zhāocáimāo – the beckoning cat

zhāocáimāo – the beckoning cat

I wonder if like me you’ve always been intrigued by the cat figures that can be seen everywhere at the entrances to both Chinese and Japanese restaurants- you know the ones with the waving paw. They are just as popular in China as they are in Asian restaurants and shops across Britain. If you’re intrigued, but not at all sure what they mean, I hope you’ll enjoy this article where I try to to find out about the beckoning cat’s significance.

In the interests of being even-handed, I’d better declare that I have found both Chinese and Japanese origin stories for this iconic figure. In the article I’ll share both versions with you. All or none of the stories may be true, but whatever the origins there is no doubting the popularity of the figurines themselves. Usually made from ceramic or plastic, they show a cat in a beckoning gesture. Its paw moves back and forth in a swinging motion, and some even have motorised arms so that they can wave all day long. These statuettes are typically displayed at the entrances of businesses—such as restaurants, bars, and laundromats—in order to entice customers to come inside.

In businesses across the world

The first thing we have to understand is the arm movement itself. In western cultures the typical gesture for beckoning is with an extended arm and a hooked, moving finger, calling someone in. In Asian cultures signs of pointing people out are generally considered offensive. The reason for this might be that Asian cultures are in many features, collective, in contrast to the stronger individualism in western societies. A commonly understood way of beckoning someone in Asia avoids pointing at them directly and is done by extending the whole hand, palm down, and then beckoning by folding all of the fingers up and down.

So now we can understand the cat’s gesture and the swinging arm. We can add a little more detail to this. If you look carefully next time you see a beckoning cat, see if it is the left or the right arm that is moving. These cats are versatile. A swinging left arm is inviting customers into the establishment. However a bobbing right arm is sending a different signal – because this is a way of inviting in wealth and money. You may even have seen figures where the right arm is muscular and out of proportion with the cat’s body. Can you guess what that means – yes of course, it’s a way of attracting even more riches in through the door.

There are other symbolic features of this little creature. The classic colours of these lucky cats are white and gold. The white colour represents happiness while the gold is for prosperity. But if you’re looking for alternatives in life, you can alter the colour of your cat. A pink cat is usually thought of as helping you to find love. A green coloured cat brings protection to the whole family. And I am going to have to buy a blue coloured cat to post at the doorway to my school because the blue colour is associated with success in education.

Beckoning cats of different colours

What are the back stories that help to explain why it should be a ‘lucky cat’ and not some other animal. Let’s start in China. In Chinese thinking, cats are not particularly associated with luck. For example, cats are not part of the Chinese zodiac of twelve animals. You probably know that the order of the zodiac animals was decided by a race across a river. Well, the story goes that on the day of the race the lazy cat trusted her brother rat to wake her up, which of course he failed to do, and went on to win the race himself.

Despite this, cats are common and positive symbols and what they symbolise is protection. This association can be traced back to ancient times. Grain, on which the people depended for nutrition, had to be collected and stored in large granaries. Naturally such granaries made perfect feeding grounds for hungry mice and rats, which of course made protective cats very popular animals to have around. In fact in the still largely rural province of Yunnan you can spot ‘cat tiles’ prowling along the rooftops where the owners have placed them to ward away evil spirits.

Yunnan Tile Cat

What of the little cat figurines we see in the shops? Is there a Chinese origin story for them? Well, yes! According to Chinese legends, the characteristic movement of the arms can be traced back to the T’ang dynasty which was the early medieval period in China, from 618 to 907 CE. Evidence linking the beckoning gesture to cats has been found in the form of a T’ang dynasty piece of literature. This text, which is full of information about ghosts, immortals and temples, has a chapter devoted to the symbolism of cats washing their faces. This is described as an auspicious act. One association with with cats raising their ‘arms’ and washing them up and down in front of their faces, is that it is a sign of coming rain. Now this certainly would have been a lucky sign to farmers waiting for rain to water their vital crops. But more importantly for our story, whenever a cat raised its ‘arm’ over its face, as our little cat figures do, it was a sign that important guests were coming to your house. I guess that it seemed the cats were cleaning themselves ready to greet the guests, in their role as protective guardians.

Cat figure in traditional Chinese paper-cut

Now let’s turn to the Japanese version. In Japan these cat figures are known as ‘maneki-neko’, which translates literally as ‘beckoning cat’. The origin story for maneki-neko, goes back to the 17th century. The cat in question lived with a poor monk in Gōtoku-ji temple in Setagaya, Tokyo. One day a wealthy samurai called Ii Naotaka visited the area to hunt. The Lord got caught in a terrible storm and took shelter under a tree. While sheltering, the samurai saw the beckoning gestures of the cat, inviting him to take shelter in the temple. Just as the samurai stepped out from under the tree to go to the temple, a terrible thunder bolt caught the tree and it burst into flames. The beckoning cat had saved the lord’s life.

Naotaka was so grateful to the cat for saving his life, that he became the patron of the temple. He helped to repair it and make more space for the poor monk. When the cat died, a statue of maneki-neko was made to commemorate its life, and the location continues to be considered sacred today. We can see maneki-neko illustrated in Utagawa Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e woodblock print, Flourishing Business in Balladtown (Jôruri-machi hanka no zu), made in 1852. Historical evidence suggests that by the start of the twentieth century maneki-neko cats were popular all over Japan. At this time links between Japan and China were deepening with increasing numbers of young Chinese choosing to study in Japan And it’s not hard to see how these symbols of fortune might have travelled to China and across first of all Asia and then across the world.

Maneki-neko in traditional Japan

So there we have it – the story of the zhāocáimāo – the beckoning cat! Next time you step into your favourite Asian restaurant, following the cat’s beckoning arm, you will know the secrets of its welcoming charms.

Dragon Boats from China to the World – Duānwǔjié!

Dragon boat race in southern Guangzhou

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that Dragon Boat festival has arrived. We can look forward to the spectacle of exciting and colourful dragon boat races across the globe!

Since 2008 this festival has been a public holiday in China. In 2009 it was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. UNESCO states, ‘”Dragon Boat Festival strengthens bonds within families and establishes a harmonious relationship between humanity and nature. It also encourages the expression of imagination and creativity, of contributing to a vivid sense of cultural identity.’ In this article, let’s see if we can get beyond the sporting images of dramatic races, to find some of the spirit of harmony at the festival’s source.

Let’s start with the name. If you know any Chinese at all, you’ll quickly see that the name ‘端午节 – duānwǔjié’ has nothing to to do with dragons, or even boats. It means, ‘the fifth day of the fifth month’. If you’ve been following my Chair’s Blogs, through the year, you will have noticed a theme. Every festival in China has ancient origins which tie it back into the changing seasons and the relationships between people and nature. I believe the same is true in England. Take away the Christian customs and you’ll find the old ‘pagan’ traditions linked to the land, the rivers and the skies.

So what was important about the fifth day of the fifth month? For the ancients, it was the time of two critical and linked events. The heartlands of China, the central areas around the great rivers, were very vulnerable to flooding. Flooding brought a series of threats to human life, including outbreaks of fatal diseases caused by waterborne insects and bacteria. Balanced against this was the fact that controlled flooding had the potential to significantly improve the fertility of farmlands and so the amount and quality of crops to feed the people.

In the days before technology, ordinary people had no way on earth to control any of these natural forces. There’s a Chinese idiom that expresses the puny powers of people in situations like this – ‘tángbì-dāngchē’ – like an insect trying to hold back a chariot. From this understanding it’s easy to see that rituals and traditions would be used as a way of trying to gain control, or at least, influence over these unpredictable events.

Enter the Dragon!

Enter the dragon! Since the very origins of Chinese culture, dragons have been associated with the strength and the power to control nature, especially the wind, the rain, rivers, lakes and seas. One of the nine types of dragon, the Lóngwáng, was able to control the wind and the rain. In fact if you think about it, there’s a powerful visual harmony between the long, winding, serpentine bodies of Chinese dragons and the shape of rivers. So at a time when the rivers were both a powerful threat and a powerful friend, what was more natural than putting a colourful, carved dragon head on the front of a boat and taking to the river to invoke protection from friendly local dragons.

Dragon boat racing is only one of a number of protective customs followed in order to ensure a harmony between people and their environment. Some of these are directly related to the medical threats to life caused by flooding. Maybe now they seem quaint and out of date, but their origins are very practical. One example is a type of alcohol called ‘xiónghuángjiǔ‘, made from Chinese cereals, but also containing traces of arsenic. The alcohol makes a powerful disinfectant and one past tradition was to sprinkle some of the wine in the corners of the house to cleanse it and keep away harmful insects. Another fascinating custom linked to this is to paint a protective character on the foreheads of children with a little of the spirit, again for protection. Don’t worry about the arsenic, in modern China ‘xiónghuángjiǔ’ has been replaced by plum wine!

xiónghuángjiǔDragon Boat festival wine

Another example is the use of a herb which in Chinese is called ‘àihāo’. In English it can be called ‘mugwort’ or ‘artemesia’. As we know from ‘Harry Potter’, English culture used to be very rich in ‘herbology’, or the use of herbs for medical or magical practices. Mugwort is abundant in May and June. It’s leaves are very fragrant. During the festival it was the custom to hang bunches of the herb over doors and windows to keep away poisonous insects. Some would even make bracelets of the leaves and stems to wear to repel insects. As with many of these so-called superstitions, modern science has found that indeed mugwort does have medicinal properties which help with conditions of the liver or kidney. Mugwort leaves are antiseptic and can reduce fevers! They knew a thing or two, those ancients!

àihāo herbs for Dragon Boat festival

If you have followed my blogs, you will also know that numbers are frequently very important in Chinese festival thinking. As we’ve already seen the significant number for Dragon Boat is ‘five’. Alongside the ‘fifth day of the fifth month’, it was also considered that there were five poisonous pests, snakes, centipedes, scorpions, lizards and spiders. There are two traditional ways to protect people, especially vulnerable children against these dangers. The first is to paint pictures of these pests on red paper – of course red is always a lucky colour in China. Another is to make silk cut outs of the creatures. Then either the silk images or the paintings would be pinned on the wall, especially in bedrooms, in the belief that the pin or nail was impaling the insects themselves.

A linked custom is called the ‘five colour silk thread’. This was done specifically to look after children. Parents used to tie a five colour band of silk threads around the wrists of their child. The braids must be kept on until the first rainfall in summer when the pests were less frequent. And of course, the braid had to be thrown into a river, returning it to the source of protection. Intriguingly at around the same time of year there is a similar tradition in India called ‘Raksha bandhan’ which also involves tying protective bracelets around the wrist.

It’s easy for us to scoff at such superstitions but as anyone who’s slept in a room plagued by mosquitos will know, anything that restores your mental balance and helps you to get rest and sleep is to be welcomed. And we can only begin to imagine the terrible suffering of child mortalities in earlier times.

A modern five colour bracelet

And here comes the part you’ve been waiting for – the food! Again, if you’ve been following my excursions through the alleyways of Chinese festivals throughout the year, you will know that every festival in China features a favourite foodstuff. In the case of ‘duānwǔjié’ we are talking about ‘zòngzi’. The heart of zòngzi is sticky rice which has been left to soak overnight and then cooked till it becomes a glutinous mass. The sticky rice is parcelled out onto bamboo leaves. A filling is then added. In South China the fillings tend to be sweet. In North China there is a preference for savoury fillings. The tricky bit is then to wrap the rice and filling into a neat pyramid shape, held together by the bamboo leaves and some cotton thread. Finally you will need to simmer your Zongzi for several hours until the filling is ready to eat. ‘Yummy!’ as Chinese people are fond of saying.


Which leaves one more duānwǔjié topic – the poetry! I know not everyone is a poetry fan so I thought I’d put this part conveniently at the bottom so you can choose to skip it. However there is a dramatic, even tragic poetry story connected to Dragon Boat. It happened in the period of Chinese history known as the Warring States – around 300 BCE. To put this in context, it’s the time the Celtic peoples were moving into Britain, the time of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, the time that Euclid was writing his famous books on geometry and that the ‘Ramayana’ was being composed in India.

Previously, central and northern China had been more or less united by the Zhou rulers. However as the power of the Zhou diminished, seven smaller states began fighting amongst themselves for hegemony. Our hero, Qū Yuán, was an advisor to the King of one of these warring states, Chu. He was also an accomplished poet. Unfortunately for Qū, he backed the wrong party in court and like many poets of ancient China, he was forced into exile. He turned his wanderings to good advantage, composing poems and learning about the customs and traditions of peoples living south of the Yangtze River. However, driven by a mixture of sadness about his endless exile and his bitter despair over the disasters besetting his country, he threw himself into the Mìluó River and drowned.

Qū Yuán has become part of the Dragon Boat festival. On the fifth day of the fifth month, local people are supposed to have begun a desperate search for his body in the river. They used local boats, similar to Dragon Boats, to look for his body. The villagers splashed the water with their boat paddles to frighten evil spirits away. They threw zòngzi into the waters so that the fish would eat the rice and other ingredients, instead of the poet’s body. Unfortunately Qū Yuán did not survive, but his remarkable poetry has. He was an extraordinary innovator who introduced new styles of writing and rhythms into Chinese poetry.

Qū Yuán, the poet of Dragon Boat

His most famous work is called 离骚 , Lísāo or ‘Parting Sorrow’. I’ll finish by introducing you to two remarkable parts of this poem. The first is its unique use of some the ideas of the ancient religions of China, which were a little like shamanism. On his travels Qū Yuán studied the herbal wisdom of communities he met on his way, leading to magical lines like these:

‘ I made a coat of lotus and water chestnut leaves

And gathered lotus petals to make myself a skirt

I will no longer care that no-one understands me

As long as I can keep the sweet fragrance of my mind.’

The second remarkable feature of ‘Lísāo’ is its humanism, especially its ability to face up to the full suffering of exile and yet still to try to find some inspiration. This gives insights into the mind of a poet who was later to end his own life from despair:

“ 路漫漫其脩遠兮,

lù mànmàn qí xiū yuǎn xī,

the road is boundless – cultivation so distant;


wú jiāng shàngxià ér qiúsuǒ.

I shall explore it from beginning to end.”

So, duānwǔjié, is about far more than dragon boats. As others have carried the sporting aspects of this event from China to the four corners of the world, let’s see what we can do to bring the deeper thoughts and harmonies of this festival to the world.

Happy Dragon Boat Festival!

( all images courtesy of CGTN)

Why Bridges of Understanding to British Universities really matter!

Wang Xiao Yu at UCL

As we all know education exchange is one of the best ways to grow friendship and understanding between the people of Britain and the people of China. So today I’d like to share with you some thoughts from one of my ex students – Wang Xiao Yu. Wang studied IGCSE and A Level courses with me in Beijing, before successfully completing first a BSc in Psychology with Education and then an MSc in the same subject this year. Here she reflects on the importance of choosing a British university.

Wang Xiao Yu organises the timetable of our volunteer school in Yunnan

“ A Chinese Student’s Journey: Navigating University Life in the UK

Studying abroad is an adventure that promises both challenges and rewards. As a Chinese student pursuing my education in the UK, I embarked on a journey fuelled by aspirations and curiosity.

 Choosing the UK: A Blend of Practicality and Passion

Selecting a destination for higher education is a pivotal decision, one that requires careful consideration of academic excellence, cultural fit, and personal aspirations. 

For me, the UK emerged as a compelling choice, blending practical considerations with a passion for exploration and learning. British universities have high academic reputations. They attracted me with their rigorous curriculum, innovative research opportunities, and highly respected and professional faculty. As a student who aspires to excel in my chosen field, studying in an academically rich environment with world-renowned professors held immense appeal. The UK’s commitment to academic excellence, with its global recognition for pioneering research and innovation, affirmed my belief that pursuing my studies here would provide me with the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in an increasingly competitive world. 

Beyond academic aspects, my decision to choose a UK university was also influenced by personal experiences of previous visits to the UK. The rich cultural heritage and diverse atmosphere, each encounter left an indelible mark on my consciousness, sparking a desire to delve deeper into the cultural tapestry of this dynamic nation. It is a place where I could interact with individuals from all walks of life and broaden my understanding of the world, making it a natural choice for my higher education pursuits. It symbolised not only a strategic step towards my future career but also a profound voyage of self-exploration and development. As I ventured into this new phase of my life, I embraced it with eagerness, expectation, and appreciation for the myriad opportunities awaiting me.

Wang Xiao Yu shares her views at an international education conference

The Reality Unfolds: Surprises, Pressures and Balancing

Upon arrival, the reality of studying in the UK unfolded before me, blending seamlessly with my expectations in some aspects while challenging preconceptions in others. 

The classroom dynamic, characterised by open discussions and encouraged participation, mirrored my anticipations. The emphasis on critical thinking and independent learning fostered a stimulating academic environment conducive to personal growth. Since I experienced such a classroom environment in my high school, I was able to integrate and immerse myself quickly in this style of teaching. The multicultural milieu provided opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and broadened my perspectives. Engaging with students from diverse backgrounds enriched my learning experience, fostering friendships and transcending geographical boundaries. 

Shifting from learning to living experience, the UK provides vibrant cultural and recreational activities, offering avenues for exploration and enrichment outside the classroom. I explored endless enriched culture from world-renowned museums and galleries showcasing historical artefacts and fine art collections to the vibrant theatre scene and music festival of London’s West End.

Christmas in London

Alongside this cosiness and surprise, there were also things in the UK that differed from my initial perceptions and caused me to feel stressed. Homesickness and cultural adjustment were the initial challenges for me, as being far away from family, friends, and familiar surroundings sometimes triggered my feelings of loneliness and disconnection, especially when I had not fully adjusted to the UK culture. I spent a long time integrating into new social circles, navigating unfamiliar social dynamics, and overcoming behavioural differences. Thanks to the support from my parents, friends, and tutors from the university, I was able to adjust my emotions to maintain good mental health and well-being.

Adaptation to a more independent way of life, including managing finances, accommodation, and daily tasks, posed subsequent obstacles. Compared to the structured support systems prevalent in China, navigating the intricacies of daily life in a foreign country demanded resilience and resourcefulness. Balancing academic pursuits with social engagements and personal responsibilities became a pivotal aspect of my university experience, and I am still trying to cope with them.

Adapting to brunch, English style, with a side order of Chinese porridge

Friendship and Collaboration: Bridging China and UK Together

Reflecting on the relationship between English universities and China, it is evident that collaboration and exchange play a significant role in fostering mutual understanding and academic progress. Living in the UK offers students access to a vast network of professionals, industry experts, and alumni associations. Engaging in networking events, internships, and work placements provides valuable opportunities to build connections, gain practical experience, and enhance employability prospects. My university offers platforms for career plans and volunteering opportunities targeting individuals’ preferences and aims for their future jobs. They also organised workshops on teaching job CVs and interviews systematically to help students better face future challenges.

The growing partnerships between institutions facilitate research collaborations, student exchanges, and cultural initiatives, enriching the academic landscape for both nations. Student exchanges play a crucial role in fostering mutual understanding and building bridges between the UK and China. When studying in another country, I have the opportunity to immerse myself in a different academic environment, gain cross-cultural competencies, and form lasting friendships with peers from diverse backgrounds. I became friends with an Indian girl in one of my postgraduate classes. While the interaction and discussion of our ideas fulfilled my understanding of education and life in her country, she also gained more ideas about the history and interesting things that happened in China.

International friendships

Studying in the UK as a Chinese student has been a transformative journey marked by personal and academic growth. While challenges abound, the experiences were invaluable in broadening horizons, developing lifelong friendships, and fostering a global perspective. As I navigate the complexities of university life, I am reminded the journey itself is as enriching as the destination, shaping me into a more resilient, adaptable, and culturally aware individual.”

Wang Xiao Yu celebrates her international success to date in English fashion, with cake!

In 2022, Wang Xiao Yu was one of nearly 700,000 international students who chose to study in a UK university, a figure second only to the US. In 2023 approximately 27,000 Chinese students chose to study in the UK. Every one of them will have a story similar to that of Wang Xiao Yu, a story of challenges, of opportunities, a story of the inevitable loneliness of leaving your native country and of the remarkable power of international friendships.

China and Me

The author at Black Dragon Pool, Lijiang

I have lived and worked in China since 2013, during which time I’ve led the start up and development of an innovative Chinese international school in Beijing. I spend ten months out of every twelve in China. I live in a district of Changping in north Beijing where I am the only foreigner. I work every day in the friendly company of my Chinese colleagues. In the UK I live in a southern town called Southbourne. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the approximate 5000 miles in between, I could walk down Bellevue Road in Southbourne and turn the corner into Beishahe Road in Changping, without batting an eyelid. China is my home.

The great bridge of friendship between Britain and China is education. I’m proud of the fact that every year over 90% of my students choose British universities for their further education. The cultures and traditions of learning and knowledge are long and venerable in both our histories. But I have to make a shameful and humbling admission. I was educated to the highest level in the UK, having had the privilege of studying at Cambridge University. But not once in my whole educational journey was China introduced so I, like so many British people, grew up almost entirely ignorant of the country, its people, its history and its culture.

The author promoting British education in China

That’s why after ten years of immersing myself as deeply in China as I can, I’ve become Chair of a friendship organisation in Britain called the Society for Anglo Chinese Understanding, which was founded to build on the legacy of that great friend of China, Joseph Needham. Inspired by the traditions of abiding friendship between China and Britain I am determined to build as many bridges of understanding as I can.

As the famous British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’

Let’s start with my love of the amazing diversity of places I’ve been able to visit across this incredible country.

We start in Beijing, strolling through the tranquil winding maze of traditional alleyways called the ‘hutong’. Sit awhile to enjoy the garrulous 叽叽喳喳 – jījizhāzhā, the birdsong gossip of the old timers sitting out in the soft Beijing autumn sunshine, the distinctive tones of their 北京话 – Běijīnghuà – the Beijing dialect.

The author in the Beijing Hutong alleyways

But now, let’s leave Beijing and jump on the dragon’s back – the amazing network of high spec, high tech, high speed trains which can whizz you at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour the length and breadth of this land. Sit back and enjoy the service as delicious hot meals are delivered to your comfortable seat and the cinematic panorama of a nation opens up outside of your window.

First stop on our journey to the incredible – the Mogao Caves in far flung Dunhuang in Gansu Province. Shake the sand from your shoes and the darkness from your eyes and blink in the presence of the beauty of Buddhist art from the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Immersed in the swirling colours and diversity of faces you journey back to a time when this very place was one of the great crossroads of world trade and culture. Here in this cave complex where you stand they found the world’s oldest printed book – a text of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra produced in 868 CE.

Detail from the 莫高窟, Mògāokū
Mogao caves in Dunhuang
敦煌, Gansu

Hurry, back on board, we’re heading south and east down through the mountains into Sichuan and the ancient city of Chengdu. Using an app just developed in China we can call up a restaurant in the town of Lanzhou and have a delicious fragrant bowl of local 拉面 – lāmiàn, hand pulled noodles, delivered freshly to our train. And now here we are in Chengdu, with its all year round balmy climate and we’re following in the footsteps of one of China and the world’s greatest poets, Du Fu, who enjoyed some of the best years of his harsh life of exile in this city and wrote of it:

‘I’ve heard a lot about this city

Listen, there’s a sound

Of people making music.

That doesn’t cure

My loneliness.’

The author at 杜甫草堂, Dù Fǔ cǎotáng, Du Fu Cottage

But there’s no time for loneliness for us. Just a short bus journey out of Chengdu and we’re at the site of Sanxingdui, staring deep into the profound and mysterious masked eyes of one of China’s, one of the world’s, most ancient civilisations, rapt in wonder at their sophisticated bronze artistry, works as intriguing and expressive as modern surrealism. And of course even a whistle stop tour of China could not be complete unless you joined the adoring throngs, wandering the beautifully landscaped panda sanctuary, peering among the swaying bamboo poles for the alluring, elusive patches of black and white, that are China’s gift to the natural iconography of the world.

The author with a Sanxingdui mask

The high speed train welcomes us back and we’re off again, whizzing through the mountain passes, the deep ingenious tunnels threading under the mountains and flying over the elegant bridges that span the valleys, south to fabled Yunnan! In 2021 the COP 15 world bio-diversity conference took place in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan and with good reason. The eco-systems of Yunnan are critical to the environmental health of China and the whole planet. 18,000 different high plant species are found here, 1836 vertebrate species and 72.5% of China’s protected animal species. And here the great and largely unknown story of China’s great struggle to harmonise humanity and nature is unfolding.

In Yunnan we need to leave the high speed rail network behind and slow down to nature’s pace. Sit awhile by Black Dragon Pool in Lijiang and lose yourself in the sublime beauty of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain soaring nine miles distant in the low lying Yunnan clouds.

‘We sit together, the mountain and me

Till only the mountain remains.’

(Li Bai – Zazen on Ching T’ing Mountain, trans Sam Hammill, 2000)

Yunnan invites you to wander far from the beaten track, in your heart and your mind. Here we are now in wandering through the historic rows of tea bushes of Pu’er, the deep well of the world’s tea culture. Let’s take a seat in a tea-tasting room, heady with fermented fragrances. The afternoon sunlight dances through the window and refracts with earthly radiance through your glass tea bowl. This ignites the flavours of a history of tea cultivation and tea culture with roots in the tenth century when the local Blang and Dai ethnic minorities worked with the wisdom of the Tea Ancestor to develop this unique tea landscape. As you sip at the eco-system in a cup, the 茶艺师, the ‘chayi shi’ or ‘tea master’, a young lady from the Yunnan Wa or Va ethnic minority proudly tells me she is studying tea culture at the local ‘Tea University’, set up with government funding to preserve the knowledge and wisdom of Pu’er for future global generations.

The Yunnan Tea University

The high speed train from Kunming to Shanghai is waiting. There’s one more thing we must do – eat! We need some soul food! For me there is one simple dish that represents the 味道, the wèidao or flavour of Yunnan, 米线, mǐxiàn – rice noodles. You stood 2000 metres up on Aliao Mountain, about 300 kilomtres distant from Kunming and had your breath taken away by the myriad of rice terraces dug by the Hani ethnic minority on the mountain side, shimmering like dragon scales in the rising sun. Now steaming in front of you on a wobbly table in a street side restaurant, is a bowl of fragrant broth where the terrace rice swims in the form of long, white, strands of noodles. There are many local varieties of Yunnan rice noodles but perhaps ‘guò qiáo mǐ xiàn’ or ‘Cross the Bridge noodles’ are the most famous. There are slices of locally cured meats, glistening green fresh Yunnan vegetables, perhaps some delicate quail eggs, pickled vegetables and some ‘làjiāo’, chilli pickle sauce, to be added to your personal need for a spicy kick to your meal

Soon your taste buds are dancing to the harmony of natural, organic, earthy flavours. As you eat you slip into a little revery about the legendary origins of this dish. The story tells it was first created by a devoted wife for her struggling scholar husband, who studied hard every day, a bridge away from home and would eat nothing until his wife ‘crossed the bridge’ carrying this life-saving recipe. Inspired by her culinary art the scholar passed the imperial exam with flying colours and although he is long forgotten, his wife’s gift to the world lives on.

Yunnan, 米线, mǐxiàn – rice noodles

So we’re ready for the final leg of our travel embrace of China, the G1372, high speed train from Kunming South to Shanghai Hongqiao. As the kilometres slip by you remember all of the faces of the people, the other main ingredient of your love of China and its people. So many kind smiles and welcoming looks, in ten years not one glance of hostility or prejudice. So many hesitant, shy words of English to welcome you wherever you’ve been. Inevitably some faces stay longer in your memories than others. Let’s meet two of them.

His boyish face lit up in a warm smile, Along comes to meet you at the exit to Kaile Railway station, in Guizhou Province. For the next two weeks he’s offering you homestay in Langde village, a village of the Miao ethnic minority. His quiet charm makes you feel relaxed and at home right from the moment of meeting. 50 kilometres through the mountains later and he is guiding you up the stone steps, past the villagers offering you the traditional greeting of small but ferociously potent mǐjiǔ – rice wine. ‘Be careful’, he warns with a laugh. He guides you through the winding rough stone paths under the stone and wooden 吊脚楼 diàojiǎolóu houses, raising themselves along the mountainside on stilts.

At the house I’m introduced to Along’s mother and father, wizened by age but still spry and sprightly. We are sitting in the kitchen which has a roaring wood fuelled fire on top of which a pan of food is bubbling merrily. Feeling curious to taste a new dish, and feeling hungry, I shyly ask if I could try some. Along, mother and father all smile conspiratorially. ‘Why not?’ A bowl is produced and I’m given a ladle to spoon up a serving of piping hot delicious local cuisine. At the last minute Along’s mother mutters disapprovingly and gently but firmly stops me in mid motion. Along and his father fall silent. The mother guides me over to the dark corner of the kitchen and pulls up a trap door. Totally confused I peer down into the darkness below until out of the shadows comes the unmistakable snuffling of pigs and three large snouts are poked up towards me, sniffing greedily. Mother makes a sign that confirms what I’m now thinking – that this bubbling pan of food is for the porcine beauties kept under the stilted kitchen floor. There’s an awkward moment of silence, how will the foreigner react? And when I burst into waves of warm, good natured laughter they join in. Barriers of language and culture are dissolved and we pass the next two weeks as family, sharing both the joys and challenges of village life.

The author joins a 苗族 Miáozú festival

My second unforgettable encounter was in the far south-west Yunnan city of Tengchong, which is very close to the border with Myanmar. Come with me now to meet an authentic Chinese hero, Lu Caiwen. Lu is in his nineties, but as you sit in his living room, enchanted by his merry shining eyes it’s impossible to believe this is his real age. Impossible that is, until he tells his life story. You see Lu Caiwen came of age in one of the most terrible periods of recent Chinese history, when the invading Japanese Imperial Army threatened to overrun the whole of China. It’s 1943 and the invasion has captured Tengchong and is attempting to drive north to take a grip over the whole country. Lu Caiwen tells how he was technically too young to join the Chinese Expeditionary Force but still did so and joined the heroic struggle to delay or halt the invaders. It’s at this point that Joseph Needham, now honoured by the Society for Anglo Chinese Understanding, enters the story. As a well known scientist he was sent to China by the British government to find out what resources the Chinese needed to continue their struggle and organise supply and delivery.

Moist tears cloud Lu Caiwen’s heroic eyes as he tells the story of the battle for Laifeng Mountain. where the Japanese were dug into defensive lines. Inch by murderous inch the CEF crawled up the mountainside to reclaim the strategic advantage. At the foot of the mountain is a 53,000 square metre cemetery where rest the 10,000 CEF soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice. Even now, decades later, Lu’s voice shakes with emotion, as he remembers the comrades who fell around him. Every few days Lu Caiwen visits the graveyard to lay chrysanthemums in memory of his fallen comrades. Their incredible courage and dedication to the cause were a major turning point in the war. Thanks to them the back door route into China was closed.

We don’t give enough historical credit to the Chinese role in the defeat of Fascism. The Chinese denied Japan control of valuable resources. Chinese resistance meant that Japanese troops had to stay in China, which allowed American and Russian allies vital breathing space to focus on the defeat of Germany. History should remember Mr Lu and his comrades for their part in freeing the world from the plague of fascism.

But the bonds of friendship stretch far beyond this. Listening to Lu you remember that almost at exactly the same time he crawled his way up Laifeng Mountain under murderous fire from the enemy, 11,000 kilometres away in central Italy, my grandfather, Alfred Nash, was crawling up another mountain, called Monte Cassino, under equally withering gunfire from the German army. Monte Cassino was as pivotal in the war in western Europe as Laifeng was in the war in Asia. When I sat next to Mr Lu in his Tengchong home in 2019 I knew my grandfather was there in the room, listening as attentively as I was. They shared the same slightly mischievous twinkle in their eyes, maybe the light in the eyes of those who have looked on the brutality of war and know better than us, the precious everyday beauty of peace.

The author and Mr Lu Caiwen

Look, it’s dusk outside and right on time the train is pulling into Shanghai Hongqiao station. We’ve completed our high speed embrace of a country and its people. We’ve arrived in the city where in July 1921 the rebirth of this great nation started. Gather round friends of China, new histories of understanding and harmony are waiting to be written.

The author welcomes you to join him on a 高铁 – gāotiě – high speed train tour of China

Growing People to People Connections

Guangzhou Garden, Bristol

Did you know that the city of Bristol has its own garden dedicated to expressing the connections between the people of Bristol and the people of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou?  Neither did I! In this blog I will briefly introduce a short history of the fascinating city of Guangzhou but as quickly as possible get to the garden itself.

Guangzhou is a very appropriate city to be twinned with Bristol, because in history they were both once the trading capitals of their respective countries.  It was from Bristol that Atlantic sea journeys to West Africa and then the eastern seaboard of what became America started, with the voyage of John Cabot to Canada in 1497.  Tragically this maritime activity quickly developed into the Atlantic slave trade.  Modern Bristol has evolved as a vibrant, multi-cultural city which is the gateway to the west of England and Wales.  

Bristol Docks today

Moving to Guangzhou, I wouldn’t mind betting that all of you actually do know this city, but under the former name of ‘Canton’. Canton was the name given to Guangzhou by European traders, Portuguese explorers first arrived in the Guangzhou region in 1513.  By that time Guangzhou was already a thriving trade centre under Ming Dynasty rule.  From the Tang Dynasty onwards the city had been a vital part of the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ with sea-routes spinning out across south-east Asia as far as the Red Sea.  It was also a fabulously diverse, multi-cultural centre, home to traders and merchants from every part of Asia and Africa. 

 Tragically in the mid-nineteenth century, the ‘Opium Wars’ in which Britain fought to exploit and control trade with China, focused largely on this area. In the twentieth century Guangzhou became the hot-bed of revolution as first the Nationalists and then the Communists claimed the city for New China.  In the New China founded by the Communist Party in 1949 Guangzhou prospered, first as an industrial centre, and then from the 1980’s becoming one of the financial and trading hubs of China herself and then the world. In 2023, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the city of Guangzhou in China amounted to approximately 3.04 trillion yuan.

Guangzhou – a world trade hub

Now we can see the context for both cities, the idea of a partnership seems a natural step.  An agreement between the two cities was first signed in 2001. In 2013 this was expanded by the adoption of a Bilateral Agreement signed by the Councils of the two cities.  One of the outcomes of these agreements was the setting up of the West of England China Bureau with a mission to connect the people of Bristol and the South West of England with the people of China and in particular Bristol’s Sister City Guangzhou in Southern China. They work to encourage greater mutual understanding between the two countries.

The Guangzhou Garden is a horticultural expression of this partnership. Moreover it makes a statement not just about the connections between the peoples of the two cities, but connections between people and the natural environment, which we know from previous Blogs, are deep at the roots of both British and Chinese cultures. Both Peter Chmiel and Chin-Jung Chen of Grant Associates, Bath, wanted to design the Garden in ways that addressed issues of sustainability and eco-diversity, particularly in relation to urban planning. Some of you might know that since the year 2000 sustainable urban planning (sometimes called ‘green’ or ‘eco’ cities) has been an important focus in China.  The importance of the design concepts presented in the Guangzhou Garden can be seen by the fact that it won a Gold Medal and Best in Show at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Chin Jung-Chen, garden designer

Let’s take a tour of some of the features of the Guangzhou Garden. Just as in so many classical gardens I have seen in China, a pool of water is at the heart of the design.  Around the pool are ranged a variety of interesting shrubs and tree specimens, all with origins in China.  One particularly beautiful sample is the Dove or Handkerchief Tree, also known as a ‘Ghost Tree’ because in May they are covered in reddish purple-brown flowers with white bracts (bracts are small, modified leaves, that hang beneath a flower) and these flutter together mysteriously in the Spring breezes.  The tree originates from mountain forests in Northern Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, West Hubei and West Hunan provinces, but it is becoming rarer in the wild and actually red listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

A Ghost Tree

Another noteworthy tree in the Guangzhou Garden is the Dawn Redwood.  This tree has a perfectly symmetrical shape and soft feathery leaves.  It is a very ancient tree.  Fossilised versions of the tree have been found which are 150 million years old.  It grows extensively in Hubei Province in China.  This beautiful tree is especially spectacular in Autumn when the leaves turn russet and golden. Interestingly, it has been found out that the Dawn Redwood makes a perfect street tree, because it needs little water, tolerates poor soil and rids itself and the surrounding area of dirt and pollution when its leaves fall and decompose.  Coming soon to a roadside near you.

Dawn Redwood –
Metasequoia glyptostroboides 

Gardens are one of the treasures of Chinese history and culture. There is evidence of gardening stretching all the way back to the period of the Shang in China, (1600 to 1046 BCE). It was in the Han Dynasty (206-220 CE) that the idea grew of a garden as a place of rest and relaxation. Thereafter, each generation of Chinese history saw the development of new aesthetic ideas and forms of horticultural expression.

In the Sui Dynasty (581-618CE) and Tang Dynasties (618-907 CE), it became the fashion to introduce rocks, waterfalls and other mountain features into gardens, features which remain popular to this day. Emperor Kangxi of the Ming Dynasty (1386-1644) and Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) focused on the part structures played in garden design, decorating gardens with pagodas, little palaces and rooms for rest and contemplation.

If you visit the Chinese city of Suzhou I recommend a visit to the Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园) which is the largest garden in Suzhou and recognised as one of the four most famous gardens in China. This garden was constructed in 1509 during the Ming Dynasty and is a masterpiece of Ming Dynasty garden landscaping. The garden is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Humble Administrator’s Garden ( 拙政园), Suzhou

Sadly, such travel is not available to us all, in which case a visit to the Guangzhou Garden in Bristol will be perfect. I want to thank the Botanic Garden Curator Nicholas Wray for his generous help in writing this article. You can find out more about the Garden here : https://botanic-garden.bristol.ac.uk/. And as you potter around your very own garden patch of paradise next time, remember you are tending yet another source of deep connection between British and Chinese culture.

Two cultures rooted in a shared love of gardens

Let’s finish with a little Chinese poetry, written to celebrate gardens. There are many but these lines are by 林逋, Lin Bu (967-1028), a Northern Song poet.







This is the flower that shows us springtime beauty,

When the others have wobbled and fallen.

It’s the reason we love this small garden.   

Its thin shadows slant across the clear, shallow water,

Its hidden fragrance floats beneath the yellow moon.

A snow-white bird steals a look before landing.

If the pink butterflies knew it was here, their hearts should break.

( Translation by Jean Yuan, 2021)

China and the UK between them grow ‘the tree of life’!

Nurturing the Tree of Life together!

It’s exam time here in Beijing! For students and teachers alike, it’s the same roller-coaster ride of mixed emotions that you will find in any school in England.There’s the same slight giddy hysteria in the air as the students make their final preparations. There’s the same clutching at little squishy calming toys, or devotion to good luck mascots. There’s the same hush of teachers waiting anxiously for the exam room doors to be opened and for students to bring news from the examination battle front of victories and defeats.

There are deeper reasons for the atmosphere to be exactly the same as in a High School in England. The school I lead has a licence from Cambridge International Education, the world’s largest education and assessment company to use their IGCSE and International A Level examinations. These are of course international versions of the GCSE and A Level examinations that students sit in English High Schools. The exams are designed and published in England and flown to centres all over the world, including my school. The student scripts are bundled up and air freighted to England for grading and the issuing of the all important academic certificates, each with a shiny hologram of the Cambridge University badge and the signature of the Vice Chancellor of the university. CIE, as most professionals call them, partner with 10,000 schools around the world and work in 160 countries globally. I think these statistics give you some idea of the enormous hand of friendship that education offers from England to the World.

From China to the world’s universities

Why do Chinese students and their families choose to switch from a Chinese education track to an international one? Chinese national education has improved enormously and continues to make progress. Tsinghua University is number 12 in the world, Peking University, number 14 and there are 7 Chinese universities in the World’ Top 100. The explanation is that students and their families have done the Maths and calculated that the probability of securing a world top 50 university is higher following the the international route than the Chinese domestic one. There are possible educational benefits too. One of the strong points about English education is that it increasingly includes skill enhancement alongside knowledge and understanding. Students who leave my school are likely to have better critical thinking, creative thinking and problem solving skills than their peers simply because these competences are ‘baked in’ to A Level courses.

This is the practical answer. However, there’s a deeper set of reasons around their attraction to studying in the UK. And these are deeply humbling. Here are some figures from research by the Universities Counselling and Admission’s Service (UCAS), the not for profit organisation that manages all admissions to UK universities. Their findings in a survey show that 90% of Chinese students opting for international university study would recommend a British university. Further, 92% of Chinese students completing undergraduate studies reported themselves as being satisfied with the quality of their studies and experiences in the UK. 76% of acceptances for Chinese undergraduate students were from what are called ‘high tariff providers’, which most of us would understand as the Russell Group of top 25 British universities.

Originally it appears Business was the most popular course for Chinese international students, but now that is diversifying. I can see an increasing desire for creative subjects. One of my current Sixth Form students is determined to study electronic music, another wants to become an architect, yet another to study Fashion and Design in London which she sees as the fashion centre of the world. These are choices and ambitions as diverse as any I have known in my schools in the UK.

Surely there is so much here that we should be proud of. Anyone with even the slightest contact with Chinese people knows that above all things they value education. This value is not just transactional, although most Chinese people still believe in education as a meritocratic gateway to better life opportunities. Embedded in the culture and the language is a belief in the integrity of learning and its intrinsic value. A popular idiom still tells every young Chinese – 程门立雪 – chéngménlìxuě – to stand patiently at your teacher’s door waiting to study, even waist deep in freezing snow. 77% of Chinese international students believe that British universities are the best in the world. Almost half of the Chinese international students interviewed professed a love of British culture, values and society.

That resonates with my experiences of university counselling, listening to why British universities have such a strong appeal to them. I can’t help thinking to myself sometimes, if only the England of their dreams really existed, an England of fairness, equality and above all, opportunity to be yourself and make something of yourself. English universities seem to be particularly popular with young women and it’s clear that they believe that their education there will be free from the ‘glass ceiling’ out of date ideas about women in education that can still be found here and there in China.

For most students a UK university is their dream destination.

Do you understand why anyone in the UK would want to stop this amazing educational bridge of friendship between the UK and China? Even if we are driven by the simplest monetised way of looking at the world, we should surely see this education industry as amazingly lucrative. In 2021, the British Council calculated that Chinese students, as a whole, spent £5.4bn on costs such as tuition fees and living expenses in the UK. To anyone who argues that Chinese students are taking university places ‘that belong to British students’, the response is that the situation is directly opposite to this narrow minded view. The exorbitant fees paid by Chinese students are in fact subsidising the relatively much lower fees for domestic UK undergraduates and graduates.

Yes, a proportion of graduates from China will choose to stay in the UK after graduation. To do this they now need to be in a job paying 38,700 pounds per year and can have no recourse to public funds. In other words, far from taking advantage of the UK, such Chinese graduates will be adding value to British businesses and the British economy. One of my graduates who chose to stay is now a bank manager and a paragon of middle class respectability, obsessed with showing me photos of his property and his cars. Another is a Finance Consultant for BlackRock, the investment managers, helping to keep the world’s money flowing through London.

Yet the truth is that 80% of young Chinese graduates from UK universities return home to China after completing their studies. A case study from my school is a young lady called Wang Xiao Yu (Ada), who completed a BA and than an MA in Education and Psychology at the London University Institute of Education and is now determined to make her contribution to the improvement of education in China. This I see as the perfect bridge of friendship, where a UK university has clearly benefited for 5 years from this young lady’s passionate commitment to learning and research and now China stands to benefit from all the knowledge and experience she will bring home.

Wang Xiao Yu (Ada), bringing knowledge in Education and Psychology back to China

For me, there is every reason to continue to grow these academic bridges of understanding and co-operation between two countries with such deep cultures of learning. It saddens me whenever we hear performative and unsubstantiated rumours in some areas of the British media that are stirring up resentment or suspicion of China, and the Chinese people. The result of such rumours, which always seem to fade shortly after grabbing fear-mongering headlines, can so easily be needless acts of racist abuse.

The good news is that when British and Chinese academics do connect and co-operate great things happen. Recently there was a major scientific breakthrough coming out of groundbreaking research jointly led by researchers from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Kunming Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Working together, sharing talents and research techniques they completed a mapping of the DNA of flowering plants, the tree of life! This has enabled them to analyse the DNA of 9,500 plant specimens, including extinct plants. There is now the potential for the genetic study of 400 million plant specimens.

Let’s just take this spirit of co-operative research one stage further. The team have now made all of this data freely available to the general public and the scientific community. The capacity for all sorts of further research into biodiversity and agriculture and medicine this represents is incalculable. The tragedy is that it is the sabre rattling and vacuous abuse that reaches the media headlines, not epic stories like this of inspirational Anglo-Chinese understanding!

UK and Chinese researchers jointly unravelling the DNA of the ‘tree of life’

Very soon it will be graduation day and my students will leave. To help overcome the feelings of stress the students experience in the Exam Hall, I call it the Departure Lounge like at an airport. Get their paperwork right and they’ll be flying off to universities across the world, carrying the hopes and dreams of their families with them. Each student carries within her or himself the seed of new growths of understanding and co-operation. That’s why the work that we do together as SACU and the work of our sister friendship organisations really matters. Without us, there would only be stony ground. We nurture and grow an environment of friendship in which the potential for partnerships like the plant DNA project can take root and flower.

SACU is nurturing an Anglo- Chinese environment where shared learning can take root.

Wǔsì Yùndòng ( May Fourth)

As I write this it’s May First, a national holiday in China which is known as 劳动节, Láodòng Jié or Labour Day. The traditions of Labour Day started in 1890 when the Marxist International Socialist Congress in Paris designated the day to commemorate an event in Chicago in 1886 when the police used gunfire on a crowd that was protesting in favour of an eight hour working day! A number of protestors were shot dead and many more were injured. Remembering the ‘Haymarket Martyrs’ was an inspiration for the original Labour Day. May First was declared a national holiday in China in 1949 by the new government of the People’s Republic of China.

Interestingly, May First has a long history as a holiday in Europe. Greek and Roman texts describe the start of May as a festival for the start of Spring. In England, May Day celebrations came to include the gathering of wildflowers and green branches, the weaving of floral garlands, the crowning of a May king and queen, and the setting up of a decorated May tree, or Maypole, around which people danced. There was even a superstitious belief that if you washed your face on May Day you would stay beautiful for the rest of the year!

This time of the year clearly has resonances east and west. However in this blog I want to focus not on May 1 but on May 4. This day is so important in Chinese history and culture that it even has a whole movement named after it – 五四运动, Wǔsì Yùndòng, or the May Fourth Movement. The events of May Fourth 1919 along with the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, are seen as the roots of Modern China. Let’s try to understand why Wǔsì Yùndòng is so important.

First we need a bit of background. China had become a republic on 1st January 1912 but the country had been weakened by the failure of the Qing Dynasty to modernise and by the constant interference of the colonial powers and Japan. This period is sometimes called ‘the Warlord Era’ because in the absence of effective central government local leaders all over the country seized power. You can see something of this period in the popular Chinese film ‘让子弹飞’, in English ‘Let the bullets fly’ (2010).

Then came WW1. At first China was neutral but in 1917 in order to be accepted as a modern nation, China joined the war on the side of the Allies. 140,000 Chinese labourers supported the Allied armies on the western front and as many as 500,000 contributed to war efforts in Russia. Chinese historians estimate as many as 20,000 Chinese gave their lives for the Allied cause.

After the war the Allies met at Versailles in France to design the post war world. China sent a delegation of sixty, fully expecting to be given a fair settlement which would end colonial occupation of Hong Kong by the British, of Manchuria by the Japanese and of Shandong by the Germans. The American President Woodrow Wilson was talking a lot at the Conference about national self determination.

Unfortunately the Allied powers made no such decision. In 1914 Japanese armies had seized control of Shandong and the important port city of Qingdao from Germany and now the Versailles Treaty upheld Japanese colonial rule. It was a moment of national shock. To try to make a comparison, it would be as if an international treaty gave control of Dover to the French government!

Hardly surprisingly there was an enormous outbreak of anger about this act of betrayal. On May 4th, 1919 a crowd of 3,000 protestors gathered at the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing. The crowd was a mix of students from Peking University and Beijing citizens. Some even carried banners written in English to try to make sure their protests were heard in the west. The level of anger led to the burning down of a government building. Thousands of protestors were arrested.

But the crackdown on dissent was futile. The events of May Fourth in Beijing lit a fuse which spread across China. Students in cities across China joined the protest movement and forced the closure of universities. In Tianjin the future Chinese leader, Zhou Enlai, was a university student and started a newspaper to spread information about the protests. Women as well as men took to the streets. Merchants closed their shops, workers went on strike. So many arrests were made that Beijing University itself was used as a prison. It is now that we can talk about the events of May Fourth becoming a ‘Movement’. As in other popular uprisings, the events of May Fourth itself became the catalyst for expressions of popular anger with all of the problems China was suffering at that time.

May Fourth was strong enough to have both short term political influence and longer term cultural effects. The government could not afford to ignore the protests. The Chinese delegation at Versailles was ordered home and China did not ratify the Treaty. The imprisoned students were set free, pro Japanese ministers in the government were dismissed and eventually the whole cabinet resigned in the face of popular anger about their mismanagement and weakness. Finally in 1921 Japan and China signed a bilateral treaty returning Shandong to Chinese sovereignty.

The success of the May Fourth movement makes us aware that it was no a spontaneous event, ignited out of nowhere. There were voices calling for the modernisation of China throughout the nineteenth century. Even before May 4, 1919, there was already a current of social revolution going on in China which, once it came to the surface, rapidly and radically changed China’s social and intellectual landscape. There was already a commitment to a common purpose to build China into an independent and modern state. The May Fourth movement was an expression of this process of change.

The long term effects of May Fourth were even more significant. Beijing University became the centre of an intellectual movement calling for the transformation of China through national rejuvenation. The chancellor of the university was a man called Cai Yuanpei, who himself had studied in Germany, and he attracted radical thinkers to important university posts.

Among them was Chen Duxiu, who was Dean of Letters. He supported the development of a vernacular style of writing in Chinese which broke with the literary traditions of the past In an attempt to engage and empower ordinary Chinese. Chen also started a radical journal called ‘La Nouvelle Jeunesse / Xin Qing Nian or ‘New Generation’ in English – which gave a platform to progressive voices. Mao Ze Dong worked for a time in the university library, absorbing revolutionary new ideas.

The May Fourth Movement gave rise to new ideas of China and Chinese identity which found expression in the 新文化运动, Xīn Wénhuà Yùndòng or New Culture Movement. One of the foremost writers contributing to to this movement was 周树人 , Zhōu Shùrén or as he is better known by his assumed name – 鲁迅, Lǔ Xùn. After studying in Japan, Lǔ Xùn returned to China in 1909 and began to write and publish a series of literary works which relentlessly satirised the inhumanity of the corrupt China he saw around him.

One of his most famous works is called 狂人日记, Kuángrén Rìjì or ‘Diary of a Madman’, in which, amongst other terrors, it is only the madman who can see that in contemporary China, society was destroying its young people, or in the words of the novella, quite literally eating up its children. Another famous work written in 1921 is called, 阿Q正传, or Ā Q Zhèngzhuàn, ‘The True Story of A Q’, in which he savagely attacked what he saw as a Chinese national habit of turning defeats into spiritual victories and thereby weakening the national character.

From 1927 until the end of his life, Lǔ Xùn lived in Shanghai. You can visit his former residence at number 9, Shanyin Road, which is near the Hongkou football stadium. He passed away from tuberculosis. In one room of the house you can see the small desk where he used to write and next to the desk a bed where it is said, his wife slept to make sure she was always present to look after him as his health deteriorated. In the same area you can also visit Lǔ Xùn Park and in the park, a Memorial Hall to commemorate Lǔ Xùn’s contribution to Modern China.

So this May Fourth, spare a thought for the events of 1919 in Beijing. There is no doubt that the protests of students and Beijingers on that day played a significant role in China’s journey to modernity.

The Evolution of Chinese Characters

In this Chair’s Blog I want to encourage you if at all possible to visit an exhibition being held from the 20th to 30th April at the Royal Mint Court called, ‘The Evolution of Chinese Characters’. The event opened on World Chinese Language Day, April 20th and the opening ceremony featured a speech by our very own Frances Wood, a speech you can read in full below.

Chinese characters are simultaneously a wonder and a mystery to most westerners. You might wonder how people like me can live in China on a day to day basis without learning the characters. It is estimated that an educated Chinese will know 8,000 characters! It has been calculated that you need approximately 2,500 characters to read a newspaper. Fortunately for us slower students there are now handy apps that can instantly read and translate characters for you. To be honest with you, I rarely use them because China is so thoroughly bilingual with signs and information throughout the country in Chinese and English. As if we English needed any more excuses to be reluctant language learners!

However there are significant rewards for anyone who does take the time and effort to learn to read the written script. Chinese characters operate in a completely different way to English letters. English is a phonic language. The twenty six letters represent sounds. Through phonetics, letters combine to make units of sound called words.

Chinese characters make sounds, but they do not represent sounds. Chinese characters are ‘logographic’. That is a character represents a concept or idea. An example will show this. Here is a character 上 . The sound for this character is shàng. Can you guess the idea which 上 represents? Yes, that’s right, it’s a group of ideas around the idea of ‘up’. The range of associations around a key idea can be wide. For example ‘上班 shàngbān’, a phrase I use every day, means ‘go to work’.

From this example you can see that some Chinese characters are ‘ideograms’ where the shape of the character represents an idea. Other Chinese characters are pictograms where the shape represents an image of the idea. An example might be ‘雨 yǔ’. Can you guess the meaning. Yes, that’s right, 雨 yǔ, means ‘rain’. In this respect Chinese is remarkably similar to other ancient languages, for example the Sumerian script from Mesopotamia.

’, loong, dragon in traditional characters

So far, so straightforward, but Chinese has had over 5,000 years to evolve. Many different influences have effected the characteristics of Chinese characters. One of these is the ‘media’ they are written in. You may know that the earliest characters were scratched into turtle shells and animal bones. Archaeologists have found such characters dating back to the New Stone Age! Then in the Shang Dynasty, around 1250 BCE to 1200 BCE, we find carvings on animal bones and turtle shells that are known as Oracle Bone Script or Jiǎgǔwén 甲骨文 (literally “shell and bone writing”). Some of the Jiǎgǔwén form the basis of modern characters, but only some of them!

Successive eras in Chinese history have brought changes to both the characters themselves and the way they are written in different scripts. For example the Han Dynasty (207 B.C. – 220 A.D) saw the development of a script called Kǎishū 楷书. Interestingly, this script evolved at the time of a significant growth in literacy and changes to the characters were focused on making them accessible to a wider range of the population. Kǎishū 楷书 became the foundation of modern Chinese.

However, we cannot leave our whistle stop history of the evolution of Chinese characters without discussing developments in New China, from 1949 onwards. As we’ve just seen with the Han period, there was a great urgency amongst the new communist government to make all of the Chinese people literate. An essential part of this process was a further evolution of characters. It was argued that traditional characters were difficult to learn because they were composed of too many strokes. Others argued that each stroke was important because the strokes carry contextual information that make the character more meaningful. What to do?

The typically ingenious Chinese solution was to create two ways of writing and reading the language which exist alongside each other. The first round of simplification took place in 1957 followed by further programmes in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Altogether more than 2000 characters were tweaked to make them more easily read. Here’s an example. The traditional character 見, means to ‘catch sight of’ or ‘meet’. ‘See you tomorrow’ in Chinese is ‘ 明天见〔見〕, míngtiānjiàn. But you can see straight away that 見 has been simplified to ‘见’, with the removal of some of the upper set of strokes. There’s reason to belief this evolution of Chinese characters has been highly successful, with literacy rates in China now at 97% of the population.

仓颉 ~ Cāng Jié

Talking to you about the evolution of Chinese characters also allows me to introduce an amazing character. Many things in China have an origin story or origin character. The characters of the language are no exception. Let me introduce 仓颉 , Cāng Jié! Cāng Jié was an advisor to the legendary Yellow Emperor, 黄帝, Huángdi. Huángdi exists in an undefined space between mythology and history, but many see him as the founder of China. Cāng Jié was the Emperor’s advisor and historian. Huángdi asked Cāng Jié to find a way to record everything that was happening in the kingdom. The legends describe how Cāng Jié then set about observing everything in the new world, to find its special essence and from there to devise signs or symbols that could represent this essence, thereby creating the Chinese language. To help him to achieve this challenging task Cāng Jié had a very useful personal characteristic – four eyes! Even today his inventiveness is remembered in the idiom ‘苍颉造字 ‘ (‘Cangjie created characters’).

Let’s return from our wandering through the fascinating pathways of the history of Chinese characters to the current exhibition. The exhibition is full of fascinating artefacts reflecting the stories we have told here, and more! In addition the exhibition comes right up to date with the way that characters are continuing to evolve in the dynamics of contemporary China. For example you can see the way that designers are incorporating characters into textiles and fashion items.

There is no doubt that new chapters in the development of the characters are opening as Chinese takes its place as a truly global language. And on that note we should listen to the words of Minister Yang Xiaoguang of the Chinese Embassy in the UK whose opening speech highlighted the rich contributions of both China and the UK to human civilization. He expressed hope for enhanced mutual learning and understanding between the two nations, contributing positively to cultural exchange and cooperation. And that is of course the aspiration of SACU itself.

So let me close this blog by giving you a chance to enjoy the wonderful speech made by SACU’s Frances Wood as her contribution to the inaugural proceedings :

“ ‘It’s a great honour to be here and a particular honour because having worked in the Chinese section of the British Library I was surrounded by all of these examples and so its a delight to be able to go back and look at scripts. But, first of all, I’d like to thank the Embassy very much for putting on this exhibition. It looks beautiful in here, I’m very impressed with the way that this 18th century building can turn into quite a good exhibition hall. It was also very nice to meet friends I bumped into last year in Beijing in the Book Fair and to meet new friends and to thank people like Tongji University for producing the exhibition.

I think all of us who deal with Chinese know that script and characters are essential. They are so very different from the way that people write in the West. I came here in a rush from a meeting of the Society for Anglo Chinese Understanding which exists, as its name suggests, to create better understanding between the Chinese people and people in the UK and of course one of the potential barriers to understanding is the language and the characters. Therefore I think that exhibitions like this and the lessons that people learn in Chinese can go a long way to improving understanding and I hope that through exhibitions like this, and through learning Chinese we can come to understand a culture in which calligraphy was prized to such a high degree.

I believe you all know that in the Ming Dynasty a piece of calligraphy would sell for far more than the best landscape paintings. Calligraphy was valued above painting in terms of both people’s appreciation and the amount of money they were willing to spend on it. Calligraphy was vital, not just to the upper classes who could afford the best, but to everybody. I think one of the things I find most interesting in this exhibition is that, perhaps out of deference to western ignorance, there’s quite a lot about technology and about what’s happening to characters now. Its easier for our fingers to trail around a computer and then get from English into Chinese than it is to learn actually how to take up a brush and do our own strokes. I’m impressed with the way that the organisers behind this exhibition have moved into the modern era.

I’m also pleased to note that in the first section on block printing, that there’s a page from the Diamond Sutra, the world’s first securely dates printed book, printed in 868 in china and now living in the British Library. I think that soon it might go back onto exhibition. If you look at it the characters are absolutely stunning. Those of you who are familiar with the history of printing in China will know that by the time you get to the 18th/ 19th centuries the style of characters used in wood blocks is called ‘Song ti’- Song style, and they’re quite narrow, but if you look at the characters in the Diamond Sutra print, they are what you would call ‘Tang’ style and I wish that people had continued with this style because they’re such beautiful broad strokes. If you look at the character ‘ren’ for example it’s just two wonderful broad and flowing strokes. Even ‘yi’,, the character for one is wider than the narrower Song style.

I do hope that people will be able to come and see this exhibition, lots of English people especially, because if you’re Chinese you probably know this already. For example, for English people to look at the Chinese typewriter, which is one of the most fascinating and odd things ever, it shows you how complex it is to allow different languages to use the same technology. A computer is different because it’s got an enormous memory, but in a typewriter you need separate trays for separate vocabularies. I remember that typewriters in China were not used as widely as in Europe because of the nature of the language. I can remember being in China and often finding that menus were typed so someone had got a tray of characters to do with food and typed it out. But with that tray you couldn’t type a poem for example. So we should look at the Chinese typewriter with wonder for how it was invented. I hope you all enjoy seeing the beauties of Chinese scripts from the past alongside the potentials for the future. It’s a wonderful exhibition and thank you so much for inviting me to be here.”

Thank you for this inspirational introduction. If any SACU members make a visit to the exhibition and would like to share your thoughts please send them to me.

地球日~ dìqiúrì ~ Earth Day

This blog post cites the content presented in article by an organisation called WildChina on Green Initiatives in China’s cities. WildChina is a travel company that offers exclusive and socially responsible travel experiences customized to meet the preferences of our leisure, education, and corporate clients. They go beyond the conventional travel experiences by creating immersive adventures that challenge preconceptions and inspire new stories.

Monday April 22nd is international Earth Day, an opportunity to reflect again on the climate emergency we are currently entering and to remind ourselves that this is a planetary crisis, truly without borders, and where mutual understanding and co-operation between the UK and China has the potential to make significant contributions to more sustainable futures.

I think in the UK we should appreciate that sustainability is a major issue for the Chinese people. They are aware that the achievements of the successful industrial and agricultural advances of the 1980’s and 1990’s came at some cost to the environment and are now determined to swing the pendulum back towards nature. Everywhere you will hear talk of ‘harmony’ as being the principle that the whole society should be working towards.

There was a very famous example of ‘harmony’ in 2021. In the southern province of Yunnan there are herds of wild elephants. The elephants have a national park area where they are protected. However the elephants, probably looking for new natural resources, wandered out of the park and started to make their way towards Kunming, the provincial capital. The event caused a lot of concern, because of the damage that the herd might cause. Yunnan is predominantly an agricultural province where many people still depend on growing and selling crops for their livelihoods.

Naturally the elephants would forage whatever was in their path. There was talk of all sorts of violent measures to force the elephants back onto their reserve. And then the most wonderful narrative developed, which can only be described as a love of nature and harmony. They simply decided to let nature take its course. For 110 days the elephants roamed through the villages, towns and fields of Yunnan heading north before learning that the colder northern parts of the province did not make good habitat and turning south again.

150,000 residents were temporarily re-located to prevent incidents, of which there were none. The elephants had their own dedicated police force of 25,000 officers to protect and gently guide them. 180 tonnes of food were provided to the migrating animals. As you can imagine members of the herd became media celebrities with daily news reports tracking their exploits and progress. The event became a national affirmation of the support of the Chinese people for the mission of China to become a ‘shēngtài wénmíng’ , an ‘ecological civilisation’.

Yunnan elephants, photo courtesy of CGTN)

The origins of this national ambition perhaps lie in the foundations of Chinese culture around the philosophies of Buddhism and the dào. Buddhism includes the teaching of compassion between all living creatures. Many buddhists follow the precept that society fundamentally means humans and all living things, not just humans. This can be put alongside the christian view that all living things should be respected, because they were god’s creations.

This buddhist view of living in harmony with nature perfectly complements the teachings of the dào. Dào simply means ‘the path’ and the wisdom of this philosophy proposes that human happiness consists in following the most natural and organic path possible through life, and avoiding all temptations to interfere with or control the natural order of things. At the heart of the dào philosophy is this idea, 无为 wúwéi, which is hard to translate because I can’t think of an obvious English equivalent, but it’s meaning is we should not interfere with or try to control, the natural flow of things.

I think we can agree that if the world followed this way of thinking we probably wouldn’t need an Earth Day, because in the past we would have found ways to manage the development of society without environmental destruction.

China, Britain and the rest of the world are now in this situation where a transition is needed, a re-imagining of the balance between humans and the natural world. It is undeniable that the modern sciences of technology, medicine, urban development and economics have made life more comfortable than in previous centuries. However in the process, over the last 50 years, I think we have to conclude that the very growth that has improved the lives of millions has taken the planet to a perilous place.

There is international consensus on the nature and scale of the problems. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has identified scientifically a set of seven global ‘tipping points’ where there is an imminent danger that continued growth in CO 2 emissions with consequent increases in global temperatures and continued damage to natural eco-systems through unregulated farming or fishing, will cause irreparable damage.

A case in hand is the Greenland Ice sheet. The Arctic ice sheet is warming 3 to 4 times faster than the rest of the world, adding almost 1mm to global sea levels every year. As the world’s second-largest ice sheet, the Arctic holds enough water that, if melted completely, could raise sea levels by 7.2 metres (22 feet). A 1.5C increase in average temperatures could be the threshold at which the region’s ice sheet melting would become irreversible. China, Britain and America are amongst the countries of the world directly threatened by rising sea levels. Mega-cities on every continent will face serious impacts, including Lagos, Bangkok, Mumbai, Shanghai, London, Buenos Aires and New York. The danger is especially acute for some 900 million people living in coastal zones at low elevations –one out of every ten people on earth.

The importance of Earth Day has increased every year since it started in 1970. Facts like those outlined above for just one of the seven tipping points make it abundantly clear that international co-operation rather than nationalistic isolationism is now called for. The metaphor of ‘fiddling while the world burns’ could not be more appropriate. The encouraging news is there have been recent examples of government level co-operation between China and the UK to agree common strategies. In 2015 a ‘Clean Energy Partnership’ was established was expected to encourage more investment in clean technologies, which in turn could help to reduce their costs in both countries. At the same time, the China National Expert Committee on Climate Change and the UK’s Committee on Climate Change have agreed to establish a new process of joint work on climate change risk assessment, recognising the importance of risk assessment for informing climate change policy. In 2021 there was a round of high level dialogue between China and the UK around that year’s COP 26 conference. China and the United Kingdom reaffirmed their commitment to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities to complete negotiations over rules for the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.

However since then it seems the focus of climate change related partnerships has swung away from the UK. In November 2023 China and the United States signed the the ‘Sunnylands Statement on Enhancing Cooperation to Address the Climate Crisis’. This agreement included a commitment to ongoing co-operation between the two countries on climate change. China and the United States decided to set up a Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, to engage in dialogue and cooperation to accelerate concrete climate actions in the 2020s.

Dialogue between China and the European Union around climate change initiatives is also assuming greater importance. In 2022, the third High-level Environment and Climate Dialogue between China and the European Union was held where both sides agreeing to deepen cooperation on environment, climate, and energy. In December 2023 the 24th China-EU Summit took place which amongst other agreements deepened partnerships around global challenges such as food security, climate change and public health, and working for positive outcomes from COP28.

Just this year German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in China to stabilise and deepen ties of co-operation with China, including partnerships in green development, communication and coordination on green and environmental protection issues, promoting the research and development of green energy technology and industrial technology upgrading, and deepening cooperation in such fields as new energy vehicles, green finance, and third-party markets. I’m sure part of our Earth Day hopes are for initiatives such as these to bear fruit.

But let’s come back to Earth and finish by reminding ourselves what Earth Day means for humans and our fellow species. Let me showcase a few initiatives here in China. It would be wonderful to find equivalent projects in the UK and to build links if possible. First of all I’d like to re-introduce you to my friend, Wu Hongping. He’s a farmer, poet and philosopher I met while on Spring Festival travels in the southern city of Dali. He has built a community called ‘Veggie Ark, Future Spaces’, which offers people who stay there, long-term or short-term, the opportunity to experience an ‘earth friendly’ life-style. For example he creates ‘raw food’ lunches, where every item on the table is more or less brought directly from the field to your plate.

Now in Sichuan province we can call in on the Daoming Bamboo Craft Village. This is a remarkable example of what human creativity can achieve when it works in harmony with nature and tradition. The village is a single organic structure which has been constructed in the shape of a figure 8, or infinity symbol. Much of the building is built from locally sourced bamboo wood so that the building itself keeps alive bamboo crafts which are in danger of disappearing in the local community. The building features an incredible ‘floating roof’ that forms a continuous organic ‘shell’ over the structure, making it an embodiment of harmony. But it’s not only in rural areas that China is trying to turn sustainability thinking into day to day experiences.

Daoming Bamboo Village ( image by kind permission of Wild China)

Finally let’s pop over to Shanghai, a sprawling mega-polis of 24.87 million people. The city government is committed to making the city more sustainable. For example it is introducing a very smart new waste management system. In order to dispose of waste, citizens have to log into a centralised system which then generates a ‘waste tax’ according to how much you want to dispose of. The city is constantly adding green spaces to increase the lungs of the city and improve air quality for all, humans, animals, plants.

There are incentives for the construction of innovative sustainable building projects. One such is the Shanghai Tower. The tower is immediately recognisable by its unique, organic twisting design, that makes it more efficient. The tower incorporates 47 different sustainability technologies which slightly increased the overall cost (by 5%) but reduced energy consumption by up to 54%. Over 25,000 panels measuring 2.14 meters in length that form a curtain wall have double-glass windows, reducing the carbon footprint by 34,000 tons per year. The Shanghai Tower also incorporates smart control systems that monitor electric consumption and generate savings of 556,000 dollars each year in energy costs. Near the top of the building, 270 wind turbines have been installed, providing the energy required to illuminate the exterior of the building. The skyscraper also has 21 gardens distributed on each of the nine zones that help to regenerate the air thanks to their plants and trees.

Signs of hope for Earth Day. In China, both at government level and at the grassroots, the earth-saving agenda of a transition to zero carbon, sustainable lives for humans and our brother and sister species is taking root. What equivalent projects are happening at ground level in the UK? What can SACU do to make connections between the ideas and experiences of leaders for sustainability in our two countries? What can SACU do to keep asking the right ecological questions to maintain the momentum towards greener futures for all?

This Earth Day, let’s become active ‘friends of the earth’ again.

Please see the WildChina article here :


(The photographs except where credited are originals by the author chosen to represent the Earth Day theme of harmony.)

A Taste of China

A street side local noodle restaurant in Yunnan

In this week’s blog I’d like to open up a discussion in which all SACU members can take part – what are the ‘Top Five’ Chinese recipes?

Food really is a fundamental part of Chinese culture in a way that it seems to me is closer to Italy than Britain. If I ever want to coax my students to forget their shyness and speak torrents of English, I just have to open up a discussion like the one we’ve started now.

Let’s see if I can start a SACU debate in the same way. What follows is my very personal list of five favourites, but I’m putting the list out there hoping to have it challenged and contested by the superior taste-buds of SACU members everywhere.

China has 5000 years of cultural development behind its cuisine. The earliest evidence of cooking and consuming rice dates back to the Upper Paleolithic period, between 12,000 and 16,000 years ago! Archaeologists recovered four grains of rice from the Yuchanyan Cave, a rock shelter in Dao County, Hunan Province in China.

Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that the art of noodle making started 4,000 years ago in the late Neolithic period in northern China, according to the evidence of a prehistoric sample of noodles contained in a well preserved, sealed earthenware bowl. And I’m sure we all remember those eloquent sequences in Michael Wood’s ‘Story of China’, where he extols the food culture of Song Dynasty Kaifeng:

Thanks to improved agriculture and distribution, Song cooks had a bigger range of ingredients than ever before and they developed the first great restaurant culture in the world, complete with cookbooks, gourmet diaries and guides to dining etiquette

Just as a reminder, the Song Dynasty flourished in the tenth to the thirteenth centuries CE!

What are your favourites?

And it’s not just the history behind Chinese cuisine that is impressive, it’s the geography! Every village, every town, every region in this nearly four million square mile country has its own culinary speciality. Traditionally there are eight recognised regional cuisines. These are Shandong Cuisine: fresh and salty with a lot of seafood dishes ; Sichuan and Hunan cuisines: hot and spicy ; Guangdong (Cantonese), Zhejiang and Jiangsu cuisines: great seafood with generally sweet and light flavours and Anhui and Fujian cuisines which include lots of wild foods from the local mountains.

But there’s more – to this you have add the amazing range of culinary traditions from the 55 different ethnic minority groups in China. Personally speaking the very best foodie experiences I’ve had in China have been roadside meals prepared by local people in villages in rural Yunnan, Guizhou and Zhejiang, dishes I can’t remember the names of, but with the most wonderful fusions of fresh local flavours created from deep traditions of local knowledge.

But, this being said, I’m now going to bite the bullet, stick my head above the parapet and name my ‘Top Five’. Sadly some of these dishes will not be available in your local Chinese restaurant with its focus on Cantonese cuisine, but if you search them out there are a growing number of restaurants in the UK offering a wider range of dishes. I know from shopping experiences in London, that the ingredients for many of these dishes are available in Chinese supermarkets, so who knows, you might have some kitchen inspiration of your own.

Daily shopping for fresh ingredients is still common in China

1/ 麻婆豆腐 – mápódòufǔ or ‘pock marked doufu’

This is a dish from Sichuan, and carries a large spice warning. Especially crucial to this dish are the small but deadly peppercorns which deliver great bursts of flavour alongside making your tongue tinglingly numb. But it has the vital ingredient of all Chinese cuisine – simplicity. Apart from the spice it is a mix of fried minced pork, tofu and chopped scallion onions!


2/ 佛跳墙 – fótiàoqiáng or ‘Buddha jumps over the Wall’ soup.

Despite its name, this delicious and health-giving soup is not at all suitable for vegetarians. Traditionally it includes chicken feet, scallops and lean cuts of pork! The essential part of this dish is the cooking method. The health factor comes from the slow cooking method, combined with a fusion of health giving herbs and spices. The end result is an invigorating soup with a range of melt in your mouth ingredients.

Buddha jumps over the Wall’ soup.

3/ Guilin Rice Noodles – 桂林米粉, Guilin mifen:

Guilin is a city in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in south China. This signature dish originated in this region but is now to be found across China. Again its essence is simplicity. In a rice noodle restaurant you will find a boiling vat of broth in which your noodles will be freshly prepared. You’ll be given a list of meat and vegetable ingredients to select to be stirred into your bowl of noodles and soup. And finally you can choose from a range of condiments, herbs and spices to adjust the flavour to your personal tastes.

Guilin Rice Noodles

4/ 大盘鸡 – dàpánjī , ‘big chicken dish’.

I love just saying the name of this wholesome, stomach lining dish which originated in Xinjiang, western China. Sadly I’m not sure if it’s available in Britain yet, but it will be a hit when it arrives because it’s based on two British favourites – bread and potatoes! Essentially dàpánjī is a stew made of chicken (up to and including the chicken head), potatoes, green peppers and a spicy gravy. It’s a speciality of the Uyghur people and if you order it in a Uyghur restaurant expect it to be served on the most delicious fresh baked flatbread which gradually soaks up all of the rich gravy and makes a totally satisfying end to the meal. Strong tip – order the mix of home-made yogurt and cumin seeds which accompany this as a side dish and fresh green cucumber.

A Uyghur ‘big chicken dish’ or ‘dàpánjī’

5/ So – cue big drum roll, what am I going to serve up for you at top spot in my Top Five Chinese delicacies. Sorry to disappoint any of you who are fans of intricate dishes such as 北京烤鸭 , Běijīng kǎoyā or roast Beijing duck but my loyalty lies with a humble street food. It’s a pastry which can be filled with a range of delicious ingredients – but it’s not the famous 饺子- jiǎozi or dumplings that many of us know from Chinese festivals. It is the, to my mind, far superior southern cousin of jiǎozi called 小笼包, xiǎolóngbāo, or sometimes 小笼汤包, xiǎolóngtāngbāo which translates as ‘little basket bun’ or ‘little soup basket bun’.

History tells us that xiǎolóngbāo were first created in the 19th century in Shanghai by a restaurant owner who had the creative idea of adding a little stock around the contents of a light skinned pastry basket. The idea was pure genius. There is something almost magical about the combination of a small parcel with delicious broth and then the light but delectable pork or crab or vegetable filling. And at my favourite little xiǎolóngbāo cafe in Shanghai they serve up your little parcels of deliciousness with a tangy dipping sauce of light vinegar and delicately sliced ginger! Your tastebuds could not have more fun.

The staff at ‘Jia jia tang bao’ work their magic!

Endless cultural battles are fought over the best xiǎolóngbāo in Shanghai but for my money xiǎolóngbāo heaven is a place called ‘Jia jia tang bao’ in a side street just behind Renmin (People’s) Square. All being well I’ll be there on the weekend of 27/28th April, so join me and I’ll treat you!

So there you have it, my own very personal Top Five flavours of China. As always with these sorts of lists it’s the ones that didn’t make it that will immediately jump to your mind. So come on, let’s share our own personal favourites with each other and enrich our understanding of Chinese cuisine.

As they say in China ‘慢慢吃, mànmànchī’ or ‘slow, slow eat’, for which English has only a borrowed French phase – ‘Bon appetit!’

The author enjoys ‘just one more’ xiǎolóngbāo!

What are your personal favourites?