Category Archives: China

Notes from the field: enjoying steaming Beijing lamb hotpot

Beijing lamb hotpot

There’s no better antidote to a cold Beijing winter evening than a steaming spicy lamb hotpot in a raucous and crowded restaurant. Families and colleagues celebrating the impending arrival of the lunar new year weave life and color into the atmosphere, as do a couple of guys loudly toasting each other with glasses of baijiu (white spirit) on the next table.

This is no synthetic “experience” manufactured by some restaurant or retail marketing guru. It’s visceral and spontaneous. Its authenticity is built on time-tested traditions and rituals rather than ephemeral data-generated insights aimed at satisfying the relentless quest for novelty of the influencer crowd. Continue reading Notes from the field: enjoying steaming Beijing lamb hotpot

Notes from the field: blue skies over Beijing

blue skies over beijing

Clear blue skies over Beijing! The weather’s not quite as cold as I’d expected either, though I’m sure that the mercury will begin a rapid descent as evening arrives. My flights haven’t been as stressful as I’d expected either given that the Lunar New Year Holiday is fast approaching. Facial recognition systems at airport security check points dramatically reduce the waiting times for everyone.

China is justifiably proud of the capacity it has built up to handle an estimated 3 billion trips during the holiday period. No other country comes anywhere near matching the scale, efficiency, and convenience of its transportation infrastructure. Its high speed trains, in particular, put the rest of the world to shame. Continue reading Notes from the field: blue skies over Beijing

Notes from the field: Sunday Book Market at Shanghai Confucius Temple

Shanghai Confucius Temple Book Market

There was plenty of action this morning at the weekly Sunday book market held at the Shanghai Confucius Temple. Plenty of blasts from the revolutionary past piled on the vendors’ tables as well. As I browsed through the books, comics, magazines, and other mementos, I felt like I was back in China as a student in the mid-1980s. There’s nothing like a touch of nostalgia to rejuvenate the body and mind.

Although the origins the Shanghai Confucius Temple go as far back as 1294, the complex has been moved to a number of different sites and undergone multiple reconstructions since that time. The current incarnation has a charming southern Chinese architectural style that’s easy on the eye. The graceful curves of its russet halls and pavilions stand in stark contrast to the towering steel and concrete blocks surrounding it. Continue reading Notes from the field: Sunday Book Market at Shanghai Confucius Temple

2019 highlights: two great Chinese history podcasts

two great Chinese history podcasts
Qufu City Wall

I can’t close the year of 2019 without giving a huge vote of thanks to Laszlo Montgomery and Chris Stewart for their incredible dedication in writing and producing my two favorite podcasts about China’s history. Both programs are absolute goldmines of information and insight about this rich and complex topic. I have no idea how they find the time to carry out all the research and writing required to produce such high-quality content on such a consistent basis. Their obvious passion is truly inspiring!

The China History podcast was started in June 9, 2010. It covers a dizzying array of topics – from art, literature, and philosophy to the rise and fall of each dynasty, great figures in Chinese history, and even the 1930s Shanghai jazz scene. Laszlo Montgomery’s deep knowledge of China and his enthusiasm for its language, history, and culture shines brightly through his inimitable narrative style. You can visit the China History podcast website here. Continue reading 2019 highlights: two great Chinese history podcasts

2019 Highlights: on the trail of the Duke of Zhou and the Yellow Emperor

Duke of Zhou Temple Qufu
Duke of Zhou Temple, Qufu

Walking around the center of modern-day Qufu, it can be difficult to appreciate the influence that this small city had on the early political and cultural development of China. Not only is it said to be the home of the legendary Yellow Emperor, one of the mythical five Emperors who is regarded by some as the creator of Chinese culture. It also wielded tremendous soft power during the Zhou dynasty as the capital of the state of Lu, which was granted to Confucius’s great hero, the Duke of Zhou, as a fiefdom by the grateful young King Cheng for the dedication he showed in building the foundations of the nascent dynasty during his regency.

Although the duke never actually visited Qufu because he had far more important affairs at the Zhou court to take care of, his association with the city elevated its importance to previously unimaginable heights. The construction of a magnificent temple to honor him further helped to promote the image of Qufu throughout the land and to enable the state of Lu to punch above its weight on the Zhou dynasty political and cultural stage. Continue reading 2019 Highlights: on the trail of the Duke of Zhou and the Yellow Emperor

2019 highlights: beyond the standard Qufu tourist circuit

Qufu tourist circuit - Cemetery of Mencius’ Mother
Cemetery of Mencius’ Mother

There’s a lot more to see than the usual stops on the standard Qufu tourist circuit of the Temple of Confucius, the Kong Mansion, and the Kong Forest. Not surprisingly, many of these sights are related to the Confucius, but if you’ve already imbibed too much sagely wisdom and history you can simply relax and enjoy the stunning natural beauty of the surrounding countryside.

Two spots that immediately spring to mind are the cemeteries of Mencius, second only to the sage himself in the Confucian pantheon, and his formidable mother, which I visited in October this year. Cemetery is probably the wrong word to describe these two places. Forest, the literal meaning of the Chinese word (林/lín), is a much more appropriate name because the graves of son and mother and a few other notables and relatives are surrounded by pristine woods comprising cypress, oak, elm, and maple trees that go back as far as two thousand years. Continue reading 2019 highlights: beyond the standard Qufu tourist circuit

2019 highlights: Qufu Confucius Museum and LSEVs

Qufu Confucius Museum

From Wuzhen, I took a five-hour high speed train ride via the Shanghai Hongqiao station to Qufu in order to see the sights I missed during my first trip there a couple of years ago and visit the recently opened Confucius Museum.

The museum was impressive in architectural terms and had a fine collection of Shang and Zhou dynasty ritual vessels, but the scarcity of English language descriptions of the exhibits makes it hard work for overseas visitors who are unable to read Chinese. Continue reading 2019 highlights: Qufu Confucius Museum and LSEVs

2019 highlights: exploring the charms of Wuzhen ancient water town

ancient water town

I didn’t get much of a chance to explore new places in China this year, but I’m glad that I did at least manage to make it to Wuzhen (乌镇), one of the most famous ancient water towns located less than a two-hour high speed train ride from Shanghai.

Wuzhen was a prosperous trading center during the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties thanks to its location along the Grand Canal, which was once the main transportation route connecting Hangzhou and Beijing. Most recently, it has turned itself into a popular tourism destination following extensive renovations to the stunning architecture of the old town center, attracting over 1.5 million visitors a year. Continue reading 2019 highlights: exploring the charms of Wuzhen ancient water town

Notes from the field: hotel service bots & porcine facial recognition systems

porcine facial recognition

I can’t say that I was too surprised to see a couple of robots lurking around the lobby when I first checked into my Beijing hotel. The rate of new technology adoption is much faster in China than other countries.

Even though one of the machines was being touted as a service bot for delivering items to guest’s rooms, I would suspect that the main value of the two devices currently lies as a marketing tool. They certainly attracted enough attention and social media engagement from both domestic and overseas visitors to justify their cost. But I don’t think it will be too long before such machines will be able to carry out more business-critical tasks like checking in guests using facial recognition, booking cars and taxis for them, and securing reservations for VIPs in exclusive restaurants. Of course, some human staff will still be required to add a personal touch to the guest experience – but not quite as many as now I would guess. Continue reading Notes from the field: hotel service bots & porcine facial recognition systems

Notes from the field: the Beijing Summer Palace

Beijing Summer Palace

The Summer Palace (颐和园) was the perfect place to finish my final trip to China this year. No matter how many times I visit this former Qing imperial resort, I never lose my sense of wonder at the sublime beauty of its palaces, pavilions, and lakes.

The Qing emperors and their retinues certainly knew how to enjoy themselves. However, their extravagance – best exemplified by the construction of the notorious marble boat for the Empress Dowager Cixi using funds intended for modernizing the navy – played a major role in the demise of the dynasty around the turn of the twentieth century. Continue reading Notes from the field: the Beijing Summer Palace