Tag Archives: China

What’s so ‘Great’ about the Great Wall? A History of the Great Wall of China

News and Travel Editor

What’s so great about the Great Wall of China and why does it deserve its name?

Its size? The average height of the wall is 7.8 metres and the highest point is 14 metres.

Its length?  The total length of all sections of wall built throughout the dynasties reaches 13,170 miles. If stretched out in a straight line, the Great Wall could travel almost half way around the equator.

Its weight? Some people estimate an incredible 58,095,000 tons! That’s 9 times heavier than the collective weight of the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Or was it known by a different name when it was built and simply became the ‘Great Wall’ as time passed? We hope to answer all these questions and more by separating the facts from the legends and myths.

The Great Wall was, and remains, the longest man-made construction in the world. This might explain why today we’ve refer to it  as ‘Great’, but when it was built, it was simply known as the ‘Long Wall’ or ‘Long City’, as it was simply seen as a stretched out, giant, city wall.

Unsurprisingly, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, can we hyperlink this alongside Machu Picchu in Peru, the Colosseum in Italy and Petra in Jordan. But it was not built over one time period. Instead, the Great Wall has been built, modified or extended for around 2,000 years since the 7th and 8th centuries after regular invasions from the Mongols in the north.

We’ve all heard stories of workers being buried under the wall, but there are many other entertaining legends and myths surrounding the structure. The stories are incredibly wide-ranging and perhaps the most entertaining has been featured in a recent Hollywood-Chinese movie starring Matt Damon. The Great Wall film plays with the myth that the wall was not intended for keeping out the Mongol invaders from the north, but was in fact needed to protect China from supernatural forces.

But our all time favourite story is one that we think might just have a little bit of truth in it;

The Legend of Yi Kaizhan tells the story of the Yi, a mathematician who explained that it would take exactly 99,999 bricks to build the section of wall at Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu Province. His supervisor argued that if he was wrong, the entire workforce would be forced to do 3 years hard labour as punishment. Guess what? It took 99,998.  Thankfully, good old Yi had a trick up his sleeve and quickly suggested that the leftover brick was placed by the wall by a supernatural being and that moving it would force the wall to collapse. Suspicious, the supervisor never moved the brick and, legend has it, the brick can still be found in the same spot today…

Whilst we can’t vouch for this story, one thing we can say is that, unfortunately and contrary to popular belief, the wall cannot be seen from space. This is probably because the original statement was made before anyone actually went into space… Even NASA admit that the Great Wall becomes somewhat less great when photographed from a low earth orbit.

Finally, did you also know that the wall is not really an ‘it’ but more of a ‘them’? The wall was very much built in sections, with many overlapping and some more ancient and wild sections crumbling away. That might also be because many sections of the wall are not built from bricks and mortar, but are sometimes moulded from the earth to create humps in the ground which are often reshaped by the weather.

Have you visited the Great Wall recently? Can you vouch for any of these stories? Please let us know if you go to Jiayuguan and find that famous supernatural brick still sitting there…

Panda Triplets & Koala Twins: The Incredible Breeding Team Behind China’s Miracle Animal Births

Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou has become famous for its incredible breeding successes – most famously the world’s only surviving panda triplets and koala twins. Pandas have notoriously short windows of time in which to breed (around 3 days a year) and it was the job of the breeders at Chimelong to interpret when this window was, get the pandas to breed in this time and also check the pandas were actually pregnant!  So it was nothing short of a miracle when giant panda mum Juxiao gave birth to 3 baby pandas in 2014.  Watch their incredible journey to date:

If you thought that they were cute, check out today’s upload about China’s koala bears. We look at the team behind the successful breeding of koala bears. In fact, the programme has become so successful that Chimelong is now seen as the second home of the koala behind their native habitat in Australia.  Chen Shu Qing is part of the breeding team behind the many successes at Chimelong Safari Park.

Koalas6

She was the first koala breeder in China and after helping the first koalas settle in in 2006, her care and attentiveness prepare her for helping Giant Panda, Juxiao, raise her 3 panda triplets.

It doesn’t stop there. Chimelong is home to the largest elephant population in Asia, managing to deliver 5 calves in one season and hosts 150 White Tigers with only 200 left in the world.  By breeding more endangered species, the team at Chimelong Safari Park hope that it reduces the chances of them becoming extinct, both in the wild and in captivity.

It’s clear that the breeding team at Chimelong have done so much for the preservation of endangered species so that the rest of us will hopefully be able to enjoy them for many years to come.

Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei: The Electronic Megamarket.

News and Travel Editor

Welcome to Huaqiangbei: The world’s biggest electronics market. Booths are crammed in over 10 floors and each one represents a factory close by. From smartphones and drones to circuit boards and security systems, if it’s electronic, I can guarantee you’ll be able to find it here. If you can’t find the finished product, don’t worry, there are so many components on sale, you’ll be able to make it from scratch.

It’s not the usual scenic attraction we might talk about on China Icons so why visit? Huaqiangbei is renowned for its vast range of products as well its speed and efficiency in producing them. Plus we were in town with a shopping list – a drone and some circuit boards. This is both geek heaven and the place to stock up on all the gadgets you wish you had.

SEG1

Its location in Shenzhen, rather than Beijing or Shanghai, reveals something fascinating about the modern history of China. Until 1979, Shenzhen was nothing more than a sleepy fishing port with a population of around 30,000. That year, Shenzhen became a ‘Special Economic Zone’, becoming China’s first experiment in capitalism. ‘SEZs’ were the brainchild of Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader at the time, who wanted to cement China’s place as a global economic powerhouse. They were designed to encourage foreign investment and this meant that zones such as Shenzhen would have different trade and business laws compared to the rest of the country.

Fast forward to today and the population has leaped to 10-15 million (the exact figure is unknown because of the shifting patterns of migrant workers), a larger population than London, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, New York and Washington D.C.. Economically, Shenzhen has undeniably flourished, with its GDP growing from 1.96 million RMB in 1979 to 1.95 trillion RMB today.

DSC01554

This immense growth and rapid expansion turned Shenzhen into a haven for hardware and electronic startups. Huaqiangbei is simply one of Shenzhen’s most prominent examples of this.

Some of the famous ‘startups’ that call Shenzhen home include world-renowned drone-makers, DJI; BYD, famous for electric cars and having the world’s largest electric bus fleet; telecom giants, Huawei; and the owners of WeChat, Tencent, now worth over $200 billion. Many of these companies were founded in the 1990s during Shenzhen’s economic boom. DJI’s story is more impressive still. Founded in 2006, DJI have snapped up around 70% of the drone market, way ahead of the nearest rival, French firm Parrot.

The next big company to come out of China and dominate the international market may well come out of one of the tiny stalls in the vast Huaqiangbei electronic markets.

So what can you expect to see? Each floor has its own dedicated speciality, from motors, batteries and circits on one floor, to smart phones, drones, TVs, security systems and laptops on the others.

But you’ll still find a bit of everything on each floor. The challenge is giving yourself enough time to look round to make sure you get the best deal.

SEG5

So how did I get on? Sadly I didn’t follow my own advice and purchased a mini-drone far too early for 350 RMB ($50). I found a similar one later for just over half the price at 180 RMB ($25). A great reminder that there’s always room for a bit of bargaining and negotiation. If you play your cards right, buying here will almost certainly be worth your while. The custom-made circuit boards we were after were delivered the next day for half the price we would have expected to pay outside of China.

Make no mistake, Shenzhen continues to grow. The city is covered in building sites and there are plans to make Shenzhen one of the greenest cities on earth.

Fancy knowing more about Shenzhen’s history and how it is competing with the likes of Silicon Valley? The documentary visits some of the city’s startups and takes you through the electronics market, showcasing exactly what you can buy there.

 

The Great Wall: How China has Become Hollywood’s New Destination

News and Travel Editor

The Great Wall is one of the most hyped films of the year, drawing a stellar international cast and will be released in the US and UK on Friday 17th February. It’s sure to pull in the audiences far and wide, but is it on your must-see-films list for 2017?

The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon (Bourne, The Martian), Pedro Pascal (Narcos, Game of Thrones), Jing Tian (Pacific Rim, Kong: Skull Island) and Andy Lau (As Tears Go By, A Moment of Romance), is China’s biggest Hollywood export to date. It’s already been released in China and will hit the big screens in the US & UK on the 17th of February. The film tells the story of mercenaries William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) after they are captured by an elite army guarding the Great Wall, known as the Nameless Order. Garin and Tovar become entangled in the Order’s task of defeating the Taotie, beasts that rise from the Jade Mountain every 60 years to destroy humanity.

The film plays with the myth that The Great Wall was not intended for keeping out the Mongol invaders from the north, but was in fact needed to protect China from supernatural forces, in this case from the ravenous Taotie. In reality, the Wall did successfully repel invaders of all kinds for hundreds of years. But there are many legends surrounding the Great Wall, so who knows? Maybe that’s what we’re meant to think and the Taotie continue to attempt to destroy humanity every 60 years. I think I prefer the Mongols…

great-wall-old
The Chinese Empire by Thomas Allom; With the descriptions of manners, customs, architecture and industry of the Chinese people from the most remote times to the present day.

The Great Wall is one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year and, predictably, was a massive hit at the Chinese box office. The film took $66 million in its opening weekend in December, making it 2016’s 4th biggest opening weekend in China. Only WarcraftCaptain America: Civil War, and Stephen Chow’s phenomenally successful The Mermaid. It’s also the first Hollywood blockbuster to be set entirely in China. China’s recent increase in box office takings comes against the backdrop of Jackie Chan receiving an Honorary Award at the Oscars. The future certainly looks bright for the film industry in China.

The Great Wall might have been the first Hollywood film to be completely set in China, but can you recognise any of the locations below from other international blockbusters?

We all know that Tom Cruise is famous for outlandish and dangerous stunts, climbing the Burj Khalifa in Dubai during Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but did you know Shanghai was also a location for one of these outrageous stunts? The Bank of China tower in Shanghai is now famous for the jaw-dropping role it played in Mission: Impossible III, when Tom Cruise used the building for a bungee jump!

9
Image by hans-johnson. CC Attribution 2.0.

Looper, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis, was also a tremendous hit in China. If you’re a major fan of the film like me, you’ll have spotted a futuristic Shanghai with the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower in the foreground.

looper
Image by Joshua Bermudez. CC Attribution 2.0.

Although not a Hollywood film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a huge hit in Western cinemas, taking $85 million in foreign box offices and was nominated for 10 oscars, winning 4. One of the most famous scenes in the film is set in Shunan’s Bamboo Forest, one of the largest bamboo forests in China, covering 120sq km.

 

Finally, Transformers: Age of Extinction was riddled with stunning Chinese scenery, including breath-taking aerials of Beijing where you can catch a glimpse of the Bird’s Nest Stadium and of course, the Great Wall. We also witness some of China’s more scenic wonders including the Natural Three Bridges, one of the most spectacular geological sites at Wulong Karst, before heading to Hong Kong for one of the final epic battle scenes.

wulong-karst

Are you looking forward to seeing The Great Wall or do you have any other must-see up and coming movies from China that we should talk about? Do you have any favourites set in China that we haven’t talked about in this blog? Let us know in the comments!

Exploring the Hutongs of Beijing

Features Editor

If you ever visit Beijing you must make time for the hutong.  The word dates back to the time when Khublai Khan made Beijing his capital.  At that time the word meant “well”, then it evolved to mean “narrow lane” in Mandarin but today, in English at least, it stands for those areas of one storey houses, giant trees and narrow alleyways where visitors can get a glimpse of life in “Old Beijing.” (And a craft beer and a vegan lunch, of which more later).

People who visited Beijing in the 1920s said it was like a garden: from a high point, perhaps on the walls that still surrounded the city, all you could see were trees.  You can get a sense of that even today if you climb Jingshan hill, immediately behind the Forbidden City.  Look south and the imperial yellow roofs of the hundreds of buildings of the former Palace gleam.  Look north and west and you are surrounded by trees.  Now imagine that stretching to the edges of the city…and lift your eyes to the mountains beyond.

The reason for all those trees was largely to do with the way the hutong areas were laid out.  In Old Beijing, extended families lived in rectangular courtyard homes, known as “Siheyuan”.  Four oblong buildings, one storey high and roofed with elegant grey tiles, were arranged on four sides of a central courtyard.  In the middle of that courtyard would be a tree, which gave shade and – if it was a pomegranate – also signified good luck, prosperity and many children for the family.  The rectangle of the siheyuan was always laid out strictly north-south; and which family members lived in which of the four buildings flanking the central courtyard was determined by tradition and feng shui.

As the siheyuan were built side by side, the courtyards created a grid system of narrow alleyways, the majority running east-west, but a few running south-north.  From above all you would have seen would have been those trees…

Over the generations, with space in the capital at a premium, most of the central courtyards have been filled in with other buildings and large numbers of people, mostly not related, now live within the rectangle of each former siheyuan.  Luckily most of the trees seem to have survived.  To the visitor, catching a glimpse of shaded, ramshackle buildings through a half open door, it all looks very romantic. But I hear the old courtyard houses are chilly places to live in winter, and baking hot in summer; and of course they have few mod cons compared to the apartments most Beijingers live in today.  In the last 50 years, and increasingly from the 1990s, the hutong have been demolished to make way for new development.  In the years just before the 2008 Olympics, this redevelopment reached such a crescendo that many people in the city feared the hutong would disappear for ever.  Luckily the city authorities realised in the time that these areas of traditional housing and living were as essential a part of Beijing’s long history and culture as the more impressive historical buildings and as a consequence worthy of protection. Now, a a considerable number have been earmarked for protection. And a steady process of renovation and modernisation – which some call gentrification – is under way.

9

For a visitor to the city, a wander through the hutong – whether renovated or not – can be a relaxing antidote to the sometimes overwhelming size and scale of Beijing. Tiananmen Square, the  Forbidden City, the skyscrapers of Chaoyang, the many 6 lane highways are all built on a giant scale.  Everything in the hutong is, in contrast, on a very human scale.  You can walk at your own pace –  peep through red-painted doors with their lion’s head door-knockers into secret courtyards, where flowers in blue and white pots and grapes and gourds hanging from trellises can be seen.  You can linger to watch a group of men playing cards or buy freshly-made steamed bread from tiny shops.  There’s always something interesting to see.  And the amazing thing is that, despite being in the heart of a city of 20 million, it’s magically quiet in the residential hutong and there are no crowds.  You can’t really get lost, either, as the grid system is easy to navigate and logical; and in my experience if you turn down what locals know is a dead end, someone will immediately set you right with friendly smiles and gestures.

13

Hutong have also proved the perfect place for bars, cafes and shops selling high quality craftsmen-made goods (and tourist trinkets of course.) The narrow streets are tailor-made for pedestrians – and renovated siheyuan make stylish, traditional-looking restaurants.   Craft breweries, vegan cafes, bars where you can sample dozens of different kinds of baijiu; live music, free wifi, squashy sofas, good cappuccinos – all are available in the more commercial hutong. Nanluguoxiang is perhaps the busiest of these renovated hutong.

You can also take a pedicab tour as Mary-Ann did in the busy hutong near Houhai, or behind the Bell and Drum Towers and get some historical background to the hutong and the siheyuan.

1

 

But if like me you love an aimless wander where you never know what’s round the next corner – try heading off to one of these hutong, some of my favourites:

Daxilan – South of Qianmen, once famous as the raffish quarter where musicians and artists lived.  Visit the flashy shops on the renovated north-south main street if you must, but then duck into the buzzing side alleys to the west for lively small restaurants and ancient wine shops – a feast for the eyes even if you don’t want to eat

Zhongjianzixiang  – Walk north up Wangfujing – and then just keep walking as it turns into a narrower street and eventually, after a couple of rights and lefts, into a hutong. After an enjoyable walk, you will reach the delightful and often overlooked Confucius Temple,  near Lama Temple Metro station. On the way, it’s a fascinating hutong, once famous for making horse scissors, and now lively with elderly people playing Go and Mahjong; shop- keepers selling fresh vegetables; abundant roof gardens and small children trying to ride scooters twice their size. Check out stylish clothing and interiors store Once upon a time just west of the Confucius Temple.

North-east of Zhangzizhong subway station – Take the oldest map of Beijing, and take one from today, and the layout of the streets in this quarter is almost exactly the same. Time travel to the era of Khublai Khan’s capital, Dadu, when the hutong first came into existence.

Wudaoling, west of the Lama Temple – This is an up-and-coming commercial hutong where Mary-Ann finished her hutong exploration.  As well as the hotpot restaurant she visited, there’s good organic vegan food at The Vegan Table; or delicious Vietnamese-inspired fusion at Susu. There are all kinds of shops as well as the porcelain store she explored, including clothing, vintage, leather goods and you can even hire a bike here.  Take any left turn to plunge deeper into residential areas.

18

Gulou – Around the Drum and Bell Towers is good for bars and for all kinds of live music, whether your taste runs to jazz or to traditional Chinese music (Meet jazz musician Terry Hsieh who performs at Jianghu Bar regularly).  Caochang hutong starts on Gulou street and wiggles its way to the Drum Tower through a calm and flower-bedecked network of quiet alleyways.  There’s even the Peace café at No 37, where you can sit on the shaded deck and watch the world go by.

Do you have a favourite?

The Fireworks Man: The Alternative Way to Celebrate Chinese New Year

News and Travel Editor

What do you think of when someone mentions Chinese New Year? Some people think of the colour red, the Chinese Dragon, red money envelopes, or even dash to travel home – Did you know 2.98 billion trips are expected this year?! And who can forget the spectacular firework displays happening across the Spring Festival period.

For 14 generations, Xue Jianguo and his family have been creating firework displays with a spectacular twist (You definitely shouldn’t try this at home).

The tradition arose when local villagers couldn’t afford firework shows for their New Year celebrations. Logically, the next best thing was to throw molten iron into the air to create cascading sparks – it’s a good job he’s wearing that straw hat! However beautiful this may be, Jianguo admits the job is quite dangerous.

fireworksman4

So, where is the best place around the world to celebrate Chinese New Year and watch the fireworks? We have our top four, what are yours?

4) London
This is the world’s largest Chinese New Year celebration outside Asia. The best areas to head to are Trafalgar Square, Shaftesbury Avenue and, of course, Chinatown.

3) New York
If you’re not in China and you want grand and flashy, New York is the place to be. There are three separate parades across several days of celebrations: the Firecracker Ceremony, the Lunar New Year Parade and the Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade and Festival. New York is perfect for blending old and new Chinese New Year traditions.

2) Beijing
Celebrating in Beijing this year? If so, Temple Fairs are a must! They’re full of traditional performances, arts & crafts and local street food. We love Ditan Park Temple Fair – it is after all one of the biggest and most popular. If you have time, head to a park to watch athletic competitions and demonstrations.

1) Hong Kong
Probably the most colourful out of all our destinations. Expect incredible fireworks, festive markets and parades. The Victorian Harbour is the best spot for the fireworks, but make sure you find time to watch the night parade along Tsim Sha Tsuji. Naturally, Hong Kong Disney also make an appearance. 

hk-cny
Image by Michael Elleray. Licensed under CC 2.0.

How are you celebrating Chinese New Year? Where do you think is the best place to watch the fireworks this year? Send us your pictures and comments and we’ll feature them on our Twitter and Facebook pages at @ChinaIcons!

Harbin Ice Festival 2017: In Pictures

News and Travel Editor

The world famous Harbin Ice Festival is well underway in China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang. We have been treated to some spectacular sights in the past and this year is no exception. Check out some of the stunning shots captured at this year’s festival so far.

This is the 33rd Harbin Ice Festival since its inception in 1963. At the start of every festival, an ice sculpture competition is held, showcasing some brilliant creations. Although the Harbin Ice Sculpture Competition is over for this year, the festival itself won’t finish until February 25th, so there’s still plenty of time to take in the sights across the 200 acre park.

Here are our favourite images so far of this year’s festival.

Fireworks erupt at the opening ceremony on January 5th.

Did you know that many of the blocks used for the sculptures were taken from Harbin’s Songhua River?

Did you double take just then? That’s right, some of the sculptures are actually designed into slides for the public. Just make sure you’re wrapped up warm for this one…

Many of the sculptures are inspired by Chinese folk tales and global landmarks. with the Egyptian Sphynx making regular appearances.

The Harbin Snow Festival has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. The festival attracted over 1 million visitors last year.

18 couples have so far braved the cold in Harbin to get married, but that’s not the most daring this to happen at the festival this year…

Swimming competitions take place in a pool cut out of the frozen Songhua River. Just looking at this makes me feel cold.

Next week, our very own Coco will be giving you some top tips on stocking up for your Chinese New Year celebrations as you get ready to welcome in the Year of the Rooster. We’ll also take a look at some of the myths and legends surrounding Chinese New Year, including what NOT to do if you’re given a red money envelope…