Chinese tees

I love the meaningless phrases that the Chinese put on their tees. That red tee (hong cha, to mistranslate a pun) in the featured photo was a word salad: full of the taste of English without too many of the calories.

When I took a photo of this jacket in a shop’s display the salesgirl was very annoyed with me. Photos of jackets? Seriously?

This shop window was visible from inside a metro station. Truly, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.

And you too. Thanks for all the fish, by the way.

Serial lives

We had half a day free in Hefei after my work was over, and it had started to rain. The Family and I gave up the idea of a stroll in a park to see Hefei’s Lord Bao’s temple. Plan B was to go down to the Huaihe shopping street and look into a couple of interesting spots. One was the Mingjiao temple. There’s been a temple in this spot for more than fourteen centuries. The earliest one was destroyed in war at the beginning of the 7th century CE, at about the time chess was invented in India, and smallpox was first recorded in Europe. A century later, an iron statue of the Buddha was found in the ruins of the temple, and the Tang emperor Daizong ordered a temple to be rebuilt on this site. This was called the Temple of the Iron Buddha. Seven or eight centuries later, during the Ming era, it was renamed the Mingjiao. In the 19th century the temple was destroyed again in war, and rebuilt in 1886. During the 20th century it was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The version that we saw was rebuilt in 2015. We’d gathered this much from a tourist booklet in our hotel before we set out in the rain to see it.

The temple looked pretty impressive even in the dull light of a very overcast and rainy day. I spent some time in the open area in front of it trying to get a photo. The temple is too long, and the area too short, to get the full complex into one shot. I gave up on it and climbed the stairs to the Shanmen, literally the mountain gate. The few people inside the gate were curious to know where we came from, and the word Yindu produced welcoming smiles. We entered our names in a book that was pointed out to us, left our wet umbrellas near the entrance, and walked in.

Just inside the gate was the usual outer hall of Buddhist temples, called the Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings. The main statue is of Maitreya (featured photo), the Buddha who will come in the future. The other kings were also impressive: you can see one above and another below. They are clearly very powerful beings. One of them sits on an elephant, and dwarfs it quite thoroughly. The other holds a lotus bud as he sits on a beast which looked like a lion at first sight. But when I looked closer it turned out to be the Suanni, one of the hybrid dragons of Chinese lore. The blue of the Suanni was quite striking.

The temple had a rectangular layout. Along the sides of the rectangle were rooms. We had entered through the main gate which was in the center of the longer, south-facing, side. Covered corridors ran along the inside of the rectangle, facing an open courtyard which we had to cross to get the main hall. This is called the Mahavira hall (photo below). It was raining too hard to pause in the courtyard to take photos, but I got a reasonably complete photo of this central hall from the corridor.

I can’t pass up an opportunity to take photos of elephants, even if they are made of stone, have three pairs of tusks and wear a red bonnet. This is a representation of the Elephant King incarnation of the Buddha. I don’t recall having seen this image in India (although there is at least one in Ajanta), but it seems to be pretty common in China. In fact, the introduction of Buddhism to China has been dated to at least the first century CE by tracing the appearance of six tusked elephants in Chinese art.

The rain was not going to taper off soon. The Family and I ran across the courtyard and up the steps of the Mahavira Hall. The golden statues and the yellow light inside looked warm and inviting. I was very impressed by the statues behind the main altar. This triplet of statues of the Buddha was too dimly lit for a good photo. It is possible that on a less gloomy day the light is sufficient for photography.

On one side wall were more statues of Bodhisattvas, previous incarnations of the Buddha. As I walked around and got to the back of the main altar, I saw a really impressive statue of Guanyin. This incarnation would be called the Avalokiteshwara in India, and Kannon in Japan. Somehow, in traveling from India to Japan, the gender of this Bodhisattva changes. I found it interesting that this statue is backed by an enormous wall-sized print of a forest glade with a woman in the center. In China, forests are deeply associated with Buddhism and its message of the renunciation of worldly desires.

At the back the Mahavira hall joins the northern part of the corridor. “How silly,” I said to The Family, “We need not have run. We could have just walked round the back, and we would have come here without getting wet.” She disagreed, “It was nice to come up the steps and see the Buddha statues first,” she replied. It was. The little hall behind is dedicated to the Buddhist monk Ksitigarbha (called Dizang in Mandarin). I like the offerings of fruit piled up in front of him.

There were many more statues of the Buddha in the side halls, but the only one I was allowed to take a photo of was this one in his last sleep, the Mahaparinirvana. I leave you with this photo of the Buddha, as, according to belief, he finally departs from the burden of serial lives.

Opening doors

I had a rainy afternoon free in Hefei after my work was over. The Family and I decided to go downtown to the pedestrian Huaihe Street. There were two things to see here, and one of them was called the Former Residence of Li Hongzhang. I learnt that Li Hongzhang (1823-1901 CE) was a farmer’s son who rose to become one of the most important ministers in the Qing court. In charge of home and foreign affairs, he was involved in the humiliating treaties imposed on China in those years, and came to see modernization as a necessity. His “Westernization movement” is viewed in China today as one of the key points in modern Chinese history. I was unaware of any of this when we passed two stone lions and walked into the one traditional house in a row of modern shops.

The complex is now protected as a historical monument of interest by the provincial government. We bought tickets at the gate and passed a courtyard into the front hall (photo above). This was a typical formal seating area, with heavy dark chairs pulled into a rectangular arrangments, with lights placed just above them. I liked the ornate mirror in one corner of the hall. In the gloomy light of a heavily overcast day, this was a bright spot in the black stained wood of the room.

Another courtyard separated this from the central hall. This hall is now the main exhibition hall on Li Hongzhang. The exhibits were labelled in both Chinese and English. I found the exhibits very instructive, and The Family and I spent some time looking at reminders of 19th century life, and the changes that Li Hongzhang tried to bring about. A beautiful screen in the back wall of this hall looked out into a blank brick wall. I was a little puzzled by it.

Crossing this wall we came to the Zoumalou building. This two storied structure seems to be the place where the family lived. We climbed the stairs and peeked into the large bedrooms laid out with period furniture. The halls below had more exhibits. We liked some beautifully embroidered coats, and spent a while looking at the ink-stones in the gift shop.

Behind this a little garden has been recreated. The museum has been careful about restoring the central hall and the Zoumalou building. I don’t know whether equal care has gone into making sure that the garden represents Li Hongzhang’s time accurately. I liked the door in the back wall, with its typically Chinese aesthetic of being overgrown. Much care is needed to make sure that nature does not actually take over.

Exiting from the museum to the busy Huaihe Street was a bit of a shock. But then I realized that this is what the museum is really about: the late Qing period that is on show here is the doorway between the isolated China of the 17th and 18th centuries and the dynamic country it is today.

Food and drink in Anhui

Anhui province is more famous for its Yellow Mountain than for its food. But even unknown food can be quite interesting. The most interesting thing I ate in Anhui was a fried stinky tofu. Ever since I met Menschterkaas in my formative years, I don’t pass up a chance to have a new stinky cheese. Anhui’s stinky fried tofu is something special. Its furry appearance, the wonderful mouthful of aroma it releases on first bite, and its creamy texture make for a delightful snack. Unfortunately I was so involved in this plate of mixed grilled and fried hairy tofu that I completely forgot to take photos. I will have to refer you to another source for images.

This was the first time I let go of the life raft of sausages and bread, and sank into a sea of Chinese breakfast. On my first day I loaded my plate with a mixture of Chinese vegetables and more familiar sausages and eggs. The mushrooms, beans, and cabbage were so tasty that I struck out into the deep waters of yam, runner beans and noodle soups. Yoghurt came out of a machine, runny enough to be drunk out of a bowl. Melons, watermelon, oranges and pineapple were breakfast staples, wonderfully juicy and sweet.

Working lunches in China tend to be large, and I had to learn to control my tendency to eat everything that I see, so that I could be in tune with The Family’s needs for dinner. We found a lot of variety. Mandarin fish is an Anhui specialty, and I found it excellent. I like the presentation of fish in China. A braised fish is opened out on to a plate to make it easy to pick at it with chopsticks. The Family had brought a fork and a spoon in her checked baggage, but forgot to ever slip them into her handbag. Instead she resorted to manipulating a soup spoon in one hand and using a chopstick as a knife in the other. I chickened out of this bold experiment and practiced the traditional Chinese eating style.

Eating Chinese food in the rest of the world does not prepare you for the variety and amount of vegetables eaten in China with every meal. If we ever ordered a couple of proteins and rice for a meal, the waitress would always remind us to choose vegetables. Ever since we consciously decided to increase the amount of fiber in our daily food, The Family and I have begun to take special notice of the vegetables we eat. China was an eye-opener. Perhaps it was because we were new to it, but we liked the variety of vegetables available at every restaurant. I don’t know whether the plate you see in the photo above is a regional specialty, but it does give you an idea of how vegetables are usually prepared.

Chicken can be surprising when it is served. It is common to serve the whole animal; I’d noticed this earlier with fish, duck, and pigeon. Our order of chicken came with the full chicken deconstructed on the plate: the crackly skin served on the side of the plate with the meat in the center, and most surprisingly, the head standing upright.

Although China is not famous for its desserts, we found that a wide variety of imports have become regular parts of menus. We really liked the caramel custard which you see in the featured photo. It was served on a bed of frozen milk. That’s a combination I’ve never seen before, but one which I would like to try out again. The key seems to be freezing it very fast before it crystallizes. Did that need liquid nitrogen, or was a blast chiller good enough?

“Ancient well palace drink” is a specialty of Anhui province. Apparently brewed from sorghum using the famously sweet water of an ancient well, the drink was sent as a tribute to the last Han emperor Xian. Since this history is from the 2nd century CE, the well must have long gone dry, and the recipe must have been modified in the intervening two millennia. A bottle opened in the middle of a dinner can often result in an extended evening. I tried a fifteen year old version, but found that I liked the smoothness of the twenty six year old much better. The difference in price is not inconsiderable, but it is well worth the investment.

Living in a ghost town

China’s ghosts are the ghosts of the future. After my first visit in 2011, it took me a couple of years to realize that I would often live in a ghost town. The featured photo was taken one morning in November 2011 from a hotel room in Wuhan, probably on the last morning before I left. Photos taken from the same window at night showed large patches of darkness with a few brightly lit buildings (photo below). The hotel was very good, priced very reasonably, but far from full. On the few nights when I was not at an official dinner I would walk ten minutes to a brightly lit mall nearby and eat at one of the many restaurants there. I never questioned why the roads were not as crowded as the ones in India.

In later visits I found that life on the streets can be quite as crowded and interesting as that in India; it depends on where you live. Other questions attached themselves to this bit of oddity. Why did colleagues speak of the difficulty of finding affordable housing when a fast train across China would pass town after town where very few people seemed to live? Search for “ghost towns in China” and you can piece together an intriguing story. My sources are secondary, so the story is probably more nuanced than I can tell, but bear with me.

More than a decade ago, the government decided to increase spending in housing a hundredfold. It created public and state controlled corporations which started building apartments at a very rapid pace. The industry created jobs, and fuelled the current explosion in the economy. (This has already improved living conditions: the pollution and haze that you see in the featured photo is not seen any longer.) Provinces converted some of the land earmarked for agriculture to construction, so earning part of this budget. In order to control land speculation, builders could not squat on land until the prices rose, but were obliged by law to build immediately. The result was a huge glut in the housing market. But people with money started buying up flats which they did not need as investment. This pushed up housing prices very rapidly. To curb speculation, the government created a class of housing which had to be occupied immediately, but the harm was already done; property prices had gone through the roof. Nobody could buy, so nobody could sell. The government can’t stop financing construction because then a very large number of people will lose jobs. The result is a speculative bubble which is simmering while flats lie vacant. This problem arises from precisely the same long-term planning that China is famous for.

Again, in a November seven years after my first visit to China, I stayed in a nice, very large, and awfully underutilized, hotel in Hefei, The hotel and the recreational area around it were well lit, and reasonably full at night. But when I took a taxi to work in the early mornings, or returned at dusk, I would pass kilometers of housing which seemed barely occupied. China is incredibly safe from street crime, otherwise they would be dangerous places to walk through.

I look at the lone lit window in the photo above and think of the hope which China has of providing housing to all of its people. This photo was taken on the hundred and first anniversary of the failed Russian revolution. The developed world is still living out the Reagan-Thatcher nightmare of shifting jobs, the Blair-Clinton pruning of alternative viewpoints. Has China truly discovered the middle path of publicly funded private enterprise with long-range planning by the government? These ghost cities wait for the future to answer.

Renaissance, China

It is in universities that I am usually overwhelmed by the complete break between India and China. In China universities, learning, invention, are now deemed to be so important that they stand outside firewalls, and several other such compulsions of day-to-day politics. Universities were destroyed within living memory, and had to be built up again. Younger colleagues speak of the difficulty with which their senior colleagues, now a generation which is swiftly passing into history, kept the sciences barely alive. The beginning of Cixin Liu‘s famous science fiction novel, The Three-body Problem, accurately captures what I have heard of about those dark days of the Cultural Revolution. The Renaissance (I capitalize this word with intent; how is it that no one has recognized it yet?) has been planned and executed so thoroughly that it is overwhelming to come in touch with it. It will take me a book to write about it, not a blog.

So it was with some relief that I came on this ordinary sight of a “end-of-year giveaway” of used books in Hefei’s University of Science and Technology of China. It reminded me of my own student days when departing seniors would get rid of all the books that they no longer needed. Like the give-away you see in the featured photo, they were not sales, but places where books would be left out for others to take. I took a closer look at what was on offer. There were good textbooks, but a lot of it was preparatory material for the GRE and SATs. Another clear parallel with India.