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Guizhou Tongren: Is This What They Mean By “The Real China?”

“The real China” is the places you’ve never heard of.

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There is no reason to ever go to Guizhou Tongren. Well, except maybe to transfer to another destination — the train runs through here. Other than that, this place may as well be off the map.

The city is pretty much just three parallel streets that flank a river and weave between two sets of hills. There are cigarette shops, a cluster of hotels near the train station, local quicky marts, a few banks, and a new, one block long shopping district that has a pedestrian street, a KFC, and a small mall. The surrounding area is made up of mountains, small villages, and tobacco farms. There is really nothing to make this place stand out from any other modern city in this country, there is not much to even notice here — unless you like bronze status of Miao people dancing and playing drums. This is absolutely normal China.

Maybe this is what they mean by “the real China?”

“The real China.” It’s a nonsensical assemblage of words — of course it’s all the real China — but the phrase still has meaning. To put it bluntly, you know what someone means when they say, “The real China.” They mean the parts of the country that hasn’t yet been expunged of community in exchange for endless strips of KFCs, shopping malls, office blocks, Starbucks, and pricey high-rise apartment blocks where nobody knows their neighbors. “The real China” is found in places you’ve never heard of before, the places that will never grace the pages of a tourist brochure, that you will never hear anyone speak of, the places that make up the bulk of the country. “The real China” is raw and grungy, it is the places where people have not yet traded in their own ways of doing things and living strategies to acquiesce with the parameters of “the global culture.”

The real China has little to do with the age of the buildings that people live in or even the type of architecture. It’s more about the spirit of the community and the power and extent of tradition. While in the old style single story, brick house hutongs a tight community is almost a given — people are living right in front of each other by design, there is nowhere to hide — but the same essence can still exist in new apartment complexes as well. It’s the people that matter here, and a neighborhood that knows itself whose members interact face to face on an almost daily basis for generations is going to be tight no matter what style house they live in.

It’s an “in the streets culture” in these places: the people are, to put it simply, out in the streets talking to each other, reaffirming social bonds, keeping the fabric of community woven tight.

China is a country that doesn’t seem to know gradients, and everything is either to one extreme or the other. Neighborhoods here seem to be either incredibly close knit, super social places full of people who have been living there for generations or they are sectors of where it feels awkward to nod and say hello to your neighbors in the elevator.

Vast swaths of this country are becoming “middle classed,” they are becoming modernized, globalized, whatever you want to call the social phenomenon that removes people from their traditional geographic sphere, arranges them in single family units, and thrusts them into a new landscape where they are too busy working and shopping to bother interacting with their neighbors. Many aspects of tradition become irrelevant in these places, the value systems are adapted to fit the 21st century, the old ways are not passed down, the people are too connected to take the time to look up from their cellphones and talk with the people around them.

The people in these “modernized” living systems are often from other parts of the country with no real ties to the places they currently live in — other than the fact that they live there. To speak generally, they move from their subdivided sectors to work, to the mall, to a restaurant, and then back to their subdivided sectors, they are essentially ghosts in their communities — the family next door that you sometimes see in the elevator, the guy down the hall that you can hear screaming into his cellphone but don’t know what he looks like, the people going into a room on your floor that you don’t think you’ve ever seen before. In the “modern” apartment highrises that are made up of social transplants the people tend not to talk in the hallways, they don’t say hello to each other in the elevators, they move through the place they live in as though their neighbors don’t exist. It’s the polar opposite of the traditional communities they often come from.

More on the China Chronicle: Old traditions are destroyed as China modernizes

“We go into our apartments to hide,” a Chinese friend once told me. This is true.

The poor are moving away from their homes for work. The middle class is moving away from their homes for better jobs. The young leave home for school. The educated seek opportunities in the booming cities of the east coast. The rich, well, the rich everywhere seem to like building barricades around themselves. This is a country in motion. Sometimes it seems as if nobody currently lives where they are from, and community is corroding throughout China.

“The real China” is where communities stay together and tradition lives on through the bulldozer era. But you can often only see it in the nowhere regions of the country where there is no reason to ever go — in places like Guizhou Tongren.

Filed under: 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 3651 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

7 comments… add one

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  • Sheila July 22, 2013, 2:08 am

    Wade, I’ve been reading your blog for a while after you interviewed my former co-worker Robin. Just wanted to tell you that I am an admirer of your incredible writing skills. Each blog tells a story and I’m transported to China with you and the people you describe in each post. Cheers!

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    • Wade | TheChinaChronicle.com July 22, 2013, 2:31 am

      Thank you for reading! This feedback truly means a lot.

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  • rivertiger August 25, 2013, 12:45 pm

    When I traveled thru asia’s megalopolis’ i asked these questions what made them so ‘asian-ey’ and where was that ‘feel’ when i visited beijing, shanghai, and shenzen…but your points here made narrow the paradox of china’s race to be ‘modern’. For local chinese–they see ‘progress’. However, for us westerners, it has an opposite effect of breaking down our westernised thoughts on what authentic ‘china’ should be…meaning full of ‘ancient-y’ chinese cities that are borderline exotic in nature. Whether its collectively ‘valued’ over time, only time will tell…but since the measurement of whats been labeled as ‘treasured’ has traditionally only been viewed through western lenses, i doubt that this transformation would be considered ‘real’ in the historical, cultural sense, because its clear that the chinese do not themselves value (generally) their own historical sense of ‘place/culture’, because they are constantly measuring themselves against other societies.

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    • VagabondJourney August 25, 2013, 8:00 pm

      Thanks for the comment, There is pretty much nothing “ancient-y” about Tongren. It’s almost completely a modern city — well, modern as 1970s – date. I was talking more about the community’s that develop in the outskirts of cities or more out of the way places. Not the buildings themselves.

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    • VagabondJourney August 27, 2013, 11:36 pm

      Sorry, I reread this and realized that you are saying something different. Yes, I agree completely with the first have of this comment, the second half I don’t: the Chinese are very much into romanticizing their history and value it highly. For every western replica style development there are ten new water towns being built. Chinese television is full of historic themed shows as well. They seem to want to romanticize it all: ancient China and the West. Interesting times.

      But I have to say that there is something special about the nowhere places out in the sticks that copy nothing and seem completely bland at first. I guess when you don’t have fancy buildings to look at you notice all the people in the streets talking and strolling together 🙂

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  • solar September 5, 2013, 5:14 pm

    I would like to point out that what you described can easily be made to fit any large North American city. I live in Toronto, in a condo building. I don’t know a single one of my neighbors, and there are only 10 suites on the floor. I don’t think I’m unique in that regard.

    The idea that there is a “real China” (as opposed to a “fake” one) is itself flawed. You are more anonymous in a large city than in a small town. This is true the world over, and has been true since the industrial revolution, if not earlier.

    I was born in Shanghai and though I left China as a child, I was old enough to still remember my life back then. My idea of a “real China” is my parents dropping me off to school every morning, of my mother scolding me for coming home covered in dirt, of visiting my grandparents on weekends and my uncle taking me out for treats, of getting into trouble with my cousin (I was an only child), of taking long bus rides to rural areas to visit my other grandparents and uncles, and of falling asleep on my mother’s lap on the long ride home.

    I disagree that modernization is destroying the senses of community, in China or elsewhere. That is impossible, as community is a part of human nature. Young, urban Chinese workers might not know their neighbor, but they have their own circles of friends, co-workers, and family. Those circles are as much a community as any familiar group of neighbors.

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  • miguel udias October 30, 2013, 1:04 pm

    mi hija es de tongren, me gustaria recibir cualquier informacion de tongren
    muchas gracias

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