Friday, November 16, 2012

China Vimeos

I've read a few different times that is a much more "artist-friendly" video sharing website than YouTube. I assume that has to do with revenue sharing and the legal protections the video site provides. I know that I've found Vimeo videos to be uniformly excellent.

Below are a few China Vimeo videos that friends either sent to me or I found through Bill Bishop's Sinocism newsletter. They're all worth a view.

The first is a beautiful big-city time-lapse video montage from three of the largest cities in China - Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Shanghai (h/t to my friend, Donnie):

Guangzhou'2012/CHINA from zweizwei |motion timelapse| on Vimeo.

The second is surreal skateboarding in the empty ghost town of Ordos (h/t to @niubi, aka Bill Bishop):

ORDOS from Charles Lanceplaine on Vimeo.

The third is a quick two minute clip of the making of Crocs-like shoes (h/t to my friend, Timo):

Factory Video from Native Shoes on Vimeo.

And the fourth is a video about environmental activism in Yunnan Province from Jonah Kessel (h/t to @niubi, aka Bill Bishop):

HOPEFUL from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

Please feel free to send me any great China short videos you find on the internet. Especially if they're hipster Vimeo videos.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

1978 National Geographic - China's Incredible Find

Qian and I went to an estate sale in our neighborhood yesterday. Qian saw an old box full of National Geographic magazines on sale for $5.00 and began thumbing through them. Once she saw the third issue in the pile, she called me over.

This is what she saw:

Knowing how big of a China nerd I am, she guessed correctly that this vintage account of China's terra cotta warrior discovery is something I'd want.

The terra cotta warriors were discovered an hour east of Xi'an in 1974. This 1978 National Geographic account highlights the initial progress that the Chinese were making with the discovery and gives the basic history of the warriors. It's a very interesting read. It's definitely worth the $.50 we paid for it.

I spent a few minutes this morning scanning all twenty pages of the story. My scans aren't that great and I'm not sure the best way to display these images on the confined spaces of this blog. I put together a collage of the story below anyways. I think they're worth posting as is:

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Behind the Red Door

When I heard that The Peking Duck blog's author, Richard Burger, had written a book, I knew it was something I'd want to check out. I found The Peking Duck in early 2006 after I'd just arrived in China for the first time. I've been reading it ever since. It was one of the first and most popular China blogs in the blogosphere and it has maintained its quality over the years. Burger has influenced my blog and my thoughts on China a great deal.

Burger, a trained professional journalist, chose a spicy topic for his book that is of interest to anyone: sex. Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, published last month, is a survey of Chinese culture, history, and attitudes towards sex from ancient times to the present day.

Burger's book is broken into the following parts:

1. Sex in Imperial China
2. Dating and Marriage
3. The Sex Trade
4. The Family
5. Homosexuality
6. Education and Health
7. China's Shifting Sexual Landscape
Parting Thoughts

The book covers a lot in a little over 200 pages. The book discusses ancient China and a number of the dynasties before the 20th century, but most of the book is about contemporary China. Like really contemporary, as in the last ten years and particularly the last five.

Anyone who's read Burger's blog knows that he is a China news junkie of the highest magnitude. He weighs in on just about every noteworthy current event in China on his blog and has done so for a decade now. This deep and encyclopedic knowledge that he's developed over the years blogging turns out to be a great resource in writing a book. I consider myself a pretty hardcore China news junkie and Burger busts out all kinds of stories and events that I'd missed.

Two of my favorite parts of the book are about something right up Burger's alley: blogging. Burger uses two bloggers - China Bounder's (aka. David Marriot) Sex and Shanghai blog from 2006 and Muzimei's Left-over Love Letters blog from 2003 - as prisms through which to view sex in contemporary China.

China Bounder was the pseudonym used by a British man who slept with dozens of young Chinese women in Shanghai and then wrote about his sexscapades on his blog. After a few posts, the China Bounder blog went viral. Chinese people, in particular, were infuriated with this foreign devil who deflowered untold numbers of Chinese women with no regard for who he left in his wake.

Muzi Mei was the pseudonym used by a woman from Guangzhou who wrote of similar promiscuity (with Chinese men) on her blog. Readers of her romps initially measured in the hundreds and then thousands and then, before the blog was shut down, tens of millions. She was a pioneer in sexual liberation in China.

I was vaguely aware of both of these examples. They were a little before my time, though. I caught the tail end of the China Bounder fame but completely missed the controversy Muzi Mei created back in 2003.  Burger does a great job of telling the two bloggers' stories and how they are related China's ongoing sexual revolution.

Another area that Burger nails is prostitution. I really liked this following passage from pages 72 and 73:

Burger is right on with this passage. I found the same attitudes towards prostitution myself. There were pink light hair salon prostitutes all over the neighborhood where I lived. Prostitution was (and still is) rampant in Xi'an (just like it is in the rest of China). I like the way that Burger ties China's lax attitudes towards paid sex today to Chinese culture and history.

The final part of the book I want to comment on is the discussion of the male/female imbalance in the final Parting Thoughts chapter. I agree with Burger that China's skewed male/female ratio - somewhere around 118 boys born for every 100 girls - is one of the largest problems facing China and the world, for that matter. There are going to be tens of millions of men in China in the coming years who will simply be unable to marry. Burger has a nice analysis of what to expect with this looming disaster.

The only thing that I wish Burger had done differently with his book is include footnotes and references. Behind the Red Door is a non-fiction book with few personal anecdotes. A book like this should've had references in my opinion. It's not as if I would've checked many (or any, honestly) of the sources of information, but I feel that notes for the hundreds of references Burger made would've been helpful.

Behind the Red Door is a nuanced, thoughtful book about China. He's done a nice job with his first book. It's accessible and at the same time informative. Being about sex, it's also quite a fun read.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Lust, Caution

I randomly found the 2007 movie Lust, Caution directed by Ang Lee while browsing Netflix a few weeks ago. I'd never heard of it before. I saw a couple Chinese people on the cover, looked up the Chinese title on IMDB - Se, jie (色,戒), and then asked my wife what she knew about it.

Qian said that she'd heard that it was a really risque film and that the lead actress in it had been banned from Chinese media for three years because of it. I noticed that the film had an NC-17 rating (meaning that no children would be allowed to see it in theaters, even if accompanied by an adult) as Qian was mentioning that.

Hearing about the controversy surrounding the movie and seeing its explicit rating were more than enough incentive for us to give the movie a chance.

Lust, Caution takes place in late-1930's, early-1940's Shanghai and Hong Kong (it's in Chinese subtitled in English on Netflix). It's ostensibly about a group of Communist party insurgents who are trying to assassinate a Chinese man who's working closely with the occupying Japanese invaders. The main thrust of the movie, though, is about the passionate relationship between one of the young ideologues, the beautiful Mrs. Mai played by Tang Wei, and the Chinese traitor/Japanese sympathizer, Mr. Yee played by Tony Leung.

The movie has a very slow pace. Early parts of the movie are dominated by catty discussions between high-society women playing ma jiang and drinking tea. I can see how one would be turned off by the glacial speed that the movie begins with. I wasn't bothered by the slow beginning, though. I really enjoyed taking in the portrayal of bygone Shanghai and Hong Kong. I'm not sure how "realistic" the scenes at the ma jiang table, markets, stores, cafes really are, but they were quite romantic and cosmopolitan and really nice scenery for the movie.

After an hour-and-a-half or so (the movie is two-and-a-half-hours-long), things really begin heating up between the main couple, Mrs. Mai and Mr. Yee. Mr. Yee is married and about thirty years Mrs. Mai's senior. Being a powerful, politically-connected man, Mr. Yee has the capability to arrange places where he and Mrs. Mai can romp around. And romp around they do.

The most memorable scenes of this movie are most certainly the duo's sexual escapades. Very little is left to the imagination during these minutes-long performances. The two engage in a wide variety of different sexual positions. It's almost as if a Daoist sex manual is being demonstrated for the viewer. It's hot stuff!

The passion between the two and the forbidden relationship that they develop become the main focus of the movie. Mrs. Mai began the affair with him so that she could set him up and ultimately kill him. But this plan gets complicated as she falls in love with him.

Lust, Caution is most famous for its incredibly explicit sex scenes. The movie is more than just those lustful scenes, though. I appreciated the movie on a few different levels. The two main characters put on quite an acting performance. There are a number of complicated relationships and plot lines too; it's well-written. And the disturbing ending is a good pay-off for the time that the viewer has invested into watching this film.

Qian and I enjoyed this film a lot. I recommend it.

One final comment on the movie: Mr. Yee, played by the famous Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, looks so much like President Obama in this movie. It's uncanny.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mao's War Against Nature

In the summer of 2006, I stopped at the train station in the small industrial town of Panzhihua in Sichuan Province. I was on my way to the touristy mountain paradise of Lijiang in Yunnan Province. Although Panzhihua was smack dab in the middle of an idyllic mountain setting, it was a dystopian industrial hellhole.

Photo of Panzhihua from

My assumption at the time was that Panzhihua was simply a casualty of China's post-Mao-era rapid economic development. It turns out that my assumption was wrong. Panzhihua's landscape is not a result of contemporary China's economic boom. Instead, it is a victim of Mao's 1960s Cultural Revolution-era attempts at military might.

Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China by Judith Shapiro is about Panzhihua and a number of other examples of Mao-led destruction of nature. The book begins in the late-1940s/early-1950s and goes over Mao's systemic attacks against nature through the end of his life in the mid-1970s.

Shapiro's book, published in 2001, is broken into five sections that move linearly through Mao's reign:
1. Population, Dams, and Political Repression
2. Deforestation, Famine, and Utopian Urgency
3. Grainfields in Lakes and Dogmatic Uniformity
4. War Preparations and Forcible Relocations
5. Legacy
These chapters are pretty self-explanatory based on their titles. I found the sections on dam construction, agriculture during the Great Leap Forward, and stories about educated youth - educated urban young adults who were sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants - to be the most interesting sections.

A couple of Chinese idioms that I've talked about before - 人定胜天 ("man can conquer nature") and 人多力量大 ("a larger population means more power") - show up again and again in Sharpiro's book. Both of these Mao-isms say so much about Mao's simplistic attitude towards the environment and political governance.

Here is a nice summary of Mao's basic views on nature from page 67-8:

Mao's War Against Nature is a nice complement to a couple other books on China's environment that I've read - China's Water Crisis by Ma Jun and When a Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts.

My biggest take away from Jun's book is that China's destruction of nature goes back millenia. Although his book is mostly about China's current water problems, a large focus of the book is on China's centuries-long destruction of and influence on nature.

Watts book is solely focused on China's economic destruction in the more recent boom years. Watts takes the reader to every corner of China to highlight the severe and, in many cases, irreversible damage that is ravaging China's environment on a daily basis.

Sharpiro's Mao's War Against Nature does a nice job of filling in the gap that exists between the two books. Mao, between 1949 and 1976, did so much lasting damage to China's environment: the countless dams, the ludicrous collectivization of China's farms, and the massive resources poured in to military industrialization, like in Panzhihua, that changed China's landscapes forever.

The main problem I had with Sharpiro's book is that it often goes into mind-numbing detail that I just didn't want or find interesting. The book is, in many ways, written in a reader-friendly journalistic fashion. Parts of it attempt to be more academic, though, and go into way too much detail. I didn't really appreciate when Shapiro gave several paragraphs to how many hectares of Yunnan Province were destroyed or the year-by-year population estimates of Panzhihua during its military industrialization. Those sections don't really fit with the totality of the book, in my opinion. I wanted more of an overview compared to an academic study.

Despite the sections sections that go into too much detail, I feel that Shapiro's book is a worthwhile read. Anyone wanting to get a very detailed picture of the history of China's destruction of its environment should check out Mao's War Against Nature.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Chinese Art in Kansas City

A new exhibit of centuries-old paintings stored in Kansas City, Missouri and Lawrence, Kansas are now on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

From The Kansas City Star:
The most enchanting show of the summer is tucked away in the Chinese paintings gallery at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. 
“Faces From China’s Past” is a walk-in album of charming portraits from the 16th to the 19th centuries. 
Their subjects — imposing matrons and fetching young women, stately ancestors and learned men — seem remote from us in customs and dress, yet seeing them enjoy their pets and favorite pastimes in lovely gardens and elegant interiors, one immediately feels a sense of kinship. 
And there’s just enough of a “boy meets girl” theme to keep things interesting. 
That notion gets quite an airing in a series of exquisite illustrations for an erotic novel, “The Plum in the Golden Vase,” chronicling the amorous adventures of a rich merchant, Master Ximen. He’s a randy and at times cruel character, not above climbing a garden wall to have a tryst with his brother’s wife or punishing a wayward concubine with a whip. 
Nearby, “Listening to the Qin by Candlelight,” a 17th-century piece showing a man playing the ancient stringed instrument for a female companion, presents a much more civilized approach to romance. 
Drawn from the collections of the Nelson and the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, the artworks in this show were made for enjoyment and commemoration by mostly unknown artists. And many of the works have languished in storage for years. 
“Scholars weren’t interested in this type of painting; it’s not what Chinese consider mainstream,” said Colin Mackenzie, the Nelson’s senior curator of Chinese painting. The mainstream is landscape painting, he said, “created by the educated elite to express a philosophical view of art.” 
Read On  
The Nelson-Atkins Museum has one of the finest collections of Chinese art in the world. Here is a summary of the Nelson-Atkins' permanent Chinese collection:
Since it opened in 1933, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has actively collected, preserved, studied and exhibited works of Chinese art. Even before the Museum was built, its benefactors planned to include in it the first major gallery in America devoted solely to Chinese art. As early as 1930, the focus was to build a collection that would represent China’s highest achievements in every medium and from every historical period. As a result, the Chinese collection is one of the finest in the world. 
With more than 7,500 works of high quality, the Chinese collection comprises masterpieces from every historical stage and in every medium of China’s artistic activity – from Neolithic times to the 20th century. 
The collection of Chinese paintings is one of the best outside Asia particularly in the rarest and desirable period of early Chinese landscapes, the 10th through 13th centuries C.E. The richness of nature’s nuances can be seen in Xu Daoning’s Fisherman’s Evening Song, arguably the greatest surviving Northern Song landscape handscroll. Later period works include exceptional Ming and Qing paintings, such as Shitao’s A Landscape Album for Liu Shitou (K'u-kua miao-t'i). 
As a pioneer in collecting Ming furniture, the Museum’s collection is virtually unrivaled outside of China. The comprehensive ceramics collection spans 5,000 years and includes both sculptures and wares that chronicle the great epochs of Chinese ceramic innovations. 
Buddhist sculpture and wall paintings range from the Northern Dynasties to the Qing period and offer some of the best examples of Buddhist art in the west. A jewel of the Museum is the Chinese Temple Gallery (Gallery 230). Among Buddhist statues exhibited here is an 11th/12th-century C.E. polychrome wooden Avalokiteshvara, Seated Guanyin Bodhisattva, internationally heralded as the finest sculpture of its kind outside China.
Qian and I have been to the Nelson, which has free admission, several times in the three years we've been in Kansas City. The whole museum, on top of the Chinese collection, is just an awesome display.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum

The Chinese works of art are far superior to anything I ever saw in China. I haven't spent a lifetime checking out other cities' museums' Chinese collections, but I have to believe that the Nelson's is up there with any collection in the world.

If you ever find yourself in Kansas City, be sure to check out the Nelson-Atkins Museum's Chinese collection. Send me an email and I'll go with you. We can catch some BBQ after we see the museum too. Kansas City's BBQ, my favorites being Oklahoma Joe's and Jack Stack, is as good as it gets.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Invisible China

Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands by Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson is a really pleasant book. I randomly found it on Amazon. I'd never heard about it from the Chinese blogosphere or anywhere else.

The two authors - Legerton and Rawson - went on two epic backpacking trips in the summer of 2006 and spring of 2007 that covered a ridiculously large swath of China's territory:

Legerton and Rawson, who were already proficient with Mandarin before their big trips, studied up on Korean and Uyghur before they embarked on their gargantuan journeys.

Their rigorous study of minority languages says a lot about the duo. They have immense respect for the cultures that they saw and made the most of their great opportunity to see cultures that, for many of them, are on the brink of extinction. The authors handled the people and situations they encountered with great care and painted very delicate pictures of the individuals and landscapes they witnessed.

Invisible China introduced me to a wide range of ethnic minorities in China I wasn't familiar with before: the rustic hunting cultures of the Ewenki, Oroqen, and Daur of the northeast, the fishermen Kinh of the southwest, and the central Asian-influenced Tajiks of the far west.

I particularly liked that two-thirds of the book is focused on China's southwest and far west. I've said it many times, but for me, China gets more interesting the further west one goes. The jungles and Himalayas of the southwest and the deserts and plateaus of the far west made for great settings.

My only real complaint about the book is that it is too short. There is so much covered in only about 230 pages. I wish that the authors had laid out more facts and history about each ethnic minority they were profiling. Brief histories of each group were given, but not much more than the basics and then the duo's experiences visiting their homelands. Seeing that they profiled fifteen different peoples and had thirteen different chapters, 230 pages felt squeezed. It easily could've been twice as long and I'd have been happy.

Invisible China is a great primer to the surprisingly diverse peoples on the fringes of the People's Republic.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Americans in China

I don't think This American Life is going to have to have to issue a retraction for their most recent expedition in to China.

The radio program, produced by WBEZ in Chicago and distributed by Public Radio International, caused a huge stir this spring when it had to retract its program - Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory - by performer, Mike Daisey. It turned out that Daisey had made up many of the key points of his hugely popular monologue about witnessing abuses at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. Watching the truth come to the surface was a wild thing to witness. I get a sick sense of enjoyment watching people get called out on lying and experienced a great deal of schadenfreude hearing Daisey taken to task as hard as he was by Rob Schmitz and Ira Glass.

Following up their piece from a pathological liar who admitted he knew "fuck-all about Chinese culture," This American Life redeemed itself this week by featuring a line-up of some of the most influential and knowledgeable foreigners living in China. This week's episode, Americans in China, is one of the better This American Life episodes I've heard (although I have to say that my favorite episode is still Somewhere Out There... do yourself a favor and listen to this one that's also China-related).

Kaiser Kuo is the main character in the most recent "Americans in China" episode. He's the host of the Sinica Podcast, a program I've touted numerous times on my blog. His story of being a Chinese American who completely fell for the land his parents came from, moving to China and literally becoming a rock star, having his Chinese band mates turn their backs on him after the Chinese embassy was bombed in Belgrade in 1999 because he's American, and ultimately raising his family in Beijing and working for Baidu is fascinating. I was quite moved by his passion for both China and the US.

The second act of the "Americans in China" episode is from Michael Meyer. His piece is about living in his wife's village in rural northeast China.

I read Meyer's book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed last year, actually, but never got around to writing anything about it on my blog. I didn't really have anything to say about it. There was nothing overtly wrong or bad about Meyer's book, but I was just, for lack of a better word, bored by it.

My reaction to Meyer's book reminds me of my brother's reaction to Peter Hessler. After a huge amount of hype from me, I convinced my brother to read Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones a couple years ago. Oracle Bones is one of my all-time favorite books. I was so surprised when, a few weeks after he had started it, he told me that he couldn't finish the book. He said that Hessler's seriousness and humorlessness just got to him and that he couldn't continue reading.

I feel that way about Meyer's book and his piece on This American Life. I can't put my finger on it, but I haven't enjoyed his work as much as I have a lot of other prolific China hands'.

Despite not being enthralled with Meyer's piece, it was good to hear such quality programming on Americans in China. Kuo's story, framed by the excellent Evan Osnos, alone is worth listening to. This American Life has gone a long way in making up for whatever it egg it still had on its face from when it featured Mike Daisey.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Wild China

I LOL'd a few weeks ago when I saw this video - China, China:

I didn't really think twice about the clip until I started the TV series Wild China on Netflix. After a few minutes of Wild China, I realized that it was the British-accented source of the viral China, China compilation.

Wild China is a six-part 2008 BBC documentary on the rugged geography and exotic peoples and animals of China. The series is broken in to six episodes:
1. Heart of the Dragon
2. Shangri-La
3. Tibet
4. Beyond the Great Wall
5. Land of the Panda
6. Tides of Change
Heart of the Dragon is mostly about the wondrous karst areas of Guangxi Province and southern China. Shangri-La is all about the intense diversity of Yunnan Province. Tibet takes place in Tibet. Beyond the Great Wall is all about the Inner Mongolian and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions. Land of the Panda focuses mostly on central China from the Qinling Mounatins to the east. And Tides of Change looks at the humongous coast line from North Korea to Vietnam through the prism of China's rapid development.

I liked this entire series. It is top-notch videography of the incredibly diverse wildlife and terrain of China. I repeatedly thought to myself, "I can't believe that still exists. I thought China had killed off every animal like that!" Wild China proves that there's still a whole lot of beauty to be found in China.

The best episodes are the first two - on the Guangxi Autonomous Region and Yunnan Provice. These two episodes will make you want to get on a plane, put on a backpack, and go explore remote parts of China. My personal favorites from this part are the features on monkeys, ethnic minorities crossing raging rivers using rope zip lines, and fly-over videography of karst mountains.

Here is a clip of the Nu Jiang rope crossing from the Shangri-La episode:

(There are several more clips from Wild China on YouTube if you search for "wild china")

The last four episodes were interesting to me, but a let down compared to the beginning of the series.

The episode on Tibet didn't feature as many towering, snow-covered Himalayan peaks as it did barren plateau. Vast lifeless expanses of land are certainly a big part of Tibet and its topography, but it didn't make for the most interesting viewing. The same is true of the grasslands of Inner Mongolia and the deserts of Xinjiang in episode four (and I say that as a huge Xinjiang nerd). Nothing really stands out from episodes five and six in my mind a few weeks after having watched it either.

I enjoyed Wild China a lot. I'd recommend it to someone wanting to learn a thing or two while killing time on Netflix.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

God is Red

Seeing that I'm not a religious person, I wasn't sure whether I would like Liao Yiwu's new book - God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China. "Christianity in China" in my mind is synonymous with Mormon and Protestant born again Evangelical Americans teaching at Chinese universities who spend a great deal of their time prosthelytizing to eager Chinese undergrads. The topic is not something I'm particularly interested in.

I liked Liao's previously released book in English, though - The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom UpLiao's story is most interesting too - he was a state-sponsored writer as a young man, wrote provocative poetry about the Tiananmen massacre in the late '80s and early '90s, spent years in prison for that work, developed his writing more and more, and has recently written books that have been translated into English.

While I had reservations about reading a book profiling Christians in China, I picked it up anyways knowing Liao's dissident and bohemian life story and liking his previous work.

God is Red is written in the same style as The Corpse Walker. Liao uses his friends and connections to meet people on the fringes of Chinese society. Much of the book is written in an interview Q&A format. It's broken into three sections:
1. The Trip to Dali
2. The Yi and Miao Villages
3. Beijing and Chengdu
Dali is a hippie outpost in Yunnan Province, an area in southwest China between the Himalayas and Myanmar. My strongest memory of Dali when I was there in 2006 is being offered marijuana from tiny, wrinkled old ladies in lavish ethnic garb. It's a very chill little tourist town dotted with coffee shops and cafes serving foreign food. It's surrounded by beautiful mountains and an idyllic lake.

The Yi are an ethnic group I've now seen profiled in several of the books I've read on China (River at the Center of the World is a book with one of those profiles). They are one of the most exotic ethnic groups in all of China. They mostly reside in the mountainous and undeveloped areas of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan Provinces.

And then Beijing and Chengdu are two of China's biggest and most progressive cities.

The interviews that Liao conducts with Christians throughout these areas highlight the edginess and rebellious nature that are required in being a Christian in China. Liao interviews old men and women who talk about picking up Christianity from missionaries during the 1940s before the founding of the People's Republic, people who somehow continued to practice their religion during Mao's reign of terror, and younger people who today are picking up Christianity during China's opening to the world. A full spectrum of people and stories are introduced to the reader.

Stories about Mao's persecution of Christians and destruction of churches during his never-ending political campaigns are featured in many people's stories. Liao conducted the interviews for this book around 2005 or so. Many of the people who suffered at that time are nearing the end of their lives. Liao's book is quite valuable in recording several instances of great abuse and sharing them with the world before those events fade into history and are forgotten.

I really enjoy books that go off-the-beaten-path, taking readers to parts of China that are hard to access. God is Red goes really deep into rugged parts of China. Liao takes the reader to some of the most scenic and inaccessible parts of China.

I liked the following passage from pages 143-44 where Liao has a feast with Yi Christians in Yunnan Province a lot:

There's so much passion and life in Liao's words here. This passage illustrates what is special about Liao and his books. He brings both a Chinese and outsider's perspective to the people and events he introduces. Both God in China and The Corpse Walker (a book I read last year but never got reviewed on this blog... hope to get something on here at some point about it) are excellent windows in to the underclass and people on the edges of Chinese society.

I, unfortunately, don't read enough books by Chinese authors. Looking at my bookshelf of Chinese books, there are a few Chinese authors' books, but I see mostly Anglo names there. Not reading many Chinese writers is, obviously, one of the drawbacks of not being able to read a book in Chinese. Liao Yiwu is a Chinese author writing captivating creative nonfiction about China, its history, and its people. And his books are being translated into English. He's worth checking out.

Friday, May 25, 2012


Bill Bishop's blog/newsletter Sinocism has become an absolute must-read for anyone wanting to keep up with these interesting times in China. I suggest going to his blog here and signing up for the daily email via Feed Burner. The daily email makes sure you get every post he makes.

Bishop (aka. niubi on Twitter) is a fluent Mandarin speaking American who's lived in Beijing for years. He's an entrepreneur who co-founded CBS' Marketwatch. It's obvious from his work that he spends a great deal of time these days working on Sinocism.

Sinocism has been an excellent guide for the many recent controversies in China - Bo Xilai, Chen Guangchen, and the recent crackdowns on foreigners among others. His commentary and news curation is extremely wide-ranging, but I find his writing on China's economy and internet to be most enlightening.

There's no blog, Twitter feed, or news website out there better than Sinocism when it comes to China news and commentary.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Eating Bitterness

I told my brother the other day that I was reading a book about migrant workers living in Xi'an that just came out last month - Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China's Great Urban Migration by Michelle Dammon Loyalka.

"Wow, that's esoteric," he said.

"Yeah," I responded, "I think the author wrote this book especially for me."

He laughed.

It's true, a book about migrant workers and China's rapidly developing economy set in my Chinese home city of Xi'an is right up my alley. When I heard of Eating Bitterness on Twitter a few weeks ago, I knew it was something I had to check out.

After having read the book, I don't think my brother's and my initial reactions were correct, though. The book is not esoteric. There's nothing technical about the sociology of urban migration or anything inside baseball about Xi'an in it. The book is about human beings trying to make their lives better. Anyone can relate with that.

Seeing that there are more than 100 million migrant workers in China right now taking part in the largest human migration in the history of the planet, this book is something anyone can and should read. It gives great insights into a truly massive demographic of the world's population.


Dammon Loyalka for her book embeded herself in the lives of migrant workers working and living in a city village (城中村) on the outskirts of Xi'an's High-Tech Zone. She shadowed a number of different types of migrant workers for weeks at a time. In her afterword, she said she spent upwards of three weeks, on and off, with each person she profiled. Because of her tireless shoe-leather journalism, an intimate portrait of each character's hopes, joys, and fears is painted for the reader.

The characters in her book are as follows:
1. The Veggie Vendors  
2. The Impenetrable Knife Sharpener 
3. The Teenage Beauty Queens 
4. The Ever-Floating Floater 
5. The Landless Landlords 
6. The Nowhere Nanny 
7. The Opportunity Spotter 
8. The Big Boss
Each one of these migrant workers with countryside roots living in the big city show a remarkable ability to "eat bitter" (吃苦). "Eating bitterness," the title of the book, is a phrase that Chinese people use to describe one's ability to deal with hardship.

A farmer toiling the fields during flood or drought in ancient China had to eat bitterness. A young girl sold to a warlord to be a concubine had to eat bitterness. Nearly everyone in every part of China had to eat bitterness under Mao.

Even today during China's economic miracle with all of its glitzy skyscrapers and black Audis, many in the bottom-rung of society have to eat more than their fair share of bitterness. China has come a long way in the past thirty years, but not everyone is enjoying the fruits of their hard labor equally. Dammon Loyalka's book shows how life is for those at the bottom of today's China trying to follow their dreams and trying to make life better for their families.

I really liked getting to know each one of these characters Dammon Loyalka introduced. Although I liked all of these stories, my favorites were #2, #3, and #6.

The Impenetrable Knife Sharpener was probably my favorite character in the book. Wang Quanxi is an illiterate old man trying to scrape by a living in Xi'an by riding his bike around advertising that he'll sharpen whatever knives you have for a couple yuan each. He lives in complete squalor so that his fixed costs are as low as possible and he can send back nearly everything he makes to his family living in Henan.

I particularly liked this passage where Quanxi spent hours sharpening knives for a restaurant:

An owner of a restaurant intentionally screwing over this old man, who broke his back making sure his knives are sharp enough, out of three yuan (or $.48) really hit me. There were plenty of times in Xi'an where I argued with a motorbike driver over two yuan or someone selling vegetables over .5 yuan. That's certainly different than reneging on an agreed upon price, but getting to know Quanxi makes me question some of the energy that I put into nickel-and-diming people with so much less than I have.

Despite any attempts to get good prices with the migrant workers I encountered while living in China, I was constantly taken aback by the migrant workers I saw everywhere when I lived in Xi'an. Whether it was a little old lady pulling a wheelbarrow down the bike path of a street or construction workers literally building the new China, I was always aware of that a great number of people in China have incredibly difficult lives.

Eating Bitterness gives me a lot more context for those images of migrant workers that I have in my mind. Knowing the stories behind at least a handful of those faces is really valuable, in my opinion.

I really liked Eating Bitterness. Much like Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang, it really opened my eyes to a group of people in China that I was very aware of but didn't know with enough depth. Eating Bitterness is written beautifully and is full of great information. I highly recommend this to anyone wanting to look beyond the gaudy GPD numbers and see the full picture of China's rapid development.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Big in China

Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing by Alan Paul is a book about finding one's self while living abroad.

Paul, a journalist with Guitar World and Slam magazines in the US, went with his family in 2006 to live in Beijing because of a job opportunity that came up for his wife. Like so many westerners who go to China (myself included), Paul finds expat life in China to be the stuff that dreams are made of. Big in China is his chronicle of taking full advantage of almost every second he lived in the Middle Kingdom.

Paul, his wife, and kids knew hardly anything about China before they went to live in the country. They had no language skills, no real cultural background, and no idea what they were getting in to. It was particularly interesting how Paul's children, normal suburban kids from New Jersey, adapted to life in China. Not too surprisingly, the kids found things easier in a lot of ways than the adults did.

Paul and his family were provided a nice living space on the outer edges of Beijing in a community where other foreigners living long-term in China were placed by their companies. I saw countless foreigners come and go when I lived in Xi'an, but I didn't have much of an understanding of how such expat communities are set up in Beijing. I appreciated reading about how the expat life goes down - where their kids go to school, interaction with people from all over the world, etc. - for many expats in China's capital. It's much different than what I saw in Xi'an.

A majority of Paul's book focuses on the band he starts in Beijing - Woodie Alan. Woodie is a talented Chinese musician that Paul is fortunate to meet early on during his time in Beijing. Woodie introduces Paul to other Chinese musicians that Paul can start a band with.

Although Paul had been a writer for Guitar World magazine in his previous life living in New Jersey, he had never really transformed himself in to a proficient musician. He could jam out no problem, but he had never refined himself in to a guitarist who could play in a band or pull the music that was in his soul out to the surface. Paul had been more interested in interviewing and writing about the likes of Gregg Allman than playing guitar or singing like him.

Watching Paul develop confidence as a musician and, ultimately, as a person with his Chinese band mates was a really cool thing to witness. China was a land where Paul felt he could try anything and didn't feel as though he had to worry about making mistakes or failing.

The following passage from page 143 really captures the sense of fun and excitement and experimentation that Paul developed the longer he stayed in China:

This passage is what China is all about. My friends and I in Xi'an used to use the expression "livin' the dream" when experiencing what Paul is describing here.

I can completely relate to this notion of "livin' the dream" and Paul's story of developing confidence through experimentation in China. I, like Paul, had a few "Big in China" moments while in Xi'an.

Long-time readers of my blog and friends of mine will remember that I too was part of a music project in China: The Xi'an Incident (an explanation on the name). I went from being a truly terrible guitarist who couldn't keep time or play scales worth a lick when I went to China in 2006 to playing lead guitar at live shows and on a studio album in 2007.

The Xi'an Incident formed after a friend of mine from London who I met in Xi'an, Natan, and I wrote a few songs together in the early months of 2007. We took a few ideas he'd been working on and a few chord progressions and ideas that I'd messed around with and melded them together into nine original tracks.

Working with Natan on the early stages of our songs was something I'll never forget. Natan is a great musician and a particularly gifted song writer. Watching him weave together the fabric of a song - lyrics, chord progression, chorus, etc. - was a thing of beauty.

As we were writing and reworking these songs over the course of a few weeks, we met up with friends of ours to see about getting a band going. Will, a drummer from Boston, and Zhang Ke, a bassist from Xi'an, were co-owners of a jazz bar in a central part of Xi'an. Natan and I brought what we'd worked on and played what we had with Will and Zhang Ke. Being formally trained musicians with a background in jazz, our rock tunes were a piece of cake for Will and Zhang Ke to pick up quickly and add a lot to.

After about a month of song writing and jamming, Natan, Will, and Zhang Ke, and I played a few shows at the jazz bar and recorded an album in the summer of 2007.

Indulge me and let me post the following two videos. They're my favorites from the show that my brother sat in on drums for (Will was in America visiting and my brother, a drummer, happened to be visiting me in China) that we played in front of a full bar of about 75 people:

The first pages of the introduction to Paul's book talk about playing music on TV in Fujian Province in front of millions upon millions of TV sets. That is big in China. The music experiences I had in Xi'an are pretty small potatoes in comparison. But they are my big moments in China and I'll always treasure them.

I haven't played tons of guitar since this period of my life and have not played in a band since The Xi'an Incident. I'm not sure I ever will rock out like this again (admittedly, I've got a bit of time left to see if this will be the case). These memories I have of developing confidence in my playing, writing songs, and playing shows - experiences that Paul writes about in great detail in his book - will always mean the world to me. I have no doubt that these experiences had positive impacts on my life well outside the realm of music as well.

Back to wrapping up the review of Paul's book, I enjoyed it a lot. I really only had two issues with it.

The first issue I have is the cover. It just looks, well, hokey. I heard some hype about Big in China several months ago on the Chinese blog and Twitter-sphere. I remember looking it up online and, after seeing the cover, thinking that Paul looked like some sort of Neil Diamond-esque musician (ie. lame). I decided to pass.

This first impression I had was completely wrong and I'm glad I eventually picked up the book. Paul jammed out to raging psychedelic Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead-inspired tunes all over China. He's no Neil Diamond! I wish the energy of those bands that inspire Paul had been captured in the cover. For better or worse, I didn't bother reading this book based upon my initial negative first reaction to how it looked.

My second issue with the book is with Paul's countdown to leaving Beijing. Paul loved living in Beijing. That was obvious. It's completely understandable that he was sad about his eventual departure from China. But his anxiety about his leaving Beijing felt like it began halfway through the book and only intensified as the book drew to a close. The last several chapters are all about how hard it was to leave. Leaving China after living there for years is difficult; I know this from experience. But this leaving China theme was too dominant in the book, in my opinion, and wore on me.

All in all, Big in China is a fun, quick read. Paul lived life to the max for almost every second of his time abroad. I'd especially recommend this to someone who is on the fence about going to teach or live in China for a few years. After reading Paul's book, you'll have a tough time saying no to "livin' the dream" in China.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


I’m writing this post from a train between Liege, Belgium and Köln, Germany. Qian and I are using her two-week spring break and almost all of my vacation time for the year at work on a European sojourn. A week in to the trip, it has been incredible.

So far we’ve been to Amsterdam and Maastricht, a small town in the south of the Netherlands. My brother is in the second year of his master’s degree program at the University of Amsterdam. We spent four days in Amsterdam doing the touristy stuff – the Van Gogh Museum, Rijks Museum, and Anne Frank House – and hanging out with my brother and his girlfriend. We then spent two days taking in Maastricht.

Maastricht is my European hometown (in a similar fashion to Xi'an being the place that I hold dear in China). I spent four months studying abroad in Maastricht during my junior year at Saint Louis University. Being in Maastricht was my first real time abroad (save for a spring break trip to the Caribbean my senior year of high school). Maastricht blew my mind. Studying abroad as a twenty year-old without a care in the world was a whirlwind, truly the time of my life. My positive experience there certainly primed me for wanting to go abroad after I graduated, which is when I went to Xi’an.

Qian and I had a wonderful time these past couple days in Maastricht. We couldn’t have asked for a more storybook romantic European experience. We strolled up and down the city’s cobble stone streets, took in the Roman-era architecture and city wall (a cool fact of my life is that I’ve lived in two cities with city walls built centuries ago), window shopped, bought chocolates, fruit, and bread at the city's Friday market, and rented bikes that we used to ride over the border to Belgium where we imbibed on delicious Belgian beer (when in Belgium…).

We’re going to spend the next two days in Köln and then will have five days in Paris. I’m confident that the second half of the trip will live up to the great time we've had the first half.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Life and Death in Shanghai

Nien Cheng, the author of Life and Death in Shanghai , is a beautiful person that you will never forget after reading her book. I was struck deeply time and again by her bravery, logic, and unique sense of life as I read her lengthy memoir. The writing in the book, which was published in 1988, is focused on her brutal experiences during Mao's cultural revolution. Her stand against the evil and irrationality that engulfed everything around her is inspiring.

Cheng was born into a patrician family in Beijing in 1915. She doesn't talk at length about her parents and her grandparents, but it is abundantly clear that they came from a blue-blooded lineage of wealth and influence. She experienced a long list of things that hardly any other Chinese person of her generation did. She studied at the London School of Economics for a couple years in 1935. She spent lots of time abroad traveling in Europe, Australia, and the United States. And she hobnobbed in English with foreign intellectuals and dignitaries in China from around the world.

As one might guess, this background did her no favors once Mao and the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. She and her husband, a member of the Kuomintang government and then an executive at Shell Oil, debated whether to leave China with their daughter at that time. The ultimately decided to stay in China. Cheng regretted that choice later in her life.

All of this is background to the beginning of the cultural revolution in 1966, which is when Cheng begins her story. The following passage is the first page and a half of her book:

Life and Death in Shanghai is written in three sections: "The Wind of Revolution," "The Detention House," and "My Struggle for Justice." Those three section titles can give an idea to what the book is about and how it progresses.

"The Wind of Revolution" captures the moments before, and the first days and weeks of, the denunciations, campaigns, and persecution that marked the beginning of the cultural revolution. Life wasn't exactly normal in the early parts of 1966; China had already suffered through the great leap forward a few years earlier and was completely isolated from the world community. But there was at least the semblance of normality on a day-to-day basis. Cheng describes the final days in her house, her art work and literature collection, her servants, her relationship with her daughter, and the other things in her life that were soon to be destroyed.

Cheng is eventually targeted in the political campaigns herself. Her house is ransacked. Red guards went out of their way to destroy many of the centuries-old cultural relics that Cheng, an art collector, had accumulated. She is denounced as a "capitalist roader," or someone who is against Mao and the party's policies. She is removed from her house and put into a political prison.

"The Detention House" is about Cheng's years-long detainment in solitary confinement. She had been singled out by higher ups in the party and they wanted her to confess to a laundry list of crimes that she had not committed. This section is about her long, brutal struggle standing up to constant bullying, manipulation, and torture.

"Struggle for Justice" is about her time once out of prison. I'm not going to go into much detail about this section since there are a lot of potential spoilers. But I will say that it holds up with the rest of the book.

Life and Death in Shanghai is a painful read. It's long, repetitive, and there are sections that are hard to get through. It's not Cheng's writing or story-telling that is the problem, though. It's what she's going through. Day after day of arguing with illogical prison guards is insane and Cheng's writing captures that. One particularly section where she is handcuffed for eleven days straight without reprieve is simply excruciating to digest.

Conceding that the book is hard at times, Life and Death in Shanghai captivated me. The book is 550 pages and I got though it in just a few days. It's very readable despite the distressing experiences described in it. Cheng is a wonderful writer (she wrote the book in English herself). Her writing shines light on the darkest corners of the cultural revolution.

I highly recommend Life and Death in Shanghai to someone wanting to understand China's violent recent past. I also recommend it so that you can see heroic bravery in the face of pure evil. Nien Cheng, who died in 2009 at the age of 94 while living in the United States, was a truly special soul.