Mourning and Celebrating Nanjing’s Past: A Visit to the Nanjing Massacre and Zheng He Memorials

For those of you that don’t know….

Nanjing is home to more than 7 million people, a modest population by Chinese standards. But with its proximity to the mountains and the Yangtze river, the city can feel like a cozy town compared to the all-pervasive presence of people and concrete in Shanghai.

Which is ridiculous, because “cozy town” has never been an accurate way to describe Nanjing.

The city (also called “Nanking”) was the capital of multiple ruling dynasties, beginning with the Liu Song in the year 420. But the “south capital” (Nán= south; jīng = capital) reached the height of its prominence during the early years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when it was believed to be the largest city in the known world. Art, literature, and a system of orderly government thrived  in Nanjing under the Ming, even though that dynasty eventually moved the imperial capital to Beijing (“north capital”) in 1421.

Five centuries later Nanjing was declared the capital city of the new Republic of China under the Nationalist Party leader General Chiang Kai-Shek. Over the next 10 years (“the Nanjing decade”) the city prospered, before descending into a period of stark human misery.

“Run… The devil’s are coming”

After the Imperial Japanese Army invaded China, Nanjing became the location of one of the largest mass killing events in human history. The invasion, destruction and murder of approximately 300,000 Chinese civilians by Japanese military forces is to this day a scar on the national psyche. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, which documents those eight weeks of atrocities in 1937 and memorializes the victims, is a top tourist attraction that is literally overflowing with visitors during peak hours.

The long path to the museum’s entrance is lined by statues depicting scenes of civilians suffering under the Japanese occupation.

Touring the museum is a heavy experience that visitors may need to mentally prepare for. The names of the victims are etched into a gigantic wall; photos of the victims — from headshots to newspaper photographs from the period — make up the bulk of the exhibit, which thoroughly details events of rape and mass murder.

“They rob and rape, they set fire and burn people alive, they even kill my three-month old little grandson.”

There was some light in the overall darkness. I saw a surprisingly large exhibit space dedicated to the American, British and German expatriates who offered shelter and protection to hundreds of thousands of Nanjing residents. The most prominent figure in this section was John Rabe, a German businessman and Nazi Party member who spearheaded the creation of the International Safety Zone

Rabe kept a prolific diary of the Nanjing atrocities he witnessed, a key source in Iris Chang’s 1997 non-fiction book “The Rape of Nanking.” Rabe’s connection to the Nazi Party (remember, Germany and Japan were allies) offered him a level of protection against the Japanese — one anecdote says there were several occasions where Rabe chased soldiers away from women they were raping or intended to rape, an action that would have usually led to a swift death — that allowed him to publicly resist and condemn the Japanese military’s brutal treatment of Chinese civilians. According to Chang, “the swastika probably saved his life.”

“Frigidity and horror has frozen this crying baby! Poor thing, not knowing mum has been killed. Blood, milk and tears have frozen, never melting.”

Now that I’ve outlined a thoroughly depressing part of China’s modern history, let me go back to its past, when the country was the planet’s leading maritime power.

I was excited to visit the Zheng He Memorial Park after listening to some podcasts on the subject and reading the controversial  book “1421: The Year China Discovered the World.” The book focuses on the very real voyages that Admiral Zheng He led across the known world during the early fifteenth century, China’s age of exploration. The author, however, argues that some Chinese fleets discovered North and South America before the European explorers did, a thesis that most professional historians say hasn’t been proven with any hard evidence.

A replica of the treasure ships used by Zheng He’s armada at the Zheng He Memorial Park  in Nanjing. The fleets of enormous wooden treasure ships were built in Nanjing and sent on trading expeditions to ports on the coasts of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

What historians do agree on is that, between 1405-1433, Zheng He led seven naval expeditions to modern southeast Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian peninsula and the eastern coast of Africa.

The fleets were comprised of huge, sturdy,  flat-bottomed wooden treasure ships escorted by smaller water tankers, supply ships (supplies back then included plenty of concubines) and patrol boats. The ships were loaded with precious silk, stones and Ming blue and white porcelain to be traded in exchange for spices, pearls, fabrics, incense and exotic animals. Zheng He presented the imperial court with lions, “celestial horses” (zebras), “camel-birds” (ostriches) and, perhaps most famously, giraffes.

I was able to see a replica of the treasure ship and the tools needed to navigate it —  like the giant rudder and an anchor the size of the small house — as well as artifacts from the era (rope, pottery, clothing, weapons, documents, porcelain, etc.) The memorial hall and park is actually built on land that used to contain Zheng He’s house and garden, but nothing from the original structure remains.

A painting of Admiral Zheng He and his fleet found in a temple shrine in Malaysia (Photo:Chris Hellier/Corbis )
A statue of the maritime explorer at the Zheng He Memorial Park in Nanjing.

While the treasure ship explorations were intended to expand Chinese trade, historians also believe the Yongle Emperor sponsored them to create a strong Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and establish a tributary system from foreign leaders.

But China’s age of exploration ended just as Europe’s was beginning. After the Yongle Emperor’s death in 1424 his son, the Hongxi Emperor, permanently suspended overseas naval expeditions and burned the fleet of treasure ships.

Zheng He died at the age of 62 near the end of his seventh voyage. Before that, when he was 60, he erected two granite tablets in modern Liuhe and Changle (in Fujian Province) memorializing his naval expeditions. The Changle inscription, in addition to reiterating his devotion to the sea goddess Tianfei, details some of the countries and sights witnessed by the Admiral and his men:

“We traversed more than one hundred thousand li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours … When we arrived in the distant countries we captured alive those of the native kings who were not respectful and exterminated those barbarian robbers who were engaged in piracy, so that consequently the sea route was cleansed and pacified and the natives put their trust in it. All this is due to the favours of the goddess.”

Half of China’s Population is Traveling During the National Day Golden Week

Mao Zedong announcing the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (Wikimedia Commons).

Today is the last day of the National Day “Golden Week”, a seven-day* public holiday in celebration of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.

Golden Week — there are two each year, following the Chinese New Year and National Day holidays — is better known for the massive wave of human migration it inspires. The entire country is on public holiday, and of course many people want to put their extra vacation days to good use. The result? Packed trains and airplanes, endless lines, jacked up hotel prices (in China and abroad!) and general chaos.

One of my photos of Shanghai’s Yu Garden area during the 2014 National Day Golden Week. This is every tourist spot in the country on a public holiday.

About 589 million – more than half of the country’s population! — Chinese tourists were expected to travel either domestically or internationally during this year’s National Day Golden Week, according to a prediction from the Chinese Tourism Academy. Those travelers were expected to spend about $70 billion during the days set aside to commemorate the rise of the country’s Communist Party.

I did my own Golden Week adventuring in 2014 and 2015, back when I had the mental and physical fortitude to brave the crowds and financial rip offs in the spirit of exploring  China. This year I’ve opted for having a staycation in Shanghai, which tends to clear out during the holidays, and using my remaining vacation days to travel when the rest of the country returns to work.

I decided to observe National Day in my own way – by doing research (yay!) and finally learning the symbolic meaning of the PRC’s “Five Star Red Flag.”


The large golden star on the upper left corner represents the communist revolution and the four smaller stars encircling it symbolize the country’s four social classes: the workers, peasants, urban bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie. Together, the five stars are intended to illustrate the unity of the Chinese people under the Communist Party.

The more you know.

*note: Although the National Day public holiday is technically only three days (Oct 1-3) many employers offer their workers seven consecutive days (“Golden Week”) of vacation time. Afterwards, those extra days are essentially reimbursed by employees, who need to work four “make up” days during normal weekends.  After the seven-day holiday, many employees are required to work a 7-day week to make up for lost time.

An Ancient Jewish Community in China Believes It’s Being Monitored By the Government

China is probably one of the last places where one would expect to find the descendants of Jews who lived almost a millennium ago. But somehow a small community of Chinese Jews, who are thought to be descended from Middle Eastern merchants, has endured in Henan province until the present day.

Whether it will endure any longer is the subject of an article published by The New York Times on September 24, which reports that the “Kaifeng Jews” have suddenly and unexpectedly been targeted by the Chinese government.

Two Jewish residents of Kaifeng captured by National Geographic in 1907

Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, was located on the heavily-traveled Silk Road. As a result, the city was a hub for foreign traders. China’s east coast is no stranger to Judaism and is home to four historically Jewish communities, according to the Sino-Judaic Institute. Shanghai, as I previously wrote, was famously one of only two ports in the world that accepted tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe during World War II.

While Judaism isn’t one of China’s five state-sanctioned religions, the authorities have turned a blind eye to the minuscule portion of the population that still adheres to the faith. Most of the Kaifeng Jews still living actually have little practical knowledge of Judaism. The city’s last rabbi reportedly died in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In recent decades, the community’s connection to Judaism is primarily cultural: individuals self-identified as Kaifeng Jews usually do not eat pork and often only know of their Jewish ancestry from old family stories about relatives who went to a synagogue or because of a family name marking them as one of the community’s eight historically Jewish clans (the names were conferred by a Ming Dynasty emperor).

A model of the old Kaifeng synagogue at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv

In recent decades Kaifeng has had a sort of Jewish revival.  Jewish organizations — offering everything from religious instruction to the opportunity to migrate to Israel— established themselves in the community to connect its residents to their cultural and religious history. Some began studying the Torah and the traditions of Judaism in earnest. The government didn’t seem to care, according to news reports, until the Kaifeng Jews began attracting foreign media attention.

Some Kaifeng residents say the government took action after a Jewish woman from their community won asylum to the United States by claiming she was the victim of “religious persecution.”

A group of Chinese women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  The women told NBC news that they hope to become Israeli citizens (NBC News).

And now it appears that the government – perhaps in retaliation to the bad PR?  — wants to obliterate any of the small traces of Jewish history that still exist in Kaifeng.  A stone inscription marking the site of Kaifeng’s old synagogue was recently removed by city officials, who also prohibited groups from gathering to celebrate Jewish holidays. Some of the city’s Jewish descendants have told reporters they fear their actions and conversations are being monitored by the government.

What’s interesting is that many of the Kaifeng Jews said that they don’t necessarily see this as an act of antisemitism; rather, it may be a message to emphasize that the Communist Party’s political domination cannot be challenged by foreign organizations, especially those affiliated with unsanctioned religious groups.

But it seems that Kaifeng’s Jewish residents aren’t easily intimidated.

“Judaism,” as one man told the New York Times, “is all about endurance.”

China is Forbidding Popular News Agencies From Pursuing Original Reporting

Xi Jinping reportedly demanded “absolute loyalty” from journalists at state-run news agencies during a highly-publicized propaganda tour of various newsrooms.

China isn’t, ahem, exactly known for championing the freedom of its press. But current events are about to become even more obfuscated in a country that already ranks 176 out of 180 in the Reporters Without Border’s Press Freedom Index.

Four of the country’s largest independent online news providers – news agencies that are not the official mouthpieces of the Communist Party – have been ordered to shut down or severely tone-down their original reporting in the run-up to a meeting of the Communist Party Congress next year. As several news outlets have reported, the Chinese government has had a penchant for seriously enhancing its internet censorship during important political meetings  or events ever since Xi Jinping took over as party leader in 2012 . I can personally attest to this; during the Lianghui earlier this year I was unable to use my VPN to access the uncensored internet for at least two weeks.

Under Xi, press freedom (whatever little there was) has dwindled and several journalists have either been intimidated, jailed or deported for questioning or defying regulations set by the Communist Party.

The most concerning part about this is that most Chinese citizens will never know this is taking place, because they are unable to access uncensored information on television or on the internet.

Actually, some of them do know. But it’s such a commonplace aspect of life in China that it’s difficult for people to get worked up about it. As one of my students told me, he “already doesn’t trust” CCTV (the country’s state-run television network) and he isn’t surprised the government is trying to withhold information from the public. “This is China,” he simply told me.  What else would you expect?

Sitting in this modern Shanghai café, full of people holding luxury-brand shopping bags and sipping cappuccinos, it can be easy to forget that this society exists under an iron-grip of information control.

It’s also concerning to see how distractions – smartphones and streaming television shows and shopping – really do stop people from asking questions. For many Chinese people, life now is better than it has ever been. Considering the turmoil of the past century, it’s not difficult to understand how having a full stomach and money in the bank trumps the desire for freedom of information.

It’s a slippery slope. And speaking of “trump” – I honestly believe that this level of information control would be pursued by the Republican presidential candidate who shall not be named with a capital “T.” The thin-skinned man, who supposedly loves everything about the United States Constitution except the First Amendment, has repeatedly expressed desire to curtail press freedom. You know, so the big-bad journalists don’t hurt his feelings.

If for some godforsaken reason (like if the entire American population decides to drop acid on Election Day) he makes it to the White House, you know he’s going to be looking to Xi for some management tips.


Shanghai’s Suffocating, “Unhealthy” Smog

It’s coming for us. It’s coming for us all.

This was the view from my apartment (on the 18th floor in downtown Shanghai” early this afternoon. There’s nothing quite like looking out the window and feeling your lungs quiver with  fear at the prospect of inhaling this:

The view from my apartment in Huangpu, Shanghai. This is not rain. This is not fog. It’s smog.



The photos posted above were snapped at around 12:35 p.m today, when the AQI was hovering at 187. The higher the AQI level – which ranges from 0 to 500 (and yes, I’ve experienced 500-level days in China) – the more pollution is hovering in the air. Including PM 2.5, a particulate matter that lodges itself deep into the lungs and can potentially lead to a string of health problems — including asthma, heart attacks and premature death for people with respiratory or cardiovascular diseases.

An AQI under 50 is considered “good.” When it reaches “unhealthy” levels – which is basically every day in many Chinese cities – “everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects,” according to

10 Random But Amazing Facts About China (Part 2)

Due to a combination of moving house, exhaustion and severe internet censorship that blocked WordPress, it has taken me way too long to update since I posted part one. I could go on complaining about how frustrating it is to live under the yoke of extreme censorship, but instead I’ll go in the other direction and post more positive and fascinating facts about the Middle Kingdom.

5. The Plethora of Inventions that Originated in China

An early representation of gunpowder weapons can be seen on the upper right corner. The man with snakes (I think?) coming out of his head is aiming a firelance; the man below him appears to be holding a grenade.

As one can likely imagine, a civilization that has been around for more than 5,000 years has probably introduced a lot of shit to the world.

I was schooled on China’s “four great inventions” – printing, paper, gunpowder and the compass – within my first few weeks in the country. It just seems to be something that has often come up during small talk with my various students. Many of them assume Americans don’t know much about China (can’t argue with that) so they’re happy to enlighten me. I’m usually happy to listen.

But while the four great inventions may be the most celebrated, they hardly make a dent on the enormous list of items that were developed in the Middle Kingdom. (A note on printing: Chinese printing, which dates as far back as 200 AD, relied on woodblocks or movable type that were hand-pressed onto paper by workers. This is different than the mechanical printing press developed by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. )

Paper money was introduced as a form of currency in during the Tang and Song dynasties in the 7th century. Europe, in contrast, did not begin to use paper currency until after the 13th century – and only after it had been seen by explorers like Marco Polo during their adventures in Asia. Gun fanatics can also thank the Chinese for their preferred  instrument of self-defense, since the first gunpowder weapon was reportedly produced in China sometime during the 10th century.

The list of inventions can go on and on and on: kites, parachutes, crossbows, the decimal system, suspension bridges. Even an early version of ice cream.

In my personal opinion, the seismoscope (earthquake detector) may be the most impressive contribution on the list. Just hearing its nickname – the “Dragon Jar”–  is an indication of how epic it is.

earthquake detetcor
A replica of the device invented by Zhang Heng.

Dating to 132 AD, the nearly 2,000-year-old device was remarkably accurate even by modern standards. The detector is based around a giant bronze vessel with eight dragons snaked down the outside of  it, each with a bronze ball in its mouth. Each snake represents a primary compass direction. When the seismoscope picked up the direction of an earthquake tremor – which were not detectable to humans in the same location –  the bronze ball would fall from the mouth of the corresponding dragon and into the mouth of the toad at the base. As a result, observers could estimate the location of an earthquake.

4. The Peking Man Confirmed Existence of Homo Erectus Humans

peking man
Most of the Peking Man fossils disappeared in 1941. The Chinese Academy of Scientists is in possession of a tooth found at the scene.

The fossilized remains of the Peking man, as noted in the title, confirmed the existence of the Homo Erectus stage of human evolution.

This is a notable fact because the discovery convinced scientists of the idea that the Homo Erectus species – the first of which had previously been discovered in Java and dubbed Pithecanthropus erectus (“upright ape-man”) – were predecessors to modern humans, and not simply the remains of “deformed apes.”

Discovered by a Swiss scientific team, the prehistoric fossils were found in a cave near Beijing (then known as “Peking”) in 1921. After a series of excavations throughout the 1920s, archeologists managed to recover several teeth, skull fragments and a lower jaw that were thought to be as much as 750,000 years old. Follow up excavations by Chinese scientists also unearthed additional skull caps as well as stone tools and evidence that the prehistoric people who lived there used fire -– all in all, the largest hoard of Homo Erectus fossils that have ever been found.

Interestingly, the discovery of the Peking Man fossils led some researchers to suggest human development originated in Eurasia, and not in Africa as commonly accepted by the scientific community.

But the most fascinating part of the Peking Man story may be its ending. The fossils disappeared in 1941 while they were being prepared for transport to the United States, following the Japanese invasion of China. There are several theories about the fate of the famous fossils. Some hypothesize they vanished into the ocean during shipping on a sunken American ship; one theory suggests they may have been ground up and then used as medicine (for reasons I don’t understand and couldn’t find a satisfying explanation for). According to National Geographic, there is a possibility the lost fossils were buried in a Chinese port city under what is now an asphalt-paved parking lot

3. China (Might) Have the Longest Continuous Written Language on the Planet

This ancient bone fragment contains examples of early Chinese writing.

China is often cited as having the world’s longest continuous civilization still in existence, an honorific that is actually hotly contested by some academics and writers .

Of course, it’s difficult to speak in terms of absolutes when discussing millennia-old history. What we do know is the Chinese written language (then old Chinese) is at least 3,500 years old. Ancient Egyptian and Sumerian were likely written down before old Chinese; however, unlike its predecessors, the Chinese written language survived.

The earliest samples of written Chinese date to around 1500 B.C. during the Shang dynasty. The writing samples were a record of divination practices and were etched onto animal bones and shells, leading them to be called “oracle bones.”

Chinese written characters were standardized during the Qin dynasty, the first to unify the country’s collection of small city-states under the control of a single imperial dynasty (221-206 BC).

China is considered to be one of the world’s “cradles of civilization.” Its oldest settlements were located in the Yellow River valley and reportedly date to at least the Bronze Age.

2. Shanghai Gave Refuge to Thousands of Jewish Refugees Fleeing Nazi Europe 

A Jewish girl with her Chinese friends in the Shanghai Ghetto  (photo: Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum)

When European Jews were rushing to flee Nazi-occupied Europe, there were few places where they could find refuge. At the time,  the United States was turning away refugees unless their visa was guaranteed by a U.S. citizen. Thirty-two countries simply wouldn’t provide haven to any but the most selective group of prominent Jews.

Only the ports of the Dominican Republic and Shanghai remained open to Jews hoping to escape from Nazi persecution. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Shanghai was an open port city – meaning, anyone could enter without a visa. Unlike the rest of the country, Shanghai was not solely governed by the Republic of China. Instead, the city was split between a number of Chinese and foreign business interests into “concessions”: self-governing sections of the city controlled by China, Imperial Japan, the United States, Britain and France.

Ho Fengshan, a Chinese diplomat serving in Vienna during the 1930s, purportedly took advantage of Shanghai’s open port to issue a number of “fake visas” to the Jewish citizens of Vienna.  The fake visas, although unnecessary for entrance into Shanghai, allowed Jews to book passage on ships leaving Europe for the Pacific.

jewish chronicles
A 1940 edition of the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle

Ho’s scheme was discovered in 1939 and he was removed from his post. But he managed to distribute about 500 of these “visas” per month before the German and Chinese authorities became aware of his actions.

Shanghai had taken in more Jewish refugees than any other city in the world by the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, according to a report from The Atlantic. But while the city’s Jewish population may have swelled to as many as 200,000 people, most didn’t stay for long. By 1943 Japanese forces had taken control of Shanghai and forced the city’s foreign population – including most of its Jewish residents – into housing for stateless refugees that is now known as the “Shanghai Ghetto.” While its residents were liberated in 1945, a majority of Shanghai’s Jews chose to either return to Europe or immigrate to the United States – which had loosened its visa restrictions – during the late 1940s.

“From 1949 to 1956, the Jewish community in Shanghai effectively ceased to exist,” Rabbi Shalom Greenberg told The Atlantic in 2013. At that time the city had about 2,000 Jewish residents.

But some remnants of Shanghai’s Jewish population have managed to survive decades later. The Jewish Refugees Museum, which operates inside of a former synagogue, still stands in a neighborhood that contains multiple buildings that were used by Jewish organizations in the 1930s and 1940s.

1. The Earliest Recorded Use of Marijuana Comes From Chinese Medical Texts

The Chinese character for cannabis (“Da Ma”). “Ma” can alternatively describe hemp, cannabis or numbness, while “Da” translates to big or great. So marijuana is… “Big Numbness.”

Cannabis is among the oldest cultivated crops and has been used for one reason or another by humans for estimated 12,000 years. And despite where you may stand on the modern-day debate regarding medical cannabis, its medicinal properties have been noted by healers for at least two millennia.

Archeological evidence indicates the cannabis plant originated in central Asia. Chinese societies began cultivating hemp for its useful fibers and was the primary source of clothing for thousands of years. Chinese legend suggests  the medicinal benefits of psychoactive cannabis (Cannabis sativa and indica – Cannabis sativa L., which does not get people “high”, is the source for hemp fiber, oil, etc.) was discovered by the mythical Emperor Shun Nung around 2800 B.C.  According to legend, Shun Nung discovered the property of several plants used in traditional Chinese medicine by testing the products on himself.

The first written record about medicinal cannabis can be found in The Chinese Book of Herbal Medicine (200-250 AD) which was purportedly a compilation of oral traditions based on Shun Nung’s discoveries. Cannabis is recommended as treatment for approximately 100 ailments, including gout, rheumatism and (in what seems counter-intuitive by today’s standards) “absentmindedness.”

The early Chinese surgeon Hua Tuo is credited with being the first person to use cannabis as a surgical anesthetic, drying and powdering the plant and then mixing it with wine for easy consumption. As many sources report, the Chinese characters for anesthetic used today literally translate to “cannabis intoxication.” Tuo would reportedly use a combination of cannabis and acupuncture to dull pain during both external and internal procedures.

But while cannabis may be one of the 50 fundamental herbs of Chinese medicine, in modern China possession of the plant can be met with a hefty prison sentence and in some cases of trafficking, even death. The potential consequences for marijuana possession are, however, far lighter for Western expats in China, who often are not charged at all.

Shanghai’s Beautifully Deceptive Blue Sky

A blue sky overlooking Shanghai’s West Nanjing Road on January 19

After what feels like weeks of rain and the thickening encroachment of grey, choking smog that usually signals the onslaught of winter in China, today Shanghai has been rewarded with a practically azure-colored sky.

This is a shot of West Nanjing Road, a popular pedestrian street leading to People’s Square, the center of downtown Shanghai. From this angle the World Financial Center ( commonly known among expats here as the “bottle-cap opener building”) and the Shanghai Tower, Pudong’s defining – and tallest – skyscraper. Both of these buildings are part of the city’s now iconic skyline on The Bund, one of Shanghai’s prime tourist attractions.

I typically gauge the city’s level of smog by the visibility of those skyscrapers. If I can clearly see the buildings, as I can today, I figure it’s a good day. There are some days – yesterday morning, in fact – when the air pollution is so thick that both of the buildings are almost completely obscured. On those days, I have to squint to make out any faded sign of the mammoth Shanghai Tower.

It’s a beautiful day today. But, is it a clean day? My Air Quality Index application tells me I shouldn’t trust my eyes. Despite the lovely facade, there is still apparently an unhealthy level of PM 2.5 in the air today. As I’ve already written, particulate matter 2.5 – a byproduct of exhaust fumes and burning fossil fuels – has been linked with various health disorders, including respiratory diseases and blood clots.

An AQI under 50 is categorized as a “healthy” level of PM 2.5. Anything above 100 is considered “unhealthy.” The most concerning category, between 301-500, is “hazardous.”

I’m pretty sure my entire winter in Jinan, Shandong last year consisted of “hazardous” days. Those aren’t as common in Shanghai.


Blue skies can be deceptive.




Shanghai Weekends: A Sea of People

A never-ending line of people filled the sidewalks leading to The Bund, one of Shanghai’s most popular tourist spots.
Shanghai’s East Nanjing Road, January 2

Shanghai, with 24 million residents, is the most populated city in China. That’s bigger than the entire population of Taiwan.

This is an accurate image of what the city streets usually look like on weekend days. It can be quite overwhelming.

Beijing Airpocalypse: Is a day in the toxic air really equal to smoking 40 cigarettes?

ShenyangBeijing isn’t the only Chinese city exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution.

Air pollution in China, particularly in the northeastern cities outside of Beijing, is undeniably bad. I know it, you know it, and just about every person living in the country knows it.

But just how severe is the impact of spending one day, or even one hour, in the heart of China’s Shanghai-Beijing corridor? About 4,000 people die of air-pollution related illnesses every day, according to a study conducted by the independent research group Berkeley Earth, accounting for 17 percent of all deaths in China each year.

I used to live in Jinan, a city that has often been cited as having some of the highest air pollution levels in the country. I suffered from sinus infections, a cough and extreme fatigue during the cold season. Other foreigners, who like me had never experienced that level of pollution, complain about it as well.

10391405_10100341788834361_5152866158292628822_nA photo I snapped of Jinan in January 2015.I could  literally taste the pollution.

The air in Shanghai is a bit better, but it certainly isn’t good.
Berkeley Earth concluded that breathing the air in Shenyang on a heavily polluted day is the equivalent of smoking 60 cigarettes per day. On a similar note, an analysis of the report by The Economist found that a day in Beijing is like smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

PM 2.5, a fine particulate matter that can be inhaled by humans and lodge itself into the respiratory tract, is the culprit here. PM 2.5 is released by exhaust fumes and other burning fuels – including wood, heating oil and coal. The U.S. embassy in Shenyang has recorded PM 2.5 levels as high as 1000-1400 micrograms per cubic meter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Berkeley Earth reports, recommends exposure be limited to a maximum of 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

The EPA reports that particulate matter may include dust, dirt, smoke, soot, and liquid droplets. Moreover, these particles come in various sizes. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers – hence, the name – are classified as “fine” particles. These smaller particles, which are so fine that they can easily lodge themselves deeply into the lungs, are believed to pose a greater health risk than, say, a PM 10-sized particle.

The potential health consequences? Lung disease, blood clots, heart attack and the inflammation of lung tissue, which can impair heart function as well.


A photo  taken on November 8, 2015 shows a residential complex in Shenyang. Berkeley Earth included the photo in its recent report. (CHINA OUT AFP PHOTOSTR/AFP/Getty Images) 

According to the Berkeley study authors, inhaling 1400 micrograms of PM 2.5 – like the record-high rating in Shenyang – would be equal to smoking 60 cigarettes.

Some say the cigarette claim has been hugely inflated. An August editorial from the news website The Beijinger argues that “nowhere in China is the air pollution anywhere near the equivalent of smoking even one cigarette a day” and cited an analysis that found it’s actually closer to 1/6 of one cigarette per day. The analysis, written up in a 2011 blog post by Dr. Richard Saint Cyr,” reported that on an “average” day in Beijing, an adult “inhales a total of 1.8mg of PM2.5 particles from air pollution, which is 1/6 of the average 12mg of PM2.5 particles inhaled from an average cigarette.”

However, the page now has an addendum at top – added in October –that directs readers to a follow up article since the original post is “far more simplistic than the actual mortality data shows.” The updated article does not attempt to equate air pollution exposure to a certain number of smoked cigarettes. But it does compare the mortality risks of both cigarette smoking and PM 2.5 air pollution exposure.

Cigarette smoking, according to the report is associated with a far higher mortality risk – it’s associated with an 8 year loss in life expectancy for individuals who smoke 20-40 cigarettes per day (cause that’s inhaling a hell of a lot of PM over a lifetime.) Long-term exposure to PM in highly-polluted cities may, by comparison, lead to a three-year loss in life expectancy.

“Air pollution is associated with a much higher excess risk and loss of life expectancy compared to cigarette smoking than would be expected based on the comparative dose of fine PM,” the report concluded, noting that inhaling PM from air pollution may be unavoidable, while heavy smokers actively choose to light up.

At the end of the day, an average day in Northern China probably won’t result in as much PM inhalation as smoking a pack (or two) of cigarettes. But that doesn’t matter. The air quality is still horrible at an almost unprecedented level, with no sign of it letting up any time soon. It really might be an airpocalypse.