Dragon Boats from China to the World – Duānwǔjié!

Dragon boat race in southern Guangzhou

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

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

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

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

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

Enter the Dragon!

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

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

xiónghuángjiǔDragon Boat festival wine

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

àihāo herbs for Dragon Boat festival

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

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

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

A modern five colour bracelet

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


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

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

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

Qū Yuán, the poet of Dragon Boat

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

‘ I made a coat of lotus and water chestnut leaves

And gathered lotus petals to make myself a skirt

I will no longer care that no-one understands me

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

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

“ 路漫漫其脩遠兮,

lù mànmàn qí xiū yuǎn xī,

the road is boundless – cultivation so distant;


wú jiāng shàngxià ér qiúsuǒ.

I shall explore it from beginning to end.”

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

Happy Dragon Boat Festival!

( all images courtesy of CGTN)

China and Me

The author at Black Dragon Pool, Lijiang

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

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

The author promoting British education in China

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

As the famous British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

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

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

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

The author in the Beijing Hutong alleyways

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

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

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

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

‘I’ve heard a lot about this city

Listen, there’s a sound

Of people making music.

That doesn’t cure

My loneliness.’

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

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

The author with a Sanxingdui mask

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

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

‘We sit together, the mountain and me

Till only the mountain remains.’

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

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

The Yunnan Tea University

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

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

Yunnan, 米线, mǐxiàn – rice noodles

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

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

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

The author joins a 苗族 Miáozú festival

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

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

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

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

The author and Mr Lu Caiwen

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

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

The Evolution of Chinese Characters

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

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

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

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

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

’, loong, dragon in traditional characters

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

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

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

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

仓颉 ~ Cāng Jié

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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