Temples and Wal-Marts – Opting Out


Why I Paid To Enter This Chinese Village

I paid to enter this Chinese village called Tang Mo in the Huangshan area. Why would anyone pay to look at a village? This is a place where people still live. It would have been run-of-the-mill 100 years ago, far from what might be considered an exotic tourist spot. Yet, for around $20, thousands of foreign and native tourists explore this riverside settlement, fawn over the ornate architecture, and fill multiple memory cards with photographs.

Some might say the draw is in a kind of trip to the past. Okay, but why do we find the past in this context so fascinating? I surmise it’s something to do with the implicit meaning in the structure of these old towns, the layout and the buildings, hinting at a sense of purpose and community that Western modernity might have lost.

The first thing to note is in the traditional style architecture that, in contradistinction to the giant walls of glass and concrete that constitute most modern cities, points to something more than simple utility. There isn’t any material reason why doorways must be adorned so beautifully, yet they are. People of the past viewed it as important to be beautiful.

The beauty is informed by millennia of tradition, evolving aesthetic understanding, and the fundamental Chinese principles like harmony and familial piety. These buildings would have been a source of meaning for multiple generations.

Then there’s the structure of the town itself, which follows the principles of street planning for people rather than traffic. There is gentle density, rather than a giant expanse of road, narrow streets and alleys that enclose the living environment and portray a sense of comfort and community.

These Huizhou-style villages are built along a river, the spine. It gives the residents an opportunity to pass each other as they travel from place to place, and chat nothing with each other.

The risk when foreigners visit traditional societies for recreation is a potential “fetishization of poverty,” as some have accused. It seems like the height of privilege to fly first-class to wander around for a few days taking photographs of the kids not wearing shoes, take advantage of the low prices and leave.

The worst is when Westerners go to places like Cuba to salivate at the old-fashioned cars (existing because Cubans literally can’t access newer cars), and get misty-eyed because Cuba follows the economic system they like. They fly home to their air-conditioned apartments, jump on their MacBooks and write blog posts about how Cuba has embraced an alternative, more just and balanced way of living.

I don’t think that’s what’s happening in this case. The people who live in Tang Mo now live comfortably, if not to the standards of the West. And that’s thanks to China’s embracing of the market and massive economic growth.

Make no mistake about it, capitalism has arrived in China. Millions continue to escape rural life for a chance at a standard of living that their parents and grandparents could never have dreamed of. Many are succeeding. Economic growth makes it possible for these two kinds of lives to coexist.

Though as skyscrapers rise and material conditions improve, many may begin to feel that lack of meaning that seems to be plaguing the West. This meaning crisis has left many feeling empty despite their comfortable lives.

Decision-makers might make room on their list of preferences for a return to, or reimagining of the cultural traditions built in these old towns and architecture; things for the sake of themselves rather than for some outside material purpose. The fact that so many people continue to visit such places as Tang Mo is evidence that there is a deep human need for what some might consider “antiquated” practices.

There is no fetishization of poverty here – poverty is not quaint or spiritual, it’s hell. But it is coherent to say that humanity might be progressing in one area, but regressing in another. And it’s not obvious that there has to be that trade-off.

I saw a debate going on on Twitter recently about whether we should be building Wal-Marts or temples. Why not both?

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.