The End of China’s One-Child Policy

fanshisan1Since China announced the end of its one-child policy last week (replaced by two), I’ve been thinking about Fan Shisan’s 2 of Us exhibit we saw at Ai Wei Wei’s Beijing studio, Three Shadows. (Ai is known as an opponent of the one-child policy, though not as closely identified with it as dissident Chen Guangcheng. The blind lawyer suffered beatings, as did his wife, for defending women involuntarily sterilized; his dramatic nighttime escape from house arrest – to shelter with the U.S. government  – was an international incident, with then-Secretary Hillary Clinton getting Chen out.)

fanshisan3Photographer Fan Shisan’s double exposures highlight the kids’ aloneness, pairing them with themselves. Fan calls China’s 100 million only-children “the loneliest generation in history…Besides the Rusticated Youth and the Cultural Revolutionaries, they are the most turbulent generation in post-Mao China though the turmoil is more personal and internal.” My students often considered first cousins to be siblings because they were so close; likewise, the feelings were intense for school and college dorm roommates.

paint men onechild-policy your responsibility(This billboard, in a village in Hebei, tells men that having only one child is their responsibility.)

I had one memorable student with four siblings, whose parents paid heavy fines. She wrote an essay about sister love, using e.e. cummings’ poem to convey her feelings. She gave the poem to her sister and brother-in-law for a wedding gift:

“I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)
I am never without it
(anywhere I go you go, my dear;
and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)
I fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)
I want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you”

Lijun ends her essay: “I hope the man I barely know and never see will carry her heart just as well.”

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Hillary Clinton/Empress Wu

empress-wuI’m sure this comparison has been made before but I can’t help thinking, if I were Joe Biden, I would hire a taster to avoid poisoning. Empress Wu – grandmother and mother of emperors; empress during the splendor of the Tang dynasty – was the only female emperor in four thousand years of Chinese imperial rule. One of her claims to fame/notoriety, beyond her gender (claim enough): She poisoned people.

I feel sexist saying this (or anything, against Hillary), but I perceive her as being transparently power-obsessed, in a way that’s frightening. Even if sometimes used benignly.

“It’s totally foreign”

Photo credit Jake Rosenberg for W Hotels

Photo credit Jake Rosenberg for W Hotels

So, it was a short fashion (“Styles” section) article so I don’t mean to say this is even trying to be authoritative. But it’s a bit meaningful in the category understanding/misunderstanding eachother. This pretty pic caught my eye in Sunday’s paper, a NYC-based fashion designer on a junket to Beijing, seeking inspiration at the Summer Palace, walking distance from where we lived. She says the first thing she did was hope on the subway:

“Nothing is written in English so you need to get detailed descriptions of what the characters look like for where you’re going…It’s totally foreign.”

As riders of Beijing’s massive subway system know, not only are all the signs in English — and maps and electronic notices. There is also an announcer’s voice, that comes on at every station, to say where you are, IN ENGLISH!

All Beijing subway maps are in Mandarin and English

All Beijing subway maps are in Mandarin and English

So what’s up with that? Is the narrative of “It’s totally foreign” so overriding that it has the power to overtake a really clear & obvious physical reality? Or maybe she was never really on the subway? Just thought it would be cool to say that? (Or is she a teeny bit crazy? Or did the writer make it up?) The other thing that’s odd about it is this designer has lived in the Arabian Gulf, and a few cities in Europe, before moving to the US.

The semiotician of colonial framing in me says, this is othering that happens unconsciously, even when it contradicts actual reality.

It’s really pretty considerate of Beijing – in a country that is Jekyll-&-Hyde, at best, in welcoming foreigners, but generally speaking is not that fond – to have all the capital’s subway signs, maps & announcements in English as well as Mandarin. More than you can say for NYC!!!!

[Lots of people probably noticed! The next day this ran online:

Correction: An earlier version of this post included a quotation from Ms. Nonoo that referred incorrectly to Beijing’s mass transit system. The subway has signage in English as well as in Chinese; it is not the case that “Nothing is written in English.” The quotation has been removed.”]

Praise for a Five-Child Policy

A former student in Beijing has four siblings — a rarity for ’80s kids in China. Below is a bit out of an essay, a love paean to her older sister on the occasion of her sister’s wedding. I love my siblings and watching my two kids grow up together. I was moved a few years ago by this exhibition of photographs at Three Shadows, commenting on the One Child Policy — bleached, hyper real double-exposures pairing only children with themselves.

1 child policy exhibit

Loneliness is the message of Fan Shisan’s “2 of Us,” a take on China’s 30-year-old One Child policy. The generation of 100 million only-children is “tragic,” Fan writes in exhibition notes. “The loneliest generation in history. Besides the Rusticated Youth and the Cultural Revolutionaries, the most turbulent generation in post-Mao China – though the turmoil is more personal and internal.” Only children “won’t know what they’ve lost.”

My writer, Lijun (Julia) reached out to me for a grad school rec this month. So she and her writing on her siblings, a topic she returned to in several assignments, are on my mind.

“I gave my brother-in-law a big smile and thanked him for the willingness to shelter my boring leftover sister.

What will I bring to my sister’s wedding, what can I say? I think I will bring nothing but one of my favourite poems, if she will forgive me for not bringing any gift.

I Carry Your Heart With Me  by E. E. Cummings
I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart) I am never without it
(anywhere I go you go, my dear; and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)
I fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)
I want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide) “
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)

And I hope from that wedding day, the man I barely know and never see will carry her heart just as well.”

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US-China Cooperation: Restoring Qianlong’s Secret Garden

Thirty women, China’s best embroiderers, in Nanjing, worked for one year to embroider the richly brocaded upholstery. Papermakers, working with a traditional and especially tough pulp from the mulberry tree, recreated the paper strong enough to support the Italian trompe l’oeil ceiling painting, from their papermaking studio in rural Anhui. Bamboo craft masters, recruited after a national search, prepared inner skin bamboo carving and bamboo thread marquetry with their grandparents’ tools. During the Cultural Revolution, many of these craftsmen’s parents, or grandparents, had their tools smashed. Some buried them and they survived. Many tools had been handed down for generations.

They chosen to were repair the emperor’s secret garden, Juanqinzhai. (The book🙂

juanqinzhai book

I learned about the project from a lovely documentary, The Emperor’s Secret Garden (by Mandy Chang and Zhou Bing, 2010, BSkyB Masterpiece productions). The Qianlong Emperor, who ruled around the American Revolution, was the richest and most powerful man on earth. As a highly cultured man, Qianlong wrote calligraphy, and we actually saw his handiwork on auction in NY a few months ago:

At Sotheby's Chinese calligraphy auction, NYC, Spring 2014

My son and I pretending we could afford Sotheby’s Chinese calligraphy on auction, NYC, Spring 2014. A few of Qianlong’s panels were set to fetch half a million dollars.

Qianlong, already living in earth’s largest palace, having sucked (as emperors do) the continent’s wealth, commissioned a secret garden where he envisioned retreating for a fashionable, scholar-monk-style retirement: 27 buildings, grottos and rockeries, a garden, and interiors of textile, friezes and woodwork, silk brocade so delicate it’s transparent, woven on looms 2 storeys high; a level of craftsmanship that blows the mind. Somehow, the retreat was locked up, and discovered dusty and crumbling in the early 2000s. It had been undisturbed since the 1700s. As WMF explains, it sparked one of the most awe-inspiring international  restoration projects ever.

From the World Monuments Fund slideshow on the project: A painting of the garden complex itself, and of one mural, of the royal family:

the emperors garden painting

wood panel showing royal family

The work was part of Forbidden City’s first international collaboration — and China’s first large-scale interior conservation project. The effort became a lab, and a classroom for training a young generation of Chinese conservators. But first, restoring the emperor’s secret garden required searching for what had  nearly disappeared: highly skilled traditional craftsmen and women.

Together with architects, engineers, scientists, archaeologists and curators, conservators and conservation scientists, helped by the World Monuments Fund, the hideaway was restored. Cultural heritage was strengthened. Traditional craftspeople fired up their shops. And the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing created, through Jinqinzhai, China’s first degree program in interior conservation. Which means preservation according to international standards, can begin to take hold here.

 

To see, as we have, the scale of destruction (even to this day) of the treasures scattered across mainland China is to understand what a huge big deal it is. The project also forged new levels of cooperation and trust between U.S. and China preservationists, a positive part of this emerging, fraught relationship. I expect it won’t be the last: Large sections of the Forbidden City are still in disrepair.

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

If you’re in China, you can go and visit, though the rooms open only part of the time.

Kenny’s Wudang Shan Album

kenny climbing stairs to golden peak

Kenny and Tingting

Kenny and Tingting

kenny by the quiet temple

It was “Karate Kid” (the Jackie Chan remake) that first made Kenny want to see Wudang Shan, the legendary birthplace of taiqi, in Hubei.

Truthfully, a recent watch of the movie suggests they actually shot parts of the Wudang Shan scene (where Jackie & Jaden Smith climb the mountain & he drinks holy water), at Hua Shan on the other side of the country, at Huang Shan maybe, and even some aerial shots over Guilin very far in another province! (Basically, a roundup of picturesque China!)

Golden Peak

Golden Peak

Be that as it may…he really wanted to see it, and I agreed. We took a 22-hour train ride there (new direct route, no need to stop in Wuhan) from our summer teaching base, Qingdao.

Incense burner projecting over cliff - (where the female master in the movie hypmotizes a cobra)

Incense burner projecting over cliff – (where the female master in the movie hypmotizes a cobra)

The Taoist holy mountain exercised a powerful effect. The legends of the immortals, who used medicine, meditation and mountain power to find life everlasting. Hiking through misty valleys to the rocky outcrops where they gained immortality, where now temples stand (small and large, built by the Ming emperors — unlike the Qing, who preferred to underwrite & practice Tibetan Buddhism).

Southern Cliff Palace

Southern Cliff Palace

The astonishing Ming palaces (Taoist word for temples & monasteries), which have been very , so it appeared to amateurs, tastefully, properly restored, or just shored up well, preserving their wood carving, stone work, amazing architecture, paintings.

"Holy Water"

“Holy Water”

More on all that later. Here is Kenny’s album. Studying tai qi with Master Gu at his school, WuDang Wellness Academy, and hiking around the many holy peaks. These are his selections for his favorites.

kenny doing tai qi

kenny in mist near golden peak

kenny near golden peak

kenny on misty stairs

kenny on steps to southern cliff palace

kenny sitting at temple

kenny with golden peak behind

kenny with others at golden peak

Southern Cliff Palace

southern cliff palace landscape

with master gu at the training grounde

chinese national interesting place It is, indeed, as the sign says, a “Chinese national interesting place.”

Under-Age Drinking: China’s ‘Germanytown’

architecture germany bldgChinese friends generally say they had their first drink around age 9. There is no drinking age.

So in Qingdao, China, industrial city of 8 million (while teaching this summer at China Petroleum University), in the famous ‘Germanytown’ area, home to Tsingtao beer, I let my 13-year-old drink.
architecturegermany bldg 3Germany controlled this strategic port city , on the Yellow Sea, a quick ferry ride from Korea,  from about 1900 through the Second World War. They bequeathed their love of beer, visible in kegs stacked at every corner store. About 100 German stone mansions remain, many on winding, tree-lined, hilly seaside roads.

kegs in qingdao.qingdao on map2

Germans built the Tsingtao Beer brewery in 1903,  now (modernized) China’s top brewer & beer exporter (85% market share). Chinese tourists love Qingdao’s beach, cool sea breezes, beer and seafood (we avoided it–sadly…too much industrial effluence in these waters). About a year ago, the world’s longest over-sea bridge opened here (26 miles).architecture tsingtaotanksWhile historic Chinese vernacular architecture is constantly lost, (admittedly, it’s wooden), Qingdao preserves its German heritage (stone construction helps?). Maybe it’s an undue reverence for Western things.
architecturegermanmansion

Some are museums; some are hotels; some apparently are Party resorts, offices–holiday residences? We had wienerschnitzel at the one above, the largest, a museum.

architecturegermany bldg2architecture germany church2I mistakenly let my kid have a whole bottle of beer the first time. Insight: being 6’1″  will not keep a person who has no tolerance from getting way too drunk. I downgraded to a regular-size glass at a banquet with the dean, where he made a kind of awkward spectacle by going on and on about Ai Wei Wei. Then we moved to teeny tiny glasses, which works. I think it has successfully de-mystified beer.

kenny with a beer

architecturegermany bldg1

architecture germanycoastIn Qingao’s waves, they say, swimmers resemble dumplings floating in a pot. (The red at the water’s edge in the photo above is rocks, where people gather edible shellfish.)

architecture mr lis

This German building houses the omnipresent northeastern Chinese chain restaurant, Mr. Li’s (a Chinese-American version of the KFC ‘Colonel… I hear he lives in California). We find Mr. Li’s  food watery and bland, but love this building.

No beer for sale.

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Mod Chinese Architecture

China Petroleum University gymnasium

China Petroleum University gymnasium

Our campus (China University of Petroleum, Qingdao) is only about 3 or 4 years old at this location. Some of the buildings are cold, but surprising and dramatic. We didn’t seek out interesting new buildings; they’re everywhere. Train stations, universities, are part of the economy-stimulating infrastructure-building boom that’s both kept China’s economy kicking through the global slowdown, and — now — threatens to take it down as all the  (bad, or corrupt, or ill-considered) loans and spending comes home to roost.

mod gym campus architectureWe passed this each day on campus.

Hangzhou West train station (Zhejiang)

Hangzhou West train station (Zhejiang)

Train stations — this one in Hangzhou — are Hollywood-futuristic. They’e moving millions of people so it’s not surprising they have 10 escalators, not 2 or 4. Many we saw had 8, standard. It makes sense, but still looks daunting, futuristic & impressive. The driveway taking cabs to the Hangzhou station just is as we (’70s kids) once imagined the future.

lots of escalators nanjing

Nanjing's city public library, downtown Nanjing (Jiangsu)

Nanjing‘s city public library, downtown Nanjing (Jiangsu)

Jinan's train station (Shandong province)

Jinan‘s train station (Shandong province)

Right, note the huge lotus sculpture in a massive (Soviet-big) plaza in Jinan, largest city and transport hub of Shandong — the province home to the most Party leaders at the national level. Left, we randomly passed this on the streets of Nanjing — the public library.

If only the book collection inside was as expansive as the open-to-the-sky design.

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Buddhist Business Advice

Lingyin Si Buddha grottoes

Lingyin Si Buddha grottoes

A powerful Buddhist abbot runs Lingyin Si (monastery) near Hangzhou (in wealthy Zhejiang province, southeastern China, one of the places where capitalist “reform & opening” first took hold). It’s the top Buddhist temple, of the Chan (Zen) tradition, in southeast China. This July (2013), with China’s booming economy teetering, alarming the world — the abbot gave, according to the Temple‘s website — a dharma talk & interview to the journalists & editors of CEO Magazine.

Said Venerable Guangquan:

Buddhism should [not stay in the past, but should] advance … into the market economy…to [uphold] the level of morals and ethics, enlightening the people and purifying the mind and heart.

Buddha cliff carvings

Buddha cliff carvings , Lingyin Si

buddhism business grottotryptich closeup

Karma doctrine is useful in business management.

Entrepreneurs should treat employees as they were brothers and sisters, just like all creatures are equal.

In return, they gain employees’ loyalty and gratitude, thus creating a more meaningful and successful organization.

“The moon waxes only to wane, water brims only to overflow” [an old saying goes]: The natural cycle is decline after flourishing. [So]… As wealth is accumulated, contribute actively to benefit society. This balances the self and gives wealth a purpose.

buddhism business grottowith boy

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou, Zhejiang

“You Can Call Me ‘Mr. Wong’ “

kenny with hisBeats by Dr DreThere is no photo of ‘Mr. Wong.’ Not his real name.

He does have a business card (black). Black card, black market.

His stall in Qingdao‘s largest indoor flea market sells counterfeit electronics. China, yes it’s true, is home to rampant illegal trade in counterfeit goods. Violating copyright is illegal & I’m totally against it. But — yes. My son bought some fake beats by Dr. Dre headphones in China. They retail in the U.S. for $250. Worn around the neck, I am told, beats are the ultimate (middle school) status symbol.

At his market stall, “Mr. Wong” said he’s got “real” ones. They will run you RMB850 (about $120). What he calls “class C” copies will run you RMB150 (about $20–choose from red, black or white). He also has what he calls “class A copies” that will run you about $60. You can listen to the difference, feel the leather vs. plastic. They were indistinguishable to me. (Apparently there is no class B copy.)

I actually think “Mr. Wong” made up this A/B/C copy classification system so we’d pay $60 for the $20 ones…(but who knows?)

He ships to America, he says.

He sells without U.S.-to-China customs fees/import tax: they come from Canada, he says. Uh, that makes sense… (?)

My Qingdao business students wrote, one night this summer, on “Will China move from copycat to global high-tech power” and if so, when and how? We discussed a new ebook, excerpted here (“Beta China: The Dawn of an Innovation Generation,” by Hamish McKenzie, a PandoDaily contributor). McKenzie is very optimistic about China’s emerging high-tech future, citing the success of (cult) mobile handset maker Xiaomi, which makes China’s homegrown answer to the iPhone and is run by 43-year-old Lei Jun, called “China’s Steve Jobs.”

Students’ consensus: China is great. So it will get beyond copycat to real tech leaership. But first, they wrote, education has to change, to nurture creativity rather than memorization. And some wrote, too, that financing (start-up funding) and legal mechanisms (copyright protection) — basic manufacturing infrastructure — must mature, to fund and protect inventors.

The students all seemed to conclude that there’s reason for optimism, but China also has a long way to go.

 

Why Buddha Laughed

China's first laughing Buddha, Felai Feng Gottoes, Lingyin Temple, Zhejiang

China’s first laughing Buddha, Felai Feng Gottoes, Lingyin Temple, Zhejiang

The Chan — Zen — sect runs China’s wealthiest temple. Near ritzy Hangzhou (subject of this Beauty, Crowds, Wealth, Beauty post), called Lingyin, 1,700 years old, English name “Soul’s Retreat.” It’s a wooded valley in the Wulin Mts., along a stream tourists were wading in. The cliff walls rising beside it were carved 1,000+ years ago into amazing Buddha reliefs, two of which laugh heartily, big ‘bellies large enough to contain everything in the world that people cannot bear.’

Smaller of the two laughing Buddhas at Lingyin Si

Smaller of the two laughing Buddhas at Lingyin Si

In its heyday (around 900), the temple and monastery held 3,000 monks. It has been destroyed either 10 or 16 times: in ’26 during the warlords period. In ’66 the Red Guards tried to destroy it, but the locals lined up and had a standoff that August, (they also pasted Mao posters on the cliff carvings) until Zhou Enlai closed it, for its protection.

Felai Feng grottoes, LIngyin Si: Beautiful carvings, about 1,000 AD

Felai Feng grottoes, LIngyin Si: Beautiful carvings, about 1,000 AD

Lingyin: The famous Guanyin (Kwan Yin) tryptich

Lingyin: The famous Guanyin (Kwan Yin) tryptich

The temple halls beside here ascend the mountain, and hold China’s largest wooden Buddha (circa 1954, covered in gold), at 82 feet. The temple hall is the tallest single-storey building, with apparently, an 110′ ceiling. It’s widely called the country’s “wealthiest” and the most important Buddhist temple in Southeastern China. Since ’00 it has held an important library of Sutras.

Deng Xioping regularly came here, and Jiang Zemin apparently personally calligraphied the tablet inscription out front.

But why DOES Buddha laugh? This is a far cry from the somber, tranquil, otherworldly Buddhas we normally see. It is also a very Chinese image. Aside from the famous quote (belly holding what is intolerable), and “He laughts at him who deserved to be laughed at”…what’s the origin of this character? This embodiment?

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou

Kenny and Felai Feng grotto buddha, Lingyin Si         (Jill was here)  (Jill was here)

There’s a local (now widely known) folktale about a magical wanderer with a big belly, who worked wonders. He carried a cloth sack of treats, candies and fruit that he gave to children and the hungry. At his death, it was revealed he was a Buddha. He is revered  as the laughing Buddha, protector of the poor and weak, Buddha of happiness, generosity and wealth, and in Shintoism (where the tale is local) as well as in Taoism where he is the God of Abundance.

He is one of about 330 carvings here, considered the best in the South along with Dazu (subject of a post last year) near Chongqing. (Once led by fallen Mayor Bo Xilai “Bye-bye Bo Xilai”– whose son Bo Guagua was, The Times reported today, is to attend Columbia Law School. With what funding, no one is quite sure.)

China's largest wooden Buddha, Lingyin Si near HAngzhou

China’s largest wooden Buddha, Lingyin Si near HAngzhou

Lingyin Si bamboo forest

Temple curtains

Temple curtains

It is Chan (Zen) Buddhism, maker of mysterious koans. Here is one from Lingyin Si, inscribed as part of a couplet on a pavillion sitting beside the brook:

“When does the spring become cold?”

lingyin 2 beautiful carvings

Start the Day Right (Chinese Food)

Canteen windows: breakfast variety

Canteen windows: breakfast variety

We have cold cereal, yogurt & fruit, maybe an egg, bagel. French toast or pancakes on week-end. Breakfast isn’t very varied. Love it but — I’m saying, it’s not that involved. Totally different story in China. We were strictly using the university canteen (cafeteria) in Qingdao this summer, having no kitchen. Breakfast choices were just as varied as dinner, with more than a dozen windows, each totally different. Soup with beans or greens or noodles, buns, dumplings, all kinds of meat, breads, vegetables, eggs and lots of kinds of pickles, & much more.

Fried little buns, like a savory beignet

Fried little buns, like a savory beignet

Unfortunately, first sight entering the canteen is the slop tables, ladies scraping food garbage into giant stainless steel pails. Not a great image! But the ladies are lovely! Below, a few pix of soup, dumplings & breakfast in a Chinese university.

Canteen ladies, China Petroleum University

Canteen ladies, China Petroleum University

Breakfast wontons (hwin dun)

Breakfast wontons (hwin dun)

Canteen tables, China Petroleum University, Qingdao

Love the dumplings!

Love the dumplings!

Grab your chopsticks

Grab your chopsticks

 

Morning soups

Morning soups

Beauty, Crowds, Wealth, Beauty (West Lake, Hangzhou)

Hangzhou on West lake

Hangzhou on West lake

West Lake, Hangzhou Lotus Blooming in Garden

West Lake, Hangzhou Lotus Blooming in Garden

West Lake, Hangzhou: lotus and pavillion off Su Causeway

West Lake, Hangzhou: lotus and pavillion off Su Causeway

This province (Zhejiang) is rich (for China); this town Hangzhou is money, money, money. But also…between the Lamborghini dealerships and babes in heels at glass-mod bars, it’s also full of it’s renowned beauty — sung by poets for centuries. China’s postcard.

west lake kenny on bridge stairs
west lake willow and bridge

If you don’t take these kind of photos, you can be arrested.

That is a joke. Here are some of our obligatory beauty shots.

I have edited out the fact that it’s incredibly crowded. Almost impossible to bike through the throngs of tour groups. Party black sedans pulling up here and there and extruding lovely things in summer dresses, a grandma and cute one kid in Hawaiian shorts.

Hangzhou temple on West lake

Hangzhou temple on West lake

Ate in an old alley away from the lake (pickled bamboo, and — they have it in Zhejiang!!!) what we never had in China before, what we would previously have called “American Chinese Food”: ‘General Tso’s’ candy-coated meat! They love sweet here.

Just dont’ get run down by scooters, cars, bikes, buses.
west lake island pagoda view

hangzhou west lake boatman

hangzhou west lake boatman

West Lake, Hangzhou: Too many waterfront gardens to tour...

West Lake, Hangzhou: Too many waterfront gardens to tour…

Hangzhou new and old

Hangzhou new and old

Hangzhou's West Lake for real: the new city!

Hangzhou’s West Lake for real: the new city!

Teacher, Friend, Son of Artists

Xiao Xiao's mother's art

Xiao Xiao’s mother’s art

Kenny art vincents mother2art vincents motherhad a wonderful “tutor” in Qingdao who took care of him while I was teaching, a part of the university compensation (which was also room & board and a lot of lovely perks like trips, and kindnesses like dinners); you could say it that way. Or it was a part of Chinese hospitality. Or it was part of an authoritarian system we saw in Beijing, where students are ‘volunteered’ time-consuming institutional duties that are anything but voluntary.

Upshot, this magnificent young man, a grad student (they say “post-graduate”) in translation specializing in the petroleum industries, and his fiancee, same field, were our companions and especially, Xiao Xiao and Kenny were often together. He kicked Kenny’s ass in badmitton, and recruited guys to play basketball at all hours of the day and night. They ate in Sichuan, Dongbei, and local restaurants around campus. They made silly movies using an iPad app.

And we learned Xiao Xiao’s parents are both noted artists: his father has a studio at Beijing’s 798 and runs an art complex there. His mother’s work (above) is traditional style, and she’s a calligrapher.

And his father’s work is below. His grandmother in Fujian was a village teacher. His grandfather hid the village’s “cultural relics”–treasures from the temple — during the Cultural Revolution, and suffered terribly as a result. Now the relics are in temples and museums.

art vincent's father

The Rape of Nanking, Remembered

Massacre Musuem, Nanjing

Massacre Museum, Nanjing

China has its Yad Vashem. Nanjing’s Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre is experiential architecture. You are funneled through tight spaces, traped in black granite chutes. (Architect Qi Kang is one of the leading figures in Chinese architecture).

Exterior, memorial hall to the victims of the Nanking Massacre

Exterior, memorial hall to the victims of the Nanking Massacre

It’s an immersion in nationalism and grief. And most noticeably, in insistence — there hasn’t been widespread acceptance that the massacre here in 1937 occurred — particularly by the right-wing in Japan, which denies the massacre vehemently, including in court, and has attacked (even murdered) those who’d tell their stories. Such as remorseful Japanese veterans, whose testimony is moving here. And Chinese memoirists, sued for libel.

nanking rape 300000

This is the “wall of witnesses” — as if they need to be documented as much as the victims.

Wall of witnesses

Wall of witnesses

You ponder the monstrousness that overtook invading soldiers, who gang raped and then mutilated — the bestial madness, and the uniquely vicious victimization of women (estimated 20,000 rapes, from children to the elderly). And then one thinks of Japan. I’ve spent a few weeks there, and love so much about it. Not to dwell on cliches but there’s no denying the often exquisite aesthetic and manners and cleanliness and love for beauty and so many cultural heights. And then you struggle to comprehend what occurred in this dark time.

Kenny in Peace Park, outside Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, Nanjing

Kenny in Peace Park, outside Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, Nanjing

And one thinks: The day will come when China honors the victims of its own (domestically perpetrated) atrocities.

And the day will come when the U.S. does.

Nanjing massacre hall Japanese solidarity

Nanjing massacre hall Japanese solidarity

Many Japanese figures — authors, industrialists, and trade unions (and presumably the Communist Party, on the plaque pictured above) have expressed solidarity, memorialized and honored the victims. A manufacturing family gathers flower seeds from Nanjing and has planted them all over Japan in an act of honoring the victims.

One last haunting aspect: I read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, a breakthrough book that for perhaps the first time really told the story, as late as 1997 (compare that to Holocaust commemoration.). Her book recapitulates (and enlarges) the museum’s messages, reproducing many of its photos and testimonies. Chang, a Chinese-American journalist from the midwest, committed suicide a few years ago at the age of 36. And another heroine of this place– known as the Living Buddha of Nanking, American missionary Minnie Vautrin, a girls’ school director in wartime Naning who protected and hid tens of thousands of innocent civilians, also (after returning home to Illinois after the war) took her own life.

Some things are too great to bear.

(The Vautrin link above is to the extensive Yale Univ archives on the massacre, the most important repository of its kind.

Peace.

Decapitated Buddha

nanjing buddha cave10 really many

The Thousand Buddha Cliff, at Qixia Shan outside Nanjing in central-eastern China, was empty when we went. It’s an active center of learning — there were lots of middle-aged Chinese laypeople studying in a study hall down below, then having quiet lunch in rows of tables facing forward. But up on the mountain, Qixia Shan (“Chisha” Shan) was really no one — and the sad sight of headless Buddhas in these many caves.

nanjing buddha cave 4

They go back, in some cases, to 500 AD. Others date to the Ming and Qing (500 years ago and less). During the Seecond World War, when Nanking (and nearby areas’) residents were fleeing the “Rape of Nanking” during the awful period of Japanese invasion, many took shelter here. The caves are among the oldest in China so damage goes back to many period, for many reasons. Some damage, however, must date to the Cultural Revolution. Research in English is sparse.

nanjing buddhacave headless

nanjing buddha cave 11

Buddha caves  were sites for meditation, initiating new monks / nuns, and veneration of Buddha.

IMG_0625
They were put in mountains where the beauty and peace of nature made the places right for spirituality. Many were also on trade routes, for easy access — and to encourage patronage by wealthy traders passing by.

Qixia Shan, near Nanjing, Jiangsu province

Qixia Shan, near Nanjing, Jiangsu province

The caves provide vivid testimony of faith, and of political turmoil in China.
nanjing buddha caves by building

By the way, there are only 250 caves on the Thousand-Buddha Cliff, but…who’s counting.
nanjing budha closeup 5 headles

Laoshan: the Taoist Holy Mountain and the Beer

lao shan seasidekeny in temple gate
Laoshan is a Taoist holy mountain near Qingdao (the business & economics department was generous and sent us in a car with Kenny’s tutor and a lovely 15-year-old boy who hangs with Kenny) Guidebook says it has 72 temples. We saw three — on the coast and up on the misty, rocky peak.

Sea fairies

Sea fairies

The air is clean and wet. The landscape is pine and some bamboo forest ( native?). The mountain’s history goes back 16 centuries, but mostly to the 110s when a Taoist sect was established here, and monks lived in caves.

Laoshan cave

Laoshan cave

There are several peaks, not too high (a few thousand feet) — we summitted one (with the help of a chairlift!).  As always, with Chinese holy mountains, you ascend and descend via staircases. This one was surrounded by streams (used to chill drinks being sold trailside) and cultivated flowers. I noticed wild foxtail lily. Also plenty of tiger lilies.

Taoist shrine, Laoshan holy mountain

Taoist shrine, Laoshan holy mountain

The Taoist pantheon is still beyond me. But I noticed the elements of nature — so powerful in Taoism — appear as decorative borders on the gods’ robes in the shrines: rainbows, the waves of the sea, clouds, mountains. A few worshippers — not many.
hollyhocks at temple
A sign in the parking lot: “Feudal superstitious activity” is explicitly banned. These kind of old Communist signs don’t have any real relationship to the China we know; though — to be sure — if you were gunning for a big job and you were known to avidly practice a “feudal” faith, I’m sure this would impede your career prospects.

No feudal superstitious activity such as fortune-telling or divination!

No feudal superstitious activity such as fortune-telling or divination!

Laoshan holy mountain's rocky coast

Laoshan holy mountain’s rocky coast

The coastline is a whole new Chinese landscape to us. Korea isn’t far — a cheap ferry. Wish we had time! Qingdao’s a popular resort, with a golf course and lots of fancy villas where — I don’t know — the rich, Party members, both, take holidays.

Laoshan Taoist temple with trumpet vine

Laoshan Taoist temple with trumpet vine

But it’s not only the elite that enjoy the resort: (see blow) — even Taoist dogs get a terrific place to live at one of Laoshan’s temples.
taoist dog house

lao shan stairs
I’d heard wealthy businessmen have begun funding restoration of some of the old temples (Taoist and Buddhist). I thought this suggested a risign interest in heritage and preservation. Kenny’s tutor said that in his opinion, it was an attempt by people who had ill-gotten gains to cleanse their consciences of their many sins.

dragon detail

laoshan taoist god of the sea and rainbow

lao shan trailside tea house

lao shan above the lake
Taoism is associated strongly with herbalism (originally, alchemy) and we saw some extraordinary herbalists along the trail. Not only the usual array of mushrooms, grasses and fungus buttons, but in this case, sealife: dried snakes, anemones, seahorses.

laoshan herbalist selling dried snake

laoshan herbalist selling dried snake

lao shan herbalist seahorses

lao shan herbalist dried lizard
Laoshan’s clear mountain streams were originally used in Tsingtao beer. Laoshan is a holy mountain– & a beer label. Laoshan Beer  was acquired recently by Tsingtao. We completed the day with a toast. Possibly Kenny’s favorite part.Laoshan beer: a toast after hiking Laoshan

Laoshan beer: a toast after hiking Laoshan

Beer is, of course, a central theme in this stay in Qingdao/Tsingtao, China’s beer city. Personally, I liked the Qingdao better. The Laoshan was drier and crisp — good. But named after a holy mountain? You’re expecting an almost godly experience in a glass. Not so much.

Laoshan Beer (now owned by Tsingtao brewery)

Laoshan Beer (now owned by Tsingtao brewery)

We did the hike on July 7, which our wise 15-year-old noted marked the day Japan invaded China about 70 years ago. The anger even now is still fresh at the table when they talked about the war — young people, as if it was only yesterday.

Black Dumplings & Food that Waves Good-Bye

squid ink black dumplingschicken foot and kennyCouple of quick food notes.

1) BLACK dumplings!!! They’re made with squid ink. Qingdao thing. How cool is that.

2) Chicken claw is actually delicious, Kenny says. Our old “Chicken Guernica” problem (abstract platter of heads &  feet, splayed frighteningly in all directions,  a la Picasso) has now become…well…to my son…something cute that waves “bye” before you eat it??

 

 

Writing in English, Wishing for Reform

My students, writing.

My students, writing.

 

Last time I taught liberal arts types in Beijing at a famously liberal university. Here we are in a province (Shandong, central coastal China) in an engineering school and my students are in either public administration or one of many busines majors (accounting, finance, international trade, management). Lest we think only the urbane Beijingers are reform-minded, here is a bit of one student’s first paper for me:

“I want to be a government leader, wher I can take powers to reform our political system. As we all know, there are many problems in our country politic area, such as democracy deficit, freedom restricted, civil rights violtions. Our Chinese democracy is not complete.”

PS We have very sporadic internet and VPN. LIkely to blog less than we would wish.

 

 

Qingdao (Tsingtao) Summer

beer tsingtao roof tanks

We are here. Actually, a 40-minute, 30-cents bus ride away from downtown Qingdao, at China University of Petroleum (or Petroleum University of China…most things have several English names). But today we toured the brewery. It is ilike the most paradise thing ever for a 13-year-old to be allowed to have beer (not the whole mug). WE’re not sure, but we think among Tsingtao’s beers is a beer for kids.

beer drink kenny

Beer for Kids

Beer for Kids

beer old sign with swastika

And is the Swastika for Nazis…or Buddhism? In China it’s hard to be sure.

It’s interesting being in Shandong province, famous for being the home of more Party officials than anywhere else, and for having “tall people.” (True.) What I hadn’t understood is, and this university seems predominantly to be students from this province, is they are also BUFF.

Qingdao is also known for its lovely summer weather — always about 77 degrees, with a cool, delightful sea breeze blowing. We’re right on the water here. Yesterday was (apparently) the hottest day in decades — not sure, but it hit the 90s. So it was time for everyone to wash their blankets.

blankets drying2blankets drying

(Some) Coplans (Soon) in China

QingdaoNightThis is Qingdao at night. Beer lovers, yes: Tsingtao. It was once controlled for a few years (was a “concession”) by Germans. It’s on the ocean, about between Shanghai and Beijing, in the prosperous province of Shandong. The air is good, for China.

In our 10 months back in the U.S., we felt a bit guilty calling this blog Coplans IN China. But now (visas in hand as of an hour ago) we can safety say half of our family is returning to China  for a bit more than a month (in July). Kenny and I will be living in Qingdao at China University of Petroleum (CUP) .

I will teach business students international communications. Kenny, my young translator, will be kindly provided with a Mandarin tutor, and he also hopes to improve his ping pong and pick-up basketball.

He also wants to do week-end visits to cities we missed: Hangzhou and Nanjing (and possibly also Suzhou; our visit was so brief it almost wasn’t).

Other goals: Reconnecting & reaffirming bonds with friends and colleagues, especially while passing through Beijing, to set up the basis for future collaborative teaching. And (for Kenny) to — during the last 5ish days — get to Wudang Shan, the holy mountain most powerfully pulling on him, where we never made it.

More news when we’ve got it.

Meanwhile here is a picture of Kenny last year this time, giving a farewell speech, in Mandarin, to my students at a reception organized by my then-supervisor who runs the MA program in communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, the wonderful Qiao Mu.

MVI_8229

An American Boy in China (watch video)

Adventures of a third grader in Beijing for a year. All about having fun in China, the land and its geography, history and politics, and visiting China’s different regions and peoples. Do shadow puppetry, ride a camel in the Gobi, make dumplings on a farm, and cheer for the Guoan (World Peace) soccer team.

China Books for Kids

 

Year of the Tiger by Allison Lloyd

Year of the Tiger by Allison Lloyd

Before we went to China, we started purchasing books to read (& to bring, English kids’ books are hard to find — and if you can, they’re expensive in China). I’ve wanted to share this list for a long time.

Picture books: Nonfiction

A Time of Golden Dragons by Song Nan Zhang & Hao Yu Zhang, ill. A picture book about the millennial year coinciding w year of dragon, most powerful sign

 Chinese New Year Tricia Brown photogr Fran Ortiz. Preparations for, & meanings of, new year in US Chinatowns. Colorful.

Picture books:Fiction (mostly reinterpreted folkore

Little Plum by Ed Young – a Tom Thumb tale.

All the Way to Lhasa A tale from Tibet by Barbara Helen Berger. We enjoy this.

The Hunter A Chinese folktale retold by Mary Casanova Illustrations Ed Young. Love folk tales.

The Beggar’s Magic A Chinese Tale retold by Margaret & Raymond Chang Ill David Johnson

Red Thread written/ill Ed Young.Great one.

The Magic Horse of Han Gan by Chen Jiang Hong. An animal tires of war. A favorite.

Lon Po Po A Red-Riding Hood Story from China (Caldecott medal) Ed Young. Another enjoyable one.

The Terrible Nung Gwama A Chinese folktale adapted by Ed Young from the retelling by Leslie Bonnet Ill Ed Young.

 

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai, a graphic novel (& an animated film)

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai, a graphic novel (& an animated film)

Middle-grades Fiction

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai by Wu Lin We got this graphic novel in China, at the synagogue-museum in Shanghai. (Speakign of graphic novels: highly recommend the award-winning American-Born Chinese, which takes place in America; we read it later). A great book.

Shen and the Treasure Fleet  Ray Conlogue. Kind of slow.

 The Golden Key (Tangshan Tigers)   Dan Lee. I think an Australian series. Not bad.

Young Adult Fiction

Spilled Water  by Sally Grindley–Modern Yong Adult fiction, girl indentured, compares t Hunger Games. Enjoyed this. I think you can call it middle grades.

 Year of the Tiger  by Alison Lloyd– historical adventure like Percy Jackson. Really loved this. I actually would call this middle-grades.

 Dragon Horse  Peter Ward, 10th century China fantasy & adventure, catalog compares to Eragon. We found it slow and decided not to continue. Too many time, place- and flashbacks to ancient times, or myth, too soon.

 Golden Rat   Don Wulffson- Young Adult, dark adventure.

 Dragonwings  Laurence Yep*- Boys’ historical adventure like Percy Jackson. Part of Yep’s wrote adventure series, Golden Mountain Chronicles. The best. We couldn’t put them down. Set in America, mostly.

 The Serpent’s Children: Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1849 Laurence Yep

 Mountain Light: Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1855 by Laurence Yep

 Dragon’s Gate: Golden Mountain Chronicles, 1867 by Laurence Yep

 The Traitor: Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1885 by Laurence Yep

Memoir & Nonfiction

Brothers: A Novel  Da Chen — Moving.

Colors of the Mountain  Da Chen – award-winning memoir. Moving and lovely writing. More so-called “scar literature” which some Chinese today find unbalanced and overly negative. We found it useful to understand earlier generations’ experience, even if it’s not what’s happening right now.

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution  Ji-Li Jiang.My middle schooler read this. I’d say it’s appropriate for middle grades. Excellent, searing, unforegettable “scar” literature about the damaging experience of growing up during the Cultural Revolution.

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party  Ying Chang Compestine, modern young adult set in 1972, teen & Maoism, Cultural Revolution. Everythign I said above. Hard to put down.

The Tao of Pooh is good for older kids, not just adults

The Tao of Pooh is good for older kids, not just adults

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff: both kids (middle grades) read it & really enjoyed it. Very simply written even though it’s an adult book on a complex topic.

Doctor of Tropical Medicine

Gratuitous sunrise shot: Early drive to Manhattan

China isn’t (mostly) tropical. But we suspect maybe one kid picked up a so-called ‘tropical’ disease there.

Today we left before dawn to see Kevin M. Cahill, M.D., author of Tropical Medicine, a textbook now in its 8th edition from Oxford University Press. One kid’s gut problems have lasted 7 months (since visiting the Tibetan yak herders in W. Sichuan), plus, lately, terrible headaches and dizziness. All the pediatricians, gastroenterologists, lab tests (soon he’s also to see a pediatric neurologist) said head and stomach pains were UNrelated. That seems odd. And they said no, it wasn’t infectious, from China.That also seemed, maybe…wrong.

Food- and water-borne diseases are bad in China, still, including in cities. The other child got giardia (a parasite) there, with timing suggesting he picked it up in Beijing. Docs told us they see it constantly. (Along with the better-known Traveler’s Diarrhea, a bacteria.) Parasites are, for one, in the water. No one drinks the water, & we brushed our teeth with bottled water. Still, water comes into contact with things you eat.

Dr. Cahill is the U.N.’s chief advisor on medicine in humanitarian crises, and has written or edited about 10 books on tropical medicine. He is renowned for his parasite knowledge. He’s said to shun commercial labs and to examine specimens under his own microscope. One reference he showed us notes that a study (NYC, 2010) found 70% of parasite and amoeba test results at commercial labs were faulty.

Just an antique: Dr. Cahill sharing his 18-th century acupuncture kit.

Why were our docs so sure, why didn’t they suggest seeing a tropical medicine specialist (I note with gratitude that my friend Aviva did)? Dr. Cahill said medical schools here spend no time on tropical diseases. Well, why? Unlike the U.K., he said, this country never occupied conquered colonies. Aside from the odd adventure traveler, Peace Corps volunteer, or U.N. official, there’s no call for tropical medicine in the U.S. — among the elite. And there just isn’t much concern for the (mostly poor) immigrants who suffer from these things.

When budget cuts come to NYC hospitals, as he put it, “what gets cut are the things the Dominicans get.”

Dr. Cahill’s souvenir acupuncture kit, a gift from a patient.

He also told us (before doing a sigmoidoscopy, sampling the intestinal wall) the stool tests our doctors rely on won’t show parasites or amoebas because the creatures live inside the intestine walls — not in stool.

Dr. Cahill thought a parasite might be the cause of things. We’ll find out tomorrow for sure. I desperately hope so, because this child is suffering.

Heartfelt thanks to friend Eric Pearl, & Cousin Liz, who recommended Dr. Cahill.

PS – Thank you, our 33 new subscribers this week! That’s so lovely to have you. If anyone else wants to get notified by email when we post, click “Sign me up” on the right.

Post Script: The great Dr. Cahill found an amoeba, E.Histolytica, the thing that causes amoebic dysentery (among other symptoms). The illness is called amebiasis and is said to affect 50 millionin the world, especially where it’s poor, crowded and hygiene is not good.  With 2 meds and some time to heal, we believe he’ll be on the mend. And I’d like to take this opportunity to again “thank” the pediatric G.I. we saw repeatedly who insisted there was no reason to believe the cause of this kid’s suffering was tropical or infectious.

Soulful Mongolian Horsehead Fiddle

Mongolian horse head fiddle

We saw Arga Bileg perform — a Mongolian orchestra fused with piano jazz — at the Asia Society last night. The orchestra included three horse head fiddles (above), a magical instrument that emits a horse’s cry.

Legend says a shepherd once received a flying horse he rode each night to his lover. But a jealous rival cut off the horse’s wings. After  it died, in his grief, the shepherd made the first horsehead fiddle in its honor, and all day and night, played poignant songs about — not the lover he wouldn’t be able to see, but his horse. Another fiddle legend says a wicked overlord killed a little boy’s favorite white horse. The white horse’s spirit then appears in the boy’s dream, telling him, ‘Make an instrument out of my body so we’ll always be together.’ And he does.

In both stories, the fiddle sound box is stretched with horse’s skin, its strings are made from horse hair, and horse bones become the fiddle neck. And of course, the scroll is the beloved horse’s head. I’m not an expert, but there are such lutes, of trapezoidal sound box, all around Central Asian steppes – Tuvan, Kazakh, Kyrgyz.

Our guide in Innner Mongolia played it, and also played horse head fiddle on mP3. Talk about great driving music. It is hauntingly beautiful. But only last night did I hear horsehead fiddle accompanied by throat singing. That’s when the singer attains two tones at once – a sound that seems to come from another planet. Imagine that under an uninterrupted bowl of stars on the empty steppes.

In China, we heard another artist perform Mongolian fusion: Sa Ding Ding, a half-Mongolian pop star they call “the Bjork of Asia.’ She acvtually shared the bill with the Black Eyed Peas at a U.S.-China friendship concert the embassy sponsored. She also sings in Tibetan and Sanskrit.

Sa Ding Ding, Chinese ethnic pop influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.

Mongolian folk rock is kind of hip in Beijing. (Someone called it “Chinagrass” i.e. bluegrass, in English). We heard some at an outdoor Beijing indie music festival. Hanggai may be the biggest group; apparently they were Beijing punk rockers who heard throat singing one day, sparking an interest in their (mostly lost) Mongolian heritage.  Now Mongo-rock is part of the scene. Like the folk music we heard in Mongolia, like the Mongolian-jazz fusion we heard last night, Hanggai is also often mournful, open-sky plaintive. This is Hanggai. And this is their best known song, I believe an updated folk song, “Xiger, Xiger.” It’s also here. Like many Mongolian songs we’ve heard, it alternates between fast and slow. When the tempo picks up, a horse begins to gallop.

There is loss and longing here. After witnessing the desecration of the grasslands in Inner Mongolia, the ever-worsening disappearance of language and culture as resource-rich area is mined and settled and overtaken, it’s impossible not to read that into this music.

Being global, it wasn’t only Mongolians in NYC giving a hollering standing ovation to Arga Bileg last night, but a typically varied NYC audience, appreciating the sounds of one of history’s greatest peoples, keeping its culture alive.

NOTE: Thanks for the horse head fiddle pic to an English teacher in Mongolia called “Jim” who writes the Wandering the World blog.  The instrument is found elsewhere (like E. Europe); in Mongolian it’s called morin khuur. In Chinese, matouqin – 马头琴.

China Chic in U.S. Magazine Ads

Who’s strategizing these full-page colorful China ads for American magazines? I’m struck by the sensibility – the Wall as raw, unspoiled, broken-down-&-dirty wildness, at odds with how 99.99% of folks will experience the Great Wall.

Trip on broken rocks at unrenovated Great Wall?

It’s like the eco-hiker sensibility, which is great, is the image. How we saw the Wall, with a hiking group, but very, very few visitors do. It’s great, though, we saw its wild sections, in snow, in autumn color. All the more power to Beijing Hikers. But since when is this China’s projected national image?Is the idea targeting the under-reached eco-traveler?

This ad also struck me – in a U.S. magazine, a full page ad for Moutai from Guizhou. Well, good. Never saw this before.

Brave enough to drink it?

Finally this last ad struck me, as well — for the Waldorf Astoria 5-star hotel chain, featuring a pretty young (chaste?) Chinese couple. In a U.S. magazine. Is the idea reaching Chinese visitors to the U.S.? Or is it that gorgeous Chinese models are the thing now in America? –How ironic that would be!!  — since in China the models are more often than not blue-eyed blondes!!

Be global chic: Be young, beautiful & Chinese.

Has a slim, sexy, doe-eyed young chinese couple become America’s new norm for chic, jet-set cool? I’m struck. I’m intrigued. I’m mystified.

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One of Earth’s Holiest Spots

Why do we go out questing for certain hard-to-reach places? And when it seems worth it afterwards, as this time did, even then it’s hard to say why we did it.  Maybe the power came because we were close to leaving China. Maybe the spirituality was infectious knowing this is to be a more-than-usually religious year for us, ahead of Kenny’s bar mitzvah. Maybe it was just the density of chanting we came upon, unexpectedly, in this magical place.


It was unforgettable witnessing thousands of Mongolian, Chinese, and Tibetans monk and nuns chanting outdoors at one of the main temples of Wutaishan, the Buddhist holy mountain in north-central China (English: Mount Wutai). In China, where so few monasteries seem to be active, where holy mountains are thronged by tourists not pilgrims, this was a moving exception. The spirituality was contagious.

The architecture spans the centuries. The wild, empty heights are inspiring. We even said a few (Hebrew) prayers ourselves. It was unlike anything we saw in China.

At its heart is the valley made by 5 (wu) mountains. Scattered around are 100+ Tibetan Buddhist temples, built by China’s rulers over centuries–Mongolian (Yuan), Han (Ming), Manchurian (Qing), each of which which served, in its opulence, for each dynasty, to legitimize their rule. And to knit the disparate, diverse, tension-riddled, far-flung empire made of so many different groups, all together by the magnetic pull of the bodhisattva who once lived here.

For nearly a millennium, the powerful staked their claim, got a foothold in paradise, sought virtue and enlightenment, and made alliances with enemies, by building exquisite temples, pagodas and stupas here.

Why here? Because here once lived a real, historic bodhisattva, ‘wisdom being,’ an enlightened one who compassionately doesn’t enter nirvana, to save others. His name was Manjusri. In China, they call him Wenshu.

This sacred place, for Zen, for Chinese, for Lamaist Buddhists, kind of in the middle of nowhere, highest peaks reaching 9,000′, the  was once off limits to all but the emperor. Now Wutaishan, Manjusri’s earthly abode, is a powerful, inspiring, uncrowded place of Buddhist pilgrimage, its monasteries home to perhaps thousands of monks and nuns.

You’ll see, in towering Manjusri statues, he rides a lion or tiger–symbolizing the taming of the ferocious mind. He also holds a sword, to cuts through ignorance and illusion. Manjusri is the deity of wisdom, worshipped from Indonesia to Nepal to Japan. He is featured in many sutras (scripture) and is one of the oldest, most important deities. He’s especially important to the Gelug Tibetan line (the Dalai Lama’s school), who descend from his teachings.

The presence of so much Tibetan Buddhism here made us feel like somehow Tibet had broken off and landed in north-central China, in Shanxi province, one of the poorer areas (coal, over-farmed steep terraces) where 30,000 people still live in caves.

There were almost no tourists in these small alleys and steep stairways, just one bus of Chinese during our late-June stay (I’ve read it does fill up, but we didn’t see that). Decent tourism facilities are almost zero (people sleep in the temples), train and bus connections are terrible, and high altitude makes the roads impassable in winter; they call it “the roof of north China.” I totally didn’t want to go. But Kenny insisted it was the most important place, moreso than Wu Dang Shan (the Taoist holy mountain where Jackie Chan takes Jaden Smith in the “Karate Kid” remake).

Visiting looked unlikely when I discovered the train into the nearest town an hour away (Shahe) arrived at 2 am and there were no hotels there.* But when I discovered the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in NY had held an exhibition on Wutaishan, devoted a conference to it, and published a book, which we read aloud together, I decided (once again) he was right.

You can feel the history, the cultural richness, the power of devotion here.

The Rubin exhibition (now online) features a 6-foot wide “map” of the site, a fanciful, amazing painting done by a Mongolian monk. His vision doesn’t look anything like Wutaishan really looks, but those kind of hard- to-find places that mysteriously ignite the imagination–they rarely do.

NOTE ONLY FOR TRAVELERS TO WUTAISHAN:

*There’s no good Wutaishan travel info online in English. I really hope this blog helps. I reluctantly recommend what we did: book a Chinese tour–ours was 1- or 2-star, terrible food & lodging, disorganized, they even left us behind once at an outlying monastery (someone did come back for us after an hour, during which time I cried). To be fair, we were warned it wouldn’t be international standards. In fact it was below bad youth hostel. But so what. We got there. My student helped us book, through an agency in Chaoyang. It was hard locating the tour representative at the crowded Beijing West train station, but when seats were sold out, they managed to get tickets. They’d put us on the slow Beijing-Taiyuan train (a good thing: being slow, it arrived in the normal morning, not 2 am, so you could sleep). We didn’t find the Wutaishan tour we’d paid for waiting to meet us..a long dull story. Suffice to say, we caught a different tour bus ride to Wutaishan, 4ish hours, for no additional money, and once we were there, we were there! We figured it out on our own, with the Rubin catalog, and an excellent UNESCO guide online. Actually that link is Wikitravel, quite useful, but here is the even-more-useful UNESCO World Heritage Site guide. UNESCO wisely included it in 2009. We also got the stupid, disorganized, obnoxious, confusing bus back to Taiyuan on the third day.

The other option would be a private car/driver, out of Taiyuan (wrap it in with a trip to Pingyao and/or Datong, which is amazing) — but that was beyond our budget.

Making Fierce Mongolians into Babies

Xilinguole grasslands, Chinese Mongolia

Without refrigeration, Mongolian herders eat like their ancestors: meat, air-dried milk hardened into twists & flakes, yogurt that seems rancid to our fussy American palettes. Fruits and veg are too pricey, the growing season too dry and short. During our visit this summer, we were served onion grass (pickled, to last), what grows in the lawns of NJ.


It’s minus-50F in winter so there’s no problem then.
But we visited this hot summer. All night, wonderful lamb dinner leftovers sat on the table, mid-yurt. In the morning, we declined as hosts, guide, and the herders–tough cowboys–cut the old meat into salted butter tea.

We were near this hill, a pilgrimage spot, which Genghis Khan declared sacred, helping him to victory when he prayed there. Its image symbolizes proud heritage–nationalism, wounded ethnic pride today–as Chinese coal mining encroaches and settlers buy up the grasslands. We climbed it in a few minutes. A carpet shows its beloved image.

Traditional saddle, pride of herders

Life we saw was rugged, simple. One family where we stayed had this small windmill generator, enough for light but not refrigeration.

Our guide said he descends from the “Golden Family,” in English the Golden Horde (from orde, Turkish for ‘people’). “A Mongol brought Tibetan Buddhism out of Tibet and across China,” he said.

“We have a culture, and belief.” (Tibetan Buddhism, he meant–also called Lamaism). “Our Chinese friends have no culture, no belief–they pursue power.” He told this to my son. “I’m sorry, but if you know this,” he said, “it’s better for your future.”

Corrupted local Mongolian local officials had become millionaires, he said. Meanwhile, “We have no rights.” He compared his people to Native Americans. I was thinking that, too, of the Plains Indians, whom we visited in 2008. And as the AIM (American Indian Movement) was born on Pine Ridge, our daring guide was willing to mention the Inner Mongolian Democratic Party of the 1960s, an independence party. He alleged that China killed 150,000 to eradicate it (1960-1980), purging separatists. I don’t know if it’s true or not. Many perished during the Cultural Revolution years. He said the remnants left for America, Germany, Finland.

He is a horsehead fiddler and we talked to its sad lovely strains on an iPod, playing a song called ’60 Trees.’ “When my grandpa sings this song, tears come out. It describes the feeling, how they love those trees.”

I mention the anger, bitterness, nationalism, as lead-in to how Mongolians are packaged, souvenir-ized, at the airport and gift shops. You don’t have to be a semiotician to see what’s going on with the depiction of this fiercely proud, historically mighty people:

Infantalizing images

No threat from these cutie pie babies

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Grasslands of Chinese (Inner) Mongolia

Wish my lawn looked like this.

Mongolia — one of the great places on earth. You almost have to use superlatives: largest-ever historic conquest. Greatest unexploited mining wealth. Most pristine wilderness.

Mongolia is Inner (a giant province in, + totally dominated by, China) and Outer (a nation , former Soviet satellite). Below these important historical overlays, Russian vs. Chinese, is Mongolian culture and the incredible land.

Inner Mongolia, the Chinese province (pink on the map) is so dominated, its capital city (Hohhot) isn’t even Mongolian majority. Why? As in Tibet, influx of Chinese people consolidates political control, a struggle thru the dynasties — sometimes Mongolian (the Yuan), sometimes Han Chinese. China may hope to spread its overpopulated people from the heartland. But mainly, it’s the extraordinary mining wealth: coal + those coveted ‘rare-earth’ elements that high-tech mfg requires.

KFC, Inner Mongolia (Xilinghot)

The mines meet the grassland in the least-touristed area, it’s not even online or in books–by Xilinghot, county seat, northeast, where we spent 4 days early last month. It is, per a great Economist story, “no pastoral idyll” — especially not in June, 2011 when violence blew up between put-upon local herders and big, honking mining trucks (and “Mongolia” joined “jasmine revolution” as a banned Chinese search term).

Coal makes Inner Mongolia China’s fastest-growing province. A recent article (also in The Economist) calls the mines “devastation” and a “scar”. Yes. We saw those scars, still small vs. the vastness. But in a pristine ecosystem, their impact bleeds widely outward — in polluted air, water table, land. And in another powerful way, it bleeds the people, creating Mongolian powerlessness and anger, quiet and seething, mostly, as Mongolians’ dispossession grows, as land ownership is gradually transferred.

Already Mongolians are only 1/5 of the population, and if your parents choose Chinese school ingfor you (the only route to a non-herding job) you lost your ancestral language: most have.

The too-familiar plight of indigenous people.

Around Xilinghot city — where soldiers amassed last year — and its mines and trucks and railroads, spreads the Xilingole grasslands, the hugest lawn imaginable.

Our young Mongolian guide’s older sister went to Mongolian schools & couldn’t find a job; he took a degree in translation. Angel of a guy, with an endless supply of friends-of-relatives-of-friends, who put us up in their homes (guest yurts — they say “ger,” like girl without the l, ‘Yurt’ is  Turkish) over 3 days.

It’s majority Mongolian here; tradition survives, meaning hardship: no refrigeration, a diet of meat and the animals’ milk, horse-back herders, old Tibetan temples on the range.

Now 28, he herded as a child, for his grandparents. At 13, alone, fending off wolves by setting clothing fires and banging pots, he learned English from listening to the BBC. Then drastic legal limits on herd sizes (sheep, cows, goats) -per-land-owned were imposed, so the family’s herd was lost, their income plummeted, and finally they lost their land.

“The Chinese plant–they’re agriculture. We’re herders,” he said. “Then they dig mines, and at last buy your grassland. This is the steps. Because the Mongolian people aren’t easy to unite,” he said. “Now Mongols are weak.”

Guest yurt, with sink.

There are ribbons of fantastic, new, smooth Chinese roads here, making our trip possible so efficiently, so quickly (Outer Mongolia, you’d need 3 days to drive the horrid roads the distance you cover in a few hours on this side). We zoomed through sweeping horizons of incredible Chinese windmill farms (which our guide, BTW, loves).

We had hot pot in a beautiful, clean provincial capital city, Xilinhot, with a giant well-preserved Beize Tibetan Buddhist temple complex (Mongolians follow the Tibetan brand of Buddhism).

The Chinese give, and the Chinese take away.

Our young guide: “I am Mongol and my culture is lost, but in my heart, it’s strong. Over 60 years we had great changes here. There were 50 Mongol families in my hometown and only 5 families kept the traditions. The world is eating up ethnic people–the world is like this. It’s hard to keep traditional, to keep the old life.”

He said this as he checked his cell (signal always available, middle of nowhere) to see whether Spain was beating Portugal in the Euro Football semifinals.

“We lost our grassland. Every blade is we love.” He said this stroking a blade. “In Mongolia, you have words you must hide in your heart. There are no people to tell,” he said. “Every 800 years, a hero brings together the Mongolian people,” he said (referring to Genghis Khan).

“You’ll see. A hero is coming soon.”

Xilingole: Industry vs. Grassland

Seeing Like Painter Wu Guangzhong

Wu Gorge by Wu Guanzhong

“Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guangzhong” (1970s through early 2000s) is in its last week-end at the Asia Society in NY. We got to see the artist’s landscapes, combining tradition, as he uses old-time ink and rice paper, with abstract contemporary aesthetics, moreso in his later works – huge bold black strokes and colorful confetti points that recall Jackson Pollock. (Wu died at 90 in 2010.)

He was brave. He’d studied in Paris for 3 years and it was potentially fatal during the Cultrual Revolution that he was both Western-influenced and departed from the Socialist Realism demanded of art by that era’s fanaticism. According to the Times review of a few weeks ago, he destroyed a decade’s worth of work before the Red Guards could get to them. Still he went to a labor camp for a few years. Later, he was embraced and flourished at home.

After visiting Chongqing, built now of skyscrapers — so big a city it has the status of a province – but it’s still steeply perched on mountainsides leading down to the Yangtze River, with some old neighborhoods (small) preserved, we really enjoyed Wu’s vision of Old Chongqing:

This is our vision of Ciqikou (磁器口 or Chongqing Ancient Town), not even a recreation but actually real.

Wu also painted Zhouzhuang, a very popular 900-year old village this time in the East, an hour from Shanghai in the river delta, with 14 stone bridges. Sometimes it’s called the “Venice of China.” Here:
We saw it this way (it’s film – shot w/ some weird, probably expired old disposable):

Yesterday I got an email from a former student from the massive southern city of Guangzhou. I mentioned enjoying the hummingbirds & bunnies in my garden in the US. He said he’d seen those — once. So thru Wu’s ink paintings, once again we’re gravitating with a heavy heart to the old, straining to know what has disappeared, and yet feel joy and wonder at how Wu’s vision is at once postmodern and ancient – as China is, all the time.

PS We’re back in the US, but will keep blogging, there’s plenty to write, plus lots from travel in Shanxi and the Mongolias (Inner, Outer) that never went up. If you want an email notice, click “sign me up” on the right. Thank you so much, our 800 or so subscribers, we never expected that. Wish I could serve you all cold sesame noodles.

Cow Pussy, & Other Mandarin Mysteries

Fabulously, Evaline Chao (byline: “a freelance writer based in New York City”) yesterday wrote a great piece of cultural translation — a philological analysis where we learn the layers of meaning embedded in new words in Chinese — for Foreign Policy:From House Slaves to Banana People – Seven new words that explain modern China.

Evaline Chao is author of Niubi: The real chinese you were never taught in school, which I’m going to buy for my son. (Philology is on my mind partly after seeing  the Israeli drama, “Footnote” (2011 foreign Oscar nominee) or הערת שוליים‎, He’arat Shulayim, which is all about how powerful it becomes to delve into a word’s meaning.) Chao’s book, the opening pages of which are readable online !,   precisely unpack, I’m delighted to say, TWO of our big life-in-China mysteries.
(1)  soccer vulgarity, which we pondered in “Dirty Words Football,” featuring tiny tots screaming “Vagina”
and
(2) repulsively inflated sheep carcasses — which we blogged about after almost vomiting at them in Lanzhou, at the edge of the Gobi. Evaline enlightens on page one:

“Cow Pussy, Yes, Cow Pussy

Let’s begin with…cow pussy. Or rather niubi (nyoo bee), which literally translates to “cow pussy” but means “fuckin’ awesome” or “badass” or “really fuckin’ cool.” Sometimes I means something more like “big” and “powerful,” and sometimes it can have the slightly more negative meaning of “bragging” or “braggart” or “being audacious,” but most of the time it means “fuckin’ awesome.”

The etymology of niubi is unknown…Some say the idea is that a cow’s pussy is really big, so things that are similarly impressive are called cow cunts. Others say that it stems from the expression chui niupi (chway nyoo pee), which literally translates to “blow up ox hide” and also connotes bragging or a braggard (someone who can blow a lot of hot air). In fact, the word for bragging is the first part of that phrase, chuiniu (chway nyoo). Once upon a time (an dyou can still see this done today in countries like Pakistan) — NOTE: ALSO IN NORTHWEST CHINA ON YELLOW RIVER– people made rafts out of animal hides that had to be blown up wit air so they would float. Such an activity obviously required one mights powerful set of lungs…”

JewBus or JuBus (Jewish Buddhists)

Ancient Hebrew scroll found in Mogao Buddhist Caves

What is a JewBu?
Jews and Buddhists have been hanging together for a long time. Take this scroll. he My rabbi (in email) tells me this scroll, it’s actually only a photo from a display, (the original was spirited away by tomb raiders in the ’20s, I think to the British Museum) is familiar (though the handwriting isn’t). It relates to Tashlich, the ceremony between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we throw breadcrumbs or pocket lint into moving water to symbolize being rid of our past sins. The priceless scroll is one of thousands discovered in a cache, later taken by European explorers. It’s from Mogao, or Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, a complex of almost 500 often-magnificent Buddhist caves used since 400 AD for meditation and worship, full of sky-high Buddha carvings, in the Gobi desert along the Silk Road near Dunhuang (map below). Holland Carter won a Pulitzer for this story in the Times on Mogao. There were Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, Arabic scrolls…and our very own Hebrew.
Wherever you go, there you are.

Dunhuang, the nearest town (25 miles) from the Mogao Caves, is closer to Kirgyzstan than Korea–central Asia, not far from Pakistan and Eastern Mongolia. Around Dunhuang, the huge empty desert and Mingsha Dunes, it’s not that hard to imagine the caravans carrying the silk, the foods, the scrolls of many faiths and philosophies.

Buddhist nuns, Wutaishan, Shanxi province

China looks different through Jewish eyes. Our antennae pick up these ancient wavelengths and we feel our two people’s world-spanning presence and interaction. And we spend so much time in temples and Buddhist sights, because they’re most often China’s most richly interesting cultural treasures.

Buddhist caves at Yunggan, an early Buddhist cave

The JuBu experience is a path fairly well-trod, by practicing Jewish Buddhist thinkers such as Sylvia Boorstein. Who my rabbi emailed me about yesterday, as did my friend, the great Brooklyn author, journalist, “Sisterhood” blogger, guide to all things modern-Jewish-woman, Debra Nussbaum Cohen. The term JewBu was coined (or, popularized) by the poet Roger Kamanetz in his bestselling 1994 The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, a book I’ve always loved. It narrates the visit of Jewish leaders to Dharamasala, summoned by the Dalai Lama, so they might teach him how the Tibetans can survive culturally and religiously in their diaspora and exile. I had a meditation teacher when I was in high school, who’d just finished a decade at Tasajara, the Zen Buddhist farm retreat in California.

Ethan finds the character ‘Buddha’

(She was Jewish.) I haven’t thought about that 30-year-old time until I just wrote it but maybe that makes me a JewBu. The ‘American Buddhist’ classics she gave me Miracle of Mindfulness and of course the great Japanese monk Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindwere imprinted into my brain quite young. Perhaps this helps explain our frequent visits to Buddhist hallowed ground in China.

At Wutaishan…more on that another time

Yesterday I started reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. I hope Kenny might read it as part of his bar mitzvah preparation. It begins with a story, not the rabbi’s own but a young man he knows:

“[The Dalai Lama] greeted me with his warm, loving smile and asked if I was Israeli.
‘Yes,’ I immediately answered.
‘Are you Jewish?’ he continued.
‘Indeed,’ I replied.
He was silent for a couple of minutes and then said: ‘You come from the most ancient wisdom…the source…You do not need to travel all the way here to seek the truth…You should return to your country and learn your religion well. Return here if you feel the need, but only after you have done so….’
At the time I was deeply disappointed and kept thinking: ‘Have I ventured all the way to Bihar to discover that I should learn Torah?’ ”

North peak, Wutaishan (Five-Peak Mountain), Shanxi

Of course, we should (learn Torah)–there’s never been any doubt, only a lack of time and commitment. We didn’t need to come to China to realize that. But here, we find ourselves slowly immersed in Buddhism and experience it becoming a filter for our Judaism, as in the other direction we see and feel Buddhism here (Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian) through the lens of our own ancient people. The JewBu (JuBew?) experience is an ad infinitumechoing hall of mirrors.

Temple cat, unafraid of temple lion

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Sweet and Bitter

Outside Beijing, it’s suddenly rural Hebei province. Where my generous, beautiful student hosted us in her village. We walked through the sweet potato fields (also some peanuts and corn). Ethan loved pumping water and bringing it inside. Fun, she said–the first time. Small farming terraces, impossible for machines to navigate, greatly increase farming’s hardship. An amazing cook, her mom has farmed for more than 30 years.

From the sweet potato, mom made fantastic silky cellophane noodles (lunch, with greenbeans; dinner, cold with cucumbers and vinegar). With dishes of fish, pork in black bean sauce, roast duck, other vegetables, and the holiday special rice dumplings filled with date, sweet potato was also served in sugared cubes that harden like candyapple when dipped into cold water at the table. What a feast at this farm on Dragon Boat Festival.

Later, since a mom is never allowed to rest, and since she hadn’t already cooked a feast, the children demanded a lesson in making dumplings. It begins with fresh greens.

We talked about how poorly equipped and staffed rural schools are, and the far higher college-entrance exam scores rural kids need to get into college. Suddenly I understood: this discriminatory policy is to reproduce more farmers. By capping their opportunities, food will be grown. China won’t starve.

The poster says, “Men! The One-Child Policy is your responsibility.”

The noodles, made by a neighbor in the village from sweet potato flour.

More Great Student Journalism

Writers Workshop, my apt

If you’re unmarried at 27, you’re a “leftover lady” – Reese explores this ridiculous problem in the third and last batch of student final pieces, (the first batch here) presented aloud at my apt, over lunch. For a look at some parents’ alarmed, creative reaction to their kids potentially being leftover, we travel with Jolie (and in a related piece, Natalie) to Matchmaker’s Park, a well-done tale (she’s even recruited as good bride material). THose poor, anxious parents stand for hours with placards advertising their children to other anxious parents.

Jolie

Natalie

Lucia told the story of an NGO founded by China’s  leading, pioneering investigative journalist Wang Keqing, who sometimes teaches in this department, to help miners and other impoverished Chinese industrial workers with black lung disease. Some on staff were initially persecuted, for embarrassing the government. The NGO is one of few–it’s a new and uncertain area of China’s nascent, still-beleaguered civil society. Happily, it recently got on the government’s good side, and a few celebrities have lined up for a big fundraiser this month.

Aileen takes us on a journey through her feelings of patriotism and yet demand for information about her home that she loves,  China, on a trip into the troubled Tibetan area, Qinghai. She seeks to explore the unrest (while translating for a journalist from India), and must grapple with being accused by security forces, at every step, of being a traitor.

Aileen journeyed to Tibetan Qinghai

Susan looks at Confucius Institutes (from her days earlier this year interning in NYC), particularly the one at Pace University, and realizes the U.S. students there are learning more about Peking Opera, silk, calligraphy and classical poetry than she knows, as a devoted English student. She determines, then, to rediscover her own culture.

Susan

Laura shows us why Christianity, despite the hype and worry, won’t catch on in China. We see her quit, after too much uncomfortable touchie-feelie hugging and what feels like too much fake saying “I love you.”

Cynthia shows us a migrant laborer who founded a hotline to help others, a well-drawn bio piece about a modern-day hero.

Susan Yu takes us inside student union election politics – a microcosm for Party politics, and urges change towards a more truly democratic process.

In a

Susan Yu

nother great piece, we see how Chinese senior citizens, displaced from the center and their old communities by Beijing’s rampant, outward, horizontal growth pattern, are now being accused of clogging up mass transit when they travel back to their favorite old spots at rush hour.

Cynthia

And Guanlin tells the story of life as a Beijing public toilet cleaner who actually lives inside a stall, with his wife and grandchild.

Liya wrote about Beijing’s oldest foreign-owned small business, run by China’s original British hipster.

FINALLY The British Curriculum

Crossing Yulong River, New Years


By 肯尼 Kenny

Ni hao.

Guess who? The British Curriclum is finally back!

So at school we are part of an Asian school league, FOBISSEA: Federation of British International Schools in South East Asia. And this year there will be a sports day for this. Not sports day, but sports week.

You will have to compete in All sports and here are the sports: soccer, basketball, swimming, track & field. But the thing is, they were selecting 12 boys from years 7 & 8. And the best part is, I made it!!!!!!!!!! In 2 months I will fly to Shanghai to compete aganst schools from Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei and Seoul. Wow that sure beats town soccer!

So anyhow, can you please comment to this: What do think when you hear the word China?

This is what I thought before I came to China: The Great Wall, bad air, corrupt government, over populated, Communist, and tough schools. but now I think of China a whole lot differently: has deserts, destroying lots of old arcitexture, beaches, eco tourism, capitalist, severe loss of forests, farming in Ghana, has 150 cities with over 1 million people, good cheap food.

But what I want to know is, what do you think of when you hear ‘China’?

A house from the Qing Dynasty time

Hydropower in Tibet: Dams & Democracy


Driving to Garze (Tibetan autonomous prefecture) over Christmas, for hours each day we passed sawn-off mountains, rock-clogged rivers, half-submerged trees and roads that disappeared into water.

Dams being built.

China is looking here, to Western Sichuan on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, where dozens of rushing tributaries of the upper Yangze surge down canyons’ steep vertical rises, for energy. The Dadu River, which we drove along for two days, is said to have 50% more hydropower potential (“exploitable installed capacities”) than the Three Gorges. Reports say there will be 22 hydroelectric power plants along the Dadu, creating flood zones, requiring the removal of something like 100,000 people from valley to high ground. One Chinese environmental group reports that no branch rivers will remain natural, but will become “cascade reservoirs.” No one knows the ecological outcome of such fundamental changes to hydrological cycles, river connectivity and dynamics.


But here’s one idea, from Fan Xiao, chief engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of Geology and Mineral Exploration: deadly earthquakes. He says it’s possible dam building caused the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the one that killed about 70,000, many of them children.
We were heading to Danba, a central town whose satellite villages perch on mountains, where the Dadu crisscrosses 131 other streams and rivers, apparently draining an area of 3,000 square miles. It was an ever-higher drive. Below Danba, we stopped to skim stones in the Dadu; above, to wash in hot springs (geothermal development is likely here). Dam building was everywhere. The car crawled on rutted dirt tracks past roadblocks, mountains of gravel, workers’ prefab housing, giant dust clouds. Because of the long string of dams and power stations, in some places, articles say, the loss of vegetation qualifies as “desertification.” They’ve covered cliffs above the river with a sort of cement (I think) to hold back mud and landslides. A scientific report dryly notes the area’s “partially-destroyed appearance.”


The river’s steep descent in places creates great force, bending and surging through canyons. Nearby is one of China’s two remaining virgin forests. Hydropower is “greener” than the choking black smoke of coal-fired plants. If you buy a “carbon offset” from a broker, it is investing in hydropower on the Dadu. True, there’s no coal burned. But it takes tons of steel, water, and fuel to build 2 dozen hydroelectric dams here.

Villages go under, too. And more. This eastern ‘wall’ of the Tibetan plateau (including the Hengduan mountain range, with peaks reaching about 20,000’) is “a biodiversity hotspot” (with its very own Harvard monitoring project) Wild pandas live in nature reserves here. The Dadu, the upper Yangtze region, is noteworthy for a “rare gene pool”– 342 kinds of herbaceous plants, 57 kinds of woody plants, 233 different species just in Danba, according to a recent scientific survey. Spruces, firs, hemlocks, birches, rare yew and ebony, apples, pears, walnuts, Eucommia (rubber). It’s rich in medicinal plants (227 kinds, the census found) and dozens of wild edible and medicinal fungi (matsutake, morel, yellow wire fungus, tree-ear mushrooms). Likewise, it has many rare animals, not just pandas. The Asiatic black bear, and primates like the Tibetan macaque; more than 60 protected animals.

We also passed through Tianquan, another town along the way where, I read, several generators have been built inside a nature reserve.

There’s a trade-off, with generating needed energy. Infrastructure is for the greater good. You will devastate some land, some species, some livelihoods. Local input may be ignored in the U.S., too. But from what I can tell, China, with rule-of-law and regulatory problems, with a centralized regime and yet many overlapping bureaucracies, where the rural poor have little power, the situation is much worse.

Early on driving up one of many canyons, we stopped for lunch in Luding, where tall buildings crowd the river in a steep valley. The dam there, under construction, was shut down for a while for failing an inspection. Critics say it exemplifies the power stations’ lack of integrated planning, operation, and management. That so many different agents are involved, without coordination, may help explain the “over-exploitation” – why there are too many dams, when prominent scientists say hydroelectric construction should be scattered and small-scale, not concentrated in a single river basin.
The state-owned Dadu Hydropower Development Co., Ltd., which expanded to take on the dam-building, calls it ‘the enclosing of water resources. Its corporate website explains it tapped other companies (China Datang Cooperation, China Huadian Cooperation, Zhongxu Investment Co.) to “exploit several new sections” of cascade power stations. We hit new company boundaries every few hours, marked by gates of steel poles and flapping flags.

Up until now the area was well-preserved because it was remote and transportation impractical. “The construction of many hydroelectric power stations in [eastern Tibet and western Sichuan] represents a terrible ecological disaster,” says The Decade River Project, a group of concerned scientists and citizens.

“If construction plans are followed… hardly any the species of fish found in the river will be able to survive.” That’s because reservoirs storing water along the way alter “the flow pattern, velocity, and temperature of the river. Fish can not adapt.” Fan is chief engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of Geology and Mineral Exploration. Fan was the first geologist to suspect that Sichuan’s Wenchuan earthquake (the massive 7.9 earthquake of May 2008 that killed almost 70,000 people) was linked with to dam-building and reservoirs, particularly the Zipingpu hydroelectric station. It’s not hydropower that’s unacceptable, he says, but this pattern of over-development.

At the Sichuan Provincial Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, Zhang Qiujin, Director of the Ecology Institute, agrees that the hydropower construction here will likely completely ruin aquatic and dry-land ecological systems–the whole riverside area’s natural environment.

Those are big names, I think.

There’s often talk about “reform” in China. When you start looking at hydropower, you hear the term “Reforming water governance.” Quickly, the focus becomes, at least for me: Dissent. Local voices, heeding scientific experts outside state-owned companies, & hearing citizens pursuing their rightful interests. The Tibetan woman whose home we stayed in, near Danba, said the destruction would take a long time to heal.

Look at dams here and the path leads, at least for me, back to the question of the government’s fear of change–fear of social instability.

Tsinghua University sociologist Guo Yuhua, a dam expert, also writes about China’s “unbalanced interests”–the lack of justice for minorities in the face of such a gigantic national infrastructure program. Reformed governance, stronger rights protection for dissenting citizens, would be powerful forces for social stability in China, not destabilizers, as China pursues energy development with dwindling arable land, clean air, water, and food. So says Guo. They would ease, not worsen, today’s conflicts and tensions.

“The greatest error in current thinking and models about maintaining stability,” Guo says, “is to put the interests of people and social stability on opposite sides.”

It’s something to ponder, as I recall how every few hours we passed under a new gate of steel poles draped with tenting and flags, flapping to announce the new firm responsible for that stretch of dam construction, & heralding the bright future with slogans in Chinese such as, “Build a harmonious society with hydropower,” with mountains razed above, the river diverted below and debris — scrap stone, waste sand, disintegrating boulders – all around..

ParkGiant Pandas! Bamboo!

Our overseers, the university’s Foreign Experts Office, hauled a busload of us to a holiday kungfu show. The performance was underwritten by the municipality of Beijing. World champs displayed snake style, drunken style, monkey style, swords, strung together with a search-for-elusive-panda plot. The stage backdrops were computer-generated, floor-to-ceiling projections of flying through a futuristic, neon Beijing…eerily emptied of cars and people.

Impossible not to think for a moment this post-neutron-bomb scenario enacted a fantasy/dream wish-fulfillment for the sponsor (city hall). It can’t be easy running this place…

Afterwards, the ritual we’ve grown accustomed to: big posed group photos, here with the martial artists–some of whom managed their gravity-defying moves in giant panda costumes. That can’t be easy, either.

Purple Bamboo Park, old bridge

Just outside the park

Bamboo grows in city as well as forest. So we learned walking in a direction we’d never gone before–sideways, on the Third Ring Road. After 15 minutes of overpasses and skyscraper vistas, we hit a scruffy, slouchy, century-old red Buddhist temple on a canal (dwarfted by modernity, a Chinese “Little Red Lighthouse”). Behind it, well hidden, was Purple Bamboo Park–lake, pavillions, bridges, and many large stands of bamboo. Bamboo, said a sign quoting a classical Chinese poem, symbolizes

“Uprightness, imperviousness to flattery, and the ability to emerge unstained from filth.”

Devotion (Lambie Discovers Buddhism)

Lambie visited the Yung gang (“Cloud Ridge”) caves, and saw that devotion moved mountains.

Lambie was happy and astonished to see how Buddhism flourished here.


She learned that the ancient Silk Road passed by, carrying goods and gods. While trading foods and fabric, the road carried culture from India, flowing robes of Greek sculptures from Rome, artistry from Iran. Turkestani rulers, who unified northern China, embraced India’s Buddhism, and melded it all together. Here is a great world religion at its height.

Lambie is pumped to see what happens when great civilizations meld.

The giant Buddha caves of Bamyan, Afghanistan were destroyed. These remain, surviving 2,000 years of erosion, corrosive pollution, vandals, political attacks, and millions of visitors.

Lambie was sorry to see holes and some broken caves.

Lambie knows about Pharoahs. The giant Buddhas were Pharoanic in a way, offering worship to Buddha and glorifying the ruler.

Indian monks, Turkic kings, Hellenic motifs...yet distinctly Chinese Buddhism.

Lambie hopes to become more like Buddha by following his example: Meditation, morality, insight, generosity, patience, and kindness.

Lambie is happy.