In Invisible Cities, the novel by the great Italian writer Italo Calvino, Marco Polo dazzles the emperor of China, Kublai Khan, with 55 stories of cities he has visited, places where "the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells," a city of "zigzag" where the inhabitants "are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day," and another with the option to "sleep, make tools, cook, accumulate gold, disrobe, reign, sell, question oracles." The trick, it turns out, is that Polo's Venice is so richly textured and dense that all his stories are about just one city.
A modern European ruler listening to a visitor from China describe the country's fabled rise would be better served with the opposite approach: As the traveler exits a train station, a woman hawks instant noodles and packaged chicken feet from a dingy metal cart, in front of concrete steps emptying out into a square flanked by ramshackle hotels and massed with peasants sitting on artificial cobblestones and chewing watermelon seeds. The air smells of coal. Then the buildings appear: Boxlike structures, so gray as to appear colorless, line the road. If the city is poor, the Bank of China tower will be made with hideous blue glass; if it's wealthy, our traveler will marvel at monstrous prestige projects of glass and copper. The station bisects Shanghai Road or Peace Avenue, which then leads to Yat-sen Street, named for the Republic of China's first president, eventually intersecting with Ancient Building Avenue. Our traveler does not know whether he is in Changsha, Xiamen, or Hefei -- he is in the city Calvino describes as so unremarkable that "only the name of the airport changes." Or, as China's vice minister of construction, Qiu Baoxing, lamented in 2007, "It's like a thousand cities having the same appearance. Read more.