China and the new individualism

Shanghai_hilton My hotel here in Shanghai is not nearly as good as the one in Beijing.  There are lots of little errors and some quite big ones.  The place has a certain randomness.  It’s a Hilton and maybe that’s why.  But I wondered if this is systematic variation. 

If yesterday’s post is correct, Shanghai is the more expressive, more individualistic of the two cities.  And that would be that most everyone in Shanghai is less interested in role perfection and more interested in self expression.  (I adopt Lionel Trilling’s distinction here.)

From this point of view, working in a hotel is not an honor but a drudgery.  Stuffing yourself into a uniform, being eager, exact, exterting…all of this belongs to those who live for the corporation.  If you are more self expressive, if you are from Shanghai, you are much more inclined, sorry, to want to blow your own horn.  Working for an institution like the Hilton that obliges you to efface your individuality, must eventually come to feel like "working for the man."  This North American phrase is the cry of outrage against a world in which the consumer realm may express be used to construct and assert personhood but the producer realm is very different. 

As capitalism gets more demanding of novelty, variation and responsiveness, the contradiction is closed a little.  Now the work-a-day world is more expressive of difference, less demanding of sameness.  China will someday adapt this approach to capitalism.  It will someday master it.  For the moment however, people are being inducted into individualism only by halves.   


McCracken, Grant.  2004.  China II.  This Blog Sits At The … December 20, 2004.  here
(see this post for an interesting case study on Chinese individualism.)

Three tiny ethnography observations

Lots of dogs as pets in evidence.  And a certain pride of ownership.  I am told this partly a reflection of the one-child policy.  Clearly, it is also true that pets serve some as a fashion accessory.

Lots less evidence of smoking than the last time I was here when everyone seemed to be smoking 4 cigarettes at once.

I went to the Shanghai Municipal Television building to do an interview, and I was interested to see in the lobby here several guys of middle age wearing baseball caps.  We see this in North America and I wondered if this was a Hollywood influence.  (Ron Howard and lots of other directors, not just bald ones!) 

2 thoughts on “China and the new individualism

  1. dilys

    “role perfection” and “self-expression,” an excellent distinction.

    I live in a “creative” city where I just spent two days trying to get already-paid-for action out of a fey bureaucrat with more information on her voice-mail about what days she takes off than how to reach her on the days she *does* work, Self-expression reigning supreme.

    On a time-urgent matter I phoned around, and was steadily forwarded onward toward reaching a man who’s the totally-unofficial Problem Solver for a related agency. He networked together the people who were (1) willing, (2) able, and (3) informed enough to sort out the problem. The striking thing about his response was the absence of a Dutiful Do-Right tone, in fact genuine empathy and enthusiasm, evidence of finding self-expression in role perfection and expansion.

    He *should* be proud, not only for excellent performance, but for solving by character and temperament this Globalization Challenge you have identified.

    (And yes, I’m going to point him to this comment. Thanks for the opportunity.)

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