thoughts from tianjin

This entry was written in Tianjin on July 17.

These past two days, I have been in Tianjin, visiting in-laws. I also met Joel and Jessica of China Hope Live. My trip here has me thinking about how habit informs what we can see and experience. I left Tianjin more strongly convinced that there are many Chinas, not simply scattered over the country’s official territory, but also flourishing within the country’s diverse municipalities.

The first two impressions I had of Tianjin were of lack—no blue sky and not many tall buildings. Clearly, I was looking at Tianjin through eyes accustomed to seeing Shenzhen, where smog is the exception and glass skyscrapers the new norm, especially in Luohu, where I have been living. Moreover, these observations included unreflective judgments: (1) Shenzhen is cleaner and therefore better than Tianjin and (2) Shenzhen is wealthier than Tianjin and therefore more contemporary. Both judgments confirmed that my decision to live in Shenzhen was correct.

Only after a bit of acclimatization did I begin to see Shenzhen through what Tianjin might offer. In particular, one of the most important aspects of leaving Shenzhen is that it enables me to place Shenzhen within national trajectories, rather than within and against Hong Kong trajectories. This balance is one of the most difficult things to maintain when thinking about Shenzhen, which is both a Cantonese and a PR Chinese city. Histories of Shenzhen need to be written from both Hong Kong and Beijing, otherwise it is too easy to overlook either the role of policy or that of international capitalism in the construction of Shenzhen. Below are ways of thinking Shenzhen through impressions of Tianjin.

First, a literate rather than simply oral take on local history, as well as ongoing efforts to interpret that history with respect to national history. In Shenzhen, I usually hear the line “there is no history here ()” as self-serving justification for ongoing development and attempts to transfer landuse rights from village corporations to the state. However, in Tianjin the idea of no history is differently nuanced. On the one hand, Tianjin was one of the most important Chinese cities both before 1949 and during the Mao era. As in Shenzhen many important events have taken place here. On the other hand, many of Tianjin’s older residents went to school both before and after 1949. Indeed, Nankai University is located in Tianjin. These older residents can both discuss Tianjin with respect to Chinese imperial history as well as reframe the Chinese Revolution. Thus, unlike in Shenzhen, where local residents have experienced the effects of policy decisions, in Tianjin, some local residents have been recording, contemplating, and evaluating past events for over 100 years. In this sense, Shenzhen has history as a memory, while in Tianjin it is possible to use written histories to supplement oral history. Indeed, much intellectual work in Shenzhen entails documenting the present for future interpretations. Suddenly, the importance of “making history” seems more urgent in Shenzhen, and the concomitant responsibilities heavier if only because there are people writing history in Tianjin and so few of us in Shenzhen.

Second, time in Tianjin shows up the historic specificity of both forms and evaluations of globalization. In contrast to Shenzhen, where globalization is celebrated as the means of unmaking the mistakes of socialism, Tianjin’s colonial enclaves once proved the moral failures and social injustices that constituted Western imperialism. Indeed, one way to frame both Tianjin and Shenzhen history as moments in the history of the People’s Republic would be to look at the histories of these two cities as different efforts to use Western capitalism for Chinese ends. Another take would be to compare and contrast how foreign capitalists invested and inhabited these two cities. The dormitory system seems a wonderful place to begin such a study. Another would be to look at patterns of immigration. Still another might be to trace the conceptualization and construction of foreign enclaves, which have been reproduced in Shenzhen, not as concessions, but rather as neighborhoods that cater to foreign tastes, including private homes, English language schools, and leisure. Finally, one could also examine how Tianjin functioned and Shenzhen has functioned to prepare young Chinese to go abroad are remake China’s position in the world.

Third, the way that the Shenzhen experiment has and has not been picked up and redeployed outside Guangdong. While in Tianjin, I noticed the presence of China Merchants (招商集团) and Vanke (万科集团). It would be interesting to track these transformations through the presence of Shenzhen people in Tianjin, as well as Shenzhen financed projects. I know several Shenzhen architects and developers, who have projects in Tianjin. In Shenzhen, I hear about these projects, but have never visited them.

This trip has reminded me how travel helps counteract the mental numbing that all too often accompanies the repetitions of my daily routine. In the hazy light of a Tianjin morning, it seems even more necessary to organize my life to facilitate clear thinking, or if not completely clear thinking, to organize my life to make apparent the sedimentation of thought. Pictures of Tianjin index this process.

Today, after breakfast, we leave Tianjin and head to Beijing for the weekend.

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