Bamboo scaffolding and gleaming department stores, construction cranes looming over wooden villages, KFC and chopsticks, yak herders and cell phone abusers within miles of each other, communism and capitalism co-existing—China has more paradoxes than it does dialects. To visit China now is to witness a country revolutionizing itself in the cities and struggling to stay alive in the countryside. Wracked with ambiguity as it transforms rapidly from a socialist to a market economy, China is perched, it seems, at the edge of the world at the turn of the millennium.
While the West has focused its attention on human rights and continues to see China through the lens of Tiananmen, the country itself has imploded into a thousand perplexities. While it is true that the more time one spends in China the more the country takes on an elusive sheen, the experience of living day to day, traveling from the markets to the elevated highways, from the desert to the city, along rivers and before incredible mountain ranges will undoubtedly stay with the visitor forever.
Beginning with the Xia dynasty and ending with the Qing, China has seen as many dynastic cycles spanning hundreds of years as the United States has seen presidents. Though the museums house some incredible artifacts and the Xian terra-cotta soldiers remain one of China’s most famous attractions, much of China’s cultural history and art were destroyed or transported swiftly to Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, from Mao’s years of social reconstruction to the resilient character of Deng Xiao Ping and his reform of the economy, what is fascinating about China today is the juxtaposition of the old and the new.
The third-largest country in the world, holding the world’s largest population, China is chiefly challenged by questions of cohesiveness, centrality—how to bring a country speaking hundreds of different dialects together under one rule. Beginning with the Zhou dynasty (1100–771 BC), China held its government together based on the idea of the Mandate of Heaven. Essentially, heaven granted power to those who were chosen by heaven to rule. The Mandate was later modified to include heaven’s demonstration of its disapproval of evil rulers through natural disasters like droughts and earthquakes, disease and flood. An element of fate was incorporated into the mandate, as it was believed that heaven would not grant validity to a rebellion unless that rebellion was successful.
Today, as communism becomes a theoretical name for a system that is beginning to incorporate capitalism, the mandate of heaven has been called into question. Were Mao and communism another manifestation of heaven’s will? Some Chinese scholars believe Mao was the founder of the first peasant dynasty. Others theorize that the cult of personalities like Deng Xiao Ping and now Jiang Zemin has undermined the socialist foundation Mao set forth. Whatever the case, it is clear that as the country continues to modernize, especially with Hong Kong under its belt, communism appears to be taking a very back seat to an undefined foreground, neither capitalism in a Western sense nor Communism as in the years of Mao. The Chinese government has found itself in an awkward situation. If it tries to clamp down, it will surely lose in the race for modernization. If it allows modernization to continue, its control is inevitably weakened. Who can say what heaven will grant next?
Ranging from the Three Gorges Dam, a colossal project that will uproot 2 million people, to the perpetual construction of skyscrapers crowding the cities’ skylines, the Chinese landscape is changing faster than any other the 20th century has witnessed. In some respects, it’s as if the people had been plucked from their traditional homes and transported 100 years into a future where families struggle to uphold loyalty in an environment that tries to rip it apart. Foreign companies and joint ventures are asking single men and women to climb a corporate ladder on a speeded-up schedule; eating habits have changed from family style to a quick bite from McDonald’s; grocery stores have begun to replace outdoor markets; bars and discos stay open all night. The country has become more modern, but what does that mean to a nation that looks back on over 5,000 years of history?
The acient philosophy of Confucianism laid a foundation for Chinese ethics and morals that still survives today, teaching respect, selflessness, obedience, and a sense of community. Unlike Americans, who prize their individuality and independence, the Chinese believe it is important to stay within and abide by a community that is usually filial. Shame is considered a much graver emotion than guilt: It is in the eyes of those whom they love and respect that the Chinese judge themselves. As a new generation works the corporate life in cities away from home, how this undeniably Chinese characteristic will be affected is the subject of much debate, though emotional conflict seems inevitable.
The Chinese believe that no matter where you were born, where you live, what you speak as your native tongue, if you have Chinese ancestry, you are still Chinese. A Chinese-American teacher’s students at Fudan University insisted that she was more Chinese than American despite the fact that she spoke no Mandarin and had never been in China before meeting them. Michael Chang, the American tennis player, is viewed as a national hero in China. It is a sense of pride over their emergence into the world economy combined with a deep sense of race that holds the country tentatively together. Just Say No, a book written by a young Chinese and on the bestseller list here for over a year, celebrates a sense of neo-nationalism, suggesting that China should isolate itself from the rest of the world in the race to become the most powerful country.
Paradoxically, China is busy buying up Western products, from French fries to Hollywood action movies. Nike is cool. Madonna is hip. It’s exactly this external desire for Western style combined with an internal nationalism that makes China capable of living comfortably in irony. The Chinese have so internalized their landscape that, for example, the TV tower in Shanghai is for them comparable to the Jade Buddha Temple down the street as a site not to be missed; 5 stars hotels in Shanghai or in Beijing have the same western standards as the ones in Europe or in USA; advertisements in subway stations are celebrated as a new form of artistic expression; the elderly happily practice tai chi to the beat of rock music; women wear revealing blouses unaware of their sexual allure.
Over 70% of the mainland population lives along the eastern seaboard, leaving the westernmost provinces barren and nearly vacant. A major reason for these demographics is that only 20% of China’s land is arable. In the 1970s, peasants’ lifestyles improved as a result of Deng Xiao Ping’s policy of allowing profit after government quotas had been met, but small plots of land and an ever-increasing population meant that the new policy only marginally solved the problem. People still flock to the cities, creating a large homeless population. Although China appears to be overhauling itself, many of the smaller cities and villages are still living the way they did 100 years ago. As in other countries, there is a profound division between the growing middle class and unemployed farm workers.
Excursions to small towns reveal just how much China relies on basic human power. Farm laborers stand up with their tools and wave as a train passes, herds of sheep carry goods down dirt roads into the village center, local buses are crowded full of men and women carrying raw animal furs. Even in the cities, one sees a surplus of men working with hammer and nail to build a skyscraper. Perhaps these images will disappear in a few years, but for now they reveal a country in the throes of revolution still holding quite tightly to tradition.
Many Chinese speak of the Tang Dynasty as one of the few great periods in which art flourished. The Buddhist thinker Xuan Zang and poets such as Li Bai and Du Fu lived during this dynasty. Chinese landscape paintings from this period of a solitary man living at the base of a spectacular mountain suggest that for the Chinese, time and space overwhelm and uplift the human spirit. The paintings and the poetry offer no single vantage point but are meant to surround the participant. As these themes exemplify the traditional Chinese way of life in the Tang and later dynasties, one wonders if there are new themes, perhaps new vantage points being created today.
A new aesthetic may be in the making in terms of modern art, but China appears not to have had a flowering of art for many hundreds of years. Some artists were intimidated in the days of the Hundred Flowers and the Tiananmen Massacre when intellectuals and artists spoke their minds and were duly punished. Unfortunately, many of China’s young artists have turned commercial, working in television and advertising. Chinese painters in Beijing and Shanghai have incorporated Western influences, especially American abstract expressionism, with what one critic calls “a definitive Chinese stroke,” but pieces are sold to an entirely foreign market. Though Chinese films have found their own style in international cinema, it is perhaps the need to explain a history that has gone unexplained for so many years that keeps Chinese filmmakers from feeling imaginatively free.
It’s a paradox, then, for the traveler to view what has survived 5,000 years of history—what artists have left us—and know that art today is having a difficult time both being expressed and being heard. Equally, though, one could argue that art is being expressed but not heard, perhaps not even recognized. One thinks of the first time Cubism was introduced to the public at large, shocking viewers. China bears a bit of this aesthetic today, for what is new, as Picasso said, will always appear ugly simply because it has not yet been defined. And so out of a cloud of ambiguity comes China’s dance that is both old and new, rich and poor, roaring and shy and may carry with it a vision that could teach us not about modern China but about a post-modern world still undefined.