Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Lijiang and the Naxi People


My apologies to those who have may have taken an interest in this blog site in terms of the lack of more current affairs content to date. Up until now, I have been going over some of my old writings and translations to try to build up a base of content. Nevertheless, I thought this article that I wrote fifteen years ago might be of interest to those who wanted to get a glimpse of some of the ethnic richness that pervades this huge nation. The preamble to the article describes some of my own thoughts about the China of the time, and to my delight, is somewhat prescient vis-à-vis trends in China’s recent development.

Lijiang: Remote and Traditional (1994)
Written by Chris Harry

Long before travelling to the remote city of Lijiang, I had already learned to avoid forming idealistic expectations of the places I intended to visit. Although I had gradually learned to reconcile such expectations, I had always dreamed of visiting a place where I would be able to experience traditional Chinese culture firsthand. The ideal vision of China at once mysterious, ornate, and profound, however, did not mesh with a truly accurate description of the real China. The China of the nineties may be described as a high speed train surging ahead at breakneck speed, with a largely untested braking system, along an unfinished track. In relative terms, the casual observer may be tempted to look upon urban China as being hugely overcrowded, dirty, and in many respects drab and full of noise and pollution. In spite of this, the unique character of China’s cultures and peoples (56 ethnic groups), the intricately woven tapestry of its history, and the breathtaking scope, beauty, and diversity of its landscape still shine through if you scratch beneath this dull veneer. It is not a place for the casual observer. It is a country that demands intensive study, yet often defies explanation; a nation an outsider must strive to appreciate, and by having done so can never forget, nor completely avoid being shaped by.

At many points during my stay in China, and after much reflection and discussions with Chinese friends, I discovered a great dichotomy in the thinking of tourists and travellers from industrialised nations in China and the Chinese attitudes toward themselves and their past. While Europeans, Japanese, and North Americans often look to a mystical past to fill a spiritual void, Chinese are now enthralled with wealth, luxury, and modernity for the same reason. Westerners crave to rediscover a feeling of magic and philosophic contentment by projecting such yearnings upon ancient civilizations and exotic destinations. By the same token, Chinese people from all levels of society are bent on eliminating poverty, outdated traditions, feudal superstitions, and any other impediments to the transformation of their nation into an advanced, industrialized superpower. Essentially, westerners are striving, vicariously, to regain traditional culture through more ancient nations while the Chinese realise they must forgo many aspects of such traditional culture in order to achieve their dreams of enjoying the same sort of lifestyle we take for granted in the industrialized world.

In fact, westerners must begin to modify their feelings of superiority toward what we consider as quaint but backward nations such as China. While westerners bide their time waiting for the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party the Chinese are busy making money and modernizing. Whether it be fifty to seventy years or quite possibly even twenty to thirty years from now, the Chinese will catch up with us. At that time, neither their people nor their government will hold a humble and deferent attitude toward the great western powers, as the balance of power will have already been altered. At that time, westerners may also come to the realisation that their cultural and political pre-eminence has been maintained in large part by their supremacy in the economic and military spheres and not by any intrinsic superiority.

By the sheer fact of its huge population and size, China will always pose a potential challenge and therefore a threat to the global dominance of the United States, Western European powers, and Japan. Given the means, Chinese will opt for a position of strength rather than weakness.
The best example of this complete divergence in thinking may be seen in the attitudes of people from affluent nations and that of the Chinese toward that enigmatic and age-old land called Tibet. While we marvel at the distinctiveness of an exotic and remote culture that has been astonishingly well preserved, the Chinese see this cultural heritage as a hindrance to the development of education, medicine, technology, and the economy of Tibet.

Lijiang is a place embodying much of this diverse and fascinating cultural heritage; a place with a traditional air inhabited by an open-minded and cultured people. Comparatively little pollution, beautiful scenery, and a very relaxed pace of life, coupled with the well-preserved Ming dynasty architecture of the old core of the city make Lijiang a haven for those in search of the seemingly ineffable --- traditional Chinese culture. Apart from the inviting, and in some cases spectacular scenery surrounding this relatively small, isolated city, many customs and elements of traditional culture have also been preserved along with its Ming architecture, making the long and arduous trip here well worthwhile.
Within the walls of the ancient city, the older generation still follow traditional ways, which reflect their openness toward Han, Tibetan and other cultures and their adherence to Naxi ways. Lijiang is the centre of Naxi culture; a culture characterized by, among other things, its matriarchal roots.

Almost all of the Lijiang residents with the last names Mu and He are ethnically Naxi (pronounced Na-khee in Naxi language). The ancestors of Naxi people bearing the surname Mu were once aristocrats during the Tang dynasty while their counterparts with the surname of He were originally labourers.

Only the elderly women still wear traditional garb. The exact pattern and style of ethnic male dress has long been forgotten, yet it is known that it primarily consisted of several pieces of animal hide, in addition to a red sash tied around the waist.

Among the older generation, the women in this distinctive society undertake most of the heavy labour while the men are responsible for the preservation of Naxi cultural traditions such as music, painting, and calligraphy, and for assuming the role of educators. Because of this, the women tend to spend more time outside of the house, often gathering together in groups to sit and chat, or to take strolls together, while the men have more leisure time and tend to stick closer to home. Once a month, the women of each household within a circle of friends, take turns hosting a party where only women attend to enjoy food and dishes that are prepared by the given host. At such gatherings they will talk and play cards. The fact that men and women often spend much of their day segregated from members of the opposite sex is an indication of how traditional and unique their culture remains.

Xuan Ke, the leader of a local traditional music ensemble, gave a Naxi interpretation of the relationship between women and men in Naxi society by saying that while Han (Chinese) males regarded women as property, Naxi males looked upon women as their mothers. In all fairness, in my experience the Han majority in is as much or more respectful of women’s rights than any of China’s 56 ethnic groups. In some respects, however, the Naxi women take on leading roles in the community, but this status is also likely borne of the fact that they have more responsibilities and heavier burdens than their male counterparts, at least among the older more traditional members of society. As far as I could tell, Naxi men did not display any outward sign of physical aggression or disrespect toward women.

The seven disc-shaped patterns and the sun and moon embroidered on the back of traditional female dress expresses the idea that the Naxi women work diligently both day and night. Since the women in traditional families do most of the work in, and outside of the home, they are also in charge of the finances. Nowadays, however, in some families the women no longer have absolute control of the purse strings.

For the most part, elderly men stay at home and often watch over their grandchildren. As distinct from areas primarily populated by Han Chinese, it is common to see men carrying children on their backs. This seems to suggest that there is a less pronounced delineation of the kinds of distinctive male and female codes of conduct within Naxi society which are common in many cultures. Elderly women tend to separate themselves from the men and children more, although it is also possible to see some women carrying babies on their back.

One family, my wife and I spent an afternoon with while in Lijiang, embodied many aspects of the different traditional roles that men and women take on in Lijiang. This was the family of Zhou Lin, a famous Naxi painter and poet, who was also the former head of Lijiang’s traditional Dongjing music ensemble. His two sons, Zhou Fuding and his younger brother, are both accomplished painters. Their extended family includes the two brothers’ families, along with their mother.

The family lives within the “old city” inside a complex of walled residences much like traditional Beijing Hutongs (quadrangles) or the traditional long houses of Hanoi. All three styles of architecture are characterized by a monolithic structure that is divided into square walled units with an open courtyard in the middle. Each square unit represent one family home, each of which appears the same from the outside, as there are only high, straight walls usually with no windows or open sections facing the street. In effect, they are sealed off from the surrounding area. Lijiang’s walled compounds differ from Hutongs, or long houses, because they are two-storey, as opposed to one-storey structures. In addition, these structures are built in groups of seven-family units. In between these buildings are a series of narrow stone lanes (granite). Some houses have up to 20 family members living together under one roof. A small river has been diverted to run through these neighbourhoods to provide drinking water and irrigation for the inhabitants of this Ming style architectural city complex.

In fact, part of a canal near a stone bridge, in an open square located in the heart of the city, becomes the scene for an annual festival where the locals begin setting afloat handcrafted and hand painted paper boats with lit candles about one hour before sunset. The candles are believed to act as beacons for the ghosts of their ancestors who are allowed to return from a Chinese version of Hades to find their families and visit them for a few days each year. This is originally a Han Chinese festival that has been adopted and preserved by the Naxi but which is now rarely, if ever, practised by the Han themselves.

Another truly fascinating aspect of Naxi culture is their written language known in Chinese as Dongbawen or Shaman Script. The Dongba script, invented 1100 years ago by a Dongba or Naxi Shaman, is said to be a “living fossil” among languages because it is considered to be the only pictographic writing system still in use today. In fact, Chinese scholars describe it as being even more primitive, in terms of comparative linguistic development, than Chinese writing was at the time of the Shang dynasty (2200-1100 B.C.). This is due to the remoteness of the Naxi people’s homeland and to their strong sense of tradition. One hundred and fifty years after the script first came into use, it ceased to undergo any further development or changes to its written form.

A school for the promotion of preserving Dongba script has now been established and there are about 40 students presently enrolled. He Zhiwu, a Naxi scholar, devoted his life to collecting Dongba classics. There are about 20 000 still in existence, many of which are now in Japan, Germany, and the United States.

A Dongba we met at a local tourist attraction, which acts as both a museum and a showcase of Naxi culture, took out some scrolls he had written in Dongba script. Most of the writings in the Naxi script appear to be records of historical events and legends. One scroll that he translated into Chinese for us described a world in which man, heaven, and beasts communicated with one another. It told of how a crow flew up to heaven and flew back down to relate what it knew of heaven to a human. In a very general sense, this legend, at least, appears to resemble the animist mythology of Amerindian and Northeast Asian Shamanist cultures.
Only three Dongba or Naxi Shaman are still living today. Two are in their mid-seventies and the third is 85. They still perform ceremonies, but only for the rural community. One Dongba we met, aged 74, said he started studying for this role at age 12. Sadly though, the younger generation, just as in many parts of the world, does not seem to be too interested in carrying on the Dongba tradition.

There are nine traditional Naxi orchestras in the Lijiang area. The most famous band, led by Xuan Ke, has performed in Sichuan, Kunming, Beijing, as well as in various cities in Europe and America. In September of 1995, the same orchestra was invited to perform in ten countries across Europe. One of the stops on their tour included a concert at Cambridge University. This ensemble, along with others in Lijiang, has preserved a form of ancient music from the Tang dynasty. It is referred to as Dongjing music, a kind of ceremonial Daoist music dating back 900 to 1000 years. This local musical tradition represents the only surviving continuous link to Tang era Daoist musical arrangements. Such music was played during palace ceremonies. Many of the instruments they use or have collected are over one hundred to four hundred years old. The band members’ ages range from 16 to 86. The older musicians are training young musicians to continue the tradition. Some of the pieces they have preserved, including a composition written by the Tang Emperor, Xuanzong, had been presumed lost by musicologists. When Xuan Ke’s orchestra performed in Beijing, and that it became evident that many of the ancient musical pieces thought to be lost had, in fact, been preserved and passed down, tears ran down the faces of many old professors in the audience.

Naxi musical instruments include the Naxi-style erhu (Chinese two-stringed violin) as well as two types of instruments similar to the Jew’s harp and which are played in the same manner. One type is made out of wood, and has only one movable piece, while another type is made out of brass and has three movable parts, each having its own tone.

Xuan Ke, the leader of Lijiang’s famous orchestra, was without a doubt the most flamboyant and interesting individual I met in Lijiang, and I would guess he could easily be in the running for one of China’s most fascinating personages. Despite the fact that he had spent 19 years in jail for criticizing the government, he continued his tirades against the government and against what he considered to be Han chauvinism toward his people. He was also outspoken and unapologetic about the devastation brought about by the Japanese army decades earlier and made a point of educating every listener before he would allow the ensemble to play. The evening I decided to see a performance, the largest single group in this international backpacking rabble of music lovers happened to be Japanese tourists. The other members of the orchestra quietly waited for him to finish. Although they seemed impatient, their leader appeared to have a tight grip on power over the group. Interestingly enough, these lectures were delivered in fairly fluent and clear English, as he had attended a Christian missionary school as a child. He enjoyed listening to himself and he knew that he was, in fact, an interesting personality.

Near Lijiang is a place called Luguhu or Lugu Lake, where the Mosuo people live in a matrilineal society to this day. One branch of the Mosuo still live in a primitive mountaintop settlement in caves and use carved stones for their tools and furniture. It is believed that the Naxi are descended from the Mosuo.

Many foreign tourists and scholars are attracted by this unique and distant city. One American professor even spent 27 years of his life here.
In terms of keeping the peace, one local resident said that the police were not effective enough. Groups of military police carrying sticks while patrolling the streets are a common sight in Lijiang. Yesterday evening, a policeman knocked on our hotel room door. Two young girls were standing in the hallway while at least one other policeman was also present. I opened the door, asked what was wrong, and he immediately left without asking any questions. Some of the locals intimated that there is a certain degree of violence in Lijiang, such as drunken brawls, due to an underdeveloped economy and lower levels of education. In general, it seems that the drug trade affects most communities in Yunnan province.

I saw only one beggar over the span of my ten-day visit here and he was severely crippled. When I asked about this situation, I was told that there were a certain number of beggars, many of whom were farmers accustomed to begging, even though they already had enough to eat. Strangely enough, this kind of social phenomenon seemed to be fairly common in one form or another throughout China. I have heard of farmers on the outskirts of Beijing who encourage their kids to beg food from strangers. Perhaps in this way they can make a few extra yuan selling more of the produce they would have otherwise set aside for their family.
About 80 percent of Lijiang’s population are Naxi. The remaining 20 percent include 10 percent Han and 10 percent Yi, Bai, and Zang (Tibetan) minorities. The Naxi language is a branch of the Yi language under the Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Here, Han and other ethnic groups speak Naxi while Naxi also speak Mandarin Chinese.
The Naxi are a fairly culturally advanced people, who have been strongly influenced by other nationalities, but have not assimilated with Han culture, as have their neighbours the Bai minority. The Naxi have been absorbing Han culture since the Tang dynasty, and were also heavily influenced by the Bai people since the period of the Southern Zhao (748-902) and Dali Kingdoms (937-1253). At that time, Lijiang was a vassal state under the successive Bai kingdoms. In addition to these influences, Zang (Tibetan) religion and handicrafts have also helped to mould and shape their culture. This openness and cultural adaptability is due, in part, to the fact that the Naxi people have always been a kind of ‘little brother’ to their more powerful neighbours such as the Bai, Zang, Han, and Yi peoples. Their flexibility has allowed them to be on good terms with other minority groups, which by contrast, have not always been able to get along well with each other. During the Ming dynasty, the leader of the Naxi people was versed in Chinese, Tibetan, and Dongba script. Tibetan religious banners (in Chinese, known as Jingfan) and Tibetan calligraphy can be seen in Lamaist temples in the rural areas just outside of Lijiang. On our visit to the Baisha murals, located in the outlying areas of Lijiang, we came across an elderly calligrapher displaying his works in Chinese, Naxi, and Tibetan scripts.

One of the last remaining Dongba did not describe Naxi culture in exclusive terms, as is so common with many cultures. Rather, he pointed to the parallels between Naxi culture and other cultures. Certainly, the impression one gets from the Naxi in Lijiang is that they have nothing to hide and that they are willing to invite you into their homes and share their experiences with you.

Chinese-style Buddhism is the predominant religion among the Naxi, but they have also embraced Lamaist Buddhism, Daoism, and to a lesser extent, Islam and even Christianity.

Traditional carpentry and smithing products are sold widely. Copper and brass pots, as well as Tibetan silver bracelets and Tibetan cowbone necklaces are common. Wooden plates, cups, and bowls are very simple in design but are often carved, sanded, and polished quite beautifully by the local craftsmen.

In the larger context of Chinese history, Lijiang was often a haven for political refugees. Some of the Chinese descendants of imperial families and aristocrats from the Tang to the Ming dynasties still live in Lijiang today. One of the musicians in the traditional music ensemble is an eleventh generation descendant of Nanjing courtiers (the capital of China at the time) in the Ming dynasty. Another local resident told us that his family was directly descended from the Ming dynasty’s founding emperor Zhao Kuangyi. After the collapse of the Ming dynasty, the emperor’s relatives had to flee to the far-flung regions of China to avoid certain death.

All in and all, Lijiang is a place of diverse cultural and historical influences surrounded by some stunning natural scenery. No doubt many changes have taken place since my wife and I visited the remote city some fifteen years ago, and I have heard tell from others of the commercialisation brought about by tourism over the years. Still, if I were to hazard a guess, I would say that it remains a unique and rewarding experience for any travellers wishing to visit there.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

A Different Kind of Loneliness

A Different Kind of Loneliness
Originally written in Chinese by Chris Harry
(Translated into English by Chris Harry)

As he left his flat to walk out onto the clamorous street, he seemed to see tiny ripples forming in the sea of pedestrians flowing around him.

A pair of eyes from the surrounding crowd turned to fix their gaze upon him, and then another, and another... The harmony that had once filled the bustling, prosperous street now began to slowly dissipate, along with his blithesome mood.

In spite of a conscious effort to disregard them, and even as he quickened his pace as he walked past them, those countless eyeballs continued to follow him. Their glare gradually seeped through his back into his very consciousness, like so many beads of water collecting in his brain. Still he pretended not to notice; yet the looks being cast toward him were like keen barbs piercing holes through him, weighing down on him like great stones.

Now he could see that many in the crowd were engaged in furtive whisper. The whishing sound of their whispers swirled round his ears. Their hushed tones conjured up an image of scattered leaves rustling and flitting in an autumn wind.

Even he could not tell whether it was those collective stares, which had produced a chain reaction, or if it were he, this stranger, suddenly appearing on that busy street, which had led to the tension in the air. Then, very soon he discovered that his own disquiet was not shared. He could see smiles on the faces of many different figures in the crowd. And though he was unable to read what was behind those smiles, they merely heightened his unease.

As he walked, he thought to himself; no matter which corner of the frame he rested in, it seemed he could never blend into this painting. “Why would such a natural and ordinary thing as going for a walk become so painfully awkward?” It was a fact beyond comprehension for him, and one which he found rather hard to bear.

Nothing other than that cold blast of wind, which had just sheared through his consciousness, could accurately describe his feelings. That bleak, indifferent autumn wind of his imaginings had blown away every single leaf, sending them to drift and scatter apart. Only the desolation of this image in his mind’s eye could capture, in a real way, the feeling of loneliness and isolation he felt at that precise moment.

As he walked passed the intersection further up ahead and then across the street, a mother and her young son came into his field of vision. After seeing the two carefree figures strolling toward him, an exuberant, nimble little boy alongside his gentle and fair young mother, the world was suddenly suffused in warmer, gentler tones. He looked down toward the boy; the boy stared back up at him. At last, he could feel some sort of human bond. He believed that the little boy could understand him, even sympathise with him. Immediately his heavy mood lifted as a smile spread across his face.

The boy’s reaction was different, however. The clever-looking little sprite pulled excitedly on his mother’s arm as he shouted loudly and pointed straight at him, “Look! Look! Foreigner! Foreigner!”

He shook his head and bore on with a twinge of despair as he continued to walk alone, along which seemed to have become an even longer road ahead.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Beggars' Gang

The Beggars’Gang
Written by Lao Le
(Translated by Chris Harry)

I came to know of the beggars’ gang through Chinese martial arts novels and that they, among all of the various types of charlatans, drifters, and vagabonds, were the most powerful school to be reckoned with. And what's more, I am really beginning to suspect that such a "beggars’ gang" truly exists.
The first time I came across them was just after I started attending university. Walking along the street at Qianmen, a middle-aged woman with a young girl confronted me asking for money. The excuse was none other than to "give the little girl some money to buy some candy". Unable to disentangle myself from them, I dug out a little less than one yuan in change when, unexpectedly, another middle-aged woman accompanied by yet another young girl suddenly appeared from the left and she too started clamouring for me to "give the little girl some money for candy". Determined to be a decent fellow to the end, I once again reached into my pocket to take out some money. But, to my surprise and bewilderment, a third middle-aged woman and young girl twosome started coming at me from behind. Not to be tricked a third time, I made a break for it. Besides, I could see a fourth pair off in the distance, the same middle-aged/young girl combination bearing down on me.
From that time on, I set a rule for myself: only give money to buskers or street side artists. But once again, this principle I had set for myself very quickly faced a serious challenge. While walking through the underground tunnel next to the Zoo, I came across a blind man playing an erhu (Chinese two-stringed fiddle). The tune he was playing, "Moonlight on Erquan Lake", was just as bleak and solemnly melancholy as the pitiful mood I happened to be in at the time. Of course I should have given him some money, but I didn't have any change on me, and besides, I thought it a hassle. Instead, I seemingly unabashedly, yet all the while so unbearably shamefully, kept walking straight on past him.
I've seen some truly professional beggars in my time. There are four beggars on a pedestrian overpass just outside the front door of the building where I live. They always split up according to the same configuration: old man on the west stairs, old lady at the west exit, old man at the east exit, old lady on the east stairs. Everyday without fail, come rain or shine, they're always there. Prostrating themselves, they press their bodies close to the ground and kowtow. Although I've never given them any money, I nevertheless had become accustomed to counting out their number silently to myself, "one… two…three… four…". And if, perchance, one of them happened to be absent on any given day, I would always feel a queer sense of loss.
One day, to my dismay, I discovered that all four of them had actually failed to "show up for work". For the longest while I was in shock. Then it dawned on me - the Spring Festival holiday was fast approaching.
There are also some beggars who are just complete bores. Since the time I entered high school all the way up until just last week, every time I walked along a street nearby Zhongguancun (a district in Beijing), I would always meet up with an elderly lady, middle-aged man beggar duo of the type that would start out asking for directions. Despite personnel changes, their roles always remained consistent, and the line they used to beg for money was invariably the same, "Ah, excuse me, could you tell me…?" Not once have I ever paid them the slightest heed, and each time I walk past them I curse them silently, "Can't you try to be a little bit more professional? Don't you have any sense of originality?"
Even though I've already learned how to deal with the most persistent of beggars in the coolest possible manner, I still managed to run into another spot of bad luck. This time it was a tactfully dressed woman, around thirty years old, who stopped me in front of the China Grain Tower. From the outset she said, "Don't misunderstand me, I don't mean to bother you." Then she proceeded to tell me she was a Middle School Teacher from Gansu who had lost her purse and was unable to find her friend and could she borrow some money to make a long-distance call home. At the time my head was swelling and my brain was already fried senseless by the sweltering sun. So I gritted my teeth as I listened to her finish her story and then I asked her plainly and directly how much money she wanted. She simply said, "Just a few yuan." and then repeatedly chimed "Don't misunderstand me. Don't misunderstand me." Now by this time the sun had baked me so badly that I felt like a shrivelled piece of dried fish. Half dead, I struggled to ask her in a moaning voice: "Look! Just tell me how much you want!" "Three or four kuai (yuan)", came the reply. I handed her a five, lowered my head and left.
There is one old beggar I've come across who looks to me to be every inch a classic member of the beggars’ gang. Last winter, an old man jostled his way on to the streetcar. With swarthy skin and a coat made of newspapers and thick, multicoloured plastic bags, he looked like a stubborn old child. A kind of sweaty must emanated from his body which smelt like a mixture of leftover food and dust. Everyone quickly made way for him and he stood straight and unswervingly in front of where I was sitting. I dared not show the slightest reaction, as this old-timer was just far too bizarre. More importantly, I noticed that he had seven or eight cotton bags around his waist, of the kind so famous in Chinese martial arts novels. But I honestly did not expect to cross paths with him again this summer on the streetcar; still the same stubborn old child-like visage, still the same odour, and once again, he sat down in the seat in front of me. An insidious smile traversed his face as he continually turned his head back and forth. And right then and there, I suddenly had this sense of being a wandering vagabond and of drifting aimlessly from place to place.

(This short story was originally published in the monthly Chinese literary periodical "Duzhe")

Friday, 15 May 2009

Evidence of Brain Surgery in China Dating back 5 000 years (2001)

Recent Archaeological Find: Evidence of Brain Surgery Dating back 5 000 years (excerpts)

Living in the period of Dawenkou culture, China's ancient ancestors had successfully carried out cranial surgery over 5 000 years ago. Shandong Province officials exhibited a skull as evidence and made public this astonishing discovery. The skull was discovered in 1995 by the Shandong Archaelogical Institute while undertaking excavation of a gravesite located at the Fujia Dawenkou cultural relics site in Guangrao County. According to an analyis of Shandong's prehistoric archaeological and genealogical records , in addition to data gathered through Carbon-14 dating, the skull belonged to a man in the formative years of life who lived during the middle period of the Dawenkou cultural era. The Qilu Evening Post reported that Shandong's Provincial Historical and Archealogical Institute invited archaeological experts to authenticate and classify human bone samples from the Fujia archaeoligical site in March of this year. At that time, experts discovered a circular depression measuring 31 mm by 25 mm near the back of the right parietal bone. They believe that the patient had probably lived for a long period of time after the craniotomy.

Wang Liling (China Newsnet 2001-06-27) Translated by Chris Harry

Cockroach in Food - Restaurant Owner Covers Tracks by Destroying Evidence (2001)

Cockroach in Food - Restaurant Owner Covers Tracks by Destroying Evidence

     Guangxi, Liuzhou - After a bug is found in a customer's order, a fast-food restaurant owner makes an artful show of apologizing in order to remove the ‘evidence’.
     On October 29th, Miss Zhang went to the fast-food restaurant she usually goes to for lunch next to the computer company where she works. She and three co-workers ordered two orders of fast food and sat down to eat. To their shock, they discovered a cockroach in one of the dishes after only a few bites into their meal. Naturally, upon seeing the dead, thumb-sized arthropod in one of the dishes, all four of them felt more than a tad nauseous.
     When they demanded an explanation from the proprietress, she sceptically asked one of the staff to go and have a look. After the worker confirmed that there was in fact a bug, and relayed this to her, she reluctantly came over to their table. Somewhat nonplussed after eyeballing the large roach she started to make a phone call and then put the phone back down.
     Then came an inspiration. The owner quickly marched back over to their table, picked up the roach-infested dish and then asked the customers if they could still see a bug in the food as she removed the offending item, threw it on the ground, and stamped on it with a vengeance.
     By the time Miss Zhang and her colleagues had realized what had happened, “exhibit a” had been mashed to a pulp and the owner offered not to charge them anything for their “lunch”.
     Dissatisfied with the handling of the affair, the four customers immediately dialled "12315" to make a complaint. After having enquired about their complaint, the person receiving the call confirmed, in no uncertain terms, that their complaint could not be processed since the evidence had already been destroyed.

Chen Jie--(Nanguo Morning Post, 2001-11-02)

Translated and edited by D. Christopher Harry

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Chinese Sheep Addicted to Tobacco (2001)

Some Sheep in Xi'an just Crave a Good Butt

In some areas of the township of Duqu, in Xi'an's Chang'an County, the number of what local farmers refer to as sheep "addicts" has experienced a dramatic jump. Discarded cigarette butts, which mix in with meadow grass, are ingested by sheep, and over time, some of the sheep develop an appetite for tobacco. As a result, the local townspeople have begun to appeal for an emphasis on the need for truly 'green' meadows.
According to an article in the Xi'an Evening News, reporter Xiao Haibo witnessed the following odd phenomenon at a pasture on the outskirts of Duqu township's Yangwan village: several sheep fighting over cigarette butts tossed by tourists out of passing buses. In Zhupo, another nearby village, one ewe belonging to an elderly man named Zhang has apparently sunk even deeper into the pit of addiction. Every time old Zhang lights up, she presses near him in anticipation of the 'sweet grass'. Although local shepherds try to prevent their flocks from eating the cigarette butts, they have been vexed by the increase in the number of butts littering the rural landscape over the last few years, especially along roadsides where the butt scourge is even more pervasive. A farmer living next to a river in the village said that the paper wrappings of butts come off when it rains, leaving threads of tobacco to float away in the accumulated puddles of water with the result that the sheep quite likely end up eating tobacco as they forage for grass. While the verdict is still out on what kind of threat this may pose to the sheep, it serves as a reminder that open fields and meadows also need to be managed in an environmentally-sound manner.

(Source: Dayang Net)

Translated by D. Christopher Harry

Polluters Prefer Paying Fines to Cleaning up their Act (2000)

Polluters Prefer Paying Fines to Cleaning up Their Act

Despite being reported on for acts of illegal polluting and receiving fines from China's Ministry of Environmental Protection, some enterprises still display wanton disregard, preferring to pay fines instead of reducing harmful emissions. In the city of Fuyang, in Zhejiang province, the policy of monetary incentives for snitching on polluters becomes a vicious circle.
Last June, Fuyang was the first city in China to launch a campaign of awarding monetary incentives to individuals reporting incidents of illegal polluting and its anti-polluting hotline has been busy ever since. In the first half of this year, Fuyang's Municipal environmental protection hotline centre received 427 reports, investigated and handed out fines in 210 of those cases, and distributed ¥170,000 RMB (approx. $31,482 Cdn. funds) in reward money.
Oddly enough, these efforts still seem to have had no effect in terms of curtailing the problem and enterprises have repeatedly increased the amount of pollutants they discharge. To date, the city has 316 paper mills, a third of which are small enterprises. Many of them have already been reported on and subsequently fined as many as seven or eight times.
So why is the system of rewards for reporting polluters failing to prevent illegal polluting activity? According to reliable sources, a paper mill with a daily discharge of 1 000 tonnes of water would have to pay ¥50 RMB (Cdn.$ 9.26) per tonne to eliminate pollutants. This would increase such a company's overhead by 50,000 RMB (Cdn. $ 9,259) per day while fines for illegal polluting in Fuyang range from ¥5,000 to ¥30,000 RMB (Cdn $925.90-$5,555.55). Thus, the cost of implementing pollution controls for these enterprises is much higher than the cost of fines for the illegal dumping of toxins. As a result, many would rather pay fines than clean up their act.

Zhang Chunxia (Yangcheng Evening News 2000-07-17) Trans. Chris Harry

Police in Hong Kong Drink Toilet Water (2001)

Worker connects wrong pipe---Spells bad luck for police officers at Hong Kong police station who end up drinking toilet water (Trans. by Chris Harry)

Hong Kong's Tuen Mun Tsing San police station is currently undergoing renovations. Last month, one of the workers mistakenly attached a pipe for drinking water to a saltwater pipe used for flushing toilets. As a result, hundreds of police officers ate dishes prepared with "toilet water" at the station's cafeteria for as long as two weeks.
Officers made complaints to the administration, saying that the dishes were too salty, but no one paid them any heed. After the source of the problem was discovered, the head of the cafeteria insisted, "Saltwater never killed anyone." During this same period, many police officers suffered from diarrhea and gastroenteritis.

(Nanfang Daily 2001-07-18)

Chinese Electro-Woman (2001)

Henan's "Electro-woman" --- Able to withstand high-voltage without a second thought
(Trans. Chris Harry)

On the evening of July 15th, a woman wearing a red qipao (traditional Chinese dress) performed an astounding human feat for spectators in the city of Zhengzhou's Lucheng square -- turning on a light bulb by conducting electricity through her body. According to the M.C. at the event, the woman whose name is Yao Yanjing, set a new Guiness world record by withstanding 550 volts of electricity.
Yesterday afternoon, this reporter interviewed her at Zhengzhou's Xinwei Aircraft Equipment Company. "I first discovered I was unafraid of electricity ten years ago", Ms. Yao laughingly said. Once while visiting at a friend's house, a light bulb suddenly burnt out. While replacing the old bulb with a new one, she accidentally touched the metal carrying electricity to the light yet had not the slightest sensation. On May 18th, 1998, she safely overcame the challenge of withstanding 550 volts of electricity, and in the process set a new Guiness world record for the highest voltage withstood as conducted through a finger.

Hu Bingjun/ Wang Jianli (Yangcheng Evening News 2001-07-17)

Glowing Goldfish (2001)

"The Inspiration for glowing goldfish " (summary) Trans. Chris Harry

Yesterday's "Morning News" published an article entitled "The challenge of viewing goldfish by night". Pondering the question of whether goldfish could be made to flicker and glow like fireflies in the dark of night belongs to the realm of truly inspired and original thought. Scientists acknowledge that others have come up with this idea, but the odds of accomplishing this were so extremely remote that no one had realized this goal in the past. Then, a group of bold thinking and determined middle school students applied their initiative by utilizing contemporary genetic engineering techniques and finally met with success. Using firefly genes, eight students from the Yangpu Middle School injected them into fertilized goldfish eggs, thereby creating the world's first luminescent goldfish. (Xinwen Chenbao) 2001-07-05

Tibetan Adventure in West Sichuan (1994)

Like Lake Louise Overrun by Tibetans
Chris Harry

In Southwestern China's Sichuan province there is an exciting and beautiful place inhabited by the Tibetan minority called Jiuzhaigou or “Nine Village Gully” in Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Located in Northwestern Sichuan, this region is almost unknown (in 1993) to western tourists, but it is famous throughout China for its exceptional scenery.
Aba Prefecture is accessed by long-distance buses which depart from the provincial capital, Chengdu and travel along muddy, and often treacherous mountain roads. Contiguous to what the Chinese call Xizang or what we know as Tibet, the prefecture represents the part of the eastern fringe of the traditional land inhabited by the Zang or Tibetan people who occupy approximately one-quarter of China's territory, including most of Tibet and parts of Qinghai, Sichuan, Ningxia, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces, despite representing only about one-third of a percent of China's population.
The local landscape of this region varies from sweeping grasslands to coniferous and mixed deciduous forests and mountains. The forests in Aba prefecture are dotted with sapphire blue ponds and lakes and a seemingly boundless profusion of pristine creeks, rivers, and waterfalls. Fantastic karst formations make the scenery otherworldly while trees grow right in the middle of waterfalls and rivers and brilliant lime green spruce trees shoot up from the banks of rushing water that is so transparent it is almost invisible in places.
At a distance, the striking allure of the aquamarine-tinted water is accentuated by naturally formed rock structures which divide rivers and streams into small pools so smooth and round that at first they appear entirely man-made, and it is as if this bizarre landscape is just some elaborate hoax. In Huang Long (Yellow Dragon) national park, however, there is no artifice, just stunningly beautiful forests of pine, spruce, and birch with a labyrinthine network of crisscrossing mountain streams, creeks, and ponds running through them.
Something else that runs, or at least plods through these forests is the Giant Panda, also known as Xiongmao, literally "Bear Cat" in Chinese. A symbol of the World Wildlife Federation, it is considered so precious in China that the government has instituted the death penalty for any poachers caught killing a Panda. Should this national treasure ever become extinct, the Chinese government would consider it a great shame to have to live down in the international community. Not surprisingly, this sense of face, so ingrained in Chinese culture, is also something, which, in great measure, informs central government policy toward Tibetans throughout China.
Spending an afternoon in Huang Long (Yellow Dragon) national park was a breather from the crowded, muggy streets of Chongqing, a city of over 30 million souls where I had been living known as one of the "three ovens of the Yangzi river" with temperatures that hover around forty degrees Celsius from July to September.
A common game for foreigners travelling in China to play, especially when travelling by rail, is to try to find a section of scenery without any people in it. This is usually almost impossible to do further east in China, but, in Aba prefecture, there were many stretches of land without so much as a hint of humanity. Amazing, I thought, this really is a bit like the Canada that exists beyond Toronto and the shores of crowded Lake Ontario.
Along our ten-day journey, my wife and I visited Lama temples, walked through beautiful forests, rode horseback on the grasslands, and had a chance to learn much about the proud yet rugged Tibetan nomads and farmers of this region. All in all, the trip was quite an eye-opener and it definitely surpassed my expectations.
To be honest, my motive for coming to this adventurous tourist spot was not to get up-close to seemingly ‘magically enchanting’ Tibetans in China, even though this is considered the chic thing to do for many western backpackers in China. At the time, I had been living in China for over a year as an English teacher and was already really starting to miss my 'home and native land'. So what, you may ask, does a longing for Canada have to do with visiting a Tibetan Prefecture in the heart of the Middle Kingdom? Well, many photos I had seen of the natural scenery in Jiuzhaigou looked to me to be almost indistinguishable from the coniferous forests, snow-capped mountains, and clear blue lakes of Western Canada. After travelling there and seeing this landscape myself, I took several photographs which could easily been of Banff, Alberta. If someone asked me to describe the place I said it was just like Lake Louise overrun by Tibetans.
Of course, having studied Chinese history in university, this trip also made me consider the common western view of the supposed annexation of Tibet by Communist forces in 1959. In fact, I often balked at some of the western tourists I met in China who seemed to dislike the Chinese or Han majority of the population of China and only seemed interested in travelling to backward and poor minority areas. In university, I had studied about the long and glorious five-thousand-year history of the Han Chinese, who since 1949, have tried to bring modernisation, science, and development to all of China's 56 ethnic groups. I had also felt that most theocratic societies were backward, and I knew that the supposed "invading communists" had smashed an oppressive slave society which was perpetuated by the Dalai Lama and other members of a religious oligarchy wherein ninety percent of the population was born into slavery. I also knew that Tibetans and Chinese have existed together, had alliances, intermarried, and fought wars against each other for thousands of years, along with many other peoples, in one loosely-joined political entity called China.
After journeying to Aba Prefecture, however, I also truly began to appreciate that the long history of Tibet, its uncommon landscape, and its rich and unique culture had all contributed to a very distinctive identity and an unquestioning faith in the traditional and religious beliefs forged among the people of this region.
Jiuzhaigou in Aba prefecture is a world apart from the Chinese areas in Sichuan. During my travels there, I felt as though I was experiencing a completely different culture, and that the people of this region were slow to adopt Chinese or modern ways. While trying not to pass judgement, it seemed that the people here put a greater emphasis on spirituality than on personal hygiene and gentility. Many adults and children often bore a fierce countenance and you got the feeling that many of them were sizing you up, and, at least on our trip, that they always seemed to be testing your nerve. It quickly became apparent that the twenty or so Chinese and myself on our tour had more in common than these domestic tourists had with their local fellow countryman.
The locals' isolation, and lack of exposure to the outside world, was also made clear to me when they kept asking if I was a foreigner, indicating that they weren't really sure. It also seemed perfectly mundane to them to be speaking Chinese to a foreigner, even if they knew I was one. Anyway, it wasn't their first language either. Some of the locals even referred to my wife, who was born in the very same province, as “China girl”.
Naturally, as is so often the case in China, once you think know a little about the country, something entirely unexpected happens straight of the blue which summarily blasts a gaping hole in the clever theory you’ve just developed about a particular aspect of this marvellously surprising land. In this case, it was a local Tibetan woman in her fifties who suddenly appeared running down out of the tall grass toward us from the hillside to sell postcards. Amazingly, even though she presumably had little or no education, she began belting out her slogans in crystal clear, standard Mandarin with an accent more standard than the majority of the ethnic Chinese population living in the same province or the same general region for that matter!
The Tibetans here, like all of the other non-Chinese peoples I met in China, often react to westerners in a noticeably different manner than the Han Chinese with their seemingly insatiable curiosity and wide-ranging worldviews.
Many of the local entrepreneurs plying the tourist routes here often adopted strong-arm sales tactics and jacked up prices even after bargaining over a price. All of the people here seemed tough as nails and most of them were closer in size and height to the average westerner than many ethnic Chinese, except that almost none of them were overweight and tended to be lean and muscular. The Tibetan herdsmen have a rugged, handsome quality as they ride on their steeds wearing clothing and hats, not unlike the gauchos of the Americas. One major difference is that they carry foot-long knives at their waist instead of guns.
In spite of their size, demeanour, and weaponry, however, I learned from experience that standing your ground was the best way to avoid getting totally ripped off. In this remote area, there was no question of the fact that they were in charge and the tourists coming from other parts of the country were keen to avoid any sort of conflict with them.
On several occasions, disputes arose between locals and tourists when bargaining for souvenirs or the fee for horseback rides. At one stop, a group of herdsmen tried to force us to ride on horseback, but since my wife and I were keen to go for a gallop on the plains we didn't have to be coerced. One rider said it would cost us four yuan (about 57 cents Canadian) for the two of us to take a horse for a ride. After we finished, the horse owner changed the price to ten yuan, so we refused to pay him extra as a matter of principle. As we sat on the back of the horse, a crowd of riders encircled us and began conferring with one another in Tibetan, many of them unnervingly large and adorned with their Dalai Lama badges, ostensibly banned in China. As I prepared to dismount, one of the riders grabbed hold of my leg to try and stop me. Here I was stuck in a conflict between my feisty yet diminutive Sichuanese wife and several large and unhappy Tibetans. Clearly without thinking, I brushed his arm aside and jumped down. After arguing with us for a few minutes he simply said he didn't want our lousy four yuan. It was soon apparent our welcome was wearing thin, so we were happy to get back on the bus and move on. Once the bus started moving again, several young men came running after us laughing, shouting, making faces and obscene hand gestures at my wife and I. At one point, several young boys jumped up and stood on the back of the bus for several seconds before we got back on the dusty trail.
Traditionally, the local diet is extremely plain and primarily consists of mutton or yak, an alcoholic beverage made from barley, butter tea made from goat's milk, and barley. One day I tried some local fare at a roadside tent restaurant offering bowls of stew, butter tea, and other meat dishes made from various goat and yak innards. I thought that I should be open-minded about every aspect of their culture and taste some of these dishes even though the butter tea I had a few days earlier should have given me an inkling of what to expect. This is one case where I wished I had trusted my 'gut instincts'. On the other hand, I ate some tasty roasted yak roast in a place called Songpan and I practically lived on dried yak jerky, a savoury snack that you can eat just like chips.
Incidentally, while I was in another restaurant in Songpan, a young Tibetan boy came right over and swiped my bottle of beer as soon as I got up from the table to head for the washroom. He confidently and brazenly took it straight to a very large and tough looking Tibetan fellow sitting together with two friends just a few tables away. That was one incidence in which I thought better of pushing my luck by trying to retrieve it.
In Jiuzhaigou, each large family unit had its own small mansion made of good quality pine and decorated with brightly coloured motifs and traditional Chinese style curved-tile roofing. In another area, beyond the grasslands and back into the hilly forest land, we came across a third type of Tibetan dwelling which was larger than the pine houses further east toward Chengdu. They were made of brick and stone with large painted motifs and many small, intricately designed windows, similar in shape to those on the façade of the Potala palace in Lhasa.
On the grasslands, you can see nomadic Tibetan herdsmen tending their grazing yak and sheep herds and living in yurts. They, like most Tibetans, are devout followers of Tibetan or Lamaist Buddhism, and we came across Lamaist temples in every village we visited. We also passed by many sacred sites, usually along hillsides, which were adorned with dozens or hundreds of long, tapering flags, called ‘jingfan’ or ‘sutra streamer’ in Chinese. These flags are actually cloth scrolls used to communicate written requests for divine assistance from Lamas and deities. The locals believe, that when the wind blows these rows of triangular-shaped banners once, it is a sign that the Dalai Lama has come to visit them in spirit. Their belief is so strong that, even to this day, families will often go to the temple to pray rather than send family members who fall ill to the hospital. At the Lama temples, rows of brass prayer wheels covered in Tibetan script were constantly being turned by devotees while they chanted sutras as a means of accumulating Karma or brownie-points for the next life.
Another, more macabre custom among Tibetans and Mongolian Lamaists, is the unique funerary custom known in Chinese as "Tian Zang" or "Heavenly burial". One person in every village is employed to chop up the bodies of the deceased into small pieces and to crack open the bones to expose the marrow atop a designated hill. Then, incense is used to inform carrion-eating hawks and vultures to come and devour the flesh. Lamaists believe that if a person's body is entirely consumed, this indicates that he/she was a good person and thus will rise to heaven. If their flesh is not entirely devoured, however, then it indicates the person is evil and will sink to hell. Our Tibetan guide told us that the birds seem to find human female flesh more palatable.
We were also told that, despite their ragged appearance, the people in this area did have substantial savings. As their lifestyle is simple and self-sufficient, their living expenses are almost nil. Thus, they are able to save almost all of the money they make from tourism. In reverence to the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama, held up as demi-god and god respectively, it seems that each of the local families give the equivalent of about one thousand or more U.S dollars in Chinese currency to Lamaist leaders in Lhasa. They willingly do this, despite living in one of the poorest regions of a developing country.
While the Dalai Lama is making a big splash as an international jetsetter, his fellow Tibetans, who are living a spartan lifestyle in China's outback, would literally pay in gold just to kiss his feet. In fact, many devout lamaists, who make lengthy soujourns to Lhasa to present offerings to the Lamas, also travel such long distances to touch the Panchen Lama (the Dalai's traditional arch-rival) in hopes of blessing, good fortune, or miracles. Legend has it that Panchen Erdani's hand had once became swollen because of the throngs of pilgrims touching and kissing it.
Only the brightest boy from each family is chosen to enter the priesthood and become educated there. After seventeen years in the temple he may continue as a Lama or rejoin society at large. All of the Lamas we met on our travels were much cleaner, and appeared to be more graceful and cultured than the rest of the populace. On one occasion, however, two or three young monks began shouting out excitedly upon seeing my wife. One young monk exclaimed that if she married him he had more than enough savings to take care of her. Whether or not this was just a cheeky joke, and in spite of the fact that I found it to be less amusing than the rest of our tour group, it certainly did not match my stereotype of a solemn monk who had taken a vow of celibacy.
Although this place was far from being a paradise, I wouldn't have changed anything about our sojourn. Even the simple act of avoiding bumping my head on the ceiling of the bus as we bobbed up and down two or three feet in the air in tandem with the kinks in the trail added to the authenticity of the journey. Not to mention the fact that our bus narrowly brushed past oncoming vehicles and barely avoided hurtling down gaping precipices along twists and turns of the winding mountain roads. Along the way, we often had to stop to allow flocks of sheep to pass by. We also had to make washroom stops in the middle of nowhere along the vast plains, making rolls of toilet paper essential carry-on gear. Everyone did his or her best to find the odd shrub or metre-high pine for privacy. There was nary a dull moment on this trip!
One night in Jiuzhaigou we had goat meat which was prepared by roasting the entire animal on a spit over an open fire. The offering marked a special event, a kind of party held for honoured guests or special occasions where everyone gathered around the fire and sat on log benches while we each took turns singing and dancing. All of the members of our tour group got right into the thick of things and started belting out well-rehearsed Chinese folk songs and pop tunes. Our Tibetan hosts also seemed eager to unwind and they performed Tibetan dances and sang Tibetan folk songs for us.
At one point during the trip, while the bus bumped and ambled along the road, I noticed several hawks circling low in the sky over us and I pondered the fate of a fellow soul.