Guanyin – China’s Goddess of Compassion and Mercy

Many years ago when I visited Hong Kong for the first time I went on a sight-seeing tour and saw, for the first time, a huge statue of the Goddess Guanyin (观自在).  For some reason I got the impression that she was a local goddess specific to the fishermen of HK. How wrong I was. Kuan Ying 1  Subsequently I have discovered that Guanyin is the most popular deity in China, and is worshipped in many east Asian countries – albeit with a different name depending on the language.

My understanding of Buddhism is limited, to say the least, so it has taken me some time to understand what an important role Guanyin plays in the lives of many Buddhists, and to discover what an extraordinary Goddess she is.  My knowledge is still not deep, but I have learned a great deal from a book called The Kuan Yin* Chronicles‘ by Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay, and I recommend it to anyone who would like learn more themselves.

Kuan Yin 2


Buddhism (as most people know) originated in India in or around 600 BC.  The religion travelled from India to China in, or about, the 3rd century BC.                                       Guanyin was part of that movement – except that back in those times she wasn’t Guanyin, indeed she wasn’t even ‘she’  – she was ‘he’. How on-trend is that?(given the whole Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner hoopla) – a transgender deity!!  He began as a Bodhisattva known as Avalokitesvara in India (and is still often depicted as a male there) but when the Buddhism moved into China he slowly transmogrified into a she and became known as  Guanyin.

I realise this is a complicated concept – so would those at the back of the class please try to pay attention.  That means YOU!

Over the centuries Guanyin became more and more popular, and became known all over East Asia.  There are many myths and legends about how she became divine; about her great compassion for all suffering humans: and about why she is sometimes depicted with a ‘thousand arms’ and several heads.  It is widely believed that she can work miracles.

Many feminist Christians say that they want a more ‘female’ God;  that God should not GuanYin25always be thought and spoken of as male, but encompass both masculine and feminine.  For Buddhists, Guanyin is the expression of compassion and the divine feminine.


When I was a youngster, I went to a Catholic Convent Virgin-Mary.previewschool in central Africa, even though our family were not Catholics, because it was the nearest available junior school in Lusaka in those days.As a result, I became well acquainted with the role of the Virgin Mary plays in the Catholic faith.  Christianity is a monotheistic religion, and the Ten Commandments handed down to Moses command both Jews and Christians not to have/worship other gods; so I was always a bit confused by the nuns insistence we should pray to Mary.                                                                                                                                                    It was explained to me by the nuns that as she was the mother of Christ she could ‘intercede’ with him on my behalf, which would be better than me approaching him directly – and I remember thinking this strange – but there you are, I am no Catholic theologian!  There is no doubt in my mind that millions of Catholics around the world treat Mary as if she were a Goddess, which in Christian terms she is NOT.

That is one of the reasons I have found Guanyin so interesting. Because she IS a goddess in her own right and supplicants can approach her directly –  she doesn’t pass their prayers on to any higher deity because she is an equal aspect of Buddha.

Guanyin sanyaThe other thing I have found fascinating is that statues and illustrations of the Virgin Mary are remarkably similar to the ancient statues and illustrations of Guanyin.

Guanyin with a baby

Guanyin with a baby

She is often depicted standing on a stylised lotus blossom, she may be holding a baby, she may have a string of prayer beads in one hand, or be holding a small willow branch. She looks very serene, and usually has a halo. [BTW – I think I should point out that using beads to count out prayers – as is done with a rosary – and having a halo are NOT exclusive to  Catholicism or Christianity and never have been.]

Guanyin is believed to have written 100 poems of divination – and these are another reason why so many people worship her.  These very short but beautiful verses  can be bought and studied, both as poetry or very often as a way of foretelling the future. Books of these type of poems, usually attributed to a deity, are called Heavenly Divination Stick Predictions. If you have a problem or worry and want to know what you should do, or how things will unfold, you go to her temple and after the usual obsequies, you take a pot containing 100 thin wooden sticks, each of them numbered. Divination sticks









Clearing your mind of all base thoughts, and asking Guanyin for help and advice,  you tilt the pot, shaking it gently until one single stick topples out.  If the stick that comes out is numbered 30, then you read poem 30 and study it to decipher the meaning –  in your context.

My advice to you is please don’t be overambitious,
The white crane must beware the secret arrow in the mist
Pulling at firewood you can uncover a hissing snake—
And one bite from it could bring complete disaster.

In many temple courtyards there are ‘fortune-tellers’ who will look at the poem and interpret it for you.sticks-fortune-telling

My favourite of her poems is number 53, which is strange but beautiful and makes me aware of the limits of human understanding.

It is unwise always to follow your own mind,
It sounds like a dragon’s drone or a tiger’s laugh—
Look up at Heaven now – it has a Milky Way of stars…
I tell you recognition and awareness will come in time.


*Kuan Yin is an alternative spelling of Guanyin

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How Much is that Doggie on the Menu?

I can’t count the number of times that people have asked me about the Chinese eating dog. It is often amongst the first things people want to know when asking about my life in China: ‘have you ever eaten dog?‘ and the answer is emphatically NO.

For the past few years, towards the end of June, there has been an annual hoo-ha in the Western and Chinese media about ‘dog eating festivals’ in China, with people in Europe and the USA, not to mention other places, getting  hot under the collar (sorry about that) and having on-line arguments where the fur starts to fly.

Because I am a dog-lover (I have had dogs as pets all my life) but am also a confirmed carnivore, I have felt rather squeamish about tackling this issue, but have decided to gird my loins and wade into the fray.  So I have been doing some investigation and here is my contribution to the whole brouhaha:

At least 11 countries in the world eat dog (including Switzerland – who would have thought!!) but in many of these countries it is not eaten by the vast bulk of the population and that includes China, eating dog has never been the norm in most of China.

Of course, in times of great trouble such as World War 2,and during  ‘Mao’s Great Famine’ when millions of people were starving to death, Chinese people would eat anything they could get their hands on including dogs, cats, rats etc; but that is true of other countries as well – for instance, in Germany dogs and cats were eaten during the major crises of World Wars 1 & 2 and called ‘Blockade Mutton’ and ‘Roof Rabbit’ on menus.

The two countries with the biggest consumption of dog meat – by far – are Vietnam and South Korea (North Korea also eats it but there are no statistics available).

Gaegogi - Korean dog meat stew

Gaegogi – Korean dog meat stew

Vietnamese dog and cat meat restaurant advert

Vietnamese dog and cat meat restaurant advert

Indeed Vietnam kills and cooks approximately 5,000,000 dogs per annum. There is a profitable trade in stolen dogs shipped across the Mekong delta from Thailand to supply the Vietnamese with dog meat.

dog meat vendors yulin

Dog meat vendors in Yulin

So why is it that China gets most of the flack?  Two reasons I suspect.  The first is that Vietnam and South Korea are perceived to be ‘nice’ countries whereas in the west, China is often pictured as a place of horrible barbarism and it both reinforces prejudices and makes good copy.                                                             The second reason is that in one of the southern-most provinces of China,  Guangxi , which borders northern Vietnam, dog meat restaurants have existed for years. However with the rise of modern China, and increasing  pet ownership, consumption of dog meat was beginning to dwindle. So a few years ago a group of  restauranteurs in the southern city of Yulin got together to launch a promotional but unofficial ‘Dog Meat Festival’ around the time of the summer solstice.    It has paid off in terms of publicity (both good and bad), with increasingly angry scuffles between dog lovers and dog eaters.

Protesting against the Dog Meat Festival

Protesting against the Dog Meat Festival

Yang Xiaoyun, a 65-year-old dog lover from Tianjin, has become a well-known activist over the past two years, travelling south to Yulin and spending over $25000 of her life savings in buying hundreds of dogs to keep them from the pot.

Yang Xiaoyun buying up dogs to save them from being killed and eaten.

Yang Xiaoyun buying up dogs to save them from being killed and eaten.

The local authorities have now banned the slaughter of dogs in the Yulin Market, and had the words ‘Dog Meat Street’ removed from the signs on Yulin’s Jiangbin Road.  They have also had to assign police officers to protect Yang Xiaoyun from the dog meat vendors.

Apart from the fact that many people find the idea of eating dog meat totally repulsive, there is another major problem,  unlike beef, mutton and pork, there are no farms breeding dogs for meat, so many of the dogs killed for food are strays, or stolen pets.  As with any dodgy supply chain this has meant some rather brutal and semi-criminal people are involved in the trade.  It is hideously cruel.

I have been in China off and on for over 20 years, and have now lived in Beijing for five years and I have NEVER seen dog on the menu of any restaurant, though I am told that there are some South Korean restaurants in the city which bring it in from elsewhere and it features regularly on their menus.

Of course some people say that if we are prepared to eat other meat we should not be hypocritical about eating dog, and in one sense that is true, it is however rare for any species of carnivore to eat other carnivores.   In Western society dogs are considered as having a different relationship with humans –  indeed they are often refered to as ‘man’s best friend’.

People grow up with dogs as part of their family or work life, dogs trust humans, and if well treated give us their loyalty and affection. Call me a hypocrite by all means, but I for one could no more eat dog meat than I could eat human flesh.

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The Year of the Shanghai Shark

It is ages since I wrote a book review, about time I remedied that!

Shanghai Shark

The Year of the Shanghai Shark by Mo Zhi Hong  is a wonderful lighthearted yet thoughtful depiction of an adolescent growing up in modern China.

mo zhi hongThe author was born in Singapore but grew up in China, Taiwan and the US, he is now living in New Zealand. The book won the 2009 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Novel.

Set in Dalian, a big port/seaside city  in north-eastern China during 2002/3 (the year of the SARS epidemic ) Hai Long is a fourteen year old lad living with his uncle.  It seems both his parents died many years previously.  Uncle is a voracious reader, their apartment is full of books, and Uncle is always buying more.  He is a quiet dignified man who respects and encourages learning.  One is not quite sure what he does for a living.  Hai Long has several siblings, all farmed out to other members of his parents’ families. One brother excels at mathematics and sciences, gaining top marks in all the important exams. He plans to go to university in the USA but to do so he has to pass the IELTS English test. Study as hard as he might, he fails it several times, always defeated by the oral exam – for which he blames the Irish/Australian and German examiners who, he claims, speak too fast and not using ‘proper’ American English! His dreams slowly fade and he has to take menial jobs wherever he can find them. A fate which befalls many bright young Chinese.

Hai Long and his close friends  Po Fan and Xiao Wang,  hangout in the streets, go to school and get up to mischief together. They like nothing better than drinking Coke and eating McDonald’s fries and Kentucky Fried Chicken (which they are amazed to discover are not Chinese companies). Obsessed with basketball, they spend hours watching NBA basketball on TV, and think Michael Jordan is the greatest player who ever lived. It is their dream that the star player Shanghai sharks logoof the Shanghai Sharks basketball team, Yao Ming (whose Chinese nickname is: ‘the moving Great Wall‘), should become a major basketball star in the USA , and during this year he does exactly that – hence the title of the book.

Hai Long also makes friends with a wide range of people in the city – some many years older than he is.   Their lives as seen through this young man’s eyes give the reader a real picture of urban living in today’s China.                                                        There is Old Stone, a semi-beggar who sits unmoving in the street beside an old bathroom scales and people give him small change to weigh themselves; Hai Long takes to reading the newspaper aloud to him after school everyday, whilst Old Stone rails against America a country he believes is China’s worst enemy.                                                                                       Gambler Dang, another character he knows well,  lives in an upstairs apartment in the same block as Hai Long and Uncle. He runs an illegal Mah Jiang (mahjong) gambling den in his front room – many men go there to play, gamble, smoke and drink beer – during the Y ear of the Shanghai Shark Gambler Dang’s fortunes go up and down as he attracts the attention of the local police, and bribes are demanded.                                                                   water calligraphy‘The Poet’ is a man who spends his days writing poetry on the sidewalks and paved areas in the central park of the city, using a mop and bucket of water to produce the writing – each line evaporating as it dries – leaving just the memory of his words in the bystander’s mind.

During this year Uncle decides that Hai Long has had enough schooling and that he will now teach him to follow in Uncle’s footsteps – as a professional pickpocket!  Every month Uncle used to head off to Beijing (only a few hours away by train) and target the hoards of foreign tourists who flock to visit the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven and the glitzy shopping malls.  Dazed, confused and usually jet-lagged, their wallets bulge with local currency and with US dollars and they are easy to rob.

Hai Long is made to do hours of practice and many dummy runs before Uncle will take him on an actual crime spree.  But soon, between them, they are making more and more money. Uncle then starts them working their own city and eventually starts targeting the rich locals as the number of tourists has dwindled because of SARS.  His increasingly urgent desire to amass more cash at any cost however risky, and despite having to unleash violence on some of his targets, only makes sense at the very end of the book.

Both teenagers and adults will find this an interesting, amusing and entertaining read and I really recommend it.

Rated 4.5*

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No smoking in Beijing

From today the most draconian anti-smoking legislation comes into force in Beijing.  chinese-no-smokingThere have been months of propaganda leading up to today, and after many attempts to control smoking in China (all of which have failed) the Beijing authorities hope that this time it will work.

All indoor public places  including restaurants, bars, hotels, and offices – both private companies and Government – in Beijing will be required by law to be 100% smoke-free. Some outdoor spaces at public places, such as kindergartens and middle schools, public sports venues, historical and cultural sites, and maternal and child health facilities, will also be required to be 100% smoke-free.  The three ‘Smoking Rooms’ at Beijing International Airport are permanently closed from today.  Tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship in Beijing will also be banned.

birdsnest no smoking bannersIf this legislation achieves its aims, then there is a strong likelihood that other Chinese provincial governments will follow suite.

China is far and away the biggest producer and consumer of tobacco products in the world. It is estimated that there are some 350 MILLION smokers in China which is about 42% of all smokers worldwide.   Some 1.2 MILLION Chinese die each year from tobacco related diseases, and that number is still rising – indeed it is the leading cause of death in China.


Chonzhen, Last Ming Emperor

The Chinese have been smoking tobacco for hundreds if not thousands of years, generally in pipes which were and are still used by men and women alike.  Just as smoking was begining to take hold in Europe during the early 17thC, Chongzhen 崇祯 Emperor of the Ming Dynasty tried to have smoking banned in China. The Manchus of the Qing Dynasty which followed his reign declared that smoking is “a more heinous crime than that even of neglecting archery”. But all attempts to curb the habit failed.

The problem is that China still has a  strong smoking ‘culture’, cigarettes (particularly expensive brands) have always been considered an acceptable gift on social occasions or at Chinese New Year – giving them is thought to be both respectful and friendly.

Vintage Chinese Cigarette Advert

Vintage Chinese Cigarette Advert

As a result, previous attempts to curb smoking have been met with apathy, and with tacit acceptance that people will continue to smoke. This attitude is particularly prevalent outside the major cities, in rural China people do not seem to worry about or object to anyone smoking anywhere at any time.

nosmoking and smoking

This time in Beijing the legislation has some teeth.  Any individual found breaking the law will be subject to a 200 yuan  fine (approx £20), and any establishment which allows people to smoke will pay a fine of 100,000 yuan (approx £10,000) and that should focus their minds.antismoking-signals2There has also been an educational campaign to inform school kids of the dangers of smoking and of the new laws – and three hand gestures have been devised for them to shame any smokers they encounter. I have been practicing them myself as they seem a non- confrontational way of stopping a smoking taxi-driver (actually taxi drivers are not supposed to smoke but some do), in the past when I tried asking one to cease and desist, he threw me out of the cab – not a happy situation at 8pm on a winter evening!

I should confess that I am an ex-smoker myself (hangs her head in shame) but I stopped smoking 33 years ago, and so like all converts I am something of a zealot!

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Grabbing the future

Tomorrow is my younger grandson’s 1st birthday, a time for fun and rejoicing at having Arlo 1this special little chap in our family.  Alas, because we live in China and he lives in India, we will not be with him on this special occasion. However, cards and gifts have been sent, and with luck we will have some skype-time to wish him a very Happy Birthday, and to sing ‘Zhu ni shengri kuaile!’

Here in China an infant’s first birthday is celebrated with an old custom zhuāzhōu  (抓周) which roughly translates as ‘the one year old grab’. An informal party is held for friends and relations and the parents/grandparents set out a number of small items on a mat or tray, and then the infant is placed in front of it. Everyone watches to see which will be the first item the child picks up without any encouragement from family and friends. This item will indicate their future path in life.

Zhuazhou 4

Whilst this completely random method of career planning was taken fairly seriously in the past, nowadays it is just regarded as an enjoyable ceremony  – though who knows, many a parent may harbour the wish that it really will predict the future.

Sun Quan

Emperor Sun Quan of Wu

Zhuāzhōu ceremonies began way back (as everything does in China) during the Three Kingdoms period.  Legend has it that after the death of Prince Sun He of the Eastern Wu Kingdom, Sun He‘s father the Emperor Sun Quan was undecided as to which of his grandsons should succeed him; a courtier suggested that the Emperor place a few items on a tray and ask each of his grandsons to pick something. Sun Hao grabbed a bamboo slip (an ancient form of Chinese paper) in one hand, and an imperial belt (symbolizing royal power) in the other . These were thought to be such auspicious choices that he should be chosen as the next Emperor, and so he was.  Actually it turned into a bad method for choosing an heir as Sun Hao is on the list of  Top 10 Insane Chinese Emperors!

Zhuazhou 3

The items laid out for the infant to select from were usually things such as a small knife, an abacus, some coins, a book, a calligrapher’s brush – the idea being that if a child picked up the knife he would be a soldier, the book indicated a scholar, the brush meant he would be an artist, the abacus an accountant etc. – you get the idea.  Today the items might well include a computer mouse, a cell phone,  a toy stethoscope, a ball, a toy car or plane, a toy drum or kazoo.  Girls will get slightly different things laid out, such as a comb, a shoe, a spoon, , or even a lipstick in addition to the other things but usually omitting any weaponry.             Zhuazhou 2                                                                                                                                                                    I was puzzled by two items that are frequently included in the zhuāzhōu selection, namely a piece of celery and a spring onion (scallion). Then a friend explained to me that they are there because the word for spring onion (ng) and the word for ‘intelligence’ ( cōng) sound exactly alike, so the one represents the other positive virtue on the tray.  Likewise with celery ( qín) which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘industrious’ (n).  The Chinese do love their homonyms!Zhuazhou 6

There is a wonderful display of ancient zhuāzhōu trays in the Capital Museum here in Beijing, together with pictures and models of children making their selections, it is well worth a visit if you are in BJ.

So if I were with my darling  grandson tomorrow I would be setting out a zhuāzhōu tray for him, and watching like a hawk to see what his future might be!



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Oh we do like to be beside the seaside! – especially the Cote d’Azur!

Company outings never sound much fun do they?  A few coaches (char-a-bancs as they used to  be called in the UK) picked you up and you start off with a sing-song as you headed to Brighton or Blackpool for a quick walk along the pier, a few pints in a pub followed by a fish supper then home to bed.  Hardly inspiring.

However one Chinese boss – Mr Li Jinyuan, Li JinyuanCEO of the Tiens Group which he founded in 1995 – startled the world and pleased the French by shipping 6400 of his 12000 employees to France for a company holiday to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary. They arrived in Paris where the company had booked 140 hotels to accommodate them all; the Moulin Rouge was booked to give a cabaret performance just for them,  and they all went up the Eiffel tower (bad luck for any other tourists who had planned to visit the Tower that day!). The Louvre was closed to the general public so that they could all go on a mass visit and appreciate French culture. Then it was off to the Gare de Lyon where extra TGV trains (7600 seats in total) had been laid on to take them down to Nice where they could enjoy the delights of the Cote d’Azur.  The astonishing numbers continued – 4760 rooms had been booked for them at 4 and 5* hotels  in Monaco and Cannes. 146 coaches (I knew coaches would be involved somewhere!) ferried them all from place to place.

Happy Tiens employees in FranceAll wearing identical blue T-shirts and hats the employees appeared on the famous Promenade des Anglais and were marshalled together to spell out the phrase  “Tiens’ dream is Nice in the Cote d’Azur”. Tiens employees phrase in Nice The trip was a triumph of logistical organisation, Tiens employees on Promenade des Anglaisand the French Tourist authorities were in seventh heaven.

The whole shebang lasted 4 days and in that time the trip added some £24million to the French exchequer.

Mr Li Jinyuan is said to be the 24th wealthiest person in China – and he certainly doesn’t do things by halves, especially company outings. He’s raised the bar very, very high for other companies wishing to treat their employees.

Hats off to him.

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Waving a Little Red App

Funny how history seems to repeat itself – often in the most unexpected way.

Way back in January 1964 the first copies of a book called ‘The Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’ were published. The book became known as ‘The Little Red Book’ because:                                                                                                                                                   1. It was small – the right size to fit in a jacket pocket.                                                                  2. It had a red cover which was embellished with a portrait of the man himself as well as the title.

Mao's LRB

It was originally produced for the edification of the senior cadres of the Chinese Communist Party.  The book went viral (as we would say these days), and people began clamouring for their own copies.  Over the next 12 years the book was ‘improved’, expanded, and translated into many languages.

Eventually every schoolchild, student, farmer, member of the armed forces, factory worker, doctor, dentist – in fact every Chinese citizen-  had a copy even though it was not officially compulsory to have one.

Mao's LRB with school kids Who hasn’t seen the pictures of vast crowds of Chinese all waving their Little Red Books in the air during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution – such pictures seemed to encapsulate the essence of communism under Mao’s leadership.

It became the most widely published book ever at the time, and it is estimated that some 1,055,498,000 copies were printed. Given the number of bootlegged copies it was probably more – whatever the final number, over 1 billion copies is a helluva lot. The Bible is its only competitor in the numbers game.

Production of the book stopped in 1976 when Mao died.   Even today antique market stalls do a good trade in selling copies to western tourists. I suppose it is a more original memento of a trip to China than a T-shirt saying ‘I climbed the Great Wall’!

Fast forward 39 years to April 2015; the Chinese Communist Party School’s techie department has produced an app entitled Xuexi Zhongguo   学习中国 .                             Purportedly  an online learning app, the name means ‘Study China’, but it can also be translated as ‘Study Xi’s China’ – and it has a very didactic subtitle:“Study and implement General Secretary Xi Jinping’s series of important speeches”  Needless to say it was almost immediately dubbed ‘Xi  Jinping’s Little Red App’

XJPs litle red app 2

The app has 12 sections and these include the texts of speeches  given by XJP, extracts from his two books ‘On Poverty Eradication‘ and ‘ The Governance of China‘, up-to-date news reports about him, and a map which shows all his travels.

XJP LRAppNone of his quotes are likely to set the world on fire, but they are interesting none-the-less:

“If you can contribute to ease air pollution and solve the problem of smog, you will be given honour and be a hero.”

“There are some bored foreigners, with full stomachs, who have nothing better to do than point fingers at us … First, China doesn’t export Revolution; second, China doesn’t export hunger and poverty; third, China doesn’t come and cause you headaches, what more is there to be said?”

“Happiness does not fall out of the blue and dreams will not come true by themselves. We need to be down-to-earth and work hard. We should uphold the idea that working hard is the most honorable, noblest, greatest and most beautiful virtue.”

With the arrival of this app history has repeated itself, but with a modern twist .  However, if anything proves the superiority of a book – any book – when compared to a cyberspace publication, it is this app.  No one will ever be seen waving it,  and in the future dodgy ‘antique’ dealers won’t be selling it!

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