Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Two Recommended Reviews of Books About China

Two reviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books recently caught my attention because they were thought provoking and touched on China-related themes I have previously discussed here. I could write an in-depth review of the reviews, but that might only inspire a review of my review of the reviews. So instead, without providing any further context I will simply share a revealing excerpt from each review, and I recommend reading them in full.

Helen Gao reviewed Han Han's This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver), translated by Allan Barr:
In his book, Han characterizes my generation as a “disconnected” one. Communist ideals, together with its unifying power, waned in the 1980s and never took root in our hearts; new barriers such as widening income inequality and stalled social mobility further erode the generational cohesion. Better education, unprecedented access to the outside world and increasing domestic transparency facilitated by social media have enabled us to identify the issues discussed in Han’s writing, but many have chosen to focus on the narrow path immediately ahead. Bogged down by the pressure of living, denied a free channel of speech, and thus locked in our individual worries, what to do but to, say, calculate how long it might take before you can save enough for a down payment on your first apartment?

Han’s writing won us over for so vividly capturing the thin layer of commonalities shared by my generation and the mood born out of this social environment: a dash of irony, a sprinkle of resignation, and a pinch of self-loathing.
And Mei Fong reviewed the collection of pieces My First Visit to China, edited by Kin-ming Liu:
At times dispiriting, these accounts of initial ignorance and then dawning awareness are nonetheless the book’s chief strength. To these Sinologists, linguists, ethnic Chinese returnees, that first visit to China represented humility, the recognition that their years of study or cultural heritage were, in the end, inadequate preparation for understanding modern China. Those initial trips were for many the spark that led to years of distinguished work interpreting and explaining China to the world.

“Our first encounters with China […] are rarely as grand as we hope,” writes Pulitzer-prize-winning contributor Ian Johnson. “That is the nature of exploring foreign countries; all we can hope for is that our first steps are sturdy enough to carry us forward.”
Of course, the two reviews need not be the end of the story. If you choose to read them, enjoy the books as well.

Wikipedia is Not Alone in China

In the WorldViews blog post "Wikipedia largely alone in defying Chinese self-censorship demands", Caitlin Dewey makes several claims deserving response.

Dewey writes:
Most of the sites that operate in China obey censorship rules, which ban information on politically sensitive topics such Tibet, the spiritual movement Falun Gong, and the 1989 protests and crackdown most commonly associated with Tiananmen Square.

When it comes to defying censors outright, Wikipedia is an exception, though China’s Great Firewall also blocks a number of prominent American sites. (That doesn’t necessarily imply a stance against censorship on the blocked site’s part — YouTube and Blogspot are both owned by Google, for instance, which already filters results on its search platform within China.)

1. Google: Google China complies with government censorship laws and does not surface pages related to to banned topics. In January, Google removed a feature that told users when their results were censored.
However, Google does not filter "results on its search platform within China". As Google announced on March 22, 2010:
... earlier today we stopped censoring our search services—Google Search, Google News, and Google Images—on Users visiting are now being redirected to, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong.
As far as I can tell, this remains true today.

Dewey's claim that Wikipedia is "an exception" and "largely alone" appears to be specific to "top 10 American Web sites by global traffic" which "operate" in China and do not censor in accordance with China's laws. By "operate", I assume Dewey means "are not blocked" since none of Wikipedia's servers are in China. In regards to Wikipedia, Dewey writes:
Wikipedia doesn’t censor its content in China, regardless of language, though China’s Great Firewall automatically blocks controversial pages. Wikipedia offers an encrypted version of the site to help users evade the firewall.
As Dewey notes,  selected "sensitive" articles are indeed blocked in China -- similar to how Google Search is now selectively blocked by the Great Firewall. But this is not all that is blocked. Wikipedia’s entire encrypted version is now blocked in China.

So yes, Wikipedia does not censor according to Chinese laws. But the same could be said of at least half of the other "top 10 American Web sites by global traffic", including Google Search. And yes, unlike Wikipedia, several of those sites which don't censor according to Chinese laws, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, are entirely blocked by China's Great Firewall. But Wikipedia does not operate normally in China and faces significant blocking despite being partially available. And it is not alone in that respect. Just ask Google.

Update: Dewey provided the following update to her post:
Samuel Wade at the China Digital Times points out that, while Google formally follows local censorship laws, it also quietly redirects Chinese users from to — which helps them avoid mainland filtering.
Hmm... I'll just say that the biggest impact of redirecting users in mainland China to Google's Hong Kong site is it allows Google to legally not censor search results as required by mainland Chinese law. However, the Great Firewall selectively filters those searches. Google offers encrypted search, which would be difficult for the Great Firewall to filter, but that's often entirely blocked by the Great Firewall. I just tried the encrypted search now and was able to successfully search for a typically blocked query. However, I was soon blocked from continued use of Google. This "messy" sort of blocking is very common with Google in China.

Update 2: Dewey's post has been updated again with corrections. For some brief commentary, see my more recent post here.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Fried Enema at a Restaurant in Beijing

Yesterday, I saw a response to this tweet:

In my travels across China, I usually don't see many menu mistranslations. One reason for this is simple: many restaurants in the locations I visit don't even have a non-Chinese language menu. However, in cities such as Beijing there are many more English language menus available, probably in no small part due to its large number of foreign residents and visitors (there can be other motivating factors though).

Nonetheless, mistranslations in Chinese menus are not surprising to me, and usually I would not give them a lot of attention. However, recently in Beijing I saw a menu deserving a photo. So I was able to add to the responses to Chao's tweet with the following example:

Chinese menu with 'fried enema', 'fried pseudosciaena polyactis', and 'Bean. Focus ring each set'

Mmm... fried enema. And it even comes with a garnish.

I am not the first to have noted this exceptional dish. And for those not familiar with Chinese (or English), the translation has already been explained by Victor Mair on the Language Log:
The Chinese name of the dish in question is zhá guànchang 炸灌腸, which is a kind of sausage made of wheat flour stuffed into hog casings and fried. The last two characters, pronounced guàncháng, also have a completely different meaning, viz., "enema" or "give an enema" (literally, "to irrigate the intestine").

This is a good example of the spoken language being clearer than the written language — at least when one is relying on not-very-good machine translation.

Google Translate renders 炸灌腸 correctly as "fried sausage".
Mair apparently discounted the possibility that restaurants do indeed fry up enemas and serve them to customers. Seems reasonable to me.

Despite being tempted by the fried enema, I ended up choosing another dish. The sauce somewhat reminded me of a Chinese-style sweet and sour microwavable meal from my youth. It was a bit too sweet for my tastes.

So if I visit the restaurant again I will try the fried enema... and maybe the pseuodosciaena polyactis too.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Healing and Hugs in Taipei

If you are looking to get over a failed relationship, some help can now be found in Taipei. As reported in Want China Times (via Shanghaist):
Hundreds of people flocked to an exhibition, centered on failed relationships and their ruins, in downtown Taipei Saturday to take part in a hugging event that organizers hope will heal locals who have experienced broken relationships.

The visitors, mostly young girls, held cards reading "Can I hug you?" or "Can you hug me?" during the event, in which strangers are expected to share stories about their previous relationships.

Organizers of the exhibition, titled Museum of Broken Relationships, also had an elephant mascot on standby for those who were too shy to ask for hugs from humans.
The exhibition began in Croatia and according to its website:
The Museum of Broken Relationships grew from a traveling exhibition revolving around the concept of failed relationships and their ruins. Unlike ‘destructive’ self-help instructions for recovery from failed loves, the Museum offers a chance to overcome an emotional collapse through creation: by contributing to the Museum's collection.

Whatever the motivation for donating personal belongings – be it sheer exhibitionism, therapeutic relief, or simple curiosity – people embraced the idea of exhibiting their love legacy as a sort of a ritual, a solemn ceremony. Our societies oblige us with our marriages, funerals, and even graduation farewells, but deny us any formal recognition of the demise of a relationship, despite its strong emotional effect. In the words of Roland Barthes in A Lover's Discourse: "Every passion, ultimately, has its spectator... (there is) no amorous oblation without a final theater."
If you are interested in attending, the exhibition will remain in Taipei until September 1 (details here).

The news about the hugging reminded me of an experience I had in Taipei in April. While walking around a popular shopping area, I met five friendly people.

5 youth in Taipei holding signs reading 'Free Hugs Share Your Love'

They held signs declaring "Free Hugs -- Share Your Love", and I hugged everyone. There was no mention of failed relationships. Instead, they said their goal was raising money for a children's charity.

Both events were remarkable to me since Taiwan was a bit more "conservative" regarding hugging when I first stayed there over 10 years ago. So even when the The Museum of Broken Relationships leaves Taipei, a variety of opportunities may remain for hugs in Taipei. Finding an elephant to hug might be harder though.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

CCTV Headquarters and Prisonbreak Tattoo

My posting has been less-then-frequent lately due to Shanghai keeping me occupied and a post about Beijing taking longer than planned. So for now, I'll share two semi-random photos from Beijing and Shanghai which include someone riding a bicycle.

China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters in Bejing

Prisonbreak Tattoo in Shanghai

If you see any non-bicycle-related connections between the two scenes, please feel free to share your ideas. Otherwise, more later...

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Non-Traditional Traditional Performance of Gabrieli

In a post I wrote while guest blogging for James Fallows over 2 years ago, I shared some of what inspired this blog's name. I also shared a musical fugue and explained my choice of a specific video recording:
One, it is a fantastic example of how technology can be used to find new ways for people to express themselves - even when the subject is an old masterpiece. Another reason is it features instruments from an older period of music unfamiliar to many. Finally, and not least, the performer is a friend of mine who I first met while studying at the Peabody Conservatory of Music of Johns Hopkins about a decade and half ago.
For similar reasons, I would like to now share another recording by James Howard Young. The piece performed, Canzon Primi Toni à 8 by Giovanni Gabrieli, is not a fugue but an earlier form of contrapuntal music. I doubt Gabrieli ever imagined his music would be performed in the manner James chose. And who knows how (or if) today's music will be performed in the year 2429. So lose yourself for a few minutes in a piece from 1597 that even after hundreds of years continues to receive new interpretations.

[video also here]


Tenor Recorder 1: James Howard Young
Bass Recorder 1: James Howard Young
Great Bass Recorder 1: James Howard Young
Subbass Recorder 1: James Howard Young
Tenor Recorder 2: James Howard Young
Bass Recorder 2: James Howard Young
Great Bass Recorder 2: James Howard Young
Subbass Recorder 2: James Howard Young

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Watchful Geese in Guangdong's Sujiawei Village

About two years ago next to a pond in Sujiawei, Guangdong province ...

... I met two Chinese geese.

According to the waterfowl breeder website Ashton Waterfall:
The Chinese is one of the post popular and well known breeds of domestic goose. Unofficially, there are two kinds of Chinese geese: those that hate the world and everything that moves within it, and those which have to be picked up and carried to their shed. They are so tame that they prefer to stand around your feet and won't be driven. The sort you end up with depends partly on the strain, but mainly on how you rear them and treat them. They can be wonderful watchdogs - tame and real pets with their owners, but noisy when anything unusual is around.
Unlike the geese mentioned in the previous post, I saw no signs these two geese were employed by the local police. Nonetheless, the geese seemed more than willing to serve as watchdogs. Based on the above description, I believe I fitted into the "everything that moves" and "unusual" categories since they raised quite a ruckus when I approached. After listening to their eloquent protests and photographing them (which didn't seem to please them either), I left them in peace so I could enjoy lunch in a traditional setting.

And no, I didn't even try to pick them up.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Assorted Links: Fruit is Good, a Future Mini-Atlantis, and Police Geese

On this first Friday of August* I will share a few links to a semi-random assortment of pieces which don't strongly connect to any recent themes here but caught my attention and may provide some minor enlightenment for others as well.

1. Even though fruit is full of sugar, it is good for you. More specifically:
Dr. David Ludwig, the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, said that sugar consumed in fruit is not linked to any adverse health effects, no matter how much you eat. In a recent perspective piece in The Journal of the American Medical Association, he cited observational studies that showed that increased fruit consumption is tied to lower body weight and a lower risk of obesity-associated diseases.

Whole fruits, he explained, contain a bounty of antioxidants and healthful nutrients, and their cellular scaffolding, made of fiber, makes us feel full and provides other metabolic benefits. When you bite into an apple, for example, the fruit’s fiber helps slow your absorption of fructose, the main sugar in most fruits. But fiber is not the full story.
See the blog post in The New York Times here for more, including why the following holds true in terms of health benefits: fresh fruit > dried fruit > fruit juice. I have found that the last claim can easily rile some fruit-juice lovers.

2. Often those who had little to do with creating a problem are among those who are most affected by it:
Almost no one in America has heard of the Alaskan village of Kivalina. It clings to a narrow spit of sand on the edge of the Bering Sea, far too small to feature on maps of Alaska, never mind the United States.

Which is perhaps just as well, because within a decade Kivalina is likely to be under water. Gone, forever. Remembered - if at all - as the birthplace of America's first climate change refugees.
I'm not sure if the "forever" is a foregone conclusion. There could be another ice age in thousands of years, right? Whatever the case, see the article on BBC News Magazine here for more about the plight of the indigenous Inuit people who live in Kivalina.

3. If you have never had the chance to interact with a goose, I recommend visiting your local geese congregation point. Geese have a lot of character, including the desire to fight crime as appears to be the case in Xinjiang, China:
Law enforcement agents described the geese as a new “highlight of stability maintenance work” and said they had proved themselves “better than dogs” in tackling crime.

“Geese are very brave. They spread their wings and will attack any strangers entering [someone’s] home,” said Mr Zhang, the local police chief. The birds were like “a radar that does not need power”, he added.
See the article on The Telegraph here for more about the heroics of the police geese.

I had another piece to share in this post, but I now feel commenting on it deserves more thoughtful consideration than I now have time for. So I'll share it later. Plus, it's hard to top a gaggle of geese.

*This date holds no particular significance for me, but it seemed like enough of an excuse for semi-random linkage. Who knows, maybe it's the beginning of a tradition.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A New Online View from Cambodia's Streets

Earlier this year I posted photos from Phnom Penh of people riding pedal-powered vehiclesmotorbikes, and motorized-vehicles which were pulling or pushing something. Not only did the photos include a variety of vehicles, but they also captured many other aspects of life in Cambodia's capital city.

If all goes as planned, many more street scenes will be available online through Google's Street View. Jon Russell in The Next Web reports that Google has brought its cameras to Cambodia:
Cambodia becomes the 51st country on the planet to embrace Street View and, like many others, tourism is among the driving factors. Google says it is working closely with the Ministry of Tourism of Cambodia, the APSARA Authority (ANA), and the Phnom Penh Municipality to make the program happen.

Street View cars have started whizzing around capital city Phnom Penh capturing images and, as is common with Street View projects, they will expand to cover other cities, town and areas of interest over “the next few years.”
Although I would be surprised if Google's cameras make it to where I explored in Kampot's Fish Isle, it may soon be easier for people to track down some of what I saw in Phnom Penh, whether it is the iPhone jailbreaking stand, the restaurant which serves tasty spiders, or even the Facebook Ice Cream store. Russell reports that the famous Angkor Wat historical site is a target for Google's Street View cameras and that government officials see it as an opportunity for Cambodia to showcase itself to the world. In that sense, even if many Cambodians cannot afford to own the technology required to use Street View, they might benefit from it encouraging people to explore Cambodia.

little girl sitting on a jug on a cart being pushed by a young woman at a market in Phnom Penh
I don't have any photos of a Street View car in Phnom Penh, so instead here's someone who might like to ride one.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What I Really Thought About Red Star's Ad

Last week I wrote about a smog-filled advertisement for Red Star's erguotou, a type of Chinese liquor. This week Weijing Zhu wrote about the same marketing campaign and has inspired me to write some more on this topic.

In Zhu's post on The World of Chinese, my earlier post is referenced:
As Brian Glucroft writes in Isidor’s Fugue, one of the ads uses this imagery:
“Two people with bicycles on a narrow road passing by what appears to be a factory emitting copious amounts of pollution and contributing to the smog blanketing a nearby empty field.”
Glucroft tries to link images of pollution and driving people to drink, which he thought was the message. However...
Following "however" are some details and claims which are interesting but which do not rule out the possibility that the image of pollution was used in the hope it would drive people to drink. Whether or not Zhu believed this possibility had been ruled out, Zhu's characterization of what I wrote is not what I intended. Here is what I wrote:
An article on Red Star Wine's website (in Chinese) describes the marketing campaign. No, there is no mention of a strategy to use images of pollution to drive people to drink. Instead, Red Star Wine believes it can connect with younger people by evoking a desire for brotherhood and by tapping into the popularity of nostalgic themes in China through the use of Soviet-style imagery.

First of all, pointing out that an article on Red Star's website made no mention of the pollution-driving-people-to-drink possibility was an attempt at humor. I doubt that Red Star would want to publicize the idea it was deliberately trying to depress people so that they would buy its erguotou. Second of all, even if the humor is missed, what I wrote indicates that I am aware of a particular hypothetical explanation for the ad's design, but it does not indicate whether I ever thought this explanation was the correct one. For example, I might have mentioned the explanation because I thought it would reflect readers' first interpretation of the ad.

Later in Zhu's post, there is mention of an article on CNR which claims Red Star's ads have been successful. But Zhu either did not notice or chose not to mention that the article on CNR is the exact same article* which I referenced on Red Star's website and is found under a section titled "Company News". There is no author listed for the article, and it can be found on a large number of other websites as well. Although it smells like one, I am not positive the article is a Red Star press release. But there's at least good reason to ask if Red Star had a hand in its creation. Needless to say, I think some healthy skepticism of the article's claims of success is warranted.**

And even if the article is a press release, I would not necessarily be convinced its claims reflected Red Star's true vision for the ad. As I've already suggested, there could be reasons why Red Star would not want to be forthcoming about how it expects its marketing to be effective. Regardless, I believe the article's explanation of the ad's design is worth considering. I also see value in considering other possible reasons the ad might be effective, whether or not Red Star intended them.

* except for some sections of the text being bizarrely duplicated in Red Star's version

** Even if Red Star had no connection with the writing of the article, I'd have many questions about the evidence provided. That's another story though.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Traveling to a Far Away Yet Nearby City

Five years ago I traveled by bus about 280 km (175 miles) by bus from Shanghai to Yangzhou, Jiangsu province. I was told the trip would take 3.5 to 4 hours.

In afternoon traffic the trip actually lasted about 5 hours.

Three days ago I traveled on land 1318 km (819 miles) from Beijing to Shanghai. I was told the trip would take 4 hours and 55 minutes.

It did.

Such a feat is now possible with China's high-speed rail. Like many other times, I appreciated the convenience it provided. In this case it allowed me to avoid flying -- no small matter. Of the world's top 35 international airports, Beijing's and Shanghai's are the worst for on time departures.

The similarity of my trips to Yangzhou and from Beijing in terms of time despite the difference in terms of distance reminded me that the "closeness" of cities to each other depends on the factors being considered. For example, some aspects of Shanghai and Beijing are similar since they are two of the most economically developed and international cities in China. Yangzhou doesn't fit into those categories, but due to its proximity it has some closer cultural similarities, including cuisine, with Shanghai than does Beijing.

More on this theme later. For now, I'm just happy I didn't need to take a bus from Beijing.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Scenes from an Old Bridge in Tongcheng, Anhui Province

Today I was surprised to learn that someone I met was from the city of Tongcheng (桐城) in Anhui province. She seemed even more surprised to learn that I had visited there about 5 years ago. With the exception of a famous mountain, Anhui is not a common destination for foreigners. And Tongcheng is not one of Anhui's more prominent cities.

In the Tongcheng spirit, here are a few photos from an historic bridge:

river in Tongcheng, Anhui, China

view from old bridge in Tongcheng, Anhui, China

older home in Tongcheng, Anhui, China

person walking on an old bridge in Tongcheng, Anhui, China

As I looked through other photos from Tongcheng, many of which include scenes of older buildings with traditional Chinese architectural styles, I was reminded of someone recently saying he had never seen anything "old" in China that had not been "disney-fied". To highlight some of what he has missed, I will share more scenes from Tongcheng later.