Searching For the Real China

Searching For the Real China
Aug 08, 2011 By Beth Green ,

After living in China for awhile the debate between zhende and jiade (true and false) gets to be an in joke. We buy electronics branded “Philpis”—jiade, fake. We go to the market and worry about whether our eggs or beef are zhende, real. Read the news and learn about a jiade Apple store, the products in which seem to have been zhende. Your couch may be labeled 'Made in Italy,' but now you hear it was shipped in and out of China for the customs stamp. In a culture where fake and authentic things are sometimes hard to distinguish and where a copy trumps a copyright, I start to wonder, “Where is the real China?”

Beyond luxury goods and con men's cost-saving schemes, there are more things in China that need to be examined to probe their reality. From popular TV shows franchised from the West to Austrian mountain villages secretly 'Xeroxed' for the second homes of the Guangdong well-to-do, many visitors to China find it difficult to know if what they are experiencing is truly Chinese.

One of my friends uses the term “real China” whenever he means something cheap. I don't think he means it as a pejorative, but it comes across that way. As in 'I went to a real China restaurant last week. Only 30 RMB for four people!' Or, 'I found a real China market last week. Bargains!' If cheap equals real China, then are all expensive things imitations? Why would an imitation be worth more than something real?

Another friend recently shared an anecdote. He was walking through some back streets in Guangzhou with another foreigner. While 30-storey housing developments were edging out the sky behind them, in front of them was a small, friendly neighborhood. The four-storey apartment blocks were done in white tiles, with unexpected corner shops. It was a little out of the way and a little unkempt. Street sweepers, no doubt, are paid by the city to focus on the main roads. As a result this little pocket of town had some litter, some stray dogs and some weedy patches. His friend commented on the dirt. “I don't like real China,” he said. “I like the face of China better.” This attitude seems widespread. A large section of expats think 'real China' is dirty and that development into shopping malls and large, soulless apartment blocks is an improvement, even if only another layer of jiade.

But isn't it more than just the face of China?

In online discussions about China or China-related news events, I often notice a discrepancy in the views of the commentators—one which seems to be drawn by geographic lines rather than anything else. The people whose experience of China has been to live in megacities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing often seem cut off from the 'real China' in the eyes of expats who have lived in second or third-tier cities. On the other hand, when people have lived or traveled through somewhere with no (gasp) Western chain restaurants, few large architectural projects and nary an English speaker in sight, their observations on road safety, public hygiene and local customs can seem like blasphemy to the city dweller.

Foreigners, especially recently arrived ones, expect China to be undeveloped, and because of this expectation seem to dismiss any developed part of China to be but a poor copy of a Western theme.  While that may have some truth to it, doesn’t it defeat the purpose of traveling to a place in order to learn from actual experience? Why go anywhere if you know what you'll find when you arrive? Foreigners in China this decade occupy a special place; we are witnessing a nation in change. China has leapt forward, but like a tiger jumping, two legs are still in the air and two are still waiting to push off. The hind legs of the tiger are the old China, and it's still visible, but it too is changing.

It's amazing that, only a few months after the much-lauded Beijing Olympic Games with all their pomp and dazzle, I went to a village where half of the people went to market barefoot in ankle-deep mud, bought and sold their vegetables and dogs-bred-for-food and then retreated back to freezing, unheated shacks. Both Beijing and the village are really Chinese. Which one of them was 'real China?' I'm voting for both.

One of my favorite things to take pictures of when I'm out and about are the incongruities of modern and traditional life. I've got snaps of river fishermen squatting on bamboo poles lashed together, hand knotting old nets and talking on their latest-model cell phones. I've got donkey carts driving past sportscars, parents encouraging their babies to pee on the floor in ultramodern shopping centers and robed monks riding motorcycles.

When we, foreigners, sit back in our cocoon of otherness and discuss 'real China', what do we mean?  What is this definition of real? In thinking about this, I come more and more often to the idea that it really can't be defined.

So go outside. Look around. This is China. All of it is real. But take note, because it changes fast.

Related Links
Hopes, Dreams and the Real China
Peter Hessler on Discovering the Real China
10 Things I Wish I’d Known before Coming to China

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Keywords: understanding China finding the real China fakes in China development in China dirty countryside China


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