This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Faculty members witness China's dramatic transformation

Published: July 14, 2005

Reporter Contributor

This past May, Don Grinde and Kari Winter traveled to China to take part in an international writers' conference. Like many Americans, they had read about rapid and dramatic change in China—about economic reforms that were unleashing construction and development across the countryside of the world's most populous nation. Even so, nothing quite prepared the Department of American Studies faculty members for what they actually saw.


Kari Winter and Don Grinde had heard about the rapid economic changes taking place in China, but still were not prepared for what they actually saw while visiting the country recently.

"Twenty years ago, there were 2,000 people," Winter said of a town in Zhejiang province, where they visited and toured. "Now, there are 100,000."

Many of those 98,000 new residents came to Zhejiang to be part of its budding film industry. Grinde said that just a few years ago, a farmer there decided to turn his struggling enterprise into a movie studio. It now boasts a series of permanent sets, including a life-size replica of the Forbidden City. Thousands of aspiring actors have moved there in droves. Bridges, roads, apartment complexes and shops all rose from one giant construction zone, while tourist attractions—some ancient, some newly created—are scattered through the hills.

"Some of it was really ancient, and some of it was brand new," Winter said of the fake Forbidden City and the areas surrounding it. "It was very surreal because it was difficult to tell reality from pretense."

Grinde, professor and department chair, and Winter, associate professor, traveled to China for a writers conference that featured 27 international writers and scholars, as well as 75 from China. Most, they said, were creative writers, but a few were academics like themselves. After the conference, the non-Chinese writers were split into three groups, each of which toured a different part of the province, located south of Shanghai on the country's southeastern coast.

The conference, Winter explained, was held to encourage international understanding and to promote tourism. Toward both of those ends, camera crews followed the foreign writers throughout their travels, documenting every stop.

She said the province's government information office—similar to a tourism bureau in the U.S.—sponsored the conference and worked with local businesses to pay for it. The businesses provided free meals, hotel stays and the like. In Hangzhou, the province's largest city, the mayor welcomed conference participants with a proclamation that stated, "'We need poets and intellectuals to build a heaven on earth,'" Winter recalled.

During the trip, Grinde and Winter witnessed what some global observers call the Chinese "economic miracle." And the couple saw some of the old China, as well as the new.

A hillside near the replica of the Forbidden City was covered with carved Buddha statues—recently crafted, despite the atheistic government. The statues, Winter pointed out, were designed to be a tourist attraction, not a religious shrine. Meanwhile, roads and construction overtook the countryside beneath the statues.

Conversely, another side trip offered them a chance to buy inexpensive, hand-dyed cloth and tour the factory where it was made. They also visited an experimental organic farm, where each piece of fruit was wrapped in an individual paper bag to keep pests away. Winter said it reminded her that China could not take some of its steps forward without the country's large, cheap labor force.

Near the end of their travels, Grinde had the chance to talk to the son of a man who had translated for American soldiers helping the Chinese fight Japan near the end of World War II. Grinde's father had fought on that front.

"They probably knew each other," Grinde said. Today, he added, English is almost a second language in China, with children learning it in school.

On the last stop of their trip, Grinde and Winter said they became the first foreigners to visit a village that was in the process of becoming an ecotourism site. Winter said the village is a prosperous farming community, but has added boat tours and waterfront restaurants. Chinese tourists often visit, she said, but the writers were the first non-native people to view and enjoy it.

Throughout their travels, Grinde and Winter said people they met were friendly and that they saw a sincere desire to open up to the world. Street signs on the newly built highways featured English translations or international symbols. And both the Chinese writers and other people they met expressed concern about the environmental damage rapid growth has inflicted on the water and air.

"Everywhere we went the people were saying 'hi' and smiling and laughing," Winter said. "We met really lovely people."