“Wherever we went as we traveled down the Yangtze we saw the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution: temples smashed, statues toppled, and old towns wrecked. Little evidence remained of China’s ancient civilization. But the loss went even deeper than this. Not only had China destroyed most of its beautiful things, it had lost its appreciation of them, and was unable to make new ones. Except for the much-scarred but still stunning landscape, China had become an ugly country.”
–Jung Chang, Wild Swans
Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over one thousand years, and still today is considered the cultural heart of the country. Famously, it was spared from bombing during WWII, so unlike most major Japanese cities, it retains its traditional architecture, dating as far back as the 15th century. Modern Kyoto also has its share of ugly apartment blocks, neon, and concrete, but the overall atmosphere of the city remains genteel. It’s in a beautiful setting, bisected by a river and surrounded by mountains on three sides. Traditional festivals still take place as they have for hundreds of years. Alongside the fast-food restaurants and accessory stores of the shopping arcades are “old Kyoto” restaurants and inns. Traditional woodcarvers, painters, potters–and the occasional geisha–still make their livings there. It claims several imperial palaces, historic buildings, and supposedly, over a thousand temples and shrines. On the cultural side, Kyoto is the origin of Japanese haute cuisine, and is the best place in the country to see traditional performing arts. Many small towns boast historic centers or “samurai streets,” but none can compare to the significance of Kyoto. Just as many American schools take field trips to Washington, D.C., Japanese schoolchildren are packed off to Kyoto.
Is there a place in China that so perfectly captures the rich history and traditional culture of the country? Where is its cultural heart, so to speak? We started our search in Dali, an old walled city in Yunnan province. While it impressed us with its traditional architecture and beautiful setting, it was lacking in the cultural and artistic department.
Our next stop, Lijiang, struck us the same way. The shops all sell the same mass- produced stuff. I’m pretty sure that there are only four or five stores in all of Lijiang and Dali, copied a hundred times over. Each city puts on concerts of traditional music, but other than that there was very little to see or do. In Dali, there is a temple complex, which costs a steep Y121 to enter. In Lijiang, there is an old house belonging to the former clan leader of the area. That’s it. After seeing these attractions, there is nothing left to do but eat, shop, and turn down old ladies offering you ganja. Dali had a few interesting independent cafes, but on the whole, it seemed like there was nothing original in either city.
Yunnan has dozens of ethnic minority groups, so a trip to the area does offer a chance to learn something about non-Han culture. However, Lijiang and Dali are so touristified that any encounter with minority culture will probably be in a restaurant. To experience anything more, an excursion to a minority village (and probably a guide) would be necessary.
But we were searching for insights into Han Chinese culture, not minority traditions. Maybe Xi’an is a better place to look. The first capital of unified China, it was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Nowadays its main claim to fame is that the 2200-year-old Terracotta Warriors lie just out of town. The city itself retains a traditional feel. Like most old Chinese cities once were, it is a walled city. There is little traditional architecture, yet to me, it had an older atmosphere than Dali and Lijiang. Vendors sell much of the same mass-produced junk, but there were some more interesting shops along the Artist’s Street, plus the food scene was much better than in Lijiang or Dali.
Although Xi’an is not that big, its long history means it has interesting attractions (besides the Warriors) and unique traditions, especially due to the ancient traders’ Islamic influence. Like Kyoto, it both epitomizes traditional China yet maintains a distinct culture. Something was still missing, though. I think that while Xi’an certainly has the history, it doesn’t have the culture.
Our final stop in China was Beijing. By far a much bigger city than any others we visited, I hadn’t expected to find much history in Beijing. But it could also lay claim to being the Kyoto of China. While many sites of importance were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, a few imperial palaces, and parts of the old city wall still stand.
But for every one of these, there seemed to be a thousand new, functionalist buildings, so it was difficult to feel like I was in an old city. The only time I felt I’d stepped back in time was when strolling through the hutongs. They reminded me very much of the narrow back alleys of Kyoto. They’re being destroyed, however, and without them, Beijing looks a lot like any other modern Asian metropolis. Like Kyotoites compared to other Japanese speakers, Beijingers are also considered to speak with a more refined accent than other Mandarin speakers. But that quirk alone wasn’t enough to convince me. I guess certain things were similar, but the old, refined atmosphere was missing.
Ultimately, China may not have a Kyoto. Thirty-five years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, I think the situation has improved, since traditions that were banned are now allowed to flourish. There’s still a long way to go, however. Many countries worry about how best to preserve their traditions. China doesn’t just have to preserve their traditional culture; in some cases they have to recreate it. As of right now, China’s cultural heart remains fragmented.