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The Great Leap Nowhere

September 16, 2009
by Edward A. Gargan
a photograph of modern buildings in China

After decades of rampant cultural destruction by communists and then capitalists, what does it mean to be Chinese?

At noon one day before Chinese New Year, my landlord rapped on the red lacquered doors leading into the small traditional courtyard house in which I live. My courtyard lies near the southern end of Zhuzhong Hutong, or Bell Foundry Lane, a cramped passageway that wiggles and waggles toward the 15th-century Bell Tower. Legend has it that the tower’s bell was cast in a foundry on my lane, and children today are still told bedtime tales of the goddess of the bell.

Standing with my landlord, a pudgy and balding engineer for China’s dominant Internet provider, was a Buddhist monk, swaddled on this frigid day not in the saffron robes of his calling but in a cozy down coat and thick woolen slacks. They had come to bless the house and to paste duilian, paired red paper scrolls emblazoned with gold couplets about luck, fortune, and wealth, to the front doors. As my landlord struggled with the flimsy scrolls in a skittery breeze, the monk paced the courtyard, sprinkling each building and the ground with blessed water. Facing south toward my bamboo garden and a low, pale winter sun, he intoned a series of sutras from a small volume plucked from his coat pocket. When he finished, we all shook hands, wished each other a happy new year, and the small ceremony was over.

Here, deep in what is left of old Beijing—those sparse patches of ancient alleyways and courtyard houses—gestures of China’s traditional ways still cling to life. But while there remain echoes of its vast cultural history, particularly in many rural areas, China is undergoing a cultural transformation as profound as the economic revolution that is reshaping this country, and in ways unimaginable just a generation ago.

History provides no comparable antecedents for the deep and rapid economic and cultural change China has experienced in little more than two decades. Japan recovered quickly from the Second World War but emerged from that cataclysm largely unbruised culturally. Europe rebounded from the war as well, and today retains its cultural distinctions. But for China, so rapid and startlingly widespread is its reorientation that many familiar handholds, the sort of habits that define and condition a society, are eroding. Cultural alternatives now spill into Chinese life in dizzying abundance, and how they are embraced or rejected by the Chinese people over the coming years will lay the foundation of a new 21st-century China. Before our eyes, a new society is being fashioned. What will emerge from this maelstrom of change is impossible to know.

The Chinese are not polled about feelings of national identity; such questions, much less their answers, would too dangerously approach the political nerve of China’s ruling mandarins. Polling on other issues, however—tastes in carbonated drinks, preferences for shampoos, ratings of certain sports celebrities, the appeal of mobile phone designs—is commonplace and, in a real way, reflects a changing social landscape. Despite the lack of significant data, after many years in China I am most acutely struck by China’s confusion over what, in the end, it means to be Chinese. All of this ambivalence lurks very close to the surface of the national spectacle that will begin on August 8 of this year: the Olympic Games.

The rapidly shifting cultural footing is nowhere more apparent than for China’s urban 20-somethings. Take, for example, Yang Ling, as I will call her. Born in Xian to a military family—her father retired before reaching the rank of general—she chose, perhaps as a dutiful Chinese daughter, to attend a local university rather than a more prestigious institution in Beijing or Shanghai, so that she could be close to her recently divorced mother. “Now I realize I probably made a mistake,” says Yang, a petite woman of 27 who sports radically fashioned bobbed hair and, she confides, a splendid polychromatic butterfly tattoo on her shoulder. “Chinese children are supposed to take care of their parents and I thought it was the thing to do. But now I think I should have gone to Beijing.”

For her fealty, or perhaps because of her family background, she was invited to join the Communist Party but never did. “I just forgot to fill out the paperwork,” she recounts. “It wasn’t important to me. There were other things in my life that mattered more.” For hundreds of thousands of young people like Yang who have migrated to Beijing for professional reasons, the Party is no longer meaningful. “I’m not even sure I know anybody in the Party,” she says. “What’s the point? How does it help you? It’s just ancient history.”

Well, perhaps not ancient history. The Party, after all, controls the ferocious apparatus of repression that imprisons journalists, silences critics, kidnaps the child Panchen Lama, and stifles the press. In terms of sheer numbers, the Party machine has forced millions of people from their homes, in some instances for grandiose development projects such as dams and airports, often in craven collaboration with corrupt developers. “Ancient history” comprises the tens of millions who starved to death during the Great Leap Forward, and the millions persecuted and killed during the Cultural Revolution, and the perhaps 2,000 people gunned down around Tiananmen Square in June 1989; these are all legacies of the Party.

In a country where memory is deliberately selective and restricted, discussion of the recent past as opposed to the glories of, say, Southern Song poetry is banished to rare whispered conversations. I was asked recently by a professor of journalism at Shanghai’s Fudan University to send him some examples of work I had done here for a collection of foreign correspondents reporting on China. When I offered to send him a long, firsthand piece about the Tiananmen massacre, he started and waved his palm at me: “Please,” he begged, “better not.”

Yet it is true that for up-and-coming 20- and 30-somethings in a cosseted and increasingly international metropolis such as Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, all history is ancient, and largely irrelevant. Yang Ling sped from provincial Xian after college to Beijing, where she worked as a marketing consultant before founding her own consultancy targeting medium-sized Chinese companies. For her, there is little about China’s history or culture that is either particularly appealing or necessary except, perhaps, the multiplicities of Chinese cuisine. She and other young Chinese live their lives in a world that would fit as easily in Europe or America, a world that is ultimately more recognizable as Western than Chinese.

While Yang devours the darkly romantic novels of Zhang Ailing, she also revels in the hilarity of Roddy Doyle’s tales of Irish life. Weekly, and sometimes more often, she and her friends swing dance to Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Their taste in fashion is Japanese, European, American. They spend hours each week on Facebook. They travel the globe. They are, in short, the new urban youth whose identities are kaleidoscopic, conditioned by caprice, advertising, television, movies (mostly foreign), fashion magazines, and the imperatives of professions implanted from the West.

As difficult as it now is to disentangle the remaining threads of Chinese culture from the great skein of Western cultural mores that suffuse urban Chinese life, it is even more difficult to unearth much of China’s architectural legacy. In Beijing, for example, such a discovery would be of some interest as China stages its first Olympics. Beijing is not among history’s most ancient cities. While Paris’s iconic cathedral of Notre Dame was being completed on Île de la Cité—its glorious architecture underpinning the very idea of Western culture—urban organization was just stirring in Beijing under the invading Mongols. The Mongols were driven from China by a native Chinese rebellion that launched the Ming dynasty in 1368. It would be under the Ming that Beijing would assume its historical dimensions.

At the heart of Beijing, the Ming constructed the imperial palace and city—the Forbidden City—a procession of courtyards leading to the imperial throne, all flanked by offices, storehouses, guardhouses, libraries, temples, and residences for concubines, eunuchs, and the emperor himself. It is today the greatest example of imperial architecture in China, but the Forbidden City is far less than it once was or could have been. That is the tale of China’s destruction and loss of its past, and in some ways its identity.

In 1949 Mao Tse-tung and his Eighth Route Army tromped through the great, dilapidated gates of Beijing’s towering city wall, a formidable, looming fortress that dated mostly to the 15th century. Mao, obsessed with his vision of a “new China,” set about effacing all traces of Chinese culture and tradition from the vast land he would dominate for the next quarter century—with devastating consequences. He began with Beijing’s city walls. It took two decades, but the greatest example of Chinese urban fortifications—walls celebrated in literature, poetry, painting, and (to enormous contemporary pleasure) in 19th- and 20th-century photographs—were systematically razed. All that remained were a few ragged and restored remnants and a handful of what are now completely rebuilt watchtowers. As ramshackle, corrupt, and exhausted as it was in 1949, Beijing was still the preeminent example of imperial urban design, and the custodian in both real and philosophical terms of Chinese cultural accomplishment. But Mao set about erasing that legacy.

Today, Beijing echoes not of its past, but of some modernist future etched in the parade of undistinguished, and indistinguishable, corporate towers that dominate the landscape. The traditional courtyard houses that crowded along the warren of lanes (hutongs) are nearly gone, with only a scattering left around the two small lakes in the city’s north, Qianhai and Houhai. Even the 18th-century courtyard house of Cao Xueqin, author of Dream of the Red Mansions, one of the greatest Qing dynasty novels, succumbed to the bulldozers of boulevard builders. Inside the Second Ring Road, which describes the circuit of the old city wall, perhaps 20 percent of the old city remains, the rest devoured by developers and grotesque government schemes for modernization.

Dimly, awareness began to dawn on China’s development-driven leaders that the country’s heritage was all but gone, that not only tourists but the Chinese people themselves wanted visible examples of the history that had been consigned to oblivion. At the ludicrous and staggeringly corrupt end of the spectrum, a former Beijing strongman, Chen Xitong (the city’s mayor and party chief who was arrested for bribery in 1995), ordered all new office towers to be crowned with a small pagoda roof. His order has left an array of buildings sporting little clown hats of upturned eaves with balls on top. The result lends not so much a Sinitic cast to new construction as a Mad Hatter scattering of embarrassing toppers.

Now, with the Olympics mere months away, Beijing’s city fathers have suddenly embarked on a frenzy of renovation and rebuilding in what remains of the city’s ancient precincts. On every street and avenue, down every hutong, workers are demolishing building façades, ripping up roofs, razing gate posts, and replacing them with fronts and roofs and gates that mimic some notion of classic architecture—a grand effort to make Beijing look more “Chinese.” Imperial red paint is slathered over the awnings of hardware stores, red lanterns are hung outside nondescript dumpling joints, and red wooden latticework is fitted over showroom windows.

The most ambitious reconstruction effort is underway in the Forbidden City, a project intended to retrieve the ramshackle palaces and temples from the ravages of pollution and willful neglect. The result is a renewed complex of buildings so glistening and brightly chromatic that it seems as if a new imperial city has sprung up at Beijing’s heart.

In the crudest sense, this whirlwind of renovation is merely the city’s effort to put its best face forward to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who will flood Beijing in August. But more, it reflects a desire to somehow reconnect with an imagined past, an attempt to re-create a physical Chinese identity, something that embodies what it means, after all, to be Chinese. That this effort may not be entirely adequate was hinted at by a flood of recent advertising to mobile phones in Beijing, with messages offering lessons in reading classical Confucian texts such as Lunyu (The Analects of Confucius). Recovering China’s past, it seems, is more arduous than wielding hammers and paintbrushes.

Beyond these plaintive restorative efforts, Beijing—with 16 million people and growing quickly—has abandoned any pretense of draping its relentless and meteoric expansion in distinctive cultural raiment. The aptly named CBD (central business district) on the east side and the financial district on the west are mirror images of canyoned tower blocks like those in Houston, Los Angeles, or Atlanta. Past these are spread miles of pastel-hued apartment blocks and beyond those are the exclusive gated communities of suburban housing estates, jammed with cookie-cutter McMansions, replicas of the compounds that edge U.S. urban centers. Most of these developments are discordantly christened with “upscale” Western names: Central Park, Yosemite Villas, Eurovillage, Windsor Avenue, Palm Springs, Chateau Edinburgh. Weaving these vast residential areas together is Beijing’s tangled web of superhighways and grand boulevards, roadways that not infrequently double as parking lots clogged by the city’s millions of car-mad commuters.

For most Beijingers, the rhythms of daily life have been inexorably recast by the modern, largely Western economy that undergirds China’s astonishing growth. Consider “Tang Wenhai,” a 40ish director of corporate communications for one of the capital’s largest commercial and residential developers. Because her husband travels extensively for work, as does she, their son boards during the week at an elite primary school. Every morning Tang leaves her utterly modern 22nd floor apartment just off the Fourth Ring Road and drives her gleaming white Honda to an office in a gray, crystalline trapezoidal tower in the CBD. With an MBA from Tsinghua University (“China’s MIT”), she worked on her company’s recent $1.5 billion initial public offering, jetting around the globe with other senior company officers and their investment banking consultants. She’s taken her staff on whirlwind tours of Europe, and most recently vacationed in Egypt with friends.

“Of course this isn’t how my parents live,” she laughs, “or frankly how I thought I would live when I was growing up. My parents”—working-class people from China’s far northeast—”could never have imagined a China like this. The funny thing is, now we live like everyone else in the world.” Or at least like other First World corporate executives. “It’s globalization,” she says.

For all the Tang Wenhais in China, there are, of course, hundreds of millions of people who live far more menial lives, particularly in rural China but also here in Beijing. Yet, in a society where aspiration—fueled by ubiquitous advertising, television, movies, and, it must be said, envy—drives the behavior of most young Chinese, it is the successful urbanites who are redefining what it means to be Chinese and in many ways what it being globalized means. Brides in voluminous white wedding dresses are in. Drag racing on the Fifth Ring Road is in. Mall crawling is in. Hip hop is definitely in. But so is studying hard, playing the piano or violin, and cramming like mad for the national university examination. Symphony orchestras from other countries are in (far more so than traditional Chinese musical performances). And above all, learning English is in. Tang Wenhai’s nearly 11-year-old son has never set foot out of China but speaks and reads English with astonishing fluency.

So what does remain of “old China”? Here in Beijing, small scenes and little hidden moments echo a distant, perhaps imagined, past. On the way to my local café the other day, I passed a courtyard home that had been lovingly restored and refashioned as a restaurant. Inside the twin red doors, a blessing ceremony to mark its opening was underway. Offerings of food were laid on an altar, and each staff member—the cooks in pristine white smocks and toques, the mâitre d’ in an elegant cheongsam—lit joss sticks, sending clouds of incense billowing. But these glimpses into the great pool of historical culture are, in comparison to that of India, for instance, fragmentary and fleeting.

The rapidity with which the face of Beijing is changing heralds a transformation far more than skin deep. Something profound is shifting in Chinese sensibilities, values, intentions, desires, outlook—a deep reshaping of a culture. I am often mildly shocked when my Chinese friends forget how to handwrite a Chinese character—for younger people, typing and texting Chinese has become so ubiquitous that the habits of memory underlying Chinese handwriting are ebbing away. At one of my favorite old Beijing restaurants, the proprietor still clacks away totals on an abacus; but almost nowhere else—it’s a lost talent. And increasingly, one hears English words punctuating conversation, a sure sign of a gradual urban internationalization.

A professor at Peking University once scolded me for my nostalgia for the old city, complaining that I did not want China to modernize. And though I assured her otherwise, she insisted that the only way to the future lay in paving over the past. This perceived antinomy, artificial or not, echoes loudly in today’s China. It is foolhardy to anticipate what China will look like in the next decade, or the next five decades. Things are moving too quickly. China’s first famous rock artist, Cui Jian, who has been compared to Bob Dylan, captured this cultural velocity in his song “It’s Not That I Don’t Understand.” It is a lament felt across China:

In the distance rows of tall buildings like fields of wheat.
In front of me oceans of people and traffic jams.
I take it all in from every direction but still can’t grasp the size of it.
This thing and that thing—the more I see the stranger I feel.
It’s not that I don’t understand.
It’s just that the world is changing fast.

Edward A. Gargan, for two decades a foreign correspondent in Asia for The New York Times and Newsday, is the author of The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong. Gargan, who studied Medieval Chinese History at Berkeley, now lives in Beijing, where he is working on his third book.
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