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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