Shanghai and the Complexity of Spoken Language in China

June 24, 2014

The first time I flew into Shanghai, the jet landed at Hangqiao Airport. In 1999, there was no Pudong with its Maglev Train, which moves 150 to 200 km/hour—running eighteen miles to the city.

Even with the larger Pudong airport, Hangqiao still handled more than 31 million passengers in 2010, but more fly into Pudong (44.8 million passengers in 2012).

Model of Shanghai

Regarding spoken languages, China’s leaders are finishing the job Qin Shi Huangdi started twenty-two hundred years ago, and it’s not going to be easy.

The first emperor unified China with one written language but didn’t touch the spoken word. Today, the country is being stitched together with one language, Mandarin. It may take several generations, because most people still speak the language of their parents.

How tough is this goal? Well, there are about 250 spoken languages in China and some of these have dozens of different dialects (especially Mandarin and Tibetan). For instance, Shanghainese, or Wuzhou that’s about 120 miles upstream from Guangzhou, but its dialect is more like that of Guangzhou than that of Taishan, 60 miles southwest of Guangzhou and separated from it by several rivers. In parts of Fujian the speech of neighboring counties or even villages may be mutually unintelligible. Learning English is also mandatory in the public schools. In 2010, there were estimated to be over 100,000 native English-speaking teachers in China.

I’ve shopped on this street.

When England and France started two opium wars with China to force the emperor to allow them to sell the drug to his people, Shanghai was only a sleepy fishing town. The 1st Opium war was 1839 to 1849. The 2nd was 1856 to 1860.

The treaty that ended the first opium war made Shanghai a concession port bringing expats to China from all over the world, and they are still arriving.

Today, there are about 210,000 foreigners living in Shanghai (another 45,500 live in Pudong) out of more than 24 twenty million residents in the municipality of Shanghai with another 21.7 million in the urban area around the city—making Shanghai the most populated city in China and the world. Shanghai has more than 20,000 buildings 11 stories or higher with more than 1,000 exceeding 30 stories.

The 121-story Shanghai Tower will be completed this year, and it will be the tallest building in China. For a comparison, New York City has less than 6,000 high-rises and only 97 are taller than 600 feet.

The next four Shanghai photos are courtesy of Tom Carter,
photo journalist and author of China: Portrait of a People

See the Shanghai Huangpu River Tour

See more at National Geographic, Shanghai Dreams

See more about Shanghai at Eating Gourmet in Shanghai

 

Discover Hollywood Taking the “Karate Kid” to China

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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 third book is Crazy is Normal, a classroom exposé, a memoir. “Lofthouse presents us with grungy classrooms, kids who don’t want to be in school, and the consequences of growing up in a hardscrabble world. While some parents support his efforts, many sabotage them—and isolated administrators make the work of Lofthouse and his peers even more difficult.” – Bruce Reeves.

lloydlofthouse_crazyisnormal_web2_5

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China’s Holistic Historical Timeline


Shanghai Susie, a guest post by Tom Carter

December 18, 2013

Unsavory Elements editor Tom Carter talks with aspiring novelist Susie Gordon in her debut public interview on Shanghai’s expatriate scene, writing fiction versus non-fiction, and partying with China’s nouveau riche.

As the editor of Unsavory Elements, China’s first-ever expat anthology, I was conscious about balancing out the cast of contributors with both established writers and emerging talent. Surprisingly, it was far easier to commission best-selling authors for the project than it was to unearth unknown writers who not only had an interesting tale to tell, but could tell it well.

Whilst scouring the Sino-blogosphere and bookshops for potential contributors, I stumbled upon the works of Susie Gordon, a Shanghai-based Brit whose love for this cosmopolitan city is evident in her poetic prose and appropriately-risqué story telling. I thusly commissioned her to write a true, first-hand account about Shanghai’s legendary nightlife, and she came through with what critics are saying is one of the anthology’s most stunning stories – a glittery glimpse into the decadent lives of China’s fu er dai (second generation nouveau riche).

Unsavory Elements, published by Shanghai’s own Earnshaw Books and launched this past spring at a sold-out session of the Shanghai Literary Festival, has received mixed reviews from the local expat ‘zine scene, many whom were admittedly entranced by Susie’s story but offended if not outraged by my own “exploitative” (their words) essay about patronizing prostitutes.  The western mass media, on the other hand, have haughtily refused to review the book owing to its boutique publisher, but steady sales in Shanghai and Beijing bookstores, and polemic word-of-mouth from netizens, have relegated Unsavory Elements to cult status – an admittedly better place to be than out of print.

We agree to meet in the crisp, early morning hours of November 1 at a café on Yongkang Lu, Shanghai’s newest expat hotspot which has made news recently for its rampant and rowdy gentrification. I am not a little surprised that someone so smitten with this city’s history and culture (Susie is also the author of the Moon Shanghai guidebooks and runs the local branch of the Royal Asiatic Society) would suggest that we patronize one of Yongkang Lu’s foreign-owned establishments instead of a local shop.  Between drags of green Esse and several cups of coffee, the strongly opinionated Shanghai Susie aka “Unsavory Susie” expounds on such contentious topics during this, her first-ever public interview.

susiegordonphotoSusie Gordon

TOM: Do you live around here?

SUSIE: Yes, I live on Taiyuan Lu, the heart of the former French Concession, one of the most attractive areas in town.

TOM: Why did you decide to live in an expat enclave as opposed to elsewhere in the city?

SUSIE: It’s commonly believed that the French Concession is where all the foreigners go, and from Yongkang Lu you’d think that was true, but the street where I live is very local. I live on the top floor of a lane house, my neighbors on the other floors are all Shanghainese people who have lived here their whole lives, and I hardly see another expat face unless I come up here.

TOM: I’ve read in the news that the Chinese residents who live above the bars here on Yongkang Lu are throwing water down on the noisy foreigners because they feel their neighborhood has basically been invaded by white people. So apparently developers are planning on buying out all the locals and turning this street into another Laowai Jie. Do you feel such gentrification is beneficial to the community?

SUSIE: No, not at all. I think it’s a really insidious form of neo-colonialism, but then again Shanghai is a city that was built on such practices, it’s a city that thrives on vogue and trends. And the government will let it progress so long as it continues to bring money in.  How about yourself?

TOM: I’m over near the Central Railway Station, which is like the last place anyone wants to be, but I’ve only lived in Shanghai for a year and a half. From having lived in many other provinces and traveled so extensively in China, I can honestly say that Shanghai is one of my least favorite cities.  It has to do with that gentrification – an elitist city built by and for foreigners in the Mainland who don’t really want to be here – and how it’s turned the locals into mean mercenaries.  Wouldn’t you agree that the Shanghainese are not nearly as friendly as people elsewhere in the country?

SUSIE: I think it’s like in any big city of trade and economy. Shanghai was founded on making money, so certainly the local personality has developed around that, where everyone is on the make. But that’s happening all over China now during this development boom, as I’m sure you’ve encountered during your travels.

TOM: So what brought you to China and Shanghai in the first place?

SUSIE: It was curiosity mixed with a tiny bit of family heritage; my grandfather was a shipping merchant from Liverpool in the 1950s and he used to come to Shanghai quite frequently and always talked about it. So I came here in 2008 on holiday and liked it so much that I made the rash decision to move here even though I didn’t have a job or any money or any friends, so in a way I’m indebted to the city for providing for me in that way. I was also pleased to find a writing group when I moved here: HAL is one of the first independent writing groups that turned into a publishing house, and they’ve published two collections of writings, both which I’ve contributed to.

TOM: And that is exactly how I discovered you!  I’d read both of the HAL publications and the two stories that stood out to me the most were written by “S.C. Gordon”.  It took some online sleuthing to track you down since that was just your pen name. Your story in Party like it’s 1984 was kind of a satirical maybe-true take on the local expat editors scene.

SUSIE: Yes, I had spent a couple years working for a now-defunct expat magazine. The stories in general you hear about expats who come to Shanghai to set up businesses that ultimately go wrong due to cheating or just due to failure are very easy to satirize.

TOM: Middle Kingdom Underground is where I really fell in love with your writing. Your story “The Den” is set in a single night in the early 1900s and is about a Western woman trying opium for the first time; her matriarch is attempting to seduce her while she’s trying to seduce her matriarch’s Chinese house-girl. The plot is rich with layers of seduction and deceit; you’ve done in a mere 15 pages what would take a Chinese television costume drama an entire season. Where did the inspiration for this come from?

SUSIE: I’m fascinated by Shanghai’s history with the opium trade, and I’m influenced by the British writer Sarah Waters, so I wanted to theme my story around female relationships during the Victorian-era.

TOM: Have you ever tried opium?

SUSIE: I haven’t – I don’t even know where you’d get it these days! It’s certainly not available from the Uyghur drug dealers on Yongfu Lu or Fumin Lu, you never hear them whispering “hashish, marijuana, opium…”

TOM: So after I read your HAL essays I knew I had to include you in Unsavory Elements, and I remember I specifically asked if you could give me a non-fiction, present-day version of “The Den” and take us on the ultimate night out in decadent, sexy Shanghai. But the clever thing about “Empty from the Outside” is that you’re not the one being naughty, you’re just observing all these self-indulgent people around you.

SUSIE: I used to do business with a wealthy Chinese man and his spoiled sons, and they’d go on these extravagant nights out, laying down tens of thousands of Yuan on wine. And what I learned from spending time with them is that desire is the same all over the world: if you have the money to buy designer drugs and expensive wine, you will.  And even in China, whether you are drinking a cheap bottle of erguotou or a pricey bottle of champaign, people in the big city have the same desires as in the countryside.

TOM: You’ve tapped into a topic that I’m pretty sure no other foreigner has ever written about – a long-form, first-hand expose on China’s privileged class.

SUSIE: I think the reason no foreigners are writing about it is because they don’t experience it; a lot of Westerners come here expecting to be worshiped and have dominion over the locals, but then they see these fu er dai (second generation) who are so incredibly wealthy and the Westerners realize they are not the richest or the best educated or the most ambitious, and it kind of puts them to shame, and thus they lose their access to that class of Chinese. But really I’m more of a fiction writer, it’s the genre I feel most natural in.

TOM: You’re currently working on a novel, right?

SUSIE: It’s a four-part novel spanning 20th century Shanghai to the present, like the history of the city as seen through four different generations of people who all lived in the same apartment in the old French Concession.

TOM: You know I love your writing, Susie, and allow me to be the first to publicly predict a publishers bidding war for your book, but as I’m someone who doesn’t love Shanghai as much, don’t you feel that early 1900’s Shanghai has been done to death in novels and movies?

SUSIE: I think there’s always something new to be written about Shanghai, and my approach would be classified as “queer literature” (even though there are a few straight people in the book too) so for that reason alone it’s unique. But I was conscious about skipping the 1930s, which is the most clichéd period of Shanghai’s history.

TOM: Yeah, it seems that for books about China the published industry has limited itself to either the Cultural Revolution or 1930s Shanghai, replete with recycled hai pai (Shanghai style) advertisement artwork for their book covers.

SUSIE: That’s because the publishing industry knows what will sell, and there’s not much experimentation because they have to play to a ready-made audience. And there’s certainly not much being written about modern Shanghai apart from expat memoirs.

TOM: And as we’ve unfortunately learned with Unsavory Elements this past year, expat books are hit or miss.

SUSIE: But an anthology like Unsavory Elements has its place in the wider canon of post-colonialist literature; this diaspora of westerners coming over to China as economic refugees, and the strange spectrum of experiences that ensue.  And I think it was important to include in the anthology stories such as mine and yours that explore the underbelly of China. What was the inspiration for your “Teen Street” story?

TOM: It had nothing to do with inspiration, it was just the sheer absurdity of that situation we’d gotten ourselves into (about a boy’s night out to a brothel staffed by teenage prostitutes) which compelled me to immortalize it in words. I suppose I should have expected all the ire that’s been directed at me because of it, though it seems that most of the people who have criticized me online for this story haven’t actually read it.

SUSIE: I think certain critics have seen that it’s by a male expat writer so therefore it has to be “exploitative”, but if they read between the lines they’ll find that isn’t necessarily the case. You’ve chosen a topic that can be controversial, but within the narrative you were quite careful to point out, for example, when your friend points to a prostitute and says “Wo yao zhege” and you respond “She’s not a thing, she’s a person.”  It’s a very considerate piece of writing, and just needs more of a detailed reading.

_______________

Tom Carter is the author of China: Portrait of a People

Unsavory Elements, edited by Tom Carter, is a collection of original, true stories commissioned from 28 renowned writers about their experiences living in China.

This interview originally appeared in the Asia Literary Review November 4, 2013

 


Breathing Huangzhou

June 4, 2013

The city of Huangzhou in Zhejiang province is about a hundred miles or 161 kilometers from Shanghai. We’ve visited several times. Our last trip together was in 2008 shortly before the project this story covers was launched. Huangzhou is one of the most beautiful cities in China.

In the video, Al Jazerra’s Melissa Chan reports on one of the largest bike sharing projects in the world and one of the most successful.

Launched in 2008, the city of Huangzhou provides 50,000 free bicycles at 2,000 bike stops across the city, and in July 2012 a paper was published on the Clean Air Action Planning in Chinese Cities: Hangzhou and Jinan Cases.

The people Chan interviewed say they use the bikes to go to work and it is great to be outside and exercising. One woman says it cuts her commute time.

Melissa Chan says the first hour of bike use is free. It’s actually possible to cycle free all day as long as you check in at a stop every hour.

The system is easy to use—just swipe a bike card across a reader (similar to riding many urban rapid transit systems) and off you go.

Registering for a card is simple.  All that’s needed is a deposit and identification.

Huangzhou, also known as the Westlake, has been one of the more environmentally conscious cities in China.

The government made space to build parks alongside the rapid development and modernization. Huangzhou has remained picturesque unlike many other cities in China where the concrete jungle has taken over.

Li Zhi Hong of Hangzhou Public Transport says the city wanted to encourage citizens to leave their cars and use more public transportation. The bicycles allowed people to take that final kilometer from the bus station to their destination.

The bikes are also great for tourism.

Melissa Chan says public busses have also adopted European emission standards. While there are still many cars on the road, people tell her that it could be a lot worse.

The city has taken the pollution issue seriously and Huangzhou’s success has attracted the attention of Beijing where the pollution problem is still “painfully” visible with each breath.

Today, Huangzhou is one of the cleanest cities in the country.  In fact, recently it was one of seven cities in China to limit the number of vehicles driving on roads using travel restrictions based on vehicle license plate numbers.” Source: Hangzhou Weekly.com (2013 update)

In addition, Huangzhou’s air is rated cleaner than seventeen of China’s Provincial Capitals including Xi’an, China’s ancient capital, and Beijing, its modern capital. Source: What’s On Ningbo.com

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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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China gains face through 2009 PISA

April 1, 2013

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international assessment that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy. PISA also includes measures of general or cross-curricular competencies, such as problem solving. PISA emphasizes functional skills that students have acquired as they near the end of compulsory schooling. Source: National Center for Education Statistics

When I first visited China in 1999, my wife warned me that the Chinese men I might witness peeing or defecating in public parks (there weren’t many public toilets then—China started building public toilets to get ready for the 2008 Olympics) in Shanghai were peasants from rural China.

In fact, where my wife grew up in Shanghai (in the picturesque French sector), there was one toilet in a three-story house where several families lived and the stove was next to the toilet.

Since then, I learned that China is one country with many cultures and languages. Even rural and urban China is different as the US is to rural Mexico.

However, after the 1980s, hundreds of millions of rural Chinese migrated to the cities to find jobs that paid better than being a peasant still stuck in the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, these people sometimes called Stick People brought their (uncivilized by Western standards) rural habits with them.

In 1999, I witnessed rural Chinese near Xian living in huts made of straw with dirt floors, no plumbing and no toilets.

This is what the CCP inherited when it came to power in 1949. The Party did not create this situation. After Mao died, the Communist Party had to rebuild an educational system that had been devastated by a Civil War, World War II and then the Cultural Revolution and before then there was little or no educational system in rural China.

Most of the schools in China up until 1950s were in the cities and focused on educating the elite.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, that the CCP started to rebuild and revise China’s public education system. Over time, the education system spread from urban to rural China where it is still being developed.

Imagine what the effort must have been for the CCP to educate a population that was about 80 percent illiterate in 1976 to 2009 when randomly selected 15-year old Chinese students in Shanghai earned the highest scores in the world on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test beating 65 other nations including the United States.

Shanghai’s fifteen-year-old students scored 556 in Reading (PISA average 493), 600 in Math (PISA avr. 496) and 575 in Science (PISA avr. 501).

Second place went to South Korea with 539 in Reading; Singapore with 562 Math, and Finland with 554 in Science. Source: Our Times.com

The results of the 2012 PISA will be released December 3, 2013. Will the United States improve its scores? Will China be number one again?

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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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Caressing nature with a long handled brush

March 4, 2013

It would be difficult to talk about Chinese art without understanding Chinese calligraphy and its artistic inspiration. A painting has to convey an object, but a well-written character conveys only its beauty through line and structure.

In Shanghai, or Beijing, I’ve watched men with longed handled brushes, as seen in the first video, using water for ink and concrete for paper. With grace, they exhibit the skills of a Rembrandt breathing life in the characters.

Lin Yutang writes in My Country and My People that Western art is more sensual, more passionate, fuller of the artist’s ego, while the Chinese artist and art-lover contemplates a dragonfly, a frog, a grasshopper or a piece of jagged rock—more in harmony with nature.

Owing to the use of writing calligraphy with a brush, which is more subtle and more responsive than the pen, calligraphy as art is equal to Chinese painting. Through calligraphy, the scholar is trained to appreciate, as regards line, qualities like force, suppleness, reserved strength, exquisite tenderness, swiftness, neatness, massivness, ruggedness, and restraint or freedom.

This helps explain why the Chinese may not be as warlike as Christian and Islamic cultures.

Discover Chinese Yu Opera with Mao Wei-tao

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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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Walking on a Glass Sky

January 31, 2013

My wife forwarded me an e-mail with photographs attached of walking on glass on Tianmen Mountain, China.  After looking at the photos, I searched YouTube and found a few videos worth sharing.

In the first two videos, you will see tourists walking on glass attached to the side of a cliff 4,700 feet above sea level.

The Daily Mail says, “Don’t look down!”

Another perilous site may be found on the slopes of China’s Shifou Mountain. Thousands of feet up, these Chinese workers are building another cliff-walkway with little or no safety gear.

Shifou Mountain is located 82 miles from Tianmen Mountain. When finished the wooden ‘road’ – which is the width of a dinner table – will stretch for 1.8 miles making it China’s longest sightseeing path.

Then there is walking on air at Huang Shan in the Yellow Mountains.

Next to last but not least, the Hua Han plank walk.  At my age, I’d rather walk on glass. Huckberry.com says, “This is no pirate’s plank walk. Located 7,000 feet above sea level on China’s Hua Shan Mountain, the Huashan Plank Walk embodies peril of a different kind.

“The ascent begins with a short set of steps carved into the side of a mountain. Soon after, the steps turn into a “ladder” of iron rods. Both require very, very careful steps to compensate for precarious footing. Then comes the notorious plank.”

Hua Shan has also been named the “Most Dangerous Hiking Trail in the World” by tourists.

Last, we join trekkers on their way to the top of Huangshan. Is that girl—the one that sits down—in high heels? You may notice that they are not letting go of the rope. Would you?

China Mike says, “Since Huangshan is a top tourist attraction and popular travel destination for the Chinese, book ahead, especially on summer weekends.” The photographs on Mike’s site are worth seeing.

Discover the Huangpu River Tour – Shanghai

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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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The Complex Evolution of Sex in China

October 10, 2012

A Guest Post by Richard Burger of The Peking Duck

One of the questions I hear the most is whether the Chinese people’s attitude toward sex is conservative or open-minded. And the answer is that it’s complicated.

First, there is more than one China: there’s rich China and poor China, urban and rural China, young China and older China.

Generalizations are tricky, and there always have to be qualifiers. It’s safe to say that in the larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai people are far less hung up than they were about sex twenty years ago.

Even in most of the second-tier cities you’ll find gay bars, sex shops, young couples holding hands and a lot of young people finding one-night stands over the Internet.

Sexologist Li Yinhe estimates that more than 50 percent of young urban Chinese have premarital sex, something that was unheard of thirty-five years ago. In the countryside that number is probably far lower, but most young people are leaving their rural hometowns to find work in the larger cities.

At the same time, however, traditional Chinese beliefs still hold sway over many of these young people.

For example, sex is not something you talk about openly.

In addition, when it comes time to choose a spouse, nearly all young Chinese will include their parents in the process, striving to make it a family decision.

Many if not most husbands still place a high premium on virginity and expect to see blood on the sheets the night of their honeymoon. This attitude is so fixed that every year hundreds of thousands of Chinese women have an operation to restore their hymens, or buy inexpensive artificial hymens that seep artificial blood.

This is an anomaly: more Chinese young people are having premarital sex yet men still expect their wives to be virgins.

China is in a tug of war between its conservative past and the lure of Western-style sexual freedom.

Looking at the trends and how quickly China’s sexual revolution has progressed, I would have to predict that sexual openness and tolerance will increase, and eventually China will shake off the vestiges of the sexual puritanism that prevailed under Mao.

However, for now, sex remains a touchy subject, even in the cities. Sex education, for example, is mandatory but often biology teachers who are supposed to teach it are too squeamish and simply skip to the next chapter. When they do teach this subject, the focus is on biology and anatomy, with little or no reference to contraception or sexual morality, such as the woman’s right to say no.

Here, too, there are signs of improvement in the larger cities, but it is very slow going. Sex remains a taboo subject that most Chinese are not comfortable discussing outside of their bedroom.

Discover more of China’s Sexual Revolution

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China’s sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

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