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How were China’s provinces named?

18 Nov

China has 27 provinces and autonomous regions, and this great feature explains every single one of their names from Anhui to Zhejiang. It goes beyond superficial translations of their names into the history and significance. Many of them are named after geographical purposes, such as Hubei (literal translation: North of the lake), which is north of Lake Dongting, or Shandong (East of the mountains), eastwards of the Taihang mountains. A surprising number of them are named for their rivers, such as Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River), which indeed is named for the river of the same name that flows between Russia and China. Meanwhile Sichuan (Four Circuits) was named due to its being divided into four states that formed river circuits during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).


China’s injustice after World War I

6 Sep

An interesting but little-known part of modern Chinese history is its connection with World War I. China didn’t participate in the fighting, though fighting took part in China. The Japanese besieged the then-German colony of Qingdao, then managed to capture and hold on to it during tense negotiations with the Allies (Britain, US, France) at the Treaty of Versailles. And this is despite China sending about 140,000 men to help the Allies (as laborers, not soldiers) in Europe during the fighting.

Here’s an interview from Beijing Cream with Paul French, an author of a new book about how China was screwed at Versailles. Among the reasons why China lost out on its valid claim over its own territory is an interesting one – the US, which China appealed to for help, refused because its president, Woodrow Wilson, had a grand project that Japan threatened not to support if they were denied to keep Qingdao. That grand project was the League of Nations, a precursor to the UN, and which Japan countered with a valid argument – how can you create a new world order of nations when you don’t even practice equality in your own society – segregation of blacks from whites. The failure to get the Allies to order Japan to return Qingdao to China led to the May 4th protest movement, which played a role in the formation of what would become the Chinese Communist Party.

Anyways, why would a book about negotiations and politicians arguing be so fascinating, especially about such an obscure (in comparison to other events in the 20th century, especially in China) event? Here’s the stage at which it took place, from the author:

You have two great debaters here, particularly Wellington Koo, the great Chinese diplomat, who was a champion debater at Columbia, very Americanized, very Anglophile. He had been Chinese ambassador to America, very young, was to become during the Second World War Chinese ambassador to Britain, was to be China’s first lead delegate at the League of Nations, and so on. He really was a great debater, and he fought this cause, and it was a passionate cause.

Baron Makino, who was lead negotiator for Japan, was a much more traditional, older character. But he was a great debater as well and a great player of go, Chinese chess. So he knew his strategy very well.

So these two come together in a clash. And of course, like any great courtroom drama, everyone is trying to make sure that the press reports it the way they want it to be reported. All the backchannel stuff is going on and everything; …. And they’re doing all this in front of a table at which is sitting Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, and Clemenceau; the Prime Minister of Britain, the President of France, and the President of the United States. This is a pretty serious judging panel that you’ve got in front of you.

Skyscraper boom and a giant rubber toad

27 Jul

China, along with Hong Kong, has about half of the world’s 20 tallest towers but that’s not enough. However, while previously Shanghai and Shengzhen were building ultra-high towers, smaller and less-famous cities like Suzhou and Wuhan are getting into the skyscraper boom now, mainly for prestige over economic benefits.

The mainland may irritate and infuriate, but sometimes it amuses. As a Chinese home-grown spectacle to rival the famous giant rubber duck that drew crowds in Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei in Taiwan, a giant toad has been put up in Beijing’s Yuyuantan Park (Old Summer Palace). It’s not exactly as popular or “cute” as the duck, but it seems to be funnier, so much so that it’s been allegedly banned on Chinese news sites.


Shanghai’s Jin Mao Tower, flanked by the World Financial Center on the left, and the Shanghai Tower, China’s tallest tower.



Comedy in China

7 May

This decent Atlantic story checks out if stand-up comedy can grow in popularity in China, where cultural differences, lack of familiarity and censorship (yes, even of comedy) hinder the full appreciation of this art. Da Shan, or Canadian Mark Roswell, one of China’s most famous expats who has performed in traditional xiansheng or crosstalk, and Joe Wong, a Chinese who actually gained fame for his nerdish comedy while living in the US, are among the few trying to get things rolling by putting on comedy shows. Things sometimes don’t work well when Western humor gets translated into and performed in Chinese, but there are younger Chinese who seem to like it. The authorities still loom menacingly in the background, figuratively speaking, as Chinese comedian Mia Li says about rules for performing, “you just put on shows until you get arrested.”  And as amusing as that might sound, that’s not a joke.

Brief glimpse of old Beijing

6 Apr

A man goes back to Beijing after 75 years with his son, stunned by all the changes he sees, while remembering his life in the city when Peking (as it was then called) was still surrounded by an old city wall and was about to be invaded and occupied by the Japanese. It’s an interesting read that provides a picture of what old Beijing was like, albeit from a sheltered Western perspective, and reflects a disappointment and disapproval of the political and social changes in China. It’s not surprising that so much has changed in 75 years, though events like the Cultural Revolution, by literally destroying so much physical aspects of the past, caused a lot of the change.

Two great ROC warlords

2 Apr

During China’s ROC (Republic of China) era when it was ruled by Chiang Kai-chek, two of his ablest generals were these guys, who fought under Chiang from the 1920s until the fall of the KMT in 1949 to the Communists. The strong capability and competence of Li Zongren and Bai Chongxi though made them suspect to Chiang who eventually sidelined them, to the point where Li refused to go to Taiwan where Chiang and the KMT fled to after their defeat in the Chinese Civil War, choosing to remain in exile in the US until returning to China in his last years. The article is a fascinating account of these two men and those turbulent times in ROC China of warlords, wars, and civil strife.

Xi’s reign at one year, China 105 years ago, and Taiwan’s Chinese music industry

12 Mar

Xi Jinping has been in power for one year and his reign is already noteworthy for the ongoing crackdown on corruption and official extravagance, as well as projecting a more people-friendly image. However not everything is all bright and sunshine since crackdown on public criticism has also continued and media and political freedoms have not been increased.

Take a look at China from over 100 years ago in 1909 in these photos of people, cities and scenery.

Taiwan is on top of the Chinese music scene, but can it maintain its success?

Longform stories of the year, and top slogans

26 Dec

If you like longform stories and you like reading about China, the Shanghaiist has the perfect list for you. The “10 best longform stories of 2013” include features on a “black jail” guard, the problems with traditional Chinese medicine, and the sad fate of an 85-year-old gynaecologist who exposed an AIDS scandal in the 1990s.

The BBC lists important official slogans that have been used to describe major goals in China in the past 57 years. One of these- “改革开放” (gaige kaifang) – was for Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up that started in 1978 and is also used by Chinese to refer to the event. Slogans are popular because they’re short and simple, and they resemble traditional Chinese proverbs or 成語 (chengyu), which are often short as well.

China’s first Nobel Literature laureate

22 Nov

The first Chinese Nobel Literature Prize winner was not Mo Yan, but Gao Xingjian, back in 2000. Because he left China in the late 80s to seek asylum in France, the government doesn’t acknowledge his victory but it doesn’t change the scope of his achievement. He is widely known in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and still presumably has fans and admirers on the mainland. He’s still a very busy man, judging from the BBC interview in the first link. He has written novels, short stories, and plays, and even paints. His two most well-known novels, both based on events in his life, are Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible. I read both -the former is about his travels through Southwestern China’s Sichuan after a false diagnosis of cancer coupled with threats from authorities to jail him over his work, but it was a little too abstract and mystical for me. I preferred the latter one which was about the Cultural Revolution and was more realistic and gritty.

Early 20th-century China in color

21 Nov

Here’s some great color photos of early 20th century China, as well as other places around the world, from a photo collection called Archives of the Planet commissioned by Albert Kahn. Beijing is there, as is Guilin, but I’m not sure about the rest. The first 10 pages are of China and definitely worth a look.