Thursday 1 December 2011

Earthquakes and toads...

It’s been a few months since I last posted – been busy doing talks on the Grand Canal of China and polishing off the manuscript to Chusan: the forgotten story of Britannia’s first Chinese island. Still, no excuse, but when I was lying in bed listening to the Today Programme on Radio 4 this morning and heard an item about some scientific research about toads and earthquakes it rang a bell in the Ancient China gland of my brain (a little to the left/east of my cingulate cortex, if you’re interested).
Zhang Heng's seismometer from 132AD - put that in your pipe and smoke it, The West!
Apparently researchers have found evidence of a mechanism to explain the phenomenon whereby toads flee their watery homes before an earthquake: charged particles created by rocks under tension are concentrated in surface water near the epicentre (or something), and the toads clearly find the extra charge unpleasant. I imagine it’s rather like the icky feeling you get when you lick the terminals of a PP3 battery, but over your entire body.

To get to the point, the Ancient Chinese, as with most things (electric toothbrushes and fragrance-changing air-fresheners aside) had noticed the link between toads and earthquakes and had used it in their scientific endeavours while we were still living in trees (or under the Romans to be precise).

In 132AD, so the biographies of the Book of the Eastern Han Dynasty record, the astronomer Zhang Heng invented a seismometer which could tell when an earthquake had occurred, and in which direction from the capital. It worked by means of a vertical rod which was displaced by the transverse waves from the quake, and which triggered a ball to be dislodged from one of eight dragons’ mouths. The ball then fell noisily into a receptacle below, the interesting bit being that the receptacle was of bronze cast in the shape of a toad. “When the mechanism was set off, a ball was spat out, and a toad caught it in its mouth” (机发吐丸而蟾蜍衔之 in the original classical Chinese if you’re interested). I can’t see this choice of animal being a coincidence – the Chinese were eminent nature-watchers and must have observed the flight of toads before earthquakes. Hurrah for Zhang Heng.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Romantic Cowherds, Goddesses and Giant Pythons...

The centuries-old Chinese festival of Qixi 七夕 will this year be celebrated on Saturday, August 6th.
Giant Python Emerges from the Mountains - yes, it does look a bit like a winkie...
Qixi literally means “the evening of the sevens”, and refers to the date in the traditional lunar calendar on which it falls - the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. There are various stories about the origins of the festival found across East Asia, but most of them are based on the legend of Niulang the Oxherd and the Weaver Girl.
To cut a long story short, the mortal Niulang falls in love with Zhinü, the daughter of the Goddess of Heaven, who otherwise spends her days at the loom, and they marry. When the Goddess of Heaven finds out that her daughter’s been dating a human behind her back, and has even jumped the broomstick with him (she was, it seems, preggers), she grounds Zhinü, which involves making her sit at her loom weaving clouds for eternity. Bummer. Meanwhile, Niulang’s ox tells him to slaughter it and ride up to heaven wrapped in its hide, which Niulang duly does. This is proving to be a pretty weird trip for Niulang so far. The Goddess of Heaven, finding that Niulang has come to look for her daughter, sets the Milky Way across the sky to divide them once and for all, Niulang forever on one side and Zhinü on the other. Niulang and Zhinü - the stars Altair and Vega to be precise - are fated to be apart for eternity, but all the Earth’s magpies (which in Chinese symbolism are ideals of marital bliss) once a year fly up to heaven to form a bridge across the Milky Way which the two lovers cross to be together for the night. August 6th is that night. 
Assuming the story’s true, then round about midnight Beijing time (5pm BST) you should see all Britain’s magpies flying off to do their bit. Where was I? Oh yes, Qixi festival. The authorities whose job it is to publicize the Sanqing Mountains in Jiangxi province are, as usual, tempting lovers all across China to visit them (they’re an official scenic area, and really are beautiful) to soak up the atmos and to do luvvy-duvvy things.
The Sanqing Mountains are associated with romance through the legend of the goddess Sichun and the mortal she fell in love with while bunking off from heaven, which was dullsville, to take a look at the human realm. To cut a longer story even shorter, Sichun ends up as a rock in the shape of a woman, and her lover ends up as a rock called Giant Python Emerges from the Mountains. They’re forever separated by a valley, and now romantic Chinese lovers travel to the Sanqing Mountains equipped with locks with their names engraved upon them, which they solemnly shackle to the handrails in the hope that they’ll never be parted.
So there you have it.

Friday 8 July 2011

Don't be Fooled by Fake Donkey-Hide Gelatin, You Idiot!

The most culturally bewildering story on the Xinhua News Agency wires today is titled “Handy hints: Three steps to telling real donkey-hide gelatin from fake”. I had to investigate...
"She gets the blokes, because she drinks donkey-hide gelatin"
In traditional Chinese medicine, donkey-hide gelatin or ejiao 阿胶 is used to improve your blood supply, especially if you’re a lady. It’s often eaten with almonds and sesame seeds, presumably to disguise the fact that it’s basically the rendered-down hide from dead donkeys.
The world of traditional remedies, though, is being upset by the practices of unscrupulous practitioners who are selling ejiao that’s in fact been made from the skins of horses, mules and even pigs (which, let’s face it, can’t even pass as donkeys). This fake ejiao, apparently, affords no health benefits (no shit!) and can even be bad for you. Ejiao consumers are being advised to follow three simple steps to see if they’re getting Eeyore (good) or Shergar (bad). Whenever you buy donkey-hide gelatin, always remember the Donkey-Hide Gelatin Code: See, Snap, Sniff.
Real ejiao is a tan colour, smooth and lustrous, with semi-translucent borders; the fake crap is often much darker, matt, and sometimes pitted. Real ejiao is also very brittle, and if you snap a piece off it doesn’t bend; the fake stuff is flexible, its broken faces sticky. As for smell, gen-yoo-ine ejiao has a faint whiff of soybean oil and a slightly sweet taste; fake ejiao apparently stinks of rotten fish.
If you don’t want to use the Donkey-Hide Gelatin Code (a name which, to be fair, I just came up with), or can’t remember it when it comes to the crunch, you can always try crushing up the ejiao and pouring boiling water on it (the article doesn’t advise as to what to do when the shopkeeper objects). Real ejiao melts into a clear liquid, while fake ejiao goes murky. 
Donkey-hide gelatin is contraindicated for people with coughs and colds or diarrhea. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

China's Most Romantic Summer Getaways...

With China in the grip of heatwaves and torrential rains, the Yangtze Evening News has published a not particularly timely guide to what it thinks are China’s top six romantic places, summer holiday destinations where tourists without the sufficient kuai to fly to Vegas might meet Mr or Mrs Right. 
Copping off at the Seven Immortals Mountains
  • The Wuyi Mountains. Sitting on the border of Fujian and Jiangxi provinces, 1,000 km² of eroded volcanic cones and sandstone peaks are carpeted in subtropical forest and cool groves of bamboo. The best way, they say, to appreciate the cool is to climb as high as you dare on the narrow mountain paths, offering plenty of opportunities for singletons (“bare branches”, as they’re called in Chinese) to give each other a helping hand. A raft trip down the famous Nine Bend River is the best way to see the scenery, though I fear that being squished in beside a chain-smoking middle-manager from Shanghai who constantly bellows into his mobile phone would be a sufficient turn-off for any would-be Casanovas. The Yangtze Evening News is kind enough to recommend local delicacies for tourists searching for a soulmate in Wuyi Shan: snakes, wild rabbit, mountain goat and muntjac deer lead the way, along with freshwater fish, birds’ eggs, fragrant mushrooms and bamboo shoots also popular.
  • The bamboo forests of Sichuan. At 600-1,000m elevation, the bamboo forests of Changning and Jiang’an counties are blissfully cool and also the place where some of the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed. For the romantically inclined botanist, there are 58 varieties of bamboo to lose yourself in with that girl off the coach who’s been giving you the eye, from the nan bamboo which can grow up to 20m tall in two months, to the jet-black “crow bamboo”, the dead-straight “chicken-claw bamboo” and the slightly creepy, gnarled “human-face bamboo”. Delicacies: Yibin sliced lung, Chungking hotpot, poached fish, and “hairy duck’s blood luxuriance”. The duck’s blood dish is a spicy Sichuanese street snack, with beansprouts, eel, pork, sausage, bamboo shoots and all kinds of yummies, while the “Yibin sliced lung” is made from ox cheek, ox heart, ox tongue, ox tripe and lean beef, but not lung, oddly enough.
  • Yinchuan, Ningxia Autonomous Region. Bit of an odd choice, to go to the deserts of the Ordos region in the great bend of the Yellow River to escape the summer heat on a romantic break, but most savvy Chinese will recognise this as the place where the romantic comedy A Chinese Odyssey was set (Westerners might recognise the set of the 1987 Chinese film Red Sorghum). Yinchuan, guys, is where you can meet your very own Violet Cloud Immortal. The other big romantic attraction in this, the capital of a region populated mostly by China’s native Hui Muslims, is an oasis called Sand Lake, where you can see the “Big Five”, i.e. sand, water, reeds, birds and fish. Delicacies: lamb pilau rice (a big thing in this Muslim region), red-braised camel’s hump, white-poached Yellow River catfish.
  • Yellow Island, Qingdao. It gets into the 30s in Qingdao in summer, but the sea breezes keep the city cool, especially after sunset. For young singletons looking for love, the Yellow Island district across Jiaozhou Bay from the city is the place to be. The sandy beaches are less visited than Qingdao’s, and bigger - for example the 3km Golden Sands Beach - and perfect for romantic walks. Then there’s Pearl Mountain National Forest Park with its clean air, a rarity in eastern China. Delicacies: the beachside stalls do all manner of barbies, fresh seafood, and local fish dumplings.
  • The Seven Immortals Mountains, Hainan. Two hours’ drive from Sanya, the forests and warm mineral springs of the Seven Immortals Mountains are in the cool uplands of China’s tropical Hainan Island. They’re supposedly the spot where seven immortal goddesses descended to earth to have a bathe, a point not missed by the organisers of the recent Miss World pageant in Sanya. Delicacies: they don’t list any. Spit-roasted immortal, anyone?
  • Wolmi-do, South Korea. The reporter clearly misunderstood the meaning of “domestic” when he chose a seaside resort in the Korean city of Incheon. Knowing nothing of Korean culture beyond their love of chillies, cabbage, the occasional spot of dog, and their enviably fast broadband access, I’m going to call it a day.... Delicacies: see above. 

    Monday 4 July 2011

    China's Top Ten Foods for Thirty-Something Women

    The China Food Science & Technology Net has just posted its top ten list of foods for women in their thirties.
    Pig blood - recommended for anaemic female bus drivers
    Just as in the British media, there’s no shortage in China of articles telling women how to stay looking young and beautiful by choosing the right foods. A big difference, though, is the kinds of food that health experts recommend, and the reasoning behind those choices, which says a lot about how food fits within Chinese culture. 
    Here’s the list in full, with edited highlights of the justifications for each choice.
    1. Honey. This moistens the lungs and promotes healthy bowel movements, is an antiseptic, and good for the complexion. Drink a cup of honey-water each morning on an empty stomach to cleanse your system and make you beautiful.
    2. Carrot. The Chinese call the orange carrot the ‘barbarian radish’, as it was unknown in China until introduced from Europe. It’s prized for its ability to attach itself to lead and mercury ions in the bloodstream, and is recommended for women  who suffer from skin blemishes caused by using cosmetics with too much heavy metal content. This says as much about the danger of using Chinese cosmetics as it does about the properties of the humble carrot.
    3. Seaweed. Rich in iodine to expel unwanted substances from the blood, and sulphate polysaccharides to rid the body of cholesterol.
    4. Tree fungus. These “wood ears”, a kind of crinkly, black mushroom, contain highly absorbent plant colloids which soak up dirt and debris in the gut and excrete them. They’re said to be very good for women who work in environments with lots of air-borne dust pollutants. Legislation might have put an end to this in the UK, but there are millions of women in China who work in very dirty, unregulated industries where this is a real concern to them.
    5. Bitter gourd. Very good for the complexion. These very knobbly, very bitter-tasting cucumbers are believed to contain proteins with anti-cancer properties, which boost the immune system and rid the body of dangerous toxins. They also help regulate and ease menstruation, which mean they well deserve their place on the list.
    6. Lychees. The ideal food for relieving internal heat and stopping diarrhoea, lychees are also good for detoxifying the blood and improving the complexion. They nourish the kidneys, improve liver function, and keep skin supple. Women, the article notes, often suffer from rough, dry skin caused by weak kidneys that result from too many late nights.
    7. Pig blood. Think of it as black pudding without the added fat and rusk. The Chinese eat this in soups and rice porridge as solidified cubes with the consistency of an opaque, pale-brown jelly. It’s actually quite tasteless, and personally I can take it or leave it. Women, though, will definitely benefit from its high iron levels. It also gets broken down, apparently, by human stomach acids into byproducts which detoxify and cleanse the gut and help the body to excrete metals and debris. Like tree fungus, pig blood is recommended for women who’re exposed to lots of pollutants at work, for example drivers who spend their day breathing in China’s appalling traffic fumes. 
    8. Mung beans. These detoxify the blood and promote the metabolism. Many women these days eat too many fatty, fried foods, which can give them itchy, blotchy and spotty skin. Mung beans are good at counteracting this, and also lower cholesterol, strengthen the liver, and dampen the allergic response. Try mung beans with honey for a detox beauty treatment.
    9. Tea. No surprise that the Chinese recommend their national drink for female health! It’s good for alertness and bright eyes, and is refreshing and thirst-quenching. Tea polyphenols are natural antioxidants which detoxify the body.
    10. Cucumber. A bit of a left-field choice, these are said to contain what I can only translate as “cucumber acids”, which are said to be good for metabolism. They have high vitamin C levels, which give women a beautiful, white complexion and elastic skin, and which inhibit melanin production (in the Far East in general, a tan is a sign of being a peasant, while pale skin is an indicator of leisure and wealth). Cucumber acids are also claimed to inhibit the metabolism of sugars into fats, to keep you slim.
    Bon appetit! Qing manyong!

    Friday 1 July 2011

    CNN blunders over Chinese eggs

    An ill-conceived list compiled by CNN of the world’s most “revolting” foods has led to an outpouring of bile across China.
    pidan - they taste better than they look
    The list contains delicacies (which, oddly, all hail from the Far East) such as dog meat and cicadas, most of which the various CCN reporters actually thought were quite tasty, but the controversy surrounds the short piece which the hapless Danny Holwerda put together on “century eggs”.
    For those whose knowledge of Chinese food doesn’t yet extend beyond Blue Dragon sauces or the Lucky Fortune Chop Suey House on the corner, “century eggs” (also known as “thousand-year eggs”, or pidan 皮蛋 in Mandarin) are eggs that have been steeped in an alkaline solution until their proteins and fats are completely transformed. The albumen turns into a translucent, firm, brown jelly while the yolk turns into a grey-green creamy goo. If you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt, they have a very complex flavour with a tang of ammonia, salty, with a rich creaminess that’s used in Chinese cuisine to add depth to otherwise plain dishes; if you’re being Danny Holwerda, though, they taste “like the devil cooked eggs for me.” 
    This has unsurprisingly led to little short of an internet hate campaign against CNN’s list and particularly poor Danny, who seems (I can only assume) to have eaten his pidan as a Westerner would, taking a spoon, an eggcup, and a good old mouthful. This, though, is like offering someone a glass of Worcestershire sauce or a tablespoonful of Colman’s English mustard - pidan are more a condiment than a snack, and aren’t generally eaten by themselves (though the Cantonese and the Taiwanese do really dig them). Instead, they’re usually chopped up into small bits and stirred into  plain rice porridge, or piled up on soft but quite tasteless tofu, or else you might dip the end of your chopsticks into the yolky goo and then use them to scoop a mound of rice into your mouth.
    I feel rather sorry for Danny Holwerda - a quick background check on him doesn’t bring to light any particular experience of China, and he probably thought that his editor was looking for the kind of light-hearted, hundred-word piece that makes a couple of cheap points at the expense of what to most Americans is an alien and bizarre cuisine. But while the other reporters were either locals or travellers who’d actually visited the countries in question, Danny apparently bought his eggs in an Asian supermarket in Texas and seems to have had no real clue what to do with them. His editor was then naive enough to include his short report nevertheless, even putting it at Number One on the list. 
    China’s Xinhua News Agency has been reporting the brouhaha, and you can sense its glee at being able to portray the US as a nation of uninformed gluttons who mistake the Big Mac for food yet call other people’s delicacies “revolting”. The words “racist”, “ignorant” and “arrogant” litter the online comments. 
    You should never assume that what you consider delicious is going to be delicious to people with a very different take on tastes and textures. I remember being stuck in a Suzhou youth hostel with a Chinese bloke once, who’d travelled across Europe and who thought that European food was disgusting. He didn’t know what many of the things he’d been offered were, and described how in France he’d been presented with what sounded like a superb continental breakfast - croissants, preserves, bread rolls, butter, cold meats and all that jazz - but couldn’t bring himself to eat “any of that dog shit!” Beyond what you can sometimes buy in foreign-owned supermarkets in the big cities, the Chinese don’t eat baked bread, jam, sliced cold meats, and they don’t do butter unless they’re Inner Mongolian. Bread, butter and strawberry jam is as exotic and scary to most Chinese as preserved eggs are to Danny Holwerda, a point which CNN just doesn’t get. I can’t wait to read Xinhua’s list of the Top Ten Revolting American Foods: corndogs, Oreos, American “cheese”, hotdogs, Big Macs, Hershey “chocolate”, Reese’s peanut butter cups...

    Thursday 30 June 2011

    Fares, please! for Chengdu's women-only buses

    From the start of July, the city of Chengdu in China’s southwestern Sichuan province will be providing a women-and-children-only bus route. 
    The driver of the No.905 gets the Dinoprostone suppositories ready
    The No.905 from Xiyu Street to Chengdu’s Central Hospital for Gynecology and Pediatrics will cost 2 kuai (19p) and will run every 45 minutes from 7am until 4.45pm. Like the designated bus-stops, the two buses on the 905 route are to be rose-pink, and have the charming slogan “All for the Women and Children” on their flanks. They do that thing where the bus lowers itself to make it easy to get on and off when you’re about to sprog, and have free, on-board mineral-water dispensers. The drivers are female, which is expected to make it easier for them to help passengers in need. The 38 seats are all upholstered, and there are more of them than there are in your average Chinese bus. 
    Having on many occasions seen pregnant women practically trampled under foot by crowds of commuters desperate to get a seat on what are invariably suffocatingly overcrowded public transport services, the idea of a dedicated route seems a stroke of genius. Buses in Taiwan have for years had seats set aside at the front (just as we have “elderly and disabled” seats in Britain) called the Bo’ai Zuo 博爱座 or “Universal Love Seats” (“Universal love” is a concept that can be traced back in traditional Chinese philosophy to the Confucian and Mohist thought of the Warring States period before China was even unified). Elsewhere on the mainland today you find a sign reserving seats for “old, weak, sick, disabled or pregnant” passengers, but then sixty years of communism have left most of the population so obsessed with their own personal gain that there’s normally a young, strong, healthy man sitting in them.