Ideogram Fun

Posted on October 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. 2 comments

Via Sean at NeoChaEDGE, here’s a cool visual representation of the Chinese characters of various food items.

Can you tell what each of these items are?

Can you tell what each of these items are?

Answers after the jump:…

Thoughts about the Present Decade- And the One Coming

Posted on October 27th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World, Chinese Internal Affairs, History. 4 comments

Over the past week or so I’ve been working on a blog post summarizing the 2000s and wondering what the biggest themes, events, and trends were, both in China and beyond. When I sat down to write it I realized that there was so much to say that a simple blog post here wouldn’t do it justice. Perhaps when I have more time around the end of the year I’ll give it another stab.

Instead I’d like to think ahead to the ‘teens, the 2010s, or whatever we might call the next decade. What sorts of things are likely to happen, both at home and abroad? I’ve laid out a few thoughts to get the ball rolling.

1. Within the US and the developed world there are three ideas that will gather momentum in the next ten years: acceptance of gay marriage, decriminalization of marijuana, and action on climate change. Part of this prediction is hopeful as I support all three wholeheartedly, but I do think that if the past ten years are any indication these three ideas have gone from being somewhat farfetched to at least plausible.

2. The reading of a daily newspaper will cease as we know it, and by 2020 or earlier all newspapers will be digital. In order to make this model work subscribers will pay for news content and likely other services such as social networking websites, search engines, and even some opinion journals. The next generation of web- web 3.0 if you will-will be figuring out how to pay for it all.

3. Environmental incentives will lead to an increase in high-density living in the US, following current trends in Europe and in East Asia. This will be coupled by increased support for high-speed rail and other initiatives. The golden age for the American automobile will recede even further into the past.

These are merely three- anyone care to add more, or comment on mine?…

Blogroll Update

Posted on October 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

Hey all, a little housekeeping note. I’ve made some changes to the list of sites on the right, including the appearance of a new category listing all of the sites that are kind enough to have published my writing before. What’s the point of having a blog if not for cheap self-promotion?

Under recommended sites I have added a handful of new blogs I have recently discovered and have discarded a few that are no longer active. There are also sites that while not technically blogs are still useful for the curious reader.

As flattered as I am to have such a well-informed and interesting readership, please do not limit yourself to this site- each of the ones on the right are well worth your perusal.

And yes, I am well aware that a makeover for this site is greatly overdue. The simple aesthetic appealed to me upon this site’s launch in 2007 but now seems about as attractive as empty walls at an art gallery. When time allows I’ll spruce this place up a bit in order to add a bit of style to the substance.…

Of Sickness and of Health, in China

Posted on October 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 4 comments

I really enjoyed this short James Fallows article on how he survived living in the world’s most polluted country, China. The synopsis: it isn’t that hard! Even though Fallows mostly lived in Beijing while I live in the relatively clean Kunming, I can relate entirely to his thoughts.

To those too lazy to click on the link, here are my thoughts. Yes, air pollution in China is bad. I notice how clean the air is whenever I go back to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I’m from. Visiting my sister and her family in the Seattle area feels like stepping into a pine forest. I spent 12 hours in Beijing due to a delayed flight in June, and the few minutes I spent outside were absolutely ghastly.

With health, though, it pays to look at the big picture. Casting aside air pollution, living a healthy life in China isn’t as difficult as it seems.

Consider food. Within a ten minute walk from my apartment I have access to fresh vegetable and produce markets, meat markets, and several restaurants that serve freshly cooked food at affordable prices. Unlike in America, it isn’t expensive to eat well in China. With a little more effort and motivation, one could quite easily avoid processed foods altogether. The phenomenon of obesity in China only occurred after the sudden arrival of processed, Western food options such as KFC.

Secondly, the Chinese have invested heavily in promoting public transportation as well as bicycle commuting. In Kunming virtually all major roads have wide lanes for bicycles, and only the annoying habit of Chinese drivers of occupying the lanes during traffic jams disrputs the flow of bicycle traffic in the city. I accomplish mundane tasks like eating and shopping with a bicycle and a backpack rather than a car and a trunk. Healthy!

Basically, for all the talk about pollution health mainly revolves around personal choices. A person who smokes, drinks heavily, eats badly, and doesn’t exercise while living in a place like Sweden or Canada will not be as healthy as the person who avoids smoking, drinks moderately, exercises, and eats well in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province.…

Cracks in the China Class Ceiling Case

Posted on October 15th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 8 comments

This editorial in the LA Times by Ian Buruma has generated a bit of web discussion recently, but something didn’t sit right with me after reading it.

Buruma begins the editorial by describing Hu Jintao as a ‘dull’ leader and how, in the context of recent Chinese history, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He then says that while Hu’s policies may be less harmful than those of Mao, their benefits extend only to a certain class:

This is not the story one might hear from unemployed workers in the rust belts of northeastern China, or from rioting farmers in Guangdong province who have been pushed off the land by greedy developers working in tandem with corrupt party officials. Nor is this view necessarily shared by the brave lawyers willing to take on some of those corrupt officials, or intellectual dissidents who still get arrested for arguing that Chinese should be entitled to basic democratic rights.

But it is the common line taken by people who benefit most from the current wave of fun, fashion and prosperity — the new urban elite, some of whom are pampered children of Communist Party bosses.

Nobody denies that there are several thousand incidents of unrest each year in China, all of which successfully are quashed by the government. Yet to say that only the ‘urban elite’ have benefited from recent Communist Party policies is absurd.

First of all, the numbers of ‘urban elite’ within China has skyrocketed over the past thirty years precisely because of post-Mao economic policies. By conservative estimates nearly 400 million Chinese people have escaped poverty since 1978, and while not all of them have become prosperous city-dwellers a not insignificant sum of them have climbed up the prosperity ladder.

Secondly, while I’m aware that there is a bit of nostalgia every now and then for the Maoist period, few members of China’s rural population would swap their life under the current leadership for the tumultuous days of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Bear in mind that in the 1950s China’s rural population endured a famine that felled between 30 and 60 million people, the consequence of a misguided economic policy pushed through by Chairman Mao. The Cultural Revolution was hardly better- the numbers of lives ruined by Mao’s crazy schemes cannot be quantified.

Buruma then compares China’s autocracy unfavorably to India’s democracy but fails to make any points associated with economic development. Oddly, he focuses his criticism on the Communist Party on disaster management with the reponse to the Sichuan earthquake as his prime example. By the way, I was in China for the earthquake, and nearly every Chinese person I spoke to about it praised the central government for its response. But I digress.

Even assuming that Buruma’s point about the government’s slow response to the earthquake were true, it still doesn’t have much to do with overall economic development. How about the timely and effective implementation of the economic stimulus package and other development measures? Surely the absence of a parliamentary opposition expedited this piece of vital legislature, no?

I’m hardly an apologist for the CCP. I reject the commonly voiced argument that the Chinese people aren’t ready for media freedom, or elections, or other liberal reforms. There’s a good argument to be made that the Communist Party isn’t the best government for China at present. Buruma just doesn’t make it.…

CCP Factionalism?

Posted on October 14th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

To an outsider the Chinese Communist Party appears to be a monlithic force free of the factionalism that defines multi-party systems of government. In fact, this is not the case- the Chinese government contains divisions that might ring familiar with political observers elsewhere in the world.

This Foreign Policy article published earlier this year defines two dominant groups within the Communist Party. One consists of officials who have risen through the ranks of the Party beginning with the powerful Communist Youth League. The other, referred to derisively as ‘princelings’, have achieved power through more nepotistic means.  In the US context, think of the backgrounds of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as a basis for comparison.

In an Asia Sentinel piece, author Willy Lam uses this form of Chinese ‘bipartisanship’ to speculate about a growing rift between China’s current president Hu Jintao and his likely successor Xi Jinping. In this narrative the long-time party stalwart Hu is pitted against the princeling Xi, the latter also making waves by his public praise for the Hu’s predecessor and rival, President Jiang Zemin.

Oh, Chinese politics- who says that China’s leaders are dull automatons?…

The Two Sidneys

Posted on October 14th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World. 1 Comment

For much of the Maoist era China was closed off to the outside world, and foreigners comprised only the minutest fraction of the country’s several hundred million strong population. Two of the best known foreigners present during the Mao era are Sidney Shapiro and Sidney Rittenberg, both Jewish-Americans who arrived in China even before the Communists prevailed in the 1946-49 Civil War.

Both men are still alive and still make themselves available to the media. Shapiro is 93, Rittenberg 86. Interestingly, each man strongly dislikes the other despite their uniquely dovetailed personal histories. This article goes into a bit more detail about the two, and provides an interesting glimpse into what laowai life was like at a very different time in China’s history.…

The Feet of the Rooster- China and National Day

Posted on October 9th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture, Chinese Internal Affairs. No Comments

I caught around a half-hour of China’s National Day pagaentry from a small television set in a tiny Dai village somewhere between Baoshan and the Salween River. I only came to the village in order to re-stock on water and mooncakes*, the latter perfectly suited for bicycle energy food.

(Unfortunately I missed the exciting bits; the mini-skirted  women marching in lock-step that forced old Comrade Hu Jintao to crack a smile, the display of military might, and the various other processions of attractive people moving gracefully that seems an essential part of any large public event in Asia. I caught only the banal procession of people carrying portraits of leaders past and present as well as giant characters spelling out support for ‘Mao Zedong thought’ and other such anachronistic slogans that nonetheless remain firmly entrenched in Chinese propaganda. )

The Chinese are fond of saying that their country is shaped like a giant rooster. If this is so, Beijing lies at the rooster’s heart, while the coastal cities face farthest forward. In this analogy, the town in which I stopped- scatologically named Pu Ping (铺平)  by the way- would be somewhere near the rooster’s feet, being dragged along by the rest of its body.

Viewed from outside of China, the pageant seemed designed to reinforce stereotypes Westerners hold of the country. Namely, China is a rising power both economically and militarily and has leapt into modernity at a frightening pace. The China on display in Beijing that day is the China that we’re told will soon dominate the world and perhaps threaten our security. This is the China that is supposed to be the bee in our bonnets.

Yet from the perspective of a small town in China’s rural hinterland that image of China seemed laughably lopsided. What I saw were tiny villages without running water and scores of poor agricultural workers, many of whom were tawny-skinned and scrawny. Pu Ping is simply one community out of many scattered across China, and the villagers I spoke to were part of the country’s 700 million strong peasantry- a population more than double that of the entire United States.

When viewed from the front, the Chinese rooster can appear a menacing animal. From underneath its belly, though, reveals a broader image of the country’s full demographic reality.

*Mooncakes are little biscuits traditionally served around the mid-autumn festival in China, which this year fell on the 3rd of October. Their popularity is ordinarily far from universal but after strenuous exercise I gobbled them up unreservedly.…

Ruili and Back to Kunming

Posted on October 7th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 4 comments

24 hours ago I was just settling into a two-hour Burmese massage in Jiegao, a small town located directly on the border of China and the country now known as Myanmar. Now, I’m back in my comfortable office in Kunming, fresh from a shower and clean clothes and with a slightly battered bicycle. This is nice.

A few notes from the rest of my trip:

– We hopped off the Tengchong-Ruili bus just after Mangshi, a medium-sized city near the border of Baoshan and Dehong prefectures. Immediately we noticed a Southeast Asian feel in the new region, with dark-skinned ethnic minorities wandering about and palm trees lining the roads. A humidity that we hadn’t felt in Kunming for weeks also set in, making our cycling more difficult than normal.

– Not long after beginning the last leg I noticed my back tire had gone flat. Possessing a puncture-repair kit but lacking a pump, I was forced to push my machine into the nearest village, where I was able to communicate to the locals that I needed an innertube patching.

– While the local and I plugged the hole we began chatting. He had worked in Kunming for several years before coming back to the village. He said he had a maintenance job repairing the automatic coffee vending machines that each language school in the city has. This made me feel less secure about his patching job, as I distinctly recalled these vending machines being constantly out of order.

– The men in the village were small and wiry while the women were slightly stockier. Most of the men were shirtless and wore sarongs and sandals. Upon inquiry they turned out to be of the Jingpo minority, a group better known in the West by its other name, Kachin. This ethnic group straddles both sides of the border but has a far larger population in Burma. For some reason all the men were heavily tattooed on their chest and arms.

– Ruili was larger, more cosmopolitan, and far livelier than I had expected. I also found it less seedy than its reputation had suggested. We found a great bar/restaurant called Bobo Cafe, serving delicious Myanmar beer and some mean banana pancakes. Why is the beer so much better in countries like Burma and Laos than in the far more developed China?

My friend has a theory that poor countries ensure a supply of good beer in order to placate the population, for whom the indignity of drinking bad beer may constitute a rallying cry in anti-government demonstrations. Then again, countries such as Germany and the Czech Republic in Europe have excellent beer and good governments. Both, though, have lousy food. Maybe you just can’t have it all.

– Ruili also has a night market roughly ten times larger and more impressive than the one in Kunming, the provincial capital. I would gladly trade the noxious discos that abut Kunming’s night market stalls for some of the wonderful Burmese barbeque meats we sampled in Ruili

– We went to Jiegao, the actual China/Myanmar border town. There, we stopped and had a two-hour Burmese massage. I felt so loose afterwards I wouldn’t have been surprised if all of my bones and muscles collapsed in a heap on the floor. Fortunately they didn’t. I felt great.

– Several of the locals in Ruili refused to talk to us or were curt and rude when they did. I couldn’t figure out why. This is highly unusual in China, even in border towns.

– The bus back to Kunming was a bruising 14-hour sleeper. I had an upper-middle berth, about as bad as possible, especially considering that the berths were not built to accommodate people over 5 foot 6 or so.  My poor legs crumpled into origami-like positions only hours after going through the whole massage rigmorale. I’m surprised they haven’t deserted my torso for a more friendly owner yet.

-There were two drug checkpoints on the bus back, one at 11:30pm and the other two hours later. In both cases we stood by the side of the road for about a half-hour while two military policemen, none older than 20, searched the bus. I’m not sure how much this method has stemmed drug trafficking across the border, but it certainly worked to alienate all of the passengers. At best it should merit mention in any guidebook entry covering the region.

– I ate a big honking American breakfast upon returning to Kunming and enjoyed every bite. And the coffee! How a billion plus people in this country largely live without it in the morning escapes me.…

Tengchong and Heshun

Posted on October 4th, by matt_schiavenza in Travel. 1 Comment

Greetings from Tengchong, Yunnan, where I’ve been staying the past two days after surviving the Bataan Death March–i.e. the bike ride over Gaoli Gong Mountain. We had initially planned to spend just a single day in Tengchong but have instead remained for two; the consequence of consuming some bad baijiu at the hostel bar and spending an entire morning in bed, recovering.

Tengchong looks like most other provincial-level towns in Yunnan, though less compact and more green. I had expected signs of gentrification owing to Tengchong’s popularity with travelers but haven’t seen much. The city is refreshingly down-to-earth with a buzzing night market and several simple restaurants.

Near Tengchong lies the town of Heshun, a village now known for the large numbers of locals who, flush with cash from the jade trade with nearby Myanmar, have emigrated. Heshun’s narrow, cobblestone streets and traditional architecture reminded me a bit of Lijiang, and in true Chinese form tour groups and kitsch shops have popped up everywhere.

Heshun might be ‘ruined’ in five years, though for now the it has retained its charm. In the course of researching a story I was put in touch with a middle-aged local man who lived in a traditional courtyard home on the outskirts of town.

Our interview ostensibly concerned the Burma Road, the famous supply route through India and Burma that supplied Allied forces in China during World War Two. Tengchong’s history is intertwined with that of the road, a subject I had intended to explore further.

In the course of our discussion the man instead spoke movingly of his family history. His parents were members of the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party that governed the mainland from 1911 to 1949 and has dominated Taiwanese politics ever since. From the end of World War Two to 1949 the Kuomintang fought against the Communists in the Chinese civil war.

When the Communists won, the Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-Shek fled with much of the country’s treasury to Taiwan. Many of his supporters followed him. For the parents of the man I met, history was less kind. They were unable to flee.

Later, under Communist rule, the man’s father was accused of being a counter-revolutionary and a spy for Burma. He was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. After his release, his son sadly described him as a changed man; the years of torture and imprisonment had caused him to lose his mind.

I asked him whether he harbored any bitterness towards these years and he said no. Things were good now, so good that he could do what he wanted and buy what he pleased. When I asked whether he was concerned rampant tourism would ruin Tengchong’s spirit, he simply laughed and said that the economic development to him was progress.

Tomorrow we press onto Ruili, the capital of Dehong prefecture and a city which has supposedly shed its seedy image. By how much? We’ll have to see.…