The beginnings of humankind can be a contentious subject. Christian Irish scholar Bishop James Ussher rather ridiculously set the date of creation at 4004 BCE on October 23rd, but China has the luxury of family records that date back almost as far. But what about further back in time—much, much further? China is a land of vast resources and rich geological diversity, with unparalleled fossil records and relics of early human activity, which leads us inexorably to the question: what role did the land we know as China today play in the ascent of man?

Peking man (北京人) is perhaps the most famous hominid resident of China. Unearthed from 1923 to 1927 at Zhoukoudian near Beijing, it was evidence of a transformative stage in human evolution from ape to man, defined as the genus Homo erectus or “upright man”.

Unfortunately, most of the Peking man’s remains were lost during the war against Japan. Deemed a national treasure, these lost fossils were the subject of international concern, sparking efforts to recover the remnants on land and by sea. Theories of the ancient creature’s whereabouts ran from the basement of a hospital and the royal palace of Japan to the ocean floor—a lost treasure of modern science.


Today, only the fossils of seven teeth, one humerus, one shinbone, one parietal bone, one occipital bone, and a section of jawbone remain in China, while three teeth are kept in the Uppsala University of Sweden. A fourth tooth was recently rediscovered in the university’s basement in one of the boxes sent from China for processing when the site was first excavated. This tooth somehow slipped through the cracks, only to be rediscovered to roaring headlines.

In 1987, Zhoukoudian was listed as one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites, and UNESCO emphasized its importance on its website by stating: “The Peking Man Site represents the most comprehensively and systematically studied site of Homo erectus…[it] also provides more precise scientific data for the study of the evolution, behavior, and paleoenvironment of Homo erectus than contemporary African and European sites.”


Chinese textbooks in the past taught that Peking man was the father of the modern Chinese, while today DNA evidence has established that modern Chinese people, like everyone else in the world, are descended from the hominid species Homo sapiens, or “wise man”. They evolved in Africa, and then traveled around the world to settle while the Peking man most likely went extinct. The impression nevertheless remains that the Peking man is somehow related to Chinese people, an argument best left to paleoanthropologists and biologists.

We, however, are going to look at four other discoveries in China, perhaps less well known but equally fascinating, that have shaped our understanding of the human race’s journey to the present day.



It was early December in 1980, but, in the southern province of Yunnan, the smell of warmth and life was in the air. A group of scientists and local workers led by paleoanthropologist Wu Rukang worked feverishly on a small area where many fossils had recently been discovered. They were largely teeth, some of them even with jawbones attached.

It was a delicate task given the small range in which these fossils were scattered and overlapped. Just as one group was working on getting these pieces out unharmed, a loud cheer broke out from a neighboring dig site. A local worker held something in his hands and dashed toward the scientists yelling: “Was this an old ape?” It was, in fact, just what they were looking for: the skull of an ancient ape.


The small colliery where the site is located is named Shihuiba, nine kilometers north of the county of Lufeng. Ever since 1975, when an ape molar fossil was discovered by accident, scientists have made many excavation expeditions in the hope of finding long-forgotten primates, and now they had found something of real value. The relatively complete skull fossil contains precious information, such as the creature’s facial features and brain size, providing invaluable perspective into the evolutionary history of the humanity’s relatives.

Initially, Wu believed it to be a previously discovered ape in the India Subcontinent, named “Rama’s ape”. But later progress led to the hominid being assigned its new genus, Lufengpithecus, meaning “Lufeng ape” (禄丰古猿). Weighing around 50 kilograms, this large-bodied ape inhabited the area some eight million years ago in the late Miocene Epoch. Elephants, saber-toothed cats, three-toed horses, and hornless rhinoceroses were all alive in the Lufeng ape’s ecosystem. The face of the Lufeng ape was broad and short; its canine teeth were relatively low; and thick enamel covered its molars, which led to the belief that they ate tough vegetation as a main food source.


Arguments surrounding the Lufeng ape mainly center on whether it is a primitive hominid or a member of the Ponginae. Some suggest that the ape’s facial bones showed that it was better able to support itself in a bipedal posture. The larger international science community tends to favor the latter based on current evidence.

Even though the Lufeng ape was most likely not a human ancestor, its discovery was still precious. They existed during a time when apes went extinct throughout the rest of Eurasia, suggesting southern China was an important refuge for primates, including the ancestors of the orangutans and gibbons. Their fossils provide an invaluable look into the environment and ecosystem of the time.

Scientists believed that the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau might have impacted the climate of the region, isolating it from the harsher environment elsewhere. They also suspect that the apes eventually went extinct because the weather grew drier and colder in the following Pliocene Epoch. The arrival of Homo erectus soon after may have also accelerated the process.

“Sino-Sapiens” is a story from our latest issue, “Law”. To continue reading, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store or Google Play Store.

Rice Vs. Wheat


It’s sunset, somewhere in the American Midwest. Amid the rustling wheat fields, a solitary farmer drives a gargantuan machine through the rows. Meanwhile, as the sun rises on the other side of the planet, Chinese rice farmers are moving along shallow pools of water in lines, gathering the crops in groups. Once collected, they will enjoy breakfast as a group.

Scenes like these have been handy stereotypes for generations. The rugged individualism of the American farmer has long been a staple of film and literature, not to mention a defining trait of the American self-image. Likewise, Chinese have defined themselves by their familial ties and collectivist culture. But is there a rice grain of truth in any of these stereotypes? And can they be scientifically proven?

Thomas Talhelm, now a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, is exploring the idea that the culture and psychology of people in various regions are affected in a measurable way by the methods of farming they use—his hypothesis being that rice farming leads to a more collectivist culture, while wheat farming breeds individualism.

As his study outlined in the May 2014 edition of Science magazine notes, the easiest way to test whether rice and wheat lead to different cultures would be to show that the rice areas of East Asia foster cultures that are interdependent, and that wheat areas in the West are independent.

In Guangxi, one of China’s southernmost provinces, a group of farmers work together to transplant rice

In Guangxi, one of China’s southernmost provinces, a group of farmers work together to transplant rice

But as soon as the idea is put out there, it gets shot down. “That logic is obviously flawed. We cannot just compare East and West because they differ on many factors besides rice and wheat—religion, politics, and technology—to name a few.”

What is needed, is a country with a shared government, language, history, and religion that farms rice in some areas and wheat in other areas.

Basically, China. With the country split between rice farming in the south and wheat farming in the north, with the dividing line being a zone stretching from the Yangtze River north to the Huaihe River, China itself holds the literal and figurative seeds necessary for this research.

The idea came to Talhelm when he was living in Guangzhou after spending some time in Beijing. “I got a sense that people living there were pretty different,” he says. “That got the seed in my mind, north and south are different. For the longest time I didn’t have an explanation for why this was. I knew I wanted to study it systematically and see if it was true.”

Differences between North and South China have long been themes in Chinese tales, idioms and commentary. “It’s not as if I told China that people from the North and South are different, people knew about it, but I had never seen people actually test it.”

One popular saying is not far from the hypothesis of Talhelm’s study: “一方水土养一方人” which loosely translates to, “The water and soil of an area shape the people.”

Another story, revolving around Yan Zi, a Prime Minister of the State of Qi during the Spring and Autumn Period around 2,500 years ago, cites Yan telling foreign functionaries: “They say orange trees have sour and dry fruit in the north, but sweet fruit in the south. Their leaves are similar but the taste is different. Why? Because the environment is different.” He then continues: “People in Qi don’t steal. But when they come to Chu, they become thieves. The environment of Chu is probably conducive to that kind of behavior.”

Yan Zi was most likely directing a not-so-veiled insult toward his hosts, but it’s obvious to anyone with a passing interest in China that there are indeed vast cultural differences between regions. It was this that piqued Talhelm’s interest. “This question was always on my mind. Why does this difference exist?”

A farmer rides a tractor to sow wheat in Northern Anhui Province on a 13-square-kilometer piece of farmland

A farmer rides a tractor to sow wheat in Northern Anhui Province on a 13-square-kilometer piece of farmland

It began with language. “I was in this class on dialects and they would show us maps of different words. One of them was the word 手 ( shǒu ). I had always learned that to mean hand, but in certain parts of China it can also refer to the whole arm…They were showing us this map of where it means hand and where it can also mean arm, and I thought it would not be random…But it was almost evenly divided along the Yangtze River.”

“My first thought was that it was a barrier, or a border. But it’s not, people can just get in a boat and cross, it’s not like a mountain.”

“I don’t know at what point it hit me, at some point I learned that that is the dividing line between rice and wheat…There is some background in psychology and anthropology, they call it subsistence theory, the idea that what you do to make a living historically and culturally influences your culture today.”


To cut to the chase: yes, the study concluded that there were cultural differences and that they were delineated by the borders between areas that traditionally grew rice and those that grew wheat. The reason for this basically boils down to labor.

Rice paddies require standing water, thus people in rice-growing regions traditionally needed to build large, elaborate irrigation systems that required the cooperation of all the farmers in the village. Water use had to be carefully calculated, because one farmer’s water use would affect their neighbors. Entire villages were required to build, dredge and drain these irrigation networks, rather than lone individuals.

A Chinese farming guide, cited in the study, from the 1600s states that “if one is short of labor power, it is best to grow wheat,” and said that Chinese anthropologists, as far back as the 1930s, had found that a Chinese husband and wife would not be able to farm a large enough plot of rice to feed a family if they relied solely upon their own labor. Or, as Talhelm states, “It wasn’t cooperation with other people for warm fuzzy things—you literally needed to work with these people to get food on the table…This raises the cost of conflict—if I am a jerk to you today, we still have to work together tomorrow. That makes it a lot more awkward and potentially threatens my livelihood if I create conflict. Compare that to wheat farmers who don’t really need to have these labor exchange customs.”

“Rice Vs. Wheat” is a feature story from our latest issue, “Law”. To continue reading, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

The Life Relocated


Every half hour, every weekend, the Wuqing (武清) high speed railway station fills to bursting point with newly arrived passengers. It’s a 20-minute trip on the bullet train, and a flyover pass decorated with Romanesque statues channels them over to “Florentia Village”, the biggest outlet mall in North China. Built with an investment of one billion RMB, it is meant to resemble a “16th century Italian town”, with its winding alleyways, a “Roman Square”, and an artificial river complete with gondolas. Middle class shoppers pack the alleyways and stream into their favorite designer shops—Gucci, Prada, and Coach. In 2014, a new shopping center “Venice City” sprang up right beside “Florentia”. Under and beyond these monuments to consumerism is the ghost of communities that vanished to make way for modernity—the specter at the food court.

For outsiders, the mall is perhaps the only major attraction of Wuqing. Administratively belonging to Tianjin City, Wuqing District is only 60 kilometers away from Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road. Wuqing’s governmental website prides itself on its location as “at the very heart of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area”. Compared to other typical Chinese towns, Wuqing is surprisingly clean and well-maintained; the roads are wide and bordered by well-kept lawns, bushes, and trees of different hues. Everything here—roads, lawns, communities, factory buildings, and office buildings—seem to sprawl endlessly into an overwhelmingly expansive, well-planned, and surreal materialist paradise. However, when one leaves Florentia Village, the facade gives way to a sparsely populated rural town of high rises.

Real estate buildings spring up on land that once held villages and their people

Real estate buildings spring up on land that once held villages and their people

“Ever since 2000, Wuqing has taken urbanization as its development strategy,” the district’s government website claims triumphantly. “Over the past few years, Wuqing dismantled over five million square meters of villages, which contained over 100 streets. Over 100,000 residents were turned into urban residents, and their identity, lifestyle, and administration have been fundamentally changed.”

The government does not mention how many villages were dismantled or what their names were; rather, they are looked upon at a macro level—streets and square meters to be carved up for profit—a good argument to be sure but one that is never had: the urbanization of rural areas. As the process of urbanization is pushed triumphantly onwards, it becomes increasingly clear that it is presented as a half-told story, with entire communities gone in a flash.

“There were 16 villages,” says 49-year-old Li Shuling positively. For the past two years Li has worked the night shift at Yonghe Soy Milk, a Chinese fast food franchise. She is short, energetic, and like most villagers she gets her information through gossip. “The village Florentia Village is built upon was called Liangzhuang. My village was called Danangong.” Danangong literally means the “big south palace”, a rather grand name for a village that could be built over without anyone noticing. “Now all the villagers of the 16 villages are concentrated in three communities—the Xin Community, the He Community, and the Jing Community.”

A village that remains on the edge of the Wuqing "urbanized" area;the red characters advertise gravestone inscription. Authorities areintent on reforming village burial practices, and where the deceasedwould have been buried in a private field, they must now rest in apublic graveyard.

A village that remains on the edge of the Wuqing “urbanized” area; the red characters advertise gravestone inscription. Authorities are intent on reforming village burial practices, and where the deceased would have been buried in a private field, they must now rest in a public graveyard.

These three communities are “relocation apartments” (回迁房), and they are massive. Each community consists of 81 buildings that look exactly the same, block after block of exactly the same structures. For these originally rural residents, merely picking their building out of the sprawling identical landscape seems a daunting task.

Liu Guihua now works as a cleaning lady for her own block. She protested fiercely when her son tried to persuade her to move into their new apartment on the 17th floor of the new community. Her biggest fear was that she might never learn how to use the elevator, and this was not an uncommon fear among her neighbors. In the humble beginnings of this burgeoning community, it was quite common for a tan-faced, middle-aged man to rush in, look the button board up and down, and anxiously and helplessly ask: “Is it going up or down?”

But, now in their third year of residence, most of the patrons can manage quite well, and many appreciate the merits of life in a building. The heating system and the sewage system delight everyone who had varied experiences with both in their previous accommodations; heating a high-ceilinged village home was almost impossible, and many of their toilets were built at the other end of their yards without proper (or sometimes any) sewage treatment infrastructure.

Middle-class shoppers swarm Florentia Village, often unaware ofthe people displaced for their shopping sprees

Middle-class shoppers swarm Florentia Village, often unaware of the people displaced for their shopping sprees

Wuqing is a town built for cars, and outside these ad hoc communities the roads are wide and bare, no restaurants, no convenience stores. However, those with a bit of business nous quickly started to make a living by selling things from their apartments, and one can get everything they need from these makeshift home stores without ever leaving their community: buying vegetables, renovation services, hairstyling, and more. It appears that, in those listless, identical buildings, a new community has evolved; a self-sufficient organism. They know where to buy vegetables, pancakes and buns, where the barber and the hardware store is, where one can buy curtains. The stores never have signs, but the villagers know them by heart; and when they do get confused, they just need to go into the elevator, which is coated in layer after layer of handwritten numbers and addresses—a sort of community all-in-one yellow pages and information desk.

Despite their surprising and inventive evolution in this new life, the villagers often feel fundamentally frustrated. What bothers Li most is that now every household locks its doors. As she speaks, everyone around nods gravely, sharing the same antipathy of closed doors in the corridors of their residential flats.


“The Life Relocated” is a feature story from our latest issue, “Law”. To continue reading, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

Judgment Day


It was not until 1999 that “rule of law” was formally written into China’s constitution as part of an amendment ratified by the National People’s Congress. More than 15 years later, the term is still a key buzzword in media discussions as the country struggles with the realization of this concept.

One need only glimpse the headlines to see injustices occurring on a daily basis. The sheer size of China’s administrative bodies, collectively serving over a billion people, makes reform a daunting task, not to mention the breakneck pace of development which results in a legal system screaming out for equally rapid change.

This issue we look at a few of the troubles plaguing the legal system and have thus become key areas of reform—such as what exactly happens when government departments clash with courts and why a chief judge sometimes makes less than a senior hairdresser.



Arbiters of truth, the first line of defense for rule of law, guardians of justice—and they’re paid like entry-level interns and unskilled laborers. An assistant judge with three to five years of experience in a rural local court takes home about 2,000 RMB per month, and a chief judge in a less developed region (with more than ten years of experience) can only expect to make around 4,000 RMB a month, according to statistics from Xinhua. When you couple this laughably low pay with a generally difficult job and frequent chances to run across a political misstep with dire consequences, you get one thing: brain drain.

“I seldom see judges over 60 years old. At most, the judges I know are in their 40s,” says Wu Yigang, partner at the Beijing-based Wu Luan Zhao Law Office. “It’s a reality that judges are paid as civil servants, much lower than you can make in business.”

Fewer and fewer legal professionals are looking at the esteemed position of judge as a possible career; many only do it to gain contacts for their inevitable turn to the private sector. Indeed, local courts and procuratorates in at least eight provincial regions cancelled recruiting examinations in 2014 due to a lack of serious applicants. The bar for the bench is not exactly high; to become a judge, according to the Judge’s Law of China, you need two years experience, one year of experience with a bachelor’s degree in law, or a master’s degree in law with no experience whatsoever. Even with these low qualifications, few are joining the queue.

And, it’s not just the youngsters bailing on the bench; seasoned judges are giving up on their courts for jobs on the other side of the courtroom. Shenzhen’s grassroots courts lost over 15 percent of their judges from 2009 to 2013, and Shanghai fared worse with more than 300 judges resigning over the same period. The Global Times cited an expert last year who said that, in an unnamed central China province, 82 percent of the total court staff quit between 2008 and 2012.

The good news is that the authorities have recognized this problem as local and central bodies address the issue, and it’s becoming clear that half measures simply won’t do. “Any judicial reform needs to change the structure, widely and systematically,” says Wu.

The current bout with judicial reform came in October of 2014 at the 18th CPC Central Committee fourth plenary session, accompanied by a host of 84 changes. The brain drain in the judicial sector was hardly the top of the agenda, but, not only is it essential in the long-term battles for legal uniformity, but it also has knock-on effects for the anti-corruption drive. Well-paid judges are less likely to end up in the circumstances of former Chinese supreme court judge Huang Songyou, who was sentenced to life in prison for accepting 3.9 million RMB in bribes and extortion. Indeed, the judges most in need of a pay rise (and quality control) are what are termed “frontline judges”.

Many of the most pressing judicial reform matters facing the country are directly affected by the inability to find reliable, fair judges from a cache of lawyers and legal professionals that can make much more money in the private sector. In an editorial by China Daily, Zhou Guangquan, a law professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, stated in no uncertain terms: “[Judges’] incomes should be increased, and their social status and other occupational benefits should also be improved…If the central government cannot do this, the reforms will be hard to push forward in grassroots areas.”

The problem, however, is already being addressed by China’s top courts; the Supreme People’s Court said they would increase the incomes of judges around the nation. Those most hard hit by the low salaries are the district, county, and village-level judges around China. Though they are, strictly speaking, of little political importance, the approximately 23,000 judges at these courts tried 20 million disputes in seven years; they make up a tenth of the judiciary and do a quarter of the work.


“Judgement Day” is the cover story from our latest issue, “Law”. To continue reading, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

The Ayi Industry


Stuffing her black backpack with cleaning materials, 45-year-old Lu Ayi leaves her bungalow outside the Sixth Ring Road in the east of Beijing, heading to her first appointment of the day at eight in the morning. It takes at least two hours and a bus transfer to get to her client’s home near Chaoyang Park inside the Fourth Ring Road, but she’s not too worried. Her company offers six RMB in compensation for trips like this, and she can save four. Wiping, scrubbing, and washing meticulously, all at the rate of 25 RMB per hour, until the two-bedroom apartment is spotless, she then rushes to do the same on the other side of the city—just another day.

Lu Ayi’s face is tanned and there are wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, but her bright eyes reveal a cheerful nature. Many in Lu Ayi’s position come from difficult circumstances; her misfortunes began with a gambling husband. Skipping out on his debts, he disappeared, leaving his family and his job as a coal miner. Lu Ayi had to persuade the coal mine to hire her as a replacement just to earn a living. Today, she is part of a burgeoning but sometimes dangerous industry, that of the domestic service worker.


Preparing meals is an important part of an Ayi’s work

There are over 22 million women like Lu Ayi across the country working in the domestic service industry (家政服务). Primarily women from rural areas, they are called baomu (保姆, nanny), zhongdiangong (钟点工, hourly worker), or the more affable ayi, (阿姨) which means “aunt”. However, in this case, these “aunts” are a part of the family in the sense that they do the cleaning, cooking, babysitting, nursing of children and the elderly—whatever chores busy, modern Chinese families have no time for, or simply can’t do.

Back in the 1990s—before the age of booming factories, restaurants, salons, and stores—a profession in the domestic services was one of the few options open to rural women when they migrated to the city. There were limited channels for them to find such jobs, and their distant urban relatives were their only hope for work. Earning merely a few hundred RMB a month, they still took it as a good deal, as their food and accommodation would be covered. Also, the kinship inherent in the position meant that employers were willing to put trust in their nannies who were, after all, family.


Dozens of women from the countryside in Sichuan Province take part in a ten-day training course to start their domestic service career

This model is virtually extinct today. An unprecedented number of working opportunities have opened up to rural workers, and a domestic service industry formed and grew along with the rising demand. Finding an ayi has never been easier, what with all the agencies and, most recently, electronic platforms helping to match an ayi with a family, but at the same time, there is a serious lack of industry standards. Stuck in the middle are these rural women, and while they may have better prospects than their predecessors, they are still fighting to find their place in the modern metropolises around the country.

Currently, the demand for domestic service workers is at an all time high. People’s Daily estimates that of the 190 million urban families in China, 15 percent require domestic service in order to function, and Beijing alone needs more than 1.5 million such workers. This is largely due to the drastic change in the Chinese family structure over the past few decades. Before the 1950s, a Chinese family consisted of 5.3 members on average, whereas a Chinese Family Development Report released by National Health and Family Planning Commission of the PRC in 2014 indicates that the number has shrunk to a mere 3.02. With the one-child policy, urban migration, and lifestyle changes, the extended multi-generation family is already becoming resigned to history. This means less help within the family, especially when it comes to caring for the young and old. And with both spouses working full time and a new emphasis on quality of life, a typical urban family requires a lot of help at home.


Ayi busy cleaning the windows

Though the demand is urgent, according to many clients, finding the right ayi is almost impossible. The urban-rural lifestyle differences are palpable. “Here, we call hiring an ayi, qing (invite), because it’s so hard to meet a good one. Once you find her, you want to treat her like a god,” says Hangzhou resident Hu Yang, sharing her experience on the quest to find the one true ayi. To Ms. Hu, the statement is not a joke; she went through 13 different ayi prospects in three years. “The first ayi bailed on me after only a month despite our previous agreement; another ayi broke our 3,000 RMB stereo while cleaning the living room and left a week later because she found out that she was pregnant. From then on we were afraid to hire anyone under 50.”

Hu also stated that there were problems with, shall we say, work ethic: “She would drink the leftover milk directly from the baby bottle and feed my baby food that she chewed in her mouth. I told her it was unhygienic, but she insisted that it was how babies were raised in her hometown.”

“We finally gave up and just wanted an ayi to help with the cleaning, but this time, the ayi we hired threw everything into the washing machine at the same time, including baby clothes, adult clothes, and dirty cleaning towels,” Hu states. “It drove me insane the first time it happened, but she just refused to change her ways.”


“The Ayi Industry” 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.

Rock The Pop


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

This Wenzhou wedding features four Ferraris, four Lamborghinis, eight Rolls-Royces, and ten Bentleys

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

This wedding in Harbin features sports cars, vintage cars, 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


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


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”.


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.


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.


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.



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.



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


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.


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 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


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


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.”