Sunday, March 28, 2010

Moving Mountains - 愚公移山

A few weeks ago, I made fun of myself for being an NPR Nerd (or an NPaRsehole as my friend, Andy, put it) and constantly using NPR stories in my blog posts. Well, I'm going back to another well I've been frequenting recently and am going to discuss a Peter Hessler quote on here again.

I really enjoyed Country Driving. Different from Hessler's other books. Still is excellent. Impeccably written. I may try to formally review it at some point.

There's a section of the book I liked that reminded me of an ancient fable I learned while studying Chinese when I was back in Xi'an.

I'm first going to present Hessler's piece and then the fable it reminded me of.

From Country Driving, on pages 304 and 305:
At Lishui, the exit led straight to the city's Economic Development Zone. After the peacefulness of the new expressway, it was a shock to enter the half-built industrial park, where most roads had yet to be paved. Earth movers and bulldozers worked around the clock, and rugged farmland surrounded the zone on all sides, a reminder of how this place had looked until recently. The scale of the construction project was impressive - nearly six square miles. The director of the economic zone, a man name Wang Lijiong, told me that in order to prepare for the factories they had leveled exactly one hundred and eight mountains and hills.


Every time I met an official, I scrambled to write down the numbers, and then in the evening I'd look at my notebook and wonder if they could possibly be true. But Director Wang Lijong's remark about moving one hundred and eight mountains made me stop scribbling. I asked the man to explain what he meant.

"Pretend that this is a mountain," he said, pointing at a spot on the table between us. He moved his finger a few inches over. "This is another mountain. Between them there's a valley. So we take the tops off the two mountains, and we fill in the valley. We lower the high parts and raise the low parts, and we make it as flat as possible."

"He ran his hand along the table - perfectly flat. He continued: "There's a saying here in Lishui. 'For every nine acres of mountains, there's half an acre of water and half an acre of farmland.' With such a small percentage of good land, we had no choice but to move the mountains."
And here is the fable this passage reminded me of. First, in Chinese and then my (attempt at a) translation:


于是愚公决定带领全家人搬走这两座大山,那一年他已经九十多岁了。一天,他把全家人召集到一起,说:“我想和你们一起搬走门前的两座大山,你们同意吗?” 全家人无论是儿子还是孩子都表示同意。可是愚公的妻子却说:“你已经这么老了,连石头都搬不动,怎么可能搬走那么大的两座山呢?再说,那么多的土和石头放到哪儿呢?” 是啊,这真是个问题, 大家商量了半天,决定把土和石头运到渤海去。

第二天,愚公就带着全家人开始挖山,不管是男人还是女人,都去挖土搬石, 连七八岁的小孩子也去帮忙。他们把土和石油运到大海,往返一次,要一年的时间。但是他们还是不停地挖呀运呀。不管是春,夏,秋,冬,全家人一天也没休息过。

有一个叫智叟的老人看到他们这么干,觉得太可笑了,就对愚公说:“你可太笨了,您这么大年纪了,连山上的树都砍不动,这么可能搬走大山呢?” 愚公说:“不是我太笨了,是您太没理想了,还是如女人和孩子呢。我死了,我的儿子会继续挖;我儿子死了,孙子会继续挖;子子孙孙会永远延续下去。山虽然很高,可是却不可能再长高了,只要我们坚持下去,就一定能把山搬走。”



The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains

A long, long time ago, there was an old man named Yu Gong. There were two tall mountains just in front of his family's home. One mountain was called, Taihang Mountain, and the other, Wangwu Mountain. The mountains blocked the road near the family's house. Whenever the family wanted to go anywhere, they had to traverse the mountains. Going anywhere was so inconvenient.

Because of the trouble that the mountains had caused his family, Yu Gong, a ninety year-old, decided to move the mountains. One day, he asked every family member to come together. He said: "With all of you, I want to move these two mountains, do you all agree to this?" All of Yu Gong's children and grandchildren agreed to this idea. But Yu Gong's wife said: "You are already so old. You can't even pick up a rock. How are you going to move two huge mountains? What's more, where would we put the dirt and rocks if we did move these mountains?" Yes, this was a serious question. Everyone discussed the problem for a long period of time. They decided that they should put the earth from the mountains in the Bo Sea.

On the second day, Yu Gong led everybody to start digging. Both men and women dug. Even seven and eight year-olds helped out. Everyone carried the earth with them to the Bo Sea. One round-trip to the sea took one year. Despite the difficulties, the family didn't stop. They went in spring, summer, fall, and winter never taking a rest.

A wise old man named Zhi Sou saw the family working one day. He thought they were so silly. He said to Yu Gong: "You are so stupid and old. You can't even chop down a tree. How can you move a mountain?" Yu Gong responded: "It's not that I'm dumb. It's that you don't have any ambition. You're no more capable than a woman or a small child. When I die, my children will keep digging. When my children die, my grandchildren will continue digging. Generation after generation can forever continue. Although the mountain is tall, it won't grow any taller. We just have to continue to work and one day the mountain will be gone."

Yu Gong's family continued to dig up the mountain. The two mountains' spirits both began to worry. In heaven, the spirits told Yu Di (the supreme deity of Daoism) about what was happening. Yu Di was moved by the persistence of Yu Gong's family. Yu Di then asked two spirits to come down to earth and move the two mountains.

This ancient story has taught generation after generation of Chinese people the following: no matter what difficulties you face, persist, persist, and persist and you will succeed. However, some young people today think that Yu Gong was an idiot: Why wouldn't Yu Gong just move his family? Isn't it easier to move one's house? Some people even believe that Yu Gong was a pioneer in destroying the environment. What do you think? What's your opinion of this story?
This story is in the second volume of my Chinese text book - 发展汉语.

Looking back on this fable (I haven't thought about it in some time), it doesn't exactly apply to Hessler's experience in Zhejiang Province. There might be a little bit of a connection. I don't know.

Just talking with about this story with Qian, she says that the 愚公移山 fable is a very traditional one that every Chinese person knows. She also says that it, in some ways, captures a spirit of Chinese society that goes back generations.

As the fable asks, what's your opinion of this story? Does it at all apply to the economic development that Hessler saw in present-day China?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Chinese cities you've never heard of, but should know - Part 2

This blog, and a few of the small accolades I've garnered from it, occupied a line on my resume when I was looking for a job in America a few months ago. I had some nice conversations with prospective employers about China and my writing.

The man who ended up hiring me at his company had a lot to say about one post in particular. My Top 10 Travel Destinations in China really struck him.

After hiring me, he told me that he'd been immensely impressed by the information that I'd presented on that Top 10 post. It wasn't my writing style or skills that moved him. Instead, it was simply the fact that I presented new information, geography, and locations that he was completely unaware existed.

The company I'm working at is a reverse logistics company that is closely involved with the trucking industry. My boss and the owner of the company years ago was a trucker. He prides himself upon being a geographical genius. During his trucking days, he'd driven, literally, all over North America. He often engages in discussions about certain cities or terrain he's seen. Maps cover the walls of his office.

Like many Americans, my boss knows very little about China. He knows the most basic of basics about the place. His life has never crossed paths with China and he's never needed to know more than a little bit of information about the country.

My Top 10 list has turned him onto China though. Every few days he tells me about the Google Maps he's looking at and how, as he simply scans random parts of the country, he finds new topography and cities he didn't know about before. He specifically has talked about how crazy it is to "just stumble across a city of five million here and then a city of seven million there."

When listening to him tell these stories one day, one city in particular came to mind - Chongqing. I told him to go look it up on Google Maps and then get back with me.

Chongqing (重庆)

Chongqing is a municipality in southwest China with a population of over 30 million people. The actual urban center of Chongqing is only about five to six million people. But the greater area of Chongqing is much larger and more populous.

I've been to Chongqing. I spent about twelve hours in the city in the summer of 2006. I took an overnight bus from Yangshuo in Guilin Province to downtown Chongqing. I remember not sleeping well and waking up on the bus at about 6AM. As I woke up, I saw building and people bustling outside. I thought we were in downtown Chongqing, or at least very close to the bus' final destination. Instead, we drove through developing outskirts of Chongqing for hours. I finally got off of the bus at about 10AM. I remember looking out the window of the bus hour after hour amazed at the scale of the construction.

Chongqing is the definition of "sprawling."

The purpose for me going to Chongqing was to board a boat headed down the Yangtze River. I took a four day, three night trip from Chongqing to Yichang, the location of the Three Gorges Dam. The trip through the Three Gorges culminating with a stop at the Three Gorges Dam was impressive.

Obviously, the flooding of the Three Gorges and the dam a few hundred miles down river has greatly affected Chongqing. For one, instead of one of the world's great rivers flowing through the city, a, largely, stagnant lake now cuts through the center of downtown. The simple rising of water affected Chongqing greatly. Hundreds of thousands of people who used to reside next to the river, largely in the countryside to the east of the city, had to move. Many of those who lost their homes went to Chongqing.

A couple years ago, American newsman Ted Koppel did a documentary on the Discovery Channel - The People's Republic of Capitalism. For the series, Koppel featured Chongqing as the the symbol of the future of China. Unfortunately, I never saw this documentary and I'm not seeing any videos to put on here from that program. But from the articles I've read about the program, Koppel chose Chongqing because most Americans have not heard of the city.

Although I can't find Koppel's program, I have found a couple other program on Chongqing.

The first is from called "City on Steroids." I just watched this video. It's 28 minutes long. The host is annoying and pretty clueless. But the video is well-produced and the sights and sounds of Chongqing make it worth checking out.

And here's another video I found on Youtube about Chongqing - Chongqing: Invisible City I found on Youtube. It's very much like "City on Steroids" (minus the goofy host). I encourage you to click on the link. For some reason, the video owner has disabled embedding the video.

Chongqing is a city western people should know about. It is one of, if not the, fastest growing cities in the world. It, possibly more than any other city in the interior of mainland China, is going to be an engine for growth going forward.

Disclaimer: I know that these "Cities you've never heard of, but should know" posts aren't groundbreaking. I know that Chongqing and all of the other cities that I'm writing about on these features are nothing new to people knowledgeable about China. Saying that, cities like Xi'an and Chongqing are mysteries to average folks who don't have a particular interest in China. The videos I just posted and the info I just gleaned about Chongqing is, I think, worthwhile. I'm looking forward to trying to get more info on other cities outside the few that people are most familiar with.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chinese cities you've never heard of, but should know - Part 1

China's been working on developing non-coastal cities for years. The pace has been break-neck and the effects are being felt.

From Caixin Online:

Image from

BEIJING (Caixin Online) -- For years, migrant workers in central and western China spent the closing hours of the annual Spring Festival holidays packing luggage and traveling to coastal cities for another year at factory and construction jobs.

This year, the pattern changed. Many migrants apparently chose not to travel east, and several coastal cities started reporting serious labor shortages even before the last fireworks of the Spring Festival died out.


It appears migrant workers are continuing to leave their rural villages for jobs in areas. But instead of one of China's traditional manufacturing hubs, such as the Pearl River Delta, many are heading for new destinations.

The head of the National Development and Reform Commission's Small Town Research Center, Li Tie, thinks more migrants will seek jobs in China's interior. That trend would match the government's plans for developing inland cities and moving more production away from coastal areas. Migrants will continue to seek jobs in big cities, official statistics indicate, but fewer will work in coastal population centers.

The government's 4 trillion yuan (about $586 billion) economic stimulus project was expected to steer massive amounts of capital into infrastructure construction in China's interior, creating jobs, Li said.

Not only are jobs moving inland, but compensation levels between coastal and other parts of China have narrowed. A villager who used to migrate to earn 1,000 yuan a month at a distant factory job now has more options closer to home.

Read the Whole Article
There's no doubt that Shanghai, Shenzhen, Beijing and a few other coastal cities are the most developed in China. Those cities are continuing to grow and prosper. They're going to continue to increase their standard of living and level of importance in the world going forward.

Cities outside of the coasts are where things are really going on though.

Just as the cities I just mentioned went through a period of unparalleled growth the past couple decades, cities on the interior of China are beginning to be more and more come into their own. Through the moutains and rivers and and deserts and loess plains, cities like Chongqing and Kunming and Urumqi are booming. Cities that just a few years ago were "the sticks" are now, each in their own way, creating their own identities as economic engines.

Over the coming weeks, I'm going to work on a series of posts: "Chinese cities you've never heard of, but should know." In this series, I'll do my best to introduce cities that people who just know China from Beijing and Shanghai probably aren't that aware of.

I'm not going to used the scientific method to select the cities that fit this criteria. The ones I choose are simply ones that come to mind when I think of "rapidly-developing interior Chinese cities." If any readers have suggestions of places that fall into this category, feel free to suggest cities in the comments section.

I'm going to start this series with a city very familiar to me.

Xi'an (西安), Shaanxi Province (陕西省)

Image from

Why wouldn't I start with Xi'an. Xi'an is my 中国的老家 (Chinese hometown). I lived in the city for three and a half years. My inlaws live there. Many other people outside of my family I care about deeply still live there. I know the city intimately.

In addition to being a city I've lived in and love, it is right in the heart of China and is a key city for China's development.

Xi'an is the birthplace of Chinese civilization. Thirteen ancient dynasties of China called Xi'an their capital. Xi'an is where the terra cotta warriors were erected and then buried under ground. It was home to the Tang Dynasty, arguably the greatest time period in Chinese history. It was the beginning point on the Silk Road. And a few hours north of Xi'an in Yan'an is where Mao Zedong and the communists stopped after their Long March.

Xi'an's place in Chinese history is unmatched. From the beginning of civilization to today, Xi'an has played a key role in the development of China and of the world.

Now, Xi'an, a city of around 7 - 8 million people, acts as something of a gateway to the West. If you look at a map, Xi'an is directly in the middle of the country.

Although centrally located, it's not culturally or strategically in the middle. In contemporary China, it is considered in the northwest of the country by Chinese people. Xi'an is the last major city in China's northwest. To Xi'an's west and north are deserts and mountains and sparsely populated areas.

Tourism is Xi'an's biggest industry. At least 75% of foreigners who I've talked with that have visited China have been to Xi'an to travel. Although the expat community in Xi'an is nowhere near as large as Beijing or Shanghai's, foreigners in downtown Xi'an are a very common sight. Domestic tourism is also very big in Xi'an. Most Chinese people are aware of Xi'an's Big Wild Goose Pagoda, terra cotta warriors, and nearby Hua Shan. There is major tourism infrastructure being built across many different parts of the city.

The aviation industry, both commercial and military, is a major part of Xi'an economy. There is also a high tech zone, a feature common to many Chinese cities, in the western part of the city. Many international companies have offices in the zone.

That's about all I can come up with at the moment. I'll try to do similar sorts of write-ups here in the near future about other cities in China that are quickly becoming more important.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


It sounds as if there are no more compromises and that the end of is imminent.

From The Financial Times:

Image from The New York Times

Google has drawn up detailed plans for the closure of its Chinese search engine and is now “99.9 per cent” certain to go ahead as talks over censorship with the Chinese authorities have reached an apparent impasse, according to a person familiar with the company’s thinking.

In a hardening of positions on both sides, the Chinese government also on Friday threw down a direct public challenge to the US search company, with a warning that it was not prepared to compromise on internet censorship to stop Google leaving.

The signs that Google was on the brink of closing, its local search service in China, came two months after it promised to stop bowing to censorship there. But while a decision could be made very soon, the company is likely to take some time to follow through with the plan as it seeks an orderly closure and takes steps to protect local employees from retaliation by the authorities, the person familiar with its position said.

Google is also seeking ways to keep its other operations in China going, although some executives fear that a backlash from the Chinese authorities could make it almost impossible to keep a presence in the country.

Read On
This is a sad story.

Ultimately, Google is doing the right thing. In the past, I've thought that a watered-down Google is better for China than no Google at all. But my opinion on that has changed. China is going to be worse off for not having Google, but given the standoff that occurred in January, I'm happy that Google is taking a stand.

Li Yizhong, the minister for industry and information technology in China, said the following in the article above:
“If [Google] takes steps that violate Chinese laws, that would be unfriendly, that would be irresponsible, and they would have to bear the consequences.”


“[Google] has taken 30 per cent of the Chinese search market.

“If you don’t leave, China will welcome that, if you don’t leave, it will be beneficial for the development of the internet in China.”
No, it won't be beneficial for the development of China's internet. The more than western companies kowtow to China, the worse China's internet will be. Foreign internet companies that can act as a pull in the direction of more freedom will in fact be the ones "beneficial to the development of the internet is China."

I understand China's desire for "status quo" and "stability." Yes, the country is transforming quickly. Yes, there are a number of volatile issues within Chinese society. But draconian rules halting the flow of information are silly and childish.

The internet flattens the world. It opens up information that would otherwise be unavailable. It connects people throughout the globe that would otherwise not have the ability to communicate.

Google is the ultimate expression of the internet, organizing the mountains of information out there for users to make sense of. An uncensored Google is not evil. It is beautiful. It's a shame that Chinese people may not have access to this wonderful tool going forward.

From what I understand, will go offline and Google's offices in China are about to shut their doors. I'm curious about Gmail and, the international version, though. I have to imagine that those sites will suffer the fate of Facebook, Blogspot, Twitter, and the whole lot of other blocked sites in China.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sometimes the More Information You Have, the Less You Know

This blog isn't so cutting edge.

Noted China writer, Peter Hessler, just came out with his latest book - Country Driving. Instead of reading that, I'm reading his book that came out in 2006 - Oracle Bones.

I'm loving it. Hessler's perspective on China is great.

This following passage, about journalism in China, on pages 302 - 303 of Oracle Bones, particularly struck me:
In the United States, journalists worked within a community, and often their stories inspired change. This was one of the noblest aspects of the field, as well as the most widely celebrated. Any American journalist knew the history of Watergate: how dedicated reporters helped bring down a corrupt administration. That was the model for a good journalist - if your community had a rascal problem, you exposed it, even if the rascal was the president of the United States.

At big papers, successful journalists became foreign correspondents, and then they brought their work patterns overseas. Usually, they searched for dramatic, unresolved problems; if they didn't speak the language, they hired interpreters or fixers. Sometimes, their stories made a difference. In African countries, journalists who covered famines or genocide could be instrumental in motivating international organizations to step in. Reporters functioned within an international community because the local community had broken down.

But China was completely different. The country received some international aid, mostly in the form of loans, but the economy had been built primarily through Chinese effort and determination. In the past, the American government had responded to Chinese human rights violations by periodic threats to impose economic sanctions, but those days were gone: trade had become too important. Essentially, China had outgrown the traditional limits of a developing country. Despite its problems, the nation was stable, functioning, independent, and increasingly powerful. When Americans looked across the Pacific, the critical question wasn't how they could change China. It was far more important to understand the country and the people who lived there.

But most journalists were stuck in the old mindset, the old file cabinets:
In a typical foreign bureau, Chinese assistants searched local newspapers for potential stories, and they received tips from disgruntled citizens. When something dramatic caught the foreigner's eye, he pursued it: child-selling in Gansu, female sterilization in Guangxi, jailed labor activists in Shandong. The articles appeared in American newspapers, where the readers couldn't solve the problems and didn't have the background necessary to keep everything in context. It was like the Fuling textbook: sometimes the more information you have, the less you know. And there is a point at which even the best intentions become voyeurism.

I didn't want to write features, which meant that the main appeal of working for a newspaper was news. And news in China seemed pointless: the country changed every year, but the pace was steady and it moved subtly. There weren't any great leaders, and supposedly important events like the plane dispute fizzled out; they were like splashes of foam on the surface of a massive sea change. We had escaped history; news no longer mattered. Brave new world.

Anyway, that's how it looked before September of 2001.
Hessler is implying that this was the case before September 11th. While it may not have been true in the months and years directly following 9/11, I feel that this idea applies again now.

A year ago at this time, I was blogging every single day about China news. There were a lot of reasons why. The biggest was that I had free time at my job to blog. I was sitting at a desk for hours every day with not enough work to fill the time. Another big reason was that I wasn't living with Qian. I had a lot of time to blog, study, or do whatever I wanted to at night when she was living at her parents' house. And another reason was that the world was still figuring out what it was doing after the meltdown of Lehman Brothers and the other troubled US financial institutions. That was a very turbulent and unsure time (as if now isn't).

I miss blogging as much as I did at that time. I miss being as into the Chinese news scene as I was at that time. But in the grand scheme of things, I think it is good that I have taken a step back from obsessing over every single news story relating to China. Blogspot being blocked in China was the first step in backing away from pouring over every story about China. Moving to America, getting married, readjusting to American culture, and starting work has been a much larger step (or steps).

Hessler's idea that China is largely impervious to the daily/weekly news cycle is very interesting. I agree. No matter what happens, China is going to continue being China and heading down the path it currently is. China is quickly developing and modernizing. The country is constantly changing. But that change is China's constant.

Sure, the country has a massive list of problems - both domestically and internationally. At times, I have a hard time seeing how it functions or will continue to thrive. But it is and is going to continue to.

Subconsciously, I'd come to agree with Hessler's passage above. I'm not trawling Google News for China News stories these days. Sure, I'm too busy to. But I also don't think it's necessary to be a news-junky to have a good understanding of China. Understanding its people and its culture, rather than the obsessing over daily headlines, can be far more insightful in a country that operates in the way China does.

That's not to say I think that China news is unimportant. Keeping abreast of what's going on there, and the rest of the world is important, but I now realize that one can be too caught up in current events.

I'm about to finish Oracle Bones, have a 30% off coupon from Border's bookstore, and am planning on buying Country Driving today. Can't wait to get going on Hessler's newest book, which will cover the time period in China that I was there: 2006 - 2009.