Category Archives: China


barbarian-lostI was looking forward to reading Barbarian Lost: Travels in New China by Alexandre Trudeau but now that I’ve finished it I have to admit it was disappointing.

Disappointment #1

 I lived in Hong Kong for six years and visited many different places in mainland China. I was sure however someone writing a book about China would have traveled much more extensively in the country than I had.  Not so.  Trudeau visited well-known cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Beijing and Chongqing but really saw just a small part of China. He didn’t  even go to places like Xian or Kunming or Zhongdian or Yangshuo. If you are going to write a meaningful book about modern China you  need to see more of the nation than Alexandre Trudeau did. 

Photographed in Shangra La in Yunnan province China

Dancing with Naxi women in Zhongidan

Disappointment #2

I lived in China till 2011. Since the book had the word “new” in the title I was expecting to be enlightened about the changes in the country since I left but Alexandre is basically writing about a trip he took there in 2006 almost a decade ago.  My friends who still live in China say it is changing at lightening speed but you won’t find out about those recent changes from reading Barbarian Lost. 

Disappointment #3

Alexandre struck me as a bit moody.  He changed the carefully arranged plans of his hired guide if he didn’t feel like doing something.   I couldn’t believe it when he declined to take a boat trip through the Bamboo Gorges because he was feeling blue.  I’ve done that trip! What an experience it was!  

I interviewed one of our Bamboo Gorge trackers and learned so much from him about life in China.

I interviewed one of our Bamboo Gorge trackers and learned so much from him about life in China.

Disappointment #4

The historical synopsis of things like the dynasties and the Cultural Revolution were pretty pedestrian and didn’t offer much I didn’t teach in my middle school Chinese history classes and I have to say my lessons were a little livelier. 

My students heading down into a war cemety in Hong Kong to do history research

My students heading down into a war cemetery in Hong Kong to do history research

Disappointment #5

The experiences Trudeau describes- eating snake, spending time in a rural Chinese home, cruising the Yangtze with a Chinese crowd, watching mahjong games, eating restaurant meals with locals, picking your food live before you eat it…. are all things many people who have been to China have experienced.  They aren’t really all that unique.  

Cruising the Yangtze on a small boat. We were the only Caucasian passengers.

Cruising the Yangtze. We were the only Caucasian passengers.

After reading books like  Peter Hessler’s River Town or Rob Gifford’s China Road or Jan Wong’s Red China Blues by authors who spent an extended time in China and really make China come alive in their writing, I am afraid Barbarian Lost just didn’t measure up.  Kind of makes me wonder if it would have been published if the author wasn’t the brother of one prime minister and the son of another. 

Other posts…….

Just Like Justin- Seeing The Great Wall With My Family


Bamboo Gorge Boat Tracker

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Filed under Books, China

Your Own Critic

do-not-say-we-have-nothingI’m in the midst of reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.  Sections of the book take place during the Cultural Revolution in China when citizens were forced to participate in self-criticism sessions.  During these session they publicly declared all the things that were wrong with them and all the things they had done wrong or had neglected to do.  In the section of the book I’m reading now a fifteen year old girl has just participated in such a session at her school. I found those pages very difficult to read.  I kept thinking about what kind of effect such repeated and harsh self-criticism could have on a young person. If you repeatedly denigrate yourself it must lead to depression and self-loathing and a feeling of hopelessness about your ability to change yourself or improve your life. 

self-criticismWe aren’t forced by the powers that be to criticize ourselves but so many of us do it anyway. We focus on the way our appearance doesn’t measure up to society standards, instead of appreciating our own individual marks of beauty. We think our talents and skills aren’t nearly as developed as another person’s instead of recognizing the areas where we are uniquely gifted. We compare our life choices to what we wished we’d chosen and feel dissatisfied with ourselves. This kind of self-criticism although voluntary can be almost as damaging as the imposed self-criticism that happened during the Cultural Revolution. 

cultural_revolution_poster public domainDuring the Cultural Revolution self-criticism was meant to improve the quality of life for the collective.  I know sometimes it is good for me to think critically about myself.  How are my decisions negatively impacting my relationships with others?  How do my ways of thinking hurt society?  How are my life style choices creating hardships for others now and in the future? Some self-criticism can be helpful. 

I’m glad I live in a time and place where I get to decide whether self-criticism is good or bad thing and where I have the freedom to try to exercise self-criticism as wisely as possible. 

Other posts……..

Learning About the Chinese Cultural Revolution from Fifth Graders

A Strange Family Photo

Visiting Tiananmen Square

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Filed under Books, China

Just Like Justin- Seeing The Great Wall With My Family

Seeing Justin Trudeau on the Great Wall of China with his family this week reminded me of my own visit to the Great Wall with my family.  I was privileged to share the experience with my husband and my brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew.  My visit was a long time ago. My niece is now an elementary school teacher and my nephew just finishing a university degree, but they weren’t much older than Justin and Sophie’s daughter Ella Grace when we visited the wall. trip to beijing and xian 145

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Maybe someday I’ll get to visit the Great Wall with my grandchildren and show them  other important sites in the country that was our home for six years. Wouldn’t that be something!

Other posts……

Tiannamen Square

Now We’ve Been To Sister Cities

Making Chinese Dumplings




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Filed under China, Family

Donald Trump on Tiananmen Square

Yesterday I did a blog post about Tiananmen Square and this morning I read that in last night’s Republican presidential debate Donald Trump was asked about comments he once made regarding the 1989 event.  Trump called the massacre at the square a ‘riot’ and said it had been stopped by ‘a strong and powerful government.’  

This morning friends from Hong Kong were posting links to an article in the Hong Kong Free Press describing the exchange of words about Tiananmen Square between candidate John Kasich and Trump during the debate. 

chimericaOn Wednesday I saw the play Chimerica at the Manitoba Theater Center. It explores the complex and troubling relationship between China and the United States.  It’s a relationship that may become even more complex and troubling should Donald Trump be elected the next American president.

Other posts……..

A Strange Family Photo- The Chinese Revolution and One Child Policy

Skin Color

Three Gorges Project


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Filed under China, Politics, Theatre

Chimerica- Personal Memories and Connections With Tiananmen Square

marylou in tiananmen squareI was reminded of my visit to Tiananmen Square in Beijing as I watched the play Chimerica at the Manitoba Theatre Centre.  The story revolves around an American news photographer in 2012 who believes the defiant young man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square during the student uprisings of 1989 is still alive and living in New York.  The photographer is determined to find him.  

jan wong red china bluesAs the play transported us back to China and Tiananmen Square in 1989 I thought of Canadian journalist Jan Wong.  She was in a hotel looking out over the square as the students were massacred and she gives a vivid and disturbing account of it in her book Red China BluesThe production of Chimerica at MTC uses video, a clever stage set, sound effects and lighting to also give us an inside look at what might have happened in Tiananmen Square. mtc program tiananmen square timelineThe Chimerica program provides a historical timeline for the 1989 student demonstrations for democracy but it personalizes the events by telling us the story of a young couple who were in the square the day of the massacre. 

 I once listened to a university professor who was in Beijing during the student protests give a first hand account of her experience in Tiananmen Square. I’ve blogged about it .  I wondered where playwright Lucy Kirkwood had found the information she used to recreate the Tiananmen Square events for her play Chimerica. Did she travel to China? Conduct interviews?  dave in tinanamen squareDuring our visit to Tiananmen Square our guide was very reluctant to discuss the events that happened there in 1989. Apparently the iconic photo of the young man standing in front of the tanks still can not be accessed online in China.

chinese man with deng xiaoping statue in hong kongIn 2004 I attended a huge exhibit in Hong Kong honoring the life of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. People were happily posing with likenesses of him and having their children do so too.  child with deng xiaopingAbsolutely no mention was made in the entire exhibit that Xiaoping was the leader who had ordered the massacre of the students in Tiananmen Square. He was being remembered only as a great leader who had modernized China. 

According to the play Chimerica which is set in 2012 it is still dangerous to talk about Tiananmen Square in a public way in China or in fact to express negative opinions about any government policy.  

Posing with a statue of dissident artist Ai Wei Wei at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Posing with a statue of dissident artist Ai Wei Wei at the Art Gallery of Ontario

As I was watching Chimerica I thought of dissident Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei who has  paid the price for his criticism of the Chinese government.  The play Chimerica does a good job of reminding us that while China has certainly changed in many ways some things, like the government’s attitude towards freedom of expression still seem to be firmly rooted in an oppressive past. 

Other posts…….

Ai Wei Wei- Giving The Finger to his Home and Native Land Through His Art

Remembering the Children of Sichuan

Visiting The Great Wall

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Filed under China, Theatre

A Strange Family Photo- The Chinese Revolution and One Child Policy

A man and woman and their child look stoically at the camera.  There are red stains on their slightly out of focus, enlarged, elongated faces.  What are they trying to tell us?  I took a photo of this art piece in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney Australia five years ago.  Perhaps because I was living in Hong Kong at the time I was particularly intrigued by this strange depiction of a Chinese family.  I always meant to find out more about this work. Now I have. family by zhang xiaogangBeijing artist Zhang Xiaogang has created a whole series of pieces in this style. They were inspired by family photos taken during the Cultural Revolution, a time when personal identity was erased in favour of collectivism. On the surface the faces in these portraits appear stoic, but in an interview Xiaogang said that underneath, each family member is experiencing great emotional turbulence due no doubt to the hardships of the revolution. Although the characters are posed in a classic photo studio shot and the work looks like a photograph it is actually a painting. The family members are nameless. The red marks on their faces could be birthmarks or perhaps marks of aging on the film.  The artwork reflects the one child policy instigated during the Cultural Revolution in China. This work is part of the series called Bloodline: Big Family.  You can read more about it here. 

Other posts………

Visiting Tiananmen Square

Ai Wei Wei- Giving the Finger to His Home and Native Land

Remembering Tiananmen Square

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Filed under Art, China, History

Now We’ve Been in Sister Cities

xian and quebec city sistersDuring our walking tour of Quebec City I was surprised to see this banner hanging on city hall.  Our guide told us that the city of Xian in China has been a sister city to Quebec City since 2001.  Some of Xian’s famous terra cotta warrior soldiers have been displayed at the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City and the University of Laval in Quebec City is helping the Department of Health in Xian to set up an awareness program for its citizens on the ill effects of smoking. 

biking-in-xianDave and I have visited Xian. Here we are biking on the wall around the city in 2005…….

dave-and-me-quebec-cityAnd here we are ten years later in 2015 in Xian’s sister city, Quebec City. 

Other posts…….

Visiting the Great Wall

Stick Stick Men

Watching the Blue Jays in Quebec City

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Filed under Canada, China, Travel