Category Archives for "China"

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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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“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!”

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

Dec 24

The real reason Chinese people eat apples on Christmas Eve

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Strange China News

Last night was Christmas Eve in China, so my WeChat account was full of apple emojis and festive messages.

“Don’t you give each other apples on Christmas Eve in America?” multiple friends asked.

That Americans give each other apples on Christmas Eve appears to be a common misperception in China. Although it’s a big tradition in China, many Chinese people don’t even know they invented it.

“Giving apples on Christmas is what kind of a custom?” a questioner asked on Guokr, a Chinese Q-and-A website. Another question asked, “Is eating an apple on Christmas Eve something Chinese people invented? Just because it is homophonic [(in Chinese)]?”

When I first received apples from Chinese people on Christmas Eve in 2014, that’s what I thought, too—that the tradition was because of the homophone sound. “Christmas Eve” translates to ping’an ye (平安夜), which literally means “Peaceful Night” or “Silent Night” (the same as the name of the song in Chinese). Apple is pingguo, and the character is also similar (苹果).
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Dec 12

“Sometimes you need someone who doesn’t act professional”: Taiwanese on Trump

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Foreign Affairs , New Writing

Whatever one thinks about Trump the person, the vast majority of Taiwanese are ecstatic that Trump appeared to give their country a little respect and took a (pre-planned) phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. I wrote about the circumstances behind Taiwan’s domestic politics at Red Alert Politics and how Taiwan’s youth are increasingly united around independence: What Trump’s call means to Taiwan’s ‘strawberry generation'”.

Now here are brief comments from two other young Taiwanese I talked to recently.

Ryan, a bartender who has worked in Nanjing, China, the Republic of China’s old capital, said:

“Finally there’s a politician who is not political. Sometimes you just need someone who does not act like a professional to make a change. When you try to break through an impasse, you’ll need a random genius to break it, then you’ll have a chance to rebuild something.”

Mohan, whom I met at a hostel in Nanjing, China, said:

“That Trump had a phone call with Tsai Ing-wen made me especially happy. Although China has developed pretty well, life isn’t just about money. The mainstream thinking of Chinese people still isn’t in accord with the tide in the world.”

Nov 24

“Black Friday Overseas Shopping Festival” is coming!

By Mitchell Blatt | China

Last night Amazon sent me a text message alerting me that “Amazon’s real Black Friday Overseas Shopping Fesitval” is coming. The foreign shopping festival comes just weeks after China’s own retailer-created “Singles Day” on November 11.

Singles Day is still the biggest retail day in China, but Black Friday is getting more attention as Amazon, capitalizing on its American background, is pushing it. Amazon.cn is covered with promotions emphasizing Black Friday. Taobao and TMall, China’s leading online stores, aren’t pushing Black Friday promotions.

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Even in New City Plaza, a shopping mall in Nanjing, a few clothing shops had signs using the word “thankful” around Thanksgiving, although there was no Thanksgiving-related imagery.

Because China absorbs some Western culture, it effectively has two versions of some holidays. Western New Year and Chinese New Year. Christmas and Christmas Eve are also big shopping and entertainment days in China. Now Amazon will try to get Black Friday to join the mix.

Nov 10

A night painting with Zhuzhou’s only graffiti crew

By Mitchell Blatt | Art , China , Culture

Desk, Shark, Fat, and Klute were spraying their nicknames onto a wall in a northern suburb of Zhuzhou city, Hunan province when a police car drove by and flashed its lights. Desk and Shark ran down an alleyway, but Fat stayed to finish his tag.

“Where are they??” Desk asked, in the safety of the alleyway.

When Fat and Klute came nonchalantly walking along, Desk asked if they weren’t worried the police would chase.

“No,” Fat said, “the Chinese police are lazy.”

Indeed, the police didn’t pursue, and the GCK crew continued to make their mark for another hour. According to Desk, an American who has taught English in China for two years, the Goofy Chinese Kids are the only graffiti gang in the city of 1 million. On one wall near a university, there was some graffiti written by others, but Desk dismissed it as the work of “art students trying to be edgy.” All of the graffiti on the road by the train station was marked with the names of GCK members.
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Nov 08

Cantonese folk art associations and the preservation of culture

By Mitchell Blatt | Art , China , Photos

On November 6, Cantonese opera actress Li Chixiang shared her expertise and experiences with the Yuanzhou Town Folk Art Association (园洲镇曲艺协会). Singing, dancing, doing magic and recalling stories, she was able to draw laughter and applause from the audience of a few dozen locals intent on preserving China’s traditional art forms.

“China has 5,000 years of history. We should pass it on,” said Zhu Runhong, a member of the folk are association.

Li spoke for an hour, talking about how she once ran away from her home in the suburbs of Guangzhou to try to study Cantonese opera and later was enrolled in the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Academy. Showing off her wide range of talents, she did a trick to turn blank papers into 100 RMB bills and danced with a multicolored fabric. It was like a “talk show,” she said. Every Friday she hosts a Cantonese opera show on Guangzhou TV, and the TV network sent its reporters to cover it.

“In an average month, we perform about five times like this,” Li said. “But in the rainy season, we might not perform once in a month, and during Spring Festival, we could perform every day, sometimes even twice a day.”

Practicing
Practicing
Zhou Aiwen, who has been an actress for 7 years, practices in the car on the way.
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After her act, the members of the Yuanzhou Town Folk Art Association’s Cantonese opera troupe took the stage to perform scenes from the opera Dinv Hua (帝女花). The group holds meetings and practices three times a week and competes with other local arts groups in local and regional competitions. Located in Shangnan city, about 2 hours from Guangzhou by car, Yuanzhou is one of many Guangdong villages to tout its rich Cantonese opera tradition. In 2012, the Shangnan Folk Art Society, featuring some members of the Yuanzhou group, won silver at a provincial Cantonese opera invitational.

The media in Yuanzhou even tries to use new technologies to preserve its traditional arts. One local entreprenuer founded Yuanzhou Online (http://www.yz0752.com/) in 2006, a forum which includes news and events in BBS format, and launched a Boluo county app this year, upon which he live streamed Li’s talk and the opera performance to up to 1,500 viewers.

See also

Backstage with Li Chixiang at a Cantonese opera performance
An Interview with Li Chixiang

Nov 04

Chinese student uniforms on a foreigner

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture

You know a Chinese student when you see one because of their 80’s-track-warm-up-looking uniforms. Chinese student uniforms, or xiaofu (校服), are a famous emblem of Chinese education, hated by students for being ugly and remembered with laughs later.

For Halloween I like to wear costumes with special Chinese characteristics, so this year, guess what… I was a Chinese student.

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A friend Hunan who graduated from Zhuzhou No. 2 High School lent me her xiaofu. Xiaofu, it turns out, is gender-neutral and one size can stretch to fit many people. The attire consisted of a pair of pants and a jacket with lining. The clothes were made out of a quick drying polyester-ish material. Students only have two pairs, she said.

I added a red neckscarf for humor. Red neckscarfs are worn by primary school students, who are made to participate in the Young Pioneers program, a patriotic group run by the Communist Youth League. They aren’t worn by high school students, but I expected Chinese people would get the reference. I have worn red neckscarfs before without school uniform–for example while working at the bar in Dali–and Chinese people found it funny to see a foreigner wearing the red neckscarf.

Chinese people stared at me as I walked to the Halloween party at a bar. Having dinner before the party, a group eating in front of a childhood blackboard wanted to take pictures with me.

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At the party, a group of young people pulled me over to their table.

“We’re classmates!” they said.

Apparently they had graduated from Dali No. 2 the year before. One of them handed me a beer.

“Gan yi bei!” one of the girls said. Drink it all!

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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.