November 6, 2013, by Tony Hong

Unintended Nostalgia

By David Symington,

Studying a Masters in Chinese Philosophy at Fudan University.

Contemporary China is a place where history seems to race. Cityscapes morphing out of all recognition within three years of when you last visited them and new fads that become ancient rituals before they’ve barely seemed to take hold (only this morning I was told that “no-one” pays attention to Weibo any more) have the result of telescoping time. This has the odd effect of causing a certain disconnect when bright eyed foreigners try to engage Chinese people on topics such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The foreigner, typically, speaking in hushed tones, gingerly skirts around the topic for fear of offending raw sensibilities – after all, we’re only talking about the 50s and 60s when Uncle Jim was dodging the draft. But for the bemused Chinese listener, it is as if you are getting agitated about the assassination of Caesar or wondering, in conspiratorial tones, whether Livia secretly poisoned Augustus, or whether Darius’ armies could have been defeated at Marathon without the aid of the Plataeans. 

The point is that society has changed so rapidly and so catastrophically since the reform and opening up that the era when people all wore Mao suits and struggled against land owners rather than to scrape together enough white collar wage to buy the latest iPhone inevitably seems like something from a dim and distant past without any relation to modern life. The 50s and 60s have a place in the Chinese psyche more like a dream than recent history.

So it is always with some surprise when something happens that seems to call up the shades of a bygone era and galvanize commentators into an orgy of nostalgia about the glories of the pre-opening up age. What is even more surprising is that nothing can ever predict where these twitches on the threads of the past will come from. I don’t think anyone – certainly not me – could have predicted that the opening of a moderately high-end restaurant in the nation’s capital last week would have even caused a even a ripple. Luxury restaurants where you cannot expect to escape without a bill of several thousand yuan are nothing new in China – and are certainly so common in major cities that the opening of another wouldn’t be expected to raise even an eyebrow. So why did a series of photos of a new, roughly 150yuan/head Russian restaurant in Beijing have netizens and commentators crying foul about excess and extravagance? Well, . . . . because of its location in the middle of the campus of Renmin University of China. There it provides such a stark contrast with the image of impoverished undergraduates lining up, tin tray in hand to receive dollops of mushy, oily dishes and overcooked rice at the campus canteen, that people sat up and paid attention. A meal for two at this Russian restaurant, though by no means expensive, would, at RMB300, feed a student in a normal canteen for about half a month.

This somehow struck a chord somewhere and the blogosphere and, shortly thereafter, the major newspapers, went wild: the “Voice of China” website said that a restaurant like this on the campus on of Renmin University was nothing short of a “betrayal” of Renmin University’s heritage and traditions. The website reminded netizens that Renmin University, having first opened its doors in 1937, was forged in the fire of the anti-Japanese war; its graduates, always devoted to public duty, have traditionally gone out across the nation selflessly serving society. To bring such opulence and luxury to the campus grounds represents completely turning its back on the university’s proud, austere history of selfless devotion to society. The site goes on to say that while we may not complain about sumptuous restaurants – or, indeed, KTV bars and foot massage parlours – on city high streets, we should see the university campuses as something different. Students may be adults and be free to go to any restaurant they want but we should, at least, make sure their immediate environment is free of such temptation. The website calls on society to act towards university students like Mencius’ mother, who, according to legend, moved house three times to make sure her son could be educated in an environment free from corrupting distractions.

These sentiments were echoed by Jiang Weihong (姜炜宏) who, writing in the well-known news portal Chang Jiang Web, complains that excessive and ostentatious consumption has a corrosive effect on young students. He complains that the establishment of this campus restaurant is just further evidence that the current generation of students have, for the most part, grown up in “sugar bowls” (i.e. with silver spoons in the mouth) and while they may not have lacked food and clothing, they completely lack the ability to struggle, work hard, put in effort and therefore fail to be true to all the best traditions of the Chinese nation.

Such an outpouring of sentiment for an era that seems so firmly ensconced in the mists of time, seemed to come out of nowhere. The irony, though, was that this hapless Russian restaurant was itself trying to appeal to the past. The name of the restaurant is –  wait for it – 1958. Yes it was established, ostensibly, in memory to an era just before the Sino-Soviet Split when Renmin University played host to numerous Soviet students, professors and scholars. Well the restaurant certainly did provoke a wave of 1950s nostalgia, but not quite the kind it was hoping for!

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