11 January 2019

Female Suicides in China

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 273-274, 281:
DURING OUR FIRST YEAR IN FULING, Adam’s best freshman student had been a girl named Janelle. She was so far ahead of the others that there was no comparison, and something about this intellectual distance also set her apart socially. She had no friends in the class and spent her time alone, often talking with Adam or me to practice her English. At the end of the school year, she seemed depressed, and then for some unknown reason she went home early, missing her final exams.

At the start of the second year, Adam had class for the first time and called roll. Everybody was there except for Janelle, and Adam asked if she was sick. A few students shook their heads. Nobody said anything.

“Will she be here later?” Adam asked.

“No,” said Shannon, who was the class monitor.

“She will not come back this year.”

“Why not?”

“She is dead,” Shannon said, and then he laughed. It was a nervous and humorless sound, the sort of Chinese laugh that was simply a reaction to an uncomfortable situation. It wasn’t difficult to distinguish these laughs from normal ones, but nevertheless they always sent shivers down a waiguoren’s spine. The students had their heads down and Adam quickly changed the topic. On that day class was a long two hours.

The subject was difficult to broach and we never heard much about it, because none of the students had known Janelle well. All they could tell us was that during the summer she had jumped off a bridge in her hometown. When the Chinese commit suicide, it’s common for them to jump off things—bridges, buildings, cliffs. Sometimes in the countryside they eat pesticide. They tend to do a much more thorough job of killing themselves than Americas do, especially American women, who often take pills and are saved by having their stomachs pumped.

Chinese women are more likely to commit suicide than Chinese men. More than half of the female suicides in the world take place in China, where the suicide rate for women is nearly five times the world average. China is the only country on earth in which more women kill themselves than men.

...

Fuling women lived under complicated expectations, and the economic pressures of Reform and Opening seemed to weigh particularly heavily on them. In the countryside, many of the men had left to work in urban areas, and for every stick-stick soldier or construction worker in the city, there was a peasant wife back at home, tending the farm alone. A total of 66 percent of China’s agricultural workers are female. Social scientists believe that this imbalance is partly responsible for the high female suicide rate, which occurs predominantly in the countryside. Rarely do these rural deaths seem to be the result of poverty; in fact, most happen within a relatively affluent and well-educated class of peasants. Adam’s student Janelle was a textbook example of this trend: she wasn’t poor, and she had academic opportunities that were unusual for peasant girls. But Janelle’s career path most likely would have involved returning to her hometown to teach, which probably had been a depressing prospect for somebody so bright. I suspected that she had recognized clearly her own potential, as well as the bleakness of her future: to become a rural schoolteacher, marry young, raise a child. In the end it was more—or less—than she could bear.

09 January 2019

Two Major River Projects in China

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 115-116:
The history of such projects in China has two different aspects. The country has been controlling and harnessing water for centuries—no other civilization on earth has such a long and successful history of turning rivers to man’s use. The development of central Sichuan province was originally sparked by the construction of Dujiangyan, a brilliantly designed irrigation project that was constructed twenty-three centuries ago and even today still functions perfectly, turning the Chengdu Basin into one of the most fertile rice-growing regions in the country. Even the Yangtze has been tamed before, albeit on a much smaller scale; the Gezhou Dam was completed in 1981 on a site downstream from the location of the current project.

But there is also the history of Henan province, where heavy rains in 1975 caused sixty-two modern dams to fall like dominoes, one after another, and 230,000 people died. Although the scale of that particular disaster was unique, the poor engineering was less unusual: 3,200 Chinese dams have burst since 1949. In this [= 20th] century, the failure rate of Chinese dams is 3.7 percent, compared to 0.6 percent in the rest of the world.

08 January 2019

Grendel the Revolutionary

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 35-36:
Other days I gave them writing assignments; for Beowulf we talked about point of view, and they wrote about the story from the perspective of Grendel, the monster. Almost without exception the boys wrote about what it was like to eat people, and how to do it properly; while the girls wrote about how cold and dark the moor was, and how monsters have feelings too. One student named Grace wrote:
The warriors said I am a monster, I can’t agree with them, but on the contrary I think the warriors and the king are indeed monsters.

You see, they eat delicious foods and drinking every day. Where the foods and drinking come from? They must deprive these things from peasants.

The king and the warriors do nothing but eat delicious foods; the peasants work hard every day, but have bad foods, even many of them have no house to live, like me just live in the moor. So I think the world is unfair, I must change it.

The warriors, I hate them. I will punish them for the poor people. I will ask the warriors build a large room and invited the poor people to live with me.
In college I had been taught by a few Marxist critics, most of whom were tenured, with upper-class backgrounds and good salaries. They turned out plenty of commentary—often about the Body, and Money, and Exchange—but somehow it didn’t have quite the same bite as Grace’s vision of Grendel as Marxist revolutionary. There was honesty, too—this wasn’t tweed Marxism; Grace, after all, was the daughter of peasants. She didn’t have tenure, and I had always felt that it was better if people who spoke feelingly of Revolution and Class Struggle were not tenured. And I figured that if you have to listen to Marxist interpretations of literature, you might as well hear them at a college where the students clean the classrooms.

The truth was that politics were unavoidable at a Chinese college, even if the course was foreign literature, and in the end I taught English Literature with Chinese Characteristics.

07 January 2019

Fuling: City of Steps

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 27-28:
THERE ARE NO BICYCLES in Fuling. Otherwise it is similar to any other small Chinese city—loud, busy, dirty, crowded; the traffic twisted, the pedestrians jostling each other; shops overstaffed and full of goods, streets covered with propaganda signs; no traffic lights, drivers honking constantly; televisions blaring, people bickering over prices; and along the main streets rows of frightened-looking trees, their leaves gray with coal dust, the same gray dust that covers everything in the city.

There are no bicycles because Fuling is full of steps, and the city is full of steps because it is squeezed close on the mountains that press against the junction of the Wu and Yangtze Rivers. Narrow streets also rise from the riverbanks, switchbacking up the hills, but they are cramped and indirect and too steep for bicycles. Automobile traffic tangles on the sharp corners. And so the long stone staircases are the true boulevards of Fuling, carrying most of its traffic—shoppers descending the stairs, pausing to browse in stores; porters climbing up, shoulders bowed under the weight of crates and bundles.

Virtually every necessary good or service can be found along these stairways and their landings. There are shops and restaurants, cobblers and barbers. One of the lower stairways is lined with Daoist fortune-tellers. Another staircase is home to a group of three dentists who work at a table covered with rusty tools, syringes in mysterious fluids, and pans of cruelly defeated teeth—a sort of crude advertisement. Sometimes a peasant will stop to have his tooth pulled, after haggling over the price, and a crowd will gather to watch. Everything is public. A haircut comes with an audience. The price of any purchase is commented on by the other shoppers who pause as they pass. For medical problems one can sit in the open air and see a traditional Chinese physician, who has a regular stand near the top of one of the stairways. His stand consists of a stool, a box of bottles, and a white sheet with big characters that say:
To Help You Relieve Worries and Solve Problems! Particular Treatments: Corns, Sluggishness, Black Moles, Ear Checks. Surgery—No Pain, No Itching, No Bloodletting, No Effects on Your Job!
Fuling is not an easy city. Old people rest on the staircases, panting. To carry anything up the hills is backbreaking work, and so the city is full of porters. They haul their loads on bamboo poles balanced across their shoulders, the same way freight was carried in the south of China in the 1800s, when the English referred to such laborers as “coolies”—from the Chinese kuli, or “bitter strength.” Here in Fuling, as in all of the eastern Sichuan river towns, the porters are called Bang-Bang Jun—the Stick-Stick Army. They have uniforms (the simple blue clothes of the Chinese peasantry), and the weapons of their trade (bamboo poles and loops of cheap rope), and they tend to gather in packs, in companies, in battalions. To bargain with one stick-stick soldier is to bargain with a regiment. Their jobs are difficult enough without cutthroat competition, and they look out for each other; there is no formal union but the informal bond of hard labor is much closer. During midday, when most people rest, the stick-stick soldiers can be seen along the midtown streets, sitting on their poles, smoking, chatting, playing cards; and in their leisure there is an air not so much of relaxation as of a lull in the battle.

06 January 2019

The Hospitality Girls of Fuling

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 5-6:
For many of the students, especially the freshmen, the college was an exciting place. Campus was just across the Wu River from the main city of Fuling, and few of the students had ever lived near a city that large. The college had movies, competitions, and dances on the weekends. Often there were political rallies and assemblies like the one to welcome the Long Marchers, and the students buzzed with anticipation as they milled around the plaza.

A group of eight women students stood at attention near the gate. They wore white blouses and black skirts, and across their chests were red sashes emblazoned with the name of the college. They were known as Hospitality Girls, and they had been carefully selected from the student body. All of the Hospitality Girls were tall and beautiful, and none of them smiled. They represented the college at official functions, standing in perfect formation, walking gracefully, pouring tea for dignitaries.

That was something else I had heard about Fuling: its women had a reputation for being beautiful. At least that’s what I had been told in my Chinese class in Chengdu. One of my teachers was from Manchuria, a wisp of a woman with high cheekbones who had a gentle, skittish way of speaking. Even in summer she clutched a bottle of tea in both hands as if for warmth. Her name was Teacher Shang, and though she had never been to Fuling she said with conviction that the women there would be beautiful.

“It’s because of the river and the mountains,” she said. “All places with mountains and water have beautiful women.”

And in Chengdu I had met a Fuling native who told me the same thing. “But sometimes the people there have bad tempers,” she warned. “That’s because it’s so hot, and because they have mountains there.” I often heard remarks like this, and they suggested that the Chinese saw their landscapes differently than outsiders did. I looked at the terraced hills and noticed how the people had changed the earth, taming it into dizzying staircases of rice paddies; but the Chinese looked at the people and saw how they had been shaped by the land. During my early days at the college I sometimes thought about this, especially since nearly all of my students had grown up close to the earth, and I wondered how the rugged Sichuan landscape had affected them. And at the same time I wondered what it would do to me in two years.

05 January 2019

Where Religion Preserves Language

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 181-182:
‘Many young Dai can’t read our language and don’t really understand our culture or Buddhism. A lot of Dai people can speak Dai, but they don’t teach it in normal school any more so you have to become a monk to learn how to read and write it,’ said Zhang Wei. As in Tibet, the monasteries have become the only place in Banna where locals can get an education in their native language. But unlike Tibet, and in another sign of the Dai’s success in convincing the CCP of their essential affability, novices in Banna are allowed to participate in the regular school system as well.

‘You can study Dai here in the morning and go to normal school in the afternoon,’ said Zhang Wei. He believed that was behind the recent rise in the number of monks. ‘A lot of young Dai were put off becoming monks because they thought it was a hard life and what they learned wasn’t useful in the outside world,’ he told me. ‘Now it’s not as strict a life as before. When I was a young novice, the teachers would beat you if you disobeyed them. But we’re not allowed to do that any more.’

Less welcome has been the diminishing of Banna’s role as a key centre of Buddhist learning for Dai people across South-east Asia, a result of the devastation wrought on Banna’s monasteries during the Cultural Revolution. Large numbers of monks fled across the frontiers, while villagers buried scriptures and icons in the jungle so the Red Guards couldn’t destroy them. Many of the temples have since been restored, but Wat Pajay’s status as a spiritual university has been superseded by monasteries outside Banna.

‘Before the Cultural Revolution, Thai and Burmese and Lao monks came to Wat Pajay to study. Now, we go to Thailand and other places. It’s a complete change,’ said Zhang Wei. Fluid borders mean Banna’s monks can visit monasteries in Myanmar and Laos unofficially. But the Dai’s position as a model minority makes getting permission to go abroad far easier than it is for Tibetans or Uighurs. Zhang Wei had already spent a year in Yangon, as well as three in Singapore.

Wat Pajay’s links with overseas monasteries are a crucial element of the cultural and religious networks that tie the Dai of different countries to each other. Da Fosi is an irrelevance in that scheme; its imposition on Jinghong just another instance of Dai culture being appropriated by the Han for the purposes of tourism. And, inevitably, pretty Dai women act as the guides there. But out in greater Dailand, in Banna’s villages and across the borders, the Dai are quietly getting on with worshipping their way, while keeping their language and traditions alive.

04 January 2019

Joys of Travel in Tibet

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle p. 132:
From here on, we were in the real Wild West. After Lhatse, there are no more conventional hotels, just shared rooms with dirty, damp beds, concrete floors and no heating. The electricity comes and goes and showers are scarce; in most settlements the only way to wash is with a thermos of hot water. During my time in Ngari, I got to shower just once and grew used to matted hair, a week’s worth of stubble and clothes stained with mud and dust. Smoking furiously in the pit toilets in an effort to disguise their stink became second nature.

Only the food defeated me. China’s cuisines are as diverse as its people and most are superb. Tibet is the exception. Tsampa, thugpa (a noodle soup) and momo (yak-meat dumplings) are the principal national dishes, all accompanied by endless glasses of yak-butter tea. Every morning, Tenzin and the driver Lopa would happily pull out the cloth bags which contained their tsampa, before mixing it with butter tea or water and, sometimes, yak cheese. It was a breakfast I tried just once, and the remorseless meals of momo and thugpa soon began to pall.

I had been spoiled for choice in Lhasa, where there are Nepali places and Tibetan ones that cater to westerners; the finest meal I ate in Tibet was a spicy yak-meat pizza with a yak-cheese base. I was able to vary my diet in Gyantse and Shigatse too, thanks to the restaurants run by migrants from Sichuan. Eating Chinese food induced feelings of guilt, given the way Han culture is encroaching in Tibet, but I blamed Tibetan chefs for their lack of innovation rather than admit my own hypocrisy.

Those meals were a distant memory now. The higher we climbed, the worse the food got. For much of the time, only basic fried rice or thugpa was on offer. Fruit became scarcer and much more expensive. Along with vegetables, it has to be transported down [highway] 219 from Xinjiang, and it is common in Ngari to see Uighurs selling bruised apples from the back of a truck. Even yak meat is hard to find, as the animals are slaughtered only at a certain time of the year and the meat has to last for months.

03 January 2019

Notable British Consuls in Kashgar

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle p. 59:
Kashgar’s consulate was the most remote of Britain’s diplomatic outposts in Asia, a three-week ride on horseback from India. The people who passed through included some of the most remarkable figures from the colonial past. The half-Chinese Sir George Macartney, whose same-named ancestor was Britain’s first ambassador to China in the eighteenth century, served as consul here between 1890 and 1918. Sir Percy Sykes, who effectively ran Persia during the First World War, relieved Macartney briefly in 1915.

Great Game players, both legendary and unsung, were regular visitors. Francis Younghusband stayed a winter. He went on to lead a British invasion of Tibet in 1903–4, only to experience an epiphany on the roof of the world that transformed him from an empire-builder into a soldier-mystic. In 1918, Colonel F. M. Bailey was at the consulate en route to an extraordinary series of adventures in central Asia. They included helping to propagate the revolt among Muslims which resulted in so many Kyrgyz crossing into Xinjiang after the Russian Revolution.

Bailey was such an effective spy that he was recruited by the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, to hunt himself, the British agent who was stirring up the peoples of central Asia against their new communist masters. He was also a noted naturalist, just as Sykes and Eric Shipton, the last British consul in Kashgar, were part-time explorers. In the days of empire, it was possible to serve your country and collect rare butterflies on the Tibetan plateau, conquer unclimbed mountains or cross unmapped deserts.

02 January 2019

Yanbian, the Third Korea

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 253-256:
Yanji was still the same tightly packed mass of greying apartment and office blocks, divided by the Buerhatong River, I had encountered on previous visits. But if Yanji looks like a typically undistinguished third-tier Chinese city, it feels very different from one. The first hint of its dual nature is the fact that the street signs are in same-sized Chinese and Korean characters. They are symbolic of the way Yanji’s 400,000 people are divided almost equally between Han and ethnic Korean, and how they coexist in a far more amenable atmosphere than is normal for Chinese and minorities in the borderlands.

There is no sense that the city is segregated, as Lhasa and Urumqi are rigidly divided between Han and Tibetan or Uighur neighbourhoods. Stand at a bus stop in Yanji and you will hear Korean in one ear and Mandarin in the other until they seem to blend into one bizarre new tongue. And the longer you stay in Yanji, the more South Korean it feels. Restaurants offering Korean delicacies like dog meat outnumber Chinese eateries. The city has its own TV channels in Korean, along with newspapers and magazines offering the latest updates on celebrity scandals in Seoul.

Security is unobtrusive here too. There are plenty of soldiers in the surrounding Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, the official Chinese name for the region, mounting guard along the nearby border with the DPRK. But in Yanji itself the main hint that the military is around are the jets from a nearby air-force base that scream over the city at regular intervals, coming in so low that the red stars on their fuselages are clearly visible.

Yanbian, Yanji apart, is one of the least densely populated regions of China outside the high plateau of Tibet and the deserts of Xinjiang. Around 2.2 million people live in an area of Jilin Province about half the size of South Korea, which has a population of fifty million. After the packed cities and countryside of eastern and southern China, where every inch of land is utilised, the empty landscape is both a shock and a relief. Forty per cent of the residents of the prefecture are ethnic Korean, the rest Han, with the remaining million-plus Chinese Koreans mostly spread throughout the rest of Jilin, or in neighbouring Liaoning Province.

...

Ethnic Koreans are known in China as Chaoxianzu [朝鲜族] which translates as ‘North Korean race’ [more literally ‘Chosŏn tribe’ or ‘morning calm tribe’], Chaoxian being the Chinese name for the DPRK [because the DPRK uses the same name]. It is a way of distinguishing them from South Koreans, but also an accurate description of their origins because nearly all Chinese Koreans come from areas that are now part of North Korea. [In current Japanese usage, North Korea is called Kita-Chōsen (北朝鮮 = North Chosŏn) and South Korea Kankoku (韓国 = Hanguk), but the use of "Chōsenjin" to refer to Korean people has a long history of derogatory usage and, at least to my ears, the Sino-Japanese reading of 朝鲜族, Chōsenzoku 'Chōsen tribe' sounds even worse.]

...

By [1945], there were 1.7 million Koreans living in Dongbei. With Japan occupying Korea, almost all supported or fought for the CCP in its battles against the Japanese and the nationalist armies, including Kim Il-sung who would later wildly exaggerate his success as a guerrilla leader, despite having spent much of the Second World War living safely in the Russian Far East. Even after the defeat of Japan in 1945, most Koreans in China chose to stay on, with only half a million returning to their homeland.

As Korea was plunged into the war that formalised the division of the peninsula into two separate countries, another Korea was being created. Beijing didn’t forget the sacrifices of the Koreans in Dongbei during the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War. They were given land and, in 1952, became one of the first ethnic groups to be granted their own official region. Now Yanbian is a third Korea, only one inside China. With its people hailing from North Korea but bound culturally to South Korea, it presages what a reunified Korea might be like.

China’s Koreans enjoy advantages denied to other minorities, which only reinforces the sense that Yanbian is more like a mini-state than just another autonomous area. The most notable of these is the right to education in their own language at school as well as college. Unlike in Xinjiang, where the government has closed down Uighur-only schools, or Xishuangbanna and Tibet, where the only way to study Dai or Tibetan is to become a monk, the Yanbian government actually funds schools that teach in Korean.

Nor are the Koreans as obviously subordinate to the Han as most other ethnic groups, being well represented among local officials. Apart from during the Cultural Revolution, when the Chaoxianzu suffered along with all the minorities, the Han have always maintained a mutually respectful relationship with the Koreans. On the surface at least, the Han approach in Yanbian seemed to me to be a model which if followed elsewhere would certainly reduce, while not eliminating, tensions between the Chinese and the most restive minorities.

01 January 2019

Russians in Outer Manchuria

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 279-281:
In 1858, the Treaty of Aigun formalised the division of Manchuria. Everything north of what the Russians call the Amur River and the Chinese the Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon River, was assigned to Russia. Two years later, more Manchu lands went north under the Treaty of Peking. In all, Russia acquired a million square kilometres of Outer Manchuria. It is a massive area. Stretching from the present Sino-Russian border to the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, it includes what are now the major cities of the Russian Far East – Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk – yet the tsar’s army barely had to fire a shot to attain it.

Faced with internal rebellions and in the midst of the Second Opium War with the British and French, the Qing dynasty was so enfeebled by the late 1850s that Russia was able to take Outer Manchuria simply by threatening Beijing. The once mighty Manchu, who had expanded China’s frontiers in the west and south-west, conceded the territory in the bitter knowledge that they were now unable to defend even their own homeland.

With the western colonial powers establishing themselves in China’s major ports in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, Russia’s takeover of northern Manchuria was supposed to be the prelude to it conquering all of Dongbei. The extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway, first to Harbin and then south to Port Arthur, now known as Lushun, was another step towards that goal. From 1897, Russian workers started arriving in Harbin, then not much more than a fishing village on the Songhua River, to build the new rail line. So many Russians came over the border that they dominated Harbin for the next couple of decades.

Russia’s dreams of turning Dongbei into a colony were dashed by its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Instead, it would be Japan which occupied Manchuria from 1931 until the end of the Second World War. But Harbin remained primarily a Russian city. Like the Koreans who escaped the Japanese occupation of their country by moving to Yanbian during the same period, Russians sought refuge in Harbin from the chaos at home.

Well over 100,000 White Russians arrived after the Russian Revolution of 1917, joining 20,000 or so Russian Jews who had fled tsarist pogroms a decade earlier, making Harbin the largest community of Russians anywhere outside the old country. Far outnumbering the Chinese population, and with the new rail link boosting the local economy, the Russian residents, known as Harbinets, created a city which imitated distant St Petersburg and Moscow.

Harbin’s main shopping street, Zhongyang Dajie, offers an architectural history lesson. Art Nouveau hotels and department stores sit alongside baroque-style buildings, and once grand houses with large arched windows and iron balconies line the streets running off it. Former Russian Orthodox churches, as well as synagogues with window frames in the shape of the Star of David, are scattered throughout the city.

Along with other Chinese cities which have an extensive foreign heritage, such as Shanghai and Tianjin, Harbin is ambivalent about its cosmopolitan past. The buildings, even the crumbling houses which have been chopped into apartments, are much more distinctive and impressive than anything built in the communist era. Yet they are also evidence of how Harbin was more Russian than Chinese until 1949. To admire them is unpatriotic, and locals claim to be indifferent to structures like the former St Sophia Cathedral, regarding them only as unique backdrops for wedding photos.

Most Harbinets returned home after the Second World War or emigrated to the west. By the 1960s only a handful remained, although Harbin’s last Russian resident didn’t die until the early 1980s. But the city attracts many tourists from across the frontier – enough for the Chinese to assume that any foreigner in town is Russian. They come on shopping trips from Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, in search of a far wider and cheaper range of products than are available in the Russian Far East. There are also many Russians studying Mandarin, the language which may one day be the lingua franca of the former Outer Manchuria. Others arrive in search of work, prompted by the slump in the Far East’s economy that was precipitated by the break-up of the old USSR in 1991 and continues today.