Xi’an to Cheng Du

Good morning China! I awoke an hour ago. We are on the sleeper train to Cheng Du passing through Sichuan province. The views outside frame a different picture of China. This is a China I haven’t seen before; rural settlements perched in between sweeping hills, the vast majority of land use is agriculture.

Wednesday was conference day in Xi’an. We checked out of our hotel and met the team at the University. They seemed a very competent team, made up of students from different Universities in Xi’an. The venue was a lecture theatre, perhaps a little too large and formal for the kind of discussions we might hope to have hosted, but it suited the audience who were student oriented, many of whom did not have fluent English. It was disappointing for the non-Chinese expeditioners to learn that the majority of speakers would be speaking in Mandarin, but an experience just to be there all the same.

Ten minutes before the start and it was learned that the expeditioners were listed on the conference schedule as keynote speakers, so we were asked if it was possible for us to each give a short presentation. With nothing prepared but a few graphics from past presentations, I sat at the back for the fist half of the conference copying and pasting slides and trying to pull together some form of coherent presentation themed around Corporate Social Responsibility.

With the slides prepared, I took a short walk around the campus to get some air and think about what I would say. I passed a huge outdoor sports complex with hundreds of students playing badminton, basketball, tennis and table tennis. For a small university there was a surprising number of students participating in some form of sport. The other notable thing was how they organised themselves as a collective. There were numerous teams training together and I passed one large group who were stretching to music, perhaps some form of Tai Chi. I think it just illustrated very well how different the mindset of mainland Chinese is from western individualistic society. Born out of China’s socialist heritage, it’s about participation and being a part of the whole, as opposed to the Western conception of individualism and differentiation from the whole.

I had the last speaking slot of the conference, and by then I think we were down to half of the original number of delegates. I’m not sure how much of my English was properly digested, but the conversations that ensued at the dinner table afterwards were insightful of the young thinkers of China. An entrepreneur spoke of the company he is launching and his social business model, another chap who is establishing an NGO discussed China’s biggest challenges; education gaps, income disparity, the dual rural-urban economy and the large number of failing entrepreneurs who might otherwise be seeking employment in the formal sector if only there were jobs.

We stayed another night in a different hotel as the conference times clashed with the original plan to get a sleeper train to Cheng Du on Wednesday. Yesterday was a slow start, some of the guys and their friends took us out after the conference. We were aiming for the 13:20 train and arrived at the station in good time, waiting amidst the mass of people pilling up in the departure hall. Mass transit takes on a different meaning in China. To our great displeasure, it was announced that the train “was not functioning properly” and would be delayed until 16:30. So we setup base with the bags in a nearby food place and talked away the afternoon. The train must have left about 17:00. This is our stop, Cheng Du. Here we go again!

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7 Responses to “Xi’an to Cheng Du”


  1. 1 Demi Magnolia September 24, 2009 at 6:46 am

    It is always quite entertaining to learn the perspective of a westerner on China’s individualism. Yet most of the time for some reasons that I am not aware of, many would only notice the socialism part that seem going against the western individualism.

  2. 2 Simon September 24, 2009 at 7:05 am

    Ha! Seriously, they are two radically different models of thinking… which is why the Western perspective is so entertaining to you, and why Chinese culture is so alien to Westerners… Notice I mentioned mainland, HK is on another level!

  3. 3 Demi Magnolia September 24, 2009 at 7:20 am

    Come on, that very much depends on how you define individualism. I always find mainlanders are quite individualistic in way too many aspects. It’s not shown much to expats but I am convinced that it’s there. I sometimes wonder, just how fascinating chinese culture is in terms of its duality.
    But yes, in that sense, HK is much simplier to understand. 🙂

  4. 4 Simon September 24, 2009 at 8:00 am

    Hmmm… yes it depends on how you define individualism. And yes mainland culture has changed with the introduction of consumerism. But you’ve been to the US right? Point is you’d never see this kind of mass workout on any University Campus in the west.

    Sure the culture is changing, but don’t forget one generation ago no one could even contemplate the concept of consumerism. I think the cultural shift, whatever that may be, will be much slower than the economic shift. You can’t refute that there are major cultural differences, however much things are changing.

  5. 5 Demi Magnolia September 24, 2009 at 8:11 am

    True that the culture is undergoing westernization but the individualism is rooted since the birth of Chinese. It’s always been there. When you study the ancient chinese articles or look back on what happened thousands of years ago, it has always been there.
    I think the main difference is that chinese individualism is made up of complete different elements, like it’s never about personal freedom and distinguishing oneself from the rest.etc
    It goes hand in hand with the socialism.
    But yes, the vast cultural difference between the east and west is way more than what we have touched, despite of the ongoing western cultural invasion.

  6. 6 Simon September 24, 2009 at 8:41 am

    Right! Nail on the head. Individualism, collectivism, we can debate definitions all day long. You iterate my point perfectly though. Chinese culture is routed in something fundamentally different to western culture. Socialism. You see it everywhere in China. I wonder what will be the product of “Chinese individualism” + “Western individualism”?

  7. 7 Demi Magnolia September 24, 2009 at 8:46 am

    haha…. you dont wanna see it, ever. trust me on that 😉


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