Chun jie – Chinese New Year Part 1

It is strangely quiet outside my flat now that the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival has finally come to an end. Officially it lasts 15 days, from new moon to full moon, but it seemed to go on and on. Firstly there were the preparations. The Grand Spring Clean is taken seriously. Not only are peoples’ homes thoroughly cleaned but so are their work places. In our office we hired a cleaning lady for a whole day  who scrubbed and polished and disinfected and even removed and washed  the windows. Someone then tried to walk through one of the big glass doors. This is not usually a hazard because the windows are so dirty. We had to make sure that no rubbish was left in our bins as it might bring bad luck in the New Year. Clear out the old before bringing in the new. Red is the theme colour and there were red lanterns, dragons and canopies of light everywhere. The Chinese are masters of decoration. Then, the day before New Year’s Eve, it snowed. The scene was set for the biggest festival in the Chinese calendar.

Xi’an ground to a halt.  There was a mass migration as millions of people made their way back to their home towns. The “village” where I have lunch and buy my vegetables closed down as the migrant workers returned home. Students also evacuated and they are still on holiday.  The government gives both of these groups reduced fares on buses and trains. I was pleased to be invited to my translator’s grandparents’ home for New Year’s Eve. Not only was it an insight into Chinese family life but everything else was closed.  Beijing and Shanghai have large  public events but else where it’s a family affair.

Ting had been cleaning the flat all day and it looked lovely. She was pleased with the “hongbao” or red envelope that I gave her, with some money inside. This traditional gift for children and unmarried friends or relatives is a way of showing respect and thoughtfulness. Not giving is a sign of disapproval, something I didn’t want to elicit from my trusty companion! In modern China, the tradition is being corrupted and many now give it in return for preferential treatment. So what’s new?

Luckily my Welsh slate key rings, with a red Welsh dragon on them, were perfect gifts for the rest of the family especially as 2012 is Year of the Dragon. Her grandfather showed me the Almanac which is still consulted by the older generation. It gives auspicious advice for the year such as the best time to venture forth on New Year’s Day and which direction to take. He also told me  that at the 5th “watch” after midnight (Shakespearean?), his old body would leave him and his new year’s body would appear. We had a splendid meal in their communal restaurant with many delicacies – lily roots in oil, lightly battered mushrooms and lotus roots with chillies. Immediately after the meal, we were making jiaozi for New Year’s Day breakfast. I am getting a little better at it (see post on Rainbow Night). We rounded off the evening with a modest box of fireworks – one lit fuse and the whole thing exploded. Ting is environmentally sensitive, unlike much of the rest of the population.

I have to confess that I was unaware of when my old body left and the new one appeared. I was in bed by 10.30, having sealed all doors and windows, with ear plugs firmly in place, whilst World War 3 raged outside. I am a little worried however, as the Chinese open all doors and windows at midnight to let out the old year. Maybe that’s why I find it difficult to live in the present.


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It is difficult for 21st century Westerners to fully comprehend the mind set of ancient people’s attitudes to the afterlife. The Egyptians believed that life after death was a natural continuation of life on earth hence the importance of keeping the body intact and filling the Pharaohs’ tombs with the necessities for such a “life”. Other civilisations have had similar rituals and beliefs but the Chinese fear of non-existence drove them to extraordinary lengths in providing for the future welfare of the dead. Of course we only have the archaeological evidence of the tombs of royalty and the plains around Xi’an are littered with them.

Having visited two of the most famous ones, those of  Emperor Qin Shi Huang (246BC-210BC) of Terracotta Warrior/Great Wall fame and Emperor Jindi (188BC-141BC), I was amazed at the size of the area covered by the tombs and burial pits. I was also fascinated by the obsession with the afterlife that created an industry out of recreating “aristocratic life on earth”. The ancient Chinese believed everyone had two souls – the Po or earth-soul and the Hun or chi- soul. At the time of death the souls separated and had different destinations. The souls were not immortal however and their survival could be increased by feeding them. Life was made easier for the Po if it was given food, clothing and precious objects. This idea still persists in China today – see my blog “Money to Burn”.

Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum is a vast testimony to this megalomaniac’s fear of the afterlife. He certainly had good reason to be afraid of the thousands of spirits of the slain waiting to take their revenge and so he ensured that his tomb was guarded by 7,000 life-size terracotta warriors with horses, chariots and weapons. The tomb itself is said to contain rivers of mercury, cross-bow booby traps and replicas of his earthly palaces with jewel encrusted ceilings. Soil tests have indeed revealed significant levels of mercury and given what has already been uncovered, there is no reason to doubt the literature about his tomb. Ironically, he drank a potion of mercury during his lifetime as it was thought to be the elixir of life. It probably sent him mad and was most likely the cause of his death. His tomb still lies unexcavated. It sends shivers down my spine to think of all the workers who built the tomb being incarcerated in it, to prevent any knowledge of the “warriors” whereabouts being reported.

Emperor Jindi’s tomb was a real contrast to that of his megalomaniacal ancestor. Personally, I preferred it and thought the museum was far better than the one at the Terracotta Warriors.  His reign was peaceful and enlightened and the contents of the tomb tell us more about daily life than military might. The hundreds of burial pits have revealed elegant palace maids in Han costume, hundreds of domesticated animals and terracotta figurines. These originally had wooden arms and were dressed in colourful silk costumes. Again, as in earlier and later tombs, the motto was “to attend to the dead as if to attend to the living.”

Maids in death

Warrior ready for battle

Domestic animals and horses



All this attention to the afterlife is not done and dusted by any means. Its influence is still present in the daily life of the Chinese today. The next holiday I get will be “Tomb Sweeping” at the beginning of April. This originates from the Zhou Dynasty, 2,500 years ago, where people will worship their ancestors with food and flowers and willow branches will be placed around the tombs to ward off evil spirits. Despite the revolution, some beliefs just will not die!

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Don’t Stand on Ceremony

On New Year’s Day (not lunar calender), I was invited by a Mr Shi to his tea house. This particular gentleman had been photographing my “shoe-box sessions” (see work blog) with the high school children for several weeks. He couldn’t speak any English but kept asking my translator if I would like to have tea with him. Now, after my disastrous “tea” episode in Beijing, ( for those of you who haven’t heard, I was conned into paying £89 for three cups of jasmine tea which I poured myself and the occasion lasted no m0re than 20 minutes,) I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. However I didn’t want to appear rude and finally accepted his invitation on condition that I could bring a couple of friends with me.

We all arrived at an office block at the appointed time. There was no sign of a tea house and it wasn’t in an area where there were any shops or  people. I started to get worried.  Eventually the guard at the desk unlocked a heavy metal door and ushered us through. He told us to take the lift to the second floor and as we got out of the lift, there was Mr Shi waiting to greet us. He opened a door and  we entered another world.

The Tea House was not open to the public as it was a “school” where the Art of Tea was taught. Women were trained there in the art of the tea ceremony – the typical course lasts for two years.We were ushered into a small side room where we were introduced to a musician friend of Mr Shi’s. I realised that he had been invited especially for me as I had told Mr Shi that I played the flute. Tea Houses are rather like the Paris salons of the 17th and 18th centuries. Historically it was a place where the Chinese aristocracy, court officials, intellectuals and poets would meet. Today, it is a place to enjoy the sensory experience of tea as well as a place where musicians, artists, calligraphers and writers meet.

Well, the tea drinking went on for over two hours! We were told to make ourselves at home and to enjoy the tea. We were educated in the different types of tea – An Ji white tea, Shou Mei white and green tea, Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong black/red tea. All types were served by the lovely hostess in small china cups. The woman who served us was exceptionally knowledgeable and exuded a aura of tranquillity and competence. When I asked her how long she had been studying tea, she replied, “since I was in my mother’s womb”. She came from a family of tea growers and it was in her blood. She explained the different boiling points for the different teas as she skilfully poured from the pot. Each pot served 3 to 4 rounds and her mastery was to ensure the flavour was consistent throughout. She tried to get us to appreciate the smell of the tea as well as the flavour. The tea could be bitter but the after-taste was sweet, leaving the mouth feeling pleasant and refreshed. We were encouraged to eat fruit with the red tea and sweet pastries with the green tea.

Most of the subtleties of the comparisons of the teas were lost on someone like me, who usually drinks Earl Grey with milk, although since coming to China I have been drinking green tea.  The spiritual side of the art of tea drinking is the emphasis on “he, jing, yi and zhen” – peace, quiet, enjoyment and truth – reflecting the underlying philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The musician told us about his “hut” in the mountains where he goes on retreat regularly. Just when I thought I might sink if I drank another cup, this lovely man said he would play for us. He played an ancient Chinese instrument called the Gu Qin and also tried to teach us how to play. Then he entertained us with some more traditional music on his flute.

It was a wonderful way to spend New Year’s Day and we were willing to pose for the obligatory photographs at the end so that Mr Shi could put some foreigners’ photos on his web site. I’ll put in a link at the end if you’re interested. It certainly put to rest my uncomfortable memory of the Beijing incident, especially when I discovered how expensive the teas were that we had been drinking, for free, all afternoon.

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Rainbow Night


Ever since I arrived in Xi’an, the organisation I work for, Shaanxi Western Development Foundation, has been working towards the Rainbow Night. This is a fund-raising/disability awareness raising event that has taken place over the last three years. It has taken me a while to understand exactly what was happening but all was revealed on 22nd December when the event was held.

During the day, the two VSO volunteers were sent to make jiaozi (dumplings) at a local home for special needs children. This was to show that we all work as a team  for the benefit of SEN children but it was also the Winter Solstice, when one should eat jiaozi to stop one’s hair from falling out. As there were only meat fillings and I’m vegetarian, I’m expecting the worst.  There are multiple layers of meaning for so many things here in China. Needless to say much of it passes me by.

We were not the only celebrities at the home. A local beauty queen arrived to be photographed with the children and the laowi (foreigners). The paparazzi were there in force as well but I’m now getting used to the importance of the media here in China. The Beauty Queen was to show up later at the evening event and apparently this is a common practice in fund raising  events. I guess it shows that they are doing something worthwhile during their beauty reign. (See photos at end.)

Now to the evening performance. A large theatre was hired for the event and my organisation was responsible for the everything but the show. The theatre was beautifully decorated. People sat at round tables piled high with fruit, cakes and drinks. The event was live on Weibo, the Chinese social networking site, and again the paparazzi were everywhere. Special Needs pupils from local NGOs sat for hours waiting for the show to begin. The opening speeches went on for ages but it was important to thank various corporations for their support. Certificates were presented to the worthy and then the show began.

I’m not sure how I feel about using people with SEN on stage with ordinary actors  but this was to raise awareness about special needs. The show was rather cheesy with lots of love and rainbows as well as a troupe of little dancers, clearly without special needs. Actually, it was good to see so many Down Syndrome pupils enjoying themselves on stage. They do like acting, as those of you who remember Sian Fouladi will know. The evening concluded with various items for auction being carried in by a pupil with special needs and accompanied of course by, yes, you’ve got it, the Beauty Queen.

I’m not sure how much money was raised and I’m not sure that I ever will. I was told that it’s as important to put on these events and be seen at them, as it is to raise money. Now that the hype of the event is over, I’m hoping that we might get back to the job in hand. In other words, concentrating on the reason why I’m here!

Click on the link to see the photos of the evening. Can you spot the official beauty?

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Parks in China

China’s public parks are something the government at home might do well to emulate. I enjoy the free theatre and interesting,  quirky  things I see whenever I visit one. The Chinese are justly proud of their public spaces which are meticulously cleaned by armies of workers through out the day. They are usually formally laid out and one is only allowed to walk on the paved paths. Walking on the grass is not permitted!  They are oases in the tower block  jungle.

The parks are  full of people from early morning, ( I sometimes run at 6.30) until they close at about 9.30 at night. People of all ages start the day by exercising in various ways. Some like a gentle jog or to walk backwards, hitting their arms to get the circulation going or rubbing their stomachs. Others stride along, shouting out every now and again to clear the vocal passages – I get quite a fright when  someone decides to give a blood curdling yell just as I’m running past them. There are outside gyms with equipment that looks like it was designed for a children’s playground but it’s for adults and a lot cheaper than David Lloyds! Then of course there are the ever popular ping pong and badminton games. I wouldn’t dare to take anyone on at either of these as they all seem to be semi professional whatever the age.

As the day progresses, groups of people gather for Tai Chi led by practitioners of various schools. They are mainly older people dressed in colourful Chinese costumes. They follow the master who has  recorded music playing  for all to hear. Some judo experts, dressed in black, practise alone or in groups, displaying fearsome combat moves. Women can be seen dancing with fans or scarves while the  younger dancers learn ballroom, tango or jive. Old age pensioners have regular keep fit classes and seem to thoroughly enjoy them. What a good idea for Britain’s army of house-bound and isolated elderly.  Everyone has their space. Some need lots of it too, such as the whip- crackers – just like in the circus – or those doing kick ups with weighted, feathered shuttle cocks.

On Saturdays, in the park near my flat, old men go for a gossip but they bring their caged birds with them. Evidently both species need space to communicate with one another. Musicians also use the park to practise their instruments and at night, whole choirs sing old revolutionary songs.





The freezing winter weather does not deter the hardy Chinese from using their parks from early til late. The only thing that’s changed is that the plants, shrubs and smaller trees have been wrapped up in plastic to save them from the frost and I haven’t been so keen to get out for those early morning jogs!


The “Village”

Although Xi’an’s older, low rise buildings  are relentlessly being pulled down and replaced by  hideous skyscrapers, there are still plenty of “villages” left and long may they last. These are narrow, dark streets bustling with life from early morning until late at night where ordinary people can afford to eat and shop for daily necessities. There is one just near where I live and I love it. The streets are lined with small, open-fronted eating places offering all sorts of culinary delights for no more than 50 to 90 pence. I usually eat lunch here, wrapped in coat and scarf, as none of these places have heating or doors for that matter. Specialities in this area are:

  •  home made noodles, where the cooks skilfully manipulate skeins of fresh dough, banging them onto floured boards and serving them in a spicy soup. This dish has the onomatopoeic name of  “biang biang mian” – bang bang noodles.
  • thick strap-like noodles eaten in a cold sauce
  • crusty rice, served in little wicker baskets and eaten with a long spoon
  • dumplings or jaozi with various fillings and cooked by boiling or steaming
  • cold vegetables like lotus root and shredded potatoes served in a delicious sauce with plenty of chillies

The smoke from the coal fired stoves mixes with the steam from the cooking pots and woks whilst people shout out their orders and take their seats. There’s always something interesting to watch over lunch and when I return at night, I buy smoked tofu from a little cart for 30p and that’s supper.  Outside the food shops are the street traders selling skewers of meat, pancakes and stuffed bread rolls from their stalls. You can eat standing up from these places  in the freezing cold.  Health and Safety wouldn’t know where to begin! Fruit and vegetable stalls sell really good produce which I prefer to the supermarket packaged offerings. Of course there is a lot of talk about over fertilisation of produce but I don’t have any means of growing my own organic veges and just hope that I’m not being slowly poisoned!

In amongst the multitude of food stalls, there are little shops selling cheap everyday items and clothes. You can get printing done quickly, buy electrical goods and have your hair cut for less than a pound. Vendors come and go at different times of the day depending on the season or the latest availability of a new fake product. Whole families live their lives on the streets. In one area there are ancient  pool tables set out on the pavement where teenagers play at lunchtime and younger children do their homework at little improvised cardboard tables, whilst their parents scratch a meagre living from their stalls.

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Work in Xi’an


For all of you who have been asking me about work, here it is! I’ve only done about a month in all but it’s been interesting and challenging. My VSO job description gave me the title of “Volunteer Centre Advisor” working within their China Programme of “National Volunteering”. Although VSO have been in China for 30 years, the days of sharing skills in Education and Health are coming to an end for obvious reasons. Their new strategy will be focusing on supporting people to engage in development and reduction of poverty in China and overseas from China. VSO have begun recruiting Chinese doctors to work in developing countries. My brief is to help a local volunteer centre develop its capacity in helping NGOs (non-government organisations) or charities, working in the areas of disability and the environment. It also includes engaging with the corporate sector (public and private) that wants to show its social responsibilities in the communities where they work. That’s the theory – does it sound familiar? The Big Society? In fact, many people are willing to volunteer even if they have been working all week.

I work from a Volunteer Centre office and we have just moved offices this week. We now share space with the umbrella organisation SNWDF (Shaanxi Western Development Foundation).   There are  8 of us in the office, including the 2 VSOs. Ed, the other VSO, works in marketing and fund raising. He’s from Holland and has been a great in helping me to settle in. He’s also a whiz kid on computers and is busy creating a new database and web site for the volunteer centre. It’s strange being an office worker for part of my time. As a full time teacher I used to envy office workers imagining that they had less stress to deal with, time to chat and time to go on line. In my experience so far, it’s true! I have a wonderful translator named Ting. She is only 23 and wants to be a translator after doing further studies in the UK next year. She was brought up by her grandparents, who were in the army, and she still lives with them. Her English is very good and she has a creative, enquiring mind. She’s a real gem to work with.

Although I have been given a work plan, I am left pretty much to my own devices. Everyone in the organisation is busy with a fund raising event at present which doesn’t concern me much. I asked to visit all the NGOs to start with but have only been taken to one special “school” so far. This is not a government school but was set up by parents of Autistic and Special Needs children who wanted somewhere for their children to learn. There are no government run schools for SEN children and the teachers are only paid a fraction of ordinary teachers’ salaries. They work long hours and often at week ends as well. This school was keen to have some input and training from me in several areas. I spent a couple of days there observing various classes. Several of the children were autistic but there were others with Cerebral Palsy and a wide range of other special needs. Most of them had communication difficulties and behavioural problems. One little boy of about 5 was given Peto – type training for about an hour. He had splints on his legs and was made to go up and down a ramp over and over again despite his tears and protestations.

In response to the school’s requests, I have been working on developing the “Shoe Box Tools” idea – simple exercises such as sorting and stacking – contained in a shoe box. They can be used by parents and teachers in a structured way to help with organisational and concentration skills. I’m getting students in a local high school to help me to make them. They don’t do Design and Technology here (or anything creative really) but spend hours on academic study to pass the exams for university. The Head is keen for me to help them improve their English by teaching the tasks in English and I’ll break from tradition and get them to discuss volunteering, disability and special needs. My first session is tomorrow so I’ll let you know how it goes. They also want to help in the special school, so I’ve got 150 new volunteers!

I’m also working on Social Stories for Autistic adolescents and the school wants to create a book of them. They have to be visual and symbolic as the pupils can’t read. The idea behind them, for those of you who aren’t Special Needs teachers, is to present a social situation (one that is causing problems for a particular pupil) in a factual, logical way. It’s “written” in the 1st person and aims to improve the pupil’s understanding of a social situation and over time, to modify behaviour. The teachers wanted to know what they could do to stop certain older pupils from masturbating in public! So, I’ve produced a Social Story to use in training with them. Let’s hope it is effective! Discussing such issues with a young Chinese translator is not easy.

Well, that’s enough on work for the time being. Photos can be viewed on