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Raise the Red Lantern

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Disneyland or Xi'an, China? I can't really tell...

China is all about impressions, first impressions especially. At this they succeed gallantly. But, if you take a peek behind its curtains, you just might find that China is not all that it is cracked up to be. In place of this great Wizard of Oz, we were left with the impression that a weak, insecure man (a little Chairman Mao, maybe?) was pulling all the country’s levers.

“I think if we were to visit the country China at Disneyworld’s Epcot Center, it would be eerily similar to the China we’re experiencing here,” remarked Laura in the final days of our visit. I could not agree more. It is no wonder that China limits visitors’ stays to 30 days. It seems that each day longer we stayed in China, we began to see past the pretty facades of hastily-erected new structures and started to notice the fissures. Even without China’s artificially advantageous exchange rate, everything seemed and felt cheap, and not in a good way.

Our introduction to China came in the form of Tibet’s euphemistically named “Friendship Highway” and the newly-completed and very impressive Lhasa-to-Beijing railroad. After discovering what the Chinese government had done to the ancient and historical Buddhist religious center of Tibet, we were not too surprised to see greater(?) development when we arrived to Xi’an, the midway point on our transcontinental trip. Xi’an is most widely known for the famous Terracotta Warriors, and dictated, in large part, our decision to visit this classic, walled city.

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The Dallas Cowboys' "Jerryworld" can't compare to China's Terracotta Superdome

Trekking out to where the Terracota Army resides, we were first greeted by a barrage of tacky souvenir shops and a Subway fast-food restaurant (to be fair, many American landmarks begin this way,too). As we made our way to the Superdome-like structure that houses and protects the Terracotta Army, we had to walk a seemingly-endless slab of concrete. While the structure housing the thousands of statues gave great thought to keeping out potentially ruinous sunlight and still allowing natural light, it still seemed “too much” in terms of its grandiosity.

This theme of making a strong impression was evident all around the city of Xi’an. The city walls, ancient even by European standards, are an incredible sight to see. Tourists and locals are permitted to ride atop the extremely wide city walls and take in a bird’s-eye view of the city. All around us as we rode, we saw cranes knocking over the old and building the new. Only the new was meant to look old – that’s the weird part. Instead of protecting the original structures or working to refurbish them, the Chinese government seemed to have decided that it would be cheaper, easier and faster to tear down and build from scratch. So, as much as I was absolutely blown away by how advanced China’s infrastructure seemed to be, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it will last.

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Riding bikes atop Xian's city walls in its circular park

Also, what will be the cultural (and emotional) repercussions of China’s modern advances at the sacrifice of its history? Since Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, a new generation of Chinese has been born without understanding, or at least physically recognizing, one of the world’s richest and most historical cultures. How will these children and grandchildren of the Revolution fully understand the importance of building a sustainable modern society when their parents and grandparents were forced to abandon and crush their very own?

In many ways, through my verbal and written critiques of the Chinese, I feel hypocritical. The first Americans did painfully little to preserve Native American art, cultures, traditions and worse yet – peoples. As a country we’ve done much to denigrate our environment. But, it’s because of these mistakes why I expect more from a developing country like China. Learn from our mistakes is what I’m asking.

I guess if our visit to China taught us one thing, it would be that one month is way too short to understand its past and too long for us to want to understand its future. The facades may fool you at first; they certainly did me. But stay long enough, and you’ll come away with more questions about China’s future than you had when you arrived.

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Comments (2)

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  1. roundwego says:

    @Brock – Absolutely. China’s not all terrible. We both really enjoyed the Muslim quarter of Xi’an. It’s a really unique neighborhood with excellent food and markets. Would highly recommend going to a noodle shop there for lunch or dinner. Also really enjoyed the hutongs, or back alleyways, of Xi’an. Lots of character and very convivial.

    Lastly, because China is governed the way it is, it is capable, very unlike our befuddled Congress, of making tremendous changes at any second. All of the rickshaw taxis in parts of Beijing are electric, not gas. I thought this was awesome and showed that China now understands the importance of protecting their environment and using sustainable resources.

    Oh, their karaoke bars and culture is a sight to be experienced.

  2. Seems like your trip to China was a bit disappointing. Was there anything you were pleasantly surprised by?
    Brock – Backpack With Brock´s last [type] ..Five Things To Do And See In The Newcastle, UK Region