Lifting a finger in China requires, at least, a Masters in politics. Everything is the subject of complex and endless negotiations. Everything involves elaborate power display and threats.

At a basic level, everything is complicated. Alliance francaise, for instance, where I worked. In other countries, Alliance Francaise is run as a local association or a not-for-profit company. But there is no legal status for associations in China. So Alliance Francaise is run as a joint venture between France and Chinese Universities – which breeds endless complexities in hierarchical protocol, project development, and daily business administration.

In history class, I used to hear how people fought for Freedom of association in the late 19th century. But I took so much for granted that I didn’t understand what people were actually fighting for. Freedom of association does not exist in China. People belong to the State and their families.Father – and mother – dictate their rule. Children obey. The arbitrary demands of parents are ‘a form of love’, and as such, must be respected. Where they go, you follow.

I read in one Jacques Gernet’s Essays that Chinese culture can be interpreted as a tension between Confucianism on the one side – a semi-religion that proposes filial devotion as a way to social perfection – and taoism or buddhism on the other side, which on the contrary propose a return to nature and calm through personal meditation, and distance from existing social bonds.

But is the freedom of Buddhist meditation what a European or a Westerner would recognize as freedom? Gernet gives a beautiful analysis of the difference between Christian extasy and Buddhist mediation: “Whereas the extatic Christian mimes the fight between body and soul and the soul’s union with God, Indian meditation exercises aim to reach the depths of the spirit, and fuse it into an absolute beyond all distinctions. In the deepest meditations, there is no ‘subject’ any more. Therefore, there can be no soul and body or, for that regard, fight of the one against the other.’ The self and the world are one. Whereas extasy is extreme tension, dramatic fight, meditation is conceived of as a return to the original quietness. It allows those who have mastered it to reach universal being, in their own depth.”

Is there something definitely ‘Western’ in that extreme assertion of the self? The self asserting its resemblance to the creating God by fighting against its angel. Honouring your ancestors and father by resisting, as they did – including resisting your own father. Hence heroes: Hector, Patroclus, Christian Martyrs, or Che Guevara: all figures of resistance. In the face of evil (or the enemy), they do not embrace the flux of life, but stand hard against it. They were defeated, but they stood upright – and therefore, their defeat became a victory.

Nothing of the sort in Chinese tradition, where supreme victory, quite the opposite, is victory without a fight. China does not have martyrs, or hero worship. Chinese heroes are those who survive hardships, and live on to tell their story.

In the European tradition, freedom is the opposite of slavery. It is the possibility to self-determine, rather than submit to the will of another. Courage is a prerequisite for freedom. Freedom is the resolution to say ‘no’ when we disagree, and live – or die – with the consequences.

The Chinese word for freedom is ‘Zi You’ – to posess oneself. Self possession, in the Chinese context, is actually the result of a hard fight. Like in the West, the willingness to die can be the touchstone of freedom. And there have been Buddhist monks who decided to suicide, or sacrifice parts of their bodies, as an ultimate form of freedom. Yet they were not part of a heroic resistance, in the Western sense. Dying for your ideas is not a particular cause for praise – not dying, and pushing them ahead is probably better.

People talk about restrictions on freedom in China. They accuse communism, they want political diversity, multiple political parties. Why not? But as a Chinese friend was telling me, this is not the heart of the matter. A very dense web of tyranny runs through all layers of society. Through families, friends, neighbours, superiors, and the complex system of GuanXi that rules virtually everything.

Yet all hope is not lost. There is some progress happening, in individual freedom, through web communities, feminism, gay rights, and relaxed HuKou laws allowing people to change cities more easily, so as to get away from their families and clans. QQ groups and a relaxed attitude to dating, all of those are slowly building a circle of personal freedom, outside family domination. The apolitical youth is, actually, planting and growing the seeds of freedom – like young people in Moliere and Marivaux’s comedies, when advocating for the freedom to choose their romantic partner as their spouse, were preparing consciences for the French revolution.

Untill people wash off the tyrannical ethos, breeding fear and agression, making a joke of civic virtue – what can be the point of multiple parties ? But maybe, step by step, young generations will start saying no to their parents, or bosses; and assert their control over their bodies and their time. Gaining concrete freedom, in their day to day life; and preparing for more, in the future.


North and South

My friend Niklas is obsessed with dialects. During the time we spent together in Northern China, he kept saying, excited ‘this is the real Tianjin voice’, or – even better – ‘a real Beijinger’. He’s a musician, with a fine ear for language; and these were sounds he’d never heard live before.

Niklas comes from a samll town close to Suzhou, in Jiangsu province, not far from Shanghai where he’s now finishing a Master’s in German. As a result, he can speak various forms of the Wu dialect – Shanghai, Suzhou, and his homtown’s. He told me that all Southerners are at least bilingual like him, able to speak their own dialect, and official Mandarin. This is a key distinction between North and South. On the one hand, a multilingual South, with many competing cultural centres – Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Guanzhou, Xiamen, Hong Kong… versus a monocultural North, clearly dominated by Beijing.

Of course, he’s a true southerner, with a biased vision. Still, Beijing is the seat of Chinese power, and has been so for a while. Since the capital moved here, four centuries ago, the best and brightest have come from all provinces to pass exams and work here, where the court of power was. For that reason too, Beijing has been a multicultural city for centuries, with a mix of old Beijingers, northerners moving to ‘the big city’, bright young things from all over China seeking success in the capital, and international investors or diplomats.

Countries often have competing cities: New York and LA, Madrid and Barcelona, Melbourne and Sydney. The traditional Chinese opposition is between Beijing and Shanghai – but these two cities also came to represent two Chinas. As always, labels attach: political versus commercial; unruly versus organised; cultured versus materialist; barbarian versus delicate; and others, along the same lines.

I once articulated the distinction in more concrete terms with Aaron. I was complaining, again, about the bad service in Tianjin; but also trying to find ways it could be improved it, by understanding the cultural causes. I was putting together theories, when Aaron simply said ‘you would actually get better service in the south’. For instance, when you go for dinner late, or early, southerners will serve you, whereas in the North, they just send you away. Then he added ‘they like money more, down South. Here, they just want enjoy life.’

I ventured an hypothesis. Traditionally, the Southern regions around the mouth of the YangTse river have been the richest in China. They still are, and Shanghai enthusiasts explain how Beijing will never be the real centre of China, because its hinterland is poor, whereas Shanghai has Hangzhou and Suzhou, Nanjing and Ningbo, rich cities, and a rich countryside, all arond it. Yet these regions are not the centre of power. But it may be the result of a wise choice. Chinese history can be read as a series of invasions from the North-West. Each time, the barbarian tribes assimilated, settled – and became the guardians of their new country, protecting it from other invasions; untill a new wave of barbarians came, and the cycle started again. All of this happened in the North. Meanwhile, the rich Southern cities could focus on their own business – happy to pay for these idle Northerners to keep the outside worlds at bay, and absorb shocks for them.

In other words, Southerners are the traditional workers; whereas Northerners are the soldiers – and like proper soldiers, they act lazy, loud, and dirty, with no great respect for written rules, but obedience to the man in command and its loud orders. This is why everything in the North is confused and messy, and why you can only get things by shouting and feigning anger in Tianjin and Beijing. The difference in service quality between North and South China can be read as an expression of the cultural difference between an imperial military culture, and an erudite commercial culture. I was happy with my little structural interpretation.

Aaron agreed – politely – but then proposed another, more Hegelian interpretation. The Southern regions – this time he meant Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang – were traditionally the poorest in the country. For that reason, people there had to work harder. And they got used to it, then started to become richer. Hegelian dialectics all over. I followed his train of thought, saying that in the south, you work more, but life is easier, because the system works with you, and life is more organised. Aaron – who spent some time there studying – disagreed. The power of money has its own downsides. Things do work better, but these rich people have their privileges, and its really hard in the south if you don’t have money. Images of Hong Kong movies came to mind, which I contrasted with my Beijing impressions.

Which got me thinking again about lazy northerners, and their loud affect, their theatrical bouts of anger, and their way of seating on the street, simply getting on with their lives. Maybe there is virtue, somehow, in this mild idleness. I do have a few Beijing enthusiasts among my friends. Surprisingly, one said Beijing was the most relaxing of all big capitals. If you follow the Northern way of life – not running after profit and focusin on simple daily pleasures – it can be a lovely place to stay.

I thought, he may be right. Maybe, for the contemplating foreigner, curious to know more about ‘Chinese culture’, Beijing is a better place than Shangha. I even thought, maybe, Beijing is the place where friendship – that most eminent of martial virtues – can be formed and nurtured. One day, when we were walking around the Hutongs, Juliette told that Beijing is a great place if you know people, and do things with them, or go to parties. ‘Beijing is great when you have friends’, she reflected, then adding ‘but then it’s true everywere, right?’

Right, but is it possible everywhere – or could Beijing, and North China, be among these rare places where the balance is such that you can actually form and keep friendships? Where doors – and people – eventually, open?


One thing I understood in Tianjin: life as an expat can be lonely. Beijing and Shanghai have growing populations of foreigners now, and there is a grain of good among the numbers. But – Koreans excepted – they still think of Tianjin as a frontier town; and as such, it appeals to a weird mob.

Roughly speaking, there’s four types of expats in Tianjin. The first are the mechanics. Aerospace technicians flown over from Toulouse to train local staff in the new Airbus factory. Or similar profiles, I suppose, from other countries. In France, they’re normal people – a good job, but no particular status attached. In China, they think they’re on top of the world. And so come out with a string of pseudo-wise judgements about the country: ‘they just haven’t evolved’, ‘it’s hard to get them to work’ or even ‘it’s a new country, that’s what I like about it’. Painful.

The second are the Gold Diggers. They read about the Tianjin boom – 15% of GDP growth per year in the middle of the GFC. They heard it will be the main Financial centre in East Asia – some time in the future. So they came early, to get their shares in the local market at early bird’s price. I met one of those in a bar, receding hair and Lenin-style glasses, a waitress hanging on his neck. He thought he was inventing cool. His bar-snack was opening soon. There would be kebabs.

The come the spouses, a more interesting and varied mix. They come in two kinds: European partner, or Chinese partner. The first are handbag housewives, who spend their husband’s expat package on maids and manicure. Most are not working, and spend their days complaining about the life of luxury they live in China, pining after a proper baguette or a nice cup of coffee with milk.

The second are more colourful – and come in both genders. They came first as a student, or on a visit; they met a Chinese partner, and they decided to stay. Most of those work as language teachers, or in some sort of mediating role. As time passes, they become more and more Chinese, and talk of how everything is changing. They have a touch of sadness to them – life in China can be tough – but they’re settled here, have respect for people around, and make an effort to understand. The one problem with them is – newcomers endanger their exceptional status; and though they are a worthy lot, they tend to know better than you.

Finally come the students. They’re in China to learn Chinese, for a year, or just a few months. Either Tianjin was not their first choice, or they come from a remote place. But they’re enjoying it, or try to. They write blogs, go to cafes, and have a try at market food with adventurous internationals. On week-ends, they train to Beijing and hang out around the cool bars.


Everyone heard about Guanxi, that mysterious web of relations running through Chinese society, that weird tribal archaism, which stands in the way of making business in China. Having often said that China resembles Italy, I would like to try and understand it from my own Mediterranean background.

The main point of Guanxi is that it’s not about how qualified you are. It’s about who you know, and who will pick up your phone calls.

It sounds bad, but let’s have a think. On a professional level, is not the capacity to rely on existing networks of support a key to success in projects? At a more personal level, can you really trust a person with no friends? And at a more metaphysical level, is not our social inclusion fully part of our identity, not just a late addition to the core nugget of our pure being?

Of course, Guanxi can feed existing inequalities. Because it builds with time, and so depends on the family you come from, and the school you’ve been to. Interestingly, I found Chinese people particularly faithful to their high-school pengyous, who stand somewhere in between the family member and the chosen friend, as people we didn’t really choose, and people we’ve known forever.

But there is a democratic element in Guanxi. Sure, some Guanxis are more powerful than others. But the world has many levels, and multiple hierarchies. Here is a story: one of my Chinese friends suddenly fell sick, and needed to go to hospital. Beds are hard to get, especially when you’re not in critical condition. He got a space in a double room rightaway, through his parents’ Guanxi. I mocked him – ‘your parents have a doctor friend, a lawyer friend, they know all the right pepole.’ He corrected me, ‘actually, one of my parents’ very good friends drives the car of this hospital’s director – and it’s much better Guanxi than knowing a doctor here’. So Guanxi-power does not align immediately with social status. A cook, a driver, a cleaning lady, may be more powerful than a company director in a given situation, because they have direct connection to the key person in that context. Because life is complex, and you need all sorts of people for all sorts of situations. Therefore, you should nurture all of your relations, not only the powerful ones. That is the very democratic wisdom of Guanxi.

Guanxi’s about a world with many layers and hierarchies, a complex world – not unlike the one we live in. Guanxi might even be the principal counter-power in China. But Guanxi’s also about what we may wish to call ‘right wing virtues’: being true to your family, respecting people you know you can trust, and relationships that have been cemented with time.

In the end, I think I don’t mind Guanxi.


Beijing and Tianjin are very different cities, in their ethos, functions, and shape. Beijing is clearly centralised around the forbidden city, the empty centre of political power, now ultimate cultural symbol of China’s old and magnificent tradition.

A map of Beijing shows a series of embedded squares, surrounded by concentric ring roads – up to number 6 now – the first one circling the Forbidden city.

Superficially, Tianjin’s map is also made of concentric circles. But the symbolic centre is harder to pinpoint. Is it that bump North of the river, where the Italian concession is? That other bump to the Eastm on the South bank, where financial institutions line up Jiefang Bei Lu? Or is it where commercial Binjiang Jie crosses commercial Jin Jie?

Historically, the centre should be at the old Chinese city, in the North Western corner of the central rectangle.

According to Aaron, who is a Tianjin native and real estate analyst, the centre is at the opposite end of that rectangle, at the XiaoBaiLou crossroads, at the border of the former French, British and German concessions, marked by the European dome of the Music Hall.

But not everyone agrees to that location, again. My house on Jiefang Bei Lu was only ten minutes north of XiaoBaiLou. Yet one of my colleagues disagreed when I said I lived ‘in the centre’. Although she couldn’t identify it clearly, for her, the city centre was more to the south, somewhere between the BaLiTai University district, TV tower, and Olympic city.

Who’s right? It doesn’t really matter, because a new centre is in construction, still further to the South. In the new district of BinHai, 40 km down on the river mouth an entirely new city is developing, which is planned to rival PuDong in Shanghai, and become China’s main financial centre.

A fast train will connect Beijing to the new BinHai district in 45 minutes, via Tianjin, creating a polycentric North Chinese megalopolis – at least, according to plans.

What will be the centre of the new Binhai district? An empty square, like Beijing, to enclose political and symbolic power? A crossroads, like Tianjin, where goods and people can be shifted around? Or something different still – some giant information hub? a field of public touch screens? – or just a grid of office buildings, radical acentrality, taking on the new shape of power in the age of constant networking.

Concession kitsch

Tianjin, like Shanghai, is a ‘concession city’. In the mid 19th century, through diplomatic and military pressure, foreign countries had obtained full administrative control over enclaves of urban territory there. Tianjin had the most number of foreign concessions in China. Not only were the usual suspects present (France, England, the US and Japan), but also marginal powers, like Italy, Austria-Hungary, and even Belgium.

This varied foreign presence left architectural traces, making Tianjin into a ‘Museum of World architecture’ for the sake of tour guides – and for European visitors, an interesting experience of displaced familiarity.

The range of styles is somewhat reminiscent of Melbourne, with a mix of Corinthian, art deco, Victorian, and even neo-Venitian.

This concession history left a mixed heritage. Although the official story at the Museum of Tianjin is one of imperialism and abuse, the city takes a certain pride in its European heritage. Because of it, Tianjin – like Shanghai – is a ‘modern’ Chinese city, like New York or Melbourne can be. It is a 19th-20th century city, where trams, electric lights and steel architecture seem to have always been here. One architectural sign of this modernity is certainly the art-deco style of many Department stores and buildings, a reminder of Tianjin’s apex in the 20s, when it was still on a par with Shanghai.

But interestingly, whereas Shanghai has reclaimed its French concession as the core token of its sophisticated elegance and nightlife cosmopolitanism, Tianjin has chosen to focus on its Italo-German past. Touristically, the recent redevelopment of Tianjin has favoured the most innocuous concession: the Italian one. Its main street has been turned into the ‘Yidaly Feng Jie’, the ‘Italian style street’, a mini-shopping district with beer bars and murano glass shops.

The place is where you can find all things exotic and eurotic. You can find a range of international restaurants, from Thai to French, Bavarian beer bars, and even huggable Russian babouchka dolls.

Further up the river used to be the ‘Austrian-Hungarian concession’, which is now redeveloped as an extension of the Italian-style town. Large office buildings in continental style line up the riverfront – grandiose, but mostly empty.

Some buildings in that Austrian district are a full expression of concession kitsch – projecting passers-by into some Heidi wonderland.

As all things German, it comes with a certain vulgarity like naked women selling beer.

I had to wait untill my last day in Tiajin to see the height of kitsch in the Italian district: a live wedding. The central square, in front of ‘La Villa’, had been set up with a central podium and purple ribbons. Tourists around where taking photographs of the happy couple. Was there something particularly romantic – or was it a symbol of success – that anyone could join in the wedding reception? Were these people living the Sissy dream in that northern Italian decor? Like a Royal wedding, it was a public event, where everyone was invited.

But this concession is not all just kitsch. A few blocks behind the tourism district, the architecture is still Italian style. But no one really goes, except locals. People just enjoy living in an Italian style environment – it’s pretty, livable, human-sized. Tianjiners must have got used to the colonial shape of their buildings. And adapted their lifestyle. Scenes I saw in the Italian concession, or people sitting down, chatting on the street, driving scooters or hanging clothes outside, would not have been displaced in the suburb of an Italian town.

For a while now, I’ve been repeating how much China reminds me of Italy. People here aspire to the European dream of harmonious, comfortable and plump living – rather than the American vision of infinite possibilities. In that sense, livable Vienna could be the best urbam model for Tianjin – like Melbourne, its sister city. Tianjin is playing the card of livability, after all – and maybe, when the new metro operate, and the construction work in the city centre is finished, this will indeed be the most liveable city in China.


About three or four weeks into my stay there, I started identifying Tianjin’s charm as Milanese, North Italian, Alpine. In spite of it being a seaport, there is something continental about this city. Something Austrian, or Viennese. Tianjin was once the hype of modernity, but then it faded away. While China’s modernity moved on to Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tianjin remained a city of conservative intellectuals, university teachers, and music enthusiasts. An industrial city, with a taste for good food and wine, and a certain Gemütlichkeit in daily life. It could be a real counterpoint to the more imperial ambitions of Shanghai and Beijing. A non-contender, where people simply want an industrious happy life.

Ordering chaos.

Accumulation creates a beauty of its own. I already blogged about this, when talking about the aesthetics of abundance in Chinese shops.

But beauty does not only come from the sheer volume of stuff piled up. Order plays a role here. We could even give an economic interpretation of that specific beauty: when things are properly arranged, according to their size and function, the eye immediately perceives that a given space has reached its maximum potential, and things are inviting future action, promising minimal effort.

I became sensitive to that specific appeal of order on a trip to the rural county of JiXian, North of Tianjin, when I started observing the accumulated construction material that lay around in the village: stones, bricks, tiles.

I started seeing these piles as potential walls and roofs – and perceiving walls and roofs as nothing but orderly layers of bricks, tiles and stones, protecting from rain, sun and wind.

When I went up to the Great Wall, the following day, I was thinking about this still. The Great Wall, that ultimate symbol of China, was nothing but stones, piled up in orderly fashion. The visible result of human effort, guarding humans against chaos.

Homes were similar, on a small scale: a stable place for the family, protected by constructed order from the chaotic force of weather outside.

Chinese home aesthetics, then, was all about order; at least this is how I interpreted the symetrical rows of ‘HuLus‘, dry gourds of irregular shapes and size, in Aaron’s parents’ living room.

These lines of ood-luck vegetables had been arranged on the far wall as another expression of order; civilised humanity fencing off natural chaos.