Tag Archives: china blog

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

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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

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Dreaming the Chinese Dream

Image: A bridge under construction in Chongqing, China. For some time now, China has been a world leader in infrastructure investment. It sometimes uses infrastructure spending to hedge against economic downturns.

By Tong Lam

Since 2013, the Chinese government has been promoting the idea of the “Chinese Dream.” While the specific meanings of the dream remain vague, the official propaganda has repeatedly emphasized that a central part of it is a yearning for national rejuvenation. This narrative of national revival not only builds on persistent sentiments of victimhood and pride; it also highlights the role of the Communist Party in leading the country out of a “Century of Humiliation” said to have begun with the Opium War (1839–1842) and returning it to the status of a great power. Continue reading

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The People’s Republic of Amnesia and Age of Ambition Revisited: A Quick Q&A

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Many twelve-month periods witness the publication of one or two significant books by talented journalists with long experience covering China. 2014 was special, though, due to seeing not just an unusually large number but also a great variety of works of this sort appear. It was the year, for example, of Howard French’s China’s Second Continent, an ethnographically minded work based on interviews conducted with Chinese migrants in Africa, and also of the largely Beijing-set spy thriller Night Heron, by Adam Brookes. These two books have nothing in common save for the fact that both are by authors with a deep understanding of China, derived from their long experience covering the country — in French’s case for the New York Times, in Brookes’s for the BBC. And neither of those two 2014 publications were much like either of the ones flagged in the title of this post, which were part of the same bumper crop of China books. The first of these, by Louisa Lim, offers a detailed look at the legacy and contested memory of 1989’s protests and massacres, while the second, by Evan Osnos, provides a profile-driven survey of the current Chinese political and social scenes. Continue reading

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Coming Home: The Problem of Haigui, Then and Now

By Austin Dean

The rhythms of social media are everywhere the same: a story goes viral, peaks, and fades away. A few weeks ago one of the biggest stories on Chinese social media was a comment made by Wang Sicong, the son of one of China’s wealthiest men, Wang Jianlin. When asked about what kind of person he hoped to find as a girlfriend, the younger Wang replied that he really only has thing in mind: she must be quite buxom.

Even though Wang Sicong quickly dismissed the comment as a joke, it did not take long for Chinese media to pounce. The next day, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, posted a less-than-cryptic message that complained, “There are certain celebrities that recklessly disseminate vulgar information … from the worship of money to sex and violence.” They seem to have had the younger Wang in mind. Soon thereafter the scandal had a name: “Buxomgate.” Several days later the elder Wang wrote off his son’s comments as a function of spending so much time living and studying outside China: “He went overseas to study at grade one and he has a Western-style of thinking,” said Wang. “Maybe after spending five or eight years in China, he will truly become Chinese.” Meaning, presumably, either less appreciative of women’s breast size, or less apt to comment publicly on his admiration of it. Continue reading

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Inconvenient Truths

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

It’s not every week that China-and-India-watchers have parallel stories to chew over, but that’s what’s been happening for the last few days. In both countries, a documentary film about an important social issue has provoked government censorship. Neither film reveals anything that most people didn’t already know, to some degree. So why are the Chinese and Indian governments going so far to limit access to these movies? Continue reading

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Restive Feelings: A Postcard from Xinjiang

By Alec Ash

It was the first day of the Chinese new year [2014] in Urumqi, not that many Uighurs particularly cared. It’s not their holiday. But it was also a Friday, which meant the biggest weekly public prayer at the Grand Bazaar. The Bazaar itself, the world’s largest, was closed. Outside it, hundreds of Muslims laid out their mats, kneeled and prostrated themselves to the yodelling refrain of “Allah Akbar” coming from the speaker system.

Across the street, a clump of security guards watched them, looking bored. From their appearance they were all Uighur, or at least all part Uighur. It was winter, almost -20ºC, and they wore fur hats, warming their hands in their pockets. Behind the guards, in an armored van parked opposite the Bazaar, were soldiers. One of them was doubled over the driving wheel, sleeping. Continue reading

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In Manchuria: A Q & A With Author Michael Meyer

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

As I wrote back in December when we at the LARB China Blog were suggesting titles for holiday shopping lists, my 2015 recommendation for a must-read China book is In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, by Michael Meyer. A former Peace Corps volunteer and freelance journalist in China, Meyer now teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh (and is also, full disclosure, a fellow in the Public Intellectuals Program I co-direct at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations). While Meyer’s first book examined life in Beijing’s narrow and twisty hutongs, or alleyways, as they faced demolition, In Manchuria moves north, to the vast expanses of China’s northeast. Using the village of Wasteland as his home base, Meyer criss-crosses the region, stopping in major cities and forgotten hamlets as he explores Manchuria’s history and reflects on the changes underway in the Chinese countryside today. I recently interviewed Meyer by email; if you’d like to see him discuss In Manchuria in person, check out his book tour dates here. Continue reading

Speed dating

Bare Branches: Speed-Dating Games on Singles Day

By Alec Ash

Just as the cold winds sweep the last leaves off Beijing’s trees, November 11 was Singles, or “bare branch,” Day in China (guanggunjie, after a Chinese term for single men). It’s chosen for the four number ones of 11/11, an appropriate date to be dateless. In a country with 118 boys born for every 100 girls, the main function of the festival seems to be making all of China’s single twigs feel inadequate. When I texted “What are you doing this guanggunjie?” to a handful of partnerless Chinese friends, I got back the same curt reply from three: “Sleeping.” I’ll know better than to ask next year.

Singles Day is mostly about online shopping sales now, but there are also a spattering of singles’ events in Beijing on the night. Speed dating is increasingly popular in China, as young urban people in full-time jobs try to find a compatible life partner. I went along to one for a look. Continue reading