Back Down South…and Thinkin ’bout the North

Posted in Society, Travel Log (Asia) at 3:33 pm by Benjamin Ross

For the past four days, I’ve been doing something I have honestly never done before in China—take a trip for completely social reasons, with little desire to sightsee, explore, or do anything remotely Chinese. I have been staying in Wenzhou, a coastal, wealthy city in Zhejiang province, where some of my old friends from Fuzhou are now teaching. My friends here are all American and British, and it has been a welcome break to take a short rest from China, even though I am technically still, in China.

Usually, whenever I arrive in a Chinese city for the first time, I spend at least a full day canvassing the city by foot and by bus, trying to take in and observe what I can of my new surroundings. What is unique about this particular city? In what ways is it exactly the same as every other Chinese city? How exposed/hospitable are the locals towards foreigners? What does the local dialect sound like? What is the most recent local street food rage? et cetera, et cetera. I had been to Wenzhou once before, but only for an afternoon, not long enough to gain any real feel for the city. Nonetheless, I decided that this stop on my China trip would be purely social. I had done enough site seeing and exploring in Dongbei last week, and could use a little time to relax with Western friends in a relatively insular environment.

Try as I might not to pay attention to my surroundings, as we were walking home from the laowai bar the other night, it hit me how strikingly similar Wenzhou was to Fuzhou. This is partly to be expected, as Fuzhou is only four hours away from my former Chinese home. But then something else dawned on me. Up until this week, I had spent my entire China trip in the North. Although I have traveled to the North on many occasions, I would estimate over 90% of my total time in China has been spent down South. My trip this summer, which has taken me to Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning, has been the first time I have ever come to China, without stepping foot below the Yangtze (长江) River. I was now back down South, and suddenly my surroundings felt different, very different.

China, in its most rudimentary geographic regionalization is broken down between the “North” and the “South” with the Yangtze being the generally accepted dividing line. While this delineation is certainly an overgeneralization, and doesn’t speak much for the Western portion of the country, there is a considerable amount of accuracy to the North/South divide. Here are just a few of the differences which I have been reminded of now that I am back down South again.

The Weather: I thought it was hot in Beijing. I even thought it was humid in Beijing. Let me assure you of this. Once I return to the capital city, I will never, ever, complain about summer heat and humidity in the North again. I take one step out of the door in Wenzhou, and my clothes are instantly sticking to my body. The North may be hot, but if I stay down South any longer, I am afraid my internal organs will melt.

The Money: Wenzhou is certainly an extreme example in this category, but if I got a free baozi for every BMW I saw on the streets here, I would die one incredibly fat man. While there is affluence in the North these days as well, it isn’t nearly as opulent as it is in the South(east).

The Language: I never imagined I would say this, but it is refreshing to be surrounded by the kind of scraggly Putonghua I got used to in Fujian, once again. It’s also pleasant to hear dialects spoken in cities. Even though I can’t understand them, I’ve always appreciated the idea of a region having its own language, that outsiders could not comprehend. This is something you don’t see in Northern cities (but do occasionally hear in rural areas).

The Fashions: Beijing is full of hipsters wearing the latest fashions in everything from the latest out of Italy and France to Goth-punk. But, like most other Northern Cities, it also has an even larger contingent who are happy wearing bland, mono-chromatic clothing, which looks as if it was purchased just a few months after the Cu1tural Revo1ution. The average southerner is more likely to be wearing a more varied blend of semi-current foreign styles, and less formal gear. Take taxi drivers for example. Your average Beijing cabbie will be wearing a white button down shirt, black (or blue) slacks, and black shoes. Down South, you’re much more likely to be driven around by a guy wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and possibly flip-flops.

The Rice: I came to Fujian as a non-believer and left an addict. I remember my first few weeks eating at my university’s cafeteria. All of my students were afraid I would starve to death, because I was only eating meat and vegetables, no rice. It took a while to get used to, but after a month I was eating rice twice a day, every day, and sometimes 3 times if I had porridge for breakfast. If I didn’t get my rice, I was hungry half an hour later, and still am to this day if I eat Chinese food without those tiny grains of goodness. While Northerners thesedays eat rice too, it isn’t nearly as automatic as it is in the South. The folks up North will happily substitute noodles, dumplings or mantou (Chinese steamed bread) instead of rice as the staple food. Down South, this doesn’t fly so well. Eating a meal (吃饭) means eating rice, both literally and practically.

There are countless other South/North differences, and I am sure a Chinese would have an even deeper perspective on the matter than myself. In addition to the quantifiable ones I have listed above, the South just has a different vibe from the North. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is, but I am sure anybody who has spent time in both regions of China would feel the same way. The best analogy I can think of would be comparing New York and San Francisco, both excellent cities in their own right. It would be easy to write out a laundry list of differences between the two, but beyond that, there is still a different vibe, a different feeling you get walking down the street, that is difficult to put into words.

As for me, I will be leaving Wenzhou soon to spend a week back in Fuzhou, and then back up North to Beijing just in time for the Olympics. Until then, I will most likely be sweating like a panda, feeling financially inferior to many of my Chinese acquaintances, and consuming massive quantities of white rice.


  1. Frank United States said,

    July 27, 2008 at 11:51 am

    very interesting observations. In US, at least people will understand each other even south and north may have difference accent. In China, you will feel you are in a foreign country when you are in the south. It is said that people say different dialects even at nearby towns in the south.

  2. Jetso United States said,

    July 27, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    Ben, nice to hear from you in China again. Are you going to the Games? I heard underground ticket prices for the opening ceremonies go up to 5K RMB and closing for 3K RMB these days.

    Frank, linguistically, China is in a way is much like a present-day Roman Empire with Putonghua/Mandarin (for the former) and Latin (for the latter) as the official standard-bearer. You can stuff variants of Cantonese and Hokkien (similar to Greek and Aramaic in the Roman world) as the common language of commerce and business for overseas Chinese.

  3. jon byrne United Kingdom said,

    July 27, 2008 at 11:16 pm

    Ben ,
    it is good to be reading of your expliots in china again, i find your observations extremely interesting. Here is my experience of different dialects:-
    My wife comes from 松溪 (song xi) in fujian province and speaks 普通话 (pu tong hua) and 松溪话 (song xi hua) ,she speaks 普通话 like most people from the south with the lazy tounge . Her father cannot speak 普通话 very well (my wife says that i am much better) and always speaks 松溪话 , his second wife is from yunan province and cannot speak 松溪话 at all , yet they have no problem communicating . My father in law speaks to his wife in 松溪话 which she can understand (yet not speak) and she speaks to him in 普通话 which he can understand (yet not speak very well). Have you found anything like this on your travels when you have been speaking to locals from the different area’s you have been to ? good luck with the rest of your stay and enjoy the olympics .

  4. Tong United States said,

    July 29, 2008 at 12:47 am

    There has been an official language in China since Qin(2)秦 dynasty, around 200BC(Julius Caesar wasn’t even born yet). Ever since 秦始皇 unified the language, whenever a new dynasty was founded, a new capital was chosen and the official language was designed basing on the language used in the capital. For instance, the capital of Ming dynasty is Nanjing, Nanjing dialect was the official language.

    It is much easier for a Chinese to understand a dialect than to speak one. My cousin from Singapore can speak English and Hakka, I can speak English, Mandarin and understand Hakka, so when we talk all three languages appear in our conversation. Personally, I think 闽南话 is the most difficult dialect in China to grasp. It is spoken among people from Fujian, Taiwanese and some Chinese in Southeast Asia. It is also the mostly used language, to my ear any way, in America China towns. To say Cantonese is a common language spoken by overseas Chinese business people is really not accurate.

    The Yangtze river as a dividing line is rather a practical one, than a cultural one. It is a dividing line for the central heat systems. There is no central heat offered to the south of the river. The “money” part of your summery is certainly true within Jiansu province, some snobby southern Jiansu people would call northern Jiangsu people “苏北人”. But it is not true to the whole eastern part of China, Fujian and Jiangxi were never considered to be a rich place while Shandong was never thought to be poor. The rice part, you would have to push to line to the border of Shandong and Jiangsu, same with the weather. As to the language, you would have same trouble with the dialect in Anhui or with Yangzhou dialect for that matter and Shandong certainly has its own dialect. I always get a kick of thinking Confusions teaching in Shandong dialect.

    There are many generalizations between Southerners and Northerners, but the dividing line is rather blurring, to me anyway. You can generalize southerners are more keen on the preventive medicine and healthy diet(sometimes through exotic food I will never touch), but Suchuan food川菜is well known to be spicy and rich, translation, unhealthy. You can go so far as to say southerners are more conservative, northerners are taller. But all those are just what it is, stereotyping.

  5. King of Men China said,

    July 29, 2008 at 5:48 am

    Wenzhou: boring, bland and has little going for it. I moved north of the Yangtze, and unlike your initial rice situation, I took to eating it at every meal like, well: white on rice. However, up here in the north: it’s going to take me a while to get used to endless variations of noodles, etc. Delicious, but I was never a pasta man. I suppose that time has come. You also failed to mention how many things in Wenzhou are more expensive than in Shanghai, but without the diversity and quality.

  6. Tom.Christoffel United States said,

    July 29, 2008 at 9:11 am

    Hi – Google’s Blog alert sent me to this post because of the term “regionalization.” I enjoyed the post and will include a link to it in the July 9 issue of Regional Community Development News. http://regional-communities.blogspot.com/ Please visit, check the tools and consider a link. Tom

  7. Peter Denmark said,

    July 29, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Bout rice: My wife (Chinese) tells me exactly the same as you say Ben. She does not feel full for a long time, unless she eats rice. If we eat Danish food (potatoes, pasta, salad, bread or whatever) one day, she will often complain that she miss rice the next.

    She said something like this to me, when I giggled at her attempt to convince me that we needed rice for dinner: “You don’t know what it’s like. I’m Chinese, and we NEED rice”. I believed her. I remembered how I missed huge chunks of meat when she moved here, and the menu suddenly changed to meaty to “vegetably” overnight.

    By now I don’t eat that much meat anymore, but sometimes I crave for a huge beef or similar. As my wife started working, I noticed that she started yearning meat too. Then she went back to studying and changed again. When she studied she didn’t use as much energy as now when she is walking/moving all day, so that might be the explanation?

    Now I pretty sure the 2 goes hand in hand. Work = crave meat. Less physically active = less meat.

    Of course that doesn’t explain why Chinese eat less meat generally, unless you think they work less hard? 😉

  8. Bring on the Night » Blog Archive » Bout rice Denmark said,

    August 1, 2008 at 12:04 am

    […] Jul 31st, 2008 by Peter This post is inspired by Ben’s recent entry. […]

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