Think of China and images of crowded cities, cheap goods and sweat shops come to mind, all set in a land of strict government and media censorship.
But China is a country full of contradictions; still revering many of the old communist values when Chairman Mao Tse Tung once ruled with an iron fist, while also grappling with the overwhelming pace of change and growth as the country finds its own way of doing things in the modern world.
How is China changing?
Huge skyscrapers salute China’s industrial achievements and aspirations; the new China is hot on the lips of every business strategist and economist keen to pre-empt the next game change. China is embracing its evolution – even part of the ancient Silk Road trade route is now giving way to an ultra-modern high speed rail link between Beijing and Tibet, providing a backbone for the country’s sprawling infrastructure.
Beyond the trappings of burgeoning economic power, however, there’s a different side to the country that often gets lost in the mix. Away from the urban bustle you can find some of the most diverse and picturesque scenery known to man, as well as rural treasures such as the rice terraces in the south, Tiger Leaping Gorge and village life in its most simple and beautiful form. It takes you back to a time when China cut all ties with the west and when the farms that fed Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution were king.
Forget cheaply produced merchandise – true craftsmanship can be found in the 8000-strong Terracotta army built to stand guard over the First Emperor of Qin in the afterlife more than 2000 years ago, or by walking the Great Wall of China, one of the seven modern day wonders of the world, said to be visible from space and filled by the bodies of the men who built it.
After the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, China began opening its doors to the world and although this was only 35 years ago China has transformed at an astonishing rate. To see just how far Chinese society has changed look no further than China’s Generation Y. It’s been called the ‘lost generation’ with heroes no longer the country’s communist autocratic leaders, but instead the likes of David Beckham and Justin Beiber. The change is carried on the backs and faces of this generation: fashion, hairstyles and other social choices have become more extravagant, a polar opposite from the uniform conformity of past. The state now acknowledges, although often reluctantly, many of today’s issues that were previously ignored. Eleven years ago, the first HIV awareness posters could be seen on the metro, a far cry from the rug it had been swept under for so long.
Hong Kong was my first introduction to China, whose sovereignty was transferred over from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. This city is as Chinese as Berlin is German. Hong Kong welcomes all that is modern, electronics and the west. Mainland China however is very different; the contrast is noticeable as you cross through passport control.
Chinese people often appear reserved at first, but a smile and few words in Mandarin tends to breaks down the barriers. Many times, I would be on an overnight train and be invited to eat with a family, or for friendly drinks in a bar, often entertaining the locals as the hapless foreigner who crosses the lines of politeness without even realizing. For the record, spitting on the floor in the bus or restaurant is totally fine but taking a business card or gift with one hand only is extremely rude – let that be a lesson!
There’s a growing acceptance of homosexuality in China. In fact, I was surprised by how many gay Chinese men I met or was cruised by. Previously, Shanghai and Beijing were the only cities in China large enough for gay bars to hide in, and they often seemed to close as soon as they opened, which meant jumping between venues hidden in the city’s back streets. With China’s one-party-states’ attitude to homosexuality progressing to the ‘Three nos’: No approval, no disapproval, and no promotion, the country has now welcomed the gay scene with open arms in the larger cities. This has meant the usual banging house music, flashing lights, muscled bodies and slim men wearing t-shirts too small for them as well as new sense of freedom of expression. Away from the clubs, gay life is a lot less visible but you will see men walking down the street arm in arm with no one batting an eyelid. Will I be cruised in the streets? Sure. Do I need to be concerned about being caught by police for being gay? No, being gay is not illegal in China; however, common sense applies with what you get up to and where.
I arrived in China with many outdated beliefs about the nation but after living and working there for a year, I came away with was completely different outlook on the country; a country which left me with a profound sense of admiration, respect and wonder, a country so often tarred with a brush which is both accurate and also far from the truth.