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Following Dingle: The Story of Iva’s 1,600 km Walk from Chongqing to Tengchong

“To travel across China is easy. To walk across China … is not easy”. Edwin Dingle (1909).

Iva's journey took her from Chongqing to Tengchong. Both are marked with red stars on this map. Chongqing is on the Yangtse River in Central China. Tengchong is on the border with Myanmar (Burma) in Southwest China.

Iva’s journey took her from Chongqing to Tengchong. Both are marked with red stars on this map. Chongqing is on the Yangtse River in Central China. Tengchong is on the border with Myanmar (Burma) in Southwest China.

As a ‘China Expert’ I’m often approached by people from the media, business and the general public to help answer various questions relating to Chinese history, culture and society. I’m always very happy to help out if I can, and if not, usually I can direct them to someone who will.

Last year I received an email from Ms Iva Stejskal. Iva is a Perth local and an avid walker (something close to my own heart). Iva told me she was planning to walk from Chongqing to Tengchong, tracing the steps of a certain Mr Edwin Dingle (1881-1972). A journey of approximately 1,500 kilometres. That’s just what I like to hear!

Iva on the first day of her journey, outside a subway station in the suburbs of Chongqing.

Iva on the first day of her journey, outside a subway station in the suburbs of Chongqing.

Mr Dingle was an English journalist, geographer and adventurer. He was also very interested in Tibetan spiritualism and founded his own spiritual organisation known as ‘mentalphysics’ (the Institute of Mentalphysics still exists to this day). He spent decades in Asia, much of it in China, and observed first hand the tumultuous changes that took place in that region in the first half of the 20th Century. He published a book in 1911 describing some of his earlier adventures in China titled Across China on Foot. In it Dingle describes his on foot journey (1909) from Chongqing (on the Yangtse River) all the way to British Burma. In effect Dingle was walking along an ancient migration and trading route now commonly known as the ‘Southern Silk Road’ (an alternative to the more famous ‘Northern Silk Road’). He was also following in the footsteps of other Westerners, most notably the Australian George Morrison who undertook a similar journey in 1895 (and published in book form as An Australian in China). A copy of Across China on Foot can be found here (opens as a pdf).

It was Dingle’s book and spirit of adventure that caught Iva’s attention. I was more than happy to give Iva some tips and background information. I could see after our first meeting that she was very well organised and determined. I was confident that if she undertook this journey she would see it through to the end. I introduced Iva to some friends in Chongqing and to others residing in towns she would pass through along the way. Iva kept an account of her journey on WeChat, a Chinese social networking platform. The most significant thing for me as an observor was to see how warmly welcomed Iva was along the way. Truly the Chinese spirit of hospitality to strangers was in full effect. Iva’s journey and comments are also a fascinating account of how much China has changed since the time of Dingle.

Now that Iva has completed her journey I asked her a few questions and with her permission provide a copy of that conversation here. (GS = Gary Sigley; IS = Iva Stejskal).

GS: Please provide a bit of background as to how the journey started, what is has to do with Dingle, the process and experience in getting prepared, and initial reactions from family and friends.

IS: Hiking has always been a fun and important activity for me.

During a visit to a bookstore in Seattle, I happened to come across the book Across China on Foot by Edwin Dingle.  It must have been written in the stars that I would discover the book as I have never seen it in any other bookstore. I knew nothing about Edwin Dingle but because of the reference to “foot” in the title and that the journey was done in 1910 in China piqued my interest.

Reading the book must have planted a quiet seed in my mind because about two years later I decided one day that I must do this journey, much to the initial horror of my family.

I did a lot of background research for nearly a year before I started the walk.  I researched Dingle’s biography and found him to be an intriguing character. He was a British journalist and while working for The Straits Times in Singapore, he seemingly, on impulse, decided to cross China with no knowledge of the country or language. He went up the Yangtse by small boat and then walked from Chongqing to Tengchong.  He then crossed the border into British Burma and continued to Bhamo. He later became a correspondent for The China Daily News during the rebellion of 1911 and married the first female doctor from Jersey, UK, who was working in Yunnan as a missionary. He spent some time in Tibet and took his spiritual knowledge to California where he started the Institute of Mentalphysics.  This was later incorporated into the Joshua Tree Retreat whose buildings were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous American architect.

I read books on Chinese history, focusing on the period 1900 – 1915 as I wanted to get a feel for the China during the time Dingle lived in China and made his journey.  I also read books by other explorers and travelers to Yunnan province during this period.

The route Iva talk was not a typical pleasure hike. It took her along many roads with busy traffic, and when wet, very muddy.

The route Iva talk was not a typical pleasure hike. It took her along many roads with busy traffic, and when wet, very muddy.

One of my big challenges was mapping out Dingle’s route. Although important as trade routes, in 1910, there were no paved roads as such, roads were mainly flagstone paths or dirt.  Many of the villages Dingle stayed in no longer exist or the names have changed over time.  I researched numerous maps from the late 1890s and early 1900s, including the atlas of China produced by Dingle. From these maps I was pretty well able to trace Dingle’s route and relate it to present day roads, villages and towns.

I calculated that with a pack, I could walk roughly 20 -25 km per day. I was dependent on staying in hotels and inns and as I had no desire to bivouac in a corn field. I created a daily itinerary of villages and towns I would stay in each night, staying on Dingle’s route as best as possible. Therefore, I had my entire route totally planned before I came to China. The big hiccup in my plan was that I did not know the difference between a ‘zhen‘ sized town and a ‘cun‘ sized town. As I quickly learned, a zhen will have some sort of accommodation and shops, a cun has a mahjong hall.  So I had to stay flexible and change my itinerary a few times.

My family and friends were not surprised that I would embark on a journey like this, although the most common question was ‘why?’.  One aspect that attracted me to this journey was that I could combine the walk with the history of the area which I would have to research.  However, it was the unknown that worried my family and friends as their knowledge of China was limited and they worried about my going alone. But all were supportive and their worries abated with daily communication.

As Iva got closer to Burma the scenery and local cultures began to change.

As Iva got closer to Burma the scenery and local cultures began to change.

GS: How were you feeling before the trip? Any doubts? Any concerns? Did you feel prepared?

IS: Given all the research I had carried out and having a planned itinerary, I had no doubts about the trip and traveling solo through China.  I have been to China, but mainly Beijing and Shanghai. From this limited experience, I perceived China to be a safe and welcoming country.  My only worry before I started was whether I would find somewhere to stay in some of the smaller towns.  As it turned out, I was able to find a roof over my head in even the most remote areas, mainly because of the hospitality of the locals.

Another concern I had was how I was going to stay in contact with my family and friends given the limitations on accessing gmail while in China. I got over this hurdle by learning about WeChat and arranging mobile phone contact. Once I got to China, I felt as prepared as I could be given that I really had limited idea of what I was getting in to!

GS: In light of completion, is there anything in hindsight you would take/do/prepare differently?

IS: I would have started Chinese language lessons a bit earlier!  I should also have paid a bit more attention to my electronic gadgets before I started.  For example, I managed to erase some of my early daily routes on my GPS as I was not exactly sure of which buttons I should press. And finally, I packed what I thought I would potentially use or need – I should have only packed essentials as I could have bought whatever I needed in China.  I had a very heavy pack when I started and as a consequence my feet and toenails suffered until I was able to store some stuff in Kunming.

Iva noted that not much in the way of buildings, bridges and temples described by Dingle still exist today. Nonetheless there are plenty of buildings and forms of architecture which have a distinctive Chinese style.

Iva noted that not much in the way of buildings, bridges and temples described by Dingle still exist today. Nonetheless there are plenty of buildings and forms of architecture which have a distinctive Chinese style.

GS: What were the highlight/s of the journey?

IS: Being on the move and outdoors everyday!  The biggest highlight was crossing the beautiful Gaoligong Mountains and discovering I was again on a more remote section of the Burma Road. When I had crossed the Longchuan River valley and looked back at the mountains, I shook my head thinking that I had actually made it across on my own.  Waking up to the sounds of the small villages and watching them come to life were also always a highlight for me.

GS:  What was one of the low points?

IS: The low points all had to do with having to contend with the crazy truck drivers.  There was one point when, for a few moments, I seriously wondered if I wanted to continue because of a very close call with a truck hauling gravel.

One of the pleasures after a long walk is a bowl of noodles.

One of the pleasures after a long walk is a bowl of noodles.

GS:  How did you manage to communicate without much Chinese? Did your language improve as you progressed on your journey?

IS: It’s amazing  how people can communicate through facial expressions, hand waving and body language. When I started, my Chinese was very basic and I spoke mainly in nouns. I could find accommodation and food, and get directions. I also understood simple questions asked of me and was able to kind of explain what I was doing.  My biggest frustration was not being able to ask my own questions as I would have been very interested in hearing people’s stories.

My vocabulary certainly increased as the days went by, but I still know more nouns than verbs and I am sure my pronunciation has a lot to be desired.  But many people seemed happy to correct and teach me Chinese and I just continued to bumble along.

GS:  Had things changed since Dingle’s time?

IS: I would say in most ways yes which would be expected given China’s history over the past 100 years.  Social and political issues still exist but the issues are different.  As far as I could figure out, none of the physical features such as buildings, temples or bridges mentioned in Dingle’s book now exist.

However, I suspect that many of the cultural and spiritual customs have remained the same since Dingle’s time.

The route from central China to Burma has been used for thousands of years. It has various names: Five Foot Road, Southern Silk Road, Burma Road and, more recently, Ancient Tea Horse Road.

The route from central China to Burma has been used for thousands of years. It has various names: Five Foot Road, Southern Silk Road, Burma Road and, more recently, Ancient Tea Horse Road.

GS:  How many kilometres did you walk altogether. How many days did it take?

IS: My journey, like Dingle’s started in Shanghai.  However, the walking section started in Chongqing. Between Chongqing and Yingjiang, I walked 1,635 km and it took me 67 days. So I walked on average about 24 km a day: the least distance I walked in a day was 10 km, the most was about 35 km.

GS:  Would you do it again? Are you interested in returning to China? Or would you go somewhere else for your next challenge?

IS: I would not do the entire journey again as there were some tedious, and uninteresting sections and simply because it’s a case of been there, done that.  However, it would be great to explore a few specific areas such as the Longchuan River valley – it was one of the prettiest areas I walked through.

I do have another journey in mind that has a historical basis, some of which would be in China.

As Iva discovered, China is a very safe and hospitable place to travel as a foreigner. Everywhere Iva went she was warmly welcomed and befriended.

As Iva discovered, China is a very safe and hospitable place to travel as a foreigner. Everywhere Iva went she was warmly welcomed and befriended.

GS: How has this experience/journey changed your previous perception and understanding of China and Chinese people?

IS: Prior to this journey, my time in China had been spent in Beijing and Shanghai. I had no knowledge or experience of the rural areas and really did not know what to expect.  My mind boggled at the curiosity and friendliness of the people.  I never failed to collect a crowd of people when I stopped to rest and I have never had so many photos or selfies taken.  I was also overwhelmed by the hospitality, kindness and generosity shown to me.  It was all the people I met along my journey that really made it a special trip.

Iva celebrating her achievement with new found friends. Congratulations Iva!

Iva celebrating her achievement with new found friends. Congratulations Iva!

2016 China (Yunnan) Tea Tour

Mixing business with pleasure,

I’m pleased to announce that the 2016 China (Yunnan) Tea Tour is now taking registrations and expressions of interest. The tour takes place in December and focuses on the tea culture of southern Yunnan, the very place where the human consumption and cultivation of tea first began. This is the second time we are running this tour. Thanks to the fantastic feedback from the first group of participants we have made the tour even better. See the attached document here for full details of costs, guides and itinerary. Any questions please contact me (Gary Sigley) at: gsigley@hotmail.com


The Exemplary Foreigner: An Interview with Brian Linden

In the courtyard of the Linden Centre. From left to right: Jeanee, Brian and Gary.

In the courtyard of the Linden Centre. From left to right: Jeanee, Brian and Gary. Image taken by Doug Smith.

In late November 2015 I revisited The Linden Centre in the historic town of Xizhou (喜洲). Xizhou is on the Erhai basin only a few kilometres from the old town of Dali. For well over a thousand years, if not longer, Dali been an important crossroads for trade, migration and pilgrimage. It sits on both the Southern Silk and Ancient Tea Horse Roads. Over the last three decades it has become a Mecca for tourists. In more recent years it has developed into a favoured destination for China’s growing phenomenon of lifestyle migration (on which I have recently published a paper which you can find here). (note that the content of this interview will be incorporated into a paper on cultural heritage activism; the paper is currently under review).

Xizhou was the home of many successful Bai (the local ethnic group) merchants who plied their trade on the tea road. They poured their money into building many beautiful courtyard mansions in Xizhou. In 2004 Brian and Jeanee Linden, with children in tow, moved to Xizhou with the sole purpose of restoring a heritage listed mansion into a hotel and cultural activity centre. It took a lot of persistence and patience to convince the local authorities to let the project move forward. But in the end the Linden’s passion for Bai culture and their vision of creating a unique cultural retreat won the day. After more than a decade in operation, and having expanded to include other historic buildings in Xizhou and with plans for retreats outside of Dali, the Lindens have developed a good model for sustainable cultural heritage. The background to this widely recognised achievement is the very rapid pace of urbanisation and development in the Erhai basin which is threatening the very culture and way of life that made it an attractive destination for tourists and migrants in the first place.

I sat down with Brian Linden on a beautiful sunny day on the terrace of the Linden Centre to discuss Brian’s views on matters of tourism and cultural heritage in China, and the vision he and his family are attempting to realise.

The gate to the old town of Dali before the tourist rush begins.

The gate to the old town of Dali before the tourist rush begins.

Gary: Before we even get to China is there anything in your background that we should be aware of?

Brian: The reason why we have the perseverance and patience to do this project in China is because China has created who I am. China gave me opportunity and beauty in my post-1984 life. Before China I was cleaning carpets to get through community college. My father is illiterate, my mother never finished high school. I’d never even heard of Stanford let alone dreamed I get a scholarship to do my PhD there. For that reason I approach China differently. I don’t see China as a place to make a profit. These projects are like my teachers, like the professor who changes your life. I don’t think this approach is very common.

Gary: I’m very interested to hear you say that. I think your approach is more common among those foreigners who came to China in the 1980s, before China became the economic powerhouse of the 1990s and beyond. One thing that it does raise is an observation I’ve made over the years of a certain cohort of foreigners who are very attracted to China for aesthetic or cultural reasons. Many of these people are deeply engaged with Daoist theory and practice, for example, or martial arts, or traditional Chinese music or medicine. I think these people make a special attachment to China, different say to those who only come to China to make money or who only ever dabble at the edges of what is a very deep and rich culture.

Brian: I think for this project the cultural connection is very important. There were so many obstacles in getting this up and going. So many people were discouraging us from doing this project.

Gary: How did it all start?

Brain: We were looking to give something back to China. I don’t know how you feel when you go back to Australia and interact with your family and friends there, many of whom might not know very much about China, but after visiting over 100 countries in my previous job in international education I realised that narrow-mindedness was something that could be found everywhere. What really worried me was that those people in my country who were making important decisions not only knew very little about China but actually seemed to think that China didn’t matter.

A Daoist temple on Weibaoshan Mountain, about five hours drive from Dali. Dali Prefecture is home to a rich and diverse living cultural heritage, but one that is faced with the prospect of change.

A Daoist temple on Weibaoshan Mountain, about five hours drive from Dali. Dali Prefecture is home to a rich and diverse living cultural heritage, but one that is faced with the prospect of change.

Gary: Why Dali? How did you come to choose Xizhou as the site of your hotel and cultural project?

Brian: So in 2004 we came back to China with a view to establish a kind of ‘cultural retreat’, something like the Aspen Center. We wanted to be based somewhere rural, somewhere away from the big cities. Initially we looked all over China. We took our kids out of school and started travelling. First we were in Jingdezhen  (Jiangxi Province) and then we had a look around southern Anhui. Dali really attracted us because of its openness and its acceptance of outsiders. Dali has a kind of seductive charm. As I said in a recent interview with Yunnan Television, Dali has a lot of sex appeal, everybody wants to come to Dali and live out their own erotic fantasies, but in a couple of years they will be looking for the next object of desire. So the trick is to get beyond the shallow sense of seduction and go deeper, build some personality, create some insight. Dali shouldn’t just prostitute itself to anyone who comes here, it needs to be a lot more discerning.

Gary: Interesting metaphor. In your discussions with government officials do they get this point? Do they see beyond the desire to cash in on Dali’s appeal and make a quick buck?

Brian: Yes, totally. The former deputy prefecture leader, with whom we interacted quite a bit, said that the most important thing he learnt on the job [like many leaders he was not from Dali, part of a government policy in rotating leadership, bringing outsiders in, and so on, to avoid nepotism and the development of local power cliques] was that Dali had to learn how to say ‘no’, to put in place zoning regulations and enforce them.

Gary: How did you come to choose Xizhou?

Brian: To do something like the Aspen Center we needed size. In China, for various reasons, its hard to find a large traditional structure that we could use. When we found this place we knew it was suitable. It’s on three mu of land, it’s two stories and both are functional. Even then it still took about a year to convince everyone that needed to convinced that the project was worthwhile. But passion is infectious and slowly our support began to build. We weren’t wealthy investors, we had a young family and a passion. We took our kids, then aged five and eight, to all the meetings. People could see that we are earnest and they began to get interested. When we showed deference and respect we got a lot of respect back. The government was taking a bit of risk with us. We didn’t have a lot of money – by which I mean there wasn’t any chance of corruption or financial gain for certain officials – there was no precedence for what we were proposing to do – even to this day in China there aren’t any other national heritage buildings like this one operating in private hands. This was an experiment. We were far enough away from Beijing to avoid direct intervention. I don’t think they would have given this to a Chinese person, at least in those days, for fear that the outcome would have been deemed to commercial and culturally inappropriate [note: during the 1980s and early 1990s in order to raise money some local cultural bureaus turned cultural heritage buildings into pool halls or cheesy museums]. When Beijing did finally get down here to have a look at we were doing the hard work was already done and they were very supportive.

Mother and daughter from Tibet, selling medicinal products at the annual 'Third Month Festival' in Dali. The festival is a combination of religious, cultural and commercial activities. It has a history of at least several hundred years.

Mother and daughter from Tibet, selling medicinal products at the annual ‘Third Month Festival’ in Dali. The festival is a combination of religious, cultural and commercial activities. It has a history of at least several hundred years.

Gary: What is the Centre’s primary mission?

Brian: I think our greatest mission, and this may sound a bit idealistic, is a softpower mission. In China most of the softpower initiatives are being conducted by the government. I think that there is space for others to operate in this field. When I ask my American friends to name three prominent Chinese people they scratch their heads. ‘Chairman Mao, Yao Ming, Jacky Cheng’. Is this the best we can do? A country of 1.3 billion people with a history of 5,000 years? So I thought let’s develop something that will allow people to have a different experience.

Gary: So the cultural experience and education has been something that has been incorporated since the word go?

Brian: Yes. We had to make a distinction right from the beginning. We didn’t want to just be labelled as a ‘luxury hotel’ or ‘boutique hotel’. Rich Chinese – the so-called ‘tuhao’ [土豪; hillbilly rich] – judge the hotel experience by how big was the room, how big was the bed, did my sofa come from Italy, and so on. That kind of client is not the kind of client we want. We are the antithesis of that, we want people to come here for the cultural experience. The clientele is now 50% foreign, 50% Chinese. But it did take a while for the Chinese clients to come round. The Chinese guests are attracted by the preservation aspect but also by our story.

Gary: So if the mission regarding the foreign guest is to educate them about the basics of Chinese culture, then what is the mission when it comes to Chinese guests?

Brian: I tell them very clearly that ‘China’s Dream’ [the dream campaign was launched soon after Xi Jinping came to office in 2012; for more visit this link] should embrace the world. I tell them that the ‘China Dream’ is a very narrow, chauvinistic and selfish dream. The way the ‘China Dream’ is depicted it is only a dream for Chinese people, outsiders aren’t included. The ‘American Dream’ is open to anyone and has been a major motivation for migrants as well as born and bred Americans. I’ve invested everything I have, employ over seventy people, could live here all my life, but I still have apply for a visa every year, and I will never be treated as ‘a local’. What is my China Dream? China has to grow and it has to grow and embrace the outside world and make room for those who also have respect for Chinese culture and China’s cultural heritage.

Gary: What was the reaction of the local community to the project once it had gotten under way?

Brian: There was a sense of immediate respect. We only used local workers. Most of the other tourism development projects are completely run by outside contractors from Kunming or Sichuan. We found an architect who was an Yi woman [the Yi are one of the local ethnic groups] from nearby Weishan. We’ve since stayed true to our mission. There have been plenty of opportunities to develop and open up new centres. We’ve been approached by many investors, but it was obvious to us that they weren’t really interested in preservation and what we were doing, it was more just a gimmick to get a foreigner to head up the operation. So we have declined those offers.

Gary: I remember from a previous conversation that you are often notified when a local temple or heritage building is going to be demolished, you go on site and try to salvage whatever you can?

Brian. Of course. The problem is that we now almost have too much stuff!

A healthy bowl of rice noodles to start the day! The noodles in Dali are a culture of their own.

A healthy bowl of rice noodles to start the day! The noodles in Dali are a culture of their own.

Gary: But why is the destruction happening in the first place? You would be well aware that there is a cultural heritage renaissance taking place in China. There is so much discussion about the role and place of traditional culture and cultural heritage at all social levels. So why is that heritage being destroyed here in Dali and elsewhere in China?

Brian: From my understanding, and looking at it more from a governmental point of view, the government is always going to err on the side of stability in the villages. There are detailed heritage laws. Nothing should be touched in Xizhou but buildings are being destroyed all the time. Originally we had 110 protected structures and now it is down to about eighty [this is unfortunately a national trend]. People want what Dali has to offer right now, but they treat Dali as a bit of harlot, and they come here, chose a site and then do what they like without any enforcement of heritage rules. These outside developers know that they can manipulate the governments fear of instability in the villages. So the developers go to a village and tell them ‘let me lease this for fifteen years, I’ll build a new modern building and in fifteen years you will have a new home’. The development is so fast and large that its happening everywhere. The government knows if they try to enforce heritage rules the villages will be up against them. This is the irony. In the West we think of the Chinese government as all powerful and draconian. The reality is that in these villages the people have an incredible amount of freedom. They don’t care what the government says.

Gary: Why is it important to preserve cultural heritage? In trying to convince the villagers you have an uphill battle.

Brian: That’s a good question. I think there is a sense of place that comes with your identity. What is it that China can project in terms of its identity that is different? Most of the Chinese cities all look the same these days. When I think of America I think of the creative energy there. China has a repository of traditional culture, something that is not threatening to the state, but it has yet to find a way to creatively tap that resource. The creative energy in China is tightly controlled. This is the essential contradiction. I love material culture, material culture that has a direct relation to the past, a Bai past, a Chinese past, our collective human past. It’s an aesthetic. I’m proud of this achievement as a human. But you can’t convince people to have a lower standard of living just based on an aesthetic.

Gary: Where do you see Dali and Xizhou in ten or twenty years time?

Brian: Dali Old Town is already at a point where I’m not too interested anymore. Last year we had a sustainability meeting and at the end of the meeting everyone said a few words. There was a lot of people pointing the finger, blaming government or blaming developers for all that is happening. But one of the heads of a large American museum said that he was concerned about what was happening on Renmin Road where these artistic types have their stalls. He said they are going to change the image and feeling of what Dali is. There are no Bai people with stalls on Renmin Road.

Gary: That’s a good observation. But I don’t think it understands the background and context. It seems to me that Renmin Road is a unique space in China. I look at it through the prism of lifestyle migration. In the West the literature on lifestyle migration mainly focuses on the middle-class. Either we get a ‘sea change’ where they move to the coast – very common in Australia – or a ‘tree change’ where they move to the rural areas. In China I think we have the phenomenon of the ‘mountain change’ whereby people from the eastern seaboard seek to escape the pollution, congestion and pressures of urban living by moving to the less populated and cleaner environs of western China. And of course Dali is probably the number one destination. There are seasonal migrants in the form of the tuhao [hillbilly rich]. Or more semi-permanent migration of the middle-class variety who come to Dali and set up a business such as running a hostel. That fits well with the Western literature on lifestyle migration. But in Dali I think you have a much broader socio-economic spread in terms of the types of migrants. On Renmin Road there are young people from across China seeking to make a few dollars so they can live in Dali. There isn’t anywhere else in China where you can do this, certainly not in such a desirable destination. There aren’t many places in China where you can busk or set up a stall without having to worry that the ‘urban enforcement bureau’ [chengguan 城管] are going to hassle you. Maybe it’s a combination of being so far from Beijing – Heaven is High and the Emperor Far Away – and also the openness and tolerance that we discussed earlier. Of course now maybe things are changing. Everything in China comes back to scale. Ten years ago when it was smaller it was okay, but now everyone wants to come to Dali, rich and poor. The arrival of the McDonald’s at the corner of Renmin and Fuxing Roads just shows that Dali Old Town is now entering a new period.

A poster for the 1959 film 'Five Golden Flower' (五朵金花). The film is a Bai love story set in Dali. The film was very popular nationwide and in the 1980s became a major nostalgic draw card when Chinese tourists started getting more mobile.

A poster for the 1959 film ‘Five Golden Flower’ (五朵金花). The film is a Bai love story set in Dali. The film was very popular nationwide and in the 1980s became a major nostalgic draw card when Chinese tourists started getting more mobile.

Brian: What I see happening in the old town is what has happened elsewhere in other Chinese ‘old towns’. It just becomes a bar district packed with tourists with little space for local culture to shine through. Travel is a relatively new phenomenon for Chinese people. They like what they see in the old town. They just want to be entertained and gaze at the spectacle. Look at Sante Fe. It has a population of just about one hundred thousand people. But it is also America’s second largest art market after New York. It was started by artists who moved to the area inspired by local Indian culture and art. I don’t see anything like that happening in China, let alone in Dali. What happens is that outsiders, whether artists or developers, come here with a business model from Beijing or Shanghai. I’d like to think that with our projects maybe we can start to encourage artists and other creative people to come to Dali to learn from and experience its unique culture.

Gary: Talking of Santa Fe and hippy types reminds me of an experience I had during my last visit to Dali. An Australian friend took me for a ride on his motorbike and we were going through the country roads between the villages. Something caught my eye. It was a VW Kombi van parked in the middle of a field – it was winter – and there were two people sitting around a campfire just next to it. Ah! We discovered the Chinese hippy! It was fenced off and I went through the gate and read the signs. I gathered that in summer it was full of flowers and there were objects like an old Cinderella type carriage with which you could take photographs for an entry fee. It turned out that the Kombi van was just one of those objects. It wasn’t a real Kombi van, it was just an old Chinese van painted to look like one. And the two ‘hippies’ turned out to be ma and pa farmers from some mountain village who were just the caretakers during the slack season. Well that about summed it up for me. It’s all fake.

Brian: In America I like this practice we have, you might call it a social contract between society and the government. Local communities have a lot of civic pride and genuine concern – and most importantly participation – in their community. In China I don’t see that civic pride manifest in same way. The villagers only care about themselves and what they can do as a household to get ahead.

Gary: This is an important topic in terms of civil society or political/community participation. Perhaps because people in China are fairly restricted in terms of how they can get involved in the grassroots government of their own community they have no interest. Instead of doing what they should they just go ahead and do what they want.

Brian: And that is where I think China really suffers right now. It’s not able to draw upon local talent. On the contrary there’s suspicion. So you don’t have any civic responsibility. It fosters this kind of only care for yourself and family attitude.

Visit to Luoyang Normal University

Luoyang Normal University. From the official LNU website. There were no blue skies during my visit.

Luoyang Normal University. From the official LNU website.

From the 7th to the 10th of December 2015 I visited Luoyang Normal University (LNU) (洛阳师范大学) (for an English introduction visit this link). I was invited to visit Luoyang by two departments at LNU: the ‘Central Plains Intelligent Tourism and Innovation Center’ (CPITIC) (中原经济区智慧旅游河南省办协同创新中心) and the Jujube (Chinese Date) Applied Research Centre (JARC) (枣科学研究应用中心). An overview of the CPITIC’s history and objectives is available here (Chinese only). The official CPITIC website is here (Chinese only). An introduction to JARC and Professor Zhao Xusheng (赵旭升), the Center’s Director, is available here (Chinese only). Before I explain how this invitation came about and the research collaboration proposals on the table let me give you an introduction to Luoyang itself.

Luoyang is an ancient Chinese city. The human habitation of Luoyang and the surrounding region goes well back to the neolithic era and beyond. Luoyang became a centre of power during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771 – 256 BCE). During its heyday it was the capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty from 25 – 220 AD. It was also the capital for numerous other dynasties that followed (but did not have the ‘glory’ of the Eastern Han). Hence for many centuries Luoyang was one of the world’s largest and most vibrant urban centres.

Luoyang sits on the fertile ‘central plains’. The ‘central plains’ (中原) (or ‘middle plains’) is a commonly used term in Chinese to refer to the culture and peoples of the alluvial plains of the lower reaches of the Yellow River. This is regarded as the heartland, or indeed ‘the cradle’, of Han Chinese civilisation. It was in this region that the core of Chinese philosophy, cosmology and science was born. Some ancient bronze inscriptions found in this area display use of the characters for ‘zhongguo’ (中国) – which could mean either ‘middle kingdom’ or ‘middle kingdoms’ (Chinese nouns can be either singular or plural). This is most likely where we get the term still used today for China: ‘Middle Kingdom’ (中国).

Nowadays Luoyang is a prefectural city in Henan Province with a population of approximately two million in the core metro area (another four million in the rural districts). Henan itself has a population of approximately 93 million. Luoyang has definitely seen better days. Inland provinces like Henan have not developed as rapidly as those provinces on the eastern seaboard (such as Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang). It also doesn’t have a climate and environment conducive to domestic tourism like the provinces of Yunnan and Hainan. But it does have a very rich history and stories of fact and fiction which are deeply woven into the mainstream Chinese identity. It is these cultural and historical resources that have attracted the attention of my colleagues at Luoyang Normal University.

My connection to LNU came through a recently graduated PhD student, Dr Su Xiaoyan. I had the pleasure of supervising the ‘tail end’ of Xiaoyan’s thesis. Before embarking on the PhD thesis Xiaoyan was already a lecturer at LNU. She has now returned to LNU and is a member of CPITIC. Xiaoyan’s thesis was on the topic of community participation in cultural heritage tourism. Xiaoyan produced a very good thesis with the Shaolin Temple as one of the case studies. The Shaolin Temple is also located in Henan, not too far from Luoyang, and is the capital of Chinese Zen inspired martial arts and philosophy.

With Prof Zhao in the jujube (Chinese date) orchard on the new campus of LNU. Some of these trees are 400 years old. They were transplanted from village orchards due for demolition as the city limits expand. There are 751 different varieties of jujube in this collection (85% of all known varieties).

With Prof Zhao in the jujube (Chinese date) orchard on the new campus of LNU. Some of these trees are 400 years old. They were transplanted from village orchards due for demolition as the city limits expand. There are 751 different varieties of jujube in this collection (85% of all known varieties).

Xiaoyan contacted me one day and asked out of the blue if I knew anything about Chinese dates (jujube). I had to confess that I didn’t. It turns out that Henan is the ‘homeland’ of the jujube and Professor Zhao’s research centre is one of the most important sites of research on the jujube in the world. I learnt from Xiaoyan that Professor Zhao, one of China’s most eminent Jujube researchers with a long list of awards and achievements, was keen to make contact with me for two reasons. Firstly, to explore the possibility of jujube research and commercial production in Western Australia. Of course this kind of research and activity is not my field but I was happy to assist Professor Zhao in making the necessary contacts. Secondly, Professor Zhao was interested in my research on Chinese tea. He argued that the humble jujube tree had made an equally important contribution to Chinese and world culture, but unfortunately its contributions have thus far gone unrecognised. Professor Zhao explained that he would like to co-author a book with me in English on the history, culture and contribution to human civilisation of the humble jujube. So I traveled to Luoyang to meet Professor Zhao in person. After learning from Professor Zhao the background to the jujube and his own work I’m very keen on the idea. So another ‘seed’ has been planted, stay tuned.

Chinese dates (jujube) if you've never seen them. You can eat them raw and also dried. They are an important ingredient in Chinese medicine and often used in soups (adding a natural sweetness). They come in different sizes. The tress have thorns and are very tough They can cope with extreme conditions of heat and cold.

Chinese dates (jujube) in case you’ve never seen them. You can eat them raw and also dried. They are an important ingredient in Chinese medicine and often used in soups (adding a natural sweetness). They come in different sizes. The tress have thorns and are very tough. They can cope with extreme conditions of heat and cold.

After spending the first day with Professor Zhao and his team I was then ‘passed’ over to the fine people at the ‘Central Plains Intelligent Tourism and Innovation Centre’ (CPITIC). Tourism has become an important part of the Chinese economy (nearing five percent of GDP). Some regions and provinces have done very well financially out of the development of domestic tourism (Yunnan, where I have been spending a lot of time in recent years is a good example). By contrast, provinces such as Henan have not done as well as first hoped in the tourism sector. CPITIC is a very new center and was only founded in August 2014. CPITIC, whilst based at LNU, is a ‘coordinating center’ which means that it will be working with government departments, tourism developers and research institutions across Henan to develop innovative research and tourism development strategies. The staff at CPITIC are very young, well trained and enthusiastic. I gave a seminar on my own research in the tourism field to the academic staff and on the same day a lecture to students in the tourism studies major. That evening the President of LNU, Professor Liang Liuke (梁留科) made me an ‘Adjunct Researcher of CPITIC’. Professor Liang’s own area of research is tourism and its no surprise that he is the Director of CPITIC. Dr Cheng Jinlong (程金龙) is the Administrative Director and tasked with the day to day management and implementation of programs and so on. I’m looking forward to a fruitful collaboration.

Unfortunately during my time in Luoyang the atmospheric pollution was quite bad and visibility was poor. It was also starting to get a bit cold. I therefore didn’t get the chance to see many of the sites of historical interest. In any case the famous Longmen Grottoes was closed for maintenance. Instead, with Xiaoyan as my guide, we visited the ‘White Horse Temple’ (白马寺), the first Buddhist temple to be built in China (68 AD). The original structures are long since gone but there has been a functioning temple on this site since its inception.

This was my first visit to Luoyang. I made new friends and collaborative research links. I’ve already mapped out a research plan for the next few years. So my research has now taken me from the ‘periphery’ (Yunnan) back to the ‘centre’ (Henan). It will be an interesting journey. Stay tuned!

The certificate of appointment as an adjunct fellow.

The certificate of appointment as an adjunct fellow.

Sacred Mount Kawagarbo: Where Tibetan Pilgrims and Han Chinese Hikers Meet

The magnificent peak of Mount Kawagarbo.

The magnificent peak of Mount Kawagarbo. At 6,740 metres it is the highest peak in Yunnan. It sits right on the border with Tibet and deep within the Tibetan cultural zone.

As usual it takes far longer to get these blogs up online compared to the amount of time doing the actually activity the blog is describing. The year 2015 was a bit of a mixed bag for me, some downs but thankfully more ups. And the view from the beginning of 2016 is all up as far as I can see. Hope the view from where you stand is good too. This blog describes a September/October 2015 trip to Beijing, Kunming, Shangrila, Yubeng and Dali (in that order). It was a balanced mixture of research and recreation. Before I proceed allow me to share some thoughts worthy of a New Year.

The drawing of the cards.

The drawing of the cards.

Whilst recently in Kunming – on another trip, a tea tour, details of which will be coming in a future blog – I had a ‘life reading’ by an itinerant Daoist in the scenic Western Hills. He asked me to draw out three cards from a pack of thirty. Each card was marked with a different character. The order of drawing, so he said, accorded with three life stages: early, middle, and late. I drew in order the characters ‘ao’ (熬), ‘jin’ (金), and ‘yi’ (). He said the first character ‘ao’ – which means in this context ‘to suffer’ and ‘to endure’ – referred to the first stage of my life. I’ve had many blessings but it’s true that there were a few challenges early on, but all is hunky dory now. The second character means ‘gold’ and refers to both ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ wealth. Whilst no Jack Ma or Bill Gates I think I’ve done okay. Look around the world at all the suffering and you will pretty soon feel content. Finding the balance between the ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ is also important. I would like to add another element to the ‘gold’ standard, namely, ‘scholarship’. I’m confident of bringing out some interesting research and general musings as time goes on.  I feel I’m just getting into my ‘research stride’ as far as that goes. The third stage, which I feel is beginning to just unfold, is one of ‘friendship and righteousness’. The ‘yi’ character is an important one in Chinese philosophical discussions of morality and sociability. As he stroked his beard, the old man said I would have many friends as time goes by and that seems like a nice way to end, though of course I hope that isn’t for a very very long time. I don’t believe in ‘feudal superstition’, as the Communist Party of China labels it. Nonetheless the reading came at an opportune time just when I have been thinking about what it means to be human, and namely, a partner, a father, a friend, a teacher, a scholar, and never forget, a wannabe bluesman. Hope you all have a great 2016 and may the cards be in your favour. Now on with the show …

Nice day for a white wedding ...

Nice day for a white wedding …

First stop, Beijing. I arrived in Beijing a few days after the big military parade commemorating the Sino-Japanese War (WWII). It was mid-September and the air was relatively clean and the sky still blue. Security was on high alert with police at all major intersections, but maybe China has just joined the rest of the world in being in a state of ‘perpetual alert’ (but not quite yet joined the West in being in a state of ‘perpetual war’). I was in Beijing to attend the wedding of Russell and Xiaomiao. Very happy to see them in marital union and wish them all the best. The reception and ceremony took place at Capital M, where on the balcony you can see the resting place of Mao Zedong in the heart of Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen Square is in effect is the symbolic heart of the People’s Republic of China. A bit macabre to think that it has a cold cadaver at its heart.

The view from Capital M.

The view from Capital M.

Doug joined me in Beijing for the wedding. Doug has been my co-traveler on many China adventures. A true scholar and a gentleman if ever there was one. I never tire of his stories (although sometimes I do remind him that ‘I’ve heard that one a few times already’). We were both on another China mission. Doug to take photographs and revive his passion for photography (before becoming an academic he was a professional photographer in his younger years, in the world of analogue, so he is in the process of learning to ‘go digital’, which is hard for an avowed luddite). I’ve put up a selection of Doug’s photos on my Flickr site here. You can also find in the same album a collection of my own much inferior images. All the images used in this blog are by me unless otherwise stated. My mission was twofold, firstly to scope out a new field site for my research project on ‘China and the return to nature’ – investigating the growth of Chinese engagement with ‘the outdoors’ and other related matters. And secondly, to fulfill a long cherished dream of taking my music to the people. I’m not a professional musician, and not a very good amateur one at that, but I know enough to entertain an audience for a few minutes. I tell my language students that you shouldn’t be shy about opening your mouth. The same goes for playing music. So long as your heart is in it don’t be shy, just know when enough is enough and all will be well. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Ignore music fascists who think they have some given right to tell everyone else what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. How boring!

The Orange Amp and Yak bone skull that I collected in Shangrila.

The Orange amp from Beijing and Yak bone skull I collected in Shangrila. Yorick, as I call him, now sits on my desk.

This time I brought my beloved fender stratocaster. It’s a Japanese make, about thirty years old. It’s scarred and worn from much love. In Beijing I purchased a small portable Orange amp and effect pedal.  The owner and his goofy long haired assistant asked me what I was going to do with it. I said I was going busking in Yunnan. He grinned and said, ‘You can get some wild weed down there’. I said I never touch the stuff and wouldn’t break the law in China in any case. They laughed. At first Doug and I were planning to go to the Dulong River Valley (独龙), one of the most remote corners of China, but unfortunately the monsoon rain had set in and it would have been rather miserable (not to mention leech infested). So we changed plans and decided to head for the Tibetan village of Yubeng (雨崩) at the foot of Mount Kawagarbo (卡瓦格博) (part of what is known in Mandarin as the Meilixueshan (梅里雪山) Mountains). Mount Kawagarbo is the tallest peak in Yunnan at 6,740 metres, right on the border of Tibet and deep in the Tibetan cultural zone. Kawagarbo is a scared mountain in Tibetan culture and a major pilgrimage destination. You can see where Kawagarbo is on Google Maps here.

Trying my hand a being a tea master. The characters in the background read 'The Way of Tea' (or 'The Dao of Tea').

Trying my hand at being a tea master in Ms Xia’s tea house.

So after Beijing, fender, amp and pedal stowed safely away, and after catching up with various friends and colleagues, we flew to Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan and one of the most pleasant cities in all of China. Kunming is also an important hub for tea activity. On this front, whilst in town I interviewed Ms Xia Xue (夏雪), the CEO of Mingzang Tea (名藏茶道) and President of the Yunnan Chamber of Tea Commerce. You can see the interview with Ms Xia here. I also went busking in Green Lake Park (翠湖公园). Not really busking, just getting used to the feel of playing in a public space in China (where opportunities to do so are actually very limited). I was quite chuffed that people stopped to listen and gave me the ‘thumbs up’. I love Green Lake Park. It was the first place I took my sister when she just arrived in China for the first time. I don’t think she will ever forget that experience.


Playing with the Tibetans was quite an experience. The enthusiastic French also made it memorable.

After a few days in Kunming we flew directly to Shangrila (香格里拉). We stayed in Shangrila for a few days to acclimatise (altitude 3,200 metres). I also took the opportunity to catch up with an old friend, one of the local ‘mountain changers’, Ms Cheng (on ‘mountain changers’ and lifestyle migration in China see my paper in Asian Highland Perspectives). Ms Cheng has built a traditional Tibetan style (or more correctly, Shangrila style) house in a village outside of town where she meditates and paints whilst soaking in the beautiful natural and bucolic vistas. Very nice! Even nicer with a few glasses of homemade plonk and local cheese. Thanks! Cheng hooked me up with some Tibetan musicians and they were kind enough to let me play with them in a popular music bar in the old town (most of which is under reconstruction following a devastating fire in January 2014). They were very talented. Tibetan singing is inspiring stuff, the kind of music you only get in the high mountains under blue skies and standing on green meadows. I wasn’t too bad either as some French tourists started dancing when I switched to an open g tuning and cranked up some classic Stones tunes. Maybe they were drunk. We’ll never know. They were French after all. Ha! Vive la France!

Tibetan pilgrims at Feilaisi. Image by Doug.

Tibetan pilgrims at Feilaisi. Image by Doug Smith.

From Shangrila our next destination before reaching Yubeng was the town of Deqin, or in our case straight to Feilaisi Temple (飞来寺) just a few kilometres out of town. Deqin itself isn’t that interesting, although it does have a bit of an ‘old town’ which we visited on or way back to Shangrila. Like ‘old towns’ everywhere across China it was undergoing the obligatory upgrade in the hope of attracting tourists. Interestingly enough there is an archery range next to the old town (archery is common in many areas of Western China among various ethnic groups although the authorities seemed to have asked the locals to hand in their bows and crossbows to prevent poaching). In any case you can’t see Kawagarbo from Deqin, nestled as it is into the corner of a steep valley. Felaisi is the first place where you can get a good view, weather and mountain permitting. Not surprisingly it was in 1924 at Feilaisi where the intrepid explorer, botanist and ethnographer Joseph Rock took the first ever photograph of the seven peaks that make up Kawagarbo (published with much acclaim in National Geographic). Six of those peaks are over 6,000 metres. You really do feel you are on the top of the world, or at least very close to the summit.

The hotel owner said he would give us a substantial discount on our dinner if I played for his family and guests that evening. Given that he was charging exorbitant tourist prices for everything it turned out to be quite a good deal. I actually found it quite hard going given the elevation of 3,500 metres.

The hotel owner said he would give us a substantial discount on our dinner if I played for his family and guests that evening. Given that he was charging exorbitant tourist prices for everything it turned out to be quite a good deal. Apologies for the blurry image. Apparently the iPhone was struggling with the altitude too.

Given the rise of tourism and the number of Chinese hikers and Tibetan pilgrims Feilaisi has become a bit of a traveler trap. Perched on the side of a mountain there is only one viewing platform which charges 160 yuan for the pleasure of gaining an adulterated view of the mountain (travelers on tight budgets can walk down the road to find a vantage point, but of course the viewing platform is in the prime position). Assuming of course that the mountain is cooperating and not covered in cloud. After one month of rain and cloud, on the day we arrived the peak did show its snowy head just as the sun was going down behind it (not ideal for photographic purposes). The next morning dozens of Chinese and foreign photographers (including Doug) got up early to witness the sunrise, praying to the mountain gods to let the peak be visible. Unfortunately it wasn’t, so they could only sigh and look at each others equipment and work out who had the best and most expensive setup.

Feilaisi. Traveler trap on the way to Yubeng.

Feilaisi. Traveler trap on the way to Yubeng.

Feilaisi is at 3,500 metres and looks down into a steep valley where the Mekong River cuts its way through deep gorges. The seven peaks of Kawagarbo are on the other side, far away, but the sense of space makes them appear much closer than they really are. It was on the viewing platform that we met our first pilgrims from Tibet (I have a feeling they get a substantial discount!). I’ve never been to Tibet. I’ve always wanted to go but the thought of restrictions and having to apply for a special ‘travel permit’ have always been a huge disincentive. Whilst many Chinese tourists now visit Tibet, and quite a few younger people have undertaken the arduous bike ride from either Chengdu or Shangrila to Lhasa, foreigners in Tibet are quite rare. So it’s not surprising that the Tibetan pilgrims were just as interested and curious to see us as we were them. The pilgrims were traveling in groups, often groups of family and friends. Some of them were being spiritually guided by their own Rinpoche, a learned Tibetan lama. I found that many of them either didn’t speak Chinese Mandarin very well or were rather shy. I regretted that I can’t speak much Tibetan. So we resorted to the universal human language of smiles and gestures and took a few obligatory photographs together.

Tibetan pilgrims on the trail to Yubeng. Image by Doug Smith.

Tibetan pilgrims on the trail to Yubeng. Image by Doug Smith.

As already noted, Kawagarbo is the site of an important pilgrimage which takes the form of a circumambulation, that is, the movement around the a holy mountain visiting sacred sites and temples along the way. The term in Tibetan is kora. There are two kinds of circumambulation: inner-circumambulation [neizhuan 内转] and outer-circumambulation [waizhuan 外转]. The former, as the term suggests, is a circuit close to the mountain base and one which you can typically walk. The latter, so I discovered from talking to some pilgrims, seems to be a more modern invention and involves moving around the mountain in vehicle from town to town or village to village, stopping in certain places to walk into the ‘inner-circumambulation’ (such as is the case with Yubeng as I will explain below). This is obviously less arduous than the full inner-circumambulation, so it is much more accessible to folks of different ages and fitness levels.

Tibetans love their bikes just like they love their horses. Of course now they don't tend to ride horses long distance. But they have taken to decorating their motorcycles with all manner of protective charms and, not to be outdone, strapped on speakers for blasting out Tibetan pop songs. Note that the crooked cross has long been a Buddhist symbol.

Tibetans love their bikes just like they love their horses. Of course now they don’t tend to ride horses long distance. But they have taken to decorating their motorcycles with all manner of protective charms and, not to be outdone, strapped on speakers for blasting out Tibetan pop songs. Note that the crooked cross has long been a Buddhist symbol.

From Feilaisi the next stop was the Tibetan village of Yubeng (雨崩). Yubeng is an important pilgrimage stop for both the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ circumambulation of Kawagarbo. This once isolated village now not only welcomes thousands of Tibetan pilgrims each year but also a growing number of Chinese hikers (the so-called ‘donkey friends’ (lvyou 驴友), see my previous post on the subject of Chinese hikers; plus a paper co-authored with Ed Jocelyn on the same subject). From Feilaisi you take a minivan to the trail head, the village of Xidang (西当). It’s a short journey of approximately forty minutes, but it takes you from an altitude of 3,500 metres at Feilaisi down to 2,450 metres at Xidang. For those afraid of heights and scary mountain driving I advise not taking a window seat (Doug is in this category so I’m always on the window, which is just fine). Along the way you cross the Mekong River (or the Lancang River as it is known in these parts). At the village of Xidang the hike begins. If so desire you can hire a mule to ride for 400 yuan. If you’re over 90 kilograms you have to hire two mules (hence Doug’s new nickname, Doug ‘Two Mules’ Smith). I hired a mule to take all my gear and make the act of walking more enjoyable.

'Two Mules' Doug is born. And a vision of Get Yer Ya Ya's Out is too.

‘Two Mules’ Doug is born. And a vision of Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out is too.

So we ended up with our own mini-mule-caravan of three mules and two muleteers. There were quite a lot of people on the trail too, so lots of hikers, pilgrims, muleteers and mules. But it wasn’t so crowded as to be annoying. Anyway part of the mission was to see and experience the trail when it was relatively busy. The trail is a well maintained dirt road up and over the mountain, the only road into Yubeng, so it has to accommodate both walkers and vehicles. Fortunately during the day vehicles and motorcycles are prohibited so as not to scare the mules and also to provide a better environment for all the walkers. This is an excellent arrangement. Villagers from both villages – Yubeng and Xidang – are part of the ‘mule riding cooperative’ and they have a system in place whereby every household that participates gets its fair share of customers. There is a good mixture of male and female ‘muleteers’ too. Upon talking to the muleteers that were with us I discovered quite a few actually came from other locations. So even in this rural setting there are migrant labourers. Our muleteer came from the historic village of Cizhong (茨中), famous for its church and its vineyards (both are contributions of 19th and 20th Century French missionaries). She told me she was eighteen years old and was paid one hundred yuan per day (which includes food and accommodation). She can walk for up to four months per year. Let’s say conservatively that she can pocket 7,000 yuan during the hiking season. Compared to the income she can make at home growing maize and potatoes and raising pigs – approximately 1,000 yuan per year – this is quite a lot of money. Sometimes the guests give tips. Also, if she personally carries a backpack for a guest she is free to negotiate a price. Most can manage at least two trips per day. Sometimes those based in Xidang arrange to change mules with those from Yubeng at the pass (especially if it is getting late in the day). I also discovered that there were many migrant workers working in the hostels of Yubeng, more on this below.

We stumbled into Yubeng and more or less stumbled into the first hostel we came across. Most of the hostels seem to be owner operated, that is, by local villagers. But as I noted above there is also a lot of external migrant labour doing the cooking, cleaning, muleteering and other work. Most of the migrants are only in Yubeng during the summer months when the tourists are in larger numbers. In our hostel a young Tibetan woman who I will call Lamo hails from the nearby Tibetan village of Yanjing (盐井) (the Chinese name for the village, which literally means ‘salt wells’ – the village is famous for its salt production and was an important part of the local trading network; the village is across the border in Tibet proper; it’s a pity that foreigners are prohibited from visiting). She was introduced to the hostel by her cousin who is also working in Yubeng (an example of chain migration). She is eighteen years old and sheepishly informed me that she never went to school. Nonetheless her spoken Chinese was very good. She told me she learnt it by watching television, especially Korean dramas. She was a big fan of a Korean boy band called TMD (which incidentally in Chinese romanisation comes out as ‘tamede/他妈的 – ‘damn it!’) and had a self-made tattoo dedicated to them on her arm. Her ultimate dream is to visit South Korea. As I keep saying, this just goes to show that you don’t even have to leave a remote village to get in contact with the outside world, it comes straight into your home via satellite television. I was also quite happy to be educated about Korean popular music by a Tibetan village girl.

Plenty of hostels in Yubeng. All of them are operated by local villagers. They also employ migrant labour.

Plenty of hostels in Yubeng. All of them are operated by local villagers. They also employ migrant labour.

We had dinner one evening in a small restaurant operated by a Lisu (傈僳族) chef and his daughter from Weixi (维西). He said he has been working in Yubeng for two years and that there are three peak seasons: May (which coincides with the ‘Labour Day Golden Week Holiday’); June/July (the summer months that coincide with the university vacation period – many of the Chinese hikers are university students); and October (coinciding with the ‘National Day Golden Week Holiday’). He said he returns to Weixi during the slack season (November to March). Thus I gathered a preliminary sense of rural to rural migration in Yunnan and the important role that the growth of outdoor tourism is having on this phenomenon.

This is Counch Man. A Han Chinese pilgrim from Guangzhou. A business man out on the trail with his Tibetan Rinpoche. He blasted the counch on the pass. These days not all the Buddhist pilgrims are Tibetans, many Han Chinese are now joining the ranks.

This is Counch Man. A Han Chinese pilgrim from Guangzhou. A business man out on the trail with his Tibetan Rinpoche. He blasted the counch on the pass. These days not all the Buddhist pilgrims are Tibetans, many Han Chinese are now joining the ranks. Image by Doug Smith.

A few words of the notion of ‘pilgrim’. Even the Chinese tourist hiker can be regarded as a kind of pilgrim if they themselves regard their activity as more than just ‘tourism’ and a way to ‘reconnect with nature’. They come in all shapes and sizes. There are young hikers geared up to the max looking for adventure. There are older hikers enjoying a leisurely walk and the challenge of a decent hike way beyond the city limits. There are also those who regard the hike as their own form of spiritual challenge. There are many Tibetan pilgrims. Some are lone lamas. Some are in small groups of lamas and nuns. There are family groups, some of whom have an accompanying lama or two (who may be either one of their kin or a spiritual guide). They consist of all ages, from mothers carrying infants to one elderly woman in her eighties complete with hunch and walking stick and toothless grin. All of the Tibetan pilgrims greet you with a smile, hands raised palms upwards and a tashi delek (བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས)! Or a jiayou (加油) in Chinese! Some of the more outgoing will reach out to shake your hand and wish you well. The Tibetan pilgrims seem to stay mainly down at the trail head in Xidang and hike in and out of Yubeng on the same day. That’s quite a long hike considering they will also visit the sacred waterfall another ten or so kilometres out of Yubeng.

We met a lot of interesting characters in Yubeng. Doug took these portraits. The chap in the middle is from Muli. We are now mates on WeChat. Technology is amazing and can truly help us connect. But it can also enslave us. Even Yubeng is now within its limits.

We met a lot of interesting characters in Yubeng. Doug took these portraits. The chap in the middle is from Muli. We are now mates on WeChat. Technology is amazing and can truly help us connect. But it can also enslave us. Even Yubeng is now within its limits.

There are two main attractions near Yubeng. One is the sacred waterfall. This is the focus for the Tibetan pilgrims. Many hikers and pilgrims actually hike out in the afternoon and stay at the waterfall for the night. The other attraction is the ‘frozen lake’ higher up on the slopes of the mountain. This is a new attraction and not regarded a sacred. It is mainly visited by Chinese hikers. We didn’t visit either site this trip as Doug’s knees were playing up. But we were quite happy to just mooch around Yubeng. Mooching is a long standing tradition in our travels. Doug is one of the world’s greatest moochers.

Playing in the hostel. Curious and bewildered pilgrims aren't sure if they dare cross the threshold. Image by Doug Smith.

Playing in the hostel. Curious and bewildered pilgrims aren’t sure if they dare cross the threshold. Image by Doug Smith.

In 1991 a group of Chinese and Japanese mountain climbers (from Tokyo University Mountaineering Club) attempted to climb to the summit of Kawagarbo. They failed and many died, the bodies were not recovered (some years later a few were discovered). The weather changed for the worse at the time of attempting the summit from the third camp. They were 240 metres from the summit. They retreated back to the third camp. All seventeen climbers attempting the summit perished in the snow storm. The remaining club member came back for a final attempt in 1996 (which was part of the original agreement with the Chinese authorities regarding the number of climbs permitted). Once again the weather was not cooperative and they gave up the attempt, the memory of the previous tragedy still very fresh. Climbing has since been prohibited since 2001. There is a Yunnan Television documentary on the tragedy here [in Chinese only].

We walked down the valley to have afternoon tea next to a mountain stream. Good thing to always have your outdoor tea kit handy.

We walked down the valley to have afternoon tea next to a mountain stream. Good thing to always have your outdoor tea kit handy.

One of the local Tibetans told us that the villagers are very pleased with the prohibition on climbing to the summit. The mountain is regarded as the home of Kawagarbo, an important Tibetan deity. He said that rather than trying to conquer nature the Tibetans believe people should live with it. I wholeheartedly concurred and said that the outside world can learn much from this philosophy. Two days prior to our visiting Yubeng a black bear attacked and killed a lone mule that had wandered into the hills. So there are very wild and dangerous animals out there. A few years ago all guns and crossbows were confiscated by the authorities (in efforts to reduce hunting). These days the villagers can only collect mushrooms and the famous caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis).

Our moochings took us to a small temple on the way to the sacred waterfall. The temple is looked after by a lone lama. At the main alter I was surprised to see a picture of the Dalai Lama, knowing that all such images are prohibited by the authorities. The lama took me around the temple and patiently introduced all the deities. I showed him a picture of the DL on my iPhone, he took the phone, looked at the picture and raised it to his forehead in veneration.

Our moochings took us to a small temple on the way to the sacred waterfall. The temple is looked after by a lone lama. At the main alter I was surprised to see a picture of the Dalai Lama, knowing that all such images are prohibited by the authorities. The lama took me around the temple and patiently introduced all the deities.  Image on the left taken by Doug Smith.

We stayed in Yubeng for three nights and had good exchanges with the locals, pilgrims and Chinese hikers. I’m definitely keen to return to Yubeng. Our hike out of Yubeng was uneventful although it was very painful for Doug and his gammy knee (he decided to spare the poor mules any suffering and walk out on his own two legs). We made our way back to Shangrila. We stayed in a hostel run by a chap from Kunming called ‘Kevin’. Kevin is quite a character and fits into the category of ‘mountain changer’, or more specifically a seasonal migrant (most of the ‘mountain changers’ in Shangrila are in this category as the winters are cold and bleak). He spends the spring and summer in Shangrila running the hostel, and then closes it for winter whereupon he returns to his home in Kunming. He likes to travel and has been to most of Tibet and Xinjiang. He was a wealth of information on the changes taking place in Shangrila. He confirmed something I’d long suspected. He told me during the course of many cups of tea that:

“Many young people from eastern China come to western China looking for something to fill the gap in their lives, but they don’t necessarily know what they are looking for. Their lives in the cities are materialistic and hedonistic, and some bring that lifestyle with them into the mountains”.

Kevin’s birthday took place during our stay and he kindly invited us to join in the festivities. After Shangrila we bypassed Lijiang and headed straight for Dali. I’m not going to say too much about this visit to Dali as it was mainly for the purposes of recreation. I did however interview Brian Linden of the Linden Centre in Xizhou (the interview will be up on this blogsite soon). Brian has some good insights into the transformation of Dali from a sleeping backpacker haunt to a thriving tourism Mecca. I’m also publishing a paper on Brian and his cultural heritage activism in the near future. Very productive mooching. Thanks Doug! The only thing to note here is that after playing in several venues in Dali I finally got the chance to play in the Bad Monkey. The Bad Monkey is something of an icon in Dali. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but after more than ten years it has become an institution. I played with my young Chinese friends, a guitarist and beatboxer. I’d never played with a beatboxer before. He was bloody good! I wasn’t really in a good state and it wasn’t my best performance. It’s a rather long story but all I want to say is that Kawagarbo might have had something to do with it. The next day I was inspired to write a short piece in Chinese, something that doesn’t happen very often. I’m not going to translate it into English (let Google do it for you!). And this is where I will leave you for now:

昨天朋友问我是否山里有神仙。我想了一会儿想到几千年前觉得该有,想到几万年前觉得一定有,可惜随着现代化的进步和游客脚声代替马夫的山歌的大跃进山里的 神仙哪儿能平静?我和他解释我的观点突然举头看望了苍山上向着我微笑的一条云龙。过一会儿我两个朋友变成了古罗马的战兵陪着我走人民路的上坡,吉他变成了 耶稣的十字架,慢慢地通过人民路的人山人海,千万个眼球盯着鹤立鸡群的血汗包袱。复兴路口 – 也是地理性的十字架 – 现在设立了麦当劳,西方现代文化符号工厂。我非进去拜麦神不可。那是一种又超越空间又被空间绑住的感觉和融合。外地的游客也进来了摸摸熟悉,这家大使馆到 底是属于哪国的?店里有个毒品叫做可口可乐,是拜麦神的重要礼品。是麦神和他的毒品赶走了山神吗?喝了一口可乐又拿起十字架来一步一步的向前进。人民路全 是刺激,琳琅满目的诱惑和喧哗,no rest or place of rest for the wicked。卡瓦格博我看到你了,看到你在云龙上飞翔!别走,这虚伪的消费社会还存在着那么多人间神仙。是他们的宽容和友谊让我放下十字架找找一杯好茶 来。

Dali Collage

Yunnan Tea and Life in the Slow Lane: An Interview with Ms Xia Xue

Ms Xia Xue

Ms Xia Xue (夏雪) is the President of the Yunnan Chamber of Tea Commerce (云南省茶叶商会). She is of Hui (回) descent and hails from the greater Kunming region. [image by Doug Smith, all other images by Gary Sigley]

The interview took place in Kunming in late September 2015. It was conducted in Chinese and translated here into English. Thanks to Gong He (Mark) for transcribing the original recording. The interview was conducted by yours truly, Gary Sigley.


  1. Ms Xia thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. When compared to tea from other regions of China what is special about Yunnan’s teas?

Xia: I know you have visited China’s other tea production areas and I’m sure you have seen with your own eyes the major differences between Yunnan and the rest of China. Firstly, the ecological environment in Yunnan is exceptional. Our ecological environment has been well preserved. Many tea areas in Yunnan continue traditional methods of cultivation and production that do not use chemical fertilisers or pesticides.

Secondly, because Yunnan is situated at a high elevation [the average height of Yunnan is 1,980 metres, with basins near the Tibetan border at 3,000 metres and Mekong valley basins much lower at 600 metres; tea is typically grown at altitudes of 1,000 or so metres] and low latitude [the Tropic of Cancer passes through Yunnan] we have long periods of sunlight. Thirdly, our kind of tea tree is the large leaf variety [Camellia sinensis assamica] which contains many elements not found in the small leaf variety [Camellia sinensis sinensis].

In summary, the first is the ecological environment, the second is sunlight and the third is the internal elements that collectively determine how Yunnan’s teas are different to those from other parts of China. But two more things need to be added. Firstly, the large leaf tea variety in Yunnan is most well known for being processed into puer tea, but it also can be processed into any other forms of tea, such as green, yellow, white, dark and even wulong (oolong). By contrast the small leaf variety cannot be made into a puer tea. Secondly, Yunnan is the region where humans first began to harvest and cultivate tea. This makes Yunnan tea extra special in my opinion.

Left: Gary with a 400 year old tea tree. Right: A more typical tea plantation. The former exists in a natural ecological environment whilst the latter depends on modern pesticides and fertilisers.

Left: Gary with a 400 year old tea tree. Right: A more typical tea plantation. The former exists in a natural ecological environment whilst the latter depends on modern pesticides and fertilisers.


  1. In your judgement what is the current state of the Yunnan tea industry? What direction is it headed in? What are its major challenges?

Xia: Regarding the current state of the Yunnan tea industry I can’t but help feeling a bit concerned and unsatisfied. My major concerns are that government policies are not as supportive as they could be, and that the overall direction of the market – where there are a lot of unscrupulous providers of low quality and fake tea – is not very encouraging. So it is left to us tea entrepreneurs and our chamber of commerce to do what we can and this is very difficult.

With a large area under cultivation and difficulties in getting our product to the right market channels we are confronted by a bottleneck. Our marketing remains weak. Even within China, which is the home of tea, puer tea is not well known. This situation has turned around over the last decade as people seek out more ecological products, such as puer tea, but this has in turn generated high demand for tea from certain regions [such as the villages of Laobanzhang and Bingdao] leading to very exaggerated prices. The market is therefore not very mature.

What’s more the quality assurance process also has some issues. In fact the process is somewhat chaotic! As I already mentioned, there are a lot of low quality teas masquerading as high quality teas. Some suppliers change the place of origin to match those areas of high demand and high prices. This in turn leads the consumer to feel very wary and uncertain as to how to access quality tea.

Nonetheless the overall outlook is positive. We have a very good product that is itself of excellent quality, that is good for one’s health and that over time becomes an essential part of your daily life. Ironically, in China at present with so much concern about food safety our product – given the ecological conditions – has very good prospects for tea drinkers. We just need to address some of the concerns I have mentioned here. In response to these challenges we hope the government will step up and give more direction and guidance, especially with regards to setting up more effective quality assurance mechanisms to protect the true ecological puer tea. We also need to consider how to more effectively promote puer tea, especially to a younger generation of tea drinkers.

Pot and cup

Is your tea actually what it claims to be? Best to purchase from a reputable supplier.


  1. Now that you mention young tea drinkers, if you look at places like Shanghai it seems that coffee has made big inroads and become the most fashionable beverage. Tea, by contrast, appears a bit out of step with modern trends. How can you make tea more appealing to the younger generation?

Xia: I think the answer to this question should be twofold. On the one hand it should be approached in terms of consciousness and conceptualisation. On the other hand are the issues of convenience and speed. Young people in China are undoubtedly much more exposed to Western modes of living which these days has a lot of fashionable appeal. We also live in a society with a fast pace of life in which people seek out that which is convenient and speedy.

I would say in response that China’s tea culture has very deep roots, several thousand years in fact. There is a solid foundation but it goes back to the issue of finding the right marketing and promotion channels. In terms of convenience we can consider further developing more convenient ways to consume puer tea such as this [at this moment Ms Xia raised up a small puer ‘tea drop’ about the size of a thimble wrapped in paper which the consumer can simple place in a cup or pot].


4: I think that the media in this regard performs an extremely important function. Take coffee for example. Those coffee companies, and other foreign beverage companies that are also in the soft drink and tea business, are part of very large multinational corporations with deep pockets and a lot of marketing experience. By comparison Chinese tea doesn’t have a single entity that can compete on this level [hence the importance of support from the government to meet this challenge]. [on this and other related points see my article ‘Towards a Manifesto for the Slow Tea Movement’]. How do you see it?

Xia: Yes, I agree with you, this is something our organisation is going to focus on in coming years. Only with government support and the unifying of our forces can we get the scale required to meet the challenge. At present in Yunnan the tea industry is segmented with each company, large and small, doing its own thing. So we have a lot of work to do to create a platform that will attract the interest of young people. This will be the focus of our 2016 Work Report to be submitted to the Yunnan Provincial Government.


  1. Sociability is a key characteristic of China’s tea culture and it seems to fit well with the various notions of ‘go slow’ [e.g. slow food, slow travel, slow living, etc] that have become fashionable in some circles. Young people are attracted to a faster pace of life but I reckon once they get to a certain stage they will want to slow down. At this point tea can come into its own. Do you agree?

Xia: The way I see it at this moment in time the tea consumers consist of a key group with money and leisure. Firstly, when they have reached a certain point they have accumulated some wealth, but more importantly they have time for leisure and are seeking to sit down and use tea to attain a kind of stillness. Coffee by contrast is too much of a stimulant to serve this purpose. Tea also has a long standing role in this regard in relation to its close interactions with Zen Buddhism a connection well understood in China through the notion of ‘Tea and Zen are One’ [茶禅一味].

Bulang Village Collage

A Bulang village in Menghai, Sipsongbanna, Yunnan. The Bulang are one of the earliest ethnic groups to drink tea. Pictured here is the ‘purest’ way to brew tea with fresh and unprocessed tea leaves.


  1. Given that Yunnan is China most ethnically diverse province, and indeed one of the most ethnically diverse regions on earth, what can you tell us about the significance of tea culture for Yunnan’s ethnic minorities?

Xia: The importance of tea to many of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities cannot be underestimated. It was the ethnic people in this region that first discovered the virtues of tea and began its cultivation. For that we should be eternally grateful and respectful. Tea has thus been an integral part of many local cultures and traditions for hundreds if not thousands of years. Indeed, with the development of the tea trading routes [also known as The Ancient Tea Horse Road on which refer to this link] it could be argued that tea played a crucial role in sustaining the sharing of cultures and ideas between the people of Southwest China and beyond.

With regards to the contemporary period, tea is also an integral part of the ‘green economy’. With the strong growth of the tea market in recent years many ethnic minority regions have experienced strong economic growth and the raising of living standards. This is a good thing but also can bring with it some challenges and problems if the principles of sustainability and ecological protection are jeopardised for the sake of financial gain [as noted above]. Hence this is why the government has enacted laws to protect Yunnan’s ancient tea trees and encourage the creation of cooperatives and knowledge exchange among tea farmers to promote best practice. The government and tea industry is also supporting economic development in neighbouring countries such as Myanmar where some ethnic groups have come to depend on the cultivation of opium. In these areas we are helping local communities switch to tea cultivation in the hope that the cycle of drug production and the harm it does to both the locals and others can be broken.

In conclusion I would say that tea is the greatest contribution China’s ethnic minorities have made to human civilisation and I sincerely hope more foreigners will be aware of this important part of our collective history. Thank you Gary for your efforts to promote a deeper knowledge to a foreign audience.

Tea Fossil Collage

‘Tea fossils’ discovered in Jinggu County, Puer, Yunnan.

Baoshan Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve Ecotourism and Project Site Report

Yiluo Meeting

Team members gather for an obligatory group photograph. Taken at the entrance to the impressive Wenchanggong Temple in the village of Yiluo in Tengchong County. A Daoist temple devoted to scholarship, literature, culture and civilisation. The perfect venue for us to summarise our observations and think about the future.

ChinaWatch2050’s first blogpost for 2015. Better late than never. I hope this year to bring you more interesting insights into China from my perspective. The first cab off the rank is formally releasing the report on last year’s (November 2014) ecotourism excursion and project site inspection on the Gaoligong Mountain Nature Reserve (Baoshan). The report was compiled by Dr Ed Jocelyn and can be found in pdf form here. Ed and I have been to this site before and I’ve summarised those trips here and here.

Special thanks to Frank Hitman of Zouba Travel for providing logistical support and boundless enthusiasm.

Special thanks to Frank Hitman and Matthew Hartzell (pictured below) of Zouba Tours for providing logistical support and boundless enthusiasm.

I would like to thank the sponsors and supporters of this project: The Faculty of Arts at The University of Western Australia; Zouba Tours; Red Rock Treks; Beijing Hikers; Osprey Packs (China); and The Tea Exchange. The local Baoshan Government, especially the Cultural Affairs Bureau and Baoshan Museum, were very supportive.

Wherever outdoor types gather you can be sure that someone has a map and someone else has a headlamp. Pictured here Matthew Hartzell (many thanks for your support) and Yang Xiao (who has appeared previously on this site).

Wherever outdoor types gather you can be sure that someone has a map and someone else has a headlamp. Pictured here Matthew Hartzell and Yang Xiao (who has appeared previously on this site).

I will bring you more news about our project plans and events in the coming weeks and months. As Ed’s report suggests, the growth of outdoor tourism in China is booming. Unfortunately the resources and abilities of local communities to deal with the dramatic increase of ecotourists and hikers is limited. We hope to do our bit to alleviate the deleterious effects of China’s ‘return to nature’.

One of the highlights for me was taking time to enjoy a good brew of quality Chinese black tea at 3,200 metres.

One of the highlights for me was taking time to enjoy a good brew of quality Chinese black tea at 3,200 metres.



Report from the 5th Annual Meeting of the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture (AICCC)

During the APEC meeting in Beijing the skies were clear and blue. By the time of the meeting at Beijing Normal University just over a week later the haze had returned. The moral of the story is that the Chinese government can control the heavens (天下), but not for very long.

During the APEC meeting in Beijing the skies were clear and blue. By the time of the meeting at Beijing Normal University just over a week later the haze had returned. The moral of the story is that the Chinese government can control the heavens (天下), but not for very long.

On the 28th and 29th November 2014 I attended the 5th Annual Meeting of the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture (AICCC) (中国文化国际传播研究院第五届年会). The theme of the meeting was ‘International Communication of Chinese Culture: Discourse System and Cultural Image’ (中国文化国际传播:话语体系与文化形象). The AICCC is located in Beijing Normal University (北京师范大学). Here is a brief report from the Chinese media on the meeting (in Chinese).

The AICCC’s mission is to ‘introduce and disseminate Chinese culture worldwide more effectively and contribute to a harmonious world culture through solid, in-depth research and art works with Chinese characteristics’.   Besides holding regular conferences and meetings the AICCC also is actively engaged in encouraging content production (novels, films, documentaries, art, and so on). It must be said that the approach is very state-centric, as one would expect from any ‘academy’ attached to a prestigious Chinese university. Don’t expect anything too critical of the government or forms of content that are not in ‘harmony’ with the mainstream. I nonetheless found the meeting very informative on a number of levels and, since I’ve now been appointed as a ‘guest researcher’, I hope to be able to utilise this platform to engage, especially with fellow ‘guest researchers’ and local Chinese scholars, in some very serious work on the ‘Chinese culture and cross-cultural communication’ front.

The title of my paper was 'Chinese Tea: Past, Present and Future'. It examined the possible role of tea as a form of cross-cultural communication. Note that my name in Chinese should be '席格伦'.

The title of my paper was ‘Chinese Tea: Past, Present and Future’. It examined the possible role of tea as a form of cross-cultural communication. Note that my name in Chinese should be ‘席格伦’, although ‘咖喱G’ does have a certain ring to it.

The AICCC is headed up by the indefatigable Professor Huang Huilin (黄会林). Professor Huang has a CV longer than the Great Wall. Her main area of focus is film and drama. At 82 years she is full of energy and enthusiasm, a prime example that you can keep doing what you love so long as the mind is clear and the body willing. She would have been in her late teens when the People’s Republic was founded (1949) and then subsequently experienced the various trials and tribulations of the Maoist period, and in turn the ups and downs of the reform era. In this sense Professor Huang embodies a life experience that crosses four major periods in modern Chinese history: pre-1949, the Maoist period, the Deng Xiaoping reform period, and the period China is now embracing of the ‘socialist market economy’. I think her life cycle definitely plays into the kind of work she does as a strong supporter of the authority of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and as defending the legacy of the May Fourth Movement (1915-1921). Most notably, Professor Huang has recently written extensively on the notion of the ‘Third Pole’ – her great theoretical legacy. To put it briefly the ‘Third Pole’ theory holds that there are three major ‘cultural poles’: 1) Europe; 2) the United States; and 3) China. This is how it is explained on the AICCC website:

Among the current diversified culture patterns around the world, there are three major forces that have high influences on the world culture: the European culture, the American culture and the Chinese culture. If the European and American culture are the ‘Two Poles’ representing the western world, then the Chinese culture, with its deep root and strong vitality developed over thousands of years, can be called ‘The Third Pole Culture’. Rooted in the traditional Chinese civilization, the Third Pole Culture advances with the times and respects cultural differences under the premise of initiating cultural diversities. Currently, the diversified patterns of world culture co-exist under mutual influences. The Chinese ‘Third Pole Culture’ advocates the idea of ‘harmony’ through a practical and creative approach, adjusting itself with the times and learning from each other with the purpose to build a commonly recognized code and order for the world culture and to contribute to the ever-evolving development of human society. ‘The Third Pole Culture’ is not only an academic subject, but more importantly a cultural mission with strategic significance to enhance the soft power of Chinese culture. Academic research, creative production, cultural communication and resource integration are the most important means to achieve this mission.

Note here the explicit mention of ‘soft power’ (软实力). In China ‘soft power’ does not have any negative connotations, but instead simply refers to the ability of a nation to be able to project its cultural values upon the world stage. Whereas until recently it is Europe and the US which have been very successful at doing so, the Third Pole theory argues that it is now China’s turn to project its culture upon the world. The Chinese government has been attempting to do this, for example, through the establishment of Confucius Institutes around the world, a project that is beginning to attract a lot of negative publicity and may require a bit of rethinking on the party of the Chinese authorities (I will write on this subject in the coming weeks).

China has a very rich and diverse cultural heritage. It has a large population full of well educated and talented people. It has a government that, when it so desires, can implement effective policy. All the conditions for China to create cultural products that will appeal to a domestic and foreign audience are in place. And yet, in my opinion, the primary stress on social stability and public security is taking the wind out of China's creative sails.

China has a very rich and diverse cultural heritage. It has a large population brimming with well educated and talented people. It has a government that, when it so desires, can implement effective policy. All the conditions for China to create cultural products that will appeal to a domestic and foreign audience are in place. And yet, in my opinion, the primary stress on social stability and public security is taking the wind out of China’s creative sails.

It should be noted that the AICCC has no links with the Confucius Institutes and has no intention of cooperation on the ‘soft power’ front with them. One thing they do have in common, however, is an emphasis on ‘harmony’. The Chinese are well aware that the rise of Western power was accompanied by a great deal of violence and power mongering in the form of imperialism and colonialism. As Chinese rises the Chinese authorities, and auxiliary agencies such as the Chinese higher education sector, are keen to alleviate any anxieties that China is going to follow the Western pattern of war and violence. Hence the emphasis on ‘harmony’. This does indeed have deep roots in Chinese statecraft as an ideological means of presenting an idealised Chinese culture that is benevolent and peaceful. Of course traditional Chinese statecraft also viewed the world in very hierarchical terms with China as the ‘civilised centre’. The further one moved away from the Chinese centre the less civilised and cultured the world became. Hence, in addition to ‘harmony’ the Third Pole theory also stresses ‘equality’.

Of course I hear many people already shouting ‘what about the rest of the world! Sure there are more than three poles!’. I was a bit taken aback too and in the final plenary session of the meeting – of which I was a keynote so  had a good chance to express my opinions – I asked politely how Australia fits into the scheme of things. Some professor from the audience said in response that Australia could be regarded as part of Europe. After just having delivered a unit last semester on ‘Australia and Asia’ I noted that if Chinese scholars were going to put Australia into this category they were sorely misguided. Anyway, Professor Huang and others explained that the notion of the three poles was not meant to exclude other cultural centres, it is more of a reaction to the way they, as the officially endorsed cultural elite, see China’s cultural challenge in the 21st Century. It still smacks of Sinocentricism, but I think I can offer something of an explanation. The first part of the explanation refers to the notion of ‘civilisational self-worth’. With a rich and ancient ‘civilisation’ Chinese cultural elites rightly regard Chinese culture very highly. Despite all the trials and tribulations Chinese culture has experienced in the last century, they feel it is only right and proper that Chinese culture – with the aforementioned emphasis on ‘harmony’ and ‘equality’ (thereby highlighting what is also regarded as the innate benign nature of Chinese civilisation) – should take its rightful place on the world stage. China is now (re)emerging as confident and powerful force. This indeed is the precondition for cultural resurgence. The party-state and the cultural elite are keen to compare Chinese culture to what they regard as ‘world class’ (they are doing the same in almost all fields of endeavour: education, scientific research, business, sport, and so on). So, therefore, it seems logical that ‘Europe’ and the ‘US’ – as the two major hegemonic cultural centres of the last century – should be the ‘benchmark’ for an resurgent Chinese culture.

Secondly, the first two poles – Europe and the USA – refer to those cultural centres that have dominated the last two centuries and that have, in turn, had a huge impact on the rest of the world. The influence of Hollywood was raised numerous times throughout the meeting, in fact one could say they were quite fixated on Hollywood and its impact on the Chinese box office. Why should Chinese scholars and officials be concerned? In short, they hold that culture embodies social values and through the dissemination of culture a receiving society can, over time, experience ‘social value transformation’. The CPC is currently promoting what it calls ‘Core Socialist Values’ – these are list of patriotic, good citizenship and party loyalty values (see the image and caption below for more details). Since China opened to the outside world in the late 1970s the ‘cultural world’ of China has indeed undergone a dramatic transformation – too complex for me to outline here, other than to stress that there are two elements that seem to be of particular concern to the scholars attending the meeting: 1) globalisation (read ‘westernisation’) and, 2) commercialisation (that is, the impact of market forces in the realm of culture and social values).

The list of 'Socialist Values' being promoted by the CPC. 'Strength and Prosperity'; 'Civilisation'; 'Freedom'; 'Justice'; 'Patriotism'; 'Integrity'; 'Democracy'; 'Harmony'; 'Equality'; 'Rule of Law'; 'Professionalism'; 'Friendship'.

The list of ‘Socialist Values’ being promoted by the CPC. ‘Strength and Prosperity’; ‘Civilisation’; ‘Freedom’; ‘Justice’; ‘Patriotism’; ‘Integrity’; ‘Democracy’; ‘Harmony’; ‘Equality’; ‘Rule of Law’; ‘Professionalism’; ‘Friendship’. Note that the assumption is that all of these values have ‘Chinese characteristics’ (that is, they are to be determined and expounded by the CPC).

Hollywood is definitely having a major impact on Chinese cinema. Chinese citizens are flocking to the cinemas to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters, so much so that Hollywood now sees China as a major market and is beginning to produce films specifically for a Chinese audience (the latest Transformers movie being a good example). In 2013 China earned the American film industry US$3.6 billion (42% of the Chinese box office). The conservative elite in the CPC and society more broadly are concerned that younger generations are not getting very healthy ‘spiritual sustenance’ (精神粮食) from the influx of foreign cultural products (which also includes the popularity of, for example, Korean television dramas). Actually these discussions are very reminiscent of early 1990s debates over the ‘loss of human spirit’ (人文精神) (unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be anything on this debate in English). I’ve a feeling a number of the participants would have been very active in those debates. It seems to me that, firstly, what they fear is the influence of products and texts over which they have little control. And secondly, as the cultural elite, that their influence over Chinese cultural production is also very limited. A foreign and domestic double whammy. Whilst the authorities, as we shall see below, do still exert a high degree of overall authority over the cultural market, the commercial imperative to appeal to the audience does not coincide with the visions of ‘culture’ espoused by the the cultural elite (which can be crudely summarised as the divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture).

As a form of cultural critique on the impact of contemporary forces on society I found the focus on film and Hollywood to be very narrow. I attempted to draw attention to the fact that it is not Hollywood that is the major influence on the values of society, but instead that Hollywood is only a reflection of what the mainstream regards as acceptable (and we know that the American film industry is actually quite conservative in many respects). I suggested we should focus on the more obvious impact of consumer culture, fueled by advertising and the projection of consumer appetites, that is creating a certain form of individual (that is, ‘I shop therefore I am’) and a cycle of unsustainable growth, economically, culturally and environmentally. My comments, however, seem to fall on deaf ears and blind eyes. In fact I found that at this meeting there is clearly a big divide between the older generation (there were many scholars and ‘cultural workers’ in their 60s and 70s) and the younger generation, particularly those cohorts born after 1980. Even a number of these older scholars openly acknowledged that they have difficulty understanding the digital and social world of the younger generation. There truly is a huge generational gap in China between those who still have strong memories of the Maoist era and the old-fashioned planned economy, and those whose formative years have been the world of the Internet, television dramas and popular music. I often wonder what China will look like when the ‘old guard’ finally departs.

Any well trained historian, sociologist, anthropologist, cultural theorist and so on, would have little problem in taking apart the notion of ‘traditional culture’ that is forwarded in the ‘Third Pole’ theory. But this critical approach to ‘culture’ is not to deny the actually existing cultural and artistic forms that, if they are going to survive, need to respond somehow to the 21st Century (this is why I include ‘culture’ in the cycle of unsustainable development, ‘culture’ in China is being crudely packaged and reworked for the market in ways that undermine its intrinsic value and appeal). Therefore, I think the overall mission of the AICCC is meaningful but it certainly needs more input from different directions to gain traction. Unfortunately in China the authorities are more concerned with ‘security’ than they are with ‘creativity’. The aforementioned notion of ‘harmony’ is also an important domestic policy. As Chinese society continues to develop and transform it naturally becomes more difficult to govern. Fracture lines are appearing all over the country. The current stewardship of President Xi has firmly put ‘harmony’ on the agenda with a large scale party rectification campaign (which I have discussed in a previous post) and intensification of existing security measures. Under these circumstances ‘creativity’ will come a poor second.

Here are two recent examples of how the Chinese authorities attempt to control creativity, and in so doing thwart the development of cultural products that might have appeal on the world stage.

The first example concerns time travel. In 2011 the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) effectively placed a ban on the production of television dramas which incorporated time travel. SARFT announced that “the producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.” The television dramas were also criticised for encouraging belief in superstition, reincarnation and fatalism. Since this ban was announced I’ve asked a people I know in the film and television world what they make of this. I really haven’t received a very satisfactory answer. The strongest justification seems to be that time travel – and it should be noted that in Chinese the notion of ‘time travel’ (穿越) overwhelmingly refers to traveling to times past, an indication of the strong sense of the ‘cultural past’ in China (I’ll save analysis of this for another time) – in these dramas could give the misperception that people where just as happier if not – heaven forbid – happier than they are in the present. I guess it just goes to show that the CPC still believes in only one version of history in which it is the sole author, producer and actor.

The second example concerns puns. Puns are an important linguistic element in any language, especially as far as humour is concerned. Given that Chinese has a large amount of homonyms puns are particularly important, and are indeed the bedrock of poetry and humour. This year SARFT released a directive stating that: “Radio and television authorities at all levels must tighten up their regulations and crack down on the irregular and inaccurate use of the Chinese language, especially the misuse of idioms … Idioms are one of the great features of the Chinese language and contain profound cultural heritage and historical resources and great aesthetic, ideological and moral values”. Most likely the real reason is that puns can be used as a form of political satire. Chinese Internet users have also been very adept at getting around the banning of certain key words and phrases by clever use of homonyms. A particularly clever example, which was also backed up by a large seemingly uncoordinated grass-roots and Internet campaign, is the rendering of ‘harmony’ (hexie 和谐) as ‘river crabs’ (hexie 河蟹). Over the last couple of years ‘river crabs’ have appear in iconic form to inform people that a piece of writing or content has been ‘harmonised’ (that is, deleted by the authorities).

The Chinese party-state certainly has resurrected tradition – the tradition of old-fashioned moralist Confucian statecraft combined with the hard and heavy hand of Legalism. This ‘tradition’ puts an overwhelming emphasis on ‘harmony’ and ‘stability’, and relies almost exclusively on the power of the prohibition (it’s safer to just say ‘no’). In the world of cultural production it prefers to control creativity and attempt to ‘pick winners’ that conform to its moral and aesthetic tastes. There is, however, another ‘tradition’ in China that values spontaneity and chaos (in a constructive sense): Daoism. Cultural creativity requires an environment that fosters risk and the acceptance that ‘accidents’ may actually produce results. Daoism has often been the refuge of scholars and officials tired of the prohibitive declarations of Confucianism/Legalism. It is also a major inspiration for China’s artists, writers and cultural creationists. It is perhaps also the best Chinese ‘tradition’ to promote creativity in the broad cross-section of the arts and cultural world. I look forward to the day when Daoism – as a force for creativity – finds its place back at the table of Chinese ‘traditions’.

Anarchy anyone?

Anarchy anyone?











Wuyishan Cross-Straits Tea Expo and the ‘10,000 Mile Tea Road’


A crash course in 'Rock Tea' (岩茶) through a 'four classic rock tea' tea tasting.

A crash course in ‘Rock Tea’ (岩茶) through a ‘four classic rock tea’ tea tasting.

From the 16 – 22 November 2014 I attended the 8th Cross Straits Tea Expo (‘Cross Straits’ refers to the inclusion of both mainland China (the People’s Republic of China) and Taiwan (the Republic of China)). The Tea Expo was held in Wuyishan (武夷山) in Fujian Province (福建省) from 16 – 18 November. The remainder of the time was spent in nearby Baitashan (白塔山).

You can see where Wuyishan is here on Bing Maps. You can view a selection of images from this trip on my Flickr site here.

This was my first time to attend such an expo and it was quite an experience. There were more than 1,200 booths in the exhibition centre, ranging from tea factories displaying their wares to booths focusing on tea-related paraphernalia. There were a number of stages devoted to various cultural performances. Over 100 tea and tea-related enterprises from Taiwan were in attendance. Apparently over US $5 billion worth of trade deals were signed. An estimated 130,000 people attended the expo.

My efforts to discover the source of the 'Ancient Vegemite Road' continue ...

My efforts to discover the source of the ‘Ancient Vegemite Road’ continue …

For me this was a valuable opportunity to see firsthand the commercial scale of China’s tea culture revival. It was also a perfect chance to understand the teas and tea culture of Fujian, one of China’s most important centres of tea production. This was my first ever visit to Fujian with tea and tea culture as the primary objective. Many thanks to Mr Li Haibing (李海兵) for organising the invitation and taking the time to introduce me to various scholars and tea entrepreneurs as well as giving me a personal guided tour of the historic village of Xiamei (下梅), which also happens to be Mr Li’s home town. I also met a number of tea industry journalists and writers, not to mention many tea entrepreneurs from all over China. A perfect venue for networking. Special thanks to my new acquaintance Mr Warren Peltier (夏云峰). Warren is a specialist in Fujian teas and has written a very valuable book on Chinese tea culture that includes translations of primary resource material from throughout Chinese history. You can see a synopsis of the book and reviews on Amazon here.

A typical rocky mountain vista of Wuyishan. It reminds me somewhat of the terrain of Southeast Queensland and Northern New South Wales. Both regions share a subtropical environment. I've always said SE Queensland is prime tea growing country.

A typical rocky mountain vista of Wuyishan. It reminds me somewhat of the terrain of Southeast Queensland and Northern New South Wales. Both regions share a subtropical environment. I’ve always said SE Queensland is potentially prime tea growing country.

Wuyishan is a UNESCO World Heritage site noted for its unique biodiversity and important tangible and intangible culture. Wuyishan, and neighbouring Baitashan, were important centres for the emergence and development of Neo-Confucianism (宋明理学). Neo-Confucianism emerged in the region in the 11th Century and was partly a reaction to the rise and spread of Buddhism. Neo-Confucianism spread from Fujian to the rest of China and its philosophical debates were also influential in many neighbouring countries including Japan.

Three different leaves from three different tea cultivars. Courtesy of a visit to the Baitashan Tea Factory.

Three different leaves from three different tea cultivars. Courtesy of a visit to the Baitashan Tea Factory.

Wuyishan is, of course, also famous for its tea. In fact in China it is most likely ‘tea’ that people think of when they hear ‘Wuyishan’ mentioned. The region is famous for its red tea, but more so for its ‘rock tea’ (岩茶). ‘Rock tea’ refers a particular type of tea and tea production process. Wuyishan is indeed very rocky and some of the tea does literally grow in rocky crevices, but most of it grows on the small basins and terraced hillsides, many of which are dominated by towering rocky outcrops. The most famous types of ‘rock tea’ are known as the ‘four famous bushes’ (四大名枞), which includes Big Red Robe (大红袍), Iron Arhat (铁罗汉), White Cockscomb (白鸡冠), and Golden Turtle (水金龟). From my brief stay in Wuyishan I discovered that different people had some different variations of these four teas.

Pictured here is the ancient art of 'tea drawing' in which a special tea broth is created as a basis for doing visual art and calligraphy. This art form was popular in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and finally died out in the 19th Century. It has since been restored by the gentleman pictured here. Another part of China's fascinating tea culture revival.

Pictured here is the ancient art of ‘tea drawing’ in which a special tea broth is created as a basis for doing visual art and calligraphy. This art form was popular in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and finally died out in the 19th Century. It has since been restored by the gentleman pictured here. Another part of China’s fascinating tea culture revival.

The tea from this region has also been exported to foreign countries for many centuries. Most famously the tea found its way across the Asian land-bridge to Russia. This trading route – following a trend in the ‘discovery’ and ‘naming’ of such tea-based trading routes that I have been researching for several years – is now known as the ’10,000 Mile Tea Road’ (万里茶道). Local authorities in China are keen to develop such routes as a way of increasing their ‘brand recognition’ in terms of local products but especially for cultural tourism. At the highest level of government in China, President Xi Jinping has developed a specific platform of foreign policy that uses the famous ‘Silk Road’ (including the ‘Maritime Silk Road’, but unfortunately – and to the great frustration of my colleagues in Yunnan – not the ‘Southern Silk Road’). In a recent trip to Russia President Xi also mentioned the ’10,000 Mile Tea Road’ (indeed President Xi has made numerous references to tea and tea culture in his official speeches during visits to foreign countries, something I will write about in more detail on another occasion).

The 10,000 Mile Tea Road Summit. Interpretation was only in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian. A reminder that there is a world of networks emerging beyond the Anglophone world.

The 10,000 Mile Tea Road Summit. Interpretation was only in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian. A reminder that there are networks emerging beyond the Anglophone world.

As part of the tea expo a special ‘Chinese, Mongolian and Russian Mayoral Summit’ was convened to celebrate the tea road and discuss how it can be leveraged for trade, culture and diplomatic exchanges. Mr Li Haibing made arrangements for me to attend as an observer. There were quite a few Chinese representatives from the major cities along which the tea route traveled (it should also be acknowledged that some of the tea also was transported via the maritime trade routes through Southeast Asia and India), several from Mongolia, and a few from Russian cities that I never knew existed. There is an official government website in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian, but no English. After a search on the Internet I found virtually nothing on this in English. This is one of those instances where ‘English’ doesn’t have much cache, a sign of things to come perhaps?

A panoramic picture taken from Xiamei of the 10,000 Mile Tea Road.

A panoramic picture taken from Xiamei of the 10,000 Mile Tea Road.

Apparently the ’10,000 Mile Tea Road’ has been submitted for World Heritage status, just as in the case for the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ of Southwest China. China’s fascination for ‘World Heritage’ status, especially in terms of the relatively new category of ‘cultural routes’ continues. I’ll be watching developments with much interest.

A private residence in the historic tea trade village of Xiamei. It was from here that the tea was transported via rivers and canals to central China and then on to Mongolia and Russia. The impressive residence reminds us of the fortunes that were made on the back of tea.

A private residence in the historic tea trade village of Xiamei. It was from here that the tea was transported via rivers and canals to central China and then on to Mongolia and Russia. The impressive residence reminds us of the fortunes that were made on the back of tea.



China, Corruption and the Crossroads: Placing the Anti-Corruption Campaign into Perspective

(This piece is based on a presentation given to Transparency International in Perth, August 2014).

Money makes the world go round no matter what the domination.

There is a great deal of reporting and opinion these days on the anti-corruption campaign in China. And rightly so as it is the biggest such campaign since the PRC was founded in 1949. Yet what we are witnessing is much more than just a crackdown on corruption, it is a party-rectification campaign and moral crusade that points to the end of the post-1989 reform era and a concerted effort by President Xi Jinping to re-establish Maoist-like party authority and ideological controls, albeit in the context of a globalised market economy. It is therefore important that we put the current campaign into perspective, both in terms of the political history of China since reform began in 1979, and in terms of the implications of the broad sweeping social changes that China faces. It’s somewhat of a cliché to write that ‘China is at the crossroads’, but it seems to me that the analogy is particularly apt for this moment in time. Whilst bearing in mind that China is an incredibly diverse country, and that it is dangerous to make generalisations, please allow me some license to explain.

The Dengist Social Compact

Let’s start by examining the ‘social compact’ that Deng Xiaoping and the Communist Party of China (CPC) formulated during the 1980s as reform unfolded. The compact is between the CPC and Chinese society in general. Its foundation was the memory of the chaos of the Maoist period (1949-1978), and especially the excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Deng Xiaoping promised political stability and economic growth in return for accepting the authority of the CPC. The economic model to drive that growth was based on developing exports through opening up to foreign investment – first in the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and then later throughout the rest of China – and maintaining low wages. The model was relatively successful given that China was working from a very low base and global conditions for demand in the developed countries was seemingly insatiable. Over the course of the first decade or so the vast majority of the Chinese population, both rural and urban, benefited from the spoils of economic reform. People also enjoyed greater freedom in their private lives in ways that were unimaginable during the Maoist period. The processes of industrialisation, urbanisation, increased mobility, and so on, that China is still experiencing today, began to gather momentum.

As China moved away from ‘class struggle’ and ‘politics in command’, the CPC’s political legitimacy post-Mao rested on three pillars: nationalism (Marxism becomes increasingly irrelevant), social stability (a significant achievement given the size of China and the speed and scope of change), and shared prosperity (yes, some people got rich first, but overall during the 1980s, and much of the 1990s, the majority of the population benefited directly or indirectly).

Deng Xiaoping said that ‘when you open the door some flies will come in’. Xi Jinping has declared to catch the ‘flies’ that are exclusively ‘Made in China’.

End of the Dengist Social Compact

In terms of economic growth the social compact was thus quite successful in the 1980s. Of course there were growing political and social tensions in urban areas that eventually culminated in the demonstrations of 1989 and the brutal crackdown by the authorities in Tiananmen and, we should remember, many other urban centres in China (although none with the level of violence found in Beijing). In the wake of Tiananmen the conservative elements in the CPC got the upper hand and it was unclear as to how reform would continue, or indeed whether or not it might be rolled back. To break the impasse, in 1992 Deng Xiaoping comes out of retirement to embark on the famous ‘southern tour’ of the SEZs – and Shanghai, which in the early 1990s was still something of a dilapidated museum of Maoist socialism. Deng pointed to the SEZs as the way forward for China. In the same year Jiang Zemin declared at the 14th Party Congress that the CPC’s mission was henceforth to construct a ‘socialist market economy’, the first time that the term ‘market economy’ had been used in such a way by a leading party figure. As far as the CPC is concerned the social compact stays in place, the only difference being that the planned economy would now give way to a market economy, albeit one in which the party-state’s position, political and economically, was still to be paramount (we should always remember it is a ‘socialist market economy’). It was never envisaged that the authority of the CPC would be weakened by the process of introducing widespread market reform, on the contrary, it was consistently argued instead that the party-state should be strengthened to adapt to new circumstances. Since then the CPC has proved to be very resilient, responsive and adaptable, such as when in 2001 it amended its constitution to allow China’s rising cohort of entrepreneurs – that is, capitalists – into the party ranks.

However, two of the pillars of the Dengist social compact begin to collapse. First and foremost, whilst the economy takes off and enters a ‘golden age’ of double digit growth and large inputs of foreign direct investment, the spoils of that growth increasingly concentrate into the hands of a small but powerful elite. The gains that were made in the 1980s, especially in rural areas, but then also later in many urban centres that where built on the planned economy (such as in China’s northeast), begin to erode as the cost of living begins to outstrip ordinary incomes. We begin to witness from this point forward the very rapid social stratification of Chinese society. That is, as the World Bank itself notes, China has gone from being one of the most egalitarian societies in the world to one of the most unegalitarian, and accomplishes this within only a decade or so (the speed of this transition is important to bear in mind and is it exacerbates the sense of dislocation and social injustice). Secondly, as inequality increases and as reform encounters bottlenecks, social instability also begins to rise with the number of ‘mass incidents’ (demonstrations and social unrest) increasing. In some regions, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, this is coupled with growing ethnic tension which over time becomes quite violent. As I write much of Tibet and large parts of Xinjiang are under what is akin to martial law.

Inequality is quite visible these days in China. Of course a lot of deprivation remains unseen.

By the end of the 1990s the alarm bells are ringing in Zhongnanhai (the CPC’s titular political compound in Beijing). As already noted the party-state has proved very adaptable and adroit at managing the tensions that have emerged. The CPC still tightly controls the mainstream media, and even the challenges of regulating the Internet have not been completely insurmountable, although the rise of a digital ‘public sphere’ has added a new dynamic. The party-state still has at its disposal a massive public security apparatus, one which it has been developing and strengthening over the last two decades. It still has a huge cohort of over 80 million party members to mobilise when necessary. Through ‘mass transmission’ organisations such as the women’s organisation, trade unions, religious organisations, and so on, it still is able to keep a close tab on all that is happening. The party-state, whilst being careful not to think of the CPC as a monolithic entity, is also very well informed by tens of thousands of ‘experts’ in academic and party-state-sponsored think tanks. Yet even the strongest apparatus still has its weaknesses and circumstances aren’t guaranteed to remain the same forever. On the contrary, the task of policing Chinese society is getting more challenging over time. I will return to this point later.

Corruption in the Reform Period

The CPC came to power in 1949 with a reputation for fighting corruption. Unlike other political organisations and armies, of which China had quite a number over the course of the first half of the 20th Century, the soldiers of what eventually became known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), were famous for treating ‘the people’ with courtesy and paying for goods and services. By the end of its rule in Mainland China, by contrast, the ruling Nationalist Party (Guomindang/Kuomintang) was corrupt to the core. Thus fighting corruption and establishing a ‘clean government’ was very high on the agenda of Maoist China. Indeed, there was very little in the way of corruption, although of course having good connections – guanxi in Chinese – and being in the party-state’s social elite was always beneficial. Under the conditions of the planned economy it is fair to say, that when compared to now, there were not many real opportunities for corruption as we understand it.

However, since the beginning of reform in 1978 the ‘opportunities’ for corruption began to appear and gather momentum. Indeed one of the key targets of the student and worker demonstrations in Beijing in 1989 was corruption. The party-state did attempt to intiatie more vigorous anti-corruption efforts, including some discussion of separating party and state and giving the judiciary much more independence, but to very little effect (the events of 1989 put the kibosh on any real efforts at political reform). And once the ‘socialist market economy’ is launched in 1992 and China enters the ‘golden era’, the opportunities for rent seeking, embezzlement, and outright criminal plundering, began to spring up like ‘bamboo shoots after a spring rain’. In the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown, political reform with substance, that might have had some real ‘anti-corruption teeth’, was shelved. The CPC’s Disciplinary Inspection Committee (CDIC), the entity charged with monitoring and prosecuting corruption within party ranks, is a watchdog on a very tight leash. The party-state instead went in the other direction and the powerful ‘red elite’ – that is, the still living party elders and their kin – seemed to form a ‘if you don’t tell on me, I won’t tell on you’ consensus of their own.

It’s Party Time

Over time, without adequate checks and with more capital flooding into China, corruption becomes more outrageous and pervasive. One Chinese government report, for example, noted that one if five corrupt officials is a judge, which goes to show how pervasive bribe taking had become. The non-party new rich could also use their wealth to exchange for power and political influence, as demonstrated in a number of scandals in which either the children of powerful party members or the new rich literally got away with murder.

China is a growth market for luxury brands.

The 1990s and 2000s were true party times for the old and new elites. Pei Minxin (2007) writes that bribery, kickbacks, theft and mis-spending of public funds cost China at least 3% of GDP during this period. A Chinese Government report (2011) noted that since 1990, 18,000 corrupt senior officials fled China, taking $123bn with them (Chinese authorities are now turning their attention to places like Australia where many of those officials and their families have settled). China’s large urban centres were the new love of global luxury brands. Exclusive gated communities and shopping malls were part of the construction boom. It seemed like the good times would never end. And yet all the while the pillars of the Dengist social compact continued to erode and nothing substantial was put as way of replacement. The alarm bells rang ever louder.

The Party’s Over

All things good and bad, however, must come to an end. In China today the party is well and truly over. The excesses of the 1990s and 2000s are being reigned in in what, I argue here, is the biggest party rectification campaign since the Maoist period. What are the signs? The first major sign is the most obvious and takes the form of Xi Jinping’s coming to power in 2012 as the President of the People’s Republic, the General Secretary of the CPC, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission – China’s new ‘paramount leader’. One of the first things President Xi did was to announce the campaign against corruption and excesses within the CPC. He stated that this campaign was going to catch ‘tigers’ as well as ‘flies’. So far he seems to be true to his word, although we would be naïve to think that it was going to be open season on all the ‘tigers’.

One of the first major tigers to go down is found in the dramatic downfall of Bo Xilai. Bo Xilai is the son of a famous first generation revolutionary. He thus had a privileged background. He was also, evidently, very talented and charismatic. Bo Xilai paved a way to power through a stint as the Mayor of the port city of Dalian and rose in the ranks to become a the Minister of Finance before being parachuted into the city of Chongqing to deal with, ironically, entrenched corruption and abuses of power. Bo Xilai was fond of media attention, something major political figures in China tend to shun. He also initiated a series of Maoist-like campaigns in Chongqing aimed a reinstalling a party-patriotic fervour amongst the masses, and what appeared to some like a ‘Cult of Bo’. In the background he initiated a very harsh – and some would say excessively so – campaign against criminal elements in Chongqing within and without the party-state. His efforts seem to have been effective and he was quite popular in Chongqing. All the while his charismatic and attention-seeking approach to politics ruffled feathers in Beijing. Ultimately when his excesses had gone too far – and those of his wife who was later charged with the murder of a British subject – the full force of the party-state came crashing down upon him and in September 2013 he was jailed for life for embezzlement, bribe-taking and abuse of power.

Bo Xilai in better times before the fall.

Bo Xilai in better times before the fall.

Following in the wake of the Bo Xilai ‘tiger’ many smaller ‘tigers’ and a great many ‘flies’ began to be investigated, detained and charged with various crimes as part of the campaign. As is typical in these cases persons associated with Bo Xilai’s patronage network came under heavy scrutiny. In time rumours began to spread that an even bigger ‘tiger’ was in the sights of the now very active CDIC. Bo Xilai was the protégé of ‘security czar’ Zhou Yongkang. As the ‘security czar’ Zhou Yongkang was in charge of the police, secret service, paramilitary, judiciary and the prosecution apparatus. Zhou Yongkang and his network, even before investigation, was well known in many circles for having amassed much wealth and abused his powerful position. He has been accused of helping his family members and business and political cronies to amass wealth totally US 16 billion. As of 29 July 2014 he has been detained (he may have already been in detention prior to that) and it was officially announced that he is being investigated. As a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee (he retired in 2012), Zhou Yongkang is the highest ranking official and party member to ever be investigated for ‘serious disciplinary violations’ since the founding of the PRC in 1949.

The rumour mill continued to run hot in the wake of the fall of these big tigers. Some were even suggesting that an even bigger tiger – in the form of former President and General Secretary Jiang Zemin – was going to be next. But at this stage the rumours remain unconfirmed and, from my position, it seems unlikely that even Xi Jinping would target a former head of state. Nonetheless the message was well and truly out that the ‘party is over’. Other tigers began to fall including a top ranking PLA figure, General Xu Caihou, and at least forty cadres at vice-minister rank and above. The net also caught a number of prominent television personalities (including a close associate of Kevin Rudd), countless numbers of lower ranking cadres and business persons. The CDIC even went to the unusual measure of putting up the names of those persons under investigation on its website. The number of persons caught up in this crackdown are very large indeed. Most people you meet in China these days seem to know of somebody directly or indirectly who has been detained. Even this author was surprised to find that some of the people he knows in the tea industry (a principle research area) have been detained and are indefinitely incommunicado.

The Return of Party Rectification

How can we understand the anti-corruption campaign within the broader picture of the CPC’s continued authority in China? As I’ve already suggested, we can begin by understanding that this anti-corruption campaign is part of a much wider campaign of party rectification. The CPC has a long tradition of periodically ‘cleaning out the ranks’ that dates back to its very inception in 1921, or at least by the 1930s when the ranks of party cadres began to grow. As the paramount political body in China the CPC and its disciplinary body literally stand above the law (if it didn’t then the legal system would have prosecuted many tigers and flies already and not have to wait for the imprimatur of the party leadership to do so). Thus periodically the party has to clean itself out. These periodic bouts of party purification can be inspired by political and social reasons, or as is the case at present, a combination of both. That is, with the excesses of the 1990s and 2000s it was evident to even the most pedestrian of observers that the party’s legitimacy was taking a pounding, and that certain factions or patronage networks had become far too powerful and blasé.

A one Chinese yuan note with anti-CPC messages added by the outlawed Falungong organisation.

A one Chinese yuan note with anti-CPC messages added by the outlawed Falungong organisation.

But given that the CPC’s position in Chinese society extends far beyond the boundaries of what we would typically regard as ‘the political’, a good party rectification campaign also includes significant social dimensions as well. In short, the party and society are both deemed to have become corrupted. That is, party rectification and a moral crusade against the ills of society go hand in hand. Thus it comes as no surprise that President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign sits alongside a crackdown against all manner of social vices that are seen to also be the expression of recent excesses and hedonism. The current campaign is thus all-encompassing. It includes a major crackdown on vice, especially prostitution and illegal drugs. It includes a tightening of the screws against intellectual dissent of various forms. Chinese television celebrities and entertainers, including a number of news hosts, have been caught up in the anti-corruption net. The authorities across China have also been more vigilant than usual in fighting ‘evil cults’ such as Falungong and the many other smaller ‘cults’ that have emerged in recent years.

And a few days ago President Xi give an important speech on the role of art in Chinese society in which his sentiments eerily echoed those of Mao Zedong famous 1942 speech on art and culture at Yan’an (that is, art must serve the interests of the party-state’s political line, there is no such thing as ‘art for art’s sake’). At times like this a xenophobic fortress mentality is also heightened. We have thus seen many statements that the party and society should be vigilant against hostile foreign forces that are seeking to undermine ‘socialism’ [sic]. In the last year, for example, the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) has come under extensive criticism as a site harbouring hostile foreign forces.

Mao Zedong declared that there was 'no arts for arts sake'. Mao's estate and sue Warhol's estate for any infringement here.

Mao Zedong declared that there was ‘no arts for arts sake’. Mao’s estate can sue Warhol’s estate for any infringement here.

The Motivations of President Xi Jinping: The Demise of the Dengist Social Compact

I have already given some indications as to why President Xi has launched such a wide campaign. Here I will flesh out the motivations further by stressing that a good explanation lies in the demise of the aforementioned Dengist social compact.

Firstly, Deng’s export driven economic model based on low wages and state-led investment in construction is now widely recognised, even by the Chinese party-state, to have failed, or at least to have run its course. China, especially since the tumult of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007, has been attempting to shift the economy from its dependence on exports to one that relies increasingly on domestic consumption and economic diversification. Overall the transition to a consumption model may continue to provide reasonably high levels of economic growth (but nowhere like the heyday of the previous ‘golden era’), but any gains that are made will no longer be distributed fairly. Indeed China is entering, or has already entered, a period of growth without wider social benefits and distribution, a very dangerous scenario.

Chinese society is now characterised by increasing social inequality and instability on a number of fronts. This also includes, as already mentioned, significant ethnic tension in Tibet and Xinjiang. Since 2008 over 125 Tibetans have set themselves on fire as a horrific form of protest against the party-state’s ethnic policies. Violent civil unrest is now a regular feature of life in far western Xinjiang, and more recently the political and religious conflicts between the Uighur’s and the Han were brought to eastern China in the bloody knife-wielding attack at the Kunming Railway Station on the 1st of March this year.

It is commonplace amongst China-watchers – amateur and professional alike – to reduce anything the party-state does to pure self-interest. The extreme position in this regard takes any measures at cleaning up the party and society as merely a sideshow in intra-party factional struggles. Of course there is a measure of truth in this. Even President Xi has described the current rectification as a matter of ‘life and death struggle’. But it seems to me that there is indeed a genuine side to the anti-corruption campaign and moral crusade. In short, this is how the party-state governs, and although much has changed in China since 1978, many essential features of party-state rule developed in the Maoist period continue (as is discussed in the edited collection by Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry (2011) Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China).

China’s Dream

Of course it does no good to just detain, arrest, prohibit and condemn. The party-state also has to provide a vision, whether or not the punters are willing to accept it. Hence another feature of rectification is providing an alternative vision to the lure of ‘Western values’. Xi Jinping’s grand vision for China is embodied in the ‘China Dream’ (中国梦) and ‘The Rejuvenation of China’ (中国复兴). The China Dream is a campaign directed at a domestic audience. The ‘American Dream’, by contrast, through a combination of the lure of consumer capitalism, Hollywood, and the brute force of the military-industrial complex, was exported around the world. China’s forays into ‘soft power’ are relatively recent and not the focus here, suffice to say that the ‘China Dream’ is meant for Chinese domestic consumption and has virtually no chance of being exported. ‘The Rejuvenation of China’ plays to the theme of a rising and confident Chinese nationalism, one of which of course, like the ‘China Dream’, features the role of the party-state front and centre.

The Chinese Dream. So far only Chinese people seem invited to join this dream.

The Chinese Dream. So far only Chinese people seem invited to join this dream.

Risky Business: The Choices of Xi Jinping

To say that I believe China is at the crossroads means that the party-state needs to make serious strategic choices. President Xi has clearly indicated that political reform is not on the agenda. And yet if nothing is done social instability could certainly reach a point of no return. Former President and General Secretary Hu Jintao once said: ‘If we don’t deal with corruption, China will be doomed, but if we deal with it too harshly, the Communist Party will be doomed.’

The Dengist compact has finished and President Xi is putting something else in its place, the so-called ‘second wave of reforms’. In many ways these reforms seek to build upon the economic success to date, but also to control and reform many of the excesses of the golden boom years of the 1990s and 2000s when social and political elites road and pilfered the gravy train. These can be seen as a form of social and political reforms, the former including efforts to address China’s many demographic and social challenges, the latter aiming to create a more accountable, transparent, and efficient one-party state. Some of these reforms did emerge during the Hu and Wen period, but without attacking the vested interests nothing much long lasting could hope to be achieved.

What are the risks inherent in President Xi’s strategy? One of the most serious is blowback from the vested interests themselves. There has been growing concern that the rectification campaign is having a detrimental impact on party morale and inner-party legitimacy. Officialdom in China has for two thousand years been seen as a form of personal advancement. The campaign, insofar as it has radically curtailed public spending on things like gifts, banquets, travel, and so on, is having an impact on the economy itself. The vested interests are in themselves a major force to be reckoned with.

The other major risk is that whilst the public may support the detention of ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’, there is also much cynicism and detachment from politics itself. Although the CPC has a strong tradition of ‘mass politics’, it has not really found a way for ordinary folk to be more engaged in the political process. This form of alienation is not visible on a daily basis but it is there, simmering away. As Mao Zedong himself famously said, ‘it only takes a single spark to start a prairie fire’.

What is the long term goal here? To transform China in to a one-party authoritarian state Singapore style? Singapore is often held up as a model for China to emulate and we know that the party-state has sponsored many studies of the Singaporean model. But at the end of the day Singapore and China are radically different. China, ironically, is more open than Singapore, and with so much diversity – ethnically, culturally, regionally, and so on – it is almost impossible to govern. This bubbling undercurrent of vibrant culture, dissent, and even entrepreneurship, is actually something that I’m quite positive about. Yes, China needs stability. But it also needs to find a way to control social, cultural and economic disruption, whilst at the same time giving societal forces an autonomous space in which to flourish, to be creative, and innovative. Finding this balance will be difficult, but if it can be achieved we will truly witness the ‘rejuvenation of China’ and maybe the ‘Chinese Dream’ will at last go global. But the signs from President’s Xi’s office do not inspire confidence. A few years ago the authorities ordered a moratorium on the production of any television dramas that involved time travel of characters from the present back to the dynastic past. Ironically President Xi seems to be keen to take the party and society on a bit of time travel, rolling back some aspects of reform and rebuilding some of the key political and ideological controls of the not-too-distant past. Will this formula provide the key to China’s transition to the next phase of development, one that creates social stability, sustainable development and distribution of benefits and social justice to the majority of the population? Time, once again, will tell.

Time travel is banned in China. If you see a blue police box please inform the police immediately.

Time travel is banned in China. If you see a blue police box please inform the police immediately.