Much has been written in recent years about China’s so-called ghost cities, urban areas that that are built, often in the middle of nowhere, in hopes of luring people and investment. Sometimes these new urban developments are built as replicas of famous European cities, complete with fake Eiffel Towers, windmills, and stone cathedrals. Since they are usually constructed faster than people can move into them, they do (initially) appear to be ghost cities. But what about 3 or 4 years later? Are they still empty or has “if you build it they will come” taken over?
One of my favorite sites, Roads and Kingdoms, has a wonderful story on a development project near Hangzhou called Sky City that tried to pass itself off as a mini-Europe. The author, who had visited the project years before went back to see how all the “duplitecture” (as he calls it) was faring.
Sky City became the poster child for other themed developments that had allegedly met the same fate: intended to house Chinese families in surroundings inspired by Orange County or Barcelona, these communities were said to have languished as ghost towns. An op-ed in the Global Times asserted, “These ‘fake cities’ are just so ridiculously similar to their Western originals that rather than anyone taking them seriously, they turned into residential amusement parks”—empty backdrops for wedding photos and tourist selfies.
Then again, overseas reporting on Chinese culture has a tendency to turn into a game of telephone. (That 2013 video of Sky City was in fact filmed in 2008 by artist Caspar Stracke.) When a documentary filmmaker who’d read my book Original Copies invited me to join him to revisit these duplitecture developments, some of which I hadn’t seen in years, I leapt at the chance to check in on them firsthand. Had they been abandoned? Remodeled? Razed to the ground? Liaoning’s Holland Village—which installed windmills, canals, and a double of the Hague on an area three times the size of Brooklyn’s Navy Yard—had been demolished 10 years after its construction. Sky City had just celebrated its 10thanniversary. This past May, I set out to see what I’d find.
It’s a fascinating look at how this attempt at recreating European culture has been “sinicized.” Where developers dreamt of bakeries and coffee shops and caviar-eating clientele, there are now noodle shops, tea houses and food stalls.
In the dramatic story of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage ever committed, Sarah Rose recounts the fascinating, unlikely circumstances surrounding a turning point in economic history. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British East India Company faced the loss of its monopoly on the fantastically lucrative tea trade with China, forcing it to make the drastic decision of sending Scottish Botanist Robert Fortune to steal the crop from deep within China and bring it back to the British plantations in India. Fortune’s danger-filled odyssey, magnificently recounted here, reads like adventure fiction, revealing a long-forgotten chapter of the past and the wondrous origins of a seemingly ordinary beverage.
The book is a treasure trove of historical information about China in the mid-1800s, as well as all things related to tea. Occasionally, there are cultural gems to be mined. In chapter 5 Rose describes an incident that took place in Hangzhou between Fortune and his servant, Want. Having failed to follow Fortune’s instructions, they find themselves in the city of Hangzhou, where if it is discovered that Fortune is a foreigner and not a Chinese official (he was disguised as one), he could be killed. So he gives the servant a public scolding. In the course of describing this incident, Rose (perhaps inadvertently) gives one of the best descriptions of the Chinese notion of “face” that I have found anywhere!
But Fortune’s recriminations had little effect, for a master’s scolding his servants publicly only served to build their self-esteem, or “face,” as even a reproach was a tacit declaration that the servant was important enough to merit the notice of a wealthy mandarin. In China “face,” or mianxi [sic] was a concept that a Westerner like Fortune did not instinctively understand, describing as it does the prestige and reputation one gains from every human interaction. Relationships in China were defined by the reciprocal obligations between people, whether of the same or a different status, and every individual existed within a network of influence, a matrix of duties and social connections, or guanxi.
The family came first, then the extended social neighborhood. “Face” expressed a person’s position within his or her network and was the mechanism by which the Chinese assessed their obligations: which orders to obey, which favors to grant, and which supplications and apologies to make. A son might perform humble acts for his father, or an employee might bow before his master or a student before his teacher, but in turn the father would have a set of defined responsibilities to the child, the master to the slave, and the teacher to the student.
However subtly they were expressed, mianzi and guanxi were inescapable facts of life in China; then as now they forged the social fabric of the nation. Social connections determined the measure of justice received and discrimination suffered. While no Chinese person was free from these relationships, many peasants had very little face and therefore little access to justice, wealth, or freedom. When social obligations were met, someone gained face and an increase in status; when a person failed those to whom he was socially connected and thereby obligated, he suffered loss of face (diumian) and a downturn in his social standing. When Wang was shouted at by Fortune for failing to follow orders, it demonstrated to the world that he had responsibilities to an important man. Wang lost face with Fortune, while simultaneously gaining it in the wider neighborhood of Hangzhou.
Face was a very Confucian concept. The great philosopher, whose ideas gained influence during the Han Dynasty, 206 BC-AD 220, described a world where familial connections and obligations to ancestors were the highest good and the greatest aim of an individual. A single person was nothing if he did not bring honor to the world from which he came.
A foreigner in China had no network of relationships of prescribed duties and no social capital, and therefore lacked any obvious signifiers of face. Many foreigners handled their outsider status adroitly. They engaged in relationships with the Chinese immediately, offering gifts and favors to officials and higher-ups; they recognized that a servant did not just serve but was owed things other than monetary reward, such as honor and respect. Fortune, however, seems to have paid little attention to the finer points of Chinese social interaction. He treated the Chinese as he would any employee: demanding excellence, refusing to hear excuses, and chastising failure. Wang and Fortune would travel together on and off for years, and the servant valiantly tried to negotiate the workings of guanxi on his master’s behalf. Wang effectively created Fortune’s identity as a mandarin by forging a fictitious network of prestigious connections for him, elevating his master’s face (and, not incidentally, elevating his own status by association). He also bribed and negotiated on Fortune’s behalf, not just for favors, but for face. (p.69-71)
“Note to self,” I thought, as I listened to this passage while driving across the deserts of eastern Oregon, “find a print version of this book and post the passage on my blog.”
Last weekend in Hangzhou, my friend and I spent one afternoon boating on West Lake. It was a gorgeous late fall afternoon with lots of people out and about, so we decided to escape the crowds and get on the lake. Our boatman paddled us lazily along the north side of the lake where we had great views of the changing leaves (more hong ye!) and the activities of the folks along the shore. As we were paddling away (well, the boatman was paddling away–we were drinking tea), we heard the sound of someone singing. Now it’s not an uncommon thing to come across people singing at the top of their lungs in a Chinese park, completely oblivious to the world and the throngs around them. Sometimes they are singing Chinese opera; sometimes “Country Roads.” The voice we heard this day was singing some unfamiliar pop tune. As we got closer to the shore, we spotted him — a youngish fellow pretending to play a guitar, belting out a song at the top of his lungs! Is this Elvis, we wondered! Nobody gave him a second glance.
So here’s the question I was left with: who in this picture is stark raving mad? The air guitar player and the passers-by who pay him no never mind; or the foreigners who think it’s odd? It’s a question I wonder about a lot here because it’s never as obvious as it seems.