Tag: China

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.9: Char siu bao from China

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.9: Char siu bao from China

Quite simply, Char siu bao are the best street food ever. These steamed, yeasted dumplings filled with sticky barbecued pork may have started life in the heat of Southern China, but they’ve migrated to every corner of the country (and much of Asia and the rest of the world). In Beijing and Shanghai, there are whole shops devoted to them, not least because they make a fantastic warmer in the cold winters. People argue about the finer points of whose version is best.

None of this is a secret, but there are two surprises. The first is that bao are relatively easy to make, if you’re used to baking: you mostly use standard bread-making techniques, the difference coming only at the end when you use a steamer instead of an oven (there are baked versions of bao, but the steamed ones are far more common). The second is that they’re as good a dish to make at home as they are to eat on the street or in a dim sum joint: they freeze wonderfully and 20 seconds in a microwave will get a bao from fridge temperature to a delicious and warming snack.

A few subtleties before you start:

  • You will need a steamer, either purpose-built or jury-rigged. The ideal is to have one or two Chinese bamboo steamers set over a wok with a couple of centimetres of boiling water (they stack). But you can use anything you like that gets steam flowing around your bao without them ending up in a pool of hot water.
  • The bao you buy off the street in China or in dim sum joints are preternaturally white. That’s because they’re made from highly bleached flour (if you’re in a Chinese shop, ask for “Hong Kong flour”). Personally, I’m not bothered.
  • Tracts have been written on the best way to achieve maximum fluffiness of the bun. I’ve still got room from improvement here: when lockdown ends, I’ll be trying some different types of flour and technical variations on when to add the baking powder, whether to do a second prove, etc. For now, I’m going with a 5:1 mix of strong white bread flour to cornflour (it’s what I’ve got). Ideally, use a white flour with a low protein content.
  • The filling given here is an example. Use your favourite Chinese flavourings: bean pastes, oyster sauce, whatever; add chili if want it spicy. The choice is yours.
  • Choose your favourite spelling: Char siu vs Char siew vs chāshāo. And choose your favourite recipe for making it: I’ve given you one below.

Dough

  • 8g dried yeast
  • 50g sugar
  • 180g warm water (around 40℃)
  • 20g oil (I used sunflower oil, any fairly neutral oil will work)
  • 300g white flour
  • 60g cornflour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  1. Preheat oven to 50℃ (you’ll be using it to prove the dough).
  2. Combine water, sugar and yeast; stir well to dissolve; leave for 10 minutes or so
  3. Combine flour, cornflour, salt and baking powder and mix thoroughly
  4. Once your wet mixture is nicely frothy, add it to the dry mixture. Mix thoroughly into a ball and then knead for around 5-10 minutes – you’ve kneaded it enough when the dough is very elastic and bounces back nicely when you stretch or punch it.
  5. Put the dough into a large bowl with a damp tea towel over it. SWITCH OFF THE OVEN and put it in. Leave the dough to to rise for around 60-90 minutes. I can never figure out what people mean when they say “until it’s doubled in size”: I leave the dough until it’s mostly filled the bowl.

Filling

You’ll have time to make your filling while the dough is being left to rise.

  • 200g Char siu (see below for recipe)
  • 90g red onion or banana shallots
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 spring onions
  • 1 tbs oil (I used sunflower oil, any fairly neutral oil will work)
  • 1 tbs hoisin sauce
  • 1 tbs dark soya sauce
  1. Chop the Char siu very finely (around 3mm dice would be ideal). Chop the onion, garlic and spring onions very finely also.
  2. Heat oil in your wok to high heat. When hot, add the onions and garlic, stir-fry for a couple of minutes
  3. Add spring onions, stir fry until onions are transparent
  4. Add Char siu, hoisin sance and dark soya sauce, mix thoroughly, then turn the heat down and stir fry for a minute or two until everything is combined and fragrant.
  5. Remove from heat and let cool while your dough is rising. If you’re going to use the same wok for steaming, you’ll now need to decant the filling to another bowl and wash up the wok.

Assembly

  1. Cut twelve squares of greaseproof paper, around 8cm square.
  2. Take the dough out of its bowl and divide into twelve portions, as evenly as you can manage (the easiest way to get them even is to roll the dough into a cylinder, chop it into half, chop each half in half and then each remaining piece into three).
  3. With a floured rolling pin on  floured surface, roll a portion of dough out into a flat disc, around 12cm in diameter.
  4. Spoon a dollop of filling into the middle (don’t touch it with your fingers or you’ll then stain the dough)
  5. Pinch up the dough into pleats, ensuring at each stage that the filling isn’t being allowed to drop out. You end up with a shape a bit like the onion dome on a Russian church.
  6. Put the completed dumpling on a square of greaseproof paper and transfer it to your steamer.
  7. Repeat for the remaining bao. Depending on the size of your steamer, you may have to do this in several batches.
  8. Steam the bao for around 12-15 minutes until fluffy and cooked through.

Making your own Char Siu

Char siu is barbecued, marinated pork. The first thing you have to decide is what pork to buy. My preferred cut is shoulder, which has some fat in it but not too much. Fillet (aka tenderloin) or loin is OK, but has so little fat content that it tends to dry out. Belly is the opposite: your char siu will be beautifully soft but you may find it rather fatty.

There are a million different recipes for the marinade. They pretty much all involve soy sauce, garlic, five spice powder, a sweetener (sugar / honey / hoisin sauce) and something to make it sour (vinegar / tomato puree). Shaoxing rice wine is a popular addition. Quantities can vary wildly according to taste.

The best suggestion I’ve found for simulating the way the Chinese make char siu comes from Woks of life: set your oven to its highest setting (probably 250℃ fan) and roast your meat on a grid over water. I’ve gone for a simplified version of what they do.

By tradition, char siu is red. In practise, this is typically achieved by using red food colouring. Personally, I can’t be bothered, so my char siu is brown.

  • Pork shoulder – 1 kg
  • Garlic – 3 clove, crushed
  • Five spice powder – ½ tsp
  • Dark soya sauce – 1 tbs
  • Hoisin sauce – 1 tbs
  • Shaoxing rice wine – 1 tbs
  • Tomato puree – 1 tbs
  1. Cut the pork into large strips (around 6-8 cm in diameter). If you’re using tenderloin, that’s pretty much the width of the whole thing, so just cut it in half.
  2. Mix all the marinade ingredients in a bowl big enough to hold the pork, dunk the pork into the marinade and make sure it’s all properly coated, cover and leave overnight.
  3. Preheat oven to 250℃, with an oven shelf near the top.
  4. Use a deep oven dish half-filled with water. Place a grid over the oven dish, then put the pork on the grid. 
  5. Put the whole lot into the oven and roast for around 40 minutes. You want the pork to be cooked through, but not dry. You may want to baste the pork with any remaining marinade every 10 minutes or so.

The quantities given are for 1 kg of pork, which is over three times what you’ll need for one batch of bao. The idea is that you’re going to eat some freshly cooked for a main meal, and then use the leftovers for bao a day or so later, freezing any you have left after that.

China blog 5 – our trip ends in Shanghai

China blog 5 – our trip ends in Shanghai

“If you only visited Shanghai, you would leave thinking that China is undoubtedly bound for greatness.” After a day and a couple of nights in the last city of our brief tour, I can’t sum it up any better than Rob Gifford, who had been a China expert for decades when he wrote his superb travelogue China Road in 2008. You can’t help but be swept up in the sheer brash optimism of the place, the bright lights, the bustling crowds, the sense of boundless opportunity.

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Shopping square near Yu Garden

Shanghai reeks of the scent of money being made. In any restaurant of mid-price range and up, you’ll see mixed groups of Westerners and Chinese, most usually businesspeople stitching deals together – or, more accurately, lest we forget that business isn’t simply a series of deals, simply getting on with managing their joint ventures. A typical snippet of conversation, overheard in a decidedly not-top-end dumpling restaurant, was this vote of thanks from a German accented man to his Chinese hosts: “thank you for facilitating this construction project, both by official and unofficial means.” In our brief stay, without making any particular efforts at an inventory, we came across a chemical engineer, a conference organiser, executives from the automotive and semiconductor industries.

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View across the river from the Bund

The most obvious manifestation of Shanghai’s go-get-em atmosphere is the city lights, and the best place to see them is from somewhere high on the Bund, the former trading area of the foreign concessions (we were at the smart Sky Bar on the roof of the somewhat elderly-looking Roosevelt Hotel, but I’m sure there were dozens of other possible places). The neon glitters and dazzles for kilometres each side of the Huangpu River, much of it in building-sized animations: a meteor shower here, a moving figure there, the “Welcome to Shanghai” slogans on top of the 632 metre Shanghai Tower (the second tallest in the world). On Nanjing Road, the city lights are of a different kind: kilometres of high end retail, the ground floor lights spilling opulence onto the pavements, the product images on the upper floors blazing out their consumerist messages, the quality of the photography up to the highest international standards. And the shops get as high end as the proprietors can manage, from the “Starbucks Reserve Roastery” (I assume some superior form of Starbucks) to the Maserati dealership.

 

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Reclining jade buddha at the Jing’an Buddhist Temple

But the busy, get-on-with-it atmosphere shows up in improbable places. The Jing’an Buddhist Temple isn’t particularly venerable, but it’s large and thriving, with new buildings and new statues added to the extraordinarily beautiful pair of jade buddhas that are its crown jewels (it’s often known as the “Jade Buddha Temple”). It’s also obviously a working monastery: you walk past groups of monks chanting, copying out scriptures, setting up votive incense sticks and generally going about their business. This is 21st century China, however, so you also see them with heads buried in their cellphones – a common complaint that the Chinese older generation make about today’s young people.

 

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Jing’an Buddhist Temple

The game has winners, losers and people in-between. You may not see many of the losers, but we certainly saw the winners in the restaurant we went to on the Bund, and we talked with one young woman who earns a decent living in her adequate day job, but who dreams of being a businesswoman and is unsure how to climb the career ladder. We met another in-betweener in hilariously scary circumstances, when our Chinese Uber-equivalent failed to show up, so our guide hailed a public taxi. The driver confessed that this was his first day driving a cab, and it can’t have been many days into his driving career, as he barely had clutch control of the car, stalling several times in our 40 minute journey. He was clearly terrified of the fairly aggressive lane-changing tactics needed for the Shanghai rush hour, with our guide coaching him on which lane to change into as we went. But we arrived at our show in time (albeit only just), and if he doesn’t crash his taxi, he’ll probably be fine in a month’s time. I certainly hope so.

 

Broadly, it must be said, the transport infrastructure seems to work. The big expressways make traffic relatively OK during normal times, while the rush hour is no worse than, say, London or New York. Parking is thin on the ground, but not the disaster it is in Beijing. One local complained to us that to save fuel, the maglev train to the airport doesn’t run at full speed except in peak hours – it runs at “only” 300 km/h, the speed of the bullet trains. And once again, I can’t help being struck by the fact that things work. The airport is well laid out, the immigration and security systems run as smoothly as you could imagine: you cannot escape the contrast of the experience to that of the London airports, with their abysmal layout optimised for shopping, not flying, or of Los Angeles, with its random disorganisation and its casual disregard for passenger inconvenience.

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Moon cakes

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Loom at the Silk Factory

Shanghai still has things you won’t easily find elsewhere. The food really is great, from the restaurants to the moon cake vendors (the term “moon cake” here seems to mean anything that’s baked and round, whether savoury or sweet: the pork moon cake we had was like the flakiest, most mouth-watering sausage roll I’ve ever had). The acrobatics show at the end of our novice taxi driver’s journey was a dazzling display of strength and precision body control. The “free silk factory tour” was an effective fifteen minute zoom through the process of how silk goes from worm to garment (vegetarians look away, because the silkworms do die in the process). However, it was free only if you had the strength to ignore the bewildering array of silk garments, bedding and other products in the huge showroom behind. I don’t imagine that many people do: we certainly didn’t. The posh hotels are super hi-tech: we heard from one traveller who ordered a room service coffee and was astonished when his room bell rang and he opened the door to a robot, which dutifully brought the coffee into his room, left it on his table and departed.

 

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Dragon at Yu Garden, Shanghai

Will China become truly great? The picture that Shanghai paints is of a country that will continue its break-neck pace of progress out of poverty and become a beacon of prosperity for the world. Or will China implode from the contradictions of its sclerotic, corruption-ridden political system, or from the sheer size of the environmental challenges it faces? I don’t think anyone can be sure, but I’ll point you again in the direction of Rob Gifford, who explores the question thoroughly and thoughtfully in China Road. Broadly, we’ve only seen the good bits of China on our travels, so I can’t really judge. But after reading a decent amount about China and seeing it at close quarters for the first time, I understand a huge amount more about the country, and particularly how much of what it does is an inevitable consequence of its history. It’s been fascinating, and I’d like to be optimistic.

China blog 4 – Guilin and the Li River

China blog 4 – Guilin and the Li River

The river Li, in Guangxi province, meanders gently through a bountiful land: a land filled with rice, water chestnuts, kumquats, oranges, long beans, taro and dozens of other crops. When you see a field being hoed before planting, the soil itself seems to invite you to grasp its richness. The backdrop to this fertility is of the most dramatic kind: tens of thousands of sheer limestone peaks, all but the most vertical overhangs covered in lush green forest.

The Li valley isn’t the only karst formation in the world, and it’s by no means the only beautiful river valley in China. But its combination of lush fertility and the extraordinary backdrop is perhaps unique: certainly unique enough to be printed billions of times on the country’s 20 yuan banknote and to attract throngs of tourists – nearly 30 million a year, 90% of them from the rest of China. Maybe it’s something spiritual that attracts them: if you’ve spent time in Asia, you’ll understand that when you see the lush green of a paddy field, the stems groaning with rice waiting to be harvested, there’s a deep, visceral feeling that all’s well with the world.

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Karst peaks and rice and water-chestnut fields near Yangshuo

In point of fact, not everything is well with the world. All that lush produce is coming from smallholdings and the need to keep food prices low for a burgeoning urban population means, as it has often done through history, that farmers barely earn enough to feed themselves: most farming families require other sources of income. There are government subsidies, but in spite of the huffing and puffing from both Donald Trump and Barack Obama before him, they sound painfully low to me: our guide told us that a mu of land near Guilin, Guangxi’s capital, will attract just 100 yuan (in English: the subsidy for an acre is £67), although subsidies in the famous rice terraces of Longqi attract up to 100 times that, since they are expensive to farm and rightly considered a priceless tourist attraction. And while Guilin and Yangshuo (the town at the other end of the most popular Li River cruise route) look bustling and prosperous, you still catch snatches of underdevelopment and poverty: Yangshuo’s main food market was packed with wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables, but hygiene standards were indifferent. In another Yangshuo market, just before opening time, I saw a number of women crouched among the refuse sacks, reclaiming the contents of half-eaten lunch boxes: one hopes it was for animal feed, but I felt alarmingly uncertain.

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Tea shop in Guilin

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Making chili-garlic paste

The truth is, though, that these are isolated instances in what looks like an improving picture. The main food streets are incredibly busy, which attests to tourist money flowing into the local economy: there are lots of specialities made with local produce, amongst which the large scale hand-chopping of chilies, garlic and ginger into the fiery pickled paste beloved by Guangxi foodies is a delightful sight.  Local young people say that their parents and especially grandparents are continually enjoining them to appreciate what they have, compared to the incredible levels of hardship those grandparents had to survive. And it’s become possible to leave government service to be an entrepreneur: we bought tea from a former English teacher who had become fed up with the ten hour working days and low pay and had joined his family in setting up what appeared to be a successful tea business (before he retrained as a tea master, he confessed, none of them had any prior experience). At Guilin’s “Elephant Trunk Hill”, the stall renting traditional dress for children to pose in photos was doing a steady trade. Elephant Trunk Hill, by the way, gets lit up at night in spectacular fashion, with constantly changing colours.

The name Guilin (桂林), by the way, means “Osmanthus forest” – the second kanji character is delightfully pictorial. No, I hadn’t heard of the Osmanthus tree either before I came here, but it’s a dark leaved thing which provides masses of tiny yellow flowers which are incredibly aromatic and make a delicious tea.

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Dressing up at Elephant Trunk Hill

One of the signs of increasing prosperity is a kind of slow motion building boom. Most rural families aspire to a bigger and better home. They have enough land to build one on their plot, but they’re short of ready cash to buy building materials: whenever they get a bit of spare cash, they plough it into the next step of building their new home. As a result, you see large numbers of part-finished houses, anywhere from concrete shells with no walls yet through to places that are obviously being lived in but still need work. Another impressive sight is watching a rice paddy being blitzed by a kind of miniature combine harvester: it’s only a tiny thing, not much over a couple of metres in length, but it powers through a small rice field leaving a pile of stalks behind, arriving at the end of its trip to disgorge its pickings into the awaiting farmers’ rice sacks. It bears no comparison with the giant tractor-driven behemoths that you’d see in an English wheat field (let alone its American equivalent), but it’s small, neat and effective.

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Building boom, Guangxi-style

But setting aside such musings about China’s economy and prospects, the main impression that Guangxi on one is the extraordinary beauty of its scenery. As someone with pretensions to being a serious photographer, I normally spend my life looking around a landscape looking for a good angle. Here in the Li River valley, the lovely slow-flowing river and those amazing karst pinnacles mean that you can stand somewhere and pivot full circle with a good angle for a stunningly framed shot in almost any direction you look. If this place isn’t on your bucket list yet, it should be.

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The “20 yuan note” view of the Li River near Xingping

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Elephant Trunk Hill in Guilin

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“Lion watching the nine horses” on the Li River

China blog 3 – Xian and the Terracotta Army

China blog 3 – Xian and the Terracotta Army

If China’s first bucket list destination is the Great Wall, the second is most surely the Terracotta Army: the 8,000 soldiers of the army of Qin (pronounced “chin”) Shihuang, the first emperor to unite China, each exquisitely sculpted to match the features and accoutrements of an individual soldier, their ranks accompanied by chariots and horses. The site is a much more recent addition to bucket lists than the Great Wall: although the existence of the tomb was written in historical records, the first discovery in modern times was made in 1974 when a farmer came across pottery fragments while digging a well.

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Pit 1 – the largest of the three areas excavated

There are delicate ironies at work here. When Mao undertook the wholesale destruction of ancient Chinese culture, his prototype was none other than Qin Shihuang, whose drive to expunge Confucianism and impose an even more rigid “Legalist” system included the wholesale execution of the intellectuals of his time (Mao boasted that he was repeating Qin’s work but on a massively greater scale). One can only imagine the thoughts of Zhao Kangmin, the official in charge of the local cultural centre, at gradually realising the importance of the find at a time when the Cultural Revolution was still in progress, albeit in its last throes.

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Faces of the infantry

The fate of the whole enterprise is an irony in itself: Qin thought he was creating an immortal monument to the creator of an eternal dynasty, but only a few years after his death, his heir Fusu was dead and the Terracotta Army had been smashed to pieces by peasant rebels. So far, if I heard this right, only one kneeling archer has been recovered unbroken: the remaining figures on show so far have been reassembled from fragments; the zone of partially assembled figures is known locally as “the hospital”, including the “intensive care” unit for the most difficult cases. A high percentage of the army remains asleep underground, awaiting the day when archaeologists get round to awaking them and making them whole once more. It’s like the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle, with added clues provided by proximity but with no certainty that there aren’t pieces missing. These days, computer imaging and matching is used to help the solution, but that hasn’t stopped the pace of restoration from slowing in recent years due to resource constraints (as well as, presumably, a certain amount of fatigue).

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Pit 1: the vanguard seen from the rear

The whole site reinforces the two main themes about China to emerge from our trip so far: scale and craftsmanship. The scale is vast from your very first moment when you enter the aircraft-hangar-like structure that covers “Pit 1”, the largest of the three pits excavated so far, and see the massed ranks of soldiers (and of visitors, anything up to 60,000 a day of them). But that pales into insignificance when you open Wikipedia and read that the whole necropolis has been estimated at 98 square kilometres – a not-much-scaled-down model of the imperial compound. This includes Qin’s tomb itself, which has not yet been excavated, ostensibly because of fears over the difficulty of the task and contamination from the two rivers of mercury which flowed through it, although I wonder whether superstition plays a part here somewhere.

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Kneeling archer

However much you’ve heard in advance, the artistry and craft of the sculptures take your breath away. The facial features are so vividly rendered that at any moment, you expect one of the soldiers to step out and start a conversation with you: apparently, this actually happened a few years back when a young German, suitably clothed and face-painted, stood motionless in the army, unnoticed for several hours until a visitor was spooked out by seeing a pair of eyebrows move (the impostor refused to go quietly and had to be forcibly removed by security guards). Armour, clothing and body shapes show gradations in status: particularly notable are the ribbons, upturned shoes, expensive fish-scale armour and generous pot belly of the senior officer (the Chinese call it “corruption belly”). But perhaps the most telling detail of all is the perfectly reproduced pattern of stones set into the sole of the kneeling archer’s foot to provide grip – “Qin Dynasty Adidas”, as our guide put it. The detail of the archer’s hands is also extraordinary.

 

In the absence of the Terracotta Army, most Western visitors probably wouldn’t bother to visit Xian, although it has some other interesting features. The inner city is one of only a few in China whose ancient city walls survive (like Pingyao, only an order of magnitude bigger), and it has fine examples of the ubiquitous pairing of drum tower and bell tower (the former would be used to tell the time in the morning, the latter in the evening). As the head of the Silk Road, Xian was the jumping off point for many of the travellers who visited India and brought back Buddhism, so there are a couple of significant pagodas: we visited the Small Goose Pagoda, thirteen stories high and unbroken in a millennium and a half of earthquakes.

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Making biang biang noodles

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Jewellery vendors in the Muslim Quarter

There’s also a thriving Muslim quarter, which throngs with food stalls and which provided the first three stops on a food tour provided by some people called “Lost Plate”. This turned out to be brilliant: we were spirited around various food venues in the city by tuk-tuk (an electric motor-cycle with a carriage on the back just about capable of holding four people, and able to navigate the tightest of back streets). They chose exactly the kind of places you would never find on your own: a specialist in “biang biang” noodles, whose name comes from the noise made as the noodle-maker bashes the dough while hand-stretching it, an elderly retired man who produced skewers of sumptuous barbecued meat, an amazing place serving “soup dumplings” (think of a large raviolo whose filling has released liquid so that you bite the parcel open and suck the soup out before eating the rest of the dumpling).

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Chinese Muslim Barbecue

Part of the reason that you wouldn’t find these places on your own, it was explained to us, is that Xian is becoming a victim of its own success: with the large number of visitors and a growing economy, rents on the main food streets are skyrocketing, forcing smaller traders into the side-streets or, as in the case of our noodle makers and the barbecue man, back into their own homes. Certainly, Xian shows more signs of being settled down than Beijing does: there isn’t the same manic pace of construction everywhere, the air pollution felt far less severe (to the surprise of our guide, who expected everything in the capital to be better) and the roads far more in harmony with the number of cars: they’re astonishingly wide, many of them with four lanes in either direction. When I suggested that bits of the city must have been flattened to make way for them, I was roundly disabused: apparently this kind of road width has been a feature since ancient times. And the modern world is definitely visible: the road our hotel was on was cellphone city, lined with dozens of shops.

If Qin Shihuang has made it to his idea of the afterlife, he is undoubtedly filled with dismay at having to do so with an army that is a shattered, minuscule remnant of its original glory. But perhaps he can take heart that he is still considered the founder of a modern, united China. And he would surely be amazed at the 12 million people metropolis that his capital Xian – the city whose name means “Western Peace” – has become.

 

China blog 2 – mining the past in Pingyao and at the Great Wall

China blog 2 – mining the past in Pingyao and at the Great Wall

With a population of 50,000 or so, tiny Pingyao pales into insignificance beside China’s great cities. But that’s not how it always was: a century and half ago, its central location made it a major hub for the “northern tea route” to Russia and the cradle of the country’s banking system. Today, the city has recast itself as a key player in the Chinese project to reconnect people with their past.

Fun outside Pingyao city walls
Fun just inside Pingyao city wall

It’s worth giving a broad sweep of the historical context, which starts around 2,500 years ago with the “warring states” period and the writings of Confucius. The great sage’s prescription of a highly stratified, deferential society in which everyone knows their place may seem horribly restrictive to modern ears, but its appeal becomes more understandable when you consider that it came at a time ravaged by warfare, banditry and generalised mayhem. Even though its emphasis on an enlightened ruler and the duties of rich as well as poor would be as often honoured in the breach as in the making, Confucianism would come to epitomise the Chinese mentality and, with a brief intermission in the rule of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (he of the terracotta army), would last until Mao’s Cultural Revolution nearly – but not quite – succeeded in wiping it out, along with everything of the essence of old China that Mao could lay his hands on.

Confucius Shrine fountain
Throwing coins into the wishing pond at the Confucius shrine

While most of today’s Chinese seem to be thoroughly satisfied with the results of Deng Xiaoping’s great project to open China to modernity and the West, many fear that an unwanted side effect has been an accelerating loss of Chinese identity. Chief amongst these is today’s president, Xi Jinping, the result being a drive to reclaim China’s past. And that’s where Pingyao comes in, with the walls of its old city unbroken since the Ming Dynasty in the thirteenth century, its heritage as the home of merchants celebrated for their integrity and its six-gated, turtleback-shaped pattern of streets untouched by the modern high rise world.

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Cider vinegar – a Pingyao speciality

Modern Pingyao – the bit outside the ancient city wall – is a coal city (there’s a permanent faint smell of coal in the air) and a farming market town. From the bullet train station, the cornfields stretch as far as the eye can see, interleaved with orchards of dates, persimmom and apples: the condiment of choice on a Pingyao restaurant table is not soya sauce but the local cider vinegar. The city is also celebrated for “Pingyao beef”, instantly recognisable by anyone Jewish as salt beef (corned beef, if you’re in America), which is somewhat less salty than the European version but equally delicious.

City Hall - Wheel of fortune
Wheel of fortune at City Hall

The inner city, however is about heritage. You can visit a significant shrine to Confucius or the large Taoist temple; you can see the old government buildings where they re-enact criminal trials in the style of bygone days (the process, with an investigating judge, is closer to the French one than to the UK or US adversarial system). You can visit an agency which provided the armed muscle to protect travelling merchants: I’m afraid I couldn’t resist a giggle at the English translation as the “Armed escort agency” – accurate, but raising other connotations.

 

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Courtyard of Ri Shengchang Exchange House

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Canteen kitchen at Ri Shengchang Exchange House

Particularly popular is Ri Shengchang Exchange House, which was set up in 1823 in a former dyer’s shop and became one of China’s first nationwide banks, with branches stretching across the country and in key foreign markets. The traditional way of transporting payment for goods had been in silver ingots, which were heavy and susceptible to accidents and banditry: Ri’s innovation was to replace this by letters of credit and cheques, which included anti-forgery measures in the shape of water-marks, the use of a small number of calligraphers whose handwriting was well known to bank employees in all branches, and the use of encryption with keys that changed regularly. The encryption was a simple substitution cypher and the keys weren’t changed very often (every year or two), but it worked well enough to make the house prosper until the central government started printing banknotes in the 20th century.

 

The legendary probity of Ri and his various counterparts forms the basis of the “Impression Pingyao” immersive theatre show. Created on the usual Chinese massive scale, a cast of over 200 actors and dancers accompany you and your thousand or so fellow visitors as you walk through the streets of old Pingyao (modelled on a scale that isn’t nearly as much reduced from the real thing as you feel it should be) to relate a tale of the fidelity of the merchant who travels to Russia to reclaim the only son of an employee who has died at his dangerous posting, only to be killed on his return voyage, together with his bodyguards (the body count gets pretty high in these stories).

Impressions of Pingyao
Impression Pingyao: brides waiting to be chosen

Confession time: this is the kind of stultifying morality tale which makes me clutch my stomach and run for the hills, much in the manner of the opening show at the London Olympics. The effect was mitigated by the fact that (a) it was in Mandarin, so I didn’t have to listen to the undoubtedly saccharine dialogue and (b) the theatricals were suitably impressive: the Chinese really are good at theatre lighting and at getting large numbers of dancers/gymnasts to perform coordinated acrobatics on stage. But I can’t deny the fact that the locals were lapping this stuff up. As part of a focused campaign of indoctrination of a people into its supposed past virtues, I’m impressed by the method, even if the all-too-easy moral prescription makes my toes curl.

 

Impressions of Pingyao-2
Impression Pingyao

The vast majority (over 90%) of Pingyao’s tourists are from inside China. There are complaints, similar to those we’ve heard in Prague, that too many of them are bused in, spend a couple of hours seeing the major sights and then disappear again, not doing much for the local economy, but that still leaves plenty to throng the streets of the old city. The main arterial streets are lined end to end with small shops and stallholders. These give a great opportunity to assess what’s popular with the Chinese on holiday: a stroll along South Street passes enameled goods, elaborate designs made of cut paper, silver jewellery, plastic toys, brass and ceramic knick-knacks, perfume, soap, tea, hair combs, musical instruments, clothing of various sorts, shooting arcades, theme park ticket sellers, foot massage parlours as well as a place where you can get a pedicure where fish nibble at the dry skin, fungus and parasites on your feet (scuba divers will recognise the idea as a “cleaning station”). Local produce includes walnuts (not just for eating, but with pairs of the best ones to be used for hand massage), beef preserved in jars, dates and giant jars of the local cider vinegar, generally sold by the litre. Roadside bakery stalls turn out batches of various sorts of griddle cakes and biscuits: particularly popular at this time of year are the “moon cakes”, a hollow biscuit-like shell with a sesame-flavoured filling (the generosity of the filling is sadly variable between vendors).

 

South Street at night
South Street at night

Stallholder with preserved beef
Vendor proudly showing off jars of preserved beef

There are few bars, many restaurants and zillions of roadside stalls selling the kinds of street food you might find anywhere in China: dumplings, steamed buns, octopus or meat grilled on skewers, glutinous rice dyed with bright food colouring and cut out of large cakes. I particularly enjoyed watching the man hand-slicing noodles into a huge vat of soup, using something like a pizza wheel to slice off each noodle at a time from his large rectangle of dough.

 

Pingyao roofs
Pingyao rooftops

But the truth is that the real attraction of Pingyao is in its buildings, and not just the major ones: the uniform colour of the grey brick and tiles combined with the variety of the shapes and patterns makes for a true feeling of being transported into the past. Of course, this is Asia, where the tradition is that buildings are continually renewed and rebuilt, so there’s not really such a thing as an “authentic building” which has stood untouched for hundreds of years, but there are plenty of buildings whose appearance has not fundamentally changed in a millennium (philosophers will recognise the “ship of Theseus” question). The work of restoration is constant.

Reclaiming and restoring the past is also what you see when you visit the Great Wall, which is being steadily rebuilt in convenient, tourist party-sized chunks. There’s not much to say about the Great Wall’s history and scale that isn’t already well aired: suffice to say that it’s every bit as awesome in the flesh as you are prepared for by reading the stories, and the biggest surprise was the richness of the wildlife, with much birdsong and a thousand butterflies. But once again, the Chinese way of organising things is remarkable.

The Great Wall
The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling

We visited the wall at a newly restored section at Jinshanling, some two hours Northwest of Beijing, having been told that it would be relatively quiet compared to the heaving crowds at the sections nearer the city. This turned out to be good advice: there were no more than a couple of dozen people on our section of the wall. But that’s not what they’re planning for: the visitor centre and its accompanying car park and facilities are built to many hundreds at a time, perhaps thousands. Even in the United States, I’ve never seen a scenic monument with this kind of infrastructure. The facility isn’t finished, but given the impressive amount of carpentry being deployed (the hundreds of metres of decking and walkway were all being made on-site), I don’t suppose it’s going to take them long. Looking out from the car on our ride back to Beijing, we could see the massive engineering taking place for a new bullet train line to link Beijing with Jinshanling. Clearly, the Chinese authorities believe in the phrase “build it and they will come”.

Lantern shop
South Street lantern shop

China blog 1 – Beijing

China blog 1 – Beijing

There’s a lot you know about Beijing that doesn’t really hit you until you get here for the first time. So I knew how big and populous the city is, but I was still struck by the kilometres you can drive with high rise buildings stretching either side of you as far as the eye can see. I knew that traffic was supposed to be a problem, but I didn’t really clock the extent until we sat in a jam for fifteen minutes to cover a couple of hundred metres. I’ve read a decent amount about Chinese history, certainly enough to know that this was an ancient and magnificent civilisation, but that didn’t really prepare me for the sheer scale of places like the Temple of Heaven or the Forbidden City.

Panjiayuan Market - calligraphy materials
Panjiayuan Market – Calligraphy materials

They do things at scale here. Panjiayuan Market is simply enormous, with hundreds and hundreds of small stallholders plying their wares. The variety matches the size: you can find anything from a Ming vase to an old camera to an abacus or a mahjong set, as well as any knick-knacks you’ve ever dreamed of. The vast majority of it, we were told with some relish, is utterly fake. What is not fake, however, is the Chinese love for arts and crafts. The dozens of rows of stalls selling oddments to decorate your mantlepiece were matched by the numbers devoted to such things as paper, paint and brushes for calligraphy, soapstone for carving seals, driftwood to be made into sculpture, donkey hide to make shadow puppets as well as artists practising all those media and many more.

Panjiayuan Market - painting
Panjiayuan Market – painting

The romantic English view of Beijing is of the city of the million bicycles. That’s not how it works any more: everyone’s aspiration is to own a car, and nearly six million do. The resulting rush hour traffic is the stuff of nightmares, and the city hasn’t really grown a parking infrastructure to match vehicle ownership, so it’s broadly impossible to make a quick stop somewhere on your way from a to b. The other effect is that the air pollution can be pretty bad – the city is shrouded in a semi-permanent eye-stinging, throat-rasping haze that reminds me a great deal of Los Angeles on a bad day. The authorities, we were told, have now limited car registration permits in the city to 1,000 a year – a tiny fraction of the demand – and there’s been a huge growth in the subway system, but the average commute still runs at well over an hour. I suspect that the feel is something like 1960s London: there’s new wealth, there’s optimism and there’s steeply increasing car ownership in a city that isn’t quite sure how to deal with it.

Houhai lake - training for rowing race
Houhai Lake – training for rowing race

An early evening stroll round Houhai Lake (pronounced Ho Hay, the name means “Back Sea”, the lake having supposedly been formed by an upstream flood from the ocean) gives a good viewing of the Chinese at leisure. The area around the lake is packed with bars and restaurants, and the surrounding lakeshore is filled with people of all ages: courting couples, the elderly, young groups of friends, parents taking their baby for a stroll, you name it. Several points around the lake count as Beijing beauty spots, and I saw several instances of girls being photographed by a friend in poses that looked destined for whatever is the Chinese equivalent of Tinder. The sheer optimism of the place is inescapable: it was a bigger concentration of people looking generally cheerful (aided only marginally, if at all, by alcohol) than I’ve seen in many a year.

Houhai lake - family with bike
Houhai lakeshore

The concrete overload of Beijing’s forest of high rise buildings is moderated – for the tourist, at least – by the loveliness of its open spaces. The Temple of Heaven is striking as a monument, but is perhaps even more notable for the green space around it, while the Summer Palace is set in a stunning park and lake. Like anything the Chinese do that’s an important public space, both are vast.

Temple Heaven - Hall of Prayer for Harvest
Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven - interior
Temple of Heaven inside

The Temple of Heaven is the Ming emperors’ place of ceremonial sacrifices to the dragon, who is a godlike spirit with two crucial properties: (1) he controls the weather (i.e. life and death in a mediaeval farming community) and (2) he isn’t tied to any specific religion – especially useful in an empire covering vast territories where Taoism, Buddhism and all sorts of older faiths abounded, but *everyone* knew who the dragon was. For a non-specialist, the architecture isn’t fundamentally different in style from what you’d see in Japan or Korea, the distinguishing feature being the size: substantial palace living quarters, massive kitchens where sacrifices were prepared, an immense plaza for the emperor to be carried up to the imposing “Hall of prayer for good harvest” where the ceremonies took place and which Beijingers consider the true icon of the city – even Mao, that scourge of ancient culture, embraced it as his own rather razing it to the ground. You can see how central the whole ceremony was to the royal family’s legitimacy: if you can intercede with the heavenly powers who control the harvest of every faith in the land, you are a divine ruler indeed.

Summer Palace- Lotus Garden
Summer Palace – Lotus garden

Summer Palace - kites
Kites at the Summer Palace. Try to spot all three kites in the picture: the black shark is very high!

The Summer Palace has a far more earthly provenance: it was rebuilt in 1895 for the benefit of the dowager empress Cixi (pronounced tsee-she), using money embezzled from naval supply funds. Cixi appears to have been quite a character: starting life as a serving girl, she became a concubine of the emperor, and then empress dowager in 1861, when the emperor died and her son, only a child, inherited the throne (he didn’t live long, either). She duly ousted the various regents and proceeded to control the whole of China until her death, almost half a century later. The Summer Palace is set in a park surrounding a great boating lake, which includes a stunning lotus garden; it was originally one of a complex of many palaces around the lake until the British and French burnt them down in the Second Opium War. The park boasts several architectural jewels, from the 17 span bridge (a favoured spot for kite-fliers – seeing the kites soaring hundreds of metres high is a sight worth the trip in itself) to the Long Corridor (long means 700 metres) to the stunning views from a splendid Buddhist temple set high above the park, to the oddity of a marble river steamboat (no-one in China had the technology to build a real one). The Opium Wars, by the way, may be a footnote of history to most British, but they’re recent and very real to the Chinese. If you imagine, for a moment, that a foreign power is pushing hard drugs to a majority of your population and then, when you attempt to outlaw the drugs, comes in and burns down your capital, only agreeing to go home when your government permits the trade to be restored, it’s not hard to see why the memory remains vivid a century or so later.

Summer Palace - marble river boat
Summer Palace – marble river boat

You can’t go to Beijing without visiting Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but I have to admit to being disappointed. Once again, what impresses is the scale: the queue waiting to enter Mao’s mausoleum, stretching for over a kilometre around the building, the expanse that is the square (largely empty, barred to entry by rather niftily designed interlocking barriers). The Forbidden City feels as if size was the only measure of awesomeness that mattered to the Ming emperors – each gigantic courtyard leads to an impressive palatial building with an open front to display the goings on inside to the assembled courtiers or visitors, which in turn leads to the next super-sized courtyard. (To be fair, although our itinerary lasted the whole morning, there was only time to stop at one of the many museums along the way, a selection of outrageously ornate clocks, much loved by the 18th and 19th century nobility.) It also feels like an unremitting onslaught of buildings and paving stones: the Ming emperors were terrified of assassins hiding behind trees, so you don’t see any green until the very last, innermost courtyard (when you get there, it’s quite impressive, including the massive trunk of a five hundred year old cypress). It takes  a trip to the top of Jingshan Park, the hill behind the Forbidden City, to get to the shelter of enough greenery to mitigate the smog and to enable you to fully appreciate the size of what you’ve just been through. Mao, by the way, never entered the Forbidden City, due to some bizarre superstition about both him and the Ming emperors being dragons.

Forbidden City-8
Forbidden City: Hall of Supreme Harmony

Getting around is a mixed experience. As well as traffic being terrible, finding a taxi in Beijing is less than straightforward: after a few attempts, the guy on our hotel front desk eventually gave up and booked us their equivalent of an Uber, asking to be repaid when we returned after dinner – which worked fine. What’s impressive is the Beijing subway: modern, clean and with enough English that you can find your way around straightforwardly enough. The fifteen-year-old main line Beijing-Xi (Beijing West) station is spotlessly clean but shorter on English than the subway, until you get to the final waiting room – so if you don’t have the benefit of a guide, you’ll need to know your train number. The 300 km/h bullet trains are enviable, whisking you smoothly out of town.

Forbidden City, from Jongshin Park
Forbidden City – from Jingshan Park

You can eat well at any price in Beijing, and we sampled everything from steamed buns at a street food stall to high end gastronomic fare at the Peninsula Hotel. Unexpectedly, our best meal was our last: dinner at the mid-priced (300 yuan for two) restaurant near our hotel, whose traditional Beijing food was a riot of flavours and aromas. Even less expected was the delight of a trip to see shadow puppetry. We’d seen some of the puppets at Panjiayuan Market on our very first day and thought they were a bit basic. Seeing them in action showed that they can be anything but: in the hands of a master, these apparently simple shapes turned are capable of all sorts of dance moves and imitations of the movement of animals, which were used to tell stories with wit and charm. The creation of a demon gradually turning itself from a skeleton into a beautiful woman, complete with the dolling up process at its make-up table and mirror, was quite virtuosic: a happy reminder that there remains plenty of culture which escaped Mao.

Shachahai Shadow Puppet Hotel
Shachahai Shadow Puppet Hotel: story of the frog, the crane and the turtle (not in shot)