Tag Archives: china blog

Are You a Dark Horse?

By Austin Dean

On the first Saturday of June over nine million Chinese teenagers (and their parents) had something in common with the owners of the racehorse American Pharoah. Namely, all were among the most stressed out people in the world.

What was the cause of the stress for the group in Asia? Because years of preparation, worry and sleepless nights were about to come to an end, as Chinese high school students did their final cramming for the gaokao (college entrance exam). Their scores on this will determine if and where they go to university. The rest of their high school careers—grades and extracurricular activities—don’t count in admissions decisions. It is all about the test. Continue reading

John Brown’s Body Crosses the Pacific

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

On the last two days in April, I got a pair of emails. Each asked me to answer a question relating to China: one the predictable predictive sort I dread, the other the idiosyncratic off-the-wall kind I relish. The April 29 digital missive, from an editor at Foreign Affairs who was putting the same question to a variety of China specialists for a feature, asked me this: “Can the Communist Party survive another ten years if it fails to make ‘major reforms’”? The April 30 email was from the gifted banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn, someone I’ve long admired and recently become friends with; she wanted to know whether I could think of an old American song that had made its way into the Chinese musical repertoire in a particularly interesting fashion, and, if so, fill her in on things like when and how it had made its way to China. As I’m always leery of prognosticating, I answered the April 29 query quickly, spinning my response in a way that highlighted the foolishness of forecasting. The April 30 query has proven harder to answer. In trying to figure out what to write to Abby, I’ve found myself going off in different directions and heading down some initially promising byways that turned out to be dead-ends. This hasn’t been a bad thing. Quite the contrary: the fact that there wasn’t an immediately obvious answer to her question is one thing that made it such a welcome one to get. Continue reading

Sexpat Memoirs of China: 5 of the Best

By Paul French

Recently “sexpat” made it into the online urban dictionary —

Sexpat (noun), a compound of sex and expat or expatriate.

A sexpat is one who participates in tourism with the express intention of having sex.

Lately a number of “sexpat” memoirs concentrating on experiences in China have aroused some amount of curiosity and indignation on the internet. The most recent Shanghai Cocktales: A Memoir: 1 (indicating that there may be more to follow!!) by Tom Olden (a pseudonym) recounts various sexual encounters between a young European in the Shanghai of the early 2000s and an array of women. It sparked a bit of debate, some outrage, a few laughs, and one of the most amusing literary spats in China for a while. However, when considering your position on sexpat memoirs, please do not think they are anything new. Here, then, is a list of five of the best (none of which were written under pseudonyms, incidentally):  Continue reading

Berlin to Beijing and Back Again

By Tong Lam

Near the northeastern edge of Berlin, in what was once part of East Germany (aka the German Democratic Republic or GDR), is a place called Mörderberg (Killer Mountain), which contains a cluster of derelict buildings. Abandoned since the 1990s, they were once the barracks of the GDR’s Volkspolizei-Bereitschaft (People’s Police on Standby), which was under the command of that now-extinct country’s fearful Interior Ministry. During the final weeks of the GDR when massive demonstrations broke out in Berlin and elsewhere in 1989, these buildings were at the center of action, serving as both the barracks of paramilitary riot policemen and as an overflow prison for anti-government protesters. These days, sitting quietly in the middle of a vast and tranquil green field, the buildings and their grounds are surrounded by a tall metal fence, lined with rusty signs in German warning that the site is off limits. Yet, not unlike the Berlin Wall in the period just before unification, the fence, however menacing-looking from a distance, is full of holes and gaps. For those who, like me, are interested in reading history against the grain, the combination of the warning signs and gaps are an invitation to explore. And when I finally visited this place with a German friend earlier this year, I was mostly drawn to the stories and memories hidden inside these otherwise charmless prefabricated structures. Continue reading

The Korea Conundrum and Chinese Soft Power

By Austin Dean

Aarif Lee is a movie star. Born to a mother from Hong Kong and a father with Malay and Arab ancestry, he was Chinese super-celebrity Fan Bingbing’s love interest in the 2013 movie One Night Surprise. There were even rumors that he and the pop singer and actress were an off-screen couple for a time. He currently is one of the leads in the reality television show Huayang Jiejie that follows four older female celebrities and two younger male ones on a trip to Turkey. Continue reading


In The Gulou Days

By Alec Ash

Nostalgia is hard to keep up with in China. That old bar, that old neighborhood, that old friend — memories accrue quickly along with the fast turn-over here, silt at the bottom of a swift river. Circumstances change, people come and go. Just count the number of new restaurants on your street. The way we talk about last year is the way folk back home talk about last decade. The constants — rent hikes, food poisoning, strangers taking selfies with you — are almost comforting.

The space I feel most nostalgic about in Beijing is the courtyard between the Drum and Bell Towers. I first saw it in the summer of 2007, a fresh graduate on my first trip to China. I was meeting my brother’s schoolmate Max Duncan (a videojournalist still in Beijing), the only person I knew in town, and the taxi dropped me off right in the middle of honking traffic at the south side of the Drum Tower. But just around the other side was a rectangle of quiet green fringed with stone slabs and grannies dancing to a boombox. Max was squatting to one side with a cigarette, nattering away with a grandad in Chinese. The next summer, I came back to learn Chinese and stayed. Continue reading

Bai Yansong

The Man Who Stayed Behind—At Chinese Central Television

By Austin Dean

Chinese Central Television (CCTV) likely provides more news to more people than any other media organization on the planet. As a 2012 book, which Christina Chiao reviewed for this site in 2013, put it in its title, CCTV, across its various channels, has the attention of “Two Billion Eyes.”

Recently, though, CCTV is making headlines as well as presenting them. A few weeks ago, Bi Fujian, long-time host of the network’s much watched and much mocked annual New Year’s gala, was taken off the air after a video emerged that showed him making snide remarks about Mao Zedong during a private dinner party whose attendees included foreign as well as Chinese guests. Before Bi’s off-hand comments, “at least 15 senior network employees” had “disappeared into the maw of party and state detention,” as part of a wider crackdown against corruption at the network. Continue reading

hutong door

Two Views of a Beijing Hutong

By Christina Larson

“Two dogs?”

A girl came up behind me wearing the bright blue and red track-suit school uniform of Beijing Number 5 high school, situated to the side of the alley I live on in central Beijing. She admired my larger dog, who came up to sniff her hand. In any country, walking dogs is a good way to meet strangers.

We heard a horn behind us, and moved out of the center of the narrow alley to the steps in front a small grocery, busy restocking.

“People are so aggressive these days!”

“These hutongs (alleys) aren’t really designed for car traffic,” I said, blaming the wealthy parents of her classmates for bringing their SUVs down our pedestrian streets. Continue reading

Hongkew police station

Into the Shanghai Trenches: A Psychogeography of Sin in Old Shanghai

By Paul French

Shanghai’s sin districts that catered to foreigners were many and varied. They appeared moments after the city became a treaty port in the 1840s and survived through to the 1950s. Whoring at the brothel shacks in Hongkew, gambling at the first race course on Honan Road, illicit betting at the adjacent Fives courts and knock-down-&-drag-out shamshu bars in Pootung (Pudong), were popular pursuits for sailors, all up and running by 1850. Sin existed across the city — in the French Concession and the International Settlement, around the edgelands of the foreign concessions in the Western External Roads (Huxi), as well as the Northern External Roads that ran across the Settlement’s borders from Hongkew (Hongkou) into Chapei (Zhabei). All of these districts shifted, morphed, rose, and fell over the decades thanks to a variety of factors — from suppression by the Chinese and/or foreign authorities, and as a consequence of the Second Sino-Japanese War after 1937, the liberation of Shanghai from the Japanese in 1945, and the arrival of the communists in 1949. All these places were the subject of legend and anecdote, exaggeration, and not a little official embarrassment. The sin districts fill the pages of the files of the Shanghai Municipal Police and the jotter books of the Garde Municipal in Frenchtown. They were patrolled by the Japanese Gendarmerie that, in the late 1930s, controlled the Western and Northern External Roads, and by the Chinese police that governed the fringes of the settlements beyond foreign control. All saw prostitution, drug abuse, and gambling alongside murders, mayhem, and bloodletting. The stories are legion, and the tale of the murder of Eliza Shapera in 1907, of which there is an excerpt below from a new anthology of true crime writing, is but one of the many, many unsolved murders among Shanghai’s floating multi-national foreign underclass. Continue reading

1947.2009.Map Differences

The Case of the Mistaken Maps

By Austin Dean

Maps are at the center of every territorial dispute. My map says this parcel of land over here belongs to me and always has; your map says that same parcel of land has belonged to you since time immemorial. Armed with supposed cartographic confirmation of competing claims, border dispute can last for decades.

In the midst of a territorial dispute, it is important to put maps on display. During Chinese National Day festivities last October, a large exhibit titled “Diaoyu Islands: History and Sovereignty” dominated the first floor of the National Library in Beijing. The intent was to overwhelm. Featuring a number of old documents, manuscripts, and maps, the message was clear: these rocks in the middle of the sea belong to us and always have. Continue reading