When you take the train from Beijing airport towards the city, you pass through mile after mile of desolate brown scrubland. The emptiness is striking; despite housing more than twice as many people as Tokyo (over 20m), Beijing doesn’t feel like an endless metropolis. One thing China isn’t short of is space.
The first thing to break the monotony is just as striking: a gigantic billboard for Burberry. As you get closer to the centre, the number of BMWs and Audis increases exponentially. Nestled among hulking, Soviet-style tower-blocks is the squat blue warehouse of an Ikea. Emma Watson smiles down from seven story billboards like a pixie dictator. China now has 1.4m millionaire households, gaining quickly on the US’s 5.1m. China will probably overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy in 2016 (although the GDP per capita is still markedly lower). In short, there’s a lot of money sloshing around, and European brands have been quick to establish themselves as the go-to places to spend it.
As a result, the Chinese luxury market is intertwined with the idea of the “English gentleman”, a term that conjures images of class and suave reserve. One advertising campaign translates as something like: “Every English gentleman owns a Burberry windbreaker”. Burberry, seen as the epitome of European chic, has 63 of its 196 stores in China and sees scope for up to 100.
In a run-down district of Beijing, I went to see the dubiously named Torturing Nurse, an up-and-coming band on the Chinese experimental music scene. I arrived at the hollowed-out remains of what used to be a supermarket; a staircase in the middle of the room led nowhere and the stage was partially constructed from a stack of old mattresses. There was no bar and people were drinking from cans bought from a cigarette shop around the corner. The music was truly, astoundingly awful, consisting almost exclusively of feedback and samples of pneumatic drills. The sound of Torturing Nurse was the same kind of experimental noise that was droning out of similar venues across London and New York in the late 60s and early 70s.
The seismic shift that has come with China’s economic arrival has been underway for decades. Its thriving art district, filled with giant outdoor sculptures of caged dinosaurs, crucifixion scenes and ancient warriors, is as much evidence of this as the boutiques selling Rolex watches and Levi’s jeans. Here China’s art community is allowed at least a small degree of freedom from the pressures of the Party, as long as they stick within the allotted “art” area: a very Chinese definition of freedom.
The difference between the young Chinese who have grown up with this more liberal culture and the older generation is stark. A friend’s father invited us to eat at his home, not far from the old city walls. We were served a sour, opaque grey soup called douzhi, a traditional old Beijinger dish. The younger family members watched in fascination as we drank it: “Nobody who has ever tried Coke will touch that stuff,” one says. The dramatic cultural changes of the last decade have filtered down into the very language of the younger generation. Take the term “sexual hooliganism”, which was, until fairly recently, a crime with which young men could be charged if they cheated on their wives or had an affair with somebody else’s. Being a sexual hooligan would have been a source of great shame, not to mention a jailable offence. Now it translates as something close to “player”, the opposite of “gentleman” with its connotations of politeness and restraint. (One term that still carries negative connotations translates as “colour wolf”, meaning a man who thinks about nothing but sex; a Beijing taxi driver joked: “A gentleman is just the most patient kind of colour wolf”.)
Whether you’re young or old, though, a night out in China consists largely of drinking baiju. And drinking it hard. Baiju is technically rice wine but the word “wine” is misleading – it’s as strong as vodka and gives you twice the hangover. The baiju might be accompanied by dice, for playing drinking games, or with a microphone, for singing karaoke, but the result is the same. Drinking until you fall over is fine. Drinking until you vomit is practically mandatory. The only rule is: keep drinking. A night out can quickly turn into an exercise in damage limitation (a friend advised me to pretend to take a sip of water after taking a shot and surreptitiously spit the baiju back into the cup). Paying for your night out boozing can also be tricky – if you’re not fast, someone will have quietly excused themselves and picked up the bill before you’re finished disposing of your baiju in the nearest plant-pot.
Of course, as with any rapid cultural shift, not everyone can be a winner. Almost every young Chinese man I spoke to told me about the pressure to make money and find a wife. Shortly after my visit, news broke of a case of a young man who had willingly sold a kidney so he could buy an iPad and an iPhone (the surgeon and four other men were arrested). Bao Zi, a graphic designer from Beijing, asked me what seemed like an odd question: “What do English people talk about?” I eventually settled for “the weather” or “football” (“Chinese football is not good,” said Bao Zi, telling a joke about a Chinese man who is watching a porn film when his friend comes to the door. He quickly flicks the channel and lets his friend in, who looks at the television, astonished, and says “are you watching Chinese football?” The man blushes, says “of course not” and flicks back to the porn.) “Chinese people only talk about three things”, he says: “cars, houses and money”. These are the things the father of any prospective bride will expect if you’re to have a chance of marrying his daughter. For many, this is never likely to happen, and an underclass of educated Beijingers living on the outskirts of the city have earned themselves the unfortunate nickname “ants” – an army of workers who will never make enough to take the step up the financial ladder and earn themselves a family.
It’s not only Beijing where the side-effects of being dragged forwards at breakneck speed are keenly felt. One of China’s most famous tourist attractions, the Terracotta Army, lies a sleeper-train ride south west of Beijing, near the city of Xi’an. The army, billed as the greatest archeological discovery since the pyramids, was the result of over 720,000 people working for almost 40 years, at the behest of Emperor Qin, who was convinced they would guard him in the afterlife. In the event, they weren’t quite so useful, and less than a year after his burial, rebels broke into the tomb, smashed the warriors to smithereens and set the place on fire. Their location was lost to the sands of time until they were rediscovered in 1974 by a group of poor farmers, including one named Mr Yang, who were digging a well. The entire area, consisting of small villages and arable farmland, was annexed by the government as the world-famous site was developed. The warriors themselves are incredible – thousands of life-sized soldiers, each with uniquely crafted faces, lined up in battle formation. Getting to them, though, involves a battle of a different kind: running a gauntlet of salesmen wielding all manner of terracotta-themed junk. The “highlight” of the experience is a gift shop, in which the ageing Mr Yang himself is ushered out to sign copies of the illustrated guide-book (“only $15”). His story is fascinating: in the years following his discovery, Mr Yang had returned to relative obscurity, until President Clinton visited China in 1998 and asked to meet him. Slightly embarrassed, the Chinese government promptly retrieved him from his village. Clinton then threw another spanner into the works when he asked for Mr Yang’s autograph. The farmer could neither read nor write. It’s safe to say this has now been remedied, with his signature adorning tourist paraphernalia across the globe. Few people can have felt China’s transition into capitalism quite as keenly as Mr Yang. (A little research on my return threw up some images of a very different-looking farmer signing autographs for tourists. The cynic in me wonders how many Mr Yangs there have been over the years.) Locals in Xi’an have a phrase that perfectly sums up visiting the site: “The most disappointing thing about a trip to Xi’an would be to miss the terracotta warriors. The second most disappointing thing is seeing the terracotta warriors.”
As long as you’re in a city, the “old China” that probably lives in your imagination can seem very far away. If there’s a choice between modernisation and preservation, you’d be a poor man if you bet often on the latter. City walls are torn down to make way for roads; hotels, casinos and offices are built over traditional architecture. Someone once calculated (god knows how) that one in six of the world’s cranes were located in Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. A Starbucks inside the Forbidden City, the most revered cultural site in the country, was eventually forced to close in 2007 after a public outcry. But travel outside the cities and you can see how things were before the cultural and economic reformation. The village of Anding, several hours north of Yan’an (the modest city in which the architects of the Communist Revolution drew up their plans for their march to victory in 1949), is built in the clay hills formed by millennia of winds sweeping from the Gobi Desert. “Cave houses” are carved directly into the rock and ridged fields are cut into the hard, brown-grey soil, creating spectacular, cascading landscapes. A terrifying bus-ride along cavernously pot-holed roads takes you to a shrine built into the rock. The walls are covered in thousands of tiny carved Buddhas, one side worn almost smooth by centuries of wind, with only the odd head or foot still poking out. This far from the tourist trail, there is no gift-shop. A woman was about to ask us for an entrance fee when a local teacher, who had agreed to show me around, shouted at her in a “don’t you know who I am” kind of way and we were ushered in free of charge. Our only company was a pack of tiny stray dogs. There are no cranes here. The land is tough and the winters are bitterly cold. The cities may evolve at lightning speed, with their citizens getting ever richer and more powerful, but it will take a long time for the tentacles of development reach this far. One thing China isn’t short of is space.
First published in City A.M. Bespoke