Rock The Pop

DEFAULT INDEX

Welcome to the Hunan Satellite Television station, located in the Xingsha District of Changsha, Hunan Province. It’s filming day. The giant doors of the 1,300-square-meter studio open in the dark, cavernous room, featuring a stage lit up by hundreds of stage lights of varying colors. In the back of the room, 500 audience members, sitting in rows organized by age, await with hushed breath for the next act to begin.

The blaring lights dim and then flash, enhanced by the smoke machine in the back. A woman’s silhouette walks out, her face darkened by the spotlight trained on her from behind. People gasp as they strain to see beyond her darkened frame, backlit by the overhead lights. Amidst all this chaos, Kubert Leung takes his seat at his mobile workstation, a desk piled high with computers, mixers, equipment, and microphones situated stage left of the embedded glowing circle on the shiny black stage that surrounds each singer like a glowing halo. As the music director for Hunan Satellite Television’s hit pop music reality show I Am a Singer (《我是歌手》), Leung is in charge of a 50-something team of musicians and must be able to make instant adjustments according to the needs of the singers. At this particular moment, Taiwanese pop-star Huang Liling, known otherwise by her stage name as A-Lin, is about to begin her tune. The lights bring her face into view; the crowd roars in approval.

Finalists perform in the final round of I Am a Singer by Hunan Satellite Television

Leung’s band is formed from a surprisingly small but notable collection of musicians who make up the backbone of the pop industry in China. Leung, a Hong Kong native, is both a songwriter, producer, and performer who has produced and written for the likes of Faye Wong and many others in the Canto and Mandopop industry. Among the various band members, with names like Eason Chan, Jay Chow, Candy Lo, and Cui Jian, regularly come up in conversation as old friends and familiar faces.

A-Lin turns to send Leung a short nod—she’s ready to go. Kubert’s thumb hits the spacebar of the Macbook that serves as the central nervous system of this band, initiating the click track that keeps everyone together; beside him, pony-tailed concert master Jin Haiyin raises his bow in anticipation as the first notes of piano introduction from keyboardist Liu Zhuo’s electric rig soar through everyone’s in-ear monitors. The band strikes, the room reverberates with the power of drummer Hao Jilun’s amplified kick, and guitarist Tommy Chan’s angry open-A power chord. A-Lin raises the microphone to her lips. It’s on.

As an industry once considered stagnant, rife with plagiarism and piracy, China’s music reality television programming is breathing new life into pop music, creating an image that is both fresh and marketable.

Hong Kong singer Leo Ku in the third season of I Am a Singer

The idea behind I Am a Singer is remarkably simple: pit former has-beens against each other to see who can stay afloat while allowing the audience to vote for their top favorites, forcing each singer to put out their best every week. The current season features Chinese musicians from many different nationalities, including Singapore and Malaysia. While seven initial contestants begin in episode one, others take their place as they are eliminated. Season three initially featured an ethnically diverse crew of seven singers, including Tibetan singer Han Hong, Sun Nan, Hong Kong crooner Leo Ku, Singaporean national treasure Kit Chan, Huang Liling from Taiwan, R&B artist Tiger Anson Hu, and pop idol Jane Zhang.

Finalists of The Voice of China perform a gig in the Taipei Areana

I Am a Singer is just one of a breed of shows that are revitalizing China’s music industry, and international soft power game. CCTV-3’s Sing My Song (《中国好歌 曲》) consists of three phases: an audition phase, a battle phase, and a final production phase, where producers and songwriters are teamed up to create original music. Producers choose contestant songwriters through a blind audition process, where the producer must make an instant decision to pass on or take a song. If two or more producers choose the same song, the singer- songwriter has the final choice of producer. Zhejiang Satellite Television’s The Voice of China (《中国好声音》) features judges who pick teams of contestants who face off against each other through performances and have featured such high profile judges as Wang Feng, A-Mei, Andy Lao and Yang Kun. It has been reported that the latest season will also feature Jay Chou.

The unprecedented growth of Chinese pop culture has roots in other Asian nations…

 

“Rock the Pop” is a feature story from our latest issue, “Startup Kingdom”. To continue reading, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

Money and Matrimony

DEFAULT INDEX

It’s supposed to be a cause for celebration—a wonderful expression of eternal love cemented in traditions and customs, symbolically linking one human being to another. The ritual of marriage in China echoes through the ages, so, the question is, how has it turned into a money pit? Today, weddings can cost millions of RMB, and expectations for that glamorous day are rising not falling—much to the chagrin of the lucky two and the revelers.

It is said that girls plan their weddings from childhood, putting pillowcases on their heads to act as veils. Little do they know that every step along their fairytale—the clothes, flowers, wedding car, the colorful stage, the cake, the champagne—is a wallet-shredding nightmare, and a fairly recent nightmare at that.

A one-hundred-table banquet hall used primarily for weddings in Yunnan Province

According to Time-Weekly, Shanghai ranked first on the wedding spending list, with the average cost reaching 230,000 RMB. And other first-tier cities like Beijing and Shenzhen didn’t fall far behind. Take Beijing as an example, catering for a 35-table banquet will run at about 120,000 RMB, and once you add in the wedding dress, the car, and all the various trimmings of your modern, urban wedding in China, it averages out to around 200,000 RMB. According to the China Wedding Industry Development Report, an average of 12,000 USD is spent on each wedding nationwide. For a young couple starting out, this is a horrific expense.

“We never expected an expensive wedding, but everywhere wanted money, you don’t even know where the money goes. In the end, the only thing left was my wedding dress, everything else was gone,” says Wang Ying, recently married in October of last year. “We were over budget on everything. Even the bridal bouquet cost hundreds.”

A whopping 99,999 roses were used at this wedding in Chongqing, along with 30 wedding cars

This isn’t to say that there aren’t still cheap, traditional weddings throughout the country, but China’s rise over the past few decades has turned the wedding business into a full-blown industry. In the vanguard are the tuhao, China’s famous tacky rich.

In Fujian Province, it’s not all that rare to see a bride adorned with more than five kilograms of gold, a custom but also the tuhao team colors—dozens of bracelets, rings, and jewelry of all kinds. The marriage of a ceramic magnate in Jinjiang involved an eight-day extravaganza, with a dowry valued at more than 100 million RMB. Other weddings seem to exist for the purpose of impressing the revelers; in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, 81 iPhone 5s were sent as gifts to guests at a wedding. A recent wedding in Wuhan featured a Maserati, an Audi, and a bright-pink Ferrari, all accompanied by models and choreographed dancers.

A promotional deal from a jewelry companydisplaying a bride wearing 3.5 kilograms ofgold in Fuzhou, Fujian Province

While everyone seems to have a good time, it’s important to take a break and realize that things weren’t always like this. In the 1960s, the must-have items for a wedding were called the “36 legs” (三十六条腿), meaning that newlyweds should prepare wood furniture before a wedding—beds, tables, chairs, wardrobes—all this with the expectation that the total number of furniture legs would add up to a predetermined lucky number. And that was largely it, even dinner with close friends and family was optional in the halcyon days of 1960s China.

As with everything in China, things changed after the Reform and Opening Up, and the wedding industry began to take hold. This began with the “Three Big Items” (三大件) essential for a wedding—a watch, a sewing machine, and a bicycle. Later, a radio was added and it was collectively called “Three Revolve, One Sound” (三转一响). The estimated cost for this, together with the “36 legs”, would be about 420 RMB.

This Wenzhouweddingfeatures fourFerraris, fourLamborghinis,eight Rolls-Royces, and tenBentleys

By the 1980s, the “Three Big Items” ballooned again: a refrigerator, a color television, and a washing machine, adding up to about 3,000 RMB. Wedding dinners began to become a normal occurrence, but certainly not extravagant ones. And, ten or 20 RMB in a red envelope was a generous enough gift.

It may not sound like much, but, considering income levels at the time, those must-haves were not as cheap as they sound. As the economy developed, expectations for weddings skyrocketed. Those “Three Big Items” have been relegated to history, giving rise to the weddings we know today—Western-style wedding gowns, luxury cars, exquisite bridal make-up, and wedding photos all took hold—and the wedding industry with all of its facets and niches took hold with it.

This wedding in Harbin features sports cars, vintagecars, two Hummer limos, 12 Lincoln limos, and afleet of 20 Benz vehicles in their massive procession

These niches evolved into specialized sectors: master of ceremony services, venue decoration, photography, tailoring, hairdressing, and many more…

 

“Money and Matromony” is a feature story from our latest issue, “Startup Kingdom”. To continue reading, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

Startup Kingdom

DEFAULT INDEX

Whittled down from around 30 over the course of a weekend at Microsoft’s China R&D offices in Beijing’s bustling tech district Zhongguancun (中关村), six hopeful Chinese tech startups remained in the running. Would the victor be the minds behind a personalized fitness app or those who developed a platform for private equity transactions? Perhaps the creators of a journey planner complete with suggestions based on users’ hobbies?

They were competing for a guaranteed 50,000 RMB in seed money, but perhaps more tantalizing were the potential contacts that could be forged with representatives of the venture capital groups scrutinizing them. In the end, the March 2015 event concluded when a novelty check was handed to the creators of an app that hopes to replace employee workshops with an app that trains staff in operating procedures and measures milestones.

The scene was one that would have been alien to the Chinese mainland of a few decades ago, when the idea of Chinese venture capital funds on the prowl was just as outlandish a concept as the yet-to-be-invented smartphone.

But times have certainly changed. In 2015, of all the global technology companies worldwide with a market value of over a billion, the 50 top performers all came from China, Bloomberg reported in April. The pace and scale of this change in the Middle Kingdom is nowhere more apparent than Zhongguancun, the first successful creation from the Ministry of Science and Technology’s “Torch” program (火炬计划) in 1988.

While in many ways it still resembles the electronics markets of the 80s, jostling with patrons out to buy bargain-basement laptops, Zhongguancun today is in many ways the brainchild of Chen Chunxian (陈春先), a Sichuan physicist, who in the 1970s led a team of scientists to create China’s first tokamak reactor—a device first devised by Russian scientists in the 1950s to create and contain thermonuclear fusion power.

But it was Chen’s trip to Silicon Valley in the early 1980s that would lay the seeds for Zhongguancun. He returned with ideas regarding areas with a concentration of talent and technology, which would form the basis for the first and most successful of China’s innovation clusters.

As with the tokamak reactor, Chen both copied and innovated to create something that would work for China. Crucially for startups, these clusters had incubators for tech businesses, which offered free rent and connections with universities and government departments. A startup that was part of the Torch program also, crucially, had the green light from banks to receive loans.

Thus, somewhat ironically, startups—arguably the most cutting edge form of capitalism–in China arose from centrally-planned industry zones, an idea that sits quite comfortably with communism. Since then, China has developed something of an addiction to industry zones, creating tens of thousands of them throughout the country.

While at first this may seem entirely at odds with the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley, in reality the difference isn’t quite so pronounced. Andy Mok, the organizer of the Beijing Tech Hive and a partner at Songyuan Capital—the venture capital group that fronted the 50,000 RMB—points out that although China is often in the headlines for supporting tech businesses, Silicon Valley did not emerge from a vacuum.

Although many of the plucky, fiercely independent entrepreneurs who lead US startups today tend to play down the impact of government investment, in its early days, government funding in the form of defense spending poured into Silicon Valley, with the first government contract being awarded to Stanford researchers led by Frederick Terman in 1946.

If Chen is responsible for Zhongguancun, then Terman, along with William Shockley, who helped create and commercialize the transistor, are responsible for Silicon Valley. Terman encouraged his students to set up firms in the area, including the founders of Hewlett Packard. Later Stanford would lease areas to startup firms which included Lockheed Martin, today a beneficiary of extensive government largesse and one of the largest employers in Silicon Valley, in a pattern somewhat similar to that which characterizes Zhongguancun today.

One would think that with its proximity to China’s best universities, startups residing in Zhongguancun and greater Beijing would have no problem finding talent, but for Mok—also a former Rand corporation researcher who analyzed Chinese tech—it is perhaps the most significant challenge.

“Silicon Valley is a magnet for people with the right expertise,” Mok points out.

For the full story, purchase the newest issue now, or subscribe to get a full year’s worth of The World of Chinese. You can also find us on the Apple Newsstand store. Subscribe for a year and get 6 exclusive app-only issues.

Boomtown Blues

DEFAULT INDEX

After several years of planning, a massive workforce began constructing the Tianjin West Railway Station in early 2009. With the efforts of several thousand laborers, the vast 179,000 square-meter facility was finished by the end of 2011. Like some of the trains that pass through on the 24 lines beneath the barrel-vault roof of the facility, the construction process was most certainly “high speed”, despite involving the relocation of the entirety of the previous train station—a historic brick German building, constructed in 1910—to a location a few hundred meters south. Construction of such a huge building at such speed would be an incredibly difficult endeavour to coordinate in the West, but in China, it is often par for the course.

Sebastian Linack, one of the architects who worked on the design, points out that one of the aspects that made it possible was the raw size of the labor force—a workforce that would be prohibitively expensive in developed countries. He also pointed out that China’s experience constructing massive projects in recent years has meant it now has the expertise to handle projects of such magnitude.

This is one effect the construction boom has had on China’s architecture. But even as it prompts the creation of new technologies and methods of construction, it has also spawned copycat monuments, cookie-cutter neighborhoods, immense skyscrapers, scandals, corruption, and more than a few “weird buildings”.

CHINA GOES BOOM

Sky City was meant to be the world’s tallest building. After being prefabricated on the construction site in Changsha, it was to be erected in just 90 days in 2013. The initial plan by the architects and the developer, a subsidiary of the Broad Group, suggested a 666-meter-tall building, but local government officials, eager to have the world’s tallest building, suggested bumping it up to 838 meters, thus beating the 829-meter-tall Burj Khalifa.

Officially the project is still on the books. But aside from about a month of construction activity on the site in 2013, nothing has happened since officials decided the project needed additional approvals. The site is now covered with water and a mattering of melon and corn crops. It would appear that Sky City is one of many projects that have succumbed to China’s rough-and-tumble approach to construction.

But that same approach is what bestowed fame upon the Broad Group and its founder Zhang Yue, granting them the potential mandate to revolutionize construction and architecture. The primary focus of the company is on relatively pricey air-conditioning systems that use natural gas and waste heat, which have proven popular in China due to electrical grid constraints—a natural consequence of such a rapid construction boom.

This income source has transformed Yue and the company into a fierce proponent of tougher environmental standards, which in turn spawned their subsidiary company which focuses on prefabricated buildings built at an impressive pace. In 2010, they constructed the 15-storey Ark Hotel, also in Changsha, in just six days, with the structural framework erected in less than two of those days. Admittedly, the groundwork and foundations had already been laid. But it remains an impressive achievement, particularly given the fact it used a fraction of the materials used in standard buildings and is earthquake resistant.

Perhaps this technology will help remedy the style of construction typically used for residential buildings in China, with state media acknowledging the “tremendous” waste of concrete in buildings that usually only last for 20 to 30 years, and have on rare occasions cracked or collapsed.

Higher-quality methods of rapid construction are no doubt needed, given China’s still-frenetic pace of construction, which continues on a scale far too vast for architects or policy-makers to adequately compensate.

John Van de Water, a Dutch architect with extensive experience in China, describes the approach to architecture in China using “the rule of 10×10×10”. “It’s 10 times faster, 10 times cheaper, and 10 times larger. This is very difficult for most Western architects to understand.” He says that architecture in China “requires a different approach” and that you “have to design more strategically”.

In his book, aptly-titled You Can’t Change China, China Changes You, de Water highlights various occasions where architects had to adapt their designs during the design process. “Whereas in Europe, it is more about a ‘shared information’ process, here it has a more serial basis. If requirements change, the project is changed, and the architect may not be involved with that.” He also highlighted how, in China, the clients exercise a great deal of power over the project and like to have multiple options to choose from.

boom-1

The boom has affected cities in different ways. “Some first tier cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, were already blessed with an identity. But, second and third tier cities are on a quest for identity, and sometimes their construction projects can come across as very superficial. Their modernization process was more derived from Western ideas and less from traditional,” says Van de Water.

Sometimes these Western ideas come across in a very literal way. Entire neighborhoods have been copied from Western designs. Nearby the southern Chinese city of Huizhou lies an Austrian village. There is a Thames Town near Shanghai, and the country has more than one Times Square, with a large one on the drawing board for Tianjin. Buildings with elements copied off the White House or Capitol Hill can be found all over China. Huaxi, a village in Jiangsu Province in which wealth has soared in the last few decades, now claims to be China’s richest village. It has its own version of an Arc de Triomphe, not to mention a narrower version of the Sydney Opera House. The village hasn’t just copied from overseas, it also boasts a Tian’anmen Square.

Perhaps the most egregious example of copying, due to its sheer opulence, was the $15 million office building of the state-owned Harbin Pharmaceutical Group, which was constructed inside and out to be a replica of the palace of Versailles, complete with gold-tinted carved walls, chandeliers, marble columns, and mahogany furniture. Seemingly oblivious to both public perceptions and rudimentary irony, the company said it was built to promote culture and showcase “social responsibility”.

But, that isn’t to say all the foreign design input has been so crudely handled; Van de Water also points out that many second tier cities are rapidly professionalizing their architecture and seeking designs that complement the local area. However, even when architects strain to integrate a project into the natural environment, it’s a difficult path to navigate.

FOREIGN INFLUENCES

Droves of tourists visit Xiangshan, or Fragrant Mountain, each year, particularly around autumn when the red leaves are in season. Lying just to the Northwest of Beijing, it’s a popular site for residents of the capital to undertake the Chinese version of hiking, which often involves many stone steps.

Few would guess that a nearby, aging hotel was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Chinese-American I.M. Pei (贝聿铭), who may well be the world’s most famous architect, having designed the controversial glass pyramid at the Louvre and the Kennedy Library.

But, even though his creation at Fragrant Hill, commissioned in 1978 and opened in 1982, caused a buzz when it was created, today it has fallen off the radar. This was despite a painstaking design process that was meant to integrate a range of modern styles with the Chinese setting. Care was taken to minimize the clearing of trees, resulting in a sprawling layout surrounding a Chinese garden, and 210 tons of rocks were brought in from Southwest China.

“In emotional energy, this has to be the most difficult and the most tortuous thing I’ve ever done, because I have to deal with a system I don’t understand,” The New York Times cited him as saying at the time.

Here was a project designed by possibly the world’s foremost architect—Chinese heritage, with a world-class, international background, intending to bring cutting edge modern architecture to the East without clashing with a specifically chosen picturesque environment—yet it’s far from being a world-renowned site.

Local limitations made it a nightmare that reportedly put intense strain on Pei and his family, not the least of which was the fact that instead of advanced construction equipment, he was supplied with a much larger number of laborers. He also had to contend with supply chain problems and unfamiliarity with the Chinese system.

Many of his quotes from 1982 resound powerfully with the troubles experienced by foreign architects operating in China today. “I had to learn a lot, not about Chinese architecture, but about Chinese history all over again, how people live and their cultural traditions, and try to see what’s still alive after the Cultural Revolution and find out what roots are still living and graft them on,” he told The New York Times. “I feel that all these new buildings are rootless and will become disposable in time. What China needs, in my opinion, is again to find its own heritage,” he said of the Soviet-style buildings which still dominate the Chinese landscape today.

The height of this Soviet-style approach to construction came in 1959, with the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. As part of China’s Great Leap Forward, ten “great buildings” were commissioned, most built at a hectic pace within the first ten months of that year. Even today, these buildings cause tourists’ jaws to drop with their sheer immensity, designed to convey the mighty power of socialism—with Chinese characteristics of course.

With China’s famous Great Hall of the People as the centerpiece, the buildings included the National Museum of China, the Worker’s Stadium, and the Beijing Railway Station. Even today, they stand as key landmarks of Beijing, projecting an aura of power.

But the boom has meant the same today; China’s architecture is represented by a different kind of monument entirely—the legions of residential high-rises, which proliferate all over the country, cropping up en masse around second tier cities where they form entire neighborhoods, often with a uniform appearance. So when buildings stand out, they often draw a lot of attention.

boom-3

“WEIRD BUILDINGS”

Dubbed the “big pants” by cheeky web users, Beijing’s 234-meter-tall CCTV headquarters was designed by Pritzker-Prize winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. It was this building which drew attention from Chinese web users and media commentators when President Xi Jinping in October 2014 told a forum audience that China should not build “weird architecture”. His only guidance was that architecture should, “be like sunshine from the blue sky and the breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste, and clean up undesirable work styles”.

This was hardly enough advice for architects to go on, but there have been rules imposed on construction in China. An early example was revealed in a study into the conservation of Beijing’s iconic hutong alleyways by NGO the Tibet Heritage Fund, which said that, in imperial times, the houses in the hutongs in Beijing’s central district were originally limited to just one story, because, “It was unthinkable that ordinary beings should have houses taller than the walls of the Forbidden City.”

Modern guidelines have ranged from a 2000 requirement that Beijing buildings should “mainly be grey”, as well as various attempts to rein in the construction of elaborate government buildings and limit residential developments, but these have generally been for political and economic reasons, as well as public outcries over wasteful spending.

Yang Shichao, deputy director of the Guangdong Provincial Academy of Building Research, recently suggested tougher rules would be on the way but added that a building would not be deemed “weird” if it does not “consume excessive materials, if it suits the local climate, if it fits the local culture, and if it provides the necessary functions.” And make no mistake, China has plenty of “weird” buildings.

Sometimes this is because rules aren’t followed, such as the time one brazen property owner built a rock-garden and villa on top (and over the edges) of a downtown Beijing high-rise without the slightest scrap of permission. Other times the authorities themselves, in their pursuit of grandeur, commission bizarre designs or warp more ordinary projects beyond recognition. Favorite mentions of weird buildings include those such as Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium, and the 3.2 billion RMB “Egg” National Theater for Performing Arts, as well as the Galaxy Soho project.

However, these have plenty of supporters, which is unlikely to be the case for projects like the Tianzi Hotel in Hebei Province, which is a colorful representation of three gods and incorporates their grinning statues into the design. Representations of objects are a common theme, with the Wuliangye alcohol company creating a factory and visitor center in the shape of a bottle of its baijiu. Similarly, Guizhou’s tea museum is in the shape of a teapot. More abstract designs can be found in the shape of Guangzhou’s circle which is exactly as it sounds, with a 50-meter-wide hole in the middle.

Suzhou arguably has a building which looks far more like a pair of pants than Beijing’s much maligned CCTV headquarters, and in Suzhou’s case, the recently completed Gate to the East stands at 308 meters. Fushun, Liaoning, has a giant ring as a landmark, which lights up at night. The Fang Yuan mansion in Shenyang is shaped like a glass version of an ancient Chinese coin. The construction of the People’s Daily skyscraper in Beijing caused uproarious laughter online when it was observed it was shaped like a giant golden penis. When the construction was finished, however, the shape gave way to a less suggestive design. All over the country, one can find zany monuments to the misplaced hopes of local governments that tourism will boost revenue.

But whether or not the next generation of Chinese buildings will remain so eccentric, will depend in large part on the next generation of architects.

boom-2

CONSTRUCTING CHINA’S FUTURE

The Tsinghua School of Architecture appears from the outside to be a fairly nondescript building. It’s covered in the little white tiles that make up so many of the older academic buildings throughout the capital, and as with most buildings in the city, it is greying and turning brown around the edges of the tiles. But, rising from the open cavity behind the building, a bold, black structure emerges, a row of bamboo poking up from the wooden platforms that surround it.

“It was designed by Li Xiaodong, one of the professors here,” says Martijn de Geus, grinning. A lecturer at the university and an architect in his own right, de Geus has seen plenty of foreign architects come and go during his five years in China and has also had a hand in training many young Chinese architects. “Many of them get a master’s degree here, then go overseas,” he says, adding that when they return to China, they are often able to make use of developed networks to launch a career.

Students can still be seen in dead of winter in the surprisingly hands-on workshops around the architecture school. Some are piecing together cardboard models, elsewhere they are using software to create designs. One enterprising student has used an advanced metal cutter to create the outline of a sword. The atmosphere is a far cry from the bookish, exam-focused stereotype which often proves to be reality in many Chinese universities, highlighting how much the architecture industry has changed in recent years.

“Five years ago, architects could come to China and experiment. They could undertake pioneering projects,” he says. “But these days, they don’t need you for that anymore.” He quickly clarifies that there is still a place for foreign architects, but their role is changing. “Now it’s more about knowledge exchanges,” he says, adding that architects are now heading into more niche areas such as airports, citing the case of the French architects involved in building an airport in the southern area of Beijing. “They have to partner with Chinese firms, and have specialist expertise.” He added that young architects can indeed come to China to gain experience, but they have to be in it for the long haul, rather than a quick tour to gain experience. This theme, that foreign architects must learn to specialize if they want to remain at the cutting edge of architecture, is echoed by many.

“These days, foreign architects try to make a strong impression,” says Samy Schneider, a German planner working in Beijing. He adds that with the increased specialization within architecture, foreign architects, consultants and planners may find work opportunities have expanded in certain areas. “In the past I think foreign architects were brought in for grand ideas. I think the follow up, the details, will be part of our future work.”

Schneider’s Chinese colleague, Zhang Yaming, who trained overseas, shares similar views. “Chinese local governments are getting more interested in foreign architects. If you have specialties, energy efficiency for example, there is interest.”

As competition heats up, more and more architects are looking to the still booming construction industry— particularly second tier cities, where the uniform appearance of high-rise developments means architects can design on the basis of entire neighborhoods, rather than individual buildings. But they will need to compete with the next generation of Chinese architects, who are increasingly being exposed to foreign architectural ideas, such as when Koolhaas addressed audiences at the Tsinghua campus to explain his “weird building”. He also told Dezeen magazine that he believed the CCTV headquarters “articulates the position and the situation of China”.

So while the boom may be over, and the days of grand socialist monuments may have passed; China’s new crop of architects will decide the shape of China’s skylines, boom or bust.

On The Trail Of The Chinese Hipster

DEFAULT INDEX

You see them around China’s first tier cities: young, often fashionable but sometimes decidedly anti-fashion, lounging in cafes, tapping away on their mobile devices, perhaps strumming a guitar. They are not so engrossed in the online world as the “otaku” youth who become lost in the byzantine subcultures of anime and online games, eventually losing their ability to socialize with the opposite sex, nor are they quite as reviled as the “tuhao” nouveau riche—although they too are criticized when attempts at sophistication go awry. They are the wenyi qingnian (文艺青年), or cultured youth. Some have called them the Chinese hipster, and like its Western counterpart, it can be used as a slur, but in China it really depends who you ask. Everybody and nobody knows how to define them, but they are most certainly a modern subculture—or perhaps the resurrected, de- politicized version of an older one.

They are into literature, poetry, and music. They strive to be different. They are trendy, possibly environmentally conscious.They occasionally embrace the label, but are often hesitant about doing so. Part of the reason is that the term has become so overused that a backlash was bound to occur. After all, if you go around calling yourself a “cultured youth” don’t be surprised when the oh-so-chinglishy-but-ironically- hip term “zhuangbility”, which has a similar meaning to poser/pretender, gets leveled at you.
But despite the surface similarities, there are some significant differences between wenyi qingnian, or wenqing (文青), and the hipsters of the West.

When asked how to define wenqing, one 22-year-old Chinese student, who likes to go by her Japanese name Yuki, said the term is used so broadly that it covers a variety of niche groups. “You can use the word in many ways. It can be negative, sure. You can use it to describe a guy who plays guitar but is mostly doing it to get girls,” she said, adding that it is also used to describe people who are genuinely interested in the latest cultural trends.

She pointed out similarities with a previous youth movement—the wenxue qingnian (文学青年). These were the literary youth of the 1980s who became enamored with poetry. Some of them went on to debate the philosophies of liberalism and communism.

hipster-1

It is impossible to say conclusively that one subculture became the other; after all, wenyi qingnian has only really become a popular term in the last four years or so. But, it seems almost certain that they occupy the same niche in society—the well-educated youth, interested in culture. Though it would seem that the wenqing have been de-politicized and instead focus on cultural pursuits, to the exclusion of the political.

Contrast this with the origins of the Western hipster, who first emerged out of the 1940s jazz scene. Far from the outraged, idealistic wenxue qingnian, the original Western hipsters (who were hipsters before it was uncool) also defined themselves by their familiarity with emerging cultural trends but did so with a more jaded eye. They didn’t attempt such things as changing society or even defining themselves, rather, they sought to distance themselves entirely from mainstream society, rather than reforming it, to stay ahead of the “squares”.

The modern hipsters may have ditched much of the jazz background, but maintained their aloof presence and desire to remain apart from society, along with their focus on the latest cultural trends. It is here that the wenqing and hipsters manage to converge. When asked to describe wenqing with a word, Yuki goes for “sentimental”. “They always write about relationships. This is why people think they’re so sentimental.”

Literature is a fairly common thread that runs through discussions of wenqing. In order to be considered cultured, one must be on good terms with the written word, be it as a consumer or creator. Websites such as qidian.com are a popular haunt, allowing writers the chance to post their pieces, often “sentimental” love stories, and receive exposure based on the number of clicks they receive. Some have gone on to make book deals and achieve success.

Of course, it’s not just sentimental romance tales that draw interest. Critically acclaimed works in any genre are likely to crop up in wenqing discussions, with recent successes like the science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin in vogue as well as Jia Zhangke’s film A Touch of Sin—notable in the West for its nomination for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but hasn’t been able to get a broadcast license in China. Previous darlings of the Chinese film establishment, such as Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogang, would appear to have had too much mainstream success to warrant much attention from those striving to differentiate themselves based on culture.

And no doubt, as time passes, the cultural touchstones which define the current crop of wenqing will fade to be replaced by the latest cultural sensation.

But certain genres have staying power, particularly Taiwanese cultural products. Though of course, this brings its own set of considerations to a group which seem to barely even dabble in politics, but that isn’t to say it avoids this entirely. Taiwanese singer Deserts Chang, known as Zhang Xuan on the Chinese mainland, occupies a niche somewhere between indie performer and pop success, given her contract with Sony BMG. She hasn’t shied away from political content in her songs, which is perhaps one reason for her popularity among some wenqing and the reason why others object to her.

In 2013, her song “Rose-Colored” won the “Best Lyricist” category at the 2013 Top Chinese Music Awards, and the song focused on the plight of marginalized groups including political demonstrators and homosexuals. When she performed in the UK later that year, a student brought along Taiwan’s ROC flag. Chang asked the fan to come on stage for the performance, and according to the BBC, she remarked, “I have not felt so patriotic for a while…and I am from Taiwan.” The immediate reaction was a shout from a fan, apparently from the Chinese mainland. “No politics today,” she shouted in English. “We just want to have fun.” The reaction on Weibo was swift and unforgiving. A wave of angry sentiment emerged, with calls to cancel her concerts and ban her from the Chinese mainland.

The case was illustrative of how harsh online sentiment can be. Wenqing are not immune to this. All too quickly, they can be accused of being uncultured idiots.

Perhaps the overall lesson is that calling yourself a “cultured youth” unsurprisingly can result in criticism. Being cultured enough to have someone else call you one can be nice, but you might want to double-check the praise is genuine.

Secret Sutra

DEFAULT INDEX

In the small oasis town of Dunhuang, on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, lay a sacred, secret Buddhist text, a hidden piece of world history, a marvel of craftsmanship. For over a millennium it sat there; a jewel completely hidden from sight. The book is lovingly dedicated: “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong (May 11, 868).” This gift to his parents over a thousand years ago turned out to be a gift to the world. Its historical significance cannot be overstated as it is, as the British Library describes, “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.” Little was Wang Jie (王玠) to know that this simple filial gesture would become a devotional act that would echo over the centuries.

The initial discovery of what became known as “The Dunhuang Manuscripts”—a treasure trove of some of the most significant bibliographical finds in history—was by a young Taoist monk, Wang Yuanlu (王圆箓), who saw himself as the self-declared caretaker of the Mogao Caves (莫高窟) in Northwest China, or as they were then known “The Caves of a Thousand Buddhas”. Ever the vigilant custodian, in 1900 Wang was engaged in the amateur restoration of a few caves when he noticed his cigarette smoke shifting oddly in the wind, as if to drift to the back wall of one of the shrines.

Driven by curiosity, he knocked down the wall of what was essentially a sealed cave to discover tens of thousands manuscripts and silk paintings piled from the floor to the ceiling. The extent of this hidden treasure was truly remarkable—texts dating from the fifth to the tenth century, folk tales, musical scores, poems, essays, novels, and tomes on Manicheanism, Christianity, Taoism, and, of course, Buddhism. The range of languages were wide too, mainly Chinese and Tibetan, but also Hebrew, ancient Uyghur, and languages most haven’t even heard of, including Tangut, Sogdian, Khotanese and more.

Wang knew he had stumbled on something special but he had no idea quite how spectacular the nature of the find was. After contacting the relevant officials, he found little support for the preservation of his find—surely the stuff of any bibliophile’s dreams.

Rumors of the magnificent discovery quickly traveled throughout the land: traders, scholars, explorers, historians, travelers of the Silk Road, and anybody that thought they could make a quick buck were onto Wang. Among these was the ambitious Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-Brit archaeologist who was on his second tour across Central Asia. Upon hearing of the find, he rushed to Dunhuang in 1907, ready to do anything it took to get his hands on the precious manuscripts.

Wang was initially reluctant to give up the scrolls, but Stein, alongside a little bribery, spun a tale of how he was actually following in the footsteps of Xuanzang, that famous Chinese pilgrim that made the arduous journey to India in search of ancient Buddhist texts. The tale seemed to work and Wang finally relented. Stein more or less had his pick of the loot and gathered boxes of pieces; he couldn’t read Chinese, so he took those that looked in the best condition. At the time, even Stein, a much feted archeologist, didn’t realize the true value of what he had found.

Amongst Stein’s haul was the ancient Diamond Sutra, the earliest dated, printed book in human history—several hundreds of years older than the oldest Gutenberg Bible. The manuscript itself is printed on wood-block, in superb condition, complete with dozens of elegant illustrations on strips of paper several feet long. And Stein got the whole lot for 130 English pounds.

Back home Stein was seen as a hero in the tradition of great explorers and was later knighted for his efforts. In China things were, of course, seen a little differently, and Chinese nationalists were quick to dub him a burglar and thief and even staged protests against him.

The Chinese were not afraid to use colorful language to describe the whole affair. In 1961 the National Library of Peking (now the National Library of China) described the Dunhuang Diamond Sutra as: “a famous scroll that was stolen over 50 years ago by the Englishman Ssu-t’an-yin (Stein) which causes people to gnash their teeth in bitter hatred.” The sacred text remains in the British Library to this day.

As for the Dunhuang caves themselves, they still remain a mystery: who or why it was decided to seal caves containing such magnificent manuscripts may never be completely known. There are few records of the caves or why they were closed off. The most plausible theory so far is that the caves were closed sometime after 1002 CE, as a way to prevent sacrilege in the midst of a Buddhist purge, and the caves were sealed when the people of Dunhuang heard about the fall of the Buddhist kingdom of Khotan to Muslim conquerors from Kashgar. It was known that Islamic Karakhanids destroyed the neighboring city of Khotan, burned its monasteries, and, in the words of a contemporaneous poem, “shat on the Buddha’s head”. But, in the words of that priceless, precious Diamond Sutra print, the Buddha has “the eyes of love and compassion for all sentient beings”.

Beneath Skin Deep

DEFAULT INDEX

Fang Long has just come back from a trip from South Korea, after feeling anxious about her looks. At the age of 38, she looks to be in her early 30s at most, and a large part of her youthfulness lies, of course, in plastic surgery. She has had her nose done twice, her breasts upgraded to a D-cup, her legs have been shaped by liposuction, and that doesn’t include the regular injections she has for her face. As a reward for all these investments, she doesn’t look at all like the mother of a 12-year-old, and her boyfriend is 11 years younger than she is. However, it seems the more she changes herself, the unhappier she becomes. During her trip to South Korea, she spent 60,000 RMB at the famous plastic surgery street in Seoul, yet still she came back with shattered confidence. “Almost every woman in Seoul looked so perfect,” she sighed. “You can tell they are ‘not real’, but their faces are like works of art. Now I can’t even look at myself in the mirror.”

In his office in the Department of Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery, Peking University Third Hospital, Xue Hongyu  is dealing with patients like Fang Long on almost a daily basis. He has been practicing for over 15 years and is one of the most sought after surgeons in China. “In so many cases I have to deal with patients who are never satisfied with themselves. You can say the purpose of their life is to have more and more plastic surgery on themselves. This has become their lifestyle.”

While only a fraction of Chinese women are addicted to plastic surgery, the dramatic hike in the trade can be felt palpably. China’s history of plastic surgery for the mere purpose of beautifying oneself (as opposed to treating injuries and deformities) has taken flight only in the past decade or so. Liu Yuanbo, a surgeon at the Plastic Surgery Hospital Institute, CAMS, who has been practicing plastic surgery since 1991 and has witnessed the transformation of the business in China, recalls that, as early as the mid 1990s, his clients were still largely limited to actresses and other public figures. The popularization of plastic surgery is a byproduct of China’s rapid economic development. The real turn came after 2000, when it became mass marketed.

Meanwhile, standards of beauty have also gone through more dramatic changes. Chinese painters set the criteria concerning beauty in ancient times, and defined it as “三庭五眼”, which roughly translates to “a perfectly-proportioned face measuring no more or less than three times the forehead in length, and five times the eye in width.” An ancient beauty should have smooth, white skin; her face should be round at the forehead and small-chinned; with bright eyes that are slim and tilt upward; black, slightly arched eyebrows; and, of course, a dimpled smile. These standards could still be seen as perfectly embodied by the calendar girls of 1930s Shanghai.

However, when Chinese women first started going to plastic surgeons for beauty, these were not what they wanted. They wanted large, deep eyes with double eyelids and high noses. This was because, during the 1980s and 1990s, China imported a lot of American TV shows, and the facial features were considered beautiful.

But now the notion that Chinese women have plastic surgery to look more “Western” has all but died out. Chinese women more readily identify as “Eastern“, and “Western” eyes are viewed as unsuitable for the Asian facial structure. However, the two most popular surgical operations in China are rhinoplasties (nose jobs) and “double eyelid” blepharoplasties.

Pop culture still wields a massive influence over plastic surgery. With Korean TV shows and Japanese cartoons subsisting on a diet of female viewers, women flock to doctors holding photos of South Korean divas like Jeon Ji-hyun; others want large, innocent eyes like Japanese anime characters.

Over the past few years, the traditional standards for beauty have more or less been discarded. Ten years ago it was still common for women to get dimples, a valued feature of traditional beauty because it supposedly made the smile more affable, but now almost no one opts for this old-fashioned option. Also, in traditional Chinese physiognomy, a long space between the tip of the nose and the lips signifies longevity, but this superstition is dying out as well. On the contrary, more and more women want to shorten this part of their face to opt for fuller, more curved upper lips, an operation referred to as getting the “noble lips” by doctors because it gives the face a haughtily sexy look. Breasts are also a prime area of augmentation, and they are getting bigger; ten years ago most implants were around 200 cc, now most are around 300 cc.

The market for plastic surgery in China is mainly carried out by two different facilities: the plastic surgery departments in sanjia hospitals (i.e. first-rate, large public hospitals) and private plastic surgery clinics and salons. The plastic surgery departments in public hospitals of lower quality sometimes contract operations out to private owners, so they can sometimes fall into the “private” classification. When one enters a private plastic surgery franchise, like Yestar or Mylike, the spacious, glittering reception hall has the feel of a five-star hotel—the décor striving to be as luxurious as possible, where beautiful assistants with flawless faces offer considerate services. In most cases, they claim to have products imported from the US and Europe, and their operations are either performed by South Korean doctors or in the authentic South Korean style. The surgical operations are given fancy, poetic names like “feather facelift” and “water drop breast implants”. Sanjia hospitals, on the other hand, are often located in old buildings, and appear no different than their other hospital departments—narrow corridors, peeling walls, impatient nurses, and doctors speak to you matter-of-factly rather than giving you warm, reassuring smiles.

However, in terms of reliability, it is generally believed that sanjia hospitals are more trustworthy because that’s where China’s elite doctors are concentrated. They are equipped with laboratories doing pioneering research in the industry, and the doctors regularly go to international academic conventions and are generally considered to have better medical ethics.

Liu Yugang, PR director for the plastic surgery department of PKU Third Hospital, has been in the business for nearly two decades and says, “If a patient wants to look for the absolute truth in this profession, I would have to say there is none. We can never go to extremes such as promising something will be 100 percent safe or successful. This is the nature of all medical practices, because all operations are practiced by human beings and the conditions of each individual are all different.”

Ignoring the health risks, there is the obvious point that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. “Beauty is a highly subjective matter,” says Liu Yugang.” You have to know that everything comes at some risk, and a doctor, no matter how experienced and prestigious he or she is, there is no way to guarantee absolute success. However, it is human nature to be lured by absolute promises, tags, fads, and packaging. As such, this profession can be easily misleading.”

Technological advancements are making plastic surgery easier. The doctors in Liu’s department still use the patient’s own fat as filler in 80 percent of cases. The method is very old, causes more pain and larger wounds, involves a longer recovery time, and is just as expensive as injections of hyaluronic acid, which could do exactly the same thing and are instant. The injections have so far been proven relatively safe but have yet to stand the test of time. “It’s part of our fast food culture,” says Dr Xue, on the popularity of hyaluronic acid. “People don’t want to wait for 15 days or a week; they want themselves to be instantly attractive on a lunch break.”

While those injections have shown to be pretty harmless, plastic surgery took a hit between 1999 and 2006 due to another dangerous material believed to be relatively risk-free—polyamide, a yellow, jelly-like material that China’s Food and Drug Administration permitted to be used as filler in the human body. Only sanjia hospitals had permission to inject it, but few of the doctors, acting out of prudence, chose to use it. According to medical magazine, The Family Doctor, it was injected into the bodies of around a million women in hospitals, clinics, and beauty salons all over China in a wide range of surgeries—from nose jobs and fuller foreheads to breast and hip implants. In advertisements it was called “artificial fat” and promised to be instant, painless, and absolutely harmless.

Yue Lin had an injection of polyamide in her nose in 2002 at a private clinic. It was indeed pain-free, but four years later she realized that her nose was melting—becoming wider as her face began to swell. That same year, polyamide was forbidden from medical use because it was found to be toxic to the nervous system, carcinogenic, and a catalyst for deformities and infections. When she went to a public hospital to get rid of the material, the doctor told her that to pick it out would be like “picking sand from tofu” and that she was not the most unfortunate by far. Over 300,000 victims who were injected with large quantities of polyamide as breast implants faced possible breast removal, chest infections, and may struggle with the pain for the rest of their lives.

According to the China Consumers’ Association, plastic surgery prompts around 20,000 complaints each year. However, there is no sign that the number of people getting plastic surgery will slow down. According to ASKCI, a Chinese consulting company, the growth rate is well over 20 percent, and it is predicted that, in 2015, over 7 million people will get plastic surgery in China, 82 percent of them women.

The boom in plastic surgery is caused—aside from Chinese people having more expendable cash—at least in part by social pressure on women in China, where a pretty face gets you a better salary. A Wall Street Journal report in 2012 pointed out that up to 37 percent of Chinese recruitment advertisements clearly stated that they wanted “attractive females”, and about half of Chinese employers check out the candidates’ photos on social media; the worldwide rate for employers around the world who check candidates’ photos during screening is only about 27 percent.

This anxiety is passed on to the plastic surgeons. Women feel forced to have surgery because of pressure from work, peers, and their families, and it’s not rare for doctors to turn down a client. “Admittedly, one’s appearance is important, because humans are born as very visual animals,” said Dr Xue. “But there are people who come to me and invest all their hopes in life into plastic surgery, expecting it to bring a brand new lifestyle, and save them from all their troubles. In such cases I often turn them down. I know it’s impossible. What I can do is help give others a better first impression, and that’s it. Plastic surgery…cannot change your personality, or make you wiser.”

While it is understandable that some want the surgery for a promotion or to save imperiled relationships with their husbands, Xue has also noticed that some are just plastic surgery addicts, believing this to be a contributing factor to the large number of operations in China. “Every year I see so many familiar faces. They seem to survive on plastic surgery even though they already look perfect. No matter how insignificant the change I make on their face is, they are still overjoyed and will come back next year. It’s the only source of joy and satisfaction in their lives,” Xue says.

With an almost philosophical touch, Xue believes that a plastic surgeon is, when all is said and done, a psychologist using surgery as treatment. “The ultimate purpose of all plastic surgery is for you to love yourself and feel confident. There is a traditional Chinese saying: ‘A woman makes herself beautiful for the one who loves her.’ But I believe a woman should make herself beautiful for herself. Don’t do it for men, for relationships, for money, or for any exterior motives. Do it for yourself and give yourself recognition,” says Xue. “You have to remember appearance does not decide everything in your life. A smile to yourself in the mirror is the only thing we can bring you, and you have to face the other things on your own.”

The Silk Road Endures: Faithful Isaac

DEFAULT INDEX

This is the story of a servant, an Armenian named Isaac with a wife and a family in his home in Lahore. On a fateful day in around 1603, he would meet a Jesuit traveler on a doomed quest over the Silk Road.

Benedict Goës sought a lost empire, a utopia. Legend spoke of a wise and just Christian king called Prester John—descended from the Three Wise Men of Christian myth hidden somewhere in Central Asia, a benevolent ruler with a mystical mirror that showed all the provinces of his rule. Benedict was on a mission to find his kingdom, a 300-year-old fable.

For safety’s sake, Benedict had taken to wearing Armenian garb and calling himself Abdula. The Jesuit arrived in Lahore with four converted Muslims, but they were all dismissed as “useless”. Upon meeting this strange foreigner speaking excellent Persian, Isaac took the place of the four Muslims, and on January 6, 1603, Isaac set out with Benedict and his two other companions, a Greek priest and a merchant, on a treacherous march across the Silk Road to Cathay.

It is important to mention that they were looking for Cathay, not China. For all the learning, technology, and ideology that passed over the Silk Road, those in the West were still confused as to whether China and Cathay were one or two nations—with the hope that Cathay would host a descendant of the legendary Prester John.

Their journey took them north to Kashgar, where Isaac and Benedict would travel with a caravan of over 500 people. From there Isaac followed Benedict and his entourage to Afghanistan. Thieves and murderers abounded. They traveled to Ghideli, where the bandits callously rolled boulders onto unsuspecting merchants below—so dangerous that merchants traveled with weapons in hand.

There in Kashgar, the Greek priest and the merchant gave up on their trek and turned back. For the most dangerous part of the journey, Benedict and Isaac were on their own. The relationship between the two is perhaps debatable, but Benedict is referred to as Isaac’s master, and in Wells Williams’ 19th century The Middle Kingdom, Isaac is simply called Benedict’s “faithful Armenian servant”.

They traveled north of the Taklimakan Desert, by far the most treacherous part of the Silk Road, over the dreaded Sarikol mountain range. No horse could make it, and both Isaac’s and Benedict’s mules went lame. Many in their company froze to death. Here, Isaac fell from a cliff into a freezing river, and Benedict worked for eight hours to save his life.

Benedict, despite being Isaac’s employer, was also his passport. Passage needed to be given by the local leaders’ whims, and Benedict achieved it by trading in European oddities. For example, the Jesuit traded a pocket watch to Mahomed Khan for the right of royal passage to Cathay.

They continued across the desert in a caravan that promised to take them all the way to Cathay. Besides the terrain and the bandits, in Benedict’s tale Muslims presented another problem for the travelers. The great Ottoman Empire was at its height in the 17th century and for Christians presented an all-purpose bad guy. Once, fearing persecution, Benedict and Isaac left each other weeping, wondering if death was at hand—only to be treated to questions and dinner from their Muslim hosts.

After staying a long, dangerous while in a place known as Cialis, Isaac and Benedict made, once again, a serendipitous discovery. They met with a caravan returning from Beijing, the Cathay they so desired. As it happened, the merchants were billeted with members of his own Jesuit society in Beijing, and it was here that Benedict found that his fabled land was not to be found—that Cathay was indeed China. In Henry Yule’s translation in China and the Way Thither, it reads, “Our travellers were greatly refreshed with all this intelligence, and now they could no longer doubt that Cathay was but another name for the Chinese Empire, and that the capital which the Mahomedans called Cambalu was Peking, which indeed Benedict before leaving India had known.”

Though there was no Christian kingdom to be found, their journey had an end, one where they would meet those of their faith in comfort and safety.

China stood firm under their feet, but they were far from safe. In one near tragedy, Benedict was thrown from his horse, and the others in his party had ridden ahead too far for anyone to notice. Isaac turned back for him, searching in the dark of the barren plain for his master and friend. Isaac heard someone calling on the name of Jesus, and as he approached, Benedict said, “What angel has brought thee hither to rescue me from such a plight?”

Finally, the Great Wall was in sight. They arrived in a place called Suzhou in modern day Gansu Province, and, for one of their party, this was the journey’s end. Ancient Chinese bureaucracy prevented them from going any further, so Benedict wrote for help from Beijing twice, with little hope that the letters would find their intended. Far from the civilization of Beijing, Isaac and Benedict were trapped, and their long stay completely drained their coffers.

The Jesuits in Beijing sent a young John Ferdinand to rescue Brother Benedict from his troubles, arriving on March of 1607, only to find Benedict on the verge of death, a suspected poisoning. Isaac still with him, the great Benedict Goës—the man to discover for the West that China was China—died.

For the first time in years, Isaac was alone, his only companion this new foreigner Ferdinand sent from Beijing whom he could not understand. But, his service to Benedict was not over. It was either the custom or just plain greed of the people there that a dying man’s property should be divided among the rest. They grabbed Isaac and tied him up, threatening to kill him. Ferdinand tried to save him but landed himself in jail for months.

In a somewhat comical turn of events, their time in court raised some odd problems. Isaac prattled on in a few words he had learned in Portuguese, while Ferdinand recited the Lord’s Prayer. The Suzhou judge decided that they were both from the province of Canton and were speaking their dialect. By this time, Ferdinand had picked up a bit of Persian and could speak to Isaac. To prove that they weren’t Muslims trying to sneak into China, Ferdinand pulled a piece of pork from his sleeve and fed it Isaac. The Muslims in the crowd were visibly disgusted, but the judge decided in their favor, allowing them to continue.

Isaac completed his patron’s journey, going with Ferdinand to Beijing, where he was greeted as if he were Jesuit brethren. He stayed in the strange capital of Beijing for a month and related the travels of his friend Benedict to one Father Mathew. Then, he traveled the much easier journey home via Macao, where a safe and regular passage was made for him.

On the way home, he was attacked by pirates in the seas of Southeast Asia, stripped of his belongings, and taken prisoner. In one last act of mercy, the Portuguese of Malacca ransomed him and sent him on his way home to Western India. But, before he could get there, news of his wife’s death reached him. He went no further. He settled in Indonesia, and it is here that history loses track of Benedict’s Armenian servant.

Benedict is known as the man who made Cathay and China the same nation in the minds of many; his epitaph was “Seeking Cathay Found Heaven”, and his story was immortalized by the tale of “The Journey of Benedict Goës Overland from India to China”. Hidden in that tale, a short three chapters, is the story of the servant Isaac.

And what of Isaac? Perhaps his legacy was decided by Mateo Ricci, who called him: fidus Achates, referring to the faithful travelling companion of Aeneas. Little is truly known of Isaac. But, like many travelers of the Silk Road, he left a story. It is the story of a man who left his family to travel the Orient with a Jesuit on a doomed quest for utopia, an almost imperceptibly small thread on the colossal tapestry of the Silk Road.

More stories? How about a warlike general from the Tang Dynasty who fought against the Arabian army? Stay tuned for other stories from the Silk Road issue. 

The Silk Road Endures: Lord of the Mountains

DEFAULT INDEX

It’s difficult to say when the Silk Road began or what it constitutes. Indeed, it obviously isn’t a road at all—merely a series of outposts, oases, fortresses—and it’s not as if silk was the main commodity, carrying everything from armies and gold to priests and jade. But, surely, the Silk Road is a tale of the mysteries, wonders, and appetites of the East, of China. The road has changed hands from emperors and kings to local bandits and rebels. None of them owned it; they simply rode in its wake.

Perhaps what most defines the Silk Road is that it endures. It was built in the fires of battle during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), but the path to and the hope of the East existed long before. Long after the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) put the Silk Road in its heyday in the second Pax Sinica, the Silk Road remained. Even when China itself was completely overrun by the Mongols of the North, the Silk Road thrived. And, today, even as shipping lanes and international logistics have made the path all but obsolete, the Silk Road endures.

So, where then can the Silk Road be found? Where else but in the enduring stories and people that made it happen—that bore its journeys, that protected it, learned from it, succeeded from it, and died by it. History often records the most famous: Marco Polo, Xuanzang, Genghis Khan; but the Silk Road has a million tales to tell and all of them came at a cost. With each step on the Silk Road, one steps over a story. Here are three of them: a general, a servant, and a long-haul trucker.

Lord of the Mountains

Under the scorching midday sun, amidst the drifting dust, the clatter of hoofs, the clang of iron, arrows swishing through the air, screaming echoed in the valley of the Talas River. It was a summer day in 751 when General Gao Xianzhi (高仙芝) anxiously oversaw the battle—the fifth day since the Tang army engaged the Black-robed Dashi (an ancient Chinese name for the Arab Abbasid Calilphate), and the odds were not in the Tang’s favor.

As he watched the glare of shattered armor and the gushing red of fallen soldiers, the stalwart General Gao refused to waver.

His success had elevated him to the very top of the Tang military ranks, the highest military commissioner of Xiyu (西域), the western region of the Tang Empire, in charge of 30,000 troops spread over four military towns and garrisons, as well as the power to command soldiers from Tang’s many dependent states in the region.

Ahead of him lay a grand fortress, above which black triangle flags billowed in the wind—the city of Talas (near the modern city of Taraz of Jambyl Province in Kazakhstan) and Gao’s ultimate goal. It was a rich city nurtured by the melt water of the snowy mountains, a fertile oasis. Farmers, cattle breeders, craftsmen, and merchants from various nations abounded in this major center of trade, stopping to replenish their stock and sell their wares on what would later be known as the Silk Road. But, this oasis came at a price; every major power wanted it for themselves.

General Gao Xianzhi was a descendent of the Goguryeo (an ancient Korean kingdom), a state conquered by the Tang in 666, and his father served as a general guarding Tang’s west, bringing his son into the military world. By the age of 20, Gao had grown into a good-looking young man, an expert in horse riding and archery, full of courage and decisiveness. But from time to time, his father would still give him worried looks, believing him to be too gentle and tolerant for military life. Now an experienced commander, Gao recalled those looks with pride, knowing he had proved his father wrong, especially with his career defining victory over the Tubo in 747.

A strong rival for influence in the Pamir Mountains and Kashmir region, Tubo (an ancient Tibetan state) married a princess to the king of a small country known as Lesser Bruzha (Gilgrit, Pakistan), exerting control over its affairs. Along with more than 20 other previous dependant states of Tang, Lesser Bruzha stopped paying yearly tribute. More importantly, a path to the West was blocked. Three generals were sent to take these states back, all failing until General Gao was appointed.

The expedition over the Pamir Mountains was arduous. Gao managed to effectively mobilize around 20,000 soldiers and horses with plentiful supplies at a sickening altitude and over the glaciers, a two-month march. When they arrived, the troops still had the energy to fight. From there, he reached Lianyun Fort (Langar, Afghanistan) guarded by a few thousand Tubo soldiers, with its major force of 8 to 9,000 stationed a few kilometers behind. Gao’s army managed to cross a raging river in the night and breach the fortress in the morning while the enemy was barely awake. The battle lasted the entire day. By sundown, Gao’s troops slaughtered 5,000, captured 1,000, and the rest fled in panic.

After a short rest, a 4,600-meter ice mountain became Gao’s newest obstacle. The soldiers were terrified; even if they survived the cold and the climb, there could be hostile forces waiting for them on the other side. But, Gao knew that forward was their only choice. In order to convince his soldiers, he told them that on the other side was a friendly state that would welcome their arrival. He sent 20 some pioneers to climb the mountain first, disguised as locals. It may have been an accurate divination or perhaps just luck, but when the troops climbed over the mountain to the city at the foot of the mountain, the previously Tubo controlled state didn’t put up a fight, opening its gate to the Tang troops. For Gao and his army, the worst was over. Forces were sent to Lesser Bruzha, capturing its king and his wife, the Tubo princess, all while blocking Tubo reinforcements by destroying a key bridge.

Military campaigns like this won General Gao wealth and fame, and the gentleness and tolerance Gao’s father saw in the young man faded. It was Gao’s conquest of Shi (Tashkent, Uzbekistan) in 750 that ultimately lead to the battle of Talas. At the time, Gao accused the country of being disrespectful to the Tang. Its king swiftly surrendered. While pretending to sign a peace treaty, Gao attacked the capital of Shi while its guard was down. He captured the king, who was later sent to the emperor’s court and beheaded. The elderly and the weak among the captives were not spared, while Gao filled his own pockets with loot. The Prince of Shi fled and recounted Gao’s war crimes to the nearby states, and, angered by such atrocities, many states decided to help the Caliphate, a major and rising power in the area, to fight the Tang.

Knowing this, Gao planned a preemptive strike. But, this time, he was facing a different opponent. Serving as the enemy commander, the Persian slave-born military genius Abu Muslin had recently helped the ambitious Caliph As-Saffah seize the throne a year before. With the information on Tang’s imminent attack, the Caliphate was more than ready when he arrived. Although the specific numbers of the forces are still a subject of debate, historical records from both sides show the Arabs had at least double the number of soldiers. Here, General Gao would finally find defeat.

General Gao fought bravely on the field of battle, but it wasn’t until his right-hand man pulled him from battle that Gao realized that failure was palpable. Night fell, and the outcome couldn’t have been any clearer. Not only were the Tang soldiers faltering, but the Qarluq mercenaries under Gao’s command turned against him mid-battle, cutting the infantry off from the main forces and letting the Caliphate break them one by one. General Gao’s army was annihilated. As such, Gao fled, hoping to avoid the fate of so many he had captured and put to the sword. It was his first defeat and his last battle for the fate of what would someday become known as the Silk Road.

For the rest of his life, Gao wanted nothing more than vengeance against his black-robed enemy, but a rebellion that shook the Tang Dynasty to its core soon broke out and Gao was pulled away from the West. Before Gao could get his revenge, it was done for him; his vaunted enemy Abu Muslin was beheaded when a new caliph accused him of conspiracy. A year later, the great General Gao met the same fate when, in a battle with the Tang rebels, he was falsely accused of corruption.

But, there is a bit more to Gao’s legacy. When Gao marched, the earth shook under his soldiers’ feet and city-states quaked at his approach; in his wake he left a bloody trail of bodies, but also something quite unassuming but unbelievably important: paper. Among Gao’s captured army were craftsmen and papermakers. The battle of Talas is considered by many as the event that sparked the spread of paper-making in the Arab world and later the West. War spreads violence and horror, but in the case of the Silk Road, even the bloodiest battles led to cultural serendipity.

Stay tuned for other stories from the Silk Road, and in the meantime, learn about how The Battle of Talas paved the way for the Renaissance.

Physics Fever

DEFAULT INDEX

From finding binary black holes in galaxies light years away to patiently pouring over four million bits of data over two kilometers underground to find evidence of dark matter, China’s entrance into the world of physics has taken the world by storm.

Just last year Chinese scientists measured the speed at which quantum particles interact with one another. The greatest minds in physics pondered the question for decades; the eminent Albert Einstein called the idea impossible because it would need to break the speed limit of the universe, the speed of light, dubbing it “spukhafte Fernwirkung”, or “spooky action at a distance”. Juan Yin and his team at the University of Science and Technology in Shanghai decided to measure this “spooky action” by shooting photons from a fish farm on Qinghai Lake over 15 kilometers and measuring the state for 12 hours. The results were astounding. This “spooky action” didn’t just break the speed limit of the universe, it obliterated it, occurring at least 10,000 times the speed of light, three trillion meters per second.

The study of physics is a wide field, from astrophysics and gravitation to fluid dynamics and quantum mechanics. China has only recently become a major player in the now popular world of physics, but modern developments point to China becoming the world’s premier source of scientific exploration in the field. China has the money, the brain power, and a pressing need to prove itself, and while landing on the moon and manually docking at a space station are all well and good, the heart of scientific discovery lies in the necessity to understand the physical world.

But, while one might happily wax philosophical on Juan Yin’s team’s discovery being about the art of reading a sunbeam, there are advantages beyond the academic in physics discoveries. The world runs on physics, be it airplanes or quantum computers, and the Middle Kingdom’s foray into the realm of discovery is one of boundless possibilities. And, while building a several billion dollar, 80-kilometer tube to smash protons together isn’t going to solve China’s smog problem anytime soon, doing this puts China in a unique position to change the world in ways unimaginable in the recent past.

In 1986, China published just four pieces with Physical Review Letters, a benchmark publication for achievement and discovery in the physical sciences. Ten years later, that number reached 28, and in 2006 China published 202, putting it on par with countries like Spain. Today, some of the most advantageous experiments in the various fields are done in China and are producing results that are critically changing the way we view the world around us. China shows no signs of slowing down and the investments the country makes in grand physics experiments and discoveries today will put the next generation on the path to making China the planet’s greatest science superpower.

Dark Matter Hunt

Today, we can estimate the age of the cosmos, the number of galaxies, and even the number of atoms in the universe (1078 to 1082), but among the myriad things we don’t know—not counting the things we don’t know that we don’t know—one of the most elusive is dark matter. Nearly two and a half kilometers underground in Sichuan Province, in the deepest laboratory of its type in the world, scientist are hunting for the most mysterious particles in the universe with the Particle and Astrophysical Xenon Detector. It’s called PandaX for short.

It is the first large scale experiment in China in the hunt for dark matter, and it is a promising experiment, indeed. But, it’s not the technology or the theories or even the device itself that gives the experiment such potential, but rather the choice of laboratory, Jinping Mountain. In a northern bend in the Yalong River, an 18-kilometer tunnel leads to the China Jinping Deep Underground Laboratory, built under a mountain of marble. The low-radiation in the rock above prevents cosmic rays and particles called muons from causing trouble with the search for dark matter, which, even under optimal circumstances, is unbelievably difficult to detect. There are labs attempting to detect dark matter in Korea, Japan, Canada, England, France, Germany, and the United States, but none have succeeded in producing stable, satisfactory results.

Currently, PandaX is just starting out but aims to be the most sensitive dark matter detector in the world in the next four years. The “detector” is what is termed a Time Projection Chamber, or TPC, using liquid xenon, currently running at 125 kilograms of xenon and later planning to move on to over a tonne. To little fanfare and to keep funds flowing in, the PandaX experiment released their first results late in 2014. Their results? Nothing.

The team of approximately 40 scientists—including four Chinese universities and two US universities—published their findings in Science China: Physics, Mechanics and Astronomy, having recorded four million events. Only about ten thousand of those left energy signatures having to do with dark matter, with 46 hitting the isolated, inner xenon target. Those proved to be background radiation.

Frustratingly, even though it cannot be reliably detected, dark matter, put simply, exists. It makes up a great deal of our universe and can be seen in the velocity of spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way and the disparities in known luminous mass (stars) and gravitational mass. The discovery of dark matter would change the Standard Model of physics as we know it, and, despite being one of China’s greatest discoveries in physics, it would have wide-ranging effects on how we understand things like extra dimensions and supersymmetry.

The lack of results means that China has simply joined the ranks of nations looking for dark matter, and it’s important to remember that no results are still results. Indeed, China’s PandaX project may end in abject, expensive failure, but, as China barrels into a new world of modern scientific endeavor, finding these bashful particles is only a matter of time.

Quantum Communication

According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, it shouldn’t be possible. It’s called quantum teleportation, and it sounds like the stuff of science fiction—using quantum mechanics to communicate over vast distances; ostensibly, it means using cutting-edge science to “teleport” information, but practically, it means using quantum mechanics to create perfect cryptography.

Of course, China has its reasons for putting this physics pipe dream to the top of the funding queue. The Chinese government, of late and for very obvious reasons, became very keen on information security a few years ago, needing something hack-proof to the point of absolute security. The answer is quantum-key distribution (QKD), data teleportation. The process uses photons—the stuff of light and so utterly indefinable as to be both particle and wave at the same time— sent to a receiver. Based on the known fundamental principles of quantum mechanics, any eavesdropping, hacking, or interference with information sent from the source would show up to both sides. It’s the fragility of QKD that makes it so useful.

In 2010, in the hills north of Beijing near the Great Wall, China smashed US and European records for teleportation, sending their quantum information over 16 kilometers. At the time, it was a major breakthrough, with US and European experiments maxing out at a paltry 600 meters. Before that, in 2008, the biggest advance in the field was sending a single photon reflection from a satellite. In 2012, China outdid itself, with the University of Science and Technology from Shanghai teleporting their information 97 kilometers across Qinghai Lake. However, their time in the sun was not to last, with European researchers sending information across two islands in the Canary Islands 143 kilometers.

But, China is pulling no more punches; the race for quantum communication supremacy is on, and China’s grand ambitions put it in the lead. The University of Science and Technology started working on a quantum exchange from Beijing to Shanghai in April 2014, an ambitious project to say the least, and it’s already showing results. The man at the helm of China’s quantum communication in China is one Pan Jian-Wei, who told Nature that this new program is to “provide a test bed for quantum theories and new technologies”. The US is in talks to secure a 10,000- kilometer such system. In response, China plans to launch a quantum communications satellite in 2016, and all bets are on China to be first in the quantum comms space race.

While all of these technologies are in the experimental stage, they do, in fact, work. Simply put, it isn’t teleportation in the sci-fi sense, in that no clone is created at the other end; indeed, the current system is simple binary, meaning it is more transported rather than teleported— albeit transported via subatomic particles’ quantum entanglement. The problems are complex; as Richard Feynman famously said, “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

But, China is now at the helm of a whole new world of science. Much of quantum mechanics remains a mystery, but with the funding, research, and genius of a newly motivated nation, quantum communication doesn’t seem like such a pipe dream anymore, with quantum computing and mass quantum communications systems a palpable reality. Indeed, China’s advances in the field and the competition for quantum supremacy is an exciting race, one with no finish line.

Read the rest of the story to learn about ‘Binary Black Holes’ and ‘Sino-Supercollider’ in our Buddhism issue.

Scrap Empire

DEFAULT INDEX

They seem ubiquitous—picking through trash, panning for gold in scrap metals—yet few pay much or any attention to them.

He might be pulling a rickshaw piled precipitously high with flattened cardboard, bound with string. She might be with her children, sifting through rubbish bags looking for empty cans, plastic bottles, bags, anything with resale value. Or it’s someone going door-to-door picking up off-cuts of everyday consumerism: six month’s accumulation of glossy magazines or the discarded cardboard packaging of a new computer.

Indeed, even your computer could eventually make its way to one of South or North China’s many “electronics graveyards”, villages often surrounded by industrialized towns where unskilled men, women, and children strip wires, dismantle plastics, and pick apart motherboards for just a few dollars a day.

They are just some of China’s estimated ten-million strong recycling army, unlicensed workers who help keep the streets free of waste and power an enormous semi-underground recycling industry.

Hard numbers are always difficult to come by in China, though the size of the informal industry is clear from the sheer number of people seen doing it. Whether it’s cans, cardboard, bottles, or broken appliances, chances are virtually everything you throw away will have been pored over and inspected for resale value, reducing landfill and powering a miniature economy.

Despite this valuable service and the work it provides to millions just above the poverty line, the duties they perform are not much valued by society, except for the few yuan they scrape together for their wares.

“Driven at the lowest level by poverty, the informal industry has a remarkable dynamism,” says Jonathan Watts, former Guardian Asia correspondent on environmental affairs and China and author of the excellent (if gloomy) account on these subjects, When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind—Or Destroy It. “The collectors face many of the risks associated with poverty and dwelling on the street: dirty conditions, exposure to the elements, occasional violence, and low levels of nutrition. But their situation would be worse if they were stripped of the income that comes from selling other people’s trash.”

Electronics graveyards like this one outside Beijing are a lifeline for Beijing's recyclers
Electronics graveyards like this one outside Beijing are a lifeline for Beijing’s recyclers

The year 2008, for example, was a particularly harsh one, as a global credit crisis coincided with the tail end of the momentum initiated by the announcement of the Olympic Games. Many of these migrants faced penury when the price of recyclables—such as plastic, paper, and aluminium—plummeted by as much as 66 percent in a single month; global prices for some types, such as steel, fell by 80 percent in only a few weeks. These trends may be set to worsen, if newspaper readers turn to computers, tablets, and e-readers for their consumption and the availability of newsprint for recycling—which is worth more than junk mail— declines.

The trade in trash is one of the bellwethers of the global economy; when manufacturing is up or down, the producers and recyclers of its raw materials, which includes scrap, are often the first to feel the benefits or the pinch.

Of course, the majority of those on the lower rungs of the recycling industry don’t tend to live in the neighborhoods they work and collect from. In Beijing, this means living outside the “Five Rings”, the ever-expanding network of circular roads that encircle the city. A seventh—a 940-kilometer concrete noose around Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, incorporating second-tier cities like Langfang, Chengde, and Pinggu— is planned for 2017. But some environmentalists have already coined the term “seventh ring” for the belted wastelands between the fifth and sixth roads, where a sprawling and unsightly mix of state-run and illegal rubbish sites have sprung up. It is within this suburban landscape of discarded consumer culture that, ironically, many of the recyclers live.

Yang Yunjun, 47, for example, rides in all the way each morning from Changping to Dongsi, crossing half the city every day. A tricycle like the one ridden by him or Zhai Xuegui—another peddler who usually leaves the suburbs at dawn to provide food and rent for his family—will cost around 2,000 RMB. It is their only vehicle and sole means of making a living. A traffic accident, say, or entanglement with an over-zealous urban management officer could easily cost Zhai his livelihood, yet he is more concerned about his children’s education and futures. He has a son, 12, and daughter, nine, and in time they will need to marry. What does he worry about most? “Property prices.”

Ma Shaodong seems unusually lucky—his job at a depot enables him to live in the city, thus avoiding a daily commute of at least two hours. But Ma, 36, doesn’t really consider himself fortunate. Unhappy with the type of work he has been doing for the last six years, Ma avoided eye contact and was reluctant to talk. It was only when asked about his children back home that he became animated. “I have a daughter of 17,” Ma says proudly. “She’s good in school.”

Ma lives and works at a small, makeshift trash depot in the hutongs, presided over by the warm, personable Wang Xiuyuan who has been running her little station for the last four years. Unlike some of her workers, she didn’t mind taking pictures or chatting. Wang seems relatively content with life—both her children, 18 and 24, are grown up. “Most of us are from Henan,” she says, referring to the Beijing’s street recyclers.

Those who make the journey from poorer provinces to the big city for this work do so at the risk that their migrant status disallows them from the social support they might enjoy back home, whether that be access to education and healthcare, or a network of family. Yet some do well and prosper, like Hu Xuedao, 46, who’s living the classic migrant dream: his adult children have just started a clothing business in Beijing, where the family live in the eastern outskirts of Tongzhou, while his new home back in Henan is under construction.

Hu is one of those who buy from the scrap collectors, sorting their wares to send to the big plants out in the suburbs. On a wall behind, he lists the current market prices, updated every day, for different materials, earning as much as 10,000 RMB a month by his count (others in the same area near Dongsishitiao appear to have less success, with most saying they pull in around 4,000 RMB). Like any Chinese peasant, though, housing and children are now his biggest concern.

A woman pulls a cart of recyclables by hand through the streets of Nanjing
A woman pulls a cart of recyclables by hand through the streets of Nanjing

The official position toward such workers and their stations is usually to ignore them; when they are noticed, they are deemed an eyesore. In the months leading up to the 2008 Games, scrap peddlers were forced to leave the capital, along with beggars and petitioners, or stay at home, their depots shut as part of the city’s image clean up; the alleys, meanwhile, were soon piled with rubbish. The same thing happened over the Expo 2010 in Shanghai, despite its official theme of “Green Cities”. On a daily basis, peddlers face suspicion and hassle from ever-present baoan or security guards, patrolling for thieves, vandals, and outsiders. Their scrutiny is not without justification: “Overzealous or illegal collectors sometimes pick up ‘waste’ before it has been discarded,” Watts points out. “Hence stories in the past of manhole covers and telephone lines disappearing.”

Meanwhile, there’s little interest in any of their knock-on environmental benefits, such as reducing landfill and thus helping prevent social unrest, since burning overflow is unpopular with residents and is one of many factors contributing to the intense problem of air pollution.

Without work, these people are also a potential social problem at risk of being permanently unemployed, as Adam Minter, the formerly Shanghai-based author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade and an expert in the global recycling industry, explains.

“It’s the rare person who aspires to be a picker. Rather, it’s something you do when you can’t do anything else,” says Minter of the limited employment opportunities available to those who choose this line of work. “The various levels of the Chinese government who look at this problem don’t tend to look at it in unemployment terms, but in terms of how much revenue and resources can be derived from trash if handled by other means.”

In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, this involves making municipal plans because “There’s a widespread perception in governments everywhere, not just in China, that peddlers are less efficient and dirtier than ‘real recyclers’ who use green and blue bins and giant, high-tech recycling factories. That’s wrong on most levels,” Minter says. But, as Watts says, the system that depends on these peddlers is far from being an adequate replacement for institutionalized recycling: “Visit the many landfills on the outskirts of the city and you’ll find vast quantities of material that could be re-used.”

One idea involves encouraging residents to store recyclables for monthly collection, for example, in exchange for points that can be redeemed for gifts online. There are other, existing regulations—Beijing has licensed nearly 100 waste collectors since 2005, for example—but few members of the public have been alerted to these changes or are even aware of the difference. “The effect [of licensing] has been somewhere between zero and nothing,” observes Minter.

For much inner-city recycling, then, the burden falls on the poorest, because they are the ones prepared to do what’s necessary. At the very lowest levels, that involves small groups paying a few kuai for an attendant to look the other way while they comb through housing compounds’ nightly garbage in the dead of night, looking for recyclables. It’s the last stage in a process that begins with the likes of Wang Xiuyuan, with her depot and weighing scales. Although most bins claim to have two sections, one for non-recyclables and one for recyclables, a quick look at any of the latter’s grimy contents reveals the casual level of inattention paid to any of these directives.

Beijing is expected to dispose of 23,000 tons of rubbish daily by 2015, according to official statistics, a figure rising by as much as ten percent annually; most people rely as much on low-paid workers to do their casual recycling as the peddlers depend on their laziness.

This work can be demeaning and dangerous; workers slit open garbage bags to sift with their bare hands through food waste, broken bottles, and sharp cans. In December, 2014, on a bitterly cold early morning grocery-run-cum-dog-walk, I witnessed a small group of three, one woman and two children, do just this, afterwards cleaning up what was left to stay on the good side of the baoan.

Those who do similar jobs working through e-waste face worse: Unlicensed recyclers stripping electronic goods for scrap discard waste that is toxic to them, others, and the soil. “TV sets, computer consoles, and circuit boards contain a number of toxic chemicals, including cadmium, chromium, polyvinyl chlorides, mercury, lead, and brominated fire retardants,” explains Watts. “Studies of children in Guiyu (贵屿, in Guangdong Province, South China) found levels of lead in the blood that were 50 percent higher than limits set by the US Centre of Disease Control. This can result in mental retardation.”

And it’s not just their health that e-recyclers are gambling with: “The financial risk is that much of the business is semi-legal or illegal,” says Watts, “which means it may be closed down without notice or compensation—as happened in Guangzhou after a series of international news reports (including a November 2008 report on Guiyu by 60 Minutes) about the poor conditions of e-waste recyclers.”

Legitimizing a recycling business doesn’t always help. “Ironically, in many cases, the areas where that work is performed are approved by local government units in a position to offer health, safety and environmental protections, and choose not to,” says Minter. “For example, Guiyu, China’s largest electronics re-use and recycling zone, is approved by the National Reform and Development Commission. They could do more.”

Some also say the government should focus on monitoring the business, rather than individual pickers, many of whom are old and lack the education needed for a license. Instead, a better idea might be training pickers in spotting and selling recyclables and, moreover, collecting them safely. This, though, is unlikely to happen soon. “At this point, they just don’t register as a big enough problem compared to other environmental and health issues, to be worth the massive human and financial investment that such licensing and subsequent monitoring would require,” Minter explains.

Not everyone is so disinterested in the lives of these unsung service providers. No less a personage than Pope Francis has singled out scrap-pickers across the world for particular praise. The ascetic Francis described the work of his native Argentina’s cartoneros (“cardboard people”), who pick through the city’s garbage every day for recyclable or reusable goods, as both “dignified” and “good for the environment” and criticized what he called a “throw-away culture”. In Argentina, along with Colombia and Brazil, there are social organizations for “excluded workers”, aimed at mobilizing members for better conditions, rights and incentives, politically impossible in China.

Indeed, for the moment, the cartoneros of China can only look forward to the day when a similarly high-minded official offers the same sort of recognition to them.

The Business of Buddhism, Pt 1

DEFAULT INDEX

In October, 2014, Nyima Dorjee Rinpoche, abbot of Palden Ningye Monastery, set off on a journey to what Tibetans call “Handi”, which loosely translates into “the Han ethnic land”. He was on a sacred mission to visit Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province.

China has four sacred mountains in Buddhism, but Mount Wutai is the most celebrated. It was a particularly special destination for Nyima Rinpoche because it is the “Seat of Awakening” for Manjusri, a bodhisattva of wisdom, who Nyima believes was reincarnated as his mentor. For this well-traveled, 38-year-old monk, the site is one of many pilgrimages on the quest for ultimate wisdom. He felt a sense of accomplishment and exhilaration when he encountered the valley filled with monasteries. Marshalling the utmost respect, Nyima performed his sutras and carefully groomed himself before entering the mountains.

From there, things started to go horribly wrong. In a particularly grand monastery, he saw two monks sitting with their feet resting on the chairs, “like two bosses,” he says. He asked which monastery was the most ancient; they didn’t know. He inquired about the differences between Han and Tibetan Buddhism; they didn’t know. Nyima asked if they were converted; they merely showed Nyima their conversion certificates, which they kept in their chest pockets. As to the real meaning of conversion (皈依), they were clueless.

“They knew nothing!” Nyima exclaims. “Conversion is not about papers, it’s about here.” He laid his palm on his chest. “These temples are magnificent, but there was no Buddha, or Buddha’s Way, in them. They are hollow.”

Nyima left Mount Wutai disillusioned and saddened. “This is what happens in the Downfall Era of Buddhism.”

The Downfall Era of Buddhism (末法时代) is often cited as the reason for the ills of Buddhism in our modern times. Before he attained nirvana, Buddha predicted the downfall of his own religion in three phases, the first being the first thousand years of thriving, a second thousand years of reflection on the first phase, and the third millennium being the downfall.

A grandiose monument built by developers outside Famen Monastery
A grandiose monument built by developers outside Famen Monastery

In China, at times, it looks particularly lost. For many Chinese people, the traditional image of a Buddhist monk is someone next to a saint: thin, dignified, and a trusted guide on spiritual matters—perhaps even a psychic with supernatural powers. But, most of all, they should neither have nor want money. This romanticized image causes all the more antipathy toward the modern Chinese Buddhist monks of reality.

For an ordinary pilgrim, one needs to be quite well-off to visit a monastery. Most temples charge an entrance fee, and a lot of them are high enough to bar most pilgrims from regular entry. You can find a donation box by every gate of every hall. When you enter a monastery, you are usually coerced into buying a candle or putting your family name down for a ceremony, with monks offering guarantees of good luck and fortune.

Meanwhile, as China gets richer, Buddhism’s patrons give more and more generous offerings. In some wealthy monasteries, abbots can be seen driving a BMW, Audi, or even a Porsche— often gifts from wealthy patrons with now assuredly spectacular karma. Shi Yongxin (释永信), abbot of Shaolin Monastery and possibly the most well-known monk in China, is commonly called the “CEO of Shaolin” because he started over ten companies under Shaolin’s name. For some, the death of the romantic ideal has caused a loss in faith, and for many others, the perception of Buddhism has changed to one of greedy monks, expensive incense, and tourist hotspots.

If, indeed, this is the millennium of the downfall, how did it come about? Gao Xiang, a member of the Beijing Buddhist Association and a well-known Weibo celebrity for his Buddhism advocacy, believes it is the cost of the modern world. “It’s not that monasteries want themselves to be commercialized—they have to. They are forced to.” A long history of Buddhism in flux has led to Xiang’s view, a view many share.

Although Chinese history is littered with attempts to ban Buddhism outright, none were as thoroughly destructive as the Cultural Revolution. With the exception of a few monasteries of unsurpassed historical value, most temples were converted or turned to rubble. Before 1949, Beijing had over 700 hundred monasteries within the second ring road; now there are only 20. When the 1990s came, such problems ceased. It was the decade when Deng Xiaoping famously advocated the slogan, “Everything should be centered around economic development.” A new passion for money filled China with energy and anxiety, and everything that could make money was considered good. Just when Buddhism was staggering into recovery, money presented a new hurdle.

Tourists and pilgrims flock to the crowded Yonghe Monastery in Beijing to pay their respects for the New Year
Tourists and pilgrims flock to the crowded Yonghe Monastery in Beijing to pay their respects for the New Year

Tourism, which barely existed previously, became all the rage. Han Buddhism, especially its Chan (known in Japan as Zen) branch, has a tradition of seclusion and hermitages, keeping the practice as far away from the hurly-burly as possible with monasteries hidden in remote mountain areas. However, with these mountains developed into jingqu (景区, commercial scenic areas), monasteries are trapped in the center, with tourist buses flocking to their gates on newly built roads. After the Cultural Revolution, the monasteries were never really handed back to the monks. Temples fell under the jurisdiction of three government departments: the Tourism Bureau (旅游局), the Landscape and Forestry Bureau (园林局), and the Cultural Heritage Bureau (文物局). The first thing those bureaus did was begin to charge entrance fees.

Abbot Haixin, vice president of Shanxi Buddhism Association, was a new monk when the news broke that Mount Wutai was going to charge a fee of 0.2 RMB in the 1980s. “We were filled with incredulity and anger. To make money out of Buddha! What kind of karma would that bring? Unthinkable. We fiercely protested, but to no avail.”

Things got worse from there. Today, fees for some Chinese temples and monasteries can be prohibitively high for some, leaving embittered pilgrims. The entrance fee to Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province is 238 RMB, Shaolin Monastery in Henan Province charges 100 RMB, and Nanshan Monastery in Hainan Province costs 170 RMB, to name just a few.

While most blame the greedy monasteries, few are aware of the fact that most monks and nuns are against it and have petitioned to lift the fees at every National Buddhist Convention. Shi Yongxin has been petitioning the central government to lift the fee for over ten years because “it blocks the over 1,000-year-old pilgrimage path and bars pilgrims”. He has had no success. Seventy percent of the Shaolin Monastery’s fees go to the local government and the developer, but to be fair, the city that hosts Shaolin Monastery is struggling financially. The ten million RMB annual revenue from Shaolin is simply too much to give up. Similarly, in 2014, seven monasteries in Jizushan Mountain, Yunnan Province collectively closed their gates to visitors in protest against the tourism developer’s intention to charge an entrance fee. Thanks to the media attention, they succeeded.

“If the entrance fee is lifted, who will suffer most?” Gao Xiang points out. “Not the monasteries. Monasteries will only be better if these fees are removed. It’s these three government sectors who have benefited from it the most.”

“It’s not about money, it’s about people’s hearts,” says Abbot Haixin, frowning and shaking his head anxiously. “It is giving out one message: if you are poor, you are not allowed to pay your homage to Buddha. It is an unwritten insult to those who cannot afford it. It’s no longer about 238 RMB, but about discrimination and disrespecting people.”

The abbot, still shaking his head, continues: “Did the government build the mountain? Did it build the monastery? If not, no one has a right to charge a fee. We have focused so much on economic development that we are ignoring spiritual and religious things. Buddhism is supposed to save people’s hearts, but look what it has become.”

Stay tuned for the second part of the cover story from The Buddhism issue.