How China Projects Itself to the World as a Travel Destination

When browsing through travel brochures for Beijing, Shanhai and other popular holiday destinations in China, I was somewhat surprised to see that not only did several of the brochures offer an extensive list of generic holiday activities like ‘Golf’ and ‘Skuba Diving’, but they didn’t seem to offer much in the way of exploring the culture. But why, I asked myself, would you want to play  game of golf, which you can do at home, when you’re in a beautiful country full of colour, exotic foods, new people, and interesting places? What strikes me as strange is China’s apparent want to westernise and commercialise itself.

Lychee Park, Shenzhen

Ironically, having never been to China myself, I have very set views of Chinese culture and ways of life. When I think of China, I immediately picture two vastly contrasting images: One being an idyllic countryside, a few solemn, architecturally stunning Chinese houses set against a backdrop of snowy mountains, cherry blossoms and rice fields; The other being a busy, polluted city with constantly rising skyscrapers, traffic jams, and markets bursting full of colour, exciting food and interesting people. All in all, it comes across as an extremely fascinating culture.

People at a Chinese Market

What I can’t understand, however, is China’s apparent need to sway towards commercialism. As a country it seems desperate to abolish its past, its beauty and its nature, in order to make room for westen culture, money and modern success. In Duncan Hewitt’s ‘Getting Rich First: Life In A Changing China’, he tells us of Mr Zhao, the owner of one of the last remaining houses in ‘The Forbidden City’, Beijing.  ‘We came home one day, and saw the Chinese word ‘Chai’, which means ‘demolish’ painted on the wall of the house…’

The Chinese do not appear to have any desire for frivolities or riches. They seem to strive for power, and high achievements rather than beauty and wealth, unlike many other countries. Hense, the Chinese are gradually ruling out everything that is great about their country. Their cities and roads are constantly expanding to make room for more factories and skyscrapers. And therefore, their countryside and nature suffers. Essentially, they are ruling out their past to make room for their future: Power.

A Westernised Chinese Wedding

What I noticed while flicking through travel brochures and ‘Places to Visit in China’ websites, was that the British guides focussed on Chinese culture, where to find the best views, where to experience Chinese ways of life first hand, while the Chinese guides were very much focussed on the best hotels and resorts, and the generic, mostly western, activities available. I found it ironic that the British flaunt China’s great qualities more than the Chinese do, but then again, adapting to western culture is ultimately what has made China become so successful.

Shoppers in a busy Chinese IKEA store

‘I have worked for this company for 15 years’, he said, in his lilting English, ‘and I have never seen anything like it.’ He seemed a little pale at the recollection. ‘The Saturday before last, we had 35,000 people in the store,’ he continued, ‘It looked like a tornado had gone through the place!’….’It was…woah!’ He sighed…Mr Gustavsson was, it perhaps goes without saying, the newly appointed manager of  the Chinese capital’s first branch of IKEA.’

Quote from ‘Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China’

Duncan Hewitt

By connecting and cooperating with Europe and America, this thriving consumerist culture can constantly grow and become more and more powerful as a nation.

China’s ancient and rural regions, however, are still making a great impact on the country. China boasts a vast countryside of mountains, rivers and some of the best views in the world.  Not only are these fantastic travel destinations, the countryside is also essentially what feeds the nation. ‘In a sense, it is rather ironic.The countryside, after all, is where China’s economic reforms really got under way in the years after the Cultural Revolution…’  

Yellow Mountain (Mt. Huangshan)

Despite China’s growing cities, populations and power, their truly great advantages are their history, their culture and their countryside. As these, ultimately, are why people travel to China.

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Religion versus superstition in China

All over the world you will find a vast variety of mainstream religion, cults and superstition. Where religion plays a massively important role in most civilizations, superstition has become a big part in everyday day life for the people of China. So much so that is difficult to determine between these supernatural beliefs and popular religion.

For many, superstition has become less of a belief and more of a custom. People look to superstition as complacency, solving their problems, rather than facing them directly. However, the likely hood of these beliefs being 100% genuine is rather low. It could be possible that these ‘rules’ are followed simply out of fear that in the risk of ignoring them, something bad could potentially happen.

Despite the rapid incline in modernization throughout the past three years in China, they have clung onto these traditional customs and beliefs. If examined close enough it is clear that these superstitious beliefs can apply to pretty much anything in life, ranging from weddings, funerals, festivals and religion. A traditional Chinese house will have many concealed superstitious secrets that at first glance seem to be decorative ornaments, or even standard architectural designs. A common similarity in traditional Chinese homes is that the houses are built facing the south, to avoid ruin being brought upon the family who live there. It is also not a coincidence that Chinese homes will customarily have a step leading up into them. This is a superstitious practice involving the belief that spirits cant walk up steps. Many other methods are used to avoid the presence of unwanted spirits. As well as being unable to walk up steps, spirits also cannot turn corners, so some homes even have large screens behind their gates to stop them from entering.

Other Feng Shui examples:

*All staircases must have an even number of stairs

*A mirror must not be positioned so that it shows the reflection of a window

*A bathroom must not be positioned above a dining room

*A master bedroom should not be positioned above a garage

The only places in China that you are less likely to stumble upon traditional superstitious practices are in the more communist run areas. In 1999 the government even launched a campaign against superstition and unauthorized spiritual groups.

Aside from the large number of strong believers, those who are skeptical frequently find themselves inflicted and even enriched by superstitious practices. Feng Shui is a form of Chinese art and design, which balances the negative and positive and applies to pretty much everything. Because the beliefs that shape the foundations of Feng Shui cannot be supported with scientific proof, it is technically a form of superstition, and one of the most popular at that. Although China based, Feng Shui has become an important part of many cultures, especially when designing a home. It can vary from such things as minimal clutter and good quality air and lighting, to more complicated affairs involving the alignment of furniture and the design of buildings.

FIVE ELEMENTS OF FENG SHUI

In the western world you would associate superstitious practices with the more eccentric person. In China it is common for even the most established businessmen to frequently visit fortunetellers, seeking guidance for future business plans. Fortunetellers and monks are much more valuable in China than psychiatrists or counselors.

Chinese New Year plays a massive role and incorporates many different forms of superstition and requires the use of many superstitious practices so as to ensure good luck for the New Year ahead. Perhaps this is why fortunetellers are so popular in china as they use astrology rather than science and psychiatry. I get the impression that this fascination in superstition is rooted in the fact that people in China find comfort in the idea that there are stronger forces beyond what we know, guiding us and keeping us safe.

How is The People’s Republic of China portrayed in our media?

China, more specifically the Communist party of China, is widely condemned by western media and the international community for its stance on human rights. Issues such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and political freedom are all attacked on a regular basis.
Anyone within China who attacks or criticises the government is accused of disrupting their ‘harmonious society’ and can expect to be arrested and charged with dissent or subversion. One well known example of this is the political activist Liu Xiaobo who was first arrested in 1989 after the government’s brutal crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. He was sentenced to 2 years in prison for his involvement in the protests. Later, in 1996, he was again arrested for speaking out against China’s one party state and this time he was sent to a re-education labour camp for 3 years. In 2009 he was again arrested for ‘subverting state power’ and sentenced to 11 years in prison; in 2010 (whilst still imprisoned) he was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his non-violent struggle to promote human rights in China. Despite all of this almost no-one living in China will have heard of him – simply because the state is adept at managing what its people see in the news, it exercises strict controls over what appears on television, in newspapers and what can be accessed on the internet.
Another story which our media often reports on is the ongoing dispute over Tibet, an area which has shifted in and out of Chinese control over centuries. Many Tibetans see the Chinese government as suppressors, subduing their right to freedom of expression and worship. One of the main causes of tension is the fact that China has exiled Tibetan Buddhists spiritual leader – the Dalai Lama. This is also one of the reasons that the Tibet-China relationship is so well reported in the media, since his exile in 1959 the Dalai Lama has travelled the world advocating a non-violent road to independence for Tibet. Despite this there have been, and still are, uprisings which have been violently suppressed by the Chinese government. News stories like these and countless others about poor working conditions, low wages and forced abortions paint a very negative image of China which I wouldn’t say is entirely fair.

China is also routinely labeled as a communist country in the western media and as the ruling party is called ‘The Communist party of China’ this seems fair enough. However, the word ‘communism’ is a loaded word when used in the west, mainly because of old soviet states and the cold war it has attracted very negative connotations in peoples minds, especially in the US. But is it fair to label China as communist, is China really still a communist country?
In its purest form communism is a political ideology where no-one owns anything and therefore there is no class system, everyone is equal and everyone works toward the common good, there is no private land, businesses or property. Of course this system has many problems; not least the lack of motivation to work hard if it does not directly benefit the individual. Modern China is so far from this ideal that it is hard to still consider it communist at all – it may have been something close to this many years ago under Chairman Mao but that system is long gone. In today’s China people can start their own business, put their money into private bank accounts and buy luxury goods. That’s not to mention the huge amounts of foreign investment which go into the country every year. The government still technically controls the distribution and redistribution of land but recent laws have been passed which enhance private property rights and make it harder for the government to intervene. So China has kept some elements of communism but it also has something close to a free market which brings it a step closer to a capitalist ideology. Of course the government still considers itself to be a communist government but is it fair on China that we refer to it as communist even with all of the negative connotations?
All of this makes it hard to precisely label the Chinese political ideology, I think something like social-capitalism would be a bit closer to the truth.

Of course there are also positive news story relating to China in our news. We often hear of their booming economy which is growing at an unprecendented rate and how this is bringing prosperity – lifting millions out of rural poverty and enabling the Chinese government to introduce legislation regarding improved pay and conditions for its workers. China has also started its own space program and is planning to send up its first manned aircraft in the near future.

All in all the way China is portrayed in our media can be quite negative but the more their economy grows the more positive stories i believe we will be seeing. As the country gets richer and richer more money will be used to look after its citizens which of course can only be a good thing.

Chinese Economy and Morality in the news

Chinese Economy in the news

While searching through websites, newspapers, videos and blogs the most talked about chinese subject in the News was the economy. It is growing at an enormous rate and doesn’t show signs of ending any time soon.

China has overtaken Japan as the second largest economy in the world, First being the U.S.A. The American economy is nearly three times the size of Chinas but analysts see the U.S.A being pushed off the top spot in about a decade.

Their economy is currently estimated to be worth around $5.8 trillion. This ever-growing economy is probably due to China being the worlds largest exporter and second largest importer of goods. It has a sovereign wealth fund of 410 billion dollars. Some of this wealth has recently been invested in an 8.68 percent share in Thames Water. This was China’s first major purchase in the UK and came after Chancellor George Osborne visited the country earlier this year. He wants to see Britain become”the home of Asian investments”.

It comes as a vote of confidence in Britain as a place to invest and do business. This investment is not just a sign of Chinas growing power but it comes at an advantage as Britain is a safe and secure place to invest funds. Although this gives the impression that China is an unstoppable force it is claimed that Chinas economy is beginning to show deep fault lines. These are such things as house prices falling, a slump in export growth and recent high inflations have led some to foresee a looming crash. Although this is predicted Chinese firms are reportedly placing about $1tn to $2tn in direct investments around the world by 2020 and this will double in size every year. They claim they are paying more attention to the structure and health of their economy. Maybe with this added security and care China might just evolve in to the super power everyone expects it to be.

Another popular topic of News about China was an article that shocked people from all over the world.

This story is about a two year old Chinese girl who had started walking across a road in a busy market street when she was run over by a white van. People walked past, cyclists weaved around her and then she was run over by a second vehicle. Eventually after being ignored by 18 people and run over twice a street cleaner came to her rescue,picked her up and moved her out of harms way. Sadly she died in hospital as her injuries were too severe.

This news story shocked people from all around the world. Questions were asked about how human beings could possibly be so heartless. Some Chinese citizens blamed it on the govement focusing too much on the economy and neglecting to teach people values and morality. Others suggested it was due to the people in the country chasing after money and loosing their faith and grip on religion. A man wrote on Chinese twitter : “Everyone is praising the rubbish-collecting granny, but isn’t it normal to help someone who is wounded or dying? This just shows how abnormal the moral situation is in this society! The sad Chinese, poor China are we even rescuable?”. It seems even the chinese couldn’t understand the inhumane actions of their own people.

Newspapers tried to come up with a logical explanation by writing that the possible reason for this inhumane act was that there are a lot of high-profile cases in which residents who stopped to assist people in distress were later held responsible for their plight.

I watched a chinese news report on the incident which showed the girl blatantly lying in the middle of the road  and was visibly injured. Most of the passers by saw her lying there, she was moving so they knew she was still alive, yet they did nothing to help. What message does this send to other countries about the state of Chinas morality?

China’s image abroad : first meeting

The Chinese New Year was just last week, which I had the chance to experience. I was invited to celebrate the dragon year by two people from Tiajin, in the Beijing Suburb. Xinyu Zhang, a Chinese exchange student, Di Wang, who was born in Beijing but lived in the US for 17 years, and other Chinese students had a celebration where we made and ate dumplings! It is always a good opportunity to promote the country, bring together western and Chinese culture, meet people from the “Middle Empire”, and discover more about the most populous country of the world, its traditions, and what it means to be Chinese today!

Since the opening of the country after Mao’s reign, China has impressively developed itself in many ways in only thirty years. This “new” China is good for people who want to travel. Western tourists can discover this powerful country and its historical culture! The “new” China is also a good thing for Chinese students, who want to study abroad! When I’ve asked Chinese students if they want to stay and live outside China, they reply that they are just here to acquire some experience, improved their English, and bring back home new knowledge and skills. They’re not tempted to stay far away from their family and their traditions.

The first thought for many people, including myself, about the Chinese living in a western country is that they are always together and don’t really want to integrate. We can see this in many cities like Paris, London, and New York since there is always a Chinese area (most often called “Chinatown”). This is actually a quick judgment, as Di has said to me that a lot of Chinese people try to stay together because of the culture shock and the importance of their traditions. It is also hard for them to learn a completely different language.

Chinese people are really proud and respectful about what their ancestors have left them. Spirits are very active in the Chinese culture and it’s an honour for them to keep a strong link with the family. One thing I have discovered when I’ve met Chinese students for the Spring Festival is that they are reserved people. They are always happy to share and teach you about their culture, food, and history. The Chinese students also enjoy learning about our lifestyle and what we think about them and their food! XinYu had given me some “art paper” with the prosperity symbol. I learned that if you put the symbol upside down on your door that doesn’t only mean “prosperity” but that “prosperity is arriving to you”. I carefully put the sign on my door and crossed my fingers…

In thirty years, China has opened its frontiers to globalization in the way that we can find many restaurants and shops where imported Chinese items are sold. Most of those shops are owned by Chinese who are living abroad, so globalization is a good way for food to travel and let western people discover it!  One of the bad parts of that globalization is that some people, without any knowledge of Asian food, try to open a “Chinese style take away” place and give a bad reputation to Asian cooking! Di and XinYu have told me there is a few Chinese restaurants in Dundee whose quality and taste do not compare with the traditional Chinese recipes.

Chinese people who can travel and study abroad are only from the big cities and the upper class. They are really impressed with the European lifestyle which seems to be more peaceful, calm, and quiet, even in big places like London and New York. They all describe Chinese cities to be very busy, noisy, stressful and sometimes messy! When I ask the Chinese about the very different lifestyles in China, they are all unanimous in saying: “If you travel in China, you can’t ignore the countryside! You can’t discover China only through Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong! China is more than big busy cities and you can find everything you want.”

Chinese Philosophy in the Western World

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.

One year in China

 When Stewart landed in Pudong on the outskirts of Shanghai, he was knackered.  Almost twelve hours on an aeroplane will do that to you.  It was early March 2006 and it was cold, very cold.  Stewart, like many other people has the travelling bug.  On completing his degree several years ago, he began to look for a job, but after a few months when nothing materialised he began to look for alternatives.  Teaching overseas seemed like a good idea, combining a decent paying job and some travelling in a nice yearly package.  But why China I asked?  Stewart explained that he had “always had a fascination with the Far East and wanted to really experience other cultures”.  “The pay was also much better in China” he added.  More and more people are choosing to teach English overseas and China is becoming a more favoured destination.

Stewart’s first cultural introduction came upon hearing a strange hocking sound from behind him.  Upon turning around was presented with the sight of an old woman “gobbing” into a bin.  But what struck him above anything else was the enormous scale of the place.  Looking out of one of the airport windows it seemed like there was no life beyond the airport, just an empty, endless, industrial landscape.  Built on huge concrete pillars, the motorway leaving the airport seemed to rise up into the sky.  He gets a connecting flight to Xi’an airport where he meets his contact and makes the hour’s drive to the centre of Xi’an.  It was on this drive through the impoverished villages on the way to Xi’an that Stewart thought to himself “Oh no, what have I let myself in for”.  The initial meet and greet did not go well.  He arrived in Xi’an tired, hungry and very overwhelmed.  He needed a good nights sleep.

The next morning, he awoke to find the sun illuminating the city and he began to realise that the Chinese concept of architecture and design was a lot different than that of the West.  “It was an incredible sight”, he explains.  There are skyscrapers as far as the eye can see.  He has a walk around the city and goes for something to eat.  He has a sandwich from a shop that he describes as “a lower floor flat that seems to have been converted into a business”.  It seems that it is very easy to open a business, with seemingly no health and safety, environmental health or permits to get in the way.  “One of the biggest things that you find out about China” he explains “is that anyone can open up a business”.  He picks up his new car and soon realises that on China’s roads, there are no rules, but for some bizarre reason it works.  This chaotic organisation almost sums up what China is like.  Hectic but functional.  He drives to his new school in Yang Liang, which is a suburb of Xi’an and about an hour and half drive from the city centre.  This is where Stewart spends the majority of his time when he is in China.

Stewart tells me about the differences in culture.  “It’s amazing how quickly you integrate into it”, he says.  “But this partly because the Chinese are amazing at looking after people” he remarks.  “Especially when it comes to looking after people that can benefit them in some way”, he adds.  This intrigues me a lot.  I ask him if he was almost viewed as an investment.  He agrees saying “they look after their investments”.  This corporate minded opinion is something that you can’t get away from in China.  Corporate China, it’s industry, it’s international trade and business is everywhere.  It’s financial muscle can be seen everywhere.  “It’s filled with the corporate, business environment”, he says.

I decide to ask Stewart about the freedom of speech issue that constantly surrounds China.  I ask him if he has negative experiences.  “I never experienced anything personally.  I never felt like big brother was watching”.  However he did experience the notorious Chinese firewall when browsing the Internet in one of the many Net Bars that fill the country.  A seemingly harmless Karate site was blocked, probably for containing an undesirable key word.  “The presence of authority is very overt in China”, he tells me.  The overt presence and showing of power is a big thing in China.  “It’s not a historical thing” he says, “It’s always been a big thing in Chinese culture”.

We talk for a while longer and the more I think about it, the more China seems like a contradiction.  A riddle surrounded by myth and intrigue.  It is a Communist country, yet it is a Capitalist country.  It is a country with huge third world population that lives within the borders of the world’s richest superpower.   It is a state controlled, censored society, with a poor human rights record that is having the biggest and fastest cultural reinvention witnessed in living memory.  This inherent contradiction is why people might feel uneasy about China.  Perhaps some people simply do not know what to make of this ever-expanding enigma.  Maybe China even scares people.  China is changing.  It is changing almost faster than we can define it.  As it changes we have to be willing to let go of our prejudices and stereotypes.  China is already much different than people imagine.  It’s been six years since Stewart lived in China and wonder how much it has changed in that short time.