Understanding Modern China: An Expat’s View (Guiyang, Part 2)

Understanding Modern China: An Expat’s View (Guiyang, Part 2)


Most of this post will read as part historical sketch and part book review. However, I feel it does well to contextualize this post’s accompaniment, which you can read here.

When people complain about China or refuse to do so under the banner of cultural relativism I feel compelled to throw my two cents into the ring. Doing as such without establishing a context (historical, sociological, or otherwise) would be disingenuous to empathy. I’ll therefore outline how I see the connection between China’s present and the turbulence of its recent past with both personal anecdotes and historical analysis.


From Small Towns to Chinese Cities: Adapting

Coming of age in Colorado has turned me into an elitist where aesthetics are concerned.

I admit freely that, as a teen, I would have rather shucked corn for a living than lived in a city. My then limited opinion: the city, a stun gun for the soul. Moreover, I promised that I would never give in to materialism and move there. Doing as such was akin, in my frivolous young mind, to quadriplegia. The irony may now be apparent as I continue to report from the confines of a shoddy gray skyscraper.

“Man can get used to anything, the rascal!” So opines the psychologically destitute Raskilnokov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. With every lungful of pestilence, every hunk of denuded concrete slumping balefully from dynamited hillsides, I become less resolute.

Less resolute, that is, in my previously maniacal quest to upend my living situation in favor of nearly anything else.

It’s a slow process. One must wonder if there’s any wisdom in chipping away at the foundations of values that you’ve kowtowed below your whole life in favor of more ‘worldly’ ones. Like money. And prestige. And an easy out from a rat race comprised of rats who look and talk as you do.

Guangzhou, China

And here the practical supersedes the wise; I’ve gotten used to the city. I’m unmoved by the dinge, the dirge, the scourge of drying calk and diesel inflammation. Complaining among the expat companions of my daily existence has become trite, almost cutesy, and certainly pointless.

I feel their indignation, the righteous outrage spawned of Guiyang’s culture and urban claustrophobia, and though all are justified I can now but nod. I’ve gotten used to the place, and in this gurgles the seeds of man’s perennial dilemma.

Guiyang under perpetual construction

I know how pretentious that seems. Bear with me. It’s like this: any creature with a significantly comfortable situation, who must do something vastly uncomfortable and possibly compromising to extract themselves from the same (and cast off into uncertainty while they’re at it) has a vested interest in doing nothing.

In other words, they’ve a perfectly rational justification to maintain quo-status. Yet the normalization of what has previously, in perhaps only the past few years or even months been nearly unbearable, darkens the brow of anybody who’s been privy to the process of their normalization.

I’ve thus compromised with my better self, and given to the wastes a dashing assurance which ought to have carried me through the change of scenery which I’ve fervently desired until quite recently.

China and any place where mental or emotional hardship, loneliness, etc. can be undergone, bestows a gift on those who stick it out. All the annoyances of existence here have compounded, exploded with malice in my heart at their zenith, and dimmed.

this was meant to bring in restaurant customers

Places like this will make you tough. They’ll make locales whose due courses are only superficially inconvenient seem like paradise.

Now and then: China’s present and dark past

Are things really so bad here? I’ve painted in broad strokes how the aesthetic of this city can lay you low; I ought to expand on culture and everyday life.

I’m often awoken around 6 or 7 AM by screeching car horns. It’s not that a single beep sounds through the crack in my window; it’s that a car feels the need, among the hearty acoustics of my claustrophobic pewter apartment complex, to honk incessantly until the object of that car’s ire has relented, or moved, or whatever.

The worst part about this is that I can hardly blame the noisy malefactor here. Some of Guiyang’s driving practices have floored me. Not just scooters but full size SUV’s can be seen driving on the sidewalk. Cars will park in the middle of the road. As in, the drivers will up and leave their vehicle there. People stop for any number of reasons from answering phone calls to taking a nap with their feet out the window.

An ‘ancient’ city in Guiyang – most ancient cities and China had to be rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution

In the book Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, the narrator gives an account of China’s history from before the Warlord Period to the Cultural Revolution’s end by tracing a matrilineal arc that ends with her.

This book provides one of the most thorough accounts of pivotal 20th century Chinese history available (most of the literature is secondary, whereas her manuscript serves as a primary historical document and a secondary historical analysis thanks to the author’s acuity and general knowledge outside her experience).

In this book, family ties and other social bonds ruck forward as unbreakable, even as we see China’s social structure bend under the invisible Confucian thumb (China pre-CCP had serious issues but also merits, of which the aforementioned is an obvious one).

That China, however, was thrown into chaos with the invasion of the Japanese and the ensuing civil war between the Chiang Kai Shek’s government and the Communist Party.

What’s striking, however, is the image of China presented before Mao’s Cultural Revolution. History, relationships, and general courtesy were respected and even revered as irrefutable virtues. Politeness was of due course and expected between neighbors and strangers alike.

The CCP began its campaign to overthrow ‘guan xi (关系)’ (or finding favorable opportunities via ‘relationships’ i.e. nepotism) soon after its victory over the Chiang Kai Shek. This managed to do some good by overturning the often strenuous and arbitrary system of politeness that was culturally ingrained at the time. Everything changed for the worse, however, during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

This courtesy should be regarded as this essay’s major concern. Extreme boredom plagued the Chinese population after the Cultural Revolution had been going strong for several years. There were no movies to watch, books to read, or ideas to discuss with friends.

All was propagandized, every ear was bugged in Mao’s favor (or out of fear from spies), and schools were closed indefinitely. Among this atmosphere of terror and hostility (there were warring rebel factions, denunciation meetings, widespread panic and violence, and the deification of the man who made it all happen) the old courtesy system cracked.

Respect for elders had been overturned completely (students often beat their teachers and sometimes to death) and with nothing to do even families began to quarrel among themselves. According to the author, everywhere one looked fights would break out, between shopkeepers, peasants, workers, officials, and everyone else. Tension boiled in the air and often spilled over into random violence.

Chinese New Year in Hainan

It’s plain to see (for anyone with a nuanced eye) that the Cultural Revolution continues to affect China’s population, and profoundly. Interestingly, the old ways very much remain – relationships are the key to getting things done efficiently and older people, especially parents, command respect again – but these are often juxtaposed with what can only be interpreted as social remnants from the Cultural Revolution.

Arguments are quick to flare up among strangers, and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve many times found myself engaged in them, sometimes without due provocation. Though actual scams are more subdued than many places, mistrust of anyone outside of the family unit is rampant.

Care for strangers, or general politeness, are no longer a part of the culture. They’ve been usurped by an inevitable weariness spawned during the Cultural Revolution. This, especially for newcomers to this country, is extremely hard to get used to. Many never do.

West Lake in Hangzhou

There’s a blaring contradiction that exists among all this seemingly chaotic social environment: ‘face culture’. To insult and openly criticize is tantamount to physical attacks under certain circumstances. One  must be careful not to offend established manners in certain arenas and with powerful people.

This is a nearly skull-splitting ideal to reconcile with the shouts, petty fights, and passive aggressive stabs that people direct at each other all the time. I can only imagine that being a Chinese national is taxing; the tightrope between saving/giving face and a habit of explosive argumentation and mistrust is taut to the point of snapping (in fact, this pressure was one of the factors contributing to the manic agitation shown during the Cultural Revolution).

Shanghai from Shanghai Tower

Forget bringing this up to the locals for an explanation. I’ve been told (not the least bit by my girlfriend) that their China and their culture is their problem, beyond interference and beyond foreign understanding. Unfortunately, this is in line with how the CCP present the view of their China. Like themselves, these things are beyond criticism.

This leaves one with a rather bleak vision for the future. Those things that are beyond criticism are inevitably the things that have worked tirelessly to stifle such criticism.

Because of this, they’re likely also the values and tenets that are based on the flimsiest arguments. For a brick foundation can withstand a gale; not so much a bamboo hut. One can only divert the wind for so long.

These are, I believe, in conjunction with the urban aesthetic developments detailed in my previous posts, the most confounding aspects of modern China. I wouldn’t be able to hack the place (and all its hacking) without taking the time and mental energy to parse out a few whys along my journey here.

For anyone thinking of moving to China long-term, or dropping in for a visit, or getting ready to condemn the myriad flocks of new-money Chinese tourists abroad, I entreat you to contextualize the country through its recent history.

Turning a blind eye to it will result in annoyance or resentment (as so often happens to foreigners in China), and I hope that my readers will come to understand the necessity of this post by accepting that I’m trying to make people understand the place. Even if I’ve got to bash on it a little to do that.


4 Replies to “Understanding Modern China: An Expat’s View (Guiyang, Part 2)”

  1. I CAN RECALL NOTICING A NEW YOUNG KITCHEN GUY MONITORING THE YMCA FOOD LINE AND ALWAYS READING A BOOK WHILE WORKING. I ENCOURAGED YOUNG COLE TO GO TO COLLEGE AND UTILIZE THAT CURIOUS MIND. YOU REPLIED THAT YOU WERE DEFINITELY GOING TO COLLEGE AND SHORTLY THEREAFTER, STARTED AT THE FT COLLINS COMMUNITY COLLEGE AND MAKING STRAIGHT A’S , AS I WOULD PERIODICALLY ASK.

    I ENJOY YOUR TRAVEL JOURNALS AND I OBSERVED MANY OF THE CULTURAL AND BUSINESS EXPERIENCES DURING MY TRAVELS TO THE FAR EAST. I HAVE GREAT RESPECT AND ENJOY THE INTELLIGENT WISDOM OF THE CHINESE PEOPLE, BUT AM BOTHERED BY THE GOVERNMENT’S DEALING WITH THE MASSES. FOR EXAMPLE, I AM HORRIFIED BY THE ORGAN HARVESTING OF CULTURAL PRISONERS IN THE EDUCATION CAMPS, INCLUDING THE YOUNG HK PROTESTERS THAT ARE SENT THERE. I READ THAT THEY ARE USED TO PROVIDE ORGANS FOR THE WEALTHY IN NEED OF SUCH. PUTTING USA ABORTION ISSUES ASIDE, YOUR THOUGHTS, AS REGARDS TO CHINA.

  2. Thank you, Cole. You have a gift, observing and evaluating the world you are exploring and sharing that with us.
    The historic Chinese culture was so strongly engrained, after so many generations, that it required incredible force and utter chaotic disruption to overturn it. Totalitarianism was the only method possible for such radical rapid change.
    Sadly, the forces of the 20th century that were so good at externally disrupting the old ways do not possess the strength to instill a new compelling inner moral foundation.

    Christianity was successful in largely transforming the Roman Empire because it was based on a set of beliefs and ethics that moved from the inside out.
    Love, for God and neighbor in action, was a compelling motive for change.
    The golden rule is a great way to live.

    When the Romans had a child they didn’t want (not unlike China, most often girls), they would commonly abandon the child by the river to be devoured by wild dogs. The Christians would lay in wait, then grab up these abandoned children and take them home to love and care for them.
    The loving ways of these early Christians was contrasted with how their persecutors treated them with abuse, torture and death.
    My point is, that people would convert because the love that they saw was something that they wanted in their life.
    There was a compelling inner drive that drove a cultural change.
    Communism has always been hostile to any force with the power to transform hearts or to create a compelling narrative beyond their control.
    That preserves power, but leaves a great moral vacuum.
    Best wishes always!

    1. Hello Dave! Thank you so much for dropping by my site. I think your analysis regarding the totalitarian dictum and its ease in disrupting the most firmly entrenched orders is spot-on. I especially like how you frame Christianity as a force that works to change political and moral structures positively – the example of Christians saving unwanted children is striking. China doesn’t offer such a foundation for people’s moral bedrock. Instead, they continue to ban missionaries, oppress Tibetan Buddhists and Islamic Uighurs, and tout the party as something to be revered as a secular and yet almost holy entity. It’s tragic because this keeps the lingering negativity from the Cultural Revolution from dissipating into something productive or allowing the population to use their collect fervor to restore the things that were lost. There are so many good things about modern China, but the foundation for these good things isn’t solid enough to support the society and country without continued economic growth. Morals and economic growth unfortunately have very little to do with one another much of the time. Thanks again for your comment and I hope to hear from you again soon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: