“Emigration is the act of leaving one’s native country or region to settle in another.”
In the past few decades, China has witnessed the largest human migration in history. Every year millions of workers leave their homes in rural villages in search of urban employment in the big cities. China’s “floating population” leave behind their friends and family with the hope of a better life, for both themselves and the family back home whom they can send money back to.
The migrants often find that their new life in the city is not what they hoped for. The hours are long, the pay poor and the jobs boring. They persevere because they often have people back home relying on them and because there would be great shame in returning home a failure.
On the opposite end of the scale though there is a growing trend in emigration amongst the wealthiest of Chinese. The Huran Research Institute has published statistics in 2011 revealing that 14% of China’s wealthy have emigrated out of the country or are applying to do so, and a further 46% are considering it. These “wealthy” are defined by having more than 10 million Yuan (nearly £1 million). Many go to Hong Kong, where life is easier both politically and financially but the immigrants don’t have to sever all ties with China. Others generally leave for the USA, Canada, Singapore and Australia. These wealthy mainlanders feel their families and children would have better lives overseas, and cite reasons such as higher quality education, convenience, to avoid political issues, cleanliness and safety.
Many of these expatriates will return to China in their retirement, but it’s a different story for their children, who know much less about China and will often choose to remain in the west. This younger generation will have been raised in a different culture from their parents, and hence will have different values and outlooks on life.
I talked to a friend of mine who is a student at Dundee University, he is of Chinese descent but was born here in Scotland. I asked him about the history of emigration in his family and got to understand the motivation behind the migrations of three different generations, which were all for very different reasons and essentially reflect the era that each generation came from.
For his grandmother, moving from Hong Kong from China was a matter of safety. She fled there with her family to escape the invasion of the Japanese in China. This eight year conflict claimed the lives of 20 million Chinese according to official statistics. I used Google to try and source a statistic about how many Chinese fled China during this time and couldn’t find anything along those lines, which suggests that not very many did. Perhaps my friend’s family was among the very rare and fortunate.
The prospect of a better quality education took his father to Scotland. Although he was born and raised in Malaysia, his family is Chinese. He came here to study engineering at Edinburgh University, but then never ended up returning to Malaysia upon graduating. This was mainly because he had started to make a life here, he had a job and had met his future wife, and would go on to do a PhD. I enquired about how his family felt about this permanent emigration, my friend wasn’t too sure, but he was under the impression that it was seen as a positive thing.
As an afterthought I asked, “Would you ever go to live in China?”
“No, never” he said firmly and confidently. This answer didn’t come as a surprise, but I asked for an explanation anyway. He considered the question briefly before replying.
“Mainly because of the government I guess. It’s a closed system and they are closed minded. Ironically I realize it seems that I am closed minded for saying that, but it’s true, at least for the most part. There’s much less freedom there.”
In this century in the United Kingdom, it’s almost impossible for my generation to imagine a life where we don’t have complete freedom of speech, where we don’t have the right to democracy, and where we can’t just type a few words into a search engine to find any information we could ever want to know. To suddenly have to live under a Chinese style regime would be a massive culture shock, and we’d feel it was for the worse.
There are those currently living in China who fantasize of leaving but just don’t have the money of means to do so, the generation who feel they are still young enough to have their own American Dream. In Paul Midler’s book “Poorly Made in China” he meets a factory manager who tells Midler that he is from Los Angeles in the USA, after much confusion it is finally understood that he has never actually lived there but once visited the city on holiday and now wishes it was his home. Los Angeles was his aspiration, so he called it his home.
The reason I used the word emigration apposed to immigration for this post is because I wanted to focus on the attitudes and feelings the Chinese have about people leaving home, rather than the attitudes to the millions of immigrants who arrive into China’s cities. Emigration is the act of leaving ones home for another country or region. Immigration is the act of arriving in that country or region.
In the ways of innovation, China is a growing power with many products beginning to be developed in China, and the ones that are not, are most likely manufactured there. China’s big issue is trying to step up from its current position where everything is ‘made in China’ to one where everything is also designed in China. This opinion has only changed over the last 20 years, and places Chinese Product Design firmly in its infant years. The improvements have come about with an increase in skilled Chinese students, meaning China does not need to outsource talent, and with its cheaper production costs, it may well benefit companies to completely up stick and move to China to design and produce its product range.
Some of China’s achievements are visible: for example, a doubling of the global percentage of patents granted to Chinese inventors since 2005, and the growing role of Chinese companies in the wind and solar-power industries. China aims to push its creative thinkers further by encouraging them to replace their four ancient great inventions (mentioned below) with brand new world changing inventions;
“Electing four great modern inventions will encourage the new generations to press forward on the road of discovery,” said Wang Yusheng, former director of the China Science and Technology Museum.
Innovation in China, although heavily outweighed by manufacturing, dates back thousands of years in history. Pre 1900’s the compass, gunpowder, paper making and printing are regarded as ancient China’s four great inventions. Regarding gunpowder, China innovated several other war tools, such as the flamethrower, hand cannon and the cast iron bomb. From gunpowder came one of Chinas most explosive inventions, fireworks, which is now one of China’s largest exports.
Chinoiserie is actually quite difficult to find in modern Product Design, especially with a view to discuss it. Products that are designed to look Chinese without actually being Chinese do not really appear in many sectors, with technology, automotive industries and many other modern day sectors lacking instances of it. Products such as furniture and crockery, namely coffee tables and tea sets, are part of a vast market of products with a resemblance to the Chinese style, and may be one that proves worthy of time and investment for other industries to dwell into. A great example can be found in this posh clock shop from London… the workmanship demonstrated in these pieces really is beautiful. Chinoiserie Comitti Clocks.
The capacity for innovation is growing in China, and in many industries it is taking the markets by storm. In 2010, China became the largest producer of wind technologies, leaping ahead of rivals the USA, Germany and Spain. This rise has been led by the minds of her industry leading companies, Goldwind, Dongfang, and Sinovel. The extent of China’s renewables development is highlighted by the fact that in 2009 she had already surpassed her 2010 target of 10GW by 15.1GW. By 2020, the Chinese governments hopes to have designed and manufactured enough high tech wind turbines to push that figure up to 100GW. The initial future target set by the Chinese government was 10 GW by 2010 but the total installed capacity for wind power generation in China has already reached 25.1 GW by the end of 2009 China aims to have 100 GW of wind power capacity by 2020.
In December 2011, China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) announced it is aiming for the country’s installed solar power generating capacity to reach 15 GW by 2015. This is a 50% increase from its previous plan. China’s share of the global turbine market more than doubled to 32% since 2008 and its manufacturers comprise seven of the world’s top 15 suppliers.
Regarding Product Designers in China, the number of successful and recognised persons is certainly on the up, and the work of one in particular, Liu Zhili, has caught my eye. An example of his very poetic work can be seen here, called the Shrub Table.
To conclude, China has a past full of inventions, some which have shaped the world, and others, which have become an integral part of our everyday lives. Although times changed since with manufacturing becoming her key role, China is now not only a hub for production, but a world full of creative thinkers, and it is now innovating at a frightening pace. It is up to the rest of the world to keep up, or buy Chinese.
When you think of Chinese design you think of ancient practices and styles that have been around for centuries, but China has evolved and is still evolving along with the rest of the world, and design for digital media is now an important outlet. It’s a fair statement to say that although the Chinese are masters in many areas, innovation in digital and interaction design is not currently one of them. In this respect they are followers and not leaders, at the moment anyway. There is a very stereotypical view that Chinese children are pushed by their parents to succeed strongly in academia, and not really encouraged in creative subjects, but with more than four hundred design schools in China to date, clearly China is growing up into a creative nation. The proof for this is that good Chinese generated design is in a rapid state of growth.
China found itself following in the paths of nations that are already developed in digital design. They may be the forerunners in production, but many of the plans and designs for goods and services manufactured for retail and use in the West came from the West and had just been brought to life in China, and often design originating from China was actually imitations from other nations, with China following the “fashions”. Was this partly because China was impeded from absorbing from and keeping pace with other countries because of a lack of open web environment? With restriction on Internet usage in China, perhaps spending time creating great design and content for the Internet wasn’t really seen as appealing or worthwhile.
A few years ago there was a trend where Chinese websites were imitating Korean ones, they were vibrant, colourful and heavily flash based. All focus was on the visuals but as the average Chinese Internet user developed, the websites and designers were forced to develop too. Website’s aren’t now shunning the heavy visual basis for their sites, but they are making a big effort to incorporate good content hierarchies and design to optimise their sites to suit Chinese Internet users, and not the users of any other country.
It’s important to realise that China is developing a web style all of it’s own, it is not just trying to match the quality and character of other countries that are web leaders. China is such a huge country and therefore has an instant huge market, it can easily thrive without trying to gain business from the rest of the world. This allows Chinese web designers to design for China and nobody else, so naturally as culture plays a massive role in the lives of the Chinese, it also plays a big role in the messages they communicate through the medium of web design.
Lytous Zhou, a Shenzhen based visual designer and author of the book UI Evolutionism provides an example of the differences between an American site and a Chinese site, both selling the exact same product but offering different experiences.
“Pizza Hut China, which is an example I like to use every time I explain cultural differences, uses Chinese elements heavily all over its website: in the color scheme and family theme. Warm reds and yellows are colors symbolic of festivity in China, and the family dinner is highly regarded in Chinese society.”
“By comparison, Pizza Hut US highlights fast food and online ordering on its home page. Red is also Pizza Hut US’ theme color, but it’s more solid, darker and cooler than the warm red on the Chinese website.”
Zhou also states that when targeting a Chinese audience a websites profile should reflect the profile and aesthetics of its users.
This is not the only difference in approaching web design that Chinese designers take note of. The Chinese use the same keyboards as the West and typing Chinese on an alphabet based keyboard is hard, therefore sites are designed so that users can click their way though the site rather than searching. To Western eyes the sites just look complicated and cluttered, but for the Chinese it’s practical.
Back to the point in the beginning paragraph, that the Chinese are followers and not leaders when it comes to website design. This may be true for the techniques and technologies used, but for style and usability they are designing for their own unique market and are therefore not trying to follow anybody else. Chinese web design is moving into a category of its own.
Ancient Chinese thought was a blend of two philosophical movements. In 500 BC, Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius) was teaching from the Six Classics, ancient Chinese books about art, philosophy and history. He combined these books with his own ideas to make what would be called Confucianism – a philosophical system studied all over the world. Within China this system would become a part of society, affecting the education system, influencing social behaviour and developing customs and traditions in family life.
In balance with this was the school of thought called Taoism, established at about the same time by Lao Tzu. The Taoists drew their inspiration from nature and focused on observing and understanding its Tao, or ‘Way’. The Way is interpreted as the ultimate force that pervades all matter and events. It is the process of the universe and is known as Brahman in Hinduism, Dharmakaya or ‘Suchness’ in Buddhism, and is what Christianity might call God.
These two different philosophies both appreciate the underlying principle of balance in the universe. The idea that any two opposites are bound together. In the West we are familiar with the ‘Yin and Yang’ symbol. It illustrates the endless cycle of change, which is the main focus of the I Ching – a Confucian Classic that has a following in the western world. I Ching translates as ‘Book of Changes’ and focuses on understanding the flow of change in the world. The system described in the book can also be applied in day-to-day life, and for this reason it seems more accessible to Westerners.
In attempting to study Chinese thought, the main problem is with the vast difference in language. Mandarin is an emotional language – the characters are pictorial. They haven’t totally lost their visual meaning the way the western alphabets have. Words in Mandarin seem to be sung in tones, their words have different meanings and can be nouns, verbs, adjectives. The language conveys emotions and feelings on a level that is hard for Westerners to pick up on unless they are fluent.
Because Mandarin is fundamentally different from Western languages, it is very difficult for people in the West to access the wealth of philosophical and mystical knowledge available in China. This is the same reason the ‘Yin and Yang’, known in China as T’ai-chi T’u (‘Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate’), is recognised in the West as an icon depicting the constant flow of change and the balance of opposites. It was designed, like many logos and motifs, to transcend language.
Another way to bypass the language barrier is using physical movement and meditation. In Taoism, as in Hinduism and Buddhism, meditation is used to clear the mind and find balance, and ultimately to observe and understand the universe. But as well as having spiritual value, meditation can be helpful in everyday life. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a meditative martial art that has close links to Taoism. Its philosophical aim is to combine the two opposites, yin and yang, into a Supreme Ultimate, but T’ai Chi Chuan has become popular all over the globe for its health benefits and as a self-defence technique, as well as its value as way to clear the mind and relax.
Both Taoism and Confucianism have become recognised and studied in the world outside China. Books such as the I Ching are available online anywhere. Confucius is a big name in philosophy studied and appreciated internationally, and T’ai Chi Chuan is practised in many places in the world. But because of their complex, malleable language and very different customs, much of the knowledge and wisdom of the old Chinese masters seems unobtainable in the West.