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Monday, January 9, 2012

"The world has moved on," said the gunslinger.

“Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” 
Napoleon's assessment of China’s capabilities has proven to be quite astute. Since China’s (forced) opening to the West, it has truly begun to emerge onto the world stage. 

The world's #2 economy, annual double-digit economic growth, holder of a lot of the world's debt, and now #1 foreign investor in America, it is safe to say that China has awakened.

Most think of Chinese culture in ancient terms. "The Sixth Patriarch Cutting Bamboo" by Liang Kai is a good example.

Ancient paintings, Confucian scholars, the queue of the Qing Dynasty - all of these are part of China's traditional culture and are part of the reason that China is able to accomplish what it is accomplishing today.

It is the world's longest surviving culture - 5,000 years of it. And little fundamental change took place in China's culture until its opening to the West. Even after its opening to the West, modernization was never really a huge national priority until Chairman Mao founded China. After his consolidation of power, modernization and development took precedent in the Chinese government. Their view was and is that China will become a world power. Period.

But at what cost? 
Are China’s people better off?
I had a conversation a couple of years ago with a friend of mine, Sulam, who asked me if I believed modernization has done any good in China. 

At first, I thought, “How can she even ask? Of course China is better off now!!” 
My response was something along the lines of, “Well, I think that a lot of China’s people are a lot better off and happier than they were before….” and then I trailed off and she said, “Who’s to say our version of better is actually better?”
Yes, modernization has helped lift some people out of poverty, given some people means to "improve" their life, but it seems to come at the expense of community, tradition, and indigenous Chinese values

The argument goes that because tradition and community shrinks as modernization grows, and community and tradition are vital to a country's welfare, modernization is bad. This an old argument that was highlighted a few years ago during India's industrial boom and has been revived in discussions about China. 

(Right: Traditional hutong neighborhood in Beijing. Many have been cleared out for high rises/ Below: Me with a family in Huan County, Gansu)

(Just hear me out on this, okay?) 

When I was in China, I spent much of my time in the undeveloped and developing Northwest, specifically Gansu Province. 

In the Gansu, people are fairly reserved and traditional, very much in touch with their history and local community. Families in the villages are large and generally poor, but rich in life and love. The lines between neighbors, friends, and family are blurred. Life is hard, but good.

When I visited Guangzhou, also known as Canton, a port city in south China, I was completely blown away by just how westernized it was. 

People on the subway and on the street were all iZombies - just bodies listening to their music and doing their makeup and all plastered with that look of weary indifference that so characterizes people who live in big cities like DC, LA, or NYC. Girls were obsessing over their makeup, guys were shamelessly checking them out - it was just like a subway or street anywhere else in the world.

Except for the street signs, Guangzhou had become just another big city, very un-Chinese (at least in my opinion at the time).

Now, to be fair, all of Guangzhou is not filled with iZombies and blatantly westernized people - they were just far easier to find. It was too much like home for me, and I didn't like it. 

I had seen so many wonderful examples of how traditional China lived on in Lanzhou, Tianshui, Jinchang, and other places in the Northwest, but it seemed to have taken a backseat in Guangzhou, a developed city that the government considers well-off and a desirable model for the rest of China to follow. I developed this idea of what I thought China should be, and the developed areas of China I had been to (Beijing, Guangzhou, and Xi'an) did not fit all that well within it. 

When I was in China, developed China scared me because it seemed like the China that I was falling in love with was capable of turning in America, which I was less than infatuated with at the time. I discussed the idea of it with some of my Chinese friends, and a fair few them did share my fear, but they were not as scared as I was.

Now that I've had time to think about it, I realize that China can't stay the same way forever - time goes on. It's just the way life happens.

Just as Europe didn't remain in the feudal system for the rest of time, just like America moved on from the days of the Wild West and the frontier towns, China is moving on. 

As romantic and pleasant as it is to think of China in the tradition-filled, poetry and calligraphy espousing, self-strengthening and self-sustaining way of its past, that limits and waters down what China really is now. 

Just because China is building skyscrapers and makes mp3 players doesn't mean it will forget its rich cultural history. People of all countries (some more than others, of course) have an understanding of where they came from and wish to leave their little corner of the world better than they found it.

At least, I hope so.

Anyway, that's what I've been thinking about lately - I know it's been a very long time since I posted anything on here, but I'm glad I got to get on share stuff with you all. I always reply to comments and would love to talk to anybody who wants to engage in a dialogue!


**By the way, the title was lifted from the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, which describes a post-apocalyptic earth in a universe that has "moved on" as the center of existence has been wrought by some sort of cancer that threatens the existence of everything as we know it.


  1. I am going to have to think more about this particular post, and probably go back and reread your others, but it seems to me that, the longer you are home, the more you are beginning to analyze your experiences, and understand the country that you came to love. I do not see where you "ramble" at all; instead, what I read is quite sophisticated analysis.

  2. Yeah, I am definitely beginning to analyze my experiences. Also, reading about what others have seen and experienced in China has helped me see other dimensions of China that I didn't get to experience or didn't fully appreciate at the time.

    I think I'm gonna do a "What I'm Reading" post next

  3. Sounds like what people were saying about America in the 1950's . . .

  4. Ya .. It seems so similar to many of the countries and I believe almost all the countries are somewhere deeply rooted their rich heritage .. Check Europe ; any part of it has some deep culture .. Go to any Middle East countries and they have their own .. The bonding with the heritage my differ specially with the newest generation who don't tend to find themselves attached to what is called their own culture ! But even they have a hint of it somewhere in their lifestyle or words or food or prayers ..


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