"Everyday [sic] we strive for what we think is important, but there are more important things in this world. People have different opinions on the matter. Please select a point of view and write an essay about your thoughts."
That's an essay question taken verbatim from China's national college entrance exam, the gaokao. The essay questions, in particular, are notoriously vague and difficult. How would you respond to this one? Do you think you would pass?
Dating in China can be a controversial topic whenever foreigners are involved; in fact, some would even question whether foreigners should be dating Chinese people to begin with. There's no question that these relationships, especially in the case of foreign men dating Chinese women, can be a sensitive issue and occasionally even a touchpoint for arguments and violence. Generally, I personally think people should be free to date whoever they like.
At the same time, though I'd recommend foreigners interested in dating in China go in with an understanding of how things differ there, lest they unintentionally mislead their partners or even get mislead themselves.
When it comes to divisive-but-inspirational figures, it doesn't get much better than Wu Zetian, China's first (and only) empress.
Wu is often condemned for her boundless -- and let's be honest, ruthless -- ambition, but that she somehow attained the throne in male-dominated ancient Chinese society is nothing short of having accomplished the impossible. And once she was in power, she ruled as empress for 15 years, governing effectively and expanding China's territories in the process. If you don't know her story, it's really worth checking out; she's one of the most one-of-a-kind figures in Chinese history.
In the wake of the terrible disaster in the Philippines recently, I've been thinking back to another awful disaster in recent history: the great Sichuan earthquake.
For those that don't know, Sichuan was devastated by a massive 8.0 earthquake in 2008 that it is still recovering from, both physically and psychologically. Tens of thousands perished, and the recovery, while swift, has also been contentious, with dissenters alleging that much of the tragedy might have been averted if more buildings in the area were up to code.
As the Philippines struggles to recover from its disaster -- which, it must be said, China hasn't been much help with -- I hope that it can learn some lessons from China's relatively swift recovery efforts.
Want to do business in China? You're going to need to understand the concept of face. Perhaps best loosely translated as reputation, face is a metaphorical representation of social status that is frequently discussed in China. It can be gained (by doing something that impresses others) or lost (by failing publicly), but it colors many of the social interactions in China, and is especially important in the boardroom.
In particular, because criticism or disagreement in public can cause a lose of face for the person who's being criticized or disagreed with, it tends not to happen. This can be very confusing to foreign businessmen who are used to a more direct style because their Chinese colleagues tend to deflect, defer, and delay rather than rejecting or criticizing something directly.
It's not particularly common to play favorites when it comes to history. But China's history is so conveniently divided into dynasties that sometimes, it's easy to pick out the eras you might have most enjoyed living during.
For me, if I had to pick an era of China's history to inhabit, it'd have to be the Tang Dynasty. After all, how could I pass up the opportunity to experience one of China's most open and cosmopolitan periods, not to mention the period that saw an explosion of literature, art, and the spread of Chinese Buddhism? Heck, I'd go back to the Tang for the opportunity to talk to Li Bai and Du Fu alone.
If you had to pick a historical Chinese dynasty to visit, where would you head? Would you want to converse with the first emperor, or visit with Sun Yat-sen?
When you hear the phrase Tiananmen Square, do you think of the 1989 protests? Most people outside of mainland China do. But actually, the Square has been a place for protest and public expression for centuries, and the 1989 protests weren't the first "mass incident" to occur there in the modern era.
Although it's less well-known, the 1976 Tiananmen Incident was in many ways foreshadowing for the divisive protests that would erupt in 1989, and although the incidents ended differently, the similarities are still very compelling. Personally, I think learning about Tiananmen and its role as a kind of space for public expression through the years is crucial for anyone who wants to understand Chinese politics today, and it certainly goes a long way towards explaining why the Square these days is crawling with police.
In college, I spent a lot of time learning about early Chinese philosophical traditions. But of everything I studied, there is one book in particular that has always stuck with me and that I have -- I'm not ashamed to admit -- turned to on occasion for guidance: the Zhuangzi.
Zhuangzi's writing is like nothing else I've ever read; it's certainly not like any other work of classical philosophy I've come across in Asia or even in the Western tradition. There is an irreverence there that you rarely see in most stuffy, self-important philosophers. It's not always the easiest read -- Zhuangzi can also be deeply confusing, and sometimes he's doing it on purpose -- but I highly recommend it nevertheless.
You've probably seen news over the past few weeks about the incredible smog that has engulfed the northern city of Harbin. Air pollution is a serious problem everywhere in China, but this particular story hits home for me because I used to live in Harbin. I remember it as a relatively clean city (compared to Beijing at least), but it seems the capital's gray skies have finally headed northward.
The descent of smog on Harbin has also caused a bit of a kerfuffle among my friends there, who (unlike Beijing residents) are not used to dealing with prolonged smog. Now they're scrambling for N95 masks and air filters just like people in Beijing have been for years. It's a sad thing, but it doesn't seem like there's much chance China will resolve this issue anytime soon.
Beijing or Shanghai? It's not just a rivalry for local residents, it seems that many expats in China have a strong preference for one or the other as well.
My own heart most definitely lies in Beijing, and I have called Shanghai "a soulless nightmare" on more than one occasion. Beijing may have horrific air pollution, but it's also a thriving cultural center and it has always just felt more alive to me than Shanghai does with its glittering glass-and-steel towers glaring down at you in indifference.
I'm not an unbiased source on this issue though; I lived in Beijing for over two years. But how about you; what's your preference? Are you a Shanghai man or is Beijing your bag?