Monday, June 28, 2010

Get Your Kicks on Route 312

I'm reading another great China book. This one is China Road by former NPR correspondent, Rob Gifford.

The book is about Gifford's final days in China before accepting a new assignment with NPR in Europe. Gifford celebrates his leaving China with a six week road trip west on Highway 312 out of Shanghai. He sees his journey on Highway 312 in the 2000s as comparable to rolling down America's famed Route 66 in the 1940s. Gifford's goal is to go from the east coast of Shanghai all the way to the border of Kazakhstan in Xinjiang. Along the way, he wants to figure out what modern China is (or something along those lines).

I'd heard glowing reports about this book. To be honest, I was a little nervous picking it up since I just recently read a book about a road-trip in China - Peter Hessler's Country Driving. My worries were unfounded. The two books are very different and both worthwhile. I'm really enjoying Gifford's insights into a country he understands deeply. His take is very fresh (even though it's three years old, which is forever in China time).

China Road has hit close to home several times. Gifford spends a lot of time in Xi'an and Shaanxi Province on his journey. He has a whole chapter on my favorite holy mountain - The Hermit of Hua Shan - where he finds a daoist hermit living in a cave and chats with him about the meaning of life. He also spends time in Xiahe, the closest to Tibet I ever got.

There have been a lot of passages that I've considered posting about. One stands above the rest for me though. Here is an excerpt from pages 101 and 102 about the terracotta warriors that discussed China in a light that really struck me:
In 230 B.C., he (Qin Shihuang, who built the terracotta army) was the ruler of just one of seven states that existed in northern China, states that had themselves been formed from dozens of smaller ones. China as we know it today had never been unified, and in fact the period from 403B.C. until Qin’s unification, in 221 B.C., was known as the Warring States period. His unification is still hailed by the Communist Party.

I’m not convinced it was such a wonderful event, though. Qin’s unification is the first reason, the political reason, why China’s system never developed the checks and balances that eventually emerged in Europe. Qin unified the states not through skillful negotiations or cunning diplomacy, but by banging a lot of heads together rather hard and with a less than selective use of those thirteen-element-alloy weapons. The doctrine he espoused in both conquest and ruling was known as Legalism. Not a doctrine of laws in the modern sense, it was more a doctrine of rules, rewards, and punishments that brought about obedience. Qin's violent, heavy-handed means of conquest, however, did not prove the best method for ruling the new united territory, and when he died suddenly, aged forty-nine, in 210 B.C., the Qin dynasty ended after just eleven years.

But Qin Shihuang had set a very important precedent, which has survived to this day: that China should be united. It has fallen apart many times between then and now, but each time, someone has said, "China must be reunified," and set about doing so. Chairman Mao was just the most recent in a long line of reunifiers, and if Emperor Qin were to return to China today, he would recognize the mode of government used by the Communist Party.

I have to say that I find this idea rather scary, that two thousand years of history might have done nothing to change the political system of a country. Imagine a Europe today where the Roman Empire had never fallen, that still covered an area from England to North Africa and the Middle East and was run by one man based in Rome, backed by a large army. There you have, roughly, ancient and modern China. The fact that this setup has not changed, or been able to change, in two thousand years must also have huge implications for the question - Can China ever change its political system?

The Roman analogy is an apt one. The tendency is to think of contemporary China in terms of the United States, because of their similarity in geographical size. Actually, to understand China today, the best comparison by far is Roman Europe two thousand years ago: lots of people with different languages and dialects, different customs, different artistic styles, even different cuisines, all with a shared heritage but ultimately held together by force. It makes no more sense to say you're going out for a Chinese meal that to say you are going out for a European one.

The laments you hear constantly in China that the country is too big and there are too many people can both be blamed on Qin Shihuang. At one fell sloop he not only created both of these problems but made sure they would be perpetuated throughout Chinese history. He created a "country" that needed a strong man at the top to hold it together, and that requirement precluded any constraints on his power.
That's some pretty hard-hitting stuff. Any nationalistic Chinese person will most certainly be disgusted by it. In fact, I bet that nearly all Chinese people who read this assessment of their country hate it and think it's false.

I think a lot of what he says in this passage rings true though. When I think of many of the parts of China that I've seen - from the Taklamakan Desert out west to the Himalayas in Yunnan to the karst in Guangxi to the villages in Shaanxi to the capital of Beijing - China can seem more like a collection of cultures on the same continent than a country. Gifford really nails China with this passage. In fact, I think China's leadership has largely come to the same conclusion he has.

Mandarin language has been a requirement in schools since, as Gifford puts it, "the last reunification" under Mao in the 1940s/50s. Before that time, people spoke regional dialects. People older than the age of fifty-five or sixty years-old nowadays very well may speak very broken or no mandarin at all. They simply didn't learn mandarin when they were children. Unifying language has been a key component of China's development.

In addition to language, China has "sinified" areas on the country's periphery with Han immigrants that could, feasibly, be more volatile. Russia did a similar sort of thing during the time of the USSR.

There is a case to be made that Beijing sees things in exactly the same way Gifford lays things out. China seems to, now and since 1949, rule China in a lot of ways with Gifford's assessment in mind.

One is probably right in saying that China's "tying up of the loose ends" and making sure that people who may not feel as connected to "China" is largely working. There are plenty of counterexamples - a couple controversial areas out west come to mind. But for the most part, the "moderate prosperity" (a term that Gifford loves) much of China's enjoyed over the last thirty-plus years has given people on China's fringes the chance at a better life. And that, more than politics opposed to Beijing, has won over a lot of people.

Gifford, again and again, talks about how most Chinese are getting something now that they have never had before - choice. He's not necessarily taking about politics. Instead he's talking about things in daily life. The choices Gifford highlights are the choices between eating noodles or rice for lunch, taking a bus or a cab or biking or driving a car, or having a cell phone with 3G or without. Freedom of choice, Gifford argues, is one of the things that is changing Chinese people more than anything else.

One scene I liked a lot was when Gifford is making his way further and further west and runs into a group of Tibetan construction workers. Gifford asks them about whether being a construction worker is better than what they did before. "Of course it's better," one of the men responds. He then says that he no longer has a 靠天生活. 靠 means rely, 天 means heaven, and 生活 means life. This man no longer relies on the heavens for his subsistence. He has the option of getting on a highway so that he can go to another part of China where he can do something different than what he and his family members have done for generations. Being able to become independent and break free from the shackles of a 靠天生活 is an unbelievable freedom that millions upon millions of Chinese people are finally enjoying.

I'm not sure exactly where I'm going with this post. I started with my praising of the wonderful book, China Road, then went on to promote the premise of China being a flawed model of a country, and then further went on to say that the sinification of China is raising up millions upon millions of people.

I guess one can take from this post that China is a confusing place.

China really could be a number of different countries. China's Henan Province has a population of 97 million people. Shandong Province has a population of 92 million people. Sichuan Province has a population of 82 million people. All of those provinces are more populous than the most populous country in Europe - Germany. On top of that, the food, climate, language, cultures, etc. have extreme diversity.

At the same time, the country is working (both literally and figuratively). Its economy is churning while the rest of the world is in stagnation and most Chinese people have more hope now than they or the past several generations of their families have ever had. There are scores and scores of problems in China and plenty of people getting left behind, but China is working out for a lot of its population.

Gifford doesn't have all the answers to China or a special way of looking at things that makes everything crystal clear in China Road. One day during his road trip he can't fathom why he's leaving China and then a couple pages later on in the book he can't wait to get outside of the country's borders. Such is China. Gifford's book is a fantastic way to attempt to understand China more and there aren't any dull moments accompanying him on his road trip.

Monday, June 21, 2010

难得糊涂 - Where Ignorance is Bliss, it's a Folly to be Wise

I've given several Chinese calligraphy and painting scrolls to friends and family over the past couple years. Hand painted scrolls are beautiful and inexpensive presents to hand out on a return trip from China. Small scrolls can be as cheap as 20RMB, or about $3.

Before coming to the United States last year, Qian and I went to the 书院门 (Shu Yuan Gate) art district in Xi'an to pick up a few scrolls for people in the US. We bought several.

I particularly liked one calligraphy scroll in a small shop. I couldn't make out the characters very well, but thought the colors and brush strokes looked really nice. I asked Qian the meaning of it. She said something along the lines of:
"Oh, wow. That is really tough to describe. It basically means that sometimes it is better to look past someone's faults and just accept the person for who they are. Kind of like you should just turn your head instead of getting angry. It's very deep and philosophical. Older people use this phrase."
Thinking that this scroll has a pretty heady meaning that wouldn't be easy to explain to an aunt or uncle or anyone else I'd give the piece of art to, I decided to keep it. It is currently on the wall of our apartment. Here is a picture of it:

Having seen this just about every day but not having thought about it deeply much, I asked Qian about it again yesterday.

The characters are 难得糊涂, written traditionally. I went to the very useful chengyu dictionary at and looked up the meaning of this idiom. Below is the screen it gave me:

I was pretty taken a back by the translation of this. "Where ignorance is bliss, it's a folly to be wise." Where Qian's explanation was thorough, this is succinct. I think Qian's definition and this definition from the website are similar, but I'm honestly not sure. I've been thinking about these definitions a lot today.

Is Qian's definition of 难得糊涂 and's the same? Is this sentence good or bad or foolish or wise? Is it weird that I have this on my wall of my apartment? What does this mean?

As I understand this phrase right now, I like it. So few people in the world are 100% good or bad. Usually there are lots of layers and colors and shades to a person. Taking the bad with the good is part of life. Maybe a deep understanding of 难得糊涂 can be helpful on life's path and relationships with people.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sinica Podcast

If you haven't heard the relatively new Sinica podcast at, you should go check it out. The podcast is hosted by Kaiser Kuo. Each week Kaiser has on a few China hands to talk about a particular topic. So far, they've covered a wide array of issues ranging from Mao to Google to the recent suicides at Foxconn. The level of discourse and quality of these discussions is top-notch.

The podcast they put up this week is about China books. Seeing how much I've been reading China books recently (especially during my lunch breaks), I really enjoyed this discussion.

Here is a list of some of the books they suggested that I wrote down:

Out of Mao's Shadow by Philip P. Pan

Corpsewalker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up by Yiwu Liao

The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor

China: Fragile Superpower by Susan L. Shirk

China's Water Crisis by Jun Ma

Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China's Peasants by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao

China Candid: The People of the People's Republic by Ye Sang, Geremie Randall Barme, and Miriam Lang

Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China by David Kidd and John Lanchester

Mr. China: A Memoir by Tim Clissold

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and State by Yasheng Huang

The Mandate of Heaven by Orville Schell and Jim Jorgenson

This is a just a fraction of the titles discussed. Listen to the podcast for more titles and great discussion.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Kung Fu Kid

I knew that I wanted to see the remake of "The Karate Kid" when I saw the lead kid training on the Great Wall in a commercial a few weeks ago. I don't pay attention to movies and hardly ever go to the theater to see anything. Before seeing that commercial, I didn't even know that the original movie had been remade or that the new movie takes place in China.

Qian and I went to see the movie a couple nights ago. Overall, I thought it was pretty cool.

Image from

Being a kids movie, "The Karate Kid" is silly and stupid in a lot of ways. I don't particularly like the main character, Dre, played by Will Smith's son. He just annoys me. The dialog is pretty terrible. And it seemed like all of the kids in the movie are just too young. Dre is 12 years old in the movie. The fighting and romance scenes featuring pre-pubescent kids are painful. And it was too long clocking in at about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

But saying all of that, I really liked the Chinese-ness of the new "Karate Kid." The entire movie, save five minutes or so, takes place in China. And about 90% of the time in China is in Beijing.

Although I've been watching a lot of Chinese TV and have been watching "the real China" all the time in those shows, seeing "the real China" in "The Karate Kid" was very exciting for Qian and me. Both of us walked out of the movie theater a little bit sad missing China. We were seriously moved by the movie's portrayal of China.

Now, that is exactly what the movie producers want its viewers to feel. The China Film Group Corp. helped out in the movie's production. According to good old Wikipedia, the CFGC is "the largest and most influential state-run film enterprise in China. It is also the only importer of foreign films in China and a major exporter of Chinese films." It is very much in the interest of the Chinese government to paint its image in a tourist/family-friendly manner. By and large, the CFGC succeeded.

I've read some articles that found the way China is portrayed in "The Karate Kid" as over-the-top. From the LA Times:
More on the movie in the coming days, but upon seeing the film this week we couldn't help but notice what will quickly jump out even to casual viewers: the cultural tourism that pervades the film. Clocking in at more than two hours (about the same length as the original), the new movie is extended not by any more time spent hitting the requisite notes -- the forbidden tween romance, the redemptive fight scenes, the menial-but-life-altering training routines -- but by the fetishizing shots of the Chinese landscape.

Nominally incorporated as part of the regimen of young Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), many of these shots exists to showcase the country's varied (and, as my colleague Patrick Goldstein points out, sanitized) topography. There's a lengthy scene at the Taoist holy site at Wudang Mountain in which we see glorious mountains from below and equally lush valleys from a dramatic cliffside temple above. The Forbidden City is shown as a giant playground for a group of children, free of guards or other tourists (or the chaos and checkered history of Tiananmen Square just outside its walls).

The everyday urban spaces get a similarly romantic treatment. Squares fill with whooshing colors of those practicing martial arts, and the markets in which Dre and his mother (Taraji P. Henson) try out local delicacies overflow with a kind of vibrant beauty.

There are also gauzy, glamorized shots of the Great Wall, which Dre runs up and down it under the watchful eye of his mentor Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a kind of Rocky steps for a new generation, or at least for an export-minded corporation.

Director Harald Zwart, studio Sony and the picture's American producers (including Will Smith) took pains to get as much of China in as they can. But it's only a certain kind of China.

Read On
I can see where this article is coming from. But I think this article is being too serious. What does the writer suggest the movie show? Poor migrant workers? Acrid pollution? It's a kids movie. I understand why the movie painted the mostly rosy picture it did.

Saying that, there was a cringe-worth moment or two. One is while Dre and his mom are on the plane to China. Dre looks at a picture of China and says something along the lines of, "Man, everything is old in China." Fifteen minutes later in the movie after Dre and his mom have rolled by the Bird's Nest and the CCTV Tower in a taxi, Dre's mom says with a smile, "Dre, you were wrong. Everything in China is new!"

That was a little bit difficult to stomach. But for the most part, I really liked what the China that was featured in the film.

I was deeply struck by China's holy mountains during my time in China (see Hua Shan and Emei Shan on that link). I visited the Great Wall three times. I find the mountainous scenery of western China enchanting. If there was some travel porn in "The Karate Kid," it doesn't really bother me. There is a lifetime of cool stuff to see in China (I feel like I've only scratched the surface of what I want to see). I'm not going to criticize the makers of the film for using China's mythical Wudang Mountain (also romanized as Wu Tang) or the Great Wall as props. And I don't blame the Chinese tourism department for wanting to show those places off either. They completely fit with the movie.

Apart from the scenery, the movie was at least within the ballpark of realistic/every-day-China on a few things. Jackie Chan's character, a maintenance/door man at Dre's apartment complex, seems a lot like some of the doormen I used to see every day at my apartment complex (minus his kung fu and English skills, of course). Dre's love interest, Meiying, feels the same pressures that a lot of the twelve year-olds I taught in China felt. Meiying is a prodigious violinist and is pushed very hard to develop her talent. And the bullies/antagonists in the movie are exaggerated, but I've certainly encountered dozens of pre-pubescent/pubescent hell raisers teaching in China that the boys in the movie made me recall.

If you've read this far, you've probably already seen "The Karate Kid" or are at least interested in doing so. I recommend seeing it. It's a nice remake of a modern classic. And it's an interesting experience seeing American movie producers (and the CFGC, of course) Hollywood-ize China.

My only serious problem with the movie is the title. I realize that they had to have "The Karate Kid" to cash in on the franchise. But "The Kung-Fu Kid" would have been way better.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

人多力量大 - More Population Means More Power

I took a break from my devouring of China-related books a few weeks ago. Instead of delving into non-fiction about the Middle Kingdom, I read Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam. Breaks of the Game is a chronicle of the '79-'80 Portland Trail Blazers and the commercialism of the NBA during that time period. Halberstam's book was a good read, but by the time I was finished, I was dying to get into another China book.

A few days ago, I picked up Red Azalea by Anchee Min. "Wow" is all I can say so far. Red Azalea is a chronicle of Min's experiences during China's Cultural Revolution. For those that don't know, the Cultural Revolution was (according to Wikipedia), "a violent mass movement that resulted in social, political, and economic upheaval in the People’s Republic of China starting in 1966 and ending officially with Mao's death in 1976. It resulted in nation-wide chaos and economic disarray and stagnation."

The Cultural Revolution was surely one of the most horrific time periods in the history of man. Mao Zedong at his absolute worst.

Min tells her story of being corrupted as a child and then being sent off to a work farm as a young woman. I haven't finished the book and am in the middle of her time on the work farm. The stories are just unbelievable. I can't even begin to describe the situations she faced.

The language Min uses is haunting. I can't find confirmation in the book or online, but I believe I read that Min wrote this in English after moving to America. I've been enchanted so far by her words. Her writing, in her second language, is just wonderful.

I'm going to highlight a passage from the book I found particularly interesting. It's from page 99:
Yan (a woman in Min's platoon) and I betrayed no intimacy in public. We silently washed each other's clothes and took trips to fill hot-water containers for each other. We became accustomed to each other's eye signals. Every couple of days we would go separately to meet at the brick factory. Yan would make excuses such as checking the quality of the day's work. I would take the thickest Mao book and my notebook and pretend to find a place to study by myself. We shuttled through the reeds, hand in hand. She would roll up a piece of reed to make a green trumpet. She told me to blow when she blew hers. We made music of the reeds, of the evening. We messed with each other's tones and laughed when the tone sounded like the cough of an old man.

Even when winter came, we continued to meet. Sitting by the bricks, Yan would practice her erhu; I would just lie back and listen. We began to talk about everything, including the most forbidden subject - men.

Yan said that according to her mother, who hated her father, most men were evil. Mother said that she wouldn't ever have produced nine children with my father if she had not wanted to respond to the Party's call, "More population means more power."
Now there is a lot going on in this passage. I particularly want to discuss the end of it.

I've written on my blog before that I always had a lot of fun learning Chinese idioms - aka. 成语. My teacher - 马老师 (Teacher Ma) - and I would often during our classes stray from the book I used and discuss a wide array of topics in Chinese. During those conversations, Teacher Ma, knowing that I liked idioms and four character phrases, would highlight certain phrases that I should know.

One day when discussing the former Chinese leader, Mao Zedong, I asked her for a few classic Mao lines. She gave me several, but only two have stuck with me to today.

One is 人定胜天 - rén dìng shèng tiān - which means "man's determination can conquer nature." Seeing some of the projects that Mao initiated during his time as China's leader - Beijing's underground city for one - it's easy to see why Mao had an affinity for this idiom.

The other Mao-ism that's stuck with me is 人多力量大 - rén duō lì liàng dà - which is the phrase Min wrote about in the passage above - "more population means more power."

I just did a bit of searching for some more info about this Mao quote. I'm not finding much in English. I found a bit in Chinese here. It's hard for me to translate the contents of this verbatim, but from what I gather, during the disastrous "Great Leap Forward" in the late 1950s, Mao promoted the idea that it was every good country man's duty to produce as many children as possible. That's the gist of Min's writing in the passage too.

In Mao's mind, China's already large population in the 1950s was one of the country's greatest assets and a possible equalizer with the rest of the world. Wanting to be a superpower, Mao encouraged Chinese people to have as many children as possible.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that this population growth encouraging is one of Mao's many failures. The most obvious results of the population boom under Mao was the "one child policy," which was introduced in 1978 and implemented in 1979. Mao died in 1976. To counteract what Beijing saw as one of China's most severe problems, the country, almost immediately after Mao's death, used population-control to reverse the fact China had too many people.

Is Mao's declaration and promotion of 人多力量大 the reason why China has 1.3 billion people today? I don't really think that one can say for certain. But looking at charts of China's population, one could argue that such edicts had an effect (Mao had population-growth campaigns in the mid-1950s):

Image from

On that second image, note that the population dip was due to starvation during the Great Leap Forward. Despite that blip, population was mostly going up at a pretty steady pace.

Whether historians can blame Mao for China's over-population or not, the promotion of 人多力量大 was, I think, misguided. China's population today, thirty years after harsh population controls were put in place, is still the root of many of China's domestic problems.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Saw this link the other day. Shanghai's skyline in 1990 and today (h/t Gizmodo):

That's pretty striking for twenty years.

I'm going to use this post as an excuse to get a few of my favorite panoramas that I took in China on the internet:

Larger resolution link
This photo is from one of my favorite places on earth, Hua Shan, in 2008. The clouds below us engulfing the mountains. Unreal. Another interesting thing about this photo is my friend, Andy, on the far left. He is taking a picture off the edge of a cliff. He's easy to miss unless you're looking for him.

This is from the Jinshanling to Simatai section of the Great Wall. I took this photo in 2006.

Larger resolution link
This photo is of The Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an. I lived about a two minute walk from this pagoda and walked/rode my bike past it every day when I went to work. Every night at the pagoda they had a water show. I like the remnants of a firework blast on the left side of this photo.

I took these photos with my Canon G2 camera. I used the Canon software "Photostitch" to create them. Basically, I just took a handful of individual photos on a certain setting on the camera and then "stitched" them together on the computer. Not a perfect way of creating wide angle shots. The pagoda picture, in particular, doesn't look too professional. But I can't complain with these results. They show how far amateur photography has been advanced by digital cameras.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Watching Another Chinese TV Show - 《媳妇的美好时代》 "A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era"

In April, Qian and I devoured the Chinese TV show 《蜗居》- or, in English, "Dwelling Narrowness." I wrote about our experience a few weeks ago. We got through 35 episodes in just a couple weeks. Getting into a Chinese show like that was a great experience.

After finishing "Dwelling Narrowness," Qian and I were set to take on a new show. I'd heard about "Dwelling Narrowness" from my old Chinese teacher, Teacher Ma. Along with recommending "Dwelling Narrowness" to me, she also recommended the show - 《媳妇的美好时代》. Here's what she wrote:
She's basically saying here that this new show - 《媳妇的美好时代》- is getting a lot of buzz in China right now. She hasn't watched it but is planning on doing so.

Qian and I decided to go with Teacher Ma's suggestion and began watching 《媳妇的美好时代》after finishing "Dwelling Narrowness" a few weeks ago.

As you can see from this cheesy poster, this program also has a very Chinglish/stupid English name - "A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era" - much like "Dwelling Narrowness" did.

"A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era" is about a young couple and their young marriage. There are many characters, but most of the story lines revolve around the young groom - 余味 (Yu Wei)- and young bride (and namesake of the show) - 毛豆豆 (Mao Doudou). Almost the entire show is about the young couple and how they relate with each side's family.

Yes, if you're wondering, 毛豆豆 is 海藻 海平 from 蜗居

There are a few wrinkles about Yu Wei and Mao Doudou's families that color the show.

Yu Wei's parents were divorced years ago. The wealthy dad left his neurotic wife years ago and has a young, beautiful wife now. So on top of all the pressures that are inherent in any Chinese marriage, Yu Wei and Mao Doudou have to deal with three sets of "parents." In addition to that, Yu Wei's younger sister - 余好 (Yu Hao) - is dealing with the death of her husband. He died just a few days after their wedding. She is a mess, even a couple years after the death.

Mao Doudou's family is a bit more "normal." Her parents are awesome. Her dad, in particular, is a truly special father-figure. The real thorn in Mao Doudou's side is her younger brother - 毛峰 (Mao Feng). Mao Feng is a magician/playboy/idiot (think a slightly smoother version of Gob Bluth) who consistently does idiotic things to his family and the women in his life.

That's the plot in a couple paragraphs. The show is in Beijing and it takes place in the present day.

I'll try to highlight a few of the things in "A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era" that I found particularly interesting:

1. The show tackled the tricky issue of divorce in China.

As I mentioned above, Yu Wei's parents are divorced. The show did a nice job of showing the heart ache and complexity that goes with a divorce in China. The things that everyone in the show had to endure because of the split up was painful.

The divorce rate of Chinese couples is rising rapidly. The rate is still relatively low compared to much of the world though. And China's is especially low compared to America's ridiculous rate - around 50%. Divorces are more common in China than they were in the past though.

There is strong cultural pressure on Chinese couples, and particularly women, not to get divorced. Looking at rising divorce rates, that cultural pressure is easing.

While it's easy to say that a rising divorce rate is a shame and there is something seriously wrong with China, I don't see a rising divorce rate as necessarily a bad thing. If a Chinese guy has an 二奶 (mistress) these days, there is actually a threat she will leave the guy! And aside from infidelity, the option to end a failed marriage can be a good thing.

Divorce is horrible. Thankfully my parents are still together. Qian and I, of course, are hoping that we'll be with each other for the rest of our lives. But in some cases, divorce the lesser of two evils when compared with an abusive, hate-filled, or loveless marriage.

2. The show touched on attitudes towards nursing homes in China.

I don't think I'm stepping out on a limb by saying that family is more important in China than it is in America. This is especially true amongst grown ups dealing with their parents. The concept of nursing homes are foreign to many Chinese and middle-aged adults living with their parents is normal in China. That is far from the case in the United States.

There is a scene where Mao Doudou, a nurse, suggests to Yu Wei's mother that she think about moving out of their apartment and into a nursing home. The shock, pain, and horror in her face after Mao Doudou's suggestion is hard to watch. Simply floating the idea was a non-starter and caused Mao Doudou significant problems with her mother-in-law.

3. Marriage between city people and migrants can be difficult.

There is a marriage in the show between a man from the city and a women from the countryside. The kind of "inter-marriage" is portrayed in some detail.

At first, the young woman from the countryside was made to look stupid. She was very quiet and appeared clueless about a lot of the basic things of city life. But as the show went on, the viewer saw that the girl wasn't stupid at all. I would go so far to say that she was, as the Chinese often say, "tricky."

One of the funnier scenes in the show was when the country-girl city-boy go to their hotel room after their wedding. The man has one thing on his mind. The woman wants to play around and not, uh, consummate the marriage quite yet. She gets out her camera phone, starts taking pictures and videos of her man, and then logs on to a computer to post the photos and videos to her blog.

The guy can't believe it. Over and over, he says: "YOU have a blog?!! A blog?!!" He can't get over that someone from the countryside would have a blog.

By the end of the show, it's obvious that the woman from the countryside is the rock of their relationship and the spoiled city boy is the clueless one.

4. Many young men don't take marriage seriously and have mistresses.

This show, like "Dwelling Narrowness" has extra-marital affairs as a central theme. I said it when talking about "Dwelling Narrowness," but I'll repeat it again: from the limited time I spent in China and the finite knowledge I have of Chinese culture, infidelity amongst men seems to be more rampant in China than in the US. This might be off-base and I may be reading too much into a few people I met/knew in China and the TV shows (soap operas, really) I'm watching now, but I've seen a lot of cheating going on from Chinese guys.

5. Shady investments/finances can tear families apart.

One of the more interesting stories of the show is an investment-gone-wrong. One of the characters hears of an opportunity to buy a section of a forest that will soon be developed. I won't get into the details, but a lot of people get burned and families are nearly ripped apart.

So many people in China are getting rich and the ones not getting rich are seeing lots of others around them striking it big. This desire to get in on "special opportunities" and make it big can lead to bad investments and scam artists.

That's about all I have on my observations.

Overall, I enjoyed, "A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era," but it was a struggle at times. It was not as good as "Dwelling Narrowness." It's not nearly as edgy or cool or as, I think, realistic.

In fact, there were times where Qian and I nearly stopped watching it. Qian really had real problems about halfway through the show. She repeatedly said she couldn't bear it anymore. There were certain characters - Yu Wei's mother and Mao Feng - she could not stand. I insisted that we keep watching though. Qian kept with it.

I wasn't enthralled with "A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era" in the way I was with "Dwelling Narrowness." But I felt it was worth watching, if for nothing else the language practice. By the end of the show (36 episodes), Qian and I generally liked it and were both glad we'd finished it.

I'm not sure what effect watching Chinese shows is having on my Chinese. Qian and I are speaking Chinese more, but still not tons. I've spoken with her family a little bit recently. I haven't really had a whole lot of practice besides that, unfortunately. We don't have people in Kansas City that we speak Chinese with and it's hard, with everything going on in my life, to keep up with people back in China.

Even if watching Chinese shows isn't helping my language out tons, it can't be hurting it. Even if I'm not getting everything just hearing the language spoken and seeing the characters flash up on the screen is good for me. For what it's worth, I understood a lot more of "A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era" than "Dwelling Narrowness." That might be because the language is simpler and there is less going on than "Dwelling Narrowness" as opposed to my language improving. But regardless, it feels great watching long stretches of the show without asking Qian any questions. I just hope that I don't get too used to subtitles while trying to comprehend Chinese!

Qian and I have started a new show - 手机 ("Cell Phone"). It is the number one most downloaded show on Qian says that it is the TV show of a movie that came out a couple years ago. She liked the movie a lot and we are both liking the show so far. The language is a lot harder for me though.

We're moving a bit slower through "Cell Phone" than we did "Dwelling Narrowness" and "A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era." That is probably a good thing.

Although we're not finished with "Cell Phone," I've already found the next Chinese show I want to watch. Here is the YouTube clip preview of it, from I should warn you that this isn't "work safe:"

Yeah... can't wait to watch that one!!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


For our Memorial Day weekend, Qian and I went to central Missouri for a weekend of canoeing and camping with several of our friends. My friends from high school and I have been heading down to the Niangua River in Ozark country for about a decade now. It's always great times. This weekend was no different. There's really no downside to campfires, cabrewing (coolers full of beer on an eight mile, day-long canoe trip), and Missouri's unique topography.

This past weekend was the first time Qian and I had been outside of the Kansas City area since our honeymoon in St. Petersburg, Florida last September. Being unemployed and then freshly hired isn't conducive to travel. Regardless of the circumstances, it sucks that we haven't been able to travel more. Especially considering how much traveling I did while I was in China.

Although I've been stuck in Kansas City, my mind often floats to other parts of the world.

One of my favorite things to do when I'm bored and at a computer is go onto Google maps, find interesting places in the world, and then look those places up on Wikipedia to learn about their culture and history. For whatever reason, I often end up looking at islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and remote areas in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

A few days ago while looking up information on Alert, Nunavut in Canada (the northern most permanently-inhabited place on earth), I found the following random link - The Top 10 Most Remote Places on Planet Earth. I was really impressed by this list. It spanned the entire globe and introduced me to a number of places I've never heard of.

Number two on the list particularly caught my eye:

2. Motuo County, China


Considered the last county in China without a road leading to it, Motuo is a small community in the Tibetan Autonomous Region that remains one of the few places in Asia still untouched by the modern world. Just getting to Motuo is a Herculean task, as travelers must follow a grueling overland route through frozen parts of the Himalayas before crossing into the county by way of a 200-meter-long suspension bridge. The county is renowned for its beauty—Buddhist scripture regards it as Tibet’s holiest land—and it is said to be a virtual Eden of plant life, housing one-tenth of all flora in China. Despite its stunning geography and natural resources, Motuo still remains something of an island unto itself. Millions of dollars have been spent over the years in trying to build a serviceable road to it, but all attempts have eventually been abandoned because of mudslides, avalanches, and a generally volatile landscape. As the story goes, in the early 90s a makeshift highway was built that led from the outside world into the heart of Mutuo County. It lasted for only a few days before becoming un-passable, and was soon reclaimed by the dense forest. Photos:

Read the Entire List
This place sounds really cool. Finding such remoteness in China, a country with the largest population and with a rapidly improving infrastructure, is surprising. Even in treacherous Tibet. I'd never heard of Motuo County and was happy to do some research on the place.

Here are some other interesting links on the Motuo, or Medog in Tibetan, County:

Image from Wikipedia

- An article on a guest house operator from China Daily
- A little bit of info on hiking Medog
- And, of course, articles from 2009 that to the county and that Medog now has 3G phone service!!

Argh! There is no remoteness anymore!!

I'm being somewhat facetious here. I'm sure that roads and 3G will be great for the people actually living there. But still, such modern advances have to take out a lot of the romance of visiting such a hard-to-get-to place.

I've been planning on writing something on Medog County for a couple weeks now. As it happens, my friend, Taylor, sent me an email today with some information about another incredible-looking, isolated place in southwest China.

The next remote place in southwest China that I'd never heard of before that I would love to now visit is Lexiaguo in Yunnan Province:

These images were sent to me in a chain email and I'm not real clear on who actually took these.

Here is the write-up that accompanied the chain email:
Lexiaguo - southwest of Kunming in Yunnan, China.

It is located in the southwestern part of Kunming, 2600 ft. above sea level, a remote area.
Because of its lack of infrastructure and inadequate transportation and lodging, most travel agencies would not think of going there.

But for those who have seen the pictures of the Red land, no one can resist being attracted to its beautiful scenery!
It looks like another blogger also received this chain email. ElaineR has a lot of good information on Lexiaguo (actually Laxiagou), or better known as Dongchuan Red Land (东川红土地). It turns out the chain email wasn't 100% correct. First, they got the name wrong. Second, Dongchuan is a place that travelers can get to.

I'm glad I received this email with these pictures. I learned something new today. But ElaineR's digging around on this email points out the factual inaccuracies that are common with chain email-types of information spreading.

Image from Wikipedia

I've been to Yunnan, specifically to Dali, Kunming, Tiger Leaping Gorge, and Kunming. I didn't even know about Dongchuan and, obviously, didn't go. It doesn't sound like Dong Chuan is nearly as remote as the chain email makes it sound to be though. I'm sure it's not an easy place to visit. But surely is no Medog County. And even Medog County doesn't sound that remote any more.

I'm not really sure what the point of this post has ended up being. Another one of my meandering posts. I guess it's just highlighting two places that I've never been to, just found out about, and hope to one day have the chance to visit.

Traveling makes life colorful. I'd somewhat forgotten that not having traveled at all recently. I hope that Qian and I have some more time to get out of KC and see more of America in the coming months.