Thursday, April 29, 2010

Watching the Chinese Soap Opera -《蜗居》"Dwelling Narrowness"

I lamented to my old Chinese teacher, 马老师 (Teacher Ma), that I haven't been keeping up with my Chinese study very well in an email a couple weeks ago. With my relatively new job and, of course, not living in China, I've been afraid that whatever Chinese language skills I have are slipping.

She responded with the following:


你说你对中国文化还很感兴趣,我就想,你可以从电视里学习汉语,你和你老婆一起看,不明白的地方她可以马上告诉你,而且你可以 了解一些深一点的文化,比如,有的句子虽然很简单,但是很“有名”。而且,你陪她一起看中国的电视,我觉得这样可以让她不那么想家。


Basically, she's telling me that my old methods of studying Chinese (flashcards, 1-on-1 classes, chit-chatting with people I meet, etc.) aren't going to work in America. She suggests that I watch Chinese TV both for language practice as well as understanding Chinese culture better. She recommends that I watch the shows with my wife, Qian, since she'll be able to help me any places that I get tripped up with the language.

Teacher Ma specifically suggests watching a show called《蜗居》- "Wo Ju," which has been horribly translated to "Dwelling Narrowness" by the shows producers (Qian tells me that "Wo Ju" literally means something like "a snail's home." From what I've read, it loosely means "humble abode."). Teacher Ma says that "Wo Ju" is having a big impact in China and that everybody is talking about it.

Teacher Ma's recommendation piqued my interest. And then about a day after I read this email, I read the following post on Ben Ross' blog:

After finishing Fen Dou and taking a short break from Chinese television shows, I am now 11 episodes into a new series, Wo Ju (蜗居). Broadcast in 2009, Wo Ju has been the most popular and controversial series to come from Mainland China in some time. Due to its controversial subject matter, Beijing TV pulled the plug on Wu Ju ten episodes in, and Shanghai moved it from prime time to a late night time slot. Many people (myself included) have thus taken to the Chinese Internets to watch the series in its entirety.
That whole part about controversy and having the plug pulled, it got me real excited about watching "Wo Ju." Qian and I started watching episode 1 on Sunday, April 18th. We just finished episode 31 of 35 this evening, Thursday, April 29th. Yeah... we're addicted.

Qian and I are, obviously, really enjoying the show.

I have to have a disclaimer here. My Chinese is not fluent. I'm getting about 1/3 to 1/2 of the dialog in the show. The stuff I don't understand, Qian is summarizing. Is this ideal? No. Am I catching every detail of what is going on? No. Am I using Qian as a crutch? Probably. Am I getting what is going on in the show? I think I am.

Watching soap operas are a tried and true method of learning a foreign language. They're not rocket science. I remember in Spanish III class in high school watching the soap opera, "Destinos." Just looking "Destinos" up on Wikipedia, I hadn't realized that Destinos was actually created just for people learning Spanish. "Wo Ju" was not created for people learning Chinese and there are parts of the dialog that I just don't get. But the basic story line, like all soap operas, is pretty simple. And I'm getting a lot out of the show despite any language problems I'm having.

Ben did a great job of summarizing the plot of Wo Ju in this post. I'll give my own brief synopsis of the plot here:

The story revolves around two sisters from a small city in China who have moved to the made up city of 江州 (Jiangzhou). Jiangzhou is, for all intents and purposes, Shanghai. The older sister (Hai Ping) is married to a decent man. The younger sister (Hai Zao) has a very nice boyfriend.

Both have their share of problems though.

Hai Ping is OBSESSED with buying a nice condo so that she can bring her young daughter, who is currently living with Hai Ping's parents in her hometown, to Jiangzhou. Hai Zao has a nice job (both sisters have white-collar jobs and graduated from good universities) and a caring boyfriend. But she is not very mature and makes several whimsical decisions throughout the show.

That is very short, but will do for now (just go read Ben's link, it'll help you figure out the main characters).

I've been shocked at how racy the show has been. There have been sex scenes (no nudity) that wouldn't make network TV in America, corruption amongst government officials is rampant, and the exploration of the housing bubble and property rights is a big part of the story-line.

I'd like to expound upon some of the major themes of the show that I've noticed:

1. Housing prices are out of control and condo ownership is a fleeting dream for many.

As I mentioned above, the two sisters in the show are well-educated and have decent jobs and the men in their lives are the same. They are not poor. But at the same time, buying a satisfactory condo in Jiangzhou is impossible.

One of my favorite scenes in the show is in episode six when Hai Ping and her husband go look to buy a condo. They begin by looking at a very modest, second-hand places. They can't believe the prices people are bidding though. Hai Ping is so disgusted that she is convinced that the other people touring the condos with her are friends with the seller and are only there to drive up the price.

Frustrated, they go to a much nicer block of new apartments that haven't been built yet, but that are for sale. They go to a real estate office with a large diorama of future high-rise condos and try to bid on one of those in-the-future-to-be-built condos. They have no chance though. The condos are going for prices that Hai Ping and her husband cannot afford. In fact, they are not even close to being able to afford anything "suitable."

Hai Ping is so frustrated at this time. She is living in a very shabby and dank one room apartment with her husband. It is not big enough for their daughter to live with them. Because they cannot buy a condo, they cannot live with their daughter. Hai Ping is heart-broken.

I've written about housing prices in China a lot on this blog. Just a couple months ago, new Shanghai condos were up 68% in over the previous year! That is insanity. And such craziness is affecting normal people a great deal.

2. Related to point 1 on the housing bubble, the residents of apartments that are being torn down to make way for new condo complexes are not properly compensated.

This point is shown in the show by the neighbors of Hai Ping in their dingy one bedroom apartment. The apartment block where Hai Ping lives is in a prime location for juicy new condos to go up. Although Hai Ping wants to move out of the apartment, not everyone there does.

The resistance to moving is most outwardly personified in a lovely, little old grandma. She has NO interest in moving out of the apartment where she lives. She is smart enough to know that the compensation she'll receive from the government/developers for her apartment being torn down will go nowhere in the heated up real estate market of Jiangzhou. On top of that, she simply doesn't want to move.

This section of the show goes hand in hand with a book I just read. Wild Grass by Ian Johnson (a book I highly recommend) tells three stories of people taking on the system in contemporary China. One of the stories he describes is centered around the destruction of hutongs in old Beijing.

"Wo Ju" portrays the government and the developers in urban China in the same way that Johnson did in his book. The government officials and developers building up these complexes are only in it for the money and they're all making a killing off of it. While the people in their wake are simply out of luck.

3. Moving from the countryside or small cities of China to big cities such as Shanghai can split families apart.

Hai Ping does not live with her toddler daughter. In fact, she's never lived with her. Since her daughter was born, she has lived with her grandma and grandpa (Hai Ping's parents).

There is a very sad scene where Hai Ping and her husband are back in her home city visiting her parents during the Spring Festival. Hai Ping has been looking forward to seeing her daughter for months. Her daughter doesn't even recognize her mother. She cries as soon as Hai Ping holds her and demands to see her grandma.

Hai Ping has chosen making it in the big city over being a mother to her daughter.

4. Although living in the big Chinese city provides new opportunities, life there is no cake walk.

This theme doesn't only apply to China, of course. I wrote a screed on this topic several months ago. Getting rich and having nice things ≠ happiness. More and more, "making it" sucks everything out of the people trying to live a more prosperous life.

There is one particular piece of dialog in "Wo Ju" on this topic I liked a lot. In an early episode, Hai Ping (the older sister) persuades Hai Zao to stay in Jiangzhou. Hai Zao was getting disillusioned and was thinking about going home to the small city where her parents lived.

Hai Ping asks Hai Zao a series of questions like, "Does our hometown have a history museum? Does it have concerts? Does it have cafes? No! Jiangzhou has all of these things. You need to stay and make your life here!"

The funny thing is that Hai Ping had become so obsessed with saving money for her fantasy condo at this point in the show that she never saw any of these things that make Jiangzhou so great. She and her husband had resorted to eating 方便面 (instant noodles) every day in an effort to save money! This great culture that Hai Ping spoke of is completely out of their grasp.

5. The life of an 二奶 (mistress) can seem to be a realistic means of setting up a stable life for a young woman.

I may be completely off base here, but I feel as though married men, especially successful married men, having mistresses and girlfriends is more accepted in China than it is in the West. Maybe I'm just reading too much into a stupid soap opera and a few people I knew in China. This very well may be the case. This statement is an anecdotal observation of mine and I'm willing to concede that infidelity, particularly in the instance of a sugar daddy supporting a young woman, happens just as often in the West as it does in China. Either way, a lot of guys in China have girlfriends outside of their marriage.

I'm not going to get into too much detail, but the life of a sugar daddy's mistress is glamorized in the show. The woman in the show who becomes a married man's girlfriend is given a wonderful condo to live in, a BMW to drive, and a credit card with unlimited resources to go shopping with.

Some downsides to this kind of life are shown. The mistress is often lonely and wants to see the man more than she does. But overall, the show, shows a lot of the positives of being an 二奶.

6. The absence of a solid rule of law makes life in China largely based upon one's 关系 (connections).

There are several instances throughout the show where the well-connected do as they please and break laws and help those in trouble who they care about.

I could keep going. But this post is already WAY too long and I'm going to stop.

If you want to watch the show yourself, go to either or or any other Chinese video site for the Chinese version. Qian and I have had better luck with the versions since they download faster here in America.

Also, there does appear to be a version on Youtube with English subtitles. It doesn't look like all of the episodes are there, but there is at least the first one.

For more plot summaries, media, and information on the show, you can read this great resource from on Wo Ju.

Obviously, I've enjoyed this show a lot. I still have a couple episodes left and am looking forward to finishing it up. I recommend it to anyone interested in China and especially to anyone who's made it this far into my post.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Chinese cities you've never heard of, but should know - Part 3

Ordos, a city in Inner Mongolia, is arguably growing faster than any other city in the People's Republic of China. In the middle of the Ordos Desert, the city already boasts the second highest per capita income in China (after Shanghai).

Image from Wikipedia

Ordos' wealth largely comes from its natural resources. The Ordos region has 1/6th of all the coal reserves in China. It also is where most of the cashmere in China comes from. Here is an article from the Ordos government's website on the city's natural bounty:
Ordos is abundant with resources, among which the most well-known are Sheep, Coal, Kaolin and Natural Gas. Aerbasi cashmere, known as “fiber diamond” and “soft gold”, is noted for its long and thin fiber. The annual output of Aerbasi cashmere in Ordos is more than 700,000 kgs, and the annual production capacity of cashmere sweaters exceeds 8,900,000 pieces, which are exported to places all over the world.

Ordos has 149.6 billion tons of proven coal reserves, accounting for about one-sixth of the total amount nationwide and half of the entire quantity in Inner Mongolia. Ordos coal enjoys the advantages of low ash, low sulfur, low phosphorus and high heat output, thus was recognized as “clean coal” by Chinese and foreign experts. Till now the coal mines developed include mainly Zhungeer, Dongsheng, Wanlichuan and Xizhuozishan. In 2007 a total 198.5 million tons of coal was produced.

Read the Whole Article
While rich in natural resources, the Chinese government is also investing a lot of human capital into the the region as well.

Ordos is set to build the largest solar power plant in the world. Here is a small blurb about the proposed solar plant from last September in gizmag:
In the midst of overwhelming debate over climate change - an issue that seemingly paralyzes politicians - the Chinese government has announced its intention to construct a 2-gigawatt solar power plant in Ordos City, Inner Mongolia. Mike Ahearn, CEO of the Arizona-based company which will construct the plant, describes the unprecedented project as “an encouraging first step forward toward the mass-scale deployment of solar power worldwide to help mitigate climate change concerns.”


The magnitude of the development is many times greater than any solar plant in operation or even contemplated, including projects such as the 290-megawatt Starwood Solar I and the 500-megawatt solar thermal project in the Mojave Desert.

If successful, the Ordos plant will cover a staggering 25-square miles, cost billions of dollars and power 3 million Chinese homes.

Read the Whole Article
In addition to the solar plant, the Chinese government has invested massively in a new section of Ordos called Kangbashi. Local officials are hoping that their development of Kangbashi's infrastructure will one day allow its residents to have the same luxurious lifestyle that the wealthy in Shanghai, Beijing, and other more developed cities currently enjoy.

The build up of Kangbashi is controversial. It's questionable because, well, nobody lives in this district that is being fiercely developed:

First, an article on the building of Kangbashi from Foreign Policy:

In the gritty Inner Mongolian wind, I stood at the pinnacle of the global economy, at least in terms of GDP growth: the main drag of one of the fastest growing cities in the fastest-growing region in all of China, the world's supposed new economic powerhouse.

Built in a breakneck five years, Kangbashi is a state-of-the-art city full of architectural marvels and sculpture gardens. There's just one thing missing: people. The city, built by the government and funded with coal money, its chief industries energy and carmaking, has been mostly vacant for as long as it has been complete, except for the massive municipal headquarters. It's a grand canyon of empty monoliths. In a paradox only possible in today's economic system, Kangbashi manages to be both a boom town and a ghost town at the same time.

Kangbashi represents a particularly destructive economic force at work in China today: an obsession with GDP that ignores all other metrics of progress or human capital. GDP as calculated in China -- or the rest of the world, for that matter -- doesn't make any distinction between quantity and quality, or between creative and destructive expenditures.


Still, China's emphasis on growth at all costs is creating some bizarre monsters, and Kangbashi is one of them. Six years ago, Ordos county officials decided to move their headquarters out of old, cramped Dongsheng and into land that was then occupied by two small villages inhabited by about 1,400 people. By the end of 2008, the new district of Kangbashi was crisscrossed with 2.4 billion yuan ($352 million) worth of roads. Officials initially said they expected the population to reach 100,000 this year and 300,000 by 2020. They also say the population reached 50,000 last year, which seems improbable given that pedestrians on the street were outnumbered by street sweepers. A local real estate agent, Cao Ting, told me it had actually been easy to sell apartments. She said 80 percent of the apartments had been sold. I believed her even though 80 percent of them looked empty, with no curtains or furniture visible during the day and no lights on at night. The buyers were mostly investors or future residents waiting for schools and hospitals to open before moving in.

Read the Whole Article
Second, a video from Al Jazeera on the ghost town:

And third, a photo-essay on Kangbashi from Time Magazine (click the link for all fourteen of the images):

On the second page of the Foreign Policy article from above about Kangbashi, it says the following:
The new buildings look great from the outside, and they're economically fine on paper, if you believe the local government. And they may continue in this state, since the government will prop up the property market because it holds up so much else as well. Local governments' revenues are completely dependent on land sales. Eventually, perhaps, the population will catch up with this accelerated development.
I'm not sure what that long-term implications of the break-neck development Kangbashi and Ordos are. I find such wild development troubling. The construction is being propagated by a system - both government and private - that is almost utterly dependent upon making money through eating up and developing real estate. Such an economic system is predicated on higher and higher real estate prices going forward. Being an American who's witnessed the folly of such practices, I'm weary of this kind of stuff.

Saying that, I wouldn't bet against those apartments filling up with people in the coming years. Of course, China's economy needs to continue to boom and its people need to get richer and richer for that to happen. But at this point, it looks like China's economy is immune to the economic bug that the rest of the world has come down with.

China's economy, largely directed from central planning as opposed to private enterprise, continues to develop. And Ordos is at the front of the pack of the large number of cities pushing forward.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cultural Crossover - Basketball in China

My younger brother, David, is currently teaching English in Jinan, China. He's enjoying the life that all English teachers in China do: he's learning tons about a unique and constantly changing country, he's working at a largely pressure-free job, and he has plenty of days off to travel and do whatever he wants.

During some of that free time, David is undertaking an ambitious goal. As an outsider to Chinese culture and as a self-admitted sports nut, he is investing time in understanding the ethos of the Chinese basketball player and, on a larger scale, basketball's popularity in China. He is documenting his experiences on his new blog, the aptly named - Cultural Crossover.

Here's how David summarized his blog and his anthropologically-fueled pickup games on the courts of Jinan:
It’s a basketball nut/freelance journalist from Kansas spending months on end on the basketball courts of Jinan, China. I will play with Chinese basketball players who seem to have much of the same passion about the game that millions of Americans, myself included, have as well. I will use certain areas of expertise – namely basketball, writing and journalism – as tools to better understand what I feel is an underappreciated (or at least under-understood) phenomenon of basketball in China.
David graduated from college a couple years ago. He is an aspiring sports journalist. Given the economy, and especially the state of the journalism job market, David last year decided to side-step under-employment for a few months to see what he could find in China.

I've enjoyed reading his first few posts over at "Cultural Crossover." David isn't a "China hand" and doesn't claim to be. His perspective, a young guy from the mid-western United States where basketball is a pseudo-religion going to an unfamiliar basketball-crazy land on the other side of the world, is a unique one.

I'm going to highlight a lengthy selection from one of his first posts:

I hop on my bike at about 12:30 and make the 20-minute trek to Shandong Normal University. I make the left turn through the gates of the campus and I am greeted, as always, by a towering gold-colored statue of Mao Zedong, the former leader of China’s Communist Party who died in 1976. (Lest this site gets banned, that’s all I’ll say about him.) This statue, like so many others, shows Mao striking a waving-to-the-crowd pose that can easily be mistaken for a waving-down-a-taxi pose. His right arm is fully extended, his fingers outstretched. In front of Mao is a common area where, presumably, people can gather and hang out. But even though today will boast the best weather for the next week, it’s still kind of crummy outside. No one is gathered in front of Mao, and I cruise on past.

A minute later the basketball courts appear on my right, encased by an ugly-green iron fence with thin poles standing vertical every five inches. There is no one on the near courts behind the fence save one guy who is shooting by his lonesome. I ride another 50 yards until I reach the main entrance where, sure enough, I see some people playing. On one court there is a five-on-five half-court game, and on another there are five dudes just shooting around. There is only action of two of the 22 courts, but at least there is action. Actually, three courts are occupied: off in the distance, that lone guy is shooting by himself, over and over. I’m intrigued by his routine because it is one that I’ve done a million times. While I am gazing around, one of 20-somethings in the five-man cluster extends his right arm and waves me over, slightly reminiscent of the Mao statue. That settles it. I’m playing with them.


Playing conditions are spotty. The ball is overinflated and coated with dust; the court is pockmarked and dimpled: there is an obstacle course of small potholes and cancerous swells. I notice a few times that my foot hits the ground before it was supposed to, and look down to see a mound of concrete growing out of the pavement like a cyst. Other times the ground is a fraction of an inch lower than I anticipated, throwing me off-balance when my foot touches down. I feel my away around and learn to avoid the minefield that is the left baseline corner.

As one o’clock turns into 1:30, people start trickling onto the courts. Some more players – particularly tall ones, at that – conglomerate on the opposite baseline, watching the proceedings. Our game is interrupted when one of the players scurries to the sidelines to answer his cell phone. After a momentary pause – like he was being given a chance to end the call quickly – the guy who gave me the Mao wave does the same to the hoard of giants at the other end of the court. Six guys stroll over; four of them are taller than 6-foot-1, and three of them must be at least 6-4. If readers out there subscribe to the “All Chinese people are short” myth, I assure you that these guys dispel it. (OK, Chinese people do indeed tend to be shorter. But for the most part that is an exaggerated stereotype. Not everyone is Yao Ming, but it’s not a land of midgets.)

The spin-the-ball ritual is foregone, and the guy who keeps inviting people over drafts himself a team. He seems to be a leader of sorts, at least today. He selects himself, two of the best players from our three-on-three game and me. He either thinks I am good or thinks I am a novelty, and I don’t really care which; I just want to play.

Now, for as goofy as I may have looked with my shorts and cap, this “leader” takes the cake in my mind. He is wearing a tight long-sleeved purple shirt and tight dark-blue jeans, and his hair looks like a pinecone. The hair wrapping around the lower part of his scalp is resting at ease, but the hair on his crown is gelled to all hell. It is increasingly vertical as it nears the top of his head, propped up by some sort of hair product. I don’t know how much gel or spray he used, but I know that the hair atop his dome didn’t move an inch the whole day and that he was emanating the artificial, perfumey aroma of product from the opening tip. But whatever, dude could play.

After the tall guys stroll over there is an unstated sense that games are about to become more serious. Now it’s four-on-four, and now there are enough people on this end of the court to field three teams. Thus, if you’re team loses, you sit out. We start keeping score.

The first matchup is my team versus a squad that boasts two of the three tallest guys here, each of whom is better than 6-2. At 5-11, I am one of the taller people on my team. No matter, though, because we quickly race out to five points, which is the magic number. Each one of us notches at least one basket, and I can the winning shot on a turn-around fadeaway in the lane, a shot I practiced a million times by my lonesome during college.

The next group that comes out is totally overmatched. I hit jump shots on my first two touches and notice a palpable difference in my play. The moment we start keeping score, I am suddenly competitive: I am pissed when I miss and pretty stoked when I make it. My defense is better, my passes crisper. Keeping score is basically like two cups of coffee for my game: it sharpened me and got all hyped up.

We lose our third game against the giants who, now that they’re warmed up, start to assert themselves as the best team playing. Our team assumes a spot along baseline where all the losers wait for their chance to get back out there. I walk over to my backpack, which is about 15 feet away, to jot down a note in my Official Chinese Basketball Reporter Notebook. When I come back I am greeted by a teammate who is extending a pack of cigarettes, one of them invitingly jutting out of the pack. He is probably an inch shorter than me with – you won’t believe this – black hair and yellowish skin. He seems pretty fit, a fact revealed by his skin-tight t-shirt. Across the chest of the shirt it says “Calvin Klein” in glinty, diamond-sized studs. It’s the type of shirt that you would never see on a basketball court in the States because it might come off as, oh, a little fruity. What’s interesting, though, is that his below-waist attire is quintessential basketball: black mesh adidas sweats and some really slick black and red adidas basketball shoes. (My shoes, by the way, are black and red adidas basketball kicks. They’re sweet.)

He and his cig are staring at me, so I nod, say thank you and he lights me up. It’s not unusual to have someone offer me a cigarette and that is the climax of our interaction, the only thing we’re able to communicate. But it turns out this guy speaks a bit of English. He is 27 years-old, his name is Wang (with a short A sound) and he works for whoever it is that controls the city’s buses.

“Are you a driver?” I ask, guiding a fake steering wheel with my hands, one of which is holding a burning cigarette.

“No, no,” he says, taking a drag. “I work in office. I do the paper.”

I tell him that I’m a teacher and continue to probe just how well he knows English. I ask him how long he’s been playing basketball, and he tells me that he started in middle school but had to quit in high school because he “hurt this,” pointing to his lower-back. I ask about the NBA and which players he likes.

“The Chinese players – Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian,” he says with a smile, like he’s embarrassed at the predictability of this answer. “And James,” he adds, referring to LeBron James. “Superman!”

I laugh and agree. Indeed, LeBron is Superman.

Read this full article

You can read more of of David's writing over at his blog. It'll be fun to see what David learns on the courts in the coming months.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Man Made Marvels - Xi'an

Hopfrog, a frequent commenter on here, posted a link to a very worthwhile video in the comments of my last post.

The video is a program that on the Discovery Channel about ancient Chang'an and Xi'an. Chang'an is what Xi'an was known as for much of its history. For anyone who's every been to Xi'an or has any interest in the place, it is a must see.

I'm not sure the next time the program is going to air on TV. The schedule doesn't show when it'll run again (a program on the Leshan Buddha will run on Monday though). Below my summary, I've embedded the program from YouTube.

The show begins with the construction of ancient Chang'an during the Han Dynasty. This part particularly was enlightening to me. I'll admit that my Han era history is not good and learned a lot during this section.

The rebuilding of Chang'an during the Tang Dynasty is featured next. The Tang time period was the cultural apex of ancient China. The arts flourished and commerce boomed with the Silk Road during this era. Chang'an was indeed the biggest and most cosmopolitan city in the world then.

The Tang era is still celebrated a lot in Xi'an. I lived within walking distance of "Tang Paradise," a Tang-themed park with cultural shows and such. I actually taught some English classes to the tour guides at Tang Paradise when I lived in Xi'an. That was pretty cool.

My favorite part of the program was the section of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, also in the Tang Dynasty section of the show. I lived within a five minute walk from the pagoda for over three years. I either walked or rode my bike past it every day on my way to work. It has a very special place in my heart. Learning more about it just now was awesome.

And last was the section on the reconstruction of the city (again) during the Ming Dynasty. The Ming reconstruction is still the foundation for present-day Xi'an. The city walls are featured prominently during this section. As the program says, Xi'an's city walls are the largest and best preserved city walls in the world. They are a very unique aspect of life in Xi'an.

This program makes me very proud of my Chinese 故乡 (hometown) - Xi'an. It also makes me want to go back. I can't wait to go visit again.

Hopfrog, thank you so much for pointing this show out to me.

Below are the embeds of the video, split into five sections:

Edit - I just found this show on Youku for anyone reading this living in China:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Qinghai Quake

I was sad to hear yesterday that China has endured another earthquake in its mountainous west. Thankfully, this quake appears to be nowhere near as devastating as the Sichuan quake in '08. Saying that, this is still a huge tragedy and a major disaster.

Over the past day or so, several people have asked me about the area that was hit. They asked if it was close to Xi'an and if Qian's family is OK. Qinghai is not at all close to Xi'an and Qian's family is fine.

I just did a quick search for some information about Yushu and Xining and found this video. It is pretty well done. (The embed doesn't seem to be working. You can view it here.)

Another topic we discussed at work was the amount of large-scale earthquakes that we've seen already in 2010. Is this all bad luck? What's going on with all of these quakes?

MSNBC addressed this in an article today:
As the numbers of buried or dead continue to climb from today's 6.9-magnitude earthquake in China, an event so close on the heels of the devastating Chile and Haiti earthquakes, you might wonder if Earth is shaking more lately. Perhaps, scientists say, but not unusually so.

Seismic activity may be higher in recent years than the long-term average, but it's still not out of the normal range, the experts contend.

"Relative to the 20-year period from the mid-1970's to the mid 1990's, the Earth has been more active over the past 15 or so years," said Stephen S. Gao, a geophysicist at Missouri University of Science & Technology. "We still do not know the reason for this yet. Could simply be the natural temporal variation of the stress field in the Earth's lithosphere." (The lithosphere is the outer solid part of the Earth.)


"What happens is when a lot of people get killed there's a lot of reporting of it, and if an equally big event occurs somewhere out in the middle of nowhere it doesn’t attract the attention," said G. Randy Keller, professor of geophysics at the University of Oklahoma.


If you look at it globally the occurrence of earthquakes is confined to zones we already know have earthquakes but it's a largely random process and so sometimes it's a little quieter than normal and sometimes it's a little more active than normal. But it doesn't mean anything, because on a global basis these things aren't connected," Keller said.

Read the Whole Article
Much of China is vulnerable to active fault lines and these kinds of quakes, as the article says, aren't surprising. In fact, the deadliest earthquake in the history of man took place in 1556AD near Xi'an in Shaanxi Province. The quake killed more than 800,000 people.

Chinese people certainly aren't "used to" earthquakes though. I remember the weeks and months after the Sichuan earthquake being a very tense time. People slept outside in tents, there were constant rumors of bigger quakes "working their way up from Sichuan Province towards Xi'an," and a general level of irrationality that I felt rivaled the weeks that followed 9/11/01 in the United States.

Let's hope that China as a whole handles this tragedy well and, more importantly, those who need help right now can get it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Old School China Photos

I just stumbled across some seriously cool photos a traveler took in China in 1983 (h/t to Josh at's Twitter account for the link). There are great photos from across the country in this album. It almost goes without saying in China where things change so fast, but these thirty year-old photos look like they were taken eons ago.

Here are some of the best ones from the Xi'an section:

I strongly suggest going over to Mr. Demery's entire collection of China photos. Really neat stuff.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Better Off?

I haven't had a whole lot of time for blogging recently. I have had time to read plenty though.

I'm reading for about an hour every day on my lunch break and it is great. I'm really happy to be getting into books as opposed to focusing on news features on the web, what I've been more into the past couple years. I do have internet access at my work and could theoretically surf the web and/or blog during my free time, but I would prefer to get away from the desk where I spend my days. Going outside everyday with a book (no, I don't use an iPad or Kindle to read books) is something I'm really enjoying this spring.

The last book I finished was James Fallows' Postcards From Tomorrow Square that I referenced in my last blog post.

Fallows is a very humble yet keen observer. His perspective, as someone who came to China with a fairly blank slate (ie. not a "China hand"), has been refreshing. One passage in the book was particularly striking to me. It is a notion that I've thought about before that Fallows lays out very well.

From pages 92 - 93 from Fallows' book:
Has the factory boom been good for China? Of course it has. Yes, it creates environmental pressures that, if not controlled, could pollute China and the world out of existence. The national government's current Five-Year Plan - the 11th, running through 2010 - has as its central theme China's development as a "harmonious society," of hexie shehui, a phrase heard about as often from China's leadership as "global war on terror" has been heard from America's. In China, the phrase is code for attempting to deal with income inequalities, especially, the hardships of farmers and millions of migrant laborers. But it is also code for at least talking about protecting the environment.

And, yes, throughout China's boom many people have been mistreated, oppressed, sometimes worked to death in factories. Even those not abused may be lonely and lost, with damaging effects on the country's social fabric. But this was also the story of Britain and America when they built their great industries, their grand turbulent industrial cities, and ultimately their great industrial middle classes. For China, it is far from the worst social disruption the country has endured in the last 50 years. At least this upheaval, unlike the disastrous Great Leap Forward of the 1950s and Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s, has some benefits for individuals and the nation.

Some Westerners feel that even today's "normal" Chinese working conditions amount to slave labor - perhaps $225 a month, no life outside the factory, work shifts so long there's barely time to do more than try to sleep in a jam-packed dormitory. Here is an uncomfortable truth I'm waiting for some Chinese official to point out: The woman from the hinterland working in Shenzhen is arguably better off economically than an American in Chicago living on minimum wage. She can save most of what she makes and feel she is on the way up; the American can't and doesn't. Over the next two years, the minimum wage in the United States is expected to rise to $7.25 an hour. Assuming a 40-hour work week, that's just under $1,200 per month, or about 5 times the Chinese factory wage. But that's before payroll deductions and the cost of food and housing, which are free or subsidized in China's factory towns.
This is a very slippery slope. In no way do I romanticize what migrant workers in China go through on a daily basis. While I never saw factory life too much while in China, I was exposed to the lives of plenty of construction workers, restaurant workers, and day laborers while living in Xi'an. Their lives are utterly grueling.

Saying that, a person making minimum-wage in the US also has it rough. Fallows wrote this piece a few years ago and you can tell it's dated by a couple of the expressions he used. Although it is not totally up-to-date to 2010, what he wrote still applies. In fact, I think it's probably even more accurate now.

China has a plethora of domestic issues. It doesn't do me any good to try to list them out. Everyone reading this has seen them all before. But what is going on in China, and what has gone on for the past couple decades, has undeniably brought up millions of people.

And given the state of the US economy and how difficult it is to find work, standards between the two countries' citizens is at least worth discussing. The unemployment rate of young black men in the US is 34.5%. Generation Y's unemployment rate as a whole is 18.5%. Retirement isn't a reality for the millions upon millions of baby boomers entering their 60s. The American Dream® for many is fading or has been completely lost.

Qian and I are lucky. We have enough work to live a comfortable life. But there are scores of very qualified people right now who can't make ends meet. People who are less qualified? Well, they simply have no options.

Although this post is something of a screed against the US, I know that there are things that still make the US great (which I still think it is). One of the most important things that America still has on China is a society that is governed by rule of law. The book I'm currently reading, Wild Grass by Ian Johnson, focuses on the darker aspects of China's rise, particularly its lawlessness. There are significant drawbacks to China's method of development. I'll surely quote a passage from that book sometime here in the coming days.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Currency Affairs

I was delighted to hear a discussion on the radio today of an issue I tried explaining to a colleague recently: why China, a developing country, has so much money and currency reserves. I got pretty fumbled up trying to explain it. Such monetary and economic concepts can be difficult for me to thoroughly understand.

Here's the "Planet Money" report from NPR's Morning Edition that touched on the basics of US/China monetary policy this morning:

The United States government is also thinking about its financial relationship with China. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are calling for Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner to declare that China is manipulating its currency. Geithner will deliver a report to Congress about two weeks from now.

In the meantime, lawmakers like Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan are saying things like Chinese currency distortion is putting a lot of Americans out of work. And if you're wondering what a decision by the Central Bank of China has to do with workers in Ohio, we have an explanation from Alex Blumberg of our Planet Money team.

ALEX BLUMBERG: To understand why American lawmakers are so upset about Chinese currency policy, it helps to follow the money. So let's start with someone pretty typical - an American businessman who gets stuff made in Chinese factories.

Listen to the Report or Read the Rest of the Report
The rest of this story is a discussion of how and why Chinese factory owners turn the US dollars they earn into Chinese RMB. This part of China's "high savings rate" isn't discussed too often.

I read a very thorough overview of this same process a couple days ago in James Fallows' book - Postcards From Tomorrow Square: Reports From China. The chapter - The $1.4 Trillion Question - has a very detailed explanation of how dollars wired to factory owners in China end up being converted to dollars and, often, treasury bills. Very well-presented information. The book is a collection of Fallows' Atlantic Monthly China articles over the past few years. I'm enjoying it a lot.

Another one of the chapters in the book also dealing with economics and finance - China Makes, the World Takes - has an insightful take on the US' view towards China and the "currency manipulation" that was discussed in the NPR article above.

From pages 104 and 105 of the book:
American complaints about the RMB, about subsidies, and about other Chinese practices have this in common: They assume that the solution to long-term tensions in the trading relationship lies in changes on China's side. I think that assumption is naive. If the United States is unhappy with the effects of its interaction with China, that's America's problem, not China's. To imagine that the United States can stop China from pursuing its own economic ambitions through nagging, threats, or enticement is to fool ourselves. If a country does not like the terms of its business dealings with the world, it needs to change its own policies, not expect the world to change. China has done just that, to its own benefit - and, up until now, to America's.
Fallows is right on in this passage.

China is a sovereign nation. I don't understand why US politicians feel as though their opinion has any sway on Chinese currency policy. It shouldn't and, it appears, doesn't matter what the US says. Even if the rest of the world and China would benefit from a shift in policy, it's only the Chinese government's decision to revalue its currency. It's not as if the US thinks about other countries before it acts.

I understand that US politicians huffing and puffing about China are may very well just be politicking. But even if they know that their words aren't going to affect China and are simply dissing China's "manipulation" for votes, I still don't like it. Such China-bashing is allowing Americans to feel as though we don't have to change and that our problems are being caused by others. That is just not true.

Whether I approve of what US politicians are or aren't saying, there's no doubt that the US/China political rhetoric on this topic is important. And speaking of the US/China relationship, just preceding this discussion on NPR this morning was an interview with Zachary Karabell, the author of Superfusion who I interviewed this past fall. I felt pretty cool having interviewed the same guy who was being interviewed on Morning Edition! (I am still grateful that Karabell gave me the time to have such an in depth interview with him a few months ago).