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.

新年快乐 – xīnniánkuàilè

Happy New Year!

Author – 周尚, Zhou Shang

New Year – a time for Family Reunions

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

Chinese 高铁 – gāotiě – high-speed railway

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

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

New Year lanterns in the trees

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

春联 – chūnlián – Spring Festival couplets

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

Offerings for the Kitchen Lord

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

Nanjing Spring Festival stir-fry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Original photographs by the author)

Chinese New Year 2 -Wanderlust

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

Then folk long to go on pilgrimages.”

Heshun ~ “And bathed every veyne in swich licóur,

Of which vertú engendred is the flour”

(Chaucer’s Prologue)

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

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

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

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;

And passing even into my purer mind

With tranquil restoration:—feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,

As have no slight or trivial influence

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

(and ‘good woman’s life’ I will add!)

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

Heshun – Tranquil Recollections

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

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

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

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

Heshun ~ rainbow bridge

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

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

Heshun ~ winding narrow streets

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

Harbin Snow and Ice Festival (image courtesy of CGTN)

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

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

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

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

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

游兴勃发, yóuxìng bófā ~ wanderlust!

(Original photographs by the author)

An Introduction to the Chinese New Year Festival

Original art by painter Liu Liyong

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

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

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

红灯笼 hóngdēng lǒng, a Spring Festival Lantern

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

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

A family feast

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

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

The monster Nian (image courtesy of CGTN)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hengpi : 好事临门 (hǎo shì lín mén)

English: Good things come to your door.

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

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

Laba Festival

Laba Kuai’le! Happy Laba Festival!

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

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

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

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

Laba Porridge

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

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

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

Sharing Laba Porridge at the temple gates

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

Laba Garlic

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

I wish you all 腊八 快乐! Happy Laba!

(All images courtesy of our friends at CGTN)

Language learning and Friendship

Arron Van Rompaey and Chinese speaking friends

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

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

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

The author gets to grips with traditional Chinese characters.

Let’s enjoy Arron’s article:

“ 大家好 , da jia hao, hello everyone,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nanjing snow scene (courtesy of Alvin Tang)

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

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

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

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

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

So much to learn from each other.

A shared love of poetry

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

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

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

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

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

Collaborative learning improves the school’s Maths learning culture

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

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

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

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

Teachers successfully blend Chinese and Western learning methods

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

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

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

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

诚心 – Cheng Xin or Sincerity

勤奋 – Qin Fen or Diligence

刻苦 – Ke ku or Hard work

恒心 – Heng Xin or Perseverance

专心 – Zhuan Xin or Concentration

尊师 – Zun shi or Respect for teachers

谦虚 – Qian Xu or Humility.

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

朱熹 / Zhu Xi

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

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

What’s the connection between Stonehenge and Chinese dumplings?

Zhang Zhongjing invented dumplings by wrapping mutton and Chinese medicine in dumpling dough

Can you solve this Christmas conundrum?

The answer is Winter Solstice. Britain and China share the same northern hemisphere location. On Friday 22nd December Britain and China shared the experience of Winter Solstice, the day when the northern half of the Earth tilts farthest away from the sun. Consequently Solstice Day has the shortest numbers of daylight hours and the longest hours of darkness.

Let’s start at Stonehenge. Most of us know about the link between Stonehenge and the Summer solstice in June, when visitors flock to the monument to celebrate the sun rising between the stones. However archaeologists generally believe that the Winter Solstice was more important to the creators of the stone circles. And the main event of the Winter Solstice is not sunrise, but sunset. The alignment of the stones means that the final rays of winter sunlight fall through the triathlon arch and illuminate the enormous 36 ton heel stone which stands outside of the circle.

Why sunset and not sunrise? The answer to this question brings us to a first connection to China. Nowadays we are city people. Since the advent of 24 hour lighting and central heating the changing patterns of light and darkness through the shifting seasons means little if anything to us. But to agricultural people, whose very lives depended on following the regular rhythms of the solar year, the winter solstice sunset was everything.

First, to witness the solstice was an acceptance of the depth of winter, the dead season. In China at this time of year one of the traditions is to show respect to the ancestors, to remember those who have passed. In Ireland there is a monument called Newgrange from approximately the same era as Stonehenge with its own Winter Solstice effect. It is a passage tomb where the ancestors were housed and remembered. On December 21 or 22, a narrow beam of sunlight fills the tomb with the brief candle of the year’s shortest day, bringing a flicker of illumination to the dead. Solstice has the longest darkness of the year. The literal meaning in Latin is ‘the sun stands still’.

Second, like the Yang of light to the Yin of darkness, the Solstice is a turning point. The solstice sunset takes us into the longest night, but also promises the return of slowly lengthening days and a dwindling darkness. It is simultaneously the dead centre of winter and the first seed of renewing spring. And that brings us to food!!

There is evidence that the winter solstice ceremonies at Stonehenge were accompanied by feasting. The remains of vast amount of cattle and especially pig bones found at a site near Stonehenge called Durrington Walls prove that enormous numbers of people gathered here to feast. Analysis of teeth from discarded jaw bones shows that these animals were eaten in the mid-winter period. What could be more logical than feasting on the rewards of the dying spring and summer to celebrate the cycle now ending and at the same time to cheer in the returning new year. And when we put it like this the strong connections between ‘pagan’ winter solstice and ‘christian’ Christmas become unavoidable, don’t they?

We are only a heartbeat away from a shared past

Now let’s turn to our China parallels. In China this is the time for a mid-winter festival called 冬至 – dōngzhì. The literal translation is ‘Winter has arrived’. Some people in China will tell you dōngzhì is more important than Chūn Jié – the spring festival, but it is almost unknown in the west. I am sure that the winter solstice festival in China must have roots as long back as the Stonehenge Neolithic. Official records of the festival date back to the ‘Spring and Autumn’ period of 770 to 476 BCE but Winter Solstice became a winter festival during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).

What do people do to keep dōngzhì? I’ve already mentioned the connection of ancestor remembrance. So now let’s bring in the food dishes. Every part of China has the tradition of different regional specialities that are eaten to mark the solstice. People in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, are accustomed to eating wontons in midwinter. In places such as Shanghai, people eat tangyuan, a kind of stuffed small dumpling ball made of glutinous rice flour, to celebrate Winter Solstice. The significance is exactly the same as for shared Neolithic ancestors and modern day Christmas dinner diners, the chance to fill your stomach with something delicious before the days of shortage and the return of Spring.

We haven’t yet mentioned the best known dōngzhì food, and that’s – 饺子 jiǎozi, dumplings. On the lunchtime of Friday 22nd I was whisked off to a nearby restaurant and bowls of delicious pastry parcels emerged steaming and fresh from the kitchens. I was told I had to eat, although I didn’t need any invitation. And out rolled the great winter solstice wisdom of dōngběi people, the people of the north-east of China.

‘冬至要吃饺子,不然耳朵会冻掉。

Dongzhi yao chi jiao zi, bu ran er duo hui dong diao.

Which translates wonderfully as ‘eat dumplings at winter solstice to stop your ears falling off’. Anyone who has experienced the savage freezing days of north eastern China in winter will know exactly what this means. The chill factor, combined with freezing winds, precisely seems to threaten to freeze your ears off of the side of your head.

There is a legend which goes that in ancient times, a doctor named Zhang Zhongjing invented dumplings by wrapping mutton and Chinese medicine in dumpling dough and gave them to people to cure frostbite. Whatever the truth of the story, there is no doubt that lining your stomach with a bowl of this wonderful comfort food fortifies you ready to struggle back out into the bleakest of winter days.

So now we have the answer to our Christmas conundrum. Stonehenge and dumplings are both tangible connections between people, culture and the change of seasons and time. This tells us, however modern and sophisticated we believe ourselves to be, we are only a heartbeat away from a shared past. It tells us however many superficial fictions of separation some invent, the hearts and stomachs of the Chinese and British people follow the same deeper, more meaningful, rhythms.

冬至 快乐! dōngzhì kuàilè! Happy Winter Solstice!

Eat dumplings at winter solstice to stop ears falling off

Keeping China Connections Live !

The author joins Sichuan Opera

First of all let me send festive good wishes to us all.

I thought I’d try to bring some seasonal joy to this particular blog by celebrating the fun and merriment of live performance. I think this is particularly poignant since this is the first festive period since the end of COVID. I hope that all of you will enjoy the opportunity to cheer yourselves up by joining the audience of a show or performance.

At this time of year I always look back with a merry tear in my eye to the christmas shows in the school where I was Headteacher for many years. The students organised a show, the canteen staff cooked up a traditional christmas dinner with all of the trimmings and staff went out in their cars to chauffeur older members of our richly diverse community into school to join in joy. The evening always ended in a communal sing-song led by the school canteen staff, all local members of our community. We always managed to respect and celebrate diversity and at the same time come together in peaceful harmony. And live performance was the elixir which made this alchemy possible. The power of laughter and song to dissolve differences can be that magical.

I was reminded of this chemistry by a recent event I joined in Chengdu. I was part of the audience for a traditional Sichuan Opera, Chuanju. I’ve been to both Beijing and Shanghai Opera performances in the past and to be honest found them a taste quite difficult to acquire. I guess it’s that thing where you’re passionately interested in a culture or a cultural event, but still feel like an outsider, looking in, not quite sure what to make of it, despite all of the careful research you’ve done.

I needn’t have worried, this time I became an insider in a way I never expected.

We had only just taken our seats in the large, beautifully decorated auditorium, when someone I could only assume was theatre staff beckoned me to follow her. Was I sitting in the wrong place? Had I broken a centuries old etiquette? A colleague came with me as a translator and we followed her, not to the exit, but to the area where the performers were getting into make-up. I’m sure you’ve all seen photographs of Chinese opera characters and know that part of the magic of the show is the elaborate make-up and colourful costumes. Maybe you’ve seen ‘Farewell My Concubine’, the Chen Kaige film set in a Beijing Opera House. Can you guess what happened next? Believe it or not I was offered the chance to be made over as an opera character and to go into costume. For this once in a lifetime opportunity there was a minimal charge. I invited any interested teachers and students to join the experience.

The author in mid make-up

We talk in English about ‘the smell of the grease paint’ to express the sense of excitement and anticipation amongst the performers about to go on stage. I did have to ask, ‘You’re not going to put me on stage are you?’ but even after I’d been assured that we ‘extras’ would gather on a private stage, not the public stage, I felt totally a part of the whirl of preparations around me. A rainbow of masks were being carefully painted across the faces of the performers around me. All around the walls were wardrobe rails emblazoned with the myriad of character costumes. One by one the costumes floated down from the rack and transformed the caterpillar actors and actresses into dazzling stage butterflies. And in the mirror I watched myself transitioning too.

When my transformation was complete I was shown to the small private stage. By complete fortune my character was paired with that of one of my students. We went on stage together and we were walked though the basics of a scene. We were shown the poses to assume. We were shown the expressions needed to tell the story of the scene. I was presented with a fan and shown precisely the finger-grip and angles at which to hold it. Everyone around me was incredibly patient and kind.

It was all over in about ten minutes, but within that short time I had the wonderful feeling of being an insider in the traditions and artistry of ‘chuanju’, like an apprentice who has a glimpse of the creativity she or he aspires to. And I felt echoes of what performers in every culture and every age must feel, the goose-pimples of taking on another identity. For that short time I was neither foreigner, nor Chinese, I was the magnificent Wensheng!

Sichuan Opera, Chuanju

Sadly I had to remove my gowns before re-joining the audience, but I was allowed to keep my make-up which drew astonished exclamations of appreciation from audience members and students alike. I wasn’t quite an opera star, but I had a flicker of insight into their stage-lit world. The show itself was a magnificent melange of styles and emotions. It was a variety performance to show-case the talents of Chengdu’s finest, not dissimilar to Victorian music-hall.

There were poignant and passionate musical interludes. There was a shadow puppet show which is such a deep thread in Chinese tradition it is inscribed in the Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. There was a breathtaking show of acrobatics and tumbling, cleverly constructed around an episode from the ‘Journey West’, the Xiyouji, better known as the story of Monkey King. There was a satirical comedy played out between an all powerful wife and a Chaplin-esque woeful but endearing husband which was delivered in pure Sichuan dialect, but hilariously punctuated with comic attempts to use English.

A Comedy Interlude

The excitement and wonder of the show all built towards the spectacular ending, which is a performance totally unique to Sichuan called ‘changing faces’. The performers flow across the stage in entrancing movements, wearing colourful, decorated masks. Magically, mysteriously, often mid-flight, one mask disappears to be instantly replaced by another. Each actor might change 5 or 6 faces. As the face changing proceeds, fans are introduced and the performers start to play with the audience anticipations in a delirious ‘will he, won’t he’ display of breathtakingly invisible illusions.

It seems to me that this sense of play and performance is deep in the heart of English and Chinese civilisations. Perhaps its something to do with the theatricality of both languages that have such tremendous range and depth. Perhaps there is an innocence in both cultures that can readily accept the wonder and enchantment of storytelling, what academics call ‘the suspension of disbelief’. If you’re looking for a modern example you need look no further than an audience of young Chinese faces under the spell of Harry Potter, every bit as bewitched as their British peers.

As one year closes and a new year beckons, let’s cherish what is both unique and shared in the diverse eco-system of cultural traditions between China and Britain and continue our noble work to share this understanding with wider and wider audiences.

I wish you all the joy of the festivities and beyond into the new year!

A dramatic moment from the ‘Journey West’ performance

(All of the photos are originals taken by the author)

Changing faces of Chengdu

The ‘Changing Faces’ show, from Sichuan Opera

For the last week I have travelled with Grade 9 and Grade 10 students from my school in the city of Chengdu, which is the capital of the south-westerly province of Sichuan. You’ll be familiar with the name from countless restaurants in England claiming to serve ‘Szechuan’ dishes. It is not my job to act as an advertising agent for ‘Travel China’ so I’ll get the publicity out of the way immediately. If you have the chance to visit this fascinating location, please do so!

In this blog we are in the business of building bridges of understanding between the people of China and the people of Britain, so let’s explore links and connections between Chengdu and England.

Du Fu Caotang

First the poetry! Thanks to the tireless and inspiring work of our SACU President, Michael Wood, the great poet 杜甫, Du Fu, is getting better known to English language readers. Du Fu lived in the Tang Dynasty era from 712 to 770, but he is a living presence in Chinese culture today. I first came across his poems being recited and discussed by my students. One of the key characteristics of Du Fu’s work is that he is a ‘poet of exile’ whose art was refined by years of living as a misplaced refugee during the time that the violence of the An Lushan rebellion (755-763) destroyed the peace of the Tang and effected the lives of Chinese people at all levels of society.

In his excellent new book, ‘In the Footsteps of Du Fu’, Micheal expertly locates Du Fu’s writing in place and time, following his wanderings in central and southern China. How excited and humbled I was as I rolled south on the luxury of the modern high speed G308 train from Beijing to Chengdu, to follow almost page by page, the poet’s journeys, experiences and their expression in poetry.

In Chengdu the students and I visited 杜甫草堂, Du Fu Caotang, a park and museum dedicated to the poet, in an area where Du Fu built a cottage in 760 and found (temporary) sanctuary from the war. Michael Wood’s chapter on this is particularly memorable because he emphasises that many Chinese people, and not just the ‘intellectual elite’ still feel a living connection to the poet and his works. My version of this was to organise a bilingual reading of two of the poems, enthusiastically supported in Chinese by one of my students, at two particularly evocative locations in the park. Not only were there no disapproving or cynical looks, but even a small and appreciative gathering of Chinese visitors who politely applauded at the end of our improvisation. I hope the poet himself would have approved. As to the beauty of the surroundings, if I were the spirit of Du Fu you would find me there every balmy dusk evening, drinking a tea and performing my verses for anyone with the time to listen.

Personally I think to talk of Du Fu as the ‘Chinese Shakespeare’ or the ‘Chinese Dante’ is irrelevant and even patronising. Du Fu deserves to be recognised as a profound poet of the human condition on terms at once Chinese and universal. It is scandalous that his poetry is not more widely appreciated in western schools and universities.

Exquisite gardens that mirror Du Fu’s artistry

Sanxingdui

The second connection concerns history. Chengdu is home to one of the most fascinating Bronze age cultures in the world – the Sanxingdui, which flourished in this area in the eleventh and twelfth century BCE. This year an amazing modern museum opened on the site of the Sanxingdui excavations, a museum whose own beautiful design seems to have been inspired by the artistry and ingenuity of the Bronze Age ancestors. The museum is expertly curated with audio tours and signage in English throughout. The range of artefacts on display is spectacular, displaying an artistry capable of creations from minute but detailed bronze animals to a soaring nearly 4 metre tall ‘holy tree’.

Two thoughts struck me as I wandered and wondered, both with an international dimension. The first was how much of the creativity here was inspired by connections to the natural world. Animal forms are everywhere, birds, snakes, buffalo and tigers, sometimes twisting together with human bodies. Anyone familiar with Bronze Age art from across the world will recognise a similar motif, perhaps born from a renewed fascination with nature as city lifestyles replaced older agricultural modes of thought.

The second is the way that the malleability of metals such as bronze and gold seemed to fire the imaginations of a generation of smiths across the Bronze Age globe. Exhibits such as the ‘Standing figure holding a dragon shaped sceptre’ or ‘Figure riding a beast with a Zun on top’ (‘zun’ is a religious vessel) are Dali-esque in their imaginings. In the Aegean, in the near-East and closer to home in the expression of British Bronze Age metal-workers we can find similar inspirations from the liquid flow of molten metal into the solid forms of a mould. There are masks of fine beaten gold which seem to connect directly to the gold work of the mask-makers of Mycenae.

Just like the artistry of Du Fu the diverse faces of Sanxingdui culture should be more widely recognised.

Bronze figure from Sanxingdui

Pandas!

No article about Chengdu can be complete without pandas. Panda pictures, panda fashions and panda accessories are inescapable everywhere in Chengdu because it is the site of the China Panda Research and Conservation Centre. I approached the visit with some trepidation because I’ve had a visceral hatred of zoos ever since reading Ted Hughes’ fierce poem ‘Jaguar’ at school. I needn’t have worried. Pandas are natives of the dense wooded forests in the bowl of mountains surrounding Sichuan. In particular they need bamboo because 90–98 percent of the panda’s diet consists of the leaves, shoots, and stems of this grass. And that is exactly what the conservation centre consists of, a landscaped bamboo forest threaded with the paths that city dwelling humans need to move around. In fact so successful is the natural environment that the notoriously shy pandas are quite difficult to see, often nothing more than a glimpse of black and white fur bobbing up and down, munching contentedly behind dense leafy screens.

Furthermore this place acts as a highly effective scientific research centre, funds boosted by the flocks of adoring panda fans and has produced scientific findings on topics as diverse as panda ecology, management, nutrition, behaviour, breeding, disease and heredity. The research has benefitted not just pandas but success in preserving the rich bio-diversity of the whole area.

And here is another connection from Sichuan to the world. It is one of the top 25 most biodiverse areas on Earth, with more than 10,000 alpine plant species and 1,200 vertebrate species. It’s no exaggeration to say that the work of places like the Panda Research Centre to conserve this local biodiversity is of critical importance to us all.

Sichuan is one of the top 25 most biodiverse areas on Earth

The Spice of Life

And so to food. It’s humbling to think that while the panda survives all its life on just one source of nutrition, we humans have developed culinary systems with a dazzling array of flavours, textures and ingredients. The sales pitch of popularised ‘Szechuan’ dishes in the west is that they are ‘spicy’. There’s a toehold of truth in that, but it doesn’t do credit to the range of flavours that constitute the spice. To start with there’s not a single Sichuan spice, but combinations of fennel, pepper, aniseed, cinnamon, clove, chilli and Sichuan pepper. Broad bean chili paste called ‘dòubànjiàng’, shallots, ginger and garlic are also commonly used.

The spice is complemented by the quality, freshness and range of ingredients used. Due to its climate, crops and livestock range from those of subtropical climates to those of a cool temperate zone. One of the best ways to appreciate this is through the culinary phenomenon that is Sichuan ‘huo guo’ or hotpot. Reduced to its essentials the hot pot experience consists of a shared bowl of broth where diners collectively boil and consume a range of fresh ingredients. It’s common for the broth pot to have two sections – one non-spicy, often mushroom based and the other fiery crimson with spice, including the humble but mouth numbing ‘málà’ peppercorns that are absolutely characteristic of Sichuan cuisine.

Hot pot is healthy and nutritious because the ingredients are all boiled there and then, preserving their vitamin content. There’s a rich range of oils to flavour the foods you fish out of the pot, but those are to your own taste. And above all it’s a wonderfully communal experience, unlike any western dining that I know. One of my favourite Chinese phrases is ‘xiāngpēnpēn’ which very approximately can be used to describe a rich confection of food flavours and fragrances and I defy anyone to eat hotpot without being drawn in to an equally ‘xiāngpēnpēn’ conversation.

Which allows me to conclude with a person to person anecdote. Most of the ingredients for hot pot are easily available in Chinese supermarkets in England, including the broth bases. You can also buy electric versions of the hot pots themselves. In summers in England, in bbq season, I would set up my hot pot in the garden on a table outdoors with the prepared ingredients ranged around it. It wasn’t long before the ‘xiāngpēnpēn’ drifted up over the garden fences. Nor was it long before the fascinated faces of my neighbours would pop up over the fence tops, noses twitching. And so I had bowls prepared to pass to them over the fencing, for our own English back garden version of the Sichuan communal dining experience. A little corner of north London that is forever Chengdu!

A Sichuan Hot Pot

Let’s finish with a few lines from Du Fu, describing his Chengdu home:

I’ve chosen

this quiet woods and river bank

outside the city, well away

from business, dust, entanglements

here where clear water,

rinses away a traveller’s sadness.”

‘Siting a House’ ~ trans David Young, 2008.

The author at Du Fu’s Cottage in Chengdu