The trip to the city of Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan Province, although short, resulted in many insights and even more ambiguities and questions. It would be nice if I could say that, after living here for almost six months, I have a relatively firm grasp on the state of China’s society and economy, the relationship of forces exerted upon it and that it itself exerts, the momentum of change.
However, a 22 hour train ride and a jump across several degrees of latitude landed me in a city that, if nothing else, reminded me that none of us really have a good idea of reality in this most populous nation on earth, despite what we may perceive as a massive amount of information from moderated media. I only wish that I had the presence of mind to perceive everything all at once in order to see some sort of big picture, and I only wish that I had a power of communication great enough to somehow illuminate for you the little understanding that I do have, to make you feel and see what I feel and see, the physical presence that offers less a communicable definition and more a intangible enlightenment, a connection.
As far as cities go, Chengdu is a monster. Despite the fact that few Americans could point to it on a map or have even heard of it (I probably couldn’t have a year ago), it is one of the largest cities in China, which makes it one of the largest in the world, with over ten million residents (officially…) and thousands of years of history. The cultural, economic, transportation, and military hub of Western China, it is a city in constant motion, offering a visitor everything from tastes of old china, remnants of the Cultural Revolution, both ugly and glorious aspects of Chinese-style socialism, modern coffee houses where elite Chinese and fashionable tourists sip expensive drinks and try to appear important with their detached and thoughtful demeanors.
The contrast with Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan Province, is at times remarkable. Not only does Chengdu dramatically outsize its southern neighbor, but, as an urban project, it is obviously much older and more developed. Walking the crowded streets of downtown – a term difficult to apply, since “downtown” seems to stretch on and on and on – I felt like I could have been on Chicago’s magnificent mile, or even New York’s Times Square. The well regulated traffic, the modern facilities, the fancy shops, the huge buildings, all defy preconceptions of China. All with a bit of Chinese twist, of course, like the chaos of some of the shopping districts, combining the traditional market with the upscale fashion store, reminding you all too vividly the massive number of people with which you share the streets, contrasting the quiet and relaxing concept of the mall in America.
The international influence is very apparent in Chengdu. The foreigners living there more or less confine themselves to pockets in upper-scale parts of town, and are more visible in the shops that locals open catering to this affluent crowd than they are in their physical presence. Â
The fancy church is also usually an indication of the presence of foreigners, though there are usually more local members than ex-pats. Their names written in Chinese characters, the classically presented statues of Catholic saints lining the street outside of Chengdu’s largest church seem out of place next to the neighboring noodle restaurant.
A visit to the Chengdu Art Institute was a fascinating glimpse into a certain facet of the Chinese mentality. Most of the work was boxed into either celebrating tradition or a celebration of the state, mother-China, and its heroic leaders and legendary struggles. Whether this is a manifestation of the powerful state control or the actual mindset of China’s modern artists and popular culture… well, I’ve got my opinion. I have also seen some very interesting art that might be considered subversive even – this is perhaps some of the best, most innovative art, though it doesn’t tend to make it too far, hardly ever seen by enough eyes to impact a mass concioussness. Then again, bit by bit…