SACU member Jan Johnson’s Chinese New Year

Dragon Year Blessings

The SACU mission is to tell stories of people to people friendship between Britain and China. I am delighted to share the Chair’s Blog with our members so that we can hear a wider range of voices. In this Blog, it’s an honour to be able to bring you SACU member Jan Johnson’s article about her Chinese New Year experiences.

“I’ve been interested in China for a long time and have been teaching myself Mandarin Chinese. I’m disabled and don’t get out very often or for very long but my friend/carer and I met a lovely Chinese lady called Rosita in a café fairly near to my home. Of course, I wanted to practice my Chinese with her. But she wasn’t from mainland China. She was from Hong Kong. Many of your readers will know that Hong Kong residents usually speak Cantonese. But no problem. Cantonese was her first language but she could also speak some Mandarin and English. Great. We chatted in a mixture of languages and I enjoyed myself immensely. This lovely lady sent me details of a craft fair being held in Leeds City Centre on Chinese New Year’s Day. This would be a big outing for me but my friend/carer, Lloyd, was determined to try to get me there, with my wheelchair.

The New Year craft fair

The craft fair was being held by Hong Kong folk now living in Leeds, at the beautiful and historic church now known as Leeds Minster. I was confused about this because I remember it by its old name of Leeds Parish Church 

 Let me tell you a bit about this impressive place.  Leeds Minster, also known as the Minster and Parish Church of Saint Peter-at-Leeds, is a prominent church located in the city of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. It is dedicated to Saint Peter and has a rich history dating back to the 7th century. The current structure dates mainly from the 19th century, with some parts even older. It is renowned for its impressive architecture, including its striking tower and stained glass windows. The Minster serves as both a place of worship and a popular tourist attraction, hosting various events and concerts throughout the year.

Leeds Minster

So, we arrived at the entrance and were immediately welcomed by the organisers and joined the throng of people attending the craft fair and celebrating Chinese New Year. I did not use my wheelchair inside the church. It was too busy and I am fortunate that I can walk a little. I was a bit excited and wished everyone “新年快乐” (happy new year), or “龙年快乐” (happy year of the dragon). I found everyone was patient as I stumbled over my Chinese. I noticed the older folk couldn’t speak Mandarin but the younger and also middle-aged folk were very familiar with Mandarin and the people I spoke to were all very welcoming and spoke slowly so I could keep up. Of course, they all spoke English but they were very indulgent of my wish to practice my Chinese.

Jan tries her hand at Chinese calligraphy

I practiced writing using a Chinese brush and ink. You could see where children had used the brush and ink to draw with. I was attempting Chinese characters! I can’t call it calligraphy. It wasn’t that grand!  but I did manage to write a few recognisable characters and I was offered a cup of pu’er tea. 

It was all very interesting but I quickly tired and my carer pushed me in my wheelchair to his car so he could get me home to rest.

新年快乐 ~ xīnniánkuàilè ~ Happy New Year!”

Thank you Jan. SACU wishes you a dragon year full of blessings!

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


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


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

China catches a cold

Winter arrives in Beijing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beijing – A Simple Life

The author outside his Beijing suburb home

In this blog I will talk about the sheer, simple ordinariness of my life in China. If you haven’t been to China you might have all sorts of ideas about what it is like to live here, as I have done for ten years. Maybe you have some slightly negative views of a limited or restricted life here. Maybe you have romantic or exotic illusions of life in an ‘oriental’ country. The outstanding feature of my life for the last ten years has been its wonderful stability and everyday ordinariness. In the UK I live in a perfectly normal corner of Bournemouth. In China I live in a northern suburb of Beijing called Changping. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the approximate 5000 miles in between, I could walk down Bellevue Road in Southbourne and turn the corner into Beishahe Road in Changping, without batting an eyelid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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