I recently asked a Chinese man what the biggest change he has seen in Beijing over the past twenty years in Beijing. This was a kind and gentle man who is soft-spoken, one of those people who has kind eyes. To be honest, before he answered I was expecting him to say one of the following things because I think it’s what I would say if I had lived here for long.
The destruction of the hutongs
The destruction of modern values
less family time
more international products
more movie theatres
But he replied with, “people smile more.”
This man arrived Beijing in 1988 to attend university. Beijing was the biggest city he had been to and at that time he said it really felt like China’s version of a “college town.” At the time, every student wanted to come to Beijing for university and students were everywhere around the city.
While it was an exciting time for him, he also said it was a tumultuous one as well. He told me that many of his fellow classmates were angry with the government and Beijing was becoming a hotbed for political unrest. Students felt cheated by communism and were starting to questions communism and its merits.
He said, “I remember being near Tiananmen Square and hearing big tanks rolling into the square. They were everywhere and I was so scared. I wasn’t one of the brave ones that stayed that day, I left and went back to my dorm.”
He was referring to the day that is known around the world as the, Tiananmen Massacre. I honestly am getting chills just writing about it right now because I’m living in the very city where this happened right before I was born a city that looks so different from it did that day. He reflected on the fact that he easily could have been one of those unarmed protestors who were killed but he decided to return to his dorm once he heard the tanks rolling in.
I was truly shocked that he opened up to me about this topic, I would expect some of my younger Chinese friends to be OK discussing this event, but not someone who was in the midst of it all.
He described it as a time when “nobody knew what was true and what wasn’t.” We will never really know how many people died that day.”
He sat there for a minute, half smiling and we were both silent for a split second, but then his face changed into a large grin and he said “but now, it’s amazing! Everyone is smiling.”
Humans are awesome.
China is in a constant state of preservation vs. destruction.The Tiannamen massacre happened because people were wanting change in their government, they wanted a democratic movement. The government fought to preserve its communist values. Now, we see a China that is still communist, but with so many democratic and free-world undertones. Five star hotels sit next to 500 hundred year old alley ways. Women who are fiercely convinced that hot water is the only temperature of water to drink, talk about their new iPhones. Men and women who experienced the ups and downs of Chairman Mao’s rule, now buy organic food online. I hope you see what I’m getting at.
Now, I know all the above information isn’t unique to China. We see this phenomenon in every corner of the world. However, what makes China so unique is that for thousands of years, this country was fiercely private and valued itself on tradition. It isn’t uncommon to be walking around some hutongs and have elderly men or women tell you that wearing open toed shoes is unhealthy for your body’s “chi”.
It was only in the last one hundred years that common people, and not royalty, were allowed to eat Peking duck.
The man went on to say, “although so much has changed in Beijing, people are happier than they were before. I’m happier than I was before and I’m happy about that.”
China has experienced the most rapid economic growth than any other country in the history of the world. It’s easy to be overwhelmed with so many changes but I think that getting back to the core of the little things like smiling, is what is really important. While there will continue to be a battle between preservation and destruction in China, at least people are smiling more than ever before.