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

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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.

10 Random But Amazing Facts About China (Part 1)

There are so many unbelievably beautiful places in China. This is from my trip to the epic Yellow Mountain in Anhui province.

It seems as though whenever I read about China in the news, its in the context of “look at the weird shit that happens in that country.” Clearly there’s infinitely more to China than ghost towns or massive traffic jams or the airpocalypse. Or cheap labor or uncomfortably unusual local delicacies like urine-soaked boiled eggs (THIS IS NOT A THING IN LIKE 99 PERCENT OF THE COUNTRY) … the list could go on. So in defiance of this trend, I present my very own listicle of 10 random yet amazingly interesting facts about the Middle Kingdom.

10. China will (maybe) have the world’s largest Christian population by 2030


China’s ruling Communist Party may be an atheist organization, but that doesn’t mean religion has no place in the lives of the average Chinese person.

Although the Communist Party expects active – and even retired – party members to abstain from religious activities, its constitution protects what it calls “normal religious activity” for Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims (with some restrictions), Chinese Catholics (which is separate from the Roman Catholic Church) and Protestants (officially the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement”) who are members of state-approved religious organizations.

On mainland China most people follow some version of Buddhism, Taoism or a local folk religion, if they follow anything at all. But Christian churches have been flooded with new members since the 1970’s; the number of Chinese Protestants alone has risen 10 percent each year since 1979. The country even has its own mega-church celebrities. And while Christians currently only make up five percent of China’s population, that still amounts to a substantial 67 million people. Some analysts have suggested the number could be higher, since available statistics rely on reports primarily from state-sanctioned churches and do not include information from underground house churches.

Partially as a side effect of what the Center for Foreign Relations calls a “spiritual vacuum” resulting from China’s quick – and competitive – economic growth, social scientists seem to think Christianity will continue to attract new followers in the world’s most populated country. One highly-publicized prediction from a Purdue University professor determined that, if membership rates keep up, China could have the world’s largest population of Christians by 2030 (160 million versus 159 million in the United States).

9. China’s “elderly rights” law makes it illegal for people to neglect their parents

Filial reverence and responsibility is a virtue that has been stressed in traditional Chinese culture for centuries. But as of 2013, that virtue has been intertwined with the law of the land.

According to Chapter II of a Chinese law called the “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People,” family members – with an emphasis on sons and daughters – are legally required to provide financial support and comfort to their elderly parents (here defined as 60 years old or above). Healthcare, housing, maintenance support (“The supporters have the duty to help farm the land the elderly contract to farm, and take care of the trees and livestock contacted or owned by the elderly, but the earnings there from shall go to the elderly”), comfort and “attention to special needs” must be covered by family members of the elderly.

Family members must also respect the autonomy of the elderly; the law specifically states that older people should have control of their property rights and forbids children from interfering in decisions regarding marriage or post-marriage life.

The idea of “filial piety” is still commonly idealized in Chinese culture. As the New York Times mentioned, Chinese media likes to publish feel-good articles featuring examples of that reverence, such as the story of one young Chinese man who pushed his disabled mother in a wheelchair for 93 days so she could visit a popular tourist destination.

8. China gave us “Panda Diplomacy”

The Chinese word for panda translates to “bear cat”

Everyone loves beautiful, wide-eyed, squishy-looking pandas ( xióngmāo), and the Chinese government must know it. Because after decades of gifting pandas to various nations in shows of diplomatic friendliness that has come to be known as Panda Diplomacy (seriously), the nation’s leaders decided to reverse course and make a profit from their adorable commodity.

In the 1980’s China announced it would offer 10-year leases on pandas to foreign zoos (in many cases at least a portion of the fee is donated to wild panda conservation efforts). The loan terms state any cubs born during the loan are automatically the property of the Chinese government.

Fun fact: “Panda Diplomacy” has been a thing since the 7th century, when Empress Wu Zetian first gifted a set of pandas to Japan. And speaking of that…

7. Empress Wu Zetian was China’s only female sovereign ruler



The only women cut-throat enough to usurp the living Chinese emperor and then establish an imperial dynasty in her own right has been fantastically described by one writer as the “Chinese Cersei Lannister.”

But as the adage goes, the truth is often stranger than fiction. And unlike Cersei, the real-life Wu Zetian actually managed to seize a throne held by a weak male ruler to spearhead a five-decade grip on power. Her reign – alternatively as regent, dowager empress and finally as the sovereign herself – was generally peaceful and defined by a loosening of restrictions and tax burdens on peasants, the cultural elevation of women and the expansion of China’s borders.

Okay, she did a lot of crazy shit too.

Wu Zetian’s rise to power could fill the plot of at least one season of an HBO drama. Born during the Tang Dynasty, highly-educated Wu became a concubine (of course) to the Tang Emperor Taizong when she was fourteen… only to become his son’s concubine as well following Taizong’s death. Long story short, Wu became the son’s – now the Gaozong Emperor – “favorite” concubine, bore his children, accused his empress of murdering a baby, and then rose through the resulting chaos to become empress herself. Some stories suggest Wu ordered that the former empress’ hands and feet be cut off, and then her body submerged in a vat a wine so she would drown to death. Continue reading “10 Random But Amazing Facts About China (Part 1)”

Access to Foreign News in China Just Became More Restricted

Living in Shanghai sometimes gives me a warped perspective about life in mainland China as a whole. Reminders of western life, the United States and capitalism are everywhere. It’s an ambitious city; people flock to Shanghai with hopes of making their fortune. “Money” is the word of the city.The English language, while not universally spoken, is still ubiquitous.

I forget about the fact that while foreign influences can been seen, felt and even celebrated across Shanghai, that’s not the case in most of the country. I was reminded of that today when I learned that, next month,  foreign media companies will be banned from publishing online content in China. Foreign correspondents can still enter the country and file reports (with strict restrictions) for their respective news organizations. But foreign companies will not be allowed to publish any content for a Chinese audience unless they first partner with a Chinese company and receive government approval.

As Quartz, which published the story on Feb. 18, reported, this is bad news for media organizations who have been hoping to branch out to China’s huge consumer market. Some foreign companies have reportedly invested millions into their China operations – including big names like The New York Times, which can’t even be accessed without a VPN.

And of course, it’s bad news for the people living in China, who are being subjected to yet another layer of censorship.

From Quartz:

“The new rules would allow only 100% Chinese companies to produce any content that goes online, and then only after approval from Chinese authorities and the acquisition of an online publishing license. Companies will then be expected to self-censor, and not publish any information at all that falls into several broad categories, including:

  • harming national unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity
  • disclosing state secrets, endangering national security, or harming national honor and interests
  • inciting ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination, undermining national unity, or going against ethnic customs and habits
  • spreading rumors, disturbing social order, or undermining social stability
  • insulting or slandering others, infringing upon the legitimate rights of others
  • endangering social morality or national cultural tradition”

VPN Woes in Mainland China

I’ve had some problems updating my blog this past week due to faulty VPN connections.

When my VPN – a Virtual Private Network, for those of you who may not know – doesn’t work, it feels as though I’ve been cut off from the outside world. While I obviously have internet access here in China, it is heavily censored and monitored. China’s Great Firewall  keeps people inside of the mainland from accessing some of the world’s most popular websites, such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, The New York Times, most foreign online banking websites and blogging platforms. Controversial phrases (think: Tiananmen Square 1989) are also censored, blocking websites that may include those phrases in articles or headlines.

Yes, I can still use the internet here without a VPN. But it’s such a poor example of the internet, compared to what can be accessed in countries that do not impose heavy censorship. And while the Chinese internet itself is massive, it’s mostly inaccessible for people who cannot read and comprehend Chinese characters. Continue reading “VPN Woes in Mainland China”

China News: Stalin Collected Mao Zedong’s “Excrement” To Determine Trustworthiness

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In what may be the most bizarre article I’ve read involving Mao Zedong, today the BBC reports that Joseph Stalin literally ordered his aides to collect the Chinese leader’s shit in order to analyze it and uncover covert information about him.

What. The. Hell.

This information reportedly comes from Soviet agent Igor Atamanenko, who was interviewed by the BBC. The notoriously ruthless – and paranoid – leader of the former Soviet Union allegedly created the project in order to obtain the stool samples of foreign leaders and use it to construct “psychological portraits”.

From the article:

“That’s why our specialists came up with the most extravagant ways of extracting information about a person.”

Mr. Atamanenko says it was Stalin’s henchman Lavrenti Beria who was put in charge of the secret laboratory.

When I contacted Mr. Atamanenko, he told me what the Soviet scientists had been looking for in faeces.

“For example, if they detected high levels of amino acid Tryptophan,” he explained, “they concluded that person was calm and approachable.

“But a lack of potassium in poo was seen as a sign of a nervous disposition and someone with insomnia.”

The article reports that Soviet spies collected excrement from Mao during his 1949 trip to Moscow, where he was “plied with food and drink” for 10 days. In what could hardly be a surprise, Russia’s Federal Security Service refused to comment on the story.

The article didn’t include any information about the results of Mao’s “analysis”.


What. The. Hell.


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.




The New York Times Says Bad Management Has Led To “Chaotic Descent” of Chinese Economy

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In an editorial published on January 8th, the New York Times claimed that mismanagement of the Chinese economy has “turned what should have been a benign, natural slowdown into a chaotic descent.”

It seems like foreign and Chinese news sources alike have been publishing daily updates on the Chinese economy for weeks now. Plummeting demands in the manufacturing sector, along with a shaky stock market, has led to a drop in economic growth in the world’s second-largest economy, creating some fear that the shockwaves could impact China’s trading partners as well.

The New York Times’ editorial board wrote that a Chinese recession could have “far-reaching implications because the country has become such a big part of the world economy.”

But the reason I posted this article is because the Times suggested China’s economic slowdown should primarily be blamed on bad management. Corruption and disorganization among the country’s (many) state-owned companies and enterprises, a government-backed stock market bubble, and an inefficient banking system are just some of the reasons China’s economy has begun to falter after its monstrous rise, the Times reports.

The editorial ends with the newspaper advising China’s leaders to “modernize their policies.” I really only find this interesting because every expat I know who has worked for a Chinese company has had similar complaints about their employers’ inefficient — that is almost always the word used — and disorganized styles of management. This includes myself. When I lived in Jinan, I worked for a locally owned language training center that changed its curriculum monthly and was late with salary payments on more than one occasion. It felt like no one knew what the rules were. No one knew what was going on.

But my experience is exactly that – only mine. It obviously cannot stand as an overarching example of management capabilities across the country.

There are plenty of web articles and forums comparing Chinese and western management styles. A 2011 article from The Diplomat, bluntly titled “Why Chinese Make Bad Managers,” claims that Chinese managers equate management with warfare, which is why they are “so singularly bad at it.” (The article was written by a Chinese person.)

“To ease their own violent paranoia, Chinese managers instill and augment violent paranoia in their staff. To maintain absolute control, they will practice divide-and-conquer by constantly changing favourites, spreading innuendoes and rumours and lies, and acting arbitrarily and violently to induce terror,” the writer alleges.

I don’t have enough first-hand experience to be able to comment fairly on that accusation. But if it is true, that kind of management strategy doesn’t exactly seem like it would create a happy and efficient workplace. It actually sounds extremely stressful, and stress in the workplace can severely dampen employee engagement and productivity.

I’m sure plenty of people can, from experience, attest to that.

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.

With Manufacturing Down, China Needs It’s Residents to Buy, Buy, Buy

China’s abundance of cheap labor has often been cited as one of the reasons it has become the manufacturing mecca of the world. The abundance of low-cost goods flooding out of the country, and out into the international market, created an economic boom that has completely transformed the east coast of the massive country.

But with demand for Chinese products falling, the country is desperately trying to increase consumer spending within. What better way to do that than by creating reasons for people to go shopping?

China’s state-run newspaper, The China Daily, reports the country’s non-manufacturing activity (so, it’s economy not related to the manufacturing industry) was quite healthy at the end of 2015  – perhaps this is supposed to be a comfort to counter all of the articles in the international press that have recently focused on China’s “slowing economy.”

“Industries related to household consumption, such as retail, postal and express delivery services, storage and distribution services, as well as Internet software, all expanded due to a holiday and year-end promotion sales boom,” China Daily reported, referring to information provided by the National Bureau of Statistics.

The “holiday and year-end promotions sales boom” the article mentioned must be referring to two year-end “holidays” dedicated solely to shopping. November 11 — commonly noted as 11/11 — is known as Single’s Day in China, and has been transformed into the country’s biggest shopping day of the year by the e-commerce giant Alibaba.

Yes. Alibaba basically created this “holiday” to encourage people to buy things. Because if you’re so unlucky as to be single, you might as well buy yourself a nice present to make up for it.

“Singles’ Day was originally a mock celebration in China for people not in relationships. But Alibaba in 2009 co-opted the event into a consumption-fest for all, featuring steep discounts and other promotions aimed at attracting droves of customers online. Alibaba’s sales data have been closely watched as a gauge of Chinese consumption as economic growth slows,” Reuters reported in November.

As I mentioned in November, Chinese shoppers spent more than $14 billion on Single’s Day. That’s far more than American shoppers spend on Black Friday, a sales promotion that many retailers depend on in order to rake in year-end sales profits.

Single’s Day has gone so well that China invented another retail holiday for barely a month later – “12/12”. December 12 — 12/12 — is supposed to be equivalent to Cyber Monday (although I thought 11/11 was that as well…)

Although 12/12 isn’t quite on the same level as 11/11, I’m assuming the promotion must have accounted for even more of the year-end sales mentioned by China Daily.

It’s funny – the USA and China have both created retail holidays to bolster their service economies. For so long, the USA has used Christmas as an excuse for excess consumption. But Christmas shopping isn’t really a thing in China, which does not have strong ties to the holiday. I wonder what kind of retail holiday the Chinese government (or likely, a company) will create next?




Pronunciation Despair and Chǎo miàn

Language learning should be practical, enjoyable and accessible in order to foster any real development toward the path to fluency.

Am I truly on that path to “fluency”? That’s a little too early to say. What I can say is that, in this present moment, I am certainly not anywhere close to even reaching a conversational level in Mandarin Chinese.

My main problem is one I’ve mentioned before. I keep memorizing (useful) vocabulary words and short phrases, which I thought was a good thing. I usually study my Chinese book when I’m out and about – at a coffee shop, on the metro, on a lunch break at work. Because I’m away from a computer at those times, I often haven’t been listening to the book’s corresponding audio files.

So my pronunciation is still way off. It’s those damn four tones, which I still have a terrible time distinguishing between when I’m listening to Chinese.

Yesterday I reached a fairly obvious conclusion: I need a Chinese teacher.

I thought I would be able to get by using online resources, my Chinese book and through the powers of brute memorization and repetition. But what’s the point of spending so much time on something if the end result (my pronunciation – basically, my powers of communication) isn’t even comprehensible?

That may be why, when recently given a chā (fork) at a local restaurant, the fúwùyuán (waiter) did not immediately understand when I asked for kuàizi (chopsticks) instead.

My pronunciation of basic food words (coincidentally, the subject of week 2, lesson 3) is decent because they happen to be the words I’ve used the most in practice. I can also decipher these words when people speak to me, as well. That may not seem like a big deal, but Chinese speakers tend speak incredibly quickly, and often with a dialect that varies from standard Mandarin.

Using words like shuǐguǒ (fruit – the translation is closer to “water fruit”), shūcài (vegetables), yú (fish), ròu (meat), tang (soup) and, of course the staples miàntiáo and mǐfàn (noodles and rice) is almost becoming second nature.

I’m fairly confident that my pronunciation of chǎo (fried) is correct. This, by the way, is one word Chinese food-eating foreigners may already be familiar with. Do you happen to enjoy eating Chow Mein, the stir fried noodle dish ubiquitous to Chinese restaurants?

The familiar Chow Mein

Chow Mein (stirfried noodles)= chǎo miàn in pinyin. The pronunication of “chow” and “chao” in this context is almost the same.

So I’ve known how to ask for chǎo miàn or chǎo mǐfàn for quite some time. However, this week I’ve learned the words zhǔ (boiled) and zhēng (steamed), which will be useful for inquiring about where I can find my preferred style of dumpling (my favorite’s are Zhēng but in Shanghai locals seem to favor chǎo ).

I’m not a vegetarian, but if I decide to make that leap I can now tell the world that Wǒ shì yīgè sùshízhě (I am a vegetarian). And yes, the main reason I decided to add that world to my arsenal is definitely because it has “sushi” in it.