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The best posts from the first year of Seeing Red in China

The first year of blogging has resulted in well over 300 posts, so in celebration of surviving the writing process that has yielded over 150,000 words, I thought we should revisit a few of the best posts.

My personal favorites – and the story behind them

  1. There must be something in the air – I don’t think anyone but my wife, and a few close friends know that I had a very short lived blog prior to this one. It was charitably described as “dry” and “overly detailed” (it was deleted shortly after starting this one). That failure helped me realize that I should be writing a blog that was more accessible to those without any first hand knowledge of the country. This post launched the blog, and is still my favorite.
  2. The best place in China – Sitting in the little tea shop in Longzhou is going to be a memory that I cherish as long as I live. I tried my best here to capture the experience, and reading it again brings back the sights, smells, and sounds. China’s tea culture is something that should be treasured.
  3. Why are Chinese such bad drivers? – Long before I had a blog, I toyed (briefly) with the idea of trying to do freelance pieces. I remember first drafting this in the Tokyo airport on the way back to the US for Christmas in 2009, as it had always been a fascination of foreigners to speculate as to why the driving habits here were so…what’s a nice way to put this…peculiar.
  4. China’s largest land grab – This was my first “scoop” and it wasn’t reported in other western sources for another few months. While finishing the piece, I was talking on the phone with my wife discussing a few of the details when she heard a loud click followed by what she described as my voice being played in reverse. We thought that the call might have been monitored and quickly hung up. When I got home my heart was still pounding, and when I threw open the front door my wife was gone. It turned out that she had simply gone upstairs to a neighbor’s and had already forgotten the incident. Nothing ever came of the mysterious sound, and it hasn’t happened again since then, but I doubt I will be able to forget the feeling.

Best ‘Explainer’ Posts

  1. Going to the hospital in China – A few tips for medical emergencies in the Middle Kingdom
  2. It’s easy to learn Chinese – Really
  3. How poor are Chinese farmers?
  4. The state of rural schools in China and the broken educational system

Most Read

  1. Dumb Americans
  2. Is teaching English a waste of time
  3. How much does a Chinese factory worker make?

Top Rated

  1. Mental health in China – a personal case
  2. China’s film failures
  3. Who am I to judge China

Most Discussed

  1. The good Samaritan in China
  2. Don’t expect customer service in China
  3. Ugly Americans make us all look bad

Longzhou – A Forgotten Town with a Long History

Continuing to look at some of my favorite parts of living in China, is the fact that there is history everywhere. Thanks to the Cultural Revolution, civil-wars, and thousands of years of tearing down the old to make room for the new, it is fairly safe to say that China has lost more history than the US has. We weren’t even a country until half way through China’s final dynasty (the Qing). So living in a place where I pass a 600-year-old buildings on a daily basis is great.

Taken ~1900

The tiny town of Longzhou where I first lived was an excellent example of how even present day backwaters can have an interesting history (Here it is on Google Maps). There was a kind of joke about the current situation, “Longzhou has a train station, but no railroad, an airport, but no airplanes, and a consulate but no consul.” And no this is not one of China’s infamous “ghost cities”, just a place left off of the main highway.

In the late 1800’s it was at a key junction of rivers that made it invaluable for trade with Vietnam (French Indochina). At first the French tried to take control of the city, but was repelled by troops at the “little great wall.” Later they attempted a more diplomatic approach, and built Guangxi’s first consulate.

French Consulate

As trade grew between the powers, so did Longzhou’s wealth, and a railway was to be built. The local government knew that this was a great opportunity to grow their wealth, and built the station before the railway arrived. Unfortunately for the town, war broke out in Northern China, and the plans were scrapped.

As the Nationalists faced the Japanese coming from the North a small airfield was established in Longzhou (also because it was a hotbed of communism). The field helped tie the city closer to the provincial capital of Nanning, and it served as a small army base.

Deng Xiaoping also lived in Longzhou for a short time, and the statue in the town square is of him instead of Chairman Mao. In the small town he worked with other communists to plan, and launched the Baise uprising, the first communist offensive in Guangxi.

8th Red Army Building, where Deng Xiaoping once lived

Ho Chi Minh, also lived in the small town during that time. His small house is now a museum to Chinese and Vietnamese friendship. He would also use it during the Vietnam war to meet with Party Officials.

Longzhou’s history though is even much longer than I described. Just up the river is a series of cliff paintings that are nearly 2,000 years old, and were created by a non-han group.

When so much history can be found in a single forgotten town along the Vietnam border, it’s easy to see that almost everywhere you go in China, you will find hundreds, if not thousands, of years of history just around the corner almost anywhere you live.* For people who love history, this makes China an easy country to love.

*Does not apply to Shenzhen, or some of China’s other instant cities.

The Elderly in China – Something to Admire

I enjoy having the opportunity to host foreign investors when they visit China for the first time. They see the country the way I used to see it, and I wish sometimes that I could get back to that feeling. For people stepping off the plane in Shanghai, China seems like a country that is capable of accomplishing anything, and a place where the market is ready for just about any new product.

So for the next few days we will be looking at the things China does well.

I remember when I lived in Longzhou I was struck by the quality of life enjoyed by China’s elderly population.

It is common to see in most Chinese cities, parks full of elderly people enjoying chess, dancing and some of the most leisurely backward-strolling I have ever witnessed. They seem to have maintained large social networks because many of them live their entire lives in a single village or city.

In the cities I have lived in, senior citizens are entitled to free public transportation, which usually covers most of the city (which compared to the US is amazing, even if it’s often hot and crowded). It also seems that they are always able to find a seat on the bus, since Chinese tradition demands that younger people, even into their 40’s or 50’s, give up their place for someone older.

Within the family the eldest person’s opinion carries the most weight. It is also becoming more common for the grandparents to move back in with their children, once the grandchildren are born. It is often the grandparents who take the child to school, cook for the family, and pass on family history. They are not a person to be questioned.

I would see them gathered under the shady trees on campus that branched out over the few cement tables. The men were playing Chinese chess, and drinking from their glass jars filled with tea so strong you’d expect it to keep them awake through nap time. The grandmothers would be nearby, fawning over their grandchildren and helping them to take their first steps in life.

I couldn’t help but compare that to the nursing homes so many of our senior citizens live in in the US, and think how much better their lives would be if they still had a defined role in their children’s families. My grandma in the US likes to joke that instead of calling them elderly, or seniors, they should be known as “honored citizens”, but in China that already seems to be the case.

Note: My grandma is an amazing person, and she reads this blog daily, which I think is pretty advanced for an octogenarian. My co-workers agree that this would be quite the feat even for someone in their 60’s in China. My grandfather is equally wonderful, and I know he is sitting beside her with a big grin on his face as she reads this to him.

The Gov’t and the Chinese Church

Over the past three days the posts I’ve been writing have emphasized the fact that many of the bad things we hear about government interference in religion in China are overstated. That does not mean though that life for Chinese Christians is completely free of gov’t interference.

When I first arrived in Longzhou the local church had been shut down for 3 months. The reason for this was that the pastor had left for training in Nanning, and the lack of a leader had led to some small problems in the already small congregation. The local department of religious affairs stepped in and closed the doors. To me it seemed like something that could have been solved in a few days of negotiations, as the church reopened before the minister returned.

Yesterday I mentioned the student who was baptized in the hotel bathtub, the school wasn’t particularly pleased when they heard about what had happened. The result was the school issuing a ban on any student attending any religious activity.

It happened that I was meeting with the head of foreign relations for the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA). I asked her what the students could do to protect their right to worship. Her response was, “As you can see we have made the laws that ensure religious freedom, but this is a problem of enforcement, so there is nothing we can do to help.” So while this freedom of belief is guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, there are no mechanisms for actually protecting it.

I also asked what was being done by SARA to promote social harmony between religious groups and atheists. The answer was that SARA had organized dozens of opportunities for Christians, Muslims, Daoists and Buddhists to come together and discuss their beliefs. She also stated it was important for religious people to understand the values of atheism and the party.

This meeting also featured an elaborate banquet that felt like they were trying to buy our support. They mentioned the price of several of the dishes, many were over $100.

In which case you might wonder why SARA exists. Even though I’ve had a chance to meet with them, I still don’t understand very clearly what exactly they do besides monitoring religious groups. When I visited Henan province, we were attending a meeting at a local (registered) church. Two men from the local religious affairs department came into the meeting and sat at the end of the table. Their purpose seemed to be to make us uncomfortable.

I hope some day China’s Department of Religious Affairs will actually work not only to promote understanding between different religious groups within China, but some day to actually create programs that connect atheists and people of faith. SARA should also be working to actually enforce the laws they write, in my humble opinion.

A Trip Through a Chinese Market

Earlier this week we looked a little bit at food safety in China. Today we are going to look at a Chinese market (nothing comes in packages), these are where most rural Chinese prefer to do their shopping. Whenever I have visitors from the States, I enjoy taking them to the market because it makes such a visceral impact on them and leaves them with the inescapable feeling that they have caught a glimpse of the real China.

I still clearly remember my first trip to the market in Longzhou. It was late August so the air was heavy with humidity and the heat seemed to amplify the fragrance of the fresh fruit along with the pungent smell of meat that had been sitting out for hours.

When we first entered the market, which was a 3 story cement building with a lot of empty floor space, we came to the fruit vendors. It was mostly women sitting behind their piles of papayas, pineapples and passion fruit, along with dozens of others that I didn’t even know the English word for. The colors were fantastic.

I bought one of the pineapples and the lady began shaving off the rind with a razor-sharp knife, then she switched to a v-shaped awl and quickly scooped out the last bits of the rind leaving an intriguing spiral pattern on the pineapple. Just as she went to place it in the bag, the golden-yellow fruit slipped out of her hands and rolled across the mucky floor. She looked mortified. Quickly she grabbed the pineapple by its leafy green sprout and dunked it into a bucket of questionable water. I ended up buying it from her, even though I knew I would have to throw it out as soon as I left the market.

Past the fruit were the vegetables. Somehow these were stacked even higher than the fruits, but were far less exotic. The veggies brought an earthy smell to the market, which was only natural considering the amount of soil still clinging to the mountains of potatoes. Many of these vendors came from the surrounding countryside to sell their vegetables at a slightly higher price than they could at home.

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Beyond the vegetables the market became some kind of nightmarish landscape of unidentifiable flesh. Pale pork and deep red beef sitting out in the Guangxi heat is a smell that I would like to someday forget. I still believe that a single trip through this market is the equivalent of an entire year’s worth of anatomy. There were cow stomachs, congealed pig blood, goose intestines, and the terrifying pig skull with meat and no skin.

There was a man literally hawking snake oil among other dubious cures. The bucket of live scorpions next to him helped us hurry past without daring to look much closer. The thought of it still makes me squeamish.

In the back, men with blow torches were roasting pig feet and other various “treats”. My teaching partner looked a bit disappointed, “I guess it’s not dog season yet,” and with that we headed home.

Dark Clouds for Development

2011 has already set record highs for food prices, and that means another step backward for development. Now add to that news that China’s wheat-producing region (one of the largest in the world) is bracing for the worst drought in a century, and you have the makings for a disaster.

In 2008 the world saw record high food prices. They led to riots in some countries, and crime waves in others. My brother was in the Dominican Republic at the time, and faced a number of threats on his life, as desperate people looked for ways of providing for their families.

At that time I was in Longzhou and there were daily questions from the restaurant owners about the cost of goods in America. In one restaurant the menu price for dishes with eggs changed daily. Finally one of the Chinese teachers said that he was sick of hearing about China’s “harmonious society,” he just wanted cheap vegetables.

Now I’m not entirely sure about what will happen in 2011, but I can tell you two things that won’t happen as a result of this. One being that China’s people are not going to starve. China is rich enough to feed its people, and the government’s authority rests on social stability. As we have seen in other countries, hungry people tend to protest, and that is the last thing the Party wants. China will simply buy more of America’s surplus grains, but this will cause a lot of problems for the rest of the world.

The other is that China’s rural areas are going to feel the effects of these food prices far more than the city dwellers. The reason for this is that China is going to try to limit price increases on other food items (non-staples), so the farmers will be making the same amount of money from their cash crops, while the cost of staples (like wheat and rice) increase. City dwellers will also complain about the rising cost of wheat, but will still be able to afford a balanced diet because of the government’s actions.


For further reading on this developing story I recommend here, here, and here (this one is just pictures).