Category Archives: Arts & Culture

15 Ghost Festival dos and don’ts

News and Travel Editor

Imagine eerie, deserted streets, flecked with abandoned coins and burnt money, grand offerings of fruit and hot food, and sticks upon sticks of slowly burning incense, left to stand solitarily in the moonlight.

This is not a scene from a horror film or a nightmare, but something you can see in many towns and villages across China during the seventh lunar month, known as Ghost Month; particularly on the fifteenth day, when the Ghost Festival takes place. This year it falls on August 17th.

Around this time, the Chinese have traditionally believed that the gates of the underworld are flung open and lost spirits are free to roam the Earth amongst the living. Though most Chinese people today probably don’t lay much store by these ancient beliefs, there are some interesting taboos that some people still observe during Ghost Month.
 The aim of all these Ghost Festival dos and don’ts  is to please the dead in order to ensure they don’t bring misfortune on the Chinese people;  food is offered to spirits that might be wandering around the streets, incense is burnt as a token of prosperity and lighted paper lanterns are floated across lakes to guide the ghosts back to the underworld. Make shift paper money is also burnt, as it is believed that ghosts will be able to use this as currency when they return to the underworld.

Here are some things to do to make sure you avoid bad luck…

 

  1. Children, young adults and pregnant women should not stroll outdoors at night, as it is believed that ghosts can easily possess them
  2. Don’t try to move house, as this could invite lost spirits into your new home.
  3. Don’t hang clothes outside at night, as passing ghosts may try on the clothes and linger in them.
  4. Don’t pick up coins or money found on the street and bring it home, as ghosts will find this offensive.
  5. Don’t step on offerings by the roadside, and make sure to apologise loudly to the spirits if you do.
  6. Don’t wear red or black as this may attract ghosts who may follow you home.
  7. Don’t sing or whistle as this may attract music loving ghosts.
  8. Keep away from walls as it is believed that ghosts like sticking to and flying along walls.
  9. Whatever you do, don’t go outside at midnight as ghosts may approach you.
  10. Don’t take photographs at night as ghosts may appear on them.
  11. If someone taps you on the shoulder or calls your name from behind, do not turn around and look or answer the call, as it may be a spirit waiting to reveal itself to you.
  12. Don’t curse or talk to yourself as this may invite interaction from or offend any eavesdropping ghosts around you.
  13. Don’t kill insects like moths, butterflies, or grasshoppers in the house as they may be manifestations of passed ancestors visiting their family home.
  14. Avoid leaving the main door to your home open at night, as this could invite unwanted ghosts into the premises.
  15. Don’t poke chopsticks vertically into rice as this can look like the incense used when praying to ancestral spirits. A ghosts may think that you’re inviting them to share your meal.

You have been warned!

China’s Olympic Table Tennis Domination

News and Travel Editor

Does any country dominate in an Olympic sport in the same way that China dominates at Table Tennis?

China has secured 24 out of the possible 28 Olympic gold medals since the sport became part of the games in 1988. China’s clean sweep of 6 medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 even prompted the Olympic committee to limit each country to send two players to compete, instead of three. In 2012, with the new limitations, China still won two golds and two silvers.

This year in Rio, both players in the men’s and women’s gold medal matches are, again, from China, securing two golds and two silvers once more.

In doubles, China’s women’s team triumphed over Germany last night. The men’s team will take on Japan tonight for the final gold on offer.

This week’s video goes behind the scenes to meet China’s table tennis stars of the future at Beijing’s Shichahai sports school.

Euro 2016 and why the Chinese are hooked

Features Editor

It was not quite what I was expecting. Instead of being packed out with trendy locals, Beijing’s Sanlitun bars were filled with flashes of red and blue. And the Beijingers were chanting – cheering on Portugal and commiserating with France. A usual Sunday night social had been sabotaged by the Euro 2016 final taking place 8000kms away.

In all honesty, I really shouldn’t have been so surprised. In 2007-2008 I was in China’s capital making documentaries in the build up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was a time when the whole of China threw its arms around sport in a BIG way. The resulting Games were seen as one of the best ever – Usain Bolt wowed us by breaking the 100m and 200m world records in the iconic Birds Nest Stadium. Michael Phelps claimed a phenomenal 8 gold medals at the Water Cube, China’s National Aquatics Centre. A staggering 40 world records and over 130 Olympic records were smashed and it was all witnessed by millions of people around the globe. Even I managed to get swept away in the 2008 summer of sport. But now it seems that the Chinese have set their sights on football.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Paintings from the 7 th century Tang dynasty show women playing a game that looks suspiciously like soccer and China has had a thriving domestic football scene since the 1990s when the National Football Jia-A League, China’s first professional football league, was launched. Jia-A has since been replaced by the Chinese Super League (CSL), with the best 16 teams from across China competing in a season running from roughly from February/March to November/December.

So far, so good. The problem is that China doesn’t do so well on an international level. The men’s team is 81 st in the FIFA world rankings, having only qualified for one World Cup and having never won the Asian Cup.

(If you’re wondering about the ladies team – they’re currently riding high at 12th . Take a look inside their U17 training with inspiring coach Gao Hong )But China men’s dismal international footballing record might be about to change as aspirations reach an all time high.

Earlier this year, the Chinese Football Association revealed an ambitious strategy to become a world footballing superpower by 2050. And it has backing right from the top – President Xi himself is a self-proclaimed football fan who says he would love China to win the world cup. 20,000 football training centres and 70,000 pitches will be set up, giving 30 million students the chance to try the sport.

But until that generation comes through, there is another solution. Money. Like football clubs all around the world, China’s top teams are owned by the super rich. The appeal of working in this lucrative market has lured across some of the top coaches (Sven Goran Erikson has been in China since 2013). And some $366m was spent during the last transfer window, signing up some of the best players in the world. Striker Jackson Martinez moved from Athletico Madrid to Guangzhou Evergrande and former Chelsea Midfielder Ramires joined Jiangsu Suning.

This is a player so internationally famous, he’s known simply by his first name (his full name is Ramires Santos Do Nascimento). And now he’s playing in China. So why are the Chinese hooked on Euro 2016?

Because the best of the bunch could soon be playing in one of China’s top teams. And could China become a footballing superpower by 2050?

You’d better believe it.

10 Things You Need to Know About Dragon Boat Festival

News and Travel Editor

Dragon Boat Festival takes place on the 5th Day of the 5th Lunar Month, which this year falls on Thursday 9th June. Here are 10 facts that teach you everything you need to know to understand this colourful and exciting festival.

  1. Dragon boat racing has been in China for over 2,000 years. The practice is believed to have started around the time of the first Olympic games.
  2. A drummer or a caller guides the rhythm of the paddlers.
  3. There are dragon boat clubs in over 60 countries. The organisation that governs international competition is called the International Dragon Boat Federation.
  4. Dragon Boat races are usually 500 meters long, but can vary from 250m to marathon length!
  5. The sport of dragon boat racing celebrates the life and death of Chinese poet Qu Yuan. He was banished after opposing an alliance the king wanted to enter into, and eventually committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth month of Chinese Lunar character. This is why the festival is always held on this day!
  6. Dragon boat races are inspired by how the villagers tried to recover Qu Yuan’s body by paddling out on boats.
  7. After Qu Yuan’s death, the local people threw rice into the river to keep the fish from eating his body. Later, they threw rice wrapped in reeds (to prevent the fish eating it) into the river. This is the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival delicacy called zongzi, glutinous rice stuffed with meat or other fillings that are wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves.
  8. Children decorate their clothes with coloured and scented pouches. According to Chinese folklore, these pouches protect them from evil in the next year!
  9. Around the festival, people clean their houses and put mugwort leaves and pine root onto doors to prevent disease.
  10. Dragon Boat Festival was celebrated as a public holiday in China for the first time in 2008.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dt4EATMJNkc

Zhang Ziyi Meets China Icons

Film and Celebrity Editor
My first experience of Zhang Ziyi’s work in film was her role as Hu Li, the henchwoman to the villainous Ricky Tan, in buddy-cop, East-meets-West action-comedy Rush Hour 2 (2001). Because of this, I was the most excited member of the team when Zhang Ziyi agreed to give China Icons an exclusive interview. What’s more, she even persuaded Director John Woo to come chat to us as well!

Holding her own against Jackie Chan during many scenes of cinematic kung fu fighting put her on the radar for many viewers, but most were unaware that this was only her first foray into American cinema. In her home country of China, she was already a box office sensation!
Ziyi played the role of Jen in Ang Lee’s hauntingly beautiful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a film which achieved international success unprecedented since its release. It actually still holds the 1st place for highest grossing foreign language film! Praised for its rich story, interesting characters and iconic, unconventional action sequences, Crouching Tiger holds a special place in the history of cinema.
Whilst not the leading lady of Crouching Tiger, Zhang still shone through as one to watch as she lit up the screen with her presence, opposite co-stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh. A string of successful roles in both Chinese and American produced films, such as House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) has resulted in Zhang being regarded as one of the most bankable actresses from China of the 2000s.
In recent times Zhang has moved beyond cinema screens to a number of influential positions outside of acting. In addition to being a Global Ambassador for the Special Olympics and spokeswoman for Chinese foster-care program “Care for Children”, she also took on a judge and mentor role in X Factor: China’s Strongest Voice’s male singer category.
Prior to the release of Hong Kong director John Woo’s The Crossing (2014), Zhang Ziyi held awards for The Grandmaster (2013), Hero (2003) House of Flying Daggers (2004), Forever Enthralled (2009) as well an award for Outstanding Contribution to Chinese Cinema from the 11th Shanghai International Film Festival.

My Miao Embroidery Mistake

Features Editor
The first time I was aware of a people called the Miao was in Yunnan in South-west China. My partner and I had been in China for only 6 months, as volunteer English teachers in Henan province on the great Yellow River plain. And – come the Spring Festival holiday – we had fled that flat, red-grey wintery landscape for the mountains and sunshine of Yunnan.We’d found ourselves in a magical, white-washed small town with a turquoise lake, wild flowering azalea bushes and spiky mountains all around. One day we caught a tractor ride to a market, a few miles outside town. On a bare mountain-side, we witnessed thousands of people, mostly from different Chinese minority nationalities, converging from all directions, with woven baskets on their backs, or driving animals before them. The market was noisy with activity of every kind and everyone seemed in a good mood.

As we moved among the traders and the shoppers, trying not to stare too much at the beautiful traditional dress most women were wearing, some with colourful tasselled headdresses and white smocks, others all in indigo blue – we noticed some women who were selling embroidered textiles. The colours were extraordinary – shocking pink, vibrant green, bold yellow, all stitched on a background of dark blue. The style was unlike anything we had ever seen – a kind of mixture of surrealist shapes, pop art colours and 17th century stump work. I know now that these women were Miao, and that the Miao are famous for their embroidery, as well as for their jewellery-making and their music.

My husband immediately spotted a shoulder bag that was exceptionally colourful and was a complex design of flowers and birds. I thought it was our terrible Mandarin, or the fact we were more or less the only foreigners at the market, but as we bargained, the women selling the embroidered bags were convulsed with laughter. They were giggling and talking to each other non-stop; and when we finally concluded the deal and my husband hung the bag over his shoulder and walked away, they could barely contain themselves for laughing.

Walking behind him through the bustling crowd, I discovered that he was having the same effect on everyone. Stall-holders and shoppers; men, women and girls – everyone stopped in mid-sentence, stared, and then became helpless with laughter, as he went by.

It was only later that we learnt how each Miao embroidery design is deeply symbolic. The designs tell stories from Miao history and folklore; and the women also stitch new designs, making sense with their needles of more recent events. We also learnt that certain motifs and designs are only appropriate for women, some only for unmarried girls. I guess the colourful shoulder-bag my husband bought was one of the latter.

 

Photo-blogger Fiona Reilly from Nanchang Lu joined China Icons on a special assignment to find out more about Miao embroidery…