What’s the connection between Stonehenge and Chinese dumplings?

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

Can you solve this Christmas conundrum?

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are only a heartbeat away from a shared past

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

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

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

‘冬至要吃饺子,不然耳朵会冻掉。

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

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

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

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

冬至 快乐! dōngzhì kuàilè! Happy Winter Solstice!

Eat dumplings at winter solstice to stop ears falling off

Keeping China Connections Live !

The author joins Sichuan Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author in mid make-up

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

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

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

Sichuan Opera, Chuanju

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

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

A Comedy Interlude

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

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

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

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

A dramatic moment from the ‘Journey West’ performance

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

Changing faces of Chengdu

The ‘Changing Faces’ show, from Sichuan Opera

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

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

Du Fu Caotang

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

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

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

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

Exquisite gardens that mirror Du Fu’s artistry

Sanxingdui

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

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

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

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

Bronze figure from Sanxingdui

Pandas!

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

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

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

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

The Spice of Life

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

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

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

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

A Sichuan Hot Pot

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

I’ve chosen

this quiet woods and river bank

outside the city, well away

from business, dust, entanglements

here where clear water,

rinses away a traveller’s sadness.”

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

The author at Du Fu’s Cottage in Chengdu

To travel a thousand miles beats reading a thousand books

行万里路胜读万卷书

(xíngwànlǐlùshèngdúwànjuǎnshū)

Lusheng Festivals of the Miao Community in Guizhou

For this week’s Chairs Blog let’s get our hiking boots on and head out of town to the remote mountains of the south-western province of Guizhou. It’s a good time to head south from Beijing where temperatures are dropping to freezing.

Go, go, go Guizhou

Guizhou for me is one of the most fascinating places in China, second only to its neighbour Yunnan. It is still a largely rural province but thanks to government investment it is also fast becoming a digital technology hub of China. Its terrain is folded into mountains and valleys where now high speed rail and motorways fly over spectacular, dizzying bridges. I can depict the way Guizhou is poised between two worlds by painting the picture of a state of the art motorway, wheeling its way to the horizon, which is utterly empty bar a small group of Miao ethnic minority in festival costumes driving their buffalo patiently down the central high speed lane.

Now is the time of an event in Guizhou called ‘The Lusheng Festival’. The Lusheng is a wind instrument made of bamboo. It is beloved of the Miao Ethnic Minority who live in areas across south-west China, but principally Guizhou. I haven’t taken part in the November festival, however I have lived in a Miao village during the equivalent events of the Spring Festival. So come with me now and I’ll try to give you a flavour of what it’s like to watch and even be part of this event.

Two Lusheng players

Who are the Miao?

The Miao are a diverse cultural group who live in mountainous regions across south-west China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. There are 9 million Miao people in China itself, who characterise themselves into four groups, linked by loose cultural and linguistic ties. We should say that the rights of the Miao ethnic minority group is given legal protection in China and many of them live in what are called autonomous townships or counties where they have forms of local control.

I stayed in a village called Langde, which is about 40 kilometres out on the mountainside near the city of Kaili. It is almost entirely traditional and unspoilt. The houses are all timber built and constructed on stilts so that there is a storage area under the house, often used for livestock. The road to Langde does not enter the village so it is vehicle free-except for the ubiquitous small motorcycles that frequently transport whole families at a time . My grandfather, who was a village carpenter would have loved the houses which are built without the use of nails, through a complex of ingenious joints. The house where I stayed was entirely natural, including a lack of glass in the windows which on chill February nights took a bit of adjusting to.

Walking through the village you are immersed in the rich diversity of sights, smells and sounds which anyone raised on a farm will be familiar with. Chickens peck freely around your ankles. The village has two centres. One is a small theatrical square where people gather for festivals. The second is the pond where crystal clear water splashes down from the mountain sides and where families gather to wash vegetables, clean a freshly killed chicken and generally enjoy the gossip of the day. The lifestyle of Langde is definitely one of the open air.

The good life, Langde village style

Miao Culture 1 : Embroidery

I don’t think we can describe Miao society as matriarchal, yet from my short stay it is evident that, to use a Chinese phrase, ‘bànbiāntiān’, that is ‘women hold up half the sky’. Women were in the fields farming, women were labouring on construction sites, women were holding forth at the local markets obviously running their own businesses. In their creation myth all Miao are descended from a female ancestor – the Butterfly Mother, who mated with the pure mountain waters of Guizhou to lay the egg that gave birth to the first man – called Zang Vang. And it is women who are responsible for the embroidery which literally stitches Miao culture together. Miao grandmothers and mothers create some of the most dazzlingly beautiful costumes you will ever see.

Dazzling, intricate Miao embroidery

But the importance of this needlework goes far, far beyond surface beauty. Traditionally the costumes are hand prepared by mothers for their own ‘butterfly’ daughters. Each stitch is an act of love. One of the key functions of the Lusheng festivals is to bring the young together to offer opportunities for relationships and then marriage. There’s no doubt that an impressive piece of embroidery is an investment in your daughter’s future happiness. At the start of each festival you see the beautiful bonds this brings between mothers and daughters as they work together to get each piece of the intricate costumes absolutely perfect.

A speciality of the Miao costumes are the pleated skirts. These can be of varying lengths according to local cultures. The needlework changes according to the thoughts of each mother. Many designs reflect the beauty of local plants and animals. Others may depict local myths and legends. They are part of the intangible and utterly tangible heritage of the Miao.

It’s worth noting that these skills are starting to become an important part of the local economy. Miao women have realised that there is considerable demand for their needlework both in China and internationally. They are learning to exploit the tools of e-commerce. In 2012 a Miao woman called Long Laoxiang sold an award winning piece for 2,500 dollars. Following this local women have organised themselves together to set up local businesses that are contributing significantly to poverty alleviation. Very importantly the money earned in this way means that families can stay together without either or sometimes both parents having to live away from the children working in a far off city such as Shenzen. In one village I visited in 2019 there were no parents at all, only children and grandparents because all of the mothers and fathers were remote workers. It’s wonderful to think that the Miao heritage is making tragedies like this a thing of the past.

Miao Culture 2: Silver work

Miao silversmiths deserve to have world wide recognition for the artistry and intricacy of their craft. Silver is highly valued and worked into exquisite and expressive jewellery. Every village has its own silver artists. In some villages every man strives to develop these skills. Just as the embroiderers keep Miao culture alive through needlework so the silversmiths preserve the culture through incorporating ancient totems and motifs from historic legends in their work. When the Miao dress for festival they really do become history, alive to the past, wearing their culture elegantly into the future.

For the women perhaps the most distinctive parts of their costumes are the headwear. Common motifs for the silver hats are a magpie stepping on plum, a golden pheasant calling out, a peacock spreading its tail, and a male and female phoenix perched together. These motifs can vary in appearance from region to region. For example, the phoenix hat of the Huangping region features hundreds of silver flowers, four birds and one phoenix. The silver pieces at the back of this hat are meant to imitate the phoenix’s tail feathers. In some Miao villages, such as the ones near Kaili, Leishan, Danzhai and Taijiang, the silver horns are the most important adornment. They vary in thickness and are meant to look like the horns of a bull. The horns are each typically 50 to 70 centimetres long. They normally have patterns hammered into them, such as phoenixes or dragons holding pearls, and are sometimes decorated with feathers or tassels.

To see groups of women swaying in time to the Lusheng music, with silver ‘moon horns’ glistening in the light, is a liminal experience.

Ethereal silver moon-horns in Langde village

Miao Culture 3 : Festival

Let’s join a festival. You are here at the annual lusheng festival of the White Miao. This place and this event are so remote you are the only foreigner here. From villages across the area families have been on the move since breakfast, tongues singing with anticipation. Mothers and grandmothers look suitably stressed about details of costumes; boys and girls look equally relieved that the chiding and licking into presentability has stopped; dads slip to the back of the circling crowd, distant, impassive, drawing deep on cigarettes in secret pride. And so it starts, naturally, organically, without speech or ceremony. With lungfuls of clean mountain air, the lusheng burst into rhythmic call and respond, the boys swaying elegantly as they play. The butterfly girls emerge from the cocoon circles of mothers and grandmothers, adorned in the cascade of multicoloured costumes maternal hands have been hatching all winter. With elegant simple steps the lines of girls circle, jingling bells and fluttering aprons. With choreographed kicks, the lines of boys rotate, lowing and bellowing like little buffalo. In the cacophony, in the deafening wheel the laws of nature unfold as simply as winter revolves into the fresh buds of spring.

The author joins festival

What is festival?

This is not an exotic spectacle. Like the story of the butterfly mother herself, born from bubbling water, this festival folds the people again and again back into the rhythms and cycles of nature. It is a festival of the fierce love of the butterfly mothers and daughters. It is a festival of past and future, a child looking back from the swirl of the dance to catch her mother’s anxious, loving eye.

looking back to catch her mother’s anxious, loving eye.

双十一, Double Eleven, more than just a shopping festival?

李佳琦, Li Jiaqi, ‘the lipstick king’, a very successful and sometimes controversial live-streaming celebrity.

Double Eleven!

One of the most important events of the year for many Chinese people is taking place right now in November. It’s called Double Eleven and it’s the biggest shopping festival in the world. It’s a bit like Boxing Day and the January sales in the UK but on steroids. And curiously it takes place at almost the same time as the western shopping festival called ‘Black Friday’, which this year is on November 24th.

In this article I’ll share information about the Double Eleven phenomenon and some thoughts about what it means for the Chinese people.

What is Double Eleven?

Double 11 only came into existence in 2009. Really it would be better to describe it as a festival of e-commerce. The person behind Double 11 is Zhang Yong, the founder of an online retail giant called Tmall. He was looking for ways to boost the Tmall brand and hit on the idea of an on-line shopping event.

We need some background on Tmall. Tmall operates as an on-line platform for branded products, both domestic and international. By 2020 Tmall had grown to become the largest authorised mobile and online trading platform for brands and retailers in the world. We can understand Tmall as an online digital market place where retailers can set up an electronic market stall, without the costs of a physical infrastructure.

Double Eleven is not just about consumerism.

From an economic point of view Double Eleven is also about innovation. It offers a platform not only for new products but also for new services. E-commerce platforms encourage a whole economic eco-system of growth. Many of the businesses can be categorised as small or even micro enterprises. An important aspect of Double Eleven is the way it supports the development of finance, logistics, technology and even training for the skills of e-commerce.

I think it’s also important to understand the role of e-commerce for what in China is called ‘小康’, xiaokang, or making sure there is a level of moderate prosperity across the whole society, without ‘left behind’ areas of inequality. The on-line market places can be joined from anywhere in the country, bringing benefits to enterprises and consumers who live outside of the highly developed urban centres. A new platform called Pinduoduo, believes that every year it is seeing 167 per-cent growth in China’s much smaller fourth and fifth tier cities.

Seen in this way Double 11 begins to have cultural as well as economic significance. It is a critical part of opening up the Chinese economy to international producers. In 2022 Double 11 brought more than 2,600 overseas brands to the attention of Chinese consumers. Products and services were on sale from 79 countries and regions of the world. We should understand this in relation to the Belt and Road Initiative which is improving connectivity to China from across the world. Retailers from any part of the globe can now open doors to trade in China through the Double Eleven platform.

The phenomenon of Live-Streaming

The second cultural phenomenon that is markedly different from traditional patterns of shopping in the west is the emergence of live streaming. Again comparison with a physical market can be made. If you’ve ever been to a marketplace you will have had your attention caught by the show-woman or showman, attracting you not only by the quality of their wares, but the quality of their entertainment.

Live-streaming at Double Eleven is the commercial equivalent of the Olympic Games for the celebrities of this skill. In 2022 live-streamers generated more than 15 billion US dollars of sales. At the peak of the 2022 , 583,000 orders were being placed every second. Live-streaming brings opportunities for new entrepreneurs from across China, especially the still developing economies of the rural west and south-west. One of the most lucrative and valued corners of the live-streaming market is held by farmers and agricultural workers who can use the platform to sell organic produce and cultural products such as textiles directly to the doors of city dwellers.

Li Jiaqi, the live-streamer pictured above, sold so many products on line that he earned the nick-name ‘the lipstick king’. Then he notoriously risked his reputation and market share when he concluded an on-line argument with a customer by implying she was too lazy to earn the money to buy his products. The strength of on-line opinion in China can be seen in the fact that he has since apologised for his lack of values, “I should never forget where I come from and shouldn’t lose myself.” Social media in the West is not particularly known as an arena for public apologies.

Shopping and Culture

While we may have all kinds of reservations about consumerism, that shouldn’t blind us to the cultural importance of shopping. If we read Michael Woods’ ‘The Story of China’ he paints vivid pictures of places like 12th century Kaifeng where shopping was the engine of a renaissance of art, culture and life-styles. In his wonderful social history ‘Empire of Things’, Frank Trentmann (2017) opens with an account of shopping fashions from 1808 written by the Chinese poet Lin Sumen. Part of this different perspective is to shift the focus away from the seller to the buyer. As Trentmann puts it ‘it was the values these societies attached to things that set them apart’.

How to join the Double Eleven users community

My students are of course expert users of Double Eleven. They explained to me that a co-operative sub-culture has developed around the event. The volume of information about potential on-line bargains is simply far too much for any one person to manage. And so they work together almost like a team of hunters to guide each other to catch what they need.

They taught me two essential internet catch phrases for this activity. The first is ‘种草’ or ‘zhongcao’ which literally means ‘to plant grass’. However it is internet slang for recommending a bargain to a friend. I guess in English we’d say planting the seed of buying a product. And then there is its equally vivid opposite, which is ‘拔草’ or ‘bacao’ which means ‘to pull up weeds’. If someone tells you this then it’s a signal that you should avoid this product or seller.

Things like this go beyond linguistic ingenuity. The slang binds you into a group of knowledgeable consumers, clubbing together to make Double Eleven work on your terms.

It’s estimated that by 2025 the digital economy could be contributing 12 trillion dollars per year, which is 55% of China’s economy, so we’d be foolish to ignore its economic value. However we should also be wise to the ways in which Chinese citizens make use of shopping events like these to develop their own sense of value and community.

As one of my students said, ‘ Everyone will be immersed in pleasure on November 11th, that’s why the Chinese like this day very much, because a joyful day is what we need most. Double Eleven not only meets our material needs, but it also meets our spiritual needs, for Chinese, this cheerful day can also be seen as a festival, Double Eleven has taken root in our hearts!’

清明上河圖, Qīngmíng Shànghé Tú, ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’,artist Zhang Zeduan (張擇端, 1085–1145),a celebration of Song Dynasty shopping culture.

Double Ninth Day

An Autumnal Chrysanthemum

This Friday, 27th October, all of the students in my school in Beijing with all of their teachers and the company of some parents will make a 20 minute bus journey to the outskirts of Beijing and climb a mountain. For those of you who don’t know Beijing, it is a city in a bowl of mountains. One of the joys of my apartment is that I can see the mountains very clearly from the windows.

But why are we climbing the mountain together on Friday? In the UK this might be an outdoors activity, designed to promote healthy lifestyles and to re-connect the students with nature. And it is both of those things here in Beijing. But it is also part of the cultural celebration of an event called ‘Double Ninth Day’ or to give its more formal title ‘重阳节’ or ‘Chongyang Jie’.

So let me introduce you to Double Ninth Day. First of all let’s try to understand the name. You’re probably aware that numbers have all sorts of cultural meanings in China. According to records from the mysterious book the ‘I Ching’ or ‘Book of Changes’《易经》the number 6 belonged to the Yin character of the famous Taoist ‘yinyang’ symbol while the number 9 was thought to be of the Yang character. So, on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, both day and month are Yang characters. Therefore, the festival was named the Double Ninth Festival.

Is there a traditional story to explain Chongyang? Of course there is, there’s a fabulous legend attached to every festival. For this legend we have to go back to the Eastern Han era in Chinese history ( 25-220 AD). The story tells of a plague demon who lived in the River Ru. Once the demon emerged from his watery lair and killed the parents of a young man called Hengjing. Determined to take revenge, Hengjing, became the follower of a Taoist immortal teacher in order to learn the magic skills needed to defeat the demon. Through his patient study, Hengjing acquired a bag of an evil smelling herb called dogweed and a flask of chrysanthemum wine. Back at the village he gave each villager a leaf of the herb and a bowl of the wine and led them into the mountains for safety. Sure enough the next time the villainous demon crept out of the river to kill a villager or two, the good people disoriented him with the fumes of the weed and the wine. And while the demon staggered around on the mountainside, the courageous Hengjing finished him off with a few blows of his sword.

So, on Friday we will take our children on to the mountain to fight and defeat plague demons! Of course not. But as with all Chinese customs and traditions there are thoroughly sensible reasons for the beliefs, that almost always relate to health. We all know that mountain air will be fresh and clean. In the days before modern medicine it probably made perfect sense to leave a city or town being consumed by disease and retreat to the mountains.

As for the chrysanthemums, autumn is the time when these flowers are at their best in China. Since they flower when the weather starts to grow colder, they are seen as symbols of strength and vitality. Furthermore an infusion of Chrysanthemum tea has antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory characteristics. It is a herbal medicine. Therefore drinking this health giving brew when moving from the warmth of early autumn to the cold of late autumn and approaching winter would be a very sensible health precaution. And why not go out and climb a mountain to enjoy the spiritual uplift of the mountain views before winter snow and ice makes them inaccessible until Spring?

Since 1989, a new meaning had been added to ‘Double Ninth Day’. As nine is pronounced ‘jiu’ / “久” meaning long in Chinese, so people endow the word ‘jiu’ with the meaning of longevity in a person’s life. In the year 1989, Double Ninth Festival was designated as ‘Senior’s Day’ – a day to respect the elderly and to let them enjoy themselves. Many companies organise groups where retired people can go out to climb mountains or on other outings. Members of a family also accompany their elders to have a relaxing day in a natural setting while wishing health and happiness upon them.

On our way up the mountain we can look forward to meeting families with senior members also making the climb and I am certain my students will share courteous and respectful ‘double ninth’ greetings with them.

Seniors enjoying a Double Ninth Day outing

A Journey Through Civilisations

SACU members Iris Yau, Richard Poxton, Ros Wong (membership secretary), Zoe Reed (former Chair) and Frances Wood at the ‘Journey through Civilisations’ event.

SACU is very proud to have been one of the sponsors of a recent event in London hosted by the China Media Group. The event was held to mark the launch of a new on-line exhibition. Through immersive and digital technological innovations overseas audiences can immerse themselves in a digital scroll of time spanning ancient and modern times. This allows the audience a virtual experience of the early stages of Chinese civilisation and an appreciation of the source of China’s 5,000 years of history.

The event was jointly organised by SACU, CGTN Europe, China Media Group Europe and the Cambridge Asian Culture Association. The event is part of a global roadshow which was launched at the United Nations in June this year. The UN venue was chosen to represent China’s strong support for cultural diversity and the UN’s work.

A number of influential guests spoke at the event. Yang Xiaoguang, China’s Charge d’Affaires, told the audience that ‘China is willing to strengthen  exchanges and mutual learning among civilisations with other countries in the world to promote common development.’

CMG’s president Shen Haixiong told the audience in a video speech that he saw the mission of the broadcasting group as communicating the values of Chinese civilisation internationally “to encourage people from across the world to understand each other and build a shared future.”

There was a panel discussion hosted by Jamie Owen of CGTN. During the discussion John Hobson, Professor of International Relations at Sheffield University and author of ‘The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation’, reminded the audience that industrialisation in the West could never have happened without building on Chinese innovations, for example in metallurgy.  His message of course builds on the pioneering work of SACU founder Professor Joseph Needham in ‘Science and Civilisation in China’.

The event was attended by a modern generation of SACU bridge-builders to China, former chair Zoe Reed, Frances Wood, Iris Yau, Ros Wong and Richard  Poxton.  SACU is working towards a future where deeper understandings of China and her people are an everyday reality across Britain.

Which films can I watch to improve my understanding of China?

The Goddess – 神女 – 1934

This is considered by many to be the finest silent film ever made in China. The plot of the film concerns the struggles of a young single mother to escape from poverty and patriarchy. She is forced to work as a prostitute to feed her child. She also has to escape from the predatory attention of a vicious gambler. Her chances of finding happiness are threatened by social prejudice towards her as a woman. The main character is brilliantly portrayed by the actor Ruan Lingyu, who in a terrible irony, committed suicide herself as the result of the unbearable social discrimination she suffered as a result of achieving fame as a female celebrity.

Street Angel – 馬路天使 – 1937

‘Street Angel’ is one of a series of films with a social conscience made in Shanghai in the 1930’s. The film was directed by Yuan Muzhi and stars the popular singer Zhou Xuan, who contributes two songs to the film. It tells the story of how a charismatic street musician called Xiao Chen and his misfit friends struggle to save Zhou Xuan from an exploitative, forced marriage to a corrupt, rich businessman. The wide-ranging mixture of film styles used in the film – from expressionism to Chaplinesque slapstick comedy shows the vibrant creativity of cinema in this period.

Crows and Sparrows 烏鴉與麻雀 (1949)

Another very fine Shanghai movie with a social conscience. This one was made at the time the People’s Liberation Army was entering Shanghai to put an end to the civil war. The director Zheng Jun-Li skilfully makes a tenement house in Shanghai representative of China’s fragmented society during the civil war period. The characters are three dimensional but at the same time representative of a range of class positions. At the end the house is symbolically liberated from its corrupt landlord just as in real time the Communists liberated Nanjing. The film at times has an improvised quality and gives unique insights into an evolving society at the time.

Spring in a Small Town – 1948

This film is set in the aftermath of the long and devastating Sino-Japanese War . It focuses on a marriage already troubled by apathy, ennui, illness and frustration. The marriage comes under further threat when a doctor friend of the husband – and former lover of the wife – arrives on an unexpected visit. The psychological depth of the film is enhanced by the use of a voice over expressing the conflicting feelings and values of the wife. The director Mu Fei is recognised for his empathy with the female  characters in his films.

Liu San Jie / Third Sister Liu / 刘三姐 – 1960

This remarkable film has the honour of being China’s first musical. It is also noteworthy for being a retelling of a legend that originated among the Zhuang ethnic minority who live in the  Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous area of southern China which was created in 1958. Like other films featured here, the film has a courageous female central character, in this case a peasant girl who has a talent for folk singing. Some of the best scenes in the film are singing contests in which Liu San Jie takes on and defeats representatives of the landlord class. The film uses the beautiful and unique karst landscape around Guilin in Guizhou Province as its setting.

Not One Less – 1999

This is the first of several films by the contemporary director Zhang Yimou that I will recommend. This one is dedicated to putting the struggles of China’s rural poor centre stage. It tells the story of a 13 year old girl, Wei Minzhi, who is persuaded to take over as teacher in a small rural school when their teacher has to leave. The central part of the drama unfolds when one of her students runs away to the local town to make money for himself and his family. Wei takes on the indifference of the townspeople in her efforts to bring him home. Although it is clear eyed about the levels of rural poverty at that time, something which China has now eliminated, what the film really conveys is the determination in modern China that no-one will be left behind in the progress to a more equal society. To illustrate this even further Zhang Yimou made the film in the neo-realist style, employing local people as the actors.

House of Flying Daggers – 2004

 

 

It’s almost impossible to separate out Ang Lee’s two most famous martial arts movies, House of  Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but I’m going to come down cautiously on the side of the former. Whereas Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon focuses on the supernatural and esoteric, House of Flying Daggers is more earthy, with its tale of rebellion, love and betrayal. The key feature of both films is their amazing cinematography and for me again House of Flying Daggers just shades it, in terms of expressing the spellbinding Chinese aesthetics of colour and space. Under Lee’s direction the fight scenes gain the quality of choreography. He gives China herself and its landscapes an operatic beauty.

Hero – 2002

We’re back to Zhang Yimou for this amazing film which tells a story from the very origins of China under the king of Qin, who would go onto unite the then separate kingdoms of China under his rule as the first Emperor, Qin Shiguang. Hero is one of the most expensive films ever made in China. Zhang Yimou transforms a martial arts story of combat and revenge into a visual and philosophical poem, which meditates on the nature of power and justice. The poetry comes from the visual beauty, such as the sword fight between Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Moon (Zhang Ziyi) in a flurry of falling autumn leaves. The philosophy comes from the use of multiple points of view to tell the complex relationships between these two characters, a warrior called Sky (Donnie Yen) and the film’s narrator and main character, an assassin called Nameless (Jet Li). As we experience the twists and turns of the plot and come to understand the experiences and perspectives of the central characters it becomes clear that by its ambiguity the film is asking all sorts of questions about what it means to be a hero.

A World Without Thieves – 2004

Again in ‘World Without Thieves’, a Chinese director, in this case Feng Xiaogang, takes a common cinema genre, the crime caper, heist movie and turns it into a deeper meditation on society and human nature. The film’s central character Sha Gen (Baoqiang Wang) is an innocent who has earned 60,000 rmb working on restoring Buddhist temples in Tibet and is now returning home by train with all of that money in an old leather satchel by his side. Sha Gen is equally endlessly virtuous and endlessly naive. Once on the train Sha Gen is adopted by a sisterly protector called Li (Rene Liu) and her more ambiguous boyfriend and professional thief Bo (Andy Lau). What develops is a battle of skills and wits between these three and a band of thieves led by a master criminal Uncle Li. The character of Uncle Li offers us the opportunity to watch one of China’s favourite actors, Ge You, at work. Ge You never allows his representation of the villain to slide into simplistic melodrama. As with the other movies here, what gives this quite simple story its special Chinese flavour, are the philosophical questions it raises about love, loyalty, friendship and even the possibility that there could be a world without thieves, where innocents like Sha Gen can survive.

My People, My Homeland – 2022

I’m going to finish with an unashamedly sentimental movie which certainly lacks all of the moral and psychological depth of the other films in this list, but probably gets you closer to the heart of China than any of the rest. It is an ensemble movie in which five well known directors each contribute a short film telling a story about a character going back to her or his hometown. The spring festival holiday in February is the time for every Chinese person who possibly can to make the annual pilgrimage back to their roots. Unbelievably as many as three billion passengers will travel at this time. I once got caught in the tide of people taking the trains out of Shanghai at the start of the festival. As the Chinese say ‘ren shan, ren hai’ – ‘people mountain, people sea’. Although I ‘knew’ about this great annual migration I never understood it until I saw this movie. In each of the stories the central characters, played by an array of China’s best actors and actresses, encounter and resolve problems and challenges and in doing so return to the heart of the spring home-coming. Along the way the film takes you out of the big cities into the rural heartlands of the country. You are offered the chance to experience a harmony between urban modernity and rural tradition that I think we’ve all but lost in the west. The film is patriotic in a profound sense because it touches on the lives of ordinary people and the sources of their loves, their values, their communities and a country that is attempting to move harmoniously into the future without losing touch with the wellsprings of its national character. In many ways this simple film expresses the ‘soul’ of China.

The older films in this selection are all available on ‘YouTube’. The more recent films are available in the ‘iTunes Store’ amongst other places.

 

Of course there are many fine movies that I’ve passed over to make this ‘Top Ten’ and I’d love to hear your recommendations. Please send them to me by e-mail and I’ll use them to make a follow up article in the future.

Understanding Chinese Thinking:

The 24 Solar Terms

Today is the ninth of October. The Chinese international school where I work has just put a message on its social media to remind all employees that today is the day of ‘Cold Dew’ which in Chinese is 寒露. ‘Cold Dew’ is a day that marks the changing seasons, specifically telling us to expect colder weather as we approach the end of Autumn.

So what is ‘Cold Dew’ and why is this reminder important to my colleagues?

Cold Dew is one of the 24 solar terms. Broadly the seasons in China follow the same pattern as in England. However the Chinese further subdivide the four seasons into smaller, more finely tuned passages of time using these 24 terms. For example Autumn starts with ‘End of Heat’ and moves through ‘White Dew’, ‘Autumn Equinox’, ‘Cold Dew’ and ‘Frost Descent’ to ‘Start of Winter’.

Each solar term represents a set of changes in the weather. The origin of the terms in the agricultural year can be seen by the fact that each solar term is accompanied by information for farmers about what they should do at each turning point to ensure a good harvest or the health of livestock.

I’m certain that in Britain before industrialisation the same set of ideas were also common knowledge. For Cold dew it tells me that, ‘ At this time, temperatures are much lower than during White Dew in most areas of China. The dew is greater and colder and there will be less rain. Autumn crops will be ripe.’

But why would this information be of interest to my colleagues? They work in education and are very unlikely to even have a garden, because private gardens are rare in Beijing, although communal allotments are popular. The enduring meaning of these solar terms is that they also come with a set of information about how we can ensure health and well-being as we adapt to the changing seasons.

For example, during the current period of Cold Dew the advice is to eat the now ripening hawthorn berries. And this is not just folklore. Scientific study has shown that the antioxidants in the berries support good cardiovascular health. In terms of wellbeing the advice is that Cold Dew is a good time to go hiking. Again we can see this is more than superstition. Not only is late autumn visually inspirational, it’s also the last chance to get in some healthy exercise before the icy grip of winter drives everyone indoors.

So these 24 solar terms are intensely practical. You could say that they are the equivalent of the sort of public health announcements we have in the UK, where for example, we are all being reminded to get our flu jabs for the coming winter.

However I think their real function in society goes deeper than this. First of all they maintain the idea of community formed in agricultural societies. It’s like having the village elders still looking after you, gently reminding you, ‘you need to start wearing an extra layer you know, it’s getting colder now’. I think we all know that all Chinese people cherish the idea of their ‘老家’, their ‘laojia’ or ‘hometown’. And these solar terms are a cultural way of preserving that connection.

Even if you lead a modern, busy lifestyle in cosmopolitan Shanghai, remembering the 24 solar terms takes you back, if only fleetingly, to your roots. Some might say it’s all just superstition, but I can see that it is another part of the wider stability of Chinese society, a stability that is an important platform for change.

And I think there is another layer, even deeper than community. Sociologists often say that modern, urban life is ‘deracinated’, which simply means we have ‘lost our roots in nature’. Of course no-one would welcome back the poverty and lack of opportunity of being entirely tied to agricultural lifestyles, but in my mind there is no doubt that our lives are unbalanced if our wellbeing loses harmony with the rhythms of nature.

As soon as I say something like this your scientific brain says, ‘superstitious nonsense’ which is precisely why the cultural observance of things like the 24 solar terms is so important. Quietly, unobtrusively it re-connects my Chinese colleagues to the enduring benefits of community and following the cycles of nature.

(If you are interested in these 24 Solar Terms and would like to follow them through the changing year, you can find interesting and beautifully illustrated articles for each term on the CGTN news website or App)

From China, ketchup for your chips!

The China~Europe railway,
a bridge for trade and cultural understanding

These days of course we are increasingly used to the idea of buying manufactured goods from China. But here’s an astonishing fact that will change the way you see the interdependence between China and the world. Fully one quarter of the tomato ketchup now consumed in the world is grown and produced in China – yes, one in every four bottles!

What are the facts behind this remarkable story?

The first part of the puzzle is that the growing of tomatoes has become a significant part of Chinese agriculture. In 2021 China processed 4.8 million tonnes of tomatoes, 12% of the global volume. In 2021 it is estimated that altogether about 38.9 million tons of tomatoes were grown in China.

One of the main tomato growing regions in China is western Xinjiang Province, which has always been famous for the quality of its fruit and vegetables. The climate and soil quality in Xinjiang contribute to the exceptional flavour of its tomatoes. In fact a total of nearly 80% of all China’s tomatoes are grown in Xinjiang and September is the traditional time for tomato harvesting.

This fact is all the more remarkable when we remember that tomatoes are not indigenous to China. In fact all tomatoes owe their origins to a plant growing in Central and South America. One of the Chinese names for the tomato ‘xihongshi’ literally means the ‘red, western fruit’. Tomatoes were probably introduced into China in the Ming Dynasty, in the late 16 or early 17th centuries.

In fact until the early 20th century tomatoes played a very small role in Chinese cuisine. The breakthrough for the humble tomato came with the development in the 1930’s of 西红柿炒鸡蛋 – xihong-shi chao-jidan’ – scrambled egg and tomato , which is now a staple all over China. It’s simple and deceptively delicious.

The second fact is the dramatic reduction in transportation times for tomatoes and tomato products from China to Europe. A critical part of the Belt and Road project for economic development around China, has been investment in the China-Europe railway. In the decade that Britain failed to complete HS2, 10,694 kilometres of track now connect Chengdu in China to Milan in Italy. On the way it connects 92 cities in 21 countries. The transportation time for products by sea between Europe and China used to be 25 days. The railway has cut this to something between 12 and 15 days.

This connectivity has revolutionised the flow of tomato sauces and pastes from China to the restaurants and dining tables of Britain and Europe. On its way west the intercontinental railway passes through Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, transforming it into an economically dynamic hub between China, Central Asia and Europe and returning it to the status and wealth it enjoyed in the historical Silk Road era.

One more fact for you to consider the next time you reach for a bottle of tomato ketchup. Have you ever thought what an unusual word ‘ketchup’ itself is. That’s because the origins of both the name and the product are in Asia. The word can be traced back to its use in the Malay language and a fish sauce called ‘kichap’, which in itself may have been influenced by a Chinese product called ‘koechiap’, or fish brine.

Of course trade between south-east Asia and Europe developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and ‘ketchup’ was just one of the many new tastes and flavours introduced to brighten up the limited western palate. In 1711 we find a book called ‘An Account of Trade in India’ which states ‘Soy comes in Tubs from Jappan, and the best Ketchup from Tonqueen [Vietnam]; yet goods of both sorts, are made and sold very cheap in China.’

So as you squeeze a bottle of tomato ketchup to bring some flavour to your plate of chips remember that either literally or etymologically you’re adding the flavour of Asia to your meal!