Gunpowder! Explosives! NBA!

Warning unheeded

My kids are in sync with the Lunar New Year celebrations: They’re obsessed with explosions. We refuse to allow them (of course) but it doesn’t matter. People give them huge roman candles, or tiny ones you throw. Unless I chained them in a room I couldn’t prevent them setting off firecrackers. They’ve been ecstatically joining groups setting them off day and night. Small packs, giant boxes. They’re 3 feet long rockets or poppers the size of a match. Twice they joined a group of youths with enough to last an hour. Terrifying — I hid leaving Dad in charge. One kid has been coughing ever since he couldn’t outrun the smoke. It’s not even a city yet we hear fireworks almost nonstop, so it sounds like war. Flying last night, from the air we saw little explosions in every direction. The red paper leavings are everywhere, like the petals of spent cherry trees.*

Firecracker remains, Fuli

Tiny Chinese kids set off fireworks, some maybe only 3 years old. The fireworks packages are decorated with cartoon characters. (Maybe they were older…as Chinese folks seem to think our kids are 3 years older than they are — perhaps these little ones I saw I underestimated their age by 3 years. Our size differential is an unexpected cultural disconnect.) We saw these babes with gunpowder in a Guanxi farming hamlet, Stone Village.

Firecracker kids

(An aside: This is Stone Village…amazing. No one knows how old it is & nothing cements the stones together.)

Back to explosives. Their eyes light up like from nothing else. It’s weird. (Non)Jokes about lost fingers and eyebrows aside, fireworks are serious here. They turn up in high culture. At a 700-year-old mansion of the ‘chieftain’ (their word) of the Naxi people down here in Yunan (we’re visiting southwestern China, beside Burma — town of Lijian), the leader’s palace had wooden carved windows. Along with birds, dragons, flowers, there were decorative images of fireworks.

(Lijian is a beautifully preserved town; here’s a pic.)

Lijian

*Fireworks were originally set off, so we are told, to frighten away evil, and to awaken the slumbering dragon, a beneficent god-like creature who brings the crops spring rain.

Then there’s the NBA: It’s celebrating the Chinese New Year on government-owned tv! The kids are overjoyed. NBA games every day for the holiday, a gift to Chinese fans. Games include: “Houston because it was Yao Ming’s team, Dallas because it has a Chinese player, the Clippers because Blake Griffin is popular here, the Thunder because they love Kevin Durant, the Lakers games because Kobe Bryant is so popular here, the Heat games because of LeBron James, the Celtics.” Thanks, Kenny. Between games, close-ups of star players saying, “Ni hao,” and speaking earnest Mandarin to their Chinese fans, as well as English: “Thank you for your tremendous enthusiasm and support for the game of basketball!”
and

Xīnnián kuàilè!

(Shin ning KWAH luh)

“Wishing you a happy Chinese new year!”
KA – BOOM!

P.S. Thank you so much, friends and relatives (and a few people we don’t know) for sharing Coplans in China with us, we have now passed 5,000 visits. If you want to receive an email when we post, please click “Sign me up” on the right.

FINALLY The British Curriculum

Crossing Yulong River, New Years


By 肯尼 Kenny

Ni hao.

Guess who? The British Curriclum is finally back!

So at school we are part of an Asian school league, FOBISSEA: Federation of British International Schools in South East Asia. And this year there will be a sports day for this. Not sports day, but sports week.

You will have to compete in All sports and here are the sports: soccer, basketball, swimming, track & field. But the thing is, they were selecting 12 boys from years 7 & 8. And the best part is, I made it!!!!!!!!!! In 2 months I will fly to Shanghai to compete aganst schools from Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei and Seoul. Wow that sure beats town soccer!

So anyhow, can you please comment to this: What do think when you hear the word China?

This is what I thought before I came to China: The Great Wall, bad air, corrupt government, over populated, Communist, and tough schools. but now I think of China a whole lot differently: has deserts, destroying lots of old arcitexture, beaches, eco tourism, capitalist, severe loss of forests, farming in Ghana, has 150 cities with over 1 million people, good cheap food.

But what I want to know is, what do you think of when you hear ‘China’?

A house from the Qing Dynasty time

Iconic Chinese Images

The Li River, in the south, near Vietnam, is pictured on the 20 remnimbi note. Loved by poets, climbers, & right now — freezing cold and rainy — still atmospheric, with the crackle & boom of New Year‘s firecrackers echoing off the limestone cliffs day and night.

Farms and rice paddies along the Yulong river, a Li tributary. The villages have some structures from the Qing dynasty (1600s-1911). Other than all the farmers on cell phones and billboards for English schools, visually not that much has changed.

We cycled. I’m glad the boys are old enough to handle the muddy, rutted tracks and tough about the freezing rain. Feed them enough and they go.

Water buffalo, And a man herding geese. Didn’t see the buffalo in the water. I think it’s too cold.

Bamboo rafts are for transporting tourists (and their rented Trek mountain bikes). Locals use PVC plastic tubes lashed together, which must last longer than bamboo.

In both cases, the river is the road.

Women wash clothes in the river, and a grandma was doing childcare, putting an infant to sleep rocking the baby on her back. We also saw a lot of women working the fields, and drawing water from wells. Some of the younger ones doing it in 5-inch high heels — all the more remarkable because of the mud.

…This woman was selling New Year’s flower wreaths. (He bought one, gave it to me later, but said it was just for me to hold. It wasn’t actually FOR me.)

The roses in the center are made of folded shreds of plastic bags.

Happy Dragon Year.

Hydropower in Tibet: Dams & Democracy


Driving to Garze (Tibetan autonomous prefecture) over Christmas, for hours each day we passed sawn-off mountains, rock-clogged rivers, half-submerged trees and roads that disappeared into water.

Dams being built.

China is looking here, to Western Sichuan on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, where dozens of rushing tributaries of the upper Yangze surge down canyons’ steep vertical rises, for energy. The Dadu River, which we drove along for two days, is said to have 50% more hydropower potential (“exploitable installed capacities”) than the Three Gorges. Reports say there will be 22 hydroelectric power plants along the Dadu, creating flood zones, requiring the removal of something like 100,000 people from valley to high ground. One Chinese environmental group reports that no branch rivers will remain natural, but will become “cascade reservoirs.” No one knows the ecological outcome of such fundamental changes to hydrological cycles, river connectivity and dynamics.


But here’s one idea, from Fan Xiao, chief engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of Geology and Mineral Exploration: deadly earthquakes. He says it’s possible dam building caused the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the one that killed about 70,000, many of them children.
We were heading to Danba, a central town whose satellite villages perch on mountains, where the Dadu crisscrosses 131 other streams and rivers, apparently draining an area of 3,000 square miles. It was an ever-higher drive. Below Danba, we stopped to skim stones in the Dadu; above, to wash in hot springs (geothermal development is likely here). Dam building was everywhere. The car crawled on rutted dirt tracks past roadblocks, mountains of gravel, workers’ prefab housing, giant dust clouds. Because of the long string of dams and power stations, in some places, articles say, the loss of vegetation qualifies as “desertification.” They’ve covered cliffs above the river with a sort of cement (I think) to hold back mud and landslides. A scientific report dryly notes the area’s “partially-destroyed appearance.”


The river’s steep descent in places creates great force, bending and surging through canyons. Nearby is one of China’s two remaining virgin forests. Hydropower is “greener” than the choking black smoke of coal-fired plants. If you buy a “carbon offset” from a broker, it is investing in hydropower on the Dadu. True, there’s no coal burned. But it takes tons of steel, water, and fuel to build 2 dozen hydroelectric dams here.

Villages go under, too. And more. This eastern ‘wall’ of the Tibetan plateau (including the Hengduan mountain range, with peaks reaching about 20,000’) is “a biodiversity hotspot” (with its very own Harvard monitoring project) Wild pandas live in nature reserves here. The Dadu, the upper Yangtze region, is noteworthy for a “rare gene pool”– 342 kinds of herbaceous plants, 57 kinds of woody plants, 233 different species just in Danba, according to a recent scientific survey. Spruces, firs, hemlocks, birches, rare yew and ebony, apples, pears, walnuts, Eucommia (rubber). It’s rich in medicinal plants (227 kinds, the census found) and dozens of wild edible and medicinal fungi (matsutake, morel, yellow wire fungus, tree-ear mushrooms). Likewise, it has many rare animals, not just pandas. The Asiatic black bear, and primates like the Tibetan macaque; more than 60 protected animals.

We also passed through Tianquan, another town along the way where, I read, several generators have been built inside a nature reserve.

There’s a trade-off, with generating needed energy. Infrastructure is for the greater good. You will devastate some land, some species, some livelihoods. Local input may be ignored in the U.S., too. But from what I can tell, China, with rule-of-law and regulatory problems, with a centralized regime and yet many overlapping bureaucracies, where the rural poor have little power, the situation is much worse.

Early on driving up one of many canyons, we stopped for lunch in Luding, where tall buildings crowd the river in a steep valley. The dam there, under construction, was shut down for a while for failing an inspection. Critics say it exemplifies the power stations’ lack of integrated planning, operation, and management. That so many different agents are involved, without coordination, may help explain the “over-exploitation” – why there are too many dams, when prominent scientists say hydroelectric construction should be scattered and small-scale, not concentrated in a single river basin.
The state-owned Dadu Hydropower Development Co., Ltd., which expanded to take on the dam-building, calls it ‘the enclosing of water resources. Its corporate website explains it tapped other companies (China Datang Cooperation, China Huadian Cooperation, Zhongxu Investment Co.) to “exploit several new sections” of cascade power stations. We hit new company boundaries every few hours, marked by gates of steel poles and flapping flags.

Up until now the area was well-preserved because it was remote and transportation impractical. “The construction of many hydroelectric power stations in [eastern Tibet and western Sichuan] represents a terrible ecological disaster,” says The Decade River Project, a group of concerned scientists and citizens.

“If construction plans are followed… hardly any the species of fish found in the river will be able to survive.” That’s because reservoirs storing water along the way alter “the flow pattern, velocity, and temperature of the river. Fish can not adapt.” Fan is chief engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of Geology and Mineral Exploration. Fan was the first geologist to suspect that Sichuan’s Wenchuan earthquake (the massive 7.9 earthquake of May 2008 that killed almost 70,000 people) was linked with to dam-building and reservoirs, particularly the Zipingpu hydroelectric station. It’s not hydropower that’s unacceptable, he says, but this pattern of over-development.

At the Sichuan Provincial Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, Zhang Qiujin, Director of the Ecology Institute, agrees that the hydropower construction here will likely completely ruin aquatic and dry-land ecological systems–the whole riverside area’s natural environment.

Those are big names, I think.

There’s often talk about “reform” in China. When you start looking at hydropower, you hear the term “Reforming water governance.” Quickly, the focus becomes, at least for me: Dissent. Local voices, heeding scientific experts outside state-owned companies, & hearing citizens pursuing their rightful interests. The Tibetan woman whose home we stayed in, near Danba, said the destruction would take a long time to heal.

Look at dams here and the path leads, at least for me, back to the question of the government’s fear of change–fear of social instability.

Tsinghua University sociologist Guo Yuhua, a dam expert, also writes about China’s “unbalanced interests”–the lack of justice for minorities in the face of such a gigantic national infrastructure program. Reformed governance, stronger rights protection for dissenting citizens, would be powerful forces for social stability in China, not destabilizers, as China pursues energy development with dwindling arable land, clean air, water, and food. So says Guo. They would ease, not worsen, today’s conflicts and tensions.

“The greatest error in current thinking and models about maintaining stability,” Guo says, “is to put the interests of people and social stability on opposite sides.”

It’s something to ponder, as I recall how every few hours we passed under a new gate of steel poles draped with tenting and flags, flapping to announce the new firm responsible for that stretch of dam construction, & heralding the bright future with slogans in Chinese such as, “Build a harmonious society with hydropower,” with mountains razed above, the river diverted below and debris — scrap stone, waste sand, disintegrating boulders – all around..

Alice Waters Bombs in Beijing

Alice Waters visited Beijing, cooking a (locally-sourced organic dinner at the embassy recently. (I wasn’t there.) But the coverage, in the current Beijinger magazine, about the not-that-enthusiastic reception she received, is interesting. You’d think the time would be ripe, with so much of China’s food poisoned.

But as Susan Sheng of The Beijinger, reports:

“[Waters] has made no suggestions about how the Edible Schoolyard could be adapted for China.

‘The children are learning English, math. They’re measuring out garden beds, and counting seeds. They’re learning,’ said Waters when I spoke to her at the US-China Forum last month.

Measuring out garden beds? The average Chinese parent might be concerned whether their child will fall behind children in other schools. A Chinese elementary educator may wonder how to find long-term, justifiable curriculum content in the dirt. At the very least, China’s elementary mathematics curriculum is far beyond that of any ordinary American school’s.* To teach a Chinese 10-year-old how to double a recipe is perhaps a little redundant.”

[*at least 2 grades ahead, binational families estimate]

Sheng says Waters’ visit helped spur one Edible Schoolyard–at an international school (Chinese kids aren’t supposed to attend them, though many, I guess dual-passport holders, do). It also drew attention to Beijing’s 25 organic-produce suppliers — who knew? Some even deliver. But the premium over regular food is about 200% more expensive.

Both kids were sick the last 10 days, gastro-intestinally, one with a bacterial and the other a parasitic infection (infectious doc said giardia, from Beijing, not traveling, based on the incubation period). They’ve been on killer meds and probiotics. Meanwhile, I ponder what, if anything, is safe to eat. The past week saw 2 new/old food scandals:

–A very popular brand of milk announced its dairy had sold milk poisoned with deadly aflatoxin. China shut down 40% of its dairies (40%!) after the malamine scandal, but still can’t fix them.

–Poison cooking oil was also back. Toxic oil made its way to a Master Kong’s Instant Noodles factory. Master Kong’s is (was) our go-to “safe” food when out & about, when everything looked dirty. The toxicity wasn’t specified; the oil was only reported “to harm human reproductive cells.” WTF?

A sweet, young Chinese professor who toured us around Chengdu was resigned about food, laughing sadly over dinner (when we wouldn’t eat the freshwater fish — there are no safe freshwater fish in China, says the embassy physician). Her generation (20somethings) don’t believe the benefits outweigh the costs of China’s development. “It’s not worth it,” she said at one point.

Hence it’s a nostalgic generation, which you don’t expect in the young. My student Zhou Tingting wrote a lovely recollection of making tofu with her aunt, as a child in Chongquing, today a city of 32 million people. It was picked up by my favorite U.S. food blog, Amy Halloran’s Home Economics. “In those days,” Tingting wrote, “there were only rivers, green mountains and bamboo forests there, and fields, some along the bank and others halfway up the mountain.”

Monks Look At Jews

Wenshu, an important Chengdu Buddhist monastery, preserved many treasures through decades of tumult: masters’ skulls, sutras written in tongue blood, Buddhas embroidered in human hair. We arrived (the kids said) on ‘monks day off,’ and the boys were invited to play pingpong.
Soon, the monk (beside Kenny) got out his Chinese-English dictionary to look up “Jewish.” Several fellow monks gathered to see the Jews (playing pingpong).

While buying train tickets (here, Chengdu) we were the in-flight entertainment.
Here I returned the gaze:

Speaking of gazes: The Giant Buddha of Le Shan, about 1,200 years old, near Chengdu, built on a river to watch over shipping. I found the big guy, and the atmosphere, more amusement-park than spiritual.

But the Chinese Buddhist monastery there was completely serious.

While northern China in winter is dry brown, the south is green and misty. The crowds sought peace at the Giant Buddha temple complex on their day off, as we did.

Le Shan, near Chengdu

Tibetan Buddhism (Ate My Children)

I should’ve seen it coming. Kenny’s pre-teen rebellion, Ethan’s inherent spirituality, the human draw of the novel, colorful, mysterious. The children are attracted to Tibetan Buddhism. They began praying, behind my back, at temples during our trip to southwestern China (Chengdu, Sichuan and Eastern Tibet, Kham in the Garze Autonomous Prefecture). While I wasn’t looking, they got our guide Tenpa to teach them the motions.

I allow it. It’s all one god, Adonay or Avalokiteshvara (1,000-armed manifestation of the future Buddha). Getting them to stay seated in Beijing’s lovely synogogue, or to do Hebrew homeschool with me (though they finally do), is harder.

Trek past stupas, Kham (E. Tibet)

Tenpa, our 28-year-old guide/driver, drove to patriotic Tibetan rap. Tenpa walked to Lhasa and over the Himalayas to Nepal at 15, in 2 pairs of crappy shoes. It took 55 days to escape China, to attend school. Tibetan-area schools (as throughout rural China) are terrible, and China won’t grant passports or he would’ve flown. He slept in one blanket and a plastic sheet. His group of a dozen, with guide, walked at night to avoid being shot or arrested. His friend lost all his toes.

Once in Nepal, UNHCR and Tibetan government-in-exile flew them to Dharmasala. He stayed 7 years and (atypically) returned to China, to see his dying father. Parents who send their kids out for education are subject to Chinese punishment.


Up above 12,000 feet in the Tibetan grasslands, brown now in winter, we were surrounded by yaks and wild horses. Thousands of prayer flags flapped beside mani stones on roadsides. Every moment unveiled robed monks, tradtionally dressed herders in fur wraps, old women prostrating on the road on 1,000-mile pilgrimages, kids making murmuring rounds of the many sets of prayer wheels at surprisingly big monasteries in tiny villages. At the legendary (cold, oxygen-deprived) top of the world, first you marvel that anyone can survive. Then you try to digest the decorative, and natural, beauty.

Below this paragraph, what looks like several buildings, is an important monastery in Tagong, built to honor the 7th century King Songtsen Gampo, whose conquests created a Tibetan empire on the high plateau (and nearby parts of China and India), spreading Buddhism with conquest. (It didn’t, as I’d naively imagined, simply flow naturally from here like water downhill.) I believe Songsten married a Chinese princess. Mongol rulers loved and patronized lamas. Tibetan Buddhism ‘ate’ China’s ancient dynasties, too, serving as their spiritual leaders, until the 20th century.

Tibetan Buddhism: Born in splendid geographic isolation. Nurtured by sophisticated monastic education at large universities. Gifted with astonishing aesthetics. Now led by a man with rock-star charisma and Nobel-prize winning politics of nonviolent resistance.

Lower down (around 9,000′) in Kham, homes clung almost to cliffsides and terraces (walnut orchards, at the home where we stayed) were so steep, only ladders could connect them.

When we got to China last August, one of my first thoughts–seeing Beijing’s masses, the power-crazed immensity of the Forbidden City and Great Wall, the grim determination of the sharp-elbowed old ladies forcing their way through packed subways, likely survivors of horrors I can’t imagine–the thought was, ‘There is no hope for Tibet.’ The boys’ beloved nanny for about 6 years in Brooklyn is Tibetan, from a Kathmandu refugee community, educated (like Tenpa) in Dharmasala, her father one of the 80,000 or so who escaped over the Himalayas, on foot, in the years after Chinese annexation, from 1959 through the ’70s. She has a distant cousin in Garze, where we were, a Khampa. The Kham accent, clothing, and other cultural aspects, are slightly different. Once there were three kingdoms, then three historic areas. Today there’s a jigsaw puzzle of designations, but of course, it’s all Tibet.

The Tibetan diaspora has more of almost everything than the Khampas: Education. Money. Medical care (traditional and modern). Freedom. But they face language and culture loss. In these more remote Chinese Tibetan areas–far from Lhasa (Lhasa is now only minority Tibetan, resettled by Chinese using the highway and rail line)–education levels are “some of the lowest in the world” … but they still live, while enduring repression and hardship, Tibetan lives. The herders are some of the last nomads on earth.

The reasons Westerners love Tibetans, in their (I’m sorry) exquisite victimhood, are compelling and familiar. The Dalai Lama is our era’s Dr. King, our Gandhi, our precious sane voice of compassionate interfaith understanding. (“One religion obviously cannot satisfy all of humanity… therefore the only sensible thing is that all different religions work together and live harmoniously, helping one another.” The Power of Compassion by the Dalai Lama.) But these intellectual, political, and (yes) ‘radical chic’ elements, and the anti-China sentiment embodied in much Tibet-love, are all absent in my innocent kids.

Tibetan Buddhism: Vajrayana, “diamond” –- precious, changeless, pure, clear, able to cut anything without being be cut. It’s part Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion (magic, shamanism, nature worship); part Tantrism (Indian metaphysics of ‘interwovenness,’ that mystical Oneness of all things). It involves the senses: visual (intricate, symbolic mandalas); muscular (the hand gestures, the moving of prostration and wheel spinning); verbal (sacred syllables, Om Mani Padme Hum).

Do they get that? We’ve talked about it a little but… no. They simply loved, without complication, and were moved to pray, in the mountains and under the blueness.

Kenny suffered, on our second night at altitude, a serious form of illness called high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), a potentially fatal condition, especially among climbers marooned way up high (who deny the symptoms, so invested are they in the climb). But I recognized it quickly–thanks to printouts from the Everest Base Camp Clinic I had, and we had Tenpa and his SUV to race us down to a Chinese county hospital, in time. With rapid descent, and oxygen, and the car (always a lynchpin in the whole Tibet plan, for safety), he was fine. The edema was mild, caught early. (Our Beijing doc pronounced his lungs unharmed.) So the children were not really eaten. But I was provoked, profoundly, to consider the draw of the place for me, and for them, and for all of us.

The trip was so intense that I am, for the moment, going to leave it at that.

Kenny

Next post: “Green energy” hydropower development desecrating Eastern Tibet.