Happy Chinese New Year

Today is Chu Yi (初一), the first day of the lunar new year on the Chinese calendar. For those of you keeping track, it marks the beginning of the Year of the Pig. It’s “my” year, which means I’m either 12, 24, 48, 60, 72, or 84. I’ll let you guess which it is!

All across China, people are making their way, if possible, back to their hometowns, in what is often billed as the world’s largest human migration. Everyone, from migrant workers to young professionals to university students, is on the move—in most cases returning to small towns and villages in the countryside to visit their families.

And they do not return empty-handed. Since gift-giving is such an important part of New Year celebrations, and is also a primary way of expressing love in Chinese culture, the travelers are laden down with gifts of all sizes and shapes.

When the holiday-making comes to an end, and the workers, yuppies, and students head back to the cities, they will be taking with them, not only memories, but special gifts that will remind them of home.

Film director Jia Zhangke teamed up with Apple (yes, it is a marketing effort for the iPhone XS) to produce a short film, titled The Bucket, about a young man whose mother sends him back to the city with a very heavy bucket. It’s a gorgeous and sweet film, and you’ll need to watch the video to find out what is in the bucket! (email readers, click here to watch the film)

What food or gift does your mom send home with you after the holidays (whichever ones you celebrate)?

(Note: this post first appeared at ChinaSource.)

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Ba Guanr Goes Global

On Sunday night, I plopped myself down in front of the television and joined millions of people worldwide to watch some Olympic swimming events. After watching Katie Ledecky obliterate her own world record, all eyes were on Micheal Phelps and the US men’s 4X100 medley relay. Would they win, thus giving Phelps his 18th gold medal and 22nd overall?

Phelps filed into the swimming arena with his teammates and began prepping for the race. When he took off his warm-up jacket, I immediately spotted the round welts all over his back and shoulders.

Laughing out loud, I grabbed my phone and sent a text message to Amy, my former teammate in China who I knew would be watching (she’s a Phelps fan).


She replied immediately that she had seen it as well.

Although Amy and I immediately knew what they were, most of the non-Chinese world was left scratching their heads. The Internet erupted. Were they mosquito bites? Did Michael have Zika?

News outlets scrambled to answer the all-important question: What are the purple dots on Michael Phelps?

While it may look like Phelps and several other Olympians with those skin marks have been in a bar fight, the telltale dots actually are signs of “cupping,” an ancient Chinese healing practice that is experiencing an Olympic moment.

“Because this particular recovery modality shows blemishes on his skin, he walks around and looks like a Dalmatian or a really bad tattoo sleeve,” said Keenan Robinson, Phelps’s personal trainer. “It’s just another recovery modality. There’s nothing really particularly special about it.”

Cupping, schmupping!

The real name is ba guan (拔罐) — pronounced ba guanr in Beijing dialect.

It involves lighting an alcohol-soaked ball of cotton, inserting it into a spherical cup, then quickly placing the cup on the skin. Because the fire has created a vacuum, the  skin is literally sucked up into the cup. Like so:



Some of my teammates in China swore by it (I’m looking at you, Amy), and I occasionally had visitors who were brave enough to try it.

Me? I tried it once on my knee, but lasted only about 10 seconds before I demanded that it be removed. The guy with the flame in his hand was not amused; he scolded me for being a wimp. I’m not convinced that it is anything more than simply a bruise, which could be had by being punched, but of course then it wouldn’t be nice and round.

Another former teammate used it to treat a sudden paralysis of her face (Bell’s Palsy). Her American doctor said there was no treatment and that it would (hopefully) go away in a few months. Two weeks of ba guanr, however, and it was gone, never to return!

So what do you think dear readers? Does it really work or is it pseudoscience?

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Insiders and Outsiders are Different

When I first went to China many years ago, one of the things that I and my American colleagues found most annoying about living there was the difference in price between what we paid for things and what our Chinese friends had to pay. For us, a train ticket was 400 yuan; for our Chinese friends it was 200. Why? Because there was a “foreign price” and a “Chinese price.”  End of discussion, thank you very much.

Since there are not many things that upset an American faster than feeling like he/she is being ripped off, this two-tiered pricing structure was a constant irritant.

Mutianyu Great Wall

In the mid-1990’s, while studying Chinese, I stumbled across a Chinese expression that was a ‘key’ to helping me understand what was going on. I was working through a textbook called Speaking of Chinese Culture that taught about key Chinese cultural rules and values. One chapter was on this Chinese concept called nei wai you bie (内外有别), which means “insiders and outsiders are different.”

I asked my tutor how this notion played itself out in every day life, and she said, “Well, it’s why you have to pay more for the entrance ticket to the park than I do.”

“You mean, they’re not doing it merely to cheat me?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “Why should you, as an outsider be treated the same as an insider?”

Lights, bells, and whistles went off in my head, exploding in a cacophony of comprehension. Suddenly, so many other things that I had seen and experienced began to make sense.

A few years later, I was studying with a professor in Beijing who added to my understanding by explaining to me that the clearest example of the concept was The Great Wall. (Hmm…that’s not what the tourist posters say.)

In the Chinese worldview, there are two kinds of people in the world: Chinese and foreigners. Unlike the English usage of the word “foreigner,” which is a relative term, in Chinese it is absolute. Like the terms Jews and Gentiles, they are mutually exclusive. A Chinese cannot be a foreigner and a foreigner cannot be a Chinese.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to teach an orientation session for a group of Chinese high school students visiting Minnesota for 2 weeks. I started off with a little “worldview disruption” activity. I asked them a question, “shenme shi waiguoren?” (“什么是外国人?”) What is a foriegner?

Even though I could tell by the looks on some of their faces that they suspected it was a trick question, 3000+ years of education and cultural conditioning led them to shout with one accord “You are!”

“Wrong,” I said. “For the next two weeks, YOU are!”

They laughed, firm in their belief that I had gone stark-raving mad.

I also saw this illustrated vividly in Beijing many years ago when I attended a talk given by Israel Epstein, a then 89-year-old White Russian Jew who had come to China as a 5-year old to escape the pogroms in Russia. He had stayed on in China, becoming a Chinese citizen, and becoming active in the revolution that brought the Communists to power. He even became a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

I went to the talk with some Chinese friends, and afterwards pressed them on this point. “In your eyes,” I asked, “is he a Chinese or a foreigner?” They all agreed that, notwithstanding his 80+ of living in China, and his Chinese citizenship, he was still a foreigner.”

Traditional Chinese culture does not hold that “all men are created equal.” Instead, it is not only acceptable, but also proper, for different kinds of people to be treated differently. This is the way the world is ordered. A two-tierd price structure is not a problem to be solved; rather it is the way it should be.

Interestingly enough, China did away with the official price discrepancies in the late 1990’s in order to meet WTO requirements, but unofficially it still remains in place. A foreigner will often pay more for vegetables in the market than his/her Chinese housekeeper.

Sometimes this concept cuts the foreigner’s way, however, since the strong sense of hospitality in Chinese culture dictates that guests be treated with utmost honor and respect. While we may be foreigners, we are also waibin (foreign guests), and are therefore entitled to certain privileges and opportunities that are not afforded to locals. Sometimes we’ll be escorted to the front of lines; sometimes ushered into the pews at the front of a church or assembly even as Chinese are being moved out. It may go against my western notion of fair play, but in China, it’s what you do for a foreign guest. It’s just being polite.

Living well where you don’t belong means graciously living as an outsider, with all the accompanying frustrations and undeserved privileges.


Happy Dragon Boat Festival

Monday is Dragon Boat Festival in China. The good folks at Off the Great Wall have produced a video explaining the history and significance of the holiday:

(If you receive this post by email and cannot view the video, click here.)

I have a confession to make — even after 20+ years in China, I’m not a fan of zongzi!

Happy Dragon Boat Festival, Everyone!


An Explosion of Color

Are Most Chinese Really Atheists?


It’s an interesting question, and, as the saying goes, “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘Atheist’ is.”

Earlier this month Pew released the results of survey that tried to determine people’s beliefs about the relationship between believing in God and morality. According to their results, 75% of respondents in China said that it is “not necessary to believe in God to be moral,” and 14% said that it is “necessary to believe in God to be moral.”

In a state controlled by the Communist Party, and in which Atheism is officially taught in the schools, this result may not seem surprising.

However, Ian Johnson, writing in the New York Review of Books, takes a closer look at these results and makes some very interesting and helpful observations. First of all, he observes that these results seem at odd with the growing interest in religion among Chinese people:

“Pew doesn’t explain its findings, but they struck me as extremely odd. If there’s one trend in China that is hard to miss, it’s the growing desire among many Chinese to find some sort of moral foundation in their lives, whether by reengaging with age-old Chinese ethical traditions, or by taking part in organized religions. In view of this widely-documented situation, how can so few Chinese believe in the link between morality and a supreme being or force?”

He notes that the 20th century did see a decline in religious belief in China (particularly in the early years of the PRC), but then wonders if that decline still exists:

“Have sixty-five years of Communist rule wiped out religion, or reduced it to such a minor role that the Chinese have done a complete about-face? This is easier to rebut; any casual visitor to China can’t help but be struck by how many new churches, temples, and mosques are being built.”

Johnson then goes on to suggest that the problem lies in the terminology for God that was used in the survey:

“According to Pew’s English-language report, the actual survey asked people to say which of the following statements came closest to their own opinion: “It is not necessary to believe in God to in order to be moral and have good values” or “It is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values.” I was immediately struck by the use of the word “God” in the survey statements, capitalized as it is in the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim tradition. Was the question referring solely to the god of these faiths? But I couldn’t imagine that Pew would ask such a narrow question—after all, the study doesn’t describe itself as asking whether belief in an Abrahamic being is necessary to morality, but rather asking whether belief in any supreme being is.”

He wrote to Pew and Horizon (the company in China that did the actual survey) and discovered that he was correct; they had used the Chinese term for the God depicted in the Bible, as opposed to a more generic term for a divine being that most Chinese would be familiar with. He explains:

“I don’t know how the question was translated for other countries (especially Japan or India), but in Chinese, the question used a term for “God” that is applicable in modern China almost only to Protestant Christianity: shangdi (上帝).

In Chinese, the questions were: “不信仰上帝,也能有良好的道德和价值” and “为了有良好的道德和价值观,信仰上帝是必要的.” I would translate these questions back into English as “Even without believing in (the Protestant) God, one can still have good virtues or values” and “In order to have good virtues and values, one must believe in (the Protestant) God.”

Shangdi has a pre-Christian meaning—referring to a supreme deity—but it was appropriated by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century and since then has come to be synonymous with the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religions, especially Protestant Christianity. (Catholics eventually changed their nomenclature for God to “tianzhu”; see the Rites Controversy of the early eighteenth century, the dispute among Catholics about how far to incorporate indigenous traditions into Catholic practice.)”

He then explains why the use of the term Shangdi yielded results that are probably not in line with what people in China really believe:

“This is correct in the sense that shangdi is an accurate translation of “God” in the Protestant tradition, but it excludes the religious experience of the vast majority of Chinese, who do believe in higher spiritual forces—and very often link belief in such forces to morality. An alternative way of phrasing this question is found in the 2007 book Religious Experience in Contemporary China by Yao Xinzhong and Paul Badham. It is based on a study of 3,196 people, who completed a twenty-four-page survey. The authors found that 77 percent believed in moral causality—there is a long folk tradition of Baoying (报应) which holds that you reap what you sow, that consequences for moral failure are a form or divine retribution—and 44 percent agree that, “life and death depends on the will of heaven.”

How did Yao and Badham end up with results so different from the Pew survey’s? The crucial difference was that they were framed in a much broader way. One term the authors used was “heaven,” or tian (天), which literally means “sky” or “heaven” but also the idea of a supreme deity or force. It also included fo (佛) or “Buddha.” This is why their findings directly contradicted the Pew poll, which uses an Abrahamic paradigm to survey cultures with completely different religious traditions.”

In other words, if you are trying to determine beliefs about a divine being among the Chinese people, it is important to use the correct term.

Are most Chinese Atheists? Perhaps, but maybe it’s best to say “Atheism with Chinese characteristics.” I remember teaching on a university campus in China and being surprised that most of my students admitted to being afraid of ghosts. As one of them suggested to me, “we are Atheists during the day, but when the lights go out it’s a different story.”





A House on a Horse

Last week, after I wrote about the term mashang” (on the horse) and how it’s being used to express the hopes and wishes for the Year of the Horse, a reader in China sent me this photo. It’s a play on the New Year’s Greeting, “mashang you fang,” which conveys the wish that this is the year to own a home. The literal translation, of course is “the horse is on the house.”


Yup, there it is….the house is on the horse!

Thanks, NG, for the photo!

The Back Seat of A Buick

This morning I was attending a conference of business leaders in China. One of the speakers was talking about the importance of ‘localizing’  products, and gave the example of Chinese-made Buicks.

“Sitting in the back seat of a Buick in China,” he said “is nothing like sitting in the back seat of a Buick in the US.”

“Because in China the owner of a Buick is most likely to sit in the back seat.”

A brilliant observation indeed!



The Red Detachment

red detachment“What performance did you just see,” asked the taxi driver as I hopped into his cab late one night outside of the Poly Plaza Theater.

“The Red Detachment of Women,” I said.

As I had anticipated, he swung his head around and let out a big “Hah!” “You, a foreigner, went to see that revolutionary opera?”

“My friends gave me a ticket,” I said.

He asked me what I thought.

“Interesting,” I replied, because what’s not interesting about square-jawed socialist warriors in shorts leaping around a stage waving rifles?

He told me that was the music he had grown up with during the Cultural Revolution, then proceeded to sing the songs from it as we traversed the city on the Second Ring Road.

“The Red Detachment of Women” was one of  the most popular operas in China during the  Cultural Revolution.

This week the BBC ran an interesting story about the revival of Madame Mao’s Model Operas in China today.

Created by Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, these were the Yangbanxi, the Eight Model Operas with intriguing titles such as The White Haired Girl and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy.

For the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) they were virtually the only films, stage performances or music available to the entire Chinese population.

These state-sponsored works combined opera and ballet with simple plots about brave peasants uniting to defeat evil landlords, Japanese invaders and other enemies of the revolution.

Heroes looked like heroes with rouged faces, kohl-lined eyes and great hair, while villains were easily identified by their sneaky demeanour and bad moustaches.

And here’s a bit about their comeback:

But since the 1990s there has been an unexpected revival of the model operas. The White Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women have become part of the standard repertoire of the Central Ballet of China. Journalist Sheila Melvin, who writes on the arts and culture of China, explains when the Central Ballet of China go abroad they perform those “because they’re the ones that have stood the test of time.”

“When they began redoing them in mid-early 1990s they’d change the lyrics that were particularly offensive to rich people but the audience would get mad and shout out real words because they didn’t want it changed: this is what we grew up with and we want it sung the way it was written!” 

You can listen to the full report here.

In a society that has perfected the art of bubble-gum pop and lives off free music downloads from Google, it’s hard to imagine a time when there were only a handful of approved ‘red’ songs.

You’ve come a long way, China. 

(Image source: China Daily)