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Accidents of birth

You don’t know China, till you grasp its provincial stereotypes

Chongqing: produces (reputedly) China’s most beautiful women

Poor Henan. The reputation of this central province, a cradle of China’s “Yellow River” civilisation, is probably the worst of the country’s 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities.

And last week it took another hit – or three, to be exact.

The hat trick of woe for Henan began when Li Xiang, 30, a television reporter working on the ‘gutter oil’ scandal (see WiC 123), was murdered in Luoyang. Li’s laptop was stolen in the September 19 attack, sparking speculation that business interests were trying to suppress the story. Suspicions still linger; stabbing a person 13 times for a laptop isn’t a common occurrence in China.

Li’s murder led to the uncovering of an even more gruesome crime. Ji Xuguang, a journalist for the bold, Guangzhou-based South Weekend newspaper who was investigating Li’s death, discovered that Li Hao, a 34 year-old civil servant and Communist Party member, had been arrested on September 6 for keeping six women as “sex slaves” in a basement he dug himself underneath a rented space in the city.

Li is suspected of murdering two of the women, in what looks uncannily like a Chinese version of Hollywood movie g(in this film a bad cop abducts young women and keep them in an underground dungeon).

And finally, last week, a young Henan tourist in Beijing, Zhao Zhipei, was mistaken for a petitioner (for more on this topic, see WiC62). He was kidnapped from his hotel room by “enforcers” working for the Henan government, driven back to Henan, beaten unconscious on the way and dumped on a Luoyang street, where a passer-by photographed him.

Local officials regularly “repatriate” petitioners in order to shield their reputation from the central government, with hundreds of thousands of local justice-seekers travelling every year to Beijing to try and win redress for local wrongs.

Henan police have since offered him a formal apology.

Among Chinese, Henan has an unsavoury character, and is known for its violence and criminality. People from Henan are popularly believed to be untrustworthy, all-round “bad eggs”, although most people will quickly agree that there are perfectly nice Henanese, too – like Zhao Zhipei, the hapless tourist.

China as a country has powerful beliefs about regional character, both positive and negative.

In her book, How To Get On With People From Every Corner Of The Country, the author Liu Dengge says regional variations in character, culture, diet and temperament will always be strong in such a large country. Topography is a factor too: much of China is mountainous, making many places hard to access – this produces strong local identities, people believe.

“In order to get on with people from different places, to communicate, work together, build harmonious relationships, you have to understand their habits, their psychological differences, their emotional differences, their culture, and how these produce special characteristics,” Liu writes.

“One square of earth and water produces one type of person, and different geographical areas produce different kinds of people. There’s the ‘northeastern tiger’, the ‘northwestern wolf’, the ‘sheep-like southerners’; those are the kinds of differences there are,” she continues.

“Different characters lead to different destinies, so we should be clear about how locality and physical environment can influence personality.”

Liu’s book chimes with received wisdom. Casual conversations with many Chinese will elicit some of the following:

Any place where red chillies are a popular part of the diet are classified unsurprisingly, as hot-tempered. Hunan province is one, and has a reputation for rebelliousness – borne out perhaps by the most famous son of Hunan, Mao Zedong.

But Hunan is also considered clannish and corrupt, with hundreds of regional dialects that persist to this day, the product of mountainous terrain and isolated villages.

How that terrain might give rise to independence of thought, bravado and, sometimes, outright peculiarity, is explored by Han Shaogong in his book, A Dictionary of Maqiao, which looks at the “fantastical local roots of Chinese culture”.

Fu Shi, the author of the morally ambiguous manifesto on how to build guanxi and its close companion, corruption, titled Chinese Guanxi (see WiC120), is also Hunanese. His book has been selling strongly in Changsha, the provincial capital; perhaps suggesting, at the least, a deep interest in the subject.

Beijing natives, whether of old Manchu blood or more down-to-earth locals, are considered a more leisurely bunch, who love to chat about anything at all. Humour is highly prized in this subculture, as reflected in the well-known xiangsheng, or “cross-talk”, a kind of verbal one-upmanship where two people joke and try to best each other, on stage.

Beijingers are excellent at verbal games, tongue-twisters and puns. They are argumentative, but logical, and will debate in a friendly, reasonable way. They are not considered tricky in business – in fact, they’re not even especially interested in business – but they are thought to be very loyal and would do anything for a friend.

The fact that their city today is so frantic, stuffed with furiously honking cars and people competing for jobs and apartments, is entirely due to its status as the capital (meaning it’s filled with politicians and power and that attracts new money from around the country). A born and bred Beijinger, of whatever social class, will blame the city’s relatively bad-tempered atmosphere on the influx of wealthy waidi ren, or “people from outside parts”.

By contrast, many people believe Shanghainese are commercially-minded, quick and nimble but superficial. This stems from Shanghai’s status as a highly westernised port city in the last century. Sophistication is part of that picture, and coffee is often a symbol of that. Beijing “cross-talk” star Guo Degang has a riff going with his Shanghai equivalent, Zhou Libo, in which both profess a mutual (if humorous) dislike. The Shanghainese sophisticate Zhou represents “coffee” culture, while Guo, the plainer northerner, is “garlic”. It’s known in China as “The Coffee-Garlic Debate”.

Shanghai women are reputedly tougher than their men too, something a true Beijinger dwells on with bemusement.

Heading north from Beijing, people from “Dongbei”, the three provinces of northeastern China, Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, are heavy drinkers, able to down high-proof alcohol by the glass and still make sense (or so they think.) Their men, straightforward, tall, strong and honest, make excellent bodyguards, and have a strong sense of brotherhood, qualities which stem from the region’s association with the Manchu, who took over China as the Qing dynasty in 1644.

Over in northwestern Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, old, “core” areas of China, the people are Yellow Earth folk, named after the ancient, fine loess that marks their landscapes. They are held to be inward-looking and conservative, reluctant to change their ways. Some of China’s biggest banking families, prior to the 1949 revolution, were from Shanxi, as the ancient banking town of Pingyao attests.

Certainly, stolid, risk-averse behaviour used to be considered an advantage in a banker.

Skip down to Guangdong, in the south. Here, people are viewed as outward-looking folk, seafarers, nimble and entrepreneurial, good at starting ventures, able to prosper anywhere in the world.

“All change in China comes from the south” is now a truism of political analysis of the country, and it seems borne out by the past century of history: the republican, anti-Qing rebellion rose up in Guangdong, led by Cantonese Sun Yat-sen; the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek had their early power base in Guangzhou, the provincial capital; the Communists organised in bases in Jiangxi, south of the Yangtze river (and therefore belonging to the south); when Marshall Ye Jianying decided in 1976 that the Cultural Revolution had to stop, it was a Cantonese who put the turbulent north in order; and the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, a pilot for the transformation of China’s economy, opened in Guangdong province next to Hong Kong in 1980. Zhuhai, Shantou and Xiamen, also SEZs, are all on the southern coast.

People from Fujian, in the coastal southeast where Xiamen is located, are widely believed to be incredibly shrewd. When it rains, it is said, a Fujianese takes two umbrellas out onto the street – one for himself and one to sell.

Looking west, the Sichuanese, fired up by the hot peppers they love to eat, are said to be friendly and extrovert, bold and frank. They are also known for a willingness to flout rules, they can be strongly independent, and able to fight under conditions of great hardship.

During the republican era, at least five warlords held sway in Sichuan. Fighting was endemic, producing a generation of local troops who would fight fiercely against the Japanese during the Second World War. A statue to the “Sichuan Clique” stands in the People’s Park in Chengdu today.

Overall, though, people from Chengdu are thought to be more Daoist (and softer) than their Chongqing brethren, who are supposed to be less mellow, and sharper (technically, Chongqing is no longer a part of Sichuan). Chongqing women are also reputed to be among the most beautiful in China, slim from walking up and down the slopes of the hilly city on the banks of the Yangtze, their hair long and glossy from the humid climate, and their skin radiant from all the Vitamin C (in those chillies).

Some of the wildest stories emerge from Yunnan province in the southwest, over towards the Burmese border. Yunnan, too, is very hilly and has a multitude of different ethnicities that contribute to its colour. Parts of it are still very poor but it has deep natural resources such as timber and water. That creates wealth, often for the local government, as well as conflict and corruption.

A ranking of China’s most corrupt regions offers up a strong and highly competitive field of candidates; not just Yunnan or Hunan (readers of Sina Weibo are often struck by how many corruption cases emerge from these provinces), but also Heilongjiang in the far north, where locals pun that they are zui hei de hei, or “the ‘blackest’ of the black”, meaning the most corrupt – a pun on the first syllable of their province’s name, which translates as Black Dragon River.

Which brings us back to Henanese, who are often considered, rather simply, as dishonest.

And unlucky too: some people believe that one reason so much bad news emanates from Henan is that it has been one of the most populous provinces for years, meaning there were more people to do bad things. Today Guangdong has more people (104 million, in fact) but about 37 million are migrants whose permanent homes are elsewhere, meaning Henan still has a higher indigenous population. Its own migrants face discrimination in finding jobs: in Leslie Chang’s excellent Factory Girls (see WiC6), she recounts that employers in the southern factory city of Dongguan have signs specifically refusing to hire anyone from Henan.

That’s why, when a person says he’s from Henan, it’s often accompanied by a slightly defensive expression. Obviously, hailing from “the cradle of Chinese Yellow River civilisation” isn’t always a good thing…


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