Almost every Chinese city has one: a mock-ancient village that is part tourist attraction, part shopping mall, and part culture exhibition center. Yesterday, I went to Tianjin’s version, Ancient Culture Street.
The place is meticulously planned. At it’s entrance stands a brightly painted Chinese gate and big bronze statues. The buildings are made of gray stone, complete with tile roofs and ornate wooden doors. Statues of thinkers and generals occupy niches between shops selling polished jade and Tianjin’s specialty, clay figurines. You can have your name carved into a stone stamp or written in pastel colors on a scroll. Men sketch the animals of the Chinese zodiac out of caramelized sugar. It’s a plasticized, consumable version of Chinese-ness.
And Tianjin is just one example. I’ve been to similar places in Suzhou and Xian. Even the small town I lived in last year, Jiaxing, has it’s version, Bright Moon Street. The most pure examples are completely self-created and contained. Shanghai’s Silk Market is perhaps the tantamount example, if only for it’s sheer size. It’s not built around an ancient temple. No historic event took place there. It is a place that doesn’t bother justifying it’s existence. It simply is. Some, however, do latch on to established tourist attractions. A big Ming-themed culture mall opened last year to the south of Tiananmen Square. But, walking around the place, it’s location seems more incidental than intentional.
The places are also very popular. Ancient Culture Street is probably Tianjin’s biggest tourist attraction. I asked a student from Tianjin what I should do in the city; his only answer was visit Ancient Culture Street. But it’s not just tourists. Most culture malls, as I’ve started to think of them, have restaurants and clubs for the locals, perfect for a night out or a weekend stroll.
It’s tempting to say that this is all about commercialization. The glaring excess of consumption in China is certainly a big part of life here, but I think more important is what it says about the way Chinese people experience their own culture. Of course, all over the world culture becomes camp for tourists, the difference is that in China it’s performed for Chinese people. 5,000 years of history, the longest continual civilization on earth; places like Tianjin’s Culture Street provide the daily experience of what those great claims mean. In them Chinese culture becomes simply trinkets and handi-crafts, something to be collected and hung on the wall. You can get your picture taken in imperial robes sitting on an imperial throne. It’s all image, no substance.
One poignant example of the shallowness of this brand of culture is that these culture malls contain almost no information. There are rarely museums or exhibits. The best taste of history or context is the occasional plaque to describe a statue. The closest thing to a museum in Tainjin’s Ancient Culture Street was a clay figurine shop that displayed pictures of the last 6 generations of it’s artists. It’s a world devoid of context.
Nowhere better illustrates the seeming contradiction between China as a land of great historic culture and the common gripe, among foreigners and Chinese alike, that China has no culture. Ancient culture tends to be inaccessible set pieces, more image and performance than living entity. Modern culture, on the other hand, In addition to murky political prospects, is open to the accusation of being non-Chinese because it’s often so influenced by the west. The result is a society heavily invested in the image of great classical Chinese culture, part out of political expediency, but also as a source of pride, accomplishment, and individuality.
Then, of course, there’s the Cultural Revolution to contend with. So much of Chinese culture was destroyed or sent underground in those ten years. I’ve often tried to get my mind around what that means without success. Looking at all the empty images of Chinese culture, so divorced from their meaning, in Ancient Culture Street is the closest I’ve gotten.
That seems a lot to extrapolate from what amounts to a bunch of over-dressed malls, but it points out some big themes: the culmination of central planning, commercialism, a white-bread view of history, and the sad fact that almost all China’s real ancient culture (most visibly the buildings) has been destroyed. Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that so much of Chinese culture still remains so inaccessible.