Along the Kai Fa Qu shoreline, just a short five or eight minute drive east of the center of the Development Area, there is a modern, artistic white bridge. If you sit out there at night you can see the stars over the harbor, and listen to the fishing boats rock back and forth on the waves as they rest for the evening anchored close to land. Even the ambient light of the city recognizes this is no place to invade, leaving the light and noise pollution off to the horizon along the peripherals. Very few people are there during these quiet hours, and if you sit still long enough, you can forget you’re sitting in China, circa 2014.
The effect is not necessarily magical so much as it is mystifying. Just a short ways up the road is the Da Yao Bay where the Dalian PX plant sits alongside a few other factories. This plant exploded a few years ago, leaking tons of oil into the water, polluting the bay as far up as the Golden Pebble Beach. Though the scene in front of the bridge is beautiful, the land around these businesses is scarred and rough. When you get up to leave the bridge, though, you may catch a glimpse of some construction going on behind it. When you look closer you see that old, derelict homes are being demolished by bulldozers and bobcats. Looking even closer, you notice that a few of the homes have clothes still hanging out to dry. The small remnant of some village is being destroyed, and the people haven’t even all left.
Kai Fa Qu, or the Development Zone, was touted as China’s largest, and there were high expectations for the area. The reality of the last twenty years has shown that those ambitions were rooted too much in fantasy. KFQ has become a residential zone, more or less used by citizens of downtown Dalian to escape the din that makes up all Chinese cities, not a haven for businesses to set up shop and bring in the big bucks. Sure there are businesses here, but not enough to keep KFQ in the limelight.
During the last few years, the construction bubble that made so many filthy rich in China has definitely popped, or at least began to fizzle. Empty rectangular complexes stand outlined against the smoggy skies like enormous playing cards that bluff the people, promising expansion and enhancement, but unable to do anything but loiter where their foundations were laid. Construction company owners and those willing to play high-stakes poker with their money bought, built, and sold these vacant goliaths for years, loving every minute of it as the gambles paid off and the money rolled in. However, now the Chinese government is getting a bit miffed about all these hollow homes, and they’re beginning to tax people with similar empty deeds. Better late than never, eh?
But the mad construction bubble is just a symptom, isn’t it? It is just one element of a much grander paradigm of thought. Yu Hua discusses at length how the ideas of copy cat products have infiltrated every stratosphere of Chinese economics, and how grassroots millionaires can be made over night in his book, “China in Ten Words.” He doesn’t come out and point a finger, but it’s pretty obvious what the culprit is: an addiction to money and the conveniences it can provide.
China is at the top of the world in the consumption of luxury goods, surpassing even the US in this ranking (Chang, chinadaily.com). In an article published just over a week ago it’s also made abundantly clear that knockoffs aren’t good enough for many consumers. Lyu Chang says, “Chinese appetite for luxury is the reason why all major European designers, such as Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, have a large presence in China.” It’s difficult for me to pronounce some of these brands let alone entertain the notion of purchasing one of their outrageously priced products, but large groups of Chinese men and women are driven to fork over their cash in order to get their hands on these logos. From chic cosmetics to classy cars, consumers in the Middle Kingdom can’t get enough. However, this need to get the latest in Western fashion doesn’t end with products you buy on a shelf, but rather escalates to purchases made in acreage. The 2014 Annual Report on Chinese International Migration revealed that many Chinese are racing to buy up real estate abroad. America and Canada have seen large numbers of Chinese investors since 2011, when China became the second-largest foreign property buyer in the United States (chinadaily.com). Population numbers certainly have a role in these statistics, but so too does the prevalent belief in the power and intoxication of money.
Where did this manic desire for Western products come from in the East? For crying out loud, before the 1800s England and other countries west of India were generally viewed through the lens of suspicion by the Chinese and Japanese. Then, after the First and Second Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the forced signing of what became known as the Unequal Treaties, this suspicion basically became fiery hatred. How the hell do we go from unwelcome “Yang Gui zi,” foreign devils, to the trend-setting idols of the modern Asian world?
The Foreign Devil
English is fashionable here. Kids and adults throw random English words and phrases into their daily life to spice up their lexicon, and people walk around with misspelled brand names and shoddy logos on their clothing. American TV shows are downloaded and streamed by teens. Friends is watched and analyzed as though it is some sort of cultural Rosetta Stone that will magically help the viewer absorb all that is Red, White, and Blue. English, and the culture that uses this language, has become a symbol of success to many parents who force their four year olds to chant and sing songs in this foreign language before they even master their own mother tongue. How did the two cultures, at their heart so vastly different from each other, become so intertwined in today’s world?
I think it had something to do with a few bombs that were dropped, the fact that during WWII the US had almost no damage done to her country, and because, for a short time, America did behave as several countries’ righteous big brother, not the spoiled only child that she’s become today. Because the US infrastructure suffered no damage, the economy kept pumping along after the war. Bullets became ball bearings, missiles turned into microwaves, and atomic bombs made way for automobiles. These products helped shape a new world that needed to pull itself out from the rubble left over from a world war, and in the process, became the first heralds of a new culture, the American Cultural Monopoly.
The consequences of this cultural imperialism can easily be seen today around the world, and many travelers who eat at Pizza Huts in Egypt, Dunkin’ Donuts in Shenyang, China, Seven Elevens in Thailand, or Dairy Queens in Cambodia can see this clearly. Just last night we had dinner with a group of friends, all from different parts of the world, and Malaysia got brought up. Billed as the “real Asia,” Malaysia left two of my friends shaking their heads and thoroughly disappointed. Segregated and culturally bland, the country did not live up to the hype, they said. Too much division and no actual blending of cultures left them feeling like they had visited a set on some stage, not a rich nexus of culture. Another Canadian friend mentioned that many of the cities in her country were all the same. Whether she was in Toronto or southern Ontario, it all looked the same. Then Xiao Ming mentioned that most Chinese cities had this very quality as well. From Luoyang to Beijing or Tianjin to Xiamen, it all blurs because there is no diversity.
It’s this lack of diversity that is alarming. Within one country the diversity may not be as pronounced, but when you begin to see a waning of it internationally, the hairs on the back of your neck better be standing on end. Are cultures really being obliterated, consumed by one encroaching, smothering mass of ideas, entertainment, and convenience being paraded around as culture? Yes.
Let’s go back to the bridge. Remember that construction going on behind it? Well, that small pocket of homes is the last of an old fishing village that had been there for centuries. In fact, all of Kai Fa Qu and most of Jinshitan was a fishing community up until a few decades ago, but now only a few houses here and there would hint at this past. Instead, Jinshitan is promoted as a scenic spot that, “…aims to become an all-round resort that integrates tourism with entertainment. Many projects are still under constructions, such as Theme Parks, Hi-tech Agriculture Sightseeing and Demonstration Park and Golden Pebble Valley Country, etc,” (travelchinaguide.com). There already is one theme park, a few golf courses, a hunting range, and even a wax museum.
These promotional endeavors are surrounded by architecture inspired by neither rich Chinese history nor by the Russian influences of the area’s hectic modern history, but by what appears to be an American southwestern style reminiscent of Arizonian or Californian suburbs. Having traveled throughout China the last few years, I can’t describe to you the amount of souvenirs that are identical all across this country. Mass-produced, faux ancient relics with no meaning are sold along every alleyway and street from here in Dalian all the way to Lhasa, Tibet. Those 56 minorities that the Han majority is so smitten with right now barely managed to keep the tatters of their cultural identities throughout China’s often prejudiced dynastic eras. Today they are regarded as Chinese gems, banners that the government likes to wave around at international audiences as a way of saying, “look at us, we still have more culture left!” Sadly, when you visit these minorities in their homelands the truth is made clear. They are oddities to many, attractions that need to stay on the stages provided for the entertainment of the masses. Much like the Native Americans living on the reservations, these minorities in China have their culture dictated to them. You can do your dances and wear your quaint clothing, but just don’t leave the fenced in area.
Lack of assimilating has always been a way some cultures have been spared destruction, at least for a while, but then natural curiosities abound in the minds of the majority group. That curiosity doesn’t always bode well for those being observed. Who are they? Why are they wearing those? Why do they always do that on this day of the week? No, son, you can’t date that girl because she’s one of them. I didn’t make enough last month, and it’s because those people keep taking the jobs. They always have money while the rest of us have to tough it out. Maybe they are the ones to blame. Yea, let’s blame them. But blame is not enough. They have to pay for their crimes. Our leader also blames them, but he knows how to deal with them. Soon they will be all gone and we will finally have what we deserve. Yes, son, you can kick that girl. She’s one of them.
Cultures get blotted out due to human atrocities all the time, but that’s not what is so startling right now. It’s the willing annihilation of some cultures that freaks me out. In China, even old Han villages are demolished, and along with them their folk traditions and way of life. In an article published in the American Conservative last month China’s on-going bulldozing of villages is explored:
Why are villages so important? What makes them distinct and culturally significant compared to cities? Villages support subsidiarity and diversity, whereas cities usually promote mass movement and centralization. Of course, the village’s specificity has downsides: it can foster clannishness and biases toward “outsiders.” Nonetheless, without the village, we would lack the kaleidoscopic culture that makes art and life so rich.
Without the village, we’d likely forget valuable traditions. Villages tend to have a longer memory than cities, due to their permanency. Landowners and families are generally more stayed, often remaining in the same area for generations. In contrast, cities often inspire new enterprise and “the next big thing.” They foster pop culture, not folk culture. In the small community, neighbors, family, and friends are almost inescapable. Whether gathering at the city hall, church, or merely visiting the grocery store, familiar faces abound. One must learn to live in communion with others. In cities, it is easier to live alone—and easier to be lost in the clamor and crowd.
The forgetting of valuable traditions is what I fear, and I’m not alone. Addictive consumerism and this race for urbanization have costs that many never saw coming. Quoting Gordon G. Chang, who wrote an article in the Times, Gracy Olmstead’s article last June says, “…the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress was planning to build a city of 260 million people, in an effort to propagate economic growth and consumption. This mammoth enterprise would require moving 250 million people from farm to city in the next dozen years,” (theamericanconservative.com). These people making these migrations are giving up more than their homes and generations of memories that are tied to the land. By adapting to city life they unwittingly let their traditions slip by the way side.
In the daily lives of young men and women, this has real side-effects. I often have conversations with Chinese people about the differences between the West and the East, and it’s amazing how conflicted they are. Values and traditions once held sacred are now sources of confusion as they navigate a world so saturated with mixed meanings, innuendo, and relativism. Role-playing, stereotypes, skewed assumptions—these are words that define the actions and thoughts of many adolescents today, but when you place a nebulous cultural identity that is constantly assaulted in the mix, you may not get just an angsty teen.
Just two weeks ago I wrote about the recent Lantern Festival, and I joked about the people hanging out in front of a McDonalds as they lit their lanterns and about the Chinese couples who cuddled and exchanged flowers because of it also being Valentines Day. A shift in thought the last few years has given rise to wide-spread acceptance of Western holidays in China. Despite most people here not caring one bit about the values and traditions of these holidays, they seem to celebrate them nonetheless. This is a byproduct or consequence of the commercialism Li Yang writes about in her China Daily article Lantern Festival Losing its Luster. She complains about how the lanterns today have sold out and are no longer handmade, but mass-produced and lack any originality. She reminisces about the detail and wonder of the Lantern Festival from her childhood, and laments the way the tides have changed the traditional Chinese holiday into a commercial event. Her complaint is very similar to my mother’s annual irritation at the faux Christmas cheer that gets shoved down our throats by the stores just so they can make their money. This is not a Chinese thing, and that’s my point. But since I live in China and this blog is about China, I’m writing about…China.
It’s this commercialism that is the weapon of the cultural imperialism I mentioned earlier. Left unchecked, international consumerism leads to cultural atrophy, or an ignorant variation of a suicide pact in which everyone is bleeding their values and traditions dry in order to get the next big thing. It’s always the commerce, the trade, the exchange of one thing for another that gets a product from point A to point B. In the case of Chinese buyers, they want the image, prestige, and convenience of Western products, but they have no clue that with each swipe of their credit card more is being bartered than they agreed to.
By the time they realize their folly the damage has been done. In China this has played out dramatically ever since the Cultural Revolution. Spurred on by Mao’s battle cry of, “Destroy the Old World; Forge the New,” entire collections of paintings and relics were destroyed, temples and ancient structures were ransacked and burned, and nearly every shred of literature was hunted down and tossed onto bonfires. Then, right after this monumental gaff, China opens itself up commercially and the gap left in the psyche of the Chinese from that cultural lobotomy got filled—by Western products.
People around the world know this. There are institutes fighting this tidal wave, but their voices are nearly drowned out by the rushing tides. In 2010 the Goethe-Institute’s president, Klaus Dieter-Lehmann talked to DW about how his group fights against this very cultural atrophy. His group works to educate and spread the German culture, but they also help keep other countries’ culture alive in their own borders. He talks about China in a part of the interview he did with Aya Bach:
When it comes to such a big power like China, couldn’t it be that the country says, we don’t really want to have anything to do with the European Enlightenment, we want to defend our own values?
All I want is for people to reflect on their values. Right now, people are only thinking about money. And that’s disastrous for a society. Because as soon as money stops rolling in, the society will break down and look critically at its behavior. That’s when thinking about values will clearly take on importance. But the process of reflection can be about great Chinese traditions and philosophers; after all, there’s also a concept of the Chinese Enlightenment.
Do we end up then in a kind of cultural relativism, where certain values become questionable because they’d be viewed differently in another culture?
I’m in favor of a compromise. I don’t believe in cultural universalism because it reduces our world to something less rich than it is. Insofar as cultural relativism enables dialogue, sharing and reflection, then I support it. But, for much too long, cultural relativism had the effect of partitioning cultures off from each other. That doesn’t work. We have a globalized world. We also have wealth in the world, but that only becomes clear to those who are able to take part in it.
I’m not a stone-thrower. I am not demonizing globalization and capitalism, but I do not think they exist together in our world without dangerous and negative consequences. They are not the enemy; it is our tendency toward forgetfulness that is to blame. Make your millions. Become a grassroots success story. Just do it without forsaking what makes this world diverse.
If evolution has shown us anything it’s that diversity equals success. Single-celled to complexity beyond the human imagination, that’s the story of our world. Creating a one-world culture will have disastrous results, I swear it.
Back on the bridge, where these ideas seem to be tossed back and forth on the wind, it’s obvious that right now in China the momentum is pushing toward a willful forgetfulness. There are factions here that fight for that cultural identity they see slipping away, but with this invisible, but very real, race for power on the world stage never slowing, villages and their way of life will continue to be bulldozed.
Sources (Not in any specific style):
Aya Bach. http://www.dw.de/china-is-losing-sight-of-its-values-says-goethe-institut-president/a-6313163-1
Gracy Olmstead. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/it-takes-a-village-to-foster-culture/
Li Yang. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/art/2013-02/21/content_16243784.htm
Lyu Chang. http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2014-02/21/content_17298080.htm
China Daily editor. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2014-01/22/content_17250042.htm
Travel Guide China. http://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/liaoning/dalian/jinshitan.htm