I’ve only been through Lanzhou, Gansu on the train, but after seeing this video, I’m ready to make a visit!

I’m not a fan of the proliferation of drones, but they certainly make for some spectacular shots!

Source: DistrictyMedia, on Vimeo

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When the Media Come Calling

Here’s a pro tip for those of you living in China or planning to travel there. If you are approached by a member of the Chinese media (either national or local) and asked to give an interview or just answer some “quick” questions, JUST.SAY.NO!

I was reminded of that when I saw this cringe-worthy video that was making its way around the inter-webs last week. The Wall Street Journal posted the video under the headline, Xi Dada, So Cute: What Foreigners Think of China’s Leader (According to the People’s Daily).

I think a more accurate headline would have been What the Chinese Media Wants Chinese People to Think Foreigners Think about President Xi.

Now, some of the students featured in the piece are crying foul, claiming that they were duped; that they didn’t know they were going to be featured in a Party propaganda film; that the question about President Xi was just one of many that were asked.

To which I find myself responding, “but of course!”

I tend not to trust journalists in general, but even less so journalists in China. Maybe that’s because I’ve had my fair share of being duped as well (call me a slow learner).

Once when I was living in Changchun (in the 1990’s) the head of the foreign student department told me that a journalist from a local newspaper was in his office and wanted to interview a foreign student. Would I be willing? Knowing that Mr. Y. would probably lose face (who knows what promises had been exchanged between them), and against my better judgement, I agreed.

The reporter told me that he was doing a story about the life of a foreign student in Changchun. He asked me questions about my studies, how I liked the city, and how I was treated by people in town. I answered them politely and accurately, telling him that I was thoroughly enjoying my life in Changchun and that the people were great.

Apparently, that wasn’t good enough, though, because when the article was published in the paper the following week, the reporter told specific stories of my experiences in the city, which were obviously made up! That’s not to say they couldn’t have happened; they just hadn’t. Except for my name, where I was from, and what I was studying, the rest of the article “about me” was a complete work of fiction!

Obviously his assignment had been to tell a story that confirmed what the media wanted the Chinese people to think about what foreigners thought about the city.

Mission accomplished!

And who could forget the other time I made it into the Changchun newspaper for engaging in a decidedly “non-foreigner” type of activity: buying a couch!

So remember, folks; if the media come calling, just say no!


Friday Photo: VIP Section

Nine years ago this weekend I travelled from Beijing to Changchun in order to attend the 60th anniversary of the founding of Northeast Normal University. The organization I worked for has a relationship with that school and had been invited to send a delegate. I was thrilled for the privilege to be the official representative because, ten years previous, I had directed our language program at the university.

Attending the event meant not just sitting through ceremonies, meetings, and banquets, but also getting to see old friends and colleagues as well.

The official ceremonies were held in the giant auditorium on campus, and I was given a special seat in the VIP section next to a former president and party secretary (who were also “old friends”). This was the view from my VIP seat in the auditorium;

changchun vip

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State Names in Chinese — Literally

When I began studying Chinese (years ago), one of the first things I wanted to learn how to do was answer the question about where I am from. That meant learning how to say Minnesota in Chinese.

It is simply a phonetic translation: ming ni su da (明尼苏达).

On top of that, there is Minneapolis: ming ni a po li si (明你阿婆里斯)

Since they are phonetic, I never stopped to ask what the literal translations were.

The good folks at Live the Language recently posted this interesting map of what US State names would be if they were literally translated back into English from Chinese:


Good grief. I speak Chinese and that map still makes my head hurt!

Image credit: Live the Language


Remembering Jewish Refugees in Shanghai

Last week, China staged a huge parade to commemorate the end of World War II. While everyone was focused on the pomp and ceremony in Beijing, there were a couple of events in Shanghai to honor the city’s role in taking in Jewish refugees during the war. In fact, on September 6, the city opened the Jewish Memorial Park.


Here’s the story from The Times of Israel:

Beginning in 1938, as Jewish persecution by the Nazis went into high gear, approximately 20,000 Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai, one of the few safe havens in the world that did not require a visa.

On Sunday, a Jewish Memorial Park was opened at the Fushouyuan cemetery in that city’s Qingpu district in their honor.

Israeli Consul-General Arnon Perlman, speaking at the dedication, said it is very important “to remember the friendship between China and Israel and between Shanghai and Israel.” On a patch of newly laid grass, a Star of David made of stone forms the centerpiece of the park and serves as the base of a sculpture of interlocking stones with another Star of David, and a menorah, at its center.

One of the stones pays tribute to Dr. Ho Feng-Shan, the Chinese consul general of Vienna during the war, who defied orders and issued over 3,000 visas to Austrian Jews to allow them to travel to China (while visas were not required to enter Shanghai, they were required to leave Austria).

The mostly German and Austrian Jews who came to Shanghai in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s joined another several thousand Jewish residentswho had made the country their home in the previous 50 years, either as merchants or to escape Russian pogroms.

You can read the full article here.

The Consulate General of Israel in Shanghai released a video thanking Shanghai for being a safe haven for Jews:

The World Jewish Congress had a story about the reopening of a cafe that had once been a gathering place for the Jewish community in Shanghai:

On Wednesday, an iconic café in the former Jewish ghetto of Shanghai, which served as a meeting place for Jewish refugees during World War II, was re-opened in the presence of 300 dignitaries, including a representative of the World Jewish Congress (WJC).

At the time, the White Horse Café (‘Zum Weissen Rössl‘) was a café where the Jewish refugees met.

The White Horse Café first opened in 1939. It has been rebuilt in a new location opposite tothe Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum with its original look. The three-story wooden and brick structure that combined Western and Eastern architecture served as a popular shelter for Jewish residents living nearby.

The owner sold the café to a local after the war. It was demolished in 2009 to make room for a subway. The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum collected the building’s blue prints and key components such as beams and some wooden curving on walls for the rebuilding.

Among the guests at the ceremony on Wednesday was Ron Klinger from Australia. His grandparents, who had come to Shanghai from Vienna in 1938, had opened the inn. “A lot of people visited, Jewish people and non-Jewish people. It was like cafe, bar and nightclub. It was very popular,” recalled Klinger.

The new coffee house was rebuilt in accordance with the original style. It displays some old photos donated by the Klinger family.

Two interesting stories on a little-known part of Shanghai’s past.

Friday Photo: Curious Shepherd

On a trip to the autonomous region of Ningxia many years ago, I had the chance to visit the small town of Guyuan. During a walk with my hosts into the countryside outside of town, we ran accross a shepherd with his flock of sheep. He was surprised to see 4 foreigners wandering around and watched us with bemusement. Fortunately he was also quite happy to pose for a photo!

ningxia shepherd

Don’t you just love those glasses!

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I Love a Parade

I’m actually ambivalent to parades in general, but I must admit to having a strange fascination with Chinese military parades. I’m not sure why, but perhaps it’s because they are multi-layered and there are interesting things going on at every level.

china military parade

On Thursday, September 3, China held it’s 14th grand military parade in Central Beijing. While past parades have been held to commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic or other Communist Party milestones, this one was designed to mark the end World War II; specifically the defeat of Japan. And just to be sure that everyone got that, it was given the somewhat clunky (at least in English) name: Commemoration of the The 70th Anniversary of the Victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War.  

From a purely visual aspect, the production of the parade was stunning. Nobody can stage manage and produce images (still and moving) better than CCTV, the Chinese national broadcasting entity. They are true masters.

Watching a Chinese military parade is also somewhat jarring, culturally. Parades in the west tend to be laid-back (albeit well-organized), often winsome events. The goal is to have a good time. Not so with a military parade; goose-stepping soldiers, tanks, and nuclear missiles tend not to have that kind of effect on people.

And perhaps that’s just the point. The parade wasn’t about or for the enjoyment of the people; it was about communicating a message to the people: “We have risen; we are strong.” To many (perhaps most) people in China, this message (rightly) inspires pride; to many in the west, consternation.

In other words, mission accomplished.

If you missed it the first time around, you can watch the entire parade here.

It is a little over an hour. If you would prefer to watch the 1-minute version, you can do so here.

Jonah Kessler has produced an excellent short video about the parade titled Pomp and Power at China Military Parade.

If you are more inclined towards still photos of the parade, The Atlantic has collected some of the best.

The Economist highlights the specific message that China was sending to Japan:

The government described the display as an international celebration, befitting the 70th anniversary of an Allied victory. But an online article in the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, earlier this year made clear what this meant. The parade’s purpose, it said, was to “deter Japan” and “show off China’s military might”. This was promptly toned down to “conveying to the world that China is devoted to safeguarding international order after world war two, rather than challenging it”. China argues that the main threat to the international status quo is the desire of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, to rewrite his country’s pacifist constitution. So the polite version is not, in fact, all that different from the blunt one.

It was also a more personal message from President Xii Jinping saying to the Party and the nation (and to potential rivals): “I am in charge now.” An article in The New York Times delves deeper into the meaning of the parade for Mr. Xi, and especially his use of the parade to announce troop reductions:

But the highly public manner of Mr. Xi’s announcement that 300,000 military personnel would be demobilized, China’s largest troop reduction in nearly two decades, carried another implicit message. He was demonstrating his grip on the military and on the party, amid economic squalls and a grinding anticorruption campaign that have left some wondering whether he and his agenda of change — including in the People’s Liberation Army — were faltering, several experts said.

“It’s Xi in command,” Andrew Scobell, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation who studies the Chinese military, and who was in Beijing during the parade, said of the announcement.

Writing at The New Yorker, Even Osnos notes that one of the issues underlying the parade was skeptism:

Seventy years after China emerged from the Second World War, the greatest threat facing the nation’s leadership is not imperialism but skepticism. Chinese Communist Party leaders built their legitimacy on economic performance, and now they must rebuild confidence that they are able to negotiate a more complicated financial and political moment.

The Wall Street Journal does an excellent job in presenting five takeaways from the parade.

Since this was the first parade to be held in the era of social media, there were numerous stories about how Chinese netizens were reacting online to the parade. The Wall Street Journal identified 5 memes, or topics of particular interest and comment on social media. They range from the red dress worn by President Xi’s wife to fans taking selfies with Chairman Mao’s grandson.

Finally, if you are interested in the history of Chinese military parades, I recommend the Parading The People’s Republic, posted at The China Story. It reminds us that these parades have a long and glorious history!

The 3 September 2015 Grand Military Parade is the fifteenth large-scale event of its kind in the history of the People’s Republic (not counting such confected crowd-sourced events as anti-US rallies, Mao’s eight reviews of amassed Red Guards in 1966 and celebrations following the coup d’état against the ‘Gang of Four’ in October 1976). It is an out-of-sequence triumph, heavily freighted with Xi-era self-congratulation.

Congratulations, China, on a parade well-marched!

Image credit: The Atlantic

This is a slightly edited version of a post that was first published at ChinaSource on September 7, 2015.