Category Archives for "China"

Jun 01

Dali’s most important religious festival starts June 6: Photos

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Photos

During Raosanling festival in Dali, Yunnan province, people sing and dance, slaughter chickens, and pray in front of epic billows of smoke emanating from the most burning joss paper most tourists will ever see in one place at one time.

Raosanling is a festival of the local Bai ethnicity, who believe in both Buddhism and Benzhu folk religion. It lasts three days and is celebrated at three separate locations nearby Dali Ancient Village: Qingdong temple on the first day, Xizhou the second day, and Majiuyi temple on the third day.

Because it begins on the 23rd day of the 4th lunar month, it starts on June 6 on the Gregorian calendar this year. Here are some photos I took of the first day of Raosanling in 2013:
IMG_7541 (copy)

IMG_7596 (copy)

IMG_7618 (copy)

IMG_7623 (copy)

IMG_7648 (copy)

IMG_7654 (copy)

IMG_7658 (copy)

IMG_7715 (copy)

IMG_7721 (copy)

May 22

Jinshan: The fishing village at the very south edge of Shanghai

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Travel

Shanghai is home to tree farms, streets lined with fishwives, and children searching for crawfish at low tide.

Jinshan, at the very southwestern corner of the administrative area of Shanghai, is a mildly interesting diversion, a fishing town that has been touristified over the past five years. There you can find fish being sold on the street, museums about Jinshan fishing culture, and an “ancient-style” street full of charming shops and cafes. Here I will tell you how to get there and share some of what to see.

The fishing village is called Jinshan Zui Fishing Village (金山嘴渔村 – Jinshan zui yu cun). The Zui character means “lips.” The restaurants along the road should have you licking your lips. Shanghai was once just a fishing village. Now this is one of the few fishing villages in Shanghai; Shanghai city is not known for fishing markets like Busan, Hong Kong, or even Seoul.

fish

The fish sellers are lined up on the street that runs along the coast. Behind the fish vendors is a wall and a long stone promenade overlooking the water. (Travelers were climbing over the wall and down a wobbly ladder.) The water, when I visited, was very low, and kids were playing in the sand. They were looking for crayfish in the rocks and concrete buffers.

boardwalk

crayfish

On the other side of the road, going away from the ocean, is the typical “ancient-style” shopping street with cafes, bars, souvenir shops, and snack vendors. It was scenic, with flowers, canals (although the water didn’t look terribly clean), and cafes with porches. The “ancient-style” street isn’t close to as scenic as the ancient streets of Suzhou—and Suzhou is just 30-40 minutes away by train, too—but Jinshan is cheaper and more of a daytrip within Shanghai.

ancienttown

ancienttownpond

ancienttowncafe

Food
The road by the shore is lined with seafood restaurants. They have live fish in tanks for selection. Independent travelers on budget might choose to have seafood fried rice (海鲜炒饭 – haixian chaofan) for ¥20-40 yuan. I asked for it, and the manager said it wasn’t on his menu, but he said he would make some up for ¥35 yuan, and selected some shrimp, clam, and other seafood, and had it fried with eggs and vegetables.

32751455_972348262940554_2878383882305011712_o

How to get to Jinshan

Go to Shanghai South Railway Station (上海南站), located at the so-named subway station on Line 1 (red) and Line 3 (yellow). At Shanghai South Station, there is a station called Jinshan Station (金山站). Tickets are sold at a machine, which doesn’t require identification. Click through the buttons—or have a Chinese traveler in line help you, most of them are going to Jinshan, and they will assume you are, too—and select the final station—金山卫 (Jinshan wei).

Trains leave from Shanghai South about 2-3 times an hour, starting at 5 am and ending at 9:20 pm or so. Trains from Jinshan to the city start at 6 am and run until 9:55 pm. The journey for most trains takes 32 minutes. All tickets for the full trip cost ¥10 yuan (US$1.63) one way and have no assigned seats.

You can get from Jinshan Wei Station to Zui Fishing Village by taking a tax for ¥12 yuan or walking or waiting for the bus, which might come once an hour.

This restroom won awards as a "Model Toilet" and one of Shanghai's "Most Beautiful Tourism Toilets" of 2016.

This restroom won awards as a “Model Toilet” and one of Shanghai’s “Most Beautiful Tourism Toilets” of 2016.

IMG_5026

May 17

Kayne West, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the experience of celebrity in China

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Music

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a much discussed article for The Atlantic earlier this May about the impact of celebrity and how, he says, it may have led Kayne West to pursue “white freedom.”

That is, “not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom.” Coates can fully explain his point in his own elegant language, and I encourage you to read his essay. I want to focus on just one aspect, that of celebrity, what it can do to a person, and how living in China affected West’s views towards celebrity.

As Coates wrote,

There’s nothing original in this tale and there’s ample evidence, beyond West, that humans were not built to withstand the weight of celebrity.

West spent one year in Nanjing, China, where I have been based for the past few years, and he said the experience affected him greatly. He was, according to one of his classmates, extremely shy, said one of his classmates at the local school he attended, whom I interviewed in 2012.

“I remember in primary school, he was a very shy and introverted kid. He didn’t like to talk a lot,” Hua [Dong] said in an interview with me. “When I just happened to find out a few years ago that he is now Superstar Kanye West, I was extremely surprised and extremely happy for him.”

Hua Dong is also a musician. He’s the frontman for the post-punk band Re-TROS.

West himself has commented on how much attention he received as a black man in China.

“I think being in China got me ready to be a celeb,” he said.

“At that time, a lot of Chinese had never seen a black person. They would always come up to me and also stare at me, fishbowl me and everything. And that’s kind of the way it is for me right now,” West said in an interview with Cris Campion of Sabotage Times in 2011.

I had discovered his interviews on the topic in the course writing an article in 2013 on how Chinese often like to take photos with foreigners and add friends. Even today, the phenomenon of candid photo-taking of foreigners persists in many smaller cities and central cities. It would have been more so when West was living in China and the attention (including negative attention) can be more pronounced for black people than for whites.

Having seen West news fill up the magazines and social, and having read Coates’ piece, I thought back about West on China. I cannot–certainly not in this medium–add anything to the conversation about West and politics and race, but if you want to read a little bit of background about one of the formidable experiences in West’s childhood, take a look: China’s Obsession With Foreigners And The Experience Of Kanye West.

Feature photo by Tyler Curtis (Flickr). Map from Wikimedia. Creative Commons.

May 03

Chinese people proud to see Americans love their culture

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Viral Chinese News

A fake controversy has erupted in America because a small group of Americans are outraged that an American wore a Chinese-style dress to prom. Chinese people, whose culture is actually being “appropriated” (so-called) here, couldn’t care less. If anything, they are happy to see Americans recognize the beauty and majesty of Chinese culture.

For millennia, Chinese have been proud of their extensive and refined (“博大精深”) culture. The Han Chinese have expanded their empire from Northern China to present-day China, absorbing dozens of ethnic groups (56, according to the official government count) into the Chinese race. Confucianism and Chinese characters spread to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. The emperor of the “Middle Kingdom” received gifts from tributary states, whose officials were forced to kowtow, recognizing the culture of China, and China was happy to teach them how to be cultured.

In the process, the Han Hanicized ethnic groups they came into contact with and also were changed themselves. The dress in question, the qipao (旗袍), is a product of the Han people being culturally assimilated into the culture of the Machu, who ruled China under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The Qing forced the Han to adopt Manchu hairstyle (the male queue/braid) and dress. The old Manchu dresses were originally long and loose but became tighter-fitting, and in some cases, shorter, until they came to be the glamorous style associated with Shanghai socialites and cigarette ads of the 1920’s.

beauty-ad

It is evident, then, that culture cannot exist without constantly changing and being influenced from all directions. If it were not so, we would still be wearing animal skins and plants over our genitals.

See also: Blatt: “Oberlin Students Don’t Know Anything About Ethnic Food”

Would the outraged Americans have preferred that the woman in question had chosen to wear instead the default Western-style dress, thus perpetuating the continued cultural dominance of white European culture in America?

Chinese people, for their part, wouldn’t. When I asked friends they thought about it on WeChat, here are some responses I received:

这就代表喜欢我们的中华文化
This means that she likes our Chinese culture

个人觉得美的东西共享很好啊
I personally think that sharing beautiful things is good

个人觉得穿旗袍去毕业舞会很好,如果没有违反dress code的话
I personally think that wearing a qipao to prom is great, if it doesn’t violate the dress code

There you have it: Americans speaking for Chinese are personally offended that anyone would wear a beautiful Chinese dress to prom. Actual Chinese people think it’s great.

Jan 21

High speed trains begin selling KFC

By Mitchell Blatt | China

On the high speed train from Nanjing South Station to Shanghai Hongqiao yesterday, an attendant went down the aisle pushing a KFC cart. I had always wondered why they hadn’t thought to do a tie up before. A passenger sitting next to me said McDonalds is also sold on some trains. All for inflated prices.

As Chinese trains had gotten faster and cleaner, the quality of the on-board food also got worse the past few years. The old slow trains had kitchens where passable—even tasty—stir-fried dishes were cooked (and still do on those routes where slow trains exist). High speed rail came along and got rid of home cooking, replacing it with reheated plastic trays of precooked food.

American brand fast food is no delicacy, but if you are going to eat a quick garbage meal, McDonalds is a lot tastier than what passes for food in the high speed rail dining car.

Upon arrival in Shanghai, the recorded announcement stated (in Chinese), “Jiaduobao reminds you, don’t forget your belongings…” (Jiaduobao is a brand of herbal tea.) The English language announcement included no such advertisement.

Sep 30

Is bike sharing trashing the streets?

By Mitchell Blatt | China

Bike sharing is fueling an entreprenuerial explosion in China, and Chinese consumers love riding short distances without having to buy their own bikes. Big companies like Mobike and ofo have already gone global, expanding into Britain and the United States respectively and other countries.

But walking down the street last week, a friend put a different perspective on it. She said it’s kind of like trash on the street.

Once hearing that description, I started noticing bikes everywhere I walked. Already the streets of China are pretty cluttered with privately-owned motorcycles and bikes parked alongside street vendor’s carts. Now rental bikes, which can be dropped off anywhere, add another element.

IMG_7577

Whole sidewalks are blocked.

IMG_7852

The city of Shanghai is thinking about introducing “e-parking lots” to control where bikes can be parked. Earlier this year, Shanghai confiscated thousands of bikes.

IMG_7598

IMG_7593

May 11

The end of the last matriarchal tribe?

By Mitchell Blatt | Book Reviews , China , Culture , Literature

Singaporean debut author chronicles the Mosuo of Lugu Lake as they face modernity–and possible extinction

The Kingdom of Women by Choo Waihong, I.B. Tauris

Throughout western China, minority ethnic groups are throwing off their traditional clothing, trading horses for automobiles, and choosing to sing Mandopop songs in karaoke rooms instead of traditional ethnic songs. When economic modernization demands different skill sets from the people and commercialization breeds different desires, traditional culture goes by the wayside.

I saw that first hand in the Bai Autonomous Prefecture of Dali (Yunnan), the Shui Autonomous County of Sandu (Guizhou), and the Qiandongnan area of Southeastern Guizhou. These villagers have access to new and beneficial luxuries. They can find higher paying jobs at home, in neighboring cities, or in factories in Guangzhou. Still, they try to hang onto traditional culture for tourism as well as cultural reasons.

Choo Waihong saw this situation playing out among the Mosuo people in the Lugu Lake area. Choo lived there for six years, adopted Mosuo culture, and became a figure in the Mosuo community. She wrote about it in her book The Kingdom of Women, published this year by IB Tauris.

The book begins with scenes of breathtaking vistas along mountain roads until Choo arrives in the land of the Mosuo and looks upon the Gemu Mountain Goddess, a female mountain deity who is worshipped by locals. The next day after she arrives is Zhuanshanjie (转山节), or Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival. Choo describes a splendid, large scale event with locals dressed to the hilt in colorful, elaborately embroidered, traditional ethnic dress; dancing, eating, prayer with incense, flute music, and Tibetan llamas all situated around a tent village. It was this passionate atmosphere in this beautiful environment that enticed Choo and convinced her to have a home built there.

Once there, she felt at ease amongst a society where women’s status was respected—even venerated. The Mosuo people are a matrilineal society—sometimes referred to as matriarchal, although whether they really are is contested. The Mosuo people are often said to practice “walking marriages,” where a man can walk up to a woman’s room and be invited in and kicked out at her pleasure. I heard that phrase a lot when I lived and traveled in Yunnan, particularly in relation to tourism promotion there.

But in fact, as Choo explains, the practice isn’t really a marriage at all. Women choose axias, long-term relationship partners, who come over at night but live at their mother’s house most of the day. They have a limited, but not nonexistent, relationship with any children they father. A couple may stay together for a long time, maybe even a lifetime, but in most cases they eventually move on and the woman takes another axia, often giving birth to children from multiple axias. Children are raised mostly by the mother, grandmother, and others in the family. The men of the family do the manual labor and the killing of animals for their family (that of their mother and sisters and their sisters’ children), and the grandmother of the household is the ultimate arbiter of major decisions.

Choo says this system results in women having a higher status, more autonomy, and freedom from some of the patriarchal strictures that are particularly evident in rural China. Women are free from social stigma attached to sexuality. Every woman is essentially a single mother (with a family to help raise and provide for their children). Women are not reliant on men for room or resources. Also, Choo says, women’s voices and opinions are respected amongst the Mosuo in a way they weren’t at the high-power corporate law firm where she used to work.

There is no Western concept, no traditional Chinese concept, no English word for the relationships in Mosuo society. “Walking marriage” is adopted partially to describe to an uninitiated audience, but also for tourism purposes. Ethnic tourism has been a growing industry in western China, particularly as train lines get extended and dirt roads turn into two-lane highways. Locals open restaurants and inns. The residents, who otherwise have started to leave their traditional attire in the closet, take it out and wear it to dance in front of tourists. Boys drop out of high school in order to pursue a career as a waiter.

Over the years she lived there, Choo says, she saw the scope and enthusiasm participants brought to the Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival wane. She became so disappointed that one year she decided to fund it herself. With her 5,000 RMB (US$725) donation and the help of a hardworking Mosuo man, they put on a great festival. But how long can it last?

“In the blink of an eye, in the six years I have lived among this community, I have borne witness at first hand to how quickly they have moved from their subsistence-farming way of life to plug right into the new world as cogs in the burgeoning tourism industry of China,” Choo writes.

See also: Ethnic Culture Struggles to Survive in Guangxi, China

In the end she says many locals are forgetting their traditional culture and adopting perspectives of the nationally dominant Han culture. One of her goddaughters married a Han man and started a nuclear family. Some of the young, would-be liberated women now want to protect their “purity” for a marriage.

Economic growth has brought indoor-plumbing, hot showers, and washing machines to homes, but it has also caused status-seeking. Besides food, drink, and smokes, some young men have began indulging in hard drugs like opium and heroin, Choo writes in the final chapter.

I know well how entrancing the scenery of Yunnan can be and the culture of the local ethnic groups. While I spent a much shorter time—just three months—living and working in Dali, I often return in my mind to those stone streets and the special festivals I witnessed. The white-walled homes painted with black ink (a Bai style) are beautiful, but not the fact that students have to come from over 100 kilometers away to attend a decent school. Ultimately a life of backbreaking farm labor is not desirable. It’s not the romantic image portrayed in cultural shows and tourism brochures. But economic growth coming from outside too quickly can have destabilizing effects.

See also: Dali vs. Lijiang: The Paradox of Successful Ethnic Tourism Marketing

Choo ends on an optimistic note. Some traditions may break down, “But I do take comfort from the reflection that the last thing that will survive will be their core belief in the matrilineal principle,” she writes. How the Mosuo cope with modernity is a question that will play out, and similar questions will play out in ethnic enclaves and villages throughout China.

The Kingdom of Women is an entertaining contribution to literature on the topic, a look at far-flung culture and a beautiful land. It can be purchased in hardcover at Amazon for $16.51, as of this writing.

Apr 09

In 1967, China was “distasteful–though intriguing” and off limits to American tourists

By Mitchell Blatt | China , History , Travel

Used book stores are treasure troves of interesting books full of insights into the past. When I see a bunch of magazines, books, and dusty records piled up outside a cluttered secondhand book store, I can never help myself to look.
IMG_3116
So on Saturday, I discovered a 50 year old guidebook that claimed to tell about the whole world: the Encyclopedia of World Travel: Volume 2, published by Doubleday in 1967. (Volume 2 covers Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific. Volume 1 covers the Americas.)

1967 was one year after Mao Zedong began the violent class struggle that was the “Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution” and 18 years after the Communists had founded the People’s Republic of China. As you might imagine, there wasn’t much foreign travel to China. In fact, most citizens of the United States and many other countries were generally not allowed to enter China until China was opened in the 1970’s.

So the description of China begins by stating, “Travel is discouraged in the Communist People’s Republic of China…

In fact, many of the adventurous who have tried to enter China in recent years have been jailed. Some Westerners who had lived in the country for decades before the Communists seized control are still in prison, including doctors, businessmen, and even missionary priests and nuns. The former Government, an arch foe of the Communists, retains its hold on nearby Formosa [Taiwan, in modern reference] and other offshore islands.

Though travel in China is impossible for the present, it is interesting to know in broad outline the high points of the travels of others who journeyed across this vast land not too many years ago.

travel discouraged

What were those high points of travel? The book gives a general outline of the well-known facts about China’s geography and ancient history that you will find in other guidebooks. Society developed along the Yellow River and the Yangtze. East and South China are the main population centers. The populations even then were large by American standards of 2017:

The population of Shanghai is over ten million. Peking has well over six million.

pop small

Now Shanghai’s population is over 20 million–24.1 million, according to China’s measure–and Beijing is 21 million. At the time, China’s population was majority rural. In 2012, China became majority urban.

S

hanghai was described as a place of “squalor” and distastefulness.

Only in old Shanghai, which is walled no longer, did travelers see a Chinese city as it was centuries ago. Much of it was and is distasteful–though intriguing–to all but the sophisticated traveler who has long since learned Chinese cities are not what motion pictures would have you believe. In China’s cities, squalor is common, poverty almost a way of life.

China was a poor country back then–with a GDP per capita of US$95–and some of the scenes in the street still today unnerve recently arrived tourists. But the description carries with it a whiff of the old Yellow Peril imagery of Chinese as dirty hordes indulging in opium and depravity.

I

n the realm of traditional culture, the book asserts that mainland China under the Maoist Communists had lost its traditions. If you want to see holidays like Spring Festival (New Year) and Dragon Boat Festival celebrated in “the grand old style,” you should visit Hong Kong and Formosa, “who carry on the traditions of their forefathers.”

chinese festivals not celebrated here

Indeed, the Communists attacked traditions during Mao’s rule. During the Cultural Revolution, “Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas” were labeled and denounced as the “Four Olds.” Besides restricting the celebration of traditional festivals, under the Maoist leadership and incitement, the Red Guards stormed libraries, burned books and artwork, and smashed temples.

Since tourism has returned and brought with it a bounty, the Chinese government, however, has emphasized its ancient sites and culture, rebuilding ancient sites, some that had been lost for hundreds of years, and putting government money behind elaborate cultural events. In 2008, China added Dragon Boat Festival, Qingming Festival (Tomb-sweeping Festival), and Mid-Autumn Festival to its official schedule of national public holidays.

Mar 30

In Korean restrooms, you will never drop the soap (and it won’t be stolen)

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Strange China News

Why is there no toilet paper or soap in most Chinese bathrooms? “People will steal it,” my friends told me.

I always thought, Who would steal toilet paper? But when authorities put a toilet paper roll into the bathroom at the Temple of Heaven earlier this month, the Beijing Evening News caught people (especially elderly people) taking huge amounts of toilet paper home for personal use.

Later they installed a mechanism that requires toilet-users to have a photo taken before automatically dispensing 2 feet of paper.

As for soap, Chinese could adopt an innovation from Korea: bar soap on a stick.

Feb 17

Chinese netizens mock Trump’s English — “Could he pass the Chinese English test?”

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Viral Chinese News

“I’ve been feeling unconfident for this many years. I’ve always questioned my English reading ability. But after continuing to read Trump’s tweets, finally my self-confidence has returned, and I have discovered my vocabulary is actually very large!” – Viral post in China’s WeChat social app says, sent January 30

Trump’s often-misspelled tweets and unrefined prose at press conferences has been noticed by Chinese citizens. Could Trump pass China’s College English Test? A Xinhua News analysis article is titled, “With Trump’s English ability, what level could he test in China?” (Passing CET level 4 is a requirement for most undergraduate students to earn a degree.)

Reporter Chen Shan pointed to the simple nature of many of the words Trump uses in his public statements.

His tweet defending his immigration ban included two uses of the word “bad,” one of which was used as a noun and bracketed in quote marks.

If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the “bad” would rush into our country during that week. A lot of bad “dudes” out there! – @RealDonaldTrump

I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY. The courts are making the job very difficult! – @RealDonaldTrump

Chen noted, “The toughest word in the whole expression is ‘instructed,’ which is on the level of CET4 (also called College English Test 4).”

Next Chen looked at some of the Super Bowl tweets Trump sent out.

129471358_14865305696011n

Chen wrote: “One can read the content without sweating.” She compared his tweets to one of Obama, which used words on level with TOEFL, the test that American and British universities require foreign students to pass for admission.

Chen continued on page 3:

Among Americans, there really is a range of English abilities, some people at a high level, some low low. But for an American president, the weakness of his English is historic.

129471358_14865305696511n

The chart comes from Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute (source).

Later Chen also brought to light Trump’s “unpresidented” misspelling in a tweet about China capturing a U.S. Naval drone. Chen or her editors even translated “unpresidented” into Chinese as “非总统的” (fei zongtong de).

129471358_14865305696811n

“So we believe that the TOEFL and GRE vocabulary may really not be suitable for Mr. President.”

Chen noted Mr. President’s habit of repeating words over and over again and using very simple sentences. “Look at Paris! Look at what happened in Paris.” Even Americans who can’t read Chinese can see how simple it looks when translated into Chinese: “看看巴黎!看看巴黎!看看巴黎!看看上周的加利福尼亚!”

129471358_14865305697111n (1)

In short, according to Chen, there are three things Mr. President does: 1. Deliberately repeat, 2. Use command tone (“Look”), 3. Change usage.

1 2 3 5
Follow Mitch on SNS
Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.