Since my arrival in Chengdu, I frequently hear people saying that Chengdu is so different to places like Beijing or Shanghai. I assume that people in other relatively unknown or “hidden” cities in China make such differences between their own city and other bigger and prominent cities in pretty much the same way: they highlight the originality of their own city (like Chengdu, Zhuhai, Qingdao) and downplay the specialty of, for instance, Beijing ( I will focus on people’s view of Beijing from now on because this is the Chinese city I know best). The main difference is that one’s own smaller city is more beautiful, more diverse and just so more “Chinese”. Furthermore, it is believed that Beijing-people can be selfish, self-centered and unfriendly to other Chinese and foreigners (it goes without saying that the opposite is believed to be true for one’s own city).
Writing up and reading these perception patterns may already seem exaggerated and so stereotypical. However, this is the condensed perception pattern I gathered from quite a few people over recent weeks. No one would mention such a view right away, but all bits and pieces taken together draw the picture described above. It goes without saying that not everyone thinks this way, but this perception pattern does exist outside Beijing regardless if you are a Chinese or a Foreigner.
By the way, I am thinking that those capital-periphery-perceptions do exist basically everywhere, don’t they? As I German, I can definitely approve a somewhat skeptical to straight forward hateful view of the German capital Berlin outside the city itself (alongside a still ongoing very positive image of Berlin amongst younger Germans). The German band “Kraftklub” sings “Ich will nicht nach Berlin” [I don’t wanna go to Berlin”] for a reason.
Getting back to Beijing and cities outside the capital, I was thinking about these dichotomy views and images time and again. Is Chengdu “more Chinese” than Beijing? What does “Chineseness” mean in the first place? Is Chengdu more beautiful than Beijing? And what about people living in Beiing (and Chengdu vice versa): Where are more unfriendly people living?
First of all, when sitting together and listening to those images of Beijing, I was always wondering if people in Beijing do exactly the same thing at exactly the same time – going something like “don’t wanna go to Chengdu – people think they are so special there….“. This thought still makes me chuckle.
If other cities than Beijing are “more Chinese”, what is “Chineseness”? I think that most people mean “traditional Chinese” or “not highly developed China” when they refer to “Chineseness”. I could actually agree on that one. Beneath Shanghai, Beijing is the most developed city in China (without delving to deep into what development means – this is too complicated for a blog post).
But they are not right, I think, when assuming that boom-and-bust China, hyper-modern-architecture, modern art and all of the things associated with Beijing is less “Chinese” than calligraphy, Taiqi or not properly working toilets without water. Since “Reform and Opening” in 1978, all these phenomena do belong to the same contemporary Chinese culture.
What about the ethnic diversity in Beijing? Based on my personal experience, I completely disagree on this one. The friends I had in Beijing came from all different places in China (and the world). If you really want to get to know ethnically different people in China, Beijing is just as good as any other place.
Answering the questions straight forward (and somewhat unsatisfactory, I am afraid): I think that the real difference between Beijing and places like Chengdu or Zhuhai is their city size, which determines how many arrogant or friendly people living in the city and how many beautiful or not so beautiful places (whatever that is….) you can find there. In a nutshell: I do not see so many differences until now between the cities except for the size and amount of things, people, and places. This means that Beijing is no better and no worse than Chengdu just different.
Developing China is so diverse that you just can’t distinguish between cities really – mixing apples with pears as they say. Leaving behind the big differences between Beiing and Chengdu that may only exist in our mindset, I recommend everyone to come to Chendgu and experience the exciting, city-life in China. Hypermodern architecture alongside old fashioned, traditional Chinese tea houses and warm-hearted Chinese trying to help foreigners whenever they can: this is what Chengdu offers you. Every day. Go and find out yourself! It is so worth it.
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