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WORLDVIEW: The duality of China

Beijing culture offers strong traditions as well as social and political change

By Avi Snyder
On October 31, 2011

  • Avi Snyder ’13 (second from left) and other students studying abroad climb the steps of the Temple Heaven, a complex of Taoist buildings situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing. PHOTOS COURTESY OF AVI SNYDER
  • Students meet a Chinese bride while out in Beijing’s Art District.
  • Snyder and a friend enjoy themselves visiting a park in China.

As we stood on top of the legendary wall, with an endless expanse of mountains on our left and the city of Beijing on our right, it was hard not to feel as if we were living in some alternate reality. After 15 minutes or so of walking along the Great Wall of China, one person in our group finally said out loud what the rest of us had been thinking: "Guys, is this real life right now?"

The truth is that, as a foreign student studying in China, it's hard not to get that feeling of surrealism a lot. After all, I am living every day in that faraway place to which so many of us tried to dig as children.

It isn't just that China is so culturally different from the United States that makes it feel unreal. After a short while, using chopsticks to eat came naturally, and China's infamous squat toilets stopped being so frightening. Nor is it simply the magnificence of tourist attractions like the Great Wall or the Yellow Mountain. What consistently takes me aback, what makes me wonder if I've stepped into an alternate dimension of sorts, is the social and cultural contradiction that permeates Chinese society through and through.

China has one of the longest histories of any nation in the world. Its traditional culture stretches back thousands of years and remains deeply ingrained in the country's culture. The Confucian emphasis on hierarchy, social stability and deference to authority is visible in many daily interactions with native Chinese.

At meals, it is expected that everyone wait for the oldest or most prominent person at the table to begin eating before anyone else reaches for food. When store clerks hand you change, they almost always use two hands to give you the money, as if presenting you, the customer, with a gift. Compared to Westerners, the Chinese are far more conscious of social status and the hierarchical relationship of any given interaction.

At the same time, the past century has been a period of incredible social and political upheaval in China. As it was exposed to Western influence at the end of the 19th century, the sacred cows of Chinese culture began to be questioned. The overthrow of China's final imperial dynasty, its long civil war, the massive social changes of the Mao Era and China's recent economic reforms have all left deeply confusing and contradictory marks on the Chinese psyche.

Nowhere are the internal contradictions of Chinese society more starkly embodied than at Tiananmen Square. Though Westerners see Tiananmen as a symbol of the Chinese government's violent suppression of dissent, walking around the square feels far more like walking around Capitol Hill than a battlefield. However, what does make Tiananmen unique is the way it seems to capture the turmoil of China's last few centuries in such a small space.

The square is located on Beijing's north-south axis, along with many of the city's important sites and monuments. Directly to its north lies Gu Gong, also known as the Forbidden City, the imperial palace complex during the Ming and Qing Dynasties that symbolizes the architecture, culture and social structure of ancient imperial China.

Yet just south of the city lies an enormous picture of Communist China's founding father, Chairman Mao Zedong, looking out over the Square. That a man who so detested traditional Chinese culture, who started a Cultural Revolution to tear down that ancient world, is memorialized right next to the greatest symbol of that imperial China is an irony of epic proportions.

As if this mishmash of symbols and monuments were not disorienting enough, smack in the middle of Tiananmen stand two enormous television monitors. The day I visited the square, the monitors were showing flashy pictures to promote one of China's most modern, Western cities; Shanghai. As your gaze moves from north to south along Tiananmen Square, Chinese history flashes before your eyes in a nonsensical juxtaposition of ancient culture, Communist memorials and Western advertisements.

I have seen similar scenes in many places throughout China. I once walked through an alleyway connecting the traditional Chinese street market in Shanghai to a Western-style mall. It is common for street vendors selling knockoff Rolex watches and other products of the capitalist West along with Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, small red books promoting Maoist ideology.

Despite what Western stereotypes of Chinese people may be, there are quite a variety of different views among people here about their country in the modern age.

Just last week, I was sitting on a train between Shaoxing and Hangzhou listening to the man on my right sing the praises of his native country and invite me to his hometown for a visit. Not a minute after he finished speaking, the man on my left interjected, telling me to go back to the United States where my life would inevitably be better than it would in China.

Seeing all of this contradictory culture and hearing these contradictory views leaves me with the sense that the Chinese don't really know what to make of their recent or ancient history. It seems to me that the Chinese wish to preserve all of their historical legacies despite the cognitive dissonance that may require. Still unable to fully make sense of all the changes it has undergone in recent years, China remains a surreal mixture of the ancient and the modern, the socialist and the entrepreneurial, the East and West.

Yet, as confusing as this apparent clash of cultures appears to me at times, I have come to believe that, in a very important way, it has helped me make China my home.

The factors that push a Western college student to put his or her life on hold and come to China are numerous to be sure. But as wildly diverse as the many students who come here are, there are important commonalities that bring us together. We all have a sense of adventure. We all appreciate the excitement of exploring the as-of-yet unknown. And we all have a little something to run away from back home.

A little over a month ago, just a few weeks into my program, another student and I were having one of those heart-to-hearts that often happen late at night. I was expressing my frustration about my inability to make sense of the many contradictory thoughts and emotions that were running through my head at the time. After venting for a bit, my friend shared with me words of wisdom that I have attempted to carry with me ever since.

"Avi, don't worry about it right now," she said. "We're in China."

Though neither she nor I understood it at the time, the meaning of what she told me was far more insightful than it would seem at first blush.

China isn't a good place to stop worrying about life's problems simply because we happen to be abroad. After all, despite what I might wish, the rest of the world doesn't pause simply because I'm not a part of it.

China is the right place to let internal contradictions and conflicts sit without resolution because China is a country that does just that. Though it has finally grown out of its stormy adolescence, China has yet to put all the chaos of that period behind it.

It is a country in its young adulthood, trying to make sense of all the cultural and political upheaval it has undergone. China, like myself and many of my fellow students, is full of contradictions, stumbling clumsily into a future it hopes will be more peaceful and harmonious.

I have come to realize that as foreign and unfamiliar as China may be to the Western college student, it inhabits a space many of us find all too familiar. And thus, for both my fellow students and myself, China certainly is real life, in the truest possible sense.

Editor's note: Avi Snyder '13 is a former columnist for the Justice.


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