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 Jia-A has since been replaced by the Chinese Super League (CSL), with the best 16 teams from across China competing in a season running from roughly from February/March to November/December.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.
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?
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.
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.
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 .
There are so many different types of Chinese tea it can be hard to know where to start and what to order! To help navigate your taste buds through this diverse world, have a read of this first timer’s guide to Chinese tea.
Comes from… Anxi, Fujian Province
Tastes like… This Oolong tea variation is named after the Chinese Goddess of mercy Guanyin. It tastes slightly different depending on the time of year, with the most popular being the sweet and fruity taste of the Spring yields.
Big Red Robe
Comes from… Northern Fujian
Tastes like… This full and floral Oolong tea has a taste that lingers in your
mouth after drinking. The legend goes that drinking this tea cured the mother of a Ming Dynasty Emperor, so he sent red robes to cloak the bushes that it came from. This prestigious variety of tea is incredibly expensive, worth over a $1m/£600,000 per kilogram! There are cheaper varieties grown from the cuttings of the original plants, if you want a taste without breaking the bank.
Comes from…Yunnan Province
Tastes like…A dark, fermented tea, Pu’er is named after Puer city in Yunnan
It is commonly believed that this tea tastes more delicious the longer it is left to
age. The tea is pressed into shapes such as bricks, balls or discs and has a deep
Comes from… Dongting Mountains, Jiangsu Province
Tastes like… Dongting Biluochun is named after the mountains on which it grows, and its snail-shaped rolled leaves. A light, refreshing green tea!
Comes from… Longjing village, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province
Tastes like… This hand-produced green tea literally translates as ‘Dragon Well tea’ after a Well close to Longjing Village. Dragon Well gets it name because rain falling on its surface supposedly creates a twisting boundary in the well water, which looks like a moving dragon! The flat pan-roasted leaves taste slightly sweet, mellow and grassy. If you want to really look like you know what you’re doing, brew in a Yixing clay teapot!
Comes from… Fujian Province
Tastes like...This white tea is sweet and floral! You can tell if it’s good stuff by the proportion of long, furry buds. The more of these tiny hairs floating in the water – the better the tea! Yum?
Comes from… Wuji Mountain, Fujian Province
Tastes like… This black tea is dried over a pine fire, giving it a deep and smoky flavour! The story of this drying process goes that the tea was created during the Qing era when the passage of armies delayed the annual drying of the tealeaves in the Wuyi Mountain. To catch up for lost time, the tea producers sped up the process by drying tealeaves over fires of local pines!
Once you’ve made up your mind, watch how to brew the perfect cup:
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 http://ow.ly/iFqI300Y3Uk
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! http://ow.ly/fSdt301tSUp.
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.
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.
A drummer or a caller guides the rhythm of the paddlers.
There are dragon boat clubs in over 60 countries. The organisation that governs international competition is called the International Dragon Boat Federation.
Dragon Boat races are usually 500 meters long, but can vary from 250m to marathon length!
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!
Dragon boat races are inspired by how the villagers tried to recover Qu Yuan’s body by paddling out on boats.
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.
Children decorate their clothes with coloured and scented pouches. According to Chinese folklore, these pouches protect them from evil in the next year!
Around the festival, people clean their houses and put mugwort leaves and pine root onto doors to prevent disease.
Dragon Boat Festival was celebrated as a public holiday in China for the first time in 2008.
It’s nearly time to celebrate everyone’s favourite Panda triplets reaching their second birthday! The famous trio, Meng Meng, Shuai Shuai and Ku Ku, are the oldest surviving Giant Panda triplets in history! The adorable siblings were born in Chimelong Safari Park in Beijing to Mum Ju Xiao on July 29th 2014. To build up to the big day (will it top last year’s?), here’s 7 facts that will make you love the black and white bears even more!
7 Facts that will make you love Giant Pandas even more
1. Giant Panda in Mandarin (大熊猫Dà xióngmāo) literally translates to ‘Big Bear Cat’
2. Giant Pandas spend on average two-thirds of their day feeding and the remainder resting. Sounds like a great weekend to me!
3. Pandas don’t use a specific resting place to sleep, but simply lie down on the ground wherever they happen to be.
4. When first born, Panda cubs are about the length of a pencil and the weight of an orange! These tiny cubs are only 1/900th the size of their mother.
5. Cubs don’t open their eyes until they are at least six weeks old.
6. Unlike most other bears, Pandas do not hibernate. This means we get to love them ALL YEAR ROUND!
7. Giant Pandas have distinct personalities. Of the triplets, Meng Meng, the eldest, is the quiet one. Shuai Shuai is VERY cheeky. The youngest panda, Ku Ku, is very chilled, but makes it very clear when he’s not enjoying something.
Has it worked, do you love them EVEN MORE or are you such a fan that you already knew all these facts? Have you got any more great ones to share? Let us know in the comments below!
Keep your eyes peeled for some exclusive footage of the cuddly cuties coming soon from China Icons! Subscribe HERE
The images we see of China on the news – and even in documentaries – are nearly always of the populous, fast-modernising eastern plains and seaboard: the great urban centres of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. These are cities with bristling skylines, lit up at night with vivid neon displays, where traffic roars 24/7 and commuters and consumers hurry to work and to play. This is certainly where the majority of Chinese people live – or aspire to live. And it’s the economic engine of the country. But there is another China that many visitors miss entirely. The fact is China is vast. Beijing to Guangzhou takes 8 hours, and that’s on a high speed train whizzing at 300km/hour. To travel from Shanghai on the East Coast to Kashgar in the West takes over seven hours on a plane – that’s the same as flying from Europe to the USA!
And many parts of China are so cold in the winter; or so mountainous; or so inhospitable that travelling is quite hard, even today. It was only in 2013 that the last county in China was connected to the national road network. Before 2013, the only way to reach Motuo was on foot, 10 hours over a mountain pass.
So that’s why I love this timelapse video. It gives a tiny glimpse of China’s geographical variety – and makes me dream where I might visit next…
Up in the far north, where the Heilongjiang river marks the border with Russia, people cope with Minus 40 degrees in mid winter and hack holes in the river ice to catch fish to vary their diet. nearly 4000km to the south, Hainan island is a total contrast – a tropical paradise. Inland, karst geology makes for giant caves and fantastical rocky outcrops, all draped with jungle vegetation; while along the coastline, holiday-makers surf and scuba-dive and locals fish and make sea salt in giant natural salt-pans of volcanic basalt.
High up on the Tibetan plateau in an area known as Khampa, locals race their sturdy mountain ponies – that were once the basis of trade between Lhasa and the lowlands. Tea from Yunnan especially, and from Darjeeling in India, was compressed into “bricks” and transported on people’s backs up onto the plateau. On the return journey, they brought sturdy mountain ponies, in demand for their sure-footedness and their endurance.
In south-west China, over more than a thousand years, locals have sculpted terraces from the hillsides to grow rice.
The terraced fields need to be kept full of water or there will be landslides, so they have created an extraordinary system of water management that ensures every field on the mountain side is kept irrigated at just the right level. This method of rice growing also contains a virtuous ecological circle. Fish swim in the rice paddy water alongside the seedlings, eating insects; while ducks eat the smaller fish and fertilise the soil with their waste.
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.
This is the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (F.A.S.T for short), or at least it will be when it’s completed in September this year.
This silver giant in remote Guizhou Province is the world’s largest Radio Telescope, eclipsing the previous title-holder by THREE TIMES its size. This means that the paraboloid reflective dish will be able to detect signals 1000 light-years away, enabling scientists to see three times further than ever before.
What is it searching for? Well, for starters, the telescope will be looking for ancient signals of hydrogen to try to understand how the universe evolved. It will also be on the look out for never-before-seen stars, and of course, extra terrestrial life. What will we find when we look further into space than ever before? Will existing theories about the origins of the universe be confirmed or thrown into confusion? Am I going to get to meet E.T.?!
The telescope comes as part of a tide of innovation coming from China, which includes world-leading advances in A.I, driverless cars and even eye transplants. To get a visual example of this rapid technological advances, look at the development of Shenzhen over the last 40 years, from small fishing village to a rival for Silicon Valley!
The country that invented the compass, papermaking, printing and gunpowder is definitely experiencing a Scientific revival, and I’m excited to find out what the future holds.
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…
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