The short reign of Zhu Changluo

Zhu Changluo (1582-1620)

Zhu Changluo (1582-1620)

William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, is famous in American history for being the last president born a British subject. At 68, he was also the oldest president to be sworn in (before Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980). And, of course, he was the first US president to die in office, having served just 31 days from March 4, 1841, to April 4, 1841. That’s a short time at the helm, but in the Ming Dynasty, there was an emperor who trumps President Harrison for brevity of office.

On this date (August 28) in 1620, Zhu Changluo ascended the throne as the new Ming emperor, ushering in the Taichang era. Unfortunately, the era would be short-lived. Less than a month after his ascension, Zhu Changluo would be dead, having pooped himself to death under mysterious circumstances.

Zhu Changluo’s father, the Wanli Emperor, ruled China for 48 years, some more significant than others. In the last years of his reign, Wanli seemed to withdraw from court affairs and matters of state, in part due to the constant infighting and squabbles over his choice of heir.

In theory, choosing the heir for a Ming emperor should have been simple. The founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, had decreed that the first son of the emperor (or, if he were deceased, his first son) would be the presumptive heir.* The problem was that the Wanli Emperor did not care much for his eldest son. Wanli was infatuated with the Lady Zheng, his favorite consort. Zhu Changluo was not a product of this union. He was born of another member of the palace harem — the Forbidden City version of a random hookup. All of his life he had to compete with his half-brother, Zhu Changxun, the son of Lady Zheng and Wanli.

When Wanli’s officials told him that Wanli had to accept Zhu Changluo as the heir, Wanli fumed and pouted and eventually went on strike…for nearly 15 years. Lady Zheng, not wanting to leave anything to chance, conspired to have Zhu Changluo assassinated in 1615. She escaped blame, but her co-conspirators among the palace eunuchs were executed for their role in the plot.

When Wanli died in 1620, it was Zhu Changluo, according to dynastic law, who took the throne. What happened next is a matter of  debate. Lady Zheng, who outlived her paramour the Wanli Emperor, did not abandon her schemes for her son. According to one account, she bestowed on the new emperor a gift of eight beautiful and nubile maidens to try and drain Zhu Changluo’s essence. When that didn’t work, she seems to have tried a more direct approach.

According to unofficial histories, Zhang Changluo became unwell with severe indigestion and asked his officials for medicine. One of these officials, Li Kezhuo, gave the emperor two pills. The first seemed to cure the emperor, the second taken a little later did not. The next day, Zhu Changluo was found dead from a severe attack of diarrhea. The emperor had literally shat himself lifeless after only 28 days in power.

As bad as this was for Zhu Changluo, and it’s hard to imagine it ending worse, the result for the Ming Dynasty was nearly as disastrous.

Zhu Changluo’s heir and eldest son, Zhu Youxiao, was 15 at the time and may or may not have been developmentally disabled. Ruling as the Tianqi Emperor, Zhu Youxiao was a weak and ineffective monarch who allowed power at court to fall into the hands of eunuchs, especially the notorious Wei Zhongxian. Opposition to Wei’s usurpation of power would lead to a major political crisis which pitted the officials against the court and weakened the central government at a critical time for the dynasty. Li Kezhuo, who was blamed for prescribing some seriously bad drugs to the emperor, was nearly executed for his troubles. Eventually, Li was exiled to the frontier as punishment.


*It should be noted that this went sideways almost immediately. Zhu Yuanzhang’s first son, Zhu Biao, predeceased his father. When Zhu Yuanzhang died in 1398, the throne went to Zhu Biao’s first son, Zhu Yunwen. Zhu Yuangzhang’s fourth son, the formidable Prince of Yan, Zhu Di, had little patience for the rules of succession and refused to accept his nephew as the new ruler and did what any loving uncle would do in this situation and launched  a coup in 1399. Zhu Yunwen’s reign ended when his palace caught on fire during his uncle’s assault on the imperial capital at Nanjing, and while no body was ever found, his reign as emperor had come to an end. His uncle, Zhu Di, moved the capital to Beijing and declared himself the emperor. As the Yongle Emperor, he became one of the most famous and energetic rulers of the Ming era, responsible for the construction of modern Beijing, rebuilding the Great Wall, and launching the Zheng He expeditions to Western Asia and Africa.

Forbidden City to close from August 22-September 3

Just heard from a reliable source that the Forbidden City will be closed from August 22-September 3. I checked online, and while there isn’t a notice posted, the Forbidden City website has suspended online reservations for those dates. The closure comes as the government has increased security in preparation for the Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Victory of Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War or the CAVCPRJAWAFWx70.

It is a little ironic perhaps that the preparations for celebrating this glorious victory over fascism are starting to look a little…well…fascist, no?

As author and historian Paul French noted on Twitter, the rash of closures is not without its own irony:

I led a tour through Tiananmen Square on Saturday and things looked pretty normal (if you count a giant replica of the Great Wall made out of garden clippings as “normal”) but as we get closer to the grand wankfest parade, I would expect additional disruptions for travelers trying to visit the Tiananmen area from now through September 3 and possible limited access to Tiananmen Square and the surrounding streets including Wangfujing.  According to The Beijinger, this nonsense may well go citywide as word comes down this afternoon that Sanlitun will be under some form of curfew/martial law this upcoming weekend.

Tiananmen Gate has been shuttered since earlier this month and the underpasses north of the square under Chang’an Avenue are already closed. There was nothing on the website for the National Museum regarding possible closures there, only a banner dutifully advertising an exhibit on Art and the Anti-Japanese War, but I would definitely check ahead before heading to any of the museums (Police, Urban Planning Hall, Railway) around Tiananmen especially the week of August 31.

There has been increased security around Tiananmen this month and that’s likely to grow more intense in the days before the big parade. I usually bring my passport with me to visit Tiananmen Square. Generally the police never ask for ID unless you look like a poor Chinese farmer with a land grievance and a petition, but sometimes they get ambitious and check everybody. I like to be prepared and it’s advisable if you are heading to the area in the next few weeks.

I was forced to cancel a Forbidden City walk on August 30 and had to postpone a private tour scheduled for August 28. Hopefully things will return to normal the weekend of September 5-6.

Large Mammals Crossing: Jogging in Beijing

moose-crossingI know I need to lose weight. Everybody tells me this: My doctor, my wife, my colleagues at work, my neighbor, some old guy I saw at the park, a clerk in a store where I was buying a juice maker…everybody. I get it. I’m a large mammal in a country of mostly smaller mammals. But this is Beijing — free health advice comes standard. Most people just shake their heads and blame “Western food,” assuming that I live on a steady diet of McDonald’s cheeseburgers and beer. Not true. I eat a lot of Chinese food which I am told – repeatedly – is so much healthier than Western food. Maybe I’m missing something, but the health properties of fatty pork steeped in oil and sugar and then deep fried somehow elude me. Whatever. The situation is that I’m an ex-rugby player in need of shedding a few pounds. How to do this in Beijing?

First of all, I’m skipping the gym and hitting the streets. But jogging in Beijing requires a set of skills not necessary in other countries. The most important is the anaerobic workout you get holding your breath while sprinting past a) a public toilet; b) a city bus; c) a two-stroke nightmare of a cycle; d) all of the above. Then there is the critical issue of head position and foot placement. If you keep your head up and eyes forward, you risk all manner of slop seeping into your knock-off Nike trainers that you bought because the store said your feet were two sizes larger than “normal.” After losing a pair of shoes this way (don’t ask) I began jogging with my head down.

I plodded along — diligently scanning the ground ahead with an attentiveness usually reserved for bomber pilots and BASE jumpers – and was nearly killed by a guy scooting the wrong way down the sidewalk.

While Beijing has gone a little overkill in its preparation for the upcoming celebrations [read: upcoming circle jerk of jingoistic neighbor-bashing], I can’t complain about the traffic restrictions. I’m looking forward to jogging in relatively clean air with 50% less chance of getting mowed down by a mianzi-crazed motorist or speeding moped. Granted, I walk to work so my joy at these inconveniences is purely selfish.

Running in China is also something of a spectator sport. I try to go early in the morning to avoid the real crowds, but it’s never early enough. Our local park fills well before dawn with Oldsters-on-Parade and they treat the sweating fat guy in their midst with a mixture of humor, wonder, and the occasional suggestion that I am, in fact, too fat and should eat more Chinese food. I’ve found a way to make it work for me in a game I call “Oldster Slalom” – a necessity really, as my usual jogging path is always full of the strolling, chatting, shouting, tai chi-ing, line dancing, singing, bird walking, hackey-sacking, and meandering senior residents of our little neighborhood.

First of all: God bless ‘em. I think it is wonderful how active seniors are in China. But I’ve had a few near-misses when somebody would unexpectedly change course. I don’t want to even think about the patriotic lather on the Chinese Inter-web if somebody’s grandmother were taken out by a huffing-puffing embodiment of American gastric decadence.

Despite the clear and present danger I present to myself and others, it’s good exercise. Even in Beijing. I guess I’m born to run. Hopefully it won’t be the death of me.

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences throwing shade at The New Qing History

The idea of Manchu Sinicization is a hobgoblin unlikely to die anytime soon in China. Historians affiliated with what has become known as the “New Qing History” have been attempting to complicate this narrative for nearly three decades, and while scholars overseas — and even a few within China — are starting to come around, the dominant narrative inside China remains that the Manchus succeeded in ruling because, unlike earlier non-Han dynasties, they assimilated and adopted Chinese styles of rule and other cultural values. Indeed, according to the most strident adherents of “Sinicization”, the Manchus couldn’t help but assimilate once they encountered the vastly superior civilization of China.

Earlier this month, I came across an article in the China Daily on the study of Manchu language in China today and how this “archaic language is helping historians to solve Qing mysteries.” Sadly, after a few mentions of Manchu-language sources on the architectural and material culture of the Forbidden City and other imperial sites, the article descends into hoary and outdated old tropes:

According to Tong Yue, a Qing history expert from Shenyang, in northeastern Liaoning province, where the Manchu originated, the decline of the language started the moment this ethnic people sought to rule over the entire land of China, in the early 17th century.

“The Manchu people, similar to the Mongols 400 years before, came from the northeast to sweep the country by sheer military might, at a time when Han rulers – from the Chinese majority group – had become corrupt and weak,” he said. “Dutiful students of history, the Manchu had from the very beginning tried to avoid the fatal mistake committed by the Mongols.

“Instead of imposing on their subjects everything Manchu, the Qing rulers, awed by the much more sophisticated form of civilization they encountered in Central China, borrowed enthusiastically from this newfound cultural wealth, including the language.”

It’s a notion which obviously had great appeal to Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century who were faced with writing a history of an era during which a ‘barbarian’ conquest dynasty not only ruled China for nearly three hundred years but also pushed the boundaries of the Chinese world further than any Han-ruled dynasty had ever achieved. In the rush to lay claim to China’s exceptional qualities as a nation (5000 years of history, 5000 years of continuous history, inventor of everything), it made sense to explain away Manchu success as a result of their thorough inculcation and internalization of Chinese values and civilization.

The Manchus also conquered vast areas in what is today Western China, including Tibet and Xinjiang. They were the first state on the mainland to consolidate their control over the island of Taiwan. This makes the issue of Manchu cultural identity politically problematic as well. Separating the Manchu-ruled Qing Empire from the post-imperial governments of the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China not only complicates modern Chinese attempts at establishing the extent of the Qing Empire as “inherent territory,” it also recalls bad memories of Japanese and British attempts to use the “Manchu-ness” of the Qing Empire to wrest control over Manchuria and Tibet respectively.

Which partially explains why the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences this week loaded up for the academic equivalent of a drive-by shooting, spraying exclamation points and vitriol at Qing historians Pamela Crossley, James Millward, and Mark Elliot. The article charges them as imperialists, revisionists, splittists…the usual epithets hurled when a Chinese scholar can no longer take the cognitive dissonance pinging around his brain like a meth-addled gerbil and finally decides to go apoplectically patriotic.

In this case, the apoplectic patriot is Li Zhiting, a Qing scholar with quite the fetish for exclamatory punctuation, and the article appeared earlier this week on the website of CASS and was then published in the official journal Chinese Social Sciences Today.  (The always excellent China Media Project has a rundown on Professor Li and partial translation of the first page of the article here.)

(It’s fair for me to state from the beginning, that I’m pretty firmly in the camp of New Qing History. My love of learning about Manchus has long been a running joke among my students and friends who accuse me, not unfairly, of having an unhealthy man-crush on The Kangxi Emperor.)

The litany of charges against the New Qing historians is a long one, but mostly they have come under fire for having the temerity to destabilize the idea of a historically-fixed China and reject the teleological narratives which so many Chinese historians love to cuddle up with at night to keep the bad feelings away.

It is clear that separating the notion of “Qing” from “China” is a good way to make Professor Li grumpy: Of course China=Qing, it always has! This is obvious! Anyone who says otherwise is an evil imperialist! Why am I shouting! I don’t know!

If the Chinese language had a version of writing in CAPS LOCK, I think this article is it.

On the issue of whether the Qing was an empire, and in particular an expansive empire, James Millward—who, full disclosure alert, is one of my favorite historians—comes in for a bit of a drubbing:

“New Qing History” obscures the truth about “Empire.” The essential characteristics of Imperialism are aggression, expansion, and plundering of occupied territories. For example, from the beginning of the 16th century, first Spain and then especially England, extended their power from Europe to North and South America and eventually to Asia and Africa. Wherever their ships landed there was blood and fire! Then an occupation of the land and the enslavement of local people. France, Germany, Russia similarly expanded and invaded foreign lands. In the 19th century, there was the rise of Japanese militarism and an especially frenzied form of aggression. After the conclusion of the Civil War in the United States, the tentacles of American Imperialism reached toward Asia. Ask: Which of the five continents has not been invaded and enslaved by these powers? Which of these countries did not invade China? 200 years ago, what was the United States? It was White people from Europe plundering, killing,  and annihilating the Native Americans to take their land and build the United States. THAT is real Imperialism!

During the century between the Opium War and 1945, when Japan surrendered [Ed Note: To whom, I wonder?] European powers and Japanese bandits came to China and brutally massacred Chinese people of all nationalities. They plundered China’s resources, with Russia and Japan seizing huge swaths of territory. The powers carved up the land of China into spheres of influence. Is this not the basic characteristics of Imperialism? The Western powers and Japan imposed humiliation on the Chinese nation and the Qing government was unable to resist and had to sue for peace. How can this become Imperialism? The Qing Dynasty was corrupt, backwards and never on a par with Western or Japanese imperialists, how can we use the same language to describe it?

Even though obviously, Modern China clearly suffered at the hands of the Western Powers, James Millward says: “Modern China is a part of the story of Imperialism.” How arrogant! How wildly presumptuous! We can see how the absurdity of these American scholars is a kind of pathology!

Mark Elliott–okay, another Granite Studio fave–also receives a fair amount of criticism, especially for promoting the idea that Manchus are different from Han, Manchuria is different from China, and for arguing that the Manchu conquest of Ming China constituted an invasion. This is of course a pretty simplistic reading of Professor Elliott’s work, although by the end of Professor Li’s article one wonders if he actually did his own close analysis of Crossley, Millward, and Elliott or if he simply cribbed the notes from one of their less attentive undergrad students.

They are claiming that Manchus were “foreign” and so not a part of the Chinese nation and are not inherently a nationality of China. therefore, Manchu and Han, and Manchu and China are not related. As Mark Elliott said: “The Manchu people conquered ‘中原 Zhongyuan’ (Ed Note: The word is a little ambiguous because while it can mean China, it also specifically means the central provinces of China) to establish the Qing Empire…and used overwhelming military force to conquer the Ming Dynasty…and was a foreign invasion against China’s sovereignty.”

The New Qing History clearly declares: Manchus are “alien.” They entered through the pass and seized power. They destroyed China’s sovereignty, and further slander Manchus as foreign invaders. These arguments abound in the writings of scholars from Europe and America…These scholars equate the Qing Dynasty as if it were Japanese militarism!

Yeah…that was totally Elliott’s point in “The Manchu Way: How the Qing Emperors were really Hideki Tojo in Pigtails.” No wonder I got that question wrong on my comps.

If these things all seem like a spitball fight in the faculty lounge, then Professor Li’s final point is where arcane arguments of historiography intersect with the real fears of the Chinese leadership over territorial integrity. You can mess with the Kangxi Emperor and question what language he used to speak to his kids, but you don’t call him expansionist because…well, I’ll let Professor Li tell you why:

Did the Qing Dynasty unify the frontiers (Ed Note: Refers to Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, etc.) or invade them? The New Qing scholars insist on the latter point of view: The Qing consolidated their control over these regions through military force….The fact is however that the Qing Dynasty inherited the unity of past dynasties including the unity of these regions. How can this be an invasion? Mongolia,Τibeτ, Χinjiang are China’s inherent territory, how can the Qing reunification of these areas be a military conquest? There is no need to refute the arguments [of these scholars]. How are they different than the splittists who cry out for “Τibeτan Ιndependence” or “Μongolian Ιndependence” (Ed Note: Uh…Mongolia is independent, or at least most of it…) and “Easτ Τurkesτan Separaτisτs” or that these places are “not part of China” and bang the drum of “independence”?

It’s clear that by introducing ideas and evidence at odds with accepted and cherished narratives, the New Qing History and its associated scholars have hit a nerve in the academic community. 

I also agree with China Media Project’s David Bandurski who argues: “Most readers of the piece could not fail to note the clear political bias at work — not to mention the unwarranted (in academic discourse) aggression. The essay, in fact, is not about historical scholarship at all, but about China’s current ideological climate.”

The concluding paragraph — and here I’m being lazy and using CMP’s translation —descends into a veritable orgy of righteous indignation and exclamation points:

“New Qing History” is academically absurd, and politically does damage to the unity of China. It is necessary to stir all scholars with a sense of righteousness to fiercely oppose it. We entirely reject “New Qing History.” Moreover, we expose its mask of pseudo-academic scholarship, eliminating the deleterious effect it has had on scholarship in China!

Fortunately, China has many academics who are neither as angry or absurd as Professor Li. One of my favorite researchers, Ge Jianxiong, wrote an essay a few years ago entitled “To exaggerate the size of China’s historical territory is not patriotic.”

First of all, “China” (Zhongguo) only officially became the name of our country with the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. Before this, the idea of China (“Zhongguo”) was not clearly conceptualized. The concept of “China” has continued to expand. From referring specifically to the central plains of China, the concept has since grown to now refer generally to a whole nation. Even during the late Qing, “China” would sometimes be used as a name to refer to the Qing State, including all the territory with in the boundaries of the Qing Empire, but other times it would only refer to the “18 Interior Provinces” and not include Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Therefore, if we want to understand the extent of ancient China’s territory, we can only speak of how large was the actual territory controlled by a particular dynasty at a particular moment. For example: How big was the Qin Dynasty? How big was the Tang Dynasty? How big was the Qing Dynasty? If you want to say how large was “China” at a certain time, you need to explain how “China” is conceptualized, including explaining which Dynasty or regime is being discussed…

Until now, there are those people who feel that the more they exaggerate the territory of historical “China” or China’s successive dynasties and kingdoms the more patriotic they are. Actually, it is exactly the opposite. If China really wishes to rise peacefully, we must understand the true facts of history, only then will we be able to know the sum of our history, learn from our experiences, and so be on a solid footing to face the future.

Earlier this month, historian Yao Dali launched a broadside against tired old notions of Manchu Sinicization, arguing that these narratives are more a reflection of nationalist wishful thinking than based on any evidence.

So clearly not all members of the historical community have completely lost their minds. I also think that many (most?) of the younger generation of Qing historians — quite a few of whom did their graduate training outside of the PRC — would roll their eyes at Professor Li’s vitriol. But it’s clear that the ideological retrenchment which seems to be the new normal is reaching into even arcane corners of the Sinological universe. 


Update April 24: An earlier version of this post had this paragraph:

A colleague of mine, a PhD student at Beijing Normal University, recounted on twitter yesterday how Mark Elliott was once “nearly got chased out of a class at Beijing Normal for using 侵略 (“invade”) to describe Qing in Xinjiang.”

According to Professor Elliott, he’s never actually given a talk at Beijing Normal, so this sounds like an apocryphal  story.  

Speaking purely hypothetically, however, I would guess that using the words “Qing” “Invade” and “Xinjiang” in a lecture at a local university would be, academically speaking, a little like slathering oneself in bacon grease before addressing a room full of rabid poodles.


Advice to New Wai: Things I wish I learned 13 years ago about life in China

Let’s face it: It’s not easy to live in China. These days even a well-known…less than critical observer of China like Daniel Bell is being kind of critical.  Lots of people — too many — are leaving. But you know what, you can take away my Internet, cancel Earth Day, and even limit the amount of oxygen I breathe (although in fairness, that might be getting better…), but I’m staying. I first came to Beijing in 2002 and here I am still.

That said, there’s a lot I wish I knew 13 years ago. This week I was asked to write some suggestions for a group of students visiting Beijing. It gave me the opportunity to jot down a few reflections on things learned, in most cases later than I should have but still…13 years is a long time and I hope I’ve accumulated at least some wisdom to go along with the steadily building accumulation of PM 2.5 material in my lungs.

There are a lot of people in China. No, seriously.

It’s the single defining fact of life for anybody who lives here, whether you were born in China or moved here from somewhere else. If you are an American, consider for a moment an alternate universe where the population of the USA was quintupled and then everybody was moved east of the Mississippi. A fierce competition for everything – a spot in school, a job, somebody to marry, a house, a seat on the subway, or that last dumpling – is a part of daily life in China.

What Americans feel is a “normal” amount of personal space and privacy is considered a luxury beyond the reckoning of most people who live here. Sometimes people can seem a little in a hurry or a little pushy. Perhaps you’ll see somebody cutting in line. At times like this it’s important to keep perspective: You’ve just joined the world’s longest running and most competitive game of musical chairs.

Basically, for 5000 years, there were two guys: The one who waited patiently in line and the guy who got what he needed to feed his family. Even though China is developing rapidly, old habits die hard.

People will have made assumptions about you as a foreigner (especially an American) before you even can say “Ni Hao.”

In fact, if you do say “Ni hao” then you’ve already challenged one basic assumption held by many people in China: That the Chinese language is too difficult for foreigners to master or understand.

Nobody likes to be a stereotype, but it happens. Want to know what many Chinese think about us? They think Americans are pushy, entitled, aggressive, arrogant and tend to throw tantrums when things are just the way they want it (or like it is “back home”).

To put it another way: It’s as if when we go through passport control at the Beijing airport, the immigration officer changes all of our last names to “Kardashian.”

Now it’s not true that all Americans act like Kim and Khloe when they go abroad, and it’s not fair that many people in China paint all foreigners/Americans with the same brush, but hey…there have been just enough pushy, entitled, aggressive, arrogant foreigners who have traveled to China over the years to keep the myth alive.

We can whine about the unfairness of it all, or we can see this as an opportunity to fight the stereotype and rise above the cliché. China is one of the friendliest places in the world and, as my mother once said, a little bit of sugar goes a long way. Remember that the minute we do get angry, or pout, or start complaining about how things here aren’t like they are “back home” all we are doing is feeding the beast.

So I’ve learned that it’s always best to be a little too humble, a little too nice, a little too polite…and to smile a lot. When I do this, I can see minds change and old attitudes fall away as people start to question the stereotype…more importantly, the nicer I am, the easier my life becomes.

The thing is that in China, people generally won’t go out of the way to help you (even people we think “should” like waitresses, taxi drivers, or hotel staff) unless they like you. It can take a few smiles and some humility to get them to forget their prejudices and figure out how nice you are. Once that happens, however, you’ll find out that your new friend will go out of their way to help you.

People talk a lot about the power of guanxi (relationships) in China, especially in the context of business. But guanxi is not only signing a multi-million deal with an old school buddy, it’s a way of life. Every encounter you have in China – from a new professional contact to the waitress who brings you your morning dumplings – is a moment to build a connection and make a relationship. With each connection you make, your life in China gets a little bit better and a whole lot easier.

Be careful not to mistake having 40 conversations with having the same conversation 40 times.

I hear it all the time: “I learn more hanging out at clubs than I do in Chinese class.” No, you really don’t. You become very good at introducing yourself, saying where you are from, and making the same stupid joke (“Do you like 涮洋肉?” which you use every time somebody points out you sweat a lot when you dance.) If you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again, it’s time to branch out. Don’t be afraid to open your mouth, bring the Zhongwen, and then epically fail. If you’re not failing — and I mean catastrophic failure of mindbending embarrassment — on a regular basis, you’re not trying hard enough. I’ve lived here a long time and I have at least one complete breakdown in my Hanyu communication a day. But I try not to make the same mistake twice.


Be patient. It’s on the list.

Everyone is talking about how China is a rising economic and global power. (In fact, in a recent poll, 44% of Americans thought – incorrectly — that China is the world’s largest economic power.) On the other hand, when you divide China’s economy by 1.4 billion, you get a very different number: 77. Which is where China sits in the global rankings of countries by nominal per capita GDP, right between Bulgaria and Botswana.

This is not to take anything away from China and it’s incredible trajectory over the past four decades. After all, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that China in 1978 (the eve of the Reform and Opening Era) made today’s North Korea seem like Dubai. In much less than a single lifetime, China’s development has completely transformed its economy and lifted millions out of poverty.

Nevertheless, today in Beijing and Shanghai where we zip past the Bentley dealership to grab a Starbucks before we head out to a high-end duck restaurant or maybe a rooftop tapas bar, it can be hard to remember that China still has a long way to go. More importantly: People in China are well aware that the country still has a long way to go to catch up with the developed economies of the world. That’s why it’s important for those of us from other countries – and particular those of us who were lucky enough to grow up in a developed economy – to be aware of how criticism or complaints about China might sound to people who live here.

China still has many problems…but these are problems which, for the most part, are already on the “To Do List.” Too often, foreigners (and I’ve done this too, guilty as charged) focus on what China hasn’t done, what it hasn’t figured out, what it still needs to fix rather than on the incredible strides made in what, in world historical terms, is an infinitesimally short amount of time.

It’s easy to understand why many people in China get frustrated when it seems like all the world focuses on is China’s problems, as if people in China weren’t already keenly aware of those problems already. As the author Peter Hessler recently put it: “Why do foreign correspondents [in China] only write about the bridge that collapses and not the thousands of bridges that don’t?”

This isn’t to say that China doesn’t have serious problems. It does. Bridges do collapse. So do schools sometimes. These are real tragedies that deserve our attention. But here is a list of things that do not qualify as a tragedy:

  • The waitress can’t speak English.
  • The public bathrooms smell funny.
  • People stare at me.
  • The farmer’s kid who just moved to Beijing doesn’t know who to make a proper margarita.
  • The streets are dirty.
  • People spit. In public.
  • That guy cut in line.

It’s only natural – a well-documented sign of culture shock actually – that we compare our new environment, usually unfavorably, with what we left behind. But remember that despite all of the problems in China, people here are as proud of their home as we would be.

It’s okay to think critically, but before we complain or criticize let’s consider how our criticisms might be understood by our new Chinese friends.

KEYS TO SURVIVAL: Patience, Sense of Humor, Perspective, Sense of Humor, Understanding, Sense of Humor Sense a theme?

Of all the keys to surviving in China the most important is a sense of humor. China can be a funny place. Whether it’s for 3 weeks or 13 years, every day in China you will walk out your door and see something that day you have never seen before. Usually something that makes you say: “In any other country, that would seem strange…”

Also, China finds us funny. Or at least if finds me funny. I have come to accept that I’m a source of constant mirth and amusement for my Chinese friends, family and neighbors…and that’s BEFORE I open my mouth to speak my version of Chinese.Here’s the thing: If you can’t laugh at yourself and the mistakes you make and the weird situations you find yourself in during your China experience then this can be a rough place.

Who doesn’t succeed in China? It’s the dude who takes himself WAY too seriously. The person who thinks people are constantly disrespecting them. The guy who can’t find the funny when things don’t go their way. It’s the person born with an indignation circuit which fires at every slight – perceived or real, because the truth is…China can give you a lot to be indignant about.

I’ve met people who have an indignation circuit that fired at everything. Every injustice. Every outrage. Every trivial indignity. And the result is that they – and their circuit – burned out completely and they bailed, or they stayed and tried to drink the pain away in a Sanlitun speakeasy.

Here’s an important lesson that I wish I learned sooner: If I walk out my door in the morning and I run into somebody who JUST. DOESN’T. GET. IT. Well that’s sad but then again there are dicks in every country. If at the end of the day all I’ve encountered are people who JUST. DON’T. GET. IT. Well…then it’s time to realize that I might be the dick who doesn’t get it and I am need of an attitude adjustment.

Or to summarize even more briefly…the basic rule of getting along in any foreign culture: Don’t be a dick.

China is a pretty safe place.

It’s one of the few positive things about living in an authoritarian one-party state run by guys so paranoid they make your neighborhood meth head look like a picture of Zen calm.

That said, it’s important to use common sense.

At night, go out and come home as a group. If you’re getting ready to leave and there’s one person in your group who wants to stay and hang out by himself or herself with their new best friends “Elder Brother Wang” and “Uncle Li,” put them in a hammer lock and get them in a cab.Similarly, no matter how annoying your friend is at the bar and how she won’t shut up about her boyfriend or her ex-boyfriend, do not just flag a cab, hand the driver the hotel card, deposit her in the back seat, and wish them both a good night. Stick together and watch out for each other.

Why I’m Here…


China can be a challenging place to live and visit. But it’s also one of the warmest, friendliest places I’ve ever been. You can go from “just met” to “best friends for life” in a single conversation, and once you’ve made a friend, Heaven and Earth will be moved to help you when you need it. Once we start accepting China for what it is rather than what it’s not or what we wish it would be, that’s when we realize what an amazing opportunity we have to engage with one of the world’s most dynamic and exciting countries.  I was trained as a historian, and in history there are certain moments which intersect with certain places to create eras. Think: Victorian London, 1920s Paris, 1950s New York. Well, that moment and that place is right now and in China and I want to be a witness. Think about it: Where else could a lover of history watch the kind of historical change that took decades in the rest of the world happen in just a few years and right before his very eyes?

China may not be the easiest place to live, and the Internet still sucks, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be.