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Changing Chinese Culture and Society

The geographer, Robert Kates, gave me a copy of Colin Thubron’s book, Shadow of the Silk Road, a month ago while I was in Maine. I was reading it the other day when I came upon this passage: “But Hu Ji is looking at his daughter, says softly: “Our culture is starting to change, it’s [...]

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The geographer, Robert Kates, gave me a copy of Colin Thubron’s book, Shadow of the Silk Road, a month ago while I was in Maine. I was reading it the other day when I came upon this passage:

“But Hu Ji is looking at his daughter, says softly: “Our culture is starting to change, it’s true.’”

She answers my unspoken question: ‘I don’t know what my generation would do in revolution. But I think mine are more selfish. They have a conscience. They must decide things for themselves.’”

This seems to be the way that young generation of China likes to see themselves: as conscientious, free-thinking, and self-directed – perhaps Western minded. But they seem to me to be, deep down, Chinese.

“I think the Three Gorges Dam is good,” one of my Chinese friends once said in response to my questioning. “Good.” That was all she had to say about it. “Good.” This was an incredibly Chinese answer and made complete sense in the context in which it was spoken. This answer would be inappropriate in my own country, as more support is needed to make such a claim. “Good” means very little in America.

Though in China answers that merely graze the surface, smokescreen that is meant to opaque deep feeling, emotion, and opinion are thought of as being polite. I do not really know if my friend believed that dam was “good,” though her answer shows that she, although in the guise of a modern “free-thinking” Chinese woman, was a member of a generation that is still very “Chinese” in a deep sense.

In China, there is current trend of importing the Western idea of individuality. The seeds of dissent have been sewn and Chinese youth seem to be reaching towards the far off horizons of governmental change, individualism, and an idea of democracy.

But I fear that a Western notion of individualism and democracy could send China into a rapid downward spiral. As soon as corporate heads and business owners realize they can make far more money if there were not socialistic labor laws, as soon as companies realize that they could make a killing if healthcare was privatized, as soon as insurance companies pressure Beijing to do away with socialized health care, as soon as universities are privatized, as soon as the top-heavy government slims down their workforce, as soon as the Chinese people stop looking out for themselves as communities, as soon as neighborhood organizations loose their inertia, as soon as the people start excreting the right of the individual over the society, China will collapse upon itself.

If the “grass is greener on the other side” mentality – the import of a Chineseifiedversion of “Western” individualism – takes firm root in the coming China, I fear that  the forces that provide the Chinese people their present comfort will vanish tomorrow. It is my impression that China is strong because the culture developed for thousands of years in its own way, along its own lines. Chinese society seems to make complete sense to Chinese people.

Not all societies are the same. Not all types of governance will work well in all countries.

What reigns higher: individual rights or societal equilibrium?

In China, the individual is steam rolled at the hands of society; in America, society is steam rolled at the hands of the individual. Which is better? Perhaps it just depends upon perspective.

The grass is always seems greener on the other side, my mother would caution me. I failed to take these words to heart as I continually ventured to the other side. But I found that the grass is rarely any greener.

I believe that the fall of China may come at the hands of a superficial idea of  individualism. Now, in the younger generation in China, it seems to me that the society seems incapable of such change – the people are still socialized on the same old terms – but the next generation may blossom forth with new ideas. This generation has an idealistic, superficial notion of individualism, the next may actually lay claim their own path, and change China forever.

I am frightened at this prospect, as it has the potential of blossoming out of control. The China of today reminds me very much of my idea of 1950’s America: the old ways are showing signs of changing, although they are still, at root, the same old ways. The generation after the 1950’s exploded, tested the extremes of their tethers – broke their reigns, broke down boundaries, and reacted against their socialization – and America was changed.

I predict a new Cultural Revolution to over take China, and it is one that will come from below rather than above, from the young rather than the old. I sense that the long honed ways of China will be reinterpreted and creativity will overflow its bounds.

Much like mid-twentieth century America.

For better or worse.

Filed under: Changing China, China, Culture and Society

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

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