The Urban Chinese
What struck me about the Chinese cities were its people. Smart, fashionable, active and hardworking. In this piece I have also also written a little about their dressing style, their social customs and their lifestyle as all these are interlinked. Its all how I saw it, and the observations are my own personal ones. I claim no understanding of the Chinese, this is simply what I saw.
One thing that hits you about the Chinese if you come from India is the number of women on the streets, behind counters, in offices, and well…everywhere! This is not surprising as I was told that more than 90 per cent of women work outside the home. And both men and women wear western clothes. In India you will find that it is the men who have discarded the traditional clothes, but women continue to wear them. During my visit to China I did not see a single woman in traditional dress. I have explained this later on in my write-up. I wasn’t sure why almost all women work outside the home, but perhaps it could be something to do with the one-child policy. Whether you are a boy or girl, you are the only earning member of the family. While there are some matriarchal societies in China (Mosuo), they are an ethnic minority. China is mostly a patriarchal society, yet you find most women out there – working. The one-child policy seems to have tilted the male female ratio in favour of the men. The ratio is not as bad as India’s – but its bad enough. There are 112-120 boys for 100 women and this has resulted in a shortage of wives. But if you look at China’s cities, there is no evidence of it. Plenty of women! In the provinces, there could be a problem. During our short visit, a mainstream English newspaper came out with an article about how villagers were being harassed if they had more than one child. In rural China the government has found it rather more difficult to implement the one-child policy or to monitor female foeticide.
It was rather nice to see women work side by side with the men. Whether it was the toll booth, the railway station at night, in the fields (agriculture) or behind the wheel of a rickshaw – there were women as well as men. And they all either wore trousers (like the woman above) or western style skirts. In Beijing and Shanghai people are fashionable. I saw several girls in micro-minis (the girl on the right is wearing long shorts by comparison) and high heels.
There is zero staring. And can you believe it – the village women wear pants and T-shirts when they till the fields. Inspite of being poor, there seems to be no pressure on the women to cover their bodies. In India this is unheard of. Rural women have no choice but to wear the traditional dress in India. Ofcourse one does find that in rural India women tend to shorten the traditional costume or wear it in such a way that gives them freedom of movement. After all, they have to work! So what happened to the traditional Chipau, the long dress that Chinese women used to wear down the ages? I asked many people but no one could give a satisfactory answer. Some said the Chipao was inconvenient, some said it was ugly, some said western clothes were better. One person told me that it was Mao who made the pant and shirt compulsory!
But as luck would have it, that night in our hotel BBC beamed a programme on why the Chipao had died out. It was way back in the 1920’s, due to the influence of the west that Chinese women began to experiment with the Chipao. The Chipao started to become figure hugging, shorter (showing the ankles) and different styles started to flood the market. The older generation was scandalised, specially because the legs were increasingly seen, but it was a fact that by the late forties and early fifties the Chipao was no longer the loose tube like garment meant to hide a woman’s figure. In fact, by the late fifties, the Chipao started to disappear altogether, and western clothes started to take over.
Today, the elderly as well as the young, the poor as well as the rich, the rural as well as the urban, the men and the women – everyone has discarded the traditional Chinese dress. If you want to see a woman in a Chipao you need to to see a period play, a dance performance, a special party or a shop where the heavily embroidered fancy Chipao’s are for sale. Maybe the Chinese wear them at weddings, but I was told this tradition has faded out too. The Western white long flowing dress is often worn by the bride. So much for the influence of the west!
The western influence is evident in the names too. People don’t tell you their Chinese name! At least not the people we interacted with. They called themselves by a Christian name…and we were told the names were translations of their Chinese name! This was the first time I knew that names could be translated! When I asked whether they were Christian, there was horror on their faces! Ofcourse they were not Christian! In fact, they were not religious at all – being religious is not something they feel good about. They all say they have no religion… in fact there is no sign of any religion anywhere. The ‘Christian names’ are apparently given because its assumed that foreigners are not able to pronounce or remember their Chinese names. I didn’t agree with this at all but it wasn’t possible to convince them.
Yet inspite of their western style of dressing, the western name fad, or the increased consumption of fast food (MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken is everywhere) not many people speak English. I guess we as a nation wouldn’t either, if it wasn’t for the fact that the British ruled us for so long. At the hotels people are supposed to know English, but they seem to understand only basic English, and that too just talk about the hotel and the facilities. There was not a single Chinese with whom we could converse with in English for any length of time…but then we did not meet any highly educated Chinese. As tourists we came across hotel staff, cab drivers, guides, restaurant managers, shop-keepers etc.
In India, people in these professions speak fairly understandable English, and some of them speak English fluently. One lady manager at a Silk Emporium in Xian, China, did speak fluent English, but she was unusual. If you enter a shop on the street, no one understands a thing. Not even one word of English! Not a yes or a no, nothing!
I must mention that except in Shanghai, people are not very friendly. They do not smile easily, in fact I found people to be very serious and at times, grim and business like. It can scare us Indians as we are so used to bohemie and hospitality. Well, the Chinese were efficient and that was what finally mattered.
Some people exhibited some curiosity at seeing us, specially in public places, though everyone tried very hard not to stare. They are not used to seeing Indians. A Chinese family asked my daughter for a picture with them. Everyone is extremely conscientious when it comes to their work. Their sincerity and the extent they go to to help you is amazing. I have not seen anything like it. Their work must be done and it must be done well. I found this even at the lowest levels…and I was impressed. Even if its a menial job, they take great pride in doing it well.
In India we have a concept of Dharma too but the Chinese (they must have an equivalent) take it far more seriously. Work is their life. However if you ask them to go beyond their call of duty, ask them for something extra, you are likely to meet with a blank stare. No, they do not hanker for tips, but they are more business-like rather than friendly. Practical and down to earth was how I saw it.
Bicycles are a common mode of transport for the people there. Many main roads have separate lanes for cyclists and therefore it becomes fairly easy to traverse through the traffic. In any case, traffic congestion is not as common in Chinese cities as in Indian cities. The central business districts and a few city areas are a little crowded with cars, not the whole city. There are strict parking rules to prevent people from parking their vehicles and as a result traffic runs smoothly more often than not. There are areas in Shanghai for example where cars are not allowed and in other areas, the parking charges are very high.
In India I have not seen poor women riding bicycles, except occasionally in Pune. In China it is extremely common – as many women ride bicycles as men.
A lot people use two wheelers which run on battery. The light scooters/motorcycles cost around Rs 10,000/- to Rs 12,000/- to buy, but the battery (cost: Rs 2500/-) has to be replaced every year. Helmets are not compulsory. Seat belts in four-wheelers are, but the attitude is similar to what we have here. People simply wrap the belt around themselves!
Chinese cities are extraordinarily safe. You can feel it while walking on the street. The people are non-interfering, decent and avoid looking at you. Before we left for China we knew that crime was low in China but we saw it for ourselves. Young women with shopping bags freely do their shopping even after nine p.m. Eve-teasing seems to be non-existent. This inspite of the fact that roads are often deserted. I believe that there have been incidents of social unrest and protests but generally these are directed at the government and are not crime incidents.
Not that there is no crime in China. I heard that there are some areas like night-clubs where muggings happen. There are pick-pockets in areas that tourists frequent. Luckily, we did not have any bad experience. At railway stations you cannot enter without a ticket and this helps in keeping the railway stations safe. I did not see any touts.
However on landing at Mumbai International airport while I was waiting for our luggage, there was this very shady looking guy whose eyes were following me everywhere (my husband and kids were a distance away) and finally he approached me and asked if I was alone and whether I required any help? I wonder how many people are targeted in this fashion? Who was this man? He was not wearing a uniform.
In China a young woman can sit alone in a public place and feel comfortable. No one will approach her.
If women seem to have so much freedom, what is it about the high suicide rate amongst Chinese women? Well, I found out that the suicide rate is relevant mostly in the rural areas, not urban. But why should so many women in rural areas of China wish to die? I don’t know. If it is simply a case of poverty, then more men would commit suicide, not women. I have written more about some of the reasons for suicide rates of the world here.
I shall end this article with a ferry that I saw on the river Li.
Related Reading: What a tourist can expect in China
The Four Cities of China
China and India – an inevitable comparision
Eating out in China
China’s claim to an Indian province is preposterous
Ex-Governer of Hong Kong (Patten) talks about the future of China ten years after it was handed over to the Chinese.