History Sitting Aside Popular Culture in Xi’tang

By Jillian Smith

The dark tiles of thousand-year-old Ming-era roofs jut out at pointed angles against the pale golden rose of the chilly February sunset. Red lanterns are strung across ancient, narrow, winding alleys. Below my feet, the thin ribbon of a canal laps at the sides of the sidewalks. On it, wiry, leather-faced men paddle long flat gondolas that resemble wooden crocodiles. To my right, the sizzle of grilled chicken feet whirls hot steam against my cheek as shop owners call out the quality of their wares.

This is the ancient water village of Xi’tang. Sometimes called, “Shanghai’s Venice,” nine rivers cut through the town, and even more, canals crisscross its streets. Stretching over them are bridges that attest to the ingenuity of the engineering of people in that day.

Xi’tang dates back to the “spring and autumn period” (450 B.C.), a time before China had even become China. It is one of the last holdouts that preserve the astoundingly long history of China. As such, it has rightfully become an extraordinarily popular tourist destination. But the strange thing about being an American tourist in this cultural attraction is that it has become a far bigger draw for local Chinese crowds than for foreigners.

Because of the rising middle class in China, there is now much more disposable income for people to throw at leisure activities like tourism. But that has also meant that places like Xi’tang are gradually succumbing to the syndrome we Americans often experience in our national heritage sites: the kitschy tourist trap.

Despite all of the history and culture preserved in the town, everyone has overrun Xi’tang from drone sellers to karaoke bars to Starbucks. And I don’t know how to feel about it. Something is unsettling about the site of a thousand-year-old building butting up against the place that makes me Frappuccinos. Maybe it is just the wide-eyed naïve college student in me talking, but something makes me want to tell these villagers to stop and go back to carrying on life as they have for a thousand years and deny them of any possibility of accessing economic opportunity.

Of course that can’t (and shouldn’t) happen, but then, what’s a millennial girl like me seeking out incredibly authentic experiences supposed to do? Is the fate of our most sacred places a continual march toward plastic sanitized consumer driven shallowness? Am I overly privileged for calling it such? Am I overreacting for fearing McDonald’s popping up at Amazon tributaries and QR codes next to Celtic runes?

That last one was a bit hyperbolic. But perhaps one of the most important economic forces of our time is this shifting demographic of a wealthier Chinese middle class. A Starbucks at the Buddhist temple may be a quite visible signifier of this shift, but there are far more impactful and less visible implications of China’s economic growth.

I am generally of the opinion that these trends are good. Access to opportunity is always positive, as it leads to greater disbursement of human creativity across the globe. But hopefully, as China continues to lift more and more people out of poverty, it avoids a second “cultural revolution” and can preserve some of its past richness.