Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mr. China

The introduction page to the book, Mr. China: A Memoir by Tim Clissold, is one of the most captivating pages of text I've ever read:


My jaw dropped when I got to the end of that paragraph. I felt like Clissold had written this page just for me (with the Edgar Snow reference and all).

I can relate to the fantasizing of becoming "Mr. China" so deeply. China over the past few years has taken over my life. I lived there for a few years and even now living in the US read about it constantly. If I'm not keeping up with my China-watcher stream on Twitter, then I'm probably reading a book or a blog about China. Expanding my knowledge of China is my most time-intensive hobby. Whether I consciously pursue it or whether it's something going on beneath the surface, becoming a "China hand" is something that I'm really quite obsessed about.

After reading this ridiculously awesome introduction to Mr. China, I was so pumped to devour the book.



Mr. China is a memoir from a foreigner who participated in the first wave of foreign investment in China from after the country embraced Deng Xiaoping's liberalization policies in the early 1990s. Tim Clissold is an Englishman who was introduced to China for the first time through visiting Hong Kong as a young man.

China infiltrated Clissold's person almost immediately after arriving in the country. He quit his job in England to return to Beijing to study after a brief exposure to China. After a couple years of Chinese language study and getting to know the culture, he was re-hired by the firm he quit in England in the first place, Arthur Andersen, as a China specialist in 1992.

It's only a few pages in and is not an integral part of the book as a whole, but reading about Clissold's first experiences in China is another highlight of the book for me. He fell in love with China quickly like a lot of foreigners, including myself, do.

The following passage from pages 12-13 really struck me:

Just like with the introduction paragraph highlighted at the beginning of this post, I was completely taken with this passage. Reading Clissold's thoughts on "willful infatuation" really made me think about the nature of my obsession with China.

Mr. China, a business book, stopped me in my tracks twice by the time I had reached page 13. You really can't ask much more from a book than that, can you? Tim Clissold is a freakishly good writer.

There is a lot of good stuff in Mr. China after page 13 as well. There are a plethora of funny, maddening, and insightful business stories. China in the 1990s was in many ways more of a wild west-like frontier than the country is today.

Reading about corrupt factory owners, two-faced investment partners, and capricious government officials is often times comical. The stresses of working on multi-million deals with the uncertainty that underlines China's legal and business culture are intense.

There are several nail-biting scenes where Clissold and his partners appear to have been taken to the cleaners. I nearly got light-headed and butterflies in my stomach as I read of cleaned out multi-million dollar bank accounts and maniacal factory owners. The actual toll taken on Clissold is seen very prominently when, in his 30s, he has to leave China due to a stress-induced heart attack.

Everybody in the world today hears about "the Chinese economic miracle" and the robust year-after-year growth in China. Few have seen the inner workings of those processes as intimately as Clissold has, though. Getting to see such wheeling and dealing from almost twenty years ago is special.

Mr. China is a very good book. It took me on a much harder and more turbulent ride than I was expecting. It's ostensibly a book on business in China. It's much more than that, though. Few books cut to the heart of China's culture like Clissold's does. Clissold, a financier by trade, is a dazzling writer. Any starry-eyed dreamer thinking of becoming Mr. China needs to pick up Mr. China.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

House

The cause of the dearth of posts here recently is that Qian and I just bought and moved into our first house. Anyone who's gone down that road before knows that the preparation and execution of finding the right house, moving out of the old apartment, and getting into the new place is all-consuming. Between my job and all of that house stuff, blogging has fallen by the wayside.

Although I've been busy with life, I'm still engaged with China and still have things to write. I'm hoping things will settle down soon and I'll get some posts up soon.

In the mean time, I have a couple Chinese movies upon which I want to comment quickly.

First, Raise the Red Lantern大红灯笼高高挂》directed by Zhang Yimou is incredible. I found it to be just as good as the other Zhang movie I saw recently, To Live. It's the story of a concubine in the early twentieth century. The story is laid out very delicately and is executed with great passion. The cinematography and setting of the movie are still etched into my mind a couple weeks after watching it. I highly recommend it.

And then second, In the Heat of the Sun阳光灿烂的日子》is one of the most bizarre movies I've ever seen. Qian and I watched since it was one of the only movies she hadn't seen from the list that was recommended in the comments section of this blog a few weeks ago. It's about a group of rebellious youths during the Cultural Revolution. It is very avant-garde. I appreciated watching this more than my wife did (she hated it), but I'd have a hard time recommending this one.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

When a Billion Chinese Jump

My biggest problem with living in China when I was there was the pollution. Language issues, trying to understand social mores, being treated differently because I was a foreigner, and any homesickness I felt being on the other side of the planet from my home all paled in comparison to the you-can-only-fathom-it-if-you've-been-there pollution that engulfs China.

Xi'an's pollution, in particular, is horrific. Xi'an, the city I lived in for three and a half years, is just to the south and to the west of the richest coal reserves in China. Xi'an's streets are choked with cars and its economic activity (carbon emissions) is booming. South of Xi'an stand the mighty Qinling Mountains, a very formidable range. You may not know there are mountains near you if you live in Xi'an, though. The peaks of the Qinling range are not visible 350 days out of the year. The beauty of the Qinling Mountains are no match for Xi'an's all-encompassing smog.

Jonathan Watts, a China correspondent from The Guardian, last year published a book entirely about China and its environment, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind - or Destroy It.

I'd heard a lot of hype about this book for more than a year in the China blog and Twitter-sphere. Having now read it, the book lives up to the big buildup it's garnered. When a Billion Chinese Jump expanded and refined my knowledge of environmental issues in China a great deal. Watts' book put important facts and figures into my brain to go along with the negative experiences I've had with China's pollution.



The organization of Watts book is very good. It is split into four sections - Nature, Man, Imbalance, and Alternatives - and highlights each of these themes by focusing on different corresponding regions in China - the Southwest, the Southeast, the Northwest, and the Northeast. The result is a full portrait of what is going on in the humongous land mass that is China. The good, the bad, and the ugly all make it into Watts study of Chinese people and their relationship with their land.

I've talked before on my blog about how western China is the most interesting part of the country to me. The West is the frontier land of China that is often overlooked by journalists and policy-makers who only spend time in the large metropoli of eastern China.

Nobody can accuse Watts of not getting the full picture of China in When a Billion Chinese Jump. He visits nearly every nook and cranny of every corner of China - the snow-peaked mountains and glaciers of Tibet and Sichuan, the barren deserts of the former Silk Road in Xinjiang, and the idyllic scenery of Yunnan - to get the widest-ranging scope of China's environmental impact possible.

One thing I found very interesting on a personal level is that Watts visits every city in the on-and-off series on this blog - Chinese Cities that You've Never Heard of But Should Know. The giant factory that is Guangzhou and its surrounding area, the "model village" of Huaxi, the excesses of Ordos, and the Bladerunner-esque city of Chongqing are all places that Watts highlights.

I think it's pretty cool that Watts and I see eye-to-eye on what are the larger-than-life stories going on in China today. There were several points in When a Billion Chinese Jump where I felt Watts had written the book just for my reading. That's a great feeling to get when plowing through a meaty book.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is titled, "Why Do So Many People Hate Henan?" I laughed out loud when I saw chapter title in the table of contents. I imagine that anyone who's ever lived or spent a some time in China know the reputation that Henan Province and its people have amongst non-Henanese Chinese people.

Watts writes: "The antipathy of so many Chinese feel toward Henan seems to mirror the prejudice that many foreigners express towards China: that it is dirty, overcrowded, and untrustworthy."

Watts reminds the reader, though, that Henan is the birthplace of some of the most glorious Chinese things from China: tai qi, kung fu, and Zen Buddhism. Watts writes convincingly that Henan, which at one time was a bucolic place, is the dystopia it is now because of a systematic destruction of its environment. Instead of being known for some of the most beautiful things China has offered to the world, Henan is now famous for pollution-induced cancer villages, corruption-induced AIDS villages, and the worst of the worst man-made problems in China.

The story of Henan is tragic. Watts hammers what's gone on there hard because the entire country of China is on the brink of becoming one big Henan-like hellhole.

I'm going to highlight a passage from When a Billion Chinese Jump that I liked. It features a general theme found throughout the book: ingrained Chinese cultural traits make one wonder whether there is any hope that China will be able to change its attitude towards its environment.

From page 68 and 69:



Whether China's deeply ingrained negative cultural attitudes towards nature can be overcome is going to be one of the most important things to watch in the world over the next several decades.

My only criticism of When a Billion Chinese Jump is that it, at times, sounds a bit patronizing. Hearing Watts, an Englishman, lament fast food's growth, the Barbie store in Shanghai, and China's embrace of materialism was a bit much at times. I do think that it is near impossible to avoid this problem when a westerner writes a critical book about a developing country. Reading about "Barbie's eco-footprint" (the CO2 that Barbie, if a real person, would've been responsible for emitting) made me cringe some, though.

Watts book is a great guide to understanding China's struggle to build sustainable economic and societal structures. Watts knows a ton about China and such is reflected in his very serious, yet readable, book. I recommend anyone with even a hint of a green world-view or interest in China to pick up When a Billion Chinese Jump.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

To Live

Qian recently rented a Chinese movie from the library at the school where she teaches. The movie she picked up was To Live (or 活着 in Chinese) by Zhang Yimou. Zhang is one of the most famous directors in China. In addition to making block-buster movies, Zhang also directed the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. I had never heard of this movie and am honestly not too familiar with much of Zhang's work. I'm glad Qian got this randomly. To Live is a great film.



To Live is the story of a northern Chinese family and the events that unfolded in their lives in the middle part of the twentieth century. The 1940s through 1970s were a very turbulent time in China. Watching the main character, Fu Gui, go from being forced into the Nationalist Army to being forced into the Communist Red Army to taking part in campaigns against land owners in the 1950s to smelting iron during the Great Leap Forward to being surrounded by Mao-fanaticism in the 1960s and 1970s is a fascinating journey.

Fu Gui early in the movie is a spoiled brat from a rich family. He spends more time losing money gambling than with his wife and young daughter. After Fu loses his home and all of his inherited riches gambling, his pregnant-with-his-second-child wife leaves with him and takes their daughter with her.

Fu, having been left by his family and having lost all his money, has to restart his life. He does the only thing he knows how to do besides gamble - he plays the ruan and sings Shaanxi-style opera (秦腔) for traditional Chinese shadow plays with a troupe that tours surrounding villages.





These shadow plays and Fu Gui's singing and strumming at them are scattered throughout the movie. Shadow plays are a very unique Chinese form of entertainment. Shadow play scenes were a very nice addition to the movie.

Fu Gui, after having hit rock bottom, rebuilds his life. He reunites with his wife and kids after a few years away from them.

The family, once reunited, lives a decent enough life. Well, as decent as life could be in 1950's China.

Fu and his wife are level-headed, non-political people. This, unfortunately, couldn't keep them away from the chaos that Mao threw his country into. Mao's ideas of "constant revolution" and their implementation in society affected every Chinese person on a very deep level.

Fu and his family are witness to land-owners and the rich of society being attacked in the mid-1950s. Scenes of the Great Leap Forward, when Mao ordered China's agriculture collectivized in an attempt to "overtake" Britain and the US, then grip Fu and his family beginning in 1958. The town's leaders seize the family's pots and pans and the family has to eat at communal kitchens during that campaign. Many scenes take place next to burning backyard furnaces attempting to produce steel. The family doesn't suffer famine at all, at least. Much of the country did. As many as 35 million people died during the three year-long famine.

The psychosis of the Cultural Revolution, when students beat up their teachers and red guards destroyed temples and relics of ancient Chinese culture (among other things), is also featured very prominently in To Live.

Fu and his family are affected brutally during these horrific campaigns. There is never any criticism of Mao and the horrors that his policies caused by the main characters in the movie. The family, despite facing unimaginable man-made, politician-induced challenges, just plows on. There is never any complaining or lamenting about the hand that they'd been dealt.

In a way, I really admire Fu and his family for that. They continue, as the movie is called, to live despite the terrible atmosphere that surrounded them. In another sense, though, there were many points where continuing to roll with the punches and not making any protest about the things going on in society was, one could say, too passive of a stance.

I suppose it's easy for me, living in a free society after the fact, to be an arm-chair quarterback and say that they were too timid in the face of wretched political upheaval. I also understand what the fate was of people who resisted Mao's policies: they were murdered. It's true that it was nearly impossible to go against any of Mao's campaigns without being killed or at least jailed. But Fu and his family's lack of protesting and essentially going along with all of that degradation of society is a remarkable aspect of the movie.

I really enjoyed To Live. I had no expectations going into it and was moved by what I saw. Zhang created this movie in China in 1994. It's not the edgiest thing ever made. It's edgier than you might think, though. That SARFT - The State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television - would've been OK with this film five years after Tiananmen Square occurred during a particularly rocky patch for the CCP is somewhat surprising. I heartily recommend To Live to anyone interested in seeing contemporary Chinese history from a Chinese perspective.

Edit: Be sure to check out the first comment on this post from Hopfrog. He gives a fantastic primer to non-kung fu Chinese film.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Riding the Dragon's Back

Simon Winchester, in his book about the Yangtze River, River at the Center of the World, has a section at the end giving his "Suggestions for Further Reading." Winchester has glowing praise for one book, in particular:

Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the most spectacular places I ever went in China. Winchester's description of a book about adventurers going to Yunnan and Tibet to get to the Yangtze's source really got my attention. I ran to my computer to get Riding the Dragon's Back off of Amazon (where I was able to purchase the book for $.01 plus shipping).

Riding the Dragon's Back: The Race to Raft the Upper Yangtze by Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen is a unique China book. Neither Bangs nor Christian are China experts or scholars. Instead, they are adventurers. Specifically, world-class white water rafting guides. Their perspective - one that comes from having rafted the greatest rivers in North America, Africa, and Asia - makes for a wonderful reading experience.



The book is broken into a few different sections:

The first section is a general history of the Yangtze. The second is the history of the first Chinese expedition to tackle the river. The third is the narrative about the cocky American explorer, Ken Warren's, expedition. And the fourth is the story of the two author's attempt at conquering the Yangtze at the Tiger Leaping Gorge section of the river.

Trying to raft the upper reaches of the Yangtze is crazy. There is a reason no human had ever done it up until the mid-1980s; Tibet, Yunnan, and Sichuan Provinces, where the Yangtze's waters begin to flow, are some of the most dangerous and formidable places on earth.

The Yangtze's source begins in the Himalayas of Tibet, the roof of the world. Altitude sickness ravages humans who are strong enough to reach such heights. The world's deepest gorge and countless impassable rapids have been carved into the earth by the river over the course of millenia. Adding onto all of these natural difficulties, the lack of economic development and medical infrastructure on these upper reaches make the Upper Yangtze one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.

With China's "reform and opening" in the post-Mao era came a desire from both explorers abroad and those within China to conquer the river from its untamed source.

The man most obsessed with floating the Yangtze was Ken Warren. Warren, an adventurer from the United States, tried for years to get the Chinese authorities to allow him into the country to raft the Yangtze. By the mid-1980s he finally started making some headway.

As word got out about foreigners planning on being the first to raft the Yangtze, a nationalist fervor swept over China. Several teams of young Chinese men volunteered, for the sake of China's pride, to be the first to raft the mighty river.

This race to be the first down the Yangtze is a major part of Bangs and Kallen's book. The drive to "win" was intense. The Chinese, given a head-start from governmental bureaucratic red tape keeping the foreigners out, were the first to push off from the source down the river. What the Chinese team lacked in rafting experience, it made up for with sheer courage.

Or maybe stupidity is a more appropriate word. As the Chinese team approached the most trying parts of the river, it resorted to pure ridiculousness. Check out this raft that some of the team attempted to ride down the rapids:


Photo from shangri-la-river-expeditions.com

The team members are in the middle of all that UFO-looking contraption! The men inside the boat were not steering the raft in any sense. They were simply going down blind, much like going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Unfortunately, three Chinese team members died riding that death-trap through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Undeterred by death, the collection of Chinese teams continued to push on. Stuck at the furious rapids of Tiger Leaping Gorge not sure how to continue, the following passage from page 139 really shows the determination of the Chinese teams going down on these expeditions:
Two weeks slowly passed. Nearly every member of the two teams hiked down the high, narrow trail, viewed the rapids, and returned to Qiaotou discouraged. Fifteen percent, or at most twenty, were the estimated chances for success. One in five was not good odds, and some rafters considered the effort suicidal. But several of the Chinese argued that they must go through Tiger's Leap Gorge - to do otherwise would be fraud, for to run the Yangtze one must run Hutiaoxia. Some pointed out that the Americans led by Ken Warren were coming down the river after them; they would surely run the narrow gorge even if the Chinese did not - and they were getting closer every day.

On September 3, a new enclosed capsule arrived for the Luoyang team, a smaller but hopefully more secure model, just seven feet in diameter and four feet high. It was only big enough for two people, lying on their sides, but it was equipped with an air-filled pillar to allow the passengers to breathe in the raging waters. The team immediately took it to the first drop, Upper Hutiao Shoal, with its huge pyramid rock fronting a sixty-foot drop in two main pitches. The next day, to test the capsule, they put a dog inside, attached an oxygen mask to the animal's muzzle, lashed the capsule shut, and sent it over the falls. The capsule bobbed in the quickening water, then accelerated and careened over the white chasm into the maelstrom below. A few minutes later it flushed into an eddy, and the rafters eagerly clambered over the rocks to fish it out of the water.

The craft had been badly damaged in the falls; the door had been wrenched open, and the dog was gone. No one had thought to put a life jacket on the animal, and it was never seen again. Surprisingly, when the rafters reviewed the videotape of the run, they perceived good news: the drop had only taken a few seconds, the boat had floated through it all, had not even been caught in any of the several large reversals. Perhaps if one made sure the door was secure, and tucked oneself in the the corner of the capsule and held on tight - the dog did not have the benefit of two hands and the awareness of what lay ahead - the odds of survival might rise to a more reasonable 50 percent. The seriousness of purpose the Chinese had for their effort is measured by the incident: their experiment had killed their involuntary subject, yet they regarded it as a success and decided to try again - with humans this time.
You'll have to get this book to find out what happens next as the capsule is loaded with humans.

As great as the section on the Chinese teams was, the highlights of the book are the accounts of the American teams.

The leader of the first US team, Ken Warren, is half John Wayne, half Leslie Nielsen from Naked Gun movies. He's a brave buffoon. Reading about Warren's exploits - such as overriding doctors who deemed his crew members too sick to raft and bringing multiple cans of hair mousse with him on the death-defying expedition - is just awesome.

The authors - Bangs and Kallen - portray Warren as a real mad man. They used extensive interviews with the American team to research what they wrote. Warren refused to speak with the authors, so the only perspective is that from the team he led. The caricature that makes it onto the page is unforgettable. Reading about Warren in Riding the Dragon's Back is one of the most fascinating character studies in failed leadership I've ever seen. Warren's tales alone make this book worth reading.

Shifting away from piecing together stories from the accounts of others, the two authors for the last section of the book tell of their own expedition that they went on to raft the Yangtze.

It is great to finish the book on their own first-hand experiences from the river. Some truly beautiful passages fill the pages of this last section. In addition to painting beautiful landscapes for the reader, the authors share the gambit of emotions that overcame them as they experience the thrill of a lifetime: rafting the Yangtze River at Tiger Leaping Gorge. The stories of testosterone-fueled butting of heads, interacting with local communities, and real fears of death make this a delightful read.

Riding the Dragon's Back was even better than what I was expecting. Winchester was spot on with his recommendation of this book. I haven't read any other books like it. Its mix of adventure with a commendable attempt at bringing the reader into Chinese history and culture make it a book I highly recommend picking up yourself.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

IOU/USA

There is a massive public art project currently on display in midtown Kansas City across from the KC Federal Reserve building. I went down to the site with my camera today to take a few photos.

Side 1 of the display:



Side 2 of the display:


This art project is a 15 x 7 x 1 political statement - the letters "IOU" on one side and the letters "USA" on the other - arranged out of 105 empty shipping containers.

Here is a write-up about the project from the Kansas City Star:
A new monument with attitude awaits visitors to Kansas City’s Memorial Park over the next four weeks.

Towering over the park’s existing bronze memorials is a huge wall composed of 105 cargo containers. And it has a message.

The containers are mostly red, white and blue, and the white ones have been placed to spell out “IOU” on one side and “USA” on the other. The occasional green container prompts thoughts of money, especially as the 65-foot-tall structure stands across from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Noted sculptor John Salvest created the temporary installation as a project for Grand Arts, and considering the nation’s struggle with debt on all levels — from personal home foreclosures to the recent downgrade of the nation’s credit rating — the timing is spot on.

Debt and the US' global economic position are no longer esoteric academic issues only concerning the educated of society. The US' debt problems are at the heart of mainstream America. Whether it was the debt ceiling debate debacle this past summer or the jobless reports that come out each week, the news of America's economic woes and debt crises are inescapable.

This gargantuan exhibit highlighting debt's prominence in American society is powerful. I think that shipping containers and everything that they invoke - China, trade imbalance, America's empty factories, the shallowness of materialism, etc. - are the perfect vehicle for the artist's message. The sheer physical scale of these containers is tremendous.

I took several more photos that I've posted below. Below those is a time-lapse YouTube video of the shipping containers being erected.









Edit 10/15/2011: For what it's worth, Kansas City's Occupy protest is going on at this display. Below is a wonderful photo showing this from ericbowersphoto.com. To see more of Eric's photos of Occupy KC, click here:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ordos Two Years Later

In late 2009, a number of western media outlets ran reports on the "ghost town" that is Ordos, Inner Mongolia. I put up a blog post about the city at that time. Ordos, a city flush with natural resources and wealth, is a fascinating case study of China's method of development.

Melissa K. Chan from Al Jazeera just visited Ordos this week and has a short video clip on what it's like there now, two years later:



I've written a lot about this sort of growth in the past. Building cities with the hope that one day residents will move is, undoubtedly, a risky move.

When I was in Xi'an this summer, I saw row after row after row of apartment blocks that were finished with only a couple lights on in the entire building at night. While Ordos is the poster child for ghost cities, it's not the only place in China where this is going on.

At this point, I still can't venture a guess as to whether this is all going to work out. My gut tells me that development like what's going on in Ordos is ludicrous. But China has proven me wrong many times before and I wouldn't be shocked, in five years, to see this experiment working out.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Yes China

Yes China: An English Teacher's Love-Hate Relationship with a Foreign Country by Clark Nielsen is a book by an American from Utah who taught English in China for a couple years. The book is half stories from Clark's ESL classes and half stories of life in China from a foreigner's perspective/Clark's life history.



The thing I liked most about Clark's book is the brutal honesty he shares with the reader, particularly in regards to his own life. Clark writes about a bevy of things that are incredibly personal and often embarrassing - his bladder control problems, his dating history going back to high school, and having a dream one evening about making out with one of his ESL students.

The honesty in the book isn't only limited to these more juvenile sorts of topics, though. Clark also delves into many more serious issues from his life.

The most interesting aspects of Clark's book to me were his thoughts on growing up Mormon and then, as a young adult, formally breaking with the church. I don't know many Mormons personally and only have a cursory knowledge of the religion (a lot of which came from this great PBS: Frontline documentary). But I am aware that breaking from the church is a huge decision that affects a young Mormon's life tremendously.

I really liked the following passage from page 91:
Mormon boys are expected to "serve a mission" when they turn nineteen, the church's way of guilting people into paying for the chance to preach the gospel in another part of the world. The boys don't get to pick where they will live for two years. They are called. Sometimes, they are called to foreign countries like Thailand or Brazil. Other times, they wind up in Twin Falls, Idaho. Man, if I had turned in my application to be a missionary, and I got sent to a nearby US state, I would have been pissed.

Fortunately, it didn't come to that. In every Mormon community, people like to ask high school seniors when they'll be going on their missions. As people started asking me this, I had a revelation. I didn't understand Mormon theology. All this time, I'd only been agreeing with what everyone else said, going along with the group so I'd fit in. I decided I had better know for sure if this was true before I gave up two years of my life. So I did what my teachers always told us to do if we ever needed proof of the gospel. I read the Book of Mormon, prayed about it every day, and removed all sin from my life. You had better believe it was hard, but I did it, because I wanted the truth more than anything.

But nothing happened...

Hey, wait a minute! I followed all of the steps! I did exactly what they told me to do! I kept this up for months, but I never received any kind of spiritual confirmation, no warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart to tell me it was true. In a last act of desperation, I hiked up a mountain, knelt down to pray, and begged God to give me an answer. When I came down that mountain, I had my answer. God didn't respond to prayers, and Mormonism wasn't for me.
Clark has a lot to say about Mormons and Mormonism. The teaching organization he went to China with was based out of Provo, Utah. While not officially a Mormon organization, Clark was surrounded by Mormons much of his time in China. His perspective of being around Mormons after having fallen from the church is fascinating stuff.

I liked a lot of Clark's anecdotes from teaching English as well. I've read about teaching English in China in a couple other books - The Last Days of Old Beijing (a book I will post a review on here at some point) and Iron and Silk - but considering how many books on China by foreigners are out there, it's a somewhat under-represented topic.

Clark does a good job bringing to light many of the absurdities that every ESL teacher finds in China. He also highlights well the progress he made, things he learned, and some regrets he had from his time in the classroom.

I particularly liked this passage from page 177 about administering the exam he gave his students at the end of a year of teaching:
I made it through the list of students with a few minutes to spare, so I stood at the back of the class and watched Shaun the Sheep with the students, noting to myself every time they laughed at something and realizing I would be hearing those same laughs at those same times in the next eighteen classes.

But as we watched the movie, more realizations started piling into my mind. It would have been nice of them to knock instead of barging in like that. I'd been at this school for two semesters - a year - and now it was over. And yet there were a lot of kids in this room I never got to know. Like the twins. Like... all of them. There were so many students who came up today to answer my questions that I didn't even recognize. Who are you? You are in this class? Why didn't you ever raise your hand? Why didn't you ever say anything to me?

To be honest, I didn't make much of an effort to get to know them, either. Outside of class, I always hid in my apartment or went downtown instead of hanging out with the kids on the basketball court. Oh, I had tried to play with them before, but it was too aggravating. As soon as I stepped outside, every student in the proximity started screaming, "Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!" and swarmed around me to touch my beard and yank on my shirt and yell Chinese at me and wave their jump ropes in my face. I didn't like putting up with that and found these situations void of any meaningful teacher/student relationship. Now, I really wished things had been different. I wished we could have played together on the playground, played tag together, played Red Rover together, just done something together.
These regrets of Clark's are pretty sad. It seems he never really related with a lot of his students.

Thankfully, this was never really the case for me. I feel like I generally developed good relationships with my students during my time in China. Sure, there were kids that I never really connected with, but on the whole, I got to know the kids I taught on an individual basis.

For all of the problems that the school I taught at in China had, I think that the set up - not having more than 18 kids or adults in a two hour class and having much more training that Clark ever received - made my teaching experiences much richer than his. I never had anything similar to some aspects of teaching that Clark describes in the book - trying to get a classroom of 60 rowdy kids settled down or not having any idea that the kid I was testing in front of me had been in my class all year. Reading Clark's teaching stories made me reflect back on my teaching experiences more positively than I did before.

Although I enjoyed reading several of Clark's stories and thoughts from teaching English, those sections started to drag for me by the end of the book. The setup of the book is one chapter on teaching and then one chapter on life in China/Clark's personal life, the whole way through. I don't think there were enough good teaching stories to warrant half of the book. A third of the book devoted to ESL would've been better by me. By the time I got to the last few chapters on teaching, I was really worn out reading about his classroom and just skimmed those sections.

I have two more criticisms of Clark's book. Both are on display in one passage, a discussion of foreigner-to-foreigner relations from page 121:
Despite this, we at least had a common ground in teaching, which was why I always got along with other foreign teachers but not foreign businessmen. Foreign businessmen led very different lives. They took taxis everywhere. They ate at expensive restaurants. They liked to woo married Chinese women. (This doesn't go for all businessmen, but it does happen a lot. And for God's sake, please don't take that personally! I lost a good friend, because I unknowingly insulted her husband by posting that statement on my blog. You didn't realize half of the content in this book was available on the Internet for free, did you? Sucker.)
Clark is, obviously from this passage, also a fellow China blogger. Finding out half-way through the book that what I was reading was more of a collection of blog entries than of a cohesive narrative explained a lot to me. For as honest as Clark was in the book and for all of the aspects of the book I liked, I felt as though the book never really got going with a full head of steam or moved in a linear direction.

Clark came and went from China on a couple different stints. He switched cities and worked at different schools. He taught adults some times and he taught kids at other times. Through all of these changes, where he was or any other contextual information at any given time was never very clear to me. I never detected an over-arching feel or arc to the book.

The book did feel as though it was a collection of articles strung together in a somewhat random order. And this quote above tells the reader that that is pretty much the case.

The bolded sentence from above is also an example of my biggest problem with Yes China: Clark's self-referential dialog with the reader that goes on throughout the entire book.

Here are a few other examples of this author-reader dialog that I'm talking about:
Now take that knowledge and... no, no, no, don't put it in the microwave. Take that knowledge and apply it to China.

I'm not writing a Yes Mexico book, though, so let's get back to China.

Between you and me (and that creepy guy looking over your shoulder), it was the latter.
This shtick never did anything for me. If I'm feeling generous, I'd say that this attempted humor was distracting. If I'm feeling less charitable, I'd say that it was quite irritating. Clark is a good writer. I just wish he'd not tried so hard in so many places to be funny. Such attempts felt very forced.

Overall, I liked Yes China and would recommend it to someone who wants an account of what it's like being an ESL teacher in China. It's a good effort from a talented young author. I'll definitely be interested to see what Clark writes next.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Why China Will Never Rule the World

Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in Two Chinas by Troy Parfitt is a well-written, informative, and sometimes convincing book about China. Parfitt effortlessly strings together tales about his travels littering it with history and anecdotes that were new to me. There's no doubt that Parfitt is a well-read writer.

Saying all of that, Why China Will Never Rule the World is one of the most ridiculous books I've ever read.

Whatever positives can be found in the book are more than offset by the hostility and one-sidedness Paritt shows towards China. Parfitt doesn't get close to a nuanced view of China even once in his book. Parfitt hates traveling and living in China, shows a real disdain for Chinese people, and loathes everything about the country's culture and history. Written without the slightest hint of balance, Parfitt's book reads like Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Jung Chang's Mao: The Unknown Story, two of the most unenjoyable books I've encountered.

After struggling through Parfitt's 400-page diatribe, I give Why China Will Never Rule the World a resounding two thumbs down and cannot recommend avoiding it highly enough.



8/20/2011 - Edit: I've realized in the past week that I'm not big into writing overwhelmingly negative reviews of other people's work, like the one I wrote about this book. Writing such a stinging review was a first for me. Parfitt and I ended up leaving each other a string of comments questioning and criticizing what the other had written. We were speaking over each other and were getting nowhere.

I just don't have the stomach for this kind of stuff in my free time and have never wanted this blog to be a venue for bitter and divisive arguments. There's enough of that already on the internet. This blog is something I do for enjoyment and regret that it got as sour as it did.

I stand by what I initially wrote in my review. At the same time, I began to feel that initial post and the comments Troy and I left for each other made both of us look bad. I've decided getting into a drag-out war with someone over a book in which I have no stake in is not a good use of my time or energy. I can't believe how much time I've spent going back over this book, one I didn't enjoy, to argue with the author.

I will leave the lede to this post summing up my thoughts to the book, but have deleted the rest of the post and all comments. Comments are closed.

8/20/2011 - Second Edit: Troy wrote this comment as I was writing the "edit" above. I will publish what he wrote here:
Mark and I have come to the conclusion that we hold different truths about the nature of this book and think it best not to continue debating it. So, in the spirit of the China debate, Canada-US relations, world peace, and so on, we're going to stop trading comments. Life's too short, and all that jazz. I'd like to thank him again for reading my book, and am sorry he didn't like it. It is tough in places, I admit. Thanks again, Mark.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Calligrapher at Shuyuan Men

This is my favorite photo from my trip to China in June:



This photo is of a calligrapher at Xi'an's Shuyuan Men near the south gate of the city's walls. My good friend, Richard, and I were enjoying coffee and chatting as we watched him work. Drinking coffee and discussing China and the world with Richard in many of Xi'an's best coffee shops were highlights of my trip.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

High-Speed Rail Accident

I went out on a camping/canoeing trip in the Ozarks this past weekend. I was saddened to hear upon my arrival back home of the horrific high-speed train accident in Wenzhou.

I've posted about high-speed trains a couple times this year. I find the grand experiment the Chinese are conducting to be fascinating. They've gone all-in with the notion that fast trains will be the wave of the future. I'm not going to make a prediction on the long-term viability of the plans at this point, but one has to think that this is going to be a significant setback for the Chinese government's ambitious goals.

Go check out the following websites for exhaustive coverage of the tragedy: China Geeks and China Media Project. These sights are providing an exhaustive amount of information from both western and Chinese sources.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

River at the Center of the World

River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time by Simon Winchester is one of the two books I brought with me on my trip to China last month. I absolutely flew threw it. In fact, I read it too fast and ended up book-less for my long flight home. I knew I was reading the book too fast as I was reading it during the middle of my trip, but couldn't help myself. The book was just too much fun to read.



River at the Center of the World is based around the 1995 several month-long journey Winchester took from the sea east of Shanghai, up the Yangtze River, to its source in the Tibetan plateau. As Winchester narrates his trip, he delves deep into the history of the river he's tracking. The book is as much recounting the histories of previous adventurers and different areas' rises and falls as it is about Winchester's experiences.

Winchester hires Lily, a married woman from northeast China, to be his guide/translator up the 长江 (in Chinese, the "Yangtze" is literally "long river"). She is with Winchester throughout the book. Winchester speaks a bit of Chinese but isn't so fluent.

Going from the east to the west, the book begins in the East China Sea several miles outside of Shanghai. Winchester then slowly works his way up the river - through Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Yichang and the (at the time) freshly begun three gorges dam, Chongqing, northern Sichuan, northern Yunnan, and into Tibet.



I've traveled through a lot of China. Despite having seen a ton of the Middle Kingdom, I found myself envious, teetering on jealous, of Winchester's epic journey. He stayed in big cities, saw tiny villages, visited historic sites, took in the unparalleled natural beauty surrounding China's main artery, and had countless humorous run-ins with Chinese people along the way. The trek was executed so well.

In addition to the experiences Winchester took in himself, I really liked to hear the tales about the people in the past who attempted to conquer the river. The stories of the likes of Cornell Plant and Joseph Rock - foreigners who got to know the river and China intimately - are histories that I had never heard before.

Winchester is a really good writer. He seemlessly weaves his experiences with previous explorers' experiences with a more general history of the Yangtze.

I want to highlight a particular long passage of this book. I didn't know how to cut this wonderful chunk of writing down. The following is from p. 295-7, while in Sichuan Province searching for the famous bridge at Luding Qiao, the famous bridge where Mao escaped the nationalist army and crossed the Dadu River:




The River at the Center of the World is a great read. I have a few criticisms, though.

First, there were times where I really grew to dislike Winchester. There were several sections of the book that simply rubbed me the wrong way. In one instance he goes on and on for pages about how terrible contemporary Chinese architecture is and, specifically, how much he hates the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai.


Image from gilygily.com

These sections where he rails against things in China he finds distasteful (don't get him started on Chinese green vs. English black tea) both haven't aged well and come across as arrogant and, frankly, annoying.

Second, eastern China is far more prominently featured than the western half of the country. Winchester doesn't get to Chongqing, which is about halfway up the river (give or take), until page 270. The book is 395 pages long. I didn't feel like the first half of the Yangtze (and the latter part of the book) was given enough space.

I found Winchester's experiences in the small villages of western China dotting the river to be just as interesting (if not more) than his time in the mega-cities of the east. I wish he'd written about the rugged more and the (relatively) refined less. I understand that the end of his trip was desolate and maybe didn't have quite as much "content" as the lower reaches of the river. But western China is where I've had my most exciting travel adventures and would've liked to hear more about it.

And third, the book was too foreigner-centric. Winchester, an Englishman (although he has a home in America), seemed particularly fond of other Englishmens' experiences in China.

On top of the stories of Plant and Rock, the foreign boatmen mentioned above (whose stories I did find enjoyable), Winchester also goes to visit another foreigner explorer's grave. The history of old-time Shanghai was nearly exclusively about foreigners. And Winchester seeks out other foreigners working on the three gorges dam and again in more remote sections of western China.

Winchester travels through areas occupied by millions upon millions of Chinese people throughout his trip but his book ended up being mostly about foreigners. That's not the case with a lot of newer travel books written in the past few years that I've reviewed on my blog (see Peter Hessler or Rob Gifford for examples of foreign travel writers who completely immerse themselves in the Chinese experience).

Despite my criticisms, overall The River at the Center of the World is a very fun book that's well-written. It's a great travel read. Bring it on a plane or train with you. You'll fly through it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Traffic





Xi'an's traffic is much worse now than it was when I left China in 2009. And it's multiple factors more intense than when I arrived in China in 2006.

Qian learned how to drive in the US last year. She hadn't been back to China since getting behind the wheel for the first time. Traffic was the first thing she commented on upon returning to her home. Switching lanes without looking or using a signal, stopping and reversing on the shoulder of a highway, those turning left going before those going straight at an intersection, etc. - she couldn't believe the audacity Chinese drivers possess given the tight spaces in which they have to operate.

Chinese cities, so dense when compared to western metropoli, are already so crowded. The addition of scores of personal automobiles to Chinese cities is causing serious gridlock. Unfortunately, there's really no solution to the problem of China's increasingly cramped traffic lanes.

China already has plenty of public transportation options - buses that constantly run, trains, subways, and a rapidly developing high-speed train network - and the masses use them. Several Chinese people I know who own cars often ride buses or trains. But there are just too many people who are beginning to accumulate wealth who want to own a car for the increasing traffic problems to go away.

In many respects, I think it's great that so many Chinese are getting to achieve their dreams of car ownership (the red blood flowing through my American veins just perked up as I typed this sentence on the morning of July 4th). Overall, though, I find China to be far less charming of a place to live the more congested its streets become.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Migrants in the Big City

There were two every-day experiences I had in Xi'an that I'm going to try to describe below. Both stories involve observing migrant workers in Xi'an. The episodes were nothing out-of-the-ordinary from every day life in China, but they struck me rather deeply.

*****

During our last week in Xi'an, Qian and I went out to eat with one of her old 同学 (classmates) and her classmate's husband. We had a wonderful seven course meal of 川菜 (Sichuan cuisine) together. The restaurant was 热闹 (lively), the conversation was flowing, the classmate's husband and I downed a few beers each, and all of us were content.

Despite being relatively early, just a little before 8:30PM, our friends had to go home since they had their three month-old baby at home with its grandma. We walked outside the restaurant, which was near the long-distance bus station in the 明德门 section of Xi'an, and determined that we needed to ride bus 18 to get back to Qian's parents' apartment.

We stood at the stop waiting for bus 18 for several minutes. One usually doesn't have to wait more than five minutes for a bus in China. So as we continued to wait and wait, I went over to the bus map/schedule displayed at the stop. I saw that the bus had stopped running at 20:30 and that it was now 20:38. I told Qian and her friends that we'd probably missed the bus. Unfazed, they suggested that we wait to see if there was one more bus on its way.

The sun had just set and the energy that permeates Chinese nights was building. The ground we stood upon was filthy, both from litter and from spilled oil from the motorbike repair shops that dotted the neighborhood. The air smelled of 孜然烤肉 (cumin and assorted herb-flavored BBQ meat skewers) and I could see groups of people eating food and drinking beer in half-full 川菜饭馆 (Sichuan restaurants) the size of rental storage spaces.

The area where we were standing was gritty, if one is being generous, or rundown, if one is being less charitable. We were on the edge of 八里村, one of Xi'an's biggest 城中村 (city villages). Nearly every store front around us had a neon flashing sign displayed out front with the characters 住宿. These characters were advertising a temporary place to live. 住宿 are kind of like a hotel. They are very cheap and of a very low standard, though. A middle-class Chinese person is not going to stay in a 住宿. The people in these 住宿 next to the bus station are migrants, hence their close proximity to the long-distance bus station.

8:44... 8:46...

As we stood there, I became less engaged in the conversation. Maybe I was growing tired of trying to keep up in Chinese. Maybe I was getting impatient. I stood a bit apart from them as they continued laughing and talking.

I turned towards the busy street in front of us and saw two young men speaking with a 电动车 (an electric motor bike the size of a Vespa) owner. The two men had obviously just stepped off of the long-distance bus in Xi'an. Each carried over-sized plastic rucksacks full of who knows what. Each appeared slight in physical appearance; they looked like thirteen year-olds in eighteen year-olds' bodies.

One sported an unsightly, thinly-grown mustache that was more a result of not shaving than a fashion statement. The other wore a loose-fitting suit that hardly fit his under-developed body. I could not figure out how old either of the two men were. I suppose my guess would be twenty-two years old, but that would be give or take five years in either direction.

It's normal for entrepreneurial-minded 电动车 owners to wait next to bus stops offering rides. The owners of these vehicles will exhort those waiting for the bus to quit waiting and just jump on the back of their vehicle. That's exactly what this 电动车 owner was doing with the two men. The 电动车 owner had a strong physical appearance and sported a 板寸 (a squarish haircut popular amongst middle-aged to older Chinese men).

8:48... 8:50...

I couldn't really hear what the two men (were they brothers? cousins? friends?) and the 电动车 owner were saying. Maybe they were speaking a dialect, maybe it was the noise on the street, or maybe my Chinese just isn't that good. But I wasn't processing what was being discussed. I didn't have to comprehend every word to know that the 电动车 rider was trying to convince them that they'd missed their bus, that he knew where the two guys wanted to go, and that they should jump on his bike.

There was a bit of resistance from the two men. They didn't want to pay this guy if they could just spend a couple RMB and get on a bus. They talked amongst themselves. They stared into the distance hoping to see that last bus roll in front of them. You could tell that they were helpless, though. Just as a salesman about to complete a deal, the 电动车 owner was dominating the conversation. They only lasted a few more moments before finally conceding. Their defeated body language showed that they didn't know their surroundings and needed to be taken away.

The men grunted a few noises to each other and then began handing their bags over to the 电动车 owner, now their ride. The thin man somehow lifted the bag that looked to be as heavy as him and put it on the front, flat platform that was between where the driver of the vehicle sits and the handle bars. It took several seconds for them to figure out how to get the huge sack loaded and balanced onto the bike. The man with the moustache then loaded his smaller bag on top of the first. The gaunt man then jumped onto the back of the bike. The driver took his position. Then the moustached man got onto the very back of the bike, nearly hanging off the edge of the bike, sandwiching his gaunt friend between himself and the driver and the driver between the gaunt man and the cargo up front.

电动车 are electric. They are not powerful. They are smaller than a motorcycle. It was quite a sight seeing this thing loaded up with three passengers and a significant amount of cargo up front.

The driver silently turned on the vehicle and it slowly started to pull away. After getting the bike's momentum up to a few miles per hour, the driver was in complete control.

Off into the night they went. I can only guess where those two men, fresh off a bus from the countryside finally in the big city, were heading and where they ended up.

*****

The next night after seeing the scene described above, Qian and I ate dinner at her parents' house. We then set out to the heart of the city for drinks just inside Xi'an's South Gate.

We headed out of her parents' apartment at about 7:45PM. It was a hot evening. We debated whether to spend the extra 1 RMB each to ride on an air-conditioned bus or whether we'd tough it out on the normal, open-air, bus. We decided that we'd just take the first one that came.

K800, the air-conditioned bus, came first. We boarded it to find that much of the bus was empty. We had seats to sit down upon. Air-conditioned buses are usually less crowded than normal buses because of their higher fare.

Qian and I sat across from each other on the parallel seats just behind the driver that are perpendicular to the rest of the riders, who are facing forward. I sat in the seat just behind the driver and Qian sat in the second of four seats on her bench.

I had my iPod Shuffle playing in my ears, which was often the case when out and about. Lost in the music, I took in the scenery we were driving by. I had to turn around from my seat to see the south city wall. I remember contorting my body to get a better view of the glorious sight that was the sun setting over one of China's most beautiful attractions.

As we moved along the outside of the city wall approaching the South Gate, the man sitting next to Qian in the first seat on her bench blurted out something to the driver. I hadn't noticed him before he made that noise. I was awaken from my aural and setting-induced trance and saw that Qian was sitting next to a shaggy man probably about thirty years-old (again, give or take) in the suit that every construction worker in China wears.

One of the first things I saw about him was that he only had four fingers on his left hand. That's not something I usually notice. I mean, who counts other people's fingers out on the street? I'm not sure how, given his clenched fist, I noticed this, but one of the first things I processed about the man was that he was missing a digit on his hand.

I missed what he'd shouted. I could tell it was something to the driver, though. The driver had apparently missed what he'd yelled too since all I heard from up front was a loud, "啥?!!" which is what a northern Chinese person slangily says for, "What?!!"

The nine-fingered man repeated himself. This time I caught it: "到交大电脑城了没?" or, "Are we at the Jiaoda Computer City yet?" I couldn't really make out what the driver said, but he surely said, "No, it's still several stops ahead" since the Jiaoda Computer City (a computer market) was still several stops in front of us.

The man paused for a few seconds. He put his weight onto his right foot and he held onto the support bar that was next to him. He was in between sitting and standing. He looked confused. After being in limbo for a few seconds, he stood up and started to walk to the back of the bus towards the exit.

Qian stopped him and said, "我们还没到。你还有几站。" or, "We're still not there yet. You still have a few stops to go."

The man then retraced his steps and sat back down next to Qian where he'd been sitting.

He spent the next several minutes, until we got off of the bus, holding onto the support bar that was next to his seat staring out the front of the bus perched between sitting and standing.

We got off of the bus before he did. I'll never know if he got off at Jiaoda Computer City or not.

*****

I can't say exactly what the meaning of these two stories are. I'm not sure why they struck me as they did or why I'm sharing them on my blog either.

I suppose it's just that the "migrant story" in China fascinates me. Tens of millions of people every year move from farm to factory or city. Hundreds of million have done so over the previous decades and hundreds of millions will over the coming decades. It's a remarkable story.

I'd been wanting to write this post for several days. I was even more inspired to get it done after reading the following piece: How I was treated on the subway when I was doing fieldwork as a migrant worker, a blog article by Tricia Wang (h/t @niubi). Tricia is an anthropologist/sociologist doing research on migrant workers in China. It is a really nice supplement to this post. Her writing, about being perceived as a migrant worker on a subway, fits in nicely with what I tried to describe above.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Night Shots

Qian and I agree that the thing we miss most about living in China is the night life. I'm not talking about clubs or bars or concerts, I'm talking about life, masses of people, outside on the streets, outside of their homes, after the sun goes down.

It frustrates us that there aren't any night markets or shopping areas or places besides bars that draw Americans (or at least Kansas Citians) out at night.

I wish I'd taken more, but the following are a few of my better night shots from Xi'an:


The Bell Tower - The Bell Tower is the heart of Xi'an. It stands epically in the middle of the city, both symbolically and figuratively.


The South Wall Moat at Dusk - The City Wall is just over the trees on the right. A great scene at sunset.


Sky Streak - I tried getting a few photos of a guy selling little toys that shot into the sky. I enjoy the photos I was able to get.


Out and About


Fountain - Kept the shutter open for a second on a small fountain near the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.


Red Reflections - Another shot from near the Big Wild Goose Pagoda

There were times during the day in Xi'an - on crowded buses or staring at smoggy polluted skies - that I didn't miss living in China at all. Night was a different story, though. Being back in America now, I already miss the night markets, old people dancing on the streets, and general laid back nature of life at night in the Middle Kingdom.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Random Observations from Xi'an

The following are some random observations I wrote down while in Xi'an:

- I could see nine construction cranes from the bedroom we stayed in at Qian's parents. NINE! Every morning at dawn, the sounds of hammers started echoing throughout the apartment blocks. Construction continues at an amazing clip in the Middle Kingdom.

- Related to the new construction, scores of old 城中村 (city villages or "primitive" neighborhoods) are being torn down at an amazing clip. Although there haven't been western journalists writing about the destruction of neighborhoods in Xi'an (like there have been on Beijing and Kashgar), Xi'an's old-time, low-income neighborhoods are disappearing quickly. New apartment blocks and luxury shopping centers are rising up from their rubble.

- Xi'an (and China in general) has gone nuts promoting the 2011 International Horticulture Expo that is in Xi'an this summer. I got annoyed with the hype of this event and I was only there for three weeks.

Qian and I went to the expo with her family. It was lame. Three hour waits to get into a greenhouse or climb a pagoda. We ended up just walking around the giant park that had minimal items of interest. There are free parks in Xi'an more interesting than this 100 to 150 RMB per ticket event. All of Qian's family agreed with this sentiment.

The greatest irony is that this green expo is in one of China's most polluted cities. The day we went to the expo, the pollution and smog in Xi'an were at an unfathomable scale.

- After mocking Xi'an and the expo, I do have to say that the pollution in Xi'an is getting better. It's still horrific and surely unhealthy, but it's light-years better than when I arrived in China the first time in 2006.

- Like Americans, the Chinese are drinking lots of vitamin water. "VC," or vitamin C, is something the Chinese have gotten into.

- Groceries are damn expensive. We've all heard about inflation in China. I can confirm from the ground that it is bad. Qian and I calculated that for many items, including a lot of varieties of fruit, that things are cheaper in the US (after translated into US dollars).

- Chinese people are incredibly scared of eating hot pot at restaurants these days. I had to beg Qian and her family to eat a proper Sichuan-style hot pot meal at a restaurant. I'd missed the news from the US, but beginning last year, there have been a score of reports on the unsanitary conditions at hot pot restaurants. The one accusation I kept hearing from people is that the restaurants re-use oil from one table's pot and then give it to the next people who come in. Don't get me wrong, that's absolutely disgusting. I find it hard to believe that it's impossible to find a clean hotpot restaurant, especially given the scrutiny the restaurants are under these days, though.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Back in the US

After a missed flight and two delayed flights, Qian and I finally made it back to Kansas City last night 49 hours after our first flight in Xi'an. It was a huge mess. China Eastern airlines has very cheap fares, but I'm not sure I can recommend flying them to anyone.

I don't want to focus too much on the air travel though. We had a great three week trip in Xi'an.

We spent most of our time catching up with Qian's family and old friends. I felt over and over again that things in Xi'an were very 幸福 (xìng fú). 幸福 roughly translates to happy or blessed, but is even deeper than the English word happy (in my understanding of the word). Truly, it was special being back in Xi'an.

This is the first post I've done in a month. Blogspot is 100% blocked in China right now. I didn't set up a VPN before I went. I tried using proxy servers, but Blogspot is locked down even harder than sites like Twitter and Youtube.

Not being able to surf the internet freely was pretty damn annoying but at the same time it did keep me from using the internet as much as I might've otherwise. That is probably a good thing.

One of the only disappointments from the trip is that I never got my film SLR camera to work. It probably would've been a good idea for me to test that camera out before I went (sigh). I did take some photos with my digital camera, but not as many or of the quality that I was hoping for. Oh well.

I took several notes on things I found of interest while I was in Xi'an and have a few ideas swirling around my jet-lagged mind for posts. I'll try to get a few posts up here in the coming days.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Headed to China

I'm going to be in China at this time next week.

Seeing that I've maintained a blog about China after having left the country almost two years ago, you'd be right in guessing that I'm excited about this trip.

Qian and I are going to spend three weeks in her hometown and the only place I've ever called home in China, Xi'an.



We don't have too many definite plans for this sojourn. I'm expecting a Spring Festival-esque welcoming from Qian's parents, aunts and uncles and cousins, and grandparents upon our arrival. There will be several days of home-cooked food and great warmth, I'm sure.

As far as the rest of the trip goes, I'm bringing my old SLR camera and a few rolls of black-and-white film along. I expect some sort of an attempt at "capturing Xi'an, circa June, 2011" to follow. Qian and I would love to get out to a holy mountain for a day or two if possible. And I'm sure plenty of coffee will be consumed with old friends. But besides these loose ideas, my schedule will be very open.

If anyone reading this will be in Xi'an and wants to meet up, either leave a comment or send me an email - markschinablog at gmail dot com.

It's been more than twenty months since I've been to the Middle Kingdom. It's going to be epic getting back to the city that has been so important in the direction of my life.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Henry Kissinger On China

No American has influenced the US-China relationship more than Henry Kissinger since the countries restarted diplomatic relations forty years ago. Aside from kicking off the partnership in the first place, he's also played a key role in maintaining it. It is therefore unsurprising that Kissinger's soon-to-be released book, Henry Kissinger On China, is an instant classic.



Kissinger explains the purpose of his book in the prologue:
"This book is an effort, based in part on conversations with Chinese leaders, to explain the conceptual way the Chinese think about problems of peace and war and international order, and its relationship to the more pragmatic, case-by-case American approach."
Kissinger begins his study by laying a framework that he uses throughout the rest of the book. He goes into great depth explaining the basics of Chinese strategic theory using Sun Tzu's The Art of War and the board game weiqi (or, in English, "Go") as his main examples. Kissinger argues that Sun Tzu's work, which is about "the means of building a dominant political and psychological position," and weiqi, which is focused on "strategic encirclement," are and have been the guiding principles of China's thinking and action for centuries.

Although more modern history is the main focus, this foundational section - the first fifty pages or so - may be my favorite part of this 500+ page book. It really crystallizes the Chinese ethos and its leaders' decision-making processes.

By page 100 or so, the reader has entered the 20th century. I'm going to highlight a few of the most memorable sections from the heart of the book:
- Kissinger's analysis of the relationship between Mao and Stalin is fascinating. The dance between two of the most ruthless and conniving rulers of the twentieth century is, as you'd expect, something to behold. Reading Kissinger's inside baseball analysis of the two leaders' maneuvering and manipulation of each other makes for great drama.

- The lengthiest section and the climax of the book is the preparation and execution of Kissinger and Nixon's opening up of China to the United States and the rest of the world.

From Mao changing his tone towards the US in the 1960s to Kissinger feigning sickness on a diplomatic trip to Pakistan so he could sneak away for his first visit to Beijing to Zhou Enlai and Kissinger hammering out the technicalities of Nixon's invitation to visit China, the reader takes in history from the man who created it.

I'm going to highlight a particularly nice passage from this section - the moment that Kissinger and Nixon first were introduced to Mao at his residence. From page 257:
Mao's residence was approached through a wide gate on the east-west axis carved from where the ancient city walls stood before the Communist revolution. Inside the Imperial City, the road hugged a lake, on the other side of which stood a series of residences for high officials. All had been built in the days of Sino-Soviet friendship and reflected the heavy Stalinist style of the period similar to the State Guesthouses.

Mao's residence appeared no different, through it stood slightly apart from the others. There were no visible guards or other appurtenances of power. A small anteroom was almost completely dominated by a ping-pong table. It did not matter because we were taken directly to Mao's study, a room of modest size with bookshelves lining three walls filed with manuscripts in a state of considerable disarray. Books covered the tables and were piled up on the floor. A simple wooden bed stood in a corner. The all-powerful ruler of the world's most populous nation wished to be perceived as a philosopher-king who had no need to buttress his authority with traditional symbols of majesty.


- Although Kissinger had officially been out-of-office for years by 1989, he played a critical role in mending US-China relations in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He describes being invited to Beijing in November of that year to try to help out with the very rocky situation.

It is during this section of the book that Kissinger's ideas on the policy of realpolitik are discussed in great depth. I'd love to share several pages of heady prose from this chapter here on my blog - they are some of the best blueprints for US/China relations I've ever seen - but I'll just recommend reading the book instead.
As you can tell from this gushing review, I really enjoyed On China. The only criticism I can give is that the pacing felt off at times. Hundreds of pages were given to certain time periods and other eras felt skimmed over. I suppose that is to be expected, though, given the amount of information covered and Kissinger's own experiences.

Henry Kissinger On China is a must-read for anybody interested in better understanding China, its people, or the relationship between the China and the United States. I can't recommend it highly enough. It goes on sale May 17th.

This review is part of a TLC "Virtual Book Tour." Below is a schedule for upcoming reviews of On China. I want to thank TLC Book Tours for including Mark's China Blog on this tour.To read more of my China book reviews, click here.

Henry’s Tour Stops
Wednes­day, May 11th: Man of La Book
Thurs­day, May 12th: Mark’s China Blog
Mon­day, May 16th: Hid­den Har­monies China Blog
Tues­day, May 17th: Inside-Out China
Wednes­day, May 18th: Lisa Graas
Mon­day, May 23rd: Divided We Stand United We Fall
Tues­day, May 24th: Bookworm’s Din­ner
Wednes­day, May 25th: Pacific Rim Shots
Thurs­day, May 26th: Asia Unbound
Tues­day, May 31st: Word­smitho­nia
Wednes­day, June 1st: Lit and Life
Thurs­day, June 2nd: Chi­naGeeks
Tues­day, June 7th: booker ris­ing
Wednes­day, June 8th: Power and Con­trol
Thurs­day, June 9th: Marathon Pun­dit
Fri­day, June 10th: Rund­pinne
Date TBD: Rhap­sody In Books

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Trump's China Reading List

One of my favorite bloggers/thinkers in the world, Nate Silver from 538.com and now the NY Times, recently described Donald Trump and Sarah Palin's "obvious constituency" within the republican party as "the low-information voter." That made me laugh.

An article from the LA Times (h/t Ray Kwong) that I read this week makes it look as though Donald Trump isn't quite as as low-information as Sarah Palin, though. He's at least read a few books.

Trump recently gave China's Xinhua News a list of his "Top 20 China books." As a HUGE China book nerd, I have to say, he has a surprisingly impressive list:
1. "The Party" by Richard McGregor
2. "On China" by Henry Kissinger
3. "Mao: The Untold Story" by Jung Chang
4. "Tide Players" by Jianying Zha
5. "One Billion Customers" by James McGregor
6. "The Coming China Wars" by Peter W. Navarro
7. "The Beijing Consensus" by Stefan Halper
8. "China CEO" by Juan Antonio Fernandez and Laurie Underwood
9. "Poorly Made in China" by Paul Midler
10. "CHINA: Portrait of a People" by Tom Carter
11. "The Man Who Loved China" by Simon Winchester
12. "China Shakes the World" by James Kynge
13. "Mr. China" by Tim Clissold
14. "Country Driving" by Peter Hessler
15. "The Dragon's Gift" by Deborah Brautigam
16. "Factory Girls" by Leslie T. Chang
17. "The Heavenly Man" by Brother Yun
18. "1421" by Gavin Menzies
19. "Seven Years in Tibet" by Heinrich Harrer
20. "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua

Read On
There are a couple questionable books on this list. The widely criticized Mao: The Untold Story, for instance, reads like an Ayn Rand novel and should not be #3. But I'm nitpicking here. I'm impressed that Trump has read The Party, Country Driving, Factory Girls, and Kissinger's On China (a book that I'll be reviewing here on the blog next week).

The Donald is definitely no Sarah Palin.

Saying that, I have not enjoyed at all the venom that Trump has brought to the political scene since he began exploring his presidential ambitions. The racist undertones of the "birther" movement that he's exhorted highlight some of the worst undercurrents of America.

I don't think Trump is going to factor much in next year's presidential election. He may very well run, but I don't see him being able to pull off a real campaign. For example:



He is cleverly capitalizing on having his name in the news for his trash television shows, though. He's great at pushing his brand and attracting attention (hence, this blog post). I'll give him that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Few Thoughts on bin Laden

One of the best books I read this past year had nothing to do with China. It was Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll.

This book, obviously, has some resonance right now.



Hearing the accounts of the US elite forces swarming bin Laden's compound brought to mind a very memorable passage of Ghost Wars. It was another time, in 1999, when the US had bin Laden its sights.

From page 445:


...


Pick up the book to see how and why the US missed getting bin Laden at that time. Fascinating stuff.

Like nearly every American, Sunday night was an memorable experience for me. I was actually getting ready to go to bed early after a long weekend when I started seeing messages on Twitter talking about "a big press speech from Obama in the next few minutes."

Before I read anything else, I said to Qian, "I think we just killed bin Laden." A few minutes later, Twitter started blowing up with rumors that it the US had, in fact, killed bin Laden. And then a few minutes after that, every major news network began reporting that bin Laden was dead.

My stomach was buzzing and I got a wave of energy taking me later into the night. I definitely wasn't going to bed early.

Obama's speech (that he wrote himself) was incredible. He said everything that needed to be said. I was/am so proud to have him as my president.

Hearing the news of Osama's death was a great relief. I didn't feel the need to take to the streets and chant "USA" or anything, but I was most satisfied upon hearing the news. I would've cracked open a couple of the Boulevard Beers in my fridge had I not had to get up at 6:45 the next morning.

Americans know that burying Osama bin Laden under the Arabian Sea is not a silver bullet to end all Islamic extremism or terrorism or hatred directed towards the US. But it was an important event.

Al Qaeda, an organization already appearing to be on the decline, now has to have its first change of leadership at the top. The Arab Spring has already shown that Al Qaeda's promotion of death and destruction is not resonating like it was a decade ago. I'm cautiously optimistic that bin Laden's death will make the organization irrelevant.

9/11/2001 was during the third week of my freshman year of college. I'm smack dab in the middle of the US' "9/11 generation." The terrorism on US soil on 9/11 did not affect me 1/1,000,000th as much as it did thousands upon thousands of other Americans. But even in the midwestern US, far away from New York and Washington and Pennsylvania, I was rocked by 9/11 big-time.

Just as I hope bin Laden's death marks the end of Al Qaeda's influence, I hope that it symbolically marks the end of a really difficult era for the United States of America and its people.

Time will tell whether my hopes become reality.