|Authentic China is what we sense when we see films about China; cloudy green hills, hidden mountainous lakes, fresh air villages and healthy noodle soups. Before taking a plane to China for the first time, we imagine Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) as an isolated peak, inhabited by eagles and monks; we think that Shaolin Monastery is a quiet oasis of ancient martial arts; and we imagine the town of Lijiang as a time-machine ride to the traditional towns of imperial China.
One visit, and perhaps even documentaries we watch from our homeland, is sufficient to subvert this ideal image. China often puzzles us and makes us ask where is 'real', 'authentic' China?
Here are five reasons that suggest why we often fail to find the image we are pursuing. Although travelers in China can do more to go off the beaten track, I would say that 'authentic' is always changing, and if we are looking to an image from the past then we will find something that is not real in the present reality.
1. Urbanization and privatization
The pride of the Chinese state lies mostly in its modernization and development in relation to the Western world. Skyscrapers that erect within a blink of the eye and coastal villages that become mega cities within a decade are becoming the trademark of China in recent years, much more than ancient traditions. Huge economic gaps exist between the cities and the countryside, but even residents of the latter are tangled in the capitalist race and often prefer cash to 'customs'. Under these conditions, it is no wonder that some ethnic minorities utilize their colorful lifestyle in order to maximize profits from tourism. Most travelers do not mind. Nice photos of the Naxi community in Lijiang or the Miao in Guilin are a memorable image, but commercialization nevertheless undermines the quest for the 'authentic'.
2. New Chinese social classes and inner tourism
Sometimes we forget how diverse Chinese society is. The growing urban middle class likes to travel in China and take photos of places that its parents could only dream about visiting. For Chinese, traveling in the Golden Week (huangjin zhou) and other holidays become a gateway to China, and also a status symbol of those who 'can' versus those who remain 'static'. The huge crowds are supported with numerous shopping opportunities and never ending manmade attractions, making every mountain we climb, every monastery we meditate in and every wall we embrace busier than the central metro stations in Beijing or Shanghai.
3. Obstacles to a virginal land
It is possible to step into a village or land of no tourists but traveling norms in China make it very difficult. First of all, for most wealthy Chinese (and this represents traveling tendencies of most East Asians) the idea of traveling is not so much about finding a virginal land, as it is a celebration of man's conquest of nature. For this reason, cable cars, stairs, and shopping stalls are present in every natural site. If travelers to China wish to visit isolated villages they must be ready to face challenges in communication and accept great suspicion from the locals. Chinese authorities might also add obstacles to this quest, either due to their preference not to expose 'backward' and 'superstitious' China to the eyes of foreigners or because of suspicion about the foreigners' activities.
4. Meeting a Laowai
This point requires little explanation and is relevant for many places on this planet, where a traveler visits a community that physically looks nothing like him or herself. Not only in remote villages, but even in large Chinese cities that do not see many foreigners, one might feel like a celebrity and hardly someone who can blend in and observe the local lifestyle. Superficial friendships (with residents who are fond of foreign culture, rather than more 'conservative' people) and perhaps an interest of the surrounding residents in the contents of one's wallet are not the best conditions for a dive into local culture...
5. Cosmopolitan and modern aspirations
While our head may present us with a dichotomy of old-new, traditional-modern, ancient-contemporary and maybe even Confucius and Xi Jiping, things never remain so static. While traditional customs still exist, even people who are devoted to them are influenced by changing values that promote new forms of individualism, new financial orientations and greater awareness to the outside world.
Last month a big event called 'The Peasant Olympics' was held in Henan. Organizers stated they wanted to respect the traditional countryside culture, and by to contrast international competitive sports. Yet, the format for empowering traditional culture was in fact the Western Olympic Games. Chinese culture nowadays is packed with such intersections of traditional, local, modern and international. Even when tradition is being respected and preserved, some of the instruments and methods are already manifesting a new contemporary orientation.
Unlike isolated third world countries where traveling is already a meaningful and non-trivial decision, visiting China involved more peculiar sentiments. On the one hand, China is still an exotic and mysterious location, but on the other it is a significant 'player' of the international community and has a growing impact on our international culture. Therefore we often want to absorb and understand China as much as we can. 'Authentic' China is a fairytale concept that can never be grasped. What remains is the possibility to stay in one place, learn to communicate with locals and perhaps accept the 'impure' reality of pollution, urbanization, MSG food and heavy crowds as the landscape, where small moments of benevolence can take place.