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Kunming city and Yunnan province travel information, forums, classifieds, events, nightlife, listings and all the latest news! GoKunming is southwest China's largest English-language website.

Last Build Date: Tue, 21 Feb 2017 11:51:59 +0800


Two die from avian flu in Yunnan's first cases of the year

Mon, 20 Feb 2017 14:05:00 +0800

Reports of two flu-related fatalities in Yunnan over the past few weeks have once again raised awareness of, and concern about, the bird-flu virus. As news of the deaths broke, provincial officials were quick in their attempts to quell any possible public alarm, issuing statements on radio, television and print media stressing the situation was completely under control and people had "no reason to panic".

In general, the government reaction appears warranted regarding the H7N9 avian influenza virus. Yunnan has reportedly experienced a total of only two bird flu infections since the beginning of 2017, both of which unfortunately led to death. The two victims were a young woman and her three year-old daughter.

The pair of Kunming residents and their family spent the Spring Festival holiday in eastern China's Jiangxi province, and during the visit had contact with domesticated poultry, according to a report issued by the Yunnan Health and Family Planning Commission (YHFPC). The mother fell ill first, but eventually passed away two weeks after contracting the virus. Her daughter died a week later.

Doctor Wei Jia (韦嘉), an expert on infectious diseases at YHFPC, has appeared in public service announcements describing the illness. In an interview he explained family members and close friends of the victims have all been tested, with none testing positive for H7N9. Furthermore, says the doctor, the screenings produced no evidence of human-to-human transmission, which is a crucial distinction when considering possible large-scale outbreaks.

Chinese health authorities say the country experienced 192 cases of human H7N9 infection in the month of January, 79 of them proving fatal. Those numbers represent a slight increase over December. The provinces of the Pearl and Yangtze river deltas — specifically Zhejiang, Hunan and Guangdong — have been hardest hit, and combine to claim the majority of total instances.

In response, many cities in those three regions, as well as Sichuan and Anhui, have temporarily banned sales of live poultry. Yunnan authorities have not considered such a move, largely because no indigenous H7N9 cases have been documented in the province.

Instead, health officials here are urging a calm and rational response, suggesting people wash their hands regularly with hot water and soap, cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing, exercise regularly and sleep more than usual. In the words of Dr Wei in his public service announcement, "H7N9 has been in China since 2013 and does have pathogenic characteristics...But it is entirely preventable".

Image: Sevan Golnazarian

Interview: Kunming Keats School co-founder Liu Zier

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 07:00:00 +0800

Kunming Keats School was founded in 2004 by Xue Feng (薛峰), a former medical doctor, and Liu Zier (刘子尔), a graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For the past 13 years, the two women have worked to carve out a very well-defined niche in Kunming's highly competitive Mandarin instruction market. Their school on the sixteenth floor of a Dongfeng Dong Lu high-rise caters to students of all levels, and features small class sizes, living quarters and an extensive student services program. We sat down with Liu to talk about educating foreigners, the evolution of a Kunming brand and what she expects for Keats in the near future. GoKunming: What was the impetus — what made Kunming particularly attractive — for starting a Chinese school here? Liu Zier: I think Kunming is one of the best cities for foreigners to learn Chinese in China. It's not so big as Beijing or Shanghai and not too many people here can speak very good English. That's actually a positive, and one of the top reasons why some students choose to come here. The city isn't particularly international yet and students can practice their Mandarin on the street. They're not forced to speak English and they speak Chinese as they want in any situation. Another big reason is the climate. Kunming is called the 'Spring City', right?. Not very cold in the winter and not very hot in summer. It's a perfect place for students to spend a wonderful summer or a comparably temperate winter while they learn the language. Another reason is that the air quality is very good here in Kunming. You know, some students just want to get away from the bad pollution like in Beijing or Shanghai, so I think people here don't have to worry about that. So the air quality is also very important. And I think in Kunming we also have broad cultural diversity because of all the minority groups and people living here from around the county. Cultural diversity is very attractive for students, and on top of that the city has so many interesting places to visit. GK: How did you personally get into education? Liu: I received a bachelors degree in management science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While I was studying, I was also working as a teaching assistant in the school's Chinese language department. In Boston I developed a strong passion for teaching Chinese. I have a lot of fun teaching foreign students because they love the culture, they love the language — and for myself, I also learn a lot from my students. So I really love what my career has become. I love being a Chinese teacher. GK: What sort of qualifications do you require of your other instructors? Liu: We have very high standards for our teachers. At the beginning we have a very strict interview process for potential teachers who want to work at Keats. They need to have at least have a bachelor degree in teaching Chinese as a foreign language, or Chinese and English, so that they have a very good sense of the language and also how to impart it to others. After a prospective teacher completes the interview process, we have a very systematic training program they have to finish before stepping officially into a Keats classroom. During training, we have several steps the teachers need to follow, and they have to pass each part in order to continue progressing. When we select instructors, we prefer teachers who have a lot of experience already in teaching Chinese as a foreign language, either in China or abroad. For anyone who becomes an instructor at Keats, we also have ongoing teacher training. Every Saturday we gather all of our teachers' syllabi from the previous week and do a review. Then, we hold a teachers' conference once every two weeks in order to make sure that the quality of our instruction continues to be top notch. GK: Does Keats employ a particular instructional philosophy? Liu: We have 13 years of experience as a school, and have developed our own methodology over that time. It focuses on two types of programs — small group classes a[...]

Around Town: Kunming's secluded Lianhua Temple

Wed, 15 Feb 2017 23:45:00 +0800

Sometimes it's good to get lost. Several weeks ago, while preparing for the Best of Kunming Awards, a driver and I did just that in the middle of town. It didn't take long to find our way back to civilization, but in the process we came to a fork in the road, one way leading to an obvious dead end parking lot, while the other angled up a hill past lush stands of bamboo. We picked the latter and nonetheless hit another dead end, for our car at least. But atop the rise where we eventually turned around sat a surprising sight, a lovely stand of eucalyptus forest. At the entrance of what appeared to be a path, there was a large sign pointing the way inside that read 'Lianhua Temple' (莲花寺). There wasn't enough time to explore that day, but I was intrigued enough to return when I had some off time during Spring Festival. I went back to the hill — called Heye Shan (荷葉山) — on the third day of Chinese Lunar New Year, returning with a slight feeling of apprehension that the forestry police stationed at the entrance to the woods might not let me in because of it being fire season. Approaching four men playing what appeared to be a rabidly intense game of cards, I asked if the path to the temple was open. My question was met with a lengthy series of 'oks' followed by wild gesticulations indicating no smoking was allowed past the card table. Up I went into Shengtai Park (生态公园). The path started out overlooking a once-promising, but now possibly abandoned condominium development on the left. But the bright orange luxury homes were quickly obscured by trees. As I followed the path, the temperature dropped a bit and what little residual city noise had remained near the gate quickly gave way to the sounds of wind and gently soughing trees. Lianhua Temple There wasn't far to go — maybe only 200 meters before I reached a quick rise past a well-tended garden plot and a glimpse of the familiar orange-tiled roof of a temple. Lianhua, or 'Lotus Temple' in English, stood before me, set into the hill. The walls were gleaming white in the morning sun, and a fresh coat of lacquer had obviously very recently been applied to the red pillars of the entrance. I expected there would be several visitors inside because of the national holiday, but instead, as I entered through a modest wooden door set just beside the locked gate, I was met with silence. Eventually a small dog loped up to me, setting off the barking of his much bigger, chained-up companion. After making friends with both dogs, I wandered around the entryway, checking out the oversized door guard statues and the enormous collection of pumpkins sitting incongruously at their feet. The complex turned out to be a nunnery with one inhabitant — not surprisingly a nun. She was quite friendly and told me to wander and take photos anywhere I chose in her dense and nearly impenetrable Kunming dialect. Flanking the entryway and front square were utilitarian dormitories and a canteen, the latter of which had an absolutely gorgeous hand-carved, five-panel wooden screen set against the wall. It appeared to be very old, which was a bit of a contrast to its surroundings. Typically, older temples in Kunming feature plaques inset into large decorative stones bearing the history and sometimes founding myth of the building. Lianhua Temple was curiously devoid of any literature of the kind. When I returned to the courtyard to question the nun, she was engaged in animated conversation with a local visitor, and I desisted. Lianhua has two main shrines, both set above the entrance in typical Chinese fashion. The first and lower of the two contains a modest faux-gold sculpture of Sakyamuni Buddha (佛陀) and his attendant bodhisattvas, Avalokitesvara (观世音) and Mahasthamaprapta (大势至). In addition, copies of the centuries-old arhat statues that make Bamboo Temple such a consistent attraction line the far wall. Outbuildings on either side of the main pavilion house minor deities, while up above, in the [...]

China to establish environmentally protected areas nationwide

Mon, 13 Feb 2017 16:30:00 +0800

The Chinese government last week issued sweeping yet vague changes to the country's development policy, outlining a nationwide program to protect the environment. Of central concern are "natural areas with important ecological functions", which, according to the new policy, must be identified and protected in every corner of China by 2020.

Protection of the soon-to-be-designated regions will be inviolable, places where current and future "development is strictly prohibited". The move comes as vast swathes of the country, and especially the industrialized northeast, have suffered brutal and sometimes debilitating pollution levels typified by this winter's 'Airpocalypse'.

But the "ecological red lines" Beijing is currently pursuing aim for far more than bringing air quality levels under control. Made public by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in cooperation with the State Council, the edict encompasses nothing less than every section of the country

[quote]...important to water and soil conservation, biodiversity, wind-breaking and sand fixation, as well as ecologically fragile zones prone to soil erosion, desertification and salinization...By the end of 2020, the demarcation of the border and calibration of the regions should be completed and an ecological protection "red line" system will be basically established.[/quote]

While most of the country has just under three years to decipher and implement the new regulations, as of now there are few hard and fast guidelines to follow. No announcements have been made regarding failure to protect natural places, nor have any new laws been issued regarding people or companies that may violate the policy in the future. However, the government of Sichuan last year placed 197,000 square kilometers of land — or 40 percent of of the province's total area — under conservation, an action which although still in its infancy may provide other provinces and administrative regions with a blueprint.

Some places in China where environmental degradation is extremely pronounced have an accelerated timeframe. Specifically, Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, as well as "regions along the Yangtze River Delta Economic Zone" must complete their red line assessments before the end of 2017. Such haste epitomizes just how dire China's environmental situation has become, and the State Council report goes as far as obliquely criticizing 30 years of pro-growth ethos, declaring, "unfettered development at the cost of the environment has had its day".

If as ambitious as President Xi Jinping's two other signature projects — the Belt and Road Initiative and a nationwide anticorruption campaign — are any indication, provincial governments will be severely tested while trying to live up to the expectations laid out by Beijing. Nonetheless, the "red line" policy looks primed to affect nearly all aspects of the Chinese economy for years to come.

Image: Ami Vitale via The Nature Conservancy

Spring Festival news weirdness

Fri, 10 Feb 2017 13:40:00 +0800

Local media at the dawn of each Lunar New Year is always filled with breathless articles about the amount of tourists streaming into Yunnan for the holiday. This year was no different, with an estimated 23 million people from across China vacationing or otherwise traveling in the province. But the news was not all rosy, as two reports — one sadly familiar and the other a new concern — made headlines just as the country settled back into its post-festival routine. That droning sound... Authorities in charge of Kunming Changshui International say civilian-flown drones entered the airport's fly zone "four or five times" during the Spring Festival Holiday. Although almost anything flying in the Changshui restricted zone obviously represents a hazard, China currently has no comprehensive legislation on the books regulating drone activity — although vague 'Interim Provisions' were issued nationally in 2015. In the case of Kunming's airport, legal action is not an option in any case because no suspects exist to arrest, question or otherwise reprimand. Instead, airport authorities have turned to the general public for help, setting up a tip program for those with useful information. Beginning February 5, Changshui officials established a hotline for those wishing to report nefarious drone flights around the airport periphery. Rewards of up to 1,000 yuan have been offered for those reporting the most useful information. Over Spring Festival, similar concerns over drone activity caused flight delays and some cancellations at airports in Sichuan and Guangdong. No such slow-downs were reported surrounding the Changshui sightings. Much ado about soy milk If you travel to Lijiang and order soy milk at a restaurant, perhaps it's best not to complain if nothing arrives. Customers at an unidentified eatery in Yunnan's most visited tourist spot were threatened multiple times by members of the establishment's wait staff after complaining of slow service. The argument apparently escalated enough that patrons called police. After the authorities had departed — erroneously thinking they had ameliorated the situation — the waiters reportedly chased the offending diners out of the restaurant and down the street, armed with "knives and sticks". As with many salacious stories of this kind, few details have emerged, although it does appear none of those demanding rushed soy milk were harmed. Five people were arrested and sentenced to between ten days and two weeks in jail for the incident. While the silver lining in the Lijiang case is that no one was injured, the threat of harm does once again bring attention to the problem of customer relations in the province. Yunnan is currently in the midst of a massive and concerted shift toward a more tourism-fueled economy, and stories of menacing waiters are not the first of their type to emerge from Lijiang. In general, the province has over the years fostered a bit of a bad reputation for sometimes violent clashes between visitors and business proprietors. Top image: The Lincoln Center Middle image: Drone Buff Bottom image: Yereth Jansen[...]

Signs of life in Chenggong: Luolong Park

Wed, 08 Feb 2017 07:00:00 +0800

Chenggong (呈贡), Kunming's sprawling urban expanse to the south, is slowly shedding its ghost city moniker. For the better part of a decade, the 'new area' of Yunnan's capital has sat like an exceedingly expensive but forgotten bauble — a collection of absurdly wide avenues bereft of traffic, punctuated by row upon row of empty high-rise apartment towers. But there are signs of life, aided by several government efforts to force vitality into the once-moribund undertaking. The first major step occurred several years ago, when Yunnan, Yunnan Normal, and the provincial Science and Technology universities — among others — built entirely new campuses more than 25 kilometers south of the city center. Most government offices and service departments — such as the licensing and tax bureaus — were quick to follow suit. Aiding the further development of Chenggong, and certainly injecting some much-needed life, was the requirement of many university and municipal employees to purchase steeply discounted apartments near their new workplaces. And so the long, leisurely process of populating a city which did not exist 15 years ago picked up speed. A trickle of merchants followed the new tenants, and mega-shopping centers such as the absurdly huge Luosiwan International Trade City wholesale market began to fill up with retailers. The opening of Metro lines 1 and 2 further improved access to Chenggong, while brand new arrivals, including the Kunming South Train Station, have also aided the area's maturation process. Today, lively clusters of activity have sprung up near the campuses, while other pockets of humanity continue to grow, replete with markets, restaurants and scattershot nightlife options. In an effort to raise the quality of life, as well as attract more homebuyers, Chenggong is in the process of building several public green areas. The largest of these is Luolong Park (洛龙公园), located just about mid-way between Kunming's downtown and the southernmost end of the new city, just north of the Chunrong Jie Station (春融街站) on the Metro. The park was wholly built from scratch over the course of several years, beginning in 2006, bulldozed and excavated from what was once village farmland. It stretches nearly one kilometer from east to west and encompasses an eponymously named lake, several quiet walking paths, bridges and a large, central square adjacent to the water. Other than the lake and nicely manicured grounds, one of the park's biggest attractions is Long Pavilion (长亭), which fronts the square and overlooks the lotus-covered fringe of the lagoon. The decorative building has become a popular gathering place for families during the day and roving groups of musicians and dancing grandmas during the evenings. In addition to providing a much-needed green sanctuary for residents living near it, Luolong serves a second purpose. Built at a cost of 140 million yuan (US$20.4 million), the park is part of a strategy emerging across China to construct what have been dubbed 'Sponge Cities' (海绵城市). The concept is currently playing itself out as part of a pilot program in Kunming's neighbor to the south, Yuxi (玉溪). The idea is to find ways to make metropolitan areas far more adaptive in the face of climate change, specifically by capturing and effectively reusing rainwater. Yuxi has received 1.2 billion yuan (US$180 million) in government grants, while Kunming has been allocated significantly less. Nonetheless, Luolong Park is at least partially a 'Sponge City' project, designed as a type of emergency reservoir for times of drought, and constructed to absorb excess water during the rainy season. Part of this blueprint includes the planting of enormous quantities of hydrophilic — or water-loving — plants which are little effected by floods and act as 24-hour wetland water filters. Thus, many of the roads and other infrastructure systems bui[...]

24 hours in Heijing: Exploring Yunnan's hidden valley

Mon, 06 Feb 2017 13:50:00 +0800

The literal English translation of Heijing (黑井), the name of a valley town about 100 kilometers northwest of Kunming, is 'Black Well'. If you use WeChat's Youdao translator, it becomes 'Black Hole'. These interpretations are both a bit incorrect, since the name is actually a shortened version of 'Black Cow Well', a name derived from the local legend of an ethnic Yi girl's wandering ox that discovered a rich salt well on the banks of the Longchuan River (龙川江). When the farmer found her stray animal near the peculiar water source, she took a pail of the briny mixture home and used it to boil vegetables. The resulting stew was delicious, and Yunnan's number one salt town was thus born. I was initially attracted to Heijing because of its former status as one of Yunnan's most prosperous towns, as well as the numerous temples that roost above its slender river valley. Another draw was its convenient location on the rail line from Yuanmou (元谋) to Kunming. For some of my trip, I followed in the footsteps of GoKunming contributor Jim Goodman, who covered Heijing's salt history in significant depth. If you were to visit during the town's heyday in the Ming and Qing dynasties, you might have brushed up against some of the wealthiest families in Yunnan. Today, you are more likely to meet down-to-earth working class folk. Arrival at nightfall I was supposed to de-train in Heijing at 7pm, but the Kunming-bound 6161 was about 30 minutes late. Almost immediately after exiting the platform, I was approached by a woman in a black down coat advertising van service. My GPS app had indicated a considerable distance between the station and town, but I still decided to walk. Along the winding valley road — recently paved and lit with LED lanterns — I passed rice paddies and quiet groupings of farmhouses. Soon my path converged with the babbling Longchuan River. There was a 50-meter section that was quite dark, but generally the stroll was a comfortable way to stretch my legs after the 90-minute trip from Yuanmou (元谋). Arriving at the southern edge of the old town, I was greeted by the ominous beating of a large wood and calfskin drum. The player's concentrated, evenly spaced strokes reminded me of the austere rhythms of Japanese taiko. Stereotypically, I often associate such music with tribal dances or war preparations, but on that cool night, with the soft glow of red lanterns illuminating the narrow pedestrian street, the pulsations had a calming effect. I approached the wooden, two-story structure from which the beating emanated. For a minute or so, I imagined an era when villages across China awoke and fell asleep to the sound of drums. This atmospheric introduction got me thinking that visiting Heijing was indeed a good idea, an excellent way to round off my weekend getaway to Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture (楚雄彝族自治州). The strokes subsided, and that was my cue to find somewhere else to go. Not exactly sure whether a guesthouse would be easy to find, I asked the only other person on the street at that time, an elderly man dressed in a navy blue Zhongshan suit. Without hesitation, he led me further up the cobblestone road to the fabled Five Horses Bridge (五马大桥), named such because its exceptional width allowed five horses to ride abreast across the river. He explained that the stone arch crossing was originally constructed during the Yuan Dynasty, when Heijing was a rest stop for Mongol horses en route to the vast empire's frontier. He then pointed out and recited a couplet engraved at the eastern end of the span. The poem described a man visiting the bridge to 'see' the wind blowing through the unyielding archway below, and raindrops falling silently on the Sanqing Palace (三清宫) roof. He accompanied me to the west bank, where his home was, and directed me to find accommodation on 'Gourmet Street' (美食文[...]

Police seize 330 kilograms of narcotics following grenade attack

Fri, 03 Feb 2017 11:35:00 +0800

A violent clash on the border with Myanmar during Chinese New Year once again highlighted security concerns along China's southwestern border. The incident involved heavily armed border officers, an enormous shipment of various narcotics, live grenades and a shootout that left two men dead.

On the morning of January 28, two sport utility vehicles from Myanmar approached a border checkpoint outside the city of Longchuan (陇川) in far western Yunnan's Dehong Prefecture (德宏州). When ordered to stop for questioning by law enforcement personnel, the driver of the first car apparently opened fire with a pistol and then attempted to drive away.

A further exchange of shots ensued, with the driver of the second car reportedly throwing multiple grenades out of the window as he too attempted to flee. Police officers shot both men, killing one instantly and severely wounding the other. Although taken to a nearby hospital for treatment, the injured culprit died several hours later.

Two border guards — who are being heralded by news outlets and on social media as national heroes — were wounded during the attack. Media reports have yet to explain how the pair sustained their injuries, but both are said to be stable and recovering at local hospitals from non-life threatening injuries.

In the aftermath of the shootout, security personnel recovered a combined 330 kilograms of heroin, methamphetamine and opium from the seized vehicles. A handgun and ammunition were also found at the scene. The cache of impounded drugs represents one of the largest and most vicious busts of its kind in Yunnan in recent memory.

While reports of drug interdiction in this region of are common, they rarely involve the level of violence seen last week in Longchuan. However, security operations along the Sino-Burmese border have traditionally been exacerbated by a host of issues. Of the challenges incumbent in patrolling Yunnan's nearly 1,000-kilometer western frontier, a 2013 op-ed in People's Daily perhaps presaged the shootout, saying:

[quote]The political situation in the region, including unrest in Myanmar and other complex situations, has led to the collusion of domestic and foreign criminals in the unlawful manufacture and trafficking of drugs, as well as the increased infiltration of drugs across the board. The influx of large amounts of drugs and guns have made narcotics work an extremely dangerous challenge.[/quote]

Image: The Street

Going remote for new year: Celebrating on the Nanding River

Mon, 30 Jan 2017 08:00:00 +0800

As Lunar New Year approaches in Yunnan, travelers there, like anywhere else in China, have to make up their minds where they intend to spend the next several days. Plane, train and bus ticket possibilities shrink hourly. Restaurants start locking up for the holidays and I've spent new year in cities where the only place open to eat was a single noodle stall. Hotels in popular getaway destinations in Yunnan jack up the price for rooms and services, 500 percent in Jinghong (景洪), for example, compared to 'only' 300 percent for other peak times such as Water-Splashing Festival in April. I faced this problem one February when I was in Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) to see the Jinuo Temaoke Festival. Being a solar calendar event, that year the festival took place several days before new year. But I didn't want to pay the extra money for staying in Jinghong, with nothing particularly interesting scheduled for the holidays anyway. So I decided to explore some place where I'd never been and settled on Junsai (军赛) in Lincang Prefecture on the right bank of the Nanding River (南汀河) — about 25 kilometers upriver from Mengding (孟定). This city I knew from a visit over a decade earlier was dominated by the Dai nationality (傣族), with a few De'ang (德昂) and Wa (佤族) villages in the hills. I hadn't crossed the river then, but it looked similar to the landscape on the Mengding side — rice paddies and rubber tree plantations backed by hills. On the map, Junsai is identified as a Wa, Lahu (拉祜族), Lisu (傈僳族) and De'ang Autonomous District. Surely one of these minorities would be doing something for new year, I reckoned. Deep into the countryside An old friend and veteran Yunnan traveler joined me for this excursion and we took the long and sometimes grueling bus ride to Gengma (耿马), stayed the night and left for the Nanding River in the morning. We continued to Mengding to take a look, found it full of new buildings, all with Dai-style angled roofs, fancy hotels and only one restaurant still open. Well, it was just two days before new year. We arrived at noon in Junsai — basically a one-street town — found a simple guesthouse and three small restaurants still open, so for sure we could eat this night. Whether they would close from tomorrow we didn't know yet, but I'd brought a duty-free bottle of 18-year-old Chivas, so if the drink shops were going to close, too, we anyway had decent liquor to enjoy for the holiday. Most of Junsai's inhabitants are Dai and some of them were busy planting the winter rice crop. We walked out of the town on the road going upriver and passed two rather uninteresting De'ang villages. Their houses were modern ones of brick and concrete, without any temple, and only a few women wore De'ang style clothing, usually just the distinctive short jacket over a sarong. At the end of Dabao (大包), the second village, a banner strung across the road welcomed everyone to the new year celebration ground. The venue was a slope that stretched down to the riverside, where a wooden swing had been erected and children were taking turns on it. Some tables had been set up between the swing and the stage a little ways up the slope, but vendors hadn't started laying out their goods yet. The stage arrangements hadn't been finished yet, but one of the men overseeing the work hailed us over, introduced himself and invited us to have dinner with them the following two evenings. Well that solved any food problems we might have had. Returning to Junsai, we walked out the other end of town and down the road past the turn-off to Mengding, coming to a side road leading uphill. A wooden gate straddled this road, with a buffalo skull mounted on the overhead crossbeam. Got to be a Wa village, we guessed, and headed up the hill. Fortunately, the climb was neither strenuous[...]

Year of the Rooster

Fri, 27 Jan 2017 07:00:00 +0800

The first day of Spring Festival — called danian chuyi (大年初一) in Chinese — this year falls on January 28. At midnight, the Year of the Monkey will come to a close and the Year of the Rooster will begin, no doubt with a bang. If you do not understand what exactly is going on during all the festivities, you are not alone. The Chinese zodiac is a slippery and convoluted beast. Throw in numerology and thousands of years of tradition and things get even more complicated. Below is a quick primer on what motivates people to do what they do during Spring Festival and what you should expect if this is your birth year. It is a basic overview and not intended to be an exhaustive catalogue. Spring Festival basics At precisely midnight, huge metropolises and tiny country villages alike will explode with the sounds and lights of millions of fireworks. Traditionally fireworks were used for scaring away bad spirits from the previous year and keeping those lurking in the new one at bay. More generally, a new year is seen as a new beginning, and fireworks help to clear the way of bad luck and misfortune. This tradition has its roots in Chinese mythology. Setting off firecrackers was an effective way to intimidate the marauding monster Nian (年兽). Legend has it the demon repeatedly attacked a village during the new year and had a predilection for carrying off small children. Villagers eventually found the Nian could be frightened away by loud noises and the color red. The Nian story is reenacted during cacophonous new year's lion dance performances and accompanied by firecrackers and traditional Chinese instruments. Also at midnight, under a canopy of fireworks, Buddhist and Daoist temples across the Middle Kingdom will be inundated with people. Temple-goers will pray and light incense and candles to gain merit. It is considered especially auspicious to release fish or turtles into temple ponds at the stroke of midnight. Less common, but still considered propitious, is to release birds. In Chinese, releasing any of these animals is referred to as fangsheng (放生), which loosely translates to 'letting a life go.' In a Western sense, this is akin to doing good deeds to cleanse oneself of sins. It is considered auspicious to burn incense as close to midnight as possible, which is called touzhuxiang (头柱香). It is best to do this in a temple, but can also be done at an altar located in the home. Holidays are always a time for family in China, and Spring Festival — or Chunjie (春节) — is no exception. No matter how far from one another they live, families will get together to blow things up, shower children with gifts and red envelopes stuffed with cash and most certainly eat and drink. New Year's Eve dinner — or nianyefan (年夜饭) — is especially important, and in preparation families will clean their houses from top to bottom. It is conventional for people to dress in new clothes for the meal, further marking a fresh start. The feast marks the beginning of more than two weeks of celebration — each day with its own specific traditions — which come to a close during Lantern Festival (上元节) on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Many rural families, especially in Yunnan, raise at least one pig and hold it aside for slaughter on the new year. Every part of the pig is used to make several different dishes, which an extended family will then share signifying togetherness. The pig can be replaced with a goat or donkey as well, depending on what is hanging around the barnyard. The meal is called shazhufan (杀猪饭) which translates as 'kill the pig meal'. Dishes made for this feast are often consumed over several days as leftovers depending on the size of the family and of the pig. Having leftovers around is significant because for many peop[...]