Thursday, October 22, 2009


Hey, all. Sorry for not getting back to the blog sooner. I've been pretty busy this week, and it doesn't look like it's going to let up any time soon.

"The Founding of a Republic" was no let-down. I'll admit that most of the cameos went straight over my head (I know, I really should be spending more time catching up on the Chinese soap opera scene...), but the performance wasn't bad (in a cheesy, overdone propaganda film kind of way). Here are the highlights:

1) When (I think) Chiang Kai-shek's wife, Soong May-Ling, visits the United States to plead with President Truman for financial aid, there is a fantastic scene in which she steps out of the limousine and climbs the steps to the white house. An African-American White House guard follows her with his eyes as she enters the building. When she leaves, he enthusiastically exclaims, in English, "Man! She's so hot!" ... You can tell that the director had political correctness in mind when shooting that one.

Oh, and in this same scene I learned that George Marshall, Truman's Secretary of State, had a British accent. Who knew?

2) Yep, sure enough, they mixed in Deng Xiaoping's reforms into Mao's monologues. Upon learning that all of the lowly petty bourgeoisie have fled a city recently taken by the Red Army, and worse, they've taken all of the cigarettes with them, Mao claims, verbitim, "We need the capitalists back."

All right, fair enough, while it's unlikely that Mao would have ever said such a thing, the petty bourgeoisie weren't the biggest of his problems, so I'll let it slide. And then he said something to this effect: "We don't know how to run the economy ourselves. That's where the capitalists come in."

OK. Come on. This is the guy that came up with the Great Leap Forward for Christ's sake. I don't think he'd be spouting free market theory at the dawning of the age of the Maoist planned economy. If I had to guess, I'm thinking that this scene's script was the one that the CCP had a hand in 'editing'.

3) This one's for you, Dad. The movie ends with Mao's famous phrase, "The Chinese people have stood up!", triumphant music, and with a greyscale Chinese flag fluttering in the wind. The hues gradually change until the flying flag is shown in full color and vibrancy.

Now, I'm as staunch an American as the next guy, but this scene ran shivers down my spine. It was pretty well shot, if a little (well, okay, very) overdone. It is, though, a real testament to the power of film as a political tool.

So this weekend, I'm off on another school-sponsored trip. This time we're off to Pingyao, a famous, well-preserved old town from the Qing era, located in Shanxi Province. I was just talking with a Chinese friend of mine who said that it used to be a really prosperous trade center back before the revolution, so I think it's going to have a lot to offer. Moreover, we'll be staying in an old, true-to-history refurbished Qing mansion and learning about their legal system. So that should be fun.

And unlike my trip to the Great Wall last weekend, I'm going to have fresh batteries in my camera, so I'll actually be able to take pictures. Grr... It's not a total disaster on the photo front, though. I got some of my friends to take some shots of me on the wall, so when I have time, I'll take them and link them here.

Wishing you all well!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Finding the Groove

It feels like things are really starting to fall into place.

I just got back from grabbing dinner with my tutor. She's a senior Chinese major from Anhui province, and she's been a great teacher and a fine friend since we started meeting a month and a half ago. We usually meet for an hour, four times a week, and just chat. It's really good practice for my listening ability, which is lagging behind a bit.

Tonight, we decided to spend our tutoring time over a meal. We went to the student cafeteria on the east side of campus (where most of the Chinese students live) and had a great time. We spoke Chinese the entire time, and sitting down to eat with a bunch of Chinese students, I really felt like I was where I needed to be. It's a 'belonging' kind of feeling that I haven't felt in China before now.

Moreover, I'm slowly getting in with the Chinese students, toward the aim of hanging out with them more than my American friends. It's just too damn easy to hang out in front of the IES building and chat with the rest of the ex-pats. Luckily, a Chinese English major who I had talked to before expressed interest in grabbing lunch with me next week. He's part of a pretty solid group of Chinese guys with whom I think I would get along just fine, so I'm looking to getting in with them a bit.

This weekend is, like most weekends here, going to be busy. Tomorrow I'm going with an 'old' Chinese friend of mine (who usually lives out in the provinces but is in Beijing for a couple weeks) to see the new film called "The Founding of a Republic." I'm very excited about this. Not only do I get to see a State-backed movie about Chinese history (that a little counter-factually blends Mao's charisma with modern CCP economic strategy), but I also get an introduction by a local Chinese person to who all the hundreds of cameo actors are. Seriously; this movie is filled with every mildly famous Chinese actor in Hong Kong and the People's Republic. I've heard that Jackie Chan has a brief role. Even more incredibly, I hear a lot of these actors showed up free of charge.

On Saturday, about 30 of us are finally going to the Great Wall! We walk around one of the more touristy, popular wall segments on Saturday afternoon, and then after spending a night at a guest-house nearby, we get up a 4:00am for a morning hike along one of the largely un-renovated but extremely scenic parts of the wall. Very, very excited about that.

So, yeah. It's been a great week, and things are only looking up. Heh, speaking of which, Shushu just walked in and handed me a sesame pastry. It's been a good day.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Hello, Comrades!

It's taken awhile, but so begins my "National Day Holiday" edition of 'Charlie in China'.

I'm not sure how well it was covered in the Western media, but the Thursday before last was China's 60th anniversary. On October 1st, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China, so October 1st is the start of a reasonably long vacation every year for comrades young and old. This year, however, was a bigger celebration than most, marking the PRC's sixth decade.

In many ways, I got what I expected. We saw flawlessly made-up soldiers marching in perfect unison, and the ubiquitous nuclear-capable missile trucks that make for the most exciting of military parades. And, naturally, each province (including Taiwan, interestingly enough) drove an appropriately themed float for the civilian parade that followed.

However, one major difference between U.S. parades I've seen and the one on Thursday (other than the fembots, you can't forget the fembots) was that the people of Beijing were told specifically not to come. Instead, my family and every other family in this city of 13 million was told to stay home and watch it on TV. The 60th anniversary was truly a made-for-TV event.

One other thing struck my attention, and it's been rolling around in my mind ever since, somewhat due to the readings that our government teacher has been handing out. Near the start of the civilian parade, large trucks bearing over-sized pictures of the four most well-known Chinese leaders cruised through the parade route, surrounded by colorfully dressed, smiling people twirling banners. These lucky four were Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and China's current General Secretary/President, Hu Jintao.

Here's Deng Xiaoping on the parade route:
新中国成立60周年大阅兵图 - 风儿 - 风儿的博客

That got me thinking exactly how the official mechanics of power work within the Chinese state, and I thought I'd share what I learned.

Here's the quick analysis of Chinese government, as I've come to understand it so far from my government class. There are three pillars of power in China; the Communist Party (CCP), the State, and the Military (the People's Liberation Army, PLA).

The Communist Party: Effectively runs it all by filling government positions with Party members. It's led by nine senior party members, including Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao (who is the General Secretary). It's thought that this group of 9 runs the country by consensus among themselves on what policies are the 'correct road'.

The State: Is run primarily by the State Council, a council of 50-or-so heads of government agencies and the Premier, Wen Jiabao. There is also a People's National Congress that is supposed to approve the state ministers and agency heads, but among Western media outlets, the PNC is still viewed as a rubber-stamp organization that is only recently becoming a legitimate forum for discussing state issues.

The PLA: The combined army, navy, and air force. I don't know much about it, but it's headed by the Central Military Commission, who's Chairman is also (I'll give you two guesses...) Hu Jintao.

It's clear that the State is dominated by the Party. This, of course, is by design, and CCP leaders have no shame in admitting it. However, particularly back in the late 1980's, there was a lot of discussion among the top leadership about the direction that the party should take both economically and politically. The economic reformers won out, spurring unprecedented growth in China for decades, but the political reforms (calling for greater separation between the Party and the State apparatuses) ended up, in many cases, failing.

What this little research project has suggested to me, is that while the State is often quite effective at carrying out its policies, there is a fundamental lack of institutionalization in the organs of the State. While checks and balances do crop up, it's from in-fighting within the CCP, not from inter-party or inter-branch conflicts like in the United States. Since reformers going back at least to the 1980's have been begging for more institutionalization, it's going to be interesting to see, as my research continues and as time goes on, whether it will start to materialize.

As for me, classes are going well, I've been making more and more Chinese friends here, and I've been really glad to get in touch with people back home from time to time. Wish you well!

UPDATE: I made it to Tian'anmen today to see the floats they had during the parade. This is the kind of event where EVERYONE wants their picture taken with you. After all, you're in a group of Americans wielding mini-Chinese flags and shouting "中华人民共和国万岁"! (Long Live the People's Republic of China). The pictures are all posted here.

MORE UPDATED: I also have the pictures from my hike at Xiangshan posted. They're all

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Back from Yunnan

I'm back in Beijing again after my couple-week long trip to Yunnan. Sorry it's taken so long to post; I didn't have internet access for a couple of days, but now all is well. My camera is jam-packed with great photos, and I've got all sorts of cool stories from the trip. However, upon re-read, I realize that this post is huge. Grab some tea, and take a couple meals and put them on your computer table, because this might take a while.

If you remember from last post, we first were to travel to Kunming, then to Dali, then to Zhongdian (a.k.a. Shangri-la), and lastly to the small Napa Village outside Shangri-la. Kunming was wonderful. I could really imagine myself working here someday, actually. The weather is consistently comfortable the whole year-round. Typically, the temperature is 80s-60s during the summer, 70s-50s during the winter. The town is really lively due to the presence the prestigious and beautiful Yunnan University and a growing influence in the realm of South-East Asian trade. We stayed in the hotel/guest-house on the campus of Yunnan University, so the area close-by is student-oriented (read: packed with bars). But other than places to get hammered, there are fantastic little restaurants and shops that don't look totally corrupted by rich tourists.

The first night there, a small group of us (including our adorable Chinese professors) went on a walk around the neighborhood and found a relatively well-known local park called Cui Hu, which translates to Green Lake (pics: 1, 2). It was Saturday night, so tons of local musicians and dancers were out performing (pics:1, 2, 3), each act about 20 to 30 feet from the next.

The next day, we were paired up with students from Yunnan University and set to roam the town. Our 'guide' was a soft-spoken and short female graduate student who run us through the park again and showed us a bit of campus. We got to talking, and she was partly responsible for building up a lot of confidence in my Chinese aptitude that carried my through this trip. Here are some of the photos we took while on our walk: 1, 2, 3.

That afternoon, we drove to the mountains at the edge of Kunmin, where there sits Xi Shan (西山). It's a relatively steep and well-known climb, partially carved out by Daoist ascetics centuries ago. On the route up, there are all sorts of cool statues and little shrines dedicated to Daoist deities. Pictures here:1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.

That night, we hopped on a sleeper train to Dali. This was a bit of a strange experience. Each train car has about thirty 'rooms', which are really just three-walled partitions of the car. Each wall (other than the one that runs parallel with the train, which has a window) has three bunks: a lower one, middle one, and higher one. As things go, the ride was pretty comfortable, although damage to the train-tracks kept forcing us to stop every two hours or so on the 10 hour ride.

To be totally honest, I wasn't that impressed with Dali. It seems a lot like Estes Park back home. In Estes, there are fake log cabins that serve as storefronts, staffed by people in raccoon-hats selling kitschy tourist crap. Just replace the log cabins with buildings with glossed-green pagoda-style roofs, and the raccoon hats with traditional ethnic headdresses, and you've got Dali. Not a great an example here, but it gives you the idea.

I'm not being totally fair, here. Once you got off of the main drag, it turned out to be a really beautiful little town. Moreover, the afternoon we arrived, we rented out some cheap, rickety bikes and took a ride through the countryside (1,2,3,4,5). The day after, about half of our group drove out to Cai Shan, a historically-important mountain for the local Bai people who used to have Dali as their capital centuries ago. Very, very lush. It had that 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' vibe to it. When it comes to the scenery in movies like that, they really don't make that stuff up (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)! And hey! It came with a number of beautiful fruit stands and larger-than-life Chinese chessboards. How could I go wrong?

From Dali, we bussed down to Tiger-Leaping Gorge, which is hands down one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. First we stopped at the upper narrows (1,2,3,4,5,6) and then wound our way through the gorge to our guest-house. It's a really cool place, this village at which we stayed. It's had the same, quite comfortable guest-house for the last decade (which provides spectacular views, I might add), but despite this, the town has remained remarkably free of tourists. Farming, and an itty-bitty tourist-oriented industry, is what keeps this town cookin'. This town, as it happened, also treated me to one of the most amazing meals of my life.

After we had gotten settled into the guest-house, Benji, another student on this trip who I would best classify as a combination of 'Harold and Kumar' and a 60's flower-child, came up to me and said, "Charlie, we're going to try and get dinner with a local family. You in?" I thought this was nuts. Who in the United States would host a group of four male foreign tourists who show up on their porch asking for food in exchange for money? With nothing to lose, however, we set off down a dirt path away from the public road on which we drove in. Soon enough, we found a small farmhouse with a woman in her late 20's inside. In my broken Chinese, I asked if we could have dinner with her. After making sure we knew there was a restaurant up the hill, she agreed. When I asked, she even let us come a little early to help make dinner!

These were some of the sweetest people I've met. They're ethnically Naxi, one of China's 55 non-Han minorities. The 20-something year-old woman we met (named Xia Chaoying) is a new mother; she had a 7-month-old boy strapped to her back for most of the evening. She lives with her husband and her mother- and father-in-law. When I asked, I learned that the family had been living in the same house for over 100 years! Grandma and Grandpa don't speak much (if any) Mandarin at all. They know only Naxi. Fortunately, however, Xia Chaoying spoke flawless Mandarin (due to the fact that she's part of the younger generation) and actually knew quite a bit of English from middle school and her days working in a tourist-oriented restaurant up the hill. Naturally, the food was fantastic, and with the backdrop mountains like these, and in the company of such fascinating people, it was an incredibly memorable experience.

Here are the rest of the pictures we took while hiking around the gorge: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18.

From Tiger-Leaping Gorge, we moved on to Shangri-La by bus. As I'd expected, Shangri-La was mobbed with tourists. A little unexpectedly, though, very few of them were white; most were Han Chinese from the east coast. Apparently the mystique behind Shangri-La carries beyond the West. The real pearl of this part of the trip, though, was the opportunity to stay with local Tibetans in their homes in a hamlet called Napa Village about one and a half hours from Shangri-La proper.

This was one hell of an experience. We were fortunate enough to arrive in Napa Village the day before a Tibetan marriage! The day of the marriage, we had a bit of business to take care of in the morning, and so unfortunately missed the ceremony itself, but from what I can tell, it was only about a half-hour long. The emphasis really lies in the reception afterwards, which my friends and I were glad to take part in.

A little background: Tibetan houses are huge. Which is a little odd if you think of how cold it gets there. They're really designed to hold large numbers of people for gatherings like wedding receptions. Moreover, Tibetan homes are also extremely ornate: beautiful woodworking, bright religious paintings on the wood paneling, and a shrine to the Buddha, decked out with fruit and colorful cloth, in every home. It is in this context that we found ourselves, munching on sunflower seeds and chatting with the locals. We learned that the marriage was between a local Napa villager, and a girl from one of the villages nearby. As we looked about the room, we saw about 50 to 60 people sitting and chatting at low tables around the room, which the immediate family of the bride and groom were sitting at tables in a horseshoe shape around a man dressed in a tall, furry hat and leopard-skin, giving a memorized, half-spoken/half-sung speech to the families. As the evening wore on, people came and went, particularly the bride and groom, who ceremonially eat dinner with their respectively families and away from one another.

But when the sun went down, the dancing began.

The form of the dance was as follows: You have two concentric rings of people, each with about 25 to 40 dancers. One group begins singing a traditional song and dancing around the circle to their tune. When they finish, the other group performs the same dance, only louder. It's a competition between the two sides that lasts all... night... long. They do not stop dancing until dawn of the next morning. Of course, we ended up bugging out at around 10:30pm, but seeing as they let us take part in the dancing the entire time, we felt like we had taken a lot away from it.

The family we lived with (it was me and five other guys in our home) was really interesting. The patriarch of the family of four is a government employee, working to help boost tourism to Napa Village. From our conversations with him and others, we learned that back in the day, Napa Village's biggest industry was logging. That turned out to be unsustainable, so with a little bit of government help, they've been reshaping Napa's image to be something of a 'dude ranch,' taking in foreigners to live with them a couple of days and see Tibetan lifestyles. When I asked whether this was seen as a good or bad thing, people generally seemed to be happy with the set-up. I think people really do like meeting people 'from the outside', and I'm sure they're more than happy to have that money flooding into the local economy.

Despite this, opinion of the government is not always the greatest. The family patriarch told me that he was really only a government employee because it paid the bills, and he really had no other alternative. He was surprisingly forthcoming with some of the sensitive questions I asked, justifying his loose-tongued-ness in that we were students. However, at one point, I asked him this question:

"Do you think China is becoming freer as time goes on?"

And he didn't say a thing. I asked if he understood my question, figuring I had spoken unclearly.

He said, "Oh, yes. I understand clearly. Very clearly."

But he still wouldn't answer. A pretty telling response on his opinion of freedom in Yunnan.

After living in the village for a couple days, we took small day-packs and hiked to the old Napa Village, back in the old lumber days. There are still a few people living up there, and I can absolutely understand why. Broad grassy plains run up to steep bamboo forests that top out in tundra mountain peaks. After we arrived and set up our tents, four ex-Boy Scouts, two ROTC cadets, and I hiked up to the top of one of these hills. A beautiful climb, the pictures of which are soon to be forthcoming.

Ai! Sorry for such a long, long, post. I just had a lot to say. My camera ran out of batteries soon after we left Tiger-Leaping Gorge, so I don't have many pictures of the Napa Village. I had my friends take plenty of pictures for me, so once they pass 'em off to me, I'll post them here.

Also, once I have a little bit more free time on my hands, I'll make some posts on the National Day celebration here in Beijing, and my trip to Xiangshan. Best wishes to you all back home and abroad!