December smog over a Hangzhou canal
Yesterday the Rundkvists came home from ten days in China where we’ve been visiting with relatives. We spent eight days in my wife’s home city Hangzhou (pop. 8.0 million) and one day each in the city Suzhou (160 road km away, pop. 10.7 million) and the well-preserved little canal town Zhouzhuang (150 road km away). I spent most of our stay walking and cycling around on my own or in the company of Cousin E who was also in HZ to see his parents & brother over the holidays. Check out my photo album! Here are some impressions.
- Though I hardly saw any fellow westerners on my wanderings, HZ’s citizens have become used to seeing people like us. Hardly anyone shouted halou at me, evinced surprise at my strange looks and absurd height or wanted their pictures taken with me, compared to ten years ago.
- HZ (but not Suzhou) is swamped with cheaply available public bikes belonging to about ten different firms. In order to use them as intended you need a local smartphone and/or bank account. I had neither, but I soon figured out that there are many serviceable bikes with damaged or incorrectly closed locks that anyone can use. Of course, I had to find the ones that let me adjust the height of the seat.
- Gas-powered mopeds are forbidden in HZ and Suzhou. This extremely wise (draconian, dictatorial) measure has been in place for at least 20 years. Instead people ride electrical mopeds, which keeps the noise level that makes e.g. Hanoi almost intolerable down.
- Chinese urban planners make no allowance for pedestrians who want to move through the city independently of where cars can go. There are extremely few pedestrian railway crossings. HZ’s newer residential blocks tend to be very large, gated and walled. Gatekeepers never stopped me when I entered a block, but then there was no exit through the wall in the direction I wanted to go. I lost lots of time on my walks trying to move in a straight line towards my destinations.
- Open Street Map‘s app was extremely useful. I had my location on a detailed map of HZ at my fingertips for the first time. This app lets you download entire Chinese provinces in one go before you head out.
- Even during these cold and drizzly days in the off-season, the tourist attractions saw healthy numbers of Chinese visitors. I read that during the season, these temple complexes, stately homes, museums, parks and formal gardens are simply packed with people. It’s strange to think that these places were largely created for a small parasitic elite of connoisseurs who made sure that common people had no access. And now that anyone can come and have a look, they show up in such numbers that commoners still can’t enjoy the sites at the time of year when they’re at their best.
- The presentation of Chinese tourist attractions is largely garish, vulgar and commercial. Most of them are old-time Chinese Disneyland. Inside the Hanshan temple precinct in Suzhou, for instance, the oldest Buddha statue I saw is being used as decoration in the religious souvenir shop. Almost all standing buildings in these cities are recent. I don’t think I’ve seen a single structure older than 1800 in Hangzhou, though this is a special case as the town was torched by crazy millennarian Christian-inspired Taiping rebels in about 1850.
- The celebrated vistas across HZ’s West Lake are largely obscured by air pollution.
- Peripherally located tourist sites are far quieter and less commercial, for instance the terraced tea-growing valley of Meijiawu in the hills SW of the West Lake. Here the recently re-developed landscape park and minor religious complex of Yunqi is probably delightful on an early April morning.
- When there is any public signage in a Western language, it is a small subset of the Chinese version, written in Chinglish (or in some cases even Engrish) by someone with a weak grasp of the language. In addition, the proofing errors often give the impression that the person who made the physical sign knows no English at all and has copied it one letter at a time. The Chinese are in fact sovereignly uninterested in whether foreigners understand these signs or perhaps laugh at the erratic and flowery word choices. The best sign I read was one in French at the entrance to the Shizi garden complex in Suzhou. Not only was it good French, it contained more information than the sign in Chinglish next to it.
- In town, I like to avoid the tourist areas completely (which confuses my in-laws) and walk smaller, slightly run-down residential lanes and back streets. Here people hang their laundry to dry on the telephone wires next to large carps and pieces of pork curing in the polluted wind. Retirees haggle for fish and vegetables at the corner shops, and the little eateries’ staff clean dishes at an outdoor sink.
- My greatest linguistic triumph was when I managed to explain to a restaurant owner that a cat was gnawing on the pork she had hung out to cure on a rack behind the building. Wei! Ni hao. Mao chi nimende gan rou. Nimende zhu rou. Though my vigourous pointing out back probably helped a lot. She thanked me and rushed to save her bacon.
- A lot of the recent architecture is straight out of dystopian scifi movies: hyper-futuristic steel-and-glass skyscrapers that are lit up with digital animation after dark. We experienced a full-on colossal-scale 3D digital acid-trip at Life Plaza in SE HZ one evening, with laser-lit choreographed dancing fountains. As we left, reeling, we saw 30-story Disney characters dancing across the facades towards the river.
For more commentary on things Chinese, see Aard’s category tag for China.
The Chinese Twitter equivalent Weibo censors searches for the names of places where there are protests (currently Shenzhen). You could write a script that searches for the main Chinese cities on Weibo and plots the ones that are censored on a map. Presto, a dynamic map of Chinese political unrest! With data supplied by the Chinese government, no less. Who will do it first?
Update same day: Daniel Becking points to the highly informative web site Blocked On Weibo. It has a wide remit. The most recent entry explains why the two characters for “pantyhose” are blocked.
Fazer's old packaging
Fazer has removed the cartoon East Asian from one of two versions of the packaging for their chocolate-covered puffed rice. Only the conical straw hat remains, an “abbreviated motif” as Karl Hauck would have put it. Tørsleff still has the guy on their gel agent. Gabob recently published the fine boardgame Wok Star which is full of cartoon East Asians.
Tørsleff's gel agent
Thinking about these images, I’ve decided that I don’t find them racist. The old Fazer and Tørsleff cartoons are certainly outdated, since few people in East Asia wear conical straw hats or queue hair any more. The Wok Star images are up-to-date. And none of the images denigrate East Asians in my opinion. Granted, it’s hard to understand why there’s a cartoon Chinaman on the gel agent, but the chocolate has rice in it and is named “Kina”, and the boardgame is about a Chinese family restaurant.
The Wok Star boardgame
I’m thinking that when Chinese cartoonists draw friendly caricatures of their own people, then they probably look a bit like this. If we can’t allow cartoons of people with non-Europid features, then we just make them invisible in part of the public space.
What do you think, Dear Reader?
Update same evening: Dear Aard regular Christina points to an ongoing fracas in Canada where a South Asian woman depicted on a draught for new paper money was replaced by a Europid woman.
I had a brief but interesting conversation with a distinguished Chinese art historian the other day. He’s my age but has been far more successful than me despite relocating to Sweden. We were talking about science and superstition, because apparently someone had described the Swedish Skeptics that I head to him as “The Swedish Anti-Superstition Society”. Anyway, he told me this (and I paraphrase).
“I’m not sure China is going the right way now with its emphasis on Western science, technology and capitalism. Just look at the environmental degradation and rapid urbanisation. If my country hadn’t been forcefully opened to these influences by the Opium Wars, we might have chosen a way of our own.”
He didn’t make it clear just what this Chinese way might have been, other than that it would be less scientific, less technological, less capitalist, not communist, and more like imperial China. Thinking about this, I’ve concluded that he’s getting it all mixed up.
To begin with, there is no such thing as Western science. There is only one world and science is the only semi-reliable way to find out how it works, regardless of what culture you operate in. From this follows that there is no such thing as Western technology. Technology is the application of scientific knowledge to the solution of engineering problems. And so, if China hadn’t lost a war against technologically superior opponents when it did in 1860, it would have lost the next such war. No amount of imperial ceremonies or Buddhist meditation would have helped.
As for capitalism and communism, neither of them is a necessary corollary of scientific and technological advances. Imperial China could have started the scientific revolution long before the 17th century when capitalist Europeans did. But we must remember that although China’s current capitalism and its recently ended communism both led to atrocities, this was in fact a continuation of a tearful history reaching back to the dawn of recorded Chinese history. Being a majority farmer or worker in China has never so far been a pleasant way of life. So my guess is that any continuation of the imperial Chinese civilisation would have been pretty draconian too.
Scientific advances lead to improved technology. And improved technology tends to improve living conditions at the expense of a degraded environment. But the way out of this is to improve technology further, not to sit down and meditate or dream of the lo-tech past.
My wife just returned from Beijing where she’s been collecting interviews for a TV project. And I find that her beauty is not luxurious imagination.
My wife’s from Zhejiang province, and so is this can of pickled cabbage that she bought yesterday. I like the label a lot. It’s not quite Engrish: of course, we would say “people’s mess hall”, but the Chinese characters actually denote an extremely basic canteen-like eatery. A mess hall, a canteen, maybe a refectory; very latter-day Maoist. It’s a correct translation.
I endorse the pickled cabbage of the Chun’an Qiandaohu Nongxing Food Co., Ltd.. It is by far good enough to be served not only in mess halls.
I’ve written before (1 – 2 – 3) about the Kenyan village with a poorly supported and recently concocted origin myth involving Medieval Chinese sailors. Now my buddy Axel Andersson has alerted me to a similar case. But here it’s sort of the other way around: a Chinese village with a poorly supported and recently concocted origin myth involving Roman soldiers.
The village of Zhelaizhai (formerly Liqian) is in Gansu province in northern China, on the border towards Inner Mongolia and on the edge of the Gobi desert. People here tend to have an unusually Europid appearance by Chinese standards, and recent DNA analyses are reported to support such a link. No archaeological support for any Roman contacts have however been reported.
In the 1950s the eminent Oxford sinologist Homer Hasenpflug Dubs suggested that the people of Zhelaizhai might be descendants of a lost Roman legion. This unsupported conjecture from a forgotten Western academic has now entered local folklore in Gansu.
If indeed people in Zhelaizhai have a much closer genetic affinity with Europeans than others in the area, then this is to my mind unlikely to have anything to do with the discreetly undocumented arrival of any Roman legion. More likely, these people are related to the Europid, tartan-wearing Bronze Age mummies of the Tarim basin in neighbouring Xingjiang province, or with their Tocharian-speaking descendants. And the Silk Road runs nearby, offering a steady supply of amorous travellers from distant parts who were more than willing to contribute to the local gene pool.
The Roman legion hypothesis is a typical attempt of an historian to pin a specific well-documented name and date onto something that actually goes way back (frustratingly, to some) into nameless prehistory.
I don’t like Falun Gong, which I regard as a crazy manipulative cult. And I don’t like the Chinese government, which I regard as a repressive capitalist dictatorship. These two organisations, in turn, hate each other. And it looks like someone in the Chinese government is trying to use me to disseminate anti-FG propaganda.
This morning I received two letters from people claiming to be FG members trying to convert me. Neither letter is very long. Both contain loudly racist statements about black people and “mix-blood”. It is a matter of public record that my wife is Chinese and that we have a child. So I guess the gamble here was that I’d be angered by the racism and publish an anti-FG screed quoting the letters.
FG’s prophet actually has made some racist statements, but they are peripheral ideas in the movement and certainly not something a FG proselytiser would shove in someone’s face when making a first contact. They’re religiously deluded, but that doesn’t mean that they’re stupid.
The rivers run almost dry in Qingtian prefecture, Zhejiang province, China, because of recently built power dams. This particular dam on a tributary of the main river was completed three years ago. The resulting lake is 100 meters deep above the drowned villages on the valley floor.
And if they didn’t build these dams? Either burn coal, build more nuclear plants or stay an undeveloped nation.
“Lie Fallow” means “in your spare time, without a prior appointment” in Engrish.
Everybody loves Engrish, the surreal dialect of English found on signs, in menus, on clothing etc. in the Far East. Much of it seems to stem from blind over-use of dictionaries, where the non-Anglophone user picks one of the possible translations of a term at random. Here are a few examples I’ve caught recently at restaurants.
The breakfast menu at our hotel in Hecheng had some fine variations on rice porridge and its condiments.