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The Urban Chinese

May 31, 2007

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.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2007 10:31 am

    Very good article indeed… informative and to the point.

    Bhupendra Raghaw

  2. ram permalink
    May 31, 2007 2:15 pm

    This is why right attitude matters. I have seen many chinese who are very hard working even thouh not highly educated. India has many lessons from china.

  3. June 1, 2007 12:17 pm

    Nice update, Nita!

    It was a bit surprising to note the prevalence of Western clothing, especially in rural areas! Also surprising was the lack of eve-teasing. So many lessons for us to learn.

    About the being serious part – it seems just like Japan. Both these oriental societies value privacy very highly. No staring, no friendly banter, no small talk. I’ve always wondered why.

  4. June 1, 2007 2:45 pm

    I too was very surprised that no one wore the traditional dress. There is no doubt that inspite of China being a patriarchal society there is no pressure on the women to dress in the traditional way.
    I think the lack of eve-teasing and the way women dress is connected. It is because there is no eve-teasing and staring that women feel free to dress how they please.
    You are right Mahendra, we Indians have a lot to learn from them. There are still some people in India who believe that men stare because of a way a woman dresses. China (and I am sure many western countries as well) proves that it is not a woman’s dress that makes a man stare at a woman, but the prevalent attitudes in society.
    The lack of friendly banter is quite unnerving as it is easy to be misunderstood! they take everything so seriously! I wondered why too.

  5. June 1, 2007 4:41 pm

    Very interesting observations, Nita. For that matter in India too the traditional dresses are being replaced by the next convenient & available attires. For example in the south the madisar has given way to sarees and now to chudidhars. I suppose this the same in Maharastra too.

  6. axinia permalink
    June 6, 2007 3:31 pm

    NIta, great report, I enjoyed a lot!
    I guess to now the reason why in China almost 90% of women work – to me it is obviously due to the communist tradition
    It is same in Russia, communist system since years was about equal rights for men and women and it was very well reflected in the social life. In fact, In Russia we have no feminist and no emancipation, and we are already free China must have taken a lot from its Big Brother

  7. June 6, 2007 5:28 pm

    I guess thats one good thing about communism then. I was completely taken in by the freedom women enjoyed in China.

  8. axinia permalink
    June 8, 2007 1:35 pm

    Nita, there were many other good thing there 🙂 unfortunately mass media outside of Russia are not interested in positive stuff, especially about such an enemy as Russia. Today same as 50 yeras back 😦

  9. guqin permalink
    January 3, 2008 12:43 pm

    If Chairman Mao ever did one good thing for his motherland of good and profound consequences, it is the liberation of women. However, situation for women in ancient China wasn’t as bad as it seems to foreigners. Such as foot binding happened very late (South Song dynasty, before Mongol conquest) and only wealthy women would afford it since they didn’t need to work. One can read “Book of Poetry” (” Classic of Poetry” or “Shi Jing”) (Confucius was the editor) to get a feel for the relation between men and women then.

  10. January 4, 2008 10:27 am

    Thanks for your response Gugin, it’s nice to have a chinese respond to this post. I personally love your country and am in admiration for the way they treat their women. India too was an ancient civilization but the respect for women today is lacking.

  11. Tinglan permalink
    May 8, 2008 9:06 am

    Hi, Nita!
    For the traditional dressing I have to say it’s hard for Chinese people wear traditional custome when they are working. However, like Japan and Korea, some Chinese people wear traditional custome in ceremonies(like growing-up ceremony). And Chipao is only one kind of Chinese traditional customes for women. Another one is Hanfu, some people wear Hanfu outside in recent years. If you’re interested in it, you can find some information by Google.

  12. Jeff permalink
    June 25, 2008 3:39 am

    Nobody wear traditional dressing is also comes from an wrong policy in Mao age, today, people are realized it, and call for return, but unfortunately, people are used to western clothe, something has gone, it will hardly to return.

    Woman rights are in well protected in China, that’s one of the pleased things in China, now a day, woman can engage in almost all the fields that man did. I believe China is one of the best countries in protecting woman rights (people like boy is an other topic though), it can be reflected by the achievement of Chinese woman.

    One child policy is still under disputation. the original reason of one child policy is also because of one of the wrong policies of Mao. Mao believed “more people, more power”. Chinese population increased rapidly and became unbearable in a short term. after Mao died, new generate leader of China realized that the country will be crashed by the bear of overabundance population. despite this population control is a remedial policy, today, Chinese social has been benefited a lot from it, though, the cost is people lost the procreation right. But a very interesting thing is, today this policy get a high support rate in advanced area of China, one of the reasons is the people in advanced area are too busy to think about have more child, what just like it happened in advanced countries. We have to agreed that, some times, some thing will go to it’s negative when the time is changing, even to a bad thing.

    Thanks Jim. As you said everything has it’s positive and negative side. And what I love about China is that women have equal rights. If I were not an Indian, I would have liked to have been born a Chinese. – Nita.

    • Chen permalink
      January 6, 2010 11:35 pm

      The majority of women did not work before 1949 because their husbunds could afford families then. However, communists suppressed the economy when they rise to power and women are forced to join in factories and field operations as well in order to compensate the poor salaries of men. Mao did not expect to free women, he just cared about more labour forces. It is told by my parents so I take it more reliable.

  13. Jeff permalink
    June 25, 2008 3:48 am

    BTW, the one child policy is not applied to minority but Han, (Han is the mainly nation in China, about 90% of Chinese are Han)

  14. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    June 25, 2008 7:31 am

    //the one child policy is not applied to minority but [to the] Han, (… about 90% of Chinese are Han)//

    If it weren’t off-topic there, I would cross-post the above to the N vs. S thread. From the Chinese we should learn the importance of reining in what, in some circumstances, could become a brute majority, in favour of the minorities — ethnic or linguistic.

  15. Vikram permalink
    July 20, 2008 1:54 am

    Nita, I have given this post of yours a little thought and yes, the achievements of all former Communist nations (Russia, China, Vietnam) in achieving gender equality are commendable. In India, human rights abuses against women can be very serious indeed, for example the practice of “nath-pratha” (wife-selling) in Rajasthan and the honor-killings we have seen in Haryana.

    On the other hand, India’s president (Pratibha Patil) and the head of its missile program (Tessy Thomas) are women, some of its richest people (Kiran Mazumdar), we also see girls outperforming boys in virtually every school exam. So the evidence is there that the change is happening, but I dont know how Indian women perceive this change, they have to fight so hard for everything they get.

    Vikram, as an Indian woman brought up in a liberal family I saw a huge difference between the way I was perceived by close family and friends and by what I experienced on the streets of India and also by shopkeepers etc. This women doing well thing is an illusion. And even in middle-class India few families will accept it if women continue to be career women. Most families suppress their women in India. I have seen it everywhere, amongst neighbors, friends, acquaintances. If this is Indian culture, I want nothing to do with it. – Nita.

  16. 毛主席 permalink
    July 20, 2008 6:28 am


  17. Vikram permalink
    July 20, 2008 9:57 am

    Unfortunately, in its raw form, this is ‘Indian culture’. You probably see this in this epics, where there are sons and sons galore, while the women are simply there to be either ‘dishonored’ or ‘protected’. This is also seen in Indian cinema (though less recently), the hero saves the heroine from being raped, abused etc etc.

    I feel that Indian women are instantly sexualized or objectified by men, there could be a variety of reasons for this, traditional attitudes, a low sex-ratio (esp. in the cities where it can be as low as 700 women per 1000 men), weak law-enforcement and others. Unfortunately, none of these are going to change easily, education in India is miserable at raising social issues, the media is’nt doing enough and is simply ignored many times, the sex-ratio is going to get worse, and if the Indian police cannot protect its citizens from getting killed I doubt it can stop the harassment of women. A very hard fight will be needed.

  18. Nisha permalink
    December 19, 2008 5:19 pm

    I found your blog recently and was surprised by your ability to write about such different topics. I am not a writer, but if I was, I would write about the recent, increasing trend among young Indians to take up cycling. Mostly because in today’s traffic it is the fastest way to get to work. Could you write about it? I would love to see your take on it.

    There are people from Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Pune, Chennai, Delhi etc who have taken up cycling and many interact on this forum

  19. Jim K permalink
    March 2, 2009 2:22 pm

    It is true that very few Chinese people can speak English. But to your surprise, English is a compulsory course to all Chinese kids starting from middle school. Unfortunately, the Chinese language is so vastly different from English that many people spend 10 years studying it but still can’t speak it (most young people can read some). I’ve been to Japan, and found the same even though most Japanese people are very well educated.

    The reason people don’t wear traditional clothes may be attributed to the “New Culture Movement” in the 1920s and the “Cultural Revolution” in the 1960s. But most recently traditional clothes are starting to come back, not in daily wearing though, but mostly in special occasions like parties, ceremonies and cultural events. By the way, chipao is not really the traditional clothes most representative of China as seen by most foreigners. Chipao is the traditional clothes of the Manchurians who ruled China from the 16th to 19th century. The real traditional Chinese wearing is Hanfu, which is now quickly picking up in China.

    • hrishi permalink
      March 29, 2009 3:25 am

      The reason Indian women don’t wear western clothes is mainly because indian women have a heavier build than western and chinese women.Although I don’t mind it.

  20. October 7, 2010 6:34 pm

    Thanks from a Chinese for this post and all comments

    It’s really fantastic to find this blog and communicate with some Indian fellows.

    Frankly speaking, women rights are largely not an issue in nowadays China, especially in the urban areas. A sense of equality between men and women is increasingly rooted in almost every mind of Chinese people. Too many reasons have contributed to this.

    Like Japanese and Koreans, English is not a demand for most ordinary Chinese in their daily life. The same situation for those East Asian countries is that English education is compulsory in all education levels (yes, in most elementary schools even some kindergartens in China).

    I must say that although there is a border problem between China and India, most average Chinese people has an overall positive attitude toward Indians, for your dance, culture and good-looking women. At the same time, most Chinese people have a clear and reasonable understanding about our country. Though we have significant progress in our economy, though we have sent 6 people to the outer space, though we have taken on a new looking in almost every cities and country sides… … We clearly know that CHINA IS NOT AN ADCANVED NATION. That’s why most Chinese people are working so hard, even harder than ever based on the intrinsic and urgent feelings that we have wasted so much time in the past.

    China is more open than any time in the history, but we know that it is far from being enough. That is why most people in the world still have obscure ideas about China. So why not come to China, not Beijing or Shanghai, to my hometown Chengdu, to any Chinese place?

    By the way, is China a communist country with repression and restriction everywhere right now? haha, please go to China and find your answers with your own eyes and ears… ….

  21. November 9, 2010 11:36 am

    I found it very interesting to read an Indian tourist’s superficial impressions of China. I’m English, but I came to Hong Kong in 1974, and I’ve been immersed in Chinese culture ever since. As I found this blog via a google search for China, India and comparative advantage, I thought that your readers might be interested in reading my recent essay, which assesses the two countries’ prospects in relation to future geopolitics from an outsider’s perspective (although I do admit that I know a lot more about the inner workings of China than I do of India).

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