REGIONAL DIFFERENCES IN CHINA
Forbidden City in Beijing Regionalism is a strong force in China. Sheila Melvin wrote in the International Herald Tribune, "Cities and provinces sniff disdainfully at one another and implement policies to guard their resources from their neighbors. Every coastal city has to have its own deep water port and every province its own airlines."
R.N. Anil wrote in the China Daily: "The Chinese are a people with diverse physical traits, dialects and traditions. They are multicultural, multireligious, and a multiethnic society, having as many a 55 ethnic groups as diverse and interesting as the geography and the history of the country they inhabit. Several of them are descendant of Arabs who came here via the Silk Road in early centuries."
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Northern Chinese Versus Southern Chinese
Shanghai Pudong skyline People from northern and southern China are physically and genetically different from one another. Head shape, body size and susceptibility to disease vary greatly between the north and south.
People from Beijing and northern China are often heavier and taller and have broader shoulders, lighter skin, smaller eyes and more pointed noses than Southerners. They favor noodles over rice, have the blood of horsemen from Manchuria and Mongolia, and are regarded as "imperious, quarrelsome, rather aloof, political, proud, and less ostentatious and flashy with their money than Southerners.” Beijingers often saw goodbye to one another with an expression that is translated as "Take it slow."
People from Shanghai, Canton and southern China are generally smaller, thinner, browner, and have rounder eyes and more rounded noses than Northerners. They favor rice over noodles, look more like Vietnamese, Filipinos and Southeast Asians and are regarded as "talkative, friendly, complacent, sloppy, commercial-minded and materialistic."
The dividing line between Northerners and Southerners is the Yangtze River. In the 19th century one man from northern China wrote: "The Cantonese...are a course set of people...Before the times of Han and Tang, this country was quite wild and wasted, and these people have sprung forth unconnected, unsettled vagabonds that wandered here from the north."
Beijing Versus Shanghai
Red Guards in Beijing There is a strong rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai. Beijing held the upper hand as China's capital was boosted by the 2008 Summer Olympics, which occasioned a $45-billion makeover and brought the city the world's attention, along with 1 million visitors. Shanghainese sat sullen through the festivities. ‘They weren't really cheering,’ is how one Shanghaiese put it.[Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2010]
The 2010 World Expo put Shanghai back in the spotlight. Shanghai spent nearly $60 billion on the expo and improvements to infrastructure. It eight new subway lines, bringing its total to 11 lines with 246 miles of track. (Beijing has eight lines over 120 miles.) Beijing brought in 3,000 portable toilets for the Olympics; Shanghai, 8,000 for the expo. Both Shanghai and Beijing built new airport terminals. [Ibid]
Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Shanghai got better marks for modernizing without destroying too much of the city's original character. In renovating its Bund area, shunting cars underground and removing an ugly flyover, Shanghai's planners were praised for restoring a riverfront quay to its 1930s glory; Beijing took flak for bulldozing many of its hutongs, the quaint alleys in the historic center...Once running neck and neck as a tourist destination, Shanghai pulled way ahead this year, with more than 70 million people expected to visit the expo.” [Ibid]
Beijing has the top universities, the culture, the grandeur and history, the palaces of Qing emperors past and Communist Party chieftains present. Its main roads are wide enough to deploy a column of tanks. “Beijing is a male city, Shanghai is a female city,” a professor at Shanghai University and one of the city's best-known public intellectuals, told the Los Angeles Times. A Shanghai-born businessman who now lives in Beijing, said: “In Shanghai, people stand in line waiting for the bus. In Beijing, if you drive a Mercedes-Benz, you can run over people with impunity.” [Ibid]
History of Beijing-Shanghai Rivalry
opium smoker in Old Shanghai Shanghai is regarded as more foreigner-friendly. The most vivid illustration of this is its acceptance of 30,000 Jewish refugees during World War II. Although the colonial period is now part of the distant past, the neighborhoods of the old French, Russian, American and British concessions retain enough of their character to keep the tradition alive.[Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2010]
“After the communist victory in 1949, Shanghai's cultural predominance was eclipsed by Beijing's. The city remained, however, the financial capital. Through the 1980s, it paid a staggering share of China's total tax revenue, by some estimates, 70 percent.” [Ibid]
“Although former Chinese President Jiang Zemin served as Shanghai's mayor and party secretary, the influence of the so-called Shanghai clique has been eclipsed since Hu Jintao became president in 2003. Then Chen Liangyu, a later Shanghai party secretary, was ousted on corruption charges and replaced on the Politburo by Xi Jinping, the current favorite to succeed Hu as president.” [Ibid]
“Shanghai has become a really beautiful city again with the expo, but the center of power is Beijing,” a Shanghai businessman said. “You drive up and down the ring roads of Beijing and you see the headquarters of the companies — Petrochina, China Mobile.... It is the nature of this form of government.” [Ibid]
People from Beijing
Street dumplings in Beijing The residents of Beijing are often described as thermoses—cold on the outside and warm on the inside and gregarious. They are also regarded by other Chinese as aloof and having a droll, ironic sense of humor.
Todd Carrel, a former bureau chief in Beijing for ABC news, wrote in National Geographic, "I found Beijingers hospitable and generous...Standoffish at first, they open up with a little encouragement, eager to talk about life in the West, politics, culture, personalities—no morsel too small...They were frank, opinionated and cheeky, as evidenced by the jokes...Beijingers...were, in short, as tough as dragon’s hide, the ultimate survivors...One anchor is family. Another is humor, which is usually acrid and never far beneath the surface."
One film maker told the Los Angeles Times, “People from Beijing love to talk politics and critique society.” In Beijing there is a deeply embedded ye, or master, culture formed by being at the center of north imperialist and Communist power.
Beijing is a historical city and the former center of a great empire. Today it is the heart of the officially-sanctioned culture of the ruling Communist party and the home of its intellectual, literary and artistic elite, which gives it a reputation for being edgier and more avant grade than other places.
Shanghaiese regard Beijingers as warmhearted but country bumpkins at heart, ill-mannered and unable to hold their liquor. One man from Shanghai told the Washington Post, “Beijing people are a little crude.” Another told a story of woman in Beijing who watched a man open a car door for a woman and asked her boyfriend why never did that. “Ah, he’s from Shanghai,” the boyfriend said, as if that explained everything.”
On 58-year-old watchman in Shanghai told the Washington Post, “Beijing people give us the impression of being rude, freewheeling and bad-tempered. An argument of a few sentences will trigger a fight in Beijing, that kind of thing.”
When asked what she thinks about Beijingers a 56-year-old Shanghai restaurateur put her hands on hips, scowled, puffed out her chest and squared her shoulders, doing the best imitation of a pompous bureaucrat, and told the Los Angeles Times, “They stand like this. They're sooo annoying. Just because they come from the capital, they act like they're running the country.”[Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2010]
Anti-Foreigner Sentiments in Beijing?
Bicycle riders in 1980s Beijing Film critic Shelly Kraicer wrote: “During a recent interview with an independent Chinese journalist, I was somewhat taken aback...by an anonymous commenter who was skeptical that Westerners could be so interested in debating Chinese movies and ideology, when in fact it has nothing to do with them? [Source: Shelly Kraicer, dGenerate Films, July 21, 2010]
At the risk of answering one cultural judgment with another, I find this display of an aggressively protective attitude to Chinese culture to be distinctly Beijing-ese. Hong Kong, Taipei and Shanghai tend to be much more relaxed about foreigners in their midst, given their cosmopolitan histories. Their urban intellectual cultures more readily admit other voices — foreign voices, alternative points of view — with fewer hangups than Beijing’s thriving and otherwise open intellectual culture.
People in Beijing are often curious about what I’m working on (film research, for example), and are curious to hear my opinions, though they often far too quickly take these as somehow representative of a particular template of what a Westerner thinks about our Chinese movies (which is rather often far from the case, especially with my willfully idiosyncratic readings of what I’m watching here). But there comes a point in most conversations I have with Chinese colleagues where things sadly grind to a halt, to a refrain something like there are just certain things you won’t be able to understand, since you’re not Chinese. You can almost hear the intended effect: the portcullis clangs down, the drawbridge ratchets up, and the castle is secure with you safely outside. What can a non-Chinese person say to that? Any attempt to argue the point circles back to demonstrate that you just can’t know. It’s a completely self-sealing argument.
People from Shanghai
Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Shanghai natives form an urban tribe, set apart from the rest of China by language, customs, architecture, food, and attitudes. Their culture, often called haipai (Shanghai style), emerged from the city's singular history as a meeting point of foreign merchants and Chinese migrants. But over the years it has become a hybrid that confounds the very idea of East and West. "In foreigners' eyes Shanghai is part of 'mysterious China,'" says Zhou Libo, a local comedian. "In the eyes of other Chinese, Shanghai is part of the outside world." [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2010]
The people of Shanghai are considered "blunt, offhand, presumptuous and affluent." Traditionally more worldly, Westernized and wealthy than other Chinese, they like their food cooked in rapeseed oil and view themselves as different form other Chinese, who they sometimes dismiss as still living in the Stone Age. The rapid Shanghai dialect is difficult for those outside the Shanghai area to understand.
Shanghainese are sometimes compared to New Yorkers. They both carry themselves with haughty superiority and share a sort of "it-stinks-but-its-great" attitude about their cities. One Hong Kong banker said the Shanghainese "have a strong sense of self-importance." Both Shanghai and New York have traditionally been regarded as places where one can find anything: fashion, drugs, girls...and boys.Others have compared Shanghai people with Singaporeans. Peter Kwan, a professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College, wrote in the New York Times, “the people of Shanghai, whether rich or poor, have always regarded themselves to be more rational and efficient than their countrymen. They have always reproached the people of Beijing for talking about politics, while they themselves got things done. They are especially proud of their trademark way of doing things—the so-called haipai style.”
People from Shanghai live to an average of 76.5 years, about 6½ years longer than the people form the rest of the country. The mayor of Shanghai told the Washington Post that the reason for this is that they do tai chi exercises every morning and go to bed before 10 every night.
One Shanghainese trait is its obsession with the new. “Unlike other parts of China, which feel the weight of ancient history, young Shanghai is always seeking the cutting edge. Sammy's bandmates call her "the quintessential Shanghai girl" not simply because she looks abroad for her cues in music (rocker Avril Lavigne), fashion (the Japanese magazine Vivi), and lifestyle (her living arrangement is more Friends than Confucius). It's mainly because of the unapologetic ease with which she mixes new ideas with her Shanghainese style.
British Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010
Shanghai men are reputed to be vicious in business — hence the term shanghaied — but wimps at home. ‘At home, they do the dishes, take out the trash and give their wife/mistress a neck rub after the hard day she put in shopping,’ wrote one blogger on a site called China Forum. A 28-year-old Beijing-born teacher who moved to Shanghai for work in 2001.“Shanghai people are selfish. Even the people my age, all they talk about are material things, their clothes, the stock market. All they care for is themselves and money.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2010]
The Shanghainese have a reputation for snobbery, and Chinese often complain that they feel shut out in Shanghai, perhaps because the dialect is almost incomprehensible to Mandarin speakers. Larimer wrote, "The Shanghai dialect is rich and guttural. The language has been losing ground since the 1950s, when Beijing launched its campaign to unify the country with standardized Mandarin. The crowded lilong served to sustain the dialect; in the suburbs, families often retreat to their private spaces, blocked off from each other. Even so, many proud Shanghainese use the language as a secret code to signal that they belong to the in crowd—and often to ensure fair deals in local shops.
Of late the Shanghaiese have tried to portray themselves as more warm-hearted and compassionate. In the autumn of 2007 Shanghai hosted the Special Olympics. More than 1,200 of the 8,000 athletes that participated were Chinese. Chinese President Hu Jintao presided over the opening ceremony. To promote the events billboards with happy-faced special athletes and signs with characters for “civilization,” “humanism” and “love” were posted all over town. The Shanghai mayor said the point of hosting the Special Olympics was to help create “a civilized and harmonious environment for all.”
Shanghaiese and Beijing
CCTV Headquarters in Beijing Many Shanghaiese disagree that Beijing is the cultural center of China. A Shanghai shopowner told the Washington Post, “Shanghai has always been a more cultural city than Beijing, The French came here. The British came here. They all left their imprints. So Shanghai is more open than Beijing."
Shanghai is considered a fashion center while Beijing is regarded as China’s cultural and intellectual center. “Shanghai men dress better than the Beijing women,” a photographer who lives in Beijing told the Los Angeles Times. On the other hand, If you walk out your door in Beijing, you have a much better chance of bumping into somebody with whom you can have an intellectual conversation.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2010]
The Shanghai-based writer Wang Anyi told Newsweek: “Shanghai people have a long tradition of following the rules. Beijing people are a bit wild and grandiose.” To the Shanghainese, the Beijingers — and all northerners, for that matter — are peasants. “They smell like garlic,” the restaurateur told the Los Angeles Times, “We Shanghai people keep ourselves and our homes very clean. We are more refined. We drink coffee. They only drink tea.” [Ibid]
Shanghai women are known for being flashier, more fashion conscious and wearing more make up than their Beijing counterparts. >Shanghai men are known for having better manners. It is said a Shanghaiese man without a shirt would make an effort to put a shirt on when greeting a guest, a Beijing man would not.
Shanghaiese and Business
Shanghai stock exchange Shanghaiese are known for business sense, savoir-fair and the embrace of all things foreign. A sign outside the airport in Shanghai reads; “Welcome to Stylish Shanghai.” Beijingers regard them as snobs and look down on them their crass love of money and material things and ignorance about culture, preferring to “buy a new pair of shoes than a ticket to the ballet.”
In terms of doing business, Shanghaiese prefer to dismiss the small talk and get right to work and are known for carefully examining the fine print where as Beijingers prefer to have a big meal, make a lot toasts and drink up before settling down to business. One Shanghaiese wroter told the Washington Post, “In Shanghai, we don’t become brothers. If we are doing business, its cooperation, and so we sign on the dotted line.” A Korean who lives in Shanghai told The New Yorker, “You can do business with them. But you should realize that, in the end, they are always going to win.”
Shanghai Versus Hong Kong
Shanghai traffic Shanghai also has a rivalry going with Hong Kong that centers around which city is going to be the financial center of China as well as which is the more vibrant, diverse, worldly and cosmopolitan city and the one that is more fun to live in and best for conducting business. The highest building in Shanghai is 26 feet taller than the one in Hong Kong (1,614 feet compared to 1,588 feet) and its subway has 11 lines, totaling 261 miles, compared to 9 lines covering 106 miles in Hong Kong. It also has more Starbucks than Hong Kong (122 to 106 in 2010) . The decision to building a Disney theme park in the Shanghai was seen by Hong Kong as a major blow. [Source: Keith Richburg, September 28, 2010, Washington Post]
Hong Kong is home to 7 million people. It has income tax rates of 15 percent and corporate tax rates of 16.5 percent and had 1,298 multinational companies with regional headquarters and $48.4 billion in direct foreign investment in 2009. By contrast Shanghai is home to 19.2 million people. It has income tax rates of 45 percent and corporate tax rates of 25 percent and had 260 multinational companies with regional headquarters and $13.3 billion in direct foreign investment in 2009. [Source: Washington Post]
Murray King of the Shanghai-based APCO consulting firm told the Washington Post, ‘Shanghai is trying to be the Hong Kong of China ...It is also trying to be the Detroit of China from an automotive perspective, it’s trying to be a Seattle of China from an aerospace perspective, and it’s trying to be Silicon Valley from an IT perspective.’
Hong Kongers still view Shanghai like mainland China itself as wild, disorderly and ill-mannered place. One Hong Kong businessman told the Washington Post, ‘Shanghai seems quite mainland, and that’s code-speak for not quite civilized.’
Shanghaiese regard Hong Kong as having had its day in the sun and is now on the decline. Xu Minqi, a Shanghai-based economist told the Washington Post, ‘The problem with Hong Kong is they need to change their infrastructure, especially their soft infrastructure...They need to attract talent, to develop new science and technology.’ There is widespread feeling that to much wealth in Hong Kong is generated by real estate and ‘industries are hallowing out.’ Minqi added, ‘But Hong Kong companies know how to make money.’
Fujians and Cantonese
Beijing traffic Cantonese are regarded as very materialistic One Chinese man told The New Yorker, “All people think is, ‘I just what to get rich.’ The richer you get, the more respect you’ll get. And the first people to get rich n the 1990s, were the Cantonese. Then people in other provinces started to copy the Cantonese life style, part of which is to eat a lot of seafood to show how much money you have.”
The people from Fujian are regarded as hard working and are famous for their entrepreneurial and counterfeiting skills. Many of the Chinese in Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the United States are decedents of people that emigrated from Fujian Province.
Fujians have traditionally been among the most ambitious go-getters form China. Many of the rich Chinese that made their fortune in the Hong Kong, United States and Southeast Asia have been Fujians. Enterprising Fujians are still breaking new ground, in Africa and other places. One Fujian native, Yang Jie, arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi in the mid 1990s. By the mid 2000s he owned and operated the largest ice cream company in Malawi.
Sichuanese females Sichuanese are regarded as tough, lively, passionate, earthy and warm and are famous for their ability to "eat bitter." They have prospered outside of Sichuan but are not well liked. Sichuanese women are regarded as the most beautiful in China but also as temperamental, tempestuous and loose. Sichuan men are thought of as tricky and sly.
The Sichuanese are known for being tougher, more able and hard working than other Chinese. One Sichianese survivor of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake told the Washington Post, “our mothers and fathers teach us from an early age. We all know how to eat bitters” A factory worker who lost everything in the quake said, “I could cry but what good would that do.”
In the early years if the Communist struggle, Sichuan soldiers were famous for enduring more suffering than soldiers from other regions. Explaining how the rugged countryside in Sichuan has helped the Sichuanese to eat bitter, a 76-year-old Sichuanese man said, “the mountains around here are not easy to live in. Everybody knows how to endure hardship.”
People in Chengdu have a reputation for knowing how to relax and enjoy life.
People from Wenzhou are famous throughout China for their business and money-making skills. Books about them include The Jews of the East: The Commercial Stories of Fifty Wenshou Businessmen; You Don’t Understand the Wenzhou People; and The Feared Wenzhou People, the Collected Stories of How the Wenzhou People Make Money.
Wenzhou people are often mocked by other Chinese for their flashy ways and strange dialect. They are admired and disliked for their entrepreneurship. Many of the wealthiest Wenzhouese are Christians.
With little arable land and mountains blocking them from the interior of the mainland, the people of Wenzhou have traditionally looked to the sea, trading and opportunities abroad to improve themselves. They promoted the idea that the government should support commercial enterprises during the Song Dynasty in the 12th century and developed a strong trading culture during the Ming period in the 17th century and managed to emerge as an economic powerhouse in recent years without the education levels of Beijing, the special treatment of Shenzhen and the foreign investment of Shanghai.
Wenzhou people have succeeded through hard work, starting out with small businesses and workshops and expanding them. Over time they have come to dominate certain low-tech industries. Zhong Pengrong, a prominent economist told the Los Angeles Times, “Wherever there are business opportunities there are Wenzhou people...Unlike many other people in China who become rich overnight almost all the Wenzhou people built up their wealth from nothing and amassed their fortune through years of hardship.”
Two million Wenzhouese live abroad. The are big in the restaurant business in France, Russia, Italy and Brazil and involved in outsourcing Chinese manufacturing work to Vietnam and North Korea. Wenzhou people can be found everywhere: shipping 10,000 VCRs a month and mining iron and gold in Mongolia; mining molybdenum in North Korea; buying cow leather in Tanzania; and trading shrimp and turbot in Iceland. One Wenzhou man in Inner Mongolia who has four brothers and sisters in Italy told the Los Angeles Times, “My parents told us, ‘Go out and explore. The farther you reach, the stronger you get.”
Wenzhou makes half the world’s cheap shoes, nearly all of its plastic leather, bra part and zippers, and numerous other essential parts to everyday items. Sales of Audis, BMWs and even Maseratis Porsches and Bentleys are brisk in Wenzhou as are the sales of vanity licence plates for outrageous prices. To really impress your friends you need to buy an executive jet or $50,000 Vertu delux mobile phone. Tens of thousands of bottles of Margaux and Chateaux Lafit have been give as gifts and mixed with green tea and sugar before being gulped down.
Wenzho is known for its "ruthless" merchants who wreck havoc with property markets everywhere." It s not surprising that housing prices in Wenzhou are among the highest in China. Buying property is a pastime with real estate investments sought not in new apartment building in Wenzhou but also residential blocks in Paris. Wenzhou has a new airport and an opera houses designed by the famous Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott.
Malls in Wenzhou are stacked with band name luxury goods. Furniture stores sell knocks off of items displayed in the Louvre. The new $128 million Shangri-La hotel was built mainly to host extravagant weddings for pampered children who in some cases have been educated at some of Britain’s most famous boarding schools.
In one survey Wenzhou millionaires were asked what they would do if they were forced to chose between their business and their family—60 percent chose their business, 20 percent chose their family and 20 percent couldn’t decide. Wenzhou business people tend to be very superstitious, laying out their factories in accordance with feng shui and starting business on auspicious days.
Wenzhouese have made bids for fashion company Pierre Cardin and tried to buy Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch and bring it to Wenzhou
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011