Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Beijing restaurant rundown

I just posted a list of my favourite restaurants in Beijing over on The Barstool.

Do go and take a look - and let me know if you think there's anywhere else I should check out. (I am confined in my choices to places I've actually been to - more than once or twice - and so had to leave out a lot of the swankiest eateries like The Courtyard or Maison Boulud or My Humble House. One day, one day.....)

Monday, March 30, 2009

War on Chinglish (5)

Do you like climbing mountains?

It's a popular holiday and weekend activity in China, you see, so it comes up quite a lot in conversation. You are at first surprised, and then suspicious when almost every single one of your college students, even the weediest or most overweight of them, both boys and girls, all claim this as a hobby.

Most Chinese mountains, you see, are not all that high. Most of them have monasteries or temples built on them, and thus become popular tourist destinations. Most of them have metalled roads going nearly all the way to the top. Chinese people weekending in "the mountains" do not need boots and ropes and pickaxes. No, they can walk to the top. Sometimes this might involve a steep and rugged path over the last mile or two; sometimes, some pretty daunting stone staircases; but never any actual "mountain climbing".

None of their textbooks seem to tell them that in English "mountain climbing" usually implies taking on vertical rockfaces. They never seem to learn any of the alternative words for less strenuous forms of "climbing" - 'hiking', 'hill-walking'. More Chinglish!

The Spring deferred

I have commented often that the arrival of Spring in Beijing is one of the most consistent features in this bewilderingly inconstant city. No matter how wildly the temperatures may yo-yo through February and March (and they do, they do)..... properly, enduringly warm weather and opening blossoms always turn up on the last Sunday in March. I'm pretty sure they have done so every year I've been living here.

But not this year. Oh no. The weather has been arse-freezing again for the past few days, and the trees have all pulled in their buds.

The 5-day forecast suggests that temperatures might be creeping back into the 70s by the weekend, but it'll be pretty darned cool until then, and for the next 2 or 3 nights at least we can expect to be suffering frost and bitter winds.

This is disturbing, unnatural. It is difficult not to imagine baleful portents in it.

Two bons mots on friendship

"Friends are thieves of time."

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

"A friend is a present you give yourself."

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Because of his or her great wings

I stumbled across this online a little while back, and was immediately reminded of my (brilliant, but socially challenged) friend, The Poet.

As so often with these Internet postings, I'm afraid the translator is unidentified.


Often to pass the time on board, the crew
will catch an albatross, one of those big birds
which nonchalantly chaperone a ship
across the bitter fathoms of the sea.

Tied to the deck, this sovereign of space,
as if embarrassed by its clumsiness,
pitiably lets its great white wings
drag at its sides like a pair of unshipped oars.

How weak and awkward, even comical,
this traveller but lately so adroit!
One deckhand sticks a pipestem in its beak;
another mocks the cripple that once flew.

The poet is like this monarch of the clouds
riding the storm above the marksman's range;
exiled on the ground, hooted and jeered,
he cannot walk because of his great wings.

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

My "personal search engine", JES, kindly informs me that this translation is by someone called Richard Howard. I gather his version (another one for my wish list!) of Les Fleurs du Mal is widely considered a masterpiece, and won the American Book Award In Translation when it first appeared in 1983.

Here, belatedly, is the original French text (source, with 5 other English versions).

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l'azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d'eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!
L'un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L'autre mime, en boitant, l'infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l'archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Film List - my favourite Chinese films

I went to see an interview with the British film critic Mark Cousins a couple of weeks ago, and discovered that he is a passionate fan of Chinese cinema.

My own feelings, I realised, are rather more mixed. The dominant strain in my response, I suppose, has been disappointment. Well, disappointment and boredom. The Chinese have some wonderful cinematographers, and even their most humdrum films usually look fantastic. But the conception of 'narrative' here seems to be very different from the West: there's often no pacing, and very little direction or coherence in a story. They just present a muddle of stuff that happens.... and then, it stops happening. And that's it. The Chinese missed out on the Aristotelian analysis of tragedy: the idea of following the transformation of a character, the sense of a story arc.

I always made a point of seeking out Chinese films when I was living back in the UK (the one or two a year that would get an arthouse distribution). And I've watched a lot since I've been living here. And most of them, I'm sorry to say, have sucked mightily. I find Jia Zhangke, much praised for his gritty realism, to be insufferably tedious (scenes that should take ten seconds are often spun out to minutes). I find Feng Xiaogang, much praised for his lively wit, to be erratic and undisciplined (I like the opening scene of Cellphone and a few bits and pieces in A World Without Thieves, but most of his stuff is very laboured and obvious). I find Li Shaohong, much praised for, er, being a woman, to be pretentious and incoherent (although I quite liked her early work, Bloody Morning, a re-telling of García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold set in a small Chinese town; but again, that's more to do with the cinematography than the storytelling): her Baober In Love (despite the radiant presence of Zhou Xun in the title role) is just a turgid mess.

I don't even much like the stuff we're all supposed to like: Farewell, My Concubine was overlong and failed to engage me; The Blue Kite I found ploddingly over-earnest and (again!) far too long; Gu Changwei's Peacock I've heard some good things about, but anything that runs over 4 hours in its original cut suggests the lack of discipline and proportion that I decry in so much of the Chinese cinema I have suffered through. And as for Spring In A Small Town - a 1948 film that is supposedly the great classic of Chinese cinema (remade a few years ago by rehabilitated Blue Kite director, Tian Zhuanghuang) - well, I'm afraid I still haven't seen it.

Don't even get me started on Zhang Yimou. His early stuff - Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern (my favourite of the lot), Shanghai Triad, The Story of Qiu Ju, To Live, and The Road Home - all these are fantastic. His recent infatuation with bloated martial arts flicks is lamentable.

I love Hong Kong films: the martial arts comedies of Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow, and the slick gangster films like Election and Infernal Affairs. But if I confine myself to mainland Chinese cinema that I've seen while I've been living here..... hmmm, not such a broad selection.

Well, here goes......

My 10 Favourite (Recent) Chinese Films

1) The Missing Gun (Xun Qiang)
(Dir. Lu Chuan, 2002)
As The Weeble complains in the first comment below, Lu Chuan is known as even more of an arsehole than most people in the Chinese film industry. Furthermore, it is apparently an open secret in the industry that the author of this film was really its star, Jiang Wen, temporarily unable to get permission to work as a director from the authorities here.

Well, whoever should be getting the credit, it's a stunning piece of work, head and shoulders above anything else I've seen here; the one film that I can truly say has a coherent narrative that's accessible to a Western audience, as well as an exhilarating zest and stylishness in its execution. It's a police procedural, a comedy of small town manners, and a study of a struggling marriage, laced with moments of magic realism and parodies of other genres. Tremendous fun, but also ultimately surprisingly moving. I've already reviewed it more fully here.

2) Kekexili (released in the US as 'Mountain Patrol')
(Dir. Lu Chuan, 2004)
Well, even if Lu Chuan may not be a nice chap, and may not have been the sole or principal director of the marvellous Missing Gun, he surely was the man at the helm for this fantastic action adventure. It's a Chinese 'Western', based on a true story about a group of Tibetan vigilantes which formed in the mid-90s to try to fight the plague of poaching of the endangered Tibetan antelope. It's breathtaking to look at (shot entirely on location in the Kekexili region of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau), morally complex, and compellingly tragic.

3) Keep Cool (You Hua Hao Hao Shuo)
(Dir. Zhang Yimou, 1998)
A little-known gem from the famous director, which I only found out about through personal recommendation from a translator friend. It was apparently shot on a shoestring budget in the space of a few weeks, a fill-in between other more expansive projects. It's filmed almost entirely on location on the streets of Beijing, and with a largely non-professional cast. There's an almost Dogme-like simplicity and directness about it, much of it being shot with hand-held cameras, in a jerky, hyper-kinetic style that is unimaginably removed from the elaborate choreography of colour and movement that is the trademark of his most famous films. It starts out as a breezy, if offbeat, romantic comedy, but evolves into something much darker: the entire second half of the film focuses on the two principals sitting together in a restaurant, debating the pros and cons of violence and murder. It is, in fact, a very black comedy; but, for once, the humour translates, and even Western audiences will find it laugh-out-loud funny. And it has superb performances from the two leads, Jiang Wen and Li Baotian.

4) Blind Shaft (Mang Jing)
(Dir. Li Yang, 2003)
Li Yang began his career in documentaries, and this, his first feature, has a gritty, slice-of-life feel to it. It's an extremely dark drama about migrant workers in China's largely unregulated and appallingly dangerous coal-mining industry, and is purportedly based on a true story of two such workers who develop a method of scamming money by murdering fellow workers below ground and then faking an accident and demanding compensation - or hush money - from the anxious mine owners for the death of their 'relative'.

5) Not One Less (Yige Dou Bu Neng Shao)
(Dir. Zhang Yimou, 1999)
Another rather untypical, 'experimental' venture from Zhang Yimou, shot on location in the Chinese countryside with an entirely non-professional cast. When the elderly teacher at a village school has to go away to visit a sick relative, he hires a teenage girl from a neighbouring village to be his substitute. Promised a bonus (I think it's 50 RMB!) if she can ensure that all of the children remain in school, the girl is distraught when one young boy runs away to 'the big city' to try to earn money to help his invalid mother. With almost no money, and no experience of city life, she journeys to the city herself to try to find him and bring him back to school - and, amazingly, she succeeds. Some find this film a bit too trite and sentimental, but I found it utterly, utterly charming (although it is also a devastating reminder of the depths of poverty in rural China: the entire school goes to work in a brick factory for a day, in order to earn the bus fare for a 30-mile journey).

6) The Emperor and The Assassin (Jing Ke Ci Qin Wang)
(Dir. Chen Kaige, 1998)
The only historical epic to really impress me, this is the same story as Zhang Yimou's Hero - a famous plot to assassinate China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang - but told in a more straightforward and realistic fashion.

7) Balzac and The Little Seamstress (Xiao Cai Feng)
(Dir. Dai Sijie, 2002)
Author Dai Sijie directs the film version of his fictionalized Cultural Revolution memoir: two teenage 'intellectuals' from the city are sent to a remote mountain village for "re-education" - and, of course, they both fall in love with the beautiful tailor's daughter (it's the irresistible gamine, Zhou Xun - how could they not?). Nothing very deep, but a charming bit of fluff.

8) Beijing Bicycle (Shiqi Sui De Dan Che)
(Dir. Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001)
Another look at the plight of migrant workers. In this one, a peasant newly arrived in the capital finds himself a job as a bicycle courier. Half of his meagre earnings go towards paying for the expensive mountain-bike his company has provided for him. When the bicycle is stolen, his world falls apart. He begins an obsessive search for it - and, improbably, he finds it again; but now it is owned by a wealthy teenager, a schoolboy at a private school, who bought it at a secondhand market and refuses to part with it. It's a marvellous portrait of Beijing in the Noughties, and a bleak reminder of the desperation of the very poor.

9) Chicken Poets (Xiang Ji Mao Yi Yang Fei)
(Dir. Meng Jinghui, 2002)
Two university friends live together on a farm on the outskirts of Beijing, in the shadow of the airport. One, a go-getting entrepreneur, tries to make his fortune by breeding rare black chickens. The other, a would-be writer, makes a Faustian bargain with a mysterious CD vendor who gives him a magical CD-ROM which enables him to become a successful poet, the darling of the literary scene. There's not really much story to this, just a meandering succession of surreal episodes: but it's so weird and quirky and stylish that it lingers long in the memory.

10) Er.... I really can't think of any more.....
oh, I suppose maybe Suzhou River (Suzhou He)
(Dir. Ye Lou, 2000)
It's a long time since I've seen this, but I recall it as a very unusual meditation on the nature of identity, and on obsessive love (it has been likened to Hitchcock's Vertigo), and also as a very striking depiction of the poorer, seamier side of Shanghai that one rarely sees. And it's got the lovely Zhou Xun in it; she makes almost anything watchable.

Even here, I was cheating a bit, in that I saw The Emperor and The Assassin and Beijing Bicycle back in England before I moved here. It's also rather alarming to note that these films are all at least 5 years old, some of them over 10 years old. There's really been nothing decent recently; or at least, nothing that I've seen (I do miss the old Cherry Lane Movie club, which showed recent Chinese films with English sub-titles - it's been virtually defunct for the past couple of years).

Thumbnail reviews of these selections to follow later (possibly). I have a lunch date now.

OK, done now (very long lunch date!).

Is this a holiday??

Did you notice? China has declared today, March 28th, "Serf Liberation Day" in Tibet.

Yep, it's the 50th anniversary of the DL's flight from the country. China instead chooses to celebrate it as the date of the ending of feudalism - something Neuro-Linguistic Programming adherents would no doubt laud as an inspired "reframe", but which most folks tend to feel is a rather skewed, self-deluding take on history. Oh yes, and massively insensitive - given that large numbers of the Tibetan people still idolise the DL and bitterly resent his continued exclusion from the country (and the prohibition on even keeping pictures of the man in their houses); and given that, because of all the anniversaries this month associated with the uprising against the Chinese occupation in 1959, and the major outbreaks of unrest in 1989 and last year, the place is a bit of a tinderbox, a recurrence of such troubles now only being (barely) suppressed by massive police and troop deployments.

No, holding a day of fireworks and ethnic dancing on this date is not going to do much to promote peace and goodwill in Tibet, I fear. And it is yet another ludicrous PR disaster - in the long string of PR disasters relating to Tibet - for China, hugely detrimental to the way the country is perceived around the world. Will it even play well with the domestic Chinese audience? I have my doubts.

We snarky foreigners are more likely to dub the 'holiday' National Tactlessness Day. Or Re-Writing History Day. Or Buffoonish Public Relations Exercises Day. Or Let's Make Ourselves The Laughing Stocks Of A Hostile And Uncomprehending World (Again) Day.

A couple of points in passing, things that are always rather conspicuously glossed over in the standard Chinese presentation of this story. 'Serfdom' is not the same as 'slavery', although the Chinese are apt to use the terms interchangeably. (And I wouldn't know if 'serfdom' did still exist there, or how widespread it was in the '50s, but..... well, 'serfdom' isn't necessarily all that bad: it's not usually the Auschwitz-type horror that the Chinese propaganda likes to portray it as.) Second, er, since the PRC had already been in control of the country for nearly 9 years, why had it not abolished 'serfdom' earlier? Just curious....

Friday, March 27, 2009

Not exactly a Daily Llama

No, in fact, this one is an alpaca.

An alpaca is generally reckoned to be the closest analogue of China's mythical 'grass mud horse'.

Forgive me, fellow China hands - I know this is getting to be a bit of a stale story for us by now, but our friends overseas may still be missing out (unless they read the New York Times article on it a couple of weeks ago). I had been meaning to write about this for a month or so now, and may have left it a bit too late. Oh well.

Chinese Netizens, you see, can be a fractious bunch, and are much given to abusing each other in colourful terms. From time to time, the government launches a moral crackdown on this free-and-easy obscenity. But the online community is endlessly inventive in finding ways to circumvent such censorship. In fact, it's not so very hard, because the Chinese language has such a huge number of homophones that generating dirty puns often seems more like an unavoidable accident than a creative challenge.

At the beginning of this year, in response to an attempt to filter and block comments including the favourite expression of abuse 操你妈 (cao ni ma - "F**k your mum!"), one Chinese forum created the alternate phrase 草泥马 (same pronunciation - though different tones, I think - but the nonsense meaning "grass mud horse").

Before long, it had spread all over the Internet and beyond. For 8 or 10 weeks, it has been one of the biggest pop culture phenomena in China. Elaborate stories were developed about this non-existent creature: its habitat in the Malegebi Desert (I won't tell you; you can guess; or consult the ChinaSmack glossary of online slang) was said to be under threat from the incursions of 'river crabs' (this, 河蟹, is a near-homophone for 'harmonious', Hu Jintao's favourite political buzzword, now co-opted by the country's Netizens as a synonym for censorship - "Oh no, I've been harmonized!" meaning that someone's comments, or a whole blog, have been deleted).

The humble 'grass mud horse' has spawned numerous cartoons, and even a song (which I had been hoping to embed, but....) which was one of the funniest things I've seen on the Internet in a long, long time: cute pictures of llamas and alpacas accompanied by what appears to be a children's nonsense song - but is in fact an absolutely filthy lexicon of contemporary Chinese profanity. There were dozens of variations of this starting to appear on YouTube.... until a few days ago. Now, they've all been pulled. Boo!

I wonder if that NYT article is responsible. The Chinese government was probably getting a bit hacked off with this joke anyway, but when it starts gathering "unfavourable" publicity overseas, then it's definitely time to act. I gather the Kafka Boys are trying to sweep the Internet clear of the offending phrase (I hope I don't get myself blocked again!). We'll just have to come up with something else.

Weekly haiku

Step forward, step back;
In Beijing, Spring comes halting;
Winter chill lingers.

Every year the same old thing: the weather is utterly schizophrenic in March - balmy sunshine and early blossoms showing one day, the next the wind blows straight in from the North Pole.

This weekend should be the real start of Spring (it has been every other year I've been here): a blissful season that lasts all of 8 or 10 days.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Metaphor of the Month

I've been having a little set-to this week with my new gadfly, ThinkWeird. He took issue with my flippant complaint a couple of weeks back that China's failure to develop an alphabetic writing system was a rather strange and unfortunate omission, and responded with a furious post defending the character sytem of hanzi. My original remark had been a - deliberately provocative - jest, but I was drawn into a much more detailed and serious discussion in that comment-thread. My view is that characters are an evolutionary dead-end, that the structural shortcomings of the system are so great that it will inevitably wither and die out one day, perhaps sooner rather than later; indeed, it may be replaced with a Romanized system (as happened in Vietnam) by government edict, perhaps within a few decades, certainly within a century or so.

Unfortunately, the debate didn't really take off, because TW refused to accept my basic point that there are certain innate advantages in alphabetic scripts, that learning lots of individual characters does tend to be a more difficult and time-consuming process. He would keep insisting that learning characters was easy, easy, EASY (at least for native Chinese, who, he seemed to suggest, have some kind of genetic facility for doing this that us poor laowai may lack). This is rather at odds with stats I've seen on how many hours Chinese schoolchildren have to spend learning to write their own language (a lot - probably more than twice as much as any European country devotes to this), and with the experience of most of Chinese students I've worked with here (almost every single one of whom has complained to me at some point about how miserable they found their early years of schooling, about what a wretched slog it is to learn characters).

Then it occurred to me....

You know how some people - science teachers, chefs - burn themselves so frequently that they become used to it; their skin gets tougher, and they cease to notice the pain?

In fact, after a while, they forget that they ever felt any pain. They take pride in showing off the skill they have acquired: "Hey, that's not HOT. Look how easily I can pick it up! No pain at all. Easiest thing in the world."

I suggest maybe that's what TW and his Chinese friends are like when they think about learning to write Chinese characters. Easy, easy, easy - not difficult at all.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Amuse yourselves

I'm busy for the next day or two.

Check out supergeek Adam Bowman's site for more interactive toys for your webpage.

Bugger! This isn't displaying for me in Firefox at the moment, but it seems to be OK on Explorer. If you're having problems seeing anything here, try clicking on the post title to move to a single page view - that seems to work in all browsers. And this is really COOL. (Nope: still not working for some reason. It's suppose to be this neat rolling rings widget - but Adam seems to have given up on this one, since his webpage isn't providing any embed code for it any more.)

I wonder why?

This webpage is currently blocked in China. (Usually it gets 'timed out' immediately; although it will occasionally display briefly before the data transfer is interrupted.)

It's been open to access for quite a long time now, and still was as recently as a month or two ago (I referred to it in writing this piece at the end of January).

The CCP goons are getting jittery about "the anniversary" really early this year, it seems...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Heroine of the hour

There was an interesting photo-story on the ChinaSmack news site over the weekend about an off-duty policewoman in the city of Changchun who saved the life of a young girl threatening suicide. The policewoman was apparently just driving by the scene where the girl was threatening to throw herself off the top of a tall building. Police units were gathering already, but were perhaps unsure how to proceed (I don't suppose they get much training in this kind of thing; and, from the photos, it doesn't look as if there were any other female officers on the scene). So the heroine decided to intervene, going up on the rooftop to try to talk the girl down - and then grabbing her arm and hanging on to her as she tried to slip over the edge.

It's interesting that nearly all of the Chinese commenters on this story, while warmly praising the bravery and compassion of the officer, place it in the context of the generally dismal reputation the police have here - "what a pleasant change to find an officer we can admire, for once!"

The other common trend in responses is to extravagantly praise the young police officer's supposed beauty. Well, all things are relative, I suppose. I don't wish to be ungallant about this, and I am as full of admiration for her conduct in this incident as the next bod, but..... well, I wouldn't call her unattractive, but I found her looks fairly unremarkable. "Pretty" for a police officer, perhaps. Or for Changchun - capital of Jilin province in China's north-east 'rust belt', noted for its brutal winters and not much else. But a dazzling beauty? No, I missed that.

There's a quaint mixture of hyperbole and tweeness in the Chinese response to incidents such as this. It took some time for the young policewoman's name to emerge, and during this interval Netizens nicknamed her "Most Beautiful Police Flower". Flower??!!

Ah, well, in 'the West' I suppose we would have dubbed her "a uniformed hottie" - or worse. Diffrent strokes, and all that.

Do go and check out the story.

War on Chinglish (4)

No pains, no gains.

Again, this is an astonishingly common one - I feel sure it must be in a textbook somewhere; or perhaps in some kind of reference book such as a glossary comparing Chinese and English proverbs. It is, in fact, rather more than merely common; it is ubiquitous.

'Pain' is - usually - uncountable. Therefore, the phrase in English is:

No pain, no gain.

This really shouldn't be that hard to remember. Particularly if, with your irrepressible love of clichés, you are going to use it every day of your life.

Monday, March 23, 2009

In the neighbourhood (2)

The garish red wood and plaster of the Drum Tower, I find, is not quite so beguilingly attractive as the grey-green stone of its partner, the Bell Tower. Nevertheless, it is still rather an imposing sight. (This is one of my favourite shots of it, currently set as the desktop wallpaper on my computer.)

And, with that, I bring to an end my 'photo gallery' week. 20 posts and 45 pictures in all, I think. I hope you've enjoyed them.

Back to writing, now; back to spleen and bile and snarky humour, and so on and so on.

In the neighbourhood (1)

The ancient Bell Tower, just a short walk from my apartment, is perhaps Beijing's most beautiful building, and is at the heart of one of its quaintest areas of old-style hutong low-rise alleyways - a favourite spot for strolling and hanging out. Here are three shots taken from the roof terrace of the adjacent Drum & Bell Bar: one by day,one by night,and one on the cusp between the two, at dusk, when the local pigeon-fanciers let their flocks out for an hour or so's exercise - my favourite time of the day!

Street abstracts

Pretty pink clouds

We very, very, very rarely get clouds like this in Beijing. And you usually have to be up very early in the morning to catch them when they do show up. This is the moat around the Forbidden City, taken shortly after dawn (on my way back from the Tiananmen Square flag-raising on the October 1st National Day a few years ago).

Bon mot for the week

"Memory is... similar to anticipation: an instrument of simplification and selection."

Alain de Botton (1969- )

Memory, yes, and also history. I feel I might have a post or two in me this week about the upcoming 'Serf Liberation Day'.

By the way, I absolutely adore de Botton's writing. Please check out my review of his early work, Essays On Love.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ghostly figures

I posted this one over on The Barstool a couple of weeks or so ago - two lads on a bicycle unconcernedly thwarting my attempt to take a picture of the quaint little bar over the road.

This is a rather similar 'happy accident' - from a demonstration by the Beijing Tango Society several years ago.


A 'chop' - the traditional Chinese signature-seal - makes a beautiful memento of China. I have several myself. The ones I had made for my two young nieces were a great success (at least, initially; I don't know if they've survived), and were used to stamp their names all over the house. They've all been made for me by a Chinese artist friend, Wu Yuren, who loves to do it as a hobby. He might not be the best chop-carver in the world, but he invests an awful lot of love into it, and that personal connection imbues an unquantifiable extra value. (Plus, of course, he might get really famous one day, and then they might be worth a lot of money! Although I'd be loath to part with mine, even if that did happen.)

During his 'starving artist' years, I tried to direct a little extra income his way by soliciting chop commissions from several of my friends for their children and so on. It was in fact very difficult to get him to accept much money at all, and the postage to the US and the UK ended up costing a lot more than the labour and materials. He really does do it just because he loves to do it. It's rather inspiring to find such simple and direct passion for something.

(Do take a look at his website [Warning: Some of it is not for the squeamish!]. I particularly like his 'Imperial Criminals' photo series.)


Another still life for you. Sliced mushrooms, sun-dried on sheets of newspaper by the roadside, somewhere out in the Beijing countryside. I think in fact I took this picture at Simatai on the same trip where I took yesterday's shots of the Great Wall.

The sky is not colourful enough

A few years ago, I went out to the rural district of Daxing at the southern edge of Beijing to take part in a 10km run. It was a dazzlingly beautiful day in April or early May. The young forestry plantations in the district provided a delightful backdrop to our exertions; the local villagers beamed encouragement at us; and the almost cloudless sky was the kind of infinite blue that simply could not be improved upon.

Of course, the organizers insisted on filling the air with flags and banners and balloons and lanterns and - at the start of the race - with really colossal amounts of party-popper streamers. I felt it said something unfortunate about the national character in modern times: the compulsion towards kitsch seems to smother all other aesthetic sense, even the appreciation of nature.


A few years ago, I was going out with a lovely American girl who was interested in Buddhism (she is in fact pursuing a career in academe, as one of the few people to specialise in the study of Chinese Buddhism). A nice stone Buddha head was something she coveted for herself. A good replica of a terracotta warrior's head was something she wanted as a present for her mum. Both proved to be much more difficult to find than we had supposed. The quest for the Buddha head became a project that consumed us for months, but eventually I dug up a rather fine one (well, within our modest ambitions) for her in the Panjiayuan market here in Beijing.

The terracotta warrior on the right was acquired in the Xi'an night market. The girlfriend, alas, though her Chinese was reasonably good, lacked the 'hard-nosed' gene required for haggling here. However, her technique had improved slightly under my tuition, and she wanted to attempt this transaction on her own. I loitered by a nearby stall, feigning impatience. The negotiation dragged on and on, and she would occasionally come over to ask my advice.

"Tell her you haven't got any more money," I told her, when it seemed to me that things had gone on quite long enough.

A little later, the girlfriend returned again. "She says I should borrow some from you."

My impatience was no longer feigned. "Look," I said, "you're really in a take-it-or-leave-it situation now. Just tell her I refused to lend you any money because I don't like the head and I think you're offering too much already."

A few minutes later the girlfriend returned, proudly clutching the head. "She says you are tight-fisted and you have a black heart and I should dump you for someone nicer. Thank you."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What a great wall!

It really is a pity that the great majority of visitors to Beijing only get to visit the very heavily 'restored' (and hence rather phoney feeling) section of the Great Wall at Badaling - favoured for its convenience, as it's only 40 miles or so to the north of the capital.

Some of the remoter stretches - like this at Simatai, probably the second most popular tourist spot, but much less spoiled - are quite stunning, especially if you catch them on a day in early summer when the light is like this.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Found 'art'

I take much delight in happy 'accidents' like this - a curiously shaped tower of bricks left balanced on top of a partly demolished wall, or a plastic bag inexplicably knotted around a telephone wire. This sort of thing does seem to be rather common in China, and I often wonder if there isn't a conscious - if obscure - intent behind such constructions (apart from my conscious intent to record them with my camera, of course). Anonymous guerrilla artists roaming the streets of Beijing? Perhaps some of the hordes of minggong, the peasant migrant workers who staff the city's construction sites (and factories and restaurants) letting off a bit of creative steam?

Blue walls

The walls of blue metal sheeting which screen off Beijing's legion building sites have been one of the city's most distinctive sights during the decade or so of reconstruction it has just undergone. I find them endlessly fascinating, especially when they've weathered a bit - got scuffed up and dented and rusted. I've got a lot more of these, but - luckily for you! - these are the only four I happen to have reduced to a manageable size for posting to the Web.

An illustrated haiku

On the night walk home
A trio of moon-windows
Always halts my steps.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Still Life

Another favourite subject for my snapping.... Rather than more traditional, painterly studies, though, I usually prefer to get into extreme close-ups or quirky angles to render the objects more abstract, to concentrate on aspects of light or colour, form or texture.

For instance, I just adored the multiple reflections in this array of cocktail shakers, and took several pictures of it (though in retrospect I rather wished I'd moved the bottle of Tsingtao beer at left out of the way!).

And I can't now recall just how I got the perspective so distorted (or the focus so sharp) on this bunch of yellow roses, but I like the effect.

And there are some lovely colours, forms, and variations in light in this close-up of flower stems in a thick glass vase.

Ah, and this one, I suppose, is a bit more like a classic painter's exercise. The truth is, I was so bored at a charity dinner that I began photographing the cutlery to keep myself awake.


I love pausing to watch a game of xiangqi - the 'Elephant Game', or Chinese chess - whenever I can, hoping that trying to analyse the position and follow a few minutes of play will help improve my own game. No such luck! But it is one of the great charms of Chinese street life, I find; whether it's being played by local folks from my neighbourhood occupying the Bell Tower square on a Sunday afternoon

or by these traders at the Panjiayuan 'antiques' market

or by this group of codgers I snapped on a holiday in Kaifeng a few years ago.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

While drinking...

I find drinking and being drunk no obstacle at all to taking interesting pictures. Quite the reverse.

I've posted this oneand this one before (on The Barstool),but not this one

or this one...


China surely has the scrappiest pointing in the world. Quite remarkable. This is a particularly egregious, but by no means unique example.

I find this endlessly fascinating. In fact, I have long pondered the possibility of creating a coffee table book called The Big Book Of Beijing Brickwork. Another million-dollar idea?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Light abstract

Just about the only thing I like about digital photography is the ease of creating serendipitous light doodles like this. Well, it was easy with the pocket digital camera I used to have, with the continuous through-the-viewfinder TV picture on its LCD screen. It's much less easy with my dratted Nikon D50.


So inviting....

Monday, March 16, 2009

Washing day in the hutongs

It's always washing day in the hutongs; but the light isn't always as good as this.

A theme for the week

I have been planning for a while to revisit the 'picture week' theme I tried out last November. And I had decided this would be a good week for it, since I am likely to be too busy with work to write very much.

If 'lying low' or 'keeping silent' helps me to avoid the unwanted attention of some of those antagonistic denizens of the Internet who may recently have been pointed in my direction, well, so much the better.

Unlike my first 'pictures only' week, I am going to try to use exclusively my own photographs this time.

It may take me a while to dig out one good enough. Please be patient.


Gosh, infamy at last!

According to the traffic-monitoring gizmo I use (Statcounter), I typically only get around 40 or 50 unique visitors each day here on Froogville (and slightly less on companion blog, Barstool Blues). As at 6pm today, I'd had very nearly 700 uniques in the last 3 days. Well, I always have a bit of a spike on Mondays, but..... yes, that is a huge jump in traffic.

Such is the power of The Duck! Veteran China blogger Richard Burger kindly recommended my frivolous post about China's online 'angry young men' brigade on his celebrated forum on Saturday.

I should be chuffed about the influx of new readers, and I am, I am, but.... well, I am also just a mite anxious. I've been writing my blogs for just over 2 years now, and I've always been quite content with a readership in the dozens - mostly personal friends, and a handful of random passers-by. I'm not sure that I want either the responsibility (of maintaining quality of posts, avoiding giving offence too much, monitoring comment threads and responding promptly to pertinent challenges or enquiries) or the potential hassle (of being overrun by freaks, loons, and dingbats) that comes with a wider readership.

I'm especially concerned about not attracting any fenqing types over here. When I want to play the fenwai and engage in some verbal fisticuffs with these guys, I go somewhere else - and I don't post my URL.

So, for any of those 700 first-time visitors who might possibly look in here again, and to any other newbies who might look in over the next few days, I thought I would try to set out what this blog is supposed to be about.

And, to adapt the immortal words of Jerry Seinfeld (or wasn't it actually George Costanza?): It's just a blog about nothing.

There is no theme. There is no purpose. There is no agenda.

It is purely and simply a 'hobby blog'. I thought it would be useful practice and self-discipline for me to try to force myself to write something on a daily or almost daily basis, and to try to write in as broad a range of styles and on as many diverse topics as possible.

Also, because of the demands of fitting such profuse production into an already rather overfull life, this tends to be a very unpremeditated blog. I try to write as quickly as possible. I very rarely plan anything out in advance (other than, occasionally, to try to keep in mind a topic I think is promising); I almost never do any substantive polishing or re-drafting (though I am a bit anal about checking for small stylistic inelegances or careless typos). I just sit down with a cup of coffee or a beer at some point in the day, and spend 40 or 50 minutes typing the first things that come into my head.

And what comes into my head, or out of it? Well, just about anything and everything. I wouldn't like to try and pin it down too much (I've always struggled with choosing 'categories' for my output).

This is not a humour blog; although I hope that the tone is generally light even when I am at my most serious; and I like to think that I have a few good jokes here and there.

This is not a 'China blog'; although, since I've been living here getting on for 7 years now, I do inevitably write about my experiences in this country from time to time.

This is not a political blog; although, again, I do have strong political views about many things, and may occasionally touch on them here; but most of the time I maintain a discreet silence about such things. Fenqing types, I think, will not find enough fuel for their indignation on here. Well, I hope not, anyway.

I like to think of this as primarily a literary blog - both in that I am concerned with the quality of my writing and am striving always to improve it, and in that favourite writers, books and poems (and films and songs) are amongst my most regular topics.

It is also a very personal blog - not just in the fragments of autobiography that I scatter through these posts, but in the self-examination I often conduct on here. I am a very meditative and philosophical person, and I like to think of my blog(s) - sometimes, at least - as a kind of spiritual journal. I imagine it can get a little too personal for many people: my writing here has been variously described as either "refreshingly honest" or "painfully frank".

Above all, I try to make my blogs a celebration of things I like - and that includes many aspects of life in China. (I have felt an uncanny affinity with China since my early childhood, and I may write more on this shortly, as I am about to pass the 15th anniversary of my first extended visit here - a major watershed in my life.)

However, since I am a frail human like everyone else, my blogs also occasionally serve as a place to vent about things that are pissing me off - and that too includes many aspects of life in China.

Overall, though, my blog-writing is very carefree, cheerful, frivolous, and superficial - and has fairly little to say about China or the Chinese government. So, if there are any fenqing (or fenwai) lurkers reading this, please move along. There's nothing for you here.

Another bon mot double whammy for the imminent St Patrick's Day*

"The Irish are a very fair people - they never speak well of each other."

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

"Other people have a nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis."

Brendan Behan (1923-1964)

[He might have added "and the Chinese".....]

* I already did one over on the Barstool, you see.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Two 'lost' poems

Years ago, when still at school, I owned a poetry anthology that contained a short piece about children's experience of the world. I have a feeling that it might have been by Edwin Muir, but I'm not confident of that. After all this time, I can no longer remember the title or even a single line of it. But it did make a very deep impression on me; I recall it as a very beautiful snapshot of the tranquility of suburbia, and of home, and of the comforting attachment to one's mother - but it ended with the rather sinister thought that this idyll is broken by the reappearance of "the masters", the husbands/fathers returning from work at the end of the afternoon. The only phrase I think I remember (perhaps misremember) relates to overhearing a piano being played in another house; it's something like "liberates the light keys of Chopin". And no, it wasn't D. H. Lawrence's Piano (although that would be a good selection for a future 'Poetry Sunday').

Can anyone help me identify this piece? JES??

The other poem I have long yearned to recover, but can find nowhere on the Internet, is one that was introduced to me 20 years ago, when I was doing my teacher training at the University of Durham. My supervisor on that course was a Classicist, and liked to collect modern poems with Classical allusions. He once gave his class one of the obscurer pieces in his files, a poem called Andromeda (I believe the author was called Graham Hough and was a professor of English literature somewhere), which I immediately fell in love with, and used a number of times subsequently in poetry classes of my own.

Andromeda, of course, was a figure in Greek mythology, a beautiful virgin princess who had to be sacrificed to the sea-monster Cetus in order to appease some angry god or goddess, I forget who. Luckily for her, while she was chained naked to a rock on the seashore waiting for the monster to appear, the Greek hero Perseus happened by (fresh from slaying the Gorgon, Medusa); being a hero, of course, he killed the monster and married the girl.

Hough's take on this, though, created an alternative account where Perseus failed to show up until some time later, and the sea-monster had married Andromeda. It was a witty and elegantly punning picture of daily drudgery in a loveless marriage. Cetus became the archetypally insensitive male: self-absorbed, uncommunicative, preferring to spend most of his time out fishing. Andromeda was a wistful but uncomplaining housewife, busying herself with the domestic chores. They lived together in a cave beside the ocean, whose opening was only just above the tideline. This made keeping the place clean a task of Sisyphean repetitiveness (another gratuitous Classical allusion!), because twice a day, at high tide, waves would slop over the rim of the cave entrance depositing seaweed and so on all over the floor.

When Perseus finally arrives, he feels incongruous, embarrassed in such a situation, and doesn't know what to do. So he coughs and shuffles his feet and leaves again.

The poem closes with the most memorably bleak couplet I know, a really devastating image of hopelessness:

The tide was rising, and she turned once more
To sweep away the dark sea from the door.

War on Chinglish (3)

I'm going to pick up flowers.

Well, if you hadn't omitted the definite article, this might be OK - if you were going down to the florist's to collect some you'd pre-ordered, or if you'd just knocked over a vase and strewn flowers all over the floor.

If, on the other hand, you're talking about flowers that are still growing in the soil, then you just pick them. You'd say: "I'm going to pick some flowers."

When I first encountered this mistake from one of my students, I thought it was a natural enough stumble, a one-off error. English phrasal verbs are always a problem for foreign learners (and prepositions - and articles - seem to be especially difficult for Chinese learners). However, I have encountered this particular slip again and again during my teaching here.

And I have found many students who refuse to believe that it is a mistake; some, even, who protest that it must be I who am mistaken. I was reminded of this example the other day because it ties in with the rigid mindset we encounter in fenqing Internet commenters. There is a culture in China of paying extreme respect to teachers - to the extent of regarding them as infallible. This unquestioning and unshakeable trust in the authority of a teacher carries over to textbooks and to the news media. And there's so little exposure to - or even access to - alternative points of view, that mistakes by a teacher or in a textbook (or in Xinhua) are never likely to be exposed.

Somewhere in China there is a middle school textbook that teaches kids to say "I'm picking up flowers". It's a crappy Chinese textbook written by feeble Chinese "academics" who've probably never been out of the country. 20 or 30 years ago, all English textbooks in China were that bad. But things really aren't that much better today. There's still a reluctance to import textbooks from overseas, or to employ native English speakers in the development of domestically published textbooks. The vast majority of English textbooks used in Chinese schools today are deeply, deeply flawed. They teach Chinglish, not English.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

List of the Month - 10 things China excels at

While I'm in this curmudgeonly, fenwai state of mind....

10 Things China Is Really Good At

1) Inventing stuff (but then not fully developing or utilizing it)
China anticipated the rest of the world in inventing paper and the printing press, yet never achieved mass literacy. First to invent gunpowder, but never made that much progress with artillery and rocketry. Invented the compass, but never did much maritime exploration. Strange.

2) Failing to invent stuff
Like an alphabet. Really, how hard is that? The Koreans managed to transform their character-based system into a very serviceable syllabic alphabet nearly 600 years ago. Amongst the reasons why China still hasn't achieved a high level of literacy....

3) Discovering stuff (but then forgetting about it, or not telling anyone)
The great pioneering voyages of Zheng He ("pretty tall for a eunuch!") were never followed up on. If you believe Gavin Menzies, he even discovered America, but then "forgot" about it. Of course, nobody does believe Menzies.....

4) Claiming credit for other people's work
China likes to claim that it developed the atom bomb independently, when in fact it just bought the technology wholesale from Russia (which in turn had stolen it). It also likes to claim that it liberated itself from Japanese invaders and brought WWII to an end in the Pacific theatre; the American campaign in the Pacific, the atomic bombs, the signing of the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri - this is all rather glossed over.

5) Forgetting its own history (sometimes)
1989? Nothing much happened that year, did it? 1966? A good year for the roses?

6) Clinging tenaciously to its history (at other times)
Gosh, yes - Xinjiang and Tibet have been "part of China" since the Yuan Dynasty, don't you know?

7) "Assimilating" invaders
The Mongols conquered China. Therefore Mongolia became retroactively a "part of China". Most Chinese like to think that Genghis Khan was Chinese. Incredible. Same deal with the last Chinese Empire, the Qing Dynasty, which ruled from 1644-1912: they were outside invaders from Manchuria; but they became "Chinese" by the act of invading. That should really make anyone think twice about invading China!

8) Paranoia, conspiracy theory, and bearing grudges
The bombing of their Embassy in Sarajevo was a 'secret plot' to humiliate the Chinese. And they are never going to forgive the US for it. They just don't buy the "cock-up" theory of history. Western sympathy for the Dalai Lama is a conspiracy to dismember China. The sack of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing is still very much a live issue and an ongoing source of grievance nearly 150 years after the event. Etc., etc., etc.

9) Doublethink
Many Chinese - the fenqing, at any rate - are capable of disowning Genghis Khan's Mongols when you point out that they were a bunch of murdering pillaging bastards who laid waste to half a continent; but then reclaiming them when they remember that they created the "Chinese" empire that included Xinjiang and Tibet. Mongolia had historically "always" been "part of China", yet was allowed to retain its independence from China (asserted since 1911) at the end of World War II, after a referendum; this has never been (and will never be!) an option for Xinjiang or Tibet; no inconsistency there. Etc., etc., etc.

10) Boring its population into acquiescence
The National People's Congress has been meeting this week, so there have been a lot of interviews and political speeches on TV. Chinese political rhetoric is a thing of wonder, truly: no emotion, no variation of pace or tone, little or no meaningful content..... and very, very, VERY long-winded. A cruel and unusual punishment.

OK, I'm done. For now.

Friday, March 13, 2009

How to be a fenwai

愤外 fen wai - "angry foreigner" (or, more literally, "angry outsider") - is the term given to foreigners living in China of a self-righteous and excessively cynical tendency. They are mostly middle-aged males with nothing better to do with their time than hang out online. They usually keep their own blogs, and also infest the comment-threads of other more popular foreign China bloggers. Some of the ones with better Mandarin skills will stalk Chinese-language blogs and bulletin boards in search of sources of amusement or indignation, but most will just skulk on other foreigner blogs waiting to pick a fight with any fenqing who happens along. If you visit The Peking Duck, etc., etc.

I often refer to the fenwai phenomenon as the Chinese Communist Party's 'blowback' from years of inviting 'foreign experts' into the country to help with its development.... and then treating them with complete contempt.

Yes, my name is Froog, and I am a fenwai.

Well, not really. I sometimes manage to go for months at a time without commenting on anyone else's blog, and I usually fight shy of engaging with the fenqing types, the Chinese berserkers I spoke of yesterday - because I know that it rarely goes anywhere except round and round in circles. Just occasionally, though, I get sucked in; when I have too much time on my hands, or when there's an untypically stimulating antagonist around. I did it a year ago over on J's blog, and on The China Beat here. And this week I've found myself doing it over at Stuart's place. If you also have too much time on your hands at the moment, you might find some of these threads diverting.

Oh my good god!!

I have just spent the entire day editing a particularly dire Chinglish article. On the plus side, the topic - China's energy policy - was quite interesting. On the minus side, I had to rewrite it so heavily that it took me nearly twice as long as normal for a piece of this length.

Ah, but there was one further consolation.

I learned something new today; something new, and rather revealing. I learned that amongst the incentives the Chinese government has been offering businesses to meet energy conservation targets is...... exemption from quality inspections.

Now, I don't suppose that China is the only country in the world that offers such a performance-enhancing carrot to its corporations. And I can see that, with highly ethical corporations, being exempted from busy-body external inspections might produce useful cost savings without any necessary decline in safety or standards. But, really, do you think that's likely to be the case in China? Er, NO.

And here's the kicker. This was actually listed among the negative incentives. Such quality inspection exemptions are the norm, and withdrawing this privilege can be used a punishment. Wow!

Not reassured

I caught a glimpse of Ben Bernanke on TV the other day, trying his best to be bullish about the economy - in his usual, measured way.

The gist of his message seemed to be: "if" the wheels don't come off anything else now, and "if" the stimulus package takes hold, then we "might" see the beginnings of an upturn by the end of year.

Hemmed around with all of those qualifications, it didn't seem like a very encouraging speech at all. And, to my mind, he didn't look or sound as if he believed a word of it anyway.

But then, of course, I am firmly on the side of the doomsayers about this one. Away with your sham optimism, Mr B!

The weekly haiku

Inspiration drought.
Worn down by haiku fatigue?
Blank screen, no words come.

Have I been doing this too long? Or have I just not been getting enough sleep this week?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How to be a fenqing

忿青 fen qing * - "angry youth" - is the term given to Chinese Netizens of a self-righteous and aggressively nationalist tendency. They are mostly young males with nothing better to do with their time than hang out online. They infest the blogs and bulletin boards of the Chinese Internet. And some of the ones with slightly better foreign language skills stalk the foreign China blogs, looking to pick a fight whenever somebody dares to make an observation that appears to be "critical" of China, or challenges the 'orthodox view' on hot topics such as - well, you know, "The Three T's". If you visit The Peking Duck, one of the most popular laowai China blogs, you will often find its comment threads overrun with these dingbats.

I often refer to the fenqing phenomenon as the Chinese Communist Party's 'blowback' from the years of propagandizing it subjects its children to during their schooling. The government occasionally seeks to exploit their hot-headed and xenophobic impulses by whipping up their indignation against a particular country to make a diplomatic point (in an exceedingly undiplomatic way!): the French have been on the receiving end of this a lot over the past year. However, this kind of sentiment is hard to direct and control, and it is more often an embarrassment or an inconvenience to the government than a help; indeed, it could potentially become a threat to the government. The Telegraph recently had a story about the government here suppressing online discussion of a supposedly rather unstatesmanlike outburst by Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping during his visit to Mexico. I can't see that the remark as reported here is actually all that extreme, but apparently it does come across as quite blunt and even a little testy in Chinese. The problem was that the fenqing went nutso over it, celebrating such uncharacteristic straight-talking in international discourse and hoping that it heralded a new direction in foreign policy, an era of telling other nations to just shut the f*** up. And so the story was pulled from the domestic media, and online comments about it were deleted.

However, there may be some hope. This article by thinkweird - a rare Chinese blogger writing in English - claims that he himself was once a fenqing, but has "moved on"; and he suggests that the eventual conversion of fenqing is almost inevitable, as they are progressively exposed to more diverse sources of information (largely over the Internet) and gain a fuller picture of the world.

Last week, while searching for some film of the Tibetan 'Shoe Jintao' game on YouTube, I came upon this slideshow presenting a typical fenqing view of the Tibet issue. It is extremely unpleasant and disturbing - but also unintentionally hilarious. [Unfortunately, YouTube clips and searches involving 'Tibet' are being heavily filtered this week - I wonder why? - so I am not able to embed this at the moment. Please follow the link. Oh, the irony - Chinese censorship inadvertently blocks pro-CCP propaganda!]

In that dumb, nasty presentation you find all the classic characteristics of fenqing. The frequent resort to SHOUTY capitals and exclamation marks. The even more frequent resort to foul-mouthed invective. A staggering naivety and an atrophy of the capacity for analytical thought (this guy seems to believe that he can 'prove' the political status of Tibet at different points in history by showing us Chinese high school wallmaps!). Dodgy spelling, faulty logic, and even an ineptitude in arithmetic (he begins by asserting that China's 'ownership' of Tibet has a history going back "thousands of years", but then bases this claim on Tibet's having been part of Kublai Khan's empire just over 700 years ago; he still brags that this is longer than the combined histories of America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand - er, no, if you put those four together, I think you do get rather more than 1,000 years; and so it goes on.....).

As I said, it is pretty unpleasant and objectionable stuff, but horribly fascinating - and very entertaining. Approach with caution. Or avoid, if you're easily offended. But I think it's useful to know your enemy.

* I hope I got the right characters here. I don't entirely trust the MandarinTools online dictionary search. Weeble??

Update 1: I was indeed mistaken about the first character up there. Please see the comments below from my friend The Weeble. I didn't want to change it because I think this is an interesting side discussion in itself. The character I mistakenly selected, 忿, apparently means something like 'vehement' - which seems to me almost more appropriate than 'angry'.

Update 2: Jeremiah, being of an academic bent, felt inspired by my frippery here to write a much fuller and more considered piece on the fenqing phenomenon. Please go and take a look, if you haven't already.

Update 3: Please also take at look at my (equally frivolous, but - I hope - commendably even-handed) follow-up on How to be a fenwai.

Update 4: Now, how did that happen? This post has just been linked to by the celebrated political pundit and pioneer journo-blogger Andrew Sullivan on his blog over at The Atlantic. Since this guy sometimes gets one million visitors a week, I am waiting with some trepidation to see what his recommendation may do to my traffic.
[Disclosure: Andrew and I are lao tongxue - "old classmates" - in that we were contemporaries at Oxford. I was briefly on nodding terms with him back then, but he wouldn't remember now. And even if he had been aware of this tenuous bond of fraternity, I'm sure he wouldn't have let it influence his judgement.]