Sunday 20 February 2011

Yuan Xuefen and the Price of Petrol

I’ve a soft spot for the Zhoushan archipelago 舟山群岛, that scattering of hundreds of islands off the coast of Zhejiang province, a few hours’ sailing from Shanghai. Shengshan 嵊山, the easternmost of the permanently inhabited islands, was my first destination when I travelled China’s far-flung corners in 2001, and I’ve recently been revisiting the research I did for a history of the largest island, Chusan, which for a few years in the 1840s was in fact British territory.
So this morning I took a look at the main daily paper on Zhoushan, the Zhoushan Evening News 舟山晚报, and a couple of stories stood out for very different reasons.
The first is one that will affect Zhoushan’s million-strong population just as it affects the rest of China: the price of petrol and diesel is rising again just two months after the last rise. 93-grade petrol is to go up by ¥0.28, breaking the psychological ¥7 barrier for the first time. “I regret not filling up,” one internet user is reported a saying. “I’m off to queue up now!” There was apparently a rush for the pumps in Dinghai 定海, Zhoushan’s capital, and warnings to motorists to fill up in Zhejiang province if they were planning to drive into neighbouring Shanghai, where the prices are even higher.
The other story is of the “local girl does good” variety, with a sad twist. Yuan Xuefen, one of China’s leading proponents of the Yueju 越剧 style of opera, also known as Shaoxing opera, has died at the age of 89 in Shanghai, where she was honorary director of the Shanghai Yueju Opera. What with the Communist Party tripping over itself these days to promote what it calls “intangible cultural heritage”, i.e. all the things that make China Chinese but which are more touchy-feely than they are concrete, Yuan Xuefen had of late been lauded as an ambassador for Yueju. The Communist Party’s discovery of such “intangible heritage” is of course squarely at odds with the way it mercilessly hounded Yuan Xuefen during the Cultural Revolution, though this is a point on which the Zhoushan Evening News is tactfully, and respectfully, silent...

Friday 18 February 2011

Stop the Pigeon!

A report on Radio 4’s Today this morning, in which the reporter was dispatched to Belgium, a hub of columbology (is that right?), presumably with a coloured rubber band around his ankle, has set me off on a trawl through the hitherto obscure world of Chinese pigeon fancying.

I’d been expecting one or two references, never having come across pigeon fancying in any of my many travels in China, but a Baidu search for saige 赛鸽 turned up over 4.5m pages. Pigeon fancying, it seems, is uniting people from the biggest cities to the humblest villages. lists the top 200 clubs across China, from the tropical Hainan Island to Harbin in northern Manchuria and from Shanghai on the east coast to the deserts of Xinjiang in central Asia, but there are hundreds if not thousands more. There are unconfirmable claims on the web of there being 2m registered pigeon fanciers and perhaps 6m in total, making China by far the biggest country for pigeon fancying worldwide (Belgium, which after my native Yorkshire is perhaps the spiritual home of pigeon fancying, by comparison has a total population of just 10m).
There are several important competitions held each year in China, of which the Great Wall, the Union Cup and Shanghai’s Tai’an Classic seem to be some of the biggest. The Great Wall is hosted by the Beijing Jinding Great Wall International Pigeon Racing Centre, and hopefuls must fly for hundreds of miles and beat off entrants from across the PRC, Taiwan and Europe to be crowned gewang, or Pigeon King. The top prize is almost £20,000, and the entire prize fund runs into millions of renminbi. The Chinese, it’s been noted before, love their gambling, and pigeon racing has the added bonus of demanding the same painstaking attention to detail and subtle artistry as the more traditional hobbies of raising fighting crickets or songbirds. On the mainland, the sport benefits besides from being utterly non-political.
It isn’t without its detractors, of course. In a country which is rather ashamed of being the world capital of bird ’flu, having one’s neighbour built a rickety pigeon loft full of bird poo and feathers seems to be for many anxious citizens a reason to call the local environmental health officers. In one case in Beijing, it was decided that pigeon lofts fell under the same rules as any other domesticated poultry cages, meaning that they had to be properly cleaned and disinfected and kept a minimum distance downwind of other residents.
In 2009, the authorities at Beijing Capital Airport apparently swooped (sorry) upon illegal lofts that had been jerrybuilt on a rooftop within the airport’s safety zone. It took a whole day to clear away 490 square metres of coops, though I can find no mention of what became of the birds. Officially, they should have been disposed of by incineration, but I suspect some might have ended up as succulent Drunken Squab or the equally delicious Hongshao Pigeon.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

China’s Big Society

As promised, a post on a positive and heartening aspect of life in China, to add a touch of balance to the mainstream media’s largely downbeat reportage on life in the PRC.
In 2003, an otherwise unremarkable man from the province of Anhui, wealthy Eastern China’s impoverished inland cousin, was injured along with the rest of his family in a fireworks explosion near their home. Shi Qinghua 石青华, his wife and son all travelled to Beijing to seek treatment, and he ended up living rough. Helped to find medical treatment and given financial support by people they met, Shi Qinghua and his family eventually got back on their feet, whereupon Shi Qinghua decided in turn to help the homeless children he’d come across in the city. 
He founded the Guang’ai 光爱 (Light and Love) School in the town of Zhangjiawan 张家湾, just a few miles east of downtown Beijing, offering homeless children and orphans shelter, food, an education, and the love and attention they’ve never had. On the Light and Love School’s website, they claim to apply the educational techniques of developmental psychologists such as Harvard’s Professor Howard Gardner and the American-educated Tao Xingzhi 陶行知, a champion of progressive education in China between the wars. That’s as maybe, and having no real understanding of Gardner or Tao’s theories I wouldn’t want to comment on how far the school puts them into practice. 
What Shi Qinghua has achieved, though, is humbling to anybody like myself who is full of platitudes and good intentions yet through inertia or trepidation never actually gets around to doing anything concrete for people in real need - and you don’t get much more in need than the orphans who live on the streets of China’s big cities.
The Light and Love School brings to mind what the positively saintly Camila Batmanghelidjh has achieved with Kids Company in south London, or what Dr Barnardo himself did when he gave up an ambition to work as a missionary in China, of all places, to found an orphanage in the East End in 1870.
If there any Western journalists out there looking for a story, you could do a lot worse than getting on the Batong Line to Tuqiao, flagging a taxi to the old Zhangjiawan Middle School 老张湾中学, and wiring a few hundred words to your editor on how the Chinese government is supporting private initiatives like this in their own version of David Cameron’s “Big Society”.

Sunday 13 February 2011

A Chinese Dr Barnardo

Browsing the web for interesting stories on China, I came across a shocked post from The Girl From Emei. Emei is in Sichuan province, but the girl is clearly living in Beijing. 
“There’s always beggars on the underground, it’s nothing out of the ordinary and nothing seems to stop them. There’s every kind: ones singing, ones selling art, holding babies, disabled ones, male or female, young and old, alone or in groups, loads of them, but the little girl I saw on Line 2 today made me angry, really furious!!!! I curse the people who teach and force others to beg - I hope they die childless, and come to a sticky end!!!!
“It was at Jishuitan or Drum Tower Avenue, one of the two stations, just as the doors were closing, and a little girl of about 3 ran into the carriage, well, I use the word ‘girl’, but she was nothing but a little devil straight from hell (and I don’t mean ‘little devil’ in the way the older generation uses it as a term of affection!!). She was in filthy red clothes, with dusty hair, and she just fell to the ground and knelt there with her hands clasped out in front, begging, grabbing people’s trouser legs, stroking at their legs, asking for money. The first one happened to be a bloke who’d seen it all before and wouldn’t give, so the little devil gave up after a while and shot off to find another target. Each time, the stroking got more and more, and I mean really clinging on to their trouser legs, while what she was saying was getting more and more pitiful.
“Underneath I’m a real pushover, and when I see those real hard-case beggars I just look away and wish I was wearing a face-mask so I wouldn’t get spotted. It looked as though no-one had given anything, so then she really went to town, bending her body about and clutching her hands together, and when I caught a glimpse of her expression it actually made me jump. It wasn’t the expression of a 3- or 4-year-old girl, it was such a look of cunning, of an ability to read people’s body language, totally beyond restraint, the kind of expression that says it’ll stop at absolutely nothing. I remembered there was this photo, a piece of artwork, the face of some kid in a really violent neighbourhood in New York or LA, and beside the photo it said he was only 10, but he’d already learned all that was criminal or evil about the world. This little girl gave me an even deeper impression that she wasn’t a little girl at all, but then if not a child, what was she?”
Just a few minutes later, No Money, No Standing replied.
“What was she to do? She’s a victim, too. The only reason you’re so disgusted is because you’re of a different class. Nobody’s in a position to criticize girls like her.”
The Older I Get The Lonelier I Become added:
“Three is so tiny, that’s so sad, if she doesn’t beg enough, she’d get beaten. You ought to get the police to take them to a shelter.”
But it was Elegant and Carefree whose reply most surprised me, as I’m unused to hearing the good news about stuff like this from China:
“When you all come across a kid like this, just at the split second the doors are about to shut, before the person who’s making her beg gets a chance to react, scoop her up and get off the train. Change to Line 1, get off at Sihui, get the Batong Line to Tuqiao, then get a car to the Guang’ai School that takes in homeless kids. Take the child to teacher Shi Qinghua. Children there get very well taken care of. Each weekend, a whole bunch of volunteers and charitable enterprises go to look after the children. Their number’s 52330158.
I’m going to be looking into who Shi Qinghua is, and what his Guang’ai School’s all about, and posting on what I find. It’s a good news story that I feel should be more widely known.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Polo. Not Marco, the other one.

I’ve always found the Chinese very eager to unearth historical precedents to validate whatever it is they want to say or do. The most jaw-dropping example I can recall would have been in around 1993, when the venerable old Shanghai newspaper Xinmin Wanbao ran an article proving that the native population of the Americas was descended from refugees from the defeated Yin dynasty who arrived in the New World in the 11th century BC while fleeing their Zhou-dynasty conquerors. The evidence was that the name “Indian”, which European settlers gave them, was in fact a mishearing of the local greeting - Yin di an 殷地安 - which meant “the Lands of the Yin are at peace”. There’s just one tiny problem with that abortive territorial claim over the USA: it’s obviously b*llocks.
Where was I? Ah, yes, Peter Foster in the Telegraph yesterday did a piece on China’s rediscovery of polo, the nouveau riche there apparently having realised that ponies can soak up the money they’ve made through dodgy political contacts and by the sweat of the proletariat like nothing else on earth. (The joyously named Beijing Sunny Times Polo Club is asking £15,000 for a year’s membership, if you’re interested in hanging out with women who look like Imelda Marcos and capitalists who make the man on the Monopoly box look like Che Guevara.)
Like all the other stories on polo in China that have run over the past seven years since the sport began to take off, this one too repeats the claim that the Chinese have been playing polo for 1,800 years. So, I did a bit of digging to try to uncover the source for this, and the evidence turns out to be a bit thin. Yes, there’s solid evidence in the form of a tomb mural from the early 8th century AD that the aristocracy of the Tang dynasty played a game involving riding horses while hitting a ball with a stick, though it does seem to have been as much a test of martial skill (historical titbit: Tang dynasty = horsemanship + chubby women) as a way for fabulously rich people to show off. 

But that’s several centuries later than the date claimed. For the Han dynasty, 1,800 years ago, the evidence is circumstantial, and comes from an article written by a historian of sport named Tang Hao (1887-1959). According to Tang Hao, a poet named Cai Fu 蔡孚 who was writing in the 740s makes a reference in a poem to a sport like polo being played in the Eastern Han dynasty, more than 500 years earlier. Also, in 1979 a thingy that could kind of pass as a ball was discovered during the excavation of a Han-dynasty beacon tower in Gansu province, but that’s obviously not proof that people were playing polo there while waiting for the Xiongnu to invade.
Where was I again? Oh, yes - sickeningly rich Chinese businessmen and their wives, the Empress Dowager Cixis of our time, might point to history to justify their displays of tasteless wealth, but they’ll still be first up against the wall when the Communists ride into town. Oh, hang on...

Friday 4 February 2011

Happy New Year

On the second day of the Year of the Rabbit (a bit late, but I’ve been very busy editing a book), some thoughts on the significance of our long-eared little friends in Chinese culture.
For a start, it’d be better to translate this as the Year of the Hare - the familiar bunny rabbit clearly isn’t what the ancient Chinese were describing and depicting more than 2,000 years ago: early descriptions are of an animal with a long body and erect ears that sped around at great speed and sometimes stood up on its hind legs.
I had a look in my venerable Kangxi Dictionary this morning, and under the entry for ‘hare’ found some fascinating entries.
Besides its normal name in Chinese, tu 兔, the hare was also called mingshi 明視, i.e. ‘clear sight’, which is uncannily close to Bright Eyes. Hares were thought to be created through an accretion of yin, the feminine aspect of nature of which the moon was a supreme example, and it’s this link with yin that explains the long-standing belief in a hare which lives on the moon with the goddess Chang’e, pounding away at an elixir of immortality. The Kangxi Dictionary also records the work of an eleventh-century scholar named Lu Dian 陸佃, who wrote that...
“Ruminants have nine bodily orifices and bear live young. The hare uniquely has eight bodily orifices. In the fifth lunar month it spits out its young.”
The nine bodily orifices, if you’re wondering, are two eyes, two ears and two nostrils, plus the mouth, anus and urethra, (if that’s not an uncomfortably close grouping). The hare was understood to have eyes, ears, nostrils and a mouth, but then one all-purpose orifice for the rest, leaving it one orifice short. I’m no zoologist, and I don’t plan on going to Kenilworth Pet & Garden Stores to examine a rabbit’s vulva to check this out. Ever again.
Meanwhile, Wang Chong 王充, a Han-dynasty scholar who lived around the time of Christ, wrote that “the hare becomes pregnant by licking the downy hair upon plants. When it gives birth, it does so through its mouth.”
Those otherwise bizarre ideas can be explained by the belief that hares, being made up of only the feminine yin essence, could not be male (turtles too were made of yin, and had to have sex with snakes to reproduce, obviously). The word for ‘hare’, tu, is a homophone of the word for ‘to spit out’, and so the animal has traditionally been linked to the idea of spitting out young which weren’t conceived in the usually bunny-like way.