After Beijing’s city spirit campaign was launched last year, many copycat ‘spirit of the city’ campaigns emerged. Although it’s not clear what the ‘spirit’ of every city is exactly, and, despite many city administrators possessing a merely academic understanding of the term ‘spirit’ itself, it hardly stops them creating their own ‘spirit of the city’ campaigns. ‘Beijing Spirit’ comprises four, two-character words: patriotism, innovation, inclusiveness and virtue. All of these great, big words – except that all of them are so utterly generic. Who would dare be unpatriotic? Innovation is even less fallible, and similarly inclusiveness. Virtue is clear throwback to the Confucian classics – during the Republic many universities even had it as part of their motto. According to statistics, since 2011, a total of 27 cities have published their own ‘spirit of the city’, all in a series of two character-words, and more or less a replica of the Beijing slogan: ‘innovation’ appears 11 times; ‘openness’, 10; ‘harmony’, 9; ‘integrity’, 7; ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘patriotism’, 5 and 3 times respectively.
The words selected to describe the ‘spirit’ of a city are supposed to reflect the inherent qualities of that city. But it seems much in the way that ‘all happy families are alike’, the same is true of cities’ inherent qualities. There’s only so many ‘nice’ words one can choose from, especially when conforming with the ‘right’ words acceptable according to government policy. Once someone starts using one word, pretty much everyone has to. There’s only so many words that are both fashionable and suit the taste of the leaders.
It’s reasonable to believe each city has its own characteristics and that the people of each city have their own unique manner and behaviour. For instance, that Beijingers have big tempers and Shanghainese are cunning and savvy, and so on. However, the people of a city form a complex assembly, and even if the city is small, it’s rather hard to sum up the spirit of the city in just a few words. The general ideas that people have about a city are typically quite rough and broad-brushed. It’s often very easy to find counter-examples in that very same city. For instance, let’s take the hot temper in Beijing, you’ll easily find some meek and mean people in Beijing. Even more surprising is the state of urban architecture: deliberately and with great effort, we invest large sums of money on construction, so that in the end every big city will look the same as every other. The same roads, the same squares, the same skyscrapers, even the sculptures are roughly similar, and the billboards on the same mode. Today, if you stand on a major road in any city, take a photograph, and then ask someone where it is, unless the person actually lived in the neighbourhood where you took the photo, nobody would know where it is. It’s the same for the people in the city. With increased movement in society today, in every large city, people are always on the move, and the proportion of migrants is ever increasing. Even some southern cities which used to preserve their tradition very well are losing their local dialect. Even the once mighty Cantonese language has come to the point where the locals need to protect it.
On the one hand, the city administrators are desperately working towards a convergence of cities, making a thousand of them alike; on the other other, they would to come forward as developing cities with their own unique spirit. And this so-called spirit needs to be such that it can be summed up in just a few words. This is the kind of myth that might exist only in China. In the head of the city administrators at least, it is, and if it’s not innovation, it’s honesty. Therefore, the so-called ‘spirit of the city’ can be nothing different. We look at each other and say, of, so they were just twins, triplets, all children of the same mother.
To put it plainly, the so-called spirit of the city is not the result of scholarly reflections, nor the deep wisdom of the people. It’s just a few writers, supervised by officials, who thought for a while, and came up with it. 有这么个玩意，再讲文化建设，对上面就有的说的。And if we say it long enough, maybe some honest people will start believing it. In other words, the so-called ‘spirit of the city’ is partly an outgrowth of local culture, partly just stuff that people have made up.If you look at the standards for the work of leadership, that kind of work, ultimately, is not that costly, you don’t need to build new building or fix the roads, all you need is a few signs and billboards. As we all know, no matter what the ‘spirit of the city’ is, the city people certainly won’t lead their life based on this spirit. Say the spirit of your city is honesty, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the people there won’t be scammers. There’ll be just as much scam as in other cities. However, we all know that with this kind of official talk, you just have to use nice big words, and so propaganda is nothing but a pleasant thing to hear. The so-called spirit of city is just about officials arranging flowers in a vase, but has nothing to do with truth.