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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Authentic China?

Seated on the shuttle train taking passengers who had arrived in Beijing through into the main airport terminal I overheard two Americans talking, and was so intrigued that I am ashamed to say I blatantly earwigged their conversation.

The exchange was between a young man in his late 20s/early 30s and an older woman in her 40s. They were not ‘together’ but had obviously just met, either in the airport or on the flight to China.  It became clear that this was his first trip to China but she had been here once or twice before.

They were discussing his plans for travel within China and what caught my attention was when the woman said to him ‘oh you won’t see real China in Beijing, Shanghai or the other cities,BJ skyline you need to go out to the rural areas. Especially places in north-west Yunnan such as Dali or Liulichan where it is delightful; or in the south round Guilin, where you can see people working with water buffaloes, rural china - guilinfishing with cormorants and driving ox-carts, especially in some of the ‘minority’ areas – that’s where you will see authentic China‘.     The young man nodded earnestly and said he really, really wanted to experience ‘authentic’ China and would take her advice.

Hang on a minute – what on earth was she implying? That the 53% of China’s 1.3 billion population who live in the cities are not living real Chinese lives?  That’s just crazy, these huge mega cities are as much part of ‘authentic’ China as any rice paddy field, if not more so.

Would she have said that you wouldn’t see the ‘authentic’ USA in Boston, BostonNew York, Chicago or Los Angeles?

That to see authentic America you would have to visit  hillbillys in the Appalachian mountains, or the Amish communities in Pennsylvania – because that is the equivalent  interpretation of her remarks about China.Amish


Life in Rome or Milan is as authentically Italian as the life of a farmer in Calabria.  Life in Paris is as much authentic France as life in the Languedoc.


Many folk in the west still have, in their mind’s eye, an image of  China with simple communities, using age-old methods of farming, of houses where the roof tiles turn up at corners, bamboo groves, country folk who wear woven ‘coolie’ hats, rosy-cheeked wide-eyed children gawping at foreigners for being exotic strangers and charmed by their western ways.  They have mental pictures of people brainwashed into waving little red books under the Great Helmsman who are still oppressed by the power of the State, and who envy our wonderful western lives.

Then they arrive here and see huge megalopolises, with every modern technical convenience and then some; bustling with people who are internet savvy, have modern cars, live in glistening high-rise apartment blocks and superficially seem ‘just like us’. They see freeways and fast trains – trains that are better than anything we experience in our home countries.  They see (except usually they don’t) the millions of industrial workers in factories who have been key to driving the Chinese economy into a position of strength. Chinese factory workers2They see people who seem at quite at ease with their government and society, and this doesn’t fit with their mental image of the country.

This is not rural, not quaint,  therefore in some western minds not ‘authentic’,

But of course it is.

So if you visit China, and have to spend all your time in a city, don’t worry, you ARE still seeing ‘authentic’ China.





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Sichuan pepper and 5 Spice Powder

I was surprised to learn that what we call Sichuan* Pepper (huajiao 花椒) is the only spice that is truly indigenous to China. Of course the Chinese cultivate and use many spices, but they all originated in other parts of Asia.  Even Star Anise which is much associated with Chinese cooking originally comes from Vietnam. Actually, compared with India, Malaysia, Thailand and other Asian countries, the Chinese use very little in the way of spices, and that distinguishes their food culture.

The first thing you need to know about Sichuan Pepper is that it is NOT a pepper at all.      It is the dried seedpod of a variety of Prickly Ash tree (Zanthoxylum simulans),

Zanthoxylum-simulans and it does not add a peppery heat to food, it gives a unique mouth tingling, numbing sensation which the Chinese call ‘mala 麻辣‘ and  which many people find quite addictive. The famous food guru Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking says: “they produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). ”   Several exhaustive studies have been done as to why this is, and if you really, really want to know more read this.

Sichuan Pepper  is used in many Chinese dishes – particularly those from Sichuan Province (what a surprise!) – either as whole berries or ground into a powder.

Sichuan peppercorns


It is also one of the components of Chinese Five Spice Powder  (wu xiang fen 五香粉 ),

which is used in many recipes. Whilst I find Sichuan Pepper used on its own rather overwhelming, I am a great fan of Five Spice Powder (which is easily obtainable outside China).

Here is a recipe which I often make because it is cheap, easy, takes no time at all, and is ideal finger food when watching a film on TV!  Kids love it – always a bonus. The wings are delicious when hot from the oven, but also good cold for a picnic or in a lunch-box.


Five spice chicken wings

24 chicken wings (cut off wing tips with sharp knife and keep them for stock).                                                                                                                                                                     2 teaspoons Chinese Five Spice powder                                                                                            2 cloves garlic, minced                                                                                                                             2 teaspoons soy sauce                                                                                                                            2 teaspoons honey                                                                                                                                    1 tablespoon vegetable oil (NOT olive oil)

Pre-heat oven to 220C

Rub the wings with the Five Spice powder.  Set aside for 10 mins.                                          Mix together the garlic, soy sauce, honey and oil.  Pour it over the wings, and mix so that they are completely covered.   Put the wings into a shallow oven proof dish or roasting spice hunter chinese five spicepan.   Roast in the oven for approx 20 minutes.

Tip on to a big platter and hand round with lots of paper napkins or pieces of kitchen towel to wipe sticky fingers.

They will vanish so fast you will be amazed (double the recipe next time!).



* Sichuan is the correct pinyin (romanised) Mandarin spelling of what was previously spelled Szechwan/Szechuan etc. Before pinyin was developed and standardised, many Chinese words were phonetically translated over 100 years ago using the Wade-Giles method, and that is why some people outside China still use the old spellings which are not really accurate.

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Hen duo shijian bu xin boke – Long time no blog!

By now you may have decided that I have disappeared for ever as it is a helluva long time since I wrote a blog post.

However I am still here, and the reason for the long blogging silence was the result of a  whole host of problems: poor health, rather too much travelling (China-UK-China, China-India-China), a major technical problem with my laptop, and last but most importantly the frigging powers that be here in the PRC.

I am going to have to phrase my words carefully here, but there are those in power in this place who do not want their citizens to have access to some of what is available on the interweb (you knew or suspected all this didn’t you?).

So when I first came here five years ago I discovered that my modest little former blog (The Three Rs: Reading, Ranting & Recipes) was blocked as were many other websites.  I quickly learnt that the way to get round this was to use a VPN (Virtual Proxy Network), and so I signed up for a free version. Nearly all ex-pats living here use VPNs and a few Chinese do so too.  After a month or so I realised that VPN was not doing the biz, so I signed up and paid for one of the best VPNs available – Astrill; and have used it successfully ever since. Until this January.  Astrill 1When we got back to BJ in late January, it became obvious that my internet access was being blocked at every turn.  At first I thought it was because of my laptop problem, but then friends here said they too were suffering the same hassles.

As far as I can gather, there is a department of the government who are determined to stop ANYONE in China accessing anything from outside that they don’t approve of (pictures of kittens are ok) as it might cause national instability. For crying in a bucket!! They have proudly trumpeted the way they have managed to stop some of the VPNs and the big one they wanted to hit was – you guessed it – Astrill.   Now it has become a cat-and-mouse Astrill 2game between the Chinese Cyberspace Administration and Astrill.

At the moment Astrill is winning – by a gnat’s crochet – but who knows for how long?

To rub salt into the wound – so to speak – Cyberspace Aministration of China released a song (a song!?) praising their own endevours, it was on TV here over the Chinese New Year  – you can hear it here.  To be fair, most Chinese just laugh when I ask about it, and say that when it came on they just changed channels.

BTW – whilst in India, my DD solved my laptop problem for me – hooray!

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Grass Mud Horse – banning puns in China

Warning! This blog post contains some obscene language, don’t read on if you are of  a sensitive disposition or easily offended.

At the beginning of December, the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the Chinese Government issued an order restricting puns and irregular wordplay on television, in classrooms, on the internet and in advertising. The international media picked this up and it was widely reported in the English-speaking world. As a result I received a flurry of emails from family and friends asking how/why any government would try to ban puns.  Here is my clumsy attempt to explain, trying to write it down has not been easy…

The Chinese language (by which I mean Mandarin, though it applies equally to other dialects such as Cantonese, Fujianese, Sichuanese etc) is rich in homophones and these lend themselves brilliantly to punning.  Indeed I have always considered that punning was an intrinsict characteristic of Chinese linguistic culture.  The British have always been great ‘punners’ and so we really understand and appreciate this when learning/speaking Chinese.  It has a long, long history which is the same as we have within spoken English.

The Chinese have taken to social media like ducks to water, using Weibo, WeChat and other platforms, and many millions of them have been blogging/tweeting/messaging about things here that the powers-that-be would rather they didn’t comment on and they have tried to shut down critical comment.  However Chinese internet users are a smart bunch and they have found many ways round the web-censors. One of these ways is to use puns.  Puns don’t usually show up when the censors are searching the web for specific word use which might be anti-government.  What follows is merely a single example:

The terms ‘Grass Mud Horse’ and ‘River Crab’ are perfect examples of this.  In Chinese the words grass mud horse 草泥alpaca 5马  said together, mean the South American animal ‘Alpaca’ (ie an Alpaca is a Grass Mud Horse).

The Chinese characters for an alpaca. 草泥马, sound exactly the same – ‘cao ni ma‘ -but are written differently from the characters for the phrase ‘fuck your mother..’  The characters for River Crab, 河蟹 , are written very differently from (but sound exactly the same – héxiè) as the characters for ‘harmonise’ 和谐 .grass-mud-horse 2

A few years back, the then PM of China. Hu Jintao declared that no-one should criticise the State, they should work towards ‘harmony’ as a nation.  The Chinese netizens quickly took up the word ‘harmony’ and ‘harmonised’ and used them to describe posts that were being censored….but they used the words River Crab rather than the word ‘harmonised’ which is a censored word on the Chinese internet.  Combined with the characters for ‘Alpaca’ ie Grass Mud Horse this was understood as a protest phrase meaning ‘Fuck your mother harmonised’

grass-mud-horseEventually the Chinese web censors got the hang of these puns and started wiping them out – so the netizens replaced them with pictures of Alpacas and River is an ongoing battle.

This is but one of many puns that have annoyed the powers-that-be, for a more detailed list, see here.

Puns and wordplay are interwoven into the language of China and used by authors, poets and common people alike.  When I started learning Mandarin, and was struggling with the four tones, a Chinese friend sent me a tongue-twister which goes:


This would be pronounced as: sì shi sì, shí shi shí, shísì shi shísì, sìshí shi sìshí, and translates as:”Four is four, ten is ten, fourteen is fourteen, forty is forty”  Trying to learn it drove me nearly crazy!


There is also a famous poem called ‘The Lion-eating Poet in the Stone Den‘  which uses 92 different words which are all pronounced in the same way but with different tones.YuanShikai President RoC 1912-1915

Banning puns is one battle I don’t think the mighty State will win. It is not the first time there has been an attempt to ban punning.  Back in 1912 Yuan Shi Kai,who became President of the first Republic of China after the Qing dynasty was toppled and Pu Yi removed from his role as the Emperor, also tried to have the use of puns prohibited.

He failed.

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