Category Archives: Life in China

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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 Jia-A has since been replaced by the Chinese Super League (CSL), with the best 16 teams from across China competing in a season running from roughly from February/March to November/December.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.

WW2 in China


Features Editor

For people in Europe, the Second World War broke out in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, triggering a declaration of war from Britain and France.   But for people in China, the war against Japan had already been going on for more than two years.

Throughout the 1930s  – following Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in 1931 – there were a series of local skirmishes and face-offs in northern China between Chinese and Japanese troops, which never developed into full-scale war.  But on July 7th 1937 a Japanese soldier taking part in military manoeuvres not far from Beijing went missing.  When the local Chinese commander refused permission for the Japanese to search the near-by town for him, full-scale war began. This key turning-point took place near an ancient bridge named after the famous medieval Italian traveller to China, and so became known as “the Marco Polo incident”.

Within months the Japanese imperial army had swept down through eastern China, seizing big cities like Beijing and Tianjin; then attacking Shanghai and Nanjing, the Nationalist capital.

From the beginning this was total war, where civilians were not only caught up in the fighting, but were singled out as targets.  In Nanjing, for example, over six horrific weeks, men, women and children were subjected to a reign of terror from the occupying Japanese troops, where murder, rape and mutilation became routine.  Though the statistics of exactly how many people suffered are disputed, it is now thought that between 20,000 and 40,000 women and girls were raped, and official Chinese figures state that up to 300,000 people were killed. One survivor’s harrowing eye witness account is here.

By mid 1938 the Japanese advance towards the Nationalist military HQ at Wuhan seemed unstoppable.  Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek determined on a desperate tactic to stem the Japanese advance: he would deliberately smash the dykes that held back the giant Yellow River and flood the land.  Historian Liu Hai Yong records that Chiang agonised long and hard over this decision.

Yellow River
Chinese troops attempt to cross the flooded Yellow River, 1938

He explains what happened next: “The Japanese had cavalry, soldiers, tanks and artillery – all of which were caught in the flood. Hundreds died on the spot. The ones who were trapped in the water were captured by the National Army.”

Those who witnessed these apocalyptic events were permanently marked by what they saw.  For, though it worked as a military tactic in the short run, the Yellow River rampaged across millions of square kilometres in three Chinese provinces.  The cost for the people living there was appalling:  800,000 died in the floods or soon after from starvation and disease.  The Henan famine of 1942-3 was in part the result of the damage the floods had caused – and cost the lives of another two to three million civilians.  Wang Yanchun was a teenager, and remembers how families ate bark and leaves to survive.  He even saw desperate parents exchanging their children for food: “ If a man wanted a bride, if he could offer some rice or noodles to the family, the parents would give their daughter to him. “ Hear more of his eye witness account here .

By the time war broke out in Europe, the Japanese and Chinese armies had reached a kind of stalemate on the ground in China.  The Nationalist government had withdrawn to Chongqing, impregnable in mountainous Sichuan province. The Communists had taken refuge in their remote bases in Shaanxi. The Japanese were in control of the ports and the vast agricultural lands of eastern China.  Communist and Nationalist troops harried the Japanese behind the lines with guerrilla-style operations, and millions of Chinese fled from the occupying armies and were now refugees in western China.

The war took a dramatic turn in December 1941 when Japanese planes bombed American ships in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The USA declared war on Japan and soon – for the first time in more than 4 years of full-scale war – the Chinese began to receive direct help from the Allies.  This injection of equipment and other supplies in part enabled them to keep 600,000 Japanese troops, which might otherwise have been able to fight the Allies in south-east Asia and in the Pacific, busy in China.

Food and military supplies from the Allies to support the Chinese war effort began arriving into Kunming in south-west China via a perilous mountain route – known as the Burma road – that had been built by Chinese men, women and children in the late 30s.  This road was China’s lifeline once the country’s seaports were all in the hands of the Japanese Imperial army.

Then, in 1942 the advancing Japanese Army cut the Burma road. The consequences for the war effort in China could have been dire, so the decision was made for the world’s biggest airlift to begin.  Between 1942 and 1945, American air crew delivered 700,000 tons of essential guns, fuel and other supplies over the Himalayas – ‘the Hump” – to troops in China.  The Americans joked that their planes were “flying coffins” – for they were ill-equipped for the task of flying over the highest mountain range on Earth and if anything went wrong, there was nowhere to land and no hope of rescue.  As trainee pilot Dai Zhi Jin recalls: “What made the Hump flights dangerous was that you couldn’t make a mistake – or you would lose your life.”  This airlift came at a high price: nearly 600 aircraft and 1500 lives were lost.

Even with supplies trickling in through the mountains, conditions in China were still desperate.  The civilians of Chongqing, many of whom were refugees fleeing the fighting, were bombed relentlessly.  In the parts of central China damaged by the Yellow River flooding millions were on the brink of starvation. Malnutrition and famine stalked the country.

It was essential for the Chinese war effort that the Burma road was reopened.  So from 1943, Chinese troops attempted to drive the Japanese out of Yunnan as the first stage of that campaign.  (Watch a shocking eyewitness account of this campaign here ).  With limited support from the Allies, and fighting across difficult mountainous terrain, cut through by roaring rivers, the Chinese Expeditionary Force focused first on the border town of Tengchong, and then on the Japanese force holding Mount Song.  Fighting was fierce and prolonged, and many men on both sides died in this bitter battle to control the Burma road.  Eventually the vital life-line between India and China was reopened in January 1945.

As the Expeditionary Force was slowly driving Japanese troops out of south-west China and northern Burma, further east, the biggest single offensive of the entire war in China unfolded from April to December 1944.  More than 700,000 soldiers – on both sides – fought a series of battles from the Yellow river to the border with Vietnam known collectively as the Ichigo campaign.  The objective of the Imperial Army was to open a land route to Japanese-occupied Vietnam, and on the way destroy the air bases being used by American aircraft.   The Japanese achieved their objective but it was not the victory they had hoped for.  Though holding the towns and cities after Ichigo, the countryside was still in Chinese hands and Chinese troops could always withdraw, and harry the Japanese from a distance. With supply lines now over-extended, all attempts by the Japanese to capitalise on the success of Ichigo to take more territory to the west ended in failure.  Yet again, the biggest losers were the ordinary Chinese civilians of the three provinces where battles raged – as many as 200,000 of them are believed to have died during Operation Ichigo.

Operation Ichigo
Operation Ichigo, 1944

The war ended abruptly with the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945 followed by the unconditional surrender of Japan to the Allies. Liliane Willens was a child refugee from Russia, living in Shanghai.  She remembers the end of the war vividly: “There was euphoria.  In the house and everywhere. We couldn’t believe that the war had ended….All night long people were excited; hugging each other in the streets – hugging everyone they could. And suddenly all the flags came out.”  Hear her firsthand account of 7 years “Stateless in Shanghai” here .

Chinese Veteran’s Memories of WWII

News and Travel Editor

Zhang Yuanxiang is 96 years old and plays the piano at his home in GuangZhou.

During WWII, his life was very different. He worked as an Anti-aircraft Unit Spotter for the Nationalist Chinese Army.

In this video, Zhang Yuanxiang describes some of his memories of the Second Sino-Japanese war, as the Second World War in China is known. Working first in Wuhan and then fleeing with the majority of the Army and Nationalist government to the fortress city of ChongQing, on the river Yangtse, Yuanxiang’s story is one of finding hope in a fearful time.

I hope you enjoy his account, and would love to know what you think.


In the News this Month…JUNE

News and Travel Editor

Let’s kick off with highlights from June.

  • Over 9 million students across China took on the infamous Gaokao exam this month. The two day exam is the ONLY way for students to gain access to Universities across China.Want to see if you’d pass? Have a go here 
  • The Dragon Boat Festival fell in June this year. The festival celebrates the life and  death of Poet Qu Yuan. Locals paddled in boats to him after he committed suicide,inspiring the Dragon Boat Racing we know and love today.
  • Theme parks have made big news this month, with Disneyland Shanghai and Wanda Cultural Tourism City in Nanchang going head to head. Disneyland Shanghai promises to be different to existing Magic Kingdoms, and news has spread of some of the incredible technology on display at the park.
  • Great news for Panda lovers, the world’s first Giant Panda Twin Sisters have been born in Chengdu Congrats to Mum, Yali!
  • In the world of film, huge box office success in China has helped make ‘Warcraft’  the highest grossest video game movie of all time (over $378million taken so far)
  • It’s been a busy month in the world of science, too. Chinese Scientists are turning plastic pollution into fuel! . 
  •  China has begun a six month long human experiment to prepare for life in space!  
  • Science and Buddhism unite with Xian’er, the robot who chants mantras and answers your questions




What is the Gaokao?

News and Travel Editor

Students across China can breathe a sigh of relief now that they are safely free from the dreaded Gaokao exam. The Chinese education system in the largest in the world, and over 9 million students sit the Gaokao every year.

As stories about the exam have littered social media, we thought we’d answer your questions about the famously difficult college entry exam.


What does Gaokao mean?

‘Gaokao’ roughly translates as ‘high test’.


What is the Gaokao?

It is an exam that students across China take once a year and acts as the sole determinant to most Chinese Universities and Colleges. Yikes!


How long does it last?

The Gaokao lasts 9 hours – twice as long as the SAT in the USA – spread over 3 days.


Is the Gaokao a big deal in China?

The Gaokao is a HUGE deal. The test is a national event – roads are closed, construction is halted and some taxi drivers even give students free rides to create the best atmosphere for students as possible.


Who takes it, and how many people pass?

Students take it in their final year of secondary education. There are minimum Gaokao requirements for each of China’s universities, with roughly two-thirds the amount of spaces as there are students taking the Gaokao.


What is ON the Gaokao?

Chinese, maths and a foreign language are compulsory. Three other humanities/science subjects are chosen by the student.



Want to have a go? Here are a few example questions that students have faced on the Gaokao in the past.


1) Good families are much to all their members, but______ to none.

A. something

B. anything

C. everything

D. nothing


2) For hyperbola (x 2 )/(a 2 )-(y 2 )/3=1 (a>0), suppose the eccentricity is 2, then a=?

A. 2

B. 6 (1/2) /2

C. 5 (1/2) /2

D. 1


3) Banks charge processing fees and interest when granting loans. They charge

fees because of the services provided, such as account management. The reason

for claiming interest is that

A. Banks are a monopoly

B. Bank credit is higher than commercial credit

C. Capital offered by banks is a factor of production

D. Banks are the hub of smooth production




1. C

2. D

3. C

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.

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…