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Beijing Society – what are they like?
Chinese society has been through immense changes in recent years. Within living memory Beijing has seen civil war, virtual famine during the Great Leap Forward, the madness of the Cultural Revolution, the imposition of the one child policy, and the transition from centralised economy to rampant capitalism.
Beijing is the capital of China and Mandarin, the lingua franca of China, is based on the Beijing dialect. This gives Beijingers an advantage in school and the workplace – whilst everyone else has to learn a whole new language, for them it’s just a slight adjustment. Beijing is also home to China’s top two universities – Qinghua and Beijing University.
Beijing Society – Ethnicity
Ethnically Beijing society, like most of Eastern China, is fairly homogenous. The vast majority are Han Chinese. Around 1% of the population is Manchu, and another 1% is Hui. The Hui are essentially distinguished by their religion – Islam – in most other respects they are similar to Han Chinese.
Beijing Society – Stereotypes
The stereotypical Beijinger is exceedingly talkative and tends to look down on people from the provinces. They are very interested in social class, and will claim to be descended from the aristocracy whatever their true roots. They look down on anyone who doesn’t speak Mandarin with a Beijing accent.
The stereotype rings true in some respects and not in others. Beijingers are no more interested in your social class than anyone else, but they are very proud of their language. Lots of Beijingers will tell you that Mandarin and Beijinghua are the same – they’re not. They will also teach you to speak Mandarin with a Beijing accent – but that’s not too unreasonable, lots of Chinese from other areas try to mimic it too.
As for looking down on people from other places – well most Chinese are very proud of their region, and always happy to meet someone from their town or village. Many urban Chinese look down on their countryside comrades to some extent, especially if their Mandarin is not standard, some Beijingers do too, but not all.
Beijingers have a particular rivalry with the Shanghainese. Shanghai is China’s largest and richest city, whilst Beijing has most of the culture and history, so Beijingers see Shanghainese as money-obsessed upstarts – with no interest in or understanding of culture.
Beijing Society – Rich and Poor
Whilst the rich in China are getting very, very rich, the poor are often little better – the gap between the rich in the poor is as great in ‘socialist’ China as anywhere in the world. Whilst the rich swish by in their air-conditioned Audis, Beijing’s poor are crammed into the increasingly small amount of affordable housing. The Beijing hutongs you take the bicycle tour round, though superficially charming, are often unheated and unsanitary.
Even worse off are China’s migrant workers. Peasants from all over the country are flocking to China’s cities to work in China’s booming service and construction industries. Notice the 24 hour building sites? The workers here, like your hotel’s cleaning staff, are very unlikely to be Beijing residents.
Whilst migrants can undoubtedly earn more in Beijing than they could at home, they often have difficulty in accessing healthcare and education, and are widely discriminated against. Migrants are blamed for everything from rising crime rates to litter.
Recommended Chinese culture articles:
What to see and do around Beijing
Wonder at the Great Wall, be awed by the magnificent Forbidden City, drink in the scenery from a boat on the Summer Palace’s Kunming Lake.