Old China vs New China

—Chengdu, 2017

Old China bad; New China good?

Something clicked recently, a sort of phenomenon which has come to light in my head in the last week or two. It’s about the relationship between the old and new, those who do and those who document, the rugged and the pristine. There is a rift in so many ways – behavioural, habitual, maybe even ideological – and the natural response of the present generation, who perch on the edge of a thousands of years-old series of dynasties and handwritten histories and instead look upwards to the stars through a pixelated lens, is to ogle. Ogle and boggle. Because people doing things with their hands – that’s fascinating. Really, it is, especially if the current vogue is to cover up as much skin as possible so as to avoid getting any darker, play LOL (League of Legends) on your iPhone in order to pass the time, and go to the canteen three times a day for your sustenance. One student of mine said her boyfriend was ugly because he was too dark. They used to call him Blackie. How does one approach that?

What is the difference?

Old China is ghastly, gaunt and decrepit – it is all the adjectives under the sun (the invisible sun, the elusive sun), and heaves as it breathes. It is drooping eyelids under the weight of its own history. It is playing mahjong or Chinese chess in hoards of old men, bent over like stray cats, lost in a mist of technology and change, caught in the eye of the storm, finding refuge in nostalgia, routine, traditional, stillness.

It is square dancing solemnity, lit incongruously by LED screens blaring ads and silent infomercials. It is being written constantly and literally onto the paving stones of parks, by men and women stooped forming right-angles over brushes, inhabitants of a bygone era, plucking watered words from their pasts and sweeping them in swathes over stone – only to be washed away with the rest. Hosepipes scatter puddles and the slate is cleaned. It is meditative, persistent, never cowing, droning on patiently in the background.

It is transient and permanent and clung to and revered. Temples, water, work, rice, sagging, beautiful, real – radiant, sad. Old China underpins the New like a giant slab of concrete, impermeable to change and being blinkered out, stifled by the monster redevelopment project of New China, by social upheaval and hyper-modernity and WeChat. Its song is mellifluous but its fingernails are breaking and its scratches are no longer indelible on the minds of the young – who flaunt the badges of New China like gold stars. The old chime lugubriously as their pasts are stripped away, & collect round each other with sunflower seeds and flasks of tea and chortle like characters from Beckett, half-dead, gripped by laughter and serenity.

The New China strides like a juggernaut, indefatigable and unforgiving. It is cement, glass, pragmatism – shiny, rustling faux leather and long puffer jackets, fashion town, colours, blasé, picture-taking paradise, boyfriends and girlfriends and shirking tradition – absence of past, eternal present future beckoning, industrious and lurid and loud and lawless and gloriously all of the above, unabashedly everything and in abundance. It towers over all else and constantly surveys, tacky and deadpan and resplendent and giggling, full of life and in perpetual motion – patterns and patents and discovering yourself – dancing yourself.

It is bottled green tea and inflated packets with mock croissants, 8000¥ t-shirts and exhibitions of wealth. It is techtonik dancing in an LED-lit, floodlit, jam-packed shopping reverie, pink hair and profile pictures. It is getting to grips with the ever-changing notions of flux and self and self-hood. It is unabashed and by itself, beside itself, fighting itself, for itself. It is of interest above all, and is only ever boring if that boredom stems from being overstimulated and therefore desensitised. It is WeChat. It is self-procreating, reproducing, simulacra-inducing, churning out versions of its own existence onscreen. It is expectorating chicken ankles between selfies, and whitening its cheeks and teeth to meet the new criteria.


This piece also appears on Medium, along with several others, covering China as well as other countries.

For more bits on China from this site, follow these links:
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
The importance of being sincere


2 thoughts on “Old China vs New China

  1. Seriously, China isn’t that bad, I mean the whole population of China isn’t full of old men. Also Chinese people are not ‘droopy’ or ‘sad’ or ‘half-dead’.


    1. Hi Bella
      I’m sorry that you came away with the impression that I think China is full of old men. I have a great reverence for many aspects of China’s culture and society. These were just some of my thoughts during a walk I took in a city park, after meeting with some of my students.


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