南菁中学 NanJing High School

Oh, I just don't see the light at the end of the censorship tunnel anymore. Everything from facebook to blogger is still blocked--and cracks found are cracks soon patched. The one blinding ray of bright light in this storm of well-executed oppression is that I'm no longer wasting time. Yeah! I never realized how much time facebook and blogging cost me until this paranoid government crushed them to itty bitty little pieces and forced me to concentrate on the job at hand.  And so I guess in some ways this prolonged block on all things social is sorta working out for me because as it turns out I'm so much busier this year. I can use the time!
Anyways, the block is still leaky enough for me to toss things out at ya. As I mentioned below, I can't read my blog, but I can still email things to it so that you can stay updated. And so I'm going to take this occassion of my 8-day holiday to bring you up to speed.
I am living in the affluent city of Jiangyin (江阴) of the affluent province of Jiangsu (江苏). After spending a month here, I am convinced that this place is nearly perfect. Nearly, not quite. Let's air out these complaints to dry before we take in the clean laundry. (1) I'm not a big fan of the food here; bland blends of vegetables and rice don't get me overly excited for lunch or dinner. Luckily there are immigrants from Sichuan and Gansu who can cook up some dishes with a bit more flavor (adding sugar to dishes is not much of a trick, to all you Jiangsu loyalists). Unfortunately I haven't been able to find any food representing the flavors of 陕西. Anyways, so I'm not amazed by the food; but I'm definitely eating my fill. (2) The weather disappoints me mostly. We're sitting in October here, and the only jacket I get to wear is a rain coat. That's because it's still warm, sometimes muggy, and sometimes rainy. Meh, no big deal; it's just not the kind of autumn I prefer.
But everything else is great. The city size is neither too big nor too small. It has restaurants, shopping, and entertainment that range in price and quality--and all are easily accessed as a product of the convenient layout of the city. The city is clean. It feels safe. It's modern. It has an ace public transportation system.
As nice as all of that is, it's all bonus. I came here to teach; and this school provides the educational environment of every teacher's dreams. The school is modern (construction 'finished' this summer). Every classroom has advanced technology, including a computer, a projector system, sliding layers of blackboards, a smartboard, and a network for accessing the Internet and shared folders across the entire school. All teachers have access to a printing room with limitless opportunity to make photocopies and print classroom materials. In most classes, there are about 50 students in a spacious room, but my classrooms have a little over 30 students in each. The school also boasts a massive three-floor cafeteria with the top floor being the teachers' cafeteria decorated to look like an elegant restaurant. The school has a colossal outdoors sports complex with a track, regulation soccer pitch, and multiple basketball courts; a separate library building; a separate, multi-floored indoor gymnasium building; a eight-story administration building; a theatre; multiple classroom buildings; and multiple large lecture halls. Oh, and we can't forget the parking garage, the students' dorms, the teachers' dorms, and the International Center--which includes hotel rooms and our foreign teachers' apartments. This is all that I've seen--there's probably still more stuff here. I estimate it takes 10 minutes to walk from one side of campus to the other!

How about some pictures!...


towering administration building, gymnasium to the right, library far back right


grade3 classroom building to the left and tower in the back



Grade1 building to the left; Grade2 building to the right; courtyard in the center



courtyard and lecture halls, theatre back left, not sure about other building



a pond courtyard... yes, it has a pond courtyard too! You should see it at night!






Holiday performances

A school is nothing without the proper internal structure, but this school has that too. I am blessed to have been placed within a cohesive and talented department of foreign and Chinese teachers. We cooperate in every aspect of teaching--from lesson integration to grading. Let me give you an example--I teach the students advanced vocabulary words in their TOEFL class. The literature teacher highlightst those words in her class and uses them whenever possible. The chemistry teacher has begun to use the words in her classes too! The literature teacher and I even co-teach two lessons a week--entirely on our own initiative. I'm telling you, we all work together on a level that I would have had a hard time imagining two months ago. In short, our Ameson department of teachers are flexible, determined, and supportive. We also have suitable support from the administrators at our school and the administrators at the Ameson Institute. Let me give you an example. The lesson that the literature teacher and I co-teach involves active learning and going outside. The administration let us do this (remember, Chinese teachers don't take their students outside!). In the second week, our students were too noisy, and many Chinese teachers complained to the administrators. The administrators only told us that we should choose a place that is further away from the classroom area. They still completely support our method.


our department office
Well, there's one more subject to addres. Think about it...  Yeah, I haven't told you about the students yet. They're are the critical part of the equation, eh? Well, the students are...
[stay tuned for scenes from the next episode]

singing "Nanjing welcomes You"

This is just a quick blog entry to note that I am back in China after a safe but chaotic and exhuasting adventure hopping between trains, planes, and automobiles to arrive at my destination in Nanjing comfortably 1 hour before the hostel I had booked closed. To keep a long, interesting story short and bland: a lot of little things went wrong, but the big things went right. That I arrived is all that matters, right? Well, I imagine you might be thinking this blog entry would be a heck of a lot more exciting if I could report that I had to spend my first night back in China sleeping on the streets? It would have been manageable... I could have made a castle out of the library of books that I brought between my two 50 pound suticases. And then just tuck mysef to sleep under the thick quilt of humidity in the Nanjing air. Anyways... that didn't happen... I got my secure, air-conditioned, wifi access room! Luck always be mine in the end!
Some other notes:
 (1) THe blog: many communication and social networking sites are still blocked in China (recall that we talked about this as a consequence of the Xinjiang riots back in July). I can't access facebook. And I still can't access my blog. So how am I writing this? Well I am emailing this message to my blog. THat means the formating is probably a little weird and it will take an extra step to add pictures. It also means I can't check my own blog. So I have no idea how any of this appears or that it even appears at all. I can't read any of your comments, but please do continue to comment if you please because EVENTUALLY this block will be lifted (or at the very least I'll return to America, where even hate-spewing racists are allowed to blog) and then I can go back and read all of your comments, which I enjoy doing. Hey that run-on sentence was longer than my flight across the Pacific!
(2) Things are looking more and more encouraging with my new position. There will be at least 3 other foreign teachers at our school. What a change from HuaiYa! What's more, I am hearing amazing things about the quality of this school's campus and facilities... but let's save details until they can be verified. There's still a lot of pressure, but I am feeling more relieved because on the one hand (A) the other 3 teachers who are going with me to Jiangyin are young and new to AP and teaching and on the other hand (B) the older, more experienced teachers who work in Nanjing are helpful, encouraging, and available. In other words, the workload and standards are just as intense as they ever were, but the atmosphere seems pleasant. Anyways, let a few months go by before you accept any verdicts from me...
Okay, folks, that's it. Nothing interesting about this blog entry. Just an update.

back in the world

On the Barbarian's Side of the Great Firewall of China

Wow! There are enough cobwebs on this blog to embroider a replica of the QingMing Shanghe Tu!!! Where the heck have I been?!

WAITING...and sometimes not so patiently. Blogspot has been blocked in China since sometime in April or May. Who really knows why. One month approaching the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen '89, the lights just went out. And not only blogspot--for a while, Twitter and hotmail were down too. And Youtube of course--Youtube has been among the dead and missing since March or earlier. I assumed that all of the paranoia would end abrubtly and arbitrarily... some Monday in June... or maybe June 15th. Nope.

It dragged on and on until July 5th or July 6th, when it got worse. July 5th brought the beginning of a tragic, see-saw series of protests and riots in Urumqi of Xinjiang Province. I assume this news was as big worldwide as it was in China. You know about it, right? As far as the Internet, well, you can imagine--all but the candles went out. No more facebook; Skype and Yahoo! mail were my only connection to the outside world.

For me, this ever-higher wall has been an aggrevation. In the last two or three months, I experienced and did some incredible things. The final months flooded my life with a whirlwind of amazing stories and spectacular pictures. But I can't share them now... not enough time to say so much.

So how am I blogging again? Did China lift the block? No. Did I use a proxy to tunnel my way under the wall? No (I can't seem to make proxies work). I am taking advantage of the third option--I took a 747 over the wall and landed somewhere on the other side of the Great Firewall of China. From America, I can blogspot, facebook, twitter, youtube, wiki, and google my life away again!

But... that's not what's going to happen. Don't expect any blogs until September. And you won't see much of me on facebook either. You see, I only have a month at home before I pick up my bags and return to China for another (hopefully) wonderful year. Now come on, don't cry about it. No one wants to read blog entries about my first cheeseburger back in the States. So until September--or until China unblocks blogspot--zaijian!

This post is due for a disclaimer: It's clear that China's policy of censorship and blocking annoys me at the personal level. And I would argue further that these tools are probably not as effective and in some ways potentially counter-productive in terms of China's objectives. Yet all-in-all I understand China's rationale. In recognition of blogspot's capacity as a medium to incite anger/hate/division or facebook's capacity as a medium to organize a protest-come-riot, I understand how censorship and blocking are justified as a means for maintaining social order. In terms of human rights, I value one human's right to safety from death, injury, or vandalism at the hands of a mob over many human's rights to chat at leisure on social networking websites.

And let's not forget that America has censorship too. Many 'Youku' videos, for example, are blocked in American. Why? Because they blatantly violate copyrights! That's a good enough rationale for me. Well, agree or disagree, but China has its rationale too.

Yan'an Revolutions

Welcome to Yan'an
The Nursery of Chinese Revolutions

Last weekend, the headmaster of the school invited me to join him and some other teachers from the school on a trip to Yan'an. The trip aimed to combine sightseeing, food tourism, and meet-n-greets with schools in Yan'an Prefecture. Now find your maps and guide your eyes to northern Shaanxi Province. Yan'an will be not too, too far to the north of Xi'an. Yan'an is important enough to be on your map.


On the map, it would appear that Yan'an is not far from my HuaiYa neighborhood. Six-hour drive by car, maybe. But in every way, Yan'an is a different world. The geography is dramatically different. I hope to have an entry on that in the near future. The food is different. They have a wide variety of mutton/lamb/goat entrees (including lamb hoof meat and goat head meat served in the cracked-open and hollowed skull of an adult goat), a potato'y local special food, and squash (in April!). The Yan'an folk have never heard of our local special food (mianpi'er). And their best chefs attempt to imitate saozi mian (our local, China-wide famous noodle), but the word "dud" comes to mind when I think of it. HuaiYa and Yan'an may be in the same province, but they are different worlds.


Anyways, talking about food has pushed us to the brink of eternal aimlessness. Let's return to planet earth. Yan'an is famous as the site of revolution. One revolution changed China 70 years ago. A contemporary revolution may change China in the decades to come.


Revolution #1:

I am by no means an expert on China's communist revolution. To be honest, reading about this critical period of modern Chinese history makes my eyelids heavy. You know what I mean? Let me explain: it bores the life out of me. In fact, I did not even want to go to Yan'an, but I sensed the headmaster's "offer" was something of a request.


Old ideas, new ideas, merging and pounding of ideologies, propaganda, legends of godly men, blah, blah, blah. I don't know why, but it bores me. And I suspect it bores you too. So let's condense the history and make it colorful.

Communist thought arrived in China and evolved in China and was ultimately accepted in China as the antidote to the toxic 'poisons' of feudalism, capitalism, and imperialism. In the infant years, an assortment of Chinese intellectuals created a rainbow of communist thought. This rainbow was the backdrop of a dark foreground: corruption, drugs, warlords, civil war, foreign exploitation, and bold aggression at the barrel tips of the Japanese military. The conservative leaders in China despised communism (and the associated threats against their leadership) and therefore attempted to purge the country of communist thought. They shot from the hip and killed many people. But although the surviving Chinese communists dwindled in number, they strengthed in unity. Facing the threat of extermination, this nugget of revolutionary diehards went on a long, long march across China to escape persecution.

At long last, these fleeing communists arrived and found safety in Yan'an. They unpacked their rainbow and put in the skies over China once again. But this particular rainbow coming from Yan'an began to lose its colors. Soon there was no more violet in the rainbow of Chinese communist thought. They next day no more blue. No more green. No more yellow. No more orange! The variety of ideologies and policies that once existed were being streamlined into one pure thought at the hands of a small group of increasingly influential communist leaders in Yan'an. By the mid1940s, the rainbow of Chinese communist thought shining from Yan'an cast a single, pure shade of red. And by the end of the 1940s, the Chinese communists defeated the Chinese nationalists and so cast Mao Zedong's red rainbow all over mainland China.

The point is that the political revolution, which began as a hundred schools of thought from places all over the world, was molded into a focused vision there in Yan'an. Afterwards, this vision was applied across China and hence profoundly changed Chinese society and culture.

After a long day of scheming about how to take the future of China into his hands, Mao Zedong ate dinner and slept here.

Important decisions about the future of Chinese communism and China in general were discussed and debated here. In the beginning they were probably genuine discussions and debates. In the end, maybe not so much. I imagine scenes of yes-men praising and rubber stamping everything Mao Zedong says. Maybe I'm unfairly critical of Mao?


Revolution #2

Well another revolution may be brewing in Yan'an these days. And it could be very, very influential. This revolution is not political. It is a revolution in education methodology.

Get this! The students at Yichuan Junior Middle School arrange their desks in formations that put the students face-to-face! The teachers give students assignments, projects, and opportunities to practice what they have learned during class! Students create things. Students discuss things. Students even give speaches and attempt to teach things! And students get to display their creations inside and outside of the classroom. What else but a revolution?!!!! Have a look:

In this classroom, students sit face-to-face in groups of 4 or 5. They work as a group. They help each other. They are responsible for each other. When the water rises, the entire boat floats.

In this classroom, the students sit in long rows of desks that face each other. Although not as cohesive as the groups described above, the students still have better opportunities to discuss things with each other, ask questions of each other, help each other, participate in class activities together, etc.

All the classrooms are decorated inside and outside with students' projects. I have toured so many middle and high schools in China that I had begun to think white walls were natural. But then when I saw these classrooms with the color of pride and achievement everywhere, I re-awakened to the reality of what a classroom should be. A forest without trees is not a forest. A classroom without stimulating materials everywhere is not a classroom.

If you have forgotten, please go back to my September and October entries and remind yourself of what the classrooms at my school look like. All desks face forward. Barely any room to move around. Mostly white walls. Few if any students' projects on display. A different world here at Yichuan Middle School! If you could have seen the shock and excitement of the student who accompanied us from my school as he entered the realm of student-centered learning, oh then you would understand why this is a revolution.

In some ways, this is hardly new. America has many, MANY classroom environments like this. And indeed there are classrooms like this all over the world. There have already been classrooms like this even in China. Indeed the school leaders modeled their recent change after a school from Shandong Province that has been using this method for quite some time. So how is this a Yan'an revolution?

Well, generally speaking, this method is new to most of China. This method, imagined in the minds of distant educators worldwide, has arrived in China. Now the method needs to be defined, refined, and studied. And then the method needs to spread far and wide. Yan'an did it before. Yan'an can do it again.

Imitation is the way of life in China. If something is successful, there is a stampede to imitate. Last weekend, our school leaders went to Yan'an to observe the method at Yichuan Middle School. Because Yichuan school leaders had only just introduced the new classroom environment policy in February 2009, right now the method is only a curiosity. Our school leaders are merely observing and asking questions at this point. I guess other school leaders will do the same. At first, only the schools from Shaanxi will be interested. But if this school is truly successful, school leaders will come from all over China to study the method. If this school can send more and more students to top-tier universities, there will be school leaders begging to apply it all over China.

Side story: there is a famous high school in Hebei Province that last year sent 40 students to BeiDa, China's most esteemed university. Most schools are thrilled if they can send one student to BeiDa. So 40 students is incredible! Now administrators flock to this school in Hebei to learn the method. Unfortunately, the secret to their success at that particular school is to have the students always studying. The students at that school never have P.E. and are encouraged to eat lunch for 5 minutes... and to read their textbooks as they eat their lunches. Creepy, eh?

Needless to say, I hope Yichuan Middle School will be successful. It will send a ripple that will change China's education system profoundly. The quality of education will improve. The productivity of the labor force will improve. Fate has given Yan'an a second chance to deliver a "great leap forward."

PingYao tales

I went to PingYao a long time ago (check the January and February entries about PingYao), but recently decided to write an entry about the history of PingYao. Bare with the seemingly odd story-telling sequence and the repetition of theme here. Enjoy!
If the walls of PingYao could talk, they would say,
"adversity is opportunity"

Tale 3:
One day many many years ago, a clever young clerkboy named Mao Honghui of XinCun Village of PingYao Prefecture journeyed on an errand to buy vegetable oil stock for his manager. On arriving at such-n-such town, the famed vegetable-oil city in Northern Shanxi Province (山西), the young man found himself in an unenviable situation: a desperate supply shortage of vegetable oil this year. There were simply too many merchants eager to buy the oil and not enough oil to satisfy the quantity demanded. Despite having even arrived early on the rush, Mao Honghui and countless other merchants stood with money to offer but nothing to buy because the well-experienced, old-timer merchants had contractually pre-ordered the entire supply. These wise merchants were on their leisurely way to pick up their promised stock.

"没办法!... there's nothing we can do," the unlucky young merchants dejectedly agreed. They all packed up and went home to face the wrath of their managers--or worse--the complete evaporation of their companies. But that clever Mao Honghui had a brilliant idea. He took the money and bought every last basket in the city. Why did he buy baskets, you ask? Well let me tell you.

A few days later, when the elderly merchants arrived they found their own little problem--every last drop of vegetable oil they had pre-ordered awaited them exactly as expected, but not one basket was available with which to transport it home! Mao Honghui then appeared to make his proposal. He offered the group of experienced merchants as many baskets as they needed in exchange for their collective contribution to meeting his vegetable oil needs. With no alternative, they agreed. A little here and a litter there later, Mao Honghui's stock was full. He walked away with not only all the vegetable oil he needed but also a handsome personal profit (since baskets were so cheap) and a far-spreading reputation as something of a genius. Indeed,

adversity is opportunity

Tale 1

"Located on the banks of the Fen River, PingYao Prefecture is composed of three parts: the plain, the hilly land, and the mountain area. There are a lot of people but not enough farm land. In addition, there are not enough underground water resources, and the farming conditions are simple and crude."
--Pingyao County Records (1707)

To this very day in April 2009, Shanxi Province (山西) is anything but a farmer's paradise. It rains too rarely. Winters are long, cold, and dry. Spring brings nothing but dust raining from the even dryer skies. Summers bring heat and humidity, but not enough water to cultivate bountiful harvests. The record quoted above testifies to a hostile agricultural environment stretching back for centuries.

But what is hostility if not a chance to overcome and fly higher? The costs of squeezing water out of a turnip are too high.... and there are other ways to get water, which can bring a flood. The wisest of the Shanxi people realized that instead of growing or making things to feed themselves, they could trade what others grow or make to feed themselves. And what a feast they found! Shanxi is a central province. To the north: Beijing and beyond. To the east: the coastal provinces. To the south: the fertile agricultural lands of South China. To the west: my Sha'anxi province, Xi'an, and its gateway to the globe-turning Silk Road. So whereas geography frowned on Shanxi's chances of making a living by farming, geography smiled, winked, and nudged at Shanxi's prospect of making a living by trade and business.

Indeed, to historians Shanxi Province is most famous for one thing--the Shanxi Businessman and the Shanxi business culture. They traded and transported grain, salt, silk, cloth, iron, and information. And PingYao--at the center of Shanxi's agricultural poverty--was for centuries the axis of a wealthy network of trade and commerce that spanned China and wider Asia. An old saying in China: "Where you find sparrows, you find the people of Pingyao."

The deep ruts of 100,001 wagon wheels have carved a unique story of economic history into the streets of PingYao

trade made this

the sprawling Wang Family Mansion, a few kilometers to the south of PingYao; once the home of an incredibly rich merchant family, now a monument to their lifestyle and the economic history of Shanxi; said to be the civilian equivalent of the Forbidden City Palace in size and splendor... this picture is from Google Images since I was not able to go there myself

adversity is opportunity

Tale 2
The Shanxi businessmen were tireless spiders spreading their web of trade and commerce across Asia. Almost immediately, however, they encountered a problem that only intensified as their web got larger: bandits. When merchants carried profits in the form of hard currency, their wagons became targets with the promise of dense loot. As the wealth and distances travelled increased, so did the chances of running into armed thieves. And with the infiltration of firearms into Asia, the thieves became a serious threat. A small group of bandits could pillage a company into bankruptcy with one raid. What to do?
Some merchants played it safe by restricting their business to the confines of their city wall. [sigh] Limited opportunities. Some more clever merchants took up the idea of hiring armed escort services. They could travel the world... at a heavy but reasonable cost. Risky opportunities!
Enter Lei Lutai of PingYao. This visionary merchant first distinguished himself as the manager of the Beijing branch of Li Xiyeng Dye Shop. Faced with the problem of transporting silver past the thieves, Lei Lutai stepped into the limelight of China's economic history with his brilliant idea: remittances.
Here's how it works. A PingYao merchant sells silk to a retailer in Beijing. The retailer gives him a sum of silver. The PingYao merchant then deposits this silver at the Beijing branch of XYZ silver inventory. The XYZ silver inventory clerk gives him a piece of paper that says he is entitled to this amount of silver at any of the XYZ silver inventories. The PingYao merchant leaves Beijing with nothing but a piece of paper in his hands. When the PingYao merchant returns to PingYao, he goes to the PingYao branch of XYZ silver inventory and hands the clerk there the piece of paper. After a little verification, he can withdraw as much silver as he deposited in Beijing.
Yep. It's a bank! Have you ever thought about how valuable banks are to you? Banks create wealth in more ways than interest on savings. Take note. The remittance service eliminated the threat of bandits and reduced the expense of hiring escort services for merchants transporting profit. And since merchants carrying a remittance no longer needed carts, horses, fodder, or drivers to transport a single piece of paper, Lei Lutai's idea reduced transportation costs too. In addition, ambitious merchants who used the remittance banks to take out loans were able to access quick capital to finance investments that enhanced efficiency and productivity. In short, the remittance method stimulated a surge of trade and commerce all over China.
What about our hero, Lei Lutai? Well at first, his remittance method helped make his boss's dye business a lot of money. Then recognizing even more opportunity, Lei Lutai persuaded his boss to quit the dye business altogether in order to become a remittance bank company with serious inventories and branch offices in as many places as possible. Earning profit on fees and loan interests, the bank soon made its boss a fortune. Other PingYao merchants hopped on the bandwagon. Successful dye shops, grocery stores, lacquer ware shops, etc. closed down to become headquarters of banking empires.
Lei Lutai became rich and famous. PingYao became a finance capital..."Asia's Wall Street" of the 19th Century, as some historians say. Other Shanxi merchants and cities prospered too. And consumers across China benefited from the lower prices of an increasing variety of goods... all thanks, in a twisted sort of way, to the bandits.

goods and currency were carried in these wagons and protected by escorts trained in the martial arts

service desk at Lei LuTai's Ri Sheng Chang... the first piaohao (draft bank) in China

one of the silver inventory vaults at Ri Sheng Chang

the silver inventory space was impressively large. The silver was protected from thieves above by hexagonal iron wire netting and from fellow employees by a strict system of accountability

adversity is opportunity


Tale 4

The twilight years of the Qing Dynasty were mostly unkind to PingYao. Europe and the U.S. brought conflicts, skirmishes, rebellions, and civil wars that disrupted the flow of trade so vital to PingYao and Shanxi's economy. Europeans also brought opium, which devastated the minds and energy of China's upper class elite. As the nail in PingYao's coffin, the Western powers also introduced a finance system that surpassed the remittance banks in scale, efficiency, and reliability. The Western banks were great for coastal, Southern China but devastating for PingYao.


Just as quickly as they rose to fortune, the PingYao banks collapsed toward total ruin. Most of the remittance banks layed off their personnel and converted their shops into other enterprises. It was a stampede to quit the market. Two unemployed bank clerks, Meng Hongren and Liu Qinghe, however, sniffed the scent of opportunity. They decided to re-enter the market, this time as managers of their own bank, Xie Tong Qing. Why enter a shrinking market? First, they predicted that the rush to quit the market had created an environment of less fierce competition. They also recognized that the pool of laid-off bank clerks provided a cheap and bottomless supply of expertise in the banking industry. Finally, these two Xie Tong Qing founders saw that foreign powers had penetrated southern and eastern China with their finance services, but were too far from Western China to have any influence there. So they sought to advance a banking empire westward. And their forsight paid dividends... fortune and glory for Xie Tong Qing!


Tale 5

Fortune and glory for Xie Tong Qing!... well, briefly at least. The Qing Dynasty fell from power, but conditions only soured for the PingYao merchants. The power vaccuum nurtured warlord feudalism and civil war. Opium went wild. And the foreign powers' capital and political power gained even more influence. By the end of the 1930s, PingYao merchants had become the tools of the Japanese military. The merchants had lost everything.


Well, conditions in PingYao stabilized with the defeat and retreat of Japan from China following WW2 and the unification of mainland China under Communist control in 1949. But stability was not all that PingYao needed. The days of remittance banks and Shanxi businessmen were over. Turn to agriculture for prosperity? Fat chance!


By the 1980s PingYao was in a pretty sorry state. It was as if the economy had been stalled for almost a century. The roads were too small. The schools were poor. Houses were crumbling. There wasn't enough water. The city and its people were stuck in the 19th Century. How could the city grow? How could there ever be prosperity in PingYao again?


One day in the '80s, Professor Ruan Yisan of Shanghai Tongji University saw the answer. Whereas nearly every other city in China had developed gradually with the reforms of the 20th Century, PingYao really was stuck in time. Almost nothing had changed. But this stagnation was not a curse. It was a blessing in disguise! Because nothing had changed, PingYao stood as a rare living history museum of a bygone era. The preservation of PingYao was worth far more than wider streets, cars, gas stations, dance clubs, fast food, Wal-Marts, movie theaters, state-of-the-art schools, etc. People would learn and appreciate Chinese history and culture by walking the streets of PingYao. And they would pay a lot of money to do it!


As a city representative of the culture of elite Han society of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, PingYao is so well-preserved and so valuable that the Chinese government declared it a landmark site and gave it state protection in 1986. In the early 1990s, famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou used one of the merchant family mansions (Qiao Family Mansion) outside of PingYao as the site for his famous movie Raise the Red Lantern. And then in 1997 it applied and was approved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These recognitions have brought a stream of spend-happy tourists to PingYao. First local tourists. Then tourists from Beijing and Xi'an. Then tourists from all over China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. And with its recent inclusion in Lonely Planet's Guide to China, PingYao now hosts tourists from all over the world. PingYao is hot! HOT!!!


adversity is opportunity

Story 6

When I went to PingYao in January, it was in the dead of winter just days before the Spring Festival rush. No business. Bad times for restaurant cooks, shopkeepers, hotel owners, hostel owners, postcard sellers, etc. In fact, the manager at my hostel told me that hostels in PingYao lose money each day for about 7 or 8 months of the year surrounding the jackpot of holiday vacation times. That's just how it is.


Well listen here. The Shanxi Business man is not just someone you read about in books. I met the Shanxi Businessman face-to-face in the living flesh as soon as I got off the train. Five or six hostel owners greeted me in a chorus of pleas to come stay at each of their hostels. They spoke English that was not only smooth but also smooth--if you know what I mean. They had fancy brochures. One promised free coffee, another free Internet. All offered discounts... name a price! And they all offered to bring me to PingYao downtown free of charge. They really spoke to me!!!


200 years ago they were selling dyed silk and vegetable oil. Today they're selling a room at the hostel with wi-fi. Tomorrow they're selling me a scarf when the weather is a hellish -20C and windy. The Shanxi Business man... building fortunes sailing rough seas.

adversity is opportunity


note on sources: this entry owes everything to the following book: Dong Jianyun and Dong Peiliang, A Brown Paper Book of PingYao, Beiyue Literature & Art Publishing House (2007), which I purchased in PingYao. This book provided the information and the inspiration for this entry. All I did was condense it, wrap it all around a theme, rewrite it in my own style, and illustrate it with my own pictures. I can't emphasize enough how important this book has been. I probably would have only stayed in PingYao a few days if not for this book. I probably should have paid full retail price (98 RMB) for it, but ever the opportunist I was able to bargain it down to 80 RMB because there was literally not another living soul walking the streets of PingYao on that day! :-)

adversity is opportunity