Hanging Devils

I love reading crime fiction.  Since my teenage years I’ve worked my way through many of the great and lesser writers in the genre, from Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain, and John D Macdonald all the way up to Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Stieg Larsson and the rest of the Scandi-crime brigade; there are crime writers of every nationality, and they are just the tip of the crime writers iceberg.  I want to read them all…but if I did, there would be no time to read anything else…sigh..

So it is no surprise that when I discovered a new Chinese crime thriller by an author I’d not discovered previously I pounced on it at once.   It clicked with me because it was crime fiction which I love, and because it was set in China and written by a Chinese author – talk about killing two birds with one stone!

Hanging Devils is the first in a series of four novels by He Jiahong (wonderfully translated by Duncan Hewitt) and jolly good it is too.
Back in the 1990s a Chinese lawyer – Hong Jun, who Hanging Devils coverstudied and practiced law in Chicago, returns to his homeland as he wants to help build the rule of law in modern China.
He sets up a legal practice in Beijing, and hires an assistant – the feisty Miss Song.
Almost his first client is one of the new Beijing elite, a noveau riche man who wants Hong Jun to investigate and overturn his brother’s conviction for murder. The brother has been incarcerated in jail for years, for a murder his successful sibling says he did not commit.
With some reluctance, Hong Jun takes the case, and travels to the north east of China to try and discover what really happened. It is a convoluted plot but holds the reader’s interest and attention until the final resolution.

What is particularly of interest from the point of view of western readers, is learning some aspects of how China ‘works’, how it has changed from the Mao era, and how it continues to change in the way it treats its citizens.
Given that the author – He Jiahong – is himself an American-trained lawyer who is now a law professor at one of Beijing’s most prestigious universities, this is not surprising.

He Jiahong The criminal justice system in China is different from that in the UK or in the USA, and is therefore much misunderstood in the west. Through He Jiahong’s writing we get a really fascinating picture of how the legal system works here, and of the cross currents of power and influence in China today.
I look forward to He Jiahong’s  other books being translated into English, as Hanging Devils was a really good read.

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Chinese proverb of the week: 6

Tóng bìng xiāng lián

同 病 相怜

Patients with similar conditions empathise with each other

Misery loves company

I think this is the equivalent of the English saying:  ‘Misery loves company’.                      This is a proverb that has two possible interpretations.

The first is that people tend to gravitate towards those who are in similar circumstances to themselves, so miserable people are drawn to other miserable people.  The second way of looking at the saying is that ‘misery’ is a contagious condition and infects others so that they become miserable too.

Psychologists could have a field day with this proverb, though on first hearing it it seems simple, it is quite complex.

What do you think?

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Yangzhou chao fan – everybody loves eating it.

When we were staying in Yangzhou last week I knew there was one dish we HAD to eat, and that was Yangzhou chao fan  扬州炒饭 which translates as Yangzhou fried rice.  This is the dish that Yangzhou has given to the world, and there can hardly be a Chinese restaurant anywhere that doesn’t have some version of this on offer  (Yangzhou is sometimes transliterated as Yang Chow or Yeungchow on western menus). In the UK it is usually called ‘Special fried rice’ and has slivers of cooked chicken in it which is not strictly authentic.  It has become THE ubiquitous Chinese dish, and everyone seems to like it.

Yangzhou chao fan 2


It seems strange to think that once upon a time fried rice didn’t exist, but way back in the late 18th Century there was a chap called Yi Bingshou who was a magistrate inYangzhou, and his cook created this dish specially for him.  When the Emperor Qian Long visited Yangzhou and was served this he liked it so much that he instructed his chefs in Beijing to add it to their repertoire of Imperial Cuisine, and from there it went global so to speak.

Emperor Qian Long

Emperor Qian Long

Yi Bingshou 2

Yi Bingshou 1754 – 1815AD

Yangzhou chao fan is served in homes, in restaurants, and at banquets.  It is usually served towards the end of the meal, after the soup but before the dessert or fruit. It is not intended to soak up the sauces from other dishes (though you can eat it like that), but is a dish that can stand alone and be eaten in its own right.

It is NOT a repository for all the left-over bits and bobs you can find in your fridge!

It is very easy to make, but I rarely make it here as living in Beijing means I can have it in any one of a thousand or more restaurants – from 5 star establishments to little hole-in-the wall places.

Proper Yangzhou chao fan always consists of the following basic ingredients: cold cooked rice*, eggs, spring onions, small pieces of BBQ pork, ham or Chinese sausage; as well as peas, and small cooked shrimps.  Nowadays many restaurants used finely diced Spam in their fried rice instead of pork or sausage. The Chinese love Spam (though not as much as the Hawaiians do) and there are several varieties on sale here: black pepper, garlic, hot & spicy, and plain.SPAM-Hot-SpicyI spoke to several Yangzhou locals and one cook, to try to get a definitive recipe, but, alas, it was not to be.  Within families, restaurants etc there are minor variations, the recipe is infinitely flexible and everyone prefers the version they have grown up with. However they are all more or less the same. As you can see from two of my photos Yangzhou chao fan 3sometimes finely chopped mushrooms are included, or little pieces of carrot to add colour. In Buddhist restaurants they remove the meat and seafood replacing them with sweet corn kernel, and slivers of bamboo shoot.

It is an ideal recipe for anyone on a gluten-free diet.

Eggs are very important in this dish and there are several schools of thought about how many eggs should be used, and how they should be added. Some say that the ratio of rice to eggs should be 5:1 (5 bowls rice to one egg) others say that is too few eggs, and the ratio should be 2:1

One of the things you have to decide before you begin making the dish is whether you want the eggs to be ‘silver covered gold’, this method means that you cook the eggs first, break them up and add them to the fried rice at the end. The second method, ‘gold covered Yangzhou fried ricesilver‘, means that you add the beaten egg to the hot rice and other ingredients when they are cooking in the wok and almost ready to serve, mixing well and breaking up the egg with chopsticks as the heat of the rice cooks the eggs.                                                                Though I have cooked it both ways, I prefer the ‘silver covered gold ‘ method as I think it gives a drier, lighter final dish.


So here is MY version of this famous dish


Serves 4  as part of a meal with other dishes.

6 cups cold cooked rice*                                                                                                                          3 eggs, lightly beaten                                                                                                                           ½ cup BBQ pork, Chinese sausage (Kabanos would do as a replacement) or ham/Spam – finely diced                                                                                                                                                 ½ cup tender green peas (petit pois)                                                                                                 ½  cup  raw shrimps or prawns (cut prawns in half)                                                                      3 Tablespoons  vegetable oil (NOT olive oil)                                                                                     1 Tablespoon  light soy sauce                                                                                                            3-4 spring onions (scallions), finely sliced, including the green parts

Heat a wok and when hot swirl a splash of the oil round in it.  Pour in the beaten eggs and quickly stir them around with a  chopstick so that they scramble. When cooked (it happens fast) tip them out of the wok into a bowl and break up into smaller pieces.

Add the remaining oil to the hot wok, and when very hot, drop in the meat, peas and shrimps. Fry for a minute or so, stirring with a spatula until all shrimps are cooked through. Tip in the rice and mix everything together, making sure the rice is really well heated. Stir in the soy sauce, the cooked egg and the spring onions.

Turn out on to a dish and serve immediately.


*Mini Health Warning: Cooked rice MUST be cooled quickly, kept cool, and then used within 24 hours – it should not be left hanging around at room temperature or you can get food poisoning, even if you re-heat it.





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Chinese proverb of the week – 5

lǎo pó shì bié rén de liàng


Your neighbour’s wife looks prettier than your own.

Chinese painting - two women

Or, as we would say ‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’.

I know some people who are always comparing their lot in life unfavourably with that of others, and it is such a pointless exercise and extremely dispiriting to boot.

A London friend always amuses me when we eat at a restaurant together.  Everyone peruses the menu, ums and ahs about what to order and then makes a decision. When the food arrives, this particular friend looks round at what everyone else has on their plates and a barely disguised look of irritation crosses his face as he decides our choices look better than his…he then offers to swap plates with anyone who “doesn’t like what they’ve ordered” when the truth is that the only one who is discontent is himself, and usually his food is delicious anyway.

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The flowers that bloom in Yangzhou – tra la!

This past weekend has been the Qingming festival and is a national public holiday, so the DH and I, together with another couple, decided to make the most of the time and travelled south from Beijing to visit the ancient city of Yangzhou which is in Jiangsu province.  yangzhou-location-map

Yangzhou was considered to  be one of the most civilized and artistically sophisticated cities in old China, famed for its poets, writers, calligraphers, and artists.  Situated at the confluence of the mighty Yangzi River and the Grand Canal (which runs some 2000 miles from Shanghai to Beijing) it has many waterways and minor canals and is famed for its beauty in the spring.

Bridge and blossom

And the fame is well deserved.

I have never seen so many different types of plant all in bloom at the same time.

Trees in bloom Roads and waterways are lined with plum, peach, apple, almond and cherry trees all weighed down with blossom.

Pink petuniasFlower beds filled with pansies, violas, daisies and tulips. Blooming marvellous Not to mention gardens awash with Forsythia, Winter Jasmine, Camellias, Azaleas, herbaceous Paeonies and umpteen Magnolia trees – all covered with flowers blooming as though their lives depended on it.  It was an orgy of floral beauty.

We stayed in the Changle Hotel in the old pedestrianised center of the city.

Changle Hotel, main entrance

Changle Hotel, main entrance

If you ever visit Yangzhou (and you certainly should if you are in China), I recommend the hotel unreservedly.

Changle Hotel, lobby courtyard

Changle Hotel, lobby courtyard

A series of linked Qing dynasty houses and courtyards have been exquisitely modernised to make a really delightful place to stay. It is like going back in time and yet one has all the modern amenities we westerners like so much.

Changle Hotel - courtyard

Changle Hotel inner courtyard

The place was a haven of peace and tranquility, which was just as well – because being a three day public holiday it seemed as if half the population of China had decended on the city.Crowds in the streetsOne of the major streets outside the hotel was wall-to-wall humanity from 9:00am until mid-evening each day.

Despite the hoards of Chinese tourists, we managed to get around and visit several of the historic sights: The Slender West Lake, where we took a boat trip and passed under the famous Five Pagoda Bridge

Slender West Lake Five Pagoda Bridge

Slender West Lake
Five Pagoda Bridge

and climbed up to the Daming Si Pagoda.

Daming Si Pagoda

Daming Si Pagoda

The Puhading Mu Yuan – which is an ancient Muslim cemetery and mosque on the banks of the Grand Canal was fascinating – more about this in another blog post.

Puhadding Mu Yuan

Puhading Mu Yuan

And by getting up early to beat the crowds we were rewarded with a wonderful half hour alone in the famous Ge Yuan (right opposite our hotel) which is an enormous and beautifully laid out classical Chinese garden, originally belonging to the Ge family who made their fortune as salt-merchants on the canal hundreds of years ago.

There was not enough time to visit all the places I would have liked, but we intend to go back for a second visit, perhaps in the autumn.

Bridge and blossom 2



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Chinese proverb of the week: 4

shŏu zhū dài tù

守 株 待 兔flying duck 3

Man who waits for roast duck to fly into his mouth must wait a very, very long time.

Roast duck 3

What does this mean?  Well apart from the obvious that the man is a complete twit, my view is that it means one shouldn’t stand around waiting for good things to just fall in your lap, it may never happen.   Get on with life and maybe good fortune will follow.

I can’t really think of a really close equivalent proverb in English – maybe you can.

When I was looking for a picture of those ceramic flying ducks that people hung on the wall back in the day (why??) to illustrate this,  I stumbled across an advertisement for an American gun manufacturer who had hijacked the proverb.  The ad showed a man with a gun and a brace of wild duck, and it had the punchline ‘because ducks won’t shoot themselves’.

This proverb, like the first in my series, is what is known as  Chengyu – where only four Chinese characters are used for what is quite a complex idea.  There are thousands of Chengyu in Chinese, and the idea is that with a mere four words you can tell a whole story.

Of course that relies on you having a really great in-depth knowledge of Chinese culture…me I just learn them by heart, and hope to hell people understand what I am saying!


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Qing Ming Jie – time for tomb sweeping

Tomorrow is Qing Ming Jie 清明节, which literally translates as ‘Clear Bright Festival’. It is one of the major Chinese festivals, in English it is often called ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’.  As it always held on the 1st day of the 5th solar term (according to the Lunar calendar) it usually falls on or about the 5th April each year.  One of the reasons for the name is that at this time of year the weather is usually clear and bright.

This is the day when families are expected to visit the graves of their ancestors, clean them up, decorate them with flowers  and show respect with prayers and offerings of fruit or food and burning  joss sticks and paper goods for use in the afterlife. Some country people still wear a willow twig on their heads to ward off ghosts and disasters.   The festival is celebrated across east Asia wherever Chinese culture has had influence.


The festival has a very ancient history – though China only re-instated it officially as a national public holiday in 2008.    (BTW, I hope you’re paying attention at the back and not just snoozing!)   

The story of the legendary origin of the festival goes something like this:

Qingming - paying respects to ancestors

Some 2600 years ago there was a King of Jin who wanted his son by his concubine to inherit the kingdom, so he killed the legitimate heir. The heir’s younger brother Chong’er  fled into exile.                                                                                                                                  Chong’er had a tough time and at one point was near starvation. His loyal follower Jie Zitui cut a piece of flesh from his thigh and gave the meat to Chong’er to eat.  Jie ZhituiChong’er  was deeply moved and said that if he became wealthy or powerful he would reward Jie Zitui.  Eventually Chong’er did succeed and became Duke Wen of Jin.  He showered honours on all those who had supported him through the dark days, but he forgot Jie Zitui. When others reminded him he was full of remorse and tried to find Jie Zitui.

By then Jie Zitui was living a simple life up on a mountain together with his elderly mother.  To get him to come down from the mountain Chong’er had fires lit.  The fires raged over the mountain and burned for three days and nights. When the fires died down the bones of Jie Zitui and his mum were found under the burned stump of a willow tree, together with a letter written in blood:

Giving meat and heart to my lord,
Hoping my lord will always be upright,
An invisible ghost under a willow
Is better than a loyal minister beside my lord.
If my lord has a place in his heart for me,
Please make self-reflection when remembering me.
I have a clear conscience in the nether world,
Being pure and bright in my offices year after year.

Chong’er  was horrified at what had happened and declared that from thenceforth the same three days each year should be a time when no fires were lit, everyone should eat cold food  and it would be called Hanshi .   The following year Chong’er went to pay his respects at the place where Jie Zitui’s body had been found -  and to everyone’s amazement  the willow tree had burst back to life and had wonderful white blossoms.   The day was thenceforth marked as a new festival – Qingming – on which tombs were to be swept, ancestors honoured, and the renewal of life to be celebrated.

The tradition of eating cold food at this time has long died out but Qingming Jie lives on, despite the fact that millions of Chinese live in huge cities far from their ancestral tombs.

Kite flying at Qingming jieOne of the traditions at Qingming is to fly kites and this is still done – I expect to see many of them (pollution permitting) in the sky over Beijing.

Qingming is also important in China because each year all tea picked before the date of the festival commands a higher price than tea picked after it, the earlier tea being considered higher quality.

So off you all go, no hanging about,  find some tombs to sweep or kites to fly…



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