A week in China is hardly enough time to see much of anything, let alone make any kind of serious analysis. So what I am writing is not remotely all-encompassing. Still, I have been to India enough times and traveled enough in the developing world to be able to make a few reasonably well-informed comparisons.
First things first, Indians are notably friendlier and more open as compared to the Chinese I encountered. The average Indian’s face is constantly changing from scowl to laughter to smirk and everything in between. I am sure that someone with more experience than I have in China could better explain the various meanings of the subtle changes in the average Chinese person’s face, but I can not.
The Chinese are notably further along in building their infrastructure. This is undoubtedly a function of having a highly centralized decision making system (re: Communism.) One small thing I noted was that the Chinese use metal pipes for the scaffolding that surrounds the buildings under construction while the Indians use bamboo for the same purpose.
Politics permeate every aspect of Indian life, from the grass roots level upward. The average Indian feels like a stake-holder in the larger political process and they will happily tell what they believe in, who they support and why. Because of the one party system in China, politics are remarkably removed from the day-to-day life of people in China, with its top-down system.
Though we ate a fair amount of Chinese food, I still prefer Indian food. Again, I am sure if I did a nationwide food tour of China I would probably have a more wide-ranging perspective on and appreciation for all types of Chinese cooking.
I could go on and on. In some ways it is not a fair comparison because at this moment, the Chinese are pretty far ahead of the Indians in terms of economic development. I (and I am not the only one) wonder if the Chinese will destroy their country by polluting it before they develop it to whatever level of development they are aspiring to reach. They are in the midst of a race between advancement and pollution. In my brief time there, it looks like pollution is winning.
Guangzhou, where we spent most of our time, reminded me a lot of the dystopian scenes of 21st century Los Angeles that are so pivotal to the move “Blade Runner.” In that sci-fi/action movie, the sky is permanently dark with pollution, it constantly rains and concrete seems to cover every inch of the city. I found Guangzhou to be remarkably like that.
Our trip to China was not all bad. Probably the most remarkable thing for me was the huge number of Chinese who we encountered who appear to be passionate about photography. At the opening festivities for the 2009 Guangzhou Photo Biennial, there were hundreds of them. They had digital SLRs in hand (Canon, Nikons and Sonys) and an interest in looking at every bit of the massive exhibition that filled the entire Guandong Art Museum. They seemed to respect and appreciate the master photographers who were part of the Biennial (both Chinese and international.) So from one point in this photographer’s perspective, photography is a growing cultural presence in China.
From another point in this photographer’s perspective, photography as creative expression faces a major hurdle in China. Simply put, censorship. Two bodies of work that were slated for inclusion in the 2009 Guangzhou Photo Biennial were pulled from the show and the exhibition catalog by Chinese higher authorities (not anyone involved in the host museum.) The American and Chinese curators at the Biennial were outspoken about the censorship, to their credit.
Still, in India, such censorship from on high is unimaginable. Indian artists may censor themselves for cultural reasons (or out of desire to make their work palatable to buyers) but they do not have to worry about politically based censorship. So, overall, I will still take India, if I had to choose. Not to say that India does not have issues of its own, including poverty, pollution, etc. It certainly does. But that democracy, as fractured as it is, gives the Indian people real choices. Though the Indian art photography “scene” is not as developed as that of China, in the end, I believe it will surpass that of China. The fact that India is a democracy will make the difference. Assume that one of art’s main goals is to make people look at things differently. If so, democracies are, by definition, more likely to encourage that compared to Communist, top down planned cultures.