Urban China: A Soulless Vacuum of Abandoned Culture

Urban China: A Soulless Vacuum of Abandoned Culture

Chengdu, China

A quick warning to readers: The following anecdote is graphic as well as true. The squeamish may feel free to skip this initial section.


Date: 2013

Qianlingshan park, Guiyang, China

A mother takes her infant child into Guiyang’s famed QianLingShan park, known colloquially as ‘The Monkey Park’. As advertised, there are monkeys aplenty. People get too close with cameras and sometimes the animals lash out, biting, scratching, baring canines way bigger than you’d ever imagined monkeys to have.

Mom starts as the baby begins to cry. With a keenness particular to new mothers, she attributes this to an accident instead of the whooping primates. She props the child down near a public bench and begins to unlatch his nappy.

Attracted, ostensibly, by the pungent odor of dirty diaper, a medium-sized male descends from the trees. Unnoticed for his economy of movement the monkey approaches the pair. The mother is frantic as he closes in, the shock of his materialization keeping her from acting. Casually, almost lazily, the monkey reaches between the infant’s legs.

With hardly a tug he rips off one of the young boy’s testicles. Startled by the mother’s cry the primate drops it, and a nearby old man picks up the discarded orb. The monkey, however, snatches his prize from the fellow and pops into his mouth like a fresh grape.

Screaming child and dumbfounded mother watch as he chews while casting sidelong glances for the possibility of more food and are soon left behind as the creature bounds again into the trees.

Guiyang Monkey Park
Monkey in Qianlingshan Park, Guiyang

Author’s Note

This is a post about China’s urban environment. I’m writing it to the purpose of informing many who’ve never seen modern China in person but continue to be curious about the country.

The piece does not laud this country’s urban landscape. The tone is scathing.

This is an unfiltered view. Too many blogs focus on the many positive aspects of destinations. I have plenty of good China experiences. Anyone who wishes to move here, however, or wants a nuanced view from someone who has lived here a while, should tune in to some other frequencies.

Guiyang’s many skylines constitute one such bandwidth of criticism.

Guiyang bridge building
The city never stops expandingits not always a bad thing

To me, the anecdote related above is rather telling. The regulations regarding these monkeys and the citizenry’s ignorance about possible dangers (regarding monkeys or in general) reflect the laissez-faire attitude that allows the urban living environment to balloon into something equal parts awe-inspiring and hideous. I love the freedom afforded by places like the monkey park, but certain freedoms must be accompanied by education. In many places around here, they’re not.

Guiyang Monkey park
Feeding the monkeys, or bringing babies around them, is a bad idea

Guiyang and China’s Urban Landscape

When this post was written (excuse the present tense hitherto, if you will), I was reporting from a vertiginous pewter skyscraper in Guiyang. For those who don’t know (likely most of you) Guiyang is a city in Southwest China. As a tier 2 Chinese city, it’s fraught with enough amenities to warrant this government-nominated tier.

Guiyang public rental housing
Chinese public rental housing, where I lived for 2 years

With the urban population booming of late, there are 100 cities in China with at least ten million people and fewer than ten have received the highest (tier 1) ranking. Roughly 30 cities are nested at tier-2, not all of them having a population in the deca-millions. About 5,000,000 Chinese and 500 foreigners call Guiyang home, which is wholly moderate by the standards of this country’s urban total.  

Guiyang has risen quite proudly among the ranks of developing cities. It’s now likened by doe-eyed bureaucrats to California’s Silicon Valley. In fact, its newly minted designation is translated (poorly) on propaganda banners as China’s ‘Big-Data Valley’.

Ignoring the reality of Guiyang not being a valley at all, this apothegm is evidenced as factual by at least two things: massive techno-conglomerates like Apple and Google newly setting shop here and the incidence of China’s futuristic ‘Big-Data Festival’, which recently concluded with an eye-popping drone-ballet about 2 miles west of where I sat.

housing in Guiyang
Chinese cities are not without their charms

You may wonder why I used the verb ‘report’. I’m not a reporter, and in fact not on any sort of assignment. I was an ESL teacher (a group whose ranks are among the most average and unexceptional of ex-pats who’ve settled in China).

Yet I feel the word does justice to exactly the sort of phenomenon that I’ve noticed among a host of people – that is, a curiosity I can satisfy. For many China is not only enigmatic but impenetrable, a potpourri of illegible ideographs juxtaposing the stark red banner of communism that may, in fact, not be communism at all.

China - Anshun, outside of Guiyang

To have lived here, in Guiyang, the capital of ethnic Han-China’s poorest province (eclipsed only by the minority provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu) and to have taken in the polarized excesses of extreme wealth and abject poverty, of primitive oxen-farming and cyberpunk drone-shows side by side, is to have something to report on.

This place is gritty. It’s dirty and loud and the sky is a gunmetal veil only occasionally less gray than the skyscrapers. Guiyang is profoundly future-oriented and anachronistic at the same time. This epithet would do well to describe the whole of China, though you couldn’t know it by wandering the manicured streets of Shanghai or Guangzhou (the apexes of tier-1 city-dom).

Guiyang public housing
Gray and endless skyscrapers

Political China: How ‘Communism’ has come to shape the new Capitalism

Communism: A way of organizing a society in which the government owns the things that are used to make and transport products (such as land, oil, factories, ships, etc.) and there is no privately owned property.

You can’t un-politicize the political, and that holds true for discussions about what the hell communism was supposed to end up as and what it actually ended up as.

The same can be said for the dictionaries that report on the meaning of the word (this one is pulled from Merriam-Webster – you may balk at the idea of a politicized dictionary but I would entreat the skeptical to read David Foster Wallace’s ‘Authority and American Usage’ before discounting the idea).

Anyways, people have multi-valent associations with Communism, and especially when they think of the aptly-named ‘Communism with Chinese characteristics’.

Chinese Construction yard
Sometimes China goes steampunk

Regardless of your own definition, it’s undeniable that China, at least prior to the 1990s, had some legitimate communist characteristics. An abysmal amount of people who weren’t farming lived, at that time, in ‘work-compounds’ (and, technically, farms were organized into compounds as well).

Think of these compounds as summer camps for working adults.  You live with and get to know a bunch of strangers while striking out at sunrise for a day of frenzied activity among your camp-mates (or comrades). The compounds were often staunch, dilapidated affairs of concrete and mortar which, for practical purposes comprised townships in of themselves.

But early-90’s Communism was in for a face-lift. Venture capitalists bought up newly lease-able land and urbanization was undermining the utility of work compounds (a lease is not ownership).

Guiyang, China

The thrifty and connected had a serious opportunity in finding a way to house a giant population already used to living in a Charles Dickens novel. They wasted no time erecting the monolithic skyscrapers that Chinese cities are so renowned for today.

The boom that heralded the world’s most striking case of urbanization had begun.

The thing, though, the rub, and the reason for all this pontificating; it’s ugly. I don’t mean the boom and the poverty-smashing but the buildings themselves. The whole forsaken landscape of Chinese urbanization is such a confounded eyesore that I’m often tempted to wear sunglasses, and there is no sun in Guiyang.

Guiyang under construction

The Chinese miracle juxtaposes a monstrosity of functionality that is housing for the post-peasantry and defuncted work-compounders. There’s no getting around the simple fact that, for all its legitimate natural beauty and precocious tech-savvy, Much of Guiyang’s residential milieu is visually appalling, and the majority of Chinese cities follow suit.  

Historical Divergence: A look at two Asian powerhouses

We ought to recall the historical example of Japan at the turn of the 19th century and beyond. Still refusing foreign boots on the ground, Japan did all it could to learn from the mechanical ingenuity of other cultures. It industrialized at an eye-popping rate and had soon eclipsed a handful of European countries in its technical sophistication.

This for the Japanese heralded an era of nationalism and eventually imperialism, and we all know what happened next. Its militancy culled by WWII, Japan went on to quietly transmute the depth of its culture and technological savvy into the material and cultural powerhouse it is today.

The Japanese export roughly as much culture (and more products) than the US, in the form of J-pop, Anime, etc. Think of Japan as an insulated bubble, not forcefully invaded or reconnoitered from inside, which expanded for a while and then shrank back into itself without losing the values that propped up all the great things (and horrible if we think WWII) that it did.

For its cultural paranoia, rigor, and xenophobia it arguably got the best of both worlds with a fecund material culture informed and shaped by a unique human culture.

We need to flip the script, now, to another country that’s been developing at a breakneck speed.

China has laid down more concrete in the past half-decade than the USA laid down in a century. It’s upped its urban population tenfold and turned fishing villages into megalopolises (looking at you, Shenzhen). In no uncertain terms, it has rivaled and eclipsed the developments made by other countries in the past and has no contemporaries who can hold a candle to it.

Claustrophobia in Guiyang
A district in Guiyang

There’s a glaring difference between China and Japan that can be illustrated neatly by comparing the neon-studded suburbia of Osaka or Tokyo to the suffocating tenements of Guiyang and Changsha. China suffered one long, marauding ‘humiliation’ (their words) from the 1930s to the 1970s. From the invasion of militant Japan to the famines of Mao’s great leap forward, and finally, the culmination of that leader’s Cultural Revolution did China see itself upended as no dynastically ancient piece of land has ever been.

People starved and then were made to destroy their own cultural monuments and values. Intellectualism was decried to such zeniths of students flogging to death their teachers in the streets. The corpses of emperors were exhumed and hung from trees.

Is it any wonder, then, that China’s unstoppable development has been predicated on concrete instead of culture?

The good with the bad: Economics and Eyesores

Many will say I’m being unfair here. Those who’ve seen Shanghai or Hangzhou’s skylines from the banks of China’s great rivers will surely disagree that Chinese urbanization is ugly or antiquated. These cities, and many others, in fact, are on the cutting edge of architectural modernity.

Shanghai skyline

They’re exceedingly bad-ass and especially put North American skylines and infrastructure to shame. Plus there’s the issue of population – with 1.4 billion people, how can one reasonably expect affordable housing to extend outward instead of upward?

This, however, does not negate the fact that industrialization and development can proceed without being informed by culture. I would take this a step further and say that proceeding in this way is doing so without the soul of the people behind it.

For what does the Shanghai tower tell us about the Chinese mind or heart? How could one fail to be amazed just as readily by Beijing’s Forbidden City as the smog-choked drive past dingy, functional gray homes that sprung up to replace the city’s hutongs?

Tenements in Guiyang
Tenements such as these often spring up among skyscrapers

And we’ve thus qualified the technical reasons for Guiyang’s ill-boded urban landscape being ugly as hell. It’s not a lack of imagination or a real disregard for what’s appealing. It’s the scrubby mess of communism transmogrified overnight into capitalism, one which doesn’t see any value in cultural integration; after all, the same government who heralded this country’s Cultural Revolution is the one still leasing the land.

The tragedy of it all isn’t exactly Malthusian because any eye sores are piggybacking on serious progress. But it’s still kind of tragic to be amid such wanton disregard for an appealing living environment.

The interesting thing is that the Chinese municipal government is keyed in on this. One district of Guiyang, Huaguoyuan, is so residentially claustrophobic that the developers got jailed (and one is set to be executed).

Huaguoyuan, Guiyang
Huaguoyuan under construction, China’s largest urban re-development project at the time – Photo courtesy of South China Morning Post

When standing in a courtyard that straddles the buildings there, you’re left with a little keyhole of the sky while the rest of your view is assaulted by thousands of windows and balconies uninterrupted by nothing but occasional corridors.

The place is so tight and buildings so high that you could just about build a hallway around the whole district from the inside of the connected skyscrapers. The combination of my GF’s father’s new car, the extant pollution, and the choke-point industrialization was about the most hellish experience of China (or anywhere) I’ve had so far.

This is what happens to a collective when they sacrifice their culture to zealotry, idolatry, and unbridled leftist fervor. Let the soulless desiccation of the Chinese urban landscape be a warning to those who would herald the same wanton destruction in the US and other parts of the world.

Guiyang

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