About Helen Sawyer

I am a 3rd year Textile Design student at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee.

Changes Throughout the Generations

China is one of the world’s fastest growing economies in the world, so naturally has seen some drastic changes in its culture and way of life.

I aim to discover how life has changed for those living in China over the generations; what the living conditions were like, and how they are now.  To what extent has the ongoing construction work changed China’s biggest cities and are old traditions being abandoned due to a culture that is suffering with these ongoing drastic changes.

The ‘City of Dreams’ documentary is a brilliant insight to the unbelievable changes that are happening in Shanghai.  With a staggering population of 23 million, Shanghai is the ‘posing symbol of China’s phenomenal growth’ and its current redevelopment is called the ‘largest construction project in the world.’  With its middle class making a surge of wealth and its incredible ‘science-fiction’ skyline Shanghai really is the ‘new’ China.  With the considerable amount of construction work that is ever changing Shanghai’s skyline, it is said that the streets now resemble those of New York and Toronto, with McDonald’s, H&M’s, designer shops and numerous starbucks on every street.  Shanghai has clearly been heavily influenced by Western cultures and over the years has seen its own culture disappear.

So how has this changed the lives of many civilians in China?  This documentary followed three people, an upcoming advertising and film director, a fashion designer whose aim is to conquer the fashion world and a lady who has lost almost everything due to these changes.

This recent economic boom has affected everyone in China, in particular those that aren’t well off.  For this one lady, she has lost her job, her home and is now worried she won’t be able to support her son.  She is one of 2 million other residents in Shanghai who have lost their homes.  Dealing with this struggle can be unbearable; her husband tried to fight the system and is now in jail.

Many homes are being destroyed to make room for new high-rise apartments thus destroying old communities that families have lived in for generations. To add to this struggle, many homeowners in these small communities have only been offered a fraction of what their homes are actually worth which leads them unable to afford a new home in the city once their homes have been destroyed.

Not only are small communities being destroyed, but also ancient buildings that hold hundreds of years of culture and history.  A statement from the book ‘City of Heavenly Tranquility’ by Jasper Becker really stood out to me.  Becker talks about how many ancient buildings have been destroyed but the Chinese authorities ‘have constructed ‘new’ historic buildings or temples from scratch’ for tourism purposes.

Whilst many families are suffering with these changes, others are finding the advantages of this economic boom.  An upcoming advertising and film director talks about being the first generation in almost fifty years to not be controlled by the communist party.  He goes on to talk about Shanghai’s booming advertising prospects and how he has benefitted greatly, but also talks about his past and memories of living a very ordinary life, wearing simple clothing and living in cramped living conditions.  He also talked about how traditions have changed and how the younger generations of China are in no rush to get married or have children.  They simply want to enjoy life.

Along with the director, a passionate fashion designer has also benefited from these changes.  China is known for its incredible culture and family traditions, however over time the younger generations find it almost impossible to find work close to home, so nowadays many are moving away from home to pursue their dreams or find a job.  This is exactly what this young fashion designer did.  She moved to the city to pursue her dreams and now she is a very respected fashion designer in Shanghai.  She talked about how some cultural traditions help keep her family together, but others have been completely abandoned.  She remembers how disappointed her grandparents were when the younger generation started to move away.  Her grandparents wanted her family to stay together as traditionally the more people there are in a family, the more prosperous you become.  Like many women in China, she was determined to be a part of the ‘hip new urban lifestyle’ and enjoyed leaving the old restrictions and attitudes that stopped women from achieving their dreams behind.

Another major change in the Chinese society is the cost of education.  This documentary also addressed the issue of families moving to smaller apartments as the cheap rent allows the parents to provide a good education for their children.  Education has become very important and many children in China are feeling the pressure to do well so they can move away and earn a better living than their parents.

Other sources, such as China’s Housing Crisis, an article by Peter Yuan Cai, gives details on how expensive it is for new couples in China to buy a new home in China’s ever-changing economy.  Not only do they need to save money themselves but they also need the support from both parents and grandparents – ‘Three generations of savings are thus exhausted in buying a single house.’

China will continue to change for many years to come.  It’s clear their traditions is what keeps their culture alive, but how much longer will this last?

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Attitudes Towards China

When it comes to buying the latest technology or fashion trend, are people aware of where these goods are coming from?

I aim to find out what peoples attitudes are towards China today; are they aware of where the goods they are buying were actually manufactured, and how do they perceive the quality of ‘Made in China’ goods compared to ‘Western’ goods?

I set out with a short questionnaire that covered the basics of these topics.   I interviewed a cross-section of people to see what their perceptions were.  Here are a consolidated series of opinions that were shared.

Firstly, I asked ‘when buying new technologies or clothes do you think about where the product is coming from or are you more focused on the brand, price and how it looks?

The majority of people said they never think about where their products are coming from.  However, one gentleman did say it would depend on what he was buying.  For example, if he were to buy a car or tools for DIY then he would generally go for German made as they have an excellent reputation, but for anything else he said he never puts much thought into it.  I also went onto ask one lady about her opinions on buying clothes, she said that it’s incredibly rare now-a-days to see clothing with the label ‘Made in Britain’ and if more things were made locally then she would buy them, but most of the clothes she purchases are from China or Asia.

I then went onto ask where they thought most of their goods were manufactured and why –

Most said China or Asia, however some had no idea.  When asked why, I was given some very interesting answers; some just linked their answer to the ‘Made in China’ stereotype, but others spoke about the huge work force and cheap labour.  The huge work force allows for mass production of goods and although the workers are paid very little they are willing to work hard to support their families.  Some went onto talk about ‘sweat shops’, they were aware to avoid purchasing goods that were manufactured in these places.  One lady said ‘nobody should be exploited’ and she would be prepared to support this cause.

I then asked, ‘what do you think the general publics perception of ‘Made in China’ goods is?

The general consensus was ‘cheap.’  It was discussed that people today, especially the older generations, are heavily influenced by the past and are stuck with the historical memory of ‘Made in China’ goods being cheap.  One person mentioned his opinion on the fact that many people didn’t, and still don’t, appreciate China’s ability to produce good quality products.  Another went onto to say how people today are very money orientated.  Those with money are willing to pay a fortune for designer labels, but how much did these designer clothes actually cost to make?  An interesting point made by one of my subjects.

Finally, I asked ‘how do you perceive the quality of ‘Made in China’ goods compared to ‘Western’ goods?

Again, some said that ‘Made in China’ goods were cheap and ‘Western” goods are of a better quality.  This, however, wasn’t the case for all.  A few people spoke about how China has flourished with the technology boom and as their society has improved dramatically so has their ability to manufacture high quality products on a massive scale.  I was also surprised to here one person say he thought the quality of China made goods were in fact better than ‘Western’ goods because of the huge number of employees that are willing to work extremely hard to produce high quality products.

It’s clear that many are still heavily influenced by the past and still perceives China made goods as cheap.  Whilst in some areas this may still be true, China has developed dramatically over the years and is now an influential competitor in the world.

Personally, I’ve never really put much thought into where my goods are coming from, not until recently when I watched a documentary called ‘Factory City.’  This programme looked at one of the largest factories in the world, Eupa, situated in the Southeast corner of China.  I found this documentary a real eye opener to the way many of our goods are manufactured.  It was truly fascinating how dedicated the factory’s 17,000 workers were and the amount of pressure they are under every day to produce staggering amounts of goods which are then exported all over the world.  Not only do they work in this factory, they dedicate their entire lives to this factory; they live within the surrounding area, they eat there, they get married there, they raise their families there and send their children to school there.

So why do ‘Made in China’ goods have this stereotype of being cheap when most of the latest technology and clothes we buy are in fact made in China.  I, for one will now be more aware of where my goods are manufactured and will appreciate all the hard work that is put into making them.

The Art of Batik

The art of batik is one that if often overlooked, but dating back to as early as the sixth century it is known as one of China’s ancient handicraft techniques.

Along with the bandhu method (tie dyeing) and the calico method (block/stencil printing), batik is one of the three major printing crafts in Ancient China. A highly skilled and time consuming craft, batik is a type of wax printing that prevents the dye from reaching certain areas of the fabric.  The wax, beeswax being the most commonly used, is applied to the fabric using a tjanting (a tool that holds and dispenses the hot wax).  This tool allows the artist to control the pattern laid down by the wax with a great deal of precision.  However, in ancient times a thin blade of a bronze knife would have been used.  The wax has to penetrate the fabric completely before applying the dye otherwise the process will not work.  Once the wax is dry, the fabric is dyed in a cold-water vat of soluble dye, or alternatively can be painted on.  When the dyeing process is complete the fabric is then washed in hot water; this dissolves the wax, which in turn reveals a pattern in a contrasting colour to the dyed fabric.  Naturally, this could be the finished piece but a batik artist may apply several layers of colour, adding numerous layers of wax and re-dyeing the fabric to create a multi-coloured and more detailed fabric.

It is still unknown when batik was invented, but an old folks tale tells us something:

Long ago, there was a girl living in a stone village called Anshun, now a city in Guizhou Province. She was fond of dyeing white cloth blue and purple. One day, while she was working, a bee happened to alight on her cloth. After she took away the bee, she found there was a white dot left on the cloth, which looked very pretty. Her finding led to the use of wax in dyeing.”

Batik is believed to have existed in China as early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD).  In ancient times, batik was a tradition that was passed down from generation to generation; this however, is no longer the case.  As Chinese society evolved, this process was abandoned.  There are now only two communities in China that have preserved the tradition of batik, the Zhuang and the Miao ethnic groups.  These two communities live in small enclaves in Guizhou, Guangxi, Sichuan and Yunnan, Provinces in South West China.  The Miao group in particular use wax printing along with embroidery and weave for their designs, using mainly hemp and cotton.  They also put great emphasis on their costumes, which are made up of decorative fabrics that are achieved by pattern weaving and wax resist.  Batik printing has been an essential part of all the women’s lives in these remote parts of China and will continue to be used for many years to come.

Example of Miao Batik

Batik designs are often taken from the artists memories or ancient tales relating to the artists culture.  The designs are bold, vibrant and powerful, each telling a different story.

Example of an ancient tale being told through batik

Through time the style of batik has changed considerably; traditionally the designs were very geometric but nowadays, the designs have been modernised and more figurative designs are used such as flowers, birds and fish.  However, it stands true that batik ‘displays the unique enchantment of Chinese art.’

I find this process truly inspiring; each design is unique and eye-catching with rich patterns and elegant colour.  Everything a textile designer loves!

Since originating in China, batik became yet another “Silk Road” commodity that was exported all over the world.  Whilst there are very few in China that still practice this technique, batik is renowned in other parts of Asia, in particular Indonesia.

As China continues to evolve, their passion for ancient traditions and practises is one that is still incredibly fascinating, and will continue to inspire many for years to come.

China’s Image Abroad

Over the past few decades the world has seen tourism in China expand enormously.  It is now the third most visited country in the world and in 2010 alone it saw 55.98 million tourists explore its incredible culture.

So what is it that attracts so many to this historical country?

That is what I aim to find out.  I want to discover how China is “sold” to potential tourists through travel brochures and sites.  I want to show what these travel agents have to offer and how they encourage this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip.

Over the years, china has seen a lot of destruction and as a result has had to construct new ‘historic’ buildings or temples from scratch to promote tourism.  It does, however, still hold some of the greatest wonders of the world.

The first thing I noticed when looking at these travel brochures and sites were the glorified photographs.  Whilst that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I began to see similarities between many of the photos and all these sites were promoting the same tourist attractions; The Great Wall of China, the Xi’an’s Terracotta Army, The Forbidden Palace and Tian’anmen Square.  These are the main tourist attractions, but China has a lot more to offer.

Most travel sites offer a variety of holiday’s packages, including family holidays, group holidays, holidays for those travelling alone and those for students.  However, most are encouraging group tours. During my research I came across a travel site called Wendy Wu Tours.  This site offers an experience that is slightly different to any I’ve seen before.  It promotes group tours depending on your fitness level.  There are three categories; comfortable, medium and active paced tours.   I think this is a great way to promote a holiday, however like many group tours you are given a few days to explore China for yourself and for many who are left without the security of a tour guide who knows the culture and language it can be very hard to adjust to and can be very challenging.

When it comes to advice, most travel sites don’t offer much on what to be aware of and most are promoting group tours.  But Travel the Real China is a website that gives brilliant advice on places to go, what to be aware of and gives an account of someone’s personal experiences.  He’s honest about the things he struggled with such as the language barrier but also says that ‘Seeing and experiencing the Real China will change your life’ everything from the sights and the sounds to the people and the amazing food.  Along with Travel the Real China, Audley Travel gives an incredible account of China and what to expect.  It provides itinerary ideas, suggested accommodation, travel guides, the best time of year to go and specialist knowledge.

Tourists are clearly drawn to this country’s incredible culture, its history and the stories it has to tell, but how much longer will this last? China is under threat from rapid monderisation.  Many communities have been destroyed to make room for China’s booming population and the only way to do this is by building tall blocks of apartments where these small communities once lived.   Whilst Thomson travel sites promotes a fascinating holiday that tells a story of two countries, one being ‘an ancient kingdom embedded in the past, the other an electrifying agent of change’ it also warns tourists that ‘the China of old threatens to disappear forever’ due to ongoing changes in its economy.

All these travel sites and brochures offer different things but all of them continue to encourage tourists to visit this incredible country; a country that has a reputation for exceptional hospitality and a culture that is so inspiring.

Thomson describe its China tours as a way to ‘discover the unique rural landscape in all its glory’, Thomas Cook describes it as ‘unmissable’ and Audley Travel say ‘China is truly a country of thrilling contrasts, bursting with energy and magic.’

I suppose it’s the same with any holiday, no matter how much research you do beforehand you never know what to expect until you experience it for yourself.  For me, I’d love to experience the Real China.