The wannabe writer

Adieu to Six

UPDATE: [January 2011] After much umming and erring about whether to resurrect this blog from London, I’ve decided that I am too far away from China to be writing about it. But I will be blogging again when I’m back in the Orient, before too long a wait …

First things first: a couple of links. Here you can read my column in this month’s issue of Prospect magazine, on the influx of foreign students who – like me – go to Beijing to learn Mandarin. While here you can see my photo essay on ‘young China’ – the theme of this blog – for the China Beat. I took those pictures over the two years I lived and travelled in China.

“Past tense!” I hear you cry. “-ed?” Yes, I’m writing from London, where I will be based for two years before returning East. I thought I wouldn’t leave Beijing for love nor money, but one of those reasons is indeed why I’m back in Britain (you can guess which).


Next, here is where we leave the six young Chinese who I’ve been following on this blog – stories from the generation that will change China.

Ben is going strong in his online clothes shop. His bedroom business has expanded from just him and a leaky roof to a staff of three and booming sales. He still can’t pronounce the word ‘entrepreneur’.

Leonidas is back on “my island”, as he calls it, off the coast of Shanghai. “No TV, no internet, no noise, no traffic jam,” he writes me. A perfect summer break before his final year at Peking University.

Marie has finally ended her torturous job hunt, choosing a teaching position in Beijing. But she still dreams of working in Hong Kong, travelling to Japan, studying in America – depending on the day.

Matilda has just finished her novel, Summer Fruit in Autumn. She posted in online, and got some encouraging comments from Chinese netizens. She still doesn’t know what to do with her life, though.

Tony will be joining me in England next academic year. He has an offer from Cambridge and a provisional offer from Oxford, to read an MPhil in International Relations. I hope to see him before long.

William dropped out of university for the second time last spring. His lifeless subject and doctrine-heavy classes simply weren’t for him. He’s now decided to give his all to environmental activism.


Finally, a few quick stats and thanks. I launched this blog on the final day of the Beijing Olympics, August 24th 2008. Since then, I’ve had over 15,000 unique visitors. And 40,000 page views. My most read posts include a video interview with Chris Patten, commentary on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, a translation of a wronged student’s petition, and my essay in Chinese on China’s ‘New Youth’.

My thanks go first to all my friends, most of all to those I follow here, who have helped me understand the nuanced and changing story of young Chinese in a new China. In the English language Chinese ‘blogosphere’, an especial thanks to: Jeff, Kate and Maura at the China Beat; Jeremy and Joel at Danwei; Elliot at CNReviews; Charlie at China Geeks; Evan Osnos at The New Yorker. And everyone else!

Adieu to å…­ (liu – six). Cheers, Alec

Love in Beida

It’s summertime, the PKU campus has been alternatively balmy and sweltering, students are finishing up their exams, and it’s the season to buy cheap cherries. Add the final ingredient of testosterone, shake well … you get where I’m headed. Love is in the air (along with the potentially fatal pollution particles).

A bashful Brit, I’ve always been rather shy when it comes to talking about love and sex with my Chinese friends. But I pale in comparison (unintentional pun) with their own willingness to broach the topic. There are some questions which will only illicit a blush or an awkward brush-off. When I asked Marie if she had a boyfriend (she doesn’t), she gave new meaning to the phrase ‘red China’. Physical contact like hugs is no-go territory. And I’ve seen none of the ‘conquest’ bravado between guys at Beida that there was, for instance, at Oxford.

But does this mean there’s no sex on campus? Of course there is! As there is on every bloody campus. It’s obvious from anything from a quick kiss in the canteen, to the playful groping-slapping game of couples on the subway. But this ‘less sex than the British’ idea about China’s ‘army of heterogenous youth’ is as false as it’s magnetically opposite stereotype: that young Chinese attitudes towards sex are now exactly the same as American or ‘Western’ ones.

Matilda was telling me about dating culture in Beida, over a tea/coffee (respectively) in the university’s ‘Café Paradiso’. I asked if you could ask a stranger on a date here, like they do on TV in Friends. She loves the show, and remembered being surprised at American boldness in that respect. If someone pulled a stunt like that here, she said, “I’d think he’s crazy”.

Most Beida students are in a relationship, she said – half with students here, half with “people outside”. And the most common way of finding your partner was online, on BBS (Bulletin Board Systems, wildly popular across China, and especially so on campuses). I asked how that worked. A bit like this, she said, launching into what she considered a typical relationship-in-bud:

1. A guy posts an article on a popular college BBS (his opinion on a current affairs story, a composition, a rant, whatever).

2. Other students comment on his post, and the guy notices one particular (female looking) ID who has responded positively.

3. The guy contacts the girl, she writes back, they exchange QQ numbers (China’s MSN-like instant messanging service).

4. They chat online for anything between one day and one year before deciding to meet up and beginning to ‘date’.

5. After half a year or so after meeting, they sleep together. (NB this could also happen on day one, but that’s unlikely.)

Don’t think of that as a ‘model’ … it’s just Matilda’s account of a run-of-the-mill romance. There are love at first sights and one night stands, too, although the most common ‘how we met’ story I’ve heard over the last two years is the perennial tale of ‘classmates … slowly friends … then …’

That’s not unlike how Matilda and Leonidas first got together. Matilda had broken off with her long-time boyfriend because they shared no common interests, no real communication. She was arts; he was computers. But with Leonidas, she could discuss classical Chinese poetry and the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky. I remember when she first introduced me to him, two autumns ago, in the first flushes of excitement at their relationship.

It didn’t last. Matilda’s version is that they had no connection at a deeper level; Leonidas’ is that she talked endlessly about, and with, her old boyfriend. Both are likely true. Now Leonidas is a dashing bachelor once more, and Matilda is back together with the ex, complaining again that they have nothing in common. But he loves her, and she clearly loves him.

Of course, there’s a whole back-story to that relationship itself, with twists, turns and a lost love, all worthy of Matilda’s novel. But it’s not for here.

Despite having learnt the word only a week before, it took me far longer than I care to admit to connect 荒原 (huangyuan, literally ‘wilderness’) with what Matilda was trying to tell me: that she was a fan of T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem ‘The Wasteland’. (In Chinese translation, that is – and here was me thinking Eliot couldn’t possibly be any more difficult). Matilda is an applied linguistics postgrad and a literature bookworm. Out of interest, I asked her to write down for me a quick list of foreign books she likes. Here it is:

  • The Old Man and the Sea (in Chinese, like all the below – although this particular one is surely as easy English as it gets)
  • The Count of Monte Cristo (especially the bit where he escapes from prison – which is where I got to myself before giving up)
  • Gone with the Wind (the heroine can “eat bitterness” – I’ve heard elsewhere this book is a particular favourite across China)
  • Wuthering Heights (especially the vivid nature descriptions – Matilda is also one of the most unabashed romantics I know)
  • The Ugly Duckling (as in the children’s story – surely a step down from Bronté?)

At the bottom, she scribbles a Chinese idiom: 读万卷书不如行万里路. “Better walk ten thousand li than read ten thousand books.” Matilda couldn’t disagree more, she tells me: she’d take the books over the exercise anyday. What’s more, she’s not only a reader but an aspiring writer, working – slowly – on her first novel. It’s set in wartime Kunming, where Beida and Tsinghua were relocated to while the Japanese held Beijing, and is a romance between a literature student and her professor.

With her permission, here are the narrator’s opening words in this first draft, along with my English translation (which I found rather tricky, comments welcome):

Summer Fruit in Autumn


I’m not preparing to write a poem, nor a novel. But I’m apt to use the written word, so I’m always having to write something. What I’m writing doesn’t have a middle, nor a beginning or an end, I only know it’s about you. Therefore, I return to fifty years ago, when I met you. My memory isn’t so good, you tell me – that’s the day when summer fruit ripened. And so I got my name. I’m called ‘Summer Fruit’.

And so the story begins (“我已不记得那时的昆明天气如何…”; “I already can’t remember what the weather was like in Kunming at that time…”), but there I’ll leave you all in tantalising suspense until publication day. Instead, here’s a late merry Christmas picture from the author, doubly merry for its tardiness:

Three summers

A suitable period of mourning for its being over having passed, I can now safely mention the summer holidays without letting slip too deep a sigh. Here’s what three friends got up to:

  • Marie, home in Yunnan after a tough term – she studied up to 10 hours a day at Beida – spent about the same amount of time, almost everyday day of her much deserved break … helping her little brother prepare for his college entrance exam (the high-pressured gaokao). Did she begrudge her brother for eating her holiday like this? Was this a duty imposed on her by her parents? No and no, she says. She offered to help herself, and for something like this would have happily sacrificed more (this exam will in many respects decide her brother’s future).
  • Matilda wasn’t idle either, and used her summer more creatively: she was working on the novel which she’s been writing for some time now. It’s set in the 1940s, right at the end of the war of Resistance against Japan, mostly on university campus in Kunming – where Beida relocated to during the war. It’s a love story between a professor and his pupil … more she wouldn’t say. Nor would she tell me if this pupil who falls in love with her dashing literature professor is in any way based on herself. She did blush though.
  • William was finishing his final few months of full-time work at an online environmental magazine, before going back to school. He dropped out of university two years ago to widen his horizons, but is now going to finish the final year of his degree (he’s then thinking of aiming high and applying to graduate school at Beida), while still working part time. The cold hard reality he came to appreciate in those horizon-widening years was that to get any attractive job in China you need the record of schooling more than the work experience itself.

Well, summer is over and lately I’ve been feeling the first bite of winter in the Beijing air. Isn’t this still autumn? Not for the first time, and not for the last, I wish humans hibernated.

Happy Mooncake day all … how fast these festivals come and go. The PRC’s 60th birthday was only two days ago and already the nation has moved onto the excessive gifting of odd-tasting pastry. There’s probably a relevant Chinese saying which I could quote here – but I won’t.

On national day, I took a morning bus  (on gloriously empty streets) to Peking University or ‘Beida’ to watch the televised celebrations with students. If you’re after the parade itself, have a look at this wonderful 4 minute time-lapse and slow-mo version by Dan Chung of the Guardian.

As a Brit I have a inborn loathing of jingoism, which was rife in the parade itself. Patriotism is OK, however, and it was this that the Beida students were displaying – more than I had ever seen them show, including in the aftermath of a successful Olympics (the ping pong was all in Beida’s gym).

Below I’ll split up what I witnessed into a few liberally captioned photos. First, I asked each of the six characters I follow on this blog what they were doing and how they felt on this big day (as we know, any number like ‘6’ or 60′ is auspicious in China, so this national day was particulary special).

Tony … was watching the parade with me. He’d been one of the school kids in the 1999 fifty year anniversary parade, and seemed a little cynical of the eerily similar pomp and circumstance this time around. As ever he took pleasure in pointing out the politically significant bits, like how outside the limelight Xi Jinping was in the whole affair – a potential sign of his guessed-at leadership of China from 2012 being postponed, possibly forever.

Leonidas … got into Beida’s auditorium for the showing there (more below). When I then met up with him for noodles, he was clutching a Chinese flag and said he was almost moved to tears by the parade. This from a guy who’s head, in my experience, generally tends to be off in the clouds of classical Chinese literature more than it is on the ground of contemporary China.

Marie … was watching the internet stream in her dorm with her flatmates – one of whom was still sleeping from all the homework she was up late last night doing, even in this week-long national holiday. Earlier, I’d read a corny line in a Chinese paper: “today is your birthday too”. I’d sent Marie a text jokingly asking if this was true. I felt bad at my whimsy when she seriously replied “yes, today is also like my birthday”.

Matilda … was at a friend’s wedding, who’d evidently chosen this day as a lucky one to start a marriage on (modern China: unified until death do us part?). She texted me: “China is five thousand years old, new China is sixty years old. Let’s together wish new China prosperity!”

William … reinforced the message: “today is new China’s birthday”. New China (xin zhongguo) is a term much bandied about, claimed by the May Fourth movement as well as Sun Yatsen or the CCP (potentially by the reform and opening up era too). Normally, I’m never quite sure ‘new China’ is whose. Today, for young Chinese, new China was all Hu’s.

[groan] And finally,

Ben … was sleeping in, but with the TV on in the background.

Now for the day itself:

This guy far-right had sold forty or so flags by 9am. Behind them, Beida students line up for the screening of the parade on the big cinema screen in campus. They’d got their free tickets three days ago by queuing for (hear-say alert!) nearly 2km. Leonidas told me all of the students at this screening  stood up to give Hu Jintao an ovation.

Tony and I most certainly did not queue for 2km, and so we watched the event in a neighbouring canteen – on a decidedly inferior screen with a fuzzy top-left panel which made Jiang Zemin look like a gremlin. There was a big laugh when Hu smiled upon seeing the troupe of female soldiers in high red skirts goose-step by. I got the impression here that most students were enjoying the fun of a big parade more than being overwhelmed with love of their country. And when the canteen started serving food – an hour before the parade was over – everyone was suddenly much more interested in lunch.

Zhongguo jiayou! Go China! If this were England, by the way, this picture could only mean one thing: these students had been watching a football or rugby game, not a military parade.

A contingent of Beida students took part in the parade, wafting symbolic pink wind fans (you can see them at 3:10 in the video I link to near the top of this post). Here they are, having been shipped back to their campus by giant buses, still pumped – despite having got out of bed at 2:30am to head down to Tiananmen square, and after a summer of compulsory training sessions two or three times a week.

Matilda just emailed me with some snaps from her trip to the poor countryside of China, which she was telling me about over a coffee the other day. These are taken in a village in Hebei province, which surrounds rich Beijing. Matilda was in a small group of students from Beida (Peking University), bringing clothes, books, book bags and suchlike to kids whose poverty will likely deny them the opportunity to study at PKU or compete fairly for a better life for their kids.

I tend to write on this blog about one of the most privileged set of young guys and girls in China: Beida is a (the? the. bug off Tsinghua) top university here, providing the top opportunities. So I always appreciate a reminder that a few hundred miles away there is a kid like the one Matilda holds above, whose parents can’t afford the schooling which could get her into a good university. These scenes are typical of this widespread poverty in rural China; it’s about the same as the village in Qinghai I have taught in myself.

The home Matilda is in above has no electricity. They have never seen a foreigner. The kid has never seen a car. The family can only afford one pair of presentable trousers for five people … when someone needs to go out they take the trousers, while the rest stay at home in underpants. There’s a contrast for you as sharp as the kitchen knife below. One world, one dream … one kid taking his holidays at a summer camp in Yale, one kid who can only dream of it.

Matilda, who is from a well-off family in more southern Jiangxi, was struck. She wants to return to the countryside after she finishes her degree in linguistics and education. She would teach for one year in which she is paid 400 yuan (£35) a month, before beginning to try and crack it as a writer. She tells me – whether talking about the teaching or the writing I’m not quite sure – “I have been a consumer all my life. Now I want to create something.”

What I find interesting isn’t the crushing inequality (old hat for China, with the brief exception of the Mao era), it’s the new generation of young Chinese who really care about it – enough to take a sidestep from their ambitions to help. I’d hazard a guess that Matilda’s parents, in the rush of new opportunities in the late 70s and 80s, didn’t give as much thought to China’s poor who weren’t otherwise connected with them, as Matilda does to this trouserless kid.

If this piques your interest, check out the ‘Go West’ project which in 2003 started sending volunteer college graduates to the poor Western countryside, for the experience and the chance to contribute. Read about it in the Washington Post or Xinhua. Below, more pics from Matilda:

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