China Reflections

Reflections on the Fulbright Hays Seminar, “Examining China’s Great Western Development Program: the Social and Cultural Effects upon Ethnic Minorities and the Han Majority”

by Jonathan Good
August 2005

Earlier this year, I was fortunate to participate in a month-long trip to China, funded by the Fulbright-Hays foundation, administered by the U.S. Department of Education. In June, fifteen college and high-school teachers from north Georgia traveled to various places in China to investigate the impact of the country’s Great Western Development Program on relations between its Han majority and its ethnic minorities. We spent our first week in Beijing, then flew to Xinjaing province in the west, where we visited the cities of Urumqi, Turpan, and Kashgar. After Xinjaing, we few to Chengdu in Sichuan province in south-central China, and then took an overnight train even further south to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. In Yunnan we also visited the cities of Dali, Lijaing, and Chongdien, before flying to Shanghai and then home to Atlanta. In all places we heard lectures from academics at local universities or research institutions, and were given tours of things that pertained to minorities, western development, and Chinese history (of course, we had some free time as well). I should say off the bat that China’s ethnic minorities, and its GWDP, constitute entire fields of academic study, and China really is a world unto itself, one that a person could study for twenty years and still not have a good grasp of. Nonetheless, I offer these thoughts, superficial as they may be, in the hopes of highlighting some of the issues brought to our attention.


In 1980, China created four special economic zones on the east coast, as an experiment in freeing the Chinese economy from its Maoist shackles and replicating some of the economic success of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Foreign investors were offered special tax incentives, local governments were allowed greater independence in making economic decisions, joint ventures with foreign companies were promoted, and in general markets, not state planners, were allowed to decide what got produced. These zones were hugely successful, and were eventually expanded into a coastal belt, the main reason why China is such an economic powerhouse today. This prosperity has, on the whole, not been shared by China’s interior, and so in 1999 Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji announced the Great Western Development Program, sometimes also referred to as “Go West” or “Open up the West.” The central government is expending vast amounts on infrastructure projects like roads, railroads, and dams, sponsoring the exploitation of oil and mineral wealth, and providing numerous incentives for businesses to locate or invest in the west, and for people to move there, all for the purpose of spreading prosperity.

The West is also home to most of China’s ethnic minorities. Ninety-two percent of Chinese consider themselves to be “Han,” i.e. what Americans think of when they hear the word “Chinese.” Some 8% of China’s population, however, is not Han; the central government recognizes fifty-five different minority groups, ranging in size from several million to a few thousand. The Tibetans the Chinese minority most familiar to Americans (if only because many Americans deny that China has any right to rule them). International boundaries rarely divide nationalities completely cleanly, and many of the peoples who live in countries bordering China live in China too, people like the Kazaks, Tajiks, Kirghiz, Mongols, Russians, or Koreans. The Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic people who do not possess their own sovereign country, form the majority population in China’s westernmost province, Xinjaing. The Hui minority are Han who happen to be Muslim; they number some eight million people spread throughout China. Yunnan province in the south borders Burma, Laos, and Vietnam and is home to some twenty-five minority groups, among them the Miao, Dai, Naxi and Yi, many of whom are related to the peoples of Indochina and whose cultures have been preserved by some fairly mountainous and inaccessible terrain. Minority cultures tend to be expressed (or are represented as being expressed) through distinctive languages, religions, songs and dances, dress, and marriage, funerary, and other customs.


The enumeration and classification of different ethnic minorities is a Communist project. It is a party-line Fact that “There are fifty-six minzu in China” (i.e., the Han plus the minorities), like similar Facts that “Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong,” or “Tibet has always been a part of China.” I asked one of our lecturers in Beijing why the Communists would care to define so many internal nationalities, when doctrinaire Marxists always considered such distinctions to be a product of false consciousness. He replied that the Communists did think that the “ethnicities” were backward, and that it would be a great achievement on the happy day when they disappeared – and if fully fifty-five of them disappeared, the achievement would seem all the greater. (Having taken over a country as big as China against great odds in 1949, the Communists often felt, in the early days of the PRC, that anything was possible.) Whether this is still a long-term goal of the CCP is doubtful. The existence of the minorities is taken for granted, and we were constantly told that they enjoy legal equality with the Han. We saw any number of museum displays of all the minzu in their ethnic costume, a number of books were available on the fifty-six groups, dolls of the minzu could be purchased, and there was a set of fifty-six postage stamps, one for each group, that some of us bought. If the Communists still hope that the minorities will one day disappear they seem to have done a great deal to put off that day as long as possible.

Of course, many western academics would reject this sort of categorization. Immediately they would ask such questions as: What about cultural divisions within different groups – especially among the Han, who all do not even speak the same language? What about people who could be considered members of more than one group? What about groups that do not believe themselves to be Han but whose ethnicities are not included among the fifty-six (apparently some 500 groups have applied for minority status)? Are all these categories really parallel to each other, or are there differences in kind as well as degree among them? Etc., etc.[1] The only person who expressed any doubt about the “fifty-six minzu” line was the same lecturer who told us about the early Communist hope of eradicating ethnicity: he reckoned that real ethnic minorities should possess:

  • a large population living in a large area,
  • a written language, and
  • a nation-state beyond China (Mongolia, Korea, etc.) or a historic claim to self-rule (the Tibetans, the Yi)

Such criteria would lower the total number of ethnicities to about eight or so. Otherwise, “there are fifty-six groups in China” was not questioned.[2] I myself do not know enough to comment on it, although I do agree on some level with our Beijing lecturer: some minorities “matter” more than others. The Tibetans and Uighurs both number in the millions, both inhabit large areas, and both have exercised de facto independence over long periods in the past. If nothing else, these facts condition these minorities to be more antagonistic toward the central government and the Han who run it.


Any government can declare that all groups enjoy legal equality, or even that some groups possess special constitutional status, but the question is: what does reality look like? Communists are famous for this sort of thing (as in, “the Soviet constitution is the freest in the world”). What is it actually like to be a member of one of China’s fifty-five ethnic minority groups? Do they really possess equality with the Han? Again, it would require much study to produce answers to this question for all groups in China. I will say that we saw little evidence of open hostility between the Han and the minorities, or among different minority groups.[3] What we did see was a great deal of paternalism on the part of the Han toward the minorities. One man matter-of-factly told us that the ethnic minorities are the “little brothers” of the Han. A caption to a museum display informed us that the Qiang people “love to sing and dance to their heart’s content.” Perhaps the biggest example came in Chengdu, where we were scheduled to have dinner with some minority students. I sat at a table with some other seminar participants, two Tibetan boys and two Yi girls. I was looking forward to speaking with them, and indeed they were pleasant young people, although communication was rather limited. One of their (Han) professors came and sat with us briefly; he mentioned, in front of them, how they were all very poor and came from very backward places. One of my colleagues at another table told us later that the student sitting next to him told him not to expect much in the way of conversation. The professors had apparently rounded them up, ordered them to attend and not to say anything controversial, just to dress in their native costume and to sing and dance after dinner for the guests. I cringed when I discovered this. An American, after all, cannot help but think in terms of American race relations – one of the reasons we got the travel grant, indeed, was because the seminar would provide us with a comparative perspective on what Studs Terkel has called “America’s national obsession” – and I simply cannot imagine a Chengdu-style party happening at a U.S. university. I could see a college hiring, say, its own (predominantly) African-American student dance team or gospel choir to perform for some foreigners, if both parties were interested. But I cannot see the administration rustling up some black people and telling them to dance and sing, because that’s what you people do, isn’t it? That would be a major incident, at least at the college I went to.

But was I right to cringe? America has had a Civil Rights movement, one that has made racial paternalism forever taboo. China has not had one, and so the sort of paternalism we witnessed happens on a routine basis. Do the Chinese minorities themselves object to it, the same way that Indians, Latinos, or African-Americans would object to being put on display in the U.S.? Or is it something that they expect – or even appreciate? For me to object to Han paternalism – am I not simply blaming them for not being American? I think in some ways that I am. The organization of Chinese society is different than ours, after all: despite over fifty years of Communism, it seems much more hierarchical than American society, or at least that hierarchies are present in places we would find surprising.[4] Over two millennia ago, Confucius, China’s greatest and most influential philosopher, defined the proper terms of five relationships, those between:

  • Father and son
  • Older brother and younger brother
  • Husband and wife
  • Old person and young person, and
  • Ruler and subject

As one might imagine, righteousness and benevolence are prescribed for the former, deference and obedience for the latter. Such arrangements are the essence of paternalism, and in the light of the second dictum it becomes telling that the Han would figure the ethnic minorities as their “little brothers” – he, at least, expected minorities to mind their station, in return for which the Han would look after their interests.

And the Han do look after minority interests, in some ways. We were told repeatedly how much money that central government invests annually in minority areas (although this too can be disruptive, viz. a recent news story about the forced settlement of nomadic herdsmen in Xinjaing). Minority group members are famously exempted from China’s one-child policy (those in cities are allowed two children, in the countryside three), and there are a number of minority universities throughout the country that cater to minority students and actually require lower entrance standards than regular universities. How many minorities are grateful for this treatment? Some must be. More importantly, even if they resent the Han, how many minorities actually dispute the fundamental justice of Han rule – do they too feel, deep down, that their Confucian job is to obey?[5] Even more importantly, even if they both resent the Han and dispute the Han right to rule, how can they protest this rule? One of the major problems with paternalism is that when the patron does not do his job, there is no recourse for the client. One member of our group asked numerous lecturers whether there were any “voluntary associations” in China, things like homeowners’ associations, bowling leagues or the Rotary Club, the existence of which has often been used to measure the strength of “civil society,” and the answer pretty much was no – any such associations are government-sponsored in some way, or underground and therefore illegal. This goes double for minority organizations – the regions where they live, usually designated “autonomous,” are actually the opposite. The government is especially concerned about religion: Uighurs tend to be Muslim, and Tibetans Buddhist – but if any Uighurs or Tibetans practice their religion outside the boundaries imposed by the state, like setting up their own madrassas, or meeting in underground mosques, or recognizing the Dalai Lama as their rightful spiritual leader, and they are caught, they can find themselves in serious trouble. So opposition to government policy cannot, therefore, come in the form of organizations parallel to America’s NAACP or La Raza, which are free to raise money and to hire lobbyists to make their case to the government, PR agents to publicize it (through an independent news media), or lawyers to sue for redress of grievances (through an independent court system). We heard of one example of successful opposition in Kashgar, where we were told that the local government wanted to demolish a traditional Uighur neighborhood in the city center and move the inhabitants to a high-rise housing project on the outskirts of town. This had happened to numerous neighborhoods in Kashgar already and was also happening to the traditional neighborhoods of Beijing (known as “hutongs”) when we were there. I was flabbergasted to learn that the locals got together and protested, and the government backed down, instead giving them money with which they could improve their houses. I asked our tour guide how this was possible. He said that if one or two families had said anything they would probably have been punished, but since the whole neighborhood had protested, the government was forced to listen. I wonder if the government had ulterior motives, however, a point to which I shall return.

In general, it would seem that minorities do not possess equality with the Han, but are not necessarily oppressed by them as such.


In preparing for this trip, I read a number of things including Debra Blum’s Portraits of “Primitives”: Ordering Human Kinds in the Chinese Nation. In it she claims that:

The quest for authenticity, like that for the Holy Grail, ends in failure, though the search itself turns up unimagined treasures. Discussion is often of what is “really” a property of this or that minority. What one finds are rather more like the emblems of minority identity… The fashion-show-like performances of minority dances, in which all minorities are played by a few actors, homogenized by bland music and sameness of fabric, consist principally of parades of purported minority costumes. Purists might prefer retaining minority people in a more authentic drab mode, arguing that in the past, the colors were not so bright and that this is inauthentic. But the minority people themselves like the chance to be more flashy and smooth.

Before I went to China this seemed to me to be a very good argument to make. I never liked the notion that other people are obliged to remain in a certain timeless state for the sake of Westerners’ aesthetic pleasure, that we get to experience change over time but they do not. My wife and I had gone on a trip to South Africa four years before and one of our guidebooks warned against a similar attitude: do not be disappointed if you do not see very many traditional round thatched huts in the tribal countryside, if these have been replaced by square buildings made of wood and corrugated iron. People still live in them, and that is what is important – it is not the form of the building but its cultural function that counts. For everyone who goes somewhere and is disappointed to discover that the place shares too much in common with home, I say that you are not observant enough.[6] Other people still exist as people, even if they like to eat at McDonald’s every now and then, and if you want to see a culture hermetically sealed off and completely “unsullied” by any contact with other cultures, well, as an anthropologist friend of mine says, “go to Disneyland.”

The trouble, from my point of view, is that Disneyland is precisely the plan that China seems to have for its ethnic minorities. Tourism – specifically, encouraging wealthy east-coast Han to come to the interior to spend their money – is a major part of the Great Western Development Program, and we saw a number of things that can only be described as the commodification of minority culture for tourist consumption. It began in Beijing, where we went to something billed as a Dai restaurant. It had Dai food, Dai waitstaff in ethnic costume and a stage on which Dai dancers came out to perform for the patrons. It was a pretty slick operation, with timing down perfectly: a number of tour groups came in all at once and sat down, food was served quickly, and the dancers danced to a tune. At the end of the dance they threw necklaces into the crowd, and if you caught one (as I did) you were escorted on stage for the next dance, for the amusement of your fellow tour members. Near the end of our meal people came around and tied a red thread around our wrists, apparently a Dai symbol of hospitality. At the end of the meal everyone was shooed out and the next groups brought in; out on the street we were assailed by hawkers trying to sell us sun hats, postcards, watches, and the like. Near Turpan, in the west, there is a site known as the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves – a number of caves had been hollowed out on the side of a mountain in the thirteenth century (when there were still Uighur Buddhists) to serve as Buddhist sanctuaries. Many still had multiple images of the Buddha on the interior, although these had been damaged over the years by Muslims, western archaeologists, and Red Guards. This was all very interesting – but why the local authorities built a “traditional Uighur stone village” at the entrance as an additional attraction is beyond me. In Chongdien (a historically Tibetan city in Yunnan, recently renamed “Shangri-la” in the hopes of cashing in on the tourist trade!) we went to see a “traditional Tibetan dance” that felt like something that might be performed in Branson, Missouri. As we entered the theater we passed a gantlet of performers who applauded our entrance and who placed silk scarves around our necks. We sat around tables and they served us roasted grains, yak butter tea, and shots of a clear liquor. The show itself consisted of alternating solo acts and dances to some pretty cheesy music, accompanied by disco lights, bubbles from a machine and smoke from dry ice. If you liked a certain performer you could go up on stage and place your silk scarf around his or her neck. A number of Han military men from the local base were in the audience getting drunk and acting boisterous, reminding me of the “USO concert” scene in any number of movies. As we left the town we noticed a large stupa – a Tibetan Buddhist monument traditionally containing relics of the Buddha – deliberately planted in the middle of the roundabout on the outskirts of town. And the preserved old cities of Dali and Lijaing were very Disney – every single building in these towns is some sort of restaurant or craft or souvenir store, aimed at tourists. In other words, many of the “minority” things we saw were specifically set up for tourists. If we did not exist, then the attractions would not exist either – we were by no means dropping in on people as they actually lived their lives.

But so what, eh? In being uncomfortable with all this, am I not just being a western liberal – or at the very least a travel snob? If the minorities themselves do not object to performing, why should I? The trouble is that I am not exactly sure how much control the minorities have over the situation. The big criticism of the Great Western Development Program is that it is essentially internal imperialism, and “opening up the west for economic development” seems to consist, in large part, of encouraging the Han to settle and to open up businesses there (Urumqi, Turpan, Kashgar, and Chongdien all had large Han populations). Some of these businesses might be tourist attractions, and some minorities might find employment with them that they would not have found otherwise. But it would seem that the profits go elsewhere. One lecturer told us that a Naxi sacred mountain is now a “money machine,” controlled by a company with shareholders, most of whom are not locals. The “Dai” restaurant in Beijing was definitely run by Han entrepreneurs. The worst is when they dress up Han in ethnic costume – I took a picture of some Han girls in Uighur print vests in a government store in Kashgar, and our tour guide in Lijaing pointed out Han women in Naxi dress for us. Now it is true that the Chinese have a different attitude toward authenticity than we do.[7] Everyone knows that the Chinese copying of western products and the theft of western technology is one of the major trade issues between the U.S. and China right now. “Shanghai is the world capital for knock-offs,” said our tour guide there, quite proudly. He had a handbag that was indistinguishable from whatever prestigious brand it was supposed to be, and it was even fireproof. (He invited us to give him a lighter so that he could prove it, but no one had one.) A spokesman for a technology park in Chengdu tried to make a joke about it: “Sometimes it takes us a few years to copy something, sometimes a few days, ha ha. But, the situation is better than it used to be.” (“Or is it actually worse?” murmured one of my colleagues.) Most of the historic sites we saw were actually recent reconstructions: many were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and rebuilt in the past fifteen years for the sake of tourism, hence our section of the Great Wall (which was in perfect condition and then abruptly ended), and Buddhist temples in Chengdu, Chongdien, and Dali. It is true that these were acknowledged as reconstructions (and that westerners also reconstruct destroyed antiquities – viz. the Berliner Dom, the Albert Cathedral, or the entire city of Leningrad), but plenty of old stuff for sale in markets, like antique coins or Mao memorabilia, was transparently fake – or perhaps I should say, “reproduced.”

When it comes to minority cultures, however, I cannot help but think that authenticity matters – not that minorities should be unsullied by any contact with outsiders, but that they should retain some control over their own representation. (It is also nice, as a tourist, to believe that not everything is being put on for the sake of your consumption, although such a condition is impossible to achieve absolutely). We did see some examples of local minority control: in Kashgar, the Uighurs genuinely manufactured goods that they sold in the street market (although I wonder whether the government did not recognize the tourist potential of this market, and therefore allowed the preservation of the traditional neighborhood, as a picturesque adjunct to it.) In Turpan we were treated to dinner at a Uighur house, and entertained afterwards by Uighur dancers – a far cry from the Dai operation in Beijing. In Yunnan we stopped by a household factory producing the traditional tie-dyed cloth of the Bai people – this did not seem to be state-run, or owned by some conglomerate. The Naxi orchestra is a tourist attraction and performs nightly in Lijaing, but it is the brainchild of a Naxi musician and composed mostly of elderly Naxi men who hid their instruments during the Cultural Revolution. And our Naxi tour guide in Lijaing, whom I will call Rose, was the front person of a company, devoted to “ecotourism,” that had thirty shareholders from her parents’ village outside Lijaing. Her parents’ house also had been converted to accommodate guests, who could stay with them overnight and get a taste of Naxi village life. This was one of the more interesting evenings we had the pleasure to experience. But it was telling that Rose’s company was set up, not by the central government, nor the local government, but the Nature Conservancy, a American non-profit organization that is allowed to work in Yunnan. Otherwise, all our tour guides worked for large, state-run tour companies. From my limited perspective, therefore, it did not seem that the government was interested in promoting minority-owned minority tourism.


But why should it? The Chinese government is, like the Soviet was, composed of a great many people who hold engineering degrees. Is it any wonder that they would simply consider figures when they calculate the “alleviation of poverty,” and that they would consider only the economic utility of the preservation of minority culture? In fact, is this not better than the alternative of actively crushing minority culture, as the PLA did in Tibet in the 1950s – or merely letting the process of modernization take its inevitable toll? This latter phenomenon is indeed happening to some extent in the west: “When the Yi come to live in town, they adopt Han ways and you can’t tell they’re Yi. They’re just the same as us,” said the spokesman for the Chengdu technology park. Our guide in the park, legally a member of the Qiang minority, seemed to concur – he liked his job, his urban lifestyle, and Han friends. A colleague of mine opined that this process of modernization has been repeated time and again throughout the world, that he sympathized with, but did not sentimentalize, minority culture, and that the central government actually deserved praise for its attempts, awkward as they may be, to preserve it.[8] And yet, I do wish the government would not present minorities with such a stark choice between identity and equality as far as the Great Western Development Program is concerned. The nationalities universities, for instance, strike me as the kiddy table. They require lower test scores, and offer courses in subjects like ethnology and tourism, after which students seem qualified to represent their cultures to tourists, most likely in the employment of the state. In order to get a degree in finance or high technology, which would set someone up for full participation in China’s booming new economy, such a person would have to get a good test score and attend a proper university, where he or she would be expected to assimilate. How about a third choice of being able to go to a proper university, get (say) a computer science degree, and a minor in Naxi literature? Or how about making all students at proper universities take a single course in minority cultures, parallel to my own undergraduate college’s nonwestern requirement? I realize that I am once again blaming China for not being like the United States (very few systems of higher education, indeed, require as much breadth as does the American). But our Beijing lecturer’s ideas of “cultural ecology” – essentially, that we look at other things than the bottom line when evaluating the impact of economic change on people – remains an attractive, but elusive, ideal.


I repeat my caveat above about my own ignorance. China is a vast country of over a billion people and we saw a very small slice of it – perhaps my observations are simply not applicable to other parts of the country.[9] Furthermore, the language and cultural barriers we encountered were the highest I have ever experienced. Add to that the Chinese habit of avoiding confrontation by telling an interlocutor what he wants to hear, or of people keeping their true thoughts to themselves lest they say something wrong and it get back to the authorities, and you are never 100% sure what is going on. And as participants on a group tour we were shown things that were government-sanctioned and therefore not necessarily representative of all such things in the country (although we were spared the sort of Potemkin treatment that one apparently gets in North Korea). Nevertheless, this was a fascinating trip and I am glad to have participated. And despite all my misgivings I am cautiously optimistic about the fate of many of China’s minority cultures. Tourist attractions with dancing minorities will continue to be built, and more minorities will assimilate into the great mass of Han in the cities. But between these two poles will remain a space for minority cultures to exist, especially for those minorities which number over a million (the threshold, I understand, for the maintenance of a language), of which there are nineteen in China. These cultures will not be timeless and unchanging, but once we accept that cultures “have the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same,”[10] we will appreciate them for what they are and the diversity they add to the human condition. The Quebec of 2005 is not the Quebec of 1950, or of 1850, but only the willfully ignorant would say that it is not a “distinct society” from the rest of Canada, then or now. I predict that the situation of many Chinese minorities will be somewhat similar.


[1] And it is not just that categorization can misrepresent the messy human situation as it actually exists but some academics (following Michel Foucault) claim that categorization itself, no matter how “accurate” it may be, is inevitably a tool used to exert power over the named objects, and reject it out of hand.

[2] In fact, many of our lecturers did not question much. An inordinate number we heard purveyed extended catalogues of minority customs, such as “the X people wear this headdress and have the cheek-pinching ceremony, while the Y people wear this sort necklace and eat raw sheep intestines!” One professor had recently published a book precisely along these lines. Now I should say that I often find the instinctive academic “complication” of various subjects to be somewhat pointless, but even I found many of our lectures to be rather pedestrian. We reckoned it was a legacy of Communism: if you stick to party-approved facts, you cannot go wrong, but the minute you try to analyze anything, you run the risk of saying something that the party might not approve of, and land in some pretty serious trouble. It is true that China is not really Communist anymore, but old habits die hard (especially among older faculty outside of Beijing and Shanghai); the country remains authoritarian in any event, and people are generally reluctant to contradict the party line, especially among strangers.

[3] Although such exists: we heard a lecture about bus bombings by Uighur separatists in Xinjaing, explicitly comparing them to the attacks on the U.S. of September 11, 2001. China is on our side!

[4] For instance, the identity of our trip “leader” was very important to our host institution – all arrangements had to be made between the hosts and him. A number of Chinese students had sat in on one of our lectures, and three of us stayed around afterwards chatting with them. It was getting to lunchtime, and we figured that we would ask them to join us for lunch, as you would not think twice about doing in the U.S. This provoked nervous laughter and the response: “Thank you anyway!” Now it could be that they had better things to do, but we got the strong impression that we were violating the order of things by not going through the proper channels for the arrangement of lunch. Twice also I witnessed “roll call” in front of a hotel, when all the staff had to come out onto the front steps in their uniforms and line up in proper order for inspection and recitation of something inspiring. And most universities were introduced by their national ranking, especially if it was a high one.

[5] This might parallel the unfortunate view, heard more than once, that the students massacred at Tiananmen Square in 1989 “had it coming” for being so uppity.

[6] There is that famous dialogue in Pulp Fiction in which John Travolta is excited about the “little differences” between Europe and America, like how you can get a glass of beer at a theater in Amsterdam, how the Dutch put mayonnaise on their French fries, or how a quarter pounder with cheese, in Paris, is called a “royale with cheese,” since they’ve got the metric system, and they don’t know what a quarter pounder is. I always thought that the discovery of such things was one of the great delights of traveling, and I compiled my own list (see addendum below).

[7] An article might be written about how this relates to the differences between a “shame” culture (them) and a “guilt” culture (us).

[8] One might also add that “Hanification” is even older than modernization, that it is in fact the history of China. “Who are the Han, except people who have lost their identity?” said our Beijing lecturer – that is, from a very small area, Han culture has spread over the centuries to encompass a great variety of people over a vast landmass who to this day look different from each other and speak a variety of different languages (Cantonese, Fujianese, etc.). So on one level the loss of minority cultures has an aura of inevitability to it.

[9] “The thing about China,” says my father-in-law, who has contacts there, “is that it’s so big that virtually anything you say about it will be true about some part of it. There are places in China where Christians are persecuted, and there are others where the local government would not consider doing anything without the approval of the local church leaders.”

[10] The final line of George Orwell’s essay “England, your England.”


Some things Jonathan Good noticed in China (June, 2005):

The lingering presence of Mao Zedong. I had heard that Mao was enjoying a sort of kitsch revival, but he seems to be undergoing official rehabilitation as well. There are two sets of banknotes in circulation, with the latest one (1999) featuring portraits of Mao on all denominations! One woman suggested it was state-sponsored “nostalgia” for old people, a sop to those who feel betrayed by China’s current capitalist direction.

The lingering presence of the “four beards” Marx, Engels, Lenin and even Stalin. You still see their portraits up in schools and bookstores. (The Chinese language does not distinguish between different types of facial hair apparently.)

The pervasiveness and cheapness of really good food and (surprisingly) how much of it goes to waste – it is impolite to finish off dishes entirely, since it suggests that your host hasn’t fed you enough. At many restaurants the food just keeps on coming, sometimes long after you have stopped eating – and not just for us, the honored foreign guests, but for everyone else there too. So much for the idea that you should eat your food, because there are children starving in China. The peasants may be poor, but it does seem that everyone has enough to eat.

The way that beer is treated as just another type of soda pop – same price, no drinking age, always served with lunch, etc.

Outside of the tourist hotels, the ubiquity of squat toilets. Asians have squat toilets because they can squat, having done so from toddlerhood – you see people squatting (feet flat on the ground, knees bent, butt two inches from the ground) on the street simply to relax. Someone said that the incidence of hip fractures among old people is vastly lower in Asia on account of squatting. Great – I wish I could do it. In the meantime I prefer the western style of toilet, thanks. Just couldn’t get the knack of a squatter, and not for lack of trying.

The general lack of toilet paper, hand soap, hand dryers or paper towels. You don’t tend to think of drying your hands after washing them as a cultural construct, but it is: Chinese tend to wet their hands, shake them off, and just let the air dry them.

Split pants on toddlers.

The ubiquity of Engrish. Some choice examples:

(At the Forbidden City) The ancient building is renovating. Excuse me for bringing trouble to you.

(On the cover of a notebook) Fresh perfume: Sweet love looks up with a smile at us among the big crowd of various people.

(At the Three Pagodas of Dali) The team business carry outs the place.

(At the Ming tombs north of Beijing) Environmental sanitation of the scenic spot needs your conserve.

(Ditto) Luxuriant grassland please don’t trample.

(Ditto) Please according to priority for visitage.

(In Shangri-la, Yunnan province) The historic monument of national class point cultural object protects the unit. says that bad English on Japanese products is simply a way of giving them the prestige of the international language of business. My friend Dan Taylor says that in China it is probably more a case of them not giving a damn. Why bother getting the barbarians’ language right? A waste of time.

The extreme aggressiveness of Chinese salespeople and the ubiquity of haggling.

The great amount of people whose jobs seem to consist of little more than sitting around.

The pervasive presence of an informal economy, including people sitting on the street selling things like phone cards, flip-flops, or stir-fried food.

The inexplicable close grouping of several shops or stalls each selling precisely the same array of goods.

The dressing of hotel or restaurant staff in elaborate formal uniforms, complete with roll call and “inspection” at various times of the day.

The actual wearing of ethnic costume by national minorities in everyday situations where they are not likely to be seen by tourists.

The use of parasols by young women.

Handholding by pairs of young women and (occasionally) older Uighur men.

The awfulness of Chinese audiences. Loud talking, late arrivals, early departures, cell phones… at one show we went to an actual fight broke out over a seat, while the performers kept on dancing valiantly.

The pervasiveness of smoking.

The chaotic and ad hoc nature of driving, with plenty of horn honking.

The great variety of wheeled conveyances and creative uses of them.

The almost complete absence of Christianity and the general absence of religion as such.

The absence of pornography (a major contrast with Japan I understand).

The occasional and haphazard censoring of the Internet. Despite what everyone had said, the BBC website was not blocked; I even googled “Taiwan independence” and “East Turkestan” and got several live links to sites that the Chinese Communist Party would not want you to read (although some sites were blocked). The Voice of America, however, was consistently blocked, as was Blogger. Why is this? Have they just not got around to blocking all the sites? Or are they not as concerned with sites in English as in Chinese? (One possible answer, according to someone in the know: the Internet is used as a surveillance tool by the police, who track peoples’ web activity to see what they’re looking at, and pay visits to people consistently looking at the wrong things.)

The manual-labor-intensiveness of farming. Sometimes it resembles gardening on a grand scale. But when you’ve got a massive population and, in many parts of the country, a very hilly landscape, this has its advantages. We saw crops planted on hills with a slope of thirty degrees or more, or on odd-shaped and very small parcels of land, where no tractor could maneuver.

The use of straw brooms by street sweepers.

The frenetic pace of building in cities.

The pervasiveness of costume dramas on the television, mostly set in the Qing dynasty or the early days of the People’s Republic.

The ubiquity of blue and white “China Unicom” and “China Mobile” painted billboards on the sides of houses.

Expressions of paternalism about China’s ethnic minorities that would not fly in America.

The common use of Chinese traditional medicine and stalls selling ingredients for it: dried snakes, frogs, etc.

The presence of swastikas on Buddhist temples and statuary.

The small stature of Chinese people, and how we feel like massive louts in their presence.

The ubiquity of staring.

The recent age of most “antiquities.”

The absence of most “safety” features of overlawyered North America: bicycle helmets, guard rails, etc.

Chickens, pigs and other livestock in the streets of peasant villages.

The hardness of beds, and the absence of sheets.

The practice of using your hotel key to turn the electricity on in your room.

The fact that you can rarely buy single postcards, but only packs of ten.