Once or twice a decade, I want material proof–as opposed to theoretical reconstruction and anthropological speculation–that Shenzhen has more than 30 years of culture. Usually, I go about asserting long term cultural occupation of the area as if it were a self-evident truth. Even if the landscape isn’t what it was or the buildings are less than ten years old, I say, there are deep histories histories here: listen. However, as I just mentioned, once or twice a decade, my resolve falters and I wonder: is it possible that what my informants and friends say is true? That Shenzhen doesn’t have any culture?
Now 文化 (wenhua) seems to me tricky to translate because its tied up in understandings about history and accomplishment in ways different from the english word, culture. For example, a maid explains that she hasn’t culture (我没有文化) because she didn’t go to high school. Or when I say I like hakka food, a friend agrees that Hakka culture is rich (客家文化很丰富). Or again, when someone asserts that unlike Beijing, Shenzhen doesn’t have any culture (深圳没有文化) because it is a young city. In hese three examples, the meaning of culture ranges from education through culinary traditions to imperial history.
Located in Longgang District on Daya bay,大鹏所城 or Dapeng Garrison is an anomaly in the Shenzhen landscape–by all counts it is culture of the highest kind. The garrison, which gives Shenzhen its nickname “roc city (鹏城)” is one of only 2,351 national important cultural relics (全国重点文物保护单位). Throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, soldiers stationed at Dapeng protected the area from pirates and colonial forces. Architecturally, was a walled garrison city, including housing for roughly 1,000 people, at least five temples, a school, and several large family compounds, which belonged to the resident general. Socially, it represented one of the military innovations of the ming. the soldiers stationed at dapeng were also farmers; the garrison was economically self-sufficient.
So yes, Shenzhen has culture. Why, then does it go unrecognized? And not only unrecognized, unvisited. Many of my acquaintances have never heard of Dapeng and most have never visited the garrison (even as part of their patriotic education). Unsurprisingly, all the parts and tourist attractions within the garrison are closed for want of visitors.
In part, I suspect that Shenzhen’s so-called lack of culture is a product of the city’s unfettered drive to modernize; no one actually notices historic relics as such. In part, I also think that Shenzhen’s lack of culture has been a rhetorical devise to produce the area as a tabula rasa; if there was nothing here, then the space is clear for all kinds of development. I’d also argue that by claiming that Shenzhen lacks of culture, urban immigrants assert their superiority to local rural residents. But in the end, I sometimes think the answer to the question, why doesn’t Shenzhen have culture is simply practical — most inhabitants lack of the time to be curious about where we are and how we got here. Most in Shenzhen are too busy making ends meet to think beyond their immediate concerns. So we’re stuck here in a present that keeps repeating itself–build, raze, build taller, faster, bigger, raze.
Culture, it seems to me, like education, good food, and history, grows in, through, and over good time, and that is precisely what Shenzhen lacks.
Pictures of Dapeng Garrison.