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Home  /  Inside China  /  Can the Charm of Renqi '人气' Survive Modern Urban Shopping Districts?
Can the Charm of Renqi '人气' Survive Modern Urban Shopping Districts? print version
Traditional downtown setting is being transformed throughout China in recent decades. Can the magic of renqi 人气, 'the breathing of people' in bustling street markets be preserved in the modern urban landscape?
One thing that bothers many local residents of developing Chinese metropolitans is the construction of new shopping centers and the extermination of traditional street atmosphere. In the traditional main streets, locals could run their errands while bumping into familiar faces, buy grocery from the same peddler every day or even walk with no purpose, knowing that some interesting encounter is likely to occur.

Although the undeniable link between social encounters, strolling around and shopping is often associated with the modern consuming society, in fact for centuries urban street life in China has had a consuming flavor and strolling the streets (guangjie - 逛街) isn't perfect without the stores or paddlers along the road. But then again, we are not talking about Gucci or Armani, but rather about small necessities (or cheap commodities), which are sometimes a good excuse for taking a walk down the street.

Renqi 人气 literally means ‘breathing of people', a term associated with traditional street markets where strolling, buying and human contacts overlap. The city's public space is inevitably also a social space, and shopping is constantly wrapped with human warmth. The distinct boundaries between shopping centers, main streets (nowadays becoming a semi highways which aren't very pedestrian-friendly) and a place for social encounters, which are intensified in modern Chinese cities clearly demolish the renqi of the street and enable locals to live up to the cliché of urban solitude.

Renqi isn't only a nostalgic term but is in fact a need expressed by many Chinese, mostly older ones. Perhaps this desire could be traced to Daoist roots and the ideal of being in harmony with the surrounding and fulfilling one's needs through this state, in contrary to having each aspect of life realized in a different space and time (this belief is also noticeable in Chinese Buddhism, which unlike it's Indian roots emphasizes constantly remaining attentive to the surrounding).

Maintaining a traditional street life is also an economical interest of peddlers and low income residents, since the reconstruction of the cityscapes in China is accompanied by repressing peddlers' activities (usually not in a very violent manner, though keeping public space peddler-free). Without peddlers or small markets the low prices of products, formerly sold on the street, can no longer be enjoyed by locals, who find very limited bargaining possibilities in big stores.

With the city street scene no longer available, we can see that the public parks becomes a hanging out place for older Chinese (tourists can easily encounter this phenomenon in Beijing's Tiantan 天坛公园,Kunming's Cuihu 翠湖 and more) and thrifty locals cling to the remaining street markets.

It would be interesting to examine how important renqi is for higher income city strollers. Can a pedestrian street such as Beijing's fancy Wangfujin (王府井) be considered a better solution for Chinese consuming desires than an isolated shopping mall or are both options extremely distant from the traditional shopping scene, which repress the realization of renqi? If the former is even slightly true, then even if not preserving old Chinese habits, perhaps modern cities in China could still compromise on a duller, Western-style-renqi.

Assisting Source: Zhang, Li. 2006. "Contesting Spatial Modernity in Late-Socialist China". Current Anthropology, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 461-484


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