Shanghai vs. Beijing
10 Mar 2004
Shanghai and Beijing are the two most talked about cities in mainland China, and for good reason. Shanghai is the most populous city in China, a very modern economic powerhouse. Beijing is the capital, the political and cultural center of the nation. Beijing is the emperor’s seat in the north, Shanghai the giant of the south. Comparisons are inevitable.
Obviously, I now inhabit Shanghai, and I want it to fare well in an honest comparison of the two. I’ve been to Beijing twice, but not recently, and never for an extended visit. Today I discussed the matter with an American co-worker of mine. He seemed an ideal, objective observer because he lived in Beijing for a year, and now, after staying in Shanghai for a little over a year, is leaving China. He speaks good Chinese, and he’s a shrewd observer of his surroundings. Here’s the breakdown of his opinions:
Climate. Beijing is colder, but you don’t feel it too much because everyone bundles up like mad, and central heating is quite widespread. In Shanghai the buildings are built with the hot summers in mind, and there’s precious little insulation. That, combined with the people’s strong desire for “fresh air” in the middle of the winter makes Shanghai “the coldest place I’ve ever lived.”
People. Both Beijingers and the Shanghainese feel a sort of superiority toward outsiders. Nevertheless, Beijingers are widely regarded as very friendly, and any sense of superiority is exhibited only subtly. The Shanghainese are not widely regarded as friendly or as subtle in their snobbery.
Culture. Do I even have to say it? It’s all in Beijing.
Language. Beijingers speak Chinese with as much “rrrr” as possible, as if they only “speak with the throat.” Despite the superfluous R’s, Beijingers’ Chinese is quite close to the national standard. The Shanghainese, on the other hand, speak a dialect that could easily be classified as a separate (but related) language. This affects their Mandarin, making it less standard. The Shanghainese, like most places in the south, have much less “rrrr” in their speech, relying instead on other standard variants (e.g. nali instead of nar, meaning “where”).
Western Conveniences. Shanghai’s got Beijing beat hands down. Sure, Beijing has most of the products Shanghai does, but in Shanghai they’re much more readily available. Some things that you can buy in Shanghai’s convenience stores you might have to go to a specialty store for in Beijing. In addition, Shanghai has a lot more late-night and 24-hour stores.
Entertainment. Beijing’s Sanlitun is a bit better than Shanghai’s bar streets. Beijing also has a lot more cheap entertainment options. Going out on the town in Shanghai often will deplete your funds fast.
OK, I think you see the trend. Shanghai is taking a wicked beating in the comparison. I’ve heard other people say it too: “Beijing feels so home-y and special. Shanghai is a soulless concrete capitalist jungle.”
I consider myself a reasonable person. Why, then, when faced with such evidence, do I still feel that I will never even consider moving to Beijing? I want to know this for myself. I think the reasons are:
1. I’m from Florida. That’s the American south (with northern flavor). I like it. I don’t like New York or Boston accents.
When I studied in Japan, my school’s program just happened to be in Osaka — Japan’s southern giant. I like the southern Japanese dialect, and feel Tokyo’s to be boring.
When I came to China, I chose Hangzhou — partly with climate in mind, but largely because I had a Chinese friend from there. Hangzhou was my home for 3 1/2 years. It’s where I learned Mandarin Chinese.
2. I hate the “rrrr” of northern Mandarin. I can’t help it. It sounds really dumb to me. Sometimes I find it amusing (I like hearing actor Ge You talk), but I can’t really take it seriously.
I also feel that it sort of impoverishes the language. The “-r” suffix can go on the end of words ending in a vowel, -n, or -ng. When the “-r” suffix starts going everywhere, you don’t hear the original syllable ending, and it reduces linguistic diversity.
(That’s probably just a dumb rationalization for in irrational dislike of a particular accent, though.)
3. “Beijing” seems so cliche to me. “Oh, you want to learn Chinese? Then go to Beijing! The Mandarin is so standard there. Dashan studied there!”
No thanks. I think I’ll tough it out amongst the hoardes of asshole expats.
4. I like the linguistic diversity of the south. I like that the Shanghainese speak a whole separate language from their northern overlords. It’s badass. It might seem exclusionary or snobbish to you, but then you’re also probably too lazy to learn it.
Somehow, I don’t really think any of this is totally it, though. Everyone says that Beijing is better, but I’m not gonna buy it. I guess deep down, I’m just stubborn. I’m in Shanghai now.