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.

众芳摇落独暄妍   

占尽风情向小园   

疏影横斜水清浅   

暗香浮动月黄昏   

霜禽欲下先偷眼   

粉蝶如知合断魂 

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.

Shanghai’ed Again

The bright lights of the Shanghai Bund

Shanghai has thrust itself back to the forefront of international news in two ways this week. The first is through the announcement of plans to further develop the Shanghai and Yangtze River basin as an international trade and business hub. The second, and quite possibly linked to the first, is the announcement by the celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay, that he will open his first restaurant in the city. In this blog I’ll share information about both of these announcements and link it to a deeper understanding of the history of Shanghai and its place in China and the world.

The new business hub will be called the ‘Shanghai Eastern Hub International Business Cooperation Zone’. It will be located in an 880,000-square-meter area neighbouring Shanghai Pudong International Airport. The airport will become the centre of an enterprise zone designed to enhance domestic and international business and trade.

The new hub will build on Shanghai’s existing profile as a global centre. Shanghai is already home to more than 75,000 foreign-funded enterprises, with 956 headquarters and 561 research and development centres. Shanghai is a major hub for foreign trade, with over 58,000 companies engaged in foreign trade activities. The city’s trade volume represents over 3 percent of the world’s total. Recently 63 foreign investment projects were announced with a combined value of $6.47 billion. Shanghai’s receipt of foreign direct investment exceeded $24 billion in 2023, the fourth year in a row that it has surpassed the $20 billion threshold.

China has three of the world’s wealthiest cities – Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. Ranked by the number of resident billionaires, Shanghai is the third ranking city in the world after New York and San Francisco. On the basis of this information the surprising thing is not Gordon Ramsay’s decision to open a restaurant for exclusive dining in Shanghai, but what took him so long! From Las Vegas to Dubai, Gordon Ramsay branded eateries follow the money everywhere. The new restaurant has been opened in collaboration with Harrods and is located in an exclusive club called ‘The Residence’. The advertising claims the restaurant will feature ‘local flavour and ingredients’ before boasting:

Highly anticipated dishes will include lobster and salmon ravioli, a heritage tomato tart, turbot with a champagne caviar sauce, wagyu Rossini with foie gras, and Gordon’s take on the quintessentially British fish and chips.’

Jing’an Temple, close to the location for Gordon Ramsay’s Shanghai restaurant

I wonder how many of you would be attracted by this menu. For those of you who are genuinely interested in ‘local flavours and ingredients’ I suggest you give ‘The Residence’ a miss and make your way instead to a very exclusive little place called ‘Jiajia Tangbao’ in Huanghe Road, just a short walk north of Renmin Square. It’s so exclusive it opens at 9 am and usually closes by 11 am having sold out the day’s supply of freshly made ‘小笼汤包 xiǎolóngtāngbāo or steamed soup dumplings. If you haven’t tried them xiǎolóngtāngbāo are far superior to dumplings in my opinion, being exquisite little parcels of pork or chicken or crab, swimming in a delicious broth that literally explode with flavour when you bite into them. In 2020 I did two weeks of quarantine in Shanghai after flying back to China during the COVID pandemic living on blandest of hotel food. As soon as I was released I rushed to Jiajiatangbao, for a flavour feast that was close to a religious experience, it was that intense. Oh, and the cost of this culinary ecstasy – about 50 rmb or five pounds, forty-nine pence!

xiǎolóngtāngbāo!

But of course the fine diners at the residence will not be interested at all in local flavours. Instead they will be indulging in Shanghai’s centuries old love affair with being an international city. The new restaurant will be located in an area of Shanghai called Jing’an. It’s conveniently close to the CBD and a fascinating part of Shanghai’s international history. For those of you with a macabre sense of humour, it’s a stone’s throw away from what is now called Jing’an Park, a place which used to be Shanghai’s largest cemetery for foreigners! In those days the area around here was called ‘Bubbling Well’ because there really was a famous well of water bubbling up in front of the Jing’an Temple. As the number of foreign residents increased from the 1840’s onwards somewhere was needed for burials and the land around the bubbling well at that time was countryside. It was called ‘The Hill of Foreign Tombs’. The tombs were all moved to another location in the early 1950’s and the restored area was opened as a public park.

So let’s put Shanghai’s internationalism into historical perspective. Originally the area where Shanghai now stands was low lying marshland.The very name Shanghai means ‘on or above the sea’ and climate change experts are now concerned that this city which rose from the waters could slip back under them if sea levels continue to rise. Shanghai’s coastal location meant that it was rising as a port of importance when in the 1840’s, following the Opium War, the British government forced the Imperial Court to give them a ‘concession’ to live and trade in Shanghai. Taking advantage of the situation, the American and French governments both claimed equivalent rights. These concessions are still visible in the streets of European style housing that have now been converted into lucrative business addresses by their Chinese owners.

Shanghai 石库门– shíkùmén (c. 19th century) residences with courtyards.

From the 1860’s onwards there was a stable international community of about 60,000 people living and working in Shanghai. It must be emphasised that the western powers never succeeded in colonising Shanghai, the city was never under foreign control. However in the concessions the British and French set about building mini replicas of their homelands and trying to keep the Chinese out as much as possible. In another piece of historical irony, the area that is now ‘人民广场 Rénmín Guǎngchǎng’ the People’s Square in the centre of Shanghai was from 1862 until 1949 the site of a horse racing track, where the wealthy indulged their love of gambling. The Race Club’s long history of discrimination, as well as its use for colonialist political events and displays of military power, along with the moral implications of its function as a centre for gambling, meant that, once the People’s Republic of China was founded, for many it came to epitomise the evils of imperialism and so on August 27, 1951 the new government of Shanghai transformed this once exclusive club into a public square for all of the people.

By the 1930s, Shanghai was the largest trading centre in Asia, among the ten largest cities in the world. It would be wrong to think that the growth of the city was entirely due to the international presence. While it’s true that a lot of the wealth creation came from the horrendous exploitation of the Chinese poor who flocked to the city in search of a better life, other Chinese found opportunities to learn about western technology and make their own use of it. An example of this is cinema and the film business. The first ever movie screening in China took place in 1896, when a film by the French pioneers of filmmaking, the Lumiere brothers, was shown just one year after it was shot. By 1908 enterprising Chinese opened China’s first movie house, also in Shanghai. Then in the 1920’s and 1930’s Chinese directors, actors and actresses made Shanghai one of the world centres of film culture. Film directors such as Cai Chusheng and Yuan Muzhi formed the ‘New Film Movement’ which borrowed and improved on western aesthetic ideas such as expressionism to create uniquely Chinese films with a social conscience such as the 1937, ‘mǎlù tiānshǐ’ or ‘Street Angel, starring the popular singer Zhou Xuan.

Street Angel’s innovative blend of expressionism and social realism.

Like the 阴 yīn to its 阳 yáng of material wealth, Shanghai has always had a radical aspect to its character. In 1862 the leaders of the Taiping rebellion stormed Shanghai and tried to drive out the British and Americans. Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century the industrialisation of Shanghai was accompanied by by strikes and other forms of protest by workers. In 1927 the radical author Lu Xun came to live in Shanghai and there he started his famous League of Leftist Writers. You can still visit his house in Shanyin Road, just a stones throw from the Hongkou football stadium. Most famously of all on July 23, 1921, thirteen members held the first national congress of the Communist Party of China at 76 Xingye Road in Shanghai making Shanghai the birthplace of New China.

What of the future? Alongside becoming an international business hub, the government of Shanghai is pursuing the vision of developing a world leading ‘Park City’. The two go hand in. The wealth earned from global trade will be reinvested in sustainability to enhance the health and wellbeing of the Shanghainese and the environment in which they live. At the heart of Shanghai’s green agenda is the construction of 70 new or renovated parks, the addition of 1,000 hectares of green land, and an increase in vertical greenery by 400,000 square metres. By the end of the year, the city’s green areas, designed for leisure and exercise in the midst of natural beauty, are expected to extend to nearly 2,000 kilometres.

Growing a greener Shanghai.

So good luck to Gordon Ramsey in building his commercial bridge of culinary understanding between Britain and China. Let’s hope that success for his business venture can be part of a wider breaking down of barriers between the British and the Chinese people and that we can all share widely in lessons to be learned from the past, the present and the future of Shanghai.

Where will Shanghai take us next?

Spring Festival Reflections

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

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

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

Approximate map of the Spring Festival travel.

Let me share with you some reflections from my journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridges of understanding are waiting everywhere for you to explore .

Traditional stone bridge, Songzhuangcun Village, Zhejiang Province.

Opening up to the New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎 ,

yǒu péng zì yuǎnfāng lái, bù yì lè hū

Isn’t it wonderful to receive guests from afar.

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

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

China catches a cold

Winter arrives in Beijing

My phrase of the week in my rather limited Chinese has been ‘ni leng bu leng? which translates as ‘are you feeling the cold?’. Chinese has this wonderful way of using paired, balanced phrases like this way of asking questions which are not only elegant but wonderfully convenient for struggling foreigners to remember. The answer to the question can be given in another classic Chinese phrase – ‘leng si le’ – ‘cold enough to die, but reduced to three terse, emphatic characters.

After an incredibly idyllic, balmy autumn which lingered deceptively on into late November, temperatures have taken their inevitable plummet this week. The azure of the autumnal skies has ebbed away to paler shades of blue, backlit by weak winter rays. And yes with the change in weather has come an increase in coughs and colds. I feel sorry for any children and their families suffering from the winter flu. However, contrary to the hysterical headlines in some western media, nothing out of the ordinary is going on, that is apart from the standard panic about ‘Chinese secrecy’, as if the COVID Inquiry in Britain isn’t showing where our concerns about government accountability in periods of genuine emergency ought to lie.

If anyone one should know about this so-called ‘pandemic’ it’s me, from my position as a Headmaster. Everyday for the last few weeks two or three students per class have been ‘bu shufu’ or as we might say in English ‘under the weather’. And yes it’s also true that they may have been to hospital, but that is simply because hospitals, not GP surgeries are the front line medical service in China. My teachers tell me complaining stories about waiting for hours with their child to be seen and I swap them exactly the same stories from the NHS!

And yes it’s true that you will see many more Chinese wearing masks than in England. But to panic would be to completely misunderstand mask wearing in China. In the west we’ve become used to a ‘reactive’ view of health. If something goes wrong we’re used to reacting to the illness by popping a few pills. No wonder pharmaceutical companies make such massive profits! China has a much more preventative approach to health care. Since the cold weather began my colleagues have been pressing a rich variety of herbal recipes on me to keep away the flu. And so it is with masks. The point of wearing a mask is not to protect you, but to protect friends, colleagues, fellow citizens from the infection you might be spreading!

This talk of the cold weather gives me the opportunity to tell one of my favourite people to people stories about China. This incident happened during my first Beijing winter. Like a stubborn foreigner, I laughed away the efforts of my students to persuade me to wear two layers of clothing or a hat to cover my ears.

Then one particularly biting day I was in the centre of Beijing with a Chinese friend. We boarded a bus and got separated. I ended up sitting next to a ‘laobeijingren’ – an old Beijing man. Almost as soon as we sat down he reached over his hand and placed it on my leg. Can you imagine this happening in England! Even without gender anxieties, we all value our ‘personal space’ far too much to accept contact like this from a stranger. Of course I didn’t want to offend him and his face was too wrinkled with smiles to mean me any harm.

I called over to my Chinese friend for reassurance. She is also ‘beijingren’ and she slipped comfortably into conversation with him in dialect. She smiled. ‘Don’t worry, it’s his way of telling you your trousers are too thin. You need something thicker for the Beijing winter. He wants you to be comfortable here.’ He gave my knee one last friendly tap and with a broad grin said ‘welcome to Beijing’, a phrase made popular by the 2008 Olympics.

I wonder if those responsible for the hysterical headlines about every little cough that comes out of China could manage the simple, sublime humanity of this compassionate man, a 君子, a junzi, in the Confucian tradition of a gentleman. His wisdom outthought any amount of ideology. What was I to him? Not an enemy, not a capitalist, not even a foreigner. I was a fellow shivering human animal with whom he could feel both empathy and sympathy.

Wherever you are now my friend, I hope the Beijing winter is kind to you. It would be an honour to meet you again now I can at least thank you for your kindness in my stumbling Chinese. Your kindness and the memory of your welcome has been better protection against the icy winters than any layers of extra clothing. Your kindness played a part in persuading me to dedicate ten years of my life to education in a country that could produce such human warmth in the face of the gathering chill of fear-mongering headlines.

Shichahai Lake in the centre of Beijing becomes a winter skate rink.

Beijing – A Simple Life

The author outside his Beijing suburb home

In this blog I will talk about the sheer, simple ordinariness of my life in China. If you haven’t been to China you might have all sorts of ideas about what it is like to live here, as I have done for ten years. Maybe you have some slightly negative views of a limited or restricted life here. Maybe you have romantic or exotic illusions of life in an ‘oriental’ country. The outstanding feature of my life for the last ten years has been its wonderful stability and everyday ordinariness. In the UK I live in a perfectly normal corner of Bournemouth. In China I live in a northern suburb of Beijing called Changping. 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.

We can stroll freely around the local area, just exactly as if we were in Britain. Join me.

I live in a simple apartment in a cluster of six medium rise blocks in landscaped gardens. I’m the only foreigner here, but no-one treats me any differently. Let’s be clear that there are many reasons why the Chinese should be suspicious of or even hostile towards me. In the past, particularly during the nineteenth ‘century of humiliation’, the British behaved appallingly towards China. With my students I once visited the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) in Beijing which in 1860 and then again in 1900 was pillaged and burned down by French and British armies. My students shook their heads and reflected sadly on the events, but there was no anger towards me and no anger from the curious Chinese gathering around to listen to our conversations.

In my employment here I could be seen as an economic migrant, you could even accuse me of taking a headmaster’s job that should by rights be for a Chinese. You could further accuse me of representing colonial and elitist foreign education in China. You could say all these things and more, but the Chinese never have. They smile at me shyly and prompt their children to try out whatever English they can with me and respond warmly when I manage a few phrases of broken Chinese.

I live opposite two perfectly ordinary Chinese schools, one middle and one primary. The children have a uniform of a simple blue tracksuit and a yellow cap. As I leave to go to school in the morning, children are streaming to school with parents or grandparents, some excited and happy, others as Shakespeare wrote ‘toward school with heavy looks’.

I meet families with students sometimes in the lift on my way home and when I ask about ‘作业’ ‘zuoye’ or ‘homework’ I get the same resentful looks I got working in London schools for 20 years. So much for the stereotype of the Chinese nerd. In the evenings streams of bikes race excitedly around the landscaped gardens and from the basketball courts come the same cries of victory and defeat that would decorate the evening twilight in Britain.

Next to the two schools is a park. Sit on a park bench with me and look around. You could be anywhere in the UK. Everyone’s dressed in exactly the same high street purchased clothes. The range of colours and styles is exactly the same. The passion of young people for trendy sports gear is precisely the same. It’s only the details that suggest difference. For a start over there is an ever open and always clean public toilet. Not many of those left in our parks in the UK are there? There are public toilets throughout Beijing, all of them with attendants who keep them meticulously clean.

And in the evenings the ‘dancing queens’ take over their corner of the park. The evenings in England always seem to me to belong to the young and the wealthy, flitting from pubs to clubs to restaurants and cinemas. In my local park, and indeed in public spaces across China, older citizens, especially middle aged and elders, gather to spend an hour or two dancing the evening away together, exercising to a heady mix of music, traditional Chinese, Chinese electronic dance music and a few treasured western disco tunes. The phenomenon is called 广场舞, guang chang wu – which can be translated as ‘square dancing’.

Let’s go for a stroll through the local streets. The streets are tree lined, just now they are in golden autumnal glory, like those in the UK. The climate in Beijing is very similar to that in Britain, except that the extremes of chill factor in January/ February and heat in July are greater than south-east England. And forget all of those stories about Beijing smog. Resolute policy enactment and shrewd investment in sustainability by the government has put an end to pollution entirely and reduced the days effected by dust and sand storms to a few per year. More cars on the road are electric powered than on the roads of Bournemouth. There is a well developed infrastructure of charging stations everywhere. The buses are all either electric or hydrogen powered.

Just round the corner from my apartment is a small parade of shops, exactly as you might find in Bournemouth, even including a McDonalds and a KFC. Coffee is just as big business in China as England. Costa and Starbucks are everywhere, although Chinese chains are hard on their heels. In fact just this year the Chinese brand, Luckin Coffee, opened their 10,000th cafe and finally overtook Starbucks. Fast food, convenience and snack stores are ubiquitous. Instead of fish and chips you might pick up a portion of 包子, bāozi, the steamed stuffed buns beloved of Beijingers. Instead of a curry, you might choose a take away 兰州拉面 – Lanzhou beef noodles, fragrant and spicy, a favourite comfort food.

One thing you will not see on the streets anywhere in China are homeless people or beggars. In fact I’m quite certain that compared to the UK, you will probably see much less of the extremes of inequality that are unfortunately a feature of British high streets currently. I have travelled all over China, and purposefully visited some of the still developing areas in the rural west of the country. While I have seen people living without the material comforts of Beijing or Shanghai, nowhere have I seen people marginalised or left behind.

China prides itself on the fact that in 2021 it was able to state that all absolute economic and social disadvantage had been eliminated and that 98.99 million people had been lifted out of poverty. China has a word for this – 小康, ‘xiaokang’ or ‘relative prosperity’. We might call it ‘levelling up’ or even ‘socialism’.

Let’s finish with a visit to the school where I’ve worked for ten perfectly ordinary years. The primary and middle school deliver the Chinese national curriculum but with a license to adopt more experimental teaching and learning strategies than public schools. This means an eclectic range of teaching strategies as diverse as Project based learning and traditional Chinese memorisation techniques based on recitation. You will feel perfectly at home in the High School section where I am based because we teach international versions of the GCSE and A Level courses students follow in the UK, except that our teaching is bilingual.

The wonder of schools worldwide is that they are perfectly ordinary places where the most extraordinary things happen – the development of young characters and the cognitive growth of young minds. If you take a walk with me past the classrooms you’ll see the rich range of teenage characters you’d meet in any English school. There’s Lu You, the rebel with streaks of red dye in her hair who set up a debating club to enjoy the controversies. There’s Yu Yanrui, the insidiously intelligent outsider, who dreams of being an indie rock poet. There’s Cui Hanhaoyu with his love of American fashion and all things NBA ( national basketball association). There’s Xu Xinran who adores The Great British bake-off and Gordon Ramsey and who runs a student cooking club every Friday afternoon.

They all cultivate their Chinese root and talk excitedly of the future contributions they’ll make to the ‘中国梦’, the ‘China dream’ of a harmonious and shared future. And just as excitedly they talk of their passion to live and study in Britain, even if only for three years of undergraduate education. They see Britain as I see China, a place at once familiar but with much to see, admire and learn from. They believe the United Kingdom is somewhere they can fit in, be comfortable and safe and learn from some of the world’s best teachers. They all want in their own ways to be small ambassadors for China, to share whatever they can of China’s culture, science and technology with the British. So far none of them have been disappointed with their experiences.

Just as China has made an ordinary, extraordinary home for me in Beijing, I hope that Britain, that you, will make a home for my students in the ordinary, extraordinary common sense of our island’s international heart.

Students in the author’s school study English to realise their dream of graduating to an English university