A Day in the Country

For the second time this month, I took some visitors to Cuandixia, a Ming village tucked away in a mountain valley west of Beijing. It has been developed into a popular tourist site, but on this Tuesday after the first day of school, we practically had the village to ourselves. I also made a dash up to the end of the valley to the village of Baiyu to check out the scope of change since the last time I was there ten years ago. Of course the road is paved now!

Anyway, my three favorite photos of the day:















Baiyu Village















Baiyu Village

Cuandixia Village

Reading a Book

This is another in my occasional series of photos from my early days in China. Most are a stark reminder of how much things have changed.  This one is the opposite; in fact it could easily have been taken this week in an urban or rural village. It was taken in 1984, probably somewhere in Henan Province. I hope was able to get a good education.

A Donkey Cart

A donkey cart doesn’t always mean what you think it will mean. This is a great photo that someone posted today on Weibo, China’s micr0-blogging site.Talk about a role reversal. There is something kind of poingnant about the photo as well.

Book Review: China Road

Last week I taught a course on Chinese culture, history, and contemporary society to new arrivals in the Middle Kingdom. In preparation for the course, I had them read "China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power", by Rob Gifford. I have spent the last 2 days reading their reviews of the book (all 75 of them!), and was reminded that I wrote a review of the book a few years back. Here it is in its entirety:

A Road Trip

I will admit it:  I’m a sucker for a road trip.  It probably has something to do with the fact that road trips were a part of my growing up years, which were spent in Pakistan. We lived in the southern port city of Karachi and every summer my family would pile into our old Volkswagen Bus and drive 1000 miles north to the hill station of Murree for an annual conference and to escape the blistering heat.  One summer, we started that annual trek north approximately 7 weeks early, and took the ‘scenic route’ through Afghanistan,  staying in Kabul for a month while my dad served as interim pastor at the international church.  From Kabul, we drove back into Pakistan via the fabled Khyber Pass, a route that Alexander the Great had taken (on chariot, most likely) several thousand years before.  Our road trips weren’t limited to Pakistan, either.  We drove across Europe one summer, and I have traveled by road to/through each of the fifty United States. 

 For the past few years I have been dreaming and scheming about doing a China road trip.  Some days the urge to take 3 months off, buy an SUV and drive from Beijing to Kashgar is overwhelming, so when I saw the title of Rob Gifford’s book China Road, I instinctively knew that this was a book that I was going to like.  When I finished it, I realized that it was the book I wanted to write!

 As he was nearing the end of his assignment as the Beijing Bureau Chief for National Public Radio, Gifford decided to hitch-hike across China from Shanghai to the Kazakhstan border, along Highway 312, the “Route 66” of China, if you will.  The highway winds its way from the glittering lights of Shanghai west through the manufacturing and high-tech corridors of Jiangsu, into the agricultural heartland of Anhui and Henan, up onto the arid plateaus and mountains of Shaanxi; across the deserts of Gansu and Xinjiang, finally ending at the border with Kazakhstan.

 Along the journey, Rob meets a colorful cast of characters and he introduces them to us in the book.  There are the Communist Party ‘babes’ in the Shanghai Starbucks who see nothing contradictory about using their party connections to get rich.  In Shaanxi he meets a Daoist hermit who lives in a cave high on the holy mountain of Huashan to escape the rat race, but then tells Rob to call his cell phone if he has any more questions.  As he travels across Ningxia by bus he meets a pair of traveling abortion ‘doctors’ who believe they are fulfilling their patriotic duty by aborting unborn babies in their eighth month. Somewhere between Xi’an and Lanzhou he finds himself in a village church, where he is eventually asked to give the morning sermon when the itinerant preacher they are waiting for never shows up. And as he journeys further west, into the regions that seem less and less like China, he meets professors and truck drivers who offer insights on what it means to be an ethnic minority in modern China.

 With a reporter’s knack for asking the right questions and getting people to talk, these characters give the reader a glimpse into the thinking of the ordinary people of China as they talk about what it means to be Chinese in a changing China, and what those changes are doing to the psyche and soul of the people.  Some of these observations force the reader to stop and ponder the implications.  A radio personality in Shanghai who hosts a popular call-in show offering advice on love and relationships to young people tells Gifford that “many people now believe that, if there’s no law against it, then it’s all right.  To many in the cities morality – a sense of what is right and wrong – doesn’t matter anymore…People, especially young people are mishi-le.  Lost. “(p. 20) A truck driver observes that “in the west, people have a moral standard that is inside them.  It is built into them.  Chinese people do not have that moral standard within them.  If there is nothing external stopping them, they just do whatever they want for themselves, regardless of right and wrong.” (p.54). After attending an Amway sales rally, the eager salesman tells him, “we want to live.  Right now we are just shengchun.  We are just surviving.  We want to shenghuo.  We want to live. You know? Really live!” (p. 192) And on a bus in western China he talks with a man about western perceptions of China: “What do most people in the west think about China?” the man asks.  Gifford responds that China confuses westerners because it is seems to be a capitalist country run by a Communist party.  The man on the bus replies, “We’re all confused about China.”  It’s a confusing time for many people.  There is so much change.” Finally, Rob asks the man what people in China most want from the west, and without hesitation he answers, “What we want most is respect.” (p. 200)

 More than anything, this book deftly portrays the contradictions of modern China and the resulting conflicted emotions that anyone who encounters China (whether as an insider or an outsider) must eventually deal with. The neon lights of the city announce that consumerism has arrived, China is at peace, and people can now have space to live without government interference into their personal affairs.  At the same time, however, the consumer boom is inaccessible to the majority of the people, the peace is an uneasy one, and since there are no checks on state power, there is no protection from the government. (p. 14-16) The communist experiment failed, but the Communist party is still in power. How can this be?

 Many of the people he meets are torn between a deep love for the country and anger at the people in power, (p.xvi), and Rob is honest about his struggle with this as well.  After his encounter with the abortion doctors and their cavalier attitude toward life, he comments, “The bus rattles on across the fringes of the desert, and I continue to fume, and to hate China.”  I doubt if anyone who has spent time in China has not shared that sentiment at one time or another, and his candor is refreshing.  Towards the end of the book, as he is trying to make sense of it all, he declares (and I agree) that “it’s impossible to be neutral about China.  Love it or hate it. For myself, I have always tried to retain my own unity of opposites, attempting to keep love and hate in balance.  …. And if you’re not confused, then you simply haven’t been paying attention.”

 And there-in lies the beauty and the helpfulness of the book. As westerners, we are too easily stuck in a “black-and-white,” “either-or” thought process when it comes to China, and this book challenges that. Is China about to become a super-power or implode?  Are the Chinese people more free or less free?  Is democracy possible or are they destined to live under authoritarian rule? This book helps us to see that the answer to those questions is the quintessential Chinese one, namely “perhaps.” The deeper questions about morality and relative vs. absolute truth that are raised in the course of his conversations are not so easily answered, but must be dealt with by those of us engaged in China.

 With his skillful weaving of historical and cultural insights into the stories of people, Rob makes this very complex and confusing society accessible, even to those who are just beginning their China journey. 

 Every three or four years a book comes along that I consider the current “must-read” book on China.  For now, China Road is it.  And if I ever get around to taking my road trip across China, this book will be my guide.


Top Ten Features of China’s Car Culture

When I first came to China there were very few cars on the roads–just the occasional Shanghai Sedan models with curtains drawn. Only officials had access to cars back then and they did not want to be seen by the people. The streets were instead filled with bicycles — big black bicycles — that were sturdy workhorses — think SUVs with 2 wheels. When the occasional car approached a cyclist, or more likely a clump (what is the proper measure word for cyclist anyway) of cyclists, they always honked, not so much to tell the riders to get out of the way, but more to say “I’m here!”


At night the cars drove without their headlights on to prevent blinding the bikers; however drivers occasionally needed to see as well (the 20 watt light bulbs on the street lamps were no use), so they would suddenly flash their lights on and off real fast (high beams naturally) to see what might be on the road in front of them. This sudden flash of light would, of course temporarily blind the cyclist, sending them careening into the bushes or onto the sidewalks.  There’s a story out there — I don’t know if it’s true or an urban legend — that on a trip to New York in the late 1980’s the mayor of Beijing was astonished to discover that cars drove with their lights on at night.  He was so impressed that he came back and ordered Beijing drivers to do the same.


In the mid-1990’s the government allowed private citizens to own cars, and thus was the Chinese love affair with the automobile born. Today, everyone (but me) wants to own a car–after all if their neighbors have one, they’d better get one too. As a result, China has developed its own unique ‘car culture’ — I guess you could call it “Motoring with Chinese Characteristics.”


To give you a feel for things, herewith is my list of the top ten features of China’s car culture:


1.  Cartoons are a necessary accessory, with Snoopy, Mickey Mouse, and Hello Kitty being the favorites.  I have never been able to figure out the connection between cars and cartoons, but it’s there. The more cartoon accessories you have, from seat covers to dashboard toys, the better.


2.  Stuffed animals love to ride in cars.  Again, the more stuffed animals you can have in your back window the better.


3. The seats must have covers — rattan, fur, silk, you name it — but the original car upholstery must never be visible.


4. Black is beautiful.  Black cars are a sign of status, wealth and power.  If you have none of those, but have a black car, at least you can make others think you have them.


5. A Buick is considered to be a luxury status vehicle.


6. There are only 2 rules of the road: don’t hit and don’t get hit.  Anything you do to accomplish those two objectives is fair game.


7. Your car must be washed on the day before the Chinese Lunar New Year, even if there are 100 cars in line ahead of you at the car wash. We can’t start off the new year with a dirty car now, can we?


8. Most sidewalks double as parking lots.


9. Seat belts are optional. The law actually states that they are not optional, but most drivers ignore that — until they pull up to an intersection with a traffic camera, in which case they will drape it across their lap so it looks like its fastened until they drive past the camera. If a passenger sitting in the front seat of a taxi  tries to actually fasten it (usually only a foreigner does this), the driver will look offended. Said foreigner figures it’s his life or the the driver’s face, and opts to fasten it anyway.


10. Automobile-driving city slickers need somewhere to go on the weekends, so they head to villages and resorts in the mountains to eat fish. Most outings in China usually involve eating fish. What’s interesting about this activity in China is the collective nature of it. No one wants to do a weekend drive alone so they hook up with others (usually who have the same model of car) and head to the hills in convoys — car clubbing, I call it. The call goes out to meet at a designated spot on the freeway (usually just outside the toll booth), then off they go.


In March I went with some visitors to the Great Wall, and we spotted this car club out for a weekend drive.  It was a club of Peugeot drivers. Notice the flashing lights — to help them all stay together.


The Return of Dunkin’ Donuts?

A blogger in China recently wrote about the appearance of Dunkin' Donuts in Xi'an:

Somewhere in between rickshaws barreling down streets, three-wheeled cars, and sidewalk vendors selling boiled lotus roots, I didn’t expect to see that strikingly familiar orange and pink Dunkin’ Donuts sign. As a Massachusetts native, I frequented Dunkin’ Donuts in my school years, and the logo stuck out like a….well…. Dunkin’ Donuts sign in the middle of third-tier China. But there it was, just a few miles away from my university apartment in Xi’an, China, a brand new Dunkin’ Donuts franchise selling fresh hot coffee, donuts, and munchkins.  (www.tomschinablog)

I chuckled because this is actually the return of Dunkin' Donuts to China, not the first appearance.  In the early 1990's Beijing had at least 3 Dunkin' Donuts stores around town, including one at the Friendship Store. I was working in Changchun at the time, and often travelled to Beijing on business. My co-workers would not let me back in the office when I returned unless I had at least one box of donuts in hand.

Shortly after I moved to Beijing in 1998, they all closed.  We never knew why. Perhaps they were just ahead of their time.

Welcome back to China, Dunkin Donuts.  Hope to be seeing you again in Beijing real soon.



The Same Neighborhood Today

Regarding yesterday’s post — some  (who are not familiar with Guanzhou) have written and asked what the city looks like today. Here are a couple of photos I managed to find online:


This is a picture of the Garden Hotel, across the street from the Baiyun Hotel, where I took that shot in the previous post.  In fact, I’m thinking it may have been taken from the Baiyun Hotel — perhaps from the room I stayed in.The perspective seems very familiar.


(Photo source: Garden Hotel Website)

This is a picture of the Baiyun Hotel, where we stayed– the building on the right. Is it really the same city?








(Photo Source: Baiyun Hotel Website)


I’m thinking it might be time for a trip to Guangzhou to stay at that hotel — just for old time’s sake.




Slow Down, You Move too Fast

At least that's what the government is now saying about China's high-speed trains.  Prompted by last month's terrible crash and the subsequent investigation, the Ministry of Railways announced yesterday that trains on many of the new high-speed lines have to slow down. From the China Daily: 

"According to the Ministry of Railways, during the initial stages, trains with a top design speed of 350 kilometers per hour will be lowered to 300 km/h, and the trains designed to run up to 250 km/h will operate at 200 km/h. The rails whose speed was previously raised to 200 km/h will be scaled down to 160 km/h. Ticket prices will also be reduced."

So the Beijing to Changchun trip may now take 7 hours.  Never mind.  That's still down from the 15 hours it took when I lived there in the 1990's.

(HT: Shanghaiist)