Your humble author

Back in China

I just couldn’t keep away.

For the last couple of years I have been in London, running literary interviews for the curation website Five Books. (China-related ones include Ma Jian, Orville Schell and Jeff Wasserstrom.)

Now I’m back for the long run, living in Beijing and writing freelance, as correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books among more long-term projects. I will also be blogging again – but not here.

My new space on the web is the Anthill. Whereas on this blog I followed the lives of six young Chinese friends for two years, on the Anthill I will be posting a more occasional and eclectic mix. The focus is narrative writing, which is the kind I most enjoy. There will be stories and snapshots from Chinese society – especially young China, ever my beat – but also fiction, satire, and oral history.

The Anthill is also an experiment in group blogging. It’s an “open blog”, where anyone can submit a story from or on China. So there will be posts from other like-minded writers too, alongside mine and edited by me.

So, please follow me at the Anthill (RSS: http://theanthill.org/rss.xml), and on Twitter @alecash, where I also post links to my articles elsewhere – like yesterday’s dispatch in the Economist from Tongren, or my profile of a Tibetan friend there which featured as a chapter in the book of reportage Chinese Characters.

Oh, is anyone there, by the way? If you still have this feed on RSS, dead wood for two years, your faith has been rewarded by one last hurrah! If you’re following a link, please do look at the archived posts below (my six most read posts are in the left sidebar), for a snapshot of student China from 2008 to 2010.

The blog is dead. Long live the blog.

Postcard from Xinjiang

Only a postcard, and not a letter, as I’m a bit pressed for time. But who writes letters anymore?

Here’s the front of my postcard, a quick snap I took surreptitiously out the window of my cab. (The characters on the truck – more likely PAP than PLA? – read “The happiness of the ethnic people is our desire”.)

Army truck in Xinjiang

The stamp mark in dated Kashgar, 25th June. Not bad for the mail to arrive only a few days later, right?

On the back I scribble in a spidery, cramped scrawl:

That truck is part of China’s crackdown in advance of the one year anniversary of Xinjiang’s July 5th riots. The nerviness this kind of police presence creates reminds me strongly of Tongren, the Tibetan town with it’s own history of unrest, where I’ve just come from. But don’t think too much of it: for most of the population, life goes on just as it did before and will after. It’s a beautiful corner of the world, where the sun sets at 10pm (I should be two or three timezones before Beijing) and the old town feels more like my imagination of Persia than my experience of China. Maybe that’s why the truck is there. Wish you were here.

Now think of the act of blogging as me leaving the address space blank, and instead glueing the postcard to the back of every computer connected to the internet in the world, should the user have the curiosity to look for it.

Here we are, June 4th, again. The first thing to say, to Chinese readers, is that we will not forget those who died on the night of June 3rd, 1989 … and nor do we apologise for keep bringing it up. On Danwei I’ve written a piece comparing the class of ’89 with the class of 2010 in Peking University, if you’re curious – but that’s not the meat of this post.

This is an essay I wrote for my Chinese language school in Beijing, IUP, as my end-of-term exam. My teacher and I had been looking at Chen Duxiu‘s essays in the early [20th] century magazine New Youth. Here I look at one essay in particular, in which Chen appeals to China’s youth to stand up, and tie it briefly to both the May 4th movement and 1989 demonstrations. I thought I’d publish it here – feel free to pick holes in my Chinese!





首先,我错了:当年该杂志还称为《青年杂志》,1916年由于跟其他杂志同名改为《新青年》。但愿改变青年的本质象改变杂志的名字那么简单。陈独秀所追求的理想恰恰是这样的一个新时代的年轻人 - 一个愿意奋斗和打破旧思想的时代。在上述的创刊文章《警告青年》里,他把反对孔教、礼法、贞节、甚至国粹的青年比喻为“新鲜活泼细胞之在人身”,把支持旧伦理、旧政治的老年人比喻为腐烂细胞。 在社会所谓的“新陈代谢”里,他接着说,这些“陈腐朽败者无时不在天然淘汰之途,与新鲜活泼者以空间之位置及时间之生命。”然而这个“天然”的过程好像也要多少人工的帮助:陈先生呼吁青年来“力排陈腐朽败者以去”。如果他们“利刃断铁,快刀理麻,决不作牵就依违之想,”那么“社会庶几其有清宁之日也”。


1919年5月4号一些大学生(北大学生带了头)集合在天安门广场上。原因在于中国政府对凡尔赛和约的软弱反应,结果当时的政府失去了所有的信用。这一天就是五四运动的高潮,而不失为对现代中国有深刻影响的一天 - 中国的青年站起来了。通过三十年的混乱和内战,陈独秀所力求的清宁日子可能到来了:1949年10月1号。但是陈先生享受不了这一天,因为首先他1942年去世了,其次他1929和他以前强烈支持的公产党分道扬镳(从《告全党同志书》 这篇文章可以看出来他的不满)。

假如陈先生1949年还活着,我认为他依旧不会相信这一天到了。因为在《警告青年》里他抱着颇悲观的态度:虽然这些青年看起来很强,但是“及叩其头脑中所涉想,所怀抱,无一不与彼陈腐朽败者为一丘之貉”。更有甚者,他对自己的寻找, 自己的呼吁,没有自信: “求些少之新鲜活泼者,以慰吾人窒息之绝望,亦杳不可得”。然而不仅仅是1919年的事情证明他错了。。。。。。




On September 15th, 1915, in the opening essay of New Youth magazine, Chen Duxiu writes:

“Youth are like the early spring, like the morning sun, like the blooming grass, like the sharp blade fresh off the grinding stone; youth is the most valuable time of life.”

Mr Chen, you’re too kind. I’ll do my best to treasure this valuable time – to use the opportunity when my blade is at its sharpest, when my sun is at its brightest, to analyse and shed light on what you write.

First off, I was wrong: in 1915 the magazine was still called Youth. It changed its name to New Youth in 1916, due to another magazine having the same name. If only changing the nature of youth was as easy as changing a magazine name. For what Chen Duxiu was striving for was precisely a new generation of young people – a generation willing to struggle and break down the old modes of thought. In the essay I mention above, ‘Advice [literally warning] for youth,’ Chen’s metaphor for the youth who oppose Confucian teachings, concepts of ritual, chastity, even the very ‘essence of China’, is “fresh, vigourous cells inside the human body”, and he compares old people who support the old theories and politics to rotten cells.

In this so-called ‘metabolism’ of society, he continues, these “rotten, corrupted cells at all times, by the process of natural selection, give space to stand and time to live in to the fresh, vigourous cells”. However this “natural” process, it seems, still needs a little human help: Chen appeals to the youth to “vigourously drive out those rotten, corrupted cells”. If “their blade is sharp enough to cut iron and hemp, [and they] don’t follow other’s lead or hesitate in thought”, then “maybe society will arrive at a peaceful day”.

Did society arrive at this peaceful day after all?

On May 4th, 1919, students (led by Beida students) gathered on Tiananmen square. The reason: the Chinese government’s weak reaction to the Versailles treaty. The result: the government of the time lost all credibility. That day was the ‘high tide’ of the May Fourth movement, a day with a deep impact on China – China’s youth had stood up. Thirty years of chaos and civil war later, the day Chen Duxiu strove for had (maybe) arrived: 1st October, 1949. But Chen couldn’t enjoy that day: for one, he died in 1942, but he had also split paths in 1929 with the Communist Party he formerly supported so strongly (we can see his discontent in this essay).

Supposing Mr Chen was still alive in 1949, I think he still wouldn’t have believed the day he sought had arrived. Because his attitude in ‘Advice to youth’ was rather pessimistic: even if the youth seem to be strong, if you “knock on their heads to see what they think and believe in, there’s not one who isn’t of the same ilk as those rotten, corrupted cells”. Even more so, he had no belief in his own search, his own appeal: “to find a few fresh, vigourous cells, to ease the blocked airway of my despair, is so distant [a prospect] as to be unnattainable”. However it wasn’t just the events of 1919 that proved him wrong …

On May 4th, 1989, students (once more led by Beida students) again gathered on Tiananmen square. This time, the reason was to commemorate Hu Yaobang, but it swiftly turned into a large-scale political movement. The result: according to conservative estimates, more than two hundred students were killed on the night of June 3rd. These young people, just like those of seventy years ago, were opposing the ‘elements’ that were “blocking the airway of society”, but the difference is rather paradoxical: this time, they were opposing the very Communist Party who before had opposed old modes of thought.

Chen Duxiu asks the reader: “The society of my country, will it prosper? Or is it doomed?” His opinion seems to be the latter. I say to the reader: don’t mind him. Although China, even today, still has many problems, none of them are incurable. To “cure this disease”, Chen writes, society must have “one or two youths sensitive enough to realise their potential, and brave enough to struggle”. The “disease” he talks of isn’t the disease of today’s society, but the prescription is just the same: new youth.*


* It’s rather weird, and bloody awkward, to translate something you’ve written yourself into your mother tongue. I’ve taken liberties, but hope the original author won’t mind.

On the grasslands

I’m back to reality, and blogging, after the alternative time-zone that is HSK.

Another surreal moment for me of late was on the Huitengxile grasslands of Inner Mongolia, two weeks ago. That Monday was qingmingjie, or grave-sweeping festival – when Chinese pay respects to their ancestors face to grave. My companions and I woke up full of adventure-lust, the only tourists in a built-for-tourists herd of Mongolian yurts.

How delighted we were, then, when the family putting us up suggested a ‘Mongolian activity’ for that morning. Sign us up! Will it be horse-riding? Churning Mongolian milk? Skinning a wolf? They were … noncommital. But driving out onto grasslands, in the midst of grazing horses and whooshing wind turbines, was a promising sign.

Out of the car, each of us was handed a pair of gloves and a canvas bag. It was at this point that the nature our Mongolian activity became clear: collect as much dried horse poo as you can in three hours. The family uses this for fuel, heating up their stoves and the platform beds (kang) used in the Chinese countryside – and we were three pairs of extra hands. Twice a year, they collect as many bags as they can stuff: once in the summer, once on qingmingjie. Not grave sweeping, but shit sweeping.

Here’s a picture of one of our ‘hosts’ for this activity. You’ll notice the wind energy farm behind him: over a thousand turbines were humming on these grasslands.

On the grasslands

In the sister post to this one, I tempted the Gods by moaning to heaven about my bus ride from hell through Wudaokou intersection every morning. And sure enough, the Gods had their revenge last evening: in the ugliest traffic jam since the invention of the horn, bus 307 took 45 minutes (I timed it) to travel a hundred or so meters, through three crossroads and over a railway track. Time to dust off my bike.

In a moment, I’ll continue with a few more national stereotypes by Chinese from the ethnic hotpot that is Beijing’s student district. First, two quick comments on the ones I raised before: Koreans and Japanese. First off: I don’t mean that all Chinese in Wudaokou have this bad opinion of all Koreans. But more than once I’ve heard this ‘street wisdom’: the best Koreans go to study in America, the second best go to Europe, the next best stay home, and the rest come to Beijing.

To be honest, I think there’s a little truth in that: it strikes me that a lot of Koreans studying here are enjoying the freedom of being away from their parents, and the ridiculously cheap prices of their beer and fruit compared to home. This goes for most of Wudaokou, of course, but the Koreans seem to enjoy it … louder.

As to the Japanese, it goes without saying that any stereotype in China is rubbing up against the shoulder of a seventy year old, very deep-seated, animosity. This doesn’t mean that young Chinese feel the same hate as their grandparents do: many love Japanese culture, and even want to move there (like Marie). But it’s difficult to grow up in any environment without it rubbing off.

I remember a Japanese classmate last year, who told me he was impressed by the friendliness of the Beida campus towards him, until the time a student came up to him and said (only said) “I want to hit you”. And as ‘Mark’ commented in my last post: “That’s also why Japanese keep to themselves in China. It’s not hard for them to get dragged into a fight just because they’re Japanese.”

Now, onto the juicy stereotypes. First up, America! Also in the comments, Edna writes: “the response I’ve come across all over China is ‘Ah? You’re American? But you don’t have blonde hair and blue eyes…Are you sure?'” The other common stereotype I’ve heard complained about is that Americans are sexually adventurous, and the girls are loose. Yankee readers: any more?

Finally, the question “what about indians?” is posed to me by a commenter with the eyebrow-raising email address awesomearmpit@. Well, awesome armpit, I’ll defer to the Indian journalist Pallavi Aiyar, who in her enjoyable book Smoke and Mirrors writes of the knee-jerk reaction of countless Chinese when they see she’s Indian: an assumption born of too many Bollywood bootlegs that all Indian women are prone to burst into song and dance, in a colourful saree.

Please comment with any stereotypes you’ve seen in China of your own motherland – I’m British, remember, so (apparently) I’m too reserved to ask anyone myself.

There are three words that strike fear into my heart like no others:


I hear wang li zou – “move inwards” – every morning on bus 307 from my flat to my school at Tsinghua. It’s the anthem of the bus attendants – typically middle-aged woman – whose job it is to ensure everyone swipes their card to pay for the ride and moves inwards to allow space for the next batch.

So why so fearsome? Because my flat is, so to speak, ‘the wrong side of the tracks’: to get to Tsinghua I have to cross, at rush hour, the railway tracks at Wudaokou – front-runner in my books for the title of ‘most poorly thought-out intersection in China’. Schizophrenic traffic lights, endless tides of pedestrians, and death-wish drivers combine in a perfect storm.

My company during this half hour traffic bottleneck? A fresh elbow at every turn. Five minutes before my stop, I have to start shouting xia che! xia che! – “I’m getting off!” – and jostle through a crowd viscous enough to make Marmite jealous. I have actual bruises from the bus doors closing on me. If an electric clock displays 3:07, I start shaking uncontrollably.

Wudaokou is the centre of Beijing’s student district. As such, it has representatives of every corner of the world: Europe, Latin America, the Slavic world, the US of A – Beijing has attracted young graduates from them all, come to be immersed in a new language and culture. The result, of course, is that if you choose to live in noisy Wudaokou, you end up learning more about international than Chinese culture.

Another result is that for the Chinese student population of the area – students at Beida and Tsinghua, for instance – impressions of certain nationalities invariably form. As a Brit, I strike lucky: it’s common knowledge in China that all English are perfectly mannered gentlemen, refined and polite if a little aloof – in short, Hugh Grant.

Koreans are less fortunate. Even if – or so I’m informed – Chinese girls think Korean guys are ‘cool’, the main impression seems to run: Koreans are noisy, boisterous, drink too much and generally piss Chinese off. It’s certainly true that every Korean guy in a two mile vicinity of Wudaokou intersection wears the same affectedly bended baseball cap and drives the same ‘look at me’ electric bike.

Over dinner with Tony, William and Leonidas the other night, I heard another one which doesn’t come as too big a surprise either: Japanese all keep to themselves. The Japanese student population of Beijing, it seems, are reticent to the point of hermeticism – fixing a stereotype of their nation in this particular corner of China. And here’s another gem from Tony: “all students from a country ending in -stan claim they are a Prince.”

The list goes on – but I won’t, as my laptop is going to run out of battery at any moment. I’ll return to this theme later – if you’re a foreign student in Beijing and have come across the same first response to your nationality time and time again, please post a comment.

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