China is a nation filled with ironies. It’s a purportedly socialist state in which the images of Chairman Mao that used to gaze down from buildings have been largely replaced by an equally paternal-looking Colonel Sanders. And it’s an enormously proud culture, but one whose ideals of beauty — whether smiling women on shampoo bottles or virile men on packs of underwear or goo-gooing babies on diaper boxes — are most often depicted as Caucasian.

As for everyday Chinese life, forget those romantic images of rural schoolhouses, peasants tending rice paddies and ancient villages in the clouds. Such scenes do exist, of course, and though they cater to our lovely perception of China, they’re roughly as accurate as having modern America represented by the shootout street in “High Noon.” 

In fact, most of China’s people are packed into a narrow band hugging the East Coast, and most of them live in relatively modern housing projects. This trend is likely to continue as more and more people leave the countryside for the comparative wealth of the urban centers.

What’s more, despite the bucolic images so dear to Westerners, few Chinese regret trading a rural lifestyle for an urban one. For many, farmhouse life meant hauling the day’s water supply from the local well in buckets, using a covered wooden pail for a toilet and heating bath water by the kettleful on a charcoal fire. South of the Yangtze River, the climate was not considered harsh enough to require heating, so living in these warmer regions ironically meant occasional freezing temperatures indoors. My wife, who grew up in this region, vividly recalls waking up on cold mornings to find the household towels frozen solid.

Farmhouse living in summertime brought stifling heat and humidity, along with flies, mosquitoes, and various other unwelcome critters in abundance — conditions that can make a clean, air-conditioned apartment with hot and cold running water seem more than a small step up.

While China’s highrise housing blocks may appear impersonal to Westerners, their design has improved dramatically in the past few years. Most are equal to our own, and the fancier ones have all the conveniences you’d find in an American dwelling and then some: One well-to-do government official I visited proudly showed off his Japanese-made toilet, an improbable looking device bristling with electronic controls whose various functions I’d rather not guess at.

Many rural customs curiously persist in this dazzling new urban setting. The Chinese still prefer to buy their meats and vegetables daily from local farmers who set up stalls in the local market hall each morning. This points to another of China’s ironies: While vast portions of the nation are too arid to grow crops, it’s precisely China’s richest farmland — that of the coastal regions — that’s being consumed by development. Already, vast areas of prime farmland have been paved over with endless ranks of housing projects.

If building continues at this pace, where will the nation’s food supply come from? And who will grow it after farmers have abandoned the land or been forced from it by development? America faced these same questions at the end of the nineteenth century, when fully half of us still lived on farms. Today, only two percent of us do, and we’ve not only survived, but also prospered under this trend. Given its ingenuity and determination, China may well do the same.

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