Some initial thoughts from China

Daniel Meissner recently received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach a course in China on Sino-American relations.  He’ll also be working on his second book, “Seward’s Shanghai: The Roots of American Diplomacy in China?”  He shares some thoughts on the changes in China since the last time he taught there nearly thirty years ago.

So much has changed in China over the past thirty years that it’s hard to know where to start.  Perhaps, I should begin with some of the most obvious observations.

Thirty years ago, streets were packed curb to curb with bicycles and pedestrians.  A few buses and even fewer cars crawled through the crowds with horns blaring, parting the sea of humanity that quickly closed behind them.

Today, bicycles have all but disappeared (no bike lanes on the dangerously busy streets), replaced by a fleet of cars (German luxury cars seem popular), modern buses, fleets of taxis, and sleek subway systems.  Despite an impressive intra- and inter-city highway system, however, traffic snarls and jams have slowed some city streets to about the speed of bicycle travel three decades ago, with no end in sight as thousands of new cars are added to the system each day.

Thirty years ago, isolation was a Chinese reality.  The campus where I taught had few phones, and a call home literally took hours (and a small fortune) to complete.  Students gathered at our house to watch one of the 4-5 stations on our prized television, and of course, no internet was available.  A highway system did not exist and only the major cities had airports.  Trains connected key cities, but jolting, dirty, non-heated/air conditioned buses were the primary means of transportation to most other urban areas.

Today, instant access has unified the country.  Taxis, modern buses and subways whisk travelers (engrossed in their iPhone messaging) from one corner of the sprawling cities to another.  Bullet trains link once distant regions, and airlines compete for business and tourist passengers.  Basic cable offers nearly 70 stations (however, with several repeated programming), four-story screens broadcast the latest advertisements for Nike or Gucci, and Starbucks offers free WiFi with your latte.  My once isolated, rural campus that took hours to reach by train, ferry and bus is now constructing its own airport. Isolation has been replaced by nearly instant and universal access.

Thirty years ago, China was like watching a black & white television set.  Everyone wore blue or green pants and jackets with white shirts.  Color was considered bourgeois individualism – fashion, makeup, and just about anything that set one apart from the “masses” were considered inappropriate.  Housing was usually traditional two-story, faded wood buildings or Soviet style cement-gray blockhouses.  State-run department stores offered basic products (held behind glass cases), and “workers’ palaces” offered a few inexpensive games for recreation.  Electricity often was turned off after 10:00pm, plunging the cities into darkness except for candlelight in apartments or the desks of late-studying students.

Today, China is color on steroids.  Back-lit billboards advertise everything from English lessons to Cartier diamonds (as well as “Conserve Electricity”!).  Skyscrapers not only blaze with office lights, but also with structural lighting that changes color and patterns to add “dazzle” to the skyline.  Throngs of fashionably dressed women (mini dresses and short shorts with leggings and boots are popular), and dyed hair (red and brown, with an occasional blond replacing the natural Chinese black) stroll with equally fashionable men down broad avenues lined with trees lit like Christmas.  Glittering shopping malls attract the serious buyers (prices are often higher in China than the US for clothing and restaurants) and the curious window shoppers.  Multiplex theaters offer the latest films from around the world (as do the street vendors – 3 DVDs for $1.50), and world-class performers have made Chinese cities a regular tour stop (we hope to see Yo Yo Ma is in town this weekend).  Restaurants are packed (Pizza Hut does a thriving business), nightclubs are crammed, and bars are crowded (Guinness on tap at the Irish pub).

The radical change from black & white to color reflects the vibrancy and optimism of China today.  Where the chance for social or material improvement was only wishful 30 years ago, it is today a reality for some and a driving force for the rest.  Hyper-modern mega-cities linked by high-speed rail and highways, bourgeois consumerism, cutting edge fashion and electronics, dynamism and optimism all define China today.  As truly alien a place as Mars compared to the one I first encountered three decades ago.

Daniel Meissner is an associate professor of East Asian/Chinese history at Marquette.  His first book Chinese Capitalists versus the American Flour industry, 1890-1910: Profit and Patriotism in International Trade grew out of a chance encounter looking through corporate records, a story he relates here.

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