Blessings, To Go

Earlier this week Amy, Lisa and I decided to take advantage of some nice weather and escape the city to the mountains west of Beijing. Our destination was Miaofeng Shan, in Mentougou district. The complex of temples on the mountain is a classic example of Chinese pragmatism, mixing Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. “One temple, 3 religions.”


The temples were built during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), and over time became an annual pilgrimage destination. Here’s a description from Tour-Beijing: 

The highlight or the most valuable asset of Miao Feng Shan is the Miao Feng Shan Goddess Temple, or locally referred as Niang Niang Miao ( 娘娘庙 ). The Goddess Temple at Miao Feng Shan is dedicated to Bixia Yuanjun (碧霞元君), also known as the “Heavenly Jade Maiden” ( 天仙玉女 )or the “Empress of Mount Tai” (泰山娘娘). According to one of the legends, she is the daughter of the Emperor Lord of Mount Tai. Statues of Bixia Yuanjun often depict her holding a tablet with the Big Dipper as a symbol of her authority.
Bixia Yuanjun has given Mt. Miao Feng Shan a reputation in the whole China. The legend has it that the pilgrims come to have their petitions before their their goddess, the lame can be made to walk, the ill can be cured, prosperity can be brought to merchants, and longed for children can be given.

There were a couple of busloads of pensioners there (in the old days they — and we — would have walked up), but other than that we had the place to ourselves. Everyone was in a good mood, and we could track the groups as they wandered around from the noise of their laughter.

We hiked up to the rose garden, hoping to enjoy a sea of roses, but were disappointed. Even though the roses are in full bloom in the city, at this elevation (nearly 4000ft), the bushes were still bare.

We climbed to the highest temple and sat down to enjoy our picnic lunches in the glorious sunshine. The solitude that we were enjoying was broken when an extended family reached the top of the stairs, and arrived, huffing and puffing, at the platform where we were sitting. Their pilgrimage to pay homage to the Jade Emperor was complete.

But wait! A bonus was lurking in the shadows of the temple — 3 foreigners! They immediately rushed over and lined up to have their photos taken one by one with Lisa, who was standing along a wall. Amy and I sat off to the side, eating our sandwiches, hoping not to be dragged into the impromptu photo shoot.

At one point the family dragged their toothless grandpa over, and he mistakenly tried to sit down between Amy and me to have his picture taken. I leaned over to him and said in Chinese, “I’m sorry, we’re not participating in this event,” whereupon the family members grabbed him and threw him into Lisa’s arms instead.

Lisa 2013 154b

After everyone had gotten their picture taken with Lisa, they went in to burn their incense to the Jade Emperor, and we scampered back down the stairs to the main courtyard of the temple.

In the courtyard we found a group of men sitting under a tree, and noticed they were each wearing a bright red ribbon attached to their shirts. They were the kind of ribbons that one might see as a 2nd place prize for one’s zucchini at the state fair, but these had Chinese characters on them.

Taking the Blessing Home

I asked one of the men what it was, and they all replied in unison DAI FU HUAN JIA. Now. whatever could that mean, we wondered. Daifu — doctor? Huan jia — exchange house?  The doctor is exchanging his house? That didn’t make any sense, so I took a closer look at the characters: 戴福还家. Roughly translated, it means ‘take the blessing home.’ I asked for an explanation, and they said the ribbon was their way of taking home to their families the blessings they had received by praying at the temples.

Blessings, to go!

Here are some more photos from the day:








Looking back towards Beijing

It was a target-rich environment for Chinglish signs




Chinese Dreaming


For the past few months I have had the song “California Dreaming’” stuck in my head. I blame Chinese president Xi Jinping and his propagation of the notion of a  “Chinese Dream.”

It has become a feature of political culture in China that each new leader puts forth a slogan that he hopes will define his “administration.” When Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1979 he launched the “Four Modernizations,” a campaign designed to jolt China out of the chaos and economic stagnation following the Cultural Revolution by embarking on modernization programs in industry, agriculture, science and technology, and the military. The slogan “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” came into vogue a bit later, and was trickier to nail down. When I would ask my Chinese friends back then what in the world it meant, they would reply, “Oh, it means capitalism, but we’re still not comfortable with that word.”

Jiang Zemin came up with the “Theory of the Three Represents,” which supposedly indicated that the Party was to represent not just the interests of the peasants and workers, but also of the “advanced and social productive forces,” “the progressive course of China’s advanced culture,” and “the fundamental interests of the majority.” I say ‘supposedly’ because I don’t think anyone ever had a clue what it meant. When I would ask my Chinese friends what in the world it meant, they would just roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders and say, “who knows?” After Jiang Zemin stepped down from his position as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the phrase completely disappeared from public discourse, although he did manage to get the phrase enshrined in the Chinese Constitution. Mention it now and people just laugh.

Hu Jintao came to power in 2002 promising to build a “harmonious society,” and thus did the word HARMONY slowly work its way into all political and social discourse. The railway system even got into the act, naming the new high speed trains that now zip about the country “China Harmony Rail.” After ten years, the novelty wore off, however, and people in China (both local and foreign) are just sick of the word ‘harmony’ and all it’s variations. “Harmonize” has also become a synonym censorship, as in “my blog post was harmonized.”

Now Xi Jinping has become the leader of China and the slogan he has put forth is the “Chinese Dream.” Earlier this month The Economist published a special report about it, even suggesting that the slogan may have been borrowed from Thomas Friedman (a scary thought).

The Asia Society recently asked Evan Osnos, the Beijing-based correspondent for The New Yorker about the meaning of this “Chinese Dream.” Specifically, they asked for help in understanding what it is, who can attain it, and the obstacles for turning the dream into reality.

Here is a video clip of Osnos’ reply to the questions.

In sum, he makes these points:

1. It is the first slogan that makes sense.

2. It is an attempt to give individuals opportunities to keep moving forward.

3. It is about wealth creation and continuing China’s rise.

4. It is about humility in governing by acknowledging corruption and streamlining the bureaucracy

5. It is about national pride.

6. It is the first time that Chinese citizens are acknowledged as having similar interests American citizens.

7. The biggest challenge is that “the political system has run out of its ability to accommodate the incredible diversity of expectations and aspirations that Chinese people have today.”

Hmmm…. change the wording of that last point slightly, and you have a pretty accurate description of the situation regarding the church: “the religious regulatory system has run out of its ability to accommodate the incredible diversity of expectations and aspirations that Chinese Christians have today.”

Will the “Chinese Dream” also be able to accommodate the expectations and aspirations of China’s religious believers? Only time will tell.

Oh, and if you are working in China and have any dealings with officials, now is a good time to revise your banquet speeches and toasts by removing references to harmonious relationships and replacing them with references to dreams.


Further reading on the “Chinese Dream:”

Chasing the Chinese Dream (The Economist)

Xi Jinping and the Chinese Dream (The Economist)

A Nebulous Slogan (The Economist)

The Chinese Dream (Caixin Online)


Image source:


An Afternoon on the Square

If I had checked the weather report yesterday afternoon, I would have known that it was 93 degrees, and thus  probably would have thought twice about heading down to Tiananmen Square with my camera.

But then I would have missed out on some of these pics.

Guarding the Monument to the People's Heroes

Guarding the Monument to the People’s Heroes


The Gate of Heavenly Peace

The Gate of Heavenly Peace

The glories of Tibet on the giant Trinitron

Happy Tibetans on the giant screen




Yesterday some friends invited me for lunch at noodle restaurant. Since my friends were related to the owners of the restaurant, she let me into the tiny room where the master noodle maker was working his magic.

He took a lump of dough and rolled it into a super thin slab about 3 feet in diameter. This video clip picks up at the point where he is folding the dough into a dozen or so layers to cut it.

Were I to do this, I would have no fingers left. (note to readers receiving this post by email: if the video player does not display, click here to watch the clip on YouTube)

And this is what the finished product looked like:


They were as delicious as they look! And I was once again reminded that Beijing has some of the best food in the world!


Peking University in 1921

This year marks the 115th anniversary of the founding of Peking University, one of China’s top universities. Today it is affectionately known as “Bei Da,” short for Beijing Daxue (Beijing University).

Such is the esteem in which this university is held among Chinese that when I recently introduced a Chinese friend to a bunch of other Chinese at a gathering in Minnesota and she told them (upon their asking, of course) that she was an alum and now a professor at BEI DA, they all swooned!

To commemorate the founding, Peking University News recently published a special edition, titled “”Yenching University, 1021: A Peking Perspective.” (It was originally called Yenching University).

This is what the campus looked like in 1921:


Here are some interesting excerpts from a booklet about the university published in 1921:

JOHN KELMAN, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, in China in 1921.

“Peking University will have no rival in the whole Republic. Its influence will be most powerful in connection with the present intellectual movement among students, and it will stand for all that promises a great future for the magnificent national genius of China.”

HARRY EMERSON FOSDICK, First Presbyterian Church, New York, who visited China in 1921.

“The biggest need of China is a thoroughly trained Christian leadership developed from its own sons.”   “Never before in my life have I seen a more strategic opportunity than the one before Peking University.”

Over the ever-narrowing Pacific, the traveler from Vancouver in fourteen days reaches Shanghai, and in thirty-four hours a train with modern equipment carries him from Shanghai to Peking. In normal times fourteen days will bring him from Peking to London via Mukden, Harbin, Chita, Moscow, and Berlin.

Its Aim. The University has been founded by Christian leaders of the West to furnish the best quality of intellectual and religious leadership for China. The hope of China lies in the training of a new type of young manhood and womanhood who have the education and the character to bring about a better political and social order in China and who can lead their people to share in a similar task for the world.

I find the openness with which the university acknowledges its Christian heritage to be quite interesting.


What is She Doing? The Answer.

ImageThanks to all who left comments with your guesses on what that cute waitress was doing with her mini flame-thrower. Lots of good (and not so good) guesses, but only a few of you got it right. Interestingly, those of you who knew the answer all live or have lived in China.

This is the time of year when the seed pods on the gazillion poplar trees that were planted in the 1956 tree-planting campaign burst, filling the air and covering the ground with cotton “snow.” Once the cotton starts to fly, it gets into everything — there is no escape.

When I lived in Changchun in the 1990’s I discovered that the local method of dealing with the fluff (which was often several inches deep on the ground) was to burn it. Once lit, it burns so quickly that it doesn’t have time to burn anything else. We would light a pile along a street side curb, and watch as the flame raced down the street. It really was quite fun.

What this gal was doing was a smaller version of that….she was just burning one “cotton snowflake” at a time. Brilliant.

The cotton fluff and the burning of it thereof have entered the folklore of my colleagues in China, thanks to my mom. One of those colleagues, the always entertaining KK, chronicled an incident that happened in 2001 that has come to be known as “The Cottonwood Saga.”


None of this could have happened without a cast of CHARACTERS – 4 to be exact.  Four of them were Americans teaching English in a university in Beijing.  One more character – Gracie — is the mother of Jo, who also lives in Beijing.  Gracie was visiting Jo, and when she had to leave for a few days on business, our team of English teachers was honored to host Gracie for dinner, which we “cooked” in the school restaurant.

The cottonwood “fluff” from the many trees around campus was really thick that day, so much so that it became the topic of conversation.  Gracie happened to mention that at her home in Minnesota there were 7 Cottonwood trees which of course, like all Cottonwood Trees, dropped their “fluff.”  It collected along both sides of the driveway, looking like snow.  She also mentioned that someone had told them that if you take a match and light the “fluff” the fire would speed down the driveway and in seconds it was all gone.  END OF STORY?  NO WAY.

[note from Jo: that ‘someone’ was me]

After one of our team members had left to take Gracie back to her Jo’s apartment, the team of English teachers were left in their respective apartments.  But not for long.  They got back together and began to discuss the matter of COTTONWOOD FLUFF, recalling what they had just been taught about it.  We began to discuss the matter – DOES THE STUFF REALLY BURN?  Would Gracie lie to us?  Surely not.  So, with an abundance of matches in our hands, we went outside where we found piles and piles of COTTONWOOD FLUFF.  “Let’s check it out,” we said, and of course, we did.

I (the author of this piece) got the matches and the four of us marched outside to do our experiment.  The first pile of “fluff” was about a foot long, and since it was right outside our door, it was our TEST PLOT.  We lit the match, tossed it and POOF – it was gone, no more test plot.  The match continued burning long after the fluff was gone.

We mutually agreed that BIGGER IS BETTER so we proceeded down the walk and found a DRIFT (much bigger than a mere PLOT).  This drive was about five feet long and five inches wide.  POOF – this time a BIGGER POOF.  To our credit we lit the cottonwood DRIFT that WAS NOT near the parked car!. Understandingly, we got a larger blaze this time.  It dissipated within two or three seconds.

One team member, a tiny little blond girl from Mississippi, was so excited.  “We need to go over by the boys’ dorm – there are lots of piles over there. Come on, let’s go.”  I said, “Why not?  There still plenty of matches left in the box.”  I went with her – two other cohorts lingered behind at a distance.

Sure enough.  Another medium-sized pile went up in flames, and by then we had a cult-like following of the boys from the dorm as well as several families out for a stroll.  Because they were all speaking in Chinese, I really couldn’t understand them.  My cohort kept walking and we came upon an enormous drift of the stuff measuring perhaps a foot deep and wide at  its highest point.  PERFECT!

My cohort kept hollering, “Look at this.  Come on.  This will be great.”  (By the way, had I not been alone and had she not instigated this activity, I am certain I would never have tried it.).  By the way, when Gracie had first told us about this, she didn’t say anything about – THE BIGGER THE PILE, THE BIGGER THE POOF.

Well, this pile POOFED in a spectacular way and proceeded to burn the drifts to my left and to my right, not unlike the burning fuse on the old TV series, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE.

I just kept watching and thinking, “It’ll be okay, it’ll go out soon.”  At that moment, my cohort screamed, “I TOLD YOU NOT TO LIGHT THAT.  IT’S GOING TO BURN THE BICYCLES!” And she was right.  The flame to my left was POOFING its way through the Cottonwood seeds and drifted its way through dozen or so bicycles parked on the sidewalk.  I thought, “It’ll be alright.  It’ll go out soon.”   And I was right, IN PART.  The pile to my right had dissipated.  The seeds burned so quickly that the bicycles were unscathed.

Then my cohort screamed, “YOU’RE GOING TO BURN THE BUSHES.  IT’S IN THE BUSHES.”  And she was right.  The fire had zipped through a small hedge bordering the sidewalk, burning nothing but the Cottonwood seeds, leaving the bushes unscathed.

Next “IT’S JUMPING THE FENCE!”  And she was right.  A 6-1/2 foot tall fence separated the sidewalk and the hedge from the grass in front of an apartment building.  Next she shouted, “YOU’RE GOING TO BURN THE GRASS!”  And she was right.  The fluff was on the grass in clumps, and the fire was jumping from clump to clump.  “IT’S GOING BY THE TREE!”  And she was right.  It circled the tree, but then quickly went out.

The other members of our team had watched, but kept their distance lest anyone think they were in on it.  I had contemplated climbing the tree but it wasn’t necessary.  The excitement was over.  The two watching teammates just came for a cursory look, the young, blond cohort suddenly had to go and make a phone call.  We walked back to our building, half expecting to be followed by someone from the school administration, or worse yet, from the government.

Our team leader, the highest leader over us, walked in, and just looking at us she knew that we had done something.  She simply said, smilingly,  “I WAS NOT HERE.  I SAW NOTHING.”

[Jo again here….]

So, if you live in a place that gets inundated by cottonwood fluff, now you know how to get rid of it!

Try it! I dare you!