Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Wandering China Day 8: Terracotta Action

The day started with a visit to the Xi'An Banpo Museum (西安半坡博物馆) -the museum's built on top of the excavation site of the Banpo matriarchal (arguably) community of the Yangshao Culture. Here we find evidence of a 6000 year neolithic settlement in eastern Xi'An. I could not help but notice the sign above as a drawcard (Western style washrooms?)- probably reminiscent of the Museum's age being first built in 1958.

The settlement was surrounded by a moat back in a time when building walls were not an option, the houses were typically semi-subterranean.

Close-up of the Banpo neolithic village

And the Terracotta Army 兵马俑 - early signs of Chinese opulence. Arguably the first to unite China as we know it today and standardize the written text (forcibly), Qin Shihuang sent 700,000 of his subjects to their graves building his mausoleum and this army to protect him in the afterlife. His first desire was to sacrifice the real soldiers the army was modelled after (each terracotta warrior is unique and apparently modelled after real people), but he was dissuaded from doing so. Yes, he was also responsible for starting the legacy of Great Wall building in China. Images of the warriors have been part and parcel of my imagination of China from early on, and it was gratifying to see for myself what the fuss was about.

Contrary to belief, the warriors are actually all in a state of disarray like the photo above. Only one piece ever was found completely intact. First discovered in 1974 by a group of farmers digging a well (I managed to get a photo and autograph of one of them) in Lintong District in Xi'An, the warriors had to be pieced back together bit by bit. There are currently three pits that have been opened. They Army contains 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried as the Chinese are still figuring out the best way to unearth them without damaging and discoloring the artefacts. Proclaimed the eighth wonder of the world by then French president Jacques Chirac, construction first began in 246 BC.

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda 大雁塔 - is a very significant Chinese icon. The pagoda's function was to hold sutras and figurines of the Buddha that were brought to China from India by the Tang-dynasty monk Xuanzang, perhaps commonly known as Táng-sānzàng (唐三藏) (the Chinese narrative of Journey to the West stems from his journeys, it is now one of the four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature) travelled West towards India in an epic journey to study Buddhism. It is in this pagoda where he spent years translating and storing the scriptures, and in a sense giving birth to a significant religious and literary imagination of the Chinese today. Note - as much as Buddhism has become synonymous with many aspects of Chineseness, Buddhism is not an indigenous religion to China much like how Islam is not indigenous to South-East Asia

A sacred relic in the Giant Wild Goose pagoda described as containing Buddha's remains that was brought back by Xuanzang after his travels to India.

Filed under: Back to China, Bob's Opinion, Xi'An

Wandering China Day 7: Xi’An Day 2

Day 7 Photo Story – exploring the Xi’An’s past – the ancient city of Chang An. I am having problems updating wordpress at the moment – it seems to run really slowly when I am in China. The rest of the entry will *fingers crossed* arrive soon.

The day started with brekkie at MacDonald's - price? All of 7¥. = $1.2AUD.

The Drum Tower of Xi'an (西安鼓楼) was built in the early Ming Dynasty in the 14th century and was named as such as it featured a large drum in the tower that signaled the end of the day. Its cousin, the bell tower would signal the start. In terms of dimensions, it is 34 meters high and a little more than 52 meters long from east to west and 38 meters wide from north to south.

Looking west from atop the Drum Tower, Xi'An. Unlike the other Chinese cities I've visited, ancient and contemporary Xi'An are accorded respect and space with each other. Xi'An city (at least within the original Tang City Walls) is spacious, featuring broad streets, perhaps indicative of a design mindful its past as capital city over 13 dynasties. One sore point - like much of China's advanced cities, the skies are almost never blue. It's been 3 days and polluted skies have been the name of the game.

The Great Mosque of Xi’An (西安大清真寺) on Huajue Lane is the oldest mosque in China and founded in 742AD during the Tang dynasty. This mosque is still used today by the Hui minority as a place of worship and interestingly, completely Chinese in construction and architectural style, and lacks the Middle Eastern/Arabic tradition of domes and minarets. It was very interesting to find out that China had a tradition of being open to foreign religions, thanks to the Silk Road the Jesuits and Muslims had entered China; evidence China’s great walls were not always ‘closed’. Here is one angle at pondering the question if there is religious freedom in China.

Reminder to protect the environment in the Great Mosque in three languages. In Mandarin in reads literally - protect the peace.

Lunch was here at the Hui Min Jie West Gate where the Hui minorities have congregated over the years. These streets are where the Hui people themselves go about their daily lives, on top of being a top drawer tourist spot.

The street is just north of the Drum tower. Here is a popular Hui pancake/bun store. Overheard - some say the muslim Hui minority in China is a religious destination, not a question of ethnicity.

Xi'An Bell Tower - The tower was built in 1384 by Tang Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang to dominate the surrounding countryside and provide early warning of attack. It makes the geographical center of the ancient capital. From here extends the East, South, West and North Streets, connecting the Tower to the East, South, West and North Gates of the city walls. To the bottom right corner is the mascot of International Horticultural Expo in red - designed after the city flower of Xi'an, the pomegranate blossom. The pomegranate is not indigenous to China; it came via the silk road way back in the past.

Xi’An traffic around the South Gate. Traffic in Xi’An like much of developing China, is an absolute mess for most used to a system where drivers and pedestrians actually follow the road signs. The traffic signals here remain an aesthetic display. Zebra crossings are at best, indicators of where is safest to cross the road, but no cars nor public buses, nor police vehicles actually pause to give way to pedestrians. China, despite the overwhelming propaganda plastered around the cities to move towards being a civilised 文明 society – there is still some way to go towards being civil on the roads. I remain positive that it is not too far away though.

Shaanxi History Museum - like many public museums in China, entry is free, but one is required to queue at set times for the tickets. I had to queue a little more than an hour to get in; and it was somewhat worth it - there the fossils of the Lantian man 蓝田人, older than the better known Peking man. Architecturally the museum was designed in the Tang style. As Xi'An was the ancient imperial capital of 13 Chinese dynasties, there were relics galore including a very interesting Tang mural that proved that Polo was played in China back then.

This was the highlight of the Shaanxi History Museum for me - Zhang Qian 张骞 was probably one of China's first and clearly defined diplomats, Zhang Qian as a Han dynasty imperial envoy was responsible for opening up the ancient Silk Road, i.e. China's foreign affairs officially started with this man. Today Zhang Qian is seen as a national icon for the role he played in opening China to the world of commmerce more than two thousand years ago.

Filed under: Back to China, Bob's Opinion, History, Xi'An

Wandering China Day 6: Entering Xi’An

Xi’An (西安) is capital of China’s Shaanxi province and the city was traditionally known as Chang’An before the last Han Chinese dynasty, the Ming (1368-1644). I have long known about Chang’An thanks to my love for the Romance of Three Kingdoms narrative so I am excited to be here. Xi-An is this year, host of the upcoming International Horticultural Expo 2011, one described by its official website as an ‘international gathering hosted by China after the Beijing 2008 Olympics and Expo 2010 Shanghai… an important opportunity to showcase green civilization and promote the nation’s image.’

Arriving in the evening at Xi’An’s Xianyang (咸阳) international airport a little later than scheduled and it was dark when I arrived. As mentioned in Day 1 of this series of posts – One of Four Great Ancient Capitals of China (中国四大古都), Xi-An is now an important cultural, industrial and educational centre of the central-northwest region, with facilities for China’s space exploration program. As one of the oldest cities in China dating back more than three millennia, the never-conquered-by-foreign-power city (the Japanese never made it that far inland) in central China Xi’an was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and home to China’s first emperor Qin Si Huang’s Terra-cotta Army. Checking out the World Heritage Site of the Terra-cotta Army will be a priority on this trip to see first hand the origins of the idea ‘the Son of Heaven’ (天子) and the logistics and organization required for work on such a scale; historical records by Sima Qian reveal that 700,00 workers were involved in building the Qin emperor’s mausoleum and this was way back two millennia ago. A detailed report will follow.

The locals here speak a Shaanxi dialect though the cab driver anecdotally shared that few do, as it simply ‘does not sound very pleasing to the ear’ – this was a first time I’ve heard a local prefer the sound of Mandarin as opposed to local vernacular . Housing here ranges up to 7,000 to 8,000 RMB per square foot, taking on average 15-30 years to finish paying for; expensive for most Chines yes, but substantially cheaper (about five times less) than Beijing and Shanghai. Agriculture, tourism and education (Xi Jiao Da (西交大) is a member of China’s C9 university elite) are key drivers of the local economy, and first impressions were positive. The freeways into the city were wide and broad, with advanced and newly built tollways designed as a hybrid between imperial and contemporary China.

A quick walk around the city where I was revealed a high concentration of the Islamic Hui minority stock (with 8.61 million, they are one of the largest of the 55 ethnic minorities) running the restaurants in the southern part of the city. Will definitely be finding out more about their integration into Han China.

Filed under: Back to China, Bob's Opinion, Xi'An

Wandering China Day 5: Hong Kong Lamma Island (南丫島)

The Hong Kong stock are an interesting bunch, drivers seem to have little patience on the roads as horns and honks are staple to Hong Kong’s acoustic ecology. On the other hand, virtually everyone respectfully makes way for people coming out of trains, and they seem quite happy to put on facial masks if they are ill to prevent spreading of airborne germs. Retail and service staff are largely trilingual, able to switch easily between English, Mandarin and Cantonese; mostly with a smile.

Fishing village in Lamma Island. Photo - Chen Siyuan

Today was the day I changed my mind about Hong Kong. Well known as one of the most densely packed places on the face of this planet that was one of the earliest 24-houred cities; I had always thought all 1,104km2 of Hong Kong and its 7 million inhabitants to be pure metropolis. A 30-minute boat ride that cost $17 HKD = $2AUD to the outlying island of Lamma (南丫島) changed all that. The quaint fishing village is one of two outlying islands that were left largely untouched by the bullet of time and is third largest island in Hong Kong. Lamma is famous for being the hometown to Chinese actor Chow Yun Fatt and its seafood.

Interestingly, there are height restrictions to the hilly island, buildings stop at three stories, and there are no automobiles either; well not any most cities would be familiar with. The island community’s only means of transport is by foot or bicycle. There were only one type of vehicle apparent during my visit – distinctive open-back vehicles that looked more like pure chasis; perhaps indicative of the sensitivities of the island’s preferred lifestyle – laid back; an antithesis or perhaps alternative to the hectic bustle of the commonly represented Hong Kong.

Lamma Island village vehicle. Photo - Sean Taylor, Panoramio

Filed under: Back to China, Bob's Opinion, Hong Kong

Power to China’s press, as long as party’s in charge [The Age]

China has not made it a secret that it understands domination of the press controls the communication climate it operates in, citing often they intend to build a media aircraft carrier (AsiaOne, 2009) to beat American dominance of global mindshare. Soft power is the name of the Chinese game in the 21st century, and this report attests to that.

“The circulation of our daily newspapers ranks top of the world, but we don’t yet have newspapers or magazines which can exercise sufficient power on the world stage. Our plan is to use the next 10 years to build China from a big publishing power into strong power.” Li Dongdong, vice-minister of the General Administration of Press & Publication

Conversely, Professor Miao Di responds – “I am a scholar and have no inside information… but ‘going out’ sounds ridiculous to me.” She alludes to this move as China wanting a ‘double-gendered chicken’.

– – –

Power to China’s press, as long as party’s in charge
John Garnaut, Beijing
Source – The Age, published June 18, 2011

Li DongDong. Photo – The Age

LI DONGDONG ultimately controls 2000 different newspapers, 10,000 magazines and 300,000 book titles, and she can access a seemingly limitless taxpayer-funded budget. But she’s far from satisfied.

“We are big in number but small in influence,” says Ms Li, vice-minister of the General Administration of Press & Publication, at her Beijing headquarters. “The circulation of our daily newspapers ranks top of the world, but we don’t yet have newspapers or magazines which can exercise sufficient power on the world stage. Our plan is to use the next 10 years to build China from a big publishing power into strong power.”

Ms Li’s immediate mission is to push Chinese print media companies to “go out” into the global market and generate soft power. Her ambition is backed by a $45 billion yuan ($A6.6 billion) government pledge for Chinese media companies abroad (including TV and radio), while her colleagues have talked about raising more revenue by restructuring media companies and listing them on public stock exchanges. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Australia, Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Communications, Domestic Growth, Education, Influence, International Relations, Media, Nationalism, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Social, Soft Power, Strategy, The Age, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities

Wandering China Day 4: Shenzhen

Advertising on the Shenzhen metro for the 2011 Shenzhen Universiade – it reads, walking hand in hand with the big games. Along with such signs were ubiquitous reminders of courtesy and being civil at all times to project the best image possible.

Shenzhen (深圳) the first of China’s Special Economic Zones quite literally means “deep drains” as the place was once notably crossed with rivers and streams, accented by deep drains within the paddy fields. Twin cities with Houston of the U.S., Johor Bahru of Malaysia and Brisbane of Australia, the SEZ was formally established in 1979 with close proximity to Hong Kong as a major consideration as an experiment for modern China – market capitalism guided by socialism with Chinese characteristics. So yes, in a great way, China is what it is today because Shenzhen first led the way.

Personally, it has not been a bad run over a span of just four days getting to know Southern China better. A little bit of Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou and now Shenzhen has given me a wider latitude to inform my imagination of China.

Shenzhen will be hosting the 26th Summer Universiade on 12 August 2011. Currently it is constructing the sports venues for its first major sporting event in the city. The Beijing Olympics in 2008, Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010 and now the Shenzhen Universiade in 2011, it looks like China’s ramping up its use of sporting events for public diplomacy and media mileage. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Back to China, Beijing Consensus, Bob's Opinion, Shenzhen Universiade 2011

Ai [Weiwei] is out [Economist]

China’s cultural capital turning on itself? 80 days and he’s out. What a story that has gained much media traction worldwide. Ai Weiwei’s freedom seems to have been returned to him. Perhaps the proof in the pudding is to see the artwork he churns out after this experience – how much of Ai Weiwei’s mind can be ‘reformed’ by the authorities? Looking at his track record, it looks unlikely.. In any case here’s an interesting and comprehensive site documenting the case of Ai WeiweiThe Guardian reports here.  – Ai Weiwei released from detention with the tagline – China’s best known artist, looking thinner after 81 days in detention, says ‘I’m fine … I’m on bail. Please understand‘ (Guardian, June 22, 2011)

The Wall Street Journal offers an explanation for the release here –

The narrative in much of the West is that Ai Weiwei was detained because he was a critic of the Chinese government. International human rights organizations insist that this was one of those cases where the international community successfully stood up to Beijing, and that Ai’s freedom was due in direct measure to the force of global opinion. They point to museums and exhibitors who signed letters and staged exhibitions, and the continued complaints by officials interacting with their Chinese counterparts and raising Ai’s case as an irritant in relations with Beijing. (Why Ai Weiwei was let go, Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2011)

Perhaps not surprisingly, the China Daily’s report was only three paragraphs long, which I can sum up here –

BEIJING – The Beijing police department said Wednesday that Ai Weiwei has been released on bail because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from… The decision comes also in consideration of the fact that Ai has repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded, police said… The Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., a company Ai controlled, was found to have evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents, police said. (China Daily, June 22, 2011)

– – –

Ai is out
by J.M
Source – Economist Blogs, published June 23, 2011

Photo - Economist

AMID their most intense crackdown on dissent in several years, the Chinese authorities have given a rare hint of softening in the case of one prominent activist, Ai Weiwei. Late at night on June 22nd, looking a little thinner after nearly three months in detention, the bearded and still portly artist returned home. Mr Ai’s freedom, however, is unlikely to mean any let-up in China’s wider efforts to silence critics.

Officially, Mr Ai is “on bail”. China’s state-owned news agency, Xinhua, said in a three-sentence dispatch that he had been freed because of his “good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from” (he has diabetes and high blood pressure). Mr Ai had also “repeatedly” said he was willing to pay taxes he had allegedly evaded. Chinese police like to use accusations of economic crimes to lock up dissidents. Mr Ai himself has refused to give details of his detention or comment on the charges, saying he was “on probation” and could not talk. Promises of silence are often a condition of release.

It may not be a coincidence that China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, was due to start a tour of Hungary, Britain and Germany two days later. Mr Ai’s arrest had aroused widespread criticism from Western governments. China has occasionally released dissidents as a way of smoothing the way for important diplomatic exchanges. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Ai Weiwei, Art, Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Culture, Democracy, Domestic Growth, Economics, Economist, Human Rights, Influence, International Relations, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Reform, Social, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities

Wandering China Day 3: Guangzhou

Today I made my way to Guangzhou, capital city of Guangdong province – China’s factory. On a more apt scale, the world’s factory. Two generations ago, my grandfather hailed from this very province known historically as Canton and it was in a sense, good to be back, albeit for just a day. With a land area ten times the size of Singapore at 7,000+ km2, it boasts a population at about 12 million, just slightly 2.5 times more than home. This places it as the third most populous metropolitan area in all of China.

″Where most skyscrapers bear ′male′ features; being introvert, strong, straight, rectangular, and based on repetition, we wanted to create a ′female′ tower being complex, transparent, curvy and gracious.″ ″Our aim was to design a free-form tower with a rich and human-like identity that would represent Guangzhou as a dynamic and exciting city. We therefore wanted it to be non-symmetrical so that the building would look as if ′in movement′ and ′alive′. Photo – Canton Tower site

Touristy stuff such as the newly built 600m-tall Canton Tower and the shopping districts of Shangxiajiu were done in a jiffy. A traditional dim sum lunch over at the 77-year old Guangzhou restaurant was necessary to pay homage to the home of dim sum. Yes folks, Hong Kong merely refined the idea of dim sum. It started from Guangzhou.

Most significant from the trip to Guangzhou was a visit to the The Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King (西汉南越王博物馆), which gave an intriguing glimpse to the past. Thinking that southern Chinese (likewise my ancestors) were also of Han stock proved to be possibly inaccurate – southern Chinese had stronger relations to the Yue and this tomb harks back to the ‘rebellious’ Nanyue (arguably the ancestors of the Vietnamese) who refused to cede control of their territories to the Han and Qin dynasties, building an independent kingdom in modern day Guangdong province, my home city of Chaozhou included. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Back to China, Beijing Consensus, Bob's Opinion

China’s rich swoop on homes overseas [China Daily]

According to this report, the newfound wealth of the Chinese has not had its full impact yet. In the past six months alone, Colliers reports that ‘Chinese spent 1.3 billion yuan ($200 million) through Colliers’ international property department, with Canada, the UK and Australia topping the buying list.‘ The Chinese push had also contributed to driving the average price of a Greater Vancouver home up 12 percent in 2010. Demand from mainland immigrants now accounts for almost 30 percent of new homes in Vancouver.

And the clincher?

It has only just begun. Now this is a facet of public image China will need to manage if it continues to change the complexion of foreign communities in such ways.

The biggest increase in global billionaires since 2007 has occurred in China and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). While CIS buying activity has been strong, accounting for 15 percent of prime central London purchases by value, Chinese billionaires have yet to have a real impact, accounting for just 3 percent of prime central London resale purchases by value.

And why? – Yolande Barnes, head of Savills residential research –  “The issue at present is that Chinese buyers aren’t taking, or can’t take, their money out of China.”

– – –

China’s rich swoop on homes overseas
By Hu Yuanyuan
Source – China Daily, published June 21, 2011

BEIJING – An increasing number of China’s rich are snapping up properties overseas in the expectation that domestic inflation will continue to rise after the consumer price index reached a 34-month high in May.

According to Colliers International, a real estate service provider, the proportion of Chinese buyers in Vancouver’s property market is on the rise. At the end of the first quarter this year, it increased to 29 percent of all homebuyers.

In the past six months, Chinese spent 1.3 billion yuan ($200 million) through Colliers’ international property department, with Canada, the UK and Australia topping the buying list. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Australia, Beijing Consensus, Canada, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Chinese overseas, Culture, Domestic Growth, Economics, Finance, Influence, International Relations, Media, Overseas Chinese, People, Population, Property, Public Diplomacy, Social, Soft Power, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities, U.K.

Wandering China Day 2: Macau

Macau, along with Hong Kong is one of two Special Administrative Regions of the PRC. An hour’s ferry ride away from Hong Kong, the dominance of the Portuguese over Macau is as apparent as the dominion of the British over Hong Kong, from the apparent like architecture (there were more casas than Victoria buildings) and signages, to the not so obvious like eating habits – the Portuguese egg tart.

Macau proved to be the first (starting from the 16th century – 1557) and last European colony (ceded back in 1999) in China. In the past, the port city was part of the Silk Road with ships loading here with silk for Rome. I had no idea from before the silk road extended this far down south.

Fishermen from Fujian and farmers from Guangdong were the first known settlers in Macau and Cantonese seemed the present day lingua fanca. The Chineseness of Macau was apparent in its visual composition and most I observed were able to switch comfortably between Cantonese and Mandarin (I believe it necessary to handle their mainland Chinese visitors). To a much lesser extent Macanese / Macau Creole is the language of the small population of Eurasians. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Back to China, Bob's Opinion, History, Macau

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