Archive for China

Hundreds of photos, dozens of stories

That’s what I have to share from the past few weeks. It’s too much to deal with all at once, especially while I have to work, so I’ve decided to go at it in reverse chronological order, roughly. I’ve uploaded my photos from Lijiang, the final stop on my short trip to Yunnan with my brother, to flickr and to an album here. As soon as I get a chance, I’ll write a bit about their context, but for now here are a couple of my favorite shots from our two days in that ancient town, home to the Naxi culture.

Posted by on March 30th, 2006

Thick into paper

One last excerpt from my book–I posted briefly about this experience, but not at all about the details…and it was pretty cool.

Along with gunpowder, clocks, and noodles, the Chinese are said to have invented paper. As is the case with many similar generalizations, a great deal of truth actually stands behind that notion: while the Mediterranean world was still drawing on papyrus and etching with styluses on wax tablets and the Incas were conveying messages with knotted ropes, the Chinese had a fifteen-hundred-year head start writing on the cheap and versatile medium of paper—and even printing on it.

Less than an hour southwest of Hangzhou, fifteen minutes shy of the city of Fuyang, an organization still produces paper the same way it has been made for millennia in the region just south of the Yangtze River, and prints hand-bound books of ancient texts on it in the traditional manner. I’ve always been fascinated by the artifacts of writing and printing, and so I jumped at the chance to visit this ancient papermaking village, as the place is known, and see what’s behind this historically and artistically important art form.

A guide led me around the village, which is laid out in the style of the Ming Dynasty (although it has certainly been reconstructed to some degree), and she walked me through the process of making paper from pulp to poetry. The first steps take place outside the village itself, in the bamboo forests up on the hills that line the banks of the nearby Fuchun River. There, sturdy men fell clumps of bamboo and hack it into serviceable pieces, after which it is transported to the village to be transformed. This is one of the few ways in which the modern process diverges from the ancient one: today trucks carry the bamboo from the forests to the village, but in years past it was carried on the backs of animals, or of men, and sometimes it was floated down the river.

Once it arrives at the village, machines of antique construction reduce the bamboo to a woody pulp. This pulp is then transferred into giant vats, which are filled to the top with cold water. The entire production line is located in buildings sheltered by roofs but open in the front to the elements, which makes this a chilling process even in early fall, let alone in winter. Men with chapped but cold-hardened hands wield giant frames over the vats, on which is suspended a fine metal netting. They lower these wooden frames into the freezing vats slowly, rest them beneath the surface of the pulpy water for a moment, and carefully lift them back up and behind them, all in one smooth motion. The guide insisted I try this for myself, and, though I feigned disinterest, I was secretly glad to have the chance to imitate these actions—it had seemed too easy to be interesting when I watched the men at work, but dipping wire into water and coming up with paper was much more difficult than it appeared.

Once the pulp rests perfectly on the netting stretched across the frame, the artisan places it on a pile until dozens of layers have accumulated. It takes twenty or more layers to make one of these outsized sheets of paper. The sheets then make their way to the next station, where women work actively to dry them evenly. The worker takes a sheet and sticks it onto a slate-black wall, which is heated from the inside by a roaring furnace. She brushes down the length of the sheet until the color starts to change from muddy gray to a brighter white. When the paper is dry, she stacks it by the door for easy access. From there it is taken to be cut down to the proper size and moved over to the next set of small buildings, where the printers keep their shop.

There, using ancient wooden blocks of characters borrowed from museums and archives, women work to print traditional texts by China’s renowned historians and beloved poets. Each block of writing is enough to print a page, and the wooden blocks, black from use over the centuries, must be coated perfectly by brush with thick ink in order to create a good print. Again, I was encouraged to have a go myself at what seemed like a mindless task, using a block engraved with a drawing of a phoenix, and again I proved myself foolish. The lines that resulted on my paper were splotchy in some regions and barely visible in others, the head was a giant blur of ink, and black specks dotted the white background. I carefully placed my embarrassment in my bag and moved on to the shop. It was months before I threw away the travesty—for a while it served as a nice reminder that things aren’t always as easy as they look, especially when the thing in question is the hard work of someone else.

The other souvenir I acquired, however, is something to cherish. In the wood-beamed shop at the end of the production line, I browsed through the shelves of books bound in blue or yellow cloth until I found the perfect gift for my friend, a casual scholar of classical Chinese poetry: an edition of the collected works of the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu, constructed from scratch entirely on site and bound accordion-style, in the traditional fashion. Looking at the gorgeous volumes of lyrical observations, military histories, and philosophical ruminations, it was hard to believe that these had all started out as the cold mixture of pulp and water into which I’d dipped my hands just a while before. It seemed impossible that every page was made of dozens of thin sheets interlaced and compressed, that each character of every poem was printed with the care required not to smudge the fine calligraphy, that these books had begun as bamboo groves up on the hills behind the village, and, by extension, as ideas in the heads of long-dead writers.

Posted by on March 1st, 2006

It’s a dog-eat-dog-year world

I spotted this ad in the classified section on the That’s Beijing website, and I couldn’t get over how weird it was. Why wouldn’t they want someone born in the year of the dog? Is it really that unlucky to have been born under the same zodiac as the current year? Or is it just a way of discriminating against applicants that are too young or too old? The subject was “Urgent: Film Production Company Need an Assistant,” and the text went like this, seemingly normal and justified until the end:

Position: Office Assistant
Requirements:
-native Chinese male or female
-love film and drama
– Ability to co-ordinate, organize and follow-up with tasks
– Ability to prioritize projects and tasks
– Open-minded attitude and willing to learn
– Strong ability to problem solve, delegate, multi-task, plan and organize
– Confidence in communication with a direct and open style
– Enthusiasm and motivation with evidence of going the extra mile
– An essential high degree of confidentiality
– Ability to research and collect data
– Patient and thoughtful
– Phone contact and meeting attendance

Responsibilities:
– General administrative duties
– Communicate, organize and co-ordinate
– Research and collect information to draft reports
– Preparation of documents, reports and answering of email

Computer Experience:
Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Powerpoint , Macromedia-Dreamwaver.

NOT BEEN BORN IN A DOG YEAR (NEITHER 1982 NOR 1970)

Isn’t that strange?

Posted by on February 21st, 2006

A pirate’s life for me

I’ve been getting back on a movie kick the past few days, after a few weeks spent doing a lot of reading. Mostly, I think, I’m inspired by the Academy, which nominated a lot of films that I’ve heard are really terrific for Oscars this year. The weather was gorgeous this afternoon, sunny and in the high 40s or low 50s, so I decided to take a ride out to the suburbs to Tom’s–by far the best DVD store in Beijing. Their prices are more expensive, but the quality of the DVDs is great, and their selection is unrivalled, as well as incredibly (alphabetically!) organized. I found just about every movie I was hoping to buy, plus, of course, a number of others that caught my eye in the process:

Munich
Walk the Line
The Constant Gardener
The Family Stone
A Home at the End of the World
Edward Scissorhands
Everything is Illuminated
Transamerica
Proof
Elizabethtown
The Aristocrats
The Simpsons – Season 15
The Pretender – Season 2

Altogether, they cost me about $32–but I’m flush since I got paid on Friday. Besides, these movies are all well worth it, or so I hope, and just compare how much I spent with the prices at Amazon!

Posted by on February 19th, 2006

Wahaha…t a Brand!

The Wahaha brand is one of the most famous in China. Its bottled water can be found in every grocery store and pushcart, and it’s because of that ubiquity—and the catchy name—that foreign travelers have long regarded Wahaha as their water of choice on hot days spent sightseeing or for seemingly endless train rides. The Wahaha brand, and the story behind it, goes far beyond water, however, as I learned in a visit to its headquarters in an industrial park on the outskirts of Hangzhou early one Saturday morning.

I pulled up to the front entrance, ducked through the autumn drizzle, and was met by Frances Song, the English Assistant to the General Manager. She had come to work on the weekend solely to lead me on a tour of the showrooms and bottling plant, but despite the inconvenience she seemed eager to show me around. We began in the coolest room of all—basically it was a private convenience store stocked solely with Wahaha products—refrigerated cases wrapped around half the room, displays on the history of the company decorated the other walls, and in the center was a macro-sized monument to Wahaha’s best known product other than water: Future Cola (or, in Chinese, Feichang Kele, which translates literally to Extreme Cola).

Future Cola was the result of an attempt by Wahaha in the 1998 to compete with the world-dominating brands we know and love (or hate) as Coke and Pepsi. Over the past almost-decade, the Chinese upstart has performed admirably, although it still places third to these two American brands throughout most of China. In rural areas, unsurprisingly, it is much more popular than in the cities, where the cachet of a foreign label can carry products quite far.

Even more intriguing than the story of Future Cola, however, is the story of the Wahaha company itself—and of its founder, Zong Qinghong. In 1987, Zong, along with two retired schoolteachers, began selling milk products and popsicles at a school store, having received a government loan to fund its start-up operations. The group soon decided to produce and sell nutritional drinks as a way of benefiting the students’ health. The company’s success and its lofty health-minded motives resulted in its first big expansion four years later: with Hangzhou government support, they acquired the bulky, state-owned Hangzhou Canned Food Product Company and changed its name to the Hangzhou Wahaha Group. Wahaha itself is an onomatopoetic representation of a baby’s laughter, as mimicked in a children’s folk song.

By 1996, Wahaha had attained such heights that the French multinational Group Danone agreed to form subsidiaries with Wahaha without requiring the use of its own brand; this partnership is still in effect, and Danone controls 30% of the entire company. In 2003, Wahaha’s income totaled ¥10.23 billion (USD1.24 billion), accounting for 15.6% of China’s total beverage production. Today, Wahaha products are on sale in France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States.

Still, all these new facts I learned at the factory didn’t intrigue me as much as the chance to visit the bottling plant itself. From a windowed hallway that runs the length of the hangar-sized floor, I watched bottles of red tea whizzing by on conveyor belts and in various ingenious contraptions. There really is nothing like a factory tour to get a girl thinking about China’s economic prowess and future potential for world domination. If reverse-globalization means Wahaha instead of Poland Springs for sale back in New York, I’m all for it. Still, I think I’ll keep my Diet Coke.

Posted by on February 14th, 2006

A pilgrimage to Tianzhu

The Tianzhu temples caught my eye despite being out of the way—not only were they hidden at the end of a list of Hangzhou’s attractions, their names buttressed by little description or practical information, but their actual position is a bit off the beaten track as well. Never one to listen to a list or let geographic inconvenience deter me, however, I was certain that my time in Hangzhou wouldn’t be complete without a jaunt out past Lingyin Temple to Tianzhu Road, where it seems as if gods have set three temples like jewels into the mountainside. It was only an inkling I had, based on years of experience that have taught me to value my own instincts over the recommendations of any tourist board or guide book. Still, I’ve also learned that sometimes travelers avoid places for a reason, so when intuition sends me off into the tourist wilderness, where locals roam free, impervious to attack from the point-and-shooting hordes, I try not to let my expectations run away with me.

As I hiked up the road toward the topmost temple one perfect autumn morning, I reveled in the fullness of the forest on either side, a verdant surprise that already justified the cab fare from the city center. So absent from my home in Beijing, a dry, gray, and dusty city that seems to sprawl almost to the grasslands of Mongolia, the lushness of this scenery overwhelmed me. To find a place still embraced by nature is sadly rare in urban China, yet unspoiled green tracts surround Hangzhou, a fitting frame for the artful expanse of water at its heart. A few cars whizzed close to me on the paved mountain road, but I paid them no mind, wrapped up as I was in my meditation on unchecked development and the cultural and political challenges of conservation.

When I reached Faxi Si, the Buddhist abbey at the top, however, after a walk of three-quarters of an hour or so, my train of thought turned more personally meditative. Should I buy a bundle of incense from one of the women selling candles at the temple gate to attempt the proper ritual once inside? Or would it be better to fumble around in my relative ignorance, taking photographs and sticking out like the foreign devil they likely assumed I was, but also not pretending to knowledge or beliefs I didn’t really possess?

I ruled that since my intentions were in the right place—I wanted to try to fit in with the few faithful adherents I saw milling around and gain a sense of how they experienced the place, rather than imposing the interpretations of my own mindset on it—I should do what pilgrims do and buy some scent to burn as communication with the heavens. The few extra kuai my purchase would add to the vendor’s pocket couldn’t hurt either, a certainty reinforced by the speed with which she stopped counting the beads on her mala, the Buddhist rosary she draped around her wrist to help her focus on the mouthed but silent recitations of her mantras, to tell me how much my attempt at partial participation was going to cost me.

It was, then, clutching eight powdery, fuchsia sticks in my hand, which itself would remain stained pink for much of the day, that I passed through the threshold of the temple. In the main courtyard, uphill from the gate, I took in the gold and crimson buildings devoted to the lord of compassion, the Buddha whom the Chinese call Guanyin, a female deity known in Tibet and India as Avalokitesvara.

The name of this trio of temples itself evokes that spiritual place of origin: Tianzhu, which literally translates as Master of Heaven, is the ancient Chinese name for India, from which Buddhism trekked over the Himalayas more than 2,000 years ago. The religion spread over the whole of China, eventually nestling its way into Hangzhou and putting down roots so strong that, despite the passing of millennia and the cultural crusades of the past century, the people of this city still climb Tianzhu Road to reach these temples, even if most of those who pass by the old women selling joss sticks are themselves grandmothers, or at least mothers, or daughters.

I felt like a daughter of Hangzhou myself as I clumsily imitated the motions of the older women in the center of the courtyard. I stuck my incense into a large bronze vessel filled with fire, until the sticks smoldered and then smoked at their rounded tips. The pilgrims bowed at the waist toward the temple at the top of the steps, shook the spicy smoke up into the air with both hands in front of them, and turned to their right, repeating the motions until their prayers were ascending to all four corners of the sky. With my thin magenta wands, I followed them as fluidly as possible, repeated their movements and tried to ingratiate my mind with their thoughts. I was not just performing empty gesticulations there on the stage before an audience of these believers and their deities, but I couldn’t fill my mind with the same resonances I knew these gestures held for them.

Like my unwitting (though seemingly not unwilling) tutors, I pushed my still-smoking joss sticks down into a bed of ash behind the censer and entered the convent’s main hall, where the Buddhas of the past and future flanked their present-minded avatar. Standing before these magnificent symbols, given form as gorgeous statues, I reflected on my history, the past that had brought me before this pacific triad; I considered my present, allowed my breath to slow until my mind could not detect it, and worked to still my mind so it wouldn’t even try; and I contemplated moving on into the future, following my thoughts of the life ahead of me into the experience of living it.

When I stumbled back out into the crisp air of early fall, which pixelates the sunlight to sharpen and saturate life as if it were a photo, I knew I couldn’t hope to understand the experience of those visitors to which the temple and its inhabitants are more accustomed. Still, I’d had revelations of my own, and I meditated on them as I made my way along the side of the road to the next bead in Tianzhu’s mala. Buddhist monks say that the mind is as random and thoughts as spontaneous as a monkey jumping through the branches of a tree. As I meandered down the mountain, however, my mind was focused and my thoughts purposeful, the monkey sitting still upon a single branch, peeling a banana.

Posted by on February 13th, 2006

The east is red

If I’m up at dawn, I might as well take pictures of it.

Posted by on February 8th, 2006

A snowy day in Beijing

Snow is rare in Beijing despite how cold it gets. It’s been well below freezing for two months or so, but yesterday was only the second time it’s snowed. Some people attribute the clear (ahem) skies of a Beijing winter to it being somehow too cold to snow, but I know exactly how ridiculous that is. Witness any winter in Boston, or in the northern half of the US, for that matter. So it was a welcome change in the weather when I woke up yesterday morning to find the sky outside my window a hazy shade of winter and not just the usual grayscale hues of haze and pollution. While I was on my way back to the office from lunch later in the day, I spotted this man on his bicycle. It seems to capture Beijing in an essential sort of mood. What I know for sure: god was I glad I’d gone out the night before and bought a proper winter jacket! (It’s “Columbia”–though I think it actually might not be counterfeit–in bright shades of red and gray.)

Posted by on February 7th, 2006

Happy New Year

And again, sadly, it’s been a while, but things in Beijing have been as hectic as ever. I started a new job two weeks ago, as the Managing Editor of a new digital travel guide company that’s about to launch this month. It’s called Schmap, and I’m enjoying my work there so far, even though it means I have a schedule like the rest of the world and have to be in the office at 9 each morning, and I usually don’t get out at night until after 7. I’ve also been busy finishing my Hangzhou guide project–and watching the fireworks. Yes, it’s with noise and light that the Chinese celebrate their New Year, which in practical terms translates to three weeks of nonstop fireworks and firecrackers.

From my aerie on the 22nd floor, I’ve had a great view of all the artful gunpowder, which has been more exciting and interesting than annoying, even though at times it’s sounded like Dresden must have on Valentine’s Day in 1945. According to R., who was around last year for Spring Festival–the name for the two-plus weeks of festivities surrounding the actual lunar new year–the government banned the setting off of fireworks in Beijing last year, and the ruckus wasn’t close to a match for this year. Apparently, the people weren’t happy about losing a chance to celebrate life. I can understand that–until now it hadn’t really seemed like the people here took life by the throat at all, but these two weeks have given me some new insight–Spring Festival seems like the only real chance they have to let loose. What’s most interesting to me, though, is the notion that they must have been celebrating like this for centuries: warding off the dark and cold that characterize north China this time of year with colored lights and echoing booms.

Posted by on February 5th, 2006

The death of Cantonese in America

I’m sorry I haven’t posted in the last three weeks, but I was home in New York, having an uneventful but welcome vacation, seeing friends and family, and experiencing a lovely bout of bronchitis despite the unusually terrific weather there. Now that I’m back in Beijing (as of yesterday), I expect to be back to posting here as well, despite a looming deadline next week for my book! Of course, now that I’m in China, I came across an interesting article in the LA Times about the pressures on the American Cantonese community to learn Mandarin: business, politics, entertainment have all moved toward Mandarin as the dominant language since the onslaught of immigration from parts of China beyond Guangdong began twenty-five or thirty years ago. It’s an interesting look at the culture of chinatowns and the cultural differences contingent on this language divide.

Posted by on January 8th, 2006