When I was chosen to work in Shanghai, I was ecstatic. Although I didn’t care much for modern Chinese culture, my favourite thing to do as a child was watch period dramas and movies set in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. I loved watching the beautiful ladies saunter about in their colourful costumes and admired the busy yet elegant street life portrayed in these films. The elements that made me romanticize Chinese life no longer existed as the Qing Dynasty ended over a century ago and as many relics were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but some places were preserved in the form of “ancient towns.”
From the English articles and photos I could find online, these places seemed to have been intentionally prevented from progressing naturally in order to maintain a quiet, romantic image. Domestic and international tourists alike were obsessed with what they thought was “authentic” to the culture, and every top ten list I could find online included some variation of “ancient town,” “water town,” or “preserved street.” Social media’s fascination with antiquity undoubtedly fueled the trend as well.
It was obvious that these places were contrived to some extent, but the charming image that had formed in my mind as a child and my own social media use convinced me that I should at least visit one during my stay however fake. I was warned by Chinese friends that they were nothing more than tourist traps, and so I set my expectations quite low. Still, that did not prepare me for the stark difference between the image I had built and the truth of it. The disappointing reality shattered what little appeal China had but also gave me a new understanding of modern China.
In the late winter, I visited my first water towns on the outskirts of Shanghai, Zhujiajiao Ancient Town (朱家角古镇) and Xitang Water Town (西塘古镇). Often described as some of the most popular water towns around Shanghai, I was expecting large crowds, but nothing could have prepared me for the suffocating mobs of tourists. On the main streets, it was impossible to move about without being pushed out of the way. Despite being marketed as a place to relax, everyone hurried along the marked routes to take pictures of the bridges or to buy food from the countless vendors lining the street. One aspect of my vision did persist at least. There were plenty of girls dressed in the traditional clothes of the Qing Dynasty, albeit cheap, gaudy versions meant to appeal to tourists.
Unlike the “historic” or “preserved” areas I had visited in other countries, preservation seemed more like an afterthought than the main reason for the town’s existence. Every building within the supposed preserved area was hollowed out to make space for restaurants and guesthouses to cater to the sea of people that predictably arrived every weekend. Although a number of houses, especially those belonging to officials, were kept intact to display cultural relics, the remaining buildings only maintained their exterior to give visitors the illusion of visiting a historical town. What I experienced was nothing like the images posted online; most likely because they had been taken years earlier before the most recent tourist boom. The tourism association of these towns dared not to show any recent photographs lest it reveal how little of the original character remained. The few ancient towns I visited around Shanghai were complete disappointments — more theme park than historical area — but I decided to give other ancient towns a chance at redemption.
In the spring, I visited and stayed in several ancient towns in Suzhou, a city known for its slow, relaxed lifestyle and classical gardens. The difference in the composition of these towns despite their expressed similarities was immediately clear. Unlike the towns around Shanghai, many families who had lived in these primarily agricultural or fishing villages for generations still remained and lived, for the most part, as they did in the 1980s. Although most of the younger generation had moved away, the older generation still kept their houses on the peripheral streets and ran a healthy number of the businesses within the town to cater to the many visitors. Rather than being forced to remain unchanged for the sake of business, it seemed as though the town voluntarily chose to value its history while still moving forward in time.
In Luxiang Ancient Town (陆巷古村), a village known for its biluochun green tea, villagers still lived and worked the fields as they always had. In the early hours of the morning, ahead of the rush of tourists, it was possible to witness families eating bowls of steaming noodles in the courtyard before heading off to harvest vegetables or to pick tea from the terraced fields overlooking the town. In the afternoon, as visitors streamed in, the villagers would return to process the morning’s pickings into their famous green tea. Almost every store front featured a table of young women sorting the harvested leaves into several grades and an older man drying the leaves in a heated wok. Even though the town and its inhabitants maintained a large part of their original lifestyle, it was clear that tourism was a looming economic force in the area. The villagers still harvested and produced green tea, but it was the performance of the traditional production methods rather than the final product that was for sale. The quaintness of the agricultural lifestyle was what drove city-based visitors to see this town, and the locals knew that for a fact. In order to accommodate the ever-increasing number of visitors, the town replaced several buildings with a new hotel and opened up new cafes and restaurants that did not fit in the existing fabric. For the sake of earning money, they destroyed the atmosphere and institutions that first attracted visitors to their town.
This disconnect and lack of foresight was nothing new in the field of establishing ancient towns. It was the nonexistent protection from monetary greed that led ancient towns in Shanghai’s near proximity down the dark path it walks today. Selfishness forced these towns to maintain a certain aesthetic, even if only on the surface, so that investors and clever residents could exploit the town’s history. Seeing the success of the first towns in creating a sustained revenue stream convinced others to follow the model. What Chinese capitalism left us with is a network of theme parks modeled after what many people imagine as “ancient Chinese towns.” In the past, many of these towns had their own unique way of living and agricultural history, but much of the physical nuances were removed and natural changes stunted in favour of making money on the past. Even a child could have recognized that he was not “[experiencing] a Chinese town with thousands years of history” as advertised by almost all of these towns. The contrast between the advertised image and reality made me wonder why residents decided to use this counterfeit image as the draw to their town and why people continued to visit to these towns despite knowing how little of it was real.
In Luxiang Ancient Town, my host offered to teach me how to pick tea when he saw how interested I was in the tea-making process my first night in the house. His wife’s family had lived in the town since as far back as they could remember, and his wife was the first generation to move to a larger city. Despite the inconvenience, they made the trip back to Luxiang every month to help pick tea and to tend to the beehives that the family kept. Most importantly, they loved the quietness of the town and the beauty of the nearby lake. It was their little piece of heaven in China’s demanding society. I absolutely sympathized with their sentiment. As I looked out into the endless field of green tea plants and listened to the wind run through the loquat trees, I wondered how anyone could give up this paradise for the bustle of the city.
“No one in China has this kind of [romantic notion] about the countryside,” he explained.
Working in the fields was seen as “low class” and people did everything in their power to move to the city. This mentality, perhaps not unique to China, led to the current state of ancient towns in several ways.
Because of how unfavourably living in the countryside was viewed, parents pushed their children to receive a good education in hopes that they could someday move to the city. For Chinese parents, making money in order to live a more comfortable life was the one thing they wanted most for their children aside from marriage. As a result, my host lamented, children were taught only how to hunger for money and success at the cost of learning about the value of one’s heritage, health, and happiness. When children left for the city, few returned. No one yearned to return to this backward place and even fewer had an interest in exploring ways to balance their heritage with their desire to earn money. It simply was not a priority. With no one to inherit what had been owned by the family for generations, the land and house owned by their parents were resold to other villagers or businessmen, who then went on to develop the property.
This focus on making money was also deeply ingrained in the older generation’s view of their own living conditions. Even though I as a visitor saw beauty in the town’s ample history, the residents saw it as shackles to their poverty. Their characterization of their ancestry reinforced why the old and young alike would rather make money off of their town instead of striving to preserve their culture for the future. Having visited many other historical sights before, I wondered why the residents were willing to trade their historical artifacts for such a short term gain. If they had worked harder to preserve their town in its entirety, perhaps it could have increased the town’s prosperity in the long term.
“In China, faster is better,” my host explained, “especially making money.”
The moment the residents discovered a way to make money, they jumped on it. They started businesses to cater to curious parties and piled up their old roofing tiles and bricks to sell on the side of major roads. Communal buildings were destroyed and replaced with modern monstrosities that had no place in the existing fabric.
My first reaction, admittedly from a privileged viewpoint, to this idea of “preservation” was one of disgust. How could people destroy their cultural heritage for such short-term gain? Although these towns were painful reminders of their status, did they not see any value to keeping a record for future generations? A simple “no” was my host’s answer. Like the way pollution was viewed in Shanghai, the problem of preservation was for the next generation. The current generation operated under the assumption that they would be dead before the problem became detrimental to their own happiness.
Who was to blame for the destruction?
The obvious answer would be the residents themselves. After all, they were the ones who had the power to stop the damage if they so wished. Could the visitors be also held responsible for the continued commercialization and destruction of Chinese heritage? My hosts seemed to think so.
“They come to take pictures to post on their SNS as a way to show off, and then they go home,” a host told me. These casual visitors were not at all interested in what was real and what was constructed for their comfort; the worth of these towns were based upon the food and entertainment they provided rather than their value as authentic cultural heritage sites. Although the historical architecture and canals were important draws, the problem was that they needed only to look authentic to the camera. This valuation by visitors drove the locals to judge their homes as places of commerce rather than places of cultural value.
The Influence of Media
It seemed hypocritical that the countryside, a place so despised by all generations, would be so beloved as a tourist spot. What started this obsession of ancient towns by domestic and international tourists and their cameras? I only had to look at myself.
My preconceptions of these towns were led by a stylized notion of glamour and class of the Ming and Qing dynasties, often the focus of Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong dramas that every household followed religiously. Viewers have continued to be inundated with the romanticized version of those times, which undoubtedly motivated them to visit these towns to experience the on-screen magic for themselves. Although a successful albeit incidental marketing strategy, these fantastical reimaginations of architecture and landscape had their own drawbacks. By presenting an idealized vision of a town during these two dynasties, residents’ idea of what their town could be was limited for fear of lacking appeal. Visitors’ visions of an ancient town and how well they fit into reality was an important factor in their popularity.
As one of my hosts pointed out, many people were there to take photos for their social media accounts. In our age of aesthetic consumerism, people obsessively recorded their experiences using photos and videos as a way to prove to others that a coveted experience was had. The carefully curated streets and canals of ancient towns served as the perfect backdrop for the like-obsessed, especially those who used the #liveauthentic hashtag. In our increasingly consumer-driven culture, people craved to experience (or at the very least, show to their followers) something genuine even if it was a farce driven by commerce. Many travelers sought out these towns in order to show what an authentic cultural experience they were having, but neglected to realize the irony of the situation. By inscribing their experience fully within social media, they were not facing the culture and place with honesty but merely perpetuating a casual reverence for the past.
The nonchalant manner with which visitors immersed themselves in the towns signaled to the locals that the value of their cultural heritage was limited to its outer appearance. As long as the streets and canals were photogenic, and the transient population enjoyed their day trip, all was right in the world.
At first pass, I would have skipped “authentic” on the list of adjectives to describe the many ancient towns I visited around Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Suzhou. Although many of the bridges, buildings, and street layouts remained true to varying degrees, the dominating nature of the towns’ tourist-driven, commercial activities made them feel like theme parks. And to an extent, they were. Like a theme park, these towns had a backstory (ancient town), recurring motifs (bridges, cobblestone streets, etc.), and were valued for their entertainment value (food, photography, etc.). Most importantly, their physical traits were mostly stripped of historical value in favour of catering to their target consumers. These ancient towns, retrofitted for consumption by their owners, were the authentic ancient towns of the 21st century.
The more I traced how the pressures of the economy and the changing social atmosphere pushed locals to reevaluate their relationship with their environment, the more I realized that these towns had transformed to echo the mindset of modern Chinese people. Their role as a money-making machines reflected Chinese people’s obsession with chasing fleeting pleasures while its hollow facades mirrored youth’s desire for authenticity in an increasingly counterfeit world. These towns, however kitschy and contrived, were indeed living, breathing towns that were constantly changing with the times to reflect the current context and to answer the question of what we desired. What is authentic but that which is true to the current time and place? As they must have in the past, the locals simply adapted as the world around them changed. In doing so, they morphed their town into a perfect reflection of contemporary Chinese society.