Authentic China?

Seated on the shuttle train taking passengers who had arrived in Beijing through into the main airport terminal I overheard two Americans talking, and was so intrigued that I am ashamed to say I blatantly earwigged their conversation.

The exchange was between a young man in his late 20s/early 30s and an older woman in her 40s. They were not ‘together’ but had obviously just met, either in the airport or on the flight to China.  It became clear that this was his first trip to China but she had been here once or twice before.

They were discussing his plans for travel within China and what caught my attention was when the woman said to him ‘oh you won’t see real China in Beijing, Shanghai or the other cities,BJ skyline you need to go out to the rural areas. Especially places in north-west Yunnan such as Dali or Liulichan where it is delightful; or in the south round Guilin, where you can see people working with water buffaloes, rural china - guilinfishing with cormorants and driving ox-carts, especially in some of the ‘minority’ areas – that’s where you will see authentic China‘.     The young man nodded earnestly and said he really, really wanted to experience ‘authentic’ China and would take her advice.

Hang on a minute – what on earth was she implying? That the 53% of China’s 1.3 billion population who live in the cities are not living real Chinese lives?  That’s just crazy, these huge mega cities are as much part of ‘authentic’ China as any rice paddy field, if not more so.

Would she have said that you wouldn’t see the ‘authentic’ USA in Boston, BostonNew York, Chicago or Los Angeles?

That to see authentic America you would have to visit  hillbillys in the Appalachian mountains, or the Amish communities in Pennsylvania – because that is the equivalent  interpretation of her remarks about China.Amish


Life in Rome or Milan is as authentically Italian as the life of a farmer in Calabria.  Life in Paris is as much authentic France as life in the Languedoc.


Many folk in the west still have, in their mind’s eye, an image of  China with simple communities, using age-old methods of farming, of houses where the roof tiles turn up at corners, bamboo groves, country folk who wear woven ‘coolie’ hats, rosy-cheeked wide-eyed children gawping at foreigners for being exotic strangers and charmed by their western ways.  They have mental pictures of people brainwashed into waving little red books under the Great Helmsman who are still oppressed by the power of the State, and who envy our wonderful western lives.

Then they arrive here and see huge megalopolises, with every modern technical convenience and then some; bustling with people who are internet savvy, have modern cars, live in glistening high-rise apartment blocks and superficially seem ‘just like us’. They see freeways and fast trains – trains that are better than anything we experience in our home countries.  They see (except usually they don’t) the millions of industrial workers in factories who have been key to driving the Chinese economy into a position of strength. Chinese factory workers2They see people who seem at quite at ease with their government and society, and this doesn’t fit with their mental image of the country.

This is not rural, not quaint,  therefore in some western minds not ‘authentic’,

But of course it is.

So if you visit China, and have to spend all your time in a city, don’t worry, you ARE still seeing ‘authentic’ China.





About herschelian

Started my 60s by moving to China with my DH. Surprised to find I am still here in Beijing eight years later - still finding it an adventure!
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6 Responses to Authentic China?

  1. Very good point. Honestly, I kind of have the mindset that you need to get out of the cities to experience a country. Good perspective.

  2. Jennie says:

    So true – any views on “the real South Africa” ?

  3. Sheila Taylor says:

    Bravo – I love it when you’re cross!!

  4. Behind the Story says:

    Good point! But I also see the woman’s point… except she used the wrong word. Maybe she should have said historic. When an American tourist visits Europe for the first time, she doesn’t want to see ordinary city life because it’s too much like home–highways and cars, supermarkets and coffee shops. Instead, she wants to see the cathedrals and castles. When she visits China, she wants to see something that’s different from home, that’s historic and uniquely Chinese. She can find that in the cities too, but she’d have to look beyond all the cars and buses.

    As a traveler who likes to get out of town wherever I travel, I sympathize with her but wish she’d expressed herself more clearly.

  5. julieallen36 says:

    Hi I totally agree with you. Having visited China last year I have to confess that the cities were a bit of a surprise. I expected development and lots of it in Shanghai but not EVERYWHERE so it was a bit of a shock! So, yes I would agree growing cities are absolutely authentic China. I also visited Guilin and Yangshou which were beautiful and probably my favourite and would call those ‘old China’. I felt the cities were authentically ‘new China’. It was all very eye-opening even for a geographer who thinks they know what’s what in the world.

  6. As someone who lives in that woman’s portrayal of “the real China” (aka middle of nowhere, farmland China), I can say life in the sticks is much different than life in the big cities. But I agree with your point…there’s nothing fake or less authentic about life in Chinese cities. In fact, I’m about to embark on a 10 day trip with an American friend who has never been to China. We plan on only visiting cities. I think she’ll be both wowed and shocked in equal measure.

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