One Hundred Million Emperors

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Young Chinese celebrate their newfound prosperity and freedom with colourful fashion while the pre-1980s watch with disbelief.

Beijing on an early spring day and far from the explosion of colours and quirky shops you perhaps would expect. Most of the passers-by dress no different from Europeans, they drink their coffee in Starbucks, expect a high standard of living, they watch NBA on TV and watch the same Hollywood films that we do. One in twenty faces, however, has
weather bitten, golden brown face and wears communist or traditional Chinese style clothes. These are people from the rural areas, who have come to Beijing in hope of finding work in construction, as Beijing transforms its facade.

A Clean Slate
When the communists came to power, it seems as if they wiped out not only the old city walls that surrounded Beijing, to make way for Ringroad 1, but also most of the visible traditional culture of the streets. The pale palette they left, now seem to soak up almost
anything Western that may pass through.

Billboards advertise the universal quest for beauty, but most of the models are Caucasian or have Caucasian features. The subtlest scratch on the surface, however, reveals layers of traditions embedded in the hippest of the hip young adults. Those traditions often land them in conflict with new ideals heavily marketed by the corporate multinationals and eagerly embraced by many of Beijing’s youth.

Culture shock
Chang Ji, 29, graduated with an MBA from the University of Sunderland in 2004 and has since moved to London. Chang, or Michael as he calls himself while in the UK, has enjoyed seeing his family, friends and dog again for the first time in nearly three years, but is not happy with how some things have changed:
“I’ve had a culture shock coming back. My mentality seems 50 years old,
compared to ‘modern’ Beijing people,” Michael says; “There is a total gap between my generation and the ones who are just five years younger. The culture shock is between people like me and young Chinese, not between Westerners and Chinese.

“I read in the news that, in a rural area, a bus went into a river in an accident. A poor man jumped in and saved 19 people. He later became seriously ill from doing it, but, because he was poor, the doctor wouldn’t treat him nor would anyone sponsor his treatment, so he died. How fair is that?

“I’m really disappointed. People seem to only look for the fastest and shortest way to get rich. Our traditional moral background is a mixture between Buddhism and Confucism which tells you to be loyal to your parents. Now, people judge you by your clothes and what’s in your pocket.

The Little Emperors
Michael believe China’s one child policy, put into action in 1975, is a necessary measure, but he thinks it is linked to the change of moral that he experiences:

“It is the parents’ and grand parents’ upbringing of their single child which is the cause of it. They don’t want their children to experience any of the hardship they have felt before, so they spoil the child with everything it points at, but they don’t realize what effect they’re having,” Michael says;

“Young people now follow the commercial holidays, such as Christmas and
Valentines Day, and abandon the traditional ones.”

China has 100 million little emperors, or only children, of which the richest half are likely to enjoy material wealth their parents could only dream of in their childhood. A whopping 50 million Chinese have joined the middle class in less than a decade and a half.

“I believe people in any society should not be measured by their money, but that’s what’s happening in China. I don’t want to be a money junkie, I just want enough to support my family,” Michael says; “I believe one should never think about how much you give out, but think about what the people really need.”

Today’s young Chinese grew up seeing their parents, grandparents and neighbours wearing dark and grey communist colours connoting hard work, discipline and self-sacrifice for the common cause. In the current era of strangely patchy capitalism, the young people of Beijing indulge in the explosion of colour, ideas and designs brought in from Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, the U.S. and Europe.

Pei Xiaobo, 26, will graduate this summer, with an MA in Media Production, from the University of Sunderland. She is from Jin Zho in Northern China, but knows Beijing well from studying her BA and working there as a journalist and editor for a year.

“Young people here like to spend their parents’ money. They are really into fashion and love Western stuff, especially American culture. They are open minded and not too concerned with traditional constraints, such as family loyalty or duties,” she says;

“What some girls wear would shock even Western people. Teenagers in Beijing have copied the fashion from Japan and some from Korea, although, if you ask them, they will say their style is American. There are too many good fakes, like LV and Gucci, so everyone wears those big brands. The newest designs will be copied in less than a month.

“Personally, I prefer Prada dresses, Gucci watches, Miu Miu shoes and Fendi or Chanel for jewellery. That’s what I like, but I don’t have the money to buy it,” she laughs.

According to Pei, there are only two things she does while in Beijing; shopping and eating. As we pass by an Escada shop, she instantly drops out of the conversation and takes in the atmosphere of the pastel delights in the art gallery like shop display. She leaps in amongst the bags, skirts and tops, zig zagging around measuring sizes and
considering colours. ‘What a wonderful world’ plays softly from the speakersystem. Reluctantly, she pulls away.

Sales of cosmetics and other beauty products in China have ballooned from £12.8 million in 1982 to a projected £12 billion in 2005. This, despite the fact that very few Chinese over 40 has ever used mascara. Analysts believe China will consume 30% of the world’s luxury merchandise by 2014.

Unless you’re buying real Prada at one of the fancy hotel shops, always remember to bring cash. Even in Beijing’s massive malls of electronic delights, only cash counts because the tax-happy Chinese Government charges double VAT. This means that the salesperson must pay and, when the goods are sold, the customer pays again. The business will also have to pay 25% tax on their turnaround figure, regardless of whether they make a profit or not. Chinese shops, even in seemingly well-organised shopping
malls, therefore, usually only accept traceless (tax-free) cash payments. Electronics are usually 30% to 40% cheaper than in the UK.

For clothes, Xidan is the definite student hang out, with an array of malls, where prices are in the mid-range of the market, which is still cheaper than in the UK. Few real brands here, but, then again, the choice of styles is immense.

The more famous Wangfujing area is situated a couple of minutes walk from Tian An Men Square and is famous for its late night market streets where you can find snacks like roast scorpion. Slightly more expensive than Xidan and with less choice, but has a great atmosphere in the evening.

Hong Qiao Market is great for cheap bags, clothes and watches, for fake Gucci’s and silk souvenirs. Once you find the right area, just follow the smell to find it, as the shops are placed above the local fish market. This is a typical coach tourist territory, though, so bargain hard.

Temple of Heaven
Tourists are also drawn to the Buddhist Temple of Heaven in the south of the city. Built with its central walkways and archways in line with the ones of The Forbidden City some kilometres further north, it seems oddly stripped of its mystique compared to its famous neighbour.

“It’s so empty,” Pei says as we enter the long walkway leading up to the temple, with parks on either side: “This used to be a public park for people in Beijing, but now everyone has to pay to get in, as it has become a tourist attraction.”

Traditionally, people would go to public parks to play cards and games, practice their instruments, sing Beijing Opera or catch up on gossip.

As we leave towards the car park we meet first one, then more and more people, singing at the top of their voice, apparently at random. We enter a courtyard to find an old man playing a Chinese string instrument and his wife, singing along high-pitched and shivering, yet delicate and melodious.

In a hallway nearby, a powerful choir has formed around a couple of people with song texts. The 200 or so singers’ faces beam with pride and determination as they sing praises to communism and their homeland. We watch for a while, then leave to have lunch at the KFC across the road.

High resolution images available.