Material Life Noisy

This is a fragmentary story about how the Chinese people are confronted with social, economical, and cultural changes in their country. Many Chinese have difficulty finding their way between the old and the new China. In previous times, the collective was determining. Values were set top-down by the government. Nowadays, there is a huge urge for consumption and a (apparent) freedom of choice. At the same time, ‘harmony’ – which used to be a guide for individual conduct – is now becoming a collective, societal ideal. What happens when traditional family bonds relapse due to a massive emigration to cities? How do those who stay behind in the countryside survive?

These mini-essays are based on my travels to China in 2010-2012. They were originally published in the photozine Material Life Noisy: China in contrasts, by photographer Paul van der Stap and myself. 


Marriage market

The People’s Park of Shanghai is busy, and the reason is not only that it is Sunday afternoon. There are clothes lines hanging between the trees, full of written notes; people stroll along the notes with searching eyes. They are in their twenties, thirties, or even forties, and they are looking for a partner. Or, they are parents who fix the deal for their children. This is exactly what it looks like: a marriage market.

The younger generations experience loneliness trough and through: they are often the only child of parents who also were the only child; they study and work so hard that they have little time left for any hobbies or for socializing; and they are ready to move from Heilongjiang to Guangzhou or from Kunming to Hohhot, if their career demands. And: they are mostly men. Because of selective abortions, for every hundred girls about 120 boys are born, in the south even nearly 140 boys.

Some notes carry photos. Photos of serious-looking men in suit, who want to give the impression that they have succeeded in life. Of young women with heavy make-up, long, wavy hair and crossed legs.
The hopes are high and the notes plenty. Those who have no luck today, may have another chance next week.



Since the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has the ambition to become a bilingual city. On the bus and in the subway, stations are announced in Chinese as well as in English, and in subway corridors and other public areas, large posters display the bilingual message ‘Beijing spirit. Patriotism. Innovation. Inclusiveness.’ Beijing is reaching out to foreigners, so much is clear, but the capital is not as inclusive for its own citizens as the posters suggest.

To stop population growth, 700,000 people must move from the inner city to the suburbs in the next few years. Naturally, newcomers land in the farthest suburbs, unless they are capable of paying the off the scale rent asked for a flat in more central areas. These measures often result in migrants returning to their homes in the countryside. This is an actual trend, because the Chinese economy is not growing as much as was expected, there are fewer and fewer jobs available. As far as innovation is concerned, things aren’t going too well either.

What remains is ‘patriotism’, which is in fact a euphemism for a new, expansive nationalism. China is an upcoming world power and that makes Chinese values worth propagating, both at home and abroad. This is what the people are made to understand.

But the contemporary Chinese aren’t the obedient yes-men they used to be. Attempts to include more patriotic lessons in the school curriculum led to huge protests, and not just in Hong Kong, where the initiative was cancelled eventually. Beijing spirit? Plenty. For example, take a walk in one of the five hundred hutongs that are still there. People talk, eat, play and work in the streets to escape their far too small, dark houses. Life in the hutongs is chummy, noisy and rustic. Solidarity aplenty there.


Looking for comfort
At the Qingping market in Guangzhou, the snakes are alive and someone always knows what to use a green-shielded beetle for. Everyone looking for a remedy for whatever kind of illness comes to the market, no matter their age, gender or social position. There is a direct road leading from the market through an impoverished hutong to Cyber Plaza. On the square, urban youths are amusing themselves, with an iPhone always within reach. Likewise, people in the hutong hang around in front of their windowless homes, but their telephones are umpthieth-hand. They often have three jobs.

Out of all people in the world, the Chinese are the most unsatisfied with their jobs, second to the Vietnamese. Educated youths will not take just any job anymore; they prefer to let their days pass while chatting on the internet. But even people with little education aspire to find a comfortable job. According to a recent survey, the Chinese look for a stable income and little stress nowadays. This explains the sudden popularity of government jobs that used to be loathed by everyone. Nowadays, working for private businesses has become too risky.

The generation hangers-around has a vision of a making a career, but it is not prepared to take risks or to work until they are exhausted. Because a higher standard of living, also non-educated Chinese have pushed the bar higher. They organize themselves, demand higher salaries and steer clear of the worst kind of exploitation by employers. In spite of all differences, everyone shares the same expectations. And they believe in traditional medicine. Cyber Plaza lies in line with Qingping market. The hutong lies in between.


Who rules

Yesterday a hutong, today a construction site. This does not only happen in Beijing. In the city centre of Kunming in Yunnan, the old Flower and Bird Market is about to disappear. The old wooden buildings are now just a faint memory. The flowers and birds have moved to new, concrete halls long ago. The market has a high touristic value; it would not be really a surprise if the old buildings are replaced by larger replicas. All around, the city rises.

A young, elegant-looking man steps out of the taxi in front of the Louis Vuitton shop. He embodies the often-heard call by the Chinese government: people should not only buy more goods, but they should buy more expensive goods; this will benefit the national economy. But this man does not only have money, he also has the idea that others are there to serve him. He lets the porter open the shop door for him. He has left the taxi door ajar behind him.

Kunming may be a modest town in comparison to the real metropolitan cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, but it is quick in catching up with them. Also when it comes to manners.


Chongqing opera
Located on the Yangtze, with its 6,300 kilometer the longest river in Asia, Chongqing spans an area the size of a small country. Because the city and the province overlap, the number of inhabitants is a point of discussion. Thirty million? More? Less? The setup of the city is equally fuzzy. The slums are right next to luxurious shopping, while the next barrack lies just behind the corner. City planning does not seem to exist.

Only the river provides a view. A muddy view, that is. People, fishermen and day-trippers, walk in the mud. Above their heads hangs the first stretch of a bridge that never was finished, like an amputated arm. In a couple of years, someone will build a house on the bridge, or start a restaurant.

Such relics keep the city recognizable for its inhabitants. In an old part of the city, an opera group performs every Saturday afternoon. The audience is the same every: older ladies and gentlemen. They all know each other, and they know the operas by heart. The pieces are heroic sagas, combined with short comedy acts. The characters and their destiny are already clear, but the audience eagerly participates when the hero is in distress. Every week they provide the same solutions. To everyone’s content.


Lady Gaga

Morning train from Chongqing to Guiyang. A journey of nine hours, a piece of cake for the Chinese.

It starts in the station hall. As soon as the gate to the platform opens, the hall-length waiting line disperses into a crowd. Everyone wants to be the first to reach the train. The reason for this becomes clear inside the train compartment: the space reserved for luggage above the seats is limited and there is a lot of luggage. An enormous amount of luggage. Before the train has left station, the conductor limberly jumps on the seats, signalling the passengers to move out of the way. Reaching out with his arms, he pushes and presses on the luggage that is hanging in all imaginable ways in mid-air back into its space. Here and there, he hands an oversized cardboard box or an overfilled bag to its owner, who has to find out by himself what to do with it. The conductor has obviously distanced himself from the anarchic luggage.

The passengers have little alternative but to sit with rice cookers, eggs and corn cobs at their feet. But just for a short moment. As soon as the conductor is gone, an extensive seat exchange begins. This will keep the people busy until the final destination. In the Chinese booking system, seats are allocated in automatic order, irrespective of who is travelling together with whom. Naturally, everyone knows this, and so all join the seat exchange game.

At a provincial station, a mother and her two sons get in the train. The younger child is eight or nine years old, his brother is a teenager. The mother lifts the young boy on her lap, trying to make something clear to the elder son, who will not listen. He stares at the display of his smartphone in discontent. Something is going very wrong; perhaps the network is out of reach. He curses. Shocked, the mother decides to concentrate on the younger son, who is pulling faces to the foreigners who sit in front of him. Then the teenager finds what he was looking for: a video clip on YouKu, the Chinese YouTube. Proudly he shows a dancing Lady Gaga to his little brother. ‘Pokefés’, the boys sigh in choir.


Green city
A provincial capital of human size is a rarity in contemporary China. Therefore Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, is a well-kept secret. It is a chummy, provincial place with a luxurious main street that caters to the new rich. In other respects, Guiyang mostly resembles a village. In the evenings, streets fill with people who meet at the street restaurants along the narrow alleys on both sides of the main street. There, time stands still; one forgets that a KFC and Starbucks are just around the corner. It is homey, familiar.

Officially, Guiyang profiles itself as a green city. Local politicians like to use the term “ecological civilization”. Important international environmental congresses take place in the city, and surrounding it, there is a belt of forest and lakes. The air and water quality are said to have improved in the past few years. Not just the luxury of the main streets, but also the green belt is supposed to attract investors. What will happen soon, when the new highway to the eastern coast and the quick railway line to Guangzhou are finished, is yet to be seen.


Calligraphy village

Until some decades ago, illiteracy was common in rural areas of China. Especially amongst the ethnic minorities in the province Guizhou, South China. Literate women were next to non-existing. Guizhou is China’s poorest province, with an annual per capita GDP of 13,000 RMB, 40 per cent of the national average and only 17 per cent of the GDP in Shanghai (in 2010). More than one third of the population belongs to one of the many ethnic minorities. The Dong, the Buyi, the Miao, the Yi and other minorities live mainly in mountain areas that were difficult to reach, up until recently.

There is one exception to the longstanding illiteracy in the province: Wangche, a Buyi village in the Kaiyang region. There, both genders have been able to read and write for centuries. Seven centuries, according to a local legend. It tells about an exceptionally talented young man from Wangche who went to Beijing for the imperial exam; the ticket to any important career in the old China. Especially calligraphy skills were highly valued, as they demanded al lot of knowledge and practise. The young Buyi got full points in the exam, but could not make a career as a civil cervant, because he was not a Han Chinese. So he had little choice but to return to Wangche, where he founded a calligraphy school and started to teach the villagers.

The calligraphy school still exists. It is the pride of the village, frequently visited by both Chinese and foreigners. In Wangche, the people try to live up to their famous village. Parents boast of their children who make homework even during the holidays. Around the New Year, people hang up hand-written texts on doorposts, instead of the more frequently seen printed materials. Here, literacy is identity as well as a trademark.


Centuries ago, the leader of the Buyi lived in Matuzhai, an ancient mountain village. The Buyi were a powerful people; in the 14th century they fought the invading Mongols and remained in power. The strategy of the leaders was to assimilate new habits and beliefs in the existing culture and religion.

The Buyi leaders converted their – originally Taoist – people to Buddhism in a particularly clever way. Buddhism was a favourable religion, the leaders thought, as Buddhism is more worldly oriented than Taoism. Taoism is said to be the most anti-social of Asian philosophies. Taoists may question the extend of a leader’s power, whereas Buddhists respect his authority. That was exactly what the leaders had in mind: obedient people. In order to make the Matuzhai Buyi convert into Buddhism, the leaders incorporated the new belief in old Taoist rituals. Even today, the village temple of Matuzhai presents Taoist and Buddhist gods next to each other.

In a similar way, other ethnic minorities combine new habits with their own culture, and it seems that they are succeeding. However, there are also other strategists who determine the rules of the game. The Matuzhai villagers wish nothing more than to replace their old houses with new buildings. But the state has labelled the old houses as cultural heritage, so deliberate demolishing is out of question. The government gives the village nor money nor workforce for making the necessary repairs, and so people keep on living in houses that can collapse today or tomorrow. “It seems that a catastrophe is needed before anything happens,” is their stoic comment.


Cultural heritage
Tourism is the engine behind the government’s will to preserve cultural heritage. The culture of ethnic minorities is especially important for the economic development of Guizhou. But there is more to it. Tourism also helps the ethnic minorities to hold on their traditions and identity. Albeit controlled by the state.

In the middle of the rain season, a 200 heads strong delegation was visits Zhaoxing, the largest and most important Dong village in the South Eastern corner of Guizhou. In the last few years, the village has become a modest touristic centre in the region. The new highway from the province capital Guiyang to the East coast more or less passes by Zhaoxing and is likely to speed up the touristic development in the next couple of years. The delegation of officials and academics, some sponsored by businesses, was sent to the village to inspect the quality of the touristic infrastructure and the authenticity of the ethnic culture.

Right away, during the first night, the village put up a folklore show with their traditional polyphonic songs and beautiful costumes. The delegates sit on nice chairs, front and center. Behind them, the villagers and a few foreign tourists sit on wooden benches. An assistant hands out umbrellas and water bottles to the delegates; the price tags were still hanging on the umbrellas. The officials and academics lean back and enjoy the attention – while chatting continuously. But the villagers were all eyes and ears, as if they saw their own singers for the first time ever. One by one, the delegates shifted to a local pub, but that matters little to the villagers. They stayed until the end.


Role play

It happens in Luodai, an old town of the Hakka minority nearby Chengdu. Luodai is visited by masses of day-trippers, because it is an ancient town, a town with a history. What that usually means in China, is demonstrated in Luodai. There is a ghost palace in an old guildhall, and a restaurant in a city palace. Candy floss, mechanic toys, cheap fashion and other anonymous entertainment fill the main road.

One attraction stands above all others. Girls and women who behave as if they are no older than fifteen, let themselves be photographed in fake historic costumes: as a Japanese geisha, a Victorian ruler, a Medieval maiden, Chinese empress… Outside the touristic zone in cities, young people are also hanging around in fancy dress, enjoying their exhibitionist show. Nothing is strange to them; it gives them a pleasant lift from real life.

For most of them, there is a difference between walking through central Chengdu with a Marie Antoinette wig and wearing a fancy costume inside the safe coulisses of Luodai. Here, everyone seems high on the fact that they have a day off and that the place is meant for their entertainment. The carnival-like show covers up working days of twelve hours or longer, the boredom in factory sleeping halls, meagre salaries and one’s loved ones far away. Thoughts of the future are worrying. A fancy dress means freedom from those thoughts. For a very short while.



The modern-day Chinese, who master digital media and expect things to run smoothly have no words for the patience of their parents and grandparents; the large generation of people who are now in their sixties and together form more than twenty per cent of the population in big cities. They represent a vanishing institution: waiting.

The people who are waiting sit on the floor of a bank office in Chengdu, the western capital of China. Rows of elderly people in their blue Mao uniforms fill up the space in front of the counters. They are small and bend over, and they have brought their pillows and stools with them from their rural homes. They sit and wait, perhaps hoping to get a loan for repairing the leaking roof of their house. While waiting, they eat lunch.

A couple of miles further, in People’s Park, another kind of waiting takes place. Again it is the elderly women and men who pass their time in tea houses with chatting, mah-jong, endless cups of tea and sun flower seeds, or just looking around. Their work is done; they live by the day. Some of them join one of the dance and gym groups who practise daily in the park, others enjoy watching the improvised revolutionary operas, sometimes in mock version.

The bank office, the park: small enclaves where time has a different length. The time of the people waiting is void; there are no expectations. Like it said in Zhuang Zi: change is superficial; there is nothing that has not been before.



According to an old popular Chinese belief, toothache is caused by worms. On 24 November 1878, The New York Times published a contribution from the infamous Chambers’s Journal about the unmasking of a dentist who hid worms in bleeding teeth. The article gives a detailed report of the doctor’s fraud: it explains how he inserts the worms into the teeth with a spatula, watching out that the worms will not die, for alive worms are more impressive. Subsequently, he extracts the worms one by one from the mouth of the patient in pain. This was the custom in China. According to Chambers’s Journal at least.

On the regional market of Diangzhong, a provincial town in Yunnan, people are more interested in a totally different kind of dentistry. The unchallenged attraction of the market are not the pigs and chickens, or the row of manual Singer machines with which women repair pants and curtains, or combine three worn-out shirts into one new shirt. Not even the moneylenders are surrounded by as big a crowd of villagers as the table on which the mobile dentist has laid a collection of false teeth.
Whoever makes an instant decision, can have their teeth removed on the spot.

However, the Chambers’s story is not out-dated yet. The website reported in 2011 of a former textile merchant who had now specialized in removing worms from ears with herbal damp. In that light, it is easy to believe in the psychological effect of a shiny white pair of false teeth, even if it comes second hand.


Material Life Noisy

The classical poet Du Fu had a house with a leafy garden in Chengdu. The house is now a museum, a popular attraction for both Chinese and foreign tourists. For foreigners, probably due to its handy location next to a row of big restaurants and antique shops; for Chinese, because Mao had his picture taken there once. In the garden, an attentive visitor will be treated to soft music from the speakers well hidden in the bushes, as well as visible billboards with philosophical poetry lines. One of these goes: “The Quite Environment Can Usually / Wash the Material Life Noisy”. Visitors who grasp the meaning of this comical translation, will find here a plea for quiet spots in the middle of hectic modern life.


These mini essays were published in the photozine Material Life Noisy: China in contrasts (Titojoe documentaries, 2013), available in the Slowdocs webshop.


Photos: Paul van der Stap

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