Category Archives for "China"

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.”

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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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Sep 28

What it’s like playing in the band for a rich Shanghai kid’s birthday party on a yacht

By Alan Fowler | China , Culture

When I received the invitation to perform at an unknown 18-year-old’s birthday party in Shanghai, all I could think about was how rich I would become from this endeavor.

I thought, “His parents are hiring foreigners for his party, they must be rich. I know, I will charge 10,000 RMB. No! Better make it 12,000 RMB (US$1,846). After I pay the rest of the band and take care of all the other expenses, I’m still going to walk away with over $600 for one night’s work.” My eyes quickly turned green—or in this case, red. What I didn’t expect is that what followed would leave me feeling poorer than I ever have in my 29 years of existence.

Guest Post by Alan Fowler

The party was on a boat about the size of a large yacht, but it wasn’t fancy. It carried the stench of years of wear and tear, probably through commercial use of similar events and tours around the Bund. The bulky spiral staircase that led up to the dance floor had a faded royal blue tint and, like the rest of the boat, felt tacky and outdated. The peripheral rust that barely hid itself all throughout the ships interior, along with the protruding bank slogan on the side of the upper deck characterized the vessel. It wasn’t at all what someone would see in a beach resort advertisement or flashy hip-hop video.

On top of that, the power failed, delaying the performance and causing the sound crew to rush out and frantically gather a bulky stand-alone generator and an endless supply of cables.

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ut when it was all set up and the lights came on, it started to become clear that whoever was behind this had pockets that ran very, very deep. There were girls dressed in sexy captain’s uniforms—though they couldn’t have been much older than the birthday boy—a three man pop-lock dance group, a mediocre magician, a professional mixologist with a fancy repertoire of colorful booze and a mountain of wine glasses, a rent-a-DJ that seemed to use the same “Now That’s What I Call DJ Music” subscription club as every other Zhou with an mp3 player, an obnoxious host-in-a-suit, a lavish buffet, and then us, a motley group of foreigners who had come well dressed, ready to rock the house and eager to load our pockets with Maos (the Chinese equivalent of a Benjamin: i.e. 100 RMB note).

In between songs, we were asked to take a short break while a timid looking birthday boy was all but forced to take stage to say a few words to the crowd. His demeanor wasn’t unlike the typical 18-year-old Chinese boy one might encounter during their mandatory stint at scummy English training centers and rickety middle schools that, in their desperation for white faces, lure any half-literate “foreigner” in with money and a job description that reads, “No experience needed.” His shoulders were hunched, gaze focused slightly toward the ground so as not to accidentally make eye contact with anyone, arms tightly crossed, and carrying a somewhat nonplussed, Dad-please-don’t-embarrass-me look on his face.

When the host asked him to express his excitement to the crowd—a modest group of the boy’s friends that couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 people in total—the boy hesitated, and then in angst, finally was able to muster the courage to grab the mic, just to announce that he really didn’t have anything to say. At that point, he abruptly shoved the mic back over to the host, who I’m sure the boy wished would quickly just get the hell out of his life.

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s I stood and watched alongside the stage, nightfall had set in and the towering Shanghai skyscrapers along the riverfront had begun to light up with brightly colored neon imagery—the Shanghai skyline is an architectural work of art. We had been taking advantage of the open bar (the one on the bottom level that had been designated “for the band”), and were starting to have a good time on what we thought was one of the coolest gigs we’d ever done.

My band mates—two Russians, an Armenian and an Englishman—didn’t speak much Chinese, so they weren’t too interested in the shenanigans that were taking place on stage. I however, watched and listened intently, if not just to practice my Chinese, I was also quite curious.

I turned around just in time to see three big bright red characters flashing under the Chinese for “happy birthday” on a skyscraper across the river. Leaning against the railing with martini in hand, I squinted my eyes and tried to recall how to pronounce the first character. It wasn’t a commonly seen Chinese word, and I probably wouldn’t have figured out that it was the boy’s name if people weren’t shouting it behind me. This, to me, was borderline unbelievable, but I was quick to accept it. After all, it seemed to fall right in line with all the other aforementioned festivities.

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Then, when the dad took the stage, he gave his boy a warm hug, made a short speech, and presented him with a gift. But before I say what the gift was, just think back to what you received for your 18th birthday: maybe a check for college tuition, maybe the keys to a used Ford Focus, maybe not even that much.

One thing that I still can’t grasp though, is why the young man had virtually no reaction as his father presented him with a fund for 5,000,000 RMB. At the current exchange rate of 1 US dollar for every 6.5 RMB, that’s around $769,230 big ones. That’s greater than 14 years of salary for the average American, or, just over 10 years if you’re an Asian American. Yea, I should have charged more.

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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.