Monday, 1 October 2012

Loyal to the End on the Liao Er Flats


Why did we ever leave the marsh? It’s true, we had our duty, to the Emperor, to the people, but we never thought about what we would lose. I suppose it was what we had to do, but then you can always choose to go the other way. Us brothers we were so close, but now departed to all the corners of the earth, some to the heavens already. Dai Zong became a Taoist but passed away soon after, his spirit remaining in the temple in Tai’an. Ruan the Seventh was appointed commandant of Gaitian Military District, but other generals and chancellors were worried because of his rebellious past. The Emperor cancelled his appointment and made him an ordinary citizen again, and Ruan returned to Liangshan to live the rest of his life – not long mind you! – as a fisherman, caring for his mother. Oh! Some sons have all the luck, their mother’s staying with them into old age. I was declared a hero, a filial son even! But was it not my fault? She appears to me in my dreams, my mother, never complaining, always just walking away in one direction, as if she still wants to leave the forest and get to the marsh. I try to catch up with her, follow her, protect her, but I can never get near enough to touch her. What’s even worse are the tiger spirits. Drifting through the early morning mist they seem to want to talk to me, they have that look in their eyes, but they stay aloof. Real tigers are no small thing, but still, no match for me. But these spirits, that’s a different thing entirely. Was I right to wreak revenge like that? On their cubs too? I was angry, yes, but I should have gone and got a drink to calm my spirits. Oh what the hell, if I’d had a drink that night I would have wiped out the whole species from these lands and from the heavens too!

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Corruption of 'Watch Brother' Yang Dacai


Directly north of Yan’an, Ansai County is the home of the yaogu drum, and a huge ten metre high drum stands on the hillside looking over the county town, casting a long shadow over the autumn morning. By the north-south highway, which carries vehicles between Inner Mongolia down to Xi’an and beyond, Big-Belly Yang was standing with his hands behind his back and a big smile on his face. After all, he is the head of the Shaanxi province work safety bureau. His belly sticks out over his trousers which he likes to wear particularly high. His hair is gelled and combed back and the morning sun reflects off not only his glasses, but his watch and bracelet too. Unfortunately for Big-Belly Yang, nobody else was smiling. Behind him lay the wreckage of a long-distance coach, which the night before had smashed into the back of a tanker carrying methanol, killing 36 people, most of whom were burned alive. The smile provoked the ire of tens of thousands of web users, who were quick to flesh out the identity of this particular official. But for Big-Belly Yang the problem did not stop with the smile. By various estimates, he was photographed on numerous occasions sporting different types of Rolex watches, adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. When he protested that all his watches had been bought on his government salary, a few thousand yuan a month, over the last decade and that he also sometimes wore his son’s watches, interested web users pointed out that his glasses too were designer model and worth tens of thousands of yuan. Big-Belly Yang fell silent, waiting his fate, safe in the knowledge that at least he is not Police Commissioner Wang.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Education in Rural China: Why Should I Study?

Sign on the school wall

On a cool early autumn evening sitting outside my friend’s bar in Xi’an enjoying a beer with friends, the conversation turned to education. “Now, at least 50% of Chinese students can enter university,” said Xiao Chong, with his girlfriend enthusiastically agreeing, one from the south and one from the north of the province, both graduates now working in the provincial capital. Lao Bang, working on building sites with migrant workers, could not agree. “The people I work with,” all from rural areas, “could not have hoped to enter university.” And for me, working in a rural primary school in the north of the province, the statement seemed even more bizarre. In our school, only a tiny fraction of our students will enter university, at most 10%, so given that nearly half of the Chinese population still lives in the countryside, how is it possible to say 50% have the chance to go to university? Xiao Chong and his girlfriend, after discussing the matter for some time, decided that maybe it is 50% of urban students who can enter university. So in the cities, even amongst educated and relatively clued up youth, the Chinese population still stands for the urban population. The rural population is either not included, or when it is evident, with the influx of rural workers into the cities, is seen as an annoyance, people with lower 'quality' than their urban counterparts who take up urban resources.

Friday, 11 May 2012

The One-Child Policy in Yan'an


Birth Planning: Husbands are Responsible

Late one night last year I was sitting out on the street with my cousin and a friend, eating barbecued goat and having a few beers. As we were sitting there, we noticed on the far side of the road, running up parallel to the row of parked cars, a weasel. It reached the rear wheel of a black BMW and promptly jumped up and hung off the axle, dangling for a few moments before swinging up inside the chassis out of sight. Soon enough though, the little animal jumped down and carried along its way, almost dancing down the street. We could only conclude that weasels, like people, must enjoy letting themselves go every now and again. And weasels, after all, will always find a way, as chicken farmers are well aware. Dogs too, when they set their minds to it, can often get what they want. It was once reported that one particular dog could even talk, and that it kept up written correspondence with another dog, writing long but sometimes loquacious letters back and forth, though it must be remembered that this was reported only by one titular councillor in some provincial part of Russia who had fallen in love with the daughter of a general. But not every one member of the animal kingdom is the same. The giant panda is mostly content with roaming around and eating bamboo, even if more important things are required of it, such as procreating and securing the future of the species. The panda though still sometimes finds itself in an airplane, travelling half way across the world, possibly because one human said something untoward and another said something more agreeable. “There’s nothing we can do about it,” they must say to each other.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Rumours in the Palace: The Downfall of Comrade Bo Xilai


In these parts, rumours are heard everywhere. In a small place like Stability Town, everyone knows everyone, and most intimate details of people’s lives can be discussed over lunch or especially during a drinking session after school. The phenomenon of ‘bagua’, originally referring to the Eight Trigrams of the ancient Book of Changes used in divination, now commonly means any type of lazy talk, and nobody is exempt from its power. It doesn’t take long to hear these stories, especially the most serious or the most amusing, and especially the ones that touch upon the subject of sex. “You know he only managed to marry his wife, against her parents’ wishes, because he made her pregnant?” The subject of many of these rumours is Ti Yu, the PE teacher, the most haoshuang of all the locals. “And did you hear? He would have possibly been able to become a deputy headteacher, or even a headteacher, had it not been for one incident. One of the students was misbehaving, and Ti Yu gave him a beating.” Whenever any of the students misbehaved they were always in danger of being on the end of one of these beatings. Back in December I saw Ti Yu line up the student boarders underneath the flag in the playground. He started shouting at 5 of the girls from dormitory 1 for failing to clean their room, and one by one he pulled the girls out of line and dished out a beating, slapping the backs of their necks and kicking their behinds. “But this one time he went too far. He kicked him and while he was doing it he accidentally kicked him in the balls. The boy had to be taken to hospital and he will never be able to have children. It probably cost Ti Yu a couple of tens of thousands in compensation, and it also means he’ll never be able to get a higher position.” The details are almost not important, it doesn’t matter how many tens of thousands Ti Yu had to pay, and it doesn’t matter whether the boy will really never be able to have children, the story is set in stone, and most newcomers to the school will hear it told before too long.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Improving your Quality

“Yeah, tonight was fun. The bar was quite busy and we drank a lot,” stammered a guy from the village as he staggered into the room. “But someone stepped on my foot, so I punched him in the face, and then lots of people got involved. The bar was closed and we were all chucked out. But it doesn’t matter, I’m back here with a few beers, do you want to join me?” We politely refused, and eventually the guy left, but not before telling us some more important information. “Have you heard? There’s a Russian whore in town! She’s a lot more expensive than the locals, but I don’t care what I have to pay to have a feel of those breasts, so big and white. You should check her out too, must be a while since you’ve fucked a white girl.” In Saomuzegou, a village just outside the county-town, everybody knows everybody. “When we were all younger this guy was alright. But he’s been in and out of prison so many times now, for fighting, drugs, robbery, all sorts. Now he just lives his life doing whatever he wants, not caring about anything because he knows he’ll be back in prison before too long. He’s never really had a job, and the devil only knows how his wife puts up with it,” Liu Bei said. “It’s simple really, this guy has a suzhi problem,” Zhao Lei added. The bar in question had only recently opened and it was already plagued with these kinds of problems. Apparently, back in the early 2000s, a bar had once opened in the county-town before, but it had soon closed down because there were too many fights. “In this county, the general level of suzhi is very low, so it’s impossible to open a bar. We haven’t reached a high enough level of suzhi, collectively,” concluded Zhao.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Love and Sexual Hooliganism


One of the most difficult things about living in this county is the lack of water. Most flats don’t have showers, only the solitary twenty-floor building where the richest people live has showers in the flats. Everyone else generally goes to a public bath house to wash. Going to a public bath house is something that takes getting used to. After all, back home it is considered unusual to hang around in a room full of naked men. But going to a bath house is also good fun. My brother and I used to take a few beers in, and sit in one of the hot pools relaxing. Here, after having a shower, I usually go for a back rub. One of the workers there uses a rough cloth and scrubs you all over, getting rid of most of the dirt that has accumulated in the days without a shower. Lying naked on a bench for this rub down is actually very relaxing too, though the most professional workers have a habit of cupping your balls so that they can scrub the top of your inner thighs. I have also gotten used to the staring and the comments – “you have a lot of hair on your arms and chest.” But recently on a visit to the Wide Sea and Sky bath house, one middle-aged man was a bit more interested than most. “You are very handsome, so white. Your body is good, and your cock is very good too,” he said, watching me while I took a shower. I tried to ignore him as I finished my shower and went for my body scrub. He remained watching as I was scrubbed down, and after taking another shower he encouraged me to sit in the sauna for a while. Not being a fan of saunas I said I was going to put on my clothes, which he seemed to take as a cue to make his move. He touched my chest, and then as I made to walk away he grabbed my cock and said “do you want me to suck it?” No thanks, I said, as I pushed past him and made as quickly as I could for my locker. Having put on my clothes I lit a cigarette, offering him one too, as he sat next to me asking me questions about the local food. For some reason, situations like this just seem somehow normal.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Welcoming the Year of the Dragon in Yan'an

“Son, we have four boys of our own, and you’ve met them all now. Second Brother here who you know well, he has grown up alongside our eldest boys, living so close, and we have always considered him our son too. With you here, far away from home, playing with our boys as though you are brothers, we also think of you as our son. So now we have six sons to celebrate the New Year together. You are the fifth.” We were on our third bottle of liquor and our father had come in to see what was going on. A child of New China, and a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, now mostly engaged in selling vegetables he grows in his retirement, father is most comfortable at this time of the year. His sons are all here, and on coming into the room the eldest offers him a shot of liquor, which he refuses. After much encouragement though, he raises it to his mouth and downs it in one. After we have chatted for a while I offer him a second glass, which he drinks in one mouthful again. In Saomuzegou, a village just west of the county town, the family have a set of four yaodong cave houses, with a yard for growing vegetables, and a small room just outside which acts as a small shop. Second Brother’s yaodong is the next one to the west. As the night goes on we start to hear fireworks and firecrackers going off near and far, but they are still sporadic, just the preliminary taste of the following day’s celebrations.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Death and Beyond in Waguo


Driving out to the train station late one morning our taxi has to swerve suddenly to avoid a woman walking across the road. The woman was walking diagonally away from oncoming traffic, oblivious to our vehicle heading her way. As we skidded to avoid hitting her, she didn’t even look around. Traffic accidents are so common they hardly make the news – only the recent spate of school bus crashes has made the headlines. A month ago on a journey to Suide, a county of Yulin, we were delayed on the road by a bad accident. As we slowly passed the wreckage we saw a public minibus with its front completely smashed flat, a lorry with one rear side in bits, and a car on its roof in the adjacent field. This sort of event is not even newsworthy. Our taxi got moving again and the woman had safely crossed to the other side of the road. She really cares little about her own life, I said. “People here are all like that. They don’t fear death,” remarked the taxi driver casually.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Eighth Route Army in Stability Town

“It was a really bitter time, people nowadays wouldn’t believe it, it was so, so bitter,” said Lao Wu about his time in the Eighth Route Army, while eating a bowl of potato, carrot, tomato and rice that his wife had prepared for us. Lao Wu, 82 years old, lives in the town of 'Stability', in a typical ‘yaodong’ cave house. The couple have two rooms, both of which have a ‘kang’, the stone bed heated by a pipe connecting it with the stove where the day’s cooking is completed. The two doors leading into the house are shaded by curtains, brightly coloured patchwork made of material from old clothes, showing the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Inside the house Lao Wu also has a television, bought for him by his son. The television and the telephone are the only electrical appliances in the house, but Lao Wu never watches television, because “it’s all rubbish.” Instead he spends his days alongside some of the other elderly men in the town, sitting on the side of the main street in Stability, where they smoke and watch the other residents going by. “Where are you going?” “I’m going down there to do something.” These are the kind of vague greetings that get passed around, greetings that are not meant to be answered with specifics. When Lao Wu is not sitting watching the residents of Stability go about their business, he is tending to the small plots of land outside his house, which is just off an alleyway linking the old North Gate of the town with the main street. They are the only couple that live in this particular courtyard, which also contains buildings that are slowly falling apart, buildings which have centuries of history. The cornerstones of old lie alongside millstones that are no longer needed. Within the courtyard Lao Wu has a couple of plots of land, which are tended to by him and his wife, growing potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and cabbage. The vegetables are enough to feed the couple for the entire year, with only rice, bread and oil bought from outside. “We don’t want to grow more to sell, that’s way too much trouble because we would have to pay so much in tax,” explained Lao Wu. Half a dozen hens roam the courtyard, and will provide a hearty meal for when Lao Wu’s children arrive home for Chinese New Year in another month’s time.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Occupy Hong Kong


In the last 12 months I have been to Hong Kong three times. My visa requires me to leave the mainland every 90 days and Hong Kong is the most convenient place to go. Although this is a considerable amount of ‘mafan’, of hassle, a trip to Hong Kong also brings with it a certain amount of relief. Spending most of my time in the countryside, eating school canteen fried cauliflower for breakfast and invariably noodles or steamed bread for lunch, in temperatures that are now down to at least freezing, with no place in the county to go swimming, Hong Kong offers a world of possibilities. Hong Kong’s mixture of skyscrapers and narrow market and residential districts, its hills and its beaches, its people from all over the world and the accompanying food that is brought with them, make it unlike any other part of China. Even the huge cities of Beijing and Shanghai offer nothing near to what can be found in Hong Kong. And the opportunity for a proper pint, a curry or a pie, and a swim in warm waters combine to form a welcome change from my normal environment. Continuing on from the unfairness of its rule as British colony for 150 years, on a British passport I can enter Hong Kong as I wish and stay for up to 180 days without a visa, while for residents of mainland China, the port of Hong Kong remains mainly inaccessible.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Stability Town in Northwest China

Stability Town
I’m living in the town of Stability. The town is situated 15kms west of the city in the county, which itself is 300kms from Xi’an, the provincial capital of Shaanxi. This county is the heart of Shanbei, the northern part of the province, not far west of the Yellow River, where its yellow-brown waters turn southwards and mark out the border between Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces, and not far south of the Great Wall. Stability Town was named for the wish that the area remained peaceful, lying in a perilous place close to the border with Inner Mongolia, and so one of the parts of China most threatened by the Mongols north of the Great Wall. Before 1935, the whole county was called Stability and this town was the main county town, but it was renamed after the death of one of the local communist generals, Xie Zichang, who died that year of wounds he received in the battlefield. Xie Zichang, born a little further west from our town and a former student of our school, had been organising peasants and workers in the area under the banner of the Communist Party long before Chairman Mao and his 10,000 remaining men made it to the end of the Long March. Mao and the other leaders lived in the area for a couple of years, and held the famous Wayaobao Conference here in late 1935, after which local residents began to refer jokingly to the county as ‘Waguo’ – Wa Country.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Acting the English Gentleman on the Yellow Earth Plateau

I got a taxi back to the school in the town late one evening, and as usual, the driver was friendly and talkative. We covered the normal topics: whether I like the local food, what I am doing here, that taxi drivers work long hours and that it’s difficult for people to afford a house. But then he asked, “do the teachers in your school treat you well?” Of course, I replied. Then he said something incisive. “Well, if you stay here long enough, you’ll realise that you can’t trust anyone.”

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Crime and Punishment

Song Jiang
A month or two ago I was in Saomuzegou, a small town just outside the county town. This town is the home of my mate’s family. His dad and mum have a courtyard here with 4 cave houses attached to it. In the yard they grow tomatoes and chillies, amongst other things, and this is our most favoured site for a drinking session. Just behind their yard, up the hill, is the ruined cave house where Chairman Mao himself lived after the end of the Long March, and it was on a visit up there that I got bitten by a dog that rushed out its yard as we walked past, leading to a month of rabies injections. I spend hours here with my mate, whose name means ‘Unite the Army’, his elder brother ‘Please the Army’, his younger brother ‘Small Army’, and his neighbour ‘Construction’, all names typical of the 1970s. His dad talks to us about the experience in this part of China during the People’s Communes which existed up until the late 1970s, when people had no rice, no bread and few vegetables, and existed on a diet of sorghum based products, working the fields and eating together from a ‘big pot’. After long discussions and much drinking we normally settle down 3 or 4 of us on the kang, the heated stone bed that each cave house must have.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A Request for Clothes

Last Sunday I arrived back at my school ready for the start of the new week. There were only three more days until China’s National Day celebrations and our town was holding another festival. I was of course being wheeled out to sing another song, and twelve 2nd and 3rd year students had been busy all weekend practicing their dance for the performance. I was helping the dance teacher, who was starting to lose her voice after so much shouting at the students, by counting out the rhythm and threatening the girls with a stick when they started to run all over the place, all of which they found not in the least frightening but in fact somewhat amusing. While teachers here routinely dish out a good smack to a misbehaving child, the students quickly sensed I just didn’t have it in me.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Fallout: Xinjiang 5 - A Visa Run to Kazakhstan

Ali and I are now on the last leg of our adventure, heading to the Kazakhstan border in the west of Xinjiang, to the border checkpoint at Horguz. My visa is pretty special, it is for one year but I have to leave mainland China every 90 days. Because of this I have already been to Hong Kong, but now, being in Xinjiang, the easiest way I could find was to enter Kazakhstan, even if just for five minutes. I had to get a Kazakhstani visa in Urumqi, but this was relatively easy. To get there we have to take a 12 hour night bus, which like all the night buses in China, smells bad and doesn’t offer a comfortable sleep. In the early hours of the morning, after the sun has risen, the bus stops and after it has stood still for some while I look over at Ali, lying there awake. “There’s a problem with the engine and it might take a few hours to fix.” Today is the last day of the validity of my visa and I don’t want to further complicate my visa run to Kazakhstan by being late, especially as they can fine you 500 yuan for overstaying your visa. I start to feel a bit worried and wonder why I always do things at the last minute.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Fallout: Xinjiang 4 - Wild Camping in the North

We made a collective decision to journey north, skirting around the Gobi Desert towards the Kazakh region famous for its Lake Kanasi. On the long 10 hour coach journey we passed through vast oil fields, with oil pumps as far as the eye could see, another pointer towards the importance of Xinjiang to the Chinese government. We also passed a police checkpoint. I didn’t have my passport but had fortunately remembered to photocopy it and they let us pass without problem. All the Chinese on the coach had to give over their ID cards to be inspected by the police. Arriving in Buerjin however, we soon found we were going to have to go separate ways. Accommodation was hard to come by, and for foreigners even more difficult. We went to a couple of hostels and they wouldn’t accept foreigners, so our Chinese contingent settled there and the three of us honkies, used to this experience by now, left on foot to find somewhere suitable.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Fallout: Xinjiang 3 - Ghosts of Soldiers, Ghosts of Travellers

The next morning we hitched back along the road towards the reservoir hoping for a swim. But on arrival there were signs up all along the side offering a 2000 yuan fine for anyone caught swimming. As there were vendors selling food and milk by the lay by, along with many passers by stopping for photos, and the not so occasional police car passing by, we decided against the challenge. Instead we started back along the road the bus from yesterday would have taken us. The first car we caught was driven by two men from Hunan, who took us quite far, up the windy mountain road approaching 4000 metres above sea level. We stopped at a vantage point to see the mountains receding towards a huge plain of yellow flowers and by now the pains of yesterday had subsided. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Fallout: Xinjiang 2 - Police on our Back


Soon a friend from Guangdong, Da Shan, arrived in town, along with three of his mates who were all on route to Tibet. We got a bus together to Qinghai Lake, the largest lake in China, stopping in a small town called Heimahe, a couple of kilometres walk from the lakeside. We had been warned about swimming in the lake, that it would be too cold, but the first thing we did was strip off, boxer shorts and all, and wade in. And the water was lovely, not cold at all, the only problem was it was a long way out to reach deep water. Anyway a swim with a view of the mountains in the background, almost the foothills of the Himalayas, with blue sky overhead and Tibetan tents set up along the lakeside refreshed us after a few days in the city. That night Da Shan and his friends set up camp and made a fire out of mainly yak dung and we sat watching the stars, with the Milky Way lit up brightly above us. Ali and I stayed in a ‘Tibetan tent’ in the tourist area, though the inside of the tent was decked out in Han Chinese marriage style, complete with the ‘double happiness’ symbol. The Tibetan culture here is completely for sale. The tents exist for tourists, with the Tibetans themselves staying in the nearby town. Men wander about with horses you can ride on, for a fee of course, and if they catch you even taking a photograph of the horse, they will charge you a fee which it is very difficult to refuse.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Fallout: Xinjiang 1 - On the Road


We are terrible for plans, but somewhere between the rough idea and the execution, we tend to make things happen. For six years at least Ali and I have talked and dreamed, always dreaming, about going to Xinjiang. Will it happen? Who knows? But it certainly will.

We’re in a city, still in Shaanxi, called Baoji. We came by bus, though we planned to hitchhike. We tried, and we did reach a lorry park on the outskirts of Xi’an. And we found a lorry straight away that was going all the way to Kuerle, a city in the south of Xinjiang, just a few hundred kilometres from Urumqi, the capital. We talked to the drivers; they were non-committal. “Why do you want to travel by lorry?” Because we like to make friends as we travel, meet people, and find out more about how people live. “But you could go by bus.” That’s not really our style. So we waited in the lorry park. More boxes were loaded on, and the tarpaulin across the top was fixed. “Come and have some food with us.” We shared a plate of noodles, after all we had just had lunch. “We’re going to need some more information from you. What are you doing here in China?” We told them, and they made a few phone calls. “You can come with us. But we’ll have to stop in Ningxia, at our local police station, there they can call your local police station where you say you live, and check you are who you say you are. You know on the road we don’t know what will happen, we don’t want there to be any trouble.” Well, we can understand that. “We’ll have to call the police station in your hometown too.” You mean our hometown in England? “Yes, they’ll be able to confirm who you are.” Er, I don’t think so, they won’t know who we are, it doesn’t quite work like that in England, and anyway, how will they communicate. “Don’t worry, our police station will have a translator.” With so many questions we should have just left, but as usual, we followed whichever way the wind took us. And it took us to the bed behind the driver of the articulated truck. Each truck has two front seats and a bed behind. “Take your shoes off before you climb onto the bed.” No problem. But then the wind blew from another direction. Again. “Actually, we can’t take you, it’s too dangerous.”