Tag Archives: History

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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, 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.  Even though the left over brick hadn’t been used in the construction, Yi quickly suggested that a supernatural being had placed it close by 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…

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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…

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.

 

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?

International Tea Day: A Celebration of Tea from China

News and Travel Editor

Did you know that tea is the second most consumed drink in the world, behind only water at no. 1? And that the average Briton drinks 876 cups of tea per year? If you’re as obsessed with tea as I am, then today is the day we’ve all been waiting for – International Tea Day!

Celebrated annually on December 15th since 2005, International Tea Day officially draws public attention to the impact of the international tea trade on estate workers and small-scale growers. Fairtrade have very much been leading the fight on this and you can check out the work they’re doing here.

As many of you will probably know, China is huge on all types of tea. In fact, it is estimated that there are at least 1500 kinds of tea! To celebrate, here is a rundown of our favourite tea facts and legends from China, as well as one of our favourite China Icons videos of Kate Humble receiving a tea making masterclass…

chinese-tea-drinking
Image by David Boté Estrada. Licensed under CC 2.0.

Did you know that tea is thought to have originated in China over 4000 years ago? The legend goes that tea was discovered by accident by Chinese Emperor Shennong in 2737 BC. One of Emperor Shennong’s far-sighted policies required water to be boiled before drinking to prevent the spread of disease (very forward thinking!). One day, whilst sat under a tree with a boiling cup of water, a tea leaf allegedly drifted into his tea and after drinking it, the Emperor stated ‘one can think quicker, sleep less, move lighter, and see clearer.’ Thus, tea was born.

For nearly 3000 years, tea was used for medicinal purposes and it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that tea began to be enjoyed as an art form by all social classes. Nevertheless, Chrysanthemum tea remains a medicinal favourite in China and Korea as it’s thought to reduce fevers and ease headaches.

Tea also wasn’t just used for drinking… Believe it or not, tea was also used as a form of currency in Ancient China! Tea leaves were pressed into bricks and scored on one side to be broken up if change was needed.

Tea later became popular in Buddhist monasteries to keep monks awake during the hours of meditation. Because of the popularity tea gained, monks started to cultivate huge fields of tea. It was in one of these monasteries that a young orphan called Lu Yu was educated and wrote the book: The Book of Tea. This was a detailed account of ways to cultivate and prepare tea, tea drinking customs, the best water for tea brewing and different classifications of tea.

tea-plantation

So there you have it, whether you’re ill, tired or fully fit, you should never pass an opportunity to have a cup of (Chinese) tea. In the West, we have a lot of catching up to do. Whereas people in the East have generally been consuming tea for thousands of years, us backward folk in the West have only been drinking tea for 400 years, so we’re officially about 4000 years behind. There has never been a better excuse than International Tea Day to start catching up.

If you want to know more about Chinese tea, check out our video below of the lovely Kate Humble receiving a private masterclass in the delicate art of Chinese Tea making.