Spring Festival Reflections

The author makes a new friend at the San Ta or Three Pagoda temple in Dali, Yunnan Province.

In the past three weeks I have taken advantage of the Spring Festival holiday period to travel extensively in China. Starting from Beijing I first of all travelled 2,087 kilometres to the city of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in south-west China. I then went on a further 350 kilometres to my first base, the city of Dali. Then another 300 kilometres south from Dali to the border city of Tengchong which is very close to the border with Myanmar.

After a return journey to Kunming I then cross-crossed central China, travelling to the city of Hangzhou, close to Shanghai and the capital city of Zhejiang Province. This is a further 2000 kilometres. From Hangzhou I climbed high into the mountains around the town of Lishui to a tiny village nestled in the mountain peaks called Songzhuangcun. The next leg of my journey was the 1000 kilometre trek northwards to Qingdao, a coastal city in the province of Shandong. Finally from Qingdao it was a simple matter of 650 kilometres back to Beijing.

Approximate map of the Spring Festival travel.

Let me share with you some reflections from my journey.

If you’re thinking of any journey like this, I’d strongly suggest you travel by train. Cities across China are well connected by domestic flights and I could have halved my travel time by taking to the air. But you lose so much. Quite simply, your train window is a cinema on China. Or maybe more like an artist’s canvas with a constantly changing scenery of villages, towns, cities and nature. You journey between the familiar and the unknown. The flatlands between Shanghai and Qingdao remind you of the land reclaimed from the sea in East Anglia. The long dives through subterranean tunnels where the darkness is broken by sudden flashes of remote villages hung between precipitous valleys as you enter Yunnan is unlike anything you’ll experience in Britain.

The unfolding panorama is one reason for travelling by train. The second is the fact that train journeys connect you to not just the country but the people themselves. The longer your journey the more the chances of falling into conversation with fellow passengers. I find most Chinese people to be as reserved as us British, but if you have just enough Chinese to spark up a conversation you will be made welcome. From Beijing down to Kunming I was made to feel part of an extended family going home for the Festival. In Tengchong I improvised English lessons for curious 14 year olds who had never spoken to a foreigner before. From Shanghai to Qingdao a young entrepreneur entertained me with stories about his start up film business. Believe me, my Chinese is not good, but all Chinese people study English in school and a good number can hold a conversation in this second or even third language. How many of us could do the same in Chinese! There’s always a digital translation APP to fill in the gaps. And underneath it all is a friendliness and a tolerance that ease communication. In all those long kilometres of travel, at all times of the day and the night, there was not one unpleasant encounter.

Finally and perhaps most important, there’s the sheer efficiency and quality of China’s rail network. Of course it saves on the emissions caused by jet fuel. Currently approximately 30% of China’s electrical capacity is generated from renewables, with a target of 50% by 2025. I’m afraid to say Chinese trains are everything that currently British trains are not. They have excellent staffing with helpful conductors, regular in-travel cleaning and a catering service that regularly supplies snacks or even heated meals delivered to your seat. There’s even an APP now that allows you to book restaurant cooked food ahead in your next destination, which will be delivered to your carriage as you wait on the platform! Travelling in style! Furthermore the timekeeping of the high speed trains is legendary. My longest train journeys were all of approximately ten hours duration – and each trained cruised elegantly into its arrival destination at precisely the scheduled time.

Gleaming ‘gāotiě’ high speed train in Spring Festival sunshine in Qingdao station.

Next I’d like to reflect on the diversity of travel experiences that China can offer a traveller, a diversity which often has its equivalents in Britain.

Encounters with history and culture are a given. For history, let’s take the ancient town of Heshun on the outskirts of the Yunnan city of Tengchong. The town is unaltered since the Ming and Qing dynasties, when it was an important centre for trade across south-east Asia. Walking in its narrow, cobbled streets delivers exactly the same feelings of nostalgia and connection with the past you get in a Cotswolds village in England.

The Cotswold village charm of Heshun Ancient Town near Tengchong, Yunnan Province.

For culture, let’s drop in on the New Year’s Day festivities at Songzhuangcun village, visiting a small temple perched on the mountainside. We all know that firecrackers and fireworks are a critical part of new year procedures to drive away bad luck. However in many cities lighting up firecrackers is banned, largely for environmental reasons. No such restrictions apply here and I’m thrust into the middle of the most enthusiastic and the most cacophonous ‘bàozhú’, firecracker display I have ever witnessed, where long lines of the little explosive devices are laid out along the mountain paths leading to the temple door. Soon the path is dripping red with debris and the air reeks of gunpowder and smoke. No chance of any evil spirits straying this way! And it would be exactly the same as dropping into some of the best bonfire nights for Guy Fawkes in England, the same high spirited, defiant revelry, fuelled by high octane pyrotechnics.

Firecrackers spark the New Year festival into raucous life, Songzhuangcun Village, Zhejiang Province.

So far, so mainstream. But equally significant for me was the quirky, or even outright eccentric, characters I met along the way, showing different, unexpected faces of China. In Dali I stayed several nights in what we would recognise in England as an ‘alternative lifestyles centre’. Members of the ‘Veggie Ark, Future Space’ community in Dali are committed vegetarians, many of them vegans. Life in the community revolves around a communal kitchen where buffet meals are shared for the inspirational cost of £3:50. For even more dedicated vegans, meals entirely consisting of raw foods are available. The community has a programme of events focused around creativity and wellbeing. I meet a foreigner, from Switzerland, who had joined the community and teaches alternative therapies. It’s all very middle class. Guardian readers from the UK would feel very much at home here. The founder is called Wu Hongping. He’s an incredible character. He comes from a farming family. After travels abroad he returned to Dali, started growing food for himself and then realised that his home-grown, organic philosophies were increasing important to a materialist society. Now he is a farmer, a social entrepreneur and a wonderfully charismatic, inspirational teacher.

Veggie Ark, Future Space’ , Dali, Yunnan Province, where Wu Hongping is creating a wholesome wellbeing community.

Another alternative lifestyle presents itself at Songzhuangcun, my homestay village in the Zhejiang mountains. If I said an ‘artist’s village’, or a ‘creative community’, you’d probably think of somewhere like St Ives in Cornwall, where art is a key part of vibrant cultural tourism. Come with me now to a remote mountain-top village, where Sun Yingying is striving to achieve the same magic. Songzhuangcun ought to be a dying village. Like so many other rural areas in China, it has been devastated by urbanisation. Yingying shakes her head and tells me there are no young people left at all in the village, they’ve all moved to Lishui, the nearest town in the valley or to nearby Hangzhou or Shanghai. Therefore there is no economic activity in the village. Indeed some of the beautiful mud-brick and wooden houses look shabby and forlorn. But Zhejiang Province has a hard won reputation as the leading area for rural revitalisation in China as the whole country strives to rebalance itself after decades of urbanisation and Yingying is making her own unique contribution.

I’ve seen wonderful village projects in my travels in the south-westerly provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan, but this one has a special beauty. Sun has worked with leading designers and local craftspeople to transform a number of retired properties into a stunning homestay accommodation. The project is called ‘Tao Ye’ – ‘Wild Peach’. The beautiful rooms are instant Instagram hits – or WeChat Wonders to give the Chinese equivalent. Tao Ye is successfully calling cultural and artistic travellers from across China and in future from across the world. But here’s the genius part. To kick start the creation of an ‘artist’s village’ Sun is developing the artistic and creative skills of the older people still resident in the village. She takes me to the art gallery in another restored abandoned local house to see their work. It has the wonder and authenticity of naive art. How much is from the artists and how much is from Sun herself is impossible to say, but their work is organic to the village environment. It might be the subject matter in paintings of the village itself, it might be the media, using raw, natural materials from the local environment or it might be the artists themselves, using their hands daubed in colour to create their designs.

Sun Yingying, who is revitalising a remote village in Zhejiang Province as an artistic and cultural centre.

Sun introduces me to one of her artists, a sprightly octogenarian called Ye Jin Juan. This woman should be the national symbol of rural revitalisation. When I meet her she’s setting up a demonstration of the rural craft of soy milk making for some visitors and will not stand still for one moment, except for a shy photograph. Sun tells me that Ye only left the village once in her life, for a short visit to nearby Wenzhou to see the sea, which apparently didn’t impress her much because she came straight back to village life. Her glowing, wrinkled skin and bird like twinkling eyes are witness to the wellbeing of mountain life. She drops her head humbly when I praise and encourage her art, but I can sense that developing these skills has given her a pride and meaningfulness in her life, revitalising her, alongside her village.

The author with Ye Jin Juan, taking a brief pause from brewing up traditional dòujiāng, soy milk.

The trouble with travel is that we find it extraordinarily difficult to let things, people and places be as they are, just unfold naturally in front of you. We tend to two extremes of equally unhelpful reactions. On the one hand things can easily become uncontrollably ‘different’ and we condemn them as ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’. We see everything through the squinting eyes of anxiety. Or on the other hand we put on rose tinted spectacles and start to gush about how ‘wonderfully exotic’ everything is. Either way we are overlaying our travel experiences by projecting our own emotions, past experiences and prejudices. It’s easy to get China wrong. Even after ten years I know I sometimes do. That’s why I always try as hard as my limited communication skills will allow to tune in to local voices.

It’s like China’s vast and intriguing cuisine. You have to get out of the standardised, commercial restaurants to stand a chance of experiencing the local. Honestly, there will be things you can’t stomach. I love spicy food, but for me the third and highest level of spice in a Chongqing hotpot is forever beyond my range. Honestly, there will be times when you end up with a case of what the Chinese call ‘lā dùzi’, loose bowels. But only if you come to each meal with an open mind, and an open stomach, will you be able to appreciate the range of textures and flavours that compose the diverse symphonies of Chinese cuisine. And in time some of these will become your new taste of home. There’s a humble little roadside restaurant in Tengchong city, Yunnan where one taste of a bowl of rice noodles has all of the home comforts that a farm made pasty and locally brewed cider bring me in Dorset.

A homely bowl of fresh rice noodles, local greens and a handful of lamb meat.

Bridges of understanding are waiting everywhere for you to explore .

Traditional stone bridge, Songzhuangcun Village, Zhejiang Province.

SACU member Jan Johnson’s Chinese New Year

Dragon Year Blessings

The SACU mission is to tell stories of people to people friendship between Britain and China. I am delighted to share the Chair’s Blog with our members so that we can hear a wider range of voices. In this Blog, it’s an honour to be able to bring you SACU member Jan Johnson’s article about her Chinese New Year experiences.

“I’ve been interested in China for a long time and have been teaching myself Mandarin Chinese. I’m disabled and don’t get out very often or for very long but my friend/carer and I met a lovely Chinese lady called Rosita in a café fairly near to my home. Of course, I wanted to practice my Chinese with her. But she wasn’t from mainland China. She was from Hong Kong. Many of your readers will know that Hong Kong residents usually speak Cantonese. But no problem. Cantonese was her first language but she could also speak some Mandarin and English. Great. We chatted in a mixture of languages and I enjoyed myself immensely. This lovely lady sent me details of a craft fair being held in Leeds City Centre on Chinese New Year’s Day. This would be a big outing for me but my friend/carer, Lloyd, was determined to try to get me there, with my wheelchair.

The New Year craft fair

The craft fair was being held by Hong Kong folk now living in Leeds, at the beautiful and historic church now known as Leeds Minster. I was confused about this because I remember it by its old name of Leeds Parish Church 

 Let me tell you a bit about this impressive place.  Leeds Minster, also known as the Minster and Parish Church of Saint Peter-at-Leeds, is a prominent church located in the city of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. It is dedicated to Saint Peter and has a rich history dating back to the 7th century. The current structure dates mainly from the 19th century, with some parts even older. It is renowned for its impressive architecture, including its striking tower and stained glass windows. The Minster serves as both a place of worship and a popular tourist attraction, hosting various events and concerts throughout the year.

Leeds Minster

So, we arrived at the entrance and were immediately welcomed by the organisers and joined the throng of people attending the craft fair and celebrating Chinese New Year. I did not use my wheelchair inside the church. It was too busy and I am fortunate that I can walk a little. I was a bit excited and wished everyone “新年快乐” (happy new year), or “龙年快乐” (happy year of the dragon). I found everyone was patient as I stumbled over my Chinese. I noticed the older folk couldn’t speak Mandarin but the younger and also middle-aged folk were very familiar with Mandarin and the people I spoke to were all very welcoming and spoke slowly so I could keep up. Of course, they all spoke English but they were very indulgent of my wish to practice my Chinese.

Jan tries her hand at Chinese calligraphy

I practiced writing using a Chinese brush and ink. You could see where children had used the brush and ink to draw with. I was attempting Chinese characters! I can’t call it calligraphy. It wasn’t that grand!  but I did manage to write a few recognisable characters and I was offered a cup of pu’er tea. 

It was all very interesting but I quickly tired and my carer pushed me in my wheelchair to his car so he could get me home to rest.

新年快乐 ~ xīnniánkuàilè ~ Happy New Year!”

Thank you Jan. SACU wishes you a dragon year full of blessings!

A Tale of Two Dragons

(Article developed from an original idea by Michael Crook)

Dragon on a Beijing roof tile

At this time all over China people will be wishing each other not just ‘Happy New Year’, but also ‘龙 年 快乐‘ – ‘long nian kuai’le’ or ‘happy year of the dragon’. There are images of dragons everywhere in China at the moment. Which makes us stop and wonder – why are dragons such powerful symbols in both Chinese and British culture ? What are the differences and similarities between them?

It’s remarkable that the basic design of a dragon is the same across both cultures. A long snake like body, powerful claws, an impressive head with strong jaws and the ability to fly, although Chinese dragons don’t usually have wings. And it turns out the key design features of dragon like beasts are found in many cultures around the world, not just Britain and China. This leads me to conclude that there must be a shared ancestral memory of large powerful creatures that human beings had every reason to be scared of. Interestingly the origin story of Chinese New Year contains one such beast, a monster called Nian that likes nothing better than to devour a person or two on New Year’s Eve.

I think this common origin can be made even deeper if we look at further details. Both in China and the West, dragons are associated with the power of nature. In the West this association is with the Earth. Dragons live in lairs, dark, hidden caves under mountains. They represent Earth magic. In China dragons live under the seas or in the air. One of the oldest ideas about Chinese dragons is that they are bringers of rain, just about the most important factor in the lives of people in a country where up until 1975, three-quarters of the population were rural residents. Chinese dragons possess the power most vital to farmers – the ability to control the weather.

A stereotypical Western dragon
(image courtesy of CGTN)

In both cultures the tradition of dragons is very long. In the West we can find the origins of dragon like creatures in both ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. However the most immediate source of dragons is probably Ancient Greek mythology. Even the name has an Ancient Greek origin in the word ‘drakōns’. It was Ancient Greek thinking that first pushed western dragons in the direction of evil. Fighting a dragon became the challenge of choice of Greek heroes. This cultural inclination was reinforced by Christian thinking which linked dragons to the ‘serpent’ Satan. All of this mythologising led to the cultural high water mark for western dragons – the Middle Ages, represented by the myth of St. George.

The Hongshan Jade dragon, dated between 4500 and 3000 BCE.

Meanwhile over in China the earliest dragon depictions date from the Xinglongwa culture between 6200–5400 BC, while the Hongshan culture may have introduced the Chinese character for ‘dragon’ between 4700 to 2900 BC. The traditional image of the Chinese dragon appeared during the Shang (1766 to 1122 BC) and Zhou (1046 BC – 256 BC) dynasties.

In China the earlier idea of the dragon evolved into the ‘Dragon King of the Four Seas’. Each Dragon King is associated with a colour and a body of water, with the Azure Dragon or Blue-Green Dragon representing the east and the essence of spring, the Red Dragon the south and the essence of summer, the Black Dragon the north and the essence of winter, the White Dragon the west and the essence of autumn, and then there’s the yellow dragon, who is the incarnation of the Yellow Emperor.

Datong Nine Dragon Wall

So, the key difference in our tale of two dragons is that these symbols of power evolved in different directions west and east. In China, dragons became the symbols of the Emperors, representing the benevolence of their rule. Dragon emblems can be found in carvings on the stairs, walkways, furniture, and clothes of the imperial palace. It was against the law for common people to use things related to dragons in imperial times.

However throughout history dragons in China continued to be close to the lives of ordinary people. In rural communities, there was a dragon dance to induce the creature’s generosity in dispensing rain and a procession where a large figure of a dragon made from paper or cloth spread over a wooden frame was carried. Alternatively, small dragons were made of pottery or small banners were carried with a depiction of a dragon and written prayers asking for rain. The dancing processions had another handy purpose too, which was to ward off illnesses and disease, especially in times of epidemics. The dragon dance became a part of rural festivals and came to be closely associated with the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Which brings us back to today, the first day of the new year of the dragon. Chinese social media is overwhelmed by images of dragons. Many of them are cute and smiling, warm and friendly. Some are grander and more protective. Others glide magnificently and elegantly through animated gifs. Collectively they are an enormous expression of optimism about the year ahead. Of course we can dismiss it all as superstitious nonsense, but imagine for a moment the feeling of purpose that must come from even the possibility that your life and the life of your country for the year ahead is driven by such a creature, such a force for good.

Typical we-chat dragon sticker
(courtesy of weixin creator)

Before we end this tale of two dragons let me share two further thoughts.

Firstly although the mainstream image of dragons in the West is negative, there are elements of a more positive Chinese view here and there. One such can be found in the Celtic dragon tradition. Any Welsh SACU members will be quick to rally to the flag and point out that Wales is protected by ‘Y Ddraig Coch’, the red dragon that has roots in history back to the Welsh defeat of invading Anglo-Saxon armies in the mists of time. And closer to home for me, I’m very proud of the fact that my home-land of Wessex has traditionally had a golden dragon as its symbol. Indeed some historians believe that standards carrying designs with golden dragons were flown by the Anglo-Saxon army in the Battle of Hastings. Is it possible that magnificent and benevolent dragons are closer to original British culture than the snarling malevolence of the monsters from the Middle Ages ?

Y Ddraig Coch , the red dragon of Wales

Secondly, reflecting on the two evolutionary paths dragons have taken in the West and the East, could it be, as in so many areas, that actually this is a ‘yinyang’ of complimentary rather than opposing ideas. Dragons, east and west, present us with symbols of power. On one face we have images of what happens if power goes wrong and is used for evil. On the other face are reminders of how that same power can be used for good. A suitable point to pause for reflection as a new year opens for us all.

A dragon with the character , fu, meaning good fortune and happiness in the year ahead.

(All images belong to the author, unless otherwise accredited)

新年快乐 – xīnniánkuàilè

Happy New Year!

Author – 周尚, Zhou Shang

New Year – a time for Family Reunions

The scenery outside the window swept by, and some unmelted snow lay lazily in the shade of the trees. The wind also took off a few withered yellow leaves and ran away by itself. The friction between the wheels and the rails gradually subsided. Standing on the platform, even the air was full of joy. At this time, there will always be unspeakable emotions pushing tears out, half thinking about finally returning to my hometown, and half thinking that the four seasons have finally finished changing shifts and have started a new round.

Chinese 高铁 – gāotiě – high-speed railway

For Chinese people, the New Year is red, like the rising sun, bringing light into thousands of households and shining on the next round of four seasons; like a new life, flowing bright red blood, with incomparable vitality. When I first returned to my home in Nanjing, my home was still old, with white walls and black bricks, green trees and blue sky, and everything seemed serious and indifferent. This is not in line with the New Year’s atmosphere.

So under the two osmanthus trees facing the window, I brought a ladder, picked up a longer branch, stuck the small lantern on the branch first, then found a branch between the leaves, picked up the lantern and hung it on it. After a lot of effort, the whole tree was finally covered with small lanterns, as if a string of red fruits had grown.

New Year lanterns in the trees

As the saying goes, “Thousands of families are in the sun, always replace the new peaches with old charms”. The two sides of the gate should be pasted with Spring Festival couplets. People dip in ink and write on the red paper what they hope for the next year. Stick it next to the door god. It is always a happy experience to enter and go out. In Chinese, “inverted” and “to” are homophonic, so the word “fu” in the middle of the gate or on the window is always pasted upside down, which means: ‘lucky arrival’. With the last window flower pasted on the window, the home finally seemed to be ready for the Spring Festival.

春联 – chūnlián – Spring Festival couplets

It’s the New Year in a blink of an eye. This day of the New Year is to pay tribute to the Kitchen Lord. It is said that the Kitchen Kord of each family will return to heaven on this day to report the good and bad things that people have done in this year. When I get up early in the morning, I follow my parents to clean the stove, put incense in the incense burner in the middle of the two stoves, and then put two plates of bright fruit on both sides. When I was a child, my grandmother also told me an anecdote: Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang was poor when he was a child and could not afford meat to eat. He found a meat seller during the Spring Festival, hoping he can give him a piece of meat to eat. When the shopkeeper saw where the wild boy came from, he opened his mouth and asked him to go outside. Then Zhu Yuanzhang said that if no one wanted the pig’s head, he would take it. The boss still drove him away. Therefore, Zhu Yuanzhang shouted to the boss that he would become emperor in the future. Later, when he became emperor, he decreed that he would add another year to the calendar, but the distance between the north and the south was different, so there was a difference of one day. But it’s just an anecdote. Emperor Hongwu ascended the throne in Yingtianfu, which is today’s Nanjing. If the story is really as it says, how can he notify the north first and then the south?

Offerings for the Kitchen Lord

In Nanjing, Jinling, we will make a special dish during the Spring Festival, which is a stir-fry with 16 to 19 kinds of vegetables such as cauliflower, snow berry, soybean sprouts, etc., which are called ten kinds of dishes, also known as assorted dishes. Each vegetable tastes different, and the order of cooking is different. The whole family work hard together on the cooking, which shows the moral meaning of such a dish : “peaceful and long-lasting”.

Nanjing Spring Festival stir-fry

For children like us, the Spring Festival is undoubtedly the most anticipated season of the year, and because of this, they often start to calculate the distance from the New Year after the solar calendar, as if the Spring Festival is a distant and difficult place to reach. One of the reasons is that you will receive New Year money in the New Year, which was originally meant to suppress and exorcise evil spirits, but in fact, in our opinion, when we make a lot of money, when we see the elders, we will bow to the New Year, and our pockets will be full after Spring Festival. The second meaning is to take a step closer to growing up. One year older, the New Year represents a new round and growth. At the same time, the elders will take the descendants to worship their ancestors, so that the sleeping ancestors can also see our growth in the past year.

However, as I get older, I’m worried about another problem: it’s not far from the age of 18. Is it my turn to give New Year’s money to the younger generation? That’s really a big expense. Sure enough, tradition takes turns. When you grow up, you have to pass on the lucky money you received when you were a child. Last year, a lot of things happened, and I also began to gradually understand that the elders had a lot of emotions about the New Year, and it seemed that they had quite complicated emotions. After a year, the children, relatives and friends from other places will visit each other, and neighbours will visit each other to pay New Year’s greetings. It is a happy reunion. This is a joy. The clouds do not last all day long, and the shower does not end. The New Year’s departure is another spring rain that sweeps the elderly, and I often see the rain falling in the eyes of my grandparents. This is a sadness for me.

年夜饭 – niányèfàn – family reunion dinner on lunar New Year’s Eve

For us, the New Year symbolises the proximity to society and the maturity of the mind. Therefore, when I show the elders the harvest of this year, I can always hear the firecrackers ignite in their hearts, which is an unbearable joy and pride. However, this also reminds them of time flying by and their lives. The Chinese people’s words are implicit. The sentence “one year older” and the sigh inserted between the laughter hide all their helplessness, but they are happy in the present, and the world is at this time.

I lit the sky rocket firework inserted in the yard. With a sharp sound, it cut through the long night and knocked on New Year. After that, the fireworks and firecrackers were all on, and the night world was as bright as the day. It is not only entertainment for children, but also the custom of celebrating the New Year. Under the glow of fireworks, every family sits and eats dumplings made together, each with different flavours, which is the tone that people will recall in the future. It seems that there is a Spring Festival every year, 365 days or 366 days. We should cherish reunions more. Many things seem irrelevant at the time, but they become rooted in memory for a long time. For many years, they can seem to be dormant. When the memories wake up, they look at your hurried life and fell asleep slowly. But when I see them again one day, I see that time has worn out many so-called events in life, and they are firmly stuck there and have an incomparable weight.

When I realised this, I began to record my thoughts and I began to think about what life could create and leave behind. As the writer Shi Tiesheng said: “

“The process! Yes, the meaning of life is that you can create the beauty and brilliance of the process, and the value of life lies in the fact that you can calmly and excitedly appreciate the beauty and sadness of the process.”

开门炮 – kāiménpào – firecrackers set off at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day (a Chinese tradition)

Finally, sitting here at the dining table, I use my camera to leave behind this moment when we clink our glasses and celebrate this New Year of 2024.

British friends, please join us. Happy New Year to us all!

(Original photographs by the author)

Chinese New Year 2 -Wanderlust

Heshun Town – 立春 – Li Chun, the first day of Spring, 2024

As I write this, it’s a day in China called 立春, Li Chun, the beginning of spring. Let’s first of all take a moment to appreciate a culture that has a celebration day for not just the 4 seasons but for 24 different seasonal days during the agrarian year. This ‘Li Chun’ I’m in an ancient town in Yunnan province called Heshun, near the city of Tengchong. On this particular morning the Yunnan sun is shining, the Yunnan birds are chirruping and the excited hum of tourist chatter is in every corner of the town. Quite rightly Heshun is on the bucket list of every Chinese traveller. Now it’s the Spring Festival and together with the obligatory home town trip, there is nothing the Chinese people love more than to travel.

And there’s the theme for our Blog today. We British and we Chinese share a love of travel. In English we talk about ‘itchy feet’. In Chinese there is an exact equivalent ‘an itchy heart’. Life is full of 阴阳, yinyang harmonies of opposites isn’t it? Both the British and the Chinese are deeply home loving, and yet full of this curiosity to see what lies around the corner. It’s the first day of Spring and the atmosphere here in Heshun could be exactly described by the opening lines of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’.

And smale foweles maken melodye,
And small fowls make melody,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye
Those that sleep all the night with open eyes

So priketh hem Nature in hir corages,
So Nature incites them in their hearts,

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

Then folk long to go on pilgrimages.”

Heshun ~ “And bathed every veyne in swich licóur,

Of which vertú engendred is the flour”

(Chaucer’s Prologue)

We shouldn’t get hung up on the idea of pilgrimage. Chaucer certainly doesn’t. These lines clearly link travel to natural impulses as much as any religious motivation. And don’t you think there is a sense in which travel is a modern cure for a kind of sickness, the sickness of the stress of routine jobs, in uniform cities, following regulated timetables and working long hours. In Britain from the 1930’s we have the folk memory of ‘worker’s holidays’ with charabancs (coaches) of labouring families heading off to the seaside to recharge their batteries.

I believe the curative powers of travel go even deeper than that. Let’s drop in on a poem by another British poet, William Wordsworth. I don’t think they’d thank me for it, but the British romantics were very much proto-tourists, always packing a portmanteau before heading off to Devon or the Lake District for a spot of sightseeing. And after one such jaunt Wordsworth wrote the following lines,

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;

And passing even into my purer mind

With tranquil restoration:—feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,

As have no slight or trivial influence

On that best portion of a good man’s life.’

(and ‘good woman’s life’ I will add!)

What I feel Wordsworth is describing here is a ‘secular spiritualism’ which we’ve all adapted into our cultural lives to survive industrial urbanisation. How many times how you found yourself saying while travelling, ‘I’ll treasure this memory when I’m back at work!’ Wordsworth could never have predicted photos or postcards but these are both forms of ‘tranquil restorations’ aren’t they?

Heshun – Tranquil Recollections

Let’s find an equivalent in England for Li Chun, let’s say Spring Bank holiday and pop over to any picturesque village or any scenic landscape, and we’ll find travellers doing exactly what our Chinese friends are doing this morning, curating their own set of memories for later ‘tranquil restoration’. Look closer and we’ll even see the same characters- the family towing kids who hate the history but love the snacks, the romantic couple looking for the next idyllic backdrop for their love, the solo traveller laden with high definition photographic equipment for gathering more refined recollections.

So let’s join them and immerse ourselves in impressions of Heshun. When I’m back in grey workaday Beijing there is no doubt in my mind that memories of Heshun will return to lighten my spirits. Imagine if you will for a moment the most achingly English of villages. For me this would be somewhere in my birth area of Wessex, somewhere like Lacock, if you’ve been lucky enough to visit there. Heshun is all of that and more in a timeless Chinese version. I’m convinced that if you asked AI to create images of a typical ancient Chinese town, every picture the computer produced would be a pale imitation of Heshun.

First of all Heshun is blessed by its location. It’s on the outskirts of a busy modern city, Tengchong, which means it’s easily accessible, but unlike another famous Yunnan ancient town called Dali, it hasn’t been swallowed up by progress. It’s in a fertile valley, so surrounded by fields full of glowing emerald vegetables most of the year round. It’s backed by low mountains which are often mist-clouded in the early mornings. It’s wonderfully car free so we either have to park and walk into the town itself or jump aboard the little electric powered tourist carts (like elongated golf buggies) that are now ubiquitous at every Chinese tourist attraction. We’re experienced SACU wanderers, close to the people, so let’s walk.

As soon as we pass the obligatory shopping parade at the entrance, we stroll under a gate, round a corner and into wonderland. Just behind a small stream of crystal clear mountain water, Heshun is painted picturesquely, whitewashed houses gently climbing up a low hill. In fact the old name of the town means ‘along the river’. There’s a choice of two bridges to cross the water, both in the characteristic rounded style, called in Chinese ‘arch bridges’. In fact locally the two bridges are called ‘rainbow bridges’ because of their graceful arch shapes.

Heshun ~ rainbow bridge

Over the rainbow’s back we go. Now we have a choice. We can stroll along the river’s side. We will go past a range of typical houses. Most date from the Ming or Qing dynasty. Some are half wooden, with the charm of carved features. Most have pure white-washed walls. Look up into the eaves and you’ll see painted panels in the Chinese style. The rooves are covered in rounded grey tiles, that are like the linked scales of myriads of lizards resting on the hillside, taking in the spring sun. And every roof ends in the gentle upturned eaves that makes it seem as if it’s about to take flight. The architecture then is a harmony composed of yellow sandy mud walls, plaster work gleaming with white-wash, a forest of carved wood. And of course all along the waterfront are those reflections. The floating shadows of the walls, accompanied by the decorative motifs of abundant Yunnan flowers.

The second route leads you up into the town itself. Hands up who remembers the famous Hovis ‘boy on a bike’ bread advert with the lad delivering loaves up the cobbled streets of a nostalgic town (actually Shaftesbury -in Wessex of course!). Well the streets, or rather alleyways, of Heshun all carry this effect. The narrow streets are all still laid out according to the original design when traffic was either pedestrian or at the most pack horses. In fact Heshun became wealthy in the past as a trading town. The two great products of this area are tea and jade. In the Ming and Qing the narrow cobbled alleys of Heshun were the start of merchandise routes going south or north into South Asia, Central Asia and beyond. The same houses are still there nestled around the alleyways and stores selling tea and jade still predominate, but now laid out in attractive display cases for tourists. The sheer number of alleyways spreads out the tourists. Even on a busy day there are moments when you have an empty alley all to yourselves and can indulge the ghosts of the past. There are even Chinese ‘Hovis’ moments as someone comes up the alley, carrying goods on either end of a bamboo pole.

Heshun ~ winding narrow streets

Heshun is not the only place in China that will be experiencing an upturn in tourism during this period known both as the Winter Holiday (hánjià) and Spring Festival (Chūn Jié). Every area of China is cleverly developing a natural resource or a feature of local culture, or preferably both, into an attractive proposition for Chinese wanderlust. The biggest sensation of the New Year so far has been the Harbin Snow-Ice World which has seen more than 3 million visitors venturing into China’s frozen north-east to enjoy ice sculptures and a range of other tourist activities which make imaginative use of this north easterly city’s biggest resource – ice! Shanghai has its famous Yuyuan Gardens Lantern show. This consists of a range of sculpted lanterns showing a range of Chinese and international themes and then a multimedia lantern extravaganza in the evening. In the far south of China in Guangzhou they specialise in vibrant lion and dragon dances. There is also a famous fireworks display scheduled for the first day of the Spring Festival.

Harbin Snow and Ice Festival (image courtesy of CGTN)

All of this internal domestic tourism is a significant part of the strength of consumer sector economics in China. You see this as you walk around Heshun. Of course the stores are as popular as the gift shops would be in an English tourist centre. But there are also opportunities for growers and producers to tempt travellers with local fruit, vegetables or delicacies, all sold from street corner stalls. In the mountains near Heshun an enterprising group of farmers and villagers have turned a micro climate where the plum trees blossom slightly earlier than other local areas into a thriving business which even boasts its own glass walkway, one of the must-haves of any up and coming tourist attraction in China. An informal farmer’s market has sprung up around the fields of snowy spring blossom. Dai Bin, president of the China Tourism Academy, has predicted that total domestic travel will exceed 6 billion visits in 2024 and domestic tourism revenue is likely to surpass 6 trillion yuan.

To conclude by stepping back a little from these staggering statistics, what I find amongst my Chinese friends is a passion for the cultural aspects of travel that is every bit as strong as that of British people. In Britain this spirit is represented by organisations such as the National Trust, one of whose founders declared in 1895

The need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and..the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs, common to all men” – Miss Octavia Hill ( and ‘all women’ I will add!)

In China increasingly the central government has provided a policy framework of protections for local tangible and intangible culture, for example through the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage Law of People’s Republic of China’ which was implemented in 2011 and which provided for the protection of traditional etiquette and the celebration of festivals in ancient villages. Amongst both our peoples, there is a shared love of ‘cultural heritage’ which is called in Chinese ‘文化遗产’ or ‘wénhuà yíchǎn’.

As the spring of 2024 opens up a longing for travel and new travel opportunities for people of both countries, let’s hope for deeper curiosity and knowledge of each other’s fascinating ‘ wénhuà yíchǎn’. To end with what I hope is an appropriate Chinese phrase – ‘游兴勃发, yóuxìng bófā, or as we call it in English – ‘wanderlust’.

游兴勃发, yóuxìng bófā ~ wanderlust!

(Original photographs by the author)

An Introduction to the Chinese New Year Festival

Original art by painter Liu Liyong

The Chinese New Year or Lunar Festival or Spring Festival is one of the largest cultural events in the world. It is estimated that over two billion people will be involved in celebrations of one form or another. There will be public holidays not just in China but also across Asia. Of course there will be festival activities across the globe, including events for us to join in most major British cities. Already many signs of the imminent festival are in place here in Beijing, especially the ever present lanterns, shining splendid and scarlet from buildings and lamp posts, golden tassels catching the January sun. In Blogs over the next few weeks I will share some of the flavours of festival, but before everything begins, let’s make sure we know what this festival is all about.

We can start with the question, why is the Chinese New Year different from the western version? The answer is the difference between a solar calendar based on movements of the sun and a lunar calendar based on the passages of the moon. The western, solar calendar is called the Gregorian calendar and has a fixed date for New Year – January 1st. The traditional Chinese calendar is based on the moon. A new lunar month starts when the moon moves into a straight line with the earth and the sun. The first day of the festival begins on the New Moon sometime each year between January 21st and February 20th. The holiday and festival lasts 16 days from New Year’s Eve to the 15th day of the New Year which also happens to be the Lantern Festival. In 2024, Lunar New Year starts Saturday, Feb. 10 and ends Saturday, Feb. 24.

In 1912, the government decided to abolish Chinese New Year and the lunar calendar, instead opting to adopt the Gregorian calendar and make January 1 the official start of the new year.This new policy was unpopular, so a compromise was reached: both calendar systems were kept, with the Gregorian calendar being used in government, factory, school and other organisational settings, while the lunar calendar is used for traditional festivals. In 1949, Chinese New Year was renamed the ‘Spring Festival’, and was listed as a nationwide public holiday.

红灯笼 hóngdēng lǒng, a Spring Festival Lantern

We are all fascinated by the culture and customs of the New Year Festival, but before we dive into what makes this Chinese celebration unique, let’s take a moment to reflect on the threads of connection and similarity. The most obvious is of course that both celebrate the renewal of a new year. Surely the origins of both festivals lie in the agricultural year, a shared sense of joy that the worst of winter is over and warmer days lie ahead. At the heart of both British and Chinese celebrations we find feasting. The famous British Christmas dinner parallels the Family Reunion meal which is the highlight of Chinese New Year for many.

It’s not just the fact of feasting, it’s the act of family reunion that I think is the deepest cultural connection. A few years ago I was lucky enough to spend the new year days themselves with a Chinese family and the amount of eating and drinking were exactly like an English Christmas and so too was the feeling of family warmth. Could it be the family gathering is also an ancestral memory of needing to keep everyone together under the protection of a family roof to survive the hardships of winter and get everyone safely through to Spring?

A family feast

Now we’ve cultivated our shared roots, let’s turn to the distinctive Chinese characteristics. I think most of us are familiar with the customs of the festival – the colour red, the lanterns, the firecrackers, the dancing lions. What we might be less aware of is the symbolism of all of the various aspects of New Year. Actually the symbolism can mostly be traced back to a single legend – the story of a monster called Nian. It’s a great story for children to read in detail, but I’ll just give the main points here.

“ Once upon a time in ancient China there lived a monster called Nian. Nian lived in the depths of the sea and only came out once a year, on New Year’s Eve to devour whatever it could, including people. The local people developed the habit of fleeing into the mountains for safety before Nian arrived every year. One particular year everyone in Peach Blossom village had fled except for an aged grandma living at the end of a lane. As the evening approached, and the time when Nian would appear, an old beggar wandered into the village, with a silver beard, a walking stick and a bag in his hand. The grandmother came out to greet him. She offered him food and advised him to leave immediately. He said, ‘If you can let me shelter in your house tonight, I’ll stop this Nian forever’. The grandmother agreed. When darkness fell Nian roared into the village. He sensed something was not quite right. At the end of the alleyway, the grandmother’s house was brightly lit up, with red paper stuck on the doors. He screeched in anger. He hated lights. He hated the colour red even more. Bellowing, Nian charged at Grandmother’s house but suddenly came to a halt. There were loud explosions which the monster found terrifying. And then the final straw. An old man burst out of grandmother’s house, all dressed in red, howling with laughter and throwing firecrackers in bamboo sticks. It was all too much for the monster who turned and fled, never to return again.”

The monster Nian (image courtesy of CGTN)

I’m sure the symbolism of many of the things you will see and hear at any New Year festival event is now much, much clearer. The tradition of dragon or lion dances emerged in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) growing out of folk entertainments The dragon is well-known as a symbol of wealth, power and vitality. Lions are mythical creatures in China because no lions actually live there. Lions are believed to have the power to drive away evil spirits. In fact you will find carved stone lions at the doorways of traditional houses all over China. A dragon or lion dance is sure to drive away any lurking evil that might want to ruin your new year luck! Of course this year is the Year of the Dragon, an idea I’ll discuss in more detail in another Blog.

We can’t leave the colour red without talking about one of the most popular parts of the festival, especially for children. One of the most eagerly anticipated New Year customs is the giving of ‘hong bao’ or ‘red packets’. A red packet is a small red envelope in which an amount of notes are wrapped to be given as a new year gift. Hong bao are traditionally given by parents to children and by younger people to show respect to their elders. However as I know from my workplace hong bao are also used by employers to show appreciation for workers. Hong bao are not exclusive to New Year, but they are extremely popular at this time of year. The point is not the value of the gift, but the symbolic luck which the money brings, although this is not the sentiment I’ve heard from my colleagues!

Nowadays a ‘Hong Bao’ can be given at the click of a button on your mobile phone

Let’s finish by discussing the heart of the New Year for most Chinese families – the return to your hometown. The New Year is the occasion for one of the largest migrations on the planet as millions of city living Chinese return to their roots. Tomorrow morning (Saturday 27th January) I will join an estimated 143,000 passengers at Beijing West Railway Station starting journeys home all over the country. In my case this is to the remote south-west province of Yunnan, sadly not my actual home in China, but certainly my spiritual home here. China Railway Beijing Group is projected to handle 39.13 million passenger trips during the period, up 14.1 percent compared with the same period of 2019. The travel peak before the Spring Festival will be on February 7, with 1.32 million passenger trips expected to be made. The return peak will be on Feb 25, with 1.35 million passenger trips projected. Altogether it is estimated the holiday will see 9 billion passenger trips. Staggering!

For the last few weeks in school I’ve felt the anticipation amongst my colleagues as they gossip about going , who they’re going to see, what gifts they will take and family activities that will take place.

There are loose connections with British culture I think. There’s an echo of the excitement in Britain before Christmas when people begin to talk about travelling home to see their families. But this doesn’t capture the almost spiritual feeling that accompanies ‘home town’ in Chinese lives. Many Chinese families still have a direct and living connection to roots in towns and villages outside of the cities. Urbanisation is not a completed process as in the UK but a part of living experience. As recently as 1975 only a quarter of the Chinese population lived in cities. As of 2022 this figure had increased to 63%. By comparison this figure in Britain is 84%. The majority of my teaching colleagues are first generation city dwellers with families ‘back home’ in the provinces around Beijing – Liaoning to the north, Shandong to the south or Hebei – the province which curls around Beijing. Of course going home for the holiday is about being reunited with family with all of the traditional Confucian values involved. But I think that in the face of the pressures of urbanisation, it’s also a form of ‘pilgrimage’, a re-connection with your own roots and a re-connection with an authentic Chinese identity.

The significance of this part of New Year can be seen from the amazing success of a 2020 film called ‘我和我的家乡’, ‘My People, My Homeland’ which altogether made 433.2 million dollars. The film consists of five short stories, each created by a different director and each narrative telling a bitter sweet tale about what has been lost in city life and what can be rediscovered in returning to your hometown. If you want to share the flavour of the hometown migration I’d recommend adding this movie to your Chinese New Year celebrations. There’s a popular Chinese expression – 美不美家乡水 – měi bù měi jiāxiāng shuǐ – whether it’s sweet or bitter, water from your hometown is the best. This movie comes as close as anything I know to expressing this feeling.

The author joins the Spring Festival departures from Beijing West railway station

How can you feel closer to Chinese New Year in Britain? Well one thing you could do is to hang bright red scrolls of calligraphy couplets next to your door. This is a very common festival custom all over China. In Chinese they are called ‘Chunlian 春联’. There are three parts to a chunlian. The First Line or Upper Scroll is called a Shanglian 上联|上聯. Shàng lián is the first line of the couplet, traditionally placed on the right side of the door. It is written in vertical columns from top to bottom. It usually has 5, 7, 9 or 11 Chinese characters. The Shanglian typically conveys blessings or good wishes for the New Year. The second is the Lower Scroll or Xialian 下聯|下聯. This is placed on the left side of the door. Like the Shanglian, it is also written in vertical columns. The Xialian often complements the Shanglian and completes the couplet with a response or continuation of the message. The third part is the Horizontal Scroll or Hengpi 横批 (Héng pī). The Hengpi is a shorter phrase (usually 4 characters) that is placed horizontally above the doorframe, connecting and summarising the meaning of the couplet.

Here is an example of all three parts of a complete chunlian.

Shanglian : 迎新春事事如意 (yíng xīn chūn shì shì rú yì)

English: May everything go as you wish in welcoming the Spring Festival.

Xialian : 接洪福步步高升 (jiē hóng fú bù bù gāo shēng)

English: May good fortune come your way, and may each step bring you higher and higher.

Hengpi : 好事临门 (hǎo shì lín mén)

English: Good things come to your door.

Spring Festival couplets in the early spring sunshine in Dali, Yunnan Province

This Spring Festival, may good things come to all our doors!

Laba Festival

Laba Kuai’le! Happy Laba Festival!

Here in Beijing there are the earliest signs of Spring. The extreme cold weather of the last month seems to be leaving us at last. The frozen snow and ice which has lingered since the snowfalls are retreating to smaller and smaller corners of the streets. And if you look carefully enough the trembling first buds of regrowth are braving the chill air along the bare boughs. Human faces are becoming visible again as we start to peel away some of the layers of winter protection. We have come through!

And here to greet us today, the 18th of January is Laba, the festival of the eight day of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Laba, the sign that Spring Festival will soon be here! The traditional food of Laba is porridge and as I write this on Laba morning all across China friends and families are sharing greetings with porridge bowl stickers! Let’s find out a little more about this event and why it means so much to the Chinese people.

Everything in China seems to have a long, long history, and Laba is no different. The origins of Laba lie in the depths of Chinese time. We have to go back to the Shang Dynasty, which is dated from 1766–1122 BCE, and can be considered a Chinese Bronze Age. Just like in Britain this was a time when many beliefs which last even until today began. ‘La’ was a time of ritual and sacrifice to prepare the Earth for the return of the new growing season in Spring.

Laba has evolved over the centuries. By the Song Dynasty rituals involving ancestor worship had become important at their time. It is also from this time that we find the earliest mentions of Laba porridge which even today is the most important ingredient of the festival.

Laba Porridge

Laba porridge, also known as “Buddha porridge”,  is made of a variety of ingredients, including rice, millet, corn, barley, red dates, lotus seeds, peanuts, and various beans (such as red beans, mung beans, soybeans, black beans, kidney beans, etc.). It is clearly a very hearty and nutritious meal – just what you need to keep you going through to Spring Festival!

There is a reason for the alternative name ‘Buddha Porridge’. According to a legend Laba porridge was a religious festival food of Buddhism that originated in India. Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, once starved and met a village girl who gave him porridge. He attained enlightenment on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month. After Buddhism was introduced into China, on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month of each year, porridge was used as a charity food for the hungry.

Today you will see queues of people waiting patiently at the gates of local Buddhist temples to share a warm steaming bowl of blessings.

Sharing Laba Porridge at the temple gates

Another culinary treat associated with Laba is garlic. In northern China, it is a tradition to soak garlic in vinegar for the Laba Festival to make a dish known as Laba garlic. The garlic turns emerald green after more than 20 days, just in time for Spring Festival. The Laba garlic is then eaten with dumplings on the eve of the Spring Festival.

Laba Garlic

As England shivers in the grip of another bout of snow, I hope it’s some comfort to read about the return of Spring from our friends in China.

I wish you all 腊八 快乐! Happy Laba!

(All images courtesy of our friends at CGTN)

Language learning and Friendship

Arron Van Rompaey and Chinese speaking friends

In this Chair’s Blog I want to give a platform to our talented, possibly younger SACU members, so that we hear from a diversity of voices about our theme of Anglo-Chinese friendship. So in this blog I’m handing over to an article by Arron Van Rompaey. Arron is a SACU Council member who relocated to Nanjing, China, in August 2023 to take up a post as a teacher of Literature and Inter-cultural Studies in a Chinese middle school.

Arron’s topic is learning Chinese. I think this is at the heart of friendship between two peoples. Arron’s article is delightfully honest about the challenges and joys of learning the Chinese language. I should know, I’ve struggled with the same phenomenon for ten years living and working in Beijing. Throughout this time my colleagues have been infinitely patient and forgiving as I make a pig’s ear of their language on a daily basis.

The rewards of the struggle are enormous. It’s not just the warm smiles on the faces of students or parents when you get a phrase right (finally!). Vitally important to me is learning to think in a new language. There are things you can say in Chinese that are exactly the same as in English. An example is 隔墙有耳 – géqiáng-yǒu’ěr – ‘walls have ears’, which is word for word the same. And then other phrases take you into a whole new world of expression. One of my current favourites is 白驹过隙 – báijūguòxì – a white horse passes a crack in the wall – the poetic equivalent of ‘time flies by’ in English.

The author gets to grips with traditional Chinese characters.

Let’s enjoy Arron’s article:

“ 大家好 , da jia hao, hello everyone,

I have been studying Chinese on and off for almost 10 years. I would like to take this opportunity to emphasise the “off” part of the previous sentence. There have been a few years during that time when I did not study. Not at all. One of those years I was even living in China. Yes, I was in China and I was not studying Chinese. Which is moderately indefensible. I will try to defend it anyway. I was busy. Of course I was interacting with Chinese people on a daily basis so I was at least getting some practice. But I was not actively studying. I really was quite busy.

Chinese occupies a very contradictory space in my psyche. In that it is something that I am passionate about and find enriching, yet something I often avoid working on and causes me no end of stress. I am also a creature of routine and chronically lazy, so if Chinese can’t slot in naturally to my day-to-day life there really is no hope. So, this language learning journey has been part marathon, part siesta, part having dinner at a nearby restaurant and watching everyone else go by on their own journey.

I first started studying when I happened to glance at some Chinese characters in 2014 and thought “What the heck is going on here?”. Chinese characters were so radically different to all the alphabet-based languages I had previously engaged with. I enrolled in an evening class, and after one lesson felt that parts of my brain which had never been called upon suddenly had a lot thrown on their plate. I was prescient enough to realise that one class per week was never going to cut it and that if I wanted any hope of mastering the language I would have to go to China. I was lucky to be accepted into a summer scholarship programme in Shanghai in 2015 to study the language and culture. There, I discovered CHINA. That’s right, it was me, none of this Marco Polo nonsense.

Since you’re reading this you are probably in-the-know, but I’ll say it anyway for those of you who aren’t: China is pretty cool. The people are chill and lovely, the food is great, the transportation is VERY convenient, and you can have bubble tea delivered to your door at any hour of the day. There is no none-pretentious way for me to say this, but I feel like this is my home. From when I first got off the plane I felt very calm, very at peace. Relaxed in general. This is at Pudong Airport in Shanghai which most people would not describe as “relaxed”, but that was how I felt.

1 year later I was living and working there full-time. 3 years after that, frustrated at my lack of progress/time to study (see above, I swear I was very busy), I enrolled in a full-time Mandarin course at Nanjing University. Within a month I could write essays and express more complex thoughts in Mandarin, and I finally felt like I was getting to grips with the language.

However, the numerologically-able among you may have realised that this was in 2019 when I enrolled. LATE 2019. I’m sorry to bring up what is now a form of collective trauma for everyone on the planet, but halfway through my studies Covid reared its sickly head. I did the first part of lockdown here in Nanjing, and then joined the UK for the start of their lockdown too. I was trapped in the UK, with only hand luggage. It’s shocking expensive to have all your possessions shipped during the start of a global pandemic in case you’re interested.

So, for 3 years, I was back in the UK. There is a lot of positive things to say about that time there: I discovered SACU, got my MSc, made many amazing friends and raised a beautiful cat. My Chinese however, sat on the back-burner. A particularly cool back-burner. In a room with a draught. I could feel it within me, slowing dying. Therefore, I was overjoyed to get the chance to come back and I started my new job (still in Nanjing!) in August last year.

Nanjing snow scene (courtesy of Alvin Tang)

The first week was painful. Things I had previously been fluent in (ordering bubble tea) came out stilted. My demeanour was confident, but my mouth was not up to the task. But I was determined. This was the chance to show Chinese who was boss. I studied. I studied every day. Every chance I got I spoke. I read. I learned the words on my shampoo bottle. I learned the announcements on the subway by heart. I started hobbies which were Chinese-speaking only. Every day.

I would love to say that 5 months later I am now fluent and know every single character even the really weird ones like 龖 (I do know that one! It means a dragon flying. Pretty cool right?) but I know I still have a looooong (dragon pun intended) way to go. But, I am proud to the point of ecstasy to say that I celebrated (western) new year with my Chinese friend group who cannot speak English. I was able to follow and participate in the conversation, and absolutely destroy them at Mario Party. And if that isn’t what’s important in life then I don’t know what is.”

‘The carp turns into a dragon’ , a good luck sign for Chinese New Year in Nanjing (courtesy of Alvin Tang)

Arron, thank you for the inspirational sharing. I need to get back to my own studies! But before we finish let’s remember the amazing story of the Macartney embassy in 1793 from George 111 to the Qianlong Emperor. Incredibly at this critical meeting of two cultures only one member of the British party had learned any Chinese, George Thomas Staunton, the twelve year old son of Macartney’s secretary! The Emperor was so impressed he befriended the boy and gave him the gift of his purse, a precious personal possession. History records that the mission failed, a failure which contributed to disastrous relationships between Britain and China throughout the nineteenth century. ‘What if..’ is a meaningless historical game, but maybe, just maybe, a little more shared language and culture on both sides might have led to different outcomes.

If you have a story to tell of learning either English or Chinese as a route to greater Anglo-Chinese friendship you are invited to share it on this platform.

So much to learn from each other.

A shared love of poetry

One of the key things that drives me in my work for SACU is the knowledge that there is so much the people of China and the people of Britain could benefit from if we had genuine opportunities to learn from each other.

I was reminded of this recently. One of my former students now studying Urban Design in a UK university sent me her essay about Environmental Impact Assessments – which are legal mechanisms used in the UK to protect vulnerable environments. And there in one amazing paragraph she was paralleling and comparing an annual report into Teeside Incinerators and the Yangtze River Three Gorges project and thinking her way through both of these to next step improvements in the EIA process in both countries and globally.

So in this blog, let’s explore a little more the potential benefits for both peoples that might happen if educators from both cultures sat down and shared educational thinking. We can start with the legendary excellence of Chinese students in Mathematics. And it really is legendary. In the UK out of all A Level entries only 1.8% are for Further Mathematics, the gold standard of global mathematics. In my school alone at least half of the cohort will study this demanding A Level and no grade has slipped below B so far.

Let’s first of all entirely dismiss any ‘genetic’ explanations. There is no Maths gene. There are however lessons to be learned in two crucial areas. The first is the quality of Chinese mathematics teaching. Indeed the British government recognised this in 2014 when it organised something called the ‘Shanghai-England Maths Exchange’ enabling Shanghai teachers to deliver training and model their teaching methods in the UK and enabling English teachers to experience Shanghai Maths first hand. The benefits of this simple ‘people to people’ project were transformative. One of the English teacher participants , Afshah Deen, said,

“Seeing maths teaching in Shanghai and observing how lessons are planned and then discussed and refined by teachers there has been the most interesting and rewarding professional experience of my career. I’ve literally questioned everything I’ve done for the last eight years of teaching. It’s really inspired me to be a better maths teacher.”

Collaborative learning improves the school’s Maths learning culture

The second strength that I believe the UK education system could learn from Mathematics in China is around ‘cultural capital’. This is the idea that when individuals are learning in the classroom they will be influenced by a myriad of thoughts and feelings formed from multiple encounters with the cultural eco-system they grew up in. And it’s the simplest little things in this cultural eco-system that make a difference. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has spoken of an anti Maths culture in the UK. This is made up of hundreds of jokes, instagrams and playground banter where Maths will be ‘dissed’ and dismissed. The limit of the Prime Minister’s thinking is to believe that you can solve this problem by simply introducing more of the same, without challenging the cultural assumptions.

An exchange with China would allow new cultural approaches to be learned. On prime-time Chinese television there are game show competitions for young people built around mathematics. When my IGCSE maths teacher gives out homework he links it into shared culture, ranging from the architectural achievements of the past to the engineering accomplishments of modern China. Students are very ready to co-operate and share their thinking and solve Maths problems together. The result of this cultural capital is that Maths classes in my school often achieve the quality of what I call ‘flow’, where the students are utterly absorbed in problem solving.

On the other hand part of my work for the last ten years has involved training Chinese teachers in international teaching methodologies. I have seen first hand how learning from each other has made such teachers into outstanding practitioners now confidently able to blend the best of the west with the best of the east.

Chinese teaching methodologies are excellent at memorisation techniques, but we have taken this one step further by adding the international strategy of ‘retrieval practice’, requiring students to keep in mind learning from previous topics. Chinese teaching methodologies do develop debate and discussion, but we have extended the skills of our students in this area by placing more emphasis on collaborative learning where students discuss and problem solve in independent teams. Chinese teaching methodologies do support cognitive development, but we have enhanced critical and creative thinking by adding to the teacher toolkit in these areas. There is a very simple but powerful strategy developed in western pedagogy called ‘wait time’, which guides teachers to put in a pause between asking a question and taking answers. This little technique has significantly enhanced the educational benefits of questioning in our classrooms. And it all follows from a simple philosophy. Neither culture has the monopoly on good teaching strategies, so it’s better when we learn together.

Teachers successfully blend Chinese and Western learning methods

Finally let’s come back to cultural capital and an amazing flowing together of Chinese and Western thinking. From my experience the problem of how to motivate young people to become effective learners is just as important in China and in Britain. When I first came to work in Chinese classrooms I was staggered by the phenonomen of students putting their heads down and going to sleep, during a lesson! In the West I was sadly used to many different forms of lesson disruption, but never this kind of quietly checking out of learning. Investigation led me to find out it is a culturally condoned, rather than culturally approved kind of behaviour. It was accepted that if a student believed she or he couldn’t learn it was better to quietly slip into sleep rather than interrupt the learning of the class.

The underlying problem behind the poor motivation of both Chinese and English learners is the question of what happens when students believe they can’t learn. In the West students act up to stop the lesson and / or get the teacher’s attention. In China students fall asleep so that the lesson can continue. Therefore in order to address the cause and not the symptoms, I introduced a set of ideas to change the culture around ‘giving up’.

Answers to this problem can be found in the research of the American professor, Carol Dweck. Carol Dweck developed an educational strategy called ‘Growth Mind-set’. The argument is that students who fail have a ‘fixed mind set’ and believe they cannot learn. Some interpret this as a psychological strategy but I think it’s better applied to improve a school culture.Teachers must assiduously avoid any signals to students that their ability to learn is limited. On the other hand, teachers do everything they can to develop a love of taking on challenges and an attitude of persistence that helps students to never stop believing they can learn and be resilient in looking for a variety of ways to learn and understand.

I set about introducing this strategy to my school. I was in the midst of training my Chinese teachers when one of them asked, ‘Are you sure these are modern western ideas, because they are very similar to ancient Chinese thinking’. When I had finished my introduction she came to the front and talked us through a set of ideas in Chinese called ‘daxue’ or ‘Great Study’. The origin of these ideas may lie with Confucius but they were put together in a systematic way by a thinker called Zhu Xi. In essence the principles are:

诚心 – Cheng Xin or Sincerity

勤奋 – Qin Fen or Diligence

刻苦 – Ke ku or Hard work

恒心 – Heng Xin or Perseverance

专心 – Zhuan Xin or Concentration

尊师 – Zun shi or Respect for teachers

谦虚 – Qian Xu or Humility.

As we discussed and reflected on these ideas we agreed that yes, these were all important ingredients of developing ‘Growth Mindset’. The advantage of this is that when we began to talk to our students about developing a better motivational and learning culture in our school we could combine both philosophies. Indeed we find that approaching Growth Mindset through Chinese thinking means that we can benefit from the echoes of these concepts within the cultural capital that our students bring to their learning.

朱熹 / Zhu Xi

The evidence of my experience of ten years of school leadership in both cultures, is that there is everything to gain from understanding and exchange of educational thinking, and so much to lose from ignorance and suspicion. This gives me the conviction that education isn’t the only area of society where this simple idea holds true.

Students enjoy learning and achieving where there is a harmony of Chinese and Western education

Opening up to the New Year

Let’s look ahead to working together in 2024 to build even more bridges of understanding between the people of Britain and China

In this new year blog I want to look backwards and forwards, reflecting on one of the most important parts of our SACU mission, opening up greater friendship and understanding between the peoples of our two countries.

In a way what I’m doing in these blogs is very simple. I’m trying to share with you accounts of the friendships I’ve experienced here in China, the people I work with and live amongst to grow our shared sense that, as a phrase from the Analects,《论语》of Confucius says, 四海之内皆兄弟, sìhǎizhīnèijiēxiōngdì, ‘around the four seas we are all one family’.

What is ‘opening up’? 2023 marked the 45th anniversary of China’s reform and opening-up policy. We are all aware of ‘opening up’, “开放”as a remarkable economic strategy which has lifted more than 100 million Chinese people out of poverty, and which in turn has contributed more than 70 percent to global poverty alleviation.

But what does ‘opening up’ mean in everyday terms. Let’s take something as simple as signage. Everywhere you travel in China you will be helped by seeing signs in Chinese and English. Recently I was in the remote mountainous region of Sichuan Province where signs were in three languages – Chinese, English and the written language of the local ethnic group. It reminded me of bilingual road signs in Wales and Scotland. China is open to the English language even in areas where speaking English has no functional purpose at all. There is not a village I’ve trekked through where someone has not welcomed me with a cheerful ‘Hello’ or wished me the ubiquitous Chinese adaptation of the English ‘bye bye’. I wonder how many Chinese visitors to England hear a ‘ni hao’ or a ‘zaijian’?

English language and Western culture pops up in surprising ways all over China. This is a shopping mall in Chengdu, south-west China

Michael Wood, our SACU President, in his inspirational ‘The Story of China’ paints vivid pictures of the international communities in the Chinese cities of the Tang and Song dynasties. The same is true of modern China. To sit in a Starbucks in Shanghai or Shenzhen is truly to sit at the crossroads of the world and hear languages and ideas from across Asia, across the Pacific, all areas of the African continent as well as Europe and the Americas.

One of my favourite ‘people to people’ opening up’ experiences happened on a train in Gansu, a desert province in the far west of China. I met a party of Jamaican engineers as my fellow-travellers. I have a great love of Jamaica, having, worked extensively with Jamaican British students and families in schools in London and having had the great fortune to travel there. I introduced myself and wondered at meeting them in such a place.

They explained to me how the derelict, almost bankrupt aluminium plant where they worked ‘back home’ had been purchased by a Chinese company. The mill was being completely rebuilt with the most modern production technology and they were in China while this happened, being trained in metallurgy in a Beijing university and given guided tours of China. The future looked good they said. Not only had the factory been saved from certain closure, but they all had contracts of life-long employment. A new world had ‘opened up’ for them and their families.

My personal experience of how China is open to the international community is from the COVID times. I flew back to be with my teachers and students in October 2020 little expecting that months and months of the worst of the pandemic lay ahead. I have to say in all honestly and simplicity that the Chinese people throughout that difficult period took me to their hearts as one of their own and could not do enough to make sure I was as healthy and secure as everyone else in the Chinese community where I was locked down. There was no resentment of a foreigner queuing patiently with them for daily testing. The test officials patiently learned how to process a foreign passport and record me in the system, even though it took double the time of all of the other residents.

We should never forget what a locked down world felt like – so we appreciate opening up. The author flies back to China to be with his students and teachers, October 2020

In times of stress and anxiety, outsiders become scapegoats, but there was no ‘Anglo-phobia’ of the sort that unfortunately some Chinese British people at the same time had to suffer as ‘Sino-phobia’. That is an unacceptable stain on British society that SACU will do everything it can to remove. On a happier note, my students in Britain have told me that they felt as safe and as welcome as I did in China, being looked after by their universities.

Which brings us to looking back and looking forward. It seems incredible that only a year ago we began to return to the everyday happiness of mixing with each other after the ending of lockdown. That in itself was a type of opening up wasn’t it ? Meeting friends and family again. We should take the same spirit of joy in community and working together into a renewed opening up between the people of our two countries. When we care for and respect each other, we first of all survive and then we thrive.

Looking back and looking forward, we can take inspiration from the rich culture of Anglo Chinese connections to which we are all personally contributing through SACU. This tradition of bridges and connections goes at least as far back as the thirteenth century when, as Michael Wood recounts, a traveller from Beijing, called Rabban Sawma, met the then English king, Edward 1st, in Bordeaux Cathedral.

As Barclay Price traces in his wonderful ‘The Chinese in Britain’, there is a continuous history of person to person exchanges between the English and the Chinese since 1685 and the arrival of a traveller from China called Shen FuTsung (Shen Fuzong)at the court of King James 1. This rich thread of connections includes of course the inspiration of Joseph Needham himself. The tides of official history have ebbed and flowed between collaboration and competition but the history of people to people friendship is constant.

The front cover of Barclay Price’s excellent history of people to people connections

As 2024 opens we should be in no doubt that the voices demanding walls and division around the world will grow louder. But equally be in no doubt that history is on the side of co-operation and harmony. At the very point where it seems the forces of fragmentation must prevail, cultural undercurrents such as SACU and other voices of understanding and tolerance, will become part of a resurgent cycle of renewal. Communities of shared understanding such as ours are the only common sense, international solution to the urgent problems for which division and suspicion in the end have no answers, problems such as the climate crisis and inequality.

Let’s join together in our SACU family to open our hearts and minds to the opportunities of the new year. I’ll end as I began with the simple profundity of Confucius:

有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎 ,

yǒu péng zì yuǎnfāng lái, bù yì lè hū

Isn’t it wonderful to receive guests from afar.

Connections between the people of Britain and the people of China are everywhere. This is a popular tea-house in Shanghai

( The author would like to thank Jiaxi Li for her expert help with this article, 非常 感谢)