Searching for Real China

Last night I was watching the season premiere of 30 Rock.  In the episode Jack says that their television show has lost touch with “Real America” to which Liz responds “all of America is real” . This comment is of course ignored as most of the rest of the episode is spending trying to reconnect with the heartland of America, including a part where Jenna signs a country song for NBC’s Tennis coverage that says “Kiss my ass New York, it’s tennis night”.

Sure their shirking of major cities in favour of a rural demographic was mostly done in jest, but it really rings true to how we treat China.  How many people do you hear refer to Shanghai or Tianjing as not “REAL China”, or mention some small town in Anhui or Hunan as a great example of “REAL China”?

In my short time here I have really gotten confused as to what exactly in this country is real, and what is fake.  I think that I used to know what constituted “real China” but the more layers I peel off in my search to learn more about this place the more confused I am.

My current home away from home is in the rapidly expanding Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP), which a scant decade and a half ago was little more than farmers fields and rice paddies.  There are wide lanes with bike paths, tree lined avenues, and English signs everywhere.  It seems to be the very antithesis of the idea of “REAL China”.  However, the more Chinese cities I travel to the more neighbourhoods I notice that look just like my own, with their Starbucks and Western amenities.  I feel like I have been to Chengdu’s CIP, Qingdao’s QIP, Wuxi’s WIP, and Urumqi’s UIP, sure those may not be the real names of the areas, but it is so similar to my neighbourhood it is easy to get confused.

If these modern new Western style districts are popping up all over the Middle Kingdom how can they not be “REAL”?

Is this somehow not REAL?  -- by Dale Ellerm

Is this somehow not "REAL"... -- by Dale Ellerm

I had the pleasure of spending part of my holiday trekking through Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region.  During that trip I ended up visiting a variety of Dai and Blang villages where a number of the local did not even speak Mandarin let alone English.  After I returned I spoke highly of my experiences on this trip and many of my colleagues said that I had left China.

Now just because a place has little to no Chinese language or culture is it somehow not a part of “REAL China”?

What I’ve come to realize is that “REAL China” exists in only two places: history books and in the minds of foreigners.

All we ever seem to read about China is how quickly it is modernizing and how much the economy is booming. Since this is really happening, the consequences like new, modern neighbourhoods must also be real, or “REAL” if you will.

China is far more of a melting pot or mosaic than most lao wais give it credit for. Approximately 10% of the population

...but this somehow is? -- by Dragon Bus China

...and this somehow is? -- by Dragon Bus China

of China is part of a non-Han minority. While that seems like a small amount, it should be noted that 10% is around 130 million people. That’s triple the population of Canada. Are these people somehow not “REAL”?

Also the urban population of the country is up to 54% (in 2008, up from 46% in 2001 according to Wikipedia) thus making places like SIP and all the other IP’s quite commonplace, and therefore quite “REAL”.

This disdain for development was quite apparent last spring with the demolition of much of Kashgar’s old to “REAL Kashgar” was being destroyed in the name of modernization.  I had the pleasure of being in Xinjiang just before the bulldozer’s started on their way, and while the old town was fascinating, I certainly can not blame the residents for their decisions to move.  While living in a home that is centuries old has its appeal, I would still sooner take such modern amenities as running water and insulation over the novelty or tradition.  My house back in Canada in no way resembles the lodgings of the pioneers but that doesn’t mean that it is any less “REAL” or some part of my ancestors heritage was destroyed now does it?

So just like in 30 Rock the assertion that the East Coast is not part of “Real America” is asinine it is equally foolish to say that any part of this country is not part of “REAL China”. Just like the United States is made up of New York, Nebraska, and New Mexico, China is made up of Shanghai, Shaanxi, Xinjiang, and everything else in between. The sooner we start to realize this the better we will be able to try to make sense of this fascinating nation.