Category Archives: China

Shaxi, Yunnan

 

Shaxi Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters (

Shaxi, Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters (“If the country wants to prosper and become strong then follow the birth plan” — jie hua shen yu : one child one couple)

Shaxi, Yunnan Province:

Shaxi is a small, quiet, even sleepy village, situated in a fertile valley surrounded by mountains, a three-hour bus ride northwest from Dali. As you walk about, you see locals labouring in construction, working in small shops, or selling food or vegetables on the street.  The fields are tended mostly by women, while the men herd goats. The Bai are very industrious but also seem to take their time as they work. It appears that they embrace their traditional lives. It is a friendly village and Yulan (a friend from Kunming) and I were able to strike up a number of conversations with the minority villagers. Shaxi is beginning to see its share of tourists, and the stores, cafes, and hostels/hotels designed for people like us, yet it is still primarily a town of locals, and many of these sites are mostly empty. At the moment, its interest in outsiders is only secondary – although this will almost certainly change in the next few years.

Buildings in Shaxi (and Dali) are made of a foundation of locally quarried stone and the walls are constructed with rammed-earth, covered by slaked lime and decorated on the outside with grey or blue ink-and-wash paintings. I have been told that nails are not used and instead, a system of double brackets supports the roof atop thick wood pillars. Like elsewhere in Yunnan, and the rest of China, the rooves are covered in round roof edge tiles. These tiles are used for decoration or for very specific symbolism (represented in the colours of the eaves, the specific roofing materials, and, finally, the roof top decorations). Old Town Shaxi is a maze of criss-crossing narrow alleyways, with one main street leading in and out of the village and a second, narrower street (filled with tourist shops, cafes, etc.) that leads to the old village square. A Friday market is held each week, as it has been for many, many years!

Shaxi, Building a House

Shaxi, Building a House

Shaxi, the Writing is on the Wall (pay up time to landowners of yesteryear?)

Shaxi, the Writing’s on the Wall (c.1940s? perhaps record-keeping when landlords collected rent from peasants who used their land, or, harvest records? – we were not able to get an answer for these calculations. if anyone knows what these numbers actually refer to please let me know. thank you!)

Saxi, Lime Wall with Horse Hairs and Straw

Shaxi, Lime Wall with Animal Hairs and Straw

On our first day in Shaxi, Yulan and I saw a few men leading donkeys with rattan baskets filled to the brim strapped to their backs. Women, both young and old, carry their produce and goods on their backs, hunching over to steady themselves and balance the baskets, whose straps stretch across their foreheads and are held onto on either side of their heads.

Shaxi Alley, (soy bean curd sheets drying in the sun)

Shaxi Alley, (soybean curd sheets drying in the sun)

Our second day in Shaxi was spent wandering the alleyways, speaking with more locals, and having breakfast and supper at the Long Feng Muslim Restaurant. The women who work there are welcoming and talkative, and laugh a lot!. The food is excellent, and the place is impeccably clean. At the front of the restaurant is the kitchen – open to the street. Behind this area and the main eating area is a small courtyard where the vegetables are prepared. Aging beef hangs from beams throughout the restaurant and courtyard. Breakfast consisted of a bowl of noodles in a spicy beef broth, with pieces of beef and vegetables. As is common, one can add extra condiments such as garlic, Sichuan pepper, pickled vegetables, hot pepper, etc. I think this soup may have been the best I have eaten in China. At supper we ordered a bowl of vegetable stew, as delicious as was the morning’s soup.

Shaxi, Long Feng Muslim Restaurant

Shaxi, Long Feng Muslim Restaurant

Lunch took us to Ben Tu Ren Jia, where we had two local dishes: zha ru bing (fried goat cheese sprinkled with sugar) and fen pi chao jidan (broad rice sheets mixed with egg and spices). Excellent food, again.

The streets of Shaxi are a pleasure to meander through and the countryside is perfect for walking in the fields and exploring the many nearby villages via bicycle.

Shaxi, Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll

Shaxi, Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll

Shaxi Doorway

Shaxi Doorway

Shaxi Doorway (detail)

Shaxi Doorway (detail)

We stayed at the local International Youth Hostel, which was inexpensive but very nondescript and dingy and dark. However, if you are on a budget this is a good enough choice. It is just not a place where you will want to chill (in fact, it was freezing there since its outer walls are literally made of plywood). I have been told that if you want to treat yourself,  a nice place to stay is the Old Theatre Inn — about a 15-minute bicycle ride from Shaxi. Breakfast is included and apparently the rooms are extremely comfortable, with all the amenities and a great view of the expansive farmland just beyond its doors, nestled among the villages and surrounding mountains.

Accommodation:

Places to Eat:

  • Ben Tu Ren Jia on the cobblestoned main street leading to the Town centre.
  • Long Feng Muslim Restaurant on Shaxi’s main road

 

Dali, Yunnan

Woman Resting, Dali, Yunnan, China
Woman Resting, Dali, Yunnan, China

Dali, Yunnan Province:

Yulan (one of my four teachers at Keats School in Kunming – and now a friend) and I travelled by overnight train (on a hard sleeper) to Dali, at the beginning of its Spring season. The capital of the Bai Autonomous Region, Dali is rich and fertile, and full of villages and farmland in the valley that surrounds the banks of the 40 km long Erhai Lake (洱海) (“er” = see; “hai” = lake or sea); the lake is shaped like an ear which is called “er” although the character “er” is written differently: 耳. The Bai heavily populate this area, and their traditions flourish despite the many tourists. There are also many expats who run a number of places in the town, including the guesthouse where we stayed. Older women dress in their traditional blue scarves and jackets. While we were there, the Bai community was celebrating the March Fair, which is held from March 15th to 21st of the lunar calendar, and, we were told, celebrates peace with traditional music, burned incense, and foods offered in sacrifice.

Bai Holiday, Dali, Yunnan
Bai Holiday, Dali, Yunnan
Bai Holiday, Dali, Yunnan
Bai Holiday, Dali, Yunnan
Bai Holiday, Dali, Yunnan
Bai Holiday, Dali, Yunnan
Bai Woman, Dali
Bai Woman, Dali

On our first day, we cycled 65 km., exploring the countryside and small villages in the greater Dali area. The local farmers were busy in their fields and children were fishing, with nets in hand and wearing only underwear. In one of these villages we found a lovely couple who makes bing (bread pockets which can be filled with many things, (we tried them with onions).

Man in Village Near Dali
Man in Village Near Dali
Woman in Village Near Dali
Woman in Village Near Dali
Onion Bing, Dali, Yunnan, China
Onion Bing, (in village outside of Dali)

We stayed at a quiet guesthouse, Sleepy Fish, just inside the new east gate of the old town, and awoke to the sound of roosters crowing in the morning. At the start of each day, we went around the corner to eat shao er kuai (roasted rice flour cakes). This is a common Yunnanese dish; a roasted, thin, round, pancake-like er kuai, that is usually brushed with a peanut-sesame sauce and/or chile sauce (tian de / la de –> sweet and spicy), and wrapped around youtiao (deep-fried bread sticks), hotdogs, julliened potatoes, or other ingredients, depending on the vendor.

On day two we walked around the old town, where the main roads are overrun by tourists. Dali is known to have been “discovered” by backpackers and is still inundated with them, as well a new generation of young hippies. On these streets one sees small stores full of artisanal goods (including coffee shops), people doing bead-work on the streets, and others selling mass-produced embroidered fabrics, jewellery, etc. Dali is a town for tourists, but if you can get off the beaten path, you can still catch a glimpse of the daily lives of the people who live here, such as the farmers who sell their produce on the street. People still work their plots in the farmland that borders the old town. Some corners of Dali are real surprises – just by turning onto a side street you can happen upon a wide variety of glorious flowers and trees growing in small courtyards. This reminded Yulan of the poem written by the Song Dynasty Poet Ye Shao Weng’s poem Failure in Visiting the Garden:  “Spring air’s too overfull to be shut in the garden, Over the wall one red apricot-twig had to crane.”Spring in Dali really was in bloom; pear and apricot trees were flowering and outside town golden fields of rapeseed flowers, which bloom annually, were in striking abundance. 

 Dali, Apricot Tree in Bloom


Dali, Apricot Tree in Bloom (photograph courtesy of Hou Yulan)

Fields of Rapeseed (with old town Dali in the background)

Fields of Rapeseed (with old town Dali in the background)

Dali Street Scene

Dali Street Scene

Dali Street Scene, Renmin Lu

Dali Street Scene, Renmin Lu

Dali (Renmin Lu)

Dali Street Scene, Renmin Lu

Dali Alley

Dali Alley

Dali is full of excellent food (both on the street and in restaurants). For lunch on our second day we ate at Zai Hui Shou. Their specialty is lian ji mixian (cold rice noodle w/chicken, greens, peanuts, and a mix of a sweet and spicy sauce) and wan dou lian fen (cold yellow pea doufu – topped with peanuts, green onions, and a similar but slightly different sweet and spicy sauce). Suppertime took us to the four-generation-run restaurant,  Zhen Hua Fandian, where we ate: suan la yu – sour and spicy fish with an extremely flavourful and complicated broth; tang cou pai gu – sweet and sour pork ribs; and cha shou gu – mushroom with hot peppers). The third night in Dali we dined on braised pork, lotus root, and bamboo shoots  – at another highly recommended local restaurant, Xiao Duan Chu Fang. The atmosphere was pleasant in this spacious restaurant and the food was excellent (although more expensive than the two other somewhat simpler restaurants).

Wan Dou Lian Fen (cold yellow pea doufu)

Wan Dou Lian Fen (cold yellow pea doufu)

Accommodation:

Places to Eat:

  • Xiao Duan Chu Fang (Duan’s Kitchen) – 12 Renmin Lu
  • Zhen Hua Fandian – 181 Renmin Lu
  • Zai Hui Shou on Renmin Lu — 135 Renmin Lu

China as I See it

Boy, Kunming

Boy, Kunming

When I first headed to China in 2012, I presumed I would find the culturally rich country with a long and enduring history, that I knew from reading and from museum exhibitions; and magnificent, vast, natural landscapes that I’d seen in movies, photographs, and paintings. I also expected, from what I had read in the news, overcrowded cities and evidence of the reckless exploitation of natural resources. Having travelled in Southeast Asia, I also anticipated a wide assortment of diverse and tasty food. I did not have many preconceptions about the people other than presuming that they might be better educated and perhaps more mobile than those in the other, somewhat less-developed, regions of Asia that I had visited. I had hoped to encounter warmth and hospitality. Some of my preconceptions have proved true but I’ve also had some unexpected revelations. As I wrote in my posting, First Impressions of China, China is neither a third nor first world country and is changing at tremendous speed; public transportation is fairly top notch, construction is faster than lightening, consumption is high, and it is hard to tell whether the infrastructure will be able to take all this rapid growth. Yet, despite all this recent transformation, it seems that family, food and tradition are still central to the Chinese people and their values. Because I have met so many wonderful people over these seven months in China, I have decided to share with you just a few photos of their many faces.

Feeding Seagulls from Russia During Migratory Season, Kunming

Feeding Seagulls from Russia During Migratory Season, Kunming

I came to China to study the language in September 2013 (I’ll be leaving the country at the end of March 2014). My sole incentive was to try to better understand this country’s people and culture. I have succeeded in learning quite a bit on all counts. So, in no particular order, here are my updated impressions and some of my discoveries about China.

Hygiene: Garbage is thrown on the streets in cities, towns, and villages, since people are employed to pick it up (although those who are really in the countryside seem to take great care of their environment). Much of the population continues to spit on the ground (it starts with the clearing of the throat – a sound I’ve learned to dread – and is followed by phlegm shooting like a spitball onto the ground, where the vestige pools. Most men smoke, and in the cities women are beginning to do the same, although they often do so in secret because it still is taboo. Cigarette butts too, are thrown onto the ground.

The western-style toilet is making its way into China – particularly in big cities, where you may find a few of them in a row of toilets in public washrooms. In most places, however, there are still squat toilets (often without toilet paper, or water, or soap). In some instances (such as in bus stations), these toilets drain directly into an outhouse-like hole or trough, and are without doors for privacy. I have been told that when some Chinese find a western toilet they actually may stand on the toilet seat and then squat. Some toilets are clean, but from what I’ve seen, a great many are not. Cleanliness aside, there is something so basic about this experience that I actually enjoy using them anyway. In the West, we are very private about the goings-on in our bathrooms. We lock the doors and don’t want anyone around. I like that in Chinese bathrooms the ego is relinquished and disposing bodily waste is just what we do. How unflushed faeces, or splashed urine, reflect on hygiene is a whole other story. Here is a link to images of an array of Chinese toilets.

As I mentioned in my First Impressions posting, babies are clothed in pants that are split along the crotch, so that the moment a baby needs to relieve itself, parents can hold him/her over a curb, next to a tree,or wherever convenient. I have always found this a brilliant idea, until I recently saw a mother holding her child over a restaurant sink meant for customers to wash their hands.

Lastly, it is not uncommon to see city-dwellers wearing face masks to protect themselves from dust, pollution, and germs in general. All across China, cities are experiencing extraordinarily high levels of air pollution. In Kunming, (where pollution levels are somewhat lower than in many other cities in the country), most people do not wear masks that filter pollution particulate matter. Instead, fashionable face masks are often worn as accessories; people want to look good while trying to avoid dust from ongoing construction, germs, and smog. When the pollution is “high” it looks as though there is fog outside. I have experienced this grey/yellow atmosphere in Beijing, produced by extremely dangerous levels of pollution (one can barely see a few blocks away). My teachers claim, as do many others, that it is just fog, but I have noticed that I am sensitive to the air quality as it worsens, and I monitor the air quality index so I know it is definitely not fog when the mountains surrounding the city, or the tall buildings in the distance, are shrouded in a cloud of grey. I bought myself approved masks for heavy pollution conditions, but the majority of the Chinese population buys its masks in convenience stores or other stores where the fashionable models are available. Very few people wear masks that really protect them – although this is beginning to change, thankfully. It’s a small first step because, of course, the greater issue of the pollution itself needs to be addressed.

Husband and Wife, Kunming

Husband and Wife, Kunming

Driving: On city streets, drivers seem to lack situational awareness.  It appears, to an outsider and pedestrian, that no one pays attention to what is around them. Those on motor bikes do not check behind them as they move from the sidewalk onto the street. The average driver travels as though part of a school of fish. In the West, roads are lined for traffic flow and we stick to these lanes, unless passing another vehicle. In China, delineated traffic lanes strike me as being mere suggestions. It’s not that China doesn’t have traffic laws but many drivers are probably ignorant of them and just follow the crowd instead. From what I observe, infrastructure and resources need to be improved. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of cars and scooters on the road and this change has occurred much too quickly. There are few traffic police and instead, just recently in Kunming, they have hired ordinary citizens to attempt to reign in drivers when a light turns red. There is a need for aneffective legal system to deter the behaviours that cause traffic jams and, no doubt, accidents.

In Kunming, electric scooters are widely used. They are quiet and environmentally efficient. The vehicles are plugged in overnight, and can travel for about 40 kilometres before needing another charge. In this regard, China is certainly ahead of the West, where there is still objection to electric vehicles, no doubt because of big oil interests.

Man, Kunming

Man, Kunming

Education: China has great respect for its teachers, a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Modern Chinese education began about a century ago, but because of the Cultural Revolution it was slow to develop and has lagged behind the West. Unlike in North America, educators are highly regarded and garner great respect and admiration. Children attend school six days a week and take many after-class lessons. They are expected to study hard and succeed. Parents hope that their children will eventually go on to university and improve their lives.  The general population realizes that in order for the country to succeed and to develop economically and socially, it needs to make great progress in the world of science and technology, economics, etc. Education is key to all of this.

Old Friends, Kunming

Old Friends, Kunming

People: One of the most interesting aspects of Chinese culture is its mixture of direct and indirect behaviour. Most people are usually very blunt, and tell you exactly what they think and feel. I discovered early on that people rarely look at you in the eye. Apparently, steady eye contact is viewed as improper and can be seen as an act of defiance (when people become angry they often sustain eye contact). When a Chinese parent disciplines a child, that child is expected to look down. In the West, in contrast, children are often told, “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”  And yet, I have a had a number of people keep a strong gaze fixed on me; it has just been without looking me in the eye – usually they will look between your eyes, at the bridge of your nose, to avoid engagement. I have found that my attempts to establish eye contact have not always been reciprocated. Yet, perhaps because I smile a lot, I am often rewarded with eye contact and a smile in return.

In the city, the Chinese people are becoming more confident. There is an assertiveness that verges on rudeness. I have had people fight me, though not quite literally, for a taxi. On the Beijing subway and on buses in all of the cities I have visited, younger people remain seated when an elderly person boards a vehicle. When people bump into you on the crowded streets, they do not apologize. They don’t seem to hear my frequent apologies as I brush past them, and I have learned to not bother saying anything. These teeming urban centres can be difficult to negotiate if you come from the West. I tend to like to move at a brisk pace but I am learning to be more Zen (ha!) and just go with the flow, establishing my own space within the crowd. It is a matter of nudging, bumping, and navigating your way to your destination.

Then again, China is a populous country where people live in extreme proximity to one another. They are accustomed to having very little personal space. People walk down the street arm in arm – men with men, women with women. Another way in which people come in close contact is through gradually edging toward someone with whom they’re engaged in conversation. This is the Chinese way to connect with you and I love it!

Old Friends, Kunming

Old Friends, Kunming

Food: The majority of local food is sold on the street and in smaller local markets. Agriculture and gardens abound wherever there is space – although this means mostly on the outskirts of cities. But the city also houses many communal gardens, as well as individual vegetable patches that are planted near riverbanks. I do believe, though this is unconfirmed, that this may, in part, be related to the rural migration to the city. Also, the older Chinese population still recalls the time of The Great Famine. Food is, in some ways, the heart of this country. When an animal is eaten the whole creature is used, and often, one cannot mistake the animal on the plate. When ordering food one finds that everypart is available, from head to toe and everything in between.

Although I am not a vegetarian, I have mostly avoided meat and fish and, instead, have enjoyed doufu and vegetables prepared in a myriad of manners. When I do not eat at school, I snack or have a meal on the street or in inexpensive, local restaurants. Two of my favourite foods in Kunming are a) Dai “cuisine” and b) Hot Pot.  Eating Hot Pot is a communal, and therefore social, activity. Meals, in general in China, are eaten “family style,” with shared common plates or dishes – both at home and in restaurants. People sit around the table and everyone from young to old is included in sharing the meal and conversation. In Kunming I have two favourite places where I devour Hot Pot. The activity proceeds as follows: you choose 1) a broth (mushroom, chicken, spicy, etc.) for yourself in some places and for the group in other places; 2) together you choose the foodstuff for the table (raw meat, tofu, vegetables, noodles); and 3) sauces, spices, etc., for yourself — that you select from an open bar and take back to your table. You add the food into the boiling broth, let it cook, and then, with chopsticks, dig in!!!

I have become a natural at both putting my chopsticks directly into the communal plate to serve myself, and putting any bones from meat I’ve eaten directly onto the table. It’s so simple and natural and without fuss.

China may be synonymous with tea, as per the expression “not for all the tea in China,” but every morning, when I wake up at 5 a.m.-6 a.m., (before my 8 a.m. breakfast at school), I drink Nescafe instant coffee. Starbucks abound here but there are MANY individual cafes, each one quirkier and sweeter than the next. These coffee houses are full of splendid atmosphere but the quality of the drink does not always match the decor. Cafes are still primarily for the Laowai (foreigner) although there is a growing leisure-culture among the younger generation and those with money, in which coffee is part of the day. In any case, the best and cheapest coffee I have found is moments away from my school and, happily, I am a regular!

Mother and Son, Kunming

Mother and Son, Kunming

Family: The family unit is still highly valued in China and respect for elders is taken seriously (although, unfortunately, this is changing slowly, as noted in the section above on youth, the elderly and transportation). There is also great focus on children and Chinese traditions revolve primarily around family. In the past, a home accommodated multiple generations and the father/husband was the indisputable head of the household. Today, the father remains a family decision-maker but no longer exercises absolute control. Another change in family tradition is that children do not always live at home until they are married, and arranged marriage is becoming a thing of the past. Chinese family culture is further discussed in three articles on the website seeingredinchina.com (apologies: domain name expired April 26, 2014):

Typically a family would live in a small compound with 3 buildings opening onto a shared courtyard. The kitchen was considered the center of the home. The entire village typically was made of a few clans who could trace their families back to a common ancestor (this wasn’t the case in cities). This gave people few reasons to ever leave their village, and made it difficult to move to a different village. Some villages would construct ancestral halls to honor their common ancestors which helped to preserve family trees. In such a society, family is more important than any other unit in society, even the government…

Chinese family culture changed during the era of the Cultural Revolution:

… Mao saw the clan and the family as institutions that kept the peasants oppressed so he issued several policies to break down the family structure. Families were made to eat in cafeterias; which meant no home needed a kitchen, children were raised in daycare centers instead of being looked after by relatives, parents were cremated instead of buried, and the ancestor tablets (family records) and ancestral halls were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s attempts to remove the family from the center of Chinese life ultimately failed, but not before destroying a few aspects of traditional culture.

… [A]ncestral temples were destroyed most families lost the records of their extended family… Chinese women [have] the same rights as Chinese men. This means that far more women are now working outside the home, and women now also exercise their right to divorce. This empowerment has changed how parents view their offspring, as it is now thought better to have a daughter than a son if you want to ensure that you will be taken care of in retirement.

Women’s growing role in the work place has left a gap in the family structure for child care. In the communist period, factories built daycares to remove the importance of family. When State-owned enterprises privatized they closed their daycares. To address this problem it has become common to have the grandparents move in for several years to help with raising the child. So it is still common to find the three generations living together under one roof.

Other miscellaneous thoughts:

  • Haggling can be difficult if you’re not familiar with the practice. However, for many services and goods in China, prices are not written down anywhere. You are expected to negotiate. I have learned to establish a price point and am always prepared to forego the purchase if I cannot get the item for that price. Typically, I dicker by starting at a lower price than I intend to pay and working my way up to my price point. Sometime I have to literally walk away, to land the deal I am looking for. This is all part of the dance.
  • China is one of the few countries with high-speed trains. Above the doorway at each end of a train car, the recorded speed is posted. When I travelled from Beijing to Shanghai, the train reached a speed of 312km/hr.
  • I hear that there is corruption and abuse of power within the various levels of government here, which results in dramatic income inequality. Those with money and connections usually get what they want (as is the case in many other parts of the world).  Despite growth and infrastructural improvements in Kunming, many people live in poverty. Developers and investors continue to build, and much of the new construction remains empty. Not only are city blocks being razed but so is the countryside, as cities keep expanding. I understand there are fears about the safety of these buildings, although hearsay indicates that stricter laws arestarting to be implemented so that the onus is on the developers/builders/owners, with huge fines and even the death penalty for those responsible, should a building collapse. Unsubstantiated but interesting: I have also heard that these empty buildings are intended to house displaced people in the event of a disaster. If this is true, it indicates that China is a country that is concerned about its citizens.
  • Odd names for stores: Many stores in Kunming have names that are not quite French, not quite English, and just plain strange. Here are a few of my favourites:  “The Van is Foot” (a shoe store); “La Four” (my favourite cafe – do they mean le four — the oven, in French — or L.A. 4 for the Jazz quartet? The decor does not suggest either); “A Cup of Rigorous Attitude” (another cafe. the name says it all?); “PRICH” (women’s clothing – rich? bitch? rich bitch? it is an odd one); “Unsightly and Peculiar”  (another clothing store – who wouldn’t want to shop here?); Rambo Bread Works (killer bread?); Sincere Space (I passed by this building quickly, on the bus, the other day – it looked like it could be an apartment or office building).
  • And of course, the smog in major urban areas is terribly hazardous to one’s health. The pollution here is insufferable. Even in Kunming, where the air is relatively clear and clean and you can see the stars at night, pollution levels can go above 150 (which means the air quality is unhealthy and “Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects,” according to http://aqicn.org ).
Watching Caramel "Animal" Candy Being Made, Kunming

Watching Caramel “Animal” Candy Being Made, Kunming

But!!! I still enjoy the streets filled with people yelling at each other or into their phones. In the hotter areas men roll up their shirts so that their bellies are exposed – I suppose to cool themselves without taking their shirts off entirely. There is a cacophony of honking horns from cars, buses, and motorcycles, warning people in smaller vehicles (including cyclists) and pedestrians, that they are coming your way, so beware! What we consider to be private is often public in China: in interior city blocks and in the countryside, for instance,people wash their dishes on the streets. Life is not clear-cut in China. It is complex and nuanced – as societies tend to be. Much work has been done to make changes in this country (many of them positive) but clearly it is not a simple task (see my post “Raising China“). I am far from opposed to progress; change is a constant in our lives. I just hope the Chinese government will be able to ensure the basic dignity of the Chinese people while they continue to institute society-wide, long-term solutions to their country’s problems, and address the needs of their citizens. Tradition is an important part of any society and many people in China are steadfastly holding onto theirs, so that change may, perhaps, be slowed down to a more natural and thoughtful pace.

Tea at the Confucius Temple, Kunming

Tea at the Confucius Temple, Kunming

I hope that with continued emphasis on education (and higher education, in particular), Chinese citizens will be equipped with the knowledge and experience to implement integrated, sustainable growth. My greatest hope for China is that it will hold onto its rich, long, history and complex culture, while looking far down the road as it moves forward. I am optimistic that it will find a way to use a whole/holistic system approach: that its natural resources will be respected and that both smaller and larger communities in this country will ultimately benefit.

Woman, Kunming

Woman, Kunming

Kunming Train Station Attack

Much has been said these last few days of the train station assault in Kunming this past weekend; I have little to add. However, I want to make mention of Saturday night’s attack since I am currently in Kunming and actually heard shots/bangs (of some sort), from my bedroom, at the time that the event took place. Having experienced two weeks of Chinese Spring Festival fireworks and firecrackers, I knew that the sounds I heard were not of that ilk. I listened for sirens but did not hear any, so my moment of concern was short-lived. I was quite surprised and horrified to hear about what occurred Saturday night when I woke up on Sunday and received emails of concern from friends and family. These last few days, Kunming has seen an increase in police presence with guns. In this city it is common, here, to see police on almost every other corner (vans, or little cubicles are permanently posted at these sites). At night now, the lights have been flashing so that people may easily access them should there be a need/emergency. Today, Chinese state-run media has reported that all eight suspects have been arrested or killed. None-the-less, security is still stepped up and SWAT teams continue to patrol certain Kunming streets.

The Chinese government is blaming the Uighur (Muslim) community. I realise relations between the Han majority, who dominate this country, and the Uighur minority from the western province of Xinjiang is not easy. When I asked a local Muslim restaurant owner if his resto would remain open during the Chinese Spring Festival he said, “Of course! We never celebrate the Chinese holidays.” At that moment, I understood there might be animosity between the peoples. Regardless of who is to blame for this weekend’s attack, here is a link that may be of interest with background information about the Uighurs and the Chinese Han: http://chinachange.org/2014/03/03/excerpts-from-my-west-china-your-east-turkestan-my-view-on-the-kunming-incident/

Hell in China

The concept of Hell (Diyu) in China is based in Buddhism, and consists of an underground maze with eighteen levels. Souls are taken here after death to atone for human sin. Once the soul has been cleansed of its sin, it can rejoin the living by means of reincarnation.

I visited Guandu Zhen (Guandu Old Town), south of downtown Kunming, where, in the centre of the town, I saw Vajra Pagoda (built in 1457) and a few temples that surround it. The following photographs are of the spectacular images of “Hell” I came across in a mural in one of the temples.

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Hanzi: From Pictographic Writing to Simplified Characters

Meaning Jia Gu Wen Jin Wen Xiao Zhuan Kai Shu
sun Chinese symbol for sun; Jia Gu Wen. chinese symbol for sun; jin wen Chinese Symbol for sun; Jin wen Chinese symbol for sun; Kai shu
moon Chinese symbol for moon; Jia gu wen chinese symbol for moon; jin wen Chinese symbol for moon; Xiao zhuan Chinese symbol for moon; Kai shu
human Chinese symbol for person; Jia gu wen. Chinese symbol for human being; Jin wen. Chinese symbol for human being; Xiao zhuan. chinese symbol for human being; Kai shu
mountain Chinese symbol for montain; Jia gu wen. Chinese symbol for mountain; Jin Wen Chinese symbol for mountain; xiao zhuan Chinese symbol for mountain; kai shu
bird Chinese symbol for bird; Jia gu wen Chinese symbol for bird; Jin wen Chinese symbol for bird; xiao zhuan. Chinese symbol for brid; kai shu
fish chinese symbol for fish; jia gu wen Chinese symbol for fish; Jin wen chinese symbol for fish; xiao zhuan chinese symbol for fish; kai shu

The above from: http://www.foreigners-in-china.com/chinese-symbol-history.html

Since arriving in China at the beginning of September, 2013, I have been told by many people that in order to really learn Chinese, to truly understand it, one needs to learn Hanzi. This has not been my goal as I study the language in Kunming, Yunnan Province. My only intention has been to try to better understand China and its people by learning a little of the language and by simply living (and travelling) here for eight months. I have, however, found that learning words via flashcards that incorporate both pinyin and Hanzi has really sparked my interest in the meaning and origin of words through Hanzi.

Writing in China has evolved over 3000 years (some even say over 4000 years). Hanzi is the Chinese word for “Chinese character.” These characters are symbols that convey the meaning of a word. According to Hanzim.com, “[t]he earliest uncontroversial [pictographic] examples are the so-called ‘oracle bone inscriptions’ of the Shang Dynasty period (most of the 2nd millenium B.C.E.).”  Many of these early characters are similar to those used today.

Although Hanzi have evolved for centuries, it was during and after the Communist Revolution that Chinese script underwent a process of development into a standardized and more simplified script. In fact, it seems that Chairman Mao wanted to replace Hanzi with pinyin (a system of Romanized spelling for transliterating Chinese). I am thankful for pinyin since it has made my studying somewhat easier.

Radicals (pianpang bushou) are another important element of Hanzi. They are symbols and sometimes also stroke/symbol components meant to help people understand and distinguish the characters and put them into context. These radicals recur in Chinese Hanzi and may be combined to make up different characters. Some stand alone although most characters include radicals. Therefore, to understand the meaning of Hanzi, one needs to be able to identify the radicals. There are 214 of them. As an example, the mù radical “木” means: wood; tree; or wooden. So, if you combine three of these radicals together like this: 森 then you have the word sēn (forest). 木马 (mù​mǎ) is a wooden horse / rocking horse, and, 木工 (mù​gōng) means carpenter / woodworker.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, learning Chinese is unbelievably difficult; it is slow, frustrating, and seemingly impossible to get past the VERY basic stage. At this point, for me, it still feels tantamount to climbing Mount Everest! To think that I have already completed 2/3 of my studies and can barely speak or understand a thing. And yet I have been told I am doing very well!

Like elsewhere in the world, people in different regions of China speak differently. There are many dialects here: Mandarin, Cantonese, “Kunmingese” (perhaps not a real dialect), Naxi, and many, many more. Despite the fact that certain characters may be pronounced differently, the written language and meaning is the same. Below are links to diagrams of interest that demonstrate how Hanzi has evolved. I have also included just a few examples of Hanzi / Chinese words (in no particular order). I find that Hanzi logically illustrates the meaning of words. Some are so brilliantly visual in how they are put together; they produce a definition or phrase far more evocative than any I’ve seen in the English language:

  • AIRPLANE: 飞机 – fēi​jī (fēi =fly / jī = machine) Notice that “jī” includes the radical mu -木. At one time many machines were made of wood.
  • MAP: 地图 – dì​tú  (dì = earth; land; soil; ground / tú = diagram; chart, map, picture) ;
  • BAD LUCK: 倒霉 – dǎo​méi (dǎo​ = to place upside down; fall over / méi = mildew; mould; bacteria; fungi)
  • LIPSTICK: 口红 – kǒuhóng (kǒu = mouth; hóng = red)
  • IMMEDIATELY (straight away): 马上 – mǎ​shàng (mǎ​ = horse / shàng = on top; above) This word refers to the days when someone needed to get somewhere quickly and hopped on his/her horse.
  • NON-SWIMMER: 旱鸭子 – hàn​yā​zi (hàn​ = dry / yā​ = duck)
  • APPLAUD (clap): 鼓掌 – gǔ​zhǎng (gǔ​ = to drum; beat / zhǎng = palm of the hand)
  • ABOUT (approximately): 左右 – zuǒ​yòu (zuǒ​ – left / yòu = right)
  • AVOCADO: 牛油果 – niú​yóu​guǒ (niú​ = ox; cow / yóu = oil; fat; grease / guǒ = fruit; result)
  • JEALOUS: 吃醋 – chī​cù (chī = eat / cù = vinegar; jealousy)
  • SO CLOSE YET SO FAR: 咫尺天涯 – zhǐchǐtiānyá (zhǐ = an ancient measure unit of length / chǐ = ruler; measure of length / tiān = sky; heavens / yá = border; horizon)
  • SO SO (average; just passable): mǎ​mǎ​​hū​hū  – 马马虎虎 (mǎ​ = horse / hū = tiger) Here is a story behind the origin of this word: Long ago there was a painter who had two sons. One day the older son walked by and saw his father’s work which was near completion. He asked his father “What is that?” The father replied, “A horse.” The son said it looked more like a tiger to him than a horse and walked away. Later that day, the younger son happened upon the painting and asked his dad, “What is that a painting of?” The father answered, “It is a tiger,” to which this son said, “Oh! It looks like a horse to me.” The father decided he may, in fact, not be that good at the art of painting. Clearly he was mamahuhu.

And then of course you could by mistake say, “Wǒ xǐhuān páiduì” (“I like to stand in line”) rather than, “Wǒ xǐhuān pài​duì” (“I like to party”). But that is another story…

http://www.hanzim.com/hanzi.php/
http://www.foreigners-in-china.com/chinese-symbol-history.html

Paying the Price for Chinese Fashion

Discount Season on the Street - Selling Stockings

Discount Season on the Street – Selling Stockings

Economics 101 tells us that demand starts with the consumer responding to price. The consumer must both desire the product or service and be able to afford it. Clearly, not everyone can partake in all markets. However, as the price of goods falls, buying increases – just as when prices rise, fewer items (if any) are bought or cheaper items may be substituted for the more expensive. But of course there are exceptions. A costly piece of Louis Vuitton leather luggage or a luxury Aston Martin car, for instance, appeals to a particular buyer because of the status associated with it. Raising prices for these goods does not necessarily decrease demand because they are “Giffen” goods; part of their appeal is that they are expensive. In the retail clothing sector, when merchandise is discounted the demand for these goods increases and they are sold. Discount sales are a highly effective means of clearing merchandise. In the West this has become something of a social custom; Black Friday and Boxing Day are testaments to the success of such large-scale marketing promotions. In China on the other hand, the concept of sales has not been applied evenly in the retail sector. While bargaining is the norm for most transactions in China (haggling is encouraged if not expected), and discounts are common with all cheap and overstocked merchandise, some upscale Chinese clothing brands, still largely unknown in the West, appear to be immune to the “On Sale” convention.

Currently, much of the clothing in China is fairly inexpensive; it consists mainly of domestic brands and is usually sold in small shops or on the street, often in the older city block communities but also in stores for young consumers in the city centre.  It seems that “while the Chinese population is expected to grow 2% by 2020, income growth will continue to outpace population growth — which means more consumers with more buying power. Per capita disposable income is expected to grow 75% between 2012 and 2020, according to projections made by Euromonitor International.” (See: “Reaching the Chinese Consumer,” by Emily Thompson)

Discount Season on the Street

Discount Season on the Street

Typical Middle of the Way Shop - Not Cheap, Not Expensive

Typical Mid-priced Shop – Not Cheap, Not Expensive

Choosing not to offer seasonal discount sales is an important branding strategy for some Chinese retailers. Discounting distinctive merchandise is tantamount to “losing face,” an important concept in social interaction here. In China, “losing face” means that one has lost one’s dignity, social standing, honour, and/or trustworthiness. A common Chinese insult is, “You have no face.” It appears that in the new Chinese consumer culture a sale or discount is regarded as a defeat for those who aspire to buy into the exclusivity that an upscale brand offers. In theory, shoppers can be enticed to purchase clothing at regular prices if they know it will never go on sale. For some nouveau riche, brand-obsessed Chinese consumers, buying clothing at a discount is seen as distasteful and penny-pinching.

No Discount for You!

No Discount for You!

The reality though, is that domestic upscale clothing shops in China are empty of customers and little, if any, sales activity is taking place. Posh retail stores in fashionable shopping malls look eerily deserted; their high prices are out of reach for the majority of Chinese consumers. Would it not make sense to discount these products and sell them in order to divest inventory and make room for new merchandise? And, more importantly, what happens to the merchandise that isn’t sold? Allegedly, stores such as Louis Vuitton and Chanel burn unsold merchandise but a Google search turns up no credible information and Snopes.com has no answers either. What these companies do with unsold goods is anyone’s guess.

The Chinese retail clothing sector is abound with quality, design, and style that the West has not been privy to. Brands such as Exception de Mixmind, ZUCHUG, Ein and Origin have focused exclusively on the Chinese domestic market, providing consumers with “post-modern” styles that are uniquely designed, highly fashionable, and definitively Eastern. Stylish storefronts, strategically placed in China’s major urban boutique malls, exude exclusivity and wealth (and likely charge very high rents). As yankee00 recently commented in GoKunming, “I just Googled images of Exception de Mixmind, and by the looks of them, those things won’t go out of fashion before 2075.” Uma Wang, a Chinese clothing designer, has already made it into the Western market. Although these labels are largely unknown to Western consumers, plans are underway to bring more of them abroad. It will be interesting to see how Chinese clothing brands will adapt to Western retail marketing strategies.

No Discount for You!

No Discount for You!

As in any East-meets-West encounter, when brands from one market expand into another, some degree of compromise has to be reached. Consumer behaviour and expectations in different parts of the world are not the same. Consider the following phenomenon: most upscale clothing chains in North America (or just about any Western clothing chain, for that matter) will receive new seasonal items several times a year and, of course, because this is new merchandise it will not be put on sale. The consumer, however, has been conditioned to wait until the items go on sale – knowing full well that eventually they will be discounted. The sale phenomenon, and the extensive scale of discounts, have become particularly predominant since the late 2000s when the economic crisis decreased purchasing power and affected consumer spending habits accordingly. It appears that sales start earlier each year and discounts are larger. In such an environment, why would anyone pay full price? And how will Chinese brands compete in this type of setting?

No Discount for You!

No Discount for You!

They will probably have to compete on at least two fronts. The first is design and quality. Major Western retailers will have to step it up a few notches to compete with these emerging, upmarket Chinese clothing companies who have quality and unique design on their side. The second and more important issue is price. If Chinese clothing companies, upon entering the Western market, refuse to discount their merchandise they may be out-competed by labels that do offer sales. This issue, in fact, may prevent them from entering the Western market in the first place. Adaptability will be key.  When merchandise is marked down – even once a year – it becomes more accessible to those who can’t quite afford the extravagant. Domestically, Chinese consumers who have less disposable income might consider buying these brands to add to their wardrobes, if they were more affordable. It seems that this would be mutually beneficial; surely there is money to be made in sheer volume of sales in a country with a population such as China’s. The question is, does this conflict directly with the culture of “losing face?” Given that dickering is an integral part of daily life in China, firm and final discounts (and simply lowering prices a tad in the first place) could still allow these companies to save face. 

Acknowledgement: A large thank you goes to Margaret Skwara for instigating this topic, getting it started, and essentially co-writing it with me.