Monday, June 22, 2009

Property Rights in the Afterlife

I recently read the excavation report on a set of fourth- and early fifth-century tombs found near Dunhuang. Few of them had any of the wall paintings I was interested in, but a good number contained exorcism flasks and tomb deeds, two kinds of document/artifact that I find fascinating for what they imply about the connections (and disconnections) between the worlds of the living and the dead.

Exorcism flasks or douping are ceramic bottles with long handwritten inscriptions on them, found in pairs in the tomb chambers. The inscriptions usually start with the name of the deceased and the date of his or her death. There then follows a formula which seems to describe a kind of ritual performed by the living, often something like “We have placed these flasks, the five grains, and the lead men in the tomb.” The five grains are soybeans, wheat, foxtail millet, common millet, and (depending on who you ask) either rice or hemp seed. They are the ancient staple crops of China, named as such in some of the oldest books that now survive. The lead men are crude humanoid figures cut from sheets of lead, found in many of these tombs as well. Why these three things should have been put into tombs is a mystery; but it’s clear from the inscriptions that, having once put them into the tombs, the living thought the dead should be satisfied. The formula usually ends with some kind of exhortation to the dead never to return to the world of the living. “The living and the dead walk separate paths!” proclaim the inscriptions. It’s not the stuff of which lamentations are made; there are no hopes of holding on to the person who has died. Rather, there seems to be a distinct sense that however beloved the deceased might have been, it was crucial to ensure that the spirit of the recently dead should not hang around the living.

Tomb deeds are another odd genre of artifact: I’ve seen lead ones (with inscriptions carved into sheets of lead) in museums, though the ones at this site were inscribed in ink on big flat tiles. They are essentially deeds of ownership for the land occupied by the tomb, made in the name of the deceased, and valid and defensible in the courts of the underworld. They exhort the deities of land ownership in the afterlife to confirm the deceased in his or her land rights, and to protect such rights from incursion by demons.

These two kinds of artifacts tell us a lot about the way in which the afterlife was imagined in fourth-century Dunhuang. As in later periods, it appears that the afterlife was assumed to be socially and politically parallel to this one - that there would be aristocratic and official ranks, a military hierarchy, and a system of government bureaucracy not unlike that of dynastic China. In some later ghost stories, it’s not uncommon for a deceased soul to arrive in the underworld only to find he has died by clerical error, and must be sent back (hijinks usually ensue, especially if his family is quick to cremate). This seems to be combined with an older idea that the passage to the afterlife is a potentially dangerous one, from which the soul must be protected. One of the oldest poems in Chinese, the famous “Summoning of the Soul” from the Chu ci, is an exhortation to the soul of a recently deceased prince of Chu to return to the tomb prepared for him, and not to wander too far off; it enumerates the dangers of the demons of the four directions in excruciating detail. (The Chu ci have been translated as “Songs of the South,” still pretty widely available if I recall correctly.) Given all the dangers of wandering freely in the spirit world, it would seem crucial to have a refuge to which to return at any time; and given the bureaucratic nature of the underworld, it was apparently important to have clear title to your own tomb in case of a property dispute (if another tomb impinged upon yours?). But also, the world of the dead and the world of the living were properly separate, and spirits were not to go travelling between them at will. This seems to be the message of the douping: We’ve prepared everything properly for you, so be satisfied and remain in your own realm, no matter how much you may want to return.

Makes you think department

Seen in the bookstore the other day: A tall and husky Buddhist monk, pushing a shopping cart groaning with books, and humming along to the Muzak version of “Careless Whisper” that was playing on the PA. On the top of the stack of books: the Chinese translation of “It Takes a Village.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On not reading "Anne of Green Gables"

Spending all my time in the library isn’t great for my blogging, and
it gets a bit mentally overwhelming too. In search of some escape
other than Chinese TV documentaries, I’ve found some free English
books online at a site which offers a few of my childhood favorites,
including several of the Dr. Dolittle books by Hugh Lofting, and a
handful of the Anne of Green Gables books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
These were so beloved by me as a child that I was completely beside
myself when my father’s bagpipe band’s competition schedule took them,
and thus us, to Prince Edward Island for the weekend of my tenth or
eleventh birthday. This weekend was memorable for a number of other
things, including the Great Family Clam Chowder Debate (“whole or
chopped?”), a trail ride that delighted my horse-loving soul, and a
terrifying thunderstorm in which choosing a campsite on a bluff
overlooking the salt marsh suddenly seemed far less picturesque. But
visiting PEI was something I’d always wanted to do, and I remember
drinking it in deeply.

I don’t always remember why I loved particular books as a child; I was
a prolific reader, more of a literary gourmand than a gourmet, and had
more or less read through the entire collection of our small-town
public library, whose robust collection of Edwardian young-adult
fiction probably influenced me more than I’d prefer to admit. I cared
about good writing, I do remember that, but usually there was more to
it than that. Re-reading Anne of Green Gables, I realize now that one
of the things that drew me to these books in particular was their
powerful love of place. The stories are sweetly humorous, if
sometimes rather moralizing, but overlying everything is an abiding
and deep love for rural Prince Edward Island as a place, with its
fields and farmhouses and woods and the sea always nearby. In the
character of Anne Shirley, the author has created a figure who I think
must share her own love of the island; otherwise it is hard to imagine where the
deeply affectionate (and affecting) descriptions of the woods and
hills in all their seasons might come from. As described by Lucy Maud
Montgomery, it is a place not unlike where I grew up, and Anne as a
young girl occupies its fields and orchards in a way not unlike my own
relationship to the land in childhood. This makes it hard to read,
because of course my choices have taken me very far away from that
place; at the moment, so far away that if I went further I would begin
to grow nearer. And that, of course, may be where the story goes next
- but in the meantime I have to be careful not to read too much Anne,
for fear of homesickness.

Losing Liulichang

On Friday afternoons the reading room in the Archaeology and Museology
Institute is closed, so this Friday I decided to troll the bookshops
of Liulichang, as I have done many times before, for books I need for
this research project (and for new publications). Since I had to be
downtown at 7 for Friday night services, it made sense to go in a
little early - it takes at least an hour to get downtown, so one wants
to get as much done as possible when one goes. I took the bus, then
the subway, getting off at Fuchengmen to photograph a wonderful shop
sign I’d seen from a bus (a halal eatery whose English sign reads “The
Huguosi Noshery”) and then getting on again to ride down to Qianmen.

Qianmen is almost completely unrecognizable (see my Flickr stream for
details - link in the sidebar - now that Flickr is back up I can post
pictures again). It’s been made into a pedestrian street with new
shopfronts which are reconstructed versions of the ones found there in
the late 19th and early 20th century - you can see the historical
photographs posted here and there on the walls for comparison. You
pass under a gigantic pailou (memorial arch) of the kind that stood
across many city streets until the great Beijing Soviet-style facelift
of the 1950s. Most of the shopfronts are still empty but the street
is clearly about to be unveiled. Trolley tracks run down the street,
which is paved with stone slabs, and standing on a siding across the
street from the Zhengyilou city gate is a sleekly enameled camel-
colored trolley, named “Qianmen No. 1.” It needs only men in trilby
hats and Chinese robes, with round tortoiseshell glasses, to complete
the picture of early 20th century China. I was so disoriented that I
forgot Liulichang is on the east side of Qianmen, between Qianmen and
Hepingmen. I got halfway down Dashilar before I gave in to my
disorientation and had a red bean popsicle instead. Thank goodness
some things haven’t changed. I'll find Liulichang some other time.

The Swallows of Beijing

There has been a settlement on the site of Beijing at least since the
Han dynasty, and if you believe the paleoanthropologists, since before
the last ice age (although as far as I know it is unlikely that the
hominids of Zhoukoudian were the ancestors of any modern people now
living). The city was established as Ji, the capital of the state of
Yan, during the Warring States period (5th century BCE). But Beijing
didn’t really get going until the tenth century or so, when it became
one of the regional capitals of the Liao dynasty. It has had many
names over the years, but one of the recurring ones is Yanjing, or
“Capital of Yan,” referring to its early history. But the name Yan
means “swallow,” and so it can also be thought of (especially by
literal-minded early Chinese learners, as I was when I first came
here) as the City of Swallows.

Another word which I learned on that first trip, and savored with the
same poetic literal-mindedness, was the verb “to stroll.” It is “san
bu,” literally, “to scatter one’s footsteps.” It was something we did
in the twilight, after the close of another scorchingly hot summer’s
day, escaping from airless apartments to wander through the streets in
the comparative cool. Everyone was out on the sidewalks, and you
could buy watermelons and spit out the seeds as you walked, or munch
various fried things on skewers. I don’t know that anybody sells
whole deep-fried sparrows on a stick any more, except in ersatz snack
streets like Wangfujing, and spitting watermelon seeds is probably
considered anti-social in a post-Olympic world. People used to come
out in their pajamas, perhaps fresh from a shower, if they were lucky
enough to have bathing facilities at home, with plastic slippers on
their feet; in fact, they used to walk along back from the public
showers in their pajamas, with an enameled tin basin full of bath
supplies. Beijing has smartened up so much that it is no longer quite
the thing, I think; but I have to say I miss the sight of some skinny
old guy with a bristling white brush-cut, badly shaven, in singlet and
blue striped pajama bottoms, ambling along the street, pulling a jerry-
rigged toy car by a piece of rope, with a toddler in split-bottomed
pants riding along like a king, gazing archly at everyone he passed.

Those split-bottomed pants are still worn by the not quite toilet-
trained; and another thing that hasn’t disappeared is the practice of
shaving the hair of very young children quite off in the summertime,
so that they really appear entirely genderless (but quite cool and
comfortable). I have seen a number of boys or possibly girls sporting
this look. Beijing isn’t any cooler now than it was then, and
people still come out in the evenings, but so many people live in
housing estates now that most of the strolling seems to happen in more
semi-private spaces; and in any event, the streets have been adapted
to car traffic in such a way that they can’t possibly be the gathering
places they once were, at least not out here in the newly built
suburbs. I should spend an evening in town one of these days to see
if it’s different.

Beijing was not named Yanjing for its swallows; but in fact it has
many, and they can often be seen in gyroscopic flight over the parks
and waterways of the city, doing their part to combat the insect
population. The sun sets late in Beijing in the summer, and the
swallows hunted well into the evening. As dusk deepened, in those
days, you would become aware of a new fluttering motion that had
replaced the sleek dancing dives of the hunting swallows. After dark,
the bug hunt was carried on by Beijing’s thousands of little bats.
The bat is a sign of good fortune in traditional China, because the
word for bat (the “fu” in “bianfu”) sounds like the word for good
fortune (fu), and their flight overhead was a kind of blessing on the
city as everyone gathered in for the night.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A open letter to the men of Beijing

Congratulations! You have correctly observed that my breasts are
several times larger than the local standard issue. Now please get a
grip.

Things that come to mind unbidden

Beijing has changed so much over recent years that my knowledge of the
city isn’t always particularly useful to me; I can’t always count on
things being located where they used to be. But occasionally they
still are, and so my experience of the last week has involved several
bits of disconnected information rising out of the depths of memory to
click into place. I was standing at the bus stop when I remembered I
needed to buy a longer Ethernet cable (since the port and desk are on
opposite sides of my room). Suddenly the memory that the building
behind me was once a computer supply mall popped into place, and I
turned around and walked into it. It still was a computer supply
mall, and it took me 2 minutes to get my cable. The #808 bus sailed
by and I remembered in a flash that this was how you got to Xizhimen
back when Xizhimen (about 6-7km away) was the nearest subway station
to campus.

These are the kinds of random connections that prove useful. But I
was also recently riding a bus in the western Haidian district, near
where I’m staying, and happened to pass by the Sijiqing bridge. The
thing that stirred in memory, this time, was the recollection of a
tour we were given in 1988 of the Sijiqing People’s Commune, a model
center of collective agriculture. During the second half of the
Cultural Revolution, this was the site where foreign visitors were
given tours of the successes of the collective system, but by 1988 it
must have been on its last legs. The communes started to be
dismantled in 1978 with the Four Modernizations campaign, and the
process only accelerated over time. But I do remember the place as a
green expanse of agricultural fields. Today, of course, it is a huge
cluster of high-rise housing and shopping malls, interspersed with
sprawling building-supply markets. Sijiqing is currently on the
leading edge of Beijing’s urban expansion, and these markets no doubt
are supplying the growth. I do wish I’d paid more attention to the
commune when we visited in 1988; in my memory it’s twined together
with a tour of the Beijing Jeep factory, then the first-ever
automotive joint venture in China. Seen in retrospect, the Jeep
factory was the future and the agricultural commune was the past. But
I didn’t know that at the time.

Place Names

In the library on Friday, while looking for something else, I came
across a book called “Place Names of Beijing.” It’s like “Sites of
O’ahu” for those of you familiar with that work - an account of how
places around the city got their names and what used to be there.
This was immediately fascinating to me, as there are a number of place
names I’ve always wondered about. A certain number of place names in
Beijing (or any Chinese city) are apparently obvious in their origins,
like Baizhifang (Papermakers’ Street) or Liulichang (Glazed Brick
Factory), though it can be interesting to find out how these got
started - Liulichang apparently became the site of the eponymous
factory at the beginning of the Yuan (c. 1279) when Beijing was first
established as a national capital, so that even though it’s been the
city’s primary antiques market for centuries, it still has its rather
industrial name. Similarly, many neighborhoods simply have the names
of the villages that were located there before they were absorbed into
the urban sprawl. Many Chinese village names have a standard form,
like Ganjiakou, “Gan Family Junction,” or Shijiazhuang (the capital of
Hebei), “Shi Family Villa.” So these become the names of major
intersections in the city, where the villages once stood.

Other place names are less obvious in their meanings. When I was
first here, I attended a high school on Erlong Lu (Two Dragon Road), a
confusingly twisty road in the Xicheng district. I lived with a
family just off that road, on a lane called Yunti hutong (Ladder to
the Clouds Lane), which connected Erlong Lu with the rather
inexplicably named Picai hutong (Opening Talent Lane). So I started
by looking these up. Two Dragon Road, it turns out, was the location
of the prison and the criminal courts in the Ming city (1368-1644).
Two winding streams, which emptied into the Zhongnanhai lakes, curved
around the complex like a moat, and from their winding aspect they
were called the Two Dragon Streams. Eventually they were shored up
artificially, so that the water was well below ground level, and they
became known as the Two Dragon Ditches. And eventually, during the
Qing, they were paved over like many of Beijing’s other minor
waterways, and became Two Dragon Road.

Yunti hutong, which I always privately thought of as “Stairway to
Heaven Lane,” was a far less interesting story, in that it had once
been two lanes, one named Guiguan (Ghost Gate) and the other Tizi
hutong (Ladder Lane). Where the “cloud” part of the name came from is
unclear, but Yunti (“cloud-ladder”) hutong is the name given to the
two lanes when they were united as one. The more interesting thing
here is what happened to the Ghost Gate. Apparently under the
Republican administration (1911-1949, not counting the Japanese
occupation of 1937-1945) there was a movement to make place names more
“elegant,” by which seems to have been meant more literary or even
just more upper-class. Ghost Gate, apparently marking the location of
some lost temple, was far too redolent of the folk tradition for the
ROC’s progressive self-image, and the name was changed to Guiguan (a
near-homonym with a different tone and different character), meaning
“noble gate.”

This movement to make Beijing’s placenames classier also, finally,
explains Picai hutong. I always had trouble remembering this one,
since it only really parses in classical Chinese - it’s not something
you’d ever say - and it’s even kind of weird-sounding in classical
Chinese. But it sounds very close to Pichai hutong (Woodsplitters’
Lane), which is far more idiomatic, and in fact is what I originally
thought the name of the lane to be until somebody set me straight.
The book I was reading said that in fact Woodsplitters’ Lane was the
original name, but again, during the ROC, it was decided that this
didn’t sound classy enough, so based on the nearby location of some
kind of school (I can’t remember which one) they changed it to Picai
hutong (Opening Talent Lane), which is awkward and hard to remember,
but at least it’s awkward in an elevated way.

The other place name I looked up was Moshikou - “Model Junction” -
which is the neighborhood where the Fahai Temple and the Beijing
Exhibition Hall of Eunuch Culture are located, out by the Capital
Steel plant in the western suburbs. When I first heard the place
name, I wondered whether it had been a village of model-makers, or
possibly mold-makers (as in carved wooden molds for rice cakes or moon
cakes or whatever). I remember travelling out there to see the temple
and the exhibition; it’s a nice little neighborhood with some pretty
older houses abutting a sunken lane. Oddly, I noticed a lot of round
millstones worked into the stonework of the houses here and there.
This isn’t uncommon, for disused worked stone to be reused in some
way, and you sometimes find some archaeological discoveries if you
look twice at the building materials of ordinary houses. But the
millstones, it turns out, are the key to Moshikou: its original name
was Moshikou (different tones and different characters), meaning
“Millstone Junction,” and was known since the Song dynasty as a center
of manufacture for grindstones. It was also the start of one of the
“ice canals,” man-made waterways by which building materials for the
Forbidden City were barged in on sledges over the ice in wintertime.
But once again, “Millstone Junction” wasn’t classy enough for the ROC
government, and it was rechristened “Model Junction” in the hopes that
it would serve as a model for other villages in the region.

What’s kind of striking about all this is how many of these name
changes tend to point up the division between spoken and written
Chinese usage. Literate Chinese people, and people who learn Chinese
as a foreign language, tend to think of the characters as
authoritative (because they persist across historical periods and
dialect boundaries) and the spoken word as transitory or prone to
alteration. It’s true that Chinese has so many homonyms that the
written characters are an important, though not the only, way of
disambiguating same-sounding words. But the impression I got from a
number of the entries I read in this book on place names was that a
lot of Beijing place names were spoken names first and foremost, and
the reason the characters used to write them varied over time was that
they weren’t originally fixed.

Haidian District, where I’m staying, is a good example; it means
something like “Lake Dock” district, for a large, shallow lake that
used to be in the area but was slowly filled in over time. But a Yuan
source, a diplomat recounting the route he took travelling north from
the capital, describes it as “Lake Station,” using another “dian”
which is pronounced exactly the same but written differently. It
looks like the name existed already in spoken usage, but it wasn’t
until someone wanted to write it down that a decision had to be made
about which “dian” was meant. This is compounded by the proliferation
of Mongolian and Manchu placenames around Beijing, the legacy of the
Yuan (Mongol) and Qing (Manchu) dynasties, which made their capitals
here. The word “hutong,” which I’ve rendered here as “lane,” is
actually totally meaningless in Chinese, if the meaning of the
characters is taken literally. It only makes sense if you know that
it’s an arbitrary Chinese transliteration of the Mongolian word
“hottog,” meaning “water well,” and indicating a residential lane
where all the residences share a water source. The ROC period changes
in place names represent a reworking of the spoken name of the street
or lane (often a significant reworking - none of the ROC updatings of
names I’ve described above involve perfect homonyms - there’s usually
at least a tone shift, which is a big deal to native speakers) so that
the written form, which in literate culture would be seen as the
“real” form of the name, reflected the image of a civilized and
modernizing Beijing. But in spoken usage, the name of the place
sometimes doesn’t change at all (cf. Moshikou), which leaves places
like this with a more tangible link to their past than perhaps the ROC
name-changers imagined.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What a difference 21 years makes

The impressive modernist airport terminal by which I arrived in Beijing is the third new airport terminal at which I’ve arrived in Beijing over the years. (I have also arrived in two different Shanghai airports, Hongqiao and Pudong, but that’s another story.) My first trip to China was in the summer of 1988, and we flew into the Capital Airport Terminal 1, which at the time was the only terminal, built in 1980 to replace the original 1958 building. It was hydra- like in design, with round, podlike arrival/departure halls connected to the main terminal by stemlike hallways. Departure gates budded off from the pods all round their circumference. The floors were laid in abstract patterns of dull yellow terrazzo, and all the seats were futuristic molded plastic shells, bolted to the floor. It was a
vaguely ‘50s-futurist design, clearly Cold War in its origins: Soviet central planning meets the Jetsons. It’s now principally famous as the location of the Yuan Yunsheng mural “The Water-Splashing Festival” (1979), a landmark work in the development of contemporary Chinese art, noteworthy both for its use of ethnic-minority themes and for its depiction of female nudes.

When I arrived in China for a year of dissertation work in September
2001 (which turned out to be a very strange year to be an expatriate), I flew into Terminal 2, which was dedicated for the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC in 1999. It is spacious and clean and has a pleasingly modernist waveform roof. At the time I thought it was quite modern-looking, but it’s been completely outclassed by Terminal 3, where I arrived this week. Terminal 3 is apparently as big as all the terminals at Heathrow put together, and then some. It’s so enormous that getting to the baggage claim involved trains. I had no ability to assess its size overall, arriving as I did in the late evening and after twelve hours of travel, but my lasting impression is of glinting steel and acres of glass, and one memorably clean bathroom, where even the squat-style toilet smelled like roses.

Before I left, I was running around getting things I would need for the trip. After 21 years I am a fairly seasoned China traveller, but at one point Rex turned to me and said “You know, you’ll be able to find whatever you need in Beijing. It’s an international capital now.” And he was right. Unlike in the past, there are plenty of things that are now just as available here as they are in the US, and given where I live, sometimes more available. The cost, too, is now often more or less the same, though the flip side is that, unlike in the past, the quality is also often very high. As a largish Westerner, I find that clothing in my size is still unavailable - I had to buy a men’s belt recently when I needed one for the pants I bought just before coming here - but otherwise, post-Olympics Beijing is really another world. I was perhaps unnecessarily boggled to discover, for example, that the Beijing Subway, in operation since 1969, now finally goes to the airport. A brief list of the things I have arranged since arriving here, all with a minimum of fuss:

Local cellphone number
Local university ID
Library card
Cafeteria stored-value card
Bus/Subway stored-value card

These are all things that in an earlier China - and not necessarily much earlier, maybe something like 2001 - could potentially have demanded the negotiation of snarling bureaucracies and sullen service workers. Each of them now simply requires the appropriate service charge, and occasionally some form of ID; and in most cases the people I dealt with were unfailingly helpful.

Other things have changed since I was first here, but they have as much to do with the fact that I’m not 16 any more as with changes in the country itself. Westerners usually look older than they actually are to Chinese viewers, so I look forty-plus to most people; if I hadn’t just colored the white out of my hair, I would probably look fifty to them. My fashion sense, such as it is, was never particularly Chinese: never girly enough (and I can’t bear to wear the shoes many Chinese women wear, especially in the searing heat of a Beijing summer) and usually too casual. I’ve brought a few skirts and tops which probably look age-appropriate to the Chinese viewer, and also a few pairs of capris, which ditto; but on days when I’m just going to the library (like today), I might wear shorts and a T-shirt and sneakers, which is both overly youthful and somewhat masculine in the Chinese context. My Tevas are totally unredeemable - I hadn’t planned to wear them in Beijing, but I went out to a Buddhist temple in the suburbs on Sunday in an effort to stave off jet lag, and the resulting blisters have meant I’ve had to wear them. And my haircut, which I normally think of as a rather smart bob, is more common among middle-aged women than among young ones here - perhaps a legacy of its use in the 1970s - while my natural wave makes it look like I have a perm, which is also more commonly a middle-aged thing to do (since the 1980s). If I were a vainer person, some of this might bother me, but fortunately I did learn at some point to pick and choose which misconceptions about me need to be untangled and which don’t.

Of the many things I’ve learned in my life, one of the things I’m proudest of is the fact that I am well and truly bilingual. Recently I haven’t spoken much Chinese and I had started to worry that I was forgetting it, but it turns out I wasn’t; it’s still right there, Beijing accent and all. I do keep adding vocabulary (recently, the distinction between “SIM card” and “added-value card” for cellphones) but have not lost my ability to occasionally fool people into thinking I’m a native speaker over the phone (inconvenient in cases where a Chinese citizen’s national identity card number is called for, and I have to explain the whole passport thing). One of the things that I first loved about being in China, back in 1988 when I’d only studied 3 years of Chinese, was the way in which my ability to speak (and my enthusiasm for speaking Chinese, which, at the time, was the greater of the two) endeared me to Chinese people I interacted with, from bus conductors to lunch ladies. In 1988 this had at least something to do with the rarity of foreigners speaking Chinese at all. The first public bus I ever took on my own was in Beijing, from Minzu Gong to the shopping street Wangfujing (about five stops along Chang’an Dajie, the biggest, straightest street in the capital). Having grown up in the total absence of public transportation, I didn’t realize that the return bus would run along the other side of the street. When I got on going the wrong way, at the same stop where I’d just gotten off, the bus conductor just laughed and pointed me in the right direction. Later I realized that a tourist from the provinces would probably have gotten an earful of abuse instead of laughter.

It’s no longer rare or even really remarkable for a foreigner to speak Chinese, now that we have Da Shan, a Canadian who’s made a career as a public personality in China out of his ability to speak idiomatic Chinese and, in particular, to perform xiangsheng or “crosstalk,” a traditional two-man stand-up comedy routine conducted at rapid-fire speed and depending broadly on punning and other linguistic twists for its punchlines. One of the most annoying things you could say to a Chinese-speaking foreigner, for a while there, was “You sound just like Da Shan.” Nobody’s said it to me yet this round, which suggests that he’s no longer the standard by which Chinese fluency is judged, and just as well, too, if you ask me. But the truth is that to speak Chinese unaccented and idiomatically is still considered remarkable,
and people want to talk to you - just talk to you - because of it.

After a particularly punishing school year, I’ve needed to be drawn out of my shell a bit, and it turns out that it’s cashiers and newsstand attendants who are doing it, little by little, and with the robust cheerfulness that is characteristic of so many Beijingers. But some people working these service jobs are quite young, and one thing that’s happening now, that’s never happened before, is that when they ask me how long I’ve been speaking Chinese, the answer (24 years) makes them exclaim “You’ve been speaking Chinese longer than I
have!” And, strangely enough, it’s true.

China blogging in the age of H1N1 influenza

Greetings! This and the following China-related blog entries are posted here by the kind intervention of my friend and former boss Carter-san. Bloglines and Flickr have recently been blocked by the Great Firewall of China (the national proxy server by which the Chinese government blocks access to certain parts of the web) and I thought that I’d have to give up on China blogging altogether. As it is, you’ll have to wait for the pictures until they unblock Flickr, which I use to host the pictures you see on this blog - I was able to upload my first day’s worth of pictures, and then access was cut off.

For those of you who are my Facebook friends, I’m posting some odds and ends of pictures over there. For the rest of you, this will be a test of my ability to describe what I see, which is, after all, what I do for a living. It is possible that some of these sites will be unblocked after tomorrow’s 20th anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square Incident has blown over, but you really never know. So, all hail Carter-san; and thanks.

I arrived in Beijing last Friday night, after a comfortable flight on ANA (and oh, how I love the Japanese airlines). Seven hours to Narita, with a three-hour layover during which I absent-mindedly changed about three times as much money as I needed for the bowl of udon I had for lunch - though the truth is that I can just spend my yen at home if I like, so that’s convenient enough. Then two and a half hours to Beijing. The twin themes of the trip were pork and swine flu: it’s harder to avoid pork in Japan than in China, so I had to pass on one of the ANA meals because it was a ham sandwich, and I had my temperature taken by infrared sensor twice in Japan and twice in China, as part of H1N1 influenza screening - and I didn’t even legally enter Japan. Both countries have public health forms to fill in on entering the country; I didn’t need to do the one for Japan, but the one for China asks you to list all the places you’ve been to in the last seven days, along with a lot of other information about symptoms and health. You’re also asked to give extremely detailed contact information for the next seven days after arrival. If any of us on the flight had had H1N1 influenza, the Chinese public health authorities already have a very detailed record of who might have come in contact with them.

When we landed in Beijing (at a huge, sparkling glass-and-steel terminal that I didn’t recognize AT ALL) the PA system announced that we should all stay in our seats, while a team of doctors came on board to conduct a health inspection. This sounded potentially interminable but actually ended up being very quick: six uniformed people wearing face masks came onto the airplane and took everybody’s temperature with an infrared sensor. The sensor is a sort of gun-like device, aimed, disconcertingly, at the center of the forehead; the slightly threatening nature of the thing is somewhat mitigated by its being colored baby pink. As we passed through the various control points of the border-crossing procedure I noticed several viewing stations equipped with infrared cameras which were connected to video displays: another way to monitor for elevated body temperature.

It was at once faintly invasive, in a vaguely Big Brother-ish way, and also a stunningly efficient, high-tech (and non-invasive) way of checking for one of the signs of flu. Nobody had to give a blood sample or undergo any other tests, and the whole border procedure went very, very smoothly. China has identified something like forty or fifty cases of H1N1 flu, of which only one, in Guangzhou, is a domestic transmission; the others have come from overseas, principally from the US. It does occur to me that given the emphasis on the monitoring of international airports, seaports and border checkpoints, China’s more porous land borders might go under-checked, particularly those in remote regions with largely minority populations and/or subsistence lifestyles. Similarly, rural cases of H1N1 influenza, should they develop, might be less likely to be identified in regions where health services are less well-funded or less technologically well-supplied. Still, as a display of centralized state organization and efficiency in the interests of public health (to say nothing of technological development), it was all extremely impressive.