Food and Chinese culture

As usual I went to the supermarket a couple of times last week, looking for various foods, including meat. I realised that fresh chicken had completely disappeared from both Metro and Vanguard. Not a sign of a beak, gizzard, thigh, or leg – not even any chicken feet. Then it struck me that there was no duck either. Poultry is off the menu. This is because of the avian ‘flu scare that has struck China in general and our province, Zhejiang in particular. The university invited a scientist to give a rational view of the situation, but despite the fact that there is no evidence that humans can be infected by cooked poultry, Chinese supermarkets obviously feel that there is no market at the moment for their most popular meat product. It makes you wonder how the 22 outlets of Kentucky Fried Chicken are faring. And I can’t help thinking that the CEO of MacDonald’s must be laughing all the way to the bank, especially as the CEO of Yummy Foods (yes, it’s really called that – it runs KFC and Pizza Hut) boasted in his memoir that KFC is bigger in China because the Chinese prefer chicken to beef.
China is prone to food scares. Every so often we hear that a dairy has been closed down because of contaminated milk. And then there is the baby milk powder problem. Fears about purity have arisen following a contamination case and Chinese people are either going to Hong Kong to buy it or getting relatives to send milk powder from abroad, causing shortages in other parts of the world. Colleagues tell us that they have returned to Ningbo with a few tins in their suitcases. Who can blame them?
The strange thing is that from our point of view we have never eaten such fresh and intensely flavoured food before. Fruit and vegetables, especially those bought in the market, on the street or in small shops around East Lake Garden taste wonderful. We find new fresh products that we have never seen before nearly every week and food is truly seasonal in a way that has pretty much disappeared in our experience from UK supermarkets. The season for mouth-watering strawberries has given way to that for pineapples and mangoes of astonishing sweetness. Small oval and yellow striped melons have appeared. Each evening we eat a new combination in our fruit salad.
The Chinese are sharply focused on freshness. Restaurants where food is cooked in front of the customer or by the customer are extremely popular. In our new shopping centre there is usually a queue outside the Korean style barbeque restaurant where you cook morsels of fish, meat and vegetables on your own electric grill, sunk into the table. Hot pot eating is also popular; you dunk raw food into a shared bubbling saucepan of stock, until they are cooked to your taste. Beware a burned mouth! I think the freshness obsession means that whatever kind of establishment you go to you are unlikely to get food poisoning – at least from the food.
The freshness fetish is also expressed in the language as well as the methodology of buying and cooking. Some of the phrases I’ve now learned include: ‘Is it fresh?’ ‘Did it arrive today?’ ‘Is it sweet?’ ‘Is it ripe?’ ‘Is it imported?’ I don’t think I ever learned to say any of these things in any other language that I’ve studied in the past, certainly not after only a few months. And I wonder if people learning English acquire these phrases as beginners.
Now that I’m a regular customer at the market, I get help from my usual market vendor. He always makes sure I get the freshest produce from behind the counter, or he instructs me on which pepper, tomato or cabbage to choose – I’m obviously not really up to Chinese grandma standards when it comes to shopping. For a start, I buy far too much at one go. The grandmas on the estate only buy for one day and move swiftly around the stalls to poke about and pick out the best produce available that day. Stall holders try to trick them though by spraying water on the piles of greens to make it look fresher. Outside the market, local people crouch beside bowls full of water and live fish. The water is often constantly changed and filtered from a big tank in the back of a nearby van. I haven’t repeated my early experience of buying a live fish, feeling a bit squeamish about the fish writhing about in the shallow water, gasping for air.
It is exam time again and I’ve survived my second experience of the Mandarin listening test. Through a combination of knowing more words, private coaching, and generally more engagement with the topics I found I was able to understand a bit more this time. It helped that we’d moved on to exchanging money in the bank, rather than just stating the bank was situated south of the dormitory. And of course dialogues about going to the shop and buying fruit or ordering in a restaurant are a bit nearer to my heart.

A visit to Suzhou: gardens and poetry

A Buddhist monk in crimson robes grinned down at me from a knarled, grey rock. We tacitly agreed that I could photograph him if he could photograph us. His fellow monks clambered like school boys over the huge rockery that formed the central feature of the Lion Forest garden, formerly a temple and one of some 15 gardens that have been repaired and reopened to the public in Suzhou. Their robes added flashes of colour to the restrained tones of the garden.
Suzhou, now 45 minutes away from Shanghai by train, occupies a once powerful position at the intersection of China’s great 10th century north-south route, the Grand Canal, and the west-east route of the Yangtze River. Silk and grain could pass along these water ways, making the city rich from taxes levied on merchants. Now it gets rich from tourists and a new business district away to the west of the historic centre, although the mulberry trees that sustain the silk worms are still in evidence and were in full bloom. It also became a favourite spot for retired mandarins, tired of the imperial court – or sometimes in disgrace – who wanted to build gardens, write poetry, paint and practise calligraphy. At one time there were over 300 private gardens.
Rockeries feature in all of the five gardens we visited, although the Lion Forest was the biggest, with limestone formations thought to represent nine lions in one courtyard section. The weathered limestone rocks, craggy and worn, with holes and cracks were much prized by the Chinese garden designers. They are said to come from nearby Lake Tai Hu. The aesthetic is very different from the ordered, rectilinear gardens or even the open landscaped gardens of country houses, familiar to us in the west.
There are few flowers and only muted colours, except for occasional huge, potted azaleas. The emphasis is on apparently natural forms and the relationship between humans and the environment. Planting is for sculptural effect and to create both foils to the many pavilions and reflections in the ever-present pools. The gardeners used trees and shrubs well-known in the west, such as acers, bamboos and camellias, but they appear as individual specimens, often glimpsed through moulded plaster or carved wooden screens. I gained a whole new insight into wisteria, a plant I’d never given much attention to. Here, wisteria plants are trained around beautifully made bamboo trellises, or placed in entrance courtyards where they climb up to the eaves and then reappear draped over the front door on to the street. Several have green labels to show they are over 100 years old.
Water is another key feature, channelled from springs or from the ubiquitous canals. Unfortunately there was a bit too much water for us as it drizzled most of the day, and we had to be careful not to slip and fall on the narrow causeways and rocky paths – health and safety doesn’t feature! The Humble Administrator’s Garden (full irony intended) has the largest pool, the most pavilions and some of the grandest vistas. Just as our guidebook warned, it also has the most visitors, many trouping round in matching purple rain hats. It ingeniously uses ‘borrowed scenery’, that is a pagoda built elsewhere in the city is visible at the end of the long pool, as if it belonged to the garden. And it has the best bamboo duck house imaginable, specially made for the mandarin ducks that once frolicked in their own pool in front of Thirty-Six Pairs of Mandarin Ducks Hall.
We enjoyed the smaller gardens the most as these seemed to be off the tourist bus trail and to offer a more intimate experience. The Master of the Nets Garden once belonged to a retired bureaucrat from about the time of William the Conqueror. He was fed up with the intrigue of the imperial court and retired to cultivate his garden and play at being a contented fisherman. The garden’s special feature is the sequence of small courts and pavilions, where the outside elements of the garden, such as the rocks and plants seem to push against and intrude on the interior space. This play between outside and inside space is another characteristic of Chinese garden design that I found new and intriguing. Links between spaces are also important, sometimes made through double-sided corridors or framed by circular moon gates that, according to our guidebook by landscape architect Ron Henderson, should only be passed through by one person at a time.
Our favourite garden was the Couple’s Retreat Garden, hidden away on the eastern periphery of the city. It was made by a Ming dynasty husband and wife, Shen and Yan. It had the usual features – water, pavilions, rocks and trees, all in exquisite harmony, but it also showed particularly well the way poetry and calligraphy are incorporated into the gardens. Often views, features or buildings illustrated famous poems or paintings or sometimes the owners wrote poems about their own spaces. The wife, Yan Yonghua, wrote a couplet that is the source of the garden’s name. It is carved either side of a doorway and the craftsman would have followed the lines and shapes of her calligraphy. One possible translation, according to Henderson is:
A loving couple lives in the couple’s garden retreat.
A poetic city was built at a corner of the ancient city.
After only eight years Shen had to return to government service and the couple left Suzhou. We too had to leave after only a quick taste of the riches on offer in Suzhou. There are at least another ten gardens to see and we look forward to returning. Perhaps I’ll have learned to write romantic poetry in Mandarin by then – who knows?

The British in Ningbo

This week I have escaped from everyday life into the world of 19th-century Ningbo, to research and write about five months in 1862. The city was captured by a group who were rebelling against the Manchu dynasty, and then recaptured by the British (with a bit of help from the French). The rebels were the Taipings – famous for their motley clothing and for their long hair – they refused to shave the front of their heads as prescribed by the ruling Manchus. What you wear and your hairstyle are key to understanding Chinese history – from foot-binding and silk gowns to Mao suits. The Taiping leader believed he was Jesus’s brother. British and American missionaries had high hopes of the movement, thinking it might convert all of China to Christianity.
This exercise has made me engage with Ningbo in completely new ways. My starting point has been two beautiful maps – one now in the National Archive in Kew and one in the Library of Congress in Washington. The first I discovered just by browsing on the NA website and the other through a poster reproduction pointed out to me by a fellow student in a bookshop in the city. It now graces my study wall. While other students in the class have been grappling with primary sources from the 1950s and 60s in the archive and city library, I have had to start from visual sources and then find online English language documents to explain them.
My first map was drawn by another character in the drama – the dashing and daring Captain Roderick Dew. He was sent by his boss, Admiral Jimmy Hope to inspect the defences of Ningbo. At that time Ningbo was a walled city, as was almost every sizeable city in China. Dew drew the walls with a ruler and showed nothing inside. He didn’t want to know people lived in the city. The Chinese map, dated 1820, has no straight lines, but a wonderful curvaceous representation of the walls and its six gates. Inside, the city is populated with coloured and labelled pictures of temples, courtyard houses, trees and lakes. It was probably made by a local official who would have been trained in poetry, painting and calligraphy.
Dew’s outline of the city walls made me look again at the modern map of Ningbo, and it is easy enough to trace their foundations in present day streets and canals. The centre of the modern city is essentially contained within them. The Chinese map included the Bridge of Boats (complete with little faces on the ships’ prows), which crossed the river just south of where the Yuyao and Yong rivers join. We discovered after a trip to Ningbo museum that this bridge survived until at least 1985. The main lake – Moon Lake – is still there too, although Sun Lake has been filled in.
Ningbo was one of the five Treaty Ports, forced as concessions from China following the first Opium War. China was forced to accept imports of opium from India in return for selling tea and silk. The trade never really took off in the same way as Shanghai, and at first the British minister in Peking, Frederick Bruce, wouldn’t recommend defending Ningbo other than getting Captain Dew to draw his map and make some useful suggestions about gun emplacements to the local authorities. The imperial forces proved weak and a local pirate, hired to provide ships as there was no imperial navy, sailed off smartly once the Taipings appeared. In an hour the city fell to the rebels.
The foreigners – British, Americans and French didn’t mind too much as they lived across the river on the north bank in their own settlement – present day Laowaitan. The missionaries kept going back and forth to tend to their flocks in the city, until the British Consul restricted them to the north bank. This is the current night spot of Ningbo, full of clubs and restaurants. It also has shops and offices and I go there very Friday for a Mandarin lesson. Last Friday I had a closer look at the Bund – the old waterfront and wharf set up in the style of Shanghai. There are a couple of old colonial style houses that survive next to a Catholic church, and another building that was the custom house. On the other side of Laowaitan is a waterside park and you can walk along and look back across the river towards what would have been the city wall. It’s now a fancy shopping mall – usually empty but with the best food hall in Ningbo.
After a few months by May the British Consul Harvey had had enough, despite the fact that the Taipings seemed to be behaving well towards the foreigners and summarily beheading any of their followers who were rude to them or ventured across the river. Harvey wrote vitriolic descriptions of the Taipings to his boss, Bruce, in Peking and said trade was at a standstill – which was probably untrue. Bruce instructed Admiral Hope to send the gunboats down. A pretence at keeping to the policy of neutrality was maintained for a few days, and then a slight provocation from the Taipings – a stray bullet fired at the rigging – and Dew’s boat HMS Encounter began the bombardment. He stopped for a couple of hours to eat his lunch, but the Taipings had fled by teatime. The Imperial forces were then given back the city. They entered and massacred anyone with long hair.
It is fascinating to read the debate in the House of Commons in the Hansard record that took place in the July after the assault – news took about three months to get back to England. The death of Mrs Thatcher and memories of the Falklands War provide an interesting comparison. China, like the Falklands, felt a long way away to the MPs in London. They ask the Foreign Secretary awkward questions: ‘Why are we there? Why are we spending all this money on the navy? Did we really need to attack? Why are we propping up the Manchus when they are so weak and they were our enemies a few months ago?’
Back in Ningbo, the foreign settlement seemed relieved that things could get back to normal, although the pirate navy which had returned, blockaded the river and the Imperial authorities increased taxes. Neither factor helped the tea and silk trade. Meanwhile, on the river bank (the city side) an obelisk was erected to commemorate the British and French who died in the assault. The Chinese complained – its height had a negative effect on the local fengshui (wind and water in Mandarin). It wasn’t taken down immediately, but I don’t think it’s there now. The Communists took a favourable view of the Taipings as trying to expel the foreigners from China – a somewhat fanciful reading of history. My next outing will be to walk along the river bank and have a look.

The village of 10,000 bamboos: the transformation of China

‘I became the commune accountant, because there were only three of us who could read or write in the village.’ The old man answered our questions with great enthusiasm and something of a twinkle in his eye, especially when more and more villagers gathered around on the narrow street in front of his house to find out what was going on. We were interviewing him as part of a class trip to the village of one of our classmates.

Wanzhu – 10,000 bamboos – is about 40 miles south of Ningbo, at the head of a valley, high up in bamboo clad mountains. Lin’s parents now live down in the nearest big town, where her mother is a teacher and her father a factory manager, but return frequently to visit her elderly grandparents. On Saturday they were in Wanzhu to carry out the rites of Qingming, the annual festival of tomb sweeping, and we were invited to observe the ritual.

We climbed up a rocky path that linked narrow terraces planted with rice, camellias and small fruit trees, until we came to a small ledge with a stone tomb, set into the hillside. The family were honouring the paternal great grandparents. They lit candles for the local god and the dead ancestors, laid out food in a wooden box and poured wine into tiny cups. A flag was planted above the tomb to show other ancestors that refreshment was now available. Explosions of firecrackers reverberated around the valley, signalling completion of the ritual.

On the way back down, we visited Lin’s grandmother’s house. She lived in one of the standard village houses, with two rooms, concrete floors and plain, plastered walls – front room for cooking and eating, back room for sleeping. There was electricity and cold running water. She demonstrated to us an elaborate ritual of paper folding, used to make a decoration for another festival in the summer. She cannot read or write, and Lin explained that making the decorations with other village women was probably one of her main social activities.

Most people left in the village are elderly, as we discovered on a walk around to look at other houses. Younger people have left for jobs elsewhere, and many rice terraces are becoming abandoned. We were invited to Lin’s aunt’s house for lunch and a magnificent spread had been prepared for us. It’s the season for digging up bamboo shoots, and two or three different kinds of dishes made from these were on offer, along with stewed pig’s foot, fried peanuts with kelp, rice cakes, squid and preserved greens, tofu and wild celery, dumplings, roast taro and potatoes, crab, shrimps and prawns.

After lunch we started on the interviews. The first one was with an 89 year old man who now lived with his family in a sizeable two-storey house, with an airy open veranda that still boasted some wooden carvings at the end of the roof jousts. The man was stone deaf, and Lin needed to write out our questions for him. The other students were as disadvantaged as I was, in that he spoke the Ningbo dialect and only one or two of them could understand it. The old fellow let forth in a loud, singsong voice, only occasionally pausing to take a breath. He described his early life and membership of the Communist Party before their victory in 1949. He had received an education and been to university in 1953. But then tragedy had struck. His brother had been arrested and executed as an anti-revolutionary. The old man remained a supporter of Mao and his ideals, but was disparaging about lower cadres. He had been unable to progress in the Party because of the disgrace of his brother.

Then we moved on to the house of the commune accountant. I enjoyed his story because it illuminated everything I had learned last semester about 1950s China, collective farming and the Great Leap Forward. The man, born in 1934, had received four years of primary level education in Nationalist China. His father had worked on the Beijing to Nanjing railway and one of his sisters became a teacher. He was sharp and intelligent and full of charm – you could see why he might have been elected to office. I would have considered him to be middle class, but luckily for him, under the classification system of Communism he had been labelled as a ‘middle peasant’.

Another elderly man in the village, who followed us around for much of the day, had not been so lucky. He was the son of one of two local landlords. While one had fled to Hong Kong, his father had been shot dead, and his sons labelled as landlord class. This had dogged him all his life and he had never married. When Lin interviewed him it turned out that his ‘landlord’ father had actually owned just 10 acres of land.

The accountant described the daily routines of work on the rice terraces and the struggle to get enough to eat. The village was so poor that they hadn’t been required to give a rice quota to the central administration, but for about 10 years until the mid 1960s food had been extremely scarce. ‘Only 2 or 3 people starved during the years of natural disaster,’ he said. This is the euphemism for the famine of 1960-62. He told us about the rationing of most necessities and especially the difficulty of getting shoes. Once, a whole supply of shoes for only one foot had been sent and children went around trying to pair them up.

Our interview ended jovially with handshakes and photographs. The accountant thought things were a lot better now, and you only had to look around the village centre to see the shiny new cars and affluent looking 30-somethings who had returned to visit their parents to see what he meant. Lin’s family – and many like them – encapsulates the story of China from 1950, especially its urbanisation. She will graduate this year from UNNC and next year study for a Master’s degree in England. The speed of progress in only two generations is breath-taking.

There is a strong belief that the transformation of China has been brought about through Communism, rather than ‘opening and reform’ (i.e. capitalism) since 1980. While we were looking at a rather neat electric majhong table in the village community centre, I remarked that no games or hobbies had been allowed under Communism. A student looked askance at me and said, ‘We are still a Communist country.’