This year I was in the Chinese northland during the first week of the Trump presidency, a fact which had me thinking about national geographies of opportunity and despair. (Honestly, how could I resist when we were celebrating the Year of the Cock?!) Of note? The pride and resentment, wellbeing and jealousy that I encountered in the Chinese interior resonated with my experience of the American heartland, where my parents were born, even as the valuation of Shenzhen and other southern cities seemed much like American valuations of the progressive northeast, where I was raised.
Now, mine is a history familiar to many of the postwar American boom: My parents left the midwest for bi-coastal opportunities first in California and then in the northeast. As a child, I was constantly “going home” to the upper peninsula of Michigan, a place that (like the Chinese northeast) has become a national playground. In the American heartland, much as in the Chinese northeast, play (玩儿) not only transvalues space, but also provides ideological legitimization for growing inequality between national coasts and their respective hinterlands. In the United States, “play” includes hunting and religious holidays, while in China this play involves hometown foods and local traditions. But in both countries the idea is the same; somehow these continental traditions are “more authentic” than their coastal counterparts, which have been tainted by commerce and internationalism.
Anyway, this Chinese New Years, I ate and played in three northern cities, increasingly aware that earning money in the south facilitated my northern pleasures. Nor was I alone. In each of these cities I visited with friends from Shenzhen; all of us were home for the holidays. Our conversations have me thinking that China’s contemporary cultural geography has positioned the north as origin and keeper of tradition and the south as the land of economic opportunity. This allocation of symbolic and social functions means that during most of the year the north is abandoned, with folks returning during the holidays to play at tradition. On the one hand, this cultural geography infuses winter tourism with a certain legitimacy, if not authenticity; northerners appear unquestionably Chinese, while southerners and their traditions have a slight illegitimacy, tainted by both colonialism and prosperity. On the other hand, this cultural geography also produces uncomfortable stereotypes of backwardness and stupidity in the north, with forward thinking and smarts in the south.
beijing: this is no longer our city
The first stop on my New Years vacation was Beijing, where I stayed in the Hong Kong jockey club in Wangfujing. The location was chosen because it provided walkable access to to the Forbidden City and nearby attractions. Clearly at the center of tradition, this area was also located near the hutongs where my friends grew up playing in the Beihai and Jingshan Parks and biking around the Forbidden City. Our trip to ride ice sleds on the frozen water of Beihai evoked memories of childhood games, and an older world in which Beijing belonged to Old Beijingers; when they were children ice sledding was free and easy, and New Years was a local celebration. In contrast, today ice sledding is a tourist activity that cost 50 rmb a sled, even as most Old Beijingers have moved to the suburbs, leaving the center of the city to tourists, many of whom were visiting from the South in order to consume an authentic Chinese New Year.
tianjin: it’s time to leave
Tianjin, of course, is my husband’s hometown and where we celebrate family. The stories we heard as we wrapped dumplings and pigged out on homemade treats lamented the decline of Tianjin. One of China’s four independent cities, Tianjin used to be an industrial center, where heavy industry and workers were the heroes of the revolution. Today, however, Tianjin is not in China’s top ten manufacturing cities. Nevertheless, because the city abuts Hebei Province, it has some of the most polluted air in the country. My in-laws stressed that it was time to leave, either to retire to a cleaner environment or to find better jobs in the south. It was still possible to live and work in Tianjin, and so many Old Tianjin people had moved to the suburbs where they lived in comfortable apartments, but the health costs and lack of opportunities in comparison to the southern cities is being taken as a clear sign that its time to leave for–literally and metaphorically–greener pastures.
harbin: no hope for the stupid
Harbin was the most distressing of the visits, with planeloads of southerners visiting to feel the cold. The tourist events were incredibly expensive (330 per person to visit the ice village and another 200 to visit the snow sculptures), while the remnants of Russian colonialism had been hollowed out of any substantive meaning. The St. Sophia Orthodox Church, for example, held an exhibition of Harbin history, but had not in any way restored the building’s interior. Similarly, the old buildings on Main Street, had been converted to tourist attractions for Russian goods and food.
Meanwhile, the city’s connection to Soviet-era development has been severed. In 1950, strategic industrial manufacturing was moved from Shenyang to Harbin, which became home to three national large-scale equipment industrial enterprises, known as the the “three great energy sources (三大动力)”: the Harbin Electrical Machinery Plant, the Harbin Turbine Factory and the Harbin Boiler Factory. Until the 1960s break with the Soviets, Harbin was also the base for scientific and technical transfers, making the city one of the most important industrial centers in the country through the Maoist era and into the first decade of Reform and Opening. However, since the 1990s, these plants have been increasingly subordinated to industrial manufacturing in Shanghai. Consequently, I was told, most of the children of the state-owned industries have left Harbin to find opportunities elsewhere, especially Shenzhen. At the same time, most of the youth working in the tourist and service sectors had come from the neighboring countryside; these young people were not “smart enough” to make it elsewhere because their thinking was still mired in a 70s era worshipping of power and money.
My fellow Americans, if this map sounds familiar, it should. Think red states and blue, except with the odd Chinese characteristic. Both the United States and China are continental nation-states that have restructured to accommodate the opportunities of containerized globalization: port cities and their cosmopolitan residents are thriving, while industrial heartlands and their rural residents wither in toxic ruins. China’s geography of desperation and opportunity resonates that of the United States precisely because our respective interiors were the center of national economies (during the Cold War), while our coasts have become intermodal stations that suture transnational economies (during the era of Reform and Opening). Here’s the rub: in this hegemonic cultural geography, the interior is also “backward,” “polluted,” and “stupid,” just as the coast is “progressive,” “clean,” and “smart.”
Thought du jour: these national maps locate hospitality and kindness, even as tradition and despair twine in distressing ways, creating truths that we hold to be self-evident, but when analyzed reveal themselves to be nothing more or less than the unjust specters of economic restructuring.