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Snowy Scenes

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Many cities across northern China, including Beijing, experienced their first snow of the year last week as cold air from Siberia brought stormy weather. The first snowfall coincided with “Little Snow,” the 20th solar term in the traditional Chinese calendar, and led to some stunning images:

A visitor in traditional dress of the Qing nobility poses for a photo at the Forbidden City as The Palace Museum saw long lines of visitors eager to appreciate the former imperial palace in snow

The snow shower in Beijing was over quickly, but visitors in Jingshan Park still managed to snap shots of tiny sculptures before the last of the snow melted

Around 130 kilometers northeast of Beijing at the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, silver mountains and snow-covered walls made for a special scene

Further north, on the slippery roads of Shenyang, Liaoning province, food couriers worked through the night in tricky conditions

Intrepid winter swimmers braved the frigid temperatures to take a dip in the Songhua River in Harbin, Heilongjiang province

Snow swept off the road was made into giant snowmen along Harbin’s Central Street

Seven hundred students and teachers from Harbin Engineering University spent two days arranging snow into the shape of an aircraft carrier, a submarine, and two submersibles on their campus

A rider in Inner Mongolia takes part in the traditional sport of “lamb-grabbing” at Fenghuangshan Ski Resort in Hulun Buir

All images from VCG

Viral Week Ep. 272

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Viral Week is our weekly round-up of the weekend’s trending memes, humor, rumor, gossip, and everything else Chinese netizens are chatting about.

This week, smart toilets in Shanghai, snow hits north China, water proves flammable, and the world gains a new tallest leek:

 

No girls, no entry

A hot pot restaurant in Chengdu denied entry to two male friends because they had no women in their party. The two men, who had waited in line for an hour, called the police, and were eventually allowed in when the restaurant agreed to have a female server sit with them.

Fire water

Residents in an apartment block in Panjin, Liaoning province, found that their water supply is flammable. Multiple videos show residents lighting running water in their homes on fire, while local authorities have halted water supply to affected apartments while they conduct tests.

Making the punishment fit the crime

A retrial has been ordered for a 2019 case in which a 24-year-old woman from Shandong province, surnamed Fang, was abused, tortured, and beaten to death by her husband’s family because she could not get pregnant. The court had originally sentenced Fang’s husband to two years with a three-year probation period, and her father-in-law to three years—punishments that outraged netizens who deemed them too light.

Marrying the dead

A street dance group’s performance about “ghost marriages” prompted heated debate about the illegal custom of arranging marriages between two dead people (or between one living and one dead individual), which has led to cases of corpse-trafficking in some parts of China. The performance, by student dance club Frebel-crew of the Guangxi University of Finance and Economics, tells the story of a poor father who sells his daughter to a rich family in a ghost marriage. The young girl attempts to escape, but is eventually strangled to death, and the marriage is completed.

Weird signage
A Shanghai restaurant owner triggered public outrage for putting up a crude women’s restroom sign which featured a man peering over the cubicle door. The owner later apologized and removed the sign.

Superior leek

Miao Fayong, a farmer from Zhangqiu, Shandong province, received 30,000 RMB at the 18th Leek Cultural Tourism Festival for growing the world’s tallest leek: at 2.532 meters, according to the Guinness World Records.

Rude research

A government organisation from Lingshan, Guangxi, went viral online because the name of their research topic, “[Female Emperor] Wu Zetian’s mother is in Qinzhou,” sounds like cursing in Chinese. Later, the local government apologized and changed the name, but this did not resolve another concern—why were public funds being spent on research into the seemingly irrelevant activities of a historical figure’s mother in the city?

Snow fight

Heavy snow has hit China’s north and northeast regions, leading to epic snow fights on school and university campuses.

Intelligent toilet

A Shanghai park won praise for its “considerate” smart toilet, which sends an automatic alarm if users do not come out in 15 minutes in case of any emergency. However, some were concerned that this might give extra pressure to those suffering from constipation

Cover image from VCG

Seals of Approval

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By the time police were called, it was far too late: Li Guoqing, erstwhile CEO of e-commerce website Dangdang, had stormed the company offices with five men and made off with 42 corporate “seals”—leaving behind a letter stating he was taking over the business from Yu Yu, his cofounder and estranged wife.

This saga in April, part of an ongoing public divorce between Li and Yu, was as dramatic as it was illustrative of the importance of physical stamps, also known as seals or chops, to legal documents in China.

In a spicy case in June, internet giant Tencent sued chili-sauce conglomerate Laoganma due to 10 million RMB in unpaid advertising fees, only to find out their client wasn’t the real Laoganma: Three con artists had forged the Guizhou company’s corporate stamp on the contract, which was apparently all they needed to fool the hard-boiled internet executives.

Official seals, or gongzhang (公章), are a must-have for any Chinese enterprise today. They are normally etched with the name of organizations, and serve as a validated signature on business and legal documents where they are dipped in red ink or cinnabar paste and stamped. In some cases, a company representative will sign before stamping as an extra guarantee.

To have their seal be considered legal, a company must submit their business license and a “seal certification” document at the public security bureau. Employees usually in the human resources or accounting departments are commonly tasked with keeping the physical seal in a secure location.

An ancient stamp on display at the Shanghai Museum (Fotoe)

Throughout Chinese history, seals have served as symbols of high office. A bronze seal unearthed in 1998 in Anyang, Henan province, bears testimony to stamps being created in China since at least the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE). It is etched with the taotie pattern, an ancient design typical of bronzeware of its era, and is believed to have been used by a vassal state to symbolize its political link to its feudal master.

Stamps became a symbol of absolute centralized power in the subsequent centuries. Various groups employed different classes of seals: xi (玺) for the ruling class, yin (印) for officials and merchants, and zhang (章) for military generals. The most significant was the jade-based Heirloom Seal of the Realm, which allegedly dates back to China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang. The sacred relic, held in the triumphant hands of the founder of a new dynasty, symbolized the transfer of imperial power.

However, the legendary relic mysteriously disappeared in the ninth century, and afterward, emperors could only rely on their own jade seals to impress their authority. The Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911) had 25 imperial seals and 1,800 personal seals. Each imperial seal was reserved for a different function, such as signing documents, declaring wars, and sending troops.

Yin, the seal used by civil servants to sign their official correspondence, embodied the power of the government bureaucracy. Civil servants wore their yin on a belt when they assumed office, and took it off when they left. In the eighth century, poet Wang Wei (王维) wrote that the official Tao Yuanming (陶渊明) “took off his seal belt and quit the office” because he was unwilling to bow down to a government bigwig, afterward becoming known as a hermit and poet.

A business stamp from the 1980s (VCG)

Seals were also used on calligraphy and paintings to signify authorship or ownership. The Qianlong Emperor, renowned for his literary tastes, had collected a large number of masterpieces affixed with over 1,000 personal seals. One of them is “Timely Clearing After Snowfall,” a 28-character calligraphic scroll now displayed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. It was embossed with a stunning 172 stamps by the emperor, who also wrote comments in the margins to show how much he admired the fourth-century work.

Seals were historically made of stone, ivory, metals, bamboo, or wood, though plastic stamps are also common today. Seal-making has evolved into an art in itself, requiring painstaking craftsmanship and fetching high prices at markets. A seal from the Qianlong Emperor made of pink jade, featuring nine well-sculpted dragons searching among the clouds for a sacred pearl, fetched 22 million USD at a Paris auction in 2016. Qi Baishi (齐白石), a well-renowned Chinese painter, was also a master seal-carver who engraved complicated ancient characters onto his stamps.

Individuals also kept personal seals carved with their name to use as their signature, and even today, under China’s contract law, personal stamps can be used to authenticate documents instead of a signature. Artisans at print shops, tourist sites, and antique markets like Beijing’s Panjiayuan offer seal-making, and often recommend their customers to pick a distinct design. Individuals can even apply to have their seal pattern put on record at the public security bureau if they plan on using it in business.

Apart from physical seals, “e-seals” are becoming a solution in protecting online transactions. In July, the city of Hangzhou debuted China’s first e-seal application based in blockchain technology with Ant Financial. The platform will purportedly offer greater security and convenience for enterprises, as it will match electronic seals with records of the corporation’s unique physical seal—and as a bonus, making it much harder for one’s business partner or irate ex to steal.

 

Cover image by VCG


“Seals of Approval” is a story from our issue, “Disaster Warning”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

Old Fashioned

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Surfing the web and becoming an internet celebrity are pursuits usually associated with the young, but one group of elderly in China are becoming the darlings of netizens for the energy and unique charm they bring to the online world.

Zhang Shaozhong, a 68-year-old retired rear admiral of the navy and former professor at the National Defense University, has gained more than 4 million fans on Bilibili, a video streaming platform popular with users born after 1995. Zhang posts videos of himself commenting on international politics and military in a professional and witty style, and is nicknamed “Director of the National Strategic Fooling Bureau” due to his tendency to downplay China’s military strength, only to be contradicted by the latest news of the country’s weapons developments.

On short-video platform Douyin, a 79-year-old woman under the handle “Grandma Wang Who Only Wears High Heels” has gained more than 16 million followers for her exquisite style—makeup, slim figure, red nail polish, and high heels—and her slogan, “Age is only a number; my wonderful life has just begun.” Grandma Wang typically uploads videos showing her outfits, occasionally offering life advice to her primarily young fan-base.

Young people make up the largest group of China’s internet users. The country’s top two short-video apps, Douyin and Kuaishou, each have more than 400 million monthly active users, and around 70 percent of those are younger than 35.

Members of “Glamma Beijing” on a photo shoot in Beijing (VCG)

However, according to the state-run China Internet Network Information Center, one in six internet users is now over the age of 50, an increase of nearly 8 percent over the last five years. A 2019 report by the government-run China Netcasting Services Association found that the proportion of users over 50 on short video platforms rose from 6.5 percent to 11 percent over the previous year, making them the fastest rising demographic of users on these platforms.

While many elderly internet celebrities gain popularity simply by subverting common expectation of the fashion sense and lifestyle of retirees, there are those like Professor Zhang and Grandma Wang who stand out due to the professional knowledge and life experience they’ve gained with age. Grandma Wang’s short videos have featured her talking about the safety of women, the relationship between genders, and how girls can protect themselves from sexual harassment, gaining millions of clicks.

The e-commerce industry has taken notice of the trend, partnering with senior influencers to host product reviews and make sales. In March, Grandma Wang made her e-commerce debut on Douyin, making 4.7 million RMB’s worth of sales in food and beauty products in 4 hours. Since then, Grandma Wang’s studio has maintained sales worth millions of yuan in product livestreams.

“Elderly internet celebrities are more likely to inspire trust among people due to their age, and this is their advantage,” Zhao Haiguo, owner of “Auntie’s Got Style,” a Douyin account with millions of fans, told China Newsweek magazine. To further capture internet users and consumers over the age of 50, Zhao has started a business that hires seniors to make short videos, and promote products when they become popular.

However, not all elderly internet celebrities want to monetize their fame. Wang Xinghuo, one of the founders and operators of “Glamma Beijing,” a WeChat public account with over a million followers, told China Newsweek that she had rejected offers from with many livestreaming companies that requested several videos from her per week, which she believed is too demanding for her age.

According to the 70-year-old Wang, her purpose for operating the account is only to break the public’s stereotypes of the elderly. A former civil servant, Wang’s life had revolved around work and family when she was younger, but retirement gave her the opportunity to sign up for a modeling course for seniors, where she met the other three co-founders of the account.

Whether posing with her friends in qipao in Beijing’s fashionable Salitun district, or showing  her affectionate interactions with her husband, Wang sees her videos as a way to finally pursue her own dreams. “‘Granny’ is just a self-modest label; I’ve never thought my age was a problem,” she told journalists at Beijing Fashion Week. “As long as your heart is clear and bright, you can always have a new start in life.”

Cover image from VCG

Skulls and Sacrifices

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As archeologists dug beneath the soil on the northern edge of Anyang, Henan province, in the 1970s, they began to unearth dark secrets from ancient history.

One after the other, 3,000-year-old skeletons were found beneath the ground—some kneeling, some with wounds consistent with torture. Others were decapitated, their skulls discarded in pits nearby.

These findings and the accompanying “oracle bone” inscriptions, the first known examples of ancient Chinese writing, showed that the remains came from thousands of ritual human sacrifices that took place during the Shang dynasty (1600 — 1046 BCE), pouring further mystery on the already murky history of the oldest Chinese dynasty for which conclusive archeological evidence has been found.

Shang society, it turned out, was extremely violent, but also deeply spiritual. Controlling an area around the Yellow River Valley, which included parts of present-day Henan, Shanxi, and Hebei provinces, the Shang kings acted as both military leaders and high priests, personally overseeing rituals involving human sacrifice and divination.

The discovery in 1928 of the late Shang’s capital, Yinxu (殷墟), at Anyang revealed a treasure trove of bronzeware, weapons, and the outlines of building foundations. Archeologists also found thousands of turtle shells and animal bones that were used for divination. Inscriptions were carved into the bone or shell, which were then heated until cracks appeared on its surface. The diviner would interpret these patterns to make predictions about the future, or answer the inscribed question.

Inscriptions on thousands of tortoise shells and animal bones reveal the importance of human sacrifice to Shang society (VCG)

These inscriptions, which researchers are continuing to decipher, make thousands of references to human sacrifices. At Yinxu, archeologists discovered hundreds of burial pits, and more at other Shang sites, each containing up to a dozen human skeletons and countless more remains of animals, including pigs, dogs, and even elephants. Researchers have estimated that over the course of about 200 years, more than 13,000 people were sacrificed at the Yinxu site, usually males aged 15 to 35. Each sacrificial ritual likely claimed around 50 human victims on average; one sacrifice involved the death of at least 339 people.

One type of sacrifice, known as renxun (人殉), was performed for the burial of kings or nobles. The victims were likely servants or family members of the deceased who would accompany them in the afterlife, as their remains were found in tombs alongside other treasured possessions like bronzeware, weapons, and cowry shells (thought to have been used as currency). These sacrifices may have been voluntary, or at least accepted as part of tradition for those serving the elite.

Chariots and horses were also buried with nobles when they died

But the majority of sacrifices were not of this category. Instead, the victims were killed as part of ritual ceremonies. While the victims sacrificed in burials usually included women, most of those killed in ritual sacrifice, or renjisi (人祭祀), were young males.

Those sacrificed are referred to as “羌 (qiāng in today’s pronunciation)” in oracle bone inscriptions, a term that seems to have been used to describe tribes of pastoralists to the northwest of Shang territory. These peoples, considered barbarians, were likely prisoners of war and, and were offered to the Shang gods. Some inscriptions suggest that Shang forces undertook military operations for the sole purpose of capturing Qiang for use in rituals.

Most of those sacrificed were non-Shang people probably captured during war

The method of sacrifice could be brutal. The character “伐 (fá)”, found on oracle bone inscriptions, appears to show an axe decapitating a person, and is the most common sacrificial method mentioned in writing. Some victims were first decapitated, and their head was boiled in a bronze pot. Other skeletons were found with their hands behind their backs, and their (still attached) skulls bashed in.

Oracle bone inscriptions indicate that these ritual sacrifices were an integral part of Shang tradition. Humans were offered to the Shang gods to ask for bountiful harvests or good weather, or to communicate with their ancestors. The rituals may also have been an effective way to maintain political control—the Shang king took part in the ceremony, reinforcing a social hierarchy where he alone could communicate with the gods, while the sacrifice itself instilled fear into his subjects.

Scholars believe that Yinxu was the last capital of the Shang, where several generations of kings resided for perhaps 200 years before King Wu of Zhou, with the help of legendary strategist Jiang Ziya, finally toppled the Shang rule and established the Zhou dynasty (1046 — 256 BCE). The Zhou appear to have been less concerned with sacrificing humans to placate the gods, and the practice seems to have died out under their rule. The tradition of funerary sacrifice, however, lived on—but with less beheading, at least.

Cover image from VCG

The Eunuch and the Yogurt

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On the morning of November 14, 1908, the Guangxu Emperor of the Qing Empire, just 37 years old, suddenly complained of stomach pains and tingling in his hands.

As his attendants noticed a darkening of his face and scrambled to fetch the imperial physician, the head eunuch, Li Lianying (李莲英), hurried to the adjacent Forbidden City to notify the Empress Dowager Cixi. She was, after all, the young man’s aunt, primary caretaker, and principal jailer.

The emperor had been under virtual house arrest for over a decade. In 1898, the emperor had tried to institute a series of sweeping reforms aimed at modernizing the empire, only to seem them suppressed by conservatives. The Empress Dowager had stepped in, and since then the emperor had been a prisoner in his own palaces.

Empress Dowager Cixi (middle) (VCG)

By the time the physician arrived at the emperor’s quarters on Yingtai Island, part of the imperial garden known as Zhongnanhai, the emperor was dead. Was it natural causes? Was it poison? Officially, the emperor died of a sudden illness, but the questions persisted for nearly a century. Finally, historians in China put an end to at least part of the mystery.

In 2008, scientists compared strands of hair from the Guangxu Emperor’s tomb and found arsenic levels 261 times higher than a hair sample taken from the body of his wife, Empress Longyu. It was clear that the emperor had been poisoned—but by whom?

The Guangxu Emperor came to the throne in 1875 at the age of 4 following the death of his teenage cousin, the Tongzhi Emperor. However, the Tongzhi Emperor’s mother, the Empress Dowager Cixi, had wielded the real power at court ever since a coup in 1861, shortly after the 6-year-old Tongzhi Emperor was enthroned. She had chosen the Guangxu Emperor to succeed her son because he was the son of her sister, which made it easier for her to justify continuing her regency.

In 1889, the 18-year-old Guangxu Emperor married and officially took power, although his aunt continued to wield powerful influence at court. The emperor’s new bride, the Empress Longyu, was his cousin as well as the Empress Dowager’s niece. Their relationship was challenging, and they remained childless.

The Guangxu Emperor was also particularly enamored with his favorite concubine, known as the Pearl Concubine, who would often encourage him to be a more assertive ruler and to stand up to his aunt, the Empress Dowager. The emperor’s favor and her assertive attitude won her few friends at court; in 1900, she drowned in a well in the Forbidden City, possibly pushed in on the Empress Dowager’s orders, as the imperial family fled the capital before foreign armies coming to quell the Boxer Crisis.

Pearl Concubine (VCG)

The Empress Dowager is the natural suspect in her nephew’s death: Their relationship had been strained for years, and she died just 22 hours after him. Matters between aunt and nephew had reached a crisis in the summer of 1898, when the emperor approved a sweeping set of reforms in administration, military affairs, and education, supported by a group of young officials with bold ideas for rehabilitating an empire that was crumbling under foreign invasions and internal strife.

It was perhaps too much, too fast: Conservative factions at court rallied around the recently-retired Cixi and urged her to resume her regency. There is evidence that they even explored ways to replace the Guangxu Emperor.

There were others, though, who had an interest in making sure the emperor didn’t outlive his aunt. The fallout from the 1898 reforms had made the emperor lifelong enemies with an influential army officer, Yuan Shikai (袁世凯). Yuan, a rising star in the Qing military, had informed the Empress Dowager’s inner circle that the emperor and his advisors might have been plotting to remove Cixi from her position of influence. Yuan was rewarded for his loyalty to the Empress Dowager by a series of government posts, but he knew his career—if not his life—was in jeopardy if the emperor were to reassert his power. 

And what about revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen (孙中山)? Having risen to prominence in the 1890s, Sun had organized groups of Chinese radicals and raised money in support of toppling the Qing dynasty. By 1908, though, many of Sun’s backers were wondering when (or if) his revolution would happen, and a few began withholding their financial support. With the all-powerful Empress Dowager in poor health, the assassination of the emperor might be the spark the revolution needed.

While it might have been difficult for outsiders at court to gain access and opportunity, the supporters of Sun and of Yuan had powerful motives for wanting to see the emperor dead. Some theorized that they could have bribed a eunuch to do the job, though Zhu Chengru, a researcher who studied the emperor’s body from 2003 to 2008, believed they could have at most been cronies of the Empress Dowager, the only one who could have masterminded the crime and given the order to kill.

Could the Guangxu Emperor’s death even have been orchestrated by his own Empress? Longyu was childless and unloved. In any scenario in which the emperor was replaced, especially if the new ruler was still a child, she would have a seat at the table, or even gain great power like her aunt Cixi.

Finally, there were the people closest to the emperor. If you’re going to poison food in the palace, you need a eunuch. Li Lianying had been the hatchet man for the Empress Dowager for years. Moreover, he had his own motive. It was likely at the hands of Li, or perhaps on his orders, that the emperor’s beloved Pearl Concubine had met her unfortunate fate. If Yuan Shikai was number one on the Guangxu Emperor’s enemies list, Li Lianying was next.

A story passed down through the family of Puliang, the Minister of Rites in the last days of the Qing dynasty, recalls that on the morning of November 14, 1908, Li Lianying was seen leaving the Empress Dowager’s chambers with a special bowl of yogurt bound for the breakfast table of the unfortunate emperor. Speculation persists that this was the fatal meal of China’s second-to-last emperor.

The Empress Dowager was gravely ill at the time that her nephew’s death was announced, but had just enough time to anoint yet another heir to the throne: Puyi, the Guangxu Emperor’s 2-year-old nephew. After naming the successor, the Empress Dowager died the next day on November 15, 1908.

Thirty-five months later, the dynasty fell. The Empress Dowager Longyu negotiated an abdication for the boy emperor Puyi as the Qing Empire gave way to a new Republic of China led first by Sun Yat-sen and, soon after, by the Guangxu Emperor’s old nemesis Yuan Shikai.

What might have been? The Guangxu Emperor was only 37 when he died. If he lived a typical lifespan of his time, he could have ruled into the 1930s. If he had survived the Empress Dowager, would China’s revolutionaries have warmed up to the idea of a constitutional monarchy?

Because of a eunuch, an empress, and a bowl of arsenic-laced yogurt, we will never know.

Cover image from VCG

No Place Like Home

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One of the biggest (among many) controversies of Disney’s live-action Mulan may have been Mulan’s family home: a round tulou belonging to the Hakka minority in southern China, though the heroine had originated in a northern Chinese ballad. But this is just one of the vast array of creative structures that Chinese have called home through the ages and across the country.

From cave dwellings to “boat houses,” Chinese have always found unique and practical ways to shelter themselves. Here, we present five types of traditional dwellings associated with different regions and ethnic groups in China:

Yaodong (窑洞)

(VCG)

Yaodong, or cave dwellings, are the ancient form of residence of peoples living on the Loess Plateau in northwestern China. The first yaodong dates back to China’s Bronze Age (2,000 BCE), though scholars generally believe that they became popular during the Han dynasty (206 BCE — 220 CE). Yaodong were dug into the soft loess soil, sometimes in tiers going up the cliffsides, or sunken into the earth on flat ground. The design provided insulation from extreme heat and cold.

As construction techniques improved, the development of yaodong flourished during the Sui (581 — 618) and Tang (618 — 907) dynasties, with their prevalence peaking in the Ming (1368 — 1644) and Qing (1616 — 1911) eras. The Communists famously  inhabited yaodong at the Yan’an Revolutionary Base in the 1930s and 40s, and people still live in yaodong today.

Tulou (土楼)

(VCG)

Tulou, or earth houses, are a traditional dwelling of the Hakka (客家) ethnic group typically found in Fujian province. Large, circular, and often surrounded by mountains or rivers, tulou were designed to protect the residents from attack. The outer walls could be up to a meter thick and five stories tall, and were built using soil, lime, sand, and even sticky rice. The buildings originated around the 12th century, but became most popular during the Ming and Qing period. Hakka families in Fujian still live in tulou today, which tourists can visit.

Stilt House (吊脚楼)

(VCG)

These raised houses, or diaojiaolou, are traditional dwellings for many ethnic minorities in China’s southwestern regions, including the Miao, Zhuang, Buyi, Dong, Shui, Maonan, and Tujia. In mountainous areas with little room for construction, the design allowed homes to be built over rivers or on uneven hillsides. The part under the stilts is usually used for storing food or livstock, while the family lived in the house above. Diaiojiaolou can be found in Sichuan, Guangxi, Hunan, Hubei, and Guizhou.

Diaofang (碉房)

(VCG)

The diaofang is a common Tibetan dwelling made of stone, clay bricks, and wood. They are found around the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and parts of Inner Mongolia. They consist of a flat roof, and normally two or three floors. According to the Book of the Later Han, compiled in the fifth century, these buildings have existed since as early as the year 105. Although most diaofang have stone walls, some are built with clay bricks on the inside and stone on the outside which, along with deep and narrow windows, provide better insulation during harsh winters on the world’s tallest plateau.

Boat house (船型屋)

(VCG)

These homes, which resemble an upside-down boat, are traditional dwellings of the Li people of Hainan. They likely originated from real boats used by the ancestors of the Li people, who converted them into hurricane-proof dwellings when they settled Hainan island. Today, boat houses are made of wild grass, rattan, mud, and other natural materials. So impressive are these structures that the construction techniques of the Li people have been listed as National Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2008.

Cover image from VCG

A Private Practice

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He has nearly crashed his car during a high-speed pursuit, and was once held hostage by an angry businessman’s henchman, but Dai Pengjun insists being a private investigator isn’t a dangerous job—unless the clients make it so.

Dai is one of thousands of professionals who work as private detectives on the mainland, although they usually don’t call themselves that. Most prefer to go by titles—marriage investigator, market researcher, business consultant, missing persons expert—that only allude to the real nature of their work.

With the law generally averse to all kinds of independent investigators and DIY evidence-gathering, mainland gumshoes are often even more private than their jobs suggest. Dai is among the few willing to put private detection in the public eye, thanks to his interviews and occasional TV slots, which he claims are vital to building trust in his unusual brand.

Dai has a staff of seven, who handle around a dozen cases a month—mostly finding people, advising firms on security, and “marital investigations,” which can include pre-marital background checks and evidence-gathering for the ubiquitous affairs—while leaving Dai time for his frequent media appearances.

While their legal status is precarious, and there have been numerous instances in which investigators have been detained and even jailed, Dai prefers to take a more lawyerly view of his work: “There is no single article that says, ‘If you operate as a private detective, you break the law.’”

The mainland’s private investigator business initially grew out of the chaotic energy of the post-1978 reform era. The rapid emergence of opportunities in finance, real estate, and business placed heavy strain upon the legal system. One of the first PI agencies was established in Shanghai by Duanmu Hongyu, a retired police detective, in 1992, soon followed by others in cities like Beijing and Chengdu.

Trails of broken contracts, swindled investors, and disenfranchised partners ensured these investigators did not lack for work—just ethics, according to the authorities. At the time, most of the evidence they gathered was inadmissible in court cases, and PI firms would often take extra-legal measures, which could include threats, bribery, theft (usually of private data), or force in lieu of legal penalties.

Private detectives may look for missing people who do not meet the threshold for police investigation (VCG)

Many police, moreover, were disinclined to welcome rivals in the private sector, who might have their own agenda, or, worse, expose crimes they had ignored or suppressed.

Sherlock Holmes may have been pop culture’s first “consulting detective,” but it’s Hollywood’s noir incarnations, like fictional protagonist Phillip Marlowe, who have established the iconic image of private eyes: the romantic thug in a trench coat, a lonely voyeur who lives by his own code.

Rather than prowling the mean streets, it’s into an unglamorous office that most Chinese PIs must stroll, while hoping not to be tarnished by the legal gray zone they’ve been forced to occupy since 1993, when the Ministry of Public Security issued regulations prohibiting the Industry and Commerce Bureau from registering detective agencies as businesses.

“Only organs of state power can conduct investigations for evidence,” Wang Xudong, a lawyer at the Beijing Dacheng (Hefei) Law Firm tells TWOC, adding that these prohibitions were never made clear, and remain controversial.

While Dai notes civil organizations are “absolutely not allowed to intervene in criminal cases,” China’s Civil Procedure Law places the burden of proof on claimants, meaning lawyers or their clients do often hire firms like Dai’s to help build cases in civil court.

Wang, though, observes that “procedure law doesn’t stipulate a ‘right of investigation,’” and dissuades his own clients from hiring PIs. A Supreme People’s Court decision from 2001, allowing privately made audio and video recordings to be admitted as evidence, certainly didn’t hurt PIs’ interests (though the ruling cautioned that recordings should not harm the “legitimate rights and interests of others, the public, and social mores”).

Chen Tianben, professor of at the People’s Public Security University of China, estimates nearly 23,000 firms employ around 100,000 staff in the detective trade. The majority are retired members of the judiciary, former law enforcement workers, or ex-lawyers. The domestic fallout from romantic disappointments provides the grist of most their work, low-key activities which help keep PIs off the state’s radar.

Bigamy and adultery are two common reasons for divorce. Proving either can ensure a ruling (and hefty pay-out) in favor of the injured party—not to mention the moral high ground.

Official figures from the Ministry of Civil Affairs suggest that China’s divorce rate has quadrupled between 1998 and 2018; around one in four new marriages now end up in court. Meanwhile, the pace of adultery has tripled since 2000, with one in three married men and one in 7.5 women having extramarital affairs, according to research published in 2015 by Renmin University’s Institute of Sexuality and Gender.

Roadside advertisements are common in China’s unlicensed detective trade (Fotoe)

Even so, getting a ruling can be tricky, for women especially; since 2018, judges are required to discourage divorce petitions, usually by suggesting trial separations or second chances to preserve “social harmony.” Like many US states, China requires third-party assent for recordings, disallowing any evidence that has been gathered unless both parties are physically present.

Dai’s mentor, Wei Wujun, is a Sichuanese detective who achieved minor celebrity in the late 1990s for his championing of wronged wives, using evidence he collected to secure settlements after their husbands abandoned them.

Dai himself was a high school dropout who’d tried numerous roles as a tailor, chef, and street vendor, before catching Wei on TV while stuck at home during the SARS epidemic in 2003. “I got very excited,” Dai recalls. “I thought being a private detective isn’t something you need an advanced degree for, as long as you’re willing to work hard.”

Though Dai couldn’t afford to pay, Wei took him on as a student after Dai helped him stake out a target in a high rise in Jiangsu, and he hasn’t looked back after 18 years. Dai charged just 1,800 RMB over seven days for his first independent investigation, and says his results were correspondingly poor.

Now, he quotes his clients five to six figures, and justifies the cost with his skill and experience. “Private detectives are luxury items, not necessities, so they don’t come cheap.”

Despite nearly two decades in the trade, Dai says he has never experienced anything more than the lightest brush with the law—an invitation to “have tea together” in his hometown with security personnel, who asked him questions about his job, took notes, and paid for the meal. “Their meaning was pretty simple, just to tell you, ‘I know about you.’”

In 2013, however, police detained 1,152 investigators in 21 cities and provinces, later charging over 200 of them with buying and selling data.

Dai, a surprisingly strong advocate for privacy, believes that anyone caught misusing others’ data for money, such as a detective in Jiangsu jailed for three years in 2019 for privacy infringement, besmirches the reputation of his trade and deserves punishment.

“Don’t sell information” is the first rule of Dai’s detective club, followed by avoiding conflicts of interest, “staying undercover,” “don’t lose sight of the target and don’t give yourself away.”

He says his investigators never record a target inside a private building, only in streets, hotel hallways, and other public areas. The firm claims it destroys all files when a case is over, and if Dai sees a client in public, he’ll avoid making eye contact unless they acknowledge him first.

Technology has been a boon to the business, with social apps providing users a range of convenient means to break their marital vows, while providing investigators an array of digital evidence, along with the equipment to gather it. “Social media has contributed to the distrust among people looking for partners,” the state-run China Daily stated in an article on PIs in 2013, and another feature from 2017.

Dai only uses ordinary equipment that civilians can legally purchase (Dai Pengjun)

But apps like WeChat, TanTan, and Momo, which facilitate even the most casual of acquaintanceships, are more likely to be mere catalysts in a society in which materialism has dampened ideology, and spirituality is widely suppressed; and where women are increasingly less willing to endure meddling relatives, slovenly husbands, and financial pressures simply for the sake of an unhappy marriage.

Despite the money to be made policing China’s upscale marriage market, the most elite investigative firms focus on a more dangerous game. With direct foreign investment of around 890 billion USD injected into the Chinese economy between 2003 and 2013 alone, according to the Wall Street Journal, there is constant need for oversight among multinationals operating in the PRC, along with a bottomless well of skulduggery to uncover.

Draped in the corporate jargon of the consultancy trade, these firms offer “risk-mitigation” and “anti-fraud solutions,” promising prospective clients a staff of accountants to analyse contracts and double-check figures for evidence of double-dealing.

The real work, meanwhile, falls to field agents, who go about their “due diligence” with the finesse of Watergate burglars: bribing secretaries, sneaking away files, and frequently employing foreigners to pose as investors, complete with hidden cameras, to tour suspect factories; or locals with the know-how and savvy to stakeout operations believed to be faking their output.

Leading firms profess to maintain strict compliance with regulations which forbid the use of wiretaps and bugs, or laws against data theft and trespassing (most agencies affirm they can only follow targets on public property). The Supreme People’s Court’s provisions on evidence in civil litigation notes that evidence is valid “as long as it was obtained by legal means, using legal technology,” explains Wang, the lawyer, adding that “the judge decides how much weight to give this evidence.”

But eavesdropping, searching locations, and following targets on the move still carries a risk that rules might get broken on the fly, however inadvertently.

What clients do with their dossiers is another potential issue. Having a mistress or taking bribes would be a prime example of “risk,” said an analyst familiar with the process, and potentially explosive if there is proof.

This might be taken in good faith—as a reason not to make a deal, or add a stipulation to a contract—but is just as likely to be used as leverage, especially if the client decided to extort their potential partners. This would then expose investigators to any potential fallout. Indeed, the analyst said, investigators would sometimes complain about being threatened by their own sources, or require clients to pay additional funds to pay off threats from whistleblowers.

Multinational and overseas NGOs often rely on mainland consultancy services to provide on-the-ground evidence for reports on fraudulent listings or allegations of human rights abuses. Kun “Dino” Huang, a 43-year-old Chinese Canadian, spent two years in jail after being detained in 2011 and then arrested in 2013 for making inquiries at the behest of a hedge fund into mines in Luoyang owned by Canada-based Silvercorp Metals.

British national Peter Humphrey and his Chinese-born American wife Yu Yingzeng, who together ran ChinaWhys, a consultancy specializing in corporate inquiries, encountered similar issues when they were accused of “illegally obtaining” evidence on Chinese citizens for GlaxoSmithKline, in a headline-grabbing case involving anonymous emails, a sex tape starring a senior Glaxo executive, and hundreds of millions in bribes. Humphrey was forced to confess in a pre-trial recording on state television, sentenced to two years in prison, and fined 150,000 RMB.

Exceptional as they seem, these cases demonstrate the kind of obstacles that investigators face due to lack of recognition and legal guidance in the profession. They also highlight the paradox of a system that proclaims corruption as its greatest threat, while treating individuals who vow to fight it with intense suspicion. Yet, far from undermining public security, private detectives can often provide a valuable auxiliary service for overworked police.

Li Yuan, who runs an independent investigation company in Changchun, capital of the northeastern Jilin province, told China Daily most of his clients are families looking for lost relatives. These are often parents of children who’ve gone missing but have not met the threshold for a police investigation.

Li cited a client who’d lost touch with his son—it turned out the boy was being held against his will by one of the many gangs that operate illegal pyramid schemes. Rescuing them can be an arduous and risky process, particularly as many have either been indoctrinated or surrounded by zealous staff, and police are rarely equipped to shoulder the work, leaving it to untrained activists or PIs like Li.

In this case, Li managed to use an old phone number to track the boy down, and a delivery worker helped confirm his location. After reporting the information to police, Li collected 30,000 RMB (4,800 USD) from his client.

“There is definitely demand,” Wang says, and the lawyer acknowledges that certain organs “have not fully been able to fulfill their mission to serve the people and solve the people’s problems. Under these circumstances, private investigation will flourish.”

Wang expects eventual regulation to give some legal standing to private detectives, and draw the line between specialists and the “underground rogue organizations, with zero professionalism” that he says are prevalent. This would not only help his work as a lawyer, but establish some industrial standards for the mushrooming PI field.

Dai isn’t as optimistic, and thinks the “industry is strewn with thorns.” In his view, having professional values and methods provides all the legitimacy his firm needs for now. “Even in a ‘gray’ profession, you need to do the job in a way that’s above board…how we conduct ourselves sets the example for private detectives in China.”

Additional reporting by Yang tingting (杨婷婷) and Hatty Liu

 

In the Public Eye: A Private Dick Tells All

On the work

“I’m able to stay in this profession for so many years because I know I’m helping people, I’m doing good”

On clients

“Around 80 percent are female. When men find out their partners are cheating on them, they are usually able to divorce, but women are in a weaker position. Her family can’t or won’t help her, and nothing happens when she calls the police. Her lawyer might tell her she can’t do anything without photos [as evidence]. So what can she do?”

On the training

“Right now there is no formal training to be a private detective in China. Lawyers have a license to practice law. Not so for private detectives. There is no such field of study, and no legal standards, no licensing or credentials. If you say you’re a journalist, you may need to show your press pass. If you call yourself a private detective, no one can contradict you. At the moment, detective training is still a master-apprentice system”

On detective skills

“To crouch at a location and follow someone, that’s the most important part of our work. But lots of people can’t do it. They’re not patient enough; they can’t control themselves for more than three minutes.”

“Even if you’re sitting in a car or standing still somewhere, you need to be thinking ahead all the time: ‘When the person comes out, what do I do? What if they get into a car? What if someone comes to meet them? How do I get a photo?’” —As told to TWOC by Dai Pengjun

 

Cover image by Xi Dahe (囍大河)


“A Private Practice” is a story from our issue, “Disaster Warning”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

Viral Week Ep. 271

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Viral Week is our weekly round-up of the weekend’s trending memes, humor, rumor, gossip, and everything else Chinese netizens are chatting about.

This week, a supermarket chain apologizes for fat-shaming, a new drama is accused of trivializing warfare, a dogwalking ban sparks memes, and a woman marries 28 times in two years:

 

 

Fat-shaming market

Supermarket chain RT-Mart issued a public apology for using a size-chart for women’s clothing that labeled large sized clothing as “rotten,” while medium and small sizes were called “slim” and “beautiful,” respectively.

Dogwalking banned

The hashtag “dogwalking banned, third violation punishable by death” went viral as Weixin county of Yunnan province declared it will put down canines being walked in the county seat. The announcement caused consternation among pet-owners and animal-lovers, while netizens came up with myriad spoofs, such as “if a misbehaving child is discovered outside three times, he or she should be put down,” or “if public officals take bribes three times, put them down.” The regulation is now under review in light of media attention.

War made fashionable

A recent anti-Japanese war drama, Leiting Zhanjiang (“Thunderous War General”), has drawn criticism for casting handsome, fashionable young male “idols” as the Communists’ Eighth Route Army soldiers, who live in luxurious villas and sport fashionable hairstyles. The Party newspaper People’s Daily complained that the show was turning history into pure entertainment.

Leaving the leaves

Shanghai authorities have designated 41 streets where sanitation workers will not sweep away fallen leaves, so that urban residents may enjoy the fall scenery. Workers, though, are complaining that this make it harder for them to sweep away other street debris, and they now spend more time making sure that the leaves look picturesque and don’t clog drains.

Fabled strategy
In Zhengzhou, a magpie was captured on video putting rocks inside a bottle in order to make the water rise high enough to drink, demonstrating the well-known Aesop’s Fable “The Crow and the Pitcher.”

Trading plates
Beijing police arrested 124 people in eight days for cheating the city’s license plate lottery system through marriage. One 37-year-old woman was found to have married and divorced 28 times in two years for the purpose of transferring plates, since ownership can only be swapped between married couples.

Bridge over troubled water
Seven elderly people with disabilities threatened to jump off a bridge in Guangxi if their impounded electric rickshaws were not returned by the authorities. Police explained that the vehicles were taken for not having insurance coverage, and will be returned after a “light fine” out of “empathy for [the drivers’] condition.” Many netizens conjectured that the electric rickshaws, used to transport passengers around the city, are the main source of income for some disabled citizens, who have little support from broader society.

Netflix takes on classic
Netflix announced a futuristic adaption of The Water Margin (《水浒传》), one of the “Four Classics” of Chinese literature, with Japanese director Shinsuke Sato (Kingdom), and American scriptwriter Matt Sand (Deepwater Horizon). Some fear that it will follow the example of Disney’s live-action Mulan, which did not have Chinese directors and writers, and ultimately tanked before Chinese audiences.

Money-making mushrooms

Yang Chen, a university graduate from Guizhou, gained online fame for his story of ditching city life after his studies in Wuhan and returning to his home village to set up a mushroom farm. Yang’s farm is said to have made 3 million RMB already this year, and employs employs over 600 people; 62 villagers have invested their land in Yang’s company.

Cover image from VCG

Fiction: Sixty-Degree Grassland Liquor

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Author: Surina 苏日那

Born in 1992 to a traditional Mongolian family who pastured sheep and cattle on the steppes of Inner Mongolia, Surina is now a radio host in Changchun, Jilin province. She enjoys rock music and literature, and describes herself as an urban dweller whose inner child has settled permanently on the grassland. She began to write in 2010 and is a contracted author on Douban.com and a magazine columnist. Her fiction has been published on Douban and Qidian.com.


Genghis Khan once said, “No descendant of mine shall ever live in a city.”

It was six months after Old Hu’s death that Darkhan heard the news. Darkhan had run out of money, so he asked around for a loan, but no one was willing to lend him money again. He thought of Old Hu, who used to herd sheep with him. Old Hu once said that after his son graduated from university and got a job, he would be able to give up herding and go enjoy life in the city.

Darkhan found the sheep’s owner and got Hu’s address. He hadn’t been to the city for five years, but this time he had a plan. When he found Old Hu, he would drink with him first. Old Hu seldom got drunk—in the past, when they herded sheep together, each of them could finish two bottles of Grassland baijiu.

Darkhan pestered the lamb dealer until the latter agreed to take him along when he transported lambs to the city. The dealer had just one requirement—that Darkhan should never ask to borrow money from him again. Darkhan smiled and agreed. When did he ever borrow money from the lamb dealer? He had long forgotten it.

There was no doubt that the lamb dealer would mistreat him. Darkhan would have to huddle with the lambs at the back of the three-wheeled truck. It was still hot in early autumn, and the air was filled with the stench of sheep dung and mud. Wherever the truck passed, people would cover their noses. Darkhan wasn’t afraid of the smell, because he had slept with the sheep when he worked as a shepherd. After he got drunk, he couldn’t smell them at all.

The lamb dealer said they would leave after dark. Since they would spend most of the night on the road and arrive in the morning, Darkhan thought he had better eat something. He decided to go to a restaurant that he frequented in the banner and staggered to the door. The restaurant had just a shabby sign that said “Mutton Noodle Soup Restaurant” in Chinese characters. It also had its Mongolian name written in vertical script, but like all other restaurants, it was so small that almost no one could read it.

Darkhan couldn’t read Chinese characters, though he could vaguely remember their forms. He arrived at the restaurant, but before he could pull open the door, the young waitress pulled back the handle and said, “Go away! Go away!”

Darkhan pulled the handle in the other direction. He didn’t even need to use his full strength to struggle with her, and he even had a smile on his face. His beard was so long that it quivered as he smiled, and his amber eyes crinkled up at the corners with a gleam of humor. He said, “What’s the matter? I don’t come for two days and now you won’t let me in?”

The waitress’s face flushed with anger, and she said, “Go away! It was because I let you buy noodles on credit the other day that my boss wanted to fire me.” Hearing this, Darkhan released the door handle. He brushed the dust off his deel and sat directly in front of the door to the restaurant. He took a tobacco pouch from his pocket and poured some tobacco out, and then he started to puff on his blackened pipe, which no one knew how long he had used. As he smoked, he said, “Little girl, don’t be afraid. I’ll go to the city today, and I’ll pay my bills after I come back. I just want a bowl of noodles, only a bowl of noodles.”

Of course, the young waitress didn’t believe him. Who didn’t know Darkhan? Every day he said that he would make a fortune and pay his debts. However, he didn’t know how to do anything but herd sheep. Although the waitress ignored him, Darkhan didn’t say any more and just sat at the door by himself. The sun was scorching at noon, and there wasn’t any shade on the grassland; even in town, everything was exposed to the sun. Darkhan’s greasy sweat glittered in the sun, and he gradually fell asleep.

It was the young waitress who woke him up. She handed him half a bowl of noodles, pointed off to the side, and said, “This was left by a customer. He took two bites and didn’t like the taste. You can eat what’s left. Go sit there. Don’t bother our customers.” Darkhan was only half-awake, but he took the bowl and looked at the spot that the young waitress pointed to. It was really a good spot. There was shade there and the sunlight was blocked out.

Wearing a smile on his face, Darkhan took the bowl of noodles, and walked over and squatted in the shade. He found a twig on the ground and broke it in two, and used them to slurp the noodles. Mutton noodle soup only tasted fresh if it was made from lambs slaughtered in the morning. It should be boiled in cool water, and no salt should be added. Then the newly made noodles could be put into the soup, and it could be seasoned with some salt and chives. This way, the mutton noodle soup would get a wonderful flavor. How could people not like such delicious noodles? There was only a little minced mutton in Darkhan’s bowl, but he carefully picked the pieces out and ate them, and then he chugged down the mutton soup. Sweat broke out all over his body, and he felt quite at ease.

If only he had a cup of baijiu—Darkhan lifted his hand, pretending that he was holding a cup, and then he raised his hand to his lips and tossed his head back, just as if he was drinking liquor. To complete the scene, he also made some slurping sounds, and this made him feel as if there really was a stream of baijiu flowing down his throat and into his stomach where it mixed with the mutton soup. He touched the objects hidden under his deel and felt satisfied. He took the bowl to the well, cleaned it, and drank a few bowls of well water. He smacked his lips—well water really was tasteless.

Putting the clean bowl on the doorstep where he had slept, he knocked on the door, and left. The young waitress came out and took the bowl back into the restaurant. Huh, he certainly washed it carefully. Seeing that she had slipped Darkhan some food again, another waitress exclaimed, “You gave him your noodles again? Now what will you do if you feel hungry? Why don’t you tell him he can come to our restaurant and wash dishes? Then he’d have noodles to eat every day.”

The young waitress didn’t answer. She didn’t like Darkhan, but she sympathized with him and pitied him. She also understood why he would never accept a job washing dishes, because he reminded her of her father, who was now dead. They would rather herd sheep forever than work in a place like this.

Darkhan went back to the place where the lamb dealer would depart. Squatting beside the road, he smoked and waited for the truck to arrive. As he waited, he remembered Old Hu. Old Hu’s name was Huugjil, and they had grown up in the same banner. They had known each other since their youth, but not well. At that time, Huugjil was the wrestling champion of their banner, and was already famous for it when he was only 16 years old. When Darkhan was young, he had been the most capable horse trainer. No matter how wild the horse was, it would be tamed by his urga.

Those were the good days—girls still liked boys who were good at riding, wrestling, and herding sheep, so both he and Huugjil were always surrounded by admirers. Even the five charming daughters of the banner’s chief would smile and sing to them, “Hey, brothers! We lost our sheep. Have you seen them?” At that time, they didn’t know about alcohol; at that time, they had nimble limbs and strong bodies, and they didn’t know the meaning of growing old.

Every story had to have an end. Just as one couldn’t be a wrestling champion forever, one couldn’t always be young. Darkhan didn’t care about politics and didn’t understand it. He thought that he would be a shepherd his whole life. He would marry a bad-tempered Mongolian girl with wide hips who could deliver many babies. Once he loosened her belt, she would become his woman. They would herd the sheep in spring, shear the sheep in summer, slaughter the sheep in autumn, and rest in their yurt in winter.

But one day the banner suddenly implemented a new policy. Your sheep were no longer your sheep, and instead, they became the public’s sheep. The public’s sheep belonged to the public, not to you, so you couldn’t slaughter them or sell them or herd them at your will. Your horses and cattle also became the public’s horses and cattle. Thus, Darkhan suddenly turned from a wealthy man to someone like the cripple who lived next door. He didn’t understand what had happened, but everyone said it was a good thing, so he had no choice but to accept it.

After that, he discovered alcohol. The first time he drank was when the banner chief found him and told him that they were no longer allowed to herd sheep in this area, because this area had to be used for farming—wheat, buckwheat, and corn would all be planted there. At that time, he didn’t pay much attention to the chief’s words, and he said, “The grassland is so big. I can herd sheep somewhere else.”

Instead of answering, the chief just took gulps of baijiu. The sight tempted Darkhan, so he stared at the chief’s mouth and asked, “Can I have a sip?” The chief smiled and said, “Alcohol is a good thing.” Darkhan was 20 years old at that time, and this was the first time he had tried alcohol. It was so spicy! The taste made his mouth pucker. The chief laughed loudly at the sight.

Darkhan felt embarrassed, so he took a few more sips, and he started to feel dizzy. He lay on the grass and felt that the stars were revolving. The chief’s face and his five daughters’ faces mixed together, and he felt that he was riding on a horse and he was filled with joy. He was so happy that he sang to the sheep in the sheep pen and patted the horses’ rumps. He felt that nothing had changed. When he drank alcohol, nothing had changed.

The lamb dealer finally arrived. Darkhan lay in the back of the truck, huddled with the lambs. As the truck started and rumbled, he suddenly saw a woman by the road. He knew her; she was one of the five charming daughters of the chief. Of course, they were both old now. They had spent their youth on horseback, but they didn’t know that one day when they dismounted from their horses, they would no longer have the strength to climb back up.

That beautiful girl was old and heavy now. Her waist was thick. She wrapped her head up in a scarf and sold yogurt by the roadside, and there wasn’t any expression on her face. People who were unfamiliar with her didn’t know that she used to sing like an angel. Sitting in the truck, Darkhan looked at the woman as she receded farther and farther away from him; the grassland was also getting farther and farther away. Then he looked at the endless road, like a scar on the land.

Darkhan hated going to the city. He didn’t like the fashionable clothes and the cubic buildings. He didn’t like the Mongolians in the city, who spoke fluent Mandarin that he couldn’t understand. Although the lamb dealer cursed all the way to the city, he was still kind enough to help Darkhan find Old Hu’s home. Then he hurried off to sell his lambs, for he had to send them to the restaurants before dawn. The lambs would be slaughtered at daybreak—people living in the city also liked fresh mutton.

Darkhan sat at Old Hu’s door without knocking or calling out to anyone. He just sat downstairs, looking at the sky. There were only a few stars in the city, but the dawn rose early here. When the streetlights went out, daylight broke. When the morning dawned bright, Darkhan knocked on Old Hu’s door.

A little boy opened the door. He didn’t recognize Darkhan, so he ran inside shouting in Mandarin, “Dad! Dad!” Then a man in his thirties walked out. He wore a crisp shirt and his hair was tidy. He looked at Darkhan and asked in broken Mongolian, “Hello! Who are you looking for?” Finding that the man spoke Mongolian, Darkhan grinned, revealing his yellow teeth. He said, “Is Old Hu living here? Huugjil? We used to herd sheep together.”

That man frowned and said, “Oh, you’re looking for my dad. Come in first. Have you had breakfast?” Darkhan answered as he followed the man into the room. When he took off his old-fashioned white malgai, he saw the man’s clean hair, so he brushed the straw off his own hair.

Then he was in the room. He finally saw Old Hu, who was a photo on the wall. Confused, he first looked at the photo and then at the man. The man stood before the photo and brushed off the dust with his clean shirt, and said, “My dad passed away six months ago. In spring, before the snow had melted, Dad got drunk. He fell down by the roadside and fell unconscious. It was such a cold spring. There was still snow on the ground. Quite a few people froze to death this spring.”

A strange feeling rose from the bottom of Darkhan’s heart. He remembered Old Hu happily telling him that he was going to live in the city. Darkhan touched the objects hidden under his deel without saying anything. Old Hu’s son said, “Uncle, have you had breakfast? Let’s have breakfast first.”

Darkhan sat at the table, and the little boy sat down as well. The boy immediately started eating large mouthfuls of his food and gulping down his milk. Seeing this, Darkhan finally opened his mouth. “Kid, how can you eat before your elders?”

It was hard to tell whether the boy understood Darkhan’s Mongolian, but he answered, “When Grandpa isn’t here, I eat first.” The man brought a plate of dumplings and put it before Darkhan. Then he patted the boy’s head and said, “Eat up, then I’ll take you to school.”

The dumplings were stuffed with mutton, and their wrappers were thin. When Darkhan bit into them, mutton juice spilled out. Darkhan hadn’t eaten such delicious mutton for a long time—good quality lambs were all sent to the city. Darkhan quickly polished off the plate of dumplings, and then looked at Old Hu’s son and asked, “Do you have tea?”

Old Hu’s son nodded as he answered, “Yes. I almost forgot.” He turned and walked to the kitchen, and took out a small bag. He tore it open and poured out some powder, mixed it with hot water, and brought the drink to Darkhan. Darkhan picked up the cup and studied the drink for a while. Did they call this milk tea?

He silently put the cup down. “Did Old Hu suffer when he passed away?” he asked.

“He was smiling when they found him the next morning,” the man assured him. “They say that only alcoholics smile when they die.”

After sitting for a few more minutes, Darkhan stood up and walked out. When he got to the door, he suddenly remembered something. He touched his deel and took out two bottles of Grassland baijiu from his pocket. He opened one and put it before Old Hu’s photograph.

The photo had been taken when Old Hu was young, when he was still a wrestling champion. His face was square, his long hair was braided, and his eyes were narrowed into slits as he smiled. This was completely different from how he looked when he herded sheep with Darkhan—when his back was bent and he had lost almost all his hair. Then Darkhan opened the other bottle of Grassland baijiu and gulped it all down. The sixty-degree alcohol was so strong that it brought tears to his eyes and made his stomach ache. Ah, Old Hu, we really are old now. Just one bottle of Grassland baijiu can do it for us.

Finishing his drink, Darkhan put the empty bottle back into his deel and said to Old Hu’s son, “I’ll leave now. Remember, your dad was a hero in our banner. He used to be the wrestling champion! He won your first school fees by wrestling!” Reeking of liquor, he pulled the little boy toward him and shouted, “Hey, you brat! In the future, don’t you dare pick up your chopsticks before your old man starts eating! That was the rule set down by our ancestors!” Saying this, Darkhan stumbled out of Old Hu’s home. It was now completely bright outside, and the roads were full of people who wore fashionable clothes, drove cars, drank soy milk, and ate Chinese dough sticks sold by the road.

Darkhan walked for a long time, and he finally arrived at a sculpture of Genghis Khan in the city. He fell down on the step and looked up at the magnificent figure. What else did they remember except this? Darkhan took out his blackened pipe, and some tobacco from his tobacco pouch. He rubbed it and put it into the pipe, and then he lit the pipe and smoked it. He felt absolutely full, and he hadn’t had such a feeling in a while. The mutton dumplings were so delicious. He hadn’t drunk Grassland baijiu with Old Hu in a long time. When he finished smoking, he poured out the ashes from his pipe and took off the filter tip. Then he took out a piece of cloth from his deel and slowly and carefully began cleaning the filter.

Darkhan felt a little dizzy. Genghis Khan’s horse seemed like it was about to start galloping. He wiped the filter tip clean and staggered to his feet. He had to find a place. People who saw Darkhan all hurried to avoid him, for they had seen too many alcoholics like him. Those alcoholics were so annoying. They were a disgrace to Mongolians.

Darkhan didn’t pay attention to their stares. He searched and searched, and he found it at last: Yongji Pawnshop. Its name was written in big Chinese characters and small Mongolian script, so it took Darkhan a long time to see it. He walked into it and threw down his filter tip in front of the clerk.

The clerk seemed to be familiar with people like Darkhan. He took the filter tip and carefully examined it under the magnifying glass. It was made of jade, and the jade was of high quality. Although it had been used for many years and was blackened by smoke, its color was still brilliant when it was wiped clean.

“Eight hundred yuan.” Darkhan understood this sentence. He first nodded, and then he shook his head. The clerk was a little confused. Why did this customer only nod and shake his head? He should haggle. The clerk took out 800 yuan, and then two 50 yuan bills. He handed these bills to Darkhan and said, “I’ll give you 900 yuan! But you can’t buy your jade back again.”

Darkhan didn’t understand those words. He just took the bills and counted them, and he handed the two extra 50 yuan bills back to the clerk. Then he stumbled out of the shop. The clerk put the bills into the cash box. How strange; he wouldn’t even accept extra money. The jade was quite excellent. It could be sold at a good price.

The lamb dealer had said they would return to the banner after dark. Darkhan went back to the place where the lamb dealer would depart. There were many restaurants in the area, and a few of them were hosing off the blood in front of their doors, probably left from when they slaughtered the lambs in the morning. Seeing Darkhan, the lamb dealer joked, “Didn’t you say you came to borrow money? How much did you get?” Instead of answering, Darkhan took out the bills from his deel and asked, “How much do I owe you?”

The lamb dealer looked at Darkhan. He didn’t know why Darkhan seemed so different after this trip to the city. He suddenly smiled and said, “What are you talking about? When did I ever lend you money? You must have borrowed from so many people that you got mixed up!” Saying this, he put the money back into Darkhan’s deel. “Let’s go! There aren’t any more lambs in the truck. You can have the back all to yourself!”

Darkhan fell asleep as soon as he got on the truck. He was drunk, though he’d had just one bottle of Grassland baijiu. He dreamed about Old Hu, himself, and the five charming girls. He dreamed about how one of the girls had secretly slipped him her jade filter tip just before she married a Han businessman; about how straight Old Hu’s back was; about how, when other people offered him work in town, he would crack his whip and say, “My ancestor Genghis Khan said, ‘No descendant of mine shall ever live in a city!’” He remembered his own past—how in the coldest days of winter, he could only warm himself by huddling with the sheep, for he had to hand in even the cow dung to the government.

He was drunk; totally drunk. Grassland baijiu was an excellent thing. It was top quality. There wasn’t any liquor in the world to compare with it. He wanted to open his eyes, move a little, and check the alcohol content of that bottle of baijiu, but he couldn’t open his eyes or move his limbs, so he gave up. He continued dreaming about his past and the fascinating grassland. And that young waitress, who always gave him noodles. Eight hundred yuan…he could pay her back…and then she wouldn’t lose her job…

– Translated by Zhang Yuqing (张雨晴)

 

Author’s Note: I never left the grassland before the age of 10. Later, as I tried to assimilate into city life, my childhood made me feel very insecure. But as life went on, I gradually discovered that my time on the grassland is the most precious thing I have. The drunken Darkhan in “Sixty-Degree Grassland Liquor” is a common figure from my hometown. They were full of spirit and vigor when they were young, but have been regretfully left behind by the times, much like the way our nomadic lifestyle is now a show put on for tourists. The marvelous happenings in “The Doctor” were taken from the stories my granny told me when I was a child. They’re not always innocent children’s stories, but contain the deepest Mongolian wisdom. I’m delighted to bring you these tales of the Mongolians—maybe one day, our nomadic lifestyle will go extinct, but I hope I can preserve more of our stories before that happens.


“Sixty-Degree Grassland Liquor” is a story from our issue, “Disaster Warning”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

Fiction: The Doctor

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Author: Surina 苏日那

Born in 1992 to a traditional Mongolian family who pastured sheep and cattle on the steppes of Inner Mongolia, Surina is now a radio host in Changchun, Jilin province. She enjoys rock music and literature, and describes herself as an urban dweller whose inner child has settled permanently on the grassland. She began to write in 2010 and is a contracted author on Douban.com and a magazine columnist. Her fiction has been published on Douban and Qidian.com.


All those who have met Dalai Emch-nar (emch-nar means “doctor” in Mongolian) say he is a genius. He could make the blind see the blue sky and make the mute sing. He could grow new legs on amputees and make infertile women give birth to twins. How do you find him? Some people say that he is traveling around the world. One day he might be a blacksmith; another day a shepherd. Maybe he is sitting next to you.

One day Dalai Emch-nar traveled to the Zürkh River Ranch in the northern part of the steppes. Instead of a horse, he led a donkey. But not only did he not ride the donkey, he carried all his possessions himself and let the donkey trot along in leisure. The people who saw this whispered behind his back—why does he do all the work and let the animal rest? Dalai Emch-nar didn’t care. He just walked to the rancher’s house at a slow pace.

The hospitable rancher slaughtered cattle and lambs to welcome Dalai Emch-nar, but he only waved his hands and asked where he could find the lushest grass nearby. When he got the answer, he took his donkey there to graze. The ranch hands were all confused, but Dalai Emch-nar didn’t explain. He only said, “In three days, you will know the reason.”

At noon on the third day, Dalai Emch-nar brought his donkey to eat the lush grass as usual. By the time he returned, the ranch was in an uproar. The crying of the rancher’s wife could be heard throughout the whole ranch. The rancher’s 13-year-old son had fallen down from his horse and broken his rib while hunting. He was in his last gasps now, and no one knew how to save him. At this moment, Dalai Emch-nar led his donkey forward and said, “Slaughter this donkey, and take out the third rib on its left side.”

So Dalai Emch-nar’s cherished donkey was killed, its belly still full of fresh grass. Holding the donkey’s rib, Dalai Emch-nar walked to the bedside of the rancher’s son and replaced the human rib with the donkey’s. He threw the broken rib into a copper container and told the ranch hands to bury it together with the donkey in the place where the lushest grass grew. As soon as Dalai Emch-nar stitched up the wound, the rancher’s son woke up.

The rancher was deeply grateful to Dalai Emch-nar, and offered to give him half of his ranch. But Dalai Emch-nar just waved his hands again and said, “No, no. Just make sure that the place where you buried the donkey is covered by lush grass in the spring and summer, and clean snow in the winter. Only then can you preserve your son’s life. You also have to tell your son that he must never eat donkey meat or ride a donkey in the future.” After saying these words, he picked up his bags and continued his journey. After he left, all the people at the Zürkh River Ranch said, “That was the genius doctor—Dalai Emch-nar!”

After this, Dalai Emch-nar became a shepherd who herded sheep for a lord of the Juu-Uda League. The lord was extremely wealthy, but he had a younger brother who was a fool. How foolish was this brother? When he saw the birds in the sky, he said they were fish in the river. When he saw girls, he said they were men. When he heard the howling of wolves, he said this was his mother calling him home. The lord had spent much time and energy finding a way to cure his brother. He had asked all the doctors in the area to diagnose his brother’s illness, but none succeeded.

One day, a servant suggestedthat the lord should make an announcement that he would give the person who cured his brother’s illness fifty taels of gold, one thousand sheep, and one hundred horses as rewards. Dalai Emch-nar heard the announcement. As a shepherd, he couldn’t let the lord give away all his sheep, so he ran to the lord and asked, “Your honor! Your honor! Is it such a bad thing to be a fool? Why do you insist on curing him?” The lord wept and said, “My brother and I ate lamb tails and grew up together. We were like a pair of bull’s horns. How can I be happy if he is ill?”

Dalai Emch-nar was touched, so he said to the lord, “Your brother’s illness isn’t incurable, and you don’t need to give me gold, sheep, and horses. You just need to find a black sheep with white eyes, and then you can cure your brother’s illness.” The lord trusted him, so he asked his servant to find a black sheep with white eyes. But the servant didn’t believe Dalai Emch-nar. He thought Dalai Emch-nar wanted to swindle the lord, so he didn’t make any effort. After a whole year, he still couldn’t find a black sheep with white eyes.

One day, the foolish young lord ran off, and no one could find him even after a whole night’s search. His older brother was so worried that his hair turned white overnight. The next morning, though, to everyone’s surprise, the young lord came back on his own before the sun rose into the sky and the dew shone on the grass, leading a black sheep with white eyes. Seeing this, the lord was overjoyed. He sent for Dalai Emch-nar and dismissed the servant who was asked to find the sheep. Dalai Emch-nar asked the servants to kill the sheep and take out its brain, and then he replaced the young lord’s brain with the sheep brain. He also fed raw sheep eyes to the young lord.

Twelve days later, the young lord woke up, but everything he saw was turned upside down. The blue sky was below the green grass, and all the people walked on the sky. The young lord was so terribly frightened that he fainted away. His brother became extremely angry, so he decided to banish Dalai Emch-nar. But Dalai Emch-nar said, “Please fetch me a big wooden spoon used for making milk tea. It must be a wooden spoon that has been used for making milk tea for 20 years.”

This time, the lord didn’t trust anyone else, so he went searching for the spoon by himself and finally found it in the home of a childless blind woman. He offered the old woman some gold and brought her back to his palace to repay her for the wooden spoon. Dalai Emch-nar took the spoon and struck the back of the young lord’s head with it ten times a day. Like the hands of a clock revolving around, the world gradually righted itself in the young lord’s eyes.

A month later, the wooden spoon broke, and the world that the young lord saw also returned to normal, albeit a little slanted. From then on, he looked at everything with his head tilted to one side, but he was no longer a fool—he could distinguish not only between men and women, but also between birds and fish. When he heard the howling of wolves, he no longer said it was his mother calling him home. There was just one strange thing: He insisted that the blind old woman, who was brought back to the palace by the lord, was his mother.

Even so, the lord was overjoyed, and offered to share his throne with Dalai Emch-nar. Dalai Emch-nar waved his hands and said, “No, no. I just want a pregnant female sheep.” The lord happily agreed to his request and gave him a pregnant ewe. Dalai Emch-nar picked up his bags and led the sheep away. Before he left, Dalai Emch-nar told the lord that his brother should be prevented from looking into the mirror and the river in the future. These actions wouldn’t kill him, but might frighten him.

After Dalai Emch-nar left, the lord was curious about what he said, so he looked at his brother’s reflection in a copper mirror while he was sleeping. Then the lord got so frightened that he fell onto the ground—the thing he saw in the mirror was the head of a white-eyed black sheep.

Dalai Emch-nar led his pregnant ewe, shouldered his bags, and walked. Before they left the Gong Geer Grassland, the ewe gave birth. While Dalai Emch-nar delivered the lambs, a local bully robbed him of both his sheep and lambs. This man was the tyrant of the Gong Geer Grassland, and he was used to picking fights and robbing others. He had kidnapped dozens of women and had almost a hundred children by them. His sheep were as numerous as the clouds in the sky, and he had so many horses and cattle that they covered the grass when they grazed. One day, his favorite white horse became ill. When he saw Dalai Emch-nar delivering the lambs, he concluded that Dalai Emch-nar was a veterinarian and kidnapped him.

Knowing why he was kidnapped, Dalai Emch-nar quickly cured the white horse. The horse was ill because it had eaten some poisonous grass, so it recovered immediately when Dalai Emch-nar drew out the poison. From then on, the tyrant kept Dalai Emch-nar around and gave him a good job—treating his livestock.

One day, a group of people came to the Gong Geer Grassland calling themselves magicians. They begged the tyrant to let them perform in exchange for a bite to eat. The tyrant was intrigued, so he asked them, “What kind of magic can you do?” They answered, “We have the largest stomachs in the world. We swallow people and we can spit them back out.”

Saying this, they began their performance. The adults swallowed the children; the heavy people swallowed the slim people; the tall ones swallowed the short. Finally, there was only one person left standing before the tyrant. The tyrant asked, “How do you work your magic and let those people appear again?” That person opened his mouth, and spat out his companions one by one, and they again all stood before the tyrant. The tyrant was pleased with their performance, so he gave them some gold and asked them to stay. These magicians only had one requirement. They said that their magic would fade when the sun went down, so they could only perform during the day.

As time went on, the tyrant gradually got bored with their performance. One day, he came up with a new idea. He called all his wives and children over and asked the magicians to swallow them. Those magicians did so without any hesitation. The tyrant wasn’t satisfied, so he asked Dalai Emch-nar to lead all the cattle, sheep, and horses to him, and asked the magicians to swallow those as well. Unsurprisingly, these magicians swallowed all of the livestock. The tyrant was delighted. He clapped and shouted, and then asked the magicians to spit out his wives, children, and livestock. However, instead of obeying, the magicians turned around and ran. Startled, the tyrant ran after them, but he was no match against so many people, so he could only watch them escape.

Finally, the tyrant only had Dalai Emch-nar left with him. Dalai Emch-nar looked at the tyrant and asked, “If I bring your wives, children, and property back, can you promise me one thing?” Hearing this, the tyrant nodded eagerly, for he was willing to promise Dalai Emch-nar anything.

Dalai Emch-nar and the tyrant tracked these magicians to a temple. When the night fell, Dalai Emch-nar took out a pair of golden scissors and sneaked into the temple with the tyrant. The tyrant spent a long time searching in the temple, but found nothing. The magicians had disappeared, along with his wives and children.

Dalai Emch-nar told the tyrant not to worry, and led him to the prayer mats before the altar. Lifting them up, he found a few sacks underneath. They were the same color as the magicians’ clothing. Without saying a word, Dalai Emch-nar cut up the sacks with his scissors and then set the pieces on fire. A few agonized cries came from the fire, and if you looked carefully, you could have spotted blood streaming from it.

Everything was burnt out at last. The tyrant was deeply shocked and he asked Dalai Emch-nar what kind of beings those sacks were. Dalai Emch-nar answered, “Those magicians were sacks, which couldn’t do anything but carry things. Since they were placed beneath the mats before the altar, they had been worshiped by too many people and they gradually became spiritual beings. When they became chötgör [‘monster’ or ‘devil’ in Mongolian], they started to do evil and swallow people.”

Hearing this, the tyrant again became anxious and he asked, “Where are the things in those sacks? Where are my wives, children, and property?” Dalai Emch-nar smiled and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll know where they are when you return home.” When the tyrant came home, he found all his wives, children, and property there. He became exhilarated and asked Dalai Emch-nar what his request was—he would be willing to grant it no matter what it was.

“No, no. I just want my sheep and lambs back.” This request was easy to satisfy. The tyrant found the mother sheep and led it to Dalai Emch-nar. But there was a problem—all the lambs looked the same, so how could you find Dalai Emch-nar’s lambs among so many others? Dalai Emch-nar was not worried. Sitting beside the mother sheep, he started to milk it. All the lambs came to the sheep, but only two of them knelt down and suckled. The tyrant was pleased by this scene—Dalai Emch-nar really was a smart guy.

Before he left, Dalai Emch-nar told the tyrant, “You have enough property, so don’t rob any more people. Those sacks didn’t choose their victim randomly.” The tyrant took those words to heart, and shared most of his property with his clansmen and lived a happy life with his wives and children.

Dalai Emch-nar led his sheep and lambs, carried his bags, and continued his journey. Some people say he traveled to Ergun; some say he went to herd in a place where lush grass grew, and others say he became an official in the city.

But no one knows where Dalai Emch-nar will turn up next.

– Translated by Zhang Yuqing (张雨晴)


“The Doctor” is a story from our issue, “Disaster Warning”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

China’s Best Bad Movie?

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Though it was one of the most anticipated movies at October’s box office, Back to the Wharf still managed to surprise. The film has been a topic of conversation since its was shown at the Shanghai International Film Festival in July due to its sensitive and topical subject matter: gaokao (university entrance exam) identity theft.

But despite starring some of the brightest talents in indie cinema, the film has scored just 6.5 out of 10 on rating website Douban, beating just 18 percent of films of the same genre, and divided audiences. “Back to the Wharf is the best bad movie I have seen in the last three years,” a user under the handle of Youzi commented on Douban.

The film takes place in a small seaside town in China in the 1990s, where protagonist Song Hao (Zhang Yu) is a top student with the chance to go to Tsinghua University, one of China’s best. However, he is betrayed by his friend Li Tang (Li Hongqi), the mayor’s son, who takes his place at the university through backhanded deals arranged by his powerful father. After a dramatic accident, a cover-up, and more shady deals, Song exiles himself from the town for 15 years, returning only when his mother dies. Back in his hometown, Song falls in love and starts a family, but his life is once again turned upside-down by his old school friend Li Tang.

Despite the dramatic storyline, the plot is ill-conceived and often confusing. The movie spends too much time fleshing out back story and indulging in side-plots that add little to the main narrative. “The screenwriter is too obsessed with stressing the main themes,” neglecting to develop the plot, the popular WeChat account “Ticket Collector in Hall Number Three” stated in its review of the film. When Song falls in love with Pan Xiaoshuang (Song Jia), an age is spent depicting their courtship, marriage, and pregnancy, none of which has much influence on the main storyline.

This also leaves less room for the film to develop other characters. Li Tang, for example, has depth at the beginning of the movie, where he helps Song escape bullying at school, and is conflicted and ashamed about his father’s efforts to give him Song’s place at Tsinghua. But when he returns as an adult, he is two-dimensional—arrogant and domineering. There is little that is humanizing about the adult Li as he goes about manipulating Song, and his dramatic change in personality is never explained.

Zhang Yu (second from right) has won the hearts of many fans with his rugged looks (VCG)

Despite the unbalanced plot, actor Zhang Yu’s performance, and to perhaps an even greater extent his good looks, have earned him praise. An article in Vista magazine asked, “What exactly is it about Zhang Yu’s style of sexiness that makes girls of the new generation fall for him?” and argued that Zhang’s character Song Hao represent “low-society sex appeal.” With a shaggy beard, tanned and thin face, and generally rough appearance, Song is distinguished from the normally clean cut, suave, and fashionable male leads in mainstream films. Song’s tragic life, kind nature, devotion to his lover, and struggle against injustice only add to his allure.

Beyond Zhang Yu’s good looks, part of Back to the Wharf’s draw is the sensitive subject matter it takes on, which has surprised some viewers given the strict censorship regime enforced by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT). Numerous news stories about gaokao examinees who had their identities and places at university stolen by peers came to light this summer, heightening interest in the film. Over 200 such cases were uncovered in Shandong province between 2002 and 2009, creating a scandal that was headline news for some weeks.

“I was shocked when the news [of the Shandong scandal] came out,” director Li Xiaofeng told WeChat movie review account Duyao. “In the movie, only one person’s fate was changed, but there are over 200 others people who were affected by this in real life. This kind of social injustice has long existed.”

“The biggest value of this movie is that it boldly reveals these problems,” one comment under the review by Ticket Collector in Hall Number Three reads. But daring subject matter alone does not make a good movie, as the commenter continues: “Why has revealing these problems turned into something ‘bold,’ and become a selling point?”

Cover image from VCG