All Together Now

Last month, The Atlantic published a series of  amazing photos from China showing people — lots of people — doing things in unison.


I had a good chuckle because seeing people do things as a group is a fairly common site in China.

Students (from pre-school to university) learn how to march in step and do synchronized morning exercises.

Security guards practice goose-stepping in front of the establishments they guard.

Restaurant and store staff often line up on the sidewalks outside their respective establishments in the morning to chant or sing their pledges to serve their customers. Sometimes they even dance, as was the case with these ladies getting ready to start the work day in their beauty salon in Ya’an, Sichuan!


I remember my first encounter with a lots-of-people-doing-things-in-unison event in China. It was at the National Games held in Zhengzhou in 1984. All the foreign teachers in the city (that would be 10 of us) were taken to the event and seated in the VIP section where we watched a thousand 3-year olds dancing and twirling parasols in unison as part of the opening ceremonies.

china national games zhengzhou 1984

No way you could get a thousand  American 3 year olds to do that.

Am I right?

Friday Photo: Satisfaction

I took this one in Zhengzhou during my first year in China, way back in 1984. So many things are typical of China at that time–the layers of clothes on the kid; the face mask; the orange soda (no Cokes yet); the bicycles with the plastic baskets. But one thing is universal — the look on the face of a child sipping soda from a straw!

zhengzhou child

Friday Photo: Washing the Fire Truck

In the mid-1980’s I taught at a small college in Zhenghou, Henan Province. Our school was next door to the local fire station and we loved watching them wash their trucks out on the street. And yes, you are seeing that correctly — they are pointing that hose INTO the truck. Must’ve all been plastic inside!

chinese fire truck


Related Post:

Zhengzhou Traffic Jam, 1984

Taking in the Mountain Air


This is definitely my favorite story out of China this week — residents of Zhengzhou (my original China ‘home town’) lined up to take shots of O2 from bags filled with mountain air (from the Wall Street Journal):

“Proving that China’s fight against pollution has moved decisively into the realm of parody, bags containing mountain air were shipped into one particularly smog-addled city over the weekend.

Residents from the elderly to young children lined up for a chance at the bags. Reuters

No, it wasn’t a scene from Spaceballs. According to the organizer, a Henan-based travel company, 20 bright blue bags of air were shipped to Zhengzhou, capital of central China’s Henan province, as a special treat for residents. The air originated from Laojun Mountain, some 120 miles away from the city, and was brought as part of a promotional gimmick to show oxygen-deprived city residents what they’re missing.”

To be honest it’s hard for me to take all this newfound concern about pollution too seriously, given the fact that 70% of Chinese males smoke!

In fact, while I was in Beijing last month, I was chatting with our bus driver as we waited for the students to board. The driver was surprised to learn that I had been in China for so many  years, and commented on the changes I must have seen in the city. Inevitably the topic of pollution came up.

Cigarette in hand, he launched into a rant about the terrible smog and how it was killing the quality of life in the city and that the government really needed to work harder to solve the problem.

“But you’re smoking,” I said. “How can you complain about the smog while puffing away on a cigarette??”

He just threw his head back and laughed.


Related Posts:

No Smoking Room, Please!

No Smoking!

What are the Chinese Characters on that Sign?


Photo source: Wall Street Journal

The Henan Famine

During my first year in China (1984), I lived in the city of Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province. Before getting my assignment to teach there, I don’t think I had ever heard of the place and pre-internet, it wasn’t easy finding out information. I remember, though, stumbling across a book about the city that had been produced in the 1970’s by the Provincial Tourist Office. It featured pictures of broad (and empty) streets, squeaky clean parks, smiling people. Doctors, students, factory workers, peasants — all smiling! A true worker’s paradise!

Once there, I was able to learn a fair amount about the history of Henan. The city of Zhengzhou had been a dynastic capital 5000 years ago. The nearby city of Kaifeng had been a capital  during the Song Dynasty, 1000 years ago. A temple in the mountains to the southwest of the city was the birthplace of martial arts.

But it was hard to come by good information on Henan’s more recent history.

When I returned to the US for the summer, I set about trying to learn more. One of the key books I discovered was “Thunder Out of China,” by Theodore White. It was based on his reporting of the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s. One particular event that he also chronicled was the 1942 Famine that ravaged the province. I was horrified to read that the city I now called home had once been the center of a famine that killed 40 million people, and that during the famine, the streets were littered with dead bodies. The Zhengzhou that I lived in was by no means prosperous, but what he was chronicling was unimaginable.

I recently came across a website that cataloged 30 dramatic images of the famine in Henan. (warning: many of the photos are graphic and disturbing)


In a China that now has an abundance of food, it is good to remember that just 70 years ago this was not the case.


The Great Moon Cake Exchange

One last moon cake post..a slightly edited reprise of something I wrote a few years back:

Today is Zhong Qiu Jie, (lit. Mid-Autumn Festival) in China.  In colloquial terms, it’s called the Moon Festival, because it’s celebration coincides with the full moon.

Much like Thanksgiving in American culture, Moon Festival is a time when people want to gather with their family members.  If that isn’t possible, then people gather with classmates, colleagues, and other friends to gaze at the moon and think of their distant family members who are also gazing at the same moon.  Poets in the Tang Dynasty were prolific in their writing poems about the moon, so there’s always a poem to be recited at a gathering.

Another custom on Moon Festival is the eating of moon cakes.  It’s hard to describe them exactly, but think of small, individually wrapped fruit-cakes.  There is an outer crust with a super sweet filling. Usually they are very heavy, and laden with sugar and lard.  I am not a fan–they sort of remind me of sweet hockey pucks.

I remember my first Moon Festival celebration in 1984. I was teaching at a small college in Zhengzhou, and in the evening the Foreign Affairs Office of the school hosted a us in the courtyard of our foreign teachers residence. They hauled the picnic table out and piled it high with all manner of round things — oranges, apples, grapes, cookies, and of course, moon cakes.

My dislike of moon cakes was instant and I spent the evening coming up with creative ways to NOT actually eat the ones that were put on my plate by our Chinese hosts. In the end, I cut them into smaller pieces and when the others were distracted — LOOK! THE MOON! — I slipped them into the large pockets of my jacket. When the pockets were full, I would excuse myself to ‘go to the restroom.’ Once in my apartment, I would dump them out on the table, then head back out for round two. I have spent the last 28 years trying to avoid eating moon cakes!

Making and eating and giving moon cakes has always been part of the celebration here, but as China’s level of prosperity has increased in the past decades, like many other things here, moon cakes have sort of become an excess.  In the weeks preceding Moon Festival, all the stores fill up with tables selling all manner of beautifully gift-wrapped moon cakes. They are elaborately packaged, and a 6 or 8 moon cakes in a beautiful box can easily cost the equivalent of $100 USD.  The more expensive the moon cakes you give, the more face both the giver and receiver get.

Moon cakes are sent to people with whom you do business. Clients send to suppliers, suppliers to clients.  Moon cakes are exchanged among colleagues.  Teachers give them to students; students to teachers. Friends to friends; family members to family members.  It’s one giant mooncake exchange.

And as foreigners who are trying to live as acceptable outsiders, we join in.  One year around festival time my professor and his family came to my house for dinner.  When they walked in, he gave me a nice gift box of moon cakes. I said thanks, took them, and set them in the kitchen (it’s not polite to open gifts here in the presence of the giver).

When it was time for them to leave, I gave them a box of moon cakes.  We all  laughed at the fact that we were just exchanging boxes of moon cakes.  I always enjoyed my professor because of his ability to see the humor in his own society.  He joked that at the end of the day, moon cakes don’t really get eaten–they just get passed around, sometimes ending up back where they started.  I said never mind, and told him that he was more than welcome to give away the box I was giving them.  He said I could give away the box they gave me (which I did).

Like many other things in a society that places a high value on ritual for the sake of ritual, the important thing is NOT the moon cake or the box or the value, but rather that the ritual of giving the moon cake is performed.

Who have you given moon cakes to this week?

Related Posts:

Moon Cake Traffic

Rumble at the Green Umbrellas (Moon Festival + young men + booze + disaster)

image source:

Qishui Seller, 1984

Yesterday I was having lunch with some of my collegues, one of whom is a Chinese man in his 40’s. Somehow we got to reminiscing about things in the 198o’s (when I came), and the topic of drinks came up.  Western brands of soft drinks were very rare, but local soft drinks were common. Soft drinks were called qishui (gas water), and came in only three flavors: orange, pineapple, and banana. Even though they were syrupy sweet, on a hot day they could quench a thirst. We never drank all the contents of the bottle, however, because of the mysterious little things that settled at the bottom.

Here’s a photo I took of a qishui seller  in Zhengzhou in 1984.