Searching for soul in China – ghost cities

My Principal at Ningbo International School was an old Australian teacher who was on (I think) his 5th wife, and who had lived in China a long time. He had what I thought at the time was a peculiar habit of having long, one-sided conversations in English with Chinese people who happened to bump into him. One of the most horrifying things he ever told me was as we were wandering through Wuzhen, one of the “six famous ancient water towns south of the Yangtze River”. He told me the Chinese government had knocked down this, and other, villages, and then rebuilt them to LOOK EXACTLY THE SAME. He said most people were aware of this, yet still the crowds came.

Wuzhen water village, Zheijiang Province.

The architecture is one element that illustrates the absence of heart. It’s all copycat designs. Speaking with Chinese teachers at school, they explain that at secondary school and university, plagiarism is not a problem, in fact some teachers would encourage it by providing pre-written essays for students to mark their name on, as the priority was to ensure all students passed, rather than on the quality of the work. It is not surprising that overseas universities are having issues with Chinese students studying abroad.

This “quantity over quality” idea is evident in our own apartment. There is no attention to detail. The “mahogany trimmings” are not only cheap plastic, but they are already falling off. Behind them, the wall was never painted. The interior walls that cannot be seen from where you stand in the lounge (e.g. the outer facing of the balcony) are unpainted. Quality and finishing just does not come into the equation.

When I mention this at work the other staff say it is a predictable outcome of rapid growth. This makes me think of China’s “ghost cities“. These 100s of sparkling new cities built to urbanise the country and show economic growth that stand empty around the country are well known. Actually, before they hit the news my mum, daughter and I took the overnight train from Beijing to Shanghai, and my mum couldn’t sleep because she was fixated on the idea that none of the cities we passed had any people in them. Turns out she was right.

The change in China in the last 10 – 30 years is remarkable. My Chinese co-librarian is local to this city, and until her early teens she worked on a farm in a nearby village. She tells me that now, the entire village has been moved into an apartment block. But the old people are unhappy – they have heard from friends that apartment living destroys their sense of community. The ghost cities intrigue me – I wonder if this is the population resisting the government’s drive forward?

If you haven’t scrolled through Kai Caemmerer’s photographic work “Unborn Cities“, please do. Many hours of reading Dystopian literature make these images unbearable. This is what humanity has become.

From Kai Caemmerer's "Unborn Cities"
From Kai Caemmerer’s “Unborn Cities”



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