Is it a boy or a girl?

The Chinese, like the people of India,  prefer having sons to having daughters on the whole. In both nations this is for a variety of  ancient cultural and social reasons.male-and-female-relationship-sign

It didn’t matter too much here in China, until it instituted it’s infamous ‘One Child’ policy in 1979.

From that moment on, many parents were anxious that their one little chick should be male. If the fetus was found to be a female, it would often be aborted – or if a baby girl was born it might well be abandoned or put up for adoption. The result was that the gender balance of young people in China became very skewed, with many more boys being born by comparison to the number of girls. At the moment there are 33 million more men than women in the country  and this has huge repercussions on the demographics of the nation. Millions of men will never have wives and families because the number of women available to marry is just too small.

In an attempt to stop the abortion of female fetuses, the government passed laws making it highly illegal for any doctor or health worker to tell parents the gender of the baby they are expecting. This legislation is rigorously policed so nowadays young Chinese couples do not know the sex of their child until it is born.

futian-border.gifEarlier this week a 12 year-old school girl was traveling from Shenzhen in mainland China to Hong Kong, ostensibly for a study trip.  At the border between China and HK the security guards noticed that her backpack seemed unusually bulky compared with the backpacks of the other cross-border students with whom she was traveling.



They stopped her to check the contents of her backpack; it was found to contain 142 vials of maternal blood which were being carried across the border for gender-testing in Hong Kong.  She was also carrying information about each blood donor’s stage of pregnancy, their names, ID card numbers and dates of birth.drybloodsamples

Medical technology has been advancing over the years, and it is now possible to conduct a safe, non-invasive blood-test on a woman who is between 7-9 weeks of gestation by analyzing cell-free DNA (cfDNA) circulating in the mother’s blood.

Obviously these 142 vials of blth-8.jpgood were to be tested and the results sent back to the parents in the mainland. (I would imagine that this service was only available to those who were prepared to pay a substantial fee). If the test results showed they were expecting a boy, well and good – but if it were found to be a girl, then the mother could have an abortion.   Someone was making a profit from all this – I suspect the schoolgirl who was stopped was merely a courier, and she was probably paid a fee to carry the blood.

In 2016 the One-Child policy has been revised and Chinese couples are allowed two children, so you may wonder why people still want to know in advance what the gender of their child will be. But if you already have a daughter, you probably don’t want another one, hence this type of unofficial (and almost certainly criminal) business developing.

It has always been easy for women in China to have legal abortions – and as most of them have never had proper sex education teaching them about their bodies and how to prevent becoming pregnant, abortion has been used by many women as a form of contraception for whatever reason.                                                                                      There is no moral connection between religious belief and having an abortion here in China, unlike the situation in many western countries – Ireland and the USA in particular.

Jianxi, which is one of China’s 32 provinces and regions, has recently legislated that NO abortions are allowed after 14 weeks of pregnancy – this is much earlier than the limits set in most western countries – the reason they have done so is that 14 weeks is the earliest that gender of a fetus can be detected by ultrasound, By using this new technology to test blood at 7-9 weeks, couples can circumvent the law.

Please understand I am not saying that women in China don’t feel just as devastated as women elsewhere who have to take this difficult decision if they feel it absolutely necessary. and I am not going to blame them for taking that option. A woman has the right to determine what happens in her own body.

What I do find incredibly sad is that even in this rapidly developing nation, girls are still undervalued.



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Mind you don’t cut yourself ! – buying a knife in China

At the moment the UK seems to be experiencing a horrible tsunami of knife crimes, some as a result of gang quarrels in the major cities, but with other people being knifed on the streets at random. So far, the death toll in London for this year is 29. Why?
I am not a criminal anthropologist nor a crime specialist, so far be it from me to opine on what the causes of this unprecedented rise might be.
Young people seem to think that because there is a danger of being stabbed, they should carry a knife themselves “for my own protection”, and of course that just escalates the problem.
Britain has long had some hard but sensible laws about the carrying of knith-7ves  (I know because for 20+ years I was a magistrate in the Inner London Youth Courts, and every day we had cases of young men charged with carrying knives in public).
Actually the law never used the word ‘knife’, it was always referred to as a ‘bladed article’ and that covered everything from a Samurai sword to a kitchen knife taken from home. However the police would only discover that an individual was carrying a knife when they were apprehended for some other reason.
During the 2008 Olympics, concerned about potential violence, China introduced specific legislation about the purchase and carrying of knives for security and safety reasons.
They restricted  ‘dangerous knives’  and required purchasers to register with the government when purchasing such knives. These included knives with ‘blood grooves’, any knife with a blade longer than 22cms (8.6 inches), locps4_adx1000k-blade knives, cleavers, and any knife with a blade of over 15cms in length which also has a point angle of less than 60 degrees.  Carrying such knives was illegal, whether you were Chinese or a foreigner.sized multi-tool such as a ‘Leatherman’ are exempt as far as I understand.
Three or four years ago my son visited us in China, he is a keen cook and so are a couple of his friends, and he wanted to buy two  菜刀 “cai dao” the ubiquitous Chinese cleaver which is the workhorse of every Chinese kitchen, both domestic and commercial.
He had attended some cooking classes here in BJ and been shown how versatile it is and how to use it.
There is a famous old kitchenware shop in south Beijing, known for its range of cook’s knives. So off we set. It is a tiny little place crammed to the rafters with boxes of kitchen knives, cleavers, sieves, mandolins, graters, tongs etc etc. We explained what we wanted to the elderly chap behind the counter, and he brought out a few boxes for us to make a selection. Which we did. But then he produced a large ledger, and asked us for our Beijing address and some photographic ID. We didn’t have our passports with us, but he was satisfied with my UK Driving License. Everything was duly noted in the ledger under the date, and then I had to sign it.
A year later we moved house in BJ, and I decided to re-vamp my kitchen equipment .  So my DH and I went off to IKEA, we chucked new tin openers, mixing bowls, frying pans etc into the trolley with gay abandon.ikea-365-3-piece-knife-set__0448596_pe598262_s5
Then I decided I wanted three new knives to join my rather meager range at home.    In the knife section, you could see the various knives, but then you had to take up a cardboard token with the details of your chosen knife (you couldn’t take the knife itself)  to the checkout. When you paid, you were given another receipt which you then had to take to a special counter where they demanded your ID, copied it, you had to sign – then, and only then, were you given the knife /knives you had bought. So even IKEA is being careful about selling knives.
Obviously there are thousands of knives already in circulation in Beijing and other Chinese cities, but when it comes to trying to control the use of knives for nefarious purposes you have to start somewhere.   At the moment it seems it would be easier to buy a gun in the USA then it is to buy a knife in China
In the UK let us start controlling the purchase of knives. The youths who buy and carry knives with intent to use them will not want to be identified by having to provide a valid address and photo ID, and then sign a book
It would be a start..
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Happy New Year 2019 新年快乐


My warmest good wishes for The Year of the Pig to all those who read my blog, may you have peace, prosperity and good health for the coming months.

Spring Festival 春季  Chun jie is a very special time in Chinese life. It is the time when everyone heads back to their family home to spend time with parents, grandparents and all the kith and kin. The days before the New Year sees the biggest migrations of humans anywhere in the world,  chunyun (春运) as this massive movement of people is called is quite mind-boggling for most westerners as hundreds of millions descend on airports and railway stations or take to the roads. Loaded with gifts and carrying  Hong Bao 红包 (decorative red envelopes containing money to give to family and friends),chinese-red-envelope1.jpg they cram into every square centimeter of the trains and ferries, and the queues at airports have to be seen to be believed.


China has two long public holiday times – Spring Festival aka New Year, and Golden Week which is at the beginning of October. They have 7 days leave each time (plus weekend time). Whilst Golden Week is a fixed time each year, Chinese New Year fluctuates according to the lunar calendar. This year the date is February 5th.

As I may have explained before, the Chinese zodiac is counted in a 12 year cycle. Each year is represented by an animal. In order they are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram (sheep/goat), Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.chinese-zodiac-animals

The length of the whole cycle approximates the orbital period of Jupiter which is the largest planet in our solar system.

Why is the pig the last animal of the cycle? Well legend has it that when the Jade Emperor summoned the animals, the greedy little pig stopped en route for a snack – fell asleep and arrived late, almost missing being included!

Chinese people often ask very direct questions when they meet you for the first time. A few years ago I was with two young women who were about to visit Britain for the first time. “One of the things you mustn’t do” I said to them “is ask a woman her age.” it is considered very rude, and many women don’t want to divulge how old they are.”  “Why?” I was asked. “Well, some of them have a fear of being thought of as old, and would rather you thought they were younger. Some may have been telling people – including employers – that they are five or ten years younger than they really are, for a variety of reasons.”                                                                                   “That is ridiculous” one of the girls said to me “all I have to do is ask and what zodiac year she is and I will know her age immediately, because if she was born a dog, she is not likely to say she is a snake!”

People born in the Year of the Pig are thought to be extremely fortunate – and my DH who was born in a golden Pig year (that’s a whole nother story) is considered particularly lucky.  What do I know? I’m only a Tiger ….grrrr!

BTW – Chinese astrologers here have predicted that Prince Harry and his wife Megan who are having a Pig baby, will be having a son…who knows.

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Beggar’s Chicken – A Sunday lunch to remember.

Once upon a time – long, long ago in China’s ancient past there was an Emperor who was fleeing from his enemies after a battle. He disguised himself as a beggar, and whilst on the run, being very hungry he stole a chicken. Fearing that the locals would know he had stolen it and tell his enemies where he was, he hid it in the mud at the edge of a river. When the danger had passed, he retrieved the chicken, now completely covered with mud, and put it into his fire to cook.

When he thought it would be cooked, he took it out of the fire and broke open the muddy covering which was now absolutely hard having been in the fire. When he did so, all the bird’s feathers came away with the mud, and the chicken was succulent and delicious.                                                                                                                                                     That is one of the legends about how ‘Beggar’s Chicken’ came to be.

These days mud plays no part in preparing this masterpiece of Chinese cuisine. The bird has already been plucked and it is stuffed then wrapped in Lotus leaves (these are usually bought dried and then soaked until soft) and following that a wrapping of heavy salted dough or pastry is sealed round the chicken. It is then cooked slowly in an oven for between four and six hours.  Then it will be brought to the dining table, still in its carapace – a hammer and knife will be produced and one of the guests will be invited to break open the wrapping to expose the bird.

Beggar's Chicken 2

Recently our friend K (who is a superb cook) and her husband W invited us and other friends to their hutong house for Sunday lunch.

After several delicious cold dishes (traditional start to a Chinese meal): Lotus Three Ways: pickled, stuffed with pork, and deep fried into spicy crisps; steamed savoury eggplant; baby tomatoes with sour plum sauce and various other delights.

Sunday lunch K&W 1

Then they brought out the Beggar’s Chicken!

Wow, wow, wow! One of us was handed the hammer and knife and invited to do the honours – breaking through the heavy crust of dough proved harder than he had expected, serious force was required.  But when he succeeded in breaking it open the most wonderful aroma permeated the room.  Everyone went “Aaah…” simultaneously!

K had made a fantastic stuffing of sticky rice studded with bits of Sichuan ‘bacon’ and chopped shitake mushrooms. As a side dish she served a big platter of wilted shredded green beans with slivers of smoked tofu, all in a delicious sauce.

The chicken was sublime – tender, moist and full of flavour. I have never had such a delicious ‘roast’ chicken in my life. Conversation ceased as we all tucked in.

This is not a dish that is usually served in a private home as it is thought that only a professionally trained chef can prepare and cook it properly. I have to say that is wrong! This Beggar’s Chicken cooked by K was the real deal – a chicken any Beggar would have died for.

I feel so privileged to know such a wonderful cook.

Thank you K and W for a memorable Sunday Lunch!


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Chopsticks – everything you need to know (part 1)

The world can be divided into 3 areas depending on how people eat their food. The first area is where people use their hands to eat; this area, roughly speaking comprises most of Africa, the Indian sub-continent, the middle east and Arabia. The second area is in the west and north of the globe, Europe and North and South America where cutlery (knife,fork,spoon etc) is used to eat food. The final area is the huge swathe of Asia, comprising China, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia etc and all the other East Asian countries where chopsticks are used for eating.
This means that every single day several billion people use chopsticks, so I thought I should know a bit more about them.

I recently acquired a copy of a book by Q.Edward Wang ‘Chopsticks – A Cultural & Culinary History’. 9781107023963

It is so well written, and Mr Wang’s research and knowledge shines on every page –  it has been a joy to read and learn from his book.

It would seem from archaeological discoveries that chopsticks came into being in the northern part of China during the Neolithic period (ie about 5000+ years ago). At first they were used to aid the cooking of food – you can imagine the scene: a pot of hot water with meat and vegetables in it – food sticks to pot, needs to be stirred – so whoever is cooking the the food picks up a stick or sticks to do that. Then, rather than burn their hands and fingers trying to extract cooked items from the pot or the fire, they realise that two sticks could be used as pincers to lift the pieces of food from the hot liquid.

From that starting point it was only a question of time before people started to use individual pairs of sticks to convey  food from the communal pot to their own bowl and/or mouth. Sticks which had been whittled to neat paired lengths were ideal for doing this, and so Chopsticks were born.

Over the millennia their use spread throughout all the lands with which China had contact, until everyone from Java to Japan used them as a matter of course. Originally very crude they became incredibly sophisticated, as they could be made from many materials: bamboo, lacquered wood, ivory (now banned), bone, enamel and various metals.  Gold chopsticks (which would show wealth and status) were not very efficient as the metal was too soft for practical use; silver was prized, particularly by kings, emperors and top officials, as it was thought that silver chopsticks would discolour immediately when touching poisoned foods, and therefore warn whoever was about to eat not to take food from a particular dish.
There were, and are, many advantages to using chopsticks, they cannot be used to pick up large pieces of food, so most foods are cut and cooked in small pieces. Because the food is cut into smaller pieces it can cook quickly and requires less fuel. Thus China’s cuisine has been much influenced by chopsticks, likewise Korean and Japanese cuisines.

Ceramic spoons developed later, as an adjunct to a pair of chopsticks; they were used to consume soups and soft foods, and to feed infants, small children and the very elderly.

Bear-in-mind that whilst chopsticks were becoming more and more refined in China and even the very poorest people used them, we Brits were still eating using our hands, a spoon and a slice of bread as a plate, and a knife could be used to cut foods. The spoon being the only true utensil. Forks first appeared in the Byzantine Empire and arrived in Europe via Venice. It was not until the mid 16th century that they started being widely used by the wealthy. The poor used their spoons and that meant that apart from big religious feast days they lived on a form of pottage.

In other words, China was way ahead of the game when it came to eating in a civilized manner. Confucius himself deplored the idea that anyone would bring a knife to a dinner table, with its potential to be used in violence if a dispute arose.

Lord McCartney, King George III’s envoy to China in 1793 was patronising in the extreme. When he encountered chopsticks, he said that the European methods of eating using knife, fork and spoon were so superior that the Chinese would quickly see the error of their ways and start using Western cutlery. Ha ha! he got that, and so much else, wrong about China.

Of course the Chinese do not call chopsticks ‘chopsticks’, that is the name by which they are known in the English speaking world. In Mandarin Chinese they are called ‘kuaizi’   (筷子) which can be loosely translated as ‘quick things’. So where did the name Chopsticks come from?

Well, ‘sticks’ is obvious, and in the days when Britain was busy colonizing India and other parts east, the phrase ‘chop-chop’* meaning ‘quick, quick’ was widely used. In other words  Chopsticks meant ‘quick sticks’ – not so far in meaning from the Chinese name.

There are rules about how chopsticks are held, and how they are to be used in polite company for which you are going to have to wait until I write part 2 of this blog post!

*a phrase still in use to this day!

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‘3 bowls of noodles’ let me introduce a brilliant blogger.

To all of you who read my blog (thank you!), I would like to introduce someone who knows far, far more about China than I do, and who really understands Mandarin with all its nuances.
You will learn a great deal if you follow him. His name is Andrew Methven and his blog posts are both fascinating and informative. His latest blog is entitled ‘Three Bowls of Noodles’ and yet it is nothing to do with the noodles one eats. I am awed by his knowledge of the subtleties of language in Chinese phrases. I have learned so much from him, and you could too!

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Himalayan viagra,冬蟲夏草, caterpillar fungus

I haven’t been writing this blog for a couple of months as I have had some health issues to contend with, and then – just as I seemed to be getting on top of things – my DH carelessly managed to rupture his Achilles tendon rather badly and had to go into hospital for an op. Needless to say, he is now – some weeks later – becoming rather impatient with being confined to the apartment with his foot in a large rigid ‘boot’; he is not allowed to put any weight on it for a while.
Friends and colleagues have been coming round bringing gifts of fruit, flowers, books to read, and generally keeping him company. We are both so grateful for their kindness and support.

Two Chinese acquaintances for whom Alistair once did a favour turned up to see him the other day, and brought him some fantastic green tea and a very smart wooden box which contained 20 glass vials, in each of which was a single caterpillar fungus. We made polite thanks but I wondered what on earth we were supposed to do with this gift.0-5.jpg

This had obviously been chosen for the DH specifically because of his injury and subsequent surgery. One of the uses for Caterpillar fungus in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is to aid post-operative healing. This is the most expensive ingredient available in TCM , weight for weight it costs more than gold, platinum and diamonds – so this box of 20 fungi was not only thoughtful but very, very generous.0-2.jpg

What is ‘caterpillar fungus’I hear you ask. th-5
Well, it is a wild fungus that grows in grassland at very high altitudes – mostly in Tibet or Nepal or the Qing Hai province of China. It has to be harvested by hand in the late spring or early summer, an extremely laborious task.cordyceps sinensis351
The Chinese call it ‘Summer Grass Winter Worm’, it’s full Latin name is Cordyseps Sinensis, and it is sometimes referred to as ‘Himalayan Viagra’!
It is the result of a parasitic relationship between the caterpillars of the Himalayan Bat moth and the cordyceps fungus. These caterpillars burrow into the ground, when they feed on the roots of a cordyceps fungus they become infected by its spores; the spores then start growing inside the the infected caterpillar’s body, replacing the tissue with its own. When the caterpillar is about to die having been totally overtaken by the fungus, it moves up to the surface of the ground where it
As it only grows wild at very high altitude it is not easy to access. Local villagers in Qing Hai and Tibet go out in the late spring and spend days crawling over the ground searching for the fungus. Areas of land where it is known to grow are jealously guarded and in recent years, as the price has risen, there have been some serious fighting between neighbouring villages as to who has the ‘right’ to certain patches of grassland. For most of the communities up in these high, desolate places, the fungus represents nearly a quarter of their annual income – however they do not get the huge prices which accrue as the fungus is moved from middle-man to middle-man down the supply chain until it ends up in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai where it is elaborately packaged for sale.

Caterpillar fungus has featured in TCM and Tibetan medicine for over 2000 years and was always expensive, but it really became super valuable in the last 15-20 years when researchers for ‘Big Pharma’ companies around the world came across it. They had discovered that the active ingredient in each of these fungi is cordycepin which is extremely powerful and has huge potential for use in the treatment of some cancers. Additionally it seems to boost the efficacy of chemotherapy as well as mitigating some of its worst side effects. It also strengthens the immune system and aids the movement of blood to the heart. Many studies are underway, as you can imagine.

In China caterpillar fungus is usually taken by being cooked into a special soup which people drink to get the benefits….having said that, one Chinese chap I know said all you had to do was soak a couple of the fungi in a bottle of Baijiu, and then drink that!th-3.jpg

I have been given several recipes for making such a soup, all of which involve other esoteric ingredients – black chicken, dried Angelica root, slices of dried Milk Vetch etc.
Some friends who have seen our box of fungi have warned us to exercise extreme caution as the caterpillar fungus is an extremely powerful ingredient and it is possible to have an adverse reaction – particularly if one is taking other (Western) medicine. So after much discussion we have decided to give it a miss. This box of 20 ampoules will be ‘re-gifted’ in due course, which is probably how we were given it in the first place!

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