Do you hear the thunder of Chinese Drums?

March 26, 2014

The earliest evidence of the use of drums in China was found in Oracle inscriptions from the Shang Dynasty (1783-1123 BC).

Drums were used to motivate troops, set a marching pace and for sending orders or announcements.

The drum had a purpose in almost all elements of Chinese life. Copper drums come from southern China and date to almost a thousand years before Christ.  The copper drum was also called the war drum.

The Han Dynasty used copper drums for war too.

The Fengyang Drum Dance originated in Anhui Province and was used by traveling musicians and dancers in the streets of villages and towns. In time, it would represent poverty.

Tibetan drums are part of the Sholdon (Yogurt) Festival, which occurs in late August.

Drums are also used for the traditional Chinese New Year’s Lion Dance.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.

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Foreign Elements: a guest post by Alec Ash

December 11, 2013

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Photo by Eelco Florijn. The picture was taken in Kham, Tibet, at the Dongdola pass.

There have been expats in China since the first Jesuit missionaries started arriving in the 16th century. But what characterizes the hundreds of thousands of Westerners who call China home today? And what are the challenges and identity issues that they face?

Tom Carter, originally from San Francisco, has been living in China for a decade. He did a well received book of photography [China: Portrait of a People] based on trekking 35,000 miles through 33 provinces for two years. More recently he edited a collection of true stories from expat China called Unsavory Elements, which has generated both praise and controversy.

I sat down with him over lunch in Shanghai, and followed up with questions over email, to dig deeper.

Alec Ash [AA]: Why did you feel there was a need for a collection of stories and anecdotes by Westerners living in China? What is it about that experience that interests you?

Tom Carter [TC]: It was a project whose time had come. The past decade has seen an unprecedented number of new books and novels about China, but aside from a handful of mass-market memoirs there was nothing definitive about its expatriate culture. As an editor and avid reader, I had this grand vision of an epic collection of true short stories from a variety of voices that takes the reader on a long, turbulent arc through the entire lifetime of an expat – bursting with ephemera and memories from abroad. That’s how Unsavory Elements was conceived.

Of course, the landscape of China in 2013 is vastly different than 2008 – generally considered the new golden age for laowai (foreigners) – and virtually unrecognizable from 2004, which is when I first arrived. Such rapid changes are the subject of just about every book on China these days. But swapping stories with other backpackers I bumped into on the road while photographing my first book, I noticed that there was something profound about our experiences and adventures – the tales we told might just as well have occurred in the 1960s or even the 1860s. And that’s when it struck me: the more China changes the more it stays the same. So I wanted to switch up the trends of this genre and feature stories that were not only timely but timeless.

AA: But how has the foreigner community in China changed over the past decades? Do you feel there’s anything Westerners in China have in common, among all the diverse reasons that people have to end up here?

TC: Expatriates in China are certainly a motley crew. I’ve lived and traveled extensively across many countries in the world, but none seem to have attracted such a diverse crowd as China, this eclectic mix of businessmen and backpackers, expense-account expats and economic refugees. It really could be the 1800s all over again, like some scene out of James Clavell’s novel Tai-Pan [about the aftermath of the Opium War] except now with neon lights and designer clothes. What we’ve seen this past decade surrounding the Beijing Olympics is history repeating itself. The Western businessmen who have come and gone these past ten years during the rise of China’s economy are the exact same class of capitalists who populated Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1800s. They’ve come to make their fortunes and then get out – which is what we are witnessing with the recent expat exodus [now that China’s economy shows signs of faltering].

The darker side of China’s history also seems to be repeating itself. The Communist-conducted purges of “foreign devils” and foreign-owned enterprises that occurred in the Cultural Revolution are happening all over again – perhaps not as violently (with the exception of the looting of Japanese businesses during the Diaoyu Islands dispute in 2012) but certainly with as much vitriol. There was last year’s poster depicting a fist smashing down on the characters for “foreigner” and various video footage (possibly staged) of foreigners behaving badly, used to justify their Strike Hard crackdowns [against foreigners in China with black market visas]. The title Unsavory Elements is a playful homage to Communist terminology. To be sure, China has a love-hate relationship with outsiders – our success and our status here rises and falls on the whims of the government. In spite of this, as many foreigners continue to arrive in China as leave (or are expelled). So what do we all have in common? If nothing else, a degree of masochism.

AA: And how, if at all, does living in China long-term change you?

TC: I expect it’s tempered me, much like in metallurgy, from the constant pounding and heating and cooling and reheating of my patience. Suan tian ku la (sour sweet bitter spicy) is an old Chinese adage, and this country definitely serves up its share. But it hasn’t been easy to swallow. Westerners tend to arrive in China a bit hot-headed, and we’ve all had our explosive moments: with the taxi driver who runs his meter fast or takes us the long way, at a train ticket office jostling with queue jumpers, due to endless red tape, or when you are ripped off by your business partners.

Few foreign writers ever admit to having these moments so I encouraged my anthology contributors to be more forthcoming about their darker feelings – seeing red, so to speak. Alan Paul, writing in the book about a stressful family road trip across Sichuan, has a line: “I stood there bitterly looking down into that hole, silently damning New China’s incessant construction.” I can relate to that every time I hear a jackhammer. Even the famously mild-mannered Peter Hessler confesses in his essay to going ballistic with his fists on a thief he catches in his hotel room. I’ve been there as well, taking out all my pent-up frustrations on some poor pickpocket who wasn’t quick enough to escape the reach of this 6’4” foreign devil. I expect that having had my patience tried so often here has forged me into a calmer, more levelheaded person than the clenched-fisted, teeth-gnashing, Thundarr the Barbarian in Beijing I arrived as.

AA: A foreigner also has special status and perks from being in China – for instance, they always stand out, whereas back home they’re just another face in the crowd.

TC: Special status, yes, but not in the way it’s been mythologized. Sure, in the countryside it’s nice to be invited in for tea by villagers who’ve never encountered a Westerner before, but in Shanghai you’re bumped into and cut in front of and run over by cars like any other laobaixing or common person. That oft-eulogized “rock star status” was more of a vague concept that the Chinese used to have about the West – the branded clothing, the rebellious music, the casual sex. But actually there’s nothing special about being gawked at, openly talked about and cheated because it’s assumed that you’re wealthy. And there’s certainly nothing special about the hell-like bureaucracy foreigners are burdened with, or not having access to basic public services like hospitals, schools and even hotels, or the frequent suspicions that the government casts over us.

In fact, in just the past five years following the global recession of 2008 – during which nearly every world economy collapsed except for China’s – our collective esteem in the eyes of the Chinese has plummeted from superstar status to that of some invasive species, a metaphor which the environment journalist Jonathan Watts also makes in the book, comparing non-indigenous plants with foreigners. And there’s a wholesale fumigation of Western corporations [that exploit China’s low labor costs], which the Communist government now considers a threat, like the imperialist military incursions of centuries past. They want and need our business, but they are no longer going to make it easy for us. As a result, the Xi Jinping administration is coming down hard on foreign firms that have historically gotten away with shady practices like price fixing, influence buying and general non-compliance.

AA: Do you think it’s hard to adjust to life back home if you return? With no cheap taxis, eating out, cleaners, massages…

TC: I honestly couldn’t tell you. I’ve only been back to the States once in nearly a decade; China is “home” now. I’m not that laowai who skips out on China when it’s convenient, or because living here is no longer convenient. I’m also not that Westerner who has a driver or only takes taxis – I ride public transportation and my rusty trusty 40-year-old 40-kilogram Flying Pigeon bike. Nor do I hire old ayis [housekeepers] to do my dirty work – my wife and I raise our child ourselves, make our own meals, and clean our home ourselves. I can just hear all the gasps from colonialist-minded “enclave expats” who could never conceive a life in Asia without servants.

I did live in Japan for a year after four straight years in China, and found the orderliness and politeness and emotionlessness of it all quite difficult to adjust to. So I spent the following year wandering around India, which provided me with a much-needed dose of dust and disorder. After that I returned to China and for the following few years lived in my wife’s native farming village in rural Jiangsu province. That to me was like an epiphany, as if I had finally found home. But for my wife – who in her youth had strived to escape the countryside and eventually made her way up to Beijing, where we met – it was coming full circle back to where she started. So now we divide our time between Jiangsu and Shanghai, which I guess gives each of us the best of both worlds.

AA: I’ve had friends who went back home after living in China, but missed the excitement and buzz so much they couldn’t help but come back. Is China a drug?

TC: I should first disclaim that the Ministry of Public Security takes drug dealing in China very seriously, as Dominic Stevenson, who wrote about his two-year incarceration in a Chinese prison for dealing hash, can attest. But I’d venture to say that, like any drug, it depends entirely on the user’s own state of mind. If we’re making metaphors, for old China hands I’d imagine their time here draws parallels with the soaring euphoria and bleak depths of smoking opium, while China for the uninitiated is probably a bit like bath salts: the constantly convulsing nervous system, the paranoia, the god-complex, the rage.

I’d liken my own China experience to a decade-long acid trip. It began with liberating my mind from the restraints of Western society. Then I departed on an odyssey that took me tens of thousands of miles across China, experiencing various metaphysical and spiritual states as my journey progressed, punctuated by periods of intense creativity due to my heightened sensory perceptions. To a background score of warped erhu and guzheng [classical Chinese instruments], and the looped calls of sidewalk vendors echoing into the void, the kaleidoscopic chaos of this culture surged around me like the Yangtze river – in outer space. Now I’m one with China’s cosmic consciousness. I want to reeducate the communists with love. Or maybe I’m not even here. Maybe I really did perish during my Kora around Mount Kailash and none of this ever happened …

AA: Ground control to Major Tom. Your own story in the book is about a visit to a brothel with two lecherous laowai. How representative do you feel that this kind of foreigner in China is, especially those who come to try and pick up Chinese girls?

TC: It’s been fascinating for me to see how much polemic this single story has stirred. I kind of knew I’d be martyring myself when I decided to include my account of a boy’s night out at a brothel in the anthology instead of, say, a story about my marriage in a rural village, or about delivering our firstborn son at a public People’s hospital in the countryside. My publisher, Graham Earnshaw, even tried to warn me about the inevitable ire that would follow and suggested I pull the piece for my own well-being. His forecast was unfortunately accurate. Immediately following a Time Out review that dedicated most of its page space to criticizing my brothel story, certain women’s reading groups called for my arrest and deportation from China because, they said, I “patronized teenaged prostitutes”.              

And yet, the story has received as much praise as it has hate. An equal number of readers seem to find it refreshing that a foreigner is finally writing about experiences many single males in the Orient have had but never dared admit – especially not in print. And considering the Party’s penchant for keeping extensive dossiers on Chinese and foreigners alike, I can understand their reticence. But I can’t help but consider as downright disingenuous the glaring omissions of any situation involving prostitution – an impossible-to-overlook trade found in nearly every neighborhood in every city and town – by certain best-selling Western authors in China. Do they not consider the women of this profession worthy of writing about? Or are they simply lying?

I’m not saying I had some altruistic intention with my story – it was just an absurd situation that my friends and I got ourselves into that also happened to make for ribald writing. But the truth is, I conceptualized the entire anthology around that brothel incident, because I wanted to compile a collection of candid and truthful experiences that left nothing out, including visits to your neighborhood pink-lit hair salon. Only the discerning reader can tell you how representative it is of them, but maybe, nay, hopefully, my story will kick off a new era of honesty by Western writers in China. We’ll see.

This interview was first posted on Tumbler September 25, 2013 and on The Anthill.org September 26, 2013


Politically Correct in the West but Historically Wrong

October 22, 2013

In the “Contra Costa Times”, I read Tibetan leaders seek East Bay help by Doug  Oakley, May 27, 2010. This was a politically correct news piece that was partially accurate because Oakley only shared part of the history between China and Tibet—the part that favors Tibet’s so-called government in exile, which represents about 1% of all Tibetans—the rest still live in China.

Oakley writes that, “Tibet was invaded by the Chinese army in 1950. After the Tibetan army was defeated, both sides signed a 17-point agreement in 1951 recognizing China’s sovereignty over Tibet.”

These facts were correct, but they did not tell the whole story.

Any historian who checks primary-source material that does exist outside of Communist China will discover that Tibet was ruled by three Chinese dynasties: The Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties from 1277 – 1911.  Even after Sun Yat-Sen’s so-called Republic replaced the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Tibet was considered part of China.

Primary sources like the October 1912 issue of The National Geographic Magazine—with a piece written by a Chinese doctor who was sent to Tibet by China’s emperor in 1907— and more than fifty letters written by Sir Robert Hart during the 19th century support the fact that Tibet was part of China for more than six centuries prior to 1913 when the British Empire convinced Tibet to break free for political reasons. [Note: I have an original copy of that issue of NGM, and copies of Hart's letters]

The so-called Tibetan government in exile says they are seeking autonomy within China. In fact, China does offer a form of autonomy to the 56 minorities that live in China, but this isn’t the level of autonomy that the Dalai Lama demands, which is a return to the old Tibetan ways described in that 1912 issue of National Geographic, which is unacceptable to China.

Tibet has never been a democracy or a republic. And the average life expectancy for Tibetans increased from 35 years in 1950 to over 65 years by the 2000s while China has ruled the region, and going to school is mandatory for children. Source for life expectancy facts: Tibet from the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Between 1913 and 1950, life expectancy in Tibet did not improve during the few decades that the Dalai Lama ruled the region. In fact, little to nothing changed and most Tibetans were mostly illiterate serfs/slaves of wealthy and powerful landowners. In fact, every family had to send a son/s to become Tibetan Buddhist lamas. There was no choice and there was no educational system for children. The Tibetan people have more freedom of choice today—even under CCP leadership—than at any time in recorded history.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.

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Earning Gold from Dead Tibetan Caterpillars

October 9, 2013

Mary Jenkins writes in the May 2010 National Geographic about Tibetan cowboys and Chinese-made motorcycles in his Tea Horse Road piece unwittingly revealing the truth about Tibetan life under Chinese rule.

The Tibetan cowboys, who once used horses, now use motorcycles to tend their flocks. On the way to 17,756-foot Nubgang Pass, Jenkins passes the black yak-hair tents of Tibetan nomads, and sees big Chinese trucks or Land Cruisers parked outside. He wonders how poor Tibetans can afford such luxuries. Aren’t they supposed to be suffering?

I think, “Maybe they are smuggling drugs into China from India”.  As I read on, I learn I’m wrong.

On his way back from the pass, Jenkins discovers these Tibetan cowboys have found wealth in their high grasslands from parasite infected caterpillars called Yartsa Gompo in Tibet and Chong Cao in China.  These dead caterpillars sell to Chinese medicine shops throughout Asia for as much as 80 dollars a gram—more than the price for a gram of gold.

Why?

The Chinese and Tibetans think these dead caterpillars are a cure-all medicine that also acts as an aphrodisiac boosting sexual performance—just what China needs with its population of almost 1.4 billion.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.

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China’s Holistic Historical Timeline


The Forbidden City’s Link to Tibet Revealed–by accident maybe?

February 25, 2013

Since the Western media is often critical of China and exaggerates events in Tibet to make China look bad, I was surprised while reading The Last Secrets of the Forbidden Citiy Head to the U.S. by Auston Ramzy.

I was surprised that evidence like this slipped past the Western media censors—sorry, it is politically incorrect to say that there are media censors in America. In the US, the censors are called editors.

The Time Magazine piece Ramzy wrote was about an exhibit traveling to the United States with treasures from the Forbidden City that have not been seen since 1924.

Ramzy wrote, “Many of the 18th century objects that will be displayed are symbols of the emperor’s devout Buddhism. They include a hanging panel filed with niches that hold intricate figurines of Buddhas, deities and historical teachers from the Tibetan Buddhist sect to which [Emperor] Qianlong belonged.” See Buddhism in China

I didn’t know the powerful Qianlong Emperor followed the teachings of Buddhists from Tibet. There are four Buddhist sects in Tibet. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of one of the four, the Yellow Hat sect.

Why would the Qianlong Emperor belong to a Tibetan sect of Buddhism if Tibet were not considered part of China at the time? There is even evidence that Tibetan Buddhist monks traveled to the capital of China to serve the emperors.

This is evidence that proves China considered Tibet a vassal state or tributary.  In fact, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasty troops are known to have occupied Lhasa over the centuries.

I’ve written about primary evidence from the October 1912 National Geographic Magazine that described how the Imperial government in Beijing managed a difficult Tibet, and I’ve mentioned letters Sir Robert Hart wrote in the 19th century that also mention Tibet as part of China.

In 1890, a Convention between Great Britain and China was signed that offers more evidence that China considered Tibet part of its realm and Great Britain agreed.

Yes, Tibet did declare freedom from China in 1913 soon after the Qing Dynasty collapsed and China fell into chaos and anarchy while warlords fought over the spoils. Why did Tibet do this? Because the British Empire convinced Tibet to break from China.

Then in 1950, after World War II and the end of the rebellion between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Chinese Communists, Mao Red Army invaded Tibet and reoccupied what the Chinese considered a breakaway province as mainland China still considers Taiwan.

_______________

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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No Way is Tibet a Democracy in Exile!

February 18, 2013

I read a misleading post at Global Voices that was titled China and Tibet: Democracy in Exile. My first thought was, “When was Tibet ever a Democracy?”

Let’s see, how did the United States become a Republic? The answer is simple: the American colonists rebelled against the British Empire and fought the American Revolution 1775 – 1783.  There was the Declaration of Independence and then there was the US Constitution followed by twenty-seven ratified amendments. The 27th Amendment was enacted on May 7, 1992, but was proposed September 25, 1789. It only took two-hundred and three years for approval. Wow!

Tibet does not have a similar history. The only thing that is similar is that some Tibetans took part in an uprising against the CCP, and they lost. The same thing could have happened in America from 1775 to 1783. If  the colonists had lost, a reluctant US might still be ruled by the UK.

In fact, it doesn’t matter what the Richard Geres of  the world say or want us to believe—Tibet has never been a republic or a democracy.

Here’s what the Global Voices author said in the first sentence, “Being a Tibetan in exile is a loss that manifests in many forms: the loss of homeland and natural rights fall within that.”

What were the natural rights that were lost?

Most Tibetans in exile (represented by about 1% of the total Tibetan population) gave up land and thousands of serfs who were treated no better than slaves. What was lost were positions of power and wealth.

Before 1950, when Mao’s Red army reoccupied Tibet for China, there had been no democracy or republic in Tibet – ever.

The following quotes show us what Tibet was like before 1950.

“Lamaism is the state religion of Tibet and its power in the Hermit Country is tremendous. Religion dominated every phase of life. … For instance, in a family of four sons, at least two, generally three, of them must be Lamas. Property and family prestige also naturally go with the Lamas to the monastery in which they are inmates.

“Keeping the common people or laymen, in ignorance is another means of maintaining the power of the Lamas. Nearly all of the laymen (serfs) are illiterate. Lamas are the only people who are taught to read and write.”  Source: October 1912 National Geographic Magazine, page 979.

I’m sure that under Lamaism, there was no freedom of religion, no freedom of speech, and the people did not vote.  Need I saw more?

Between 1912—when those words appeared in National Geographic—and 1950, Tibet did not change, because it stayed the same as it had been for centuries. The only difference was that there was no Chinese governor in Tibet appointed by the Emperor and supported by Chinese troops.

What we have in Global Voices is clever manipulation to elicit support for the Tibetan separatist movement.

There’s nothing wrong with supporting a separatist movement. After all, there are at least eight known and active separatist movements in the United States: the Alaska Independence Party; Hawaiian sovereignty movement; Lakotah Oyate; Puerto Rico Independence Party; League of the South; Texas Secession Movement; Second Vermont Republic and the Cascadia Independence Movement.

In addition, Tibetans have the same odds to be free from China as Hawaiians and the Lakota Sioux have of being free of the United States.

It is a fact that a reluctant Tibet was ruled over by the Yuan (Mongol), Ming (Han) and Qing (Manchu) Dynasties from 1277 to 1913, when Great Britain convinced Tibet to break from China at the same time the Qing Dynasty was collapsing.

Discover Why Tibet?

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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Tea for Emperors and Tibet – Part 4/5

January 20, 2012

After the “Puer” tea is ready, the journey begins.

For the Pu’erh that I buy, Emperor’s Pu’erh, it leaves Yunnan, reaches China’s coast and then crosses the Pacific to end on a shelf at a Whole Foods Market. However, before that, for centuries, Puer tea traveled to Tibet and China’s capital for the Emperor.


CCTV 9 Travelogue – Tea and Horse Road – Part 1 1/2

Most people have heard of or read about the Silk Road from China to Europe. I’m sure that few have heard of the Ancient Tea Horse Road, which I discovered in the May 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine.


CCTV 9 Travelogue – Tea and Horse Road – Part 1 2/2

Legend says that tea from China arrived in Tibet as early as the Tang Dynasty (618- 906 A.D.). After that, the Chinese traded tea for horses, as many as 25,000 horses annually.


CCTV 9 Travelogue – Tea and Horse Road – Part 2 1/2

But that isn’t what struck me the most about the piece. It’s the example that demonstrated why the peasants loved and possibly worshiped Mao Tse-Tung.


CCTV 9 Travelogue – Tea and Horse Road – Part 2 2/2

For more than a thousand years, men fed their families by carrying hundreds of pounds of tea on their backs across rugged mountains into Lhasa. Some froze to death in blizzards. Others fell to their deaths from the narrow switchbacks that climbed into the clouds.


CCTV 9 Travelogue – Tea and Horse Road – Part 3 1/2

This all ended in 1949 when Mao had a road built to Tibet and farmland was redistributed from the wealthy to the poor. “It was the happiest day of my life,” said Luo Yong Fu, a 92-year-old dressed in a black beret and a blue Mao jacket, whom the author of the National Geographic piece met in the village of Changheba.


CCTV 9 Travelogue – Tea and Horse Road – Part 3 2/2

Before ending the four posts on Puer [Pu'erh] tea and moving on to Kombucha Fermented Tea in Post 5, Numi Organic tea, Emperor’s Pu’erh, the one I buy at Whole Foods, says, “These old-growth rare Pu’erh trees are communally owned by the local villagers who pick them for their livelihood, ensuring that they continue to grow for generations to come… Pu’erh is an ancient healing tea picked from 500-year-old organic wild tea trees in Yunnan, China. Pu’erh has more antioxidant than most green teas.”

Continued on January 21, 2012 in Tea for Emperors and Tibet – Kombucha Fermented Tea – Part 5 or return to Part 3

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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Note: This five-part series of posts on “Tea for Emperors and Tibet” first appeared May 2010, as The Magic of “Puer” Tea, The Tea Horse Road, and Kambucha Fermented Tea.


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