Conflicted Dragon: Developed, Developing, or Both?

Conflicted Dragon: Developed, Developing, or Both?

Matthew Albertson

Meet ... Matthew Albertson

China Study Abroad Major: History and Political Science
Location: Beijing, China
Studying: Spending four weeks immersed in the Chinese culture while visiting majestic, historical sites and studying at the prestigious Institute of Chinese as Second Language of Peking University.

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Political Science majors are taught that China, for all intents and purposes, is a developing nation. These students also understand that China is a major rising power in international politics. But from my experience in China so far, China appears to be a “conflicted dragon.”

Let me explain why.

Beijing has some of the most impressive modern architecture I have ever seen. The Olympic Stadium is one such example. Many of the buildings in the city are enormous and exhibit a world class look. Although these buildings are entirely modern and state of the art, there may be at any given time, one or more street vendors in front of them who do not look like they can afford the clothing on their backs.

These vendors, many I assume are from outside the city, sell fruits and vegetables, meats, cheap jewelry, socks, headphones and many more random items. Is this the look of a fully developed country? No, it is not but nor is it the appearance of a struggling, developing nation.

Before I left for Beijing, I thought I understood that the large cities (ie: Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Hong Kong, Guangzhou etc) were essentially modern; the crown jewels of a rising world power. But my own eyes tell me this may not be the case. Beijing is certainly a world class city, but it has some world class problems as well. Every major city has its beggars, its poverty stricken people, and its slums, but Beijing (and other major Chinese cities) is filled with what are called “urban villages.”

The city itself (in this case Beijing) grows as the country becomes larger and more productive. As it grows, it begins to invade and engulf the neighboring villages closest to the city’s boundaries. When the village is consumed by the city, the farms go away and eventually the small houses and shanty’s go away. (The movie “Up” is a good example in this case.) The fields are replaced with buildings, or parking lots, or other public structures and eventually the small buildings are replaced with larger buildings.

These “urban villages” are now the poorer areas of Beijing. What makes this situation unique to Chinese cities is that these areas are surrounded by world class buildings, modern structures, BMW’s, and flashy signs.

Chinese cities are some of the most modern and state of the art cities in the world yet people scratch for a living in front of these dominating structures. One wrong turn in Beijing may lead you from a prominent, clean street to a dirty, third world atmosphere. The people on the large streets and modern areas pass by without noticing that I’m American while those in the third world alleys stare as if I had three heads. It’s like there are two cities acting as one. This situation creates another unique condition: a very interested and sometimes confused Political Science student.

Chang Cheng

It’s the trip I have dreamed of for a few months and now the day is finally here. It’s a foggy day with virtually no sunshine. My anticipation is moderate when the bus begins its hour or so journey. We began the journey at Peking University but now we are far from the “big city lights.”

As we near our destination, my anticipation grows. Rural farms and shanties dot the landscape on our way up this small winding road. The bus stops and we disembark and begin to walk up a hill. Vendors line the street as we begrudgingly continue our march up the hill.

Matthew Albertson The fog becomes denser and rain drops begin to fall; it is not the weather I had hoped for on this particular day. We climb up what appears to be a never ending set of stairs when, off in the distance, I look up and see this giant titan from the great Far East pierce through the melancholy mist and fog. I take a large sigh and realize that I am about to walk onto Chang Cheng - the Great Wall of China.

The earliest sections of the wall were built during the 7th century B.C. Construction of the wall continued in 221 B.C. when the state of Qin conquered all its rival states at the conclusion of the Warring States Period (475 B.C. - 221 B.C.) The Qin connected the several walls which existed during the Warring States Period into a single entity to protect against the Xiongu tribes to the north.

Continued construction of the wall and its extensions lasted until the end of the Ming period when the Mongols breached the wall in 1644 and invaded Beijing. The Mongols established the Qing Dynasty and thus included their northern homeland and other lands to the empire. Thus, the Great Wall was in the middle of the kingdom and further extensions and repairs were not necessary. Knowing these things, my mind begins to wander. I know that the several dynasties built the wall, but who really built the wall? Where were they from? Did they understand the purpose and ramifications of their project or did they just continue to build the wall in a mindless fashion? The numerous guard towers also cause my mind to wander and I wonder who stood where I am standing hundreds of years ago?

As a history major, I always try to envision a location in a historical context from several angles. What did the Xiongu and Monghols think when they first saw the Great Wall? Were they scared? Did it dampen their spirit when they laid eyes on the wall? I have so many fleeting questions and thoughts as I looked north and see the dense forest and overgrowth. As I looked around I noticed that the wall itself is almost a natural feature of the land because it curves and follows the contours of the mountains. In the end, I know that the true purpose of the wall was for military measures.

Today, the Great Wall is a source of national pride for the Chinese.

We spend about an hour total on the wall and afterwards we walked back down the mountain, leaving this titanic structure and marvel of ancient engineering behind us. As I walk away, the wall is soon consumed by the dense fog that covered it when we arrived. In a way, I’m almost happy we saw the wall on a dreary day because the wall seemed to reveal its secrets in a quieter, more subtle way than if we visited on a sunny day and were able to view the entire wall at once.

The Great Wall is impressive and yet at the same time it was smaller than I anticipated. Nevertheless, my childish anticipation of seeing the Great Wall was justified. It is always a moving experience when one is able to touch and walk on such a historical artifact.

Paper, Plastic, and Other Oddities

Something I did not realize until two weeks into this journey is the use of currency in China. What exactly do I mean? In the United States, I never carry cash with me. I am of the opinion that if my wallet gets stolen, I can cancel my bank card and credit card, but I cannot cancel the cash in my wallet.

In China, I have not used my bank or credit card once for a purchase. In fact, I have only used my bank card a handful of times so I can get cash from an ATM. After I realized this, I asked a few people about the credit/cash situation in Beijing. I explained that in the United States, I usually only use my card for purchases but in Beijing, I have yet to use my card for a purchase.

According to them, credit/bank cards can be used in restaurants, hotels etc. so they assumed it was the same situation in the United States. That is, until I further clarified my statement. I told them that back home, nearly every vendor or store accepts credit/bank cards. I also said that I rarely, if ever, carry any cash with me in the United States. This clarification was greeted with dumbfounded looks. I had this conversation with my Chinese teacher and the conversation soon turned into “what do you find really bizarre about China?”

I explained that aside from the seemingly lack of credit/bank card acceptance, the alcohol situation was entertaining. I told her that I noticed in China I can buy a large bottle of beer (larger than the average beer bottle but smaller than a 40oz. bottle) and carry it around wherever I wish. I can take it into other stores when I go shopping, I can walk around town with it in my hand, and I can even take it to class.

The idea that I can go to a campus dining facility and order a large bottle of beer is still a bizarre notion to me. I then explained that in the United States, and in particular Pennsylvania, a person cannot do any of the above listed things. I was again greeted with a dumbfounded look. I had to explain to her (in detail) the alcohol policy in Pennsylvania. I said in Pennsylvania, I cannot buy beer from a random street vendor or at a convenient store. I also explained that all state government supported colleges/universities are “dry campuses”. (At this point she was so surprised that she seemed to want to fall over.)

Then, I saved the best for last: the official drinking age policy. In China, there is no particular set drinking age. This means that underage drinking violations do not exist in China. My teacher and I talked some more about things in China that I found obscure but the alcohol policy is the most interesting. I must reiterate what I stated in one of my previous blogs: What is freedom? Freedom is relative.

Say Hello to Heaven

Yes, I did title this blog after Temple of the Dog’s 1990 hit song, “Say Hello to Heaven," because today we visited the Temple of Heaven. It was our last historical site visit of the program and it did not seem like many students wanted to be at the temple.

I found the temple interesting. It was divided into three sections. The first section is the Temple of Heaven. It was built so the Emperor — the self proclaimed Son of Heaven — could speak to God. A ceremony would take place every year on December 21 (the winter solstice) when sacrifices to God would be given. Before 221 B.C., these sacrifices were actually human sacrifices but when the Qin Dynasty began in 221 B.C., only animal sacrifices were made. The altar was about 30 feet tall and was the shape of a large circle. In the center of the altar was a small stone which is said to be the center of the universe. This is where the Emperor would “say hello to heaven.”

The second area was a storage section I guess but it had two side buildings which housed the urns for several gods and a large cylindrical type building which housed a tablet which said God of Heaven or something similar. The second area was enclosed by a circular wall. This was for echo purposes and allowed people to say something from one end of the complex to the other without much effort. The last section, the Temple of Earth, was the most impressive.

Originally the Temple of Heaven included the Temple of Earth but the two were at one point divided. In any case, the Temple of Earth was a large area with the main focus being the temple itself. The temple is the largest wooden structure on the planet (no metal exists in the entire structure, not even nails.) The trip to the Temple of Heaven was short but it was a nice trip to finish our month long journey in China.


It is hard to believe that my month-long epic in China is at a close. I will not miss the awful random smells of this city nor will I miss the restroom situation in most buildings (the infamous porcelain hole in the ground.) But there are certainly things I will miss that outweigh the things I disliked such as the people I met here from various nations, the challenge of learning Chinese in China, the historic structures, and some of the cultural oddities were entertaining.

This has certainly been an eye opening experience. I thought I understood “weird” and “cultural differences” when I toured Europe. This is not so, China is so different from the United States and Europe in many regards. As I have stated numerous times, I wanted to do my own independent study of the culture, because of my interest in East Asia — United States relations, and China is at the heart of that relationship.

Overall, I enjoyed this trip for various reasons. I learned so much about the culture and China’s Beijing inhabitants. I also got to experience China’s phenomenal history which for me is such an important factor to any place I visit. The history in this country is so vast that it significantly dwarfs the history of the United States even if one includes the years after 1492 as “U.S. History.”

In the early 17th century Samuel Purchase stated that literacy makes history possible: “By speech we utter our minds once, at the present, to the present, as present occasions move (and perhaps unadvisedly transport) us: but by writing Man seems immortall [sic].” China’s history has been authored by so many men and women (such as the Empress Dowager) over thousands of years and I have been privileged enough to witness China’s “immortall” history. This is a major component of what makes China so unique and interesting to me (even though my historical focus is Colonial America.)

Now, reader let me put the decision in your hands. Over the past three weeks I have explained the good, bad, odd, and completely bizarre things that are China. I will never regret my trip to China. It is at present, a once in a lifetime experience that I will treasure forever and hope to build upon in the future. Reader, Bloomsburg University can afford you an amazing trip and experience not unlike mine.

You will be challenged, amazed, and perturbed but most importantly, you will leave this place knowing you have visited one of the most important and exciting nations in the entire world. The people you will meet will be as exciting as the country itself, and they will call different places “home”. This is your opportunity to make international friendships with ease and it is your opportunity to become more globally aware of other cultures. I cannot believe my journey to the Middle Kingdom is at a close, but I sincerely hope someone reading this chooses to take a leap of faith and enjoy an international experience in China.

    — Matthew Albertson, history and political science major