Shanghai Pathways Blog

Understand ​China​ ​From the Local ​Perspect​ive



Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


I am what they call in our village “one who has not yet died”—a widow, eighty years old. Without my husband, the days are long. I no longer care for the special foods that Peony and the others prepare for me. I no longer look forward to the happy events that settle under our roof so easily. Only the past interests me now. After all this time, I can finally say the things I couldn’t when I had to depend on my natal family to raise me or rely on my husband’s family to feed me. I have a whole life to tell; I have nothing left to lose and few to offend.

Sometimes the way you find a good book, is similar to the way you find a good friend. Since a year ago, I wanted to read this book by Lisa See, although I have to mention that the film based on it was a total disappointment 😉

After the foot-binding museum visit, Myrna gave this book to me and said that she wanted to know what do I think about it – actually she wanted to give to me in the last summer but we have been too busy to catch up. However, strangly enough, now it is perhaps the best time to read it as I just learnt everything about foot-binding from the old shoe collector and then lead tours and talks about the three inches lotus feet.

For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me—as a girl and later as a woman—to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.

Still as usual, Lisa’s writing is all about woman, but it is powerful. Before reading this book, I know nothing about the secret writing of nushu and laotong relation, it seems to be as old as the custom of foot-binding. The struggle and suffering of Chinese woman in old times is just such a big contrast with the amazing life style and freedom that I am enjoying right now.

I finished the book in 2 days. If there was really a past life, I wonder what I could had done as a woman.

“The Story of the Woman with Three Brothers”

A woman once had three brothers. They all had wives, but she was not married. Though she was virtuous and hardworking, her brothers would not offer a dowry. How unhappy she was! What could she do?

She’s so miserable, she goes to the garden and hangs herself from a tree.

The eldest brother walks through the garden and pretends not to see her. The second brother walks through the garden and pretends not to see that she’s dead. The third brother sees her, bursts into tears, and takes her body inside.

A woman once had three brothers. When she died, no one wanted to care for her body. Though she had been virtuous and hardworking, her brothers would not serve her. How cruel this was! What would happen?

She is ignored in death as in life, until her body begins to stink.

The eldest brother gives one piece of cloth to cover her body. The second brother gives two pieces of cloth. The third brother wraps her in as many clothes as possible so she’ll be warm in the afterworld.

A woman once had three brothers. Now dressed for her future as a spirit, her brothers won’t spend any money on a coffin. Though she was virtuous and hardworking, her brothers are stingy. How unfair this was! Would she ever find rest?

All alone, all alone, she plans her haunting days.

The eldest brother says, “We don’t need to bury her in a box. She is fine the way she is.” The second brother says, “We could use that old box in the shed.” The third brother says, “This is all the money I have. I will go and buy her a coffin.”

A woman once had three brothers. They have come so far, but what will happen to Sister now? Elder brother- mean in spirit; Second brother- cold in heart; but in Third brother love may come through.

Elder brother says, “Let’s bury her here by the water buffalo road.” (meaning she would be trampled for all eternity) Second brother says, “Let’s bury her here under the bridge.” (meaning she would wash away) But third brother – good in heart, filial in all ways – says, “We will bury her behind the house so everyone will remember her.”

The World Is Flat

“When the world is flat, you can innovate without having to emigrate”. But, how did the world `become flat’? Friedman suggest the trigger events were the collapse of communism, the dot-com bubble resulting in overinvestment in fiber-optic telecommunications, and the subsequent out-sourcing of engineers enlisted to fix the perceived Y2K problem.

Those events created an environment where products, services, and labor are cheaper. However, the West is now losing its strong-hold on economic dominance. Depending on if viewed from the eyes of a consumer or a producer – that’s either good or bad, or a combination of both.

Compare to the past, it is so much easier for people to connect and meet, therefore ideas can develop into business and free information are available to grab by a simple click.  Perhaps that’s one of the major reason why Asians are making more progress these days. Understanding that Chinese and Indians are coming from a much worse position and there is an uncontrollable desire to catch up and having a better life style.  While the west is getting lazy because people there already got so much to sit on.

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century is an international bestselling book by Thomas Friedman that analyzes globalization, primarily in the early 21st century. The title is a metaphor for viewing the world as a level playing field in terms of commerce, where all competitors have an equal opportunity. As the first edition cover illustration indicates, the title also alludes to the perceptual shift required for countries, companies and individuals to remain competitive in a global market where historical and geographical divisions are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Fall and Rise of China

  • Fall and Rise of China (Audio) Taught by Richard Baum
  • From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History (Audio) Taught by Kenneth J. Hammond

Just finished 2 audio books recently, both contain tons of historical information. While from Yao to Mao made me fall into sleep from time to time, I plan to go through the Fall and Rise of China again, simply because it is too fascinating.

If you are more interested in modern Chinese history, then Richard Baum’s course will give you a detailed understanding of all the core events in China’s century of stunning change, including these major happenings:

* Collapse of the Qing dynasty: You study the interlacing social, political, and economic factors that led to the fall of China’s 2,000-year empire and the implacable call for new political paradigms.
* The Republican era and civil wars: In the wake of the defunct empire, you witness the drama of the short-lived Chinese Republic, followed by political chaos and the long strategic battle between Republican forces and the seemingly unstoppable Communist Party.
* The “Great Leap Forward”: In a landmark episode of the Mao era, the regime’s grand-scale projects to communize agriculture and galvanize industry saw bureaucratic mismanagement leading to tragedy for tens of millions of Chinese.
* The Cultural Revolution: During this bitter era of the 1960s, festering tensions between the Maoist regime and its critics erupted in a brutal campaign of terror and repression against perceived enemies of Socialism.
* China’s post-Mao economic “miracle”: In the later lectures you track the specific reforms and ideological shifts that opened China to global economic engagement and forged its new role as a free-market dynamo.

The Opposite of Fate

Amy Tan is one of my favorite writer and I am so exited that she is coming to Shanghai for the 2012 Shanghai Literary Festival. The BEST thing is that I am going for the LITERARY LUNCH: Amy Tan in Conversation.

Her book of The Bonesetter’s Daughter was the very first English book which I read. It was almost 6 years ago and I clearly remember that when my friend Ashok gave it to me,  I was actually wondering how could I ever finish reading a book filled with so much English words. But later I carried the book with me and finished it during my holiday to the west part of China. After that, I realized it wasn’t that difficult to read English books and I really enjoy understand things from a different (western) perspective.

Amy Tan’s books are always filled with fascinating tales of mother and daughter relations, the ancient Chinese history and culture. As an ABC, she had no way to understand her mother’s hobbies and culture which seemed so different than Americans. Sometimes her story reminds me about the current life style change between the young generation who is born in the 80s and the older generation who is born before the 60s. 

In The Opposite of Fate, Amy Tan shares her insight into her own life and how she escaped the curses of her past to make a future of her own. She takes us on a journey from her childhood of tragedy and comedy to the present day and her arrival as one of the world’s best-loved novelists. Whether recalling arguments with her mother in suburban California or introducing us to the ghosts that inhabit her computer, it offers vivid portraits of choices, attitudes, charms, and luck in action-a refreshing antidote to the world-weariness and uncertainties we all face today.

Years of Red Dust

I am a little bit obsessed with the stories in Shanghai, so during the quiet winter days, I just can’t help but read like a starved person for days. 

Qiu xiao long’s name was first mentioned from a friend’s email. He seems to be a really creative writer who is talented in telling mysterious murder stories which always happened in Shanghai and he is proud of mix famous Chinese poems into those exciting stories. Naturely I tagged his book as one of the most wanted in my reading list.

Surprisingly, Years of Red Dust fall into my hand as one of my Chinese New Years gifts.  Once I opened the pages, it connects me deeply and reminds me of my childhood time in the backsteets of the southern city. The warmth of the narrow busy lanes, the endless gossips on the other side of the thin walls and the smells of every day life, gosh, I missed it.

The name of this book inspired me to start a walking tour program in Shanghai – Years of Heavenly Light. It is a kind of lost memory for which was part of our life, sometimes dark, sometimes merry.  Next week, I will go back to that strange sad little place and try to capture the stories before every one forgets. 

The stories in Years of Red Dust trace the changes in modern China over fifty years—from the early days of the Communist revolution in 1949 to the modernization movement of the late nineties—all from the perspective of one small street in Shanghai, Red Dust Lane. From the early optimism at the end of the Chinese Civil War, through the brutality and upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, to the death of Mao, the pro-democracy movement and the riots in Tiananmen Square—history, on both an epic and personal scale, unfolds through the bulletins posted and the lives lived in this one lane, this one corner of Shanghai.

On China

Started to pay attention to Henry Kissinger after I read an interview artical about him from the RUI magazine, which regarded him as the high-level diplomatic contact between US and China for more than two decades. So his English book about China remains an interests to me ever since.

In this fascinating, shrewd and sometimes perverse new book, it gave people a great understanding about China’s diplomatic history and the development for the past 50 years(with the view of an American). I totally loved the very beginning part of the book which tries to show how the history of China, both ancient and more recent, has shaped its foreign policy and attitudes toward the West, a true master piece with history which was unknown to me  in the past.

In this sweeping and insightful history, Henry Kissinger turns for the first time at book-length to a country he has known intimately for decades, and whose modern relations with the West he helped shape. Drawing on historical records as well as his conversations with Chinese leaders over the past forty years, Kissinger examines how China has approached diplomacy, strategy, and negotiation throughout its history, and reflects on the consequences for the global balance of power in the 21st century.

The Kitchen God

I have never heard about The Kitchen God, until I read the famous book of Amy Tan – The Kitchen God’s Wife.

During the most chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution, there was no celebration for the New Year at all. Red banners, which for 1,000 years had featured couplets about springtime and prosperity, now had to have revolutionary slogans lauding Chairman Mao. Temple fairs vanished. Lion and dragon dances were scorned, bunched in with the detested Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Teachers told students to reject traditional gifts of money in red packets from their parents, because money had to be earned through the sweat of the brow.

Perhaps the most significant blow to Chinese New Year was the government’s decision to forbid the annual burning of the Kitchen God, whose paper effigy hung above the stove. From this post, he could see whether a family was naughty or nice, and once a year, he passed along that information to the Jade Emperor, the top god in Daoism. A week before the first day of the lunar New Year, the family would feed him homemade candy and sticky cake to sweeten his words (or glue his mouth shut) during his annual report in heaven, and set out grass and water to nourish his horse for the journey. The family would then torch him and kowtow as he went up in flames, touching the forehead to the floor three times. Without burning the Kitchen God and replacing him with fresh paper, it was as if the year hadn’t passed.

For more than 50 years, the Kitchen God’s effigy has been censored material. While low-ranking gods like the Lords of the Door, who guard courtyard gates and inner doorways, were more tolerated, the Kitchen God was not. In the more traditional countryside, peasants evaded censors by printing the Kitchen God at home on crude wooden blocks. 
Though there are many stories on how Zao Jun became the Kitchen God, the most popular dates back to around the 2nd Century BC. Zao Jun was originally a mortal man living on earth whose name was Zhang Lang. He eventually became married to a virtuous woman, but ended up falling in love with a younger woman. He left his wife to be with this younger woman and, as punishment for this adulterous act, the heavens afflicted him with ill-fortune. He became blind, and his young lover abandoned him, leaving him to resort to begging to support himself. One day, while begging for alms, he happened across the house of his former wife. Being blind, he did not recognize her. Despite his shoddy treatment of her, she took pity on him, and invited him in. She cooked him a fabulous meal and tended to him lovingly; he then related his story to her. As he shared his story, Zhang Lang became overwhelmed with self-pity and the pain of his error and began to weep. Upon hearing him apologize, Zhang’s former wife told him to open his eyes and his vision was restored. Recognizing the wife he had abandoned, Zhang felt such shame that he threw himself into the kitchen hearth, not realizing that it was lit. His former wife attempted to save him, but all she managed to salvage was one of his legs.

The devoted woman then created a shrine to her former husband above the fireplace, which began Zao Jun’s association with the stove in Chinese homes. To this day, a fire poker is sometimes referred to as “Zhang Lang’s Leg”.

In Tan’s story there is an elaborate description of the coming of  “The Kitchen God”. The character Winnie goes into detail about how he came to be and attempts to address cultural struggles as she removes the picture of the Kitchen God from her daughter Pearl’s stove, as she does not believe this is the kind of luck Pearl needs. She then promises to fill the altar with the image of another god. In addition to this cultural struggle there is also a feminist undertone at the core, suggesting that this ritual is sexist, outdated, and inappropriate in today’s world. The story can be viewed as a struggle between traditionalism and biculturalism.


Factory Girls

In 2011, I have met quite a lot of interesting people with different backgrounds and age. China is at an interesting period and so does its people.

More than 6 years ago, one of my early corporate job was working at a Canadan firm as purchasing manager, it was stressful to deal with Chinese factories but at the same time actually fun to be a apart with all of the unbelievable production stories. One of the experience I got is: If a Chinese factory tells you that they don’t have problem in production, you will experience small problem. If they tell you that they have small problem, expecting the big ones 😉 

Sometimes it makes me wondering why factory workers can be so incapable?! They don’t seem to understand what they are doing, don’t really know how to use the right software and always come back with dumb questions.

A few days ago, I come acrossed with this book. It is an eye-opening and previously untold story, Factory Girls is the first look into the everyday lives of the migrant factory population in China. China has 130 million migrant workers—the largest migration in human history. In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta. As she tracks their lives, Chang paints a never-before-seen picture of migrant life—a world where nearly everyone is under thirty; where you can lose your boyfriend and your friends with the loss of a mobile phone; where a few computer or English lessons can catapult you into a completely different social class. Chang takes us inside a sneaker factory so large that it has its own hospital, movie theater, and fire department; to posh karaoke bars that are fronts for prostitution; to makeshift English classes where students shave their heads in monklike devotion and sit day after day in front of machines watching English words flash by; and back to a farming village for the Chinese New Year, revealing the poverty and idleness of rural life that drive young girls to leave home in the first place. Throughout this riveting portrait, Chang also interweaves the story of her own family’s migrations, within China and to the West, providing historical and personal frames of reference for her investigation.

A book of global significance that provides new insight into China, Factory Girls demonstrates how the mass movement from rural villages to cities is remaking individual lives and transforming Chinese society, much as immigration to America’s shores remade our own country a century ago.  

In the end, the massage from the book was way too powerful and true about these Chinese woman’s life and belief – Life is hard for everyone and you can only rely on yourself.

Is there a difference between me and the factory girls?

Shanghai Girls

When I first heard about Lisa Lee, it is because of her famous book of  Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. However I was not able to find the book in Shanghai and so only watched the movie. Perhaps it was because that my expectation was too high, the movie seemed a bit disapporting. 

One day I find Shanghai Girls and I was really tired when I finished the book. It was one of those where I had to stay up one night to finish it because when I tried to put it down, the story kept turning over in my head. I do have to admit that part of me kept wondering what else could go wrong as the story progressed. This is a wonderful book filled with dynamic history and rich characters and more important it is about woman from Shanghai – the city where I was born and raised.

Shanghai Girls is about two sisters, Pearl and May, who leave Shanghai in 1937 and go to Los Angeles in arranged marriages. It is a story of immigration, identity, war, and love, but at its heart, Shanghai Girls is a story of sisters. Pearl and May are inseparable best friends, who share hopes, dreams, and a deep connection. But like sisters everywhere, they also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries.

The Rape of Nanking

Ever since that I got a group request of visiting the Nanjing Massacre Museum for Feb 2012, I started to reseach more about this part of the Chinese history. 

Little by little, I got access to books, photos and archives, but I did not read The Rape of Nanking until today. The reason is simple, the person who recommended me this book has said that herself could not finish the first 10 pages as it was very depressing to read, even its author Iris Chang suffered a nervous breakdown and killed herself in 2004.

Looking at Iris, she is beautiful, the best-selling author, mother of a boy… I am not sure what to say towards her tragedy.  So when I am finally decided to looking into this book, I have been prepared and ready to absorb all the disturbing historical infos….still it has been really overwhelming and too powerful to handle, cruel images and the craziness of the war filled up with my head and making me feel uneasy with the comfort of my real happy world.

Yet, I am still counting on the date of visiting the Nanjing Massacre Museum and the emotional feelings which will embrace me.

China has endured much hardship in its history, as Iris Chang shows in her ably researched The Rape of Nanking, a book that recounts the horrible events in that eastern Chinese city under Japanese occupation in the late 1930s. Nanking, she writes, served as a kind of laboratory in which Japanese soldiers were taught to slaughter unarmed, unresisting civilians, as they would later do throughout Asia. Likening their victims to insects and animals, the Japanese commanders orchestrated a campaign in which several hundred thousand–no one is sure just how many–Chinese soldiers and noncombatants alike were killed. Chang turns up an unlikely hero in German businessman John Rabe, a devoted member of the Nazi party who importuned Adolf Hitler to intervene and stop the slaughter, and who personally saved the lives of countless residents of Nanking. She also suggests that the Japanese government pay reparations and apologize for its army’s horrific acts of 60 years ago.

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