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Local Colors

March 8, 2012

After the United States Civil War ended in 1865, a generation of Americans traumatized by the war’s upheaval got interested in reading books about various regions of our country.  For decades afterward, and especially late in the nineteenth century, “local color” short fiction and novels became ever more popular as the nation’s reading public began to learn, in sad retrospect, a great deal more about the regional differences and peculiarities that the newly unified country embodied.  This was the context in which popular works like Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Massachusetts-based Old-Town Folks (1869), Mark Twain‘s classic Mississippi river novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), and Kate Chopin‘s New Orleans feminist novella The Awakening (1899) made their appearance.  Americans were now united but also varied and colorful, these complex books proclaimed: the United States was no longer an unseemly backwater patch-worked with the barest trappings of civilization but a newly important country in which peculiarities of dialect, diverse regional customs, and above all the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination somehow held everyone together in a kind of shared project of nation building.

Local colorings of a different sort come to light in this year’s China.  Like the USA and most countries China has its own regionalist stereotypes, many of which are based on all-too-real historical differences and cultural variations.  South China has the reputation of being the innovative and forward-looking part of the country: the place where new social and economic trends are birthed, thanks to the dozens of new “special economic zones” along the East Coast, where breathtaking growth and new prosperity are driven by foreign investment.  Western China, on the other hand, still has the reputation of our own old Wild West, where danger and daring rule the day and where conflict (with minority ethnic groups and sometime adversaries from the former Soviet Union) is never far away.  And political ambition resides most visibly up North in Beijing, the capital from which the tragic legacy of Mao’s totalitarian rule continues to radiate from the corridors of official power, continuing to warp intellectual and cultural life.

There’s undoubtedly been progress of a sort in China, that’s for certain and widely proclaimed.  But the color of progress here in the eastern Yangtze River valley is a relentlessly dingy gray this time of year: late winter chill and overcast skies almost every day, but made so much worse by catastrophic smog, utilitarian and brutalist concrete architecture, polluted waterways, and filthy streets and public transit.  There’s lots of money in the new China, but its most vivid hues are inescapably gloomy to these American eyes.  Still, there’s local color to be found, notably among both the working classes and the tremendously fashionable Chinese people.  Here in Nanjing, one can easily find upscale shopping for elite brands like Fendi, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chanel, and so on. And the Chinese women wear these fashions so vividly in bright primary pigments: pink, purple, yellow, but especially Red.  For red is the color of good fortune in China: 100 yuan banknotes are red, as are the expensive bedsheets and blankets sold in fancy department stores as gifts for Chinese newlyweds, the envelopes in which one receives monetary gifts, the trendy (!) KFC and McDonalds restaurants, and the heaps of damp scarlet confetti from firecrackers that terrorize neighborhoods during the annual Spring Festival celebrations.  My students boldly wear bright red parkas, shirts, and sweaters, and their parents wear bright red furs (!) and high heels and dress their toddlers in traditional red mittens and hats.

For all the stylish couture and fashion mojo of the modern Chinese, however, the most vivid colors and best aesthetics of China are not written convincingly into its shared spaces: architecture, public transit, and landscape, most obviously.  Nor, by Western standards, do fashionable and sophisticated Chinese seem especially to respect those shared civic spaces.  Graduate students toss their used tissues and snack wrappers on the floors of university classrooms, toddlers are encouraged to urinate on the street and into trash cans (thanks to clever zippered-crotch jumpsuits), their mothers and fathers loudly hock and spit tirelessly on the sidewalks, fast-food wrappers are carelessly tossed into the gutter, restaurant customers grind their cigarette butts into the granite floor instead of using ashtrays,  and the average motorist is borderline homicidal or suicidal at every major intersection.

Put another way, China’s best colors and and most vivid culture are truly impressive but appear to be located mainly in the private sphere these days, and perhaps that is not unexpected, given the devastation of civic and intellectual order during the 20th century and most especially during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when so many universities and schools were closed and any semblance of individual prosperity was equated in the Party’s propaganda with “black” or counter-revolutionary ideology.  But another significant issue is that everything in the New China is just too new and transitory for folks to care that much about shared spaces and shared aesthetic experience of the sort to be found, for example, in nearly all of the great cities of Europe or the United States.  Everyone in our part of China, it seems,  just arrived in town within the past few years, or just started making some real  money, or just got a nice mobile phone and a good Internet connection.  Or just figured out that as long as politics and the design and maintenance of the public sphere are tightly controlled by an impregnable fortress of oligarchy, the best paths to life’s enjoyment will of necessity be rather selfish and private.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark Twombly permalink
    March 8, 2012 9:53 pm

    Fascinating, Jim. The most penetrating insight into modern China I’ve read.

    • Jim Ryan permalink*
      March 8, 2012 10:37 pm

      Thanks, Mark. Such a richly layered and complicated place.

  2. Terence permalink
    March 10, 2012 12:47 pm

    I look forward to reading your blog posts, Jim, but this one–which I’ve read and reread over the course of the the last few days–has me scratching my head. No matter how many times I consider these reflections, I can’t help but detect what seems to me a less than subtle tone of condemnation. Yes, people clear their throats of accumulated nasal drips and spit onto the sidewalk, but isn’t that a tad bit too cliché to really comment on? I had an older Chinese roommate when I was a freshman in college who always did that at home, and one day when I asked him why, he said it was because he wouldn’t use tissues to blow his nose. So there is a large degree of behavioral cultural difference associated with that example, as others. And surely (rude) folks in any given U.S. city spit on the sidewalks. And? Sure it’s gross, but as long as people aren’t spitting on each other, who cares?

    As a fellow educator at-large in China, I personally try and approach this place, people, and culture as a dispassionate objective observer–to try and step outside my admittedly western modes of interpretation in effort to just see and hear. I remember commenting to a colleague at my school about how there seems to be no discernible recycling program here, that everything just seems to be thrown in the garbage. My colleague pointed to a woman in her mid-50s or early 60s piloting a tiny motorcycle with a flatbed car attached to the back. Piled high and tied down was a stack of broken down cardboard boxes. My colleague said, “See that? That’s how China recycles.”

    The same colleague started a recycling bin in his classroom to teach his students (high schoolers) how to separate and collect trash. Teachable moment or the introduction of new behavior that (perhaps) might one day catch on? Even here in tiny Jinhua there are trash cans with “waste” and “recyclable” in both English and Mandarin in any public park one goes to. Admittedly, people still do litter, but there seems to be a superficial effort to get them to change. When I asked someone else (a local assistant) why people would litter in a nice green park, she said “someone will come and clean it. It’s their job.”

    Perhaps that’s one way to keep unemployment down in a nation of 1,000,000,000+ inhabitants.

    • Jim Ryan permalink*
      March 13, 2012 5:37 pm

      Terence —

      Thanks for your thoughtful reflection on my post. I think we’re probably more in agreement than you might think about what’s happening street-level in our respective parts of China. The main point I was trying to make, and perhaps not as clearly as I should have, was about public space and how it’s treated in the context of a unique kind of political history. I think public spaces are important and valuable, and that how we treat them reveals much. The USA’s got plenty to learn about this as well, in my estimation, as do many other countries. But my thinking about this subject from an admitted novice’s perspective is shaped and perhaps soured more than it should be by my ongoing study of Chinese history this year, including some biographies of Mao and some harrowing personal accounts of the Cultural Revolution. I continue to be amazed by what’s happening in this country after those very tragic years.

  3. Terence permalink
    March 10, 2012 1:13 pm

    …and foster civic senses of involvement, engagement and connection. Right or wrong, there are other ways of being human.

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