The Legend of Fireworks

News and Travel Editor

November is a pretty big month for fireworks around the world.

Not only is Thanksgiving Day celebrated on the 24th of November in the US, the 5th of November marks Bonfire Night in the UK. For the British, fireworks represent the explosives that were never used in Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Lots of people know that fireworks and gunpowder were discovered in China, but did you know about some of the fun and more unusual legends surrounding their discovery?

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Shanghai at Night. Image by SebastienPoncet.

It is generally accepted that gunpowder, and later fireworks, were discovered by Chinese alchemists from the Han dynasty, who were hoping to discover an elixir for immortality. As you may have already guessed, this elixir was never discovered. However, these alchemists did happen to combine a seemingly random collection of chemicals: potassium nitrate (saltpeter), sulphur and later charcoal. Little did they know this happened to be the recipe for the perfect firework… Potassium nitrate is the stuff that creates the loud bang, whilst the sulphur makes the firework spray out of its container and smell delightfully of rotten eggs.

On that note, you can probably guess how much smoke and pollution is produced from fireworks. It’s because of this that certain cities in China, including Nanjing and Hangzhou, have taken the decision to ban fireworks in urban areas.

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Illustration of Chinese Fireworks. Image by Rurik the Varangian.

It wasn’t until the 13th century when Marco Polo was credited with bringing the Chinese invention back to Europe, although some European Crusaders also claim to have brought the concoction back home after their travels.

The recipe has of course developed from the 13th Century. Not only did gunpowder start to become used for rockets and weapons, but fireworks became increasingly popular during celebrations, religious ceremonies and to commemorate military victories. We started to add more and more ingredients to create different effects and colours, such as copper for blue and barium for green.

Other legends also suggest that fireworks were discovered somewhat by mistake. One traditional Chinese legend claims that a cook accidentally poured saltpeter on to a fire, creating interesting flames and colours.

Another story from the Tang dynasty credits a Chinese monk, Li Tian, with the discovery of firecrackers. It is said that Li Tian fought off the lingering spirit of an evil dragon by shooting explosives out of a bamboo shoot. The dragon’s spirit was scared away by the loud bangs.

In a similar story, the province of Hunan was consistently plagued by an evil spirit, who deliberately caused droughts and floods. That was until Li Tian (this guy again?!) set off fireworks to scare the spirit away. Every year on the 18th of April, some Chinese honour the efforts of the  ‘Founder of Crackers’ by offering sacrifices.

Next time you’re gazing up at the night’s sky and watching a spectacular fireworks display, remember you’re watching an invention created over 2000 years ago! Today, most of the world’s fireworks are still created in China, in a town called Liuyang, Hunan Province.

Check out a timelapse from China Icons when we were lucky enough to witness Chinese New Year fireworks.

Are you doing anything to celebrate Thanksgiving or Bonfire Night soon? Let us know and send us your fabulous firework pictures for our blog!

How to make traditional Chinese Tofu

News and Travel Editor

World Vegan Day may have been yesterday, but we’re still celebrating at China Icons with a brand new vegetarian and vegan recipe – traditional Chinese tofu!

China has a loooooong history with Tofu. Add some store cupboard staple ingredients and you’ll rustle up an impressive mid-week dinner in no time.

Packed with tips on how to make Chinese cuisine, Coco shows us her signature way to prepare a garlic and don’t forget – ‘hot pan and cold oil’!

 

For more easy, authentic Chinese recipes, be sure to look at Coco’s videos on the China Icons Food and Drink Playlist

In China right now, or heading over soon? Check out our blog on how to survive in China on a meat-free diet:

What’s your favourite vegan/vegetarian Chinese dish? Send us your photos and recipes below – we’ll share our favourites!

Tofu Rolls for World Vegan Day

News and Travel Editor

Happy World Vegan Day!

To celebrate, we’re sharing a recipe for a delicious vegan Chinese meal. (If you’re more of a carnivore, there is an alternate option involving bacon, but why not give the Tofu version a go in the spirit of the day? Whichever you try, let us know how you get on! We’d love to see pictures)

Here it is, delicious Tofu Mushroom Rolls!

Psst, to see more from Coco, click here to discover the secret behind delicious Peking Noodles.

If you want to find out more about eating Vegan in China, check out our handy guide!

To see more from Shiv, visit his blog here.

 

 

 

Happy Halloween from China Icons

News and Travel Editor

Happy Halloween from everyone at China Icons! To mark the occasion, we thought we’d share some of China’s spookiest stories, past and present. Read on, if you dare…

Ever seen The Ring or The Grudge? Did you know these films were inspired by one of the most famous ghost stories from China, known as the Tale of Painted Skin? The tale originates from the Qing dynasty and tells the story of a lost young woman roaming the streets (who, of course, later turns out to be a vengeful female spirit) who is discovered by a scholar. He of course offers her a place to stay. Despite warnings from a Taoist monk that he has been bewitched by the woman, the scholar continues to allow her to stay, leading to particularly grim consequences for his family. Click here if you fancy a read of the short story (Definitely one to read with the lights on).

Hungry Ghosts are also extremely common in Chinese culture and Buddhist tradition. Hungry Ghosts are the spirits of people who were greedy or had sinned in their previous lives and have bulging stomachs and tiny mouths. They appear during ‘Ghost Month’ in China and some Chinese families will burn ‘Hell Money’ and provide offerings of food and drink in order to ward off trouble from coming to their households.

We all know about China’s Forbidden City, but did you know it’s also said to be haunted by a variety of ghosts dating back to the Ming dynasty in the 15th century? Murders committed by guards and imperial concubines were common at the time, so it’s unsurprising that stories and rumours have circulated for years. Emperor Yongle of the Ming dynasty also committed suicide during an uprising, only after forcing his wife to commit suicide as well as going on a murderous rampage against other family members.

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Emperor Yongle. Image by Shizhao

Their ghosts still allegedly roam the Forbidden City, so it’s perfect for a spooky Halloween ghost walk if you happen to be in Beijing and believe in this sort of thing. Don’t panic, you can only really visit the Forbidden City in the day with thousands of other tourists – I doubt any ghosts would even want to make an appearance it’s so busy!

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Image by Pixelflake

Don’t worry, there are a few stories of kind and friendly ghosts in Chinese culture as well! The legend of the Chinese ghost hunter, Zhong Kui, tells the tale of a scholar who killed himself after being stripped of his title by the emperor. When he returned from the dead, he decided to subdue evil spirits rather than join them. Many Chinese people have Zhong Kui’s picture hung up in their homes and businesses as a protector!

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Zhong Kui and a demon. Image by Paul K. Attribution CC 2.0.

So there you have it. We hope for your sake this wasn’t your bedtime reading…

Are there any Chinese ghost stories you’d like to share that we haven’t mentioned here? We’d love to hear them!

Saving Beijing’s Street Cats

Features Editor

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If, like me and many others, you’re more of a dog than cat person, you may be wondering why we’ve dedicated this week’s upload to the plight of Beijing’s stray cats.

Let’s start with the numbers. Despite my preference for canines, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that cat ownership is booming, especially in China, and the figures back it up.

Cats are the world’s most popular pets, outnumbering dogs by three to one. In China, there are an estimated 58million cats, a mere 30million fewer than in the US, which has the highest number of cats in the world and will be celebrating them during National Cat Day this Saturday.

Whilst China hasn’t (yet) gone to such lengths as to have a national day for their feline friends, the pet industry is forecast to grow by more than 50% in the next three years.

But despite our love affair with pets, life for some of cats is far from purr-fect (sorry readers) and China is no exception. Which brings us to today’s content -where we follow some of the dedicated volunteers saving Beijing’s street cats and rehoming them through monthly adoption days.

The Chinese have a long history with having cats as pets. Research into cat bones unearthed in archaeological excavations in 2001 show that the Chinese were living alongside Asian leopard cats as early as 5,500 years ago.  Miao!

Still, the lengths these volunteers go to are astonishing.

Sure, on the surface, there are the obvious jobs of picking up abandoned animals, organizing the monthly adoption days and running social media campaigns to find potential new owners. Which is impressive enough alongside working full time and having a family of their own.

But then we meet Xiao Zhan, who arrives for filming wearing a mask. She’s a seasoned volunteer, having helped many animals over the last 3 years. But it turns out she has an allergy to animals that is sometimes so bad she has to seek hospital treatment. She sneezes frequently through our filming.

So why not quit, get a new hobby? This is someone who, in her own words, couldn’t ‘bare the look in their eyes’ if she stopped volunteering and left the animals to their fate on the streets.

Our next contributor Ling Yinmin is extraordinary. As we film her in a flat all set up for the cats, she reveals that she pays the rent herself out of her own pocket. Remember, this is Beijing, a place we love, but still one of the most expensive cities to rent in the world. Add to that the cost of getting the pets fighting fit for their future family and we’re talking a small fortune.

They believe the cost is worth it – over the last five years Ling Yanmin, Xiao Zhan and many other dedicated volunteers have found new families for over 1000 animals.

Interested in helping these volunteers or giving a pet a forever home?

Search for ‘Beijing Adoption Day’ in Weibo and WeChat.

China’s Oldest Resident: The Ginkgo Tree

News and Travel Editor

Fall is my favourite season of the year, with darker, cosier evenings and the changing colours in the trees. But have you heard of the Ginkgo Biloba Tree? It’s famous in China for being one of the oldest living tree species and shedding its brilliantly golden leaves at the start of Fall (also known as autumn in other parts of the world!).

There are both ‘male’ and ‘female’ trees, with the female producing a strange, whiffy, fruit which is often described as smelling like ‘rancid butter’. Remember to take your nose pegs if you’re planning on visiting your local Ginkgo tree anytime soon…

The fruit can actually pose a massive problem in cities with people regularly slipping on it after it has fallen from the tree, resulting in male only trees being used in urban areas.

Nonetheless, the Gingko Biloba tree is often planted near temples, shrines and castles and can be seen as an object of holy worship as well as being able to ward off evil spirits.

The species is thought to be around 350 million years old, making the tree a symbol of longevity and vitality. Reports of the oldest individual tree are wildly varied, ranging from 1,400 years to 10,000 years!

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Image by CS76.

The leaves of Ginkgo trees are used for herbal medicine and are said to have a range of medicinal qualities including being able to improve blood circulation and relieve Alzheimer’s. It’s also a hugely popular drug in France and Germany, accounting for 1.5% of their total prescription sales!

The Ginkgo tree is known also to be exceptionally hardy and able to withstand disastrous events. Some trees in China show signs of lightning damage but continue to grow and blossom out of disfigured trunks.

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Image by travel oriented. CC Attribution 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode).

So there you have it, the Ginkgo tree is more than just a pretty sight. Choosing to ignore its pungent fruit, the tree is also an allegedly effective healer and keep away unwanted spirits (perfect, just in time for Halloween!).

Fancy a spot of ‘leaf peeping’ yourself? Here are our favourite places to go!

Dajue Temple, Beijing.
The Ginkgo tree here is reportedly 1,000 years old and is easily accessible in the suburbs of Beijing. There are 3 other Ginkgo trees at the temple, the tallest being 30 metres, with a diameter of 7 to 8 metres.

Stone Buddha Temple, Beijing.
This Ginkgo was planted in the Tang Dynasty, 1,200 years ago! This tree is female and produces fruit every autumn. You have been warned…

Gu Guanyin Buddhist Temple, Xi’an, Shanxi Province.
This tree was also planted during the Tang dynasty and is on the national protection list of trees. Monks at the temple often meditate amongst the fallen leaves.

Legends of Tofu

News and Travel Editor

In today’s upload, we’re meeting a married couple who have devoted their lives to making Tofu.

So we now know how to make Tofu, but where did it come from? The earliest existing document containing mention of the term “doufu” (Chinese for Tofu) is the Ch’ing I Lu, written by T’ao Ku in about 950 AD. There are several  Chinese legends concerning the origins of Tofu, but which is true?

  1. A popular theory is that tofu was invented by Liu An, King of Huai-nan, who lived in the southeast part of north China from 179-122 BC. Despite being the most well known story, it’s also the least likely to be true. There was no mention of tofu or any works commissioned by or about Liu An for over 1,000 years after his death. Linking his name with the development of tofu didn’t actually start until the 12th century AD.During the Sung dynasty (960-1279AD) tofu had become a common food for the lower classes. The first suggestion of some connection between Liu An and tofu appeared in the poems of scholar Chu Hsi (1130-1200). Here is his poem, “Doufu.” (Psst, if you’re interesting in reading about translating ancient Chinese poetry, have a look here)

    I have raised beans for many years, but the sprouts were rare.

    Exhausted in the garden, the heart already rotten

    Had I known Huai-nan’s skill earlier,

    I could have sat quietly, raking in the money.

  2. Another theory is known as ‘The Accidental Coagulation Theory’. It states that tofu was developed  accidentally some time before AD 600, when an unknown person seasoned a pureed soybean soup with unrefined sea salt and noticed that curds formed. This mystery person stumbled onto a game-changer!
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  3. The Indian Import Theory argues that tofu, or at least the method for its preparation, was imported from tribes or Buddhist monks from India.
  4. The Mongolian Import Theory states that the basic method for making tofu was adapted from the cheese-making process learned from milk-drinking Mongolian tribes living along the northern border of China.5th-cut-00_03_42_18-still015

Which legend do you believe?

Wherever it came from originally, Tofu developed from being a food for the lower classes to being a staple part of the Chinese diet. To try cooking with Tofu yourself and have a go at China Icon’s Vegan Tofu Mushroom rolls!

 

Modern China’s Top 10 Most Breath-Taking Buildings

News and Travel Editor

China is home to some truly innovative feats of engineering. We all now know about China’s glass bridges, but what about other jaw-dropping examples of Chinese architecture? Here’s our highly personal CHINA ICONS Top 10 breath-taking buildings in Modern China.

10 – THE GATE OF THE ORIENT

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Image by Christian Ganshirt.

The Gate of the Orient is located in Suzhou and symbolises a gateway to the city, emphasising the continuing significance of the city in modern China. The Gate is often referred to as China’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe and we love it because it’s known to locals as ‘Trousers Tower’.

9 – BANK OF CHINA TOWER

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Image by hans-johnson. CC Attribution 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode).

The structure of this magnificent looking tower references the Chinese symbols for Earth (square) and Heaven (circular) and combines elements of old and new China. For us, the skyscraper simply had to make the list for the jaw-dropping role it played in Mission Impossible III, when Tom Cruise used the building for a bungee jump!

8 – GUANGZHOU CIRCLE

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Image by Midip.

The Guangzhou Circle adheres to and is inspired by feng shui. The ‘double disc of jade’ is the symbol of the Chinese dynasty that ruled in the area of Guangzhou 2000 years ago. The structure, when reflected in the water, shows a figure of 8, an incredibly lucky number in Chinese culture, and also the symbol for infinity. Did you know the start of the Beijing Olympics was on 8th August (the 8th month), 2008?

7 – CCTV HEADQUARTERS

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Image by Bjarke Liboriussen. CC Atribution 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode).

The fascinatingly 3-D CCTV Headquarters directly goes against the traditional skyscraper competition for height and is built in the architectural style of ‘Deconstructivism’. The CCTV Headquarters were recognised as the ‘Best Tall Building Worldwide’ and ‘Best Tall Building in Asia and Australasia’ in 2013 by CTBUH Awards Program. Did you know locals refer to this as ‘Big Boxer Shorts’?

6 – THE PIANO HOUSE

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Image by Dly86. Attribution CC 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode).

Built in 2007, the Piano and Violin House in Huainan City, Anhui Province is on a scale of 50:1 and is an extremely popular photo stop for newly wedded couples. I love the way the roof of the building is tilted, just like the lid of a grand piano!

5 – SHERATON HUZHOU HOT SPRING RESORT

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井浩泽 by MAD China

Sheraton Huzhou Hot Spring Resort is nicknamed ‘Horseshoe Hotel’ (for obvious reasons) and is intended to emphasise harmony between man and nature and to enhance visitors’ sensual and spiritual experiences.

4 – BIRDS NEST STADIUM

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Image by Peter 23, Beijing National Stadium.

We simply couldn’t ignore the home of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Bird’s Nest Stadium. It was designed by Swiss and Chinese architects and is the most complex steel structure ever made. The stadium can withstand an earthquake of up to magnitude 8 which was made possible by using the purest steel ever produced in China. At the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the stadium could seat 91,000 spectators. (Psst, want to see how this incredible structure gets cleaned?!)

3 – GALAXY SOHO BUILDING

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Image by Rob Deutscher. CC Attribution 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode).

The Galaxy Soho Building was designed by world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid, who stated that ‘The design responds to the varied contextual relationships and dynamic conditions of Beijing.’ It’s a completely unique building that we think looks a bit like something out of a sci-fi movie inside!

2- SHANGHAI TOWER

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Image by Yhz1221.

The Shanghai Tower is China’s tallest building, standing at a monumental 632 metres. The tower is also home to the world’s fastest elevator. Travelling at 20.5 metres per second, it only takes 55 seconds to reach the sightseeing deck on the 119th floor. This beats both the Empire State Building and the One World Trade Centre in New York, travelling at 7.1 m/s and 10.2 m/s respectively. This incredible speed becomes even more dizzying when you find out that experts argue that fastest elevator humanly possible won’t be able to travel faster than 24 metres per second.

1 – NATIONAL CENTRE FOR PERFORMING ARTS

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Image by Hui Lan.

Topping the list for us at China Icons is the spectacular National Centre, which seats 5, 452 people in 3 halls and is locally described as ‘The Giant Egg’, floating on the surrounding water. The Opera Hall is used for both international and national operas including and international starts including Yehudi Menuhin, Zubin Mehta and Lang Lang (who opened the Centre on the New Year’s Eve Gala) have performed here. You enter the building through a fascinating underwater viewing gallery, making this a truly unique piece of architecture.

What’s your favourite from this list? Would you organise the top 10 differently? Or are there any building’s we’ve completely missed from the list that you would include?

Why are there so many glass bridges in China?

News and Travel Editor

Every few weeks on my Twitter feed, announcements pop up regarding a glass bridge in China. The widest, the longest, the highest, the scariest, one with a restaurant, one you can hit with a sledgehammer… the openings keep coming! As someone with a slight fear of heights, I’m yet to give any of them a go, but I can’t help but wonder WHY do they keep getting built? Am I missing out on something amazing? Aren’t they all….kind of the same?

I did a little digging to find out more.

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Embed from Getty Images

Time for a spot of science. Architect Keith Brownlie, who was involved in a glass bridge for The London Science Museum, said that the appeal of these walkways is”thrill”. Speaking to the BBC, he said “It is the relationship between emotionally driven fear and the logical understanding of safety,” he said. “These structures tread the boundary between those two contrasting senses and people like to challenge their rational mind in relation to their irrational fear.”

Dr. Margee Kerr, a Pittsburgh (US)-based sociologist expands on this by explaining to The Huffington Post  why triggering a ‘fight or flight’ response can feel good  “Our arousal system is activated and triggers a cascade of ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters and hormones like endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline that influence our brains and our bodies” She also suggests that pride from overcoming these fears and bonding with friends and family in the process also makes scaring yourself silly so appealing.

Sky-high yoga

Okay, I’m kidding, I just wanted an excuse to include these gloriously unusual photos.
Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images

In conclusion, a continually growing tourist market combined with a love of thrill seeking may go part of the way to explain the glass bridge craze that’s sweeping China. One thing is for sure, all of the bridges show off incredible landscapes – something China is definitely not short of.

Are you brave enough to give one of China’s glass bridges a try? Have you been already? If so, I’d love to know what you think makes the experience so exciting!

Yangcheng Lake’s Hairy Crabs

News and Travel Editor

During the 9th and 10th months of the lunar calendar, China’s culinary scene is all about hairy crab, also known as Chinese Mitten Crab. The highly anticipated hairy crab season runs from late October to early December, and every year thousands of people flock for the to Yangcheng Lake for the best crabs in China.

If you want proof that these crabs are a big deal, check out this quote from 17th century Chinese writer Li Yu: “While my heart lusts after them and my mouth enjoys their delectable taste (and in my whole life there has not been a single day when I have forgotten them), I can’t even begin to describe or make clear why I love them, why I adore their sweet taste, and why I can never forget them… Dear crab, dear crab, you and I, are we to be lifelong companions?”……It’s clear he was a fan.

2000 families work at Yangcheng Lake to supply the demand, catching, binding and preparing them for market. Large crabs sell for up to $80 each! Crabs from Yangcheng Lake can sell for up to 30 -50 times the price of other hairy crabs, which are eaten year round.

Chinese medicine places great importance on balancing hot and cold energy – Yin and Yang. If these forces aren’t in balance, you will start to suffer aches and pains. Hairy crab is regarded as a yin, and Huangjiu ‘yellow wine’ as yang. This is why Chinese foodies pair hairy crab, no matter the dish, with Huangjiu, the traditional accompaniment to hairy crabs for centuries.

Hong Kong-based food writer Janice Leung-Hayes explains to Forbes “The first batch to be in season are the male crabs, which have a more solid roe, and the females, which have a more fluid roe, ripen later. Both are delicious though and you’ll find that Chinese gourmands will have their own preferences.”

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If you’re interested in learning how to eat a crab for yourself, check out this how-to guide from CNN.

Will you be trying a hairy crab this autumn? Have you ever had one before? Do you have any top tips for eating them? Let us know in the comments below!

 

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