Sex Education: The Chinese Sex Culture Museum Stimulates in Unexpected Ways


Map Magazine, December 2007

No one told the people of Shanghai that sex sells.  When Shanghai University professor Liu Da Lin first opened the Chinese Sex Culture Museum in that city back in 1998, it seemed a bold but safe move.  He had accumulated over 1,600 ancient and modern Chinese sex-related artifacts and art works that, cumulatively, were a window into a rarely seen part of China’s past. Shanghai, China’s most famously-forward thinking and steamy city, seemed an ideal home.

Shanghai ren, however, took little interest. More crucially, local government leaders were less than, well, stimulated by the museum.  The city elected not to provide the museum with public funding or to promote it to tourists.  By 2005 the museum, no longer able to afford its rent, searched for a new home.  Officials in the ancient southeast Jiangsu canal town of Tongli, looking to increase tourism, offered the museum space in a former young women’s academy.

I was surprised to learn that such a museum existed at all in China.  It raised questions too interesting to ignore: What would the museum say about the place of sex in Chinese culture? How did Chinese views on sex change throughout the centuries? How would that information be presented?

After arriving in Tongli, I concluded that the town was an unlikely host for the Chinese Sex Culture Museum.  Quiet and traditional, Tongli seems a world apart from the liberal vitality of Shanghai, though it’s only an hour and a half away by train.  The town is crisscrossed by maze-like cobblestone alleys and canals, and during my 24-hour stay, I saw not one ex-pat cafe, karaoke bar or disco. If you squint just enough to ignore the modern products for sale, it’s easy to imagine Tongli as it was one thousand years ago.

The museum lies at the end of a long, moss-tinged alley at an edge of the city.  A large sign in front of the entrance announces that the museum is a “witness to history” and a “source of knowledge.”  The conclusion of the English text sounds like it came from the megaphone of a carnival barker:  “Welcome to you for visiting this museum, you can see what you never see, know what you never know, and be no [sic] disappointed at all.”  All but guaranteed a memorable experience, I exchange 20 yuan for a ticket and enter.

The first thing that greets visitors to the Chinese Sex Culture Museum is a courtyard statue of a troll-like immortal with a massive erection.  It’s a striking introduction, and I’m unsure if I should admire the sculpture reverently from a distance or giggle like a 10 year-old.

The museum’s wide and well-preserved grounds – with their original brick and wood buildings, high walls, large shade trees, gardens and pagodas – give the place a peaceful and contemplative air. The exhibition halls are divided into four main sections: “Sex in Primitive Society,” “Marriage and Women,” “Sex in Daily Life” and “Unusual Sexual Behavior.”  There is also a sculpture garden, which I pass through on my way to the first hall.  Setting a lighthearted tone for the artwork here, the garden’s large central sculpture depicts a potbellied immortal carrying a small boy on his back.  The immortal’s head is sprouting a giant erection capped, improbably, by a turtle.  Another sculpture shows a woman joyfully embracing a five-foot tall, freestanding phallus.  “Women’s dependence,” reads the accompanying sign.

Sex in Primitive Society is the museum’s first exhibition hall.  “Primitive people worshiped sex,” reads the brochure I received upon entering the museum, and the hall provides plenty of supporting evidence for that claim.  Among the pottery, jade tiles, wooden statues and porcelain artifacts here is a clay “goddess statue” from 7000 BC, which depicts a pregnant woman. There’s also the “oldest erotic statue” from 3500 BC, showing a man and woman copulating in a standing position. I take a few minutes to consider why a series of photographs of genitalia-shaped mountains and rock formations adorn the walls before giving up.

Next up is the “Marriage and Women” hall.  The hall begins by introducing a 1st and 2nd century-era sculpture series depicting Fuxi and Nuwa, the “legendary ancestors of the Chinese nationality.”  Fuxi and Nuwa were brother and sister and also a couple, the accompanying text says, indicating “brother and sister might get married in ancient China.”

I then entered the “Sex Oppression on Women” section.  My brochure tells me that, throughout the ages, “wives were always ruled and oppressed by men, acted as tools for men to satisfy their sexual demands, to give birth to children, and to do homework.”  Surveying the coming parade of horrors on display in this hall, I’m inclined to think that, historically, extra trigonometry was the least of women’s worries. The first artifact in the first subsection, called “Outlook on Chastity,” is a “Licentious women saddle” from the 18th century. The saddle, “an implement of punishment,” includes a retractable wooden dildo. Further along are a series of chastity belts from the 18th and 19th centuries, a 16th century-era finger vice “to punish women,” and a foot-binding wheel.

Further evidence of the spectacularly raw deal women have received historically follows with the next subsection, “Disgusting Prostitution.” Despite its unnecessarily judgmental title, it is a generally sympathetic and comprehensive exhibit. The introductory text states that there were various kinds of prostitutes throughout the ages in China, including those for the home, court and army, as well as service prostitutes who played music, sang and danced. “The ancient prostitutes were a result of money and power oppression,” the text reads.  “Most of them had a miserable destiny but the superior prostitutes occupied their special place in literature and art.”  There’s also a “Prostitute Guide” made by the Kuomintang government in 1929, which provides a geographical breakdown of the number of prostitutes in the country at the time.

Next door is “The Prostitute’s Room.”  Recreated in part to resemble what a 17th century-era brothel may have looked like, the room includes a 19th century-era double-backed “happy chair” which allowed couples to sit face to face during intercourse, and a beautifully designed, enclosed “special bed for high grade prostitutes.”

The next exhibition is the “TV Room/Sex of Religions” hall.  The text and artifacts stand in harsh judgment of sexually active monks and nuns throughout the ages.  Taoism and Mizong Buddhism, a sign reads, “call for cultivation of sex.” However, “Many records show some of these religions improper behaviors.”  A series of porcelain statues from the early 20th century depict licentious monks, while a wooden pillow belonging to a nun in the 15th century hides a box containing a wooden dildo.

Hoping for a more healthy and optimistic look at sex, I eagerly enter the “Sex in Daily Life” room.  Unfortunately, this area is also easily the museum’s dullest.  It’s essentially a modern collection of sex education books kept behind glass.

The penultimate hall promises to be the museum’s most scintillating.  “Unusual Sexual Behavior” begins with an exhibition of sculptures honoring the classic erotic novel Jin Ping Mei, which depicted “undisguisedly [sic] the abnormalities of the society” and described “hardcore not healthy sex.” The “Sexual abnormalities in ancient China” area includes historical evidence of bestiality, including a jade carving from 3,000 BC.

Things get really fascinating in the “Long-Standing Homosexuality” section. All debates aside about whether homosexuality belongs alongside bestiality, the artifacts here – including double-ended jade dildos and ox-horn anal dildos from the 11th and 12th century – indeed demonstrate that homosexuality has long been a part of Chinese culture. Homosexuality in China, it seems, “was first found in the Shang Dynasty according to related records.”  Amazingly, the text also tells us that “about half the emperors of the Han Dynasty were homosexuals.” Supporting evidence includes elaborate copper coins made and given to Han Emperor Wen by a man named Deng Tong, apparently his “personal favorite.”

The final and easily most puzzling area in the museum is the “Exhibition of Erotic Stamps of the World,” which includes 1,300 erotic postage stamps from 70 countries.  I pause to consider how the Princess Diana commemorative stamps on display fit alongside the rows of dildos and implements of torture I’ve just seen before again giving up.

I leave the museum as a group of teenage boys enter.  They laugh hysterically at the aroused immortal, climbing onto his oversized member. Like everyone’s first time, the museum is often clumsy and confusing.  But it’s also often fascinating and bravely honest.  Professor Liu states the goal for the museum is to help society “find a balance between the extremes of sexual containment and indulgence.” His museum, in showing the historical place of sex in China’s culture, as well as the way it has helped to shape it, gives the impression that sex has caused as much pain here as it has joy.  It’s a troubling, vital and contemporary statement, and one that may have finally found a voice in this most blissfully nostalgic of places.


Let’s Get Shameless: Or How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love the Black Sea Coast

Spuneti, September 2004

Looking through my email today, I happened to notice a message from Peace Corps Training announcing group 19’s site placements.  Though I’m not well acquainted with the group, I was eager to see who was placed where.  For me, site announcements left me feeling a little depressed.  A security leak in the system informed me slightly before the big Oscar-themed gala that I was soon headed to Eforie Sud, a small town on the Black Sea Coast. I had visited the coastal city of Neptun with my group not long before, and the thought of returning to the area worried me.  Among my memories of my three-day stay there were getting hit in the groin with a volleyball, severely burning my arms and legs, being accosted by a mustachioed gypsy, and hearing 50 Cent’s “In the Club” blasted outside my hotel room day and night no less than 47 times.  I remember taking lots of pictures, thinking I’d never be back.  “Well,” I figured.  “I’ve never been to this ‘Eforie Sud’ of which they speak.  How bad could it be?”  I consulted the experts at Lonely Planet.  It took some searching, since they didn’t even bother with a sub-section for the town.  I had to look under the Northern Dobruja general section, which collected it with other local towns in the garbage bin of “concrete jungles of the late 1960s,” these “dilapidated, dying resorts.”  I needed a second opinion.  I found a perpetually positive Volunteer friend with a Rough Guide.  “Chin up,” she said.  “How bad could it be?  Let’s just see what the Guide says, hmm?  Hmm.  ‘Squalid, depressing, and not worth a visit.’  Well, good luck with that.”

This wasn’t fitting in with my plans.  In my site placement interview, I remembered asking for a place in the mountains and expecting a small, rural town filled with simple country folk.  Sure, they’d be suspicious of me and my big-city ways at the beginning, but I’d slowly win them over, regaling them with stories of “iced-cream” and motorized carriages, and generally catching them up on the last 100 years of history.  We’d wear animal skins in the winter and sing folk songs to keep us warm.  I might even have a rival or two – a young buck with something to prove.  But I’d charm him too, and we’d secure our hard-won brotherhood by exchanging crude friendship bracelets.

So I tried to look surprised and excited when they called me out in front of the group to present me with my site announcement prize. Getting stuck with a seemingly has-been tourist village had me feeling cheated and overlooked.  It all reminded me of my sixth grade summer camp when at the closing awards ceremony I was deemed “Most Likely to Eat Apple Pie.”  In neither case did the prize seem the result of much personal consideration on the part of the organizers.

Looking back, I came to site last summer with kind of a poor attitude.  My town had all the sounds, smells and appearances that I thought it would.  Not only was I disappointed, but I felt twice as alienated because everyone around me was having so much fun.  It was like being at a party that I wasn’t invited to and couldn’t leave.  I decided to shun their party to make myself feel superior.  I began to venture out of my apartment in daylight only once every two days or so, rubbing my eyes and covering every part of myself with clothing like a recluse in a fallout zone.  On a subconscious level, I also hoped people might notice my strange appearance and absence and reconsider the direction of their lives. Like some seaside-exiled Grinch, I thought I’d teach the people of Eforie Sud a lesson for having fun without me and living in a town and country that didn’t fit my romantic expectations.  I’d show them how they were wasting their lives on the beach!  Some part of me thought I’d accomplish this by walking around town in my winter clothes, perhaps pausing every few minutes to gaze at the horizon thoughtfully and shake my head disapprovingly.  “Who is that somber young American man dressed in corduroy pants and a wool shirt who stays inside his apartment most of the day feeling sorry for himself?” they’d say.  “He’s really teaching me a lesson about how I’m wasting my life here on the beach.”

So I’m happy to say that things have changed after a year.  After getting through a generally boring and cold winter where my tourist town turned into Tumbleweed Alley, I was happy to see the people return this summer.  My town’s not the prettiest, but it has an understated charm.  Heading down to the beach in June, I found that it was easy to join the party, since there’s really no way I could stand out any more than the average Romanian beach tourist, with their luminous sunburns, screaming toddlers, and bright orange shirts that say things like “You Can’t Touch This” with an arrow heading southward.  I began to admire the shamelessness natural to beach goers the world over, such as when morbidly obese men and women here discard even their thong bikinis to stand with only their feet in the Black Sea, stretching their arms open wide and pointing their exposed loins eastward.  It seems no matter where you’re from, the lure of the sea is strong, drawing away your inhibitions and making every man, woman and child feel like a varitable Zeus.  It’s enough to make you fall in love with it.  Looking along the coast, my Grinch heart grew ten sizes.  I bought a Frisbee and even started wearing shorts.  I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.

I thought about all of this as I scanned the list of group 19 site assignments to see who my lucky new sitemate is.  Who, too, may be born again by the summer sun, shaowarmas and unceasing Manele?  Kelly Henshaw of Mangalia, I’ll see you on the other side.

Meat People From Around the World: Or a story for Ben and the occasionally regretful

Spuneti, March 2005

It’s been said many times that PCVs in Romania do nothing better than complain.  Since this is largely true, it’s worth examining.  Taken as a whole, most of our complaints are pretty ridiculous, the product of a group of people with too much free time, an inflated sense of self and unrealistic expectations.  Complaining begins in force during PST (“Can you believe they made us go to that boring session on safety and security?  Those animals!”) and only seems to increase over time.

But then there are those with legitimate complaints.  I’d include in this category a friend of mine in group 16, who we’ll call Ben.  Ben wanted to do meaningful work for his local managers, but they weren’t interested in using his skills.  In terms of work, anyway, this hasn’t been the experience he hoped for.  Though Ben has never said it, I’m sure there have been many times when he’s wondered if his time here has been well spent. So for Ben and everyone else who’s ever felt the same, I offer the following story of hope and redemption.

I wasn’t feeling especially good about my work as a volunteer even before I met Florin. It was late January, and it hadn’t been a good week at school. While trying to distinguish Martin Luther King from Martin Luther, I inexplicably and with conviction told two different classes that the religious reformer was also the inventor of the printing press.  Later, while talking about Valentine’s Day, some other students said that it was because of my Valentine’s preaching that Dragobete is a dying holiday, and that all we ever do in class are “stupid games.”  So I was feeling like a misinforming, dumb-as-rocks cultural imperialist when I boarded an overcrowded Rapid from Bucharest to Sinaia.

For anyone having doubts about the value of American influence abroad as I was, traveling on a Romanian train isn’t recommended.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to imagine how anyone could collect such a dizzyingly horrendous assortment of pop music as is piped into the compartments of so many trains here.  Since most of the artists featured on these broadcasts are American, it’s a testament to the typical Romanian’s ability to withstand the cruelest of punishments that, forced to listen to this garbage, they don’t riot and throw me out the window.  When I entered my compartment to the sound of “Living La Vida Loca” blasting from the speaker above the door. I found my seat between a burly old woman and a middle-aged man with an enormous hair coming out of the top of his nose.  The two stared ahead stoically, Ricky’s ubiquitous vacuity just one more trial.

After a few minutes of pretending to read, I sensed I was being stared at.  I looked up to the seat across from me to see a greasy, crazy-looking young man with startlingly bad acne grinning at me. As I really didn’t feel like talking, I gave him a half-smile and went back to my magazine, thinking he’d lose interest.  He didn’t.

“Where are you from?” he said.  I ignored him, staring at the page and scratching the back of my neck.  I hoped he’d get the point.

“HEY!” he shouted.  “I SAID, WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”


“Ah,” he said, nodding.  “I don’t like your country.”  He kept looking at me, as if I was supposed to respond to this.  I went back to my magazine, cursing myself for not taking a later train.

“What are you doing here?” he said.  “Romania sucks.”

“I teach English, in Eforie Sud.”

“That’s stupid, we already speak English.”

I thought about explaining Peace Corps’ three goals and the whole cultural exchange thing, but then I noticed the sweater he had on backwards and the shoes he had on the wrong feet.  I decided not to bother.  But he wasn’t finished.

“Hey!  American!  Do you know about Dracula?”

“Do I know about Dracula?”


“Yeah, I know about Dracula.”

“Do you know about the impaling?”

“I think so.”

“How do you know about this?”

“Well, I’ve seen some movies, and – “

“You Americans, all you know about is Dracula.  Have you been to Sighisoara?”


“How have you been there?”

“I’ve lived here for a year and – “

“Did you know Dracula was born there?”


“How do you know that?”

“Well, I – “

“Have you been to this hostel?” He handed me a brochure from the Gia Hostel in Sighisoara.  I scanned the front.  At the bottom it read “Come and have a look and you’ll stay longer than you thought!”  I took this to mean that the owners might bind you and force you to work in the less-advertised Gia Brothel.

“I don’t think so.  Have you?”


“Then why did you give this to me?”

“It looks nice.”

After a few moments of awkward silence, he had more to say.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, smiling sheepishly.

“You do?”  I said.  I was just wishing I had put my headphones on sooner.

“Yes.  And I am not a gay.  No, I just like to meet people from around the world.  I knew you were a foreigner.”

It was here that he introduced himself as Florin.  He was on his way to Brasov, where he lives and does odd jobs “mostly in tourism.”  It seemed strange to me that someone with no attention span, cultural sensitivity, national pride or an ability to dress himself would be hired to do anything, much less to work in tourism. But why make an issue of it.  He asked for my cell number, and I felt safe in giving it to him, since I had exchanged numbers with people on trains many times before and never heard from any of them.

“Hey!” Florin said.  “Do you know about Counter-Strike?”

After what seemed like hours of conversation, we stopped in Ploiesti to the tune of “Take my Breath Away.”  Florin eventually got back to basics, asking me again why I was in Romania, but this time allowing me to answer his questions.  I told him, as concisely as possible, about my job and Peace Corps.  He seemed to listen attentively.  I grew bolder, even sentimental.  I gave him all my reasons for devoting two years to serve here. How I too wanted to meet people from around the world, make a difference, grow as a person.  In the end, I felt I had expressed myself with understated grace.

“That sounds really stupid,” he said.  “You don’t get paid?  I wouldn’t do that.  And we don’t need the help of foreigners.  And we already speak English.  You should go back to America, it’s much better.  Bush!  What do you think about this Bush?”

Back on CFR radio, we had reached a new low with “You’re in the Army Now,” a cautionary tale about the standard downfalls of military service.  As Florin droned on about international politics and American incompetence, “unbelievable” was the word that came to mind.  Unbelievable that I this song was written.  Unbelievable that it was recorded.  Unbelievable that anyone allowed it to be played.  Unbelievable that I had to sit and listen to it as well as this nutcase across from me criticizing my job and values and home.  I kept quiet, but this was just what I didn’t need to hear.  Sure, he was insane and harmless, just as my students with their complaints were young.  But when you’re already feeling down, it can be hard not to let people like this get to you.

Florin got up to use the bathroom, giving me a much-needed break.  It was then that the woman who had been reading a magazine silently next to him spoke up.

“Don’t listen to him,” she said.  “I think he’s a little crazy.  It’s great what you’re trying to do here.”

After saying goodbye and getting off the train later, I thought about what she had said.  Maybe she was right.  Maybe things like tangible outcomes and appreciation were unrealistic.  Results took time and you might never see them, but they happened, often in ways and to degrees you didn’t expect.

About three weeks later on Valentine’s Day, back in my apartment watching The Young and the Restless, my phone rang with a text message:

happy valentines ross!

it was nice to meat u!

ur the first american

i meat.  i like u! enjoy

romania! ur friend


The Illusion of Choice in China’s Countryside

tianzhong_child with tea leaves

Last summer, while conducting fieldwork in the village of Daping in northern Sichuan, I met 18 year-old Xie Hua. A native of Daping, Xie worked as a server in a restaurant in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu. She had returned to Daping for four days to attend her grandfather’s funeral. On the evening before she was to return to Chengdu, she began her goodbyes, often holding her mother and young cousin. If she could, she said, she would stay. “I know only a few people in the city. People there try to take advantage of me. But what can I do here?  How can I make money?”

Xie is one of the 150 million villagers in China who have migrated to its cities for work.  For over the past three decades, these migrants’ low-cost labor has provided the foundation for that country’s unprecedented economic ascendance, attracting heavyweight firms the world over and fueling China’s export manufacturing empire.  They have built the nation’s extensive infrastructure and massive cities with breathtaking efficiency.  From child care to auto repair, they have provided urban residents with an array of subsidized services.

The default assumption among observers has long been that China’s migrants are leaving their homes in the countryside because they are making a simple choice between two ways of life: difficult, dirty farm work and the amenities and comforts of the city.  Who, the thinking goes, if given the choice would not prefer the latter? Urbanization, by extension, is assumed to be a natural component of economic development.  As nations prosper and their cities expand and modernize, they will automatically attract the rural population.

But as Xie’s remarks indicate, the story of China’s migration is not so simple. A closer look at this phenomenon reveals a great deal about the fundamentals of China’s economic model, and why they are in great need of reform.

The Mao Era

Following the 1949 revolution, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sought to industrialize and militarize rapidly in the face of a number of existential threats. To do so, it implemented three policies: a compulsory agricultural produce procurement system, the rural collective system and hukou, a household registration system, amounting to an internal passport, designating one’s permanent residence and rural or non-rural status. During the Mao era, those who wished to travel beyond the administrative boundaries of their permanent residence had to receive official permission.[1]  Thus these policies gave the government control over farmers’ organization, movement and agricultural output, which could be procured at low, government-set prices, and then sold internationally at higher market prices.

The government then placed each locality in the country within a multi-tier administrative hierarchy based on population and industrial development.  Power was concentrated at the central level, while capital was disproportionally channeled to higher-ranked localities.

The state assumed ownership of all urban land, while production teams and later collectives became the legal owners of the agricultural land.[2]

A cadre management system was implemented to measure the performance of officials, with local government leaders evaluated and controlled by their supervisory units within the administrative hierarchy.  The results determined promotions and bonuses. While the effects of this urban bias were somewhat mitigated by market limitations and central government controls, at the time of the start of Reform and Opening in 1978, urban consumption was almost three times that of rural areas.[3]

The Post-Reform Era

By the late 1970s, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was facing another legitimacy crisis, as the 10-year chaos of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death left its economy in shambles and ruling ideology deeply weakened.  The central government implemented a number of reforms to stimulate China’s economy rapidly by invigorating competition and increasing manufacturing.  Collectives and compulsory procurement were abandoned. Land was distributed equally among farm households, who were given land lease rights as well as the rights to largely grow what they wanted and keep the profits.  However, state-led extraction of rural labor and goods intensified under new and less direct guises.  To revive an economy that had long stagnated under Mao, the central government implemented a number of reforms to stimulate rapid growth by invigorating competition.  The core of the CCP’s strategy involved enticing foreign direct investment (FDI), growing its export manufacturing sector, and low-cost infrastructure development. In order to achieve these goals the central government created a set of pressures and incentives to push local leaders to pursue these goals.  This required not abandoning the Maoist era model, but rather adapting it.

A vast supply of cheap land and labor were essential to the process. To increase farm yields and decrease the need for farm workers, the government heavily produced and promoted the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  From the 1978 to 2007, nitrogen-based chemical fertilizer consumption increased from five million tons to 50 million tons, making China the largest consumer of chemical fertilizers in the world.[4]

The state relaxed hukou rules, allowing for largely unrestricted migration. Social security and state subsidized public services such as access to education and healthcare, however, remained available only to those with “local” hukou status.  This had the effect of keeping the cost of migration artificially low for urban governments, while amounting to a tax on migrants.

The state also created a legal framework for government land takings. It formalized its right to “public interest” land acquisition and set basic compensation rates for affected farmers, with standards based on average annual yields.[5] This effectively gave the government the power to take land at will and for a small fraction of its market value, land that could then be offered at a discount as a lure for investors or be sold at auction to developers for windfall profits.

The CCP then created series of levers to influence the behavior of local leaders.  It implemented regional and fiscal decentralization, through which it ceased to guarantee budget allocations to meet local expenditures.  Thus, local governments had to rely primarily on revenues created within their own jurisdictions to meet budget requirements and fund central mandates such as the one-child policy.[6]  The cadre management system was altered to place overwhelming priority on economic growth indicators, with local leaders needing show results within short service terms, typically two to three years.

The administrative hierarchy, meanwhile, provided a powerful incentive to agglomerate and industrialize, as localities that moved higher up on the hierarchical ladder continued to receive greater fiscal resources post-reform.

To further attract overseas investors, the government centralized manufacturing to take advantage of economies of scale, establishing 15 free trade zones primarily in China’s southeastern provinces.[7] Further, the state reduced barriers to trade and implemented reliably low tariffs and basic mechanisms for converting currency.[8]

Additionally, the central government instituted a number of land and property reforms. It redefined tax rights in 1994, taking control of the consumption tax and enterprise-retained profits, a key portion of the extrabudgetary revenues of the rural state enterprises that had become the driving force of the rural economy in the 1980s. In exchange, it gave local governments full control over land premiums.[9] To increase real estate investment, the state relaxed property sales restrictions and decreased sales taxes.[10]

Expanding the Rural-Urban Gap

These policies led to precipitous declines in relative rural incomes and livelihoods. As a result of the administrative hierarchy and decentralization described above, agricultural expenditure in China as a percentage of total government expenditure declined from 15 percent in 1980 to eight percent in 2006, averaging about 10 percent over that time. Villagers were also given less access to loans than urban enterprises. Between 1994 and 1999, agricultural loans averaged just 4.5 percent of the national total, while loans for state-owned, independently-financed enterprises represented an average of 70 percent over that time.[11] From 1980 to 1998, the margin between peasant deposits and loans in rural credit co-operatives increased from 10.1 to 778.[12]

Changes in tax policies had the effect of robbing local governments of the incentive of improving the efficiency of rural state enterprises, playing an important role in their demise.[13] Overuse of chemical inputs has significantly deteriorated soil quality. China Daily reported in 2011 that the average level of organic matter in soil, crucial in determining crop output, now stands at one to five percent for arable land in northeast China, as compared with eight to 10 percent in 1950s.[14]

A speculative property market, meanwhile, has helped to fuel inflation, with the consumer price index increasing 198 percent from 1990 and 2007, and the rural price index growing 140 percent between 1990 and 2009. The purchasing price index of raw material, fuel and power increased by 211 percent in that period, with the impact of fuel costs on farmers increased due to their increased dependence on petroleum-based inputs.  The result was that while yields and incomes increased dramatically for farmers in the post-reform era, so did relative costs.  In fact, while annual rural incomes increased from 133 yuan in 1978 to over 5,153 yuan in 2009, annual expenditures have taken a greater share of that income, increasing from 35 percent of annual income in 1978 to 68 percent in 2009.

All of this greatly exacerbated the urban-rural income gap. For example, the urban to rural disposable income ratio increased from 2.2 to 3.3 percent between 1990 and 2008, while the urban to rural household savings rate increased relatively from 15.3:14.8 to 28.6:22.5. By 2008, the urban-rural per capita income ratio stood at 3.33:1. However, if urban benefits such as subsidized education and medical care are factored in, the gap is likely greater than 4 to 1.[15] Life expectancy in the large cities is now twelve years greater than the average in the countryside. The infant mortality rate is twice as great in the countryside as it is in the urban sector. Nationally, 51.2 percent of middle-school graduates continue to high school, yet the rate in the countryside is merely 7.1 percent; and the average figure for years of schooling in rural areas lags behind the urban figure by almost three years.[16]

This broad gap in income and quality of life has fed rural out-migration. China’s de facto urban population nearly tripled between 1978 and 2007, but unincorporated migrants accounted for 12 percent of this population.[17]

Thus, through 60 years of rural extraction, the Chinese government created a cheap migrant labor surplus in large part by reducing, if not eliminating, for many villagers the option of doing anything but migrating. Few would argue that farming is easy work.  But even fewer could argue that life in rural areas needs to be this difficult.

The negative effects of these policies are not limited to incomes and investment.  Hukou restrictions, including those restricting migrant children from attending public schools, have forced many parents to leave their children behind in the care of grandparents while they pursue work in distant cities. This has put tremendous strain on rural families. Recent studies have found that adolescents left behind in their villages were more likely to engage in risky behavior such as binge drinking, have increased thoughts of suicide, and are more likely to have learning disabilities and psychological problems.[18]  Suicide rates among elderly villagers have also risen dramatically in recent years.[19]

Local governments – cash strapped, eager to report high GDP numbers and urbanize to climb the administrative hierarchy ladder – have expropriated rural land with impunity. Incidents of land conversion increased from 50,000 in 1993 to 250,000 in 2002.[20] Local governments have become increasingly dependent on income derived from land takings, with land sales accounting for 26 percent of local government revenue in 2007.[21]

Wang Qian, a 52-year old native of Tianzhong village in Fujian province, is among the victims of government land takings.  In 2010, the county government expropriated half of her family’s six mu[22]  plot to build a school. This forced her family to decide between farming for income or subsistence, as they no longer had enough land to support both activities. Wang’s family received only 10,000 yuan (about $1,600) per mu from the government as compensation.  “Everything is so expensive, how can that money help me?” she said. “It’s nothing. I can spend it like that,” she said, snapping her fingers.

The escalation of land takings has in turn resulted in increased forced urbanization and growing urban slum populations. Victims of government expropriation currently constitute over 20 percent of the people meeting the minimal standard of living in cities, and the number is even higher than 80 percent in some areas.[23] Much of the blame for this lies with China’s compensation system. While victims of land expropriation often receive lump sum payments, urban hukou benefits and housing as a resettlement package, these fail to provide a means for long-term economic security.

The Widening Consequences of Extractive Policies

This economic model, however, is looking increasingly unsustainable. Rights and wage-conscious migrants are demanding better compensation, equal treatment and more choice.  According to the government-supported China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the number of mass incidents – strikes, protests and violent clashes – rose from fewer than 10,000 in the mid-1990s to 180,000 in 2010, more than doubling between 2004 and 2010.[24] Land-related grievances account for 65 percent of rural mass conflicts.[25]

Many migrants are voting with their feet, refusing to undertake long migrations from China’s interior to its coastal manufacturing hubs, or work in factories where conditions and salaries are particularly poor.[26] As a result, many manufacturers have been forced to move factories inland, raise wages and improve conditions, increasing costs and cutting into China’s competitive advantage in manufacturing.[27]

Moreover, China’s pillar export manufacturing and property sectors are inherently prone to volatile cycles, dependent as they are on overseas demand and unstable real estate markets.  The specter of millions of unemployed and adrift migrant workers puts additional pressure on the government to prop up these sectors through policy.  Maintaining China’s competitive advantage in export manufacturing has required artificially suppressing the emergence of a more stable domestic consumer economy. Currency devaluation has been a key tool in keeping the cost of China’s exports low. The government accomplishes this by setting interest rates lower than the inflation rate, discouraging consumer spending and encouraging saving.  It then draws on household savings to buy U.S. securities, inflating the value of the dollar and deflating the relative value of the yuan. This policy has amounted to a hidden tax on savers totaling billions of dollars over the past decade. As a result, China’s consumer spending has dropped in the last decade as a portion of the overall economy, from about 45 percent of gross domestic product to about 35 percent.[28]

The participation of China’s banks in land financing schemes has resulted in massive amounts of debt. Local governments have leveraged future land sales to secure banks loans to finance infrastructure projects and attract greater investment. China’s banks – managed by ex-officials and encouraged to lend by centrally-set low interest rates – have been eager to lend to ostensibly safe local government financing platforms.  As a result of this leveraged lending, local government debt burdens stood at 10.72 trillion yuan by the end of 2010.[29]

All of this has led to a dangerous economic imbalance.  Investment and exports as a percent share of GDP increased 12 percent to 52.6 in 2010, while consumption decreased 10 percent over that time to 33.8 percent.[30] Construction occupied a 13 percent share of GDP.[31]

The financial crisis of 2008 laid bare many of the frailties of China’s economic model.  When declining overseas demand led to dramatic factory slowdowns and millions of migrants lost their jobs, 30 million migrants returned to their land in the countryside.  Beijing reinvigorated the economy with a massive 628 billion dollar capital injection.  Banks in turn lent to state-owned enterprises, local governments and their financing platforms.  Migrants returned to work in factories and on construction sites, funded by volatile overseas demand, debt and speculation.

China’s economic model has also taken a tremendous, well-documented toll on its environment.[32] Evidence of the consequences of overuse of chemical farm inputs alone is compelling. Of the 26 lakes and reservoirs under monitoring last year by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, 42.3 percent are “eutrophicated,” a process that can lead to a proliferation of plant life caused by excessive levels of phosphorous and nitrogen.[33] Forty-seven percent of area-sourced pollutants in China come from agriculture.[34] Farm fields are now a greater source of water pollution in China than factories.[35]

In his seminal 1977 work Why Poor People Stay Poor: Urban Bias and World Development, economist Michael Lipton warned that this kind of urban and industrial-biased development model was fundamentally unsustainable. Rapid industrialization policies that rely on and broaden sectoral gaps and exploitation are, he wrote, “doomed to self-strangulation.”[36]

State Efforts to Rebalance the Economy

The Chinese government appears increasingly aware of the need to reform and rebalance this system. Overall government investment in rural areas has risen from 1.339 billion yuan in 2000 to 8.3 billion yuan in 2009.[37]  This includes a proposed 12.8 percent in rural outlays in the 2010 budget.[38]  For seven consecutive years through 2010 the Party’s No. 1 Document, which provides policy blueprint for the year to come, targeted primarily rural issues.[39]  The 2006 11th Five-Year Plan included trillions of yuan invested into rural education, medical services and infrastructure construction.[40]

In response to this year’s financial crisis, central leaders have called for increasing rural investments and changing key policies. For example, at the annual parliamentary session earlier this year, Premier Wen Jiabao promised to “vigorously adjust income distribution, increase the incomes of low and middle-income groups, and enhance people’s ability to consume.”[41]  In a recent interview, Central Rural Work Leading Group Deputy Chief Chen Xiwen suggested that China reform the hukou system to provide migrants with a path to obtaining social security and public services equal to those of urban “residents.” Further, he suggested that public services in the countryside such as education and health need to be equalized with those in urban areas: “This would give migrant workers the opportunity to make their own choices, but would also give the government time to transition.”

However, state spending on rural areas as a percentage of overall government investment has decreased in the past 20 years, declining from 11 percent in 1991 to 8 percent in 2006, averaging 9.3 percent over that time.[42]  According to Urban Development and Environmental Research Institute Deputy Director Wei Houkai, in 2010 the government invested 87 percent of fixed assets in urban areas and big cities.[43]

Moreover, much of the central government’s rural investment has been targeted at initiatives that have aggravated income disparity within the countryside and promoted unsustainable development. The PRC is expanding rural land registration initiatives as well as experimenting with allowing farmers to mortgage their land, paving the way for the removal of longstanding legal restraints on the transfer, sale or mortgage of agricultural land.[44] This despite the unreformed and undeveloped state of institutions that could protect farmers’ interests from predatory lenders and speculators, such as the legal and banking systems, compensation and resettlement provisions, and consumer protection agencies.

Further, the Ministry of Agriculture’s five-year plan emphasizes land consolidation and expanding agricultural mechanization, including the promotion of genetically-modified seeds.[45] Based on the experience of multiple international development contexts similarly lacking in institutional supports, when combined with the ability to mortgage or sell land, growers’ dependence on such expensive inputs frequently leads to rising rates of landlessness.

State efforts to develop rural tourism have likewise often reproduced China’s wealth gaps on a village level.  Zhao Lin is a resident of a picturesque Tibetan village in western Sichuan.  At the turn of the last century the local government proposed building a road into the village to develop its tourism potential.  Leaders promised that locals to be employed in the building effort, 50 percent of gate revenues were to be shared with residents, and a second road through the other half of the village would soon follow. Zhao’s son participated in the road construction.  At the urging of local officials, Zhao borrowed 30,000 yuan (currently $4,700) to convert her home into a guest house.  Ten years later, her son had yet to be paid for his work, residents had received only 10 percent of gate revenues, and there were no plans to build a second road.  The vast majority of visitors remained at or near the road, while Zhao – whose home was 1.5 miles away from the road – estimated that she received two to three guests a year, while her debt remains unpaid.

Many of the steps the state has taken to aid its rural poor have been beneficial only in the abstract, and in practice may have exacerbated existing issues. The government has, for example, significantly strengthened villagers’ property rights through the creation of an extensive legal framework over the past 30 years.  Yet that legislation has resulted in no discernible improvement in villagers’ land tenure security, coinciding as it has with skyrocketing government land expropriation rates.

Other steps address only the negative externalities of China’s economic model, rather than the root causes.  A revised Land Management Law, likely to be released early next year, will reportedly call for significant increases in compensation rates for government land takings. While a positive step, higher compensation rates will not only be difficult to enforce given the budget constraints facing many local governments; they will not solve the issue of providing long-term assistance to victims of government land takings.

The central government has responded to this year’s dramatic economic slowing and layoffs in factories and at construction sites by taking steps to bolster its key industries, sharply cutting interest rates, reducing reserve ratios and devaluing the yuan to boost its export manufacturing and construction sectors.[46]  Another stimulus package – albeit far smaller in scale to that of 2008-2009 – appears to be in the offing.[47]

More recently, the CCP has increasingly supported initiatives linked to the practices espoused by China’s growing New Rural Reconstruction (NRR) adherents. NRR is an alternative development movement of Chinese academics, volunteers, activists and social workers that has gained strength over the past ten years. While NRR organizations and projects may share no formal connections, they are devoted the goal of reversing the urban-rural flow of resources and creating sustainable, self-sufficient communities through community strengthening, cooperation and skill sharing among villager households, and a return to traditional farming practices.

Recent CCP five-year plans call for investment and training for farmers focusing on traditional agricultural practices, seed development, production, storage, branding, and marketing, allowing farmers to reduce their costs and improve soil and product quality while taking control of the supply from middlemen.  The Ministries of Agriculture and Land and Resources have recently shown interest in agricultural cooperatives, organic farming and the use of less harmful pesticides. Tourism schemes that emphasize preservation, ecology and revenue sharing are also gaining some support.

Co-ops that register with the government can operate tax free and gain easier access to low interest rate loans. However, these initiatives – with their emphasis on ending or reversing the flow of agricultural labor, long-term investment and farmland preservation – continue to run in direct opposition to the powerful imperatives of the local government incentive structure.  Further, the community development and solidarity so essential to rural co-op sustainability constitutes a threat to local government power. As a result, cadres have little incentive to support NRR initiatives, and may be inclined to suppress them. It remains to be seen whether such initiatives can succeed in providing villagers with greater economic opportunities.  To date, however, there is little evidence to suggest that market-oriented co-ops in China have achieved anything more than isolated success.

Ultimately, perhaps nothing short of reforming structural policies – the cadre management system, the hukou system and the administrative hierarchy – can allow for genuine balance and sustained opportunity in China’s countryside and economy as a whole.

Nonetheless, the NRR movement and the government’s partial support of it are signs of hope that a consensus is growing regarding the root causes of China’s economic and social challenges and the dramatic and innovative solutions urgently needed to solve them.  Politicians, scholars and activists are realizing that the key to long-term stability is creating the conditions that allow for genuine choice of livelihoods for villagers and migrants like Xie Hua.

For now, Xie can look forward to her limited opportunities to reunite with her family. “I will see them again in five months for Spring Festival,” she said. “That’s just the way it is.”

[1] Chan 2009, P. 199.

[2] Oi 1999, P. 18-19.

[3] Kelly 2007, P. 5; National Bureau of Statistics of China.


[5] Article 47 of the Land Management Law and accompanying implementing regulations set land compensation at 6-10 times the average annual production value over the last three years.

[6] Kung, Xu and Zhou 2009, P. 7.

[7] Walton 2003, Pp. 25-26.

[8] Steinfeld 2010, P. 28.

[9] Kung, Xu and Zhou 2009, P. 12; Kai at 7.

[10] Xie et al. at 1379; Huang et al.

[11] OECD. China in the Global Economy: Agricultural Policies in China after WTO Accession, 2002.

[12] OECD. China in the Global Economy: Agricultural Policies in China after WTO Accession, 2002.

[13] Kung, Xu and Zhou 2009, Pp. 10-11.


[15] Prosterman, Roy, Keliang Zhu, Jianping Ye, Jeffrey Riedlinger, Ping Li, Vandana Yadav. “Secure Land Rights as a Foundation for Broad-Based Rural Development in China: Results and Recommendations from a Seventeen-Province Survey.” National Bureau of Asian Research Special Report #18, 2009.  Print.

[16] Id.

[17] Chan 2010, Table 4.


[19] Wang Ximing 2009.

[20] Kung, James Kai-sing, Chenggang Xu and Feizhou Zhou.  “From Industrialization to Urbanization: The Social Consequences of Changing Fiscal Incentives on Local Government’s Behavior.”  Institutional Design for China’s Evolving, Market Economy. (forthcoming). P. 24.

[21] Tsui at 8.

[22] (mu = 1/6 acres, 1/15 hectares)

[23] Zhang and Lu. “Compensation for Compulsory Land Acquisition in China: to Rebuild Expropriated Farmers’ Long-Term Livelihoods.” 2011.



[26] Kelly 2007, P. 10.


[28] Barboza.

[29] Tsui 2011.







[36] Id. at 24.

[37] National Bureau of Statistics.

[38] Macartney, Jane.  “Wen Jiabao Targets 8% Growth and Promises More Rural Spending for China.”  The Times, Mar. 5, 2010.

[39] Lan, Xinzhen. “Rural Imperatives: The No. 1 Document Outlines Plan for Agricultural Efforts.”  Beijing Review, Mar. 4, 2010.



[42] National Bureau of Statistics.






In Romania, Every Day Is Halloween

Seattle Times, October 2004

Logically, Halloween should be huge in Romania.

Or so I thought before I came here a year ago as a Peace Corps volunteer. After all, it does contain Dracula’s native Transylvania. Last Halloween however, I discovered there’s little interest here in our day of movie monster dress up and tired ghost stories. In Romania, where superstitions are abundant and spirits are evil and invisible, every day brings something to be afraid of.

It was halfway through October, at the local high school where I work as an English teacher, when I first mentioned All Hallows Eve to a class of Romanian students. “What are you planning to do for Halloween?” I asked, expecting enthusiasm. “I don’t know, nothing,” they responded. I was confused. “But what about the whole Dracula thing?” I asked. They shook their heads, incredulous. “Is that all Americans know about Romania?”

Well, yes. I didn’t have the guts to tell them that I knew nothing else about their country when I was assigned here. I decided I also shouldn’t mention that I always imagined the real Dracula looked and acted like a cross between Bela Lugosi and Count Chocula.

The historical Dracula wasn’t much of a bloodsucker, it turns out, though he was truly bloodthirsty. Dracula writer Bram Stoker based the character on 15th-Century Romanian Prince Vlad Tepes, a brutal leader known for ruthless punishments. He gained the name Tepes (“Impaler”) from his favorite form of punishment. Far from being a seductive super monster, Tepes is considered a national hero in Romania because of his defeat of fierce Ottoman armies and brief uniting of the country. At best Romanians are amused (and at worse very annoyed) by the misinformation spread about Prince Tepes. The building of a Dracula theme park outside of Bucharest has done little to create enthusiasm for Halloween and its role in misconstruing Romanian history.

When the week before Halloween arrived however, I decided to prepare a series of related classroom activities, undeterred by my student’s clear lack of interest in the holiday. I created a lesson wherein I would brilliantly connect current superstitions with the Pagan roots of Halloween. I decided I would decorate my classroom with candles, pumpkins and fake spider webbing. Then I’d pass out candy.

But on the way home from a large Western-style grocery store where I’d purchased my supplies, there was an incident that was to have terrible consequences for my festivities.

In Romania, there is a phenomenon known as the curent. The curent can be best described as an evil wind that is created when two pathways are made to the outside in a room. For example, the curent is apt to appear when two windows are left open on opposite sides. According to many Romanians, the result is a wind current of terrible power, invading the ears of the unfortunate within and causing them to drop dead, or at least get the sniffles.

To the annoyance of skeptical Westerners (myself included), keeping the curent tamed often means having to keep windows closed on buses, trains and classrooms, no matter how hot the summer afternoon or how foul the air within.

Unlike many of my American colleagues, I had been patient with the curent to that point, shrugging it off as a quaint cultural difference. But the bus from the store that late October day was particularly crowded, hot and unbearable. I decided I’d open a window.

An old woman that looked like a dried apple wearing a handkerchief standing next to me immediately closed it. I re-opened it. She yelled at me and closed it again. After a few more attempts and more yelling, I gave up. I had had it with Romania. How could a people be so unreasonable?

Trying to forget that episode, I went to school the next Monday and decorated my room. When my first class came, I began my lesson by opening the discussion comparing American and Romanian superstitions. Apparently our countries share certain superstitions. It seems a black cat crossing your path in Romania is just as much trouble here as it is in Missouri. Broken mirrors, Friday the 13th, spilling salt, and opening an umbrella or whistling indoors are also all bad, we concluded.

Then things started getting a little strange. Simona in the front row told me that if a pot of milk boils over on your stove that your cow will get sick. “What if I don’t have a cow?” I asked. She seemed puzzled by the question. “Then maybe it will be your mother,” she said.

Raluca next to her then told me that a baby walking on its knees is good luck, which seems reasonable. Catalina said that it’s necessary for the bride to be kidnapped during the wedding and held for ransom by an unspecified man. Simona said something about how a woman must dance with a dead chicken smoking a cigarette. Bogdan in the back row spoke of the godfather riding a donkey into a field to meet the new couple the day after the wedding, though the class was unable to agree on the details and significance of this practice.

It was then that I made a mistake. Feeling too comfortable with my students, I decided I would bring up what had been bothering me for days. “What about the curent? I asked. “Some people think that’s a superstition.” It was as if an evil wind blew threw the room. “It’s not a superstition,” scolded Catalina. “It’s real.” I pressed on. “But it doesn’t effect me or my American friends. Are we a race of supermen?” “You haven’t been here long enough,” was the stern reply. “It’s real.” I had gone too far. I needed an exit. “Who wants some candy!” I said.

After class, with my students alienated and my room covered in Halloween paraphernalia, I began to feel a little silly. Here I had come all this way to a country I knew nothing about, imposed my customs and logic, and expected them to listen. My students had shown me Romania was a fascinating place, albeit one where a pot of milk or an open window could kill you. Maybe it was time to learn more than teach, and be grateful I lived in a place with distinct customs. Sitting down to fill out my grade book a few minutes later, a breeze came through the window. My papers fluttered, and the classroom door slammed shut violently. “Close your window!” yelled someone in the hall outside.

That was enough for me. This Halloween, I plan to celebrate as Romanians do, near a fire, with friends, telling true scary stories, and with all the windows and doors safely locked.

Getting Away to It All: Xuanwu Lake’s vibrant paths demand another lap

(Map Magazine, 10/07)

Last year, I was fortunate enough to live and work just a few minutes walk from Xuanwu Lake and its (mostly) surrounding free park and walkway. This proximity allowed me to continue my long held running habit, albeit in an environment that, while relatively quiet and relaxed, bore little resemblance to what I was accustomed to, and made Xuanwu so much more than a place to exercise.

My first few runs around Xuanwu were inspiring but a bit stressful. It was an unquestionably beautiful spot, its combination of history and nature seeming to place it a world apart from the city outside. There’s the old city wall to the south creating so imposing a barrier to modernity, the respectfully maintained flowers and trees in its shadow, the southern temples rising above it like sentinels, and Purple Mountain above even that, barely visual through the haze like a dreamt idea of a mountain. I remember coming through the park’s south gate and, seeing it all for the first time, looking back at the guard next to me uncertainly, as if to say, “Is this okay? Can I be here?” This place couldn’t be public or free, I reasoned. So I was happy to see him stare at his shoes and smoke his cigarette, completely disinterested in me.

Yet the park was often much more crowded than I was used to. Back home, I ran as much to find solitude as to stay in shape, and there were a number of parks where I could reliably blend into the environment, finding relatively few people from whom I was mostly indistinguishable. At Xuanwu, I seemed to be a magnet for attention. Sure I looked silly in my running shorts and hat, but did people have to stare so much? And why were cars and mopeds allowed on the path?

Once I learned to dodge the cars and ignore the stares and giggles at Xuanwu, I better appreciated its unique features. More than just a beautiful place, the park was a world in itself, a gathering of terrific sights, sounds and smells, a sort of public square where people of all ages and backgrounds came.

It was a gathering place for the religious, whose incense and chanting would reach me as I ran past Jiming Temple just outside the south gate. For the elderly, it was a place to exercise and relax, such as for the women practicing Tai Chi on the park’s lakeside spaces, waving to me between songs playing on their vintage tape recorder. Opposite them, I’d often see an older, shirtless man straddling a tree inside the park, punching its trunk with the sides of his arms. Without exception, he would turn and grunt at me as I ran passed.

For the young, it was romantic. In the spring, I’d see countless couples posing for their wedding photos along the park’s finest stretch near the wall to the south, the grooms looking slightly bewildered in their borrowed tuxedos, the brides’ eagerly racing from one location to the next, lifting their gowns just enough to reveal tennis shoes underneath.

Scores of other couples were never far away, snuggling on a lakeside bench, in a swan shaped boat or hammock. In warmer weather, they grew bolder and more obvious, setting up tents for a conjugal getaway, about as private an arrangement as many could find in the world’s most populous country. I considered Xuanwu as having perhaps been the inspiration, photographic background and now consummation setting for countless relationships, a sort of matrimonial giving tree.

For athletes, it was a training ground, a place where some of the country’s best came last fall in preparation for the national games. I’d often encounter them running along the lake, looking at turns terrified and terrifically confident, but always physically impressive. I’d smile at them and sometimes offer a “Jia You!,” which was usually answered with embarrassed smiles.

For the fishermen sitting along the banks to the west, it was a source of food and relaxation. It seemed to me they were rarely rewarded for their patience. Solitude was its own reward, I hoped.

Xuanwu was also a place of work for many, such as the vendors selling tea, binoculars, chicken in a bag, or apples on a stick along the north side. For children, it was a place of excitement and strangeness, such as for the boy who, walking hand in hand with his father, stared un-self consciously at the foreigner running by, building up the confidence to send a “Jia You!” in his direction. I smiled and forgot for a few moments whatever pain was in my legs and lungs.

Reaching the small walking bridge that signaled my halfway point, I turned around to repeat the path back home. Walking for a minute, I took in the entire park, all of its people and places, and started again, glad to do it all over.

Where the “Young Warrior” Found Her Fight: Ten years after Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking brought international attention to the Nanjing Massacre, those who helped her research the book in Nanjing recall their work, how it changed them and the author’s enduring legacy.

Map Magazine, December 2009

Yang Xiaming still remembers the day he first met Iris Chang.  It was the summer of 1995, and he was working as an International Relations instructor at Jiangsu Provincial Young Managerial Cadres College. He anticipated a light workload and some vacation time.  So when his former classmate Wang Weixing asked him if he was willing to work as a translator for “an American writer” researching a book about the Nanjing Massacre for about 20 days in late July and early August, he agreed.

On the sweltering afternoon of July 24th, Yang, along with Wang Weixing and Professor Sun Zhaiwei of the Jiangsu Academy of Social  Sciences Department of History, traveled to Nanjing University’s Xiyuan Guest House, where they had arranged to meet the newly arrived writer.  Yang knew nothing of the person he was to assist, so when a smiling, ponytailed 27 year-old Chinese American emerged from her dorm room that day, he was astonished.

“So young!” Yang recalls thinking.  “Like a college student, sort of.  Her Mandarin was okay.  She could basically understand our speaking, but she needed English to express complicated ideas.”  Yang, like those who met Chang in Nanjing that summer, doubted that this ostensibly sweet tempered and inexperienced young woman could even complete a book about a subject this dark and complex. Yet, over the course of a few weeks, he and a handful of others would help Chang collect the information that provided the basis and the fuel for one of the most influential and controversial books of the decade.

The book Chang wrote, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, became an international bestseller, launched Chang into literary stardom and made her the spokesperson of a political movement.  To date, it has sold over 500,000 copies.  One of the first English books devoted to the subject, it has been praised by many prominent historians, and is considered a landmark in Massacre studies in the West.  Bill Guttentag dedicated Nanking, the 2007 film about the Nanjing Massacre he co-directed, to Chang. “Anyone who makes a film on this subject owes a great debt to Iris Chang,” he told us.

Iris Chang took her own life on November 9th, 2004.  She was 36, the author of three nonfiction books, and considered one of America’s best young writers.  In China, she was widely known as “the young warrior” who brought one of the country’s most tragic events to worldwide attention.  None who came to know her in Nanjing during that summer could have imagined that she would achieve such heights, or that her story would end so abruptly less than ten years later.

In retrospect, Iris Chang’s path to Nanjing and the ensuing book seemed almost predetermined.  The city was home to her maternal grandparents, who escaped just weeks before Japanese troops arrived in the city in December of 1937.

Among Chang’s strongest childhood memories were the vivid stories of the Sino-Japanese War and, in particular, the Nanjing Massacre.  The stories had been passed down to her parents, and they in turn told them to her.  According to her parents, Japanese soldiers during the massacre “sliced babies not just in half but in thirds and fourths. The Yangtze River ran red with blood for days.  Their voices quivering with outrage, my parents characterized the Great Nanking Massacre, or Nanjing Datusha, as the single most diabolical incident committed by the Japanese in a war that killed more than ten million Chinese people.”

She tried to research the events in Nanjing at her school library, but found nothing.  “That struck me as odd.  If the Rape of Nanking was truly so gory, one of the worst episodes of human barbarism in world history, as my parents had insisted, then why hadn’t someone written a book about it?”

Chang studied journalism at the University of Chicago, where she was offered an internship at the Associated Press bureau in Chicago.  She later worked briefly as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune before winning a fellowship to study writing at Johns Hopkins University.  There, instructors at Hopkins quickly recognized Chang’s talent, and recommended her to an editor at HarperCollins Publishers, who was looking for a writer with a background in Mandarin and the sciences to write a biography of Hsue-Shen Tsien, the “father of the People’s Republic of China’s missile system.” The resulting work, The Thread of the Silkworm, was published in 1995.

Chang’s attention returned to the Massacre in 1994, when she spoke with two film producers who had made a documentary about the Massacre. Chang began researching the event, and attended a conference in Cupertino, California focusing on Sino-Japanese relations and unsettled war crimes issues.

If Chang’s interest in the Massacre had recently been rekindled, Cupertino set it afire.  The conference included an exhibition of photos taken during the Massacre, which Chang described as “some of the most gruesome photographs I have ever seen in my life.  Though I had heard so much about the Rape of Nanking as a child, nothing prepared me for these pictures – stark black-and-white images of decapitated heads, bellies ripped open, and nude women forced by their rapists into various pornographic poses, their faces contorted into expressions of agony and shame.”

“In a single blinding moment I recognized the fragility of not just life but the human experience itself,” she wrote.  “I was suddenly in a panic that this terrifying disrespect for death and dying, this reversion in human social evolution, would be reduced to a footnote of history…unless someone forced the world to remember it.”

Hearing of Chang’s plans to write a book on the Massacre, the conference organizers, the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II, provided her with funding, grant writing assistance, travel contacts and the names of Nanjing Massacre historians.

One of those experts was Wu Tianwei, a history professor then based in Illinois.  Professor Wu wrote a letter to Sun Zhaiwei, asking him to assist Iris in her research and find her an English translator in Nanjing.  Sun agreed, enlisting Wang Weixing to collect related documents and Yang Xiaming to translate.

Yang speaks with us on a cold, grey mid-December day in the living room of the Long Jiang Xiao district apartment in West Nanjing that he shares with his wife and daughter. He is currently a history professor at the Jiangsu School of Administration, and is considered one of the leading experts in Nanjing Massacre history.  He traces the origins of the inspiration for his work directly to Chang’s visit.  “At the time I didn’t know very much about this subject,” he tells us.  He estimates that he spent much of the last 12 years researching the Massacre.  Chang’s commitment, compassion for the survivors and sense of duty inspired Yang.  “I changed my entire academic research area because of her,” he says.

Recently, he completed the third Mainland Chinese translation of Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Though he stays very busy with his classes and research and does not consider himself a translator, he said that when the book’s Mainland publisher and Chang’s parents requested that he undertake the project, he didn’t hesitate.  “The book wasn’t complete here,” he says, referring the notoriously poor prior Mainland Chinese translations.  “I said to her mother, ‘I am not the best translator, but I witnessed the book’s birth.  I also have the background.  Even more, I want to do this work and make it good for Iris.’”

Though 12 years have passed since he and Chang worked together, Yang has seemingly lost none of his enthusiasm for speaking of his friend.  He talks readily, getting up frequently to show examples of Chang’s work or evidence of her time here.

Yang recalls that Chang’s planning and sense of purpose allayed his doubts about her abilities. At their first meeting at the Xiyuan, Chang told Sun, Wang and Yang her goals for her time in Nanjing.  She wanted to interview survivors, visit massacre sites, see Nanjing itself, and translate related historical documents.  “She was very clear about what she wanted to accomplish during her time here,” Yang remembers. After she told him of her previous book and success at Johns Hopkins, “I knew she was quite capable of doing something like this.”

Yang, Sun Zhaiwei, Wang Weixing and Chang set to work immediately. Sun contacted Duan Yueping, then assistant curator at the Nanjing Massacre Compatriot Victims Memorial Museum, and asked if she could help them find and interview local Massacre survivors. Wang Weixing was asked to gather related archives and data, while Yang was to serve as Chang’s local guide and translator. He estimates that he spent nearly every one of the following 20 days with Chang.

On their first day of research, Sun Zhaiwei, Duan Yueping and Yang accompanied Chang to massacre sites. At each site Chang took photos of the monuments’ inscriptions and the surrounding environment. Yang remembers that Chang “often stood alone in front of the monuments for a long time, immersed in thought.” The following day, the two visited a number of city landmarks, including Jiming Temple and the city wall at Zhonghua Gate.

Yang, Duan Yueping and Chang began interviewing survivors on Chang’s third day in Nanjing.  Tang Shunshan was her first interviewee. Chang, Yang remembers, always asked the survivors the same three questions at the beginning of each interview.  “She first asked permission to use the interview as content.  She then asked for autobiographical information.  Finally, she asked the subject to describe his or her experience during the Massacre.”  Chang videotaped the interview on her camcorder while Yang took notes.  The majority of the survivors were clearly eager to tell their stories.  Tang, Yang remembers, spoke continuously for nearly 40 minutes.

Yang and Duan Yueping recall that Chang asked highly specific questions of the survivors regarding their lives before the Massacre.  She would ask “different questions for different people, like ‘When did you get up?’ ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ ‘What kind of shoes did you wear?’ ‘What did you do when it rained?’  ‘Where did you have lunch?’  ‘What were roads like then?’  Very detailed.  That’s what made her different from historians.  We just try to write the facts.  She tried to describe the humans.  Not just history, but history with a human face.”

The information she gathered from such questions such as these allowed Chang to create the vivid descriptions of Nanjing circa 1937 found in The Rape of Nanking.  One description of old Nanjing found in the book, Yang notes, originated almost entirely from the memory of survivor Pan Kaiming.

The survivors’ living conditions, coupled with the continued denials of many Japanese nationalists that the Massacre ever took place, greatly disturbed and incensed Chang, Yang and Duan Yueping remember. “She was very angry that the survivors were suffering,” Yang says. “That the perpetrators lived much better than the survivors.” Visits to two survivors left Chang particularly shaken. Survivor Chen Degui’s house was “utterly destitute,” Yang says.  “The apartment was only six square meters,” with “space only for a bed.” Another survivor, Liu Yongxing “had no bathroom.  He washed himself with a towel that he used in a washbasin with a bit of black water in it.  His house was narrow, small, disordered, damp and dark.”

Chang would later tell interviewers that her time with the survivors’ solidified her commitment to the work. “I wrote the book out of a sense of rage,” she said. “I didn’t care if I made a cent from it.”  Yang believes that Chang’s time with the survivors caused a fundamental change in her perception and goals.  “After interviewing [survivor Liu], she told me she was going to quit writing and learn law.  She wanted to be an advocate for the survivors. When she first came, her intention [with the book] was to write something in remembrance of those who died.  Because many didn’t know who they were.”  But later, “she changed her plan and tried to prove the nature of human beings.  I think this change took place because of what she saw here in Nanjing.”

Though her experience in Nanjing clearly emboldened Chang, it also took a toll.  “I was weak during the whole time I was writing the book, and physically unwell during the month I spent in China,” she said in interviews. “I lost weight and I lost hair. I got sick frequently. I was very unhappy.” Yang confirms that Chang “was sick all the time.”  However, like Yang, Duan Yueping remembers Chang’s overall mood was positive while she was here.

Chang had only one confrontation during their work in Nanjing, though it was to have important consequences.  Following the survivor interviews, Yang accompanied Chang to a number of landmarks in the city and sites of important events during the Massacre.  While filming near the former home of Massacre photographer John Magee, they were loudly approached by an older man. Though they were filming legally, the man implied that he wanted to confiscate Chang’s film.

Yang subdued the man, but Chang “didn’t talk for some time” after the confrontation. Later, she “insisted that her videotapes be copied and left here in case someone confiscated them.  She thought the tapes were the most valuable thing she had made during her time here.” Yang walks into his study, returning moments later with five VHS cassette tapes. He indicates the sides of the tapes where Chang wrote detailed names, dates and places.  He is surprised to learn that, according to the producers of the recent film Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking, these tapes are the last known copies of the videos Chang made while in Nanjing.  The tapes, the films’ coordinators tell us, were essential for recreating the story of Chang’s time in Nanjing.

Chang and Yang became good friends over the course of their work that summer.  He recalls the afternoons they spent, along with Wang Weixing, at Nanjing University’s scientific research center, where they translated documents and the videotaped testimony.  Yang’s wife and daughter would bring them lunch, and they stayed to enjoy the building’s air conditioning during that exceptionally hot summer.   Chang was also a frequent dinner guest at the Yang family home. She would play their piano or spend time with their daughter, with whom she bonded over a mutual love of books and music.

He remembers the day when Chang told him that she discovered the diary of Minnie Vautrin, the missionary known as “The Living Goddess of Nanking.” Vautrin saved an estimated 10,000 women and girls from rape and murder by turning Jinling College into a safety zone, and her detailed diary provided invaluable insight into the event.  Chang, Yang remembers, called her mother with the news, her voice trembling.  Mostly, he remembers her idealism and compassion.  “We talked a lot about social justice, how to be fair.  Though she gave me the impression that she believed in individualism, she very much empathized with the survivors.  I was very impressed with this.”

Yang accompanied her to the airport the day Chang left Nanjing.  It was the last time he saw her. “I never thought it would be a yongbie, a farewell forever.  Never thought that.”

The two stayed in touch after Chang left, corresponding via mail and email, where they shared news of new projects and mailed each other books and archives.  He remembers his surprise at The Rape of Nanking’s success after its publication in 1997.  “I didn’t realize that the book would be so popular.  I think she didn’t realize either.  At that time, the best I could hope was that maybe some specialists would read it.” Only when the book was a success in the West, Yang says, did he recognize “the significance of her work when she was here.”

While the book received high praise, it was also fiercely attacked by some critics, who charged that it contained historical errors, was one-sided, too subjective, and lacked sufficient analysis of the reasons for the brutality it describes.  Her book’s position on the Massacre and charges against Japan’s government also incensed many, especially Japanese ultranationalists, who sent her “torrents of hate mail.”

Yang received his last email from Chang several months before she died. He last spoke to her from Washington DC in December of 2003, where he was doing research at the National archives.  “We talked for several hours,” he says.  “I thought she was very happy.  I didn’t sense that anything was wrong with her.  Never.  She told me about her plans for her fourth book, about American POWs at the Bataan Death March.  I even shared with her some information that I found in the archives.”

When Chang took her own life in San Jose, California in the fall of 2004, Yang, along with others who had come to know her during her time here, was stunned.  “I never saw it coming,” he says.  “I never thought she would kill herself.  Because she was so young, you know?”

“I was in shock” says Duan Yueping. “I couldn’t believe it.  I wondered, ‘How could she end her life at such a young age?’”  She believes that Chang “came into contact with too many fierce and brutal things.  Not only did she write about the Nanjing Massacre, she also wrote about other atrocities later, which were too much for her to take.”

Yang, who has remained a Chang family friend, sees other reasons for her death.  “I think she was too young for such success.  She never thought her book would be so successful.  She had a two year-old son.  Her parents told me that she used to work at night and sleep in the daytime, and that he was very ill for the last three months of her life. They said that she had a breakdown three months before her death, and saw a psychologist.  I think she felt a lot of pressure, and many people criticized her.”

Following her death, the Nanjing Massacre Museum added a statue in honor of Chang.  Museum director Zhu Chengshan, who also assisted Chang while she was in Nanjing and later visited her in the US, believes her impact locally and abroad is clear and lasting.  He estimates that the number of annual visitors to the museum doubled to 1.2 million people after the book was published. The book has also improved the museum’s international recognition and funding.  “We all think she contributed so much,” he says. “Her spirit will never die, especially in this fight.  Her influence won’t die.”  Sun Zhaiwei agrees.  “I sincerely believe that her contributions to Nanjing and to world peace will always be with us.”

The Rape of Nanking, Yang says in his translation’s afterward, “is an important contribution to Western consciousness.”  While it contains some errors, as an historian he believes “it is a very complete work, even ten years after it was published.  In terms of source material, her book is very detailed.  Nothing’s missing.  She did a very good job.”

“Iris never called herself a historian,” he writes.  “She called herself a writer.  She wanted to make a contribution to understanding and encourage other writers and historians to investigate the survivor’s stories.  I think she completely accomplished her goal.”  It’s a work, he says, that came from Chang’s “desire for justice, her sympathetic heart, and her interest in mankind and its future.”

At the end of our interview, Yang shows us some of the few photos he still has of Iris Chang during her time in Nanjing.  She appears exactly as Yang Xiaming, Duan Yueping and others remember her: young, vibrant and confident. “Like a typical American girl,” Yang says with a smile.  Nowhere is there any hint of the arc her life is to follow. In the final photo, Chang stands in front of Gulou park with Yang’s daughter.  She wears her hair pulled back, tennis shoes for sightseeing, and a t-shirt and shorts against the heat.  She smiles easily, her eyes anticipating, as if staring out over something limitless.

A Comprehensive Approach to Securing Land Tenure in China

daping farmer with knife, October 2011

On a recent visit to Tianzhong, China, I was reminded of how many of China’s rural development, planning and justice challenges have roots in the country’s centrally-planned and nationally-controlled policies.

Officials in Tianzhong, like local officials across China, have recently carried out a series of land expropriations.  And farmers had been compensated with about $1,500 (USD) per mu (1/15 of a hectare), only a fraction of the true value of the land. Tianzhong’s farmers, like many farmers across China were understandably frustrated.

Across China this is a problem because national tax laws provide local officials with exclusive rights to land conversion fees. And the vaguely-worded public interest clause in China’s property laws gives local governments broad expropriation privileges, while nationally-mandated compensation standards require officials to compensate farmers by providing only a fraction of land market value.

In addition, banks managed by ex-officials and encouraged to lend by centrally-set low interest rates and directives, are eager to provide loans for government-affiliated projects.  Thus local leaders will sell land to developers, leverage sales for greater equity, then invest in infrastructure projects with the aim of attracting more investment and driving up real estate prices. In China, converting land remains the most direct and efficient means for local governments to fill their coffers.

A related and recently promoted policy further undermines farmers by allowing local leaders to expropriate arable land for development so long as it is offset by a comparable amount of arable land. This has resulted in even more farmers being moved from their homes to new apartment blocks—forcing them to commute (sometimes long distances) to their farms.

On a macro scale, the trend appears to be towards separating farmers from their primary source of identity and social security – their land – and forcing migration to cities where, as a result of China’s household registration system (hukou), they are still registered as rural dwellers and lack the same access to urban social services as official residents and are treated as second-class citizens.

There are a number of possible approaches for addressing the problem of land tenure security in China.  These include advocating for national reform of the public interest clause, compensation standards, the cadre management system (which encourages officials to focus on short-term gains) and China’s tax laws.  Legal aid, legal rights education, and land rights titling all can empower those who would resist expropriation or compulsory leasing.

While advocating for these large-scale top-down reforms is worthwhile, major change is unlikely in the short-term.

China’s economy is presently dependent on revenue from land takings and cheap migrant labor.

Not only would the reforms necessary to end a practice like land expropriation require a restructuring of China’s economy, they would also require political reforms the Chinese government is not ready to undertake.  Beijing knows its present economic structure is unsustainable, but it is still hoping to restructure gradually without causing economic and social instability.

Generally, China’s government prefers to start small with experiments to see what works before taking reforms to a national scale.  In the past it has crafted vaguely-worded legislation on a variety of sensitive topics to allow local-level experimentation.

The household responsibility system that broke up the collectives and gave families lease rights to land began as just such an experiment in the late 70s in a village in Anhui.  Export manufacturing began in a similar experiment in the early 80s in Shenzhen, then a sleepy fishing village.  Currently, experiments in hukou reform are being carried out in villages outside of Chengdu and Chongqing.

In part because of this, struggles over property rights are presently taking place in towns and villages across the country.  An economic approach to improving land tenure security should also be considered. Such an approach would help local governments craft development plans that are financially viable as well as sustainable, equitable and reduce land taking.  Feasible plans must conform to the present demands of the cadre management system by generating revenue for the county government in the short and long term.  The process for creating such plans begins on the ground with examining a village’s specific challenges and strengths.  What are the local government’s revenue needs?  Are the local conditions conducive to other, less destabilizing development models?  Such development alternatives can plug the revenue gap that typically necessitates land takings.

In Tianzhong, for example, sustainable, equitable development that addressed site-specific needs and worked from the village’s strengths would include cooperative farming, which could provide a means to raise and stabilize incomes on a large scale primarily by creating a single brand and eliminating competition and price-fixing middlemen.  A plan can be developed that ensures revenue is used to provide a basis for the kind of equitable and sustainable growth that provides true tenure security.

Large-scale land rights reform will not come quickly.  But the process can be expedited by providing a plan for how to increase land rights security on a small, site-specific basis, thus providing development alternatives that can lay the foundation for the kind of legal and political reform that cements those rights.  In so doing, we can more clearly articulate and powerfully advocate for our vision for the future, one wherein smallholder farmers in China have the ability to define success on their own as well as the means to achieve it.

Off the Map South of the Clouds: Two remote villages in Yunnan’s Nujiang River Valley are home to unlikely traditions

Map Magazine, October 2007

The Three Parallel Rivers area in Northwest Yunnan Province, any source will tell you, is a stunningly beautiful and rich place.  It’s so-named because of the nearly matching southward flows of the Nujiang, Mekong and Yangtze rivers through the province’s narrow, mountainous northwest corner.  Each forms in the plateaus of Tibet and Qinghai before making a near-convergence in Yunnan, violently carving through mountains and gorges.  The area is one epic range followed by major river and back again, a terrain responsible for the area’s lack of development and sparse population.  The region is host to more than 20 percent of the country’s plant species and 25 percent of its animal species.  UNESCO has deemed it a World Natural Heritage Site.

Its remoteness, however, means that much of the area is rarely seen by visitors.  The sites around the Nujiang river at the very edge of the province haven’t yet found mention in most travel books.  Looking at maps, I had assumed the region was inaccessible and largely vacant.  But a friend who visited a village near the river told me a different story about the people she met there.

“They’re Tibetan Catholics,” she said.  “And they love basketball.”  According to her, these villagers finished every Sunday sermon with a spirited game of round ball.  It had never occurred to me that Tibetan Catholics existed, and the thought of them dribbling, passing and dunking made my head spin.  I wasn’t even aware there was a road leading there, but a few weeks later I was on it, headed for the village of Dimaluo, hoping to see it all for myself.

A long journey

I soon understood why this area is so rarely seen.  Getting up there is a fantastic pain, typically taking two to three days of hard travel from Kunming.  By the time my overnight bus starts winding its way north along the Nujiang, however, the effort pays dividends.  The further north we travel, the more spectacular the scenery becomes.  The mountains rise in steep, lush angles along the highway, the river sitting in a gorge reaching depths of almost two miles.  The hard-running Nujiang – known as the “angry river” – turns from blue to jade as we head upstream.  Out of the bus window, I see the brightly-colored clothes of the minority people – including the Nu, Lisu and Dulong – who live in the towns and villages along the river.  I also see the occasional church, evidence of the Catholic and Prodestant missionaries who started coming here about 150 years ago. I follow the road north to its nearly furthest point, stopping at the town of Gongshan.  Traveling much further ahead would take me to Tibet.  Only a dozen miles to the west is the Myanmar border, while to the east, where I’m headed, lays the Baima Mountain Range.  I catch a ride into Dimaluo in the army supply truck of a friendly villager, traveling in the back with some farm equipment, meat, vegetables, beer and one enormous, ill-tempered hog.  A bumpy, dirty three hours later, we arrive in Dimaluo.  The village is small and simple, with about 1,000 residents.  It sits low in a valley alongside the Nujiang tributary that runs through it, both seeming swallowed up by the mountains rising fiercely from both sides.

The guide; yak kissing

I’m soon greeted by Aluo, a man who runs the town’s guesthouse and guides backpackers on multi-day treks through the Baima to Deqin.  He’s a friendly, athletic Tibetan with an intense stare.  He leads me up the hill to his lodge, a large and simple two-story home where he lives with his wife and two daughters.  Guests stay upstairs, above a large meeting hall in one of a dozen or so beds.

Aluo and I sit down to chat, and his wife pours me some yak butter tea.  Taking a sip, I remember just how much I dislike this local favorite.  Drinking yak butter tea, I imagine, is like licking an actual yak.  I’m asked to drink liters of it over the next week.  Aluo speaks little English but very good Mandarin.  We discuss the village and its history.  The first settlers here, he tells me, were the Nu, Lisu and Dulong, who arrived in the area about 500 years ago.  The Tibetans arrived later, about 300 years ago. The Jesuit missionaries who introduced Catholicism first came to Dimaluo from Deqin in the 1850s and 1860s.  People here are mostly farmers, growing cabbage and corn on the steep hillsides, and raising livestock like pigs, yaks and chickens.  Globalization has mostly ignored them so far, though some families, like Aluo’s, have TVs and wired computers that keep them in touch with a China and outside world they seem so disconnected from.  Because of their location and some chance encounters, their way of life has been just as informed by the cultures of other countries as it has been by that of their own nation. As a child, Aluo used to watch TV programs picked up by satellite from countries like the U.S., Russia, Germany and Thailand.  “I didn’t understand much of it,” he says, “but it shaped my views.”  He tells me that, slowly, Chinese cities and the lifestyle they promise are drawing local people away, literally or in spirit.  Interest in traditions, like Catholicism, has always been mixed among townspeople here, but what exists is waning with the widening appeal of modern life.  “You can see it at church,” he says.  “Many of the people’s hearts just aren’t in it.”  He says he likes talking to foreigners because, when it comes to his interests and perspectives, he has increasingly more in common with them than with his own people.

“That sounds a bit lonely,” I tell him.

“Yes,” he says.  “That’s the word.”

A walk; the keeper

The next day, I tell Aluo that I’d like to explore the area.  He suggests I see the village of Baihanluo, two-hours up the mountain to the west.  It has, he says, a lovely church.  I head up a steep, rough trail, hiking past evergreen and conifer trees under cloudy skies that seem to part just over the valley.  Approaching the village, I come across five or so locals heading down to Dimaluo, including an older man wearing wrap-around Terminator-style sunglasses, who bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Walken. When I tell them I’m headed for the church, Walken gets very excited.

“That’s my church,” he says proudly.  “I take care of it.  I have the key.  I can take you there, but not until tomorrow.” I accept and promise to meet him the next day. I reach the village and sit on the mountainside, staring out at the endless Myanmar and Tibetan Himalayas under the setting sun.  I take out my phone to tell a friend where I am, only to find that, not surprisingly, I’m out of range.

Compared with Dimaluo, Baihanluo is smaller and less developed.  It also seems empty.  I spot the town’s small but ornately designed Catholic church and, next to it, a basketball court, deserted except for a donkey standing forlornly at the three-point line.  I sit at the edge and eat some Oreos.  The donkey watches me, the rope around its neck fluttering in the late winter wind.

Wine; a shepard; the spirit

I’m invited by the town’s schoolteacher to spend the night at the tiny village schoolhouse, where he has an extra room and cot.  I ask the teacher about Walken, and he says his name is Amei.  The teacher gives me directions to Amei’s home and the next afternoon I set out to find him.  Amei greets me at his door with a warm smile.  After some tea together, he takes me to the church as promised. He’s in his mid-60s, he says, and Tibetan.  He too is a farmer, raising corn and livestock.  He tells me the church is 108 years old, and was built by three French and American missionaries.  He opens the padlock on the church’s outer gate and shows me inside the courtyard. We walk up the crumbling steps towards the church’s door and he points out the faded floral paintings on the outside.  He opens the front door and allows me inside, where it appears that nothing’s changed in those 108 years.  The ground is stone, and there are no pews.  On the walls are the 14 Stations of the Cross – paintings depicting the Passion, Death and Resurrection – and in front is a simple altar with a Virgin statue and pictures of Jesus behind. Amei says the church is waiting for a real priest, and in the meantime he is acting as reader.

Amei invites me to have lunch at his home with his sister and her daughter, as well as to a service that night.  After lunch, we sit by the fire as Amei keeps our tin cups full of baijiu.  He’s more optimistic than Aluo about the area’s future, believing its traditions will endure.  “Our ways of life have been around for too long,” he says.  “This is a Catholic village, and that won’t change.”

With some time before the evening’s mass, I decide to hike further up the mountain.  Hours later, high up at the snowline, I meet a shepherd.  He approaches me to take a closer look.  Seeing that I’m a foreigner, he starts to laugh.  He invites me into his cabin with a wave.  We chat and share more baijiu by the fire.   After an hour, I stumble down the mountain back towards Baihanluo.  It’s dark when I reach the church, where I find Amei welcoming the townspeople as they enter.  The church is, at most, half full, and lit only by a dim chandelier.  Amei begins by reading a hymn from the Bible in Mandarin that I don’t understand.  The parishioners follow this with a chanted “Amen.”  Amei then leads the church in identical incantations, one for each of the 14 Stations on the walls.  Each incantation lasts about three minutes, most of which is spent kneeling on church’s stone floor.  My head is still buzzing, and the eerily beautiful singing becomes trance-like in its repetition.  It is at once one of the most beautiful and painful experiences of my life.  After a while, I lose track of time.  In my memory, by the end of the service, the room has become terrifically bright.

A prayer before tip-off

That Sunday in Dimaluo I attend their town’s service.  As in Baihanluo there is a basketball court directly alongside the church, though here it seems that the entire town has come out for the morning’s service.  It’s so crowded that I stand outside with latecomers.  Three or four young people take turns reading from the Bible because, Aluo explains later, they’re some of the few people in town who can read Mandarin.

After service, there is indeed a basketball game.  Most of the town gathers to watch, and it’s no casual matter.  There are established teams (Dimaluo east and west sides), a referee and a scorekeeper.  And some of these guys can flat-out play.  The only miracles I saw at church that day were a no-look pass on a fast break, a fade-away jumper in double coverage and a perfectly timed give-and-go.  Granted, the customary one-beer-after-each-game rule did dilute the quality of play over time, but those first two games were truly something to behold.

One last visit with Amei

After church and before leaving the next day, I decide to visit Amei one last time to say thank you.  The only gifts I can find at the town’s store are beer, baijiu and cookies. I hope they will count as at least as well-intentioned if not especially unique.  I hike back up the mountain, only to find that Amei and his family aren’t home.  I find his neighbor and ask him to pass along my presents and thanks.

On my way back down the mountain, I stop for a moment to look one last time over the mountains to the west and the valley below.  What I’ve seen this week is evidence of a country far more complicated and rich than I knew.  I take out my camera, and find I can’t come close to fitting this scene in its frame.  So I focus on the brightest section, where the clouds part over the valley, and open the shutter.

Aluo’s Guesthouse:

General regional and travel information:

Travel tips:

Treks can only be taken between Dimaluo and Deqin between April and October

Allow two to three days for return trips from Dimaluo to Kunming

Enough About Me, November 2001

More of a literary adventure than an actual autobiography, David Shields’s Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography presents a collection of loosely organized, self-reflective essays, ranging from such disparate topics as the author’s past, dreams, and heroes to his thoughts on basketball, Jewish culture, and Bill Murray. Uniting the book is Shields’s examination of autobiography, his interest in the way we identify ourselves, and the most effective ways of investigating and communicating our identity.

Shields writes with convincing intelligence and fluidity on the book’s more academic topics, such as the effectiveness of Nabokov’s structure by memory association in Speak, Memory and Renata Adler’s use of collage in Speedboat. Yet when he emulates such works with random glimpses into his own past and character, he doesn’t provide enough personal detail to make effective use of these techniques. He’s a bit too preoccupied with theory to offer a satisfying self-portrait. Ultimately, Shields seems distracted by the need to cover all his critical bases and make a postmodern statement, consequently distracting and distancing the reader from establishing much of a connection with the author. He writes in the book’s prologue that he “wants to cut to the absolute bone” of “his own damned, doomed character,” yet admits in the epilogue to having falsified much of its personal information. It’s unfortunate that he doesn’t let his academic guard down more often, because what personal insight he does provide (accurate or otherwise) is very entertaining. He recognizes the absurd self-absorption inherent in memoir, and that goes a long way in a book about the subject. An interesting if flawed experiment, Enough About You should nonetheless appeal to memoir enthusiasts looking for perceptive and humorous views on our own perpetual self-fascination. –Ross Doll