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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.

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.

China’s Great Tea Revival: An Interview with Zhou Chonglin

Zhou Chonglin at ease with the pen, the microphone, the mobile social network platform ... all for the revival of China's greatest gift to humanity: tea. Image courtesy of Chaye Fuxing.

Zhou Chonglin at ease with the pen, the microphone, the mobile social network platform … all for the revival of China’s greatest gift to humanity: tea. Image courtesy of Chaye Fuxing.

On the 1st April 2014 – and this is definitely not an April Fool’s joke – the President of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party – Mr Xi Jinping, gave a speech in Brussels in which he contrasted the cultures of the West and China by comparing the former to wine and the latter to tea. President Xi’s purpose seems to have been to note the different cultural and political traditions in East and West and figured that, in the case of China, nothing better than tea could highlight the unique features of Chinese sociability. The West, he was reported as saying, celebrates friendship and important occasions with wine, whereas in China tea has been the beverage of choice. The President’s choice of tea for China is somewhat disingenuous as we all know that wine in Chinese culture has also lubricated many a festive occasion, indeed some of China’s greatest poets did their best work ‘under the influence’. But we get the point and there is no point pursuing the matter any further (not here at least), suffice to say that in my opinion East and West can both be characterised as ‘tea cultures’, albeit with different connotations and nuances. Western style wine is just making its mark in China whereas tea, by contrast, has shaped the interactions of China and ‘the rest’ for well over a thousand years.

To learn more about the true nature of tea in world history we are well advised, of course, to turn to the expert opinion of those who devote their lives to its study, and invariably if he or she is wise enough, to its consumption. In this blog I have previously provided transcripts of interviews with some of contemporary China’s most influential tea and tea culture scholars, notably, Professors Mu Jihong and Shen Dongmei. Today it is my pleasure to share with you the abbreviated transcript of an interview with Zhou Chonglin. I met Chonglin several years ago when I commenced my research on Southwest China’s ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. At that time he was working closely with Professor Mu Jihong in the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Research Institute’ at Yunnan University. We had long discussions, many cups of tea, and a few memorable (sic!) bouts with Chinese wine. Chonglin introduced me to the world of the young Chinese scholar. It was so refreshing and enlightening to meet someone so passionate about their research and, of course, about tea and China. Chonglin published the book The Tea War in 2012. The book, which is a reassessment of the Opium War (1840) through the lens of tea, was a huge success and catapulted Chonglin onto the national stage. To put this in context we need to understand that as China is rising there is much discussion about the nature of cultural change, and what kind of ‘culture’ China needs to develop in the 21st Century. Of course the role of ‘traditional culture’ in this scheme of things is very important. In Chonglin’s case the question is what is the role and place of tea in Chinese culture and society? As you shall see in the interview below there is much more to this than just the pleasant feeling you get when drinking quality tea in aesthetic surrounds with your friends – it also speaks to the anxiety many people have in China, and around the world, about the pace of change and the disruption modernity brings to our daily lives. Personally I detect here the beginnings of a great work on political economy that takes tea and its production, distribution, branding and consumption as its focus. More on this in the future.

Most recently Chonglin, along with support from the Chinese tea industry and research community, has established an organisation aimed at promoting the development of Chinese tea in China. The movement – as they refer to such things in China – is called ‘The Tea Revival’ (茶叶复兴). I like to think of it as a movement dedicated to ‘reviving China through tea’. One of the great ironies of China’s engagement with the West since the so-called ‘Opium Trade’ (in which, to put it crudely, the British traded opium from India for Chinese tea) is that now, as the Chinese economy is opening to the outside world, that the company with the largest market retail for tea in China is Liptons. This represents a humiliating slap in the face to the Chinese tea industry. It is also a reminder that as China embraces global capitalism it will have to think quite creatively about how to protect and promote its own industries, including tea, in the face of multinational behemoths that have almost unlimited resources and decades of experience in market competition. A lot more could be said on this front but let’s ask Chonglin to do the talking for now.

Just a few quick words about Zhou Chonglin’s background. Chonglin is from Yunnan Province, a native of Shizong (师宗) in eastern Yunnan near the border of Guangxi and Guizhou. He attended the Chinese Faculty at Yunnan University. Upon graduation he was a journalist in Beijing for one year whereupon he returned to Yunnan. Since then he has been intimately involved in all things tea-related. His books include The Tea War  and The Tea Secret. He is a Research Fellow in the Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Research Institute at Yunnan University, and one of the Founders and Directors of the ‘[China] Tea Revival Movement’ In 2013 he was nominated by an influential Chinese magazine as one of the young and upcoming people to keep an eye on. He is in his 30s and is the recent proud father of a baby girl.

Note: The interview was conducted in Chinese and has been translated into English by yours truly. The text has been back-translated into Chinese and be found here.

1. I know that tea has always featured strongly in your life since the day you were born. What are your earliest recollections concerning tea?

I started drinking tea when I was just a child, but it wasn’t a regular daily habit at that time. Nonetheless the stage was set for tea to become a lot more central to my life later on. My most vivid recollection is the holding of the ritual offering ceremonies to the family ancestors. My father would get the tea ready for the offering. The everyday ritual items and food were always the very vest we could offer, and tea and alcohol couldn’t of course be forgotten. I remember that there were always people who aren’t tea drinkers but needed it for the ritual offering – they would come around to our house to ‘borrow’ some tea. Hence it is clear that the ritual offering couldn’t be done without tea. The fact that in our lives tea occupies such a very important position is thus one of the deepest motivations for me to do tea culture research.

2. Why did you decide to write The Tea War (《茶叶战争》)?

There has been a consistent position in the Chinese tea and cultural worlds, that is, to describe the Opium War (1840) as a tea war. Of course evidence was needed to make the argument stronger. It was only later that I learned that in Western academia the Opium War was also highly controversial. I spent several years looking for the evidence and during the 2012 European Cup wrote the manuscript in one hit.

3. What has been the reaction of the reading public to The Tea War?

Within one year the book sold several ten thousand copies when it was published on the mainland. It was well reviewed in the media and won numerous book awards. It was also very well received when it was published in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Many said such an influential book in the tea history field had not been seen for many years. As a result I received many invitations, went on television, and gave countless lectures. In fact the book is still generating interest. So The Tea War has certainly put me in the spotlight. I couldn’t have imagined the success and popularity of this book, especially since the style is a bit bookish. I wrote it without the intention of it being a popular-type book. So I’m very satisfied and honoured by the success.

4. Please speak to us a bit about the ‘Tea Revival’ project. What is the idea behind it? What are its objectives? And what form does it take?

China has been studying the West for over a hundred years. China’s GDP is now ranked number two in the world. But people still aren’t satisfied or happy because the environment is polluted and the villages are disappearing. We studied and adopted parts of the Western style of economic development, but China hasn’t adopted the Western political system or yet developed a good system of social welfare. Scholars like me need to eliminate the anxiety that modernity brings and concentrate on reviving traditional culture, and bring out the beautiful things in life, and thereby let people live a life of security and dignity. In China all the people in the tea business are very idealistic and spirited, with the finest tea vessels, ceremonial attire, mountain tea, pure spring water, and fine fellow travelers with who to chat; it’s an exciting and stimulating field to work in with many pleasures along the way.

Since I started the Tea Revival Movement I’ve encountered many like-minded people who are concerned about China and hope that tea’s traditional core role in daily life can be re-established. So this is our goal and for which we are developing programs and activities. For instance, we have launched a ‘Chinese style afternoon tea’, the purpose of which is to let more people understand and appreciate the place of tea in Chinese culture. We are utilising social networking platforms such as WeChat to spead our message and it has proven to be very effective.

Zhou Chonglin takes to social media like a fish takes to water. Not is he a prolific writer of academic texts, he also a modern day digital mass mobiliser. Very effective indeed.

Zhou Chonglin takes to social media like a fish takes to water. Not only is he a prolific writer of academic texts, he is also a modern day digital mass mobiliser incarnate. Very effective indeed.

5. What is the biggest challenge facing the Chinese tea industry?

Firstly, there is no strong and competitive brand; if you add up the entire Chinese tea industry it still falls short of the size and sophistication of Liptons, one single English company.

Secondly, value adding in the industry is underdeveloped and the tea industry is still primarily agricultural in orientation. In this connection there is also insufficient participation of scientific research and innovation.

Thirdly, the consumption base of tea has been significantly disrupted. The consumption of tea in China has in modern times been disrupted several times. For a time tea was replaced by opium and tobacco; later it was ideological objections to the drinking of tea – as it was seen as a petit-bourgeois pleasure during the 1960s and 1970s – that put restrictions on the aesthetic consumption of tea. After the launch of ‘reform and openness’ in the late 1970s coffee and soft-drinks – such as Starbucks and Coca-Cola – poured into the Chinese market; not to mention the competition from an experienced multinational player such as Liptons. As a result the Chinese tea industry has been unable to react effectively. Nowadays the ‘teahouse’ is synonymous with a place for senior citizens to play mahjong; not a very attractive environment for young Chinese. We are trying to the fortunes of tea around and make it more attractive for young people.

6. In light of the above, how has Chinese tea culture developed in recent years? What are the main trends?

In recent years, due to the support from the Yunnan puer tea folks, the Fujian ‘iron buddha’ (铁观音) and black tea producers, the lifeblood is being slowly pumped back into the Chinese tea industry. The number of tea consumers in China has also significantly increased in recent years. As the tea industry revives research on Chinese tea culture has also picked up. By 2006 in Yunnan alone there were at least ten tea journals and over one hundred tea-related books published. Hence the visibility of tea in the media has improved considerably. Furthermore, in 2013 the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ was officially recognised by the Central Government as ‘China National Cultural Heritage’ (国家文物保护单位). China Central Television (CCTV) produced and broadcast two well-received documentaries on tea. So tea continues to increase in visibility and is becoming a source of cultural pride for more and more Chinese people.

7. What do you mean by ‘tea life’ (茶生活)? What relationship does it have we the so-called ‘slow movement’?

‘Tea life’ means to take tea as a central part of life. It could be as routine as part of the list of essential daily necessities in Chinese family life, that is, ‘fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea’ (柴米油盐酱醋茶); or it could be part of the more aesthetically refined notion of ‘music, chess, books, art, wine and tea’. No matter whether ‘ordinary’ or ‘refined’ both of these include tea as an essential element. And both note ‘slow time’ as a core platform.

Indeed the traditional Chinese life-style is characterised by ‘slow time’, such as ‘kungfu tea’ (功夫茶). In Chinese ‘kungfu’ actually means to ‘consume time’. ‘Slow time’, not surprisingly, can be found in the ‘less developed’ regions of China such as Yunnan. I was raised in this kind of ‘slow time’. Part of our agenda is to help people rediscover the importance of ‘slow time’ through the social consumption of tea. [note: this fits well with my own position towards the ‘slow tea movement’ for which I have written a manifesto on this blog].

8. What message would you like to directly convey to a foreign audience?

If foreigners are interested in Chinese culture they can discover an ‘interesting China’ in tea culture. Tea in traditional Chinese culture – including the important elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism – was developed into a spiritually refined beverage and art of consumption. Just as I noted at the beginning of this interview, tea is still an important ritual item for Chinese to pay respects to their ancestors. In these times of a changing China, out of the three commodities that once made China famous and powerful – silk, porcelain, and tea – only tea remains in any significant way. China has much more than just ‘fake products’, it also has something as beautiful and refined as tea. I encourage our foreign friends to discover the ‘real China’ through tea.

'Hey Chonglin, we're putting a lot of effort in here but not making an progress ... time for tea break!'

‘Hey Chonglin, we’re putting a lot of effort in here but not making an progress … time for a tea break!’ ‘Gary, this IS the tea break!’

Tea in Chinese History: Interview with Professor Shen Dongmei

Every office should be equipped with a functional tea station, in my humble opinion.

Every office should be equipped with a functional tea station, in my humble opinion.

Several months have elapsed since my last post. Avid readers of this blog have been wondering if I finally retreated to that hermit cave I’m always talking about. Alas no, I’m still firmly in samsara enjoying the worldly delights and suffering from the quotidian pitfalls of being human. The last few months have been extremely hectic. One of the main preoccupations has of course been teaching. But I have also been very active on the research front, most notably with the holding of the inaugural ‘Australia-China and the Great Outdoors Forum’ at the end of September. This is part of my ongoing collaborative research on China’s emerging outdoor tourism and lifestyle sector, and my first real foray as an activist to hopefully leave behind a legacy of not only words but also interventions that will positively shape the appreciation and preservation of China’s own ‘great outdoors’. A full report on the workshop and our plans for the future will be forthcoming in a few weeks. Very exciting indeed.

As I write this post I’m in Auckland, New Zealand, where I have just attended a special event hosted by the Confucius Institute at The University of Auckland. The event was the inaugural ‘Oceania Forum: China in Change’. I gave a presentation exploring the role of tea in Chinese culture and the potential tea culture itself contains in terms of forging understanding and connections between China and the rest of the world. It was a very valuable opportunity to put my thoughts on this subject matter into more explicit shape and share them with a responsive audience. Many thanks to the team in Auckland.

In today’s post I’m delighted to share with you extracts from an interview with Professor Shen Dongmei (沈冬梅教授). Professor Shen is a researcher in the Center for Historical Research at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社科院). Her area of expertise is the history of tea in China, and in particular the Tang (618 – 907 AD) and Song (960 – 1279 AD) dynasties. Professor Shen was responsible for providing the interpretive content of the China National Tea Museum nestled in the World Heritage listed tea fields of Hangzhou. Professor Shen hails from the historic city of Yangzhou (a once busy Jiangsu port on the Grand Canal and major centre for the distribution of tea). She completed her undergraduate studies on ancient Chinese history at Shandong University and her doctoral studies at Hangzhou University (now part of Zhejiang University) under the supervision of the eminent tea historian Professor Liang Taiji (梁太济教授). The interview was conducted in Beijing on the 25th of July 2013. The interview was in Chinese Mandarin and has been translated by yours truly (I take full responsibility for any errors).

Tea buds in Hangzhou that make the famous Longjing (Dragon Well) tea.

Tea buds in Hangzhou that make the famous Longjing (Dragon Well) tea.

Q: Professor Shen thank you very much for accepting this interview. Some of the questions are of a more technical nature and relate to my own interests in the history of tea. But most of the questions have been devised with a few to satisfying the curiosity of the general tea enthusiast. To get us started when did the character for ‘tea’ (cha 茶) first appear in the Chinese historical record?

A: This is difficult to pinpoint accurately, but most experts agree that the first reference to tea can be found in the Classic of Poems (诗经) [a collection of over three hundred poems said to be compiled by Confucius (551–479 BC) from poems that predate his era by many centuries]. It was probably compiled by different persons between the 10th and 7th centuries BC. There is a character in the collection which is today pronounced ‘tu’ (荼). It looks like the character for ‘tea’ (茶) but with one additional horizontal stroke. This character can also be pronounced as ‘cha’ (tea). Some experts don’t agree, but in my view the evidence is quite strong in favour of ‘tu’ meaning ‘cha’. It was common in ancient China for one character to be used to indicate a number of different objects. Only later as the script became more sophisticated did more object specific characters emerge.

Tea Character

Q: During the time of Confucius, when many experts believe the Classic of Poems was compiled, was tea drinking already a popular past-time?

A: The current archaeological and historical evidence does not indicate that tea was popular at that time. It was not until a few hundred years later during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) that we find tea readily available for purchase in the market, thus giving some indication of its development as a commodity. In regards to the archaeological evidence there have been some discoveries in recent years that warrant mention. Most significantly is the 2004 discovery at the prehistoric site of Yuyao Tianluoshan (余姚田螺山) [near the historic tea port of Ningbo in present-day Zhejiang Province; you can see where Yuyao is located on Google Maps here]. At this prehistoric settlement the experts discovered remnants of plants belonging to the Theaceae family, which includes the tea plant (Camellia sinensis). The remnants, planted in obvious rows, have been dated to 6,000 years ago (4000 BC). The plants it seems were purposely being cultivated. We cannot yet say definitively that these are tea plants but it seems very likely. If so, it pushes the human cultivation of ‘tea’ back 4,000 years.

Q: Have the experts come to any conclusions as to where the original plants may have come from?

A: It is believed that they came from the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. Palaeobotanists believe many plants in use in China came from this region, including tea. A vast number of the world’s Theaceae are found in this region.

A 'tea leaf fossil' from Jingu, Puer, Estimated at 30 millions years old.

A ‘tea leaf fossil’ from Jingu, Puer. Estimated at 30 million years old.

Q: In our contemporary times we often think of tea as associated with the ‘way of tea’ (茶道). In China when was the ‘way of tea’ first mentioned?

A: This is also difficult to pinpoint and somewhat controversial. ‘The way of tea’ was first mentioned in a poem by the Tang dynasty Buddhist poet Jiao Ran (皎然) (730-799 AD?) [who incidentally also hails from Zhejiang], a contemporary and friend of the famous ‘Patron Saint of Tea’ Lu Yu (陆羽). Jiao Ran, a famous ‘monk poet’ (诗僧), was a bit older than Lu Yu and appears to have had a very strong influence over him. But his use of ‘the way of tea’ (茶道) is different from the contemporary Chinese usage of the term which these days implies something closer to ‘the art of tea’ (茶艺). This can cause some confusion because when in Japanese they talk about ‘the way of tea’ (茶道) they basically mean the same thing as ‘the art of tea’ (茶艺). When the Japanese refer to calligraphy [which in Chinese is shufa 书法] they say ‘shudao’ (书道); when they refer to ‘martial arts’ they say ‘wushidao’ (武士道) [which in Chinese is ‘wushu’ (武术)]. So we have to be careful not to impose our more contemporary notion of ‘chadao’ (茶道) [‘the way of tea’] – which in China nowadays has also become fashionable and is derivative of the Japanese meaning – onto the ‘茶道’ of Jiao Ran’s time of the Tang Dynasty. In my view Jiao Ran was talking about the benefits to the body of drinking tea and not the aesthetics of tea drinking itself [note that other Chinese historians disagree with Professor Shen’s position and regard Jiao Ran as the founder of ‘the way of tea’ itself].

So therefore we need to return to Lu Yu’s Tea Classic (茶经) which although doesn’t use the term ‘茶道’ nonetheless contains the essential elements of what we associate with that term, and of ‘茶艺’. The Tea Classic was written during the period 760 to 780 AD. Firstly, Lu Yu describes a complete collection of tea utensils and apparatus. Secondly, he provides detailed instructions on how to prepare, make and appreciate the tea, right from the selection of the tea, the use of quality water, the brewing of the tea, and so on. Thirdly, he also provides commentary on how to judge the aesthetic experience of tea consumption, including both its preparation and its consumption. And finally, he stresses that the consumption of tea also embodies certain mainstream social values of harmony and peace. So we could say that the notion of ‘the way of tea’ emerges at this time even though the Chinese characters ‘chadao’ (茶道) were not in vogue in the way they are in the present.

A statue of Kongming (also known as Zhu Geliang) (181–234). A famous general and strategist. He is an important figure in one of China's many tea dispersion myths.

A statue of Kongming (also known as Zhu Geliang) (181–234 AD). A famous general and strategist. He is an important figure in one of China’s many tea dispersion myths.

Q: In what ways is tea associated with some of the foundational theories and philosophies of Chinese culture, such as cosmology, medicine, and so on?

A: The most obvious is the relationship with Chinese medicine. Tea from the outset was classified as a herbal medicine [there are a number of ‘tea creation myths’ in both Han and non-Han cultures and I will return to examine these in a future posting]. Humans have been gathering plants for nourishment and medicine since time immemorial. In the prehistoric Hemudu (河姆渡) site [located in the vicinity of Yuyao mentioned above, but predating Yuyao by another 1,000 years, that is, about 5000 BC] they have discovered large piles of Chinese cassia leaves. These leaves are recorded in Chinese pharmacopeias’ as having the virtue of treating stomach ailments. One thousand years later in Yuyao we find a variety of the camellia – which we suspect to be tea – also long valued for its medicinal properties. To this day tea is still regarded by many Chinese people as having positive health effects and, as I mentioned above, modern science is beginning to support some of these notions.

Q: So at the time of the Tang Dynasty, when Buddhism was flourishing, tea also was reaching new heights. What is the relationship, then, between Buddhism and tea?

A: During the Tang Dynasty Buddhism was undergoing a major process of indigenisation, best captured in the development of China’s unique form of Buddhism: the Chan School (禅道) [more popularly known in English by its Japanese rendition of ‘Zen’]. One of Chan Buddhism’s important roles was to assist in the spread of tea drinking and tea culture to areas it had not yet penetrated, especially in northern China. Tea drinking was already a major part of Chan Buddhism. We know that as a rule the monks cannot take meals after midday (过午不食). Hence in order to keep alert for the rest of the day – especially when meditating – they were permitted to drink tea. Of course it should be mentioned that the finishing of the Grand Canal [completed during the short-lived Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD) but which really came into full usage during the much more prosperous and long-lived Tang Dynasty which followed] dramatically reduced the costs of transport, and hence tea, which was mainly produced in the south, began to become much more affordable and therefore more widespread amongst different social classes.

This ancient tea tree (Camellia sinensis assamica) started its life during the Song Dynasty, over 1,000 years ago.

This ancient tea tree (Camellia sinensis assamica) started its life during the Song Dynasty, over 1,000 years ago.

Q: What about the development of tea culture in the Song Dynasty, the dynasty that followed the Tang?

A: The Song Dynasty was definitely one of the pinnacles of tea culture in human history, one that even in our days seems difficult to surpass. All of the basic foundations and ingredients were in place by the time of the Song. Firstly, in the time of Lu Yu [Tang Dynasty] for example, tea was still largely restricted to the social elites even though it was becoming more popular. Things were changing, but certainly by the time of the Song Dynasty tea had become a fashion across a broad spectrum of the society. The tea market had become quite mature and could cater for all tastes and budgets. Remember also that the Song Dynasty is often regarded as a peak of the Chinese economy generating wealth on a scale never seen before in human history. But of course the social elites still enjoyed the best tea and it is at this level that we have many records of the tea culture from the Song. The dynastic court also got quite involved in the tea industry by granting the status of ‘tribute teas’ [贡茶] also on an unprecedented scale. A special department was set up to supervise the production and distribution of tribute tea. At this time we thus also find an wealth of new writing about tea. It was also during this time that the Chinese dynasty began institutionalise the tea trade with the nomadic peoples of the steppe [referring to the vast grass lands of what we now refer to as Mongolia, Qinghai and Xinjiang]. It was at this point that the so-called ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ begins to emerge more prominently.

Q: There is so much more to discuss about the history of tea in China. However our time is limited and with your leave we can return to this in the future. For now I would like to redirect our attention back to the present. In the wake of the Opium War (1840-1842) China was forcibly opened to the outside world. The British and other foreign powers also acquired tea plants from China [in an act of nineteenth century industrial espionage supported by the British East India Company and carried out by the famous Scottish horticulturalist Robert Fortune] and the Chinese monopoly on tea production was broken. Since then the significance of Chinese tea in the world tea trade has diminished considerably. Some scholars and tea entrepreneurs in China are now considering how to ‘revive [China] through tea’ (茶叶复兴) in a new wave of what I call ‘tea nationalism’ [I will be interviewing the leading figures in this movement in the near future and sharing their vision on this blog]. We are in very exciting times, a new chapter in the history of tea is unfolding. In your expert opinion what role do you see for tea at a moment when China is once again regaining its place as a world economic, cultural and political power?

A: I think tea can, and will, have an important role in promoting China’s reemergence. Tea is an important part of Chinese culture. Tea has inspired and accompanied generations of Chinese artists, scholars and writers. Tea indeed is a window to Chinese culture and something that China has shared with the rest of the world. It forms a common ground upon which meaningful interaction can take place. Tea is both the crystallisation of a material substance that we drink everyday – and the science tells us it is a good thing for our health too – and, at the same time, tea is also a vessel for spiritual sustenance. I think tea has a very bright and exciting future.

There are well over 1,000 different varieties of Chinese tea (classified into at least six or more categories). How many have you tried?

There are well over 1,000 different varieties of Chinese tea (classified into at least six categories). How many have you tried?

Interview with Chan (Zen) Buddhist Master Gu Dao

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” The Buddha

The Puli Temple at Dongshan is undergoing a major AUD$10 million dollar facelift and will become a modern meditation and well being retreat. All that remains of the old temple complex at Dongshan is this 'scripture hall' that dates from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). There are a number of older heritage structures (tombs, bridges, pavillions) scattered throughout the temple land.

In December 2010 I visited the the Chan (Zen) Buddhist Puli Temple (普利庙) in Dongshan (洞山) in Jiangxi Province (江西省), one of the most important temples in the Dongshan sect of Chan Buddhism (known as ‘Soto’ in Japanese). You can read about that visit by following this link. During the visit I took the opportunity to interview Master Gu Dao (古道), the current Abbot and supervisor for the reconstruction project. Master Gu Dao is typical of many adherents who became interested in Buddhism in the 1980s as part of the first post-reform religious revival. A short biographical account is included in the interview below.

Note: The following translation is my own work and any inaccuracies or errors are my own fault and certainly not those of Master Gu Dao! Some of the discussion does tend to get a bit esoteric, as you would expect when dealing with a philosophy and corpus of knowledge as rich as Chan Buddhism (I myself have only scratched the surface and see the deep wells of thought and wisdom before me). I have done my best to simplify the discussion and make it more readable to a novice audience. Any comments from the more well informed are extremely welcome!

GS: Gary Sigley

GD: Gu Dao

GS: Master Gudao thank you very much for the invitation to visit Puli Temple and spend some time with yourself and the others. It is truly a very beautiful location. This morning as we took an early stroll I was struck by the symbolic significance of the construction site. It seemed to me that the piles of rubble are a broader metaphor for Chinese society in general. By which I mean in the process of China’s rapid modernisation we are literally surrounded by constructions sites. And even the Puli Temple is a construction site, not even a remote temple can avoid the reach of so-called ‘modernisation’. But here the metaphor takes on a new meaning, a new twist as it is not a shopping mall or flash apartment complex that is being built. Instead from the rubble a Buddhist flower is emerging. This seems to me to be very timely and significant. For just as in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), modern China is entering a golden age in which we also are witnessing a significant revival in Buddhism [GS: and other religions and belief systems]. It seems to be a very auspicious time to visit the temple what with yesterday’s lunar eclipse taking place just as we arrived and today being the birthday of the former abbot, Master Miaozong, who did so much to restore the temple in the 1980s. As Chinese people are very fond of saying it seems with ‘have yuan and have fen’ (有缘有份) [GS: that is, have a karmic connection and heavenly alignment for a ‘chance’ meeting]. Can you start by telling us something about the similarities and differences between the indigenous Chinese concept of dao (道) and the Buddhist concept of foxing (佛性)?

One of the only worship halls in operation at Puli Temple during the construction. During this time the monks, only a few in number at this stage, follow their own regimen.

GD: In China the term (character) ‘chan’ [禅, zen] came to represent a particular approach to Buddhism, chan is an abbreviated form of ‘chanding’ [禅定] which means tranquility and concentrated meditation, referring to a process of practice and training [gongfu 功夫], which is encapsulated in the concept of si chan ba ding [四禅八定, GS: dhyāna in Pāli being the language of many of the earliest Buddhist scriptures] [GS: that is, the entering of a peaceful and contemplative state in preparation for persuing aesthetic practice or what is know in Chinese as xiuxing 修行]. But when it came to China this particular practice came to represent an entire school of Buddhism [fofa 佛法], namely ‘Chan’. The reason for this is actually intimately connected to indigenous forms of Chinese thought such as those of Laozi [Lao Tse or Lao Tzu] and Zhuangzi [Chuang Tzu] [both of whom created/added to indigenous systems of religious and philosophical thought in China before the arrival of Buddhism]. According to Chinese thought ‘dao’ [道] already exists, it is not something that you bring into existence through cultivation, but rather something you ‘realise’ [wu 悟], that is ‘to be enlightened’ [juewu 觉悟], and to live a life according to the natural flows of the dao. According to Buddhism ‘foxing’ [Buddhata or the buddha nature, 佛性] is something that everyone possesses, it is not something that you develop through cultivation. Everything living thing has its own Buddha nature. So the concept of dao and foxing have, on the surface, much in common. Some say that they are the same thing, that the East has Saints [shengren 圣人] and the West has its Saints, and that they are simply finding different ways to express the same thing. Whatever it is it is intangible and has no form, you can’t see or touch it, you can only experience it [tihuidao 体会到]. When you have experienced it [that is, come to know it] your life will be very natural, free and unrestrained. It doesn’t mean you will become an immortal and live forever. Some Daoists have claimed that this is what they are striving for, but for me this is just an projection of a human desire for immortality. In Buddhism we refer to the notion of ‘transcending the cycle of life and death’ [liao sheng tuo si, 了生脱死]. The Buddha clearly said that ‘that which is born must die’. So how is it then possible to ‘transcend the cycle of life and death’? So when Buddhism came to China the Chinese practictioners interpreted foxing as dao and Chan Buddhism was created. And what’s more Chan professed to have techniques and practices which were not the same as the methods used in China up until then. It forwarded the notion of ‘sudden enlightenment’ [dangxia juewu, 当下觉悟]. Although in fact the there are very few instances of ‘sudden enlightenment’ and most practitioners have to follow a diligent regime of meditation and practice … and then one day it happens. The way to reach this state is through tranquil meditation in which all desires and thoughts are discarded. By the Song Dynasty the koan [chanhuatou禅话头] became a means of raising doubts with the self [GS: a koan, the term is Japanese, is something like a ‘thought bubble’ in the form of a story, question or statement that seeks to challenge ‘commonsense’ and encourage the practitioner to ‘think outside of the box’. A famous koan is ‘the sound of one hand clapping’]. For example a practitioner may focus on the question ‘what is the Buddha?’ not expecting an answer but using this focus on a single question to the extent that all else in the mind is removed until only the question remains … and then one day at a moment of ‘enlightenment’ even that question is removed and all there is left is the void [kong 空]. Only then can one realise the dao.

Note: Click this link to hear the monks chanting at breakfast: Dongshan Breakfast Chant 22-12-2010

GS: Can you please share with us something about your own background and how is that you came to ‘walk this road’ so to speak?

A cd jacket for the film The Shaolin Temple. How many young Chinese boys rushed off to the Shaolin Temple after watching this film? Quite a few I suspect!

GD: When I was young I didn’t know anything about Buddhism. But I did have a great fondness for kungfu [wushu, 武术, martial arts]. I didn’t know exactly what kind of kungfu I was studying, it was just kungfu! But then the movie The Shaolin Temple [1982] came out and everything clicked I knew that I was studying Shaolin kungfu [GS: the moving Shaolin was Jet Li’s great debut and a very popular film at the time, one of the first mainland kungfu films to be produced after the Mao period]. After finishing school I went off to join the army. One of my army comrades came from a village near the Shaolin Temple. Like everyone in his community he could do kungfu. So I studied with him. After I left the army I went to Shaolin to learn more. But I wasn’t so good at kungfu and ended up become a monk! [GS: not all Shaolin monks turn out to be like Bruce Lee!] I started reading and learning about Chan Buddhism and thought this was very interesting and what I wanted to pursue. There is a Buddhist sect in Zhejiang known as Tiantaishan (天台山) (Heavenly Terrace Mountain). It is a very old sect that dates back to the Sui Dynasty [581-618 AD, the short-lived dynasty which preceded the Tang]. The sect observes some of the most ancient meditative practices in Buddhism in which practitioners focus on their breathing as a foundation for self-cultivation. In my opinion out of all the Buddhist sects the Tiantaishan sect offers the clearest instructions in this regard. The thing is that ‘Chan’ can be so abstract, so difficult to comprehend. Where is your starting point for ‘getting into Chan’? The Tiantaishan practices reminded me of what I learnt in kungfu insofar as they incorporated a step by step process starting from the basic kungfu up to higher levels of practice. Its clarity of method appealed to me very much. So even though I was born into the Chan Buddhist sect I have much respect and admiration for the Tiantai Buddhist sect.

GS: I hear that you followed the path of the ancients and became a hermit [yinshi, 隐士] for some time. Can you tell us something about your experiences as a recluse?

Kongdongshan, Gansu Province, home to many temples and many hermits over the centuries.

GD: That’s correct. I closeted myself away in many remote places to practice [修行]. The longest time was for a period of one year. My most memorable moment was a six month period of reading and meditating in 1992 when I was staying on Kongdongshan [崆峒山] in Gansu [甘肃省]. My simple residence was perched atop a massive precipice and gorge. I had to fetch water once a week. Life was very simple indeed. One day about three months into my aesthetic regime, some time in the afternoon, I was medidating on my breathing following the Tiantai sect method, and suddenly I was not aware of my body anymore. For much of the preceding time given the aches and pains of sitting for long periods it was hard not to notice your body, but suddenly it was gone and my breathing was all that existed, as if it became part of heaven and earth itself. This was not ‘enlightenment’ [悟] or anything like that mind you, it was the reaching of a physical state through rigorous practice. I felt extremely peaceful and quiet. It was a very delicate and sublime feeling [微妙]. Time meant nothing and when I came out of meditation ten hours had passed without even knowing it. Then I had a simple meal of rice and beans and practiced taiqi [太极拳] on the terrace with a majestic scene of mountains and gorge in the background. I then went back to meditating and enter the same ‘zone’ again for another ten or so hours. This then became my routine for the next two months. I never felt tired or the need for sleep. It was quite incredible and one of the most cherished experiences in my life thus far. So now I know from my own experience that this state described by the Buddha and other masters that followed can be achieved. I now also hold at some hope, indeed I’m certain, that the state of enlightenment can also be achieved.

GS: Your experience is very interesting and, if I may say, a bit like the experience of spirituality in China since the onset of reform in the late 1970s. Within China it seems to me there is a spiritual awakening taking place, but it is something that is coming from behind the frantic and rapid economic development and social change that has been unfolding. The lives of many people in China have improved very much at the level of the physical. But life is also become more stressful and frantic, especially in the big cities and populous centres. People are searching for something more than materialism to give their lives meaning. And many are turning to religion to find that ‘something’.

Exercises from the Yijinjing (易筋经).

GD: If you examine Chinese history you see that at times of sustained social stability and economic prosperity, such as during the Tang but also other periods, there is also a great deal of cultural and religious activity. I feel that the current period is a bit like that. But in fact this period exceeds the other periods in terms of its scale, in terms of overall wealth and size of the population, and significance, both for China and the rest of the world. And of course at times like this people naturally turn their attention to metaphysical questions of life and existence. People are also becoming more concerned about their health, and rightly so what with all the pollution and food safety issues. You can see in the cities the growth of interest in things like yoga for example. Yoga in some circles has become quite fashionable [GS: there are now a number of good yoga retreats in and around Beijing for example servicing the local Chinese and expatriate communities]. We have a lot of respect for yoga as it is a practice from which some of our meditative exercises derive. But it also retains a great deal that we seem to have lost over time. For example the famous Shaolin practice of yijinjing] [易筋经, the muscle and tendon changing classic, for a video demonstration go to this youtube link] brought to the temple by Bodhidharma [GS: the Indian monk who travelled to China in the 5th/6th Century and is credited with transmitting Chan Buddhism and establishing the training regime for the monks as Shaolin] is based on yoga but over time changed so much that it is only now remotely related to the original core yoga practices. So in 2006 our Master [Nan Huaijin 南怀瑾] invited a famous yoga teacher from India to provide advanced instruction. Afterall the ‘sichan bading’ [四禅八定] taught to us by the Buddha has its origins in ancient Indian practices. But although yoga has become popular many people simply look upon it as a physical exercise to trim fat and get in shape. But that is not why we study yoga. We study yoga so we can soften our bodies and control our breathing, so we can obtain the physical stamina to continue our meditative practice. Yoga provides an excellent foundation for doing just that. So we firmly believe in the intimate connection between mind and body and that the body is the foundation for working on ‘the mind’ so to speak.

Construction worker at Puli Temple.

 GS: This brings us now to the topic of what is happening here at the temple, for I understand that there are plans to turn the temple into a kind of ‘mind and body retreat’. When did you first come here?

GD: I arrived at the temple in February of this year [2010]. I had been here once before in 2006 and stayed for twenty days. At that time the previous abbott, Master Miaozong, had passed away and the temple was very quiet. I couldn’t stay any longer as we had a large project on lake Taihu (Suzhou, Jiangsu Province) that needed my attention. But then I was approached by the local county government and asked if I could return to supervise the reconstruction and expansion of the temple.

Inspecting the Tang Dynasty monk graves on the temple complex. The temple has quite a bit of land for cultivation and Master Gudao hopes to get it active and productive in the years to come as part of the Chan Buddhist tradition of 'back to nature' and 'self sufficiency'.

GS: It is certainly a very large project. What is the total scale?

GD: About 60 million Chinese yuan [approximately $10 million Australian Dollars]. Most of the funds come from funds raised through our association, through the contributions of students and disciples of our Master.

GS: Did the local government contribute anything?

GD: Yes. They contributed to the costs of the design and planning, approximately one million Chinese yuan. They also contributed much ‘in kind’ such as upgrading the electricity network, providing more land and so on.

GS: What is the motivation behind the local government’s involvement in the project?

GD: Firstly it is motivated by cultural concerns. Yifeng County is one of the cradles of Chan Buddhism and therefore historically and culturally significant in terms of heritage value. Many Chan Buddhist masters and sects, such as Caodongzong which comes from this temple, have their origins in and around Yifeng. The second motivation is to promote tourism into the area. The expressway from Nanchang [the capital of Jiangxi] will pass very close by and I believe plans are on the books for a high speed rail as well. The local government has been very generous. In other places where I have resided and practiced, such as in and around Xi’an, to get anything from the local authorities such as land or financial support is extremely difficult.

A ceremonial bell amongst the rubble. We look forward to the day that the sound of the bell replaces the sound of the jackhammer!

GS: So what is the ultimate goal with the project here? How long will it take?

GD: It is all to do with the Caodongzong teachings which place great emphasis on meditational practice and respect for tradition. I hope here in the reconstructed and expanded temple to build two meditation halls in which we will combine Caodong meditation and yoga exercises. We will teach people, of all ages and backgrounds, about the benefits of meditation, yoga and a simple life which will include the growing of our vegetables and food, healthy and green. I want the temple to earn its income in this way and not in the way many temples do these days by offering outrageous ceremonies for contacting the deceased, fortune telling, burning expensive incense, and other forms of, what I regard as, hocus-pocus and superstition, not to mention waste. This is the dream I have brought to the temple. It’s a big project and is giving me a lot of headaches but I’m sure it will be worth it in the end.

GS: I’m sure it will! And I wish you all the best and hope to return when the construction is complete and see what ‘Flower of Buddha’ is blooming here.

An artists rendition of the new Puli Temple.


Social Policy and Social Work in Contemporary China: Interview with Xu Yongxiang

From left to right: Dr Geoff Raby, Australian Ambassador to China, Professor Xu Yongxiang and myself at the Chinese Studies Roundtable held in the Australian Pavillion during Shanghai Expo. I have written about the roundtable on ChinaWatch2050.

On the 28th October 2010 I went to East China University of Science and Technology (华东理科大学). I have been making regular visits to ECUST for many years primarily to visit Professor Xu Yongxiang (徐永祥). Prof Xu (pronounced something like ‘sue’) is the Dean of the School of Social and Public Management. In addition to this ‘day job’ he also wears many hats a few of which include: Director of the Applied Sociology Institution, Board Member of the Sociology Association of China, Vice Chairman of the Social Work Education Association of China, Vice Chairman of the Shanghai Social Worker Association, and President of Shanghai Ziqiang Social Service. He has also recently been appointed to head up the Shenzhen NPO (non-profit) Research Institute.

Prof Xu first came to my attention whilst I was conducting background research on the emergence of ‘social work’ (社会工作) in contemporary China. I was aware that the notion of ‘social work’ and the profession of the ‘social workers’ was a relatively new phenomenon in the People’s Republic. During the Maoist period (1949 – 1976) and the first part of the reform period (1976 – 1989) there was no such thing as ‘social work’ or any profession called ‘social worker’. Instead, in urban locations social problems were dealt with through the system of the ‘work unit’ (单位). A ‘work unit’ is/was an almost self-governing institution which provided cradle to grave support for its members. A ‘work unit’ could be a factory, a university, a government department and so on. In rural areas social issues were dealt with through the various agencies of the state such as the ‘woman’s federation’, and/or the family planning authorities. The general strategy was to periodically address a problem through the implementation of ‘mass campaigns’. Nobody was really trained in the art of social work or psychology (such as counselling). People relied on age old skills of negotiation and common sense (not always the best approach!). The system overall was very powerful, that is, it could exert a great deal of authority over individuals and families (especially in urban areas where it controlled the ‘purse strings’ but also in rural areas where the Maoist notion of ‘politics in command’ and ‘class struggle’ could be used as tools of coercion and violence).

An anti-drug campaign in full swing on the streets of Shanghai in 2004. The 'mass campaign' style of addressing social issues is still being used in China.

However, during the reform period, and especially since the 1990s Chinese society has undergone dramatic social change. The commune system was disbanded in the early 1980s and household farming was reestablished. In urban areas the ‘work unit’ model also began to undergo significant reform. Some ‘work units’ were completely disbanded. Others slowly reduced the kinds of services offered to work unit members. Overall society became much more dynamic with a great flow of labour and capital, not to mention ideas and lifestyles. During this period many new (at least in the sense of not having been seen in the People’s Republic since the 1950s) social problems emerged (such as drug addiction, prostitution, and gambling). Other social issues that were once taboo now came to greater public attention as the media began to develop (such as homosexuality, domestic violence, and mental health). In addition epidemics such as HIV AIDS also appeared thus further contributing to the increasing complexity of social issues in China.

It became very clear to social policy officials and scholars that the old system of dealing with social problems was no longer functioning effectively. Indeed the ‘old system’ was itself being actively dismantled and yet nothing was yet being developed to take its place. The authorities were/are of course implementing new forms of social welfare and social insurance, but often the policy implementation was slow and haphazard and not able to keep up with the pace of change. On another front some of the gains of the Maoist period in terms of social policy, such as in basic public health, were being eroded as neoliberal market-driven policies were implemented in the 1980s.

Say no to drugs! Do more baijiu! (ChinaWatch2050 encourages the responsible consumption of alchohol).

It is into this context of rapid social change, the emergence of many pressing social issues and the need to find a new social policy model, that social work and the social worker made an appearance. Given my interest in government and governmental reform I saw the emergence of social work as an excellent case study in the various ways in which Chinese authorities are engaging in social reform. The figure of the ‘social worker’ also represented a new profession (a new form of ‘expertise’ for those interested in Foucauldian notions of ‘governmentality’), one which has its origins in a judeao-christian context (and that in itself is quite significant, but I won’t go into detail here) and therefore requires a process of ‘indigenisation’ (本土化).

So I began to gather material on social work in China and track down some of the key scholars working in this field. Prof Xu’s name was often mentioned and so I naturally made my way to his office on the campus of ECUST, just a stone’s throw away from Shanghai South Railway Station (上海南站). Prof Xu is extremely affable and shared a great deal of insight and information with me as well as introducing me to many of his colleagues at ECUST and elsewhere. He also led a delegation to visit me in Perth at The University of Western Australia where I arranged a special symposium comparing social policy in China and Australia as well as some field trips to learn about local government in the Australian context.

UWA Arts Faculty visit to ECUST in 2004. Professor Anne Pauwels (second from left), Dean of Arts, and Professor Xu Yongxiang (second from right), Dean of Social Policy and Social Administration. Maria in the middle! And two fine ECUST colleagues left and right.

Prof Xu research interests are quite broad and include social work, social policy, social organization and community development (shequ jianshe, 社区建设). He has published more than seventy articles and over ten books. Currently, Professor Xu is in charge of a very large research project funded by the National Social Science Fund of China and several research programs commissioned by the Shanghai Municipal Government (for whom he is a top level advisor).

My research on social work is on the back burner for the time being as I currently pursue other projects (notably cultural heritage, ‘donkey friends’, tourism and the Ancient Tea Horse Road!). But I still try to see Prof Xu when I can (tracking him down is not always easy as his feet seem to barely touch the ground!), and I’m pleased now to present my interview. The interview provides a brief overview of social policy and the emergence of social work in contemporary China. It discusses some of the challenges facing social work and some of the recent successes. It also explores the role the Wenchuan Earthquake as a critical moment in demonstrating the utility of social work practice. I did the translation into English myself and admit it needs some more work, but there is too much on my plate at the moment and the current draft will have to suffice.

The Interview

GS = Gary Sigley

XYX = Xu Yongxiang

GS: Professor Xu, thanks very much for agreeing to the interview. I would like to talk to you today about trends and issues in social policy in contemporary China, and in particular the background and history of social work in China in recent decades. I know that you have a strong interest and much practical experience in the dissemination of social work in China. Let’s start with an introduction to the background and history of social policy in China.

XYX: Social policy in contemporary China, especially that which straddles the two centuries, has been characterised by a problematic entanglement with neoliberalism. Over the course of the last several years from the centre to the grass-roots, from the academy to the social field of the non-government and service-orientated organisations, all have gradually come to realise the negative influence of neoliberalist influenced policy in China.

GS: When and how did neoliberalism enter China and how much influence has it had as an ideology on social policy?

Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen on the 1992 'Southern Tour'. Deng came out of retirement and went on an inspection of the various 'Special Economic Zones' in order to bolster the forces of the reformists. The year '1992' should be remembered as the birth of 'state capitalism' in China.

XYX: Strictly speaking we can say that neoliberalism first entered China and began to have some influence in the 1980s [the first decade of the policy of ‘reform and openness’]. A general attitude of ‘learn from the West’ and ‘open the doors to the outside world’ prevailed. Neoliberalism’s first foothold was at this time through the window of economic theory and policy. But in terms of neoliberalism’s domination of discourse [huayuquan 话语权] it wasn’t until after Deng Xiaoping’s historic ‘southern inspection’ [nanxun 南巡] [in 1992] that the doors were flung wide open and the government advocated the adoption of a market economy. Originally neoliberalism was a school of thought restricted to economic theory. In the field of economics it has some credibility insofar as it relates to expanding the economy through greater efficiencies and stimulating the development of enterprises and firms. The unfortunate thing is that neoliberalism not only played a prominent role in the economic field, but that its influence also extended to the field of social policy. For example, education [jiaoyu 教育], health [yiliao 医疗], hygiene [weisheng 卫生] and public service [gonggong fuwu 公共服务] all felt the effects of the influence of neoliberalism. This meant, for instance, the commercialisation [chanyehua 产业化] of education, health and so on. The responsibility that should have been carried out by the state and society was passed onto the mechanisms of the market with profit and money as the guiding factors. Then from this point forward many problems began to emerge, such as in public housing which has now become a serious problem due to the unaffordability of housing for the average family. Housing has both social and economic dimensions, but under the influence of neoliberalism all social policy emphasised was the economic. So neoliberalism, functioning as it does, has created vast wealth but has also created vast disparities between rich and poor. In a well functioning system the social can work to correct the imbalances produced by the economic, but in China over the last two decades the social policy field unfortunately did not have this desirable effect due to the influence of neoliberalism. So we have now got to the point where social policy must intervene to correct and readjust the imbalances and bring some order back over the economic. That’s just a brief background.

GS: Just to clarify, did the notion of ‘social policy’ exist conceptually before 1978? What was the main feature of social policy during the era of the socialist planned economy?

Prof Xu takes the mike.

XYX: Of course there was policy related to the social dimensions of life. But in the days of the socialist planned economy there was no real conceptual division between the social and economic, for example. The main feature of social policy at this time was its coming under the strong centralisation of political and economic power. Housing, for instance, in urban areas was allocated by the work-unit [danwei 单位], so social benefits were tied closely to political and economic power and could be used to control communities. Rural areas had some social policy but the level of conceptualisation and implementation was very limited, maybe with the exception of the ‘barefoot doctors’. Overall social policy in those times, especially when compared to the present, was low in efficiency and conceptualisation.

GS: Before the period of ‘reform and openness’ there was no such thing as ‘social work’ in the People’s Republic of China. But since the 1980s it has gradually found its way into the academy and the community, especially since 1997 when the presence of social work really began to take off in places like Shanghai. Can we now talk about the growth and development of social work in China?

XYX: In fact social work, as we understand it as a modern profession and field of inquiry, was first introduced to China in 1917. In Shanghai there were a number socially active scholars promoting social work and training social workers for professional life. In Bejing the Tongren Hospital had a social work section devoted to health services. This was all taking place in the 1920s and 1930s. There was even some element of social work in the New Life Movement of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Government. But there was no systematic implementation of social policy or social work in the modern sense. In fact social work did not make a reappearance until 1988 when the Ministry of Education granted approval for a number of Chinese universities to begin teaching social work. Peking University and Jilin University were amongst the first to begin to teach undergraduates subjects on social work, but we need to note that social work was not recognised as a profession until very recently. Now the number of institutes of higher education in China which teach social work at the undergraduate level number more than two hundred with most of the expansion taking place over the last decade [coinciding with the mass expansion of higher education in China]. There are also 58 institutions teaching social worked at the postgraduate level [masters and doctorate]. So you can see it has taken a very long time in the education sector to make progress, but certainly progress has been made. By contrast the practice of social work within society has not been as successful although Shanghai has made some progress. In the 1990s in Pudong [a district] the Shanghai government began to support the implementation of some social work policies and practices. Professional social workers were appointed to work in schools, communities, hospitals and so on. This has since been expanded to all parts of Shanghai and to also include the deployment of professional social workers in the legal system, in the fields of drug abuse, domestic violence, juvenile delinquency and so on. Social work has also begun to find its way to other Chinese cities and some rural areas but Shanghai is definitely at the forefront with approximately 1,700 professional and certified social workers employed throughout different institutions.

GS: When did social work gain official recognition from the authorities as a profession [职业]?

XYX: The act of gaining official recognition as a profession was a process. In Shanghai it was granted in 2003 by the Shanghai Municipal Government. Persons aspiring to be social workers must pass a test and register with the appropriate authorities. In 2005 the Ministry of Labour [劳动部] recognised social work as a profession, and was soon followed in 2007 by the Ministry of Personnel and Ministry of Civil Affairs. Social workers were now on par with other professions such as engineers, scientists, lawyers and so forth as a ‘professional technical position’ [zhuanye jishu renyuan 专业技术人员]. There are a total of 32 recognised professions. Last year the Central Government reorganised the categories into six general divisions of which social work has a whole division to itself. So you can see now that at least from the point of few of social policy and social development that social work has now clearly come to the forefront and is validated as an important part of the social policy framework. Premier Wen Jiabao and other government and party leaders made important speeches in recognition of social work and its new role in the social policy area. A target of training two million social workers by 2015 and three million by 2020 was announced. Our university can only expect to train ten thousand social work graduates by 2015 so even with a hundred years we would not even make the 2015 target. So the idea is to train those persons working in the community, in relevant government departments or non-government organisations, who are doing the work of ‘social work’ but do not yet have any formal training or certification. So in this way with the combined efforts of institutions training undergraduates and training in the community we should be able to meet the 2020 target.

GS: So this is an indication that the central authorities have come to recognise the utility of professions such as social work in the context of a rapidly changing China?

XYX: Absolutely. As Premier Wen Jiabao himself stated, social work is valuable insofar as it can help to alleviate the social tensions and pressures on many members of the community, promote ‘harmonious society’ and raise the level and improve the effectiveness of social welfare.

GS: It’s good to see recognition and support from the very top. But what about at the bottom, at the grass-roots? Do local officials understand and appreciate social work?

XYX: As with many new things in China they generally take hold first in the large cities along the eastern seaboard. So now in many cities like Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenzhen, and so forth, social work is well accepted and understood by local officials and communities. But the further you go inland towards western China the more challenges social work faces. Many places in western China are still very poor and do not themselves have the resources or know-how to get things going. And of course if local departments and officials are unaware of the benefits and nature of social work it will take just that bit longer to get things going because the first thing that needs to be done is to convince the local officials.

GS: To approach the question a bit more broadly, what are the major challenges and obstacles face the further develop of social work in China?

XYX: There are few challenges. Firstly, social work has come up against some obstacles that exist with the current system [tizhi nei 体制内] in which government is still the dominant player in the social policy field as has been the case for many decades. In this context it is difficult to make changes that create room for ‘non-government’ players such as the many social workers who work in non-profit and non-government organisations. So the advancement of social work really has to work hand-in-hand with the development of the nongovernment sector [minjiande 民间的]. And it is actually crucial to deploy most of the social workers to organisations outside the system [tizhi wai 体制外] for we have found that those who end up in government departments end up doing mostly administrative work and cannot carry out their professional practice. So this is probably the biggest obstacle – the legacy of the state dominated social system.

The second issue concerns the lack of adequate funding for social work and social work related programmes. The system of allocating public fund [gonggong caizheng公共财政] is far from perfect in China. How to more effectively target public spending in the social field has not yet become well clarified as a significant problem in the minds of many leaders and levels of government. So in order to develop social work you need to allocate specific funds but unfortunately many local governments have not yet recognised the value of doing so.

GS: The last time we met was just after the tragic Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan. You were telling me how your university was involved in sending counselling staff and social workers to the disaster zone. Can you tell us a bit out what you did and its significance for the development of social work?

A Shanghai Social Work Station at the site of the Wenchuan Earthquake.

XYX: In the wake of the disaster we recognised an opportunity for our team to provide valuable assistance for the disaster victims. After consulting with the relevant authorities we sent a social work service team [shehui gongzuo fuwutuan 社会工作服务团]  to Dujiangyan (都江堰). The team also included professionals from Hong Kong. Altogether we sent twelve teams operating on a rotational basis. Each team consisted of at least ten persons and worked on site for three to four weeks. When the time had come to end the project the local government and people didn’t want us to leave which was quite a turnaround because when we first arrived they had no idea what ‘social work’ was and what we were offering them. They thought ‘you should be giving us money and necessities, what is this thing ‘social work’? But of course they couldn’t refuse us as we came all the way from Shanghai, so they made us welcome but there was a bit of uncertainty as to how the relationship would develop. But after several months of hard work the local government and people completely changed their attitude towards us.

GS: What were the main services and support you were providing?

XYX: We helped the local government and community rebuild the community by rehabilitating social services for the aged, for women, for children and so on. The initial issue for the community was the lack of hope and vision for the future. There was a real sense of hopelessness and despair. Many people had lost their homes and loved ones and where living with strangers in temporary shelter. So our first goal was to help build a sense of community and get the ‘strangers’ to know and support each other.  We used a lot of well developed strategies and programmes to achieve this. The other problem was the sour relations between the government and the people. Even though the government had made great efforts to accommodate everyone there were still a lot of problems with inadequate shelter, over crowding, leaking shelters, and so on. The people blamed all the problems on the government. The government on the other hand had its hands full and was not so competent at explaining the situation. Once we understood the nature of the situation we worked towards repairing relations between the government and the people and were quite successful in doing so.

When the first two teams left the locals were very upset and cried, so after that when the other teams left we didn’t tell them as we didn’t want them to get further upset. But it was impossible not for them to find out and so each time the teams left right up to the end we got a royal send-off full of tears and gratitude.

The other interesting thing worthy of noting is that psychological counsellors did not get a very good reception in the disaster zones. Some locals even put up signs on their doors stating ‘psychological counsellors do not enter’. Social workers by contrast, after the initial apprehension, were very welcome. This came as a surprise to all of us in the field. After a bit of reflection I have come to the conclusion that the rejection of psychological counsellors has something to do with the nature of its operation. In most cases it is a ‘one to one’ exchange between counsellor and victim. But the problem from the viewpoint of the victim was not confined to them per se it was a problem of the destruction of their social networks. Psychological counselling is not very effective in tackling the social dimensions of what the victims are confronting, whereas social work specifically seeks to do just that [that is, address the social issues].

As far as the development of social work is concerned our participation in the social reconstruction of the disaster zone was very significant. And I might add here that we were not the only social work service teams on the ground, there were others from Guangdong, Beijing and so on, but ours was probably the largest and most systematically organised. Our work allowed us to demonstrate the effectiveness of social work to communities and governments that had never ever seen a social worker before and didn’t know what ‘social work’ was. The media also did a lot of reporting about our work including a special report in the in-flight magazine of China Eastern Airlines. Leaders from the centre and provincial levels also came to inspect our work and we were able to demonstrate and explain what we were doing. It also demonstrated that social work could ‘become Chinese’, that is, it could work in China, it wasn’t something just imported from abroad.

GS: In relation to what you just said about the differences between psychological counselling and social work do you think that after twenty or so years of social work practice in China that social work has to some extent been indigenised [bentuhua 本土化]?

XYX: The development of social work in China has from the very start been a matter of finding out what works in China and how it can be consolidated and improved. In the beginning we concentrated on learning about world’s best practice in this area, especially from Hong Kong and Taiwan where social work is already well established, but later from other places such as the United Kingdom, Japan, the United States and Australia. We needed to understand the systems of certification, of professionalisation, training, pedagogy, social practice and so on. Then we had to think about how to reach these international standards within China based on our own social and governmental system.

During this process it did become obvious to me that some of the systems and strategies used in the Western context could not apply to China. Let me cite an example. According to the ethical principles of Western social work it is not permitted for any form of material exchange to take place between the social worker and the client. But in China, and by extension maybe in Korea and Japan as well, if you want to develop a relationship of trust with the client you cannot refuse gifts as the giving of gifts is an integral part of development emotional sentiment [renqing 人情] between people. There was one particular case in which the social worker went to visit the client and on the first occasion the client would let the social worker through the door. The second time the social worker went he was allowed in but only given a cup of boiled water. On the third occasion progress was being made and the social worker was given a cup of tea. And finally on the fourth occasion the client insisted on treating the social work to dinner. According to Western ethical principles this is unacceptable as the social worker should not take any money or gifts from the client. The social worker was also aware of this ethical dilemma but decided to accept the invitation. I think he did the right thing. This particular client was afflicted with drug addiction and had wasted all the family’s income on drugs. The house was filthy. Many drug addicts also have communicable diseases. In other words their social status is very low, people in the neighbourhood, family, and society look down upon them and keep their distance. The drug addicts sense of self esteem is thus very low. When the social worker accepted the invitation the client found such a sense of gratitude and self-respect that the social worker was able to build up trust with the client and attempt to help him overcome his problems.

Interview with Shuhe Muleteers

A 'typical' street in Shuhe. Working out what is 'new' and what is 'old' can be tricky at the best of times.

In October 2010 I travelled with Ed and Yang Xiao from Shuhe to Shangrila exploring the Ancient Tea Horse Road. You can read about that expedition here (in three installments). I took the opportunity to interview the muleteers from Shuhe (束河), who I will refer to as Lao Yang and Xiao He, that accompanied us on the first leg of the journey from Shuhe to Daju (four days). Shuhe is a collection of Naxi (纳西) villages about four kilometres from the ‘old town’ of Lijiang (which the locals still refer to as ‘Dayan’ 大研镇). Shuhe is also part of the UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site in Lijiang, so it obviously has quite important tangible and intangible cultural heritage worthy of preserving. Over the last ten or so years, like the old town of Lijiang, Shuhe has undergone a remarkable transformation from bucolic village/s to rapidly growing commercial tourist centre. Some would argue that this conflicts somewhat with the cultural heritage preservation work insofar as mass commercial tourism and cultural heritage do not make good bedfellows. As this topic is an ongoing focus of my research and still in relatively early stages I will not say any more here, at least for the time being. You can read some preliminary thoughts on the matter in an article I published in 2010 in the International of Journal China Studies. Historically Shuhe is well known as an important staging post on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Like Dayan it too has an ancient market square, although recent expansion of the square and the building of a new larger square to accommodate tourist activities leads to all kinds of confusion and misconceptions as to what is real and what is fake, another perennial topic of heated debate and part and parcel of tourism modernity. In days gone Shuhe by was highly regarded as a centre for the manufacture of all kinds of leather goods. The cobblers of Shuhe were indeed famous the length and breadth of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Tibetans in particular highly prized the leather boots and horse gear made in Shuhe. All of this is well recorded in the local ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ museum  and I advise all visitors to Shuhe to make the pilgrimage.

Local Naxi dressed in Tibetan garb do a Tibetan folk dance in the 'real' market square of Shuhe.

A local farmer in the guise of traditional muleteer leads his horse through the streets of Shuhe seeking tourists for a once in a lifetime equine experience on the tea road.

Lao Yang and Xiao He come from a village just outside the main commercial tourist centre of Shuhe and both families are still engaged in agriculture. Their farming days, however, may be numbered as land in and around Shuhe is in short supply and I believe their farmland may be ‘requisitioned’ by the authorities and sold to commercial developers. It is therefore quite valuable to be able to observe the process of urbanisation right before your very eyes. As I discovered on my journey with Lao Yang and Xiao He, and on subsequent visits, it is not only the rural traditions and ways of life that are disappearing. Whilst Shuhe may once have been renowned as a staging post and its muleteers held in high esteem these days the equine skills of the locals are largely restricted to breeding horses for the purposes of offering rides for tourists. This has actually led to the gradual decline in the numbers of ‘dian horses’ (滇马) as these small horses, as sure footed and reliable as they are for long distance caravan work, are not highly valued by tourists as mounts. (Note: ‘Dian’ is another way of referring to ‘Yunnan’ and refers both to the large lake next to Kunming (the provincial capital) and also the ancient culture/kingdom that arose in the region approximately 2,500 years ago). The breeding of mules has now more or less come to an end in Shuhe. Mules, an equine hybrid combining donkey and horse, where in fact the mainstay on the Ancient Tea Horse Road, but with the demise of the caravans it seems inevitable that in places like Shuhe the mule is now more part of local memory than present reality. As the interview reveals the journey was also quite a trial for both of them. It was very hard going and much of the former muleteering knowledge, such as how to effectively strap the loads onto the horses, was a bit rusty to say the least.

I recently (January 2011) returned to visit Lao Yang and was caught up in the sudden rush to process the dried corn for storage before the onset of rain. You never know what is going to happen out in the field but I was quite happy to play 'farmer' for an afternoon (actually more like 'farmer's wife' as Lao Yang insisted I wear his wife's hat so as not to get cold).

Lao Yang on steed feeling very good about himself. Maybe it has something to do with the mountain looming up out of the clouds or perhaps just the boardshorts.

I’m particularly fond of Lao Yang, he is quite a character. I’ll never forget the moment when half way up the ascent to Yak Meadow (牦牛坪, an important pasture and campsite for caravans in the past) changed his bland trousers for colourful boardshorts! And also the special moment in the majestic presence of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) where he suddenly mounted his horse and went into a long and excited speech about how proud his ancestors would be to know he was, like them, journeying on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. There is also so much to learn from a chap like Lao Yang as he is a wealth of information and knowledge about the region and its popular history. He spent much of his youth in the mountains searching for medicinal plants and to this day occasionally makes the journey to search out for special medicinal products for family, friends and long valued clients (some from as far away as Shanghai who, in the age of the mobile phone, send text messages with special requests). On our expedition he was constantly gathering mushrooms and wild berries and he would have spent much of the time climbing trees to get at them if it wasn’t for the time constraints.

The wild berries find that that are not safe with Lao Yang nearby.

A good juxtaposition of the new and old breed of horses. Quite a difference in size which on narrow and steep mountain trails is not without consequences.

The interview took place on the side of a boggy slope where we camped for the night after a grueling descent from Yak Meadow. Everyone was tired and miserable, and a bit wet, and I think Xiao He was having serious second thoughts about the entire undertaking. Xiao He was ostensibly the ‘Chief Muleteer’ (马锅头) but was finding the job extremely frustrating and difficult especially when Yang Xiao had to keep intervening to make sure the loads were strapped properly. Lao Yang was also a bit fatigued but still quite enthusiastic. He tells me that if given the opportunity he would do it all over again. Xiao He has said that muleteering is no longer in his blood and he prefers the civilised comforts of modern life – he’s quite content to lead the tourists around Shuhe and let them imagine their on the ‘real’ tea road. I would like to thank Deng Shumei (邓树梅) for transcribing the interview into Chinese characters and to Sarah Stanton for her excellent Chinese to English translation. There is still another interview with an old muleteer from Haba Village in the pipeline (Sarah?) and also a special interview with Ed and Yang Xiao that gives some insights into what they are attempting to achieve with their work. So please stay tuned!

The interview:

Gary: 今天特别辛苦啊。Today was pretty hard-going.

老杨:很辛苦, 但是收获也有:我们走老路,所有好看的,很多人看不到的东西, 我们都看到了。成千上万的人游览丽江,但是他们都看不到今天我们所看到的东西。

Lao Yang: Yes, but not without reward: in travelling along this ancient and beautiful road we have seen things many people will never see. So many people travel to Lijiang, but so few of them go out of their way to see the kinds of things we have seen today.

Gary: 你感觉怎么样?Did you enjoy yourself?

老杨:这样的感受, 对我们来说也是很好的, 但是对大多数人来说,包括纳西族, 他们认为这样太累了。但是我认为这样做可以锻炼自己的身体和意志。也看见了大好河山。丽江最高的那个山,今天我们爬了差不多4000米。而且今天我们走了比茶马古道还难走的路。

Lao Yang: Yes, I thought it was an amazing experience, although I know that most people, even the Naxi (纳西), would find it exhausting. But I think this is an excellent way to exercise my body and test my willpower, as well as an opportunity to see some truly beautiful scenery. Today we climbed Lijiang’s highest mountain [referring to the high pass not the peak], nearly 4,000 metres in height, as well as hiking in areas even rougher than the Ancient Tea Horse Road.

Gary: 说说你家的背景。Tell me a little about your family’s background.

老杨:从坟墓的历史记录来看,我们家住在束河有八,九代人了。明,清朝之前,纳西族人死后,直接埋葬遗体。清朝后,纳西族人死后, 是火化遗体,之后把骨灰放到火盆里或罐子里,再把他们埋了。明朝以前,束河人挖了一个古墓,就是把死人都埋在一起。

Lao Yang: From records on local tombs we know that our family has lived in Shuhe for eight or nine generations. Before the Ming [1368-1644] and Qing [1644-1911] dynasties, the Naxi simply buried their dead; following the Qing dynasty, the body was cremated and the ashes buried in a brazier or pot. The residents of Shuhe have also uncovered a pre-Ming communal tomb with several bodies interred together.

Gary: 你们家以前是做什么的?Tell me what kind of careers your ancestors held?

老杨:49年以前, 我爷爷的父亲,也就是我的祖父,说我爷爷有五个兄弟。我们纳西话ataimo,是对女性的尊称;amo是对男性的尊称。我们是父系,就是以父亲为主。我的奶奶,母亲和媳妇都是束河人。我的祖父,爷爷和父亲都是皮匠。他们在香格里拉,一个专门的纳西族村里缝制藏族的服饰和牦牛身上的疙瘩,就是今天的口袋。我父亲在香格里拉出生。他们也就住在中甸,用各种皮子手工制做服饰,靴子卖给藏族,因为他们不会做这些。我们和藏族是兄弟关系,也像他们的师傅。

Lao Yang: Before 1949, my great-grandfather, also known as my zufu or what we would call my amo, said my grandfather had five brothers. The Naxi word ataimo is a respectful name for a woman; amo is the equivalent for a man. We are a patrilineal people—that is to say, power in our society lies with the men. My paternal grandmother, mother and daughters-in-law are all from the Shuhe. My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all cobblers. In a Naxi village in Shangrila [Shangrila County] they sewed traditional Tibetan costumes. My father was born in Shangrila and lived and worked in Zhongdian [former place name for Shangrila, Gyalthang in Tibetan], where he hand-made fur clothing and boots to sell to the Tibetans, who could not make these items themselves. We regard the Tibetans as our brothers, and see ourselves as being mentors to them.

Gary: 那你们家在中甸还有亲戚吗?Do you still have relatives living in Shangrila?

老杨:有的。我们家族的也还有在那儿的。Yes, we still have extended relatives living there.

Gary: 你小时候有没有住在中甸?But you yourself did not grow up there, is that correct?

老杨:没有。我父亲47年就从中甸回束河了。回来后,48年就带领藏族骑壁队,参加游击队。丽江原来有13个县,有各自的游击队。后来都改编成中国人民解放军。改编成中国人民解放军后,我父亲请假回来, 就没有回去因为家里有他的爷爷,父亲没有人照顾。我祖父的兄弟,就是我爷爷的叔叔,也就是我的二祖父,是丽江最大的一个寺庙的第二主持人。他学了9年的藏族文化。我家二爷爷后来成为他的徒弟。我二爷爷是明国元年出生的,就是1912。1916年去了西藏。60年代回丽江因为那时中国不允许宗教信仰自由。

Lao Yang: No, I didn’t–my father returned from Shangrila to Shuhe in 1947. In 1948 he led a cavalry squadron and was part of a local guerrilla band. Lijiang originally had thirteen counties, each of which had its own guerrilla force. But after these bands were assimilated into the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, my father took leave from the army and did not return. As his own father was in charge of the household at Shangrila, he was not required to support or otherwise maintain the family there. My amo’s brother—my grandfather’s uncle, and also my second amo, is administrator for Lijiang’s biggest temple and has studied Tibetan culture for nine years. Afterwards, my second grandfather [grandfather’s brother] became his apprentice. My second grandfather was born in the first year of the Republic of China—1912. He went to Tibet in 1916 but returned to Lijiang in the 1960s because the Chinese government did not permit religious freedom at the time.

Gary: 你家也是束河的吗?你在束河很长时间了吗?So your family is also in Shuhe? How long have you been living there?

老杨:我是白沙的。I am from Baisha [Baisha is a cluster of villages not far from Shuhe. Baisha was once the centre of political power in the Lijiang basin and the home town of the Mu family clan].

Gary: 以前赶马帮是不是非常辛苦?Caravanning was a very difficult job in those days, wasn’t it?

老杨:是,可能半年不在家因为是从丽江走到西藏要三个月,三个月到了西藏, 休整几天, 把东西销售在那里, 再把那里的东西运回来。我家二爷爷是丽江最大的一个马帮的马哥头。就是明国时期,也就是洛克在丽江的时候, 我爷爷负责的那个马帮是最大的一个,但不是他的马帮,是帮别人管理的。那个马帮有三百多匹马。我二爷爷是马哥头。他有支配权:在路上,他要负责花多少钱买多少草,多少料,在哪里睡觉。我二爷爷是帮赖家赶马帮的。在丽江,雪,王,李,赖四大家族的马帮是最大的。在从丽江到西藏的路上,没有人敢抢他们的东西。即使土匪抢了他们的东西,他们也要把东西拿回来。

Lao Yang: Yes, you would be away from home for maybe half a year at a time! The journey between Lijiang and Tibet takes three months, you see. Once you arrived in Tibet, you would rest for a few days and sell the wares you had brought with you. Then you would head back west, loaded up with Tibetan produce. My family’s second grandfather was Lijiang’s biggest caravan master.  This was around the time the Republic of China was formed [1911], and also when Joseph Rock [Austrian-American botanist, explorer and scholar known as the ‘father of Naxi studies’] visited Lijiang. My second grandfather ran the biggest caravan, but it wasn’t his own; he was simply managing it for others. This caravan had over three hundred horses, with my second grandfather at its head. He had authority over the entire operation—any decisions regarding the purchase of hay and grain were his responsibility, as were the decisions on when and where to make camp and rest. In Lijiang, the four big families—Xue, Wang, Li and and Lai—had the largest caravans. On the road between Lijiang and Tibet, nobody dared to rob them. Even if they were attacked by bandits, they were usually able to protect their goods.

Gary: 那四个家族现在还在吗?Are those four families still around?


Lao Yang: Xue, Li and Lai are. But I’m not sure what they are doing these days. Most of their property was confiscated during the forming of the People’s Republic of China.

Gary: 以前他们可能是地主,大地主。But before that they were large property owners?


Lao Yang: I believe so. Back then we used hempen rugs brought back by the caravanners from Tibet to cover our bedclothes. These were woven in the style of the time—that is to say, in horizontal straight lines. We had locally made rugs too, of course, but the Tibetan ones were made of better materials.

Gary: 以前就是马帮把本地的东西运到西藏, 在把西藏的东西买回丽江卖。So back then, the caravanners would take goods from Lijiang to Tibet, and then return to Lijiang with goods they had bought in Tibet to sell.

老杨:除了地毯还有很多东西。还有印度的东西:印度当时做的水果糖,一种叫黄十字的香烟。Yes. They brought back many things apart from the rugs. Indian goods, for instance; Indian fruit candy, and a brand of cigarettes called Yellow Cross.

Gary: 今天我看见你骑着马很潇洒, 是不是?I noticed today that you are a very skilled and natural horserider.

老杨:我们也是苦中有乐。Well, you know what they say—there’s joy in adversity!

Gary: 他们现在这次是来探路因为大家都不熟悉这条路。So today was an attempt at pathfinding, because you’re not too familiar with this road.

小何:昨天走的那条路太不好走了。没法走,真的。Yes, the path we chose yesterday was far too rough. There was no way we could use it.

老杨:今天走到了最高的地方,看到了好风景。And today we’ve arrived at the highest point and can observe the local scenery.

小何:这几天特别的心情不好。Morale has been low these last few days.

老杨:因为我们的心情跟你们的有点不一样。我们怕我们的马出问题。马是我们谋生的工具。怕他们出问题, 钱是一小点。

Lao Yang: Because we have to concern ourselves with things you don’t worry about. We were anxious that there could be a problem with the horses. Horses are our livelihood! If anything were to happen to them, we would no longer be able to earn money. [Lao Yang and Xiao He offer horse rides to tourists in Shuhe].


Lao Yang: Yes, horses are our livelihood. We are always afraid of them dying; if we cannot buy another horse that will cause problems for us. So of course we are nervous. I think most people would no longer dare to attempt this road—it would be too rough on them. People’s living standards have improved so much since the old days; they don’t have any incentive to hike on rough roads like these. They think hard work damages the body and mind. Even my friends call me up from time to time and ask me what I think I’m achieving, putting myself through this!

Gary: 你觉得呢?Do you agree with them?

老杨:我不觉得的。我觉得走这条路很好。我以前走了很多路:走到西藏,过了草地,也过了雪山,但是是20,30年以前的事了。现在再走一次这条路也还可以。我们也要学习一下你们澳大利亚那个70多岁的老人。他都不说辛苦, 我们说辛苦还早着呢因为我差不多48岁,比他小二十多岁。二十几年后,我们不一定能像他一样能走这条路了。经历了困苦,在遇到困难也不怕了。没有经历磨难,骄生惯养,遇见困难时就不知所措了。所以经历一些辛苦,困难,经历一下心跳也是很好的;磨练一下自己的意志。

Lao Yang: No, I don’t. I love travelling along this old road. I did a lot of trekking in my youth—and not just to Tibet, but also to the grasslands and the snowfields up in the mountains. But that was twenty or thirty years ago. Now, hiking on a road like this is just fine. We should take a leaf out of that old Canadian man’s book. He’s not complained of tiredness even once, and we have felt our own exhaustion all the more keenly because of it. I’m nearly forty-eight, more than twenty years younger than him—I’m not sure that I’d be able to hike this sort of terrain when I got to his age. It’s been just as hard on him as us, but he’s faced it unafraid. And I think that if you never experience hardship in your life you will be proud and spoiled, and when you do finally encounter difficulties or problems you will not know what to do. So it is good to experience a little hardship, a little difficulty, a little fear—it will only make you more determined.

Gary: 你觉得茶马古道遗产怎么样?如果其消失了,你觉得可惜吗?What about the legacy of the Ancient Tea Horse Road? How would you feel if it were to disappear?


Lao Yang: It would be such a shame. Our previous generation travelled this road, as we did in our time; and now here we are, travelling it again. Unfortunately, my first time wasn’t of much use, since I was a farmer and didn’t have any way of recording my journey. This time we have a greater knowledge base and the ability to record what we experience here.

小何:现在在束河牵马的人可以说是只有我们两个在走茶马古道了。其他说走茶马古道都是骗人的。We are the only two horse riders at Shuhe who still travel on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is lying to you.


Lao Yang: Not that we’re calling all of the horse riders in Shuhe liars! But it’s true that none of them have really travelled the Ancient Tea Horse Road. They go to the parts of Shuhe which have beautiful scenery, or areas of cultural significance; they go to see old houses or lakes and rivers; after all, Shuhe and its surroundings are very beautiful. Both Shuhe and the Ancient Tea Horse Road have several thousand years of history.

Gary: 以后还走不走茶马古道?Do you think you will continue travelling on the Ancient Tea Horse Road?

老杨:肯定走嘛!但是要走茶马古道的话,我就不养这些大马了。我就改养小马。养个滇马。Of course! Though if we want to take it seriously, we should stop raising these large horses, and switch to raising dian horses [‘Dian’ is another term for ‘Yunnan’].

Gary: 所以养滇池马有好处嘛。So Dianchi horses have their advantages.


Lao Yang: Some people [referring to the tourists] like big horses; they say the dian horses are too small. But I think the best horse riders like small horses, although of course that’s not true all of the time. Tall men do not necessarily like big horses; short men and women do not necessarily like small horses. There are plenty of people who only want to ride a horse once, for the experience. If we’re talking people about our age, they’ll want to ride a big horse, right? The horse-holders usually ask 20 kuai, even though most tourists would pay twice that much. That’s just how tourists are. But timid young girls won’t ride big horses.

Gary: 走茶马古道还是骑小马,滇池马啊。But small horses, these dian horses, are better for riding on the Ancient Tea Horse Road?


Gary: 现在你们家不养骡子了,是不是?Your family also rears mules, correct?

老杨:没有养了。No, not anymore.

小何:以前我养骡子。七,八年前,我养过。但是有骑马的游客后,我就不养骡子了。有些小女孩知道是骡子,有的就哭起来了因为骡子很倔强(不听话)。在束河,我算是较早养马的人了。We used to, maybe seven or eight years ago. But when tourists arrived wanting to ride horses, we stopped. Some girls would recognise their mount as a mule, and some would start crying because mules are stubborn and won’t take orders. I was actually one of the first people in Shuhe to turn to raising horses.

Gary: 现在养骡子没有什么商业,是不是?But now there’s not much profit to be had from raising mules, is that it?


Lao Yang: Before Shuhe opened up, my family raised mares and bred mules from them. We continued for more than ten years, maybe even twenty years. We would have one mule born every year. Lijiang has a mule trade fair, so we could go and sell our mules there.

Gary: 那交易会是不是一年有一次,还是有几次?Is this mule trade fair a once a year event, or does it take place several times a year?

老杨:一年有两次,3月份一次,7月份一次。It takes place twice a year, once in March and once in July.

Gary: 像大理的三月街。Sounds like Dali’s Third Month Street Festival. [See my report on the famous Dali Third Month Street Festival here].


Lao Yang: A little, but the main purpose of that festival is for the purchase and selling of goods; our trade fair is specifically for mules. Lijiang’s mule and horse trade fairs are organised by the local farmers and are very widespread. They were even around in Locke’s time, although they’re slowly disappearing now. There isn’t the interest there once was.