Wasteland or Just Misunderstood? By Mark Andrew / Anna Bartram
Thousands of kilometers from the capital, Guangdong was once considered almost as the ‘Siberia’ of China – a remote backwater to which criminals and shamed officials were exiled. Its location, weak economic conditions and incomprehensible language meant that it was considered by those from north and central China as a highly undesirable place to live.
The region, however, has over 2,000 years of recorded history stretching back to the Southern Yue kingdom, which had its capital in what is today the city of Guangzhou. In Chinese, the word ‘yue’ is still used as an adjective to refer to the region’s features, such as its distinctive language and cuisine.
But even though it was regarded as a provincial backwater, Guangdong has always had its own rich cultural traditions, from its unique cuisine to age-old customs. People have breakfasted on dim sum in local teahouses and enjoyed seasonal delicacies such as sesame-coated dumplings stuffed with coconut and peanuts on the eve of Spring Festival for centuries, and possibly millennia. Other Cantonese specialties include snake, insects, mice and cat. Eating such things was often considered strange and even barbaric by outsiders, but they are highly regarded by locals. Cantonese people place a high value on flower arranging, a custom particularly enjoyed at Chinese New Year when housewives would buy flowers from lively local fairs to display in their homes.
Even today, there are many cultural differences between north and south China and nowhere is this more apparent than in the arts. Whilst northern Chinese traditionally delighted in Beijing Opera, often regarded as the most superior school of Chinese opera, the people of Guangdong naturally preferred Cantonese Opera, which focuses more on martial arts, singing and visual effects such as makeup, as opposed to Beijing Opera’s close attention to stage performance.
Outstanding Cantonese Opera performers such as Ma Shizeng, Xue Juexian and Hong Xiannu at best could only gain popularity in Guangdong and Hong Kong. Ma Lianliang, one of the four most celebrated opera artists in China in the late 1940s, settled in Hong Kong after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. After experiencing poor support from Cantonese opera fans, he decided to return to the north. It seemed the northern performers could not endure the unfamiliar ways of the south, with its complex dialect and small fan base.
Guangdong is well known for its architecture. A classic example is the Chen Clan Academy in Guangzhou – an ancestral building of the Chen clan that served as a college for Chen children and students preparing for the Imperial Examination. Inside the academy are numerous art works bearing distinct Lingnan (Guangdong) characteristics, including wooden, stone and ivory carvings, clay tiles and pottery.
The Lingnan School of painting achieved a truly distinctive style in the early twentieth century when Gao Jianfu devoted himself to a revolution of art. He and his followers, including younger brother Gao Qifeng, combined the local style with elements of Western and Japanese realist art to create an art form they hoped would be more accessible to the Chinese of the modern era. Guan Shanyue was widely acclaimed as the most distinguished of the second generation of Lingnan painters. In 1959, he and Fu Baoshi, another famous artist, were asked to paint a large Chinese landscape painting named ‘The Country is So Beautiful’ in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The painting was displayed in the main hall of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. It was at this time that the status of the Lingnan School reached its peak.
The Boom Years
Despite its cultural heritage, Guangdong did not gain great momentum until the end of 1970s when the policy of “reform and opening up”? was introduced. Thanks to its location, Guangdong became one of the earliest experimental areas and beneficiaries of the reforms. Much of the manufacturing industry in adjacent Hong Kong was transferred to Guangdong in search of lower costs, which accelerated the region’s economic development. This drove the standard of living to new heights and drew great admiration from other regions, giving rise to the popular saying, “No matter where you are, Guangdong is the best place to make a fortune.”
The reforms also tapped into Guangdong’s vast potential for business. As the thrifty Cantonese devoted themselves to eliminating poverty, money-making became the central focus of their daily lives and it was common for people to discuss their business endeavors, including how much they earned, in great detail. In the morning, they would talk over business ideas in the teahouses, and at the end of the day return to their homes to share stories of successful ventures. In the eyes of the northerners, Guangdong was an entirely money-oriented place for business where the value of one’s reputation was rarely considered.
Guangdong was like a sponge soaking up ideas from Hong Kong, the shining star of the region. Fashion trends popularized in Hong Kong were channeled through Guangdong and on to other areas in China. Young people would mimic the styles of their TV idols, particularly in their hairstyles and clothing, and wore suits with large lapels, baggy aerobics pants and big sunglasses to conform to the newest trends.
On the one hand, Guangdong was seen by the Chinese as the country’s hip and trendy fashion center, but, like Hong Kong, it was also despised for its peoples’ shameless pursuit of money and their cultural ignorance. As a consequence, for many years, it was considered a cultural wasteland.
A Cultural Revival
In the 1990s, this sense of commerce infiltrated the entire nation. The concept was instantly embraced and the money-oriented values of the Cantonese were no longer condemned. Whilst they liked to talk money it did not mean that they did not care about anything else, and it was this sense of decency that prevented underhand business and widespread bribery.
Today, the Cantonese are seen as pragmatic rather than materialistic. They enjoy life and always put their families first. For instance, spending two or three hours cooking the region’s traditional rich soup for families and friends is a common means of showing one’s warm-hearted and caring nature.
Gradually, the inclusion and tolerance of the Cantonese by other Chinese has become widespread. With millions of young people making their fortunes in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hainan, outsiders have begun to love Guangdong, and many have settled there. Even if you do not speak Cantonese, nowadays, you can easily communicate with local people who speak a uniquely accented Mandarin. But there are also outsiders who speak Cantonese so perfectly that it is difficult to distinguish them from the locals.
Cantonese attitudes towards culture have made the switch from neglect to care. Despite the decline of local traditions due to strong desires to make money, culture was never rejected completely by the Cantonese. Take Cantonese Opera as an example; though its heyday is long gone, there still exists the ‘si huo ju’ – a ‘private opera fan group’ – where people entertain themselves by singing opera and playing instruments in their homes. Among them, the most famous is Li Ziliu, the ex-mayor of Guangzhou.
Cantonese storytelling is experiencing a revival as teahouses permit performances in their halls, attracting an increasing number of listeners. In addition, the Southern Metropolitan News, based in Guangzhou, claims it is well on its way to joining the ranks of China’s major newspapers, and includes features in the Guangzhou dialect.
The reputation of local actors such as Zhang Manli, Huang Yicheng and Wu Jialiang, who all recently performed in the hit theater drama, ‘If there are only N hours left for life’, has also grown in Guangzhou.
The Cantonese people have navigated many ups and downs, but they are finally embracing their unique culture, albeit in a leisurely manner. There is no doubt that the region’s unique traditions will be preserved for generations to come.