Misusing Marco Polo


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For those who are wondering which photo of Marco Polo I’m talking about – it could very well be this one.

I’d like to share a little secret with you now. There’s a certain photo of Marco Polo that appears rather more than it should on this site. That’s because it brings a lot of traffic my way. So he’s going to pop up every couple of months or so, when he gets buried in the back of the blog and the love that Google feels for him, suddenly drops off.

However, in the interests of fairness. I’d like to tell you about Marco Polo, however that seems vaguely problematic. Modern historians don’t agree on much when it comes to the famous explorer, except that they do agree that he was an inveterate liar.

Apparently he was so caught up in himself that he invented much of his diaries and tales told elsewhere for the attention that he knew they would garner. Thus it becomes impossible to separate the fact from the fantasy – at least for someone like me.

So in this one instance, I’m not going to speculate too much. I will say that Marco Polo did not “discover” China, as the Chinese had taken care of that several thousand years before he was born. And in fact the country had been repeatedly discovered by other races, and in one case – that of Genhis Kahn, his sons, and the Mongol horde – been completely conquered by them too.

He almost certainly did travel the whole of the silk road, an epic feat that should have given him enough real stories to last a lifetime. I’d like to do that too one day. If they ever make it a little easier for Western travellers to get visas to all those Middle Asian nations along the route. Though I might skip the Xi’an to Xinjiang stretch because it seems like a lot of work to run through the new industrial heartland of China.

However for all the fibs he told, his name still resonates centuries later. In fact somebody even named a hotel chain after him. I’m wondering if I spent less time researching and more time lying about stuff – if I could have a chain of hamburger restaurants named after me? I’d also like to thank Marco Polo for all the Internet explorers he brings Shards of China too. What a chap.

Why China is both Right and Wrong


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This story that’s running in the Guardian newspaper today, isn’t particularly surprising. The Chinese government is having a major rant about the US Embassy publishing Chinese pollution data. Why? Because the Beijing government’s own figures are pure fantasy, so when the Americans allow the truth to come to light – the officials of BJ, lose face.

Welcome to Beijing, please check your lungs at the airport – you’ll barely miss them anyway.

Thus it comes down to those same officials bleating about how it’s nobody else’s business that walking through Beijing for a few hours is equivalent to taking up smoking 24/7 for the rest of your life. Once they realise this is a pretty stupid point – and they always do, the officials then flounder around looking for another, better excuse.

So here it is at the bottom of the article; “It’s not fair to judge us by developed nation standards.” (That’s my paraphrase so the Guardian don’t come asking for royalties).

This is indeed a much better excuse. They’re right. It isn’t fair or reasonable to expect developing nations to conform to standards set in other nations. It gets boring when outside observers demand that nations, which have been operating for 30-40 years in an industrial age, should immediately conform to standards we ourselves don’t meet.

Having said that, it’s not unreasonable to expect those nations to share accurate data. That’s where the Chinese government keeps getting it wrong. It should robustly defend the nation’s right to develop. It should also be happy with sharing the smog figures from Beijing. It can then point to the real steps it’s been taking to make them better.

Traffic calming? You betcha. There’s a limit on the number of registrations of new vehicles on Beijing’s roads each year. In the long run (it’s not a policy that will have immediate impact) that will get vehicles off the roads, and ensure that new vehicles are all of the highest environmental standards.

Going green? Absolutely, you’ve got a target of 100,000 electric cars on the streets in the next 3 years. There’s a pretty reasonable subsidy for buying one and the government will throw in a registration that you might not get for a fossil fuel vehicle.

Don’t forget the investments in solar, wind, nuclear, geo-thermal and hydro-power. Or the ambitious push to implement LED (partly driven by a need to subsidise a ridiculously over developed sector in China) in all public buildings, etc.

And don’t tell me that cool stuff like this energy efficient solar powered building isn’t worth bragging about. Because it is. If I owned this, I’d want to stand outside of it all day looking at it. Whilst rubbing my hands together saying; “Mine! All mine!” and laughing maniacally.

That’s what Beijing needs to do to silence its critics. It needs to publish the data – after all un-polluting the country will take time, and it needs to talk about what it’s doing to fix it. Every official in China recognizes the impending environmental disaster facing the nation, it’s a matter of national policy. So why the embarrassment and tub thumping? Possibly because self-deception is a matter of habit that becomes more and more difficult not to drag out on every occasion.

By the way, I’m taking a small drift away from Gender for a couple of days. This is mainly because the next part of the series is a tad irreverent and it doesn’t seem appropriate to follow a piece on suicide with a bag of wisecracks on a similar subject.

China’s Gender Crisis: A World Leading Claim to Infamy


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I know, I know, I said I was writing again. Then I didn’t write anything on here for ages and ages. It’s not because I stopped writing, it’s because I’ve been writing so much for other people that I haven’t had the time and I’ll admit the inclination to update Shards of China.

It’s all too easy for outsiders to get carried away with the economy and skirt over the real issues of modern China.

I’ve also been wondering how to deal with the subject of this post. It’s because it deals with a rather touchy subject – suicide. The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 4 global suicides occurs in China. That means China is a world leader in self-destruction. Even given its huge population this is rather more than its fair share of suicide. It’s is the fifth leading cause of death in China.

To try and put this into a perspective you can relate to. Every two minutes a man or a woman in China will take their own life. That’s 30 people in an hour, 720 in a day, and over 20,000 in a month.

What’s interesting to consider is that China’s is also the least religious nation on earth. This is in part due to the threat posed by religion to the party, but also because Confucianism isn’t really a religion in the way we understand it. Confucianism is more of a set of guidelines for managing your life by, a tool (like many other beliefs) for societal constraint. However, unlike most religions Confucianism is unusual in that – there’s no heaven, no hell, and no reincarnation. Once you’re dead, you’re really dead. There’s no hope of a return or progression to another plane.

I apologise for using these rather shocking images – taken from Chinese media. However these people are the lucky ones, those who were prevented from taking their own lives despite their attempts to do so. It’s difficult to face the realities of suicide on a nation. It’s well understood that many Chinese will use the threat of suicide (rather more brazenly than in the West) in order to garner attention to themselves. This can lead to the genuine “cry for help” being completely ignored as too many Chinese people have heard a friend or friends “cry wolf” in the past. In my time in Shenzhen, at least 3 people have jumped from the windows of our apartment complex. All of them were fatally injured or died on impact with the ground.

I don’t raise this point to mock religions but rather to highlight the desperation someone must feel without the hope of redemption or a second chance to live, to commit suicide.

You’re probably asking at this point, why this is sitting in the gender section – rather than say the “horribly depressing facts about China that most of us would prefer to ignore” theme instead. It’s because there’s one other startling fact about the Chinese suicide rate. China is the only country in the world in which more women kill themselves than men (according to the WHO). In fact in young women, suicide is the leading cause of death in the country. 56% of all the world’s female suicides are Chinese.

This diagram shows how organophosphates are metabolised.

The method these ladies choose to end their lives is a shocking one. Nearly 62% of the women who kill themselves do so by drinking weed killer or pesticide. This is because the majority of suicides (3 out of 4) take place in rural communities where the closest poison to hand is likely to be an organophosphate. This is a deeply unpleasant way to end your life, and it can leave those who choose this method writhing in agony for up to 2 hours before they pass away. The really bad news is that even if someone is taken to hospital in time to save their life, the pesticide will almost certainly cause permanent neurological damage.

The editor of China’s “Rural Women” magazine estimates that 70% of these suicides are caused by domestic “strife”. A polite euphemism for marital abuse.

Female suicide is the most acute symptom of China’s gender crisis. Women trapped in poverty in rural China with abusive husbands, are the most likely in the world to choose to take their own lives.

Is it any wonder that so many are choosing to leave their homes, and head to the cities for a chance at a factory job and some form of independence?

China’s Gender Crisis: Domestic Violence


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I don’t think that this problem is exclusive to China but I’ve lived all over the world, and it’s the only country where I’ve seen regular domestic violence on the streets – during the day, and not alcohol motivated.

A few days ago I was walking down to Louhu subway station, and there was a Chinese guy (about my size – and I’m not small) administering a good slap to his girlfriend for some minor misdemeanour. Hundreds of people walked past as this poor girl wept and her boyfriend carried on his beating. Not one stopped, in fact a police officer nearby turned his back deliberately so he didn’t have to do anything.

Today’s really not a joking matter – this is an all too common deal for the women of China sadly.

Did I intervene? No. This is one of those areas where an intervention almost always makes things worse. If you want a kicking then get involved, it probably won’t be him that hurts you – it will be her scratching your eyes out for criticizing her bullying abusive partner. Sadly, this wasn’t a one off occasion either – I’d estimate that I’ve seen over 100 of these scenes in the 3 years I’ve been in China.

The China Law Institute estimates that over 1/3rd of Chinese women are regularly beaten by their partners, and that far more are subject to occasional violence or emotional beatings. China Daily acknowledged this was a huge problem back in 2009.

So given that the problem is well understood and acknowledged – what’s being done about it? Well, truthfully not a heck of a lot. As the public beatings I’ve seen can attest to – nobody wants to actually stop the problem. In fact the first conviction for domestic violence in China was in 2008. That’s right – in a country where one in three women is slapped about daily – it took until late last decade for a single perpetrator to be punished.

Li Yang’s shock is down to the fact that Chinese women are so inured to domestic violence they don’t report it and they don’t protest it. When your wife’s an American – things are very different. The lady here published the photos herself on China’s microblogging site Weibo. A real act of courage.

There’s a lot of publicity on the issue from the Chinese side that pretends this only happens in the country but my eyes say different. As does this story of a well-to-do Chinese businessman who beat his American wife and then found himself running in circles to do anything but apologise when she went public. In fact Li Yang said this in a public interview; “She ruined my career and my image, which I have spent 20 years building.” What an extraordinarily unlovely chap in a world full of nasty folks.

There are annual calls for reviews to the law in order to better protect China’s women, but at the moment they remain pretty much unheeded.

I’ve been pretty careful in this post to avoid a prolonged discussion of what exactly domestic abuse is but according to the All-China Women’s Federation it includes verbal humiliation, physical assault, deprivation of freedom, confiscation of income and marital rape.

Sorry to be depressing this evening, but there’s nothing funny about this or my topic for tomorrow either. I’ll spare you the gory details until then.

China’s Gender Crisis – Traditional Adult Role Expectations


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Women in China were constitutionally emancipated when the communist government took over, in fact the equality of women under law took place as early as (or earlier than) it did in most of the West. However as anyone who’s had to spend the time listening to someone bang on about “4,000 years of culture” will know, a change in law is not a change in mindset.

Under cultural norms (until relatively recently – and it’s still a dominant norm outside of Tier 1 cities) it was expected that people would get married young – but not too young, in fact China’s legal marriage age is 21 (though the age of sexual consent is 14).

The fantasy may well be better than the reality when it comes to submissive Chinese women…

He would then go out to work, and ideally she’d be bare foot and pregnant within the week. Children have always been the main focus of Chinese society which might explain why there are so many Chinese people.

Many outsiders have observed this and jumped to the conclusion that as he appears to be the boss in public, Chinese women are submissive fragile souls. This has led to many a Westerner leaping on a plane to secure himself a Chinese honey, who he thinks is going to STFU and does as she’s told. They always find themselves unpleasantly surprised (and I’ll be honest I’m cheering on Chinese womanhood every time that happens).

That’s because traditionally women do let the man run things outside of the house, because they run the home with an iron fist. Most Chinese guys since the dawn of time have been expected to hand over their wages on pay day to their wives, and it’s her that makes all the financial decisions. That includes how much money she gives him back to go drinking with his friends.

This is probably the most sensible arrangement, as in my experience (this includes me) most men shouldn’t be trusted with a cash card until they’re in their late 40’s. We find it hard to stick to a budget when there’s beer behind the bar, or cool stuff to buy in electronics stores.

Alright he’s definitely not Chinese – but he’s definitely henpecked just like a Chinese husband is supposed to be.

But the times they are a changing, and today – Chinese women are coming into their own. They’re well-educated, hard-working and career minded. That means a shift in the power play of even the most traditional relationships – because in their thinking what’s yours is hers, but what’s hers is hers too. That’s right these ladies still expect the pay packet from hubby at the end of the month, but there’s not much flow in the other direction.

Children are still high on the list of priorities but couples are waiting longer and longer (at least in more prosperous areas) before having them. In fact China may not need the one child policy if it can get everyone to move into the cities – because like everywhere else a rise in income = a fall in the birthrate.

It’s small changes like these that are beginning to lead to vociferous complaints from the Chinese man of being emasculated. Tomorrow we’re going to look at a subject that might make you think that this isn’t a bad idea – domestic violence in China.


China’s Gender Crisis – But what of the girls?


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If the boys have little emperor syndrome, what do the girls get? It turns out the answer to this is even more disturbing, nearly 80% of girls (and possibly much more) born under the one child policy suffer from narcissistic personality disorders.

Girls get a much harder time. It’s not that their parents don’t love them, but they are a huge disappointment and it shows from the start. Dad is unhappy because not only does he not get his pension scheme (a son) but he also loses the ability to pass on the family name (I’m not sure why this is such a big deal in China given that there are literally millions of people with every surname – but it is).

They start out so cute and so happy don’t they? Yet beneath the surface – madness is being shaped early…

So from day one, daughters are playing with a losing hand. However, this doesn’t mean that these parents provide less care or attention for a daughter and in fact daughters are spoiled rotten too – but all the time with an undercurrent of “why couldn’t you have been a son and then things would be perfect?”

This isn’t a completely new thing either – Confucianism (China’s kind of almost but not really religion before communism) had a way of letting girls of bigger families know they weren’t important too. For example – if asked how big your family was, you would respond with “I have x number of sons.” Daughters didn’t count back then either.

So what’s a narcissistic disorder anyway?

There are two main types of narcissism (from a clinical perspective) – the exhibitionist and the closet case.

Oddly there’s a direct relationship between societal status – in particular looks and academic performance that enables you to predict which type will express in a Chinese woman.

If she’s very attractive and has real academic flair – she’s going to be exhibitionist, and if she’s considered both plain/unattractive and a poor student – she’s going to be a closet case.

Exhibitionists tend to promote their own self-importance and believe in too. They are positive that they are “special” (not in a school bus way) and that because of this – the world should treat them specially. They tend to sulk when criticised or get angry. They surround themselves with similar people to themselves (attractive and intelligent) and use these people to reflect themselves (rather than develop positive relationships). They’re exploitative, manipulative and unrestrained fantasists and often display strong jealousy of others. They lack empathy and the ability to feel love in any meaningful way.

Let’s get this straight – there’s no suggestion that this lovely lady is a narcissist but there’s a good chance that she might be. It seems a really bad idea for a nation to be moulding psyches in such an unhealthy way…

You might think that the closet type of narcissist would be at least a little more likeable but instead they spend their lives putting themselves down, against a wish list of “If only I was a little more pretty/clever/cute/etc.” They seek constant reassurance from the opposite sex and throw their toys out if this reassurance isn’t delivered in the way they want. She gets sulky and withdrawn and then angry and aggressive – both physically and verbally.

As you can imagine this leads to a lot of unhappy relationships, and it’s those relationships I’m going to start to examine tomorrow.

China’s Gender Crisis – The Little Emperor Syndrome


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Imagine living in poverty, real poverty – not that picturesque poverty where a man and wife struggle to support their children with a holiday every 2 years and still manage to keep a car on the road. The kind of poverty that left you watching millions of your countrymen starve to death, and millions more grow up stunted thanks to poor nutrition.

Now imagine that there’s a single way to avoid returning to that situation. It really doesn’t matter what that is – you’d take it if it was offered. That’s how China’s parents feel about having sons.

It’s a great life to be a baby boy in China, but it’s also a problematic one. This chap is exceedingly happy though.

In a country with no social welfare worth speaking of, an expensive (in local terms) healthcare system, and inadequate (to say the least) pension provision – your one hope for a decent life in your old age is a son.

Frustratingly for you, you’re only allowed one child. It’s a 50/50 chance of a good life, or a bad one – not just for your child, but for you too.

You may at this point be starting to understand why the Chinese so often load the dice in favour of this outcome if they can.

So when that son arrives, what do you do? Well, it turns out that you firstly spoil him rotten. You give him everything he demands (that’s within your power to give). You rarely (if ever) scold him for bad or selfish behaviour. You publicly praise him and denigrate other children to inflate his sense of entitlement.

That’s the cause of “Little Emperor Syndrome”. A phrase coined to highlight the behaviour of spoilt Chinese boys. It’s something they carry with them throughout their lives, and it shows constantly. Everything must revolve around them or they throw tantrums and fits, and even become violently abusive.

However, it’s not the whole story. There’s a flip side to this treatment that many Westerners don’t really get to see.

Whether our Chinese baby will still be smiling when he’s as old as this chap is anybody’s guess. However the expectations placed upon him and the “spoilling” he recieves may well take its toll and not just on him – as we’ll see later in this series.

Because secondly parents in China will load their poor child with all their expectations and hopes and dreams. They will push their child constantly to excel academically (because an education is the only hope of a decent job). For those unfamiliar with Tiger parenting, you might want to check out this book – it’s been one of the most talked about publications in recent years. Many Westerners see this lady as an extreme example of parenting in action, it isn’t. In China it’s the norm.

Now think about how that might affect you, everyday you’re told you’re the most amazing, most important person on earth but also that you have responsibility to provide and feed your family – at a time when you’re probably more interested in eating worms in the garden.

It’s liable to leave you a little messed up in the head isn’t it? Little Emperor Syndrome, to me, seems like the tip of the iceberg. Research in this area is pretty inadequate – most of the papers so far have come out of low tier Chinese Universities, and have been desperate to prove there is no problem. I’d like to put forward the argument that there is a problem as we move through this theme. And I’ll start with that tomorrow.

Introducing a Theme: China’s Gender Crisis – Gender in China


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In years gone by it was common for Arab tribes to strengthen the bloodline by attacking rival groups and making off with their women. It was also Genghis Khan’s strategy as he sought to make Mongolia a world power (of sorts), kill the men – keep the women. These women could become highly prized brides and treasured wives, but more often than not they were for one purpose – brood mares.

If current trends continue the Chinese chap may need a gold medal in order to get a date.

One of the major concerns facing the Chinese man (and in fact men from many Asian nations) is the shortage of women. From the one child policy to sexually selective abortion, women in Asia are becoming severely outnumbered by men. In China this is because sons are expected to support their families in later life, and daughters are expected to leave home and look after their new husband’s family. The one child policy thus provides a great incentive to produce male children, as there are no second chances available to many Chinese families.

However, this leaves a serious problem in its wake. In the next generation of Chinese men there will be 10’s of millions who will be unable to find a partner. Is it possible that the next world war will not be for water or oil but for women?

I think it’s unlikely but there is already strong evidence that Chinese men are getting desperate. There have reports of human trafficking with women being snatched from poorer neighbouring countries (in particular North Korea where it is highly likely that this trafficking is being sanctioned from Pyongyang) and dragged into China for forced marriages to lonely men.

That better not be what I think it is young man, or it’s coming off…

In this theme, I’d like to explore the possible effects of the gender gap on Chinese culture and also some extreme scenarios that may offer solutions to the social issues that will arise. Unlike many of my other themes, much of this will be purely speculative – some of these scenarios are very unlikely to ever be accepted or promoted, others… well, who knows?

I’m back in writing mode now and I’m looking forward to picking up several themes again this month, I’ll be back on the Chinese economy as well as moving forward with the virtual tour. Apologies for the break in service, but it was a necessity rather than a whim. I’m back.

I’m also going to be launching another blog later this month, which will be called Bobbing For Words – it’s not going to be as focused as Shards, it’s intended to be a portfolio piece for my writing as well as offer hints, tips, etc. for new writers (and inform and educate potential clients).

Three Tips for First-Timers in China


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China’s an amazing, wonderful place but it can be an uphill climb for first time arrivals in the country, here’s a few tips to making your visit or arrival an easier and more pleasant one.

Remember English is not widely spoken

While Beijing did a great job of preparing for the Olympics and many locals are now at least a little fluent in English, the rest of the country really isn’t. It can come as a horrible shock to the system when you realize that your taxi driver has no idea what you’re saying when you want to get to your hotel at the airport or that ordering a beer in the bar has just become an insanely difficult task.

Pro-tip: Get a Mandarin-English phrasebook with Chinese characters under the phrases, so you can point at them in times of difficulty. Always have your final destination and any stops between written down in Mandarin before you go, so that you can always find your way to your hotel in a taxi.

Grow a thick skin

It is all too common outside of areas where foreigners are regularly found, for Chinese people to point and stare and shout at you. Ignore it, it’s not meant badly, it’s just how curiosity is naturally displayed in China, they do this to unusual Chinese people too. It’s also pretty common for people to comment negatively on your appearance or clothing on first meeting, this shows that they care and is not meant to be offensive – let it go.

Pro-tip: If you find the attention overwhelming, do it back. Stop, stare and point – the offender will quickly get the message and stop. I like to wave and pretend I’m a film star on these occasions, which whilst clearly not the case makes me feel better.

Keep your temper

Never, ever lose your temper. Customer service is a non-existent concept at the moment, you will find yourself willfully ignored, cheated and generally abused by businesses at every turn. Do refuse to accept this, but don’t blow up – if your cool flees, you’ll lose face if you keep it and pointedly make life difficult for the person spoiling your day – they’ll lose face.

Pro-tip: Never get into disputes with front line staff, they have absolutely no authority to improve the situation if your initial complaint resolves nothing, immediately escalate to management who may (but not always) be able to get something done.