I left for China knowing it is both one of the four great ancient civilisations and an advancing modern society.
I wandered out of the hotel on our first day in China, into the overcast streets of Shanghai and looked around in wonder. I saw red Communist flags, and people on bicycles, business people and market stalls. Each day in Shanghai we walked along The Bund, a row of European style buildings that line the Huangpu River. Before the 1840s, The Bund was a muddy narrow lane with tall reeds. British and French colonialists built beautiful copies of their own homes which still stand today, opposite the very modern business district.
We also visited Lijiang Ancient Town, a world heritage site in the rural Yunnan Province. It is made up of stunning timber framed houses from different dynastic styles and representative of the local culture. Hundreds of these houses line narrow cobble streets that have streams winding through them. Today the insides of the houses are converted shops, selling tourist trinkets and delicious food. We walked through a festival celebrating the local produce, complete with people dressed in traditional costume, and then past the many shops. We were able to see what an ancient town might have looked like, and at the same time, the traveller’s need for gaudy reminders of their trip, was also met. It reminded me of the Great Wall of China, which we also visited – a strange contrast between tourism and restored heritage. I was torn between the desire to experience a taste of ancient culture and the feeling that I was experiencing shameless commercialism.
I kept mulling over this thought. There are 56 different ethnic groups in China. The dominant group is the Han Chinese. The other 55 are only 8.41% of the population. Some of these different groups performed a massive outdoor singing and dancing performance demonstrating their tradition and lifestyle in front of Jade Dragon Mountain. It was visually magnificent, and I learnt a bit about the values and lives of Chinese ethnic groups. It was a fun way to learn a little about other cultures, but it was shallow. Culture is deeper and more complex than just songs and dances.
Like most countries, it seemed to me that the cultural heritage of these minority groups was being displayed as a tourist attraction. There is a profound struggle between the seeming irrelevance of ancient cultures in a modern society and the knowledge that these cultures are precious and could be lost forever if not preserved. This is easily seen in the Bund of Shanghai; an ancient river, the buildings of colonisers and a forward-looking business district all in one scene.
It seems that China, like most Western countries, is faced with the struggle of how best to move forward and still preserve that which makes it unique.