So Many Chinas

There are so many Chinas; each teach different lessons. There is tourist China. It is lively and awe-inspiring and new. Yes, new. A culture that dates back 5000 years boasts many attractions that bear small signs that they have been rebuilt since 1980. Hmmmm…. On the one hand, most of these structures are rebuilt replicas of ancient sites, and, why not? The original structures were made of wood. As Peter Hessler writes in Oracle Bones, structures in China were not built to stand forever. There seems to be a recognition and a world view that material things will not last. Where my western mind feels a bit like I’m being duped when an “ancient” pagoda has an escalator in it, from a Chinese perspective this view makes little sense. A pagoda, whether or not it is this pagoda, has stood on this spot since A.D. 975. Hessler also writes that culture as architecture is a western notion. And as a mother of two boys, I can attest to how entranced they are by castles, pyramids, tombs, lighthouses, and other structures that speak to the Western impulse to create lasting monuments to persons, things, gods, or events. It follows, that as China has begun to once again share its heritage with outsiders, there is an attempt to do this in a way the westerners will understand.  I see more of this impulse on each visit. More buildings with old-style facades, more focus on pre-revolutionary culture. And, although I know how I see these attractions, I wonder how my Chinese friends see them. Is it simply a way to bring tourists and their money into China? Maybe not. Another legacy in modern China is the cultural revolution (1964- 73) during which temples were closed, Buddha’s defaced, palaces left to disintegrate, and other relics left unpreserved, all in a systematic attempt to destroy the four olds: old cultures, customs, habits, and ideas. A terrible moment when the very things that give a culture allure and flavor are purged in the name of modernization. Perhaps the shining newness of tourist China reflects a type of joy or reclamation of the “olds” that were almost lost.

On previous trips, I’ve brought small cameras – easy to carry, inconspicuous. But this time, I decided I wanted to do more visual exploration than in the past. My goal was to notice caught my eye notice and reflect on what that told me both about China and about how I perceive it.

First is the China I wish for.
Because I can immediately load my pictures onto my computer and because my computer has some limited photo editing capabilities, I found myself taking a picture that looks like this…


…of a distant pagoda. Even when I took it, I was trying to create something different than what was there. I zoomed in as much as possible to crop out the street, the city buildings, etc. The resulting picture has the bones of what I was aiming for – something mystical, exotic, faraway, perhaps capturing what it might feel like to be an explorer catching site of an unfamiliar shape on a distant hill. But the picture is hazy – a polluted reality – that, as a consumer, I benefit from. Hmmm…uncomfortable…but, viola!




A little editing and I can disguise that discomfort. Now it is magical, sublime even. (A real photographer might throw in hackneyed and boring but nevertheless…)

Let’s try another one. Here’s the view from the Great Wall as it looked through my lens.

Image(This is life without environmental activism, btw.) But look, a slightly different view, a little editing and presto change-o! National Geographic here I come. And the quiet awe that I would like to feel looking out is created literally out of thin air.


Now there’s nothing wrong with editing pictures. It’s fun, creative, satisfying. And I’ll hang these on my wall and give them as gifts. But it also gives me pause. To what lengths do I go to to make something fit an into my vision of what it should be? Do I do this with people and situations? Recognizing that true objectivity is out the window for most of us, to what degree to I allow myself to be open to possibilities? How often do I try and make something pretty and inviting that is really something else entirely? What about people? Do I window dress them when I should believe exactly what they put before my eyes or visualize them harshly because there is something that I don’t quite understand. My visual journey is helping me think differently. I like that.

On to another China, the China of every day. This is where the real magic happens – and not because of editing. In China, grandparents are the primary caretakers for their young grandchildren. Most often, both parents are working, and the young father’s parents either live with the new family or close by. Retirement happens quite early for men and women and young couples tend to have children before they are 30. This means grandparents are physically able and completely willing to take care of the littles. One of the most delightful sites when out and about in China is the number of grandparents with their grandchildren doing daily chores, or as in this case, enjoying a boat ride at the summer palace.


The little boy, as squeezy as he is, is made all the more appealing because he flanked by his grandfather and grandmother who are enjoying the view through his eyes. I was captivated watching them.

Here’s one taken during an evening walk in Beijing. Much of life is lived outside in China. In both the early morning and evening one can see people of all ages out doing martial arts, fishing, playing instruments, playing badminton, line dancing or perhaps having a game of chess or mahjongg. Morning and evening are the best times of day there.

There is the China that gets lost in translation.  Here’s a sign from the Forbidden City.  Our colleague who accompanied us told us it means, “Emperor doing nothing.”


When he told me this, I started to laugh and after a moment he did too.  Because of course I was thinking, “What good is an emperor who does nothing???”  But the words actually connote something different, more like “The Emperor is trusting his subjects to make good decisions.”   How many moments in cross-cultural communication are like this.  We think we know what we’re hearing; maybe we’re too afraid of being impolite to check it out; and so we stay woefully ignorant. I was happy it struck me as funny, which meant laughter, which meant a chance to talk further and really understand.

And there are so many other scenes that I notice when I’m out of my element.  They are completely ordinary to those who live there and completely extraordinary to me.





Thanks to my friends and colleagues in China for such a great trip.



  1. I’ve been practicing photography for an upcoming year in Gabon, in Central Africa. So I was intrigued by your thoughts on the literal and figurative lens through which we see and depict our world. When is focus and clarity (and maybe cropping) illuminating, and when does context – in all its ambiguity, confusion, and messiness – matter more? Thanks for the food for thought as I begin my own blogging adventures!

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