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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 October, 2004, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
Looking for China's culture

By Tim Luard
BBC, China

China is the proud owner of the world's oldest continuous civilisation.

As recently as the 17th century, it had the largest and most sophisticated empire on Earth, one that used its cultural prestige to hold diplomatic sway over much of Asia and beyond.

Its skills - from printing to paper, porcelain and silk-making - far exceeded anything to be found in Europe.

Dolphin Xie
I like romantic films the best, and Western films are much more romantic
Dolphin Xie, 24

So you might think China would have a good cultural base, given its current economic clout, on which to build a possible new superpower career.

The United States, after all, has successfully flooded the world with its own culture - mainly in the form of films and TV programmes, pop music, soft drinks and hamburgers.

But while a lot of foreigners like the occasional Chinese meal, the only Chinese arts we are likely to have heard of are martial ones, and there is no sign of many of us showing any aptitude or appreciation for the glories of China's traditional culture.

The trouble is, not many Chinese are these days either.

Consigned to history

In the name of progress there has been a steady destruction of China's visible culture - its city walls, temples, scrolls and antiques - for more than 100 years.

It reached its first climax in the anti-old campaigns of the Cultural Revolution and its second in today's construction boom.

There's more Ikea these days than traditional Chinese furniture
Jiang Xin, Beijing office worker

Some attempt is now being made to rescue what is left. Ancient pagodas are being rebuilt, and elaborately painted teahouses offer tourists imperial-style banquets.

But most locals prefer Disneyland to the Ming decorative arts. Just as the "open door" reform policy has brought economic opportunities, so it has brought cultural ones.

"I do like some Chinese as well as Western movies," said Dolphin Xie, a 24-year-old assistant TV producer. "But I like romantic films the best. And Western films are much more romantic."

Like all young urban professionals, Miss Xie carries a business card, with one side in Chinese and the other in English. Her name is given in English as just Dolphin, without even so much as a Chinese surname.

Go into a typical urban professional home and you won't see much that is Chinese either - few pictures, unless torn from a magazine, and almost certainly no books. The three-piece suite, on the other hand, may well be Swedish and brand new.

Adverts for glasses
China is dominated by Western advertising

"There's more Ikea these days than traditional Chinese furniture," noted Jiang Xin, a young office worker in Beijing.

The Western brands in the smart new shopping plazas use not just Western writing but Western models in their window displays.

A few years ago it was the fashion for Beijing to adorn its new skyscrapers with traditional-style Chinese roofs, complete with swooping curves and garishly coloured tiles, but these days it is thought more prestigious to bring in top architects from Europe and America.

Their individual creations crowd the skyline of Shanghai's new business district. But according to Mi Qiu, a local urban designer and sculptor, the collective result has been a disaster.

"These buildings are all totally different - they are just dumped down as if from nowhere. There is no harmony or overall concept or town planning," he said.

These architects are not helping China, he said. The quality is often not up to scratch and standards of local buildings are suffering as a result.

"Development is moving so fast that nobody stops to think."

There is not even any concept of design in today's China, according to Robert O'Brien, who lectures at Beijing Normal University's School of Communication and Design in the southern development zone of Zhuhai.

"It's like Europe in the Industrial Revolution, before the Great Exhibition. Everything just comes straight from the factory."

Restoration work in China
There is some effort to restore China's ancient culture

The only reason the West is interested in China is for its money, he said.

"And that's all China is interested in too".

But he detects some sign of change in the new middle classes, who he says may now want their children to have something better.

According to Professor Zhou Dunren, who specialises in American Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University, young Chinese have been bombarded by US culture but the pendulum could well swing back the other way.

"People are starting to wonder if all the advertisements they see in the street and on television are true. Is the dream factory in Hollywood real or fictitious?"

China's civilization has proved remarkably long-standing, said Professor Zhou.

"China has changed in the past to meet various challenges. Adaptability is a basic strength of Chinese civilisation."

Mi Qiu, the designer, also remained optimistic, saying he was confident globalisation would not prove a totally one-way street.

"The West is getting more interested in China's culture at the same time as in its economy. It is looking to us for inspiration."

Culturally, China has more to offer than just its own heritage, said Mi Qiu, and what it comes up with next may turn out to be more hybrid than home-grown.

"We can find something that is somewhere between China and the West. Something new."


This is the fourth article in a series about change in modern China. Click below for the first three:




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