Notes from Xi’an

People here in Xi’an say: “The Chinese city of the present is Beijing.  The city of the future is Shanghai.  The city of China’s past is Xi’an.”  This seems to be more than a slogan.  People in Xian seem deeply proud of the history and heritage that Xian represents — the thirteen dynasties that made Xi’an their capital, the extraordinary excavations that the Shaanxi region hosts, and the “forest of stones” that is a remarkable collection of steles conveying calligraphy from the Tang Dynasty (Xi’an Beilin Museum).  (The entire collection of the sayings of Confucius are represented on one massive Tang-era stone monument.)

At the same time, the city is not trapped in the past.  Since my previous visit in 2007 the city has undergone many of the same changes that are so striking in other great Chinese cities: new skyscrapers and hotels, more traffic, more smog, and more luxury shopping.  One of Xian’s major universities, Xi’an Jiaotong University, is developing a major new campus.  Particularly striking is a newly developed park in the center of the city that memorializes the Tang Dynasty and its emperors with sculptures, monuments, and light shows.  Like the rest of urban China, Xi’an is moving forward rapidly.

Particularly interesting for me, though, is the opportunity that a visit to Xi’an creates for talking to people about how they feel about China’s rapid changes.  A couple of conversations stand out.  I asked a very accomplished young historical guide at the Beilin Museum whether Chinese young people found any resonance with the values of ancient Chinese culture — whether Confucian ideas about the duties of governments and officials or the aesthetic values represented by calligraphy were formative for young people.  His response was a reflective one.  He observed that middle-aged Chinese men seem to be very interested in these topics, and very interested in practicing calligraphy.  He noted that all of China’s top leaders in modern times, including Chairman Mao, took pride in their calligraphy.  Young people, by contrast, do not share these interests, and they prefer to use the click of a mouse rather than pen and ink to produce a character. He disapproved of this change in cultural attitudes and indicated that learning calligraphy is learning to think in a particular way.

Another value slipped into this conversation almost unnoticed.  The guide informed me that one pagoda contains a Qing-era stele with a text from the Emperor exhorting the suppression of a minority-based rebellion.  This pagoda is sealed, he said, because the government wants to create a feeling of national harmony and the message of the stele is contrary to harmony.  Even scholars are not permitted to view the text.  His ready acceptance of the legitimacy of the government’s suppressing information was very striking to my ears.  It made me think of the regime’s casual decision to make western blogging platforms unavailable on the Internet in China, making a vast domain of information and opinion unavailable here.  The idea that the government has the right to select and filter the information that citizens can access is a harmful one to anyone with liberal values; but it is one that is readily accepted and justified by many thoughtful people in China.

Another snippet of conversation that interested me took place with a university staff person.  This young man’s wife is expecting the delivery of their first (and only) child in the next month.  Because he works for a university, he is interested in education.  So I asked him about the current situation of the education of Chinese children.  He was very passionate on this subject.  He talked about the incredible pressure that children are under from the very earliest age, to compete and excel in school.  The competition to gain entry into the “best” kindergarten, middle school, and high school pushes parents and children to unbearable effort.  He talked about middle school children pushed by their parents and the sense of deeply important competition, to excel in their grades, their violin and piano lessons, their dance lessons, and their other extra-curricular activities.  And he talked about middle- and high-school students working on homework well past midnight in order to gain the best possible grades. He observed that this pressure takes a terrible toll on children, even while it produces students who are very, very good at taking competitive examinations.  But he doubted whether the other qualities of a well-educated student are coming through — an ability to communicate well, and an openness to innovation, for example.  What was striking to me in the conversation was not only the content of his observations, but the passion and emotion with which he spoke.

One additional observation seems somewhat telling.  This has to do with the flying public in China.  As I passed through the first class seating area to my own seat in economy flying from Shanghai to Xi’an, I noticed that the first class section was completely filled with young Chinese professionals, their smartphones, laptops and folios in hand, heading off to a day’s worth of appointments in Xi’an.  This is a sign, of course, of the familiar fact that China’s professional service class has expanded dramatically in the past twenty years.  This is part of the change that has brought Prada, Jaguar, and Ferragamo to every large city in China.  But I also noticed something else in the economy section of the flight from Detroit to Shanghai – a good number of young Americans who have decided to spend some or all their careers in China.  The opportunities created by China’s growth are drawing a large number of middle class Americans to work in Shanghai rather than Knoxville, Peoria, or Tampa.  This isn’t the business elite that has done business in China for decades, but a new wave of young engineers, managers, or skilled workers who are following the global opportunities.  The young man sitting next to me in economy defined the situation for me: a Kentuckian with a community college degree in technology, experience in the US in setting up a factory, and now employed in a two-continent job taking him between Shanghai and Louisville working for a Chinese company that is setting up a major chemical plant in Suzhou. He recently married a young Chinese woman who will be returning to Kentucky with him in a month or so.

A final observation about Xi’an: People here seem to be very accepting of China’s system of single-party rule.  The comment is often heard that “when the central government has decided what to do, it gets done.”  This comment was made about the rapid and impressive development of the Tang Dynasty Park in Xi’an mentioned above, but it seems to be in the back of mind for many areas of policy and change.  And the government seems to get a great deal of credit for its success over the past thirty years in moving China forward: economic growth, world stature, and a sense of Chinese national pride are all achievements that many citizens accord to the government’s decisions and policies.  A twenty-something professional said to me: “The government is trying seriously to address China’s problems. Our leaders are moving in the right direction. It may take two generations to solve some of our problems (like rural-urban inequality).”  I haven’t yet been exposed — in this visit or in prior visits — to a sense of discontent, whether about the state’s control of individual liberties and access to information, or about other aspects of political control.  Of course there is discontent in several sectors of China’s society — rural people whose economic progress is slow and whose property is subject to seizure; workers whose wages aren’t being paid; urban people whose environments are subject to repeated toxic incidents.  But those sources of discontent don’t seem to have percolated into a more widespread sense of dissatisfaction in the broader urban public.

Signing off from the home of the Tang Dynasty – I have a temple to visit!

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