The China Blog


“Will there be war between China and America?”

We stood on a pier in Chongqin, ancient Chinese capital turned neon Yangtze wonderland located in Sichuan province.  Well, Zen would point out, not exactly Sichuan province.  Chongqin was given special administrative district status in 1997 freeing the city of 18 million from paying tribute to the central government.  The hilly city, where Chiang Kai-shek hid his forces in the Sino-Japanese War (World War II), now sports skyscrapers fitted with dazzling computerized light shows.  Below these towers of Xanadu glitzy showboats ply the clay red waters of the Yangtze in a highly coordinated spectacle.  Vegas on steroids.

Zen shouted “It’s better to go!” Better than talking to the two guys that stopped Jenelle and me on the pier. One wore his shirt hiked high revealing a rounded belly.  This style is common in summertime China and is reserved almost exclusively for out of shape men.  The other man looked weathered from sun and work and wore a couple buttons open on his designer knock-off shirt.  “Meiguoren?” (“Americans?”)  I nodded.

“Will there be war between China and America?”   

The man took a long drag on his cigarette and looked at me from under his straight bangs while Zen translated. “War?” I pondered.  Trying to channel the levity of the LED carnival around us I responded:

“Even if there is war, you and I will still be friends!”

Zen translated and the man looked at me gravely. He was clearly channeling a different type of light show. He shook his head slowly from side to side. “Obama needs to move those ships. Tell him to move those ships.”

Admittedly I had only stayed marginally aware of the South China Seas tension but had seen coverage on various televisions we passed.  This was definitely an item in China.

“There won’t be war,” I assured the man.  “China and America need each other too much.”

As if to underscore my reassurance, the man gathered Jenelle and me next to his friend for a picture.  My suggestion we all bare our bellies was roundly rejected.

But we parted friends.



“I think it’s like the French, ce soir…” 

“Yes, but with a ‘ts’ sound in front…”

Seven of us stood in the bathroom line at a Tibetan restaurant practicing our Chinese.

“Like swa, from swan.”

A family sat in the adjacent dining room taking us in with smiles.  Other than us the place was stone quiet.

Cèsuǒ…Cè…suǒ,”  Yeah, that’s right. “Cèsuǒ, Cèsuǒ!”   We chanted the word repeatedly with increasing vigor, bobbing our heads in unison, feeling good we were getting it.

Then it dawned on me.  “Um, you guys realize we’re standing here shouting toilet in Chinese?”

The group has had countless fun moments. And in the coming days we would test the mettle of our collective with a 4am hike to a remote part of the Great Wall, a night sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder on a kang stove in a rural homestay and a 1,000 step descent into a coal mine – each of us dressed in full miner regalia. We’d end this leg of the trip on a night train heavy with the odors of old socks and ripe underarms.

“Jim, it’s 4am.”  John was sleeping next to me on the kang, a large flat platform built above a fire chamber used for cooking and sleeping.  We are in Hebei province outside of Beijing.  I stumbled to the outdoor ce soir and balanced precipitously on the edge of a platform above the humanure pile likely used to fertilize the vegetables we’d eaten the night before. A small dog on a short leash yapped incessantly.  Above me apricots appeared in the dim light from my phone amidst the sounds of the faculty gathering.  We walked single file through town as we began our ascent. Stepping lightly through corn fields, with the morning dew dampening our shoes, we soon bordered tall earthen masses –  preface to the Great Wall ahead.

Mr. Zhou led the country leg of our tour.  A local of these parts, Mr. Zhou knew where to eat, sleep and find palatable bathrooms for Americans.  Or not.  Depending.  Tram and Grace, our Beijing leaders, brought up the rear.  I hung at the back to get shots of the growing wall in front of us.  The grade steepened and little puffs of red dust rose with each person’s footfall as morning began to lighten the sky.

“This part of the wall is Ming dynasty.  Bricks were made from rammed earth in wooden forms,” Joyce, our go-to colleague on Chinese history. “Many workers died and were buried in the wall.”  The towers grow massive and we clamber up a makeshift path to the ridge.  Steep drops greet us on both sides and the ground is peppered with goat droppings.  Further down the path we stop and survey the valley below. A line of us join Jennifer M. in a sun salutation. The sun part of the sunrise, however, was masked by an insistent white fog that had insinuated itself into every cranny of the landscape.  These morning mists never burned off.  It was straight up pollution.  Even out here in the countryside.


Despite such negatives, it’s hard not to love China.  Buried in its contrasts of rich and poor, modesty and brusqueness, openness and control, the heart of China beats warmly and loudly.

The people are wonderful, even when they’re not.  The food is delicious, even when it isn’t.  The government is benevolent, though it still represses.  The whole thing works – but you can’t believe it possibly could.

Sorting through all the forces of China could take many lifetimes.  For now, we were content to stand atop the mighty border fence of yore, thinking of emperors and workers and a billion clay bricks and a billion Chinese and a billion beautiful feelings for the crazy-strange magical land spread out before us.

More soon.




In the land of Confucian filial piety and single-child families, being gay vibrates at a different frequency than in many other countries.  Honoring your ancestors, reproducing and fitting into rigid social norms put special pressures on gay Chinese kids. Nobody knows this landscape better than of one the young chroniclers of queer life in China, documentary filmmaker Fan Popo.

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Popo showed up in our classroom with a film crew in tow.  Not his, but an online magazine covering his work.  One might expect a lofty self-opinion with such an entrance, but sporting chipped red nail polish and a slight stoop from life on the keyboard, Popo took the dais and won us over with a generous smile and modest comportment.

“They beat my son until he was bloody,” a fierce mother in Popo’s film Mama Rainbow describes the bullying of her son in a Chinese high school.  “They wanted to send him away from the school.  And there was no punishment for the students who beat him.  I would not stand for it.”  This touching work is simple in structure, just mothers and their queer kids talking.  But pair after pair remind us that love between parent and child trumps Confucius and begs to differ with Chinese heteronormative conformity.

Gay life is steadily improving in China.  Being gay was removed from the official Chinese list of psychiatric disorders in 2001 and the anti-hooligan law that was once used to stop gay organizations from meeting is now rarely enforced.  But gay Chinese are not equal yet.  A couple who recently sued to have their marriage recognized was rebuffed by the courts.  And while attitudes are shifting, street interviews in another of Popo’s films chart the rigid lines between the educated and the ignorant.

In a sweet bit of irony the Chinese word tongzhi (comrade), traditionally used by the communist party, now refers to gays and lesbians.  With the dedicated work of brave people like Fan Popo one hopes the Long March of the Tongzhi won’t be that long after all.

Check out Mama Rainbow here:



Like academic superfriends each of my colleagues from Union College brings their special talent to bear in China. Have a question about the projections outside a subway car window, grey birds in the park, scientific formulae written across a pedestrian bridge or even the chemical composition of Febreze?  There is always a professor ready with the answer.

Armed with white notebooks and black ballpoints we take our seats in a small, humid classroom in Beijing’s Minzu University, a school known for ethnic minority students.  Before us parades an array of superhero lecturers:  A lawyer suing polluters, an activist documenting incinerator fly ash, a queer filmmaker with stories of Chinese gay rights, a tall American Phd. candidate who has mastered Tuvan throat singing. After their talks a minibus carts us from restaurants (Manchurian, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uighur) to site visits.  We go from Friends of Nature, an environmental NGO where staff sport animal names (Tibetan Antelope received us) to a migrant workers’ outreach and support center, where wrenching tales of poor health, industrial accidents and suicide plaster the walls of a makeshift museum.

The broad scope of our study tour – social Justice and sustainability – affords a big picture view of the state of contemporary China.  With 1.3 billion souls, a monster economy and 56 official ethnic groups, understanding China is no small task.  The monolithic and homogenous metrics employed by Westerners to size up China fail to account for the diversity of culture, thought and practice.  The vitriol of a Donald Trump ignores China as a land of people who breathe, eat and bleed.

“They jumped because they believed their lives had no value.”  Liang Lu, coal miner turned folk singer, points to a picture of a body in mid air.  Liang walks us though the Migrant Worker’s Cultural Center on the outskirts of Beijing.  He speaks about Foxconn, an industrial park employing hundreds of thousands of workers, where 14 young people committed suicide by jumping from upper stories.  These tragedies recall the Gilded Age’s labor abuses.  Many in China works long hours, often with few days off.  Workers at Foxconn sleep in company dorms and shop the company store. The center we are visiting is a small ray of hope for a few migrant families in Beijing. They run a school, thrift store and are pleased to speak about the concerts they have been giving.


“I don’t tell my family where I am going.”  Li Wen tells us of her work monitoring garbage incinerators.  Large cities like Chengdu in Sichuan (14 million people) burns 100% of its garbage, pumping huge amounts of dioxin into the air.  Bottom ash left after incineration is often dumped in farm land.  Hong Kong’s dystopic-named Everbright International trumpets on its website, “The Safeguard of Environmental and Social Responsibility.”  As a huge polluter in China, their claim is absurd.  Everbright recently received a $2.4 billion loan to construct more incinerators.  Li Wen said she has never been harassed, but is mindful of the potential dangers of poking around these plants.  We all feel she is incredibly brave.

While these tales may appear woefully dark, one of the recurring blessings of our study tour is that all is not lost in China. Altering deep systemic arrangements appears a big part of the solution.  For example, China has had strong environmental laws on the books since 1979.  But most enforcement power was left in the hands of local officials who often see environmental laws as enemies of growth and wealth. The central party, recognizing the need for change, recently elevated the Minister of Environment to a cabinet position and  put in place a new system that will hold local officials accountable for pollution.

Back at Friends of Nature, Tibetan Antelope runs us through current environment litigation in China.  The organization’s strategy is to find friendly courts and run precedent setting cases through them.  So far, Tibetan Antelope beams, they’ve had no losses.  Our group applauds in relief.  Maybe there is hope.

We drive out beyond the edge of Beijing.  The temperature is cooler and the sky not so hazy.  Down a long drive we arrive at the Little Donkey Farm, an organic farm that rents plots community garden style to Beijingers.  The farm spans many acres and the tightly knit plots all seem very well maintained.  The founder explains plastic is not allowed on the ground and they weave baskets for carrying vegetables from roadside irises.  Beyond the edge of the farm encroaching smokestacks and apartment blocks are visible.


The advance of development is certainly fierce in China.  But with organizations like the Little Donkey Farm and the Friends of Nature and with systemic changes in the government there seems to be a peaceful feeling that while there is much work to be done, change is underway.

Our adventure will soon continue with a trip to coal mine, a 1,600 year old Buddhist grotto and a hike to a remote corner of the Great Wall.  Stay tuned.



IMG_3511.JPGMy plan was simple.  Get to the Zǐjinchéng (The Forbidden City) right before opening. Beat the crowds and walk the empty grounds as would Puyi (the last emperor) on a morning stroll.

Of course, Puyi never took the Beijing subway.  I descended the black stone steps and hit the ticket machine, with its little “English” button in the left-hand corner.  Pick your destination, pop in 4 yuan (60 cents!) and a ticket drops below.  Every subway stop has a bag x-ray and several dispassionate guards in one-size-fits all uniforms checking their cell phones and occassionally looking up to make sure the system is safe.

When I arrived at the Tiananmen West station, I immediately knew my plan for imperial domination had failed.  I and about 30,000 other people had arrived for the first ticket of the day.  The line to go through Tinanmen security went for a hundred meters.

What would Puyi do?  Of course, he’d hop a eunuch uber – the mighty sedan chair, shouldered by sexless males over marble dragons to the inner court at the north of the city. I was on foot and my guidebook map told me a small park ran alongside the madding crowds.  I craned my neck around the door.  Yes, empty. I paid the 10 yuan and began my adventure.


Zhongzhan Park  is named after revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen, who led the overthrow of the Ching dynasty in 1911. He became the first president of the Republic of China (still the name Tawain uses in its claim as the legitimate government of all China.) While young Puyi was allowed to remain in the Forbidden City, the outer court and the parks outside the walls were stripped of their imperial mantles.  When Sun Yat-Sen died, as a refresher to the nation that Ching had ended, his body was ceremoniously put on public display in the park’s Hall of Prayer.

Are those fish?  A row of 30 aquariums carved deep into the outside wall of a long colonnade read as living TV screens. Puyi does Suess. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish… The corridor opened to a formation of volcanic rock and cedars, deliberate, organic and beguiling all at once. I passed the gold-leafed Hall of Earth and Grain and located the path to the Forbidden City.

At the time of the revolution blood from the Boxer Rebellion had not quite dried.  The anti-Christian, pro-dynasty movement a decade prior must have given the revolutionaries pause.   Wary of dynastic support, the revoutionaries allowed Puyi to remain in the Forbidden City. For over a decade Puyi maintained the inner court with its private opera house, maze-like rock gardens and oversized jade statuary.  Then he was kicked out.

Well, nobody was getting kicked out today.  The mobs came in swells like wilderbeast on the plain. Viewed from the side, this great migration stayed in a straight swath twenty deep. Up from the south entrance to the north exit they went, without diverting to see the famous porcelain dragons or hall of clocks.


After a few hours I needed water.  “Where you from?” A woman at the cafe/gift shop smiled at me.  She must want me to buy stuff.  “New York.”  “You’d better come now, she advised, before the tourist crowds arrive so you can look at some typical Chinese watercolors. Very affordable.”   Before they arrive?! Oh no!

I escaped and found my way to a quiet arrangement of buildings.  The GPS-driven audio guide kicked in.  “The Well of the Concubine. Empress Dowager Cixi had the Emporer’s concubine drowned in this well as enemy forces approached Beijing.  Later the body was retrieved and given a proper burial…”  I peered into the well and looked to my right to see an old woman dressed in purple embroidered silk. She was looking at me and when I Nihaoed her she smiled demurely and bowed her head, but only slightly. She slowly drifted away and stopped at a rose bush.  She turned in my direction again, met my eyes and then looked to the ground.  A few moments later she had vanished.

I walked out to the main square.  The stream of tourists kept flowing.   Workers carried long steel poles and dropped them hard on the hot flagstones.  The clang echoed off the tile roofs above.  A little boy with an ice cream and Mickey Mouse hat stood open mouthed, taking in my non-Chinese face.  I remembered my grandmother: “Close your mouth, you’ll catch flies.”  I smiled at the boy.  He did a 180, madly looking for a parent.

Little Emperor, I thought.

I found my way to the audio guide return.  I merged into the surge of exiting tourists and was swept out of through the Gate of Obedience and Purity into a sea of selfies. A few people wanted a picture with me (Ah, fame!)   Then I found a little hole in the wall restaurant in the hutong.  Some teenagers were eating dinner and playfully poked fun at my few words of Mandarin.  Then I went back to the hotel and hit the hay, happy to have wandered in Puyi’s house.

But tomorrow, I thought,  the crew arrives and the trip will change course.  Very exciting.




“We can’t ask old people.”

Max and Rae stood at the end of a hallway of the Vienna Hotel.  The restaurant had been a perfect place to shoot but an event in the lobby started blaring horrible pop tunes.  We packed up our equipment and settled for this location.

“They are closer to dying than we are.  We can’t ask them.”

“Maybe that is precisely why you should ask them,” I offered.

Both of the young women’s eyes widened.  “We can try,” said Max.  Rae nodded in agreement.

Rae and Max are filmmaking students of mine from Union.  They’ve shown a penchant for quirky pieces and this one would fit right in.  Our aim: to make a film along the lines of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s 1961 classic Chronique d’un Été, in which two young women went round Paris asking passerbys simply, “Are you happy?”

But Max and Rae would probing a subject that inspires mountains of superstition in China.

“We will ask them: Are you afraid of death?” said Rae. “And I know where we should film it.”


Yuanmingyuan Park was the original summer palace for the Qing Dynasty, the last dynasty of China before the revolution in 1911.  The site covers 860 acres of lakes, gardens and palace ruins.  British and French troops looted and burned the summer palace during the Second Opium War in 1860 and again in 1900.  The ruins are left as a symbol of the perils of colonialism and the aggressiveness of marauding foreign powers.

“It’s perfect,” I said.

In Chronique d’un Été, the camera surreptitiously views the action from across the street or behind a bush.  I told Max and Rae this wouldn’t work here.  “People notice me immediately.”  My point was soon proven.

The family sat under a row of linden trees along a lotus flower canal.  Dark skin, straw hats, sharp voices.  “You want to give them a try?” I nudged my hesitant students.

“I don’t think they speak Mandarin.  Probably from the south somewhere….and the father is very old.”

“Go on.  Try.”

With trepidation they advanced, steeling themselves for an awkward exchange.  But before they got far, the family met them in the end zone.  They had surrounded me.  The old father grabbed my hand and struck a pose for the cell phone camera his son aimed in our direction. Soon everyone was around me for the picture.  It is in these moments the celebrity a Westerner sometimes feels in China can easily swell the head.  When the smiling clan receeded I turned to Max and Rae. “Okay. Now go ask them about death.”


It is said that when Yuanmingyuan Park was destroyed over 300 eunechs and ladies-in-waiting burned to death in the conflagration. Unbeknownst to the English and French troops they had hidden in the bowels of dozens of buildings spread across the sprawling pleasure garden. Today, little electric trams take visitors to the site of the heaviest destruction. Following an older man with a big camera we stepped off the boardwalk into the marble ruins of one of the great halls. Teetering Ionic columns underscore the irony of the architectural homage paid the pillaging Western powers by Emporer Qianlong, under whose commission the park was greatly expanded.

My students approached the man.  Before they could ask him, he began showing them double exposures he’d been secretly making of them with lotus flowers.

Then Rae began:  “Are you afraid of death?”  I wondered if the man thought they were about to kill him.

He spoke for a while and then suddenly started pointing at me.  Max explains, “He used to work for the government and he is worried what he said could get him in trouble. He wants take two.”  And then he spoke freely for several minutes about his coming demise.

“Funny,” said Max. “The older people seem more comfortable talking about death.  This is not what we expected.”

“They have seen more of it,” I said.  “They are more used to it than people your age.”

“Very interesting.”

After a walk through a 19th century maze, in which I met an old man with gentle eyes who had “never met a foreigner,” we reboarded the tram.  The sky had darkened and thunder rumbled in the air. As drops pelted the ground we were spirited away.  Back to the city of the living and away from the marble monuments of the departed.


Opening Photo:  Felice Beato (British, 1832-1909), Yuanmingyuan before the burning, Peabody Essex Museum


Touch Down

I arrived in Beijing a few days early.  Next week begins a study tour for 14 members of the faculty at the college where I teach. But first I wanted to explore Beijing on my own.

I ditched my bags at the hotel and headed out, landing myself at a random spot in central Beijing. Before me was the Donghuangchenggen Bieijie, a long narrow park that follows part of the footprint of the now demolished Ming Dynasty city walls.  I picked up a piece of curry chicken from a street vendor and started to meander down the path.


During my last trip to China I came to understand that stern looks were often a sign of curiosity, not unfriendliness.  So I met any glances with nihao (hello) and a smile.  I sat with a few people and tried my pathetic few words of Mandarin. (I learned using Pimsleur – which I now know is designed for business people looking for fun.  Lesson three: “Would you like to have a drink?”)

After walking several blocks of crepe myrtle, roses and hosta, I came on a plaza with lots of parents and toddlers.  Diapers are not big here and toddlers will often go altogether bottomless or have an opening in the back of their pants for easy delivery.  A father was walking with his bottomless son and the boy looked up at me and said, “Ya ya.” This means “uncle” but is meant as a term of endearment for adults who are not, in fact, your uncle.  I was honored.  I continued on my way stopping here and there to meet people.  I was feeling welcome and at home.

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Old stone buildings on the next street piqued my interest and I veered off the park into a neighboring hutong.  The hutongs are the old Beijing neighborhoods in which siheyuan (courtyard residences) are lined along narrow alleys.  Each siheyuan is composed of a small group of individual houses arranged around a central courtyard.  There is one door from the courtyard to the public alley.  I have heard that these low-rise neighborhoods keep vanishing to high rises, highways and the like.

In the hutong, as in many neighborhoods in China, life is lived on the streets.  Dinner, dance practice, games of mahjong – all is often right in the open. That accessibility to peoples’ lives is one of the things I love about China.



It was getting dark and I was getting hungry.  I had a Sichuan dinner in a small restaurant and enjoyed a phrase book conversation with the owner, who insisted we take pictures together.  Then I found myself at a corner of the Forbidden City.


Several fishermen were pointing lasers in the water, I presume as lures.  It seems in Beijing it is acceptable for men, of any age or girth, to roll up their shirt to expose their mid-rifts.  Each fishermen proudly displayed his belly as did the rollerblading stunt dude in the plaza behind me.  I walked along the big red wall of the Forbidden City and noticed a young guy staring intently at me.  I went over and said hello.  We struggled in a mix of English and Mandarin.

“Where you come from?”

Wǒ shì měiguórén” (I’m American.)

“I went Los Angeles. Nice time.”

We stopped in front of the southern gate to the Forbidden City and he insisted on taking my picture.  We kept walking together, smiling and joking.  Then I thought, ah Pimsleur!

“Would you like to get a drink?”

No cabs about, but Felix (he wouldn’t tell me his Chinese name) grabbed a motorcycle taxi. This is cool, I thought.  The driver was slim and wore a shirt which said in ridiculous English: “Think Left Heart.  It is the most com.”  He donned shiny leather shoes which he displayed by sitting side-saddle, his legs elegantly crossed near the open door.


Felix and I sat and had a drink.  Then he touched my wedding band.  “You married?”

“I am.”

“Not single.”


He suddenly looked horribly dejected. I showed him a picture of my husband, who is Chinese, thinking this fact would somehow cheer him up.  “Oh.”  He looked away.  Time to go, I thought.  I said my goodnight, gave him a hug and headed to a nearby subway stop.

I was exhausted.  Jet lag knocked me to my hotel bed and I slept soundly until 4:45 the next morning.  Ah, jet lag.

The next day I would meet two of my students from school.  We had conspired to make a short film asking people on the street about death.

More on that soon.