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 ),

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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.

FINGER LICKING GOOD CHINESE CHICKEN WINGS

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 crabs..it 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:

四是四,十是十,十四是十四,四十是四十

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!

minglion

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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Fish Fragrant Aubergine – My version

Chinese auberginesThe first thing you need to know about this dish is that no fishes are involved!  It has this name because the combination of ingredients and the method of making the dish are very similar to some fish recipes.  It is a famous dish from the province of Sichuan but is now served all over China.

To be honest, aubergines have never been one of my favourite vegetables (except for Baba Ghanoush) though I have tolerated them in moussaka, ratatouille etc. It wasn’t until I came to live in Beijing that I really started to appreciate them in their own right.  Now I have become quite a fan…

Fish Fragrant Aubergine is a flavoursome vegetarian dish, and would be served with three or four other dishes to make a Chinese meal. Moreover, it fits well into western meals as it is a great vegetable side dish for grilled pork chops/sausages etc.

This is my version of the famous dish, I have adapted it as the ‘real’ version involves deep-frying which I don’t do.  If you want to try the authentic recipe I suggest you look at one of Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbooks , I refer to them all the time and  cannot recommend them more highly. She is THE western expert on  Chinese cooking in general and Sichuan cooking in particular.

FISH FRAGRANT AUBERGINE – MY VERSION

Serves 4

2 or 3 aubergines – total weight approx 600g                                                                               Salt                                                                                                                                                   Vegetable oil                                                                                                                                             1 Tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger                                                                                          2 cloves garlic, finely chopped                                                                                                              1 Tablespoon cornflour (corn-starch) slackend with 2 Tablespoons water                          100ml vegetarian stock                                                                                                                          1 Tablespoon light soy sauce                                                                                                                 1 Tablespoon (more if you like it spicy) chilli paste/sauce -NOT sweet chilli  sauce                 1 teaspoon sugar                                                                                                                                       1 Tablespoon dark Chinese rice vinegar – eg Shanxi vinegar.                                                                                                                                                                                    1 teaspoon sesame oil                                                                                                                            2 or 3 spring onions (scallions) green part only, finely sliced for garnish

Cut the aubergines in half length-wise, and then cut each half in half again. Cut these long pieces into even-sized bits, not too big.  Sprinkle with a little salt and leave in a colander for  approx 30mins to drain.Aubergine pieces

Heat a wok or large frying pan until very hot, add two or three Tablespoons of vegetable oil, then add some of the aubergine pieces, stir-fry for 3-4 minutes until soft and golden and remove to a side dish lined with kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil; keep doing this until all aubergine is cooked, adding a little more oil as and Cooking auberginewhen necessary.

Now add 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan, and when hot add the chilli paste, garlic and ginger; Fish fragrant aubergine ingredientsstir-fry for 2-3 minutes before adding the sugar, soy sauce and stock.  Mix well and let it all cook together for a few minutes.

Return the aubergine to the pan and stir together with the sauce. Now add the slackened cornflour and stir gently as it thickens. Stir in the vinegar and spring onions and allow it to cook down for 2 minutes or so.  Finally stir in the sesame oil.

Remove from the pan to a dish and serve immediately – although this dish is also good served at room temperature.

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Divorce Lawyers – they’re a big hit here.

A week or two ago I noticed something a little odd happening at the front entrance of our building. There was a group of young people (mostly young women) all standing with their backs to the entrance doors and taking selfies on their phones. That’s strange I thought, why here?  When I went inside I asked the concierge if he’d noticed and what it was about.  He told me proudly that they were fans of the new hit TV programme ‘Divorce Lawyers’ which started being broadcast in October.

Divorce Lawyers posterThat explained it.  ‘Divorce Lawyers’ 離婚律師 was filmed in our building earlier this year.  For six months we all had to put up with film crews, cables, cameramen, lighting rigs, vans, boxes of props, harassed production assistants shooing us out of the lobby, all three lifts being permanently full of production equipment so you had to wait ages to use them, noise at all hours of the day and night and so on.DivorceLawyers_Photo027 After the novelty of it wore off, the whole hoo-ha drove the residents nearly mad, and many had stand-up rows with the production team and/or complained vehemently to the manager of the building. Finally the filming was over, they all decamped and we forgot about it.

Now the series is showing on Sina.com.  It has become a HUGE hit, and every day fans are coming from far and wide – some from as far away as Malaysia – to stand where the stars stood and have their picture taken.

Divorce Lawyers is a romantic comedy in 46 one hour episodes.  The basic storyline is that a two lawyers who specialise in divorce (one male, one female) have both put broken relationships behind them and sworn to have nothing more to do with romance.

Yao ChenHowever, when the female lawyer Luo Li played by Yao Chen 姚晨 represents the wife in a contested divorce and the male lawyer Shi Haidong played by Wu Xiu Bo 吳秀波 represents the husband;wuxiubogq2 they get thrown together, find themselves living in adjoining apartments (in our building!)  and –  you guessed it – after a rather thorny time the inevitable happens and they find themselves falling in love. Needless to say the path of true love never does run smooth, and there are many twists and turns, and ups and downs before the inevitable happy ending.

Yao Chen and Wu Xiu Bo are megastars in the Chinese film firmament, and the series has already been downloaded 1.5 BILLION times. Everyone and their aunties all over the DivorceLawyers 4Chinese speaking world knows who they are, but we in the west have never heard of them.

Although I am not a film/TV fanatic by any means, I do know the names of most of the big stars in Hollywood and the UK and could probably put a face to them and so could many Chinese, as western movies are also watched in China.  However we in the west could not do the same for Chinese film stars despite the fact that they are watched by millions more people than any of  ‘our’ stars are. Yao Chen has more Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter/Facebook) followers than the entire population of the UK!                                            I am ashamed to say that the number of Chinese stars I know could be counted on one hand and I know them only because they have also acted in western films.

The western media rarely, if ever, covers Chinese films or Chinese TV series, they don’t get  dubbed into English, they are not distributed in our countries because the big Hollywood production companies control what is shown and they have been disinterested.  But that is changing, Tinseltown has woken up to the potential profit of selling films and film productions into China, and seem to think that they are so important that they will be given automatic entry…why do they expect that? China has a vibrant and thriving film industry of its own and has done for nearly a century, they are now using the latest technology to distribute their productions,  they are not going to fall over backwards in awe of what comes out of America and Europe.

 

 

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