Blog EntriesContemporary Society

The Urban Paradox: Together, Alone


As of this year, China officially has more people living in cities than in the countryside. Returning recently to one of China's sprawling megacities, I was again brought face to face with the human reality underlying the most massive migration in the history of the world.

On a Saturday morning on the edge of town where another new suburb is taking shape, bleary eyed peasants peeked out from their tarpaulin-covered home under a railway bridge. Across the street cars maneuvered into the parking lot in front of a glistening mega mall, where a different type of urban resident was coming to shop for the latest in fashion, food, and entertainment. By itself, and in the proper context, either of these scenes would have made sense. Juxtaposed, they created a jarring discontinuity.

This clash of urban and rural, replicated in cities across China, is one of the more obvious features of a nation undergoing rapid demographic transition. A deeper, more enduring result is found in the paradox that urbanization creates. Cities bring more and more people together in closer proximity, yet the degree of closeness they feel with one another decreases. Add to this equation the disintegration of the traditional family structure and the rapid decline of commonly held social values. The outcome is a profound loneliness felt across the board, from the newly migrated peasant looking for her first job to the well-heeled executive who feels he has no one whom he can trust.

This theme of loneliness emerged repeatedly in the course of visits to various corners of the city.

A pastor of a large congregation of urban professionals pointed to loneliness, along with a breakdown in relationships and the pursuit of personal enjoyment, as the key social issues facing the church. He sees his challenge as creating a healing community where relationships can be restored and, most importantly, individuals can be brought into relationship with Christ.

Several Christians who are seeking to address the needs of youth in China pointed to this next generation as both the most connected and the most disconnected in China's history. Spending hours each day on the internet, they are indeed connected, yet they have disconnected emotionally from their parents and teachers and relationally from one another, preferring virtual interaction over true relationship. One survey of youth in China revealed that over 70% believe the traditional family does not play a significant role in the stability of society.

A migrant pastor who has been in the city for 12 years related the sense of isolation that his peers feel as they seek to relate to the larger Christian community in the city.

Marriages are fragile and divorce is all too common, even within the church. Expectations going into marriage are often unrealistic. (One woman's story of God's grace amidst a difficult marriage can be found on our companion web site, Chinese Church Voices.)

The good news is that the loneliness that accompanies urbanization is setting many urban Chinese on a search for meaningful relationships. And the proximity and connectedness that the city affords are allowing God's people to work together in new ways to respond to this search.

Brent Fulton

President of ChinaSource. Follow Brent on Twitter - @BrentSFulton.

Image credit: by Ding Zhou, via Flickr

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of... View Full Bio