During my time living in China I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the full breadth of the country. From the cosmopolitan brightly-lit metropolises of Hong Kong and Guangzhou, to the open plains of Xinjiang, each place has helped challenge the many myths I’d heard prior to arriving in China. In this article I want to offer my thoughts on five of them and state what I now know to be the reality.
While many of us have probably seen the videos of celebrities pleading for a ban of the famous Dog Meat Festival in China’s southwestern city of Yulin, how many of us actually come across dog meet in our daily lives in China?
Dog meat is not on every menu as some people would have us believe. On the contrary, I’ve only once or twice seen it advertised very discreetly on posters in narrow backstreets. I recognized the characters 狗肉 (gǒu ròu - dog meat) above a telephone number, signifying that eating dog is indeed somewhat taboo.
I’ve since read an interesting article by Hu Yifu for China Dialogue that makes the point that those who are dog meat enthusiasts falsely dress up their obsession as “tradition”, whereas in fact it’s nothing more than a money-making scheme. Very few people eat dog in modern China.
What is true is that the Chinese generally do not waste any part of an animal. At the local markets you can find everything from pig brain to chicken feet. But dog meat? Don’t hold your breath.
The phrase “ethnic Chinese” for most people conjures up the image of a Han Chinese person. In large, this is accurate given that they make up around 89 percent of the population.
However, certain areas of China can be said to be ethnically diverse. The population in the far west Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region is approximately 45 percent Uygur Muslim and 40 percent Han. Many other Muslim ethnic minorities also reside in the region. Read more about them here. Additionally, the Hui Muslims are present in almost every town and city in China, often making a living serving the food of their heritage.
In total, 56 ethnic minorities are officially recognised by the Chinese government. Not all are immediately recognisable as some have few physical characteristics that distinguish them from the Han majority. In reality, China is ethnically diverse, but the diverse populations tend to be concentrated in particular areas of the country, and diversity is not always obvious to newcomers.
I’ve heard China described as an “atheist” country. Officially this is true. To join the Chinese Communist Party or even the police force you cannot officially practice organised religion.
Religion is however an important part of life for much of the population. People like Linda, mentioned in this article about making Chinese friends, are part of the rise of Christianity in the country. That rise has alarmed the Communist Party given that there are now around 100 million Christians, outnumbering the 80 million or so party members.
And besides, if religion is defined beyond the conventional sense of belief in a deity, then Chinese people are certainly religious. On my recent visit to Mao Zedong’s hometown, I witnessed people bowing to a six-foot golden statue of their dear former leader.
The journalist Christopher Hitchens once remarked that North Korea was one of the most religious countries he had ever visited given that its people worship the deceased Kim-Il-Sung, their country’s founder. Something similar can be said for China. The country is in both the conventional and non-conventional sense quite religious.
It's no secret that China has poor air quality and that the health effects of this can be very serious. It goes without saying that air pollution is worse in the cities than in the countryside due to increased industrial activity and, let’s face it, most expats in China live in the former rather than the latter.
Even in some of the most polluted cities, however, it’s possible to find pockets of relatively unpolluted air. According to the AQICN website, my current home of Shenzhen in Guangdong is moderately polluted in most areas of the city but has good air quality in others. And on many days, the air quality across the country, even in places renowned for pollution such as Beijing, is excellent.
I guess the myth here is not so much the existence of air pollution, given that any reasonable person cannot honestly deny this, but that it is constant, unavoidable and that those who reside in China are powerless to counter it.
This is a topic you probably won’t come across much while in living in China, but it’s worth a mention anyway, if only out of interest.
While China doesn’t have a Western-style democracy, the 80 million or so members of the Chinese Communist Party do vote. Those who reside in villages also have the opportunity to vote for a local Communist Party candidate as their representative, an experience covered by the American writer Peter Hessler in his book Country Driving (New York, 2010).
If these “elections’ serve any purpose, they are probably to convince the Chinese population about democracy with Chinese characteristics. But of course they could never have “Western-style” democracy, because that would lead to ill thought out decisions, a line recently followed by Chinese state media on the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union.
In conclusion, I hope that whatever surprises my time here brings me in the future, it helps me continue to bust China myths and replace them with much less frightening realities.
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Keywords: living in China
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