The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Are cities really killing culture in China?

This week a New York Times article argued that China's urbanisation was destroying its traditional culture by depopulating its rural areas. Bart Orr replies that this argument belies a misplaced nostalgia through which Westerners perceive non-Western cultures.

Cities: Beijing

Topics: Arts and culture, Internal migration

A skyline of Beijing: the destruction of traditional Chinese culture? or its natural evolution as a dynamic and economically responsive culture? Photo: Wikipedia user CobbleCC (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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This weekend the New York Times published a widely circulated article lamenting the loss of traditional culture as China continues its path towards rapid (and not always completely voluntary) urbanisation. The headline is clear as to where this is going: "Once the villages are gone, the culture is gone". Village life, according to the author, is the "bedrock of Chinese culture".

This idea that rural culture is somehow more authentic than that of cities is one that seems to be generally applied only to non-Western nations. The Times probably won't be publishing any articles on the rich cultural heritage of the rural Midwest being wiped out by migration to the soulless uniformity of New York or Chicago. For us, we see our cities as the centres of a dynamic culture that is continuously evolving and changing. The cultures of others, however, are too often defined by images of colourful costumes and folk art of villages frozen in time for centuries.

It's true, as the Times quotes, that "Chinese culture has traditionally been rural-based", but where has that not been the case? Rapid urbanisation is not restricted to China, but has been happening worldwide, particularly fast in Asia.

This isn't to say that rural traditions in China and elsewhere should not be valued and preserved — they should be — but China's focus should be based on sound urbanisation policies, including respecting the rights of rural dwellers and environmental sustainability, not on nostalgia for an agrarian economy that is unable to carry China into the future.

As Tom Miller, author of China's Urban Billion: the story behind the biggest migration in human history, has pointed out, China desperately needs to get urbanisation right. Its environment and long-term economic growth depend on it. The forcible resettlement of anyone is a tragedy and should be of great concern to the international community. But painting urbanisation as the destroyer of a romanticised vision of rural life is not going to solve any of the issues facing China's cities.


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