and railway to Tibet but probably the most famous historically is the Great Wall. However, whilst lesser known the construction of the 1800km Grand Canal from Beijing to Hangzhou in the 7th century linking the Yellow and Yangtze rivers was probably more important in the development of China, both economically and as a means to unify the massive country. It massively increased interregional trade and led to the growth of the cities along the route like Beijing (Northern capital), Nanjing (Southern capital) etc. as well as Suzhou which became one of the 15 or so Asian cities to be nicknamed ‘The Venice of the East’. Even though it looks absolutely nothing like the unique Italian city it’s still better than Venezuela (Little Venice) which is one of the worst named countries in the world.
Lazy naming aside the vast network of irrigation canals linked up various other colourfully named rivers (Red, White, Pearl, Jade etc.) meant an astonishing amount of fertile land could be supported and with it comes a gigantic population.
In the post Mao era though the population structure has changed and in the cities the seething mass of humanity at times feels almost intimidating. In only 30 years or so the population has gone from being overwhelmingly rural based to the near 50-50 urban/rural split population of today and its cities have ballooned in size with estimates of anywhere between 50-100 cities of over 1m+ people - most of which you will never have heard of. Mention names like Wenzhou, Fuzhou or Tianjin (and I really could go on) to any non-Chinese person and unless they’re involved in shoe or steel production etc. they’ll almost certainly draw a blank- yet they’re all cities similar in size to London. One you probably have heard of is Shenzen opposite Hong Kong on the mainland, in 1980 it was a fishing village that won a national lottery to become a special economic zone with various government conferred benefits. It recorded annual growth rates of up to 45% and in a mark of just how fast China’s growing, in 30 years the huge No. of immigrants to the factories that sprung up there means it’s grown to 14million people and pretty high up on the biggest cities in the world list. Quite amazing.
Even though I’m normally fairly comfortable in very large cities, in China there’s simply too many of them with often nothing of interest about them. The cities sprawl for many km of industrial suburbs and in the name of development any older parts of cities were normally totally flattened to make way for gridiron rows of ugly but cheap and functional residential towerblocks to house the populace. The city centres all house flashy shopping districts but there’s no sense of history in their identikit styles and the suburbs are certainly monotonous. The population apparently prefer living this way though as whilst they’re away from their families in the provinces they have all mod cons at hand and since only a generation or 2 ago at most, the majority of people lived in the countryside with no access to running water and electricity etc. aesthetics is a secondary concern. There are exceptions to the boring Chinese city stereotype, Nanjing for example has retained its merciless city walls (Ming era) and Beijing for the moment still has pockets of older neighbourhoods but often even cities with rich histories like Guangzhou (Canton) or Chengdu have had virtually all memorable features demolished and been rebuilt in such a way that they’re near indistinguishable and consequently disappointingly forgettable.
Where I find Chinese cities really do come to life are in the parks- they are literally a breath of fresh air in the LA like haze which blights all Chinese cities. Whilst naturally not an extroverted culture at all, in the parks they seem to leave their inhibitions at the gate as they enjoy quite a wide range of pursuits. Tai chi is the most common activity in the morning and brilliantly in China you get outdoor gyms which everyone can use- not just those who are willing/able to pay $100 a month or whatever it is they now cost in England. As the afternoon goes on the people start playing instruments and maybe some karaoke or even theatre before most memorably at night huge groups of ballroom dancers convene- and in total contrast to the West these activities are done almost entirely by older people. As in other Asian countries the elderly occupy a much more respected and visual part of society than they do in the West and that’s thanks mainly to a chap called Confucius whose hometown of Qufu I next visited.
Confucianism is a way of thinking which is very popular/important in other Asian countries but as one of the most influential philosophers of all time has near dominated Chinese society and the national psyche for 2,500 years. As the gargantuan family mansion and worlds biggest/oldest cemetery in Qufu display, the Kongs ranked 2nd behind only the Imperial family as the most respected in China and even now still wield influence in society.
Via high moral standards and individual responsibility Confucianism strives for social harmony and living towards the common good; it fills something of a religious void in China and aims to create order to good effect. In a lot of ways this is true but in the modern world its’ limitations are also now pretty visible.
One of the biggest pan-Asian traits in contrast to the West I’ve noticed on my travels is the emphasis on doing things for the group rather than the individual.
Probably the easiest way to describe it would be that if most peoples conception of the American dream (and increasingly applicable to Britain, Australia etc.) is about the successful status of an individual- in their job, house and all the rest of it, ‘the Asian dream’ in contrast is about the successful status of the ‘group’ be it the family, community and ultimately even the country rather than how any one individual is doing.
In China kids are brought up to be one of the crowd rather than individuals and success is something that’s achieved through quiet humility and patient effort over time rather than more visible examples of creative brilliance and I think there are pros but also cons to this systems.
The importance placed on education in Confucianism is paramount and in contrast to other Asian countries is done on a very egalitarian basis. Regardless of your economic status in Confucianism everyone has the right to education but it prioritises the rote learning rather than displaying creative intelligence type. This means that Chinese students are extremely diligent but even to university level exams here are mainly about regurgitating stuff you’ve memorized as students aren’t allowed let alone encouraged to think differently about issues or challenge ideas. As a result they perhaps lack the skills to think ‘outside the box’ a bit; to highlight this issue much of the storm over that Scandinavian prize last year was basically because China feels huge shame at placing so much importance on education, especially maths and science yet this not translating to internationally recognized breakthroughs.
As children, other activities aren’t encouraged unless they show a particular aptitude at something (ie can do to professional level) so they’re expected to study a few core subjects very hard with little time to develop outside interests. As a result (generally speaking) Chinese people aren’t particularly well rounded- if you ask a 17yr old what their hobbies are don’t be surprised to hear ‘studying’ following the obligatory ‘computer games’, ask someone 15yrs older and you’ll often get nothing more interesting than ‘smoking and playing mahjongg’.
The huge flipside to this though is that with no-one ‘reaching for the stars’ very few have a crash landing either, so as with other Asian countries with its tighter group units China suffers far fewer social problems like drug addiction or homelessness relative to Western countries. Unemployment barely exists as a concept and the importance placed on the family structure means they rarely break down but in the modern world that idea is coming under pressure.
In Confucianism it’s the role of the individual to fulfill their role in society eg servant serves their master, citizen serves the ruler etc. but arguably the 2 most important of these relationships are children serve their parents and women serve men.
In East Asia older people have a far greater role in every area of life- politics, in business and even things like entertainment and I think that’s a positive difference from the West where older people are often ignored and shoved into an OAP home or similar. That would be inexcusable in China where Grandparents are the centre of the home and indeed due to their seniority call most of the shots in the household. One line of Confucianisms most famous set of teachings The Analects (which I’d struggle with) is: “Whilst Mother and Father are still alive do not go on long journeys”- and that’s certainly true in East Asia where between the ages of finishing studying and retiring you’re basically working for others with little opportunity to travel, time to pursue your own interests or even attempt a slightly ‘riskier’ or less secure career. Under Chinese law there is no state pension so children are both morally and legally obliged to be financially responsible for looking after their parents which sounds OK but often doesn’t remotely work in practice. In Singapore they have the same system and the government sometimes has to take people to court for not looking after their parents, even when ‘defendants’ give heartfelt evidence about how they were beaten daily and haven’t spoken to their parents for 20years they still always lose!
Another example you may also have seen is the recent story about the disgraceful request by the Chinese government for higher compensation from the New Zealand government for parents of the Chinese victims of the recent earthquake, the reason why they felt they deserved more was because the single child policy means that the parents now have no financial support system for their old age!
Whilst looking after older generations is obviously a positive thing the extent to which it’s prioritized in China means it does kill off a lot of freedom for the individual to seek their own path when they’re younger.
The single child policy has arguably exacerbated this as Chinese people now go through an unusual ‘growing up’ curve; with only one child in the family as children they’re lavished with attention from 4 grandparents and 2 parents and this has led to the so called ‘Little Emperor’ syndrome whereby children become used to being treated and having their wishes always fulfilled. In China both physically and mentally children really are children (no sexual images in the media or access to drugs etc.) ‘til much later than elsewhere, I always underestimate teenagers or students ages by 3 or 4 years as they come across as much younger and without seeming to have much of an adolescent phase. But then when adulthood hits they’re suddenly under huge pressure. As they’re the only child they have the hopes/expectations of the whole family on them which in Asia is a very big deal and moreover are expected to provide for them financially ‘til they die. So very quickly they go from a situation where they’re treated like children ‘til the end of their studies then once they start working they have the weight of the whole family on their shoulders. Unsurprisingly mental health amongst young people in China is getting worse and worse as they’re simply not equipped for the transition to becoming adults.
Thanks to the one child policy China has also become one of the worst places in the world to be a bloke as there are just too many men, and no being gay doesn’t help as homosexuality ‘doesn’t exist’ here. Limiting the family size greatly exacerbated the problem of prioritizing males in society; traditionally it was the duty of the son(s) family to look after parents so families with only daughters had no means of financial support for their old age. Previously families would have more children ‘til they had a son but under the one child policy the terrible situation developed whereby if a family had a daughter they were setting themselves up for financial ruin; through infanticide and illegal scans leading to abortions etc. China now has something like 50m bachelors as there just aren’t enough women to go round. You certainly don’t notice this imbalance in the cities but in dying ‘1 horse villages’ you pass through all over China the population often appears to be a very sad mixture of old people and their aging sons who’ve stayed behind to look after them. The Chinese government realized the problem some years ago and they relaxed the policy in some situations e.g. you can have a 2nd child if your 1st born is a daughter and eventually lifted the restriction altogether on rural couples but as I wrote about in India (and the recent census there has just confirmed) the social problems caused when you start ‘playing with nature’ are really not worth it and both countries provide ample evidence why being able to choose the gender of your children should never be allowed.
One of the other consequences of being so densely populated and the country getting richer is that China now has one of if not the biggest domestic tourist industry in the world and I would unfortunately have to rate that as one of the worst things about visiting the country. When I was here in 2003 outside of Beijing I saw about 10 foreigners in a month but since then (as in the rest of the world) the overseas tourist market has exploded in China and I think I saw about 30 foreigners wandering around today alone- but they’re definitely not the problem. In recent years it’s become far easier for Chinese to travel abroad (though still not that easy) with normal people now able to get passports whereas before it was just people connected to the party in some way; however due to the weak Yuan, restrictive visa policies from other countries and the usual fears about foreign languages/food etc. they rarely go beyond their own borders, though like America that’s understandable as there’s shedloads to see and do here.
Whilst I can think of other more insensitive travelling nationalities, the Chinese would definitely rate as the most boring in my eyes. Independent travelling is rare as they (almost always aged 50+) prefer to put on brightly coloured caps (so their guide can identify them) and play follow the flag in utterly massive groups (50, 70 even 100 isn't unusual) as their tour guide sprints them through whatever attraction they’re seeing. Visibly in their sheer numbers and audibly as their guides compete to see whose megaphone shouts the loudest they really can ruin virtually any sight. Even in the most important places it’s remarkable how little interest they seem to take where they are beyond eating whatever the local animal on the menu is and taking lots and lots and lots of photos in the same 2 poses- either smiling with a v sign diagonally across the chest or that scary hands by the side with no facial expression they use for family portraits. And now the weather has got better there are absolutely thousands of them everywhere and since all attractions are government run it must be one heck of a big revenue generator…
When I was here in 2003 I barely noticed the cost of attractions but with a growing middle class with money to spend the government has jacked prices up several hundred percent and now don’t seem to follow the laws of economics as far as I can work out.
By Asian standards China is no longer cheap but it’s not an expensive country to travel in either, the food is cheap and delicious and if you’re prepared to sleep in the excellent hostels and don’t need a soft sleeper on trains the daily spend doesn’t come to much…unless you go to any tourist attractions during the day that is; everything in China down to the smallest temple and even viewing platforms has a price tag. And they’re not cheap- put it this way having come from one of the most expensive countries in the world (Japan) it feels very strange to be paying 3x the price for comparable attractions in China.
In most Asian countries they have dual pricing systems whereby foreigners pay a lot more (up to 20x) for attractions, normally I don’t mind this too much as it’s I think it’s important that as many locals as possible can learn about their heritage and some countries are very reasonable (Vietnam, South Korea) although others (Nepal, Sri Lanka) definitely get a bit greedy so you have to be quite picky about what you see. In China far too frequently I find myself having to decide whether or not something is worth doing and often regret not doing them or do pay the money then feel utterly ripped off once I’ve done so. I was heavily warned by others about the prices so it wasn’t a surprise; temples and other cultural sights I can take or leave although you often have to pay $10-15 just to visit a lot of smaller, prettier towns. However, echoing just about every foreigners view of travelling in the country it’s the national parks where things become really insane. The fake student ID I bought off a dodgy Indian guy on the Koh San Road has proved to be the best $5 I’ll ever spend but even with a student price most national parks cost between $20-50 for entry, an absolute fortune - but I’m here so I wanna do stuff.
These costs all make China pretty much the most expensive place I’ve been for attractions but what makes none of this logical is that that isn’t a foreigner price- it’s the same for everyone. So to put this into some sort of local context it would be the equivalent of paying about 200 quid per person to go to the Lake District! I don’t think you’d get many takers at those prices somehow. When I was at the national park at Wulingyuan I got chatting to a middle aged guy who explained how he’d driven 6hrs the day before with 4 other members of his family then got quite a shock when he saw the entrance fee, since they’d made the journey they decided to go in anyway but he spent some $225 on the various entrance fees. I genuinely did feel like putting my arms round him as assuming he’s got a slightly above average income this would mean he’d spent getting on for 10% of his annual salary on a day trip to a national park. A day trip! Aside from the folly of seeing national parks as a way to make money it means quite clearly it’s only the rich who can afford to do stuff, and I guess in China there’s so many of them that the demand curve will just keep rising whatever price they’re supplied at.
Bewildering really, but I can also see why a surprising number of foreign visitors aren’t that impressed by China using the understandable logic that domestic tourists + the costs of doing stuff have ruined much of interest here.
That’s not me though by any means, I really love lots of things about China; the people are friendly in a non-intrusive way, I’d pick the history as richer than any country in the world and whilst the cities are often boring the hugely varied landscapes of the country are absolutely gorgeous. Like just about everywhere else in Asia I find the culture absolutely riveting to observe and there’s something awe inspiring seeing how fast the country is growing and evolving. Even though I’ve been away quite a while now I find I still have virtually no desire to come home and continue enjoying life on the road. I’m now gonna climb some mountains and then will be heading to Beijing.