shenzhen’s place in the heart

Over the national day holiday, I went to Yan’an and Xian. Yan’an, of course, resonates throughout Party history, while Xian “makes you proud to be Chinese”, as a friend said before I left. Both are located in Shaanxi Province, center of the central plains heartland, which for millennia has defined belonging to various Chinese polities (or so it seems in retrospect.) It was my first visit; after ten years in Shenzhen, I finally complied with my friends’ exhortations to make a pilgrimage to “authentic” China.

Now, I have been to Beijing, even lived for a while in the capitol, but that brief stint was not enough to convince my friends that I have understood the cultural verities that define their homeland. All this to say that Shenzhen isn’t considered part of China, not ancient China, certainly not mythic China, not really even modern China, which is typified by Shanghai’s cosmopolitan facades. Instead, Shenzhen exists as a strange aberration—a necessary concession to global forces, but not really Chinese. Or at least this is what I have gathered from conversations about the limits to my research project. According to friends, it is possible to study the political-economy of reform and opening in Shenzhen, but not to learn anything meaningful about China’s culture.

On our way to Yan’an, we stopped at the Yellow Emperor’s grave and lit incense. The grave is located in a lovely area, with old, old pine trees and birdsong. Chinese Emperors have always understood the importance of burial fengshui, I was told, and this theme would repeat itself in Xi’an and its outskirts, where terracotta soldiers and bronze horses protect the first Qin Emperor’s grave. But first to Yan’an, where we stayed in a three-star hotel.

In the mythic landscape of Mao Zedong’s rise to power, Yan’an symbolizes many things—how the peasants gave refuge to communists fleeing Nationalist persecution; how the communists persevered for years before liberating China; the establishment of Mao Zedong Thought as a Chinese supplement to Marxist-Leninism. We visited a Song dynasty pagoda, which throughout the Cultural Revolution represented the Yan’an years and thus remained undamaged by Red Guard fury. We also went to Yan’an years museum and followed the progress of WWII from the point of view ill-equipped peasant soldiers holed up in caves.

Beyond these myths, however, Yan’an has represented rural poverty and the collective will to build a socialist utopia. Stereotypically, Yan’an peasants lived in caves with few amenities. They were malnourished, uneducated, and determined to give their children a better life. Yet, red tourism has brought wealth to some in the area, while others continue to live in relative poverty. Busloads of tourists come for a day, rarely longer, to look at where Mao, Zhou Enlai, and Zhude lived and planned the revolution, but we walk past crumbling courtyards and dingy residences. Today, those peasants in search of a better life, I am told, are better off working in Shenzhen factories, where at least they can earn a wage, rather than place their hope in agriculture. When I ask why no one wants to be a peasant, my friend gestures to the decrepit and unsanitary housing, asking rhetorically, “Would you want to live here?” And of course the answer is no.

From Yan’an back to Xi’an by way of the Hukou waterfall, an important national symbol. I’m sure on a warmer, less windy, certainly drier day, I would have appreciated watching the Yellow River surge from the central plains toward the eastern coast. However, on that particular day, I cowered in the lobby of the large hotel that has been built right next to the waterfall and even so, I left with a head cold. My friends, however, were undeterred and photographed themselves standing right at river’s edge, smiling through the spray of icy water. It was, as they reminded me, the first and possibly last time they would come. I agreed it was a rare opportunity, but except for a perfunctory walk past the falls, remained inside.

In Xian, the college classmate of a Shenzhen friend had agreed to show me the city, and over the next three days, humbled me with her generosity. He Lei picked me up at the hotel every morning at 9 a.m. and then brought me to the most famous sites, purchasing all tickets and picking up the tab at every meal. When I tried, rather lamely to pay, she scowled and promptly ripped the bill out of my hand. Xian born and raised, she wanted me to love the city as much as she does. Indeed, the grandeur of the terracotta soldiers and refined beauty of Huaqing hot springs provided a backdrop for her enthusiasm. When I reported back to my friend, she nodded knowingly.

“People back home still care about people. They’re not selfish like in Shenzhen.”

“So why did you come?”

“I don’t know anymore, either. At the time, I wanted to try something new. To see more of the world.”

“And now?”

“Now? Now I live in Shenzhen and dream about retiring back in Xian.”

He Lei pointed to another aspect of that hard truth, which is less extreme than that governing daily life in Yan’an.

“Most Xian people live in substandard housing. They don’t earn very much money. So they have to leave. But nobody wants to. Xian makes you proud to be Chinese.”

That then, perhaps, constitutes the fragile but all-too-vexed thread that sutures Shenzhen to the central plains. People not only want to improve their material standard of living, but also to preserve where they came from because they define themselves through the love they feel for their hometown. So they come to Shenzhen, this place that is “not authentic China” in order to get back.

Even on those days it didn’t rain, the sky remained overcast, and that grey infuses all the pictures I took while in Shaanxi. For a sense of a place considered by many to be one of Shenzhen’s most radical antitheses, please visit:

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