Golf in China

Posted on February 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Useful Links. No Comments

Dan Washburn is a writer I’ve followed since I arrived in China six years ago. Over the past couple of years Dan has shifted his focus to golf, a burgeoning sport that has attracted a certain amount of controversy in China. To say that few Chinese play golf would be a grand understatement- the percentage of those who could even plausibly afford to play is statistically insignificant- yet golf course development has accelerated rapidly in recent years.

To illustrate just how and why this is happening, check out Dan’s piece in the Financial Times, this photo essay in Foreign Policy, and Dan’s site.…

Look at the Funny Minorities

Posted on February 25th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture, Travel. 1 Comment

Living in Yunnan we’re treated to the regular spectacle of Chinese tourists from the coastal provinces arriving en masse to indulge themselves in a little 少数民族 exploitation. This New York Times article touches upon this subject, and includes a funny concluding section:

At another table outside were two Han tourists from the city of Chongqing. Zheng Jing, a big-bellied man wielding a Canon camera, was a repeat visitor. He said this park was the only place in the Dai region where he would ever consider staying.

“There are many villages around, and they’re all primitive,” he said as a Han motorcycle club pulled up to Mr. Ai Yo’s house for lunch. “It’s not suitable for us to go there. They don’t speak the Han language. You can’t have exchanges with them.”

That kind of attitude puzzles Dai residents living right outside the park.

“The culture here is the same as inside the park,” said Ai Yong, 32, a rubber farmer in Mannao village. “You’re getting cheated inside. You come out here, you can see everything for free.”

Fortunately Ai Yong is right- Yunnan is still rich in authentic minority life, and given the narrow scope of Han travel itineraries one doesn’t have to go very far outside of the tourist zones to find it. Within a 30-minute walk from the Dali and Lijiang old towns, for example, you can find living and breathing minority towns, free from Han tourists and 50-kuai cups of coffee. Though I’ve spent less time there, the same can be said for Jinghong I’m told.…

Anatomy of a Righteous Chinese Nationalist

Posted on February 25th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture, Chinese Internal Affairs. No Comments

China Hush has translated a rather long screed in the form of an open letter from an outraged Chinese to President Obama. The letter is interesting not for its unremarkable message but rather because it provides a useful archetype of how a Chinese fenqing, or angry youth, thinks.

Much of the letter consists of a denunciation of the Dalai Lama, whom the author brands as a ‘terrorist’, followed by the usual declaration of China as a ‘peace loving country’ somehow unique in the world.

As I’ve pointed out recently the two concepts mentioned above are interrelated. The Chinese government propagates an image of being a peaceful country so as to distinguish itself from the various foreign powers who carved China up in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as to provide an ex-post-facto justification for why its conquest of Tibet was somehow one of liberation rather than imperialism. In order to pretend that there is no legitimate opposition in Tibet, the Communist Party labels the Dalai Lama as a villain and blames all unrest in the region on his influence.

A caveat, lest you think I’m grouping all Chinese in with this particularly outraged young man. His views are reminiscent of ultra-nationalists and do not correspond to the vast majority of Chinese people. Then again, the fact that over 6,000 others have ‘dinged’ or supported his post indicates that quite a few people in this country feel similarly.…

The Critic in Winter

Posted on February 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Film, Media, Useful Links. 3 comments

If I may take a break from my usual content, I’d like to direct your attention to this very moving profile of America’s finest film critic, Roger Ebert. Since a 2006 surgery, Ebert has not had a lower jaw. He has not eaten, had a drink of anything, nor spoken a single, solitary word since.

Most Americans my age know Ebert as one half of the eponymous film-critic duo Siskel & Ebert, whose passionate arguments about films both good and bad comprised a much-loved television program that lasted until Siskel’s death in 1999. The two were a study in contrats; Ebert was fat and verbose, Siskel thin and reserved. Their arguments would culminate in an ultimate judgment: was the film worth watching? The two adjudicated this matter by a simple, trademarked gesture: thumbs up or thumbs down. In its day the ‘two thumps up!’ judgment would be displayed more prominently on the print ads of films than any other.

Before the Internet age few outside of Chicago, where Ebert is based, knew that the voluble fat critic was also a wonderful writer. His reviews now appear at the top of IMDBs ‘External Reviews’ list on each major film’s page, and are truly a primer in how to write about film. Many times through the years I’ve struggled to articulate a particular feeling about something I’ve watched, only to discover Ebert had captured it perfectly in his review.

Ebert keeps a journal of his thoughts on film, art, culture, and dying. It’s well-worth bookmarking, if only to celebrate a national treasure while he is still among us.…

Buzz Buzz

Posted on February 17th, by matt_schiavenza in Technology & Society. No Comments

So a week into the Google Buzz era and…I like it! Seems to be a nice recovery from the Google Wave debacle, which went over like a lead balloon. I think Buzz has the potential to be a nice addition to the social networking sphere- sort of a Facebook without all the extra crap and a more streamlined, intuitive version of Twitter.

But I do have one distinct fear- China does not look kindly upon social networking platforms. Should the Great Firewall rise up and smack down Buzz, there will be some dreadful collateral damage: Gmail. And yes, while a Gmail ban might spur China-based netizens to invest in VPN’s most people aren’t really prepared to do so. A gmail ban would rank far higher on a pain-in-the-ass-meter than the Facebook/Twitter blocks.

So while I like Buzz, part of me wants it to fail so that my precious Gmail account doesn’t get harmonized.…

The Real Tibet

Posted on February 17th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Useful Links. 3 comments

In Foreign Policy Christina Larson provides a useful reminder that Tibet is no ‘Shangri-La’. My own experience traveling through Tibetan parts of Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces confirms this; Tibetans aren’t the enlightened, beatific race imagined by the region’s more fervent supporters.

Yet the Tibetans are, in fact, Tibetan and not Chinese. China likes to tell the world that it alone among the great powers eschews colonial expansion, a narrative that sells well with the patriotic masses. But the simple fact remains is that periodically throughout history, China has established suzerainty over Tibet in order to form a buffer zone with other powers as well as to exploit the region’s abundant resources.

More recently, China has invested greatly in Tibet’s infrastructure in order to link the region to the rest of the country, both physically and culturally. Likewise, Beijing provides incentives for Han Chinese to migrate to Tibet as a means to dilute the area’s demographic makeup and guard against organized rebellion.

China’s actions are by no means unprecedented. Great powers have long made incursions into strategically important territories on their periphery. Yet the notion that China is different- exceptional, if you will- because it does not behave as a colonial power is central to the national narrative promulgated by the Communist Party. Such a narrative helps inspire a sense of patriotism among the population, essential in maintaining national unity.

So while it appears on the surface that the Dalai Lama is winning the global public relations battle over Tibet over Beijing, it is important to recognize that China prizes a different battlefield- domestic opinion. As a result, I don’t expect editorials in the China Daily railing against the Dalai clique to cease anytime soon.…

On Education in China

Posted on February 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Education. No Comments

This afternoon I’ve stumbled across an interesting article (via Alec Ash) discussing the Chinese secondary and tertiary education system, a subject in which I’ve been interested since my days as a high school teacher in Lianyungang and Fuzhou. The basic conclusion? The Chinese system as it is designed fails to promote critical thinking skills.

Added to my own thoughts, here are a few reasons why this point of view has some merit:

  • To a large extent Chinese high school education serves as a preparation for the all-important 高考, a mandatory exam encompassing several subjects which largely determines how Chinese students place in universities. The 高考 is many times more important than the SAT or ACT exams in the US. As a result, teachers teach to the exam and emphasize rote memorization above a broader understanding of the subject.
  • Chinese teachers, like their counterparts everywhere else in the world, vary tremendously in quality. Yet in China teachers are hamstrung by an inability to devise their own curriculum, or to deviate from interpretations presented in textbooks. This restriction stifles the ability of students to think differently about familiar subjects. Even good teachers are forced to toe the party line.
  • Chinese students of all ages waste an inordinate amount of time memorizing the political tenets of Marx, Lenin, Mao, Deng, and other politically correct thinkers. While I think it is important to some extent for students in China to learn the philosophical underpinnings of their nation’s founding, these courses make no effort to place Marxism or Communism in a broader global context and are almost universally regarded as tedious by the students.
  • For my fourth point, I’ll relate an anecdote. For the better part of my first year teaching English, I would conclude each major point by asking my students if they had any questions. Silence. I’d ask, ‘are you sure?’. More silence. Finally, one of the sassier girls in the back yelled out, “no, no questions!”. It took me awhile before I learned that my students were wholly unaccustomed to raising their hands and asking their teacher for questions. Even months of my encouragement could not undo many years of educational passivity. The problem with this approach is that students tend to accept what they learn at face value rather than think critically about what they read. The notion that what teachers teach merely represent a particular point of view or interpretation hasn’t penetrated very deeply into the Chinese national psyche, and a lack of critical thinking skills results.

It is important to bear in mind the enormous challenges China has faced in bringing their system up to international standard. When the Communists assumed power in 1949 the vast majority of China’s hundreds-million strong peasantry were illiterate. Improving this number remains one of Mao’s greatest achievements. During my trips through the Yunnan countryside, surely one of the poorest regions in the country, I have seen many schoolchildren sitting in restaurants poring over exercise books. Better a flawed educational system, I would say, than none at all.

An additional challenge in China is the vast array of regional dialects spoken throughout the country. In addition to the better-known tongues such as Cantonese, Tibetan, and Uighur, there are immense differences in dialects between and even within provinces- I know that two people from opposite sides of Yunnan would speak mutually incomprehensible dialects. People raised in the countryside tend to speak only their dialect during their daily life; I’ve encountered many uneducated peasants who still today require an interpreter to speak to me- in Mandarin. It may seem funny to a laowai that signs plastered throughout Chinese schools ask students to speak Mandarin, but they are surely needed.

For this reason, I can see why a 高考 exists. Whatever its flaws, the exam does provide opportunities for students hailing from far-flung provinces to matriculate to the country’s best schools on their own merit. Having a nation-wide exam makes sense, but why not modify its content by de-emphasizing memorization and promoting critical thinking skills? I’d be delighted if one day I stepped in front of a classroom and had a room-full of students eagerly challenging my point of view.…

The Power of Textbooks

Posted on February 15th, by matt_schiavenza in History, US Politics, Useful Links. 1 Comment

Who writes the textbooks we use in our schools? Who pays for them? From which point of view do they argue? How do our schools choose these textbooks? Do alternatives exist?

To the last question, I can definitively answer yes. Not long after I arrived in college, a friend lent me a copy of the recently-deceased Howard Zinn’s People History of the United States. Zinn’s conclusions may not please everybody but his immense contribution to historical scholarship cannot be denied.

But think about it- for the average American, an enormous amount of our historical education is inculcated via textbooks. These books- written near-anonymously, in soothing words devoid of any polemical content. Teachers treat these textbooks as repositories of factual information rather than texts worth critically analyzing. As a result millions of children develop a shared sense of ‘what actually happened’ without the faculties to criticize it.

If this wasn’t frightening enough, check out this fascinating, 10-page article in the New York Times Magazine detailing how evangelical Christian activists have managed to hijack the Texas governing body responsible for approving content to the vast majority of American public schools.

At question is the notion of whether the United States is an explicitly Christian nation. Non-American readers may find this question baffling; why does it matter, after all? Yet to understand this divide is to understand the separate political forces that operate in the country.…

The New Year

Posted on February 15th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

As I type, a string of firecrackers are going off somewhere on the street below. At various times in the past 48 hours, the streets of Kunming have sounded like a war zone, and the odd plume of smoke and stench of powder merely amplify this impression. This is, unmistakably, Chinese New Year in China.

For all the time I’ve been in China, this is only the second time I haven’t left town for the holiday. During my first two years as a grossly overpaid English teacher living in cold climates, I took the opportunity to leave China for the sunny beaches of Southeast Asia. Last year I hopped on my bicycle and zoomed off the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau for the balmy border town of Hekou. This year, for various reasons, I’ve decided to stay in Kunming.

What has struck me most about the Spring Festival is how, well, dull it is. The explosives seem more suited to breaking up the dull monotony of the holiday rather than actual expressions of joy. With almost all shops, restaurants, and businesses closed most people have little to do but sit around with the family, eating and watching television.

Yet that alone, in China, surely means something. Watching television with the family may sound tedious, but not when you haven’t seen your family for a year or more. A vast number of Chinese live far from their familial homes, and Spring Festival is often the only chance they have to go home. Lest anyone doubt that this is a powerful desire, consider the millions of people traveling in hard-seat class for three days cross-country in an effort to spend just a handful of days at home.

So perhaps Spring Festival isn’t dull at all; merely that the action normally played out on China’s bustling streets, shops, and factories now occurs inside family homes and apartments.


The other day I met a guy who announced that he had gotten married just two days earlier. “Just before the new year!”, I said, at which point his wife said, “Thank god!”. Apparently there was a surge of weddings in the weeks and months preceding the turn of the year, as Chinese superstition holds that marriages begun in the year of the tiger are doomed. For a country of such pragmatic, atheistic people the Chinese propensity for superstition is staggering.


What will the year of the tiger bring in China’s relations with the outside world? Already there are signs that Beijing has taken a more confrontational turn; witness the indignant reaction to President Obama’s visit with the Dalai Lama, hints of currency manipulation, and other supposed slights. There are also signs that the Communist Party-engineered police state have ratcheted things up a notch recently with the detention of dissidents and censorship of the Internet.

Rather than a sign of some newfound arrogance on China’s part, I’d say a likelier scenario is that any brinkmanship is designed primarily for domestic political purposes. Beijing is surely concerned that rising income inequality, environmental degradation, and other issues might arouse domestic grievances, and uniting the country through an emphasis on foreign policy is one way to diffuse discontent.…

Two Saturday Links

Posted on February 6th, by matt_schiavenza in Useful Links. No Comments

On the heels of a lazy Saturday day and a rare Saturday evening at home, here are a couple of links to brighten your weekend reading.

  • I realize I talk about Peter Hessler a lot, but skeptics will know why after reading this wonderful interview the writer gave entited “Why I Write”. Well worth a read, for China and non-China interested readers alike.
  • Hessler once wrote regularly for a site called The China Beat. While his articles seldom appear there any longer, the site itself is a wonderful source of information, analysis, and stories about China. Plus, it seems to be getting better with age.