Chinese Dream

Chinese Dream

Each Chinese President creates a ‘catch-phrase’ to inspire the Chinese people.  Xi Jinping, elected in late 2012 as President, has created ‘Chinese Dream” as his catch phrase.  There is no official definition of what this phrase means, but to most people is it very similar to the ‘American’ or ‘Australian’ dreams – house, car, education for children, financial security, travel.

China is rapidly changing from an agrarian society to an urban society, and the dream is part of this.  The jobs and good schools are in the big cities, better medical services are there, and access to a broader range of services and consumer products.

These images trace the changes in Chinese society – and is the dream becoming a reality, or creating a nightmare?



Posted by DeborahH in China, Cultural dimensions, Daily Life, Photography in China, Village life, 1 comment
The Muslim Quarter – Xi’an

The Muslim Quarter – Xi’an

Cities have defined areas that reflect the local culture of that particular bit of the city. Some of those areas become part of the definition of that city, e.g maybe Pike Place in Seattle, or Piccadilly in London. For Xi’an, the Muslim Quarter is that area that reflects and adds definition.

The Muslim Quarter has a long history in Xi’an, with Muslims living in Xi’an from 651 AD. Every street in the Muslim Quarter had, at one time, a mosque. Today there are still several mosques remaining, but the Cultural Revolution and current government practices have reduced the number still operating as mosques.

The small winding streets lead to hidden treasures – the street markets with anything for sale ranging from dried bull penis to live worms for fish feeding, from cheap tools to dodgy DVDs. Street dentists operate, along with sales of traditional medicines.

Earlier, farms filled in spaces that are now turned into modern housing and shopping centres reflecting China’s desire to be seen as a version of New York or Sydney.

Food is really important in the Muslim Quarter, with a mix of street food and restaurants offering snacks and meals. Bakeries, spice shops, tea shops and butchers fill the air with aromas. Dried fruit stalls, with wonderful grapes, dates, apricots, persimmons and tomatoes imported from Xinjiang in north-west China fill shops and bicycle carts.

Time spent wandering through the Muslim Quarter, sitting in the Great Mosque during call to prayer, eating street food and watching the local Muslim community mix with the Han Chinese and all the international tourists is stimulating.

The sense of community hasn’t disappeared despite all of the changes, and the city is richer for this added definition.

Posted by DeborahH in China, Cultural dimensions, Daily Life, Photography in China, 0 comments
A day at the races (Interesting differences;Shared humanity)

A day at the races (Interesting differences;Shared humanity)

The race season is in full swing again, although it never really stops. Big city, sparkling events and country annual gatherings populate the calendar. Many of these events go unnoticed in the wider world, but provide a fantastic day for riders and spectators.

The basic elements of a day at the races are similar around the world. Groomed horses, a racetrack of sorts, spectators cheering on their favourites, food in abundance, and fashion.

In Tibet and Tibetan areas, the races are traditional annual events, held during summer, and every male Tibetan for 100kms around wouldn’t dream of missing it. Women and children come, but not as often – someone has to herd the yaks and sheep.

Tibetan races are usually 5 circuits around a mile length track, so the riders are young, light and ride bareback. The track is delineated by motorbikes at the edges. Few of the riders would be over 15 years old, and are usually a fairly small size for 15 as well. The horses spend non-racing days on the grasslands, working with the herds, staying tough and ready to endure the race. These are not the $1,000, 000 cosseted royalty of the city race carnivals!

Cheering on the favourites happens here too, but with a difference. Before the race the horses will be showered with Tibetan wind horses – small squares of paper with Buddhist drawings and sayings on them – for luck. The crowds create a wild, ululating yodel during the race and, for the winning horses, the accolades are ribbons and flowers. The owner receives a gift of a blanket or beautiful fabric to decorate the traditional Tibetan coats. The Chinese Government bans gambling, but… we are at the races!

Race day picnics happen around the world as well, and Tibetan ones are magic to see. Each family group has a specially decorated white tent, and inside the stove continuously boils hot water for tea. Long swathes of plastic covering the ground hold the festive food – cold boiled yak or mutton, dried meats, sweets, bread rolls and oranges. Soft drinks and Tibetan beer joggle for place in the foodstuffs. No bubbles or strawberries and cream here!

Many of the families stay for a few days, catching up with far-flung friends, and just maybe, finding boyfriends for marriage-age daughters.

Australian country races have much of the same camaraderie, especially those that are semi-private races, designed for friends and friends of friends. A local horse owner will offer a field for the races, set out some hay bales to race around, and organize a porta-potty. Horse floats start arriving late the evening before, and swags are laid out under them. Spectators bring their own folding chairs and are laden with drinks.

The races themselves are often run as time-trials, with only the first ride on each horse counted for each rider to determine the winner. The switching of horses and riders makes for interesting comparisons and the spectators then need to decide if they are cheering for the horse or the rider.

This is definitely a family event, with children’s trials, and afternoon novelty races. Well-behaved dogs are welcome as well. Lunch can be a picnic, or more likely a barbeque provided by the host, with meat from his own or friends cattle. The non-riders are lunch crew and set everything up ready for the crowd

After the day at the races, the evening is rounded off with prize giving (a cup and chocolates) beside a massive bonfire and lubricated by some good ales or wine. There maybe a bit of singing, and perhaps a touch or two of romance as well.

Around the world horses are treasured, riding is loved, and horse-people have the same shared joy in their animals and friendships.





Posted by DeborahH in Australia, China, Community, Sports, Tasmania, Tibetan culture, Weekends, 0 comments
(Interesting Differences/Shared Humanity)  Grass is for…

(Interesting Differences/Shared Humanity) Grass is for…

I love grass, not the ‘medicinal’ herb, but the stuff that is grown in parks and back gardens all around the world.  Picnics in the park with a mat on top of the grass, rolling down grassy slopes as a child, the sweet smell of newly mown grass, the fresh beauty of it after rain.  Grass is nice stuff.

One of the fascinating differences I noticed between China and Australia is that grass is off limits in China. It is very rare to see people sitting and picnicking on the grass in parks, even more rare to see groups or families playing the local equivalents of backyard cricket, football etc. There are parks – some really lovely ones – and people enjoy visiting them. But they also abound in ‘Do not walk on the grass” signs.  Seats are provided, but the flower gardens are fenced off, and the grass is forbidden.

I asked my students why this occurred and after some surprise that people would think about sitting on the grass, and much discussion, the only answer they could come up with was that “Grass is weaker in China”!

Perhaps this is slowly changing as I have seen young couples sitting on the grass in secluded places.  I hope it changes more quickly and the joy of sitting on the grass on a lovely day, having a picnic, playing a game or two becomes ordinary.

Posted by DeborahH, 0 comments
Architecture and Spirit

Architecture and Spirit

When I was around four and five years old, I lived right next to the ocean, literally within 20 metres of where I slept the waves rolled and crashed.  My views went forever – the horizon was the limit.  Today whenever I am near the ocean I feel sane, I feel as if I can breathe properly and I feel as if my soul has enough space to expand and grow.

So from that experience I constructed my own pet theory of ‘soul space’ – the sense of safety, of strength and a place where you can come back to physically, mentally or emotionally when you need that security. For my theory I postulated that where you live when you begin to really notice the world around you, and see yourself as part of it, is when ‘soul space’ occurs.  From the limited number of friends I have discussed this with, there seems to be a general agreement that this could be possible. For me, any ocean and any area where I can see forever creates that feeling.

After 10 years in China, watching the construction of ever more and more high-rise towers I began to wonder what happens to ‘soul space’ when children grow up confined within those tower walls?  Every city and town is rapidly replacing single story homes, small villages and farm houses with high-rises.  People who have lived close to the land all their lives are encouraged to move into huge slabs, with views of the next-door slab of housing, and the one after that.

What impact does this hive construction have on the inhabitants? Where and how do they find the soul space that allows them to grow and have a broader view of the world and their place within it, if their world is limited to a few walls, views of more walls, a minute garden with “No walking on the grass” signs and concrete play areas?

Nan Ellis in Architecture of Fear believes that this urban development has destroyed much of our urban heritage, disrupted established communities, displaced people from their homes and businesses, increased social segregation, diminished the public realm, harmed the environment and created eyesores.

Do we need this massive construction?  No, not even in China with its massive population. No matter where I travelled in China, I saw blocks and blocks of new apartment buildings sitting virtually empty.  Some areas have entire ‘ghost towns’ where no-one lives.  Empty buildings everywhere, but the construction continues.

However, even if all of this construction was necessary, what of the effect on the people?  Alain de Botton,  in The Architecture of Happiness says , “We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need — but are at constant risk of forgetting what we need — within.”

What moods and ideas are contained in the hundreds of apartments created exactly the same? Of building after cloned building?  Do we become moulded to be the same, losing creativity, individuality and soul?  Richard Sennett would agree.  He argues that “the homogenization of contemporary culture is aided and abetted by the failure of modern architecture and urban planning to accommodate the physical and sensory needs of the human body.” (Flesh and Stone)

“Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design.” (Alain de Botton)

Without this soul space, what happens to us as humans?



Posted by DeborahH in China, Daily Life, Growth and Development, 0 comments
Fun and games

Fun and games

Fun, we want it, and most of the time, feel we don’t have enough of it.  But no matter where we are, people usually find a way to have fun.

For those of us living in westernized societies our fun is placed in specific areas – the beach, parks, the bars, the discos or at home. But in China and many Asian countries, fun is more often out on the streets.  Parks are for walking through and admiring, not sitting, picnicking or playing games in.  Children’s playgrounds are few and far between.  Often the apartments are too small, too hot or too cold to be places of fun, and people are more likely to meet outside for dinner or to enjoy themselves.

This means that walking down streets in China gives the opportunity for watching people having fun right beside the road, sitting on footpaths, open to all to join in.

Empty streets will have shop assistants playing a quick game of badminton (without the net).  Any handy set of steps with a delivery slide will have children creating their own slippery slide.  And almost every street has card, mahjong and Chinese chess players crouching over home-made boards, or sitting on kindergarten sized chairs intensely involved in an epic battle of wits.  Onlookers watch the progress of the games with as much concentration as the players – maybe the coloured pieces of paper changing hands after the game has something to do with that.

At night, the big, empty public spaces will be filled with line dancers or couples waltzing.  Early mornings are likely to see those places filled with old men with their kites or diablo,  and middle-aged women practicing fan dances, or balancing tennis balls on small bats as they glide to music.

Fun… it can be anywhere if we look for it.

Posted by DeborahH, 0 comments
Village Crafts

Village Crafts

One of the uniting factors across the world is the desire to create beauty.  In all countries and across all times we have found ways of creating some form of art, some form of beauty that inspires.

In many villages in China, these art forms have been expanded into commercial crafts, although still on a local rather than industrial scale.

In Liuyang Village, outside Xi’an, the villagers have specialised in creating ceramic sculptures, usually the animals from the Chinese zodiac, highly decorated and gloriously eccentric.

Each step in the process is carefully managed, and the loveliest pieces can take weeks to prepare.  Layers of slurry are built up, sanded down, smoothed and coated in whitewash, waiting for the delicate hand painting of the stylized patterns.  The concentration needed not to have a tiny hand shake or line wobble is intense.

If we lose these village crafts, or they are created in industrial scales, we may retain some of the traditional designs, but we will lose the creativity and depth of care that makes a craft into an artform.


Posted by DeborahH, 1 comment
This (Debating) Life

This (Debating) Life

As I work through all the ‘lasts’ of things that I won’t be doing again in China, debating is one of the biggies.  Since 2005 I have coached, judged, laughed, cried and had a ball with my university debating team.  I’ve watched the team grow from a handful of students to an association that has to apply a cap for applicants and now numbers over 50.  The team executive has run annual debate competitions for the western provinces of China, with the first competition attracting 9 teams, and now again, having to limit the number of teams  entering.

Most students come because they want to improve their English speaking skills and stay because they make great friends, challenge themselves and become way more connected with the world. Along the way, their English improves, they gain loads of confidence, analytical skills and create a new ‘family’ for themselves at university.  Some of the teams have been really successful in competitions, others not so, but still have enjoyment in debate.

Many of the debaters have become really good friends, stayed in contact, even when they’ve gone overseas to live or study.  The ‘local’ ones – those who’ve graduated and are working in other cities have arranged to come back for the mother and father of all goodbye parties.  I’ll be a mess.

Posted by DeborahH in China, Daily Life, Photography in China, 2 comments
The Blind Egg Seller

The Blind Egg Seller

Disability in China is unseen.  Elderly people in wheelchairs are becoming more common, but those people born with serious disabilities are more likely to be abandoned (the orphanages are full of disabled children and girls), or hidden away in homes, seldom seeing beyond their four walls.  Disabled children  are rarely educated; recent statistics show that 28% of disabled children do not receive education at any level.  So the place where it is most likely to see people with disabilities is begging at the big tourist sites.

But, over my years in China I have seen the Blind Egg Seller many times in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter.  No-one seems to know his name, but he has been working the streets selling his eggs for over 20 years.  He trundles his cart through the streets, selling to local restaurants and residents, feeling the markings on his home-made scale, and carefully selecting eggs, and just as carefully placing them in plastic bags.  He never seems to raise his head, but focuses on the road by feel.

The locals accept his presence and generally the tourists seem not to notice his disability.  No-one tries to cheat  or attack him – over the years he has managed to carve a niche for himself, where he can survive and gain a certain level of respect.  The Blind Egg Seller has become a local institution.

Posted by DeborahH in China, Daily Life, Disability, Photography in China, 1 comment
Afternoon at the Opera

Afternoon at the Opera


One of the joys of life in China is being able to head out of the city into a whole new world of village life.  Villages still retain the essence of traditional lifestyles that are rapidly disappearing in the struggle for modernity in cities.  Yesterday I went to visit good friends who live outside Xi’an. For me these friends embody some of the best of China: welcoming, warm, generous, and talented.  The Li’s are part of a local opera group, retaining the traditions of singing and playing that other villages have lost.  Mr Li is also a renowned ‘nong min hua’ – or farmer painter.  His paintings have life and energy, and unlike many other farmer painters he does not merely repeat the traditional images.  He adds and creates, with sly modern touches.  His paintings supported his 2 sons through university, while his farm work ensured that he and his family could survive daily life. When I visit, I am often lucky enough to be invited on days when the opera group get together to sing and enjoy themselves.

Here is one such day.

Posted by DeborahH in China, Music, Photography in China, Village life, 3 comments