As a country as historical, populous, and intriguing as it is, it goes without saying that most things in China are misunderstood. Due to media portrayals and over-generalized stereotypes, even the most open-minded of Westerners sometimes are guilty of these stubbornly held misconceptions about China and its people and culture...
It's fairly common for Westerners to assume that Chinese people aspire to become more similar to their counterparts in more economically developed nations. First of all, the term 'Western' is exceptionally vague and could cover a number of bases, but for now we'll just consider culture: that is, popular attitudes and behaviors. It's true that any Westerner visiting a major Chinese city might be surprised to find many of the comforts of home, such as brand stores like Apple and H&M, as well as fast food chains like Starbucks and KFC.
However, this does not reflect a desire to dress, eat, and act exactly like Westerners, but rather, a pervasive effect of China becoming more international and modern. Since the introduction of China's 'open-door' economic policy in the late 1970s, China has benefited from the investment of foreign companies that see potential in the region.
These companies are wise enough alter their products and services to meet the demands of such a different market. The Chinese certainly aren't adapting their tastes and preferences to conform to the Western world; if anything, it's the other way around.
It's easy to see how we all can make the same mistake of assuming that China would strive to adapt to the economically developed West, but it's important to remember that China has existed culturally for thousands and thousands of years - in relative terms, its emergence as a strong economic power is extremely recent.
Confucian principles are still integral to Chinese society, and these operate in combination with (not in opposition to) new consumer attitudes. The issue is far more nuanced than just a case of China becoming more 'Western'; a better way of looking at it is this: China is recognizing foreign influence, but on its own distinct terms.
In fact, many recent studies show that the overwhelming majority of Chinese support their government and its endeavors. As we all know, China is now a major player on the global economic scale. As a result, most Chinese are now enjoying a higher standard of living that their parents and grandparents could never have dreamt of. They attribute these changes to the efforts of the Communist Party, and are proud of what they are now able to aspire to and achieve. This has given way to a growing sense of national pride, which had previously become muddled by the complex issues of the Mao era.
Of course, Chinese politics are very far from perfect, and there have been countless Chinese activists who have spoken out about their dissatisfaction at widespread problems, such as corruption, authoritarianism, information censoring, and a host of human rights violations. These kinds of issues are difficult to stomach for most people who have spent their entire lives living in Western democracies, but the Chinese see them from a very different perspective: they are grateful for the new opportunities presented to them.
Well actually, maybe this isn't entirely a myth. Yes, even the most esteemed academic probably could never find out all there is to know about China and Chinese people, but would you ever really expect them to? China is evolving every day and it almost seems impossible for us, as foreigners, to keep track of everything that makes it so unique.
But that doesn't mean we should dismiss understanding China as a useless pursuit. Living in China for just a couple of months exposed me to limitless opportunities to explore and discover more about China, sometimes in the most unexpected of places.
This encouraged me to realize a new kind of respect for China that I believe is impossible to gain from reading a book or watching a documentary. Knowing every fact and detail about China and its history/culture/politics/economy may be useful for some people, but is redundant if you don't take the time to acknowledge the simpler things that make it special. And in terms of gaining a deeper understanding of China, the latter is far more important!
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