The Brood: Speaking with my students about their hometowns in a changing China, the benefits, and costs, of building a nation spread out in front of me.
It struck me, daydreaming one day, that my New England hometown had changed very little in my lifetime. There have been visible changes, of course. The once-towering YMCA building where I went to pre-school was torn down and made into a parking lot. (It’s new and improved iteration was constructed on the edge of town.) The location of the town high school also changed, to a newly constructed building down the road.
But in the end, the street plan was the same. Many of the residential buildings also remained the same. The latest having been built in the latter half of the 20th century, but the oldest buildings having been built as early as the 17th century. There had been no major, sweeping undertakings in this sleepy colonial town.
In contrast, whenever I’m in China, I see at a few new skyscrapers go up in as many months. Here in Wuhan, the pace of building is non-stop. The city government’s promotional motto for Wuhan is “武汉每天不一样”, or “Wuhan: Different Every Day!” They’re not wrong — in my neighborhood, several dozen businesses have opened up inside of two malls that were under construction when I arrived in September.
If that wasn’t enough, there is the constant sound of pounding construction just outside the door, where a new subway line is being constructed with incredible speed. Since 2004, the Wuhan Metro has added 7 lines and 166 stations, and that number is only going up. Neighborhoods that used to be countryside are now towering, bustling urban avenues, and you can see it from space.
The contrast is undeniable, there hasn’t been breakneck construction like this since the New Deal, or the construction of the interstate highway system. In other words, my students had witnessed more change more quickly in their communities than I had in mine. I wanted to ask them what changes they’d seen in their hometowns.
There were a few patterns. The students who had grown up in or near the big cities talked about a growing number of skyscrapers. But they also talked about watching the city envelop their childhood homes. When they were born, their homes had been hours from the center of the city. When they were teenagers, a metro line was a few blocks from that same house, if that same house still existed at all.
Other students talked about how China’s expanding transportation networks had changed their communities. One student grew up in an island community outside of Hangzhou. A new bridge connecting the islands to the mainland opened up the area to development and made the ferry trips of her childhood obsolete. Others grew up in communities that never had reliable, paved roads until the last two decades, and those roads opened up new markets for their produce.
But if they opened up new markets, they also opened up the road for young people to leave for the big city. Hundreds of millions of migrants moved to the cities over the last few decades as China’s growth picked up and transport became easier. It’s the largest internal migration in history.
As growth has quickened, and as wealth accrued, there’s also been a growing pressure to assimilate. The government in China made Mandarin Chinese the official language just after the overthrow of the last dynasty in 1912. The official language is political because contrary to the image of people outside of China, China is made up of many nationalities and languages as different as English is from French.
Modern China was also born from an Empire, not a nation-state. Across 5,000 years of history, what we think of as China emerged from the Yellow River valley, and gradually conquered and integrated its foreign neighbors. For example, southern China was home to Tai-speaking peoples until the arrival of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BC. While that may seem like too old an example, keep in mind that their descendants, the Zhuang people, still struggle with that legacy as much as modern Tibetans famously do. That is to say, Modern China is still very much in the process of nation-building.
Part of that nation-building consists of constructing a shared identity, which the founders of Modern China did by creating the idea of a unified “Han Chinese“:
…After the Qing fell in 1911, the new elite sought to create an overarching rationale for the Chinese nation state—its subjects spoke mutually incomprehensible languages and had diverse traditions and beliefs. Patrilineage was already strong in much of China: clans believed they could trace their line to a group of common ancestors. That helped Chinese nationalists develop the idea that all Han were descended from Huangdi, the “Yellow Emperor”, 5,000 years ago.
In other words, “Han-ness” can be thought of as analogous, though obviously not the same, to the way Whiteness works in America.
As an outsider, it can sometimes be hard to see this Han-ness at work. But when speaking to my students about their hometown dialects, one small pattern allowed me to see it for just one second. A few of my students from Shanghai spoke about the changes in the local culture. Squeezed between a need to speak Mandarin for economic reasons, and government policies that discourage students from learning their local language in schools, my students told me about the generational gap between them and their Shanghai-nese speaking parents.
Similarly, a Mongolian student of mine told the story of how her mother, literally born in a yurt on the steppes, came from the countryside to enjoy the higher salaries in the city. By the time my student was of school age, she spoke Mongolian at home, but could not study the language at school. Instead, she learned Mandarin, which to this day, she tells me, she is still not as comfortable in. Hearing her story about the uneasy, uneven integration of Inner Mongolia gave me a window into the larger story of nation-building of China, and the ongoing, if often unspoken, ethnic tensions just underneath the surface of Chinese life.
In some ways, the conversation also felt like a time machine. After all, America, too, has had this same phenomenon of conquering and integrating other populations. While many Americans still don’t appreciate the gravity of that history, others look back with horror at assimilationist schools, whose tagline was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man“. Just as Americans are struggling to come to terms with the legacy of its imperial nation-building, I wonder if my students, in latter days, will have to come to terms with theirs, too.