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, 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, fishing 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.
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.
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. They 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.