As the season of giving, the holidays are a time of joy. But when you can’t think of good gift ideas for your loved ones, it can also be a time of frustration. We’d like to help you avoid that frustration by offering our gift suggestions for people who have an interest in China or China-related products. We hope you enjoy our updated fourth annual holiday shopping guide.

Since our clients are located all over the United States and even outside the country, this list focuses primarily on online stores rather than local stores. However, we certainly encourage you to support local businesses when possible, and the list does include a number of Bay Area-based businesses. Please contact us if you have a suggestion to add to this list or have information to share about one of the products or retailers on this list.

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All of these companies or products (other than our own tour packages, of course) are independent of China International Travel CA. We are promoting them only because we think you may find this information helpful.

Wild China DVD or Blu-ray Set

Wild China Blu ray coverAn acclaimed documentary produced by the BBC, Wild China focuses on a side of China that doesn’t get a lot of coverage in the Western media: stunningly beautiful natural areas like Zhangjiajie, Xianggelila, Guilin, and Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). The 6-episode series is narrated by Bernard Hill (King Theoden in the Lord of the Rings movies) and contains spectacular footage of remote places that are rarely seen, as well as places that are easily accessible to tourists but no less beautiful. It also gives fascinating insights into the lives of the people living in such areas, especially their relationship with the land and its wildlife. If you enjoyed Planet Earth and you’re interested in China, you’ll love Wild China. The higher-definition Blu-ray version is highly recommended in order to fully enjoy the magnificent footage captured in the series.

Note: Netflix and Amazon Prime customers can stream Wild China in high definition for free!

If after watching Wild China you feel a sudden urge to visit the incomparably beautiful places it documents, take a look at our tour packages. In particular, our Yunnan Highlands and Majestic Scenery tours, along with our tours featuring Guilin, highlight these destinations. You might also consider arranging a custom tour to visit a unique combination of scenic areas.

Other DVDs and Blu-rays

Here are a few other Chinese or China-related movies that we think you or your loved ones may enjoy. Many more films will be highlighted in future shopping guides, as China has produced a number of the world’s greatest films over the last twenty years.

Infernal Affairs Blu-ray cover - small - 125 x 125Infernal Affairs – Blu-ray (無間道): The acclaimed Hong Kong thriller that inspired The Departed, featuring Andy Lau, Tony Leung, and other stars of HK cinema. Also available on DVD.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Blu-ray (臥虎藏龍): Though the new version of the film’s English subtitles has received some criticism, this new Blu-ray presentation is stunningly beautiful. Relive this contemporary classic in high-definition glory. (And if you’d like to visit the lovely Hong Village, where some of the scenes were filmed, take a look at CIT’s Jiangnan Gourmet Cuisine/Yellow Mountain 10-Day Tour!) Also available on DVD.

Dragon Dynasty Triple Feature (Jet Li Collection): This set of classic Jet Li movies on Blu-ray includes The Legend (方世玉, also referred to as Fong Sai Yuk in English), Fist of Legend (精武英雄), and Tai Chi Master (太極張三豐). A great bargain for fans of Jet Li or kung fu movies in general. Also available on DVD.

The Emperor and the Assassin DVD coverThough unfortunately it is not available on Blu-ray, acclaimed director Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin (荆轲刺秦王) is a well-acted, visually stunning historical epic about Qin Shihuang (originally named Ying Zheng, played by Li Xuejian), the unifier and first emperor of China. Its Shakespearean story portrays his relationship with his concubine Lady Zhao (played by Gong Li) and the consequences of the extreme brutality he employed in conquering the rival states that existed in his time. Like many films that present Chinese history and culture to the West in a sometimes critical light, the film has received some criticism in China. At 162 minutes, it is also quite slow-paced. However, its intense, nuanced, artful presentation of historical figures and events is ultimately powerful and thought-provoking. For an alternate portrayal of the First Emperor, you might consider The Emperor’s Shadow (秦颂), which was the most expensive film ever made in China at the time of its release in 1996. Though both of these films take some liberties with the historical record, they feature impressive cinematography and some of China’s best actors in iconic roles, including Gong Li, Zhang Fengyi, Li Xuejian, Jiang Wen, and Ge You.

  • The tomb of the First Emperor is the site of the famous Terracotta Army, a tour of which is featured in all of our tours that include the city of Xi’an.

Red Cliff Blu-ray cover - small - 125 x 125Red Cliff (International Version) – Blu-ray (赤壁): Director John Woo’s uncut, 288-minute adaptation of the Chinese literary classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms is another film that has achieved both critical acclaim and great popularity. It features some of the most ambitious battle scenes ever filmed. See them in high definition on this Blu-ray release. Also available on DVD.

Shower (洗澡): A contemporary Chinese family drama involving the conflict between the traditional and modern worlds. A materialistic “prodigal son” with a successful career in Shenzhen, whose family runs a bathhouse in Beijing, returns home to visit his aging father and mentally challenged brother. There he finds himself slowly drawn into the traditional world he had left behind. A touching film that laments the precious, human things lost in the fast-paced lifestyle and relentless change of the modern world. (If you’re interested in seeing the traditional hutong neighborhoods depicted in the movie, most of our tours that include Beijing feature a hutong pedicab tour.)

Chungking Express DVD cover - small - 125 x 125Acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (重慶森林), which weaves together two apparently separate stories involving cops and romance, is a quirky, memorable presentation of life in 1990’s Hong Kong. This Criterion Collection Blu-ray release has gotten rave reviews for its beautiful transfer of the film and special features. Hong Kong icons Tony Leung and Faye Wong (in her cinematic debut) star in one of the stories. Criterion Collection release also available on DVD.

With Yi Yi (一一, sometimes referred to in English as A One and a Two), Taiwanese director Edward Yang won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. A slow, quiet meditation on modern family life, Yi Yi is not for everyone, but it is tremendously rewarding for patient and thoughtful viewers. This Criterion Collection Blu-ray release is the best way to experience this film. Criterion Collection release also available on DVD.

Aftershock DVD cover - small - 125 x 125Aftershock (唐山大地震) is both a heartwrenching story of family tragedy and a historical document of the devastating effects, both short-term and long-term, of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed approximately 250,000 people. Released in 2010, it became China’s biggest box office success ever. Many reviewers have called it one of the most powerful movies they have ever seen.

Last Train Home (归于列车): A moving documentary directed by Yixin Fan that candidly reveals the challenges faced by a rural family. Like many of China’s 130 million migrant workers, the Zhangs have had to leave their children in their home village while they pursue more lucrative work in the hope of giving their children a chance at a better life. Raw and though-provoking, but also beautiful and sometimes funny, the film presents their experiences in a way that is universally understandable.

Amongst White Clouds DVD coverIn Amongst White Clouds (共坐白云中), director Edward Burger documents the lives of Buddhist hermits in the Zhongnan Mountains south of Xi’an, an area which for thousands of years has been home to Taoist seekers and Buddhist monks isolated from society. In a meditative, understated style, the film shows what their quiet, simple lives are like, including the hardships they must endure in their search for enlightenment. Having lived with one of these masters for four years, Burger has keen insight into their experiences. The DVD makes a good gift for anyone interested in Chinese religion, philosophy, and meditation, but the documentary can also be viewed on YouTube here.

China from the Inside - DVD cover - small - 125 x 125China from the Inside: In the U.S. media, we are often exposed to a very narrowly Western perspective on China. As its title suggests, the 2007 PBS documentary series China from the Inside makes a genuine effort to present representative opinions from many Chinese citizens, scholars, and government officials on some of the major issues and challenges in contemporary Chinese society. The producers of the series had unprecedented access to places and activities that could not be easily seen by foreigners, and many of the people interviewed speak with refreshing candor. Through its objective but sensitive portrayal of the lives of ordinary citizens, the film makes contemporary China comprehensible even to Westerners not already familiar with it. The major topics covered in the four-part series are the status of women, the Communist Party, environmental challenges, and justice and freedom. Highly recommended to anyone who wants to gain real insight into Chinese society.

China-Related Books

China Books (originally known as China Books and Periodicals), founded in 1960 and now located in South San Francisco, has a wide range of products (not just books and magazines), including some good deals in the “bargain bin” and “clearance” sections of its website.

Books About Chinese Art

Art in China (Oxford History of Art) (Craig Clunas): This comprehensive introduction to China’s 5,000 years of visual arts is an expanded 2009 edition of the highly rated first edition published in 1997. Available for Kindle.

book cover - China's Sacred SitesHighly rated books that focus on the architectural wonders and other important sites in China include China’s Sacred Sites by Professor Nan Shunxun and Beverly Foit-Albert, which features photographs of not only temples and other important architecture but also the stunning landscapes that they adorn; Chinese Houses: The Architectural Heritage of a Nation (also available for Kindle) by Ronald G. Knapp, Jonathan Spence, and A. Chester Ong; and Yale University Press’s voluminous Chinese Architecture, the third volume in a planned 75-volume series on Chinese culture, which boasts contributions from six leading historians of Chinese architecture.

Books About Chinese Philosophy

For people interested in Taoist philosophy, there are a wide range of English texts to choose from. Here is a brief guide to the most acclaimed English editions of the Tao Te Ching (道德經, or Dào Dé Jīng):
cover of the Feng-English translation of the Tao Te Ching

  • David Hinton’s translation is critically acclaimed for its poetic beauty as well as its linguistic and philosophical accuracy.
  • The Vintage translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, long prized for its poetic evocation of Lao Tzu’s style, has recently been republished in a new edition. Like the popular original, it is an oversized book (10.9 x 8.4 inches) enhanced with meditative photos and a calligraphic version of the Chinese text. (There is also a smaller edition available, so take care when ordering.) Available for Kindle and iBooks.
  • Red Pine’s spare and elegant translation is acclaimed as a faithful rendering of the original. Envisioned as “a discussion between Lao Tzu and a group of people who have thought deeply about his text,” this edition is also unique in providing selections from the many commentaries produced over more than two thousand years by Chinese thinkers to complement the text and give deeper insight into its meaning. Available for Kindle.
  • The audaciously titled Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition, translated and compiled by Jonathan Star, is a useful resource for anyone who wants to take a scholarly, in-depth approach to reading the text. In addition to his literary translation, it features a literal, line-by-line translation, as well as notes on the possible meanings and connotations of each character. Available for Kindle.
  • Tao: The Way (The Sayings of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and Lieh Tzu) includes revised versions of the classic translations by the scholars Lionel and Herbert Giles, presented in a unique format. Rather than separating the three texts, it combines selections from each text in topical sections like “Tao as a Moral Principle, or Virtue” and “The Doctrine of Inaction.” For someone interested in a philosophy-oriented survey of Taoism, this is an especially useful book. Available for Kindle.

For those interested in Confucian philosophy, there are also a wealth of reading choices. Here are some of the best-reviewed and most important:
book cover of The Original Analects

  • The Original Analects, edited by E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks, presents a translation and detailed analysis of the original Confucian text The Analects of Confucius for those inclined to a scholarly study of Confucian thought. Their analysis is unique and even revolutionary in that it attempts to distinguish between the original ideas and priorities of Confucius and those of his later followers who collected and altered his teachings.
  • With a detailed introduction to Confucian terms and concepts, helpful notes throughout the text, and a very literal approach to translation, Chichung Huang’s version of the Analects is distinguished by its philosophical clarity. As a member of a family of Confucian teachers, Huang has unique credentials among translators of the Analects.
  • For a more literary, poetically flavored version of the Analects, consider David Hinton’s translation.

Anyone who wants to explore Confucian thought even more deeply with a pilgrimage to Confucius’ hometown of Qufu, where the Kong Family Mansion and other important sites are located, might be interested in our Northeast China 15-Day Tour.

Books About Chinese Divination and Fengshui

Ancient Chinese Divination book coverWith a scholarly and historical (but also lucid and highly readable) approach to the subject of fengshui and other forms of divination, Dr. Stephen Field’s Ancient Chinese Divination is a fascinating tour through the origins and evolution of divination in ancient China, tying together Chinese cosmology, neolithic forms of divination, the Zhou Changes (later known as the I-Ching), fengshui, numerology, and more. Head of the Chinese program at Trinity University, Dr. Field is a specialist in pre-Qin Chinese literature and ancient Chinese cosmology. More of his writings about fengshui and ancient Chinese texts can be found on his website, Fengshui Gate.

Other highly rated books about fengshui include the following:

  • A Master Course in Feng-Shui is a comprehensive workbook and reference manual “for homeowners, renters, architects, and business owners who want to put feng-shui to practical personal use.”
  • Feng Shui That Makes Sense is intended as a personal guide to help you use basic principles of fengshui to create a more comfortable, harmonious home and garden environment. Available for Kindle.

For someone who is interested in applying fengshui principles or would simply like an unusual conversation piece for their coffee table, a fengshui compass might make an interesting gift.

Chinese Literature

cover of Classical Chinese PoetryAs an introduction to Chinese poetry in translation, David Hinton’s Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology (also available for Kindle) is a perfect gift. More than simply providing a faithful and pleasant translation, Hinton’s ear for verse gives these poems an added power that makes them worth reading as works of English literature too. Writer Bei Dao (Zhao Zhenkai) gave Hinton’s translations just about the highest praise possible: “Given the magnitude of his ability and his overall project, Hinton is creating nothing less than a new literary tradition in English, an event of truly major importance not only to English literature but also to the literature of my own language. I cannot recommend the value of his work too highly.”

Here are a few excerpts from Hinton’s translations of Song Dynasty poet Mei Yaochen’s work:

  • On the death of his wife: “I hide my tears, not wanting them to see,/push the lamp away and lie facing the wall,/a hundred sorrows clotting heart and lung”
  • On a rat infestation of his home: “Suddenly my silly boy/starts meowing like a cat! Goofy plan, eh?”
  • On going blind: “No telling what’s what in this confusion,/I’m suddenly free of likes and dislikes.”
  • On the sounds of autumn: “The ear hears, but mind is itself silent./Who’s left now all thought’s forgotten?”
  • On peasants forced by desperation to gather weeds in the snow: “Hands so raw they can’t feed themselves, they/live in hunger, and you’re ashamed to eat it?”

Bill Porter, better known by his Chinese name Red Pine, is considered one of the best translators of Chinese literature into English. He has translated numerous volumes of Chinese poetry, as well as other important literary and philosophical texts. For students of the Chinese language, his translations are essential because they include the original Chinese text. Here are some of his most popular volumes of Chinese poetry:

The temple named after the reclusive Tang Dynasty poet Cold Mountain (寒山, Hánshān), Hanshan Temple, can be seen on many of our tours that feature Suzhou.

Books About Chinese Society

A farmer in Wuxi, one subject of Tom Carter's China - Portrait of a PeopleChina: Portrait of a People (Tom Carter): The photos in this book were taken during a two-year journey taken by the author through all of China’s 33 provinces. It is highly recommended for its stunning photos, which are both beautiful and truly representative of China’s many ethnic groups—you can see several sample photos on the book’s Amazon page, and there is also a “book trailer” on YouTube with an array of architecture-oriented photos from the book.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Jung Chang): This powerful book tells the story of three women whose lives span the tumultuous changes in Chinese society over the course of the 20th century: Chang’s grandmother, her mother, and Chang herself. Both critically acclaimed and popular, Wild Swans is featured in many university and high school courses. Available for Kindle and iBooks.

Factory Girls - book coverFactory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (Leslie Chang): Written by a former Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Factory Girls focuses on the lives of young women in southern China who have left home to take assembly-line work in search of a better future. In intimate detail, it reveals the intense, fast-paced world of migrant workers that is experienced by 130 million people in China but glimpsed by few outsiders. Available for Kindle and iBooks.

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory (Peter Hessler): Hessler, a Mandarin-speaking American (and husband of Leslie Chang) who has spent years living and traveling in China, is a sharp, sympathetic, and dauntless observer and explorer with a gift for drawing you into his experiences. Country Driving, as its title suggests, covers his extensive road trips through northern China, as well as the time he spent living in a village outside Beijing and visiting factories in southern China. Moving, fascinating, and funny, it is highly recommended for anyone who is interested in understanding the effects that China’s rapid changes have had on its people. Hessler has also written two other well-received books about his time in China: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze and Oracle Bones. Available for Kindle and iBooks.

This Is China: The First 5,000 Years (Haiwang Yuan): This introduction to China and its history draws from The Berkshire Encyclopedia of China to give readers a concise but comprehensive overview of China. Available for Kindle.

China (DK Eyewitness Books) (Hugh Sebag-Montefiore): This book provides a great introduction to contemporary China for children, with a wealth of photos and information. DK’s Ancient China (by Arthur Cotterell) provides a complementary overview of China’s long history.

Chinese Language Books and Educational Software

For a much more detailed discussion of Chinese language educational materials, many of which would make excellent gifts, see our Chinese Language Resources for Travelers and Students page. Don’t miss the links to our Language and Culture Learning Pages with educational materials designed to enhance your tour experience.

Niubi - book coverNiubi: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School (Eveline Chao): One fascinating effect of China’s continuing growth and modernization on its popular culture is the explosion in slang expressions that has occurred in recent years, in large part because of the use of the Internet by ever-larger numbers of Chinese citizens. As in the United States, wildly creative, funny, and vulgar new slang can become popular overnight as a result of mass exposure online. Many now-common colloquialisms are given a clear and thorough explanation in this book. For anyone who wants to really speak like a native and have fun with the dynamic, living language that is contemporary Mandarin, this book is a great resource. Available for iBooks. For an introduction to the slang covered in this book, see our past blog posts “Contemporary Chinese Slang Part 1” and “Contemporary Chinese Slang Part 2: Flirting, Dating, Romance, Marriage, and Heartbreak.”

Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide (Claudia Ross and Jing-heng Sheng Ma): For the serious student of Mandarin, this 432-page guide presents detailed, comprehensive information about contemporary grammar and usage. To make the book as useful and relevant as possible, its authors favor the practical over the obscure. Available for Kindle.

Learning Chinese Characters, Vol. 1: A Revolutionary New Way to Learn and Remember the 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters (Alison Matthews, Laurence Matthews): Most helpful for beginners but also a good reference tool for more advanced learners, this book uses a cartoon-based mnemonic approach to aid in memorization. It presents the characters in a logical order that also makes them easier to memorize, and it also contains useful information about each character. Available for Kindle.

cover of Schaum's Outlines - Chinese VocabularySchaum’s Outline of Chinese Vocabulary (Yanping Xie and Duan-Duan Li): For intermediate-level students, this book contains a well-designed course of 200 exercises to help students understand and memorize practical vocabulary, including topics like computer terminology that are neglected in many other Mandarin sources.

Chinese (Mandarin), Conversational: Learn to Speak and Understand Mandarin Chinese with Pimsleur Language Programs (Pimsleur Instant Conversation): This well-reviewed audiobook (CD) conversational Mandarin course of 16 half-hour lessons is based on the Pimsleur Method. There is also a much more expensive 30-lesson version available.

ChinesePod logoChinesePod and Rocket Chinese are both getting rave reviews for their online multimedia courses, which include interactive audio lessons, video lessons, games, online communities, and vocabulary building materials. A subscription to either service would be a fantastic gift for someone interested in learning Chinese.

Rocket Chinese logoFluenz Version F2: Mandarin 1+2+3 with supplemental Audio CDs and Podcasts: A well-reviewed (but expensive) 3-disc, 75-lesson CD-ROM set with two audio CDs and supplemental podcasts. Since this course uses pinyin (romanized Chinese) only without Chinese characters, it is appropriate for those who are only interested in learning to speak the language or who want to use this course as a supplement to other materials. The developers of this course describe it as a teacher-oriented approach, with each lesson led by a tutor. They emphasize that in contrast to other learning systems that focus on mimicking patterns, their course involves explanations of grammar and sentence structure to build clear, conscious understanding. For both PC and Mac operating systems, though Mac OS X users should check to make sure it is compatible with recent versions of OS X.

Multimedia Learning Suite Chinese Characters Memory LifterMultimedia Learning Suite Chinese Characters Memory Lifter: Presented in a convenient “plug and play” USB stick format, this program uses multimedia flashcards organized by subject to help you memorize 3,000 Chinese words. Its useful features include a variety of learning modes, the ability to track your learning progress, statistical feedback on your performance, the ability to edit and expand vocabulary sets with your own data, and the ability to print flashcards. The package also includes a study guide, introductory videos, MP3 audiobooks for playback on portable listening devices, and a “Learn to Learn” booklet to help you get the most out of the system.

Tea and Teaware

Good information about tea and teaware can be found on the discussion boards at TeaChat.

An Yixing teapot - photo by Alexandr SoloYixing zisha (“purple clay”) teapots (photo credit: Alexandr Solo) are prized for both their beauty and the added richness they impart to the flavor of tea. Although there are apparently a number of English-language retail websites that sell authentic Yixing teapots, my research suggests that the sites introduced below may be the best places to purchase them. However, to ensure faster shipping for Christmas, you might also consider purchasing a pot directly from the Yixing teapots page on the U.S.-based website of Yunnan Sourcing, a company that also sells high-quality tea leaves.

  • Wan Ling Tea House: With a tea shop in Shanghai and other operations based in the U.K., Wan Ling Tea House is a great source for both tea leaves and tea accessories, including Yixing teapots.
  • Chinese Tea Culture: This site is operated by a Mandarin-speaking American living in China who is able to ensure the quality of the products he sells (tea leaves, Yixing teapots, and other tea accessories) by getting them directly from producers. (Note: As of the publication of this post, this site appears to be down and may no longer be in operation.)

The wonderful Teavana Yixing Travel Tea Tumbler (a stainless-steel, clay-lined thermal tumbler) that we used to recommend is no longer available. Here are a few highly rated alternatives:

The following books would make great gifts for anyone interested in learning more about tea culture and the complexities of tea itself:
cover of The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook

  • The Tea Drinker’s Handbook (Francois-xavier Delmas, Mathias Minet, and Christine Barbaste): Written in clear English by the co-directors of France’s Le Palais des Thés (“Palace of Tea”) retail chain, this well-designed, accurate, and comprehensive book goes beyond many other books about tea in giving detailed information about tea bushes and the cultivation of tea. It also features 200 full-color photographs and illustrations.
  • The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Best Teas and The Story of Tea: A Cultural History & Drinking Guide (Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss): Written by the founders of Tea Trekker, these books have received a great deal of critical praise and high marks from readers. The Handbook is a “pocket guide” (for a large pocket) that focuses on practical buying, brewing, and tasting advice; The Story of Tea is a more comprehensive tea tome augmented by 150 full-color photographs. Both books are also for sale on Amazon and available for both Kindle and iBooks.
Chinese Cuisine

Easy Chinese Recipes book coverEasy Chinese Recipes: Family Favorites From Dim Sum to Kung Pao (Bee Yinn Low) and The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook: 101 Asian Recipes Simple Enough for Tonight’s Dinner (Jaden Hair): Two very highly rated cookbooks covering the spectrum of Chinese cuisine, with an emphasis on convenient recipes that use ingredients available at American supermarkets. Both books are now available for Kindle.

Joyce Chen 10-Inch Bamboo Steamer Set and Joyce Chen 50-count Steaming Papers: A set of two stackable bamboo steaming baskets, along with convenient paper liners fitted to the baskets. Other highly rated 10-inch steamer liner options are Helen’s Asian Kitchen Parchment Steamer Liners, 20 Count and Pre-Cut Perforated Parchment Steamer Liner / Non-Stick Rounds (Pack of 40).
cast iron wok set - small - 125 x 125
14-Inch Traditional Cast Iron Wok Set: A perfect gift for the budding Chinese cook who wants to cook the traditional way, this is an “old-school” wok (without teflon) that has received rave reviews on Amazon. It includes five pieces: the wok, an aluminum lid, a stainless steel spatula, a ring, and a bamboo cleaning whisk. For a high-quality teflon-coated wok, consider this 14-inch wok from T-Fal. Those with a bigger budget might also like the Calphalon Elite Nonstick Wok, which features a glass cover.

Chinese Art and Calligraphy

Mystic East Art’s website,, has a good reputation and features beautiful Chinese-style paintings—original paintings only, not prints. Oriental Furniture is a highly rated seller with a broader selection of Chinese and Asian furniture, art, and decorative accessories.

Oriental Art Supply and Asian Art Mall are two reputable online retailers that offer a huge selection of calligraphy- and art-related supplies and products. Oriental Art Supply is owned by the family of Dr. Ning Yeh, an accomplished painter.

Here are a few art-related gift ideas available on Amazon:

Chinese calligraphy set - small - 125 x 125Chinese calligraphy writing and brush painting set with 5 brushes, an ink stick, an inkstone, signing ink, a water well, a brush rest, and a stone chop. Be aware that the brushes are quite small and may be unsuitable for people with larger hands. (This set can be supplemented with these medium-sized or large brushes.) Although it has a reasonably good rating overall, numerous reviewers have criticized the quality of this set; this similar but somewhat more expensive set may be a better option.

Chinese Calligraphy Made Easy: A Structured Course in Creating Beautiful Brush Lettering (Rebecca Yue): A well-reviewed book for beginning practitioners of Chinese calligraphy.

100 sheets Japanese Chinese Calligraphy Rice Paper: Well-reviewed paper used for calligraphy and brush painting practice.

Chinese seal - Oriental Art Supply - small - 125 x 125A personalized Chinese seal, also referred to as a chop or stamp, makes a classy and unique gift. Oriental Art Supply sells personalized seals carved in China in a variety of configurations; square artist name seals like the ones pictured here are the most commonly used. (See the “Related Products” links at the bottom of the page for other kinds of seals.) Asian Brush Art & Graphic Design also sells customized seals.

If you need to create a Chinese name for someone without one, try these websites:

  • A sophisticated name generator with a variety of options; it gives rough phonetic transliteration of Western names within the parameters of a traditional three-character Chinese name (one-character surname, two-character given name). It also provides some information about the specific names it generates and Chinese names in general, along with links to other sources of information about Chinese names.
  • This name generator handles one name at a time only (given name or surname), and it outputs common transliterations of Western names that do not follow the format of a traditional Chinese name. These names are immediately recognizable as Western names and may or may not work well on a seal.
  • This name generator works just like the one above.

You can get a digital version of the seal stamp on these websites to see what it might look like:Fu Mingdao seal stamp - positive - 75 x 75

Kung Fu and Martial Arts

Master Amin Wu performing a t'ai chi fan formFor Bay Area residents interested in t’ai chi ch’uan (太極拳, tàijíquán), lessons with a local instructor would be a perfect gift. We are fortunate to have an internationally famous sifu available for both group classes and individual lessons: Master Amin Wu (吴阿敏, Wú Āmǐn). A graduate of the Wushu Department of the Beijing University of Physical Education, she has won numerous international tournaments and China national championships, served as a judge at China’s national championships, and been a featured instructor on China Central Television (CCTV). She teaches all major styles of taijiquan (Yang, Chen, Sun, and Wu), as well as ch’i kung (氣功, qìgōng) exercises for health, t’ai chi weapons, and self defense. Her group classes are held in Millbrae, and she is also available for private lessons. Her classes and lessons are very reasonably priced, especially for such an accomplished teacher. Visit her website to find out more and purchase her Yang-style Tai Chi Fundamentals for Beginners DVD and other VCD’s. See performance videos and interviews on her YouTube channel.

Medicine Begins With Me logoChilel Wellness and its website, Medicine Begins With Me, have an admirable mission: to empower people to improve their own health by combining traditional Chinese practices like ch’i kung and t’ai chi ch’uan with modern medical knowledge. In addition to seminars and other products, they host annual group tours of China that feature both cultural exploration and qigong/taijiquan study sessions with local masters. Based in Rocklin, California, northeast of Sacramento, they hold workshops and retreats in a number of cities in California, Hawaii, and Indiana.

For basic instructional videos on ch’i kung or t’ai chi ch’uan, consider these highly rated DVDs created by Chris Pei: Qi Gong for Beginners and Tai Chi for Beginners.

Feiyue martial arts shoes (black)The Martial Arts Store has an incredible selection of martial arts-related goods.

Feiyue martial arts shoes: These shoes are apparently the kind worn by Shaolin monks during training. Flexible, padded, and light, they are ideal for martial arts and similar activities. One drawback is that the shoes’ rubbery soles have a strong smell at first that diminishes over time. Note that these shoes are different (lighter, for martial arts practice) than the shoes sold on the official Feiyue website based in France, which are more fashion-oriented shoes.

Martial arts practitioners interested in incorporating Taoist philosophy into their daily lives will find Deng Ming-Dao’s Scholar Warrior: An Introduction to the Tao in Everyday Life invaluable. Also available for Kindle.

The Way of Energy book coverThe Way of Energy: Mastering the Chinese Art of Internal Strength with Chi Kung Exercise (Master Lam Kam-Chuen): An introduction to zhanzhuang (站樁, zhànzhuāng), a simple but powerfully health-promoting form of ch’i kung that involves standing still in various postures and can be done by people of all ages. This book is very highly regarded for its lucid explanations of qigong concepts and its easy-to-follow instructions, augmented by more than 100 drawings and photographs. Complementary video clips by the author can be found on the StandStillBeFit channel on YouTube.

Serious students of martial arts might find a trip to the Shaolin Monastery, the home of kung fu, fascinating; the monastery is included on our Roots of Chinese Culture 14-Day Tour.

When you travel to a faraway, fascinating land, you want to make the most of the experience. China, in particular, is a country both so rich in culture and history and so different from Western nations that engagement with the Chinese language opens up vast new possibilities for your journey—plus, speaking Chinese is just plain fun.

yes - 180 x 120

Homework on vacation? YES.”
Ok, we know this isn’t for everyone,
but learning Chinese is truly rewarding.

As a serious student of Mandarin and a frequent traveler to China, I’ve always been frustrated by the lack of tools available to properly pursue this kind of immersive travel experience. On all the trips I’ve taken there, I’ve wished that I had detailed resources to tell me the Chinese names of the places on my itinerary, along with related historical events and figures; provide me with relevant vocabulary to enrich my conversations during the trip; and, most uniquely, make it convenient for me to study this information so that I could remember it and really put it to use. While a lot of websites and books provide detailed information about China and its tourist destinations, I haven’t seen anything ready-made to enhance a specific tour experience that is also presented in a convenient (and easily portable) format for learning.

Now China International Travel CA is making materials like this available to you.

Whether you’re a tourist simply seeking the correct pronunciations of names on your itinerary or a student of the language who wants to be able to converse with the people you encounter on your tour, these learning resources will help you achieve your goal:

In the future, we will be adding further information and features to the existing pages, as well as resources for more itineraries and more of the destinations featured on our tours.

How to use these resources: Given that our clients and visitors to this website will have widely varying goals for their study of Chinese, we have put together a brief guide for three basic levels of ambition.

Study Plan A: The Curious Tourist

If you just want to learn a little Chinese to enhance your trip, consider these suggested steps:

  1. Learn how to read and pronounce Hanyu Pinyin*: Since learning how to read and write Chinese characters is a very time-consuming process, don’t worry about that if your time is limited. Stick with pinyin, which will enable you to engage in some spoken communication and read many signs and names written in pinyin. Our Resources for Learning Pinyin section will help you understand how to pronounce Mandarin words.

  2. Consult phrase guides for travelers: See the “pocket guides” (books and downloadable documents), which include useful phrases and everyday vocabulary, in our Basic Resources for Travelers section.

  3. Read our Language and Culture Learning Resources pages: Learn about the destinations featured on your tour, including their Chinese names and related Chinese terms. If you can’t read pinyin, simply click the pinyin pronunciation for each name or expression to hear what it sounds like.

  4. Use the vocabulary lists on our Quizlet page: Each page and section of our Chinese Language Resources has links to individual lists. You can also import our lists (which have pinyin-only versions) into your Quizlet account or Quizlet-compatible app and simply delete any terms you’re not interested in reviewing. If you’d like, create your own lists with additional words and expressions you want to memorize. If you can’t read pinyin, Quizlet and some Quizlet-compatible apps (such as Quizlet’s own app and Flashcards++) have audio pronunciation features.

  5. Use an electronic dictionary to facilitate communication and study: The Pleco Chinese Dictionary, available for both Apple and Android mobile devices, is a thorough, well-designed, and free dictionary that allows you to make flashcards out of words that you look up. If you can’t read pinyin, you can purchase an audio pronunciation add-on for the Pleco dictionary; you might also try the $4.99 Qingwen dictionary, which has audio pronunciations as a standard feature.

* Even if you don’t have the time or inclination to learn how to read pinyin, you can still follow steps 3-5 above since they all involve audio pronunciation options.

Study Plan B: The Novice or Casual Student

If you already have some experience with and understanding of the language, but you are either a beginner or just a casual student, consider these suggestions:

  1. Make sure you have a solid understanding of pinyin.  Review or practice with the resources listed here.

  2. Give yourself a good foundation in understanding written Chinese.  If you are learning how to read and write characters, consider using the resources in our Resources for Learning Chinese Characters section to help in memorizing individual characters and basic vocabulary. Also check out the sections on Chinese-English dictionaries and vocabulary building tools.

  3. Choose a systematic curriculum to follow.  If you are not taking a Chinese course in school, consider using one of the courses introduced in our Courses of Study for Students of Chinese section.

  4. Read our Language and Culture Learning Resources pages: Before (or during) your trip, learn about the destinations featured on the tour, including their Chinese names and related Chinese terms. Use our Quizlet lists and/or a compatible mobile app to facilitate retention of this information.

Study Plan C: The Budding Scholar

If you’re a serious, experienced student with an intermediate or higher level of proficiency, you should be able to skip some of the above steps and proceed directly to using our lists. Consider these suggestions:

  1. Explore our Chinese Language Resources page: With the wealth of information we’ve provided, you’re sure to find helpful new tools and materials with which to supplement your study. The Chinese Vocabulary Building Resources and Resources for Intermediate and Advanced Students sections should be particularly helpful.

  2. Practice, practice, practice: Make sure you avail yourself of every opportunity to actually put your knowledge to use. Through online communities like those at Livemocha, ChinesePod, and, you can engage in discussions with people online and find language partners to practice with.

  3. Read our Language and Culture Learning Resources pages: Learn more about the destinations featured on your tour so that you can discuss them in detail during the trip. Use our Quizlet lists and/or a compatible mobile app to facilitate retention of this information.

If you have any questions about these Chinese language resources or about our tours, please don’t hesitate to contact us by phone or e-mail. Happy studying!

Here is another collection of Mandarin slang expressions—some of the more commonly used expressions I’ve come across in chatting with and listening to native speakers, and in books like Eveline Chao’s Niubi! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School, Zhou Yimin and James J. Wang’s Mutant Mandarin, James J. Wang’s Outrageous Chinese: A Guide to Chinese Street Language, and Li Shujuan and Yan Ligang’s Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Slang of China.

For more Chinese slang expressions, read my previous post, Contemporary Chinese Slang Part 1. Comprehensive learning resources, advice, reviews, and links for people interested in Chinese can be found on our Chinese Language Resources for Travelers and Students page.

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Click on the pronunciation key for each expression to hear an MP3 recording of it. (Warning: Keep in mind that although my pronunciation is considered very good, I am not a native speaker of Chinese.)

Flirting and Dating Behavior, Compliments and Insults

调情 (tiáoqíng): to flirt

泡妞 (pàoniū): to pick up girls; to flirt with, hit on, or hook up with girls

辣妹 (làmèi): hot chick; sexy girl (literally, “spicy little sister”)

帅哥 (shuàigē): hunk; handsome guy (often used to address a man in a flattering way)

倍儿棒 (bèir bàng): northern Chinese slang for “really awesome”; one common use of this expression is to describe someone’s body

花瓶 (huāpíng): a beautiful person who is not intelligent, capable, or talented; eye candy (literally, “flower vase”)

绣花枕头 (xiùhuā zhěntou): synonym for 花瓶; someone (or something) beautiful but useless (literally, “embroidered pillow”)

撒娇 (sǎjiāo): [of females] to act like a spoiled child, speaking in the voice of a little girl, whining, pouting, acting clingy and dependent; such behavior on the part of a woman to her boyfriend or husband is considered charming in Chinese culture

女人小坏,男人疼爱 (nǚrén xiǎohuài, nánrén téng’ài): “If a woman behaves mischievously (more literally, “is a little bit bad” or “does little bad things”), a man will love her dearly.”

老牛吃嫩草 (lǎoniú chī nèncǎo): a relationship between two people with a large age gap (literally, “old cow eating tender grass”)

装嫩 (zhuāng nèn): to “pretend to be tender”; to act, speak, and/or dress much younger than one’s actual age

(huā): an adjective used to describe a player; horny, womanizing

花心 (huāxīn): to be fickle in love; to have a tendency to be unfaithful

花花公子 (huāhuā gōngzi): playboy; “player,” often one who dresses up like a dandy (literally, “flower prince”)

麦芽糖女人 (màiyátáng nǚrén): clingy, possessive woman (literally, “malt sugar woman,” as malt sugar is sticky)

约会 (yuēhuì): to have a date [with someone]; to make an appointment [with someone]; also, a date or appointment (noun)

网恋 (wǎngliàn): Internet dating

AA (AA zhì): “going Dutch”; each person paying his or her share (often used as just “AA” in sentences, e.g. 我们 AA 吧。)

有异性,没人性 (yǒu yìxìng, méi rénxìng): “Once you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, you forget your friends”; used to complain about a friend’s failure to spend time with you after starting to date someone new. (More literally, “Once you have someone of the opposite gender, you lose your humanity.”)


暗恋 (ànliàn): to have a crush (on); literally, “secretly love”

谈恋爱 (tán liàn’ài): to date; to “go steady” with; to have a relationship with

来电 (láidiàn): to have a romantic spark, feel electricity, have chemistry [with someone]

一见钟情 (yí jiàn zhōng qíng): love at first sight; to fall in love at first sight
(Note: The character “” takes the second tone when spoken before a fourth-tone character.)

宝贝 (bǎobèi): “baby” or “dear”; a term of endearment for a loved one


老公 (lǎogōng): affectionate term for husband, originally from Cantonese but now in widespread use

老婆 (lǎopó): affectionate term for wife, originally from Cantonese but now in widespread use

私房钱 (sīfángqián): money kept secret from a wife or husband; e.g. for use after leaving one’s spouse or in case one is left by one’s spouse, or as personal spending money

床头儿柜 (chuángtóurguì): a hen-pecked husband (literally, “bedside cabinet”; 柜 is a homophone for 跪, suggesting a man who kneels beside the bed in deference to his wife)

Cheating and Heartbreak

吃醋 (chīcù): to be jealous (literally, “eat vinegar”)

醋坛子 (cù tánzi): jealous person (literally, “vinegar jar”)

三角恋 (sānjiǎo liàn): love triangle

(): girlfriend; lover; mistress (literally “honey”)

有一腿 (yǒu yì tuǐ): to have an affair (literally, “to have one leg,” suggesting the entwined legs of lovers)
(Note: The character “” takes the fourth tone when spoken before a third-tone character.)

戴绿帽子 (dài lǜ màozi): to be cuckolded (literally, “wear a green hat”)

包二奶 (bāo èrnǎi): to have a mistress (“二奶” is a term meaning “second wife” from the days when polygamy was practiced in China)

小老婆 (xiǎo lǎopó): mistress (literally, “little wife”)

外遇 (wàiyù): affair; extramarital relations (literally, “outside/external meeting”)

心碎 (xīnsuì): brokenhearted

One fascinating effect of China’s continuing growth and modernization on its popular culture is the explosion in slang expressions that has occurred in recent years, in large part because of the use of the Internet by ever-larger numbers of Chinese citizens. As in the United States, wildly creative, funny, and vulgar new slang expressions can become popular overnight as a result of mass exposure online. Posts tagged with “China” on the Schott’s Vocab blog in the New York Times will give you a brief taste of recent developments in Mandarin slang.

If you’re interested in learning much more about Chinese slang, either as part of a serious course of study or just for the hell of it, I highly recommend Eveline Chao’s book Niubi! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School, which I’ve been enjoying lately. Many expressions I’ve heard my Chinese friends and in-laws use quite frequently (disclaimer: not the dirty ones!) but didn’t fully understand are given a clear and thorough explanation in the book. If you want to really speak like a native and have fun with the dynamic, living language that is contemporary Mandarin, this book is a great resource. Here is a selection of some widely used expressions, along with some of my personal favorites that I’ve come across so far, in both my own daily life and her book.

For more Chinese slang expressions, read my later post, Contemporary Chinese Slang Part 2: Flirting, Dating, Romance, Marriage, and Heartbreak. Comprehensive learning resources, advice, reviews, and links for people interested in Chinese can be found on our Chinese Language Resources for Travelers and Students page.

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Click on the pronunciation key for each expression to hear an MP3 recording of it. (Warning: Keep in mind that although my pronunciation is considered very good, I am not a native speaker of Chinese.)

加油 (jiāyóu)
literal meaning: “add fuel” (add + fuel)
colloquial usage: “Go!” or “Let’s go!” (a way of offering encouragement, e.g. to players in a sporting event)

literal meaning: ruthless, strong (e.g. wine)
colloquial usage: “cool” (a loanword from English slang)

给力 (gěilì)
literal meaning: “give power” (give + power)
colloquial usage: “cool,” “awesome,” “exciting” (northern slang)

无聊 (wúliáo)
literal meaning: “nothing to chat (about)” (nothing/lacking + chat)
colloquial usage: “boring” or “bored”; also used to playfully scold someone who’s making a joke of questionable taste

郁闷 (yùmèn)
literal meaning: “melancholy,” “depressed” (melancholy + depressed)
colloquial usage: “boring”/“bored,” “depressing”/“depressed,” “(I’m) bored/depressed!”

白吃 (báichī)
literal meaning: “blank imbecile” (white/blank + stupid/imbecile)
colloquial usage: “idiot,” “dumbass”

笨蛋 (bèndàn)
literal meaning: “stupid egg” (stupid + egg)
colloquial usage: “dummy” (not necessarily harsh; often affectionate)

滚蛋 (gǔndàn), 滚开 (gǔnkāi)
literal meaning: “roll egg,” “roll away” (roll + egg, roll + away)
colloquial usage: “Go away!”, “Get out of here!”, “Get lost!”

(), 土包子 (tǔbāozi)
literal meaning: 土 = “dirt” or “earth”; 包子 = “steamed bun,” a common food in poor and rural areas (“dirt”; “dirt” + “steamed bun”)
colloquial usage: 土 = “ignorant,” “uncultured,” “rural,” “untrendy,” “out”; 土包子 = “yokel” or “bumpkin” (also, anyone out of touch with or ignorant about modern or trendy things)

土得掉渣 (tǔdediàozhā)
literal meaning: “so rural that [one is] shedding dirt”
colloquial usage: “What/Such a bumpkin!”, “So ignorant/untrendy!”

狗屁 (gǒupì)
literal meaning: “dog fart” (dog + fart/butt)
colloquial usage: “BS!”, “Nonsense!”

废话 (fèihuà)
literal meaning: “wasted words” (waste + words/speech)
colloquial usage: “Nonsense!” or “Duh!” (“Well, of course, you dummy!”, “Thank you, Captain Obvious!”)

瞎说 (xiāshuō)
literal meaning: “speak blindly” (blind + speak)
colloquial usage: “to speak nonsense,” “Nonsense!”

拜托 (bàituō), 帮帮忙 (bāngbāngmáng)
literal meaning: “please”; “help [me] out”
colloquial usage: “Oh, please!”, “Yeah, right!”, “Come on!”, “Gimme a break!” (sarcastic)

吹牛 (chuī niú) [from 吹牛皮 (chuī niúpí)]
literal meaning: “to blow up (inflate) a cow” [“blow up a cowhide”]
colloquial usage: “to brag” (especially when making exaggerated or false claims)

literal meaning: cow, ox
colloquial usage: “awesome,” “badass” (For an explanation of the surprisingly vulgar origin of this widely used expression, see Eveline Chao’s book.)

拍马屁 (pāi mǎpì)
literal meaning: “pat the horse’s butt” (pat + horse + butt)
colloquial usage: “flatter” (especially to flatter someone in a position of authority or someone with the power to help you with something)

没劲 (méijìn)
literal meaning: “lacking strength” (lacking/no + strength)
colloquial usage: “lame”

(miàn), 面瓜 (miànguā)
literal meaning: “noodles”; “noodle melon” (noodles + melon)
colloquial usage: “wimpy,” “timid,” “weak”; “wimp,” “wuss,” “coward” (northern slang)

傻瓜 (shǎguā)
literal meaning: “foolish melon”
colloquial usage: “little fool,” “silly billy” (usually affectionate)

三八 (sānbā)
literal meaning: “three eight” (three + eight)
colloquial usage: “silly” (often used to describe feminine silliness), though it can have a stronger, more insulting meaning among some Mainland Chinese

书虫 (shūchóng), 书呆子 (shūdāizi)
literal meaning: “bookbug” (book + bug/insect), “bookish fool” (book + fool/idiot)
colloquial usage: “bookworm,” “nerd,” “a person with no social skills”

In her book, Eveline Chao doesn’t pull any punches; she includes a wide array of vulgar and extremely insulting expressions that I’ve elected to leave out of this post. So if you want to know when people are saying bad things about or to you (or want to be able to dish it out in return), you’ll find her book extremely useful.

The photo below was taken at Moon Pond in Hong Village (宏村) near Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), China. Known as “China’s most beautiful mountain village,” Hong Village is considered so representative of the traditional Chinese hamlet that parts of the Ang Lee-directed kung fu blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed there. You can walk its narrow cobblestone streets, admire its classical architecture, and soak in its traditional atmosphere yourself on our Jiangnan Gourmet Cuisine/Yellow Mountain 10-Day Tour—or just let this tranquil scene serve as a relaxing desktop background.

More wallpaper images are available on our Free China Travel Desktop Wallpaper page.

Click on the wallpaper image to display a full-sized image, then right-click on it and choose an option
such as “Set As Desktop Background” or “Save As…” to save it on your computer.

Reflected Buildings on Hong Village’s Moon Pond
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Chinese New Year fireworks icon with text - 150 x 150To celebrate Chinese New Year in China, especially with family, is a fun and fascinating experience: the festive atmosphere, both at home and out on the town; the excessive consumption of food and alcohol; and, perhaps most exciting of all, the fireworks. In 2003 I spent Chinese New Year in Shanghai, and the amount of gunpowder detonated in that city in the 16-day period from New Year’s Eve through the Lantern Festival (on the 15th day of the lunar year) absolutely blew my mind. As a childhood pyromaniac who hadn’t indulged in fireworks in many years, I was on fire with excitement—though to some degree it was like being in a war zone, with so many fireworks going off at certain times that you could barely have a conversation outdoors and had to be constantly on guard against wayward rockets. My father-in-law and I burned a completely unjustifiable amount of cash on long strings of firecrackers, big batteries of missiles, and various other explosives. I strolled through the city streets, tossing firecrackers to and fro and setting them off in every nook and cranny to magnify the sound of the explosions. Obnoxious and environmentally irresponsible, to be sure…but also gloriously Dionysian, especially because it seemed like everyone was doing it. To put it simply, I had a blast. But I’m fortunate to have emerged from the experience with all ten fingers and all five senses intact.

In celebration of the lunar new year, I present some spectacular photos and a couple of video clips that will give you an idea of what the experience of celebrating Chinese New Year in China is like. We at CIT are looking forward to another successful year, and we’d like to wish all of our family, friends, and customers a prosperous Year of the Dragon. Thank you for your support!

Chinese New Year Fireworks Photo Gallery

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

Chinese New Year fireworks exploding in Shanghai, China fireworks exploding during Chinese New Year in Shanghai, China
Explosions amidst residential buildings…
(photo by Jaye Zhou)
…now THAT’s what the Chinese
熱鬧 (rènào; “lively”) means
(photo by Aapo Haapanen)
Chinese New Year fireworks exploding in Shanghai, China Chinese New Year - Shanghai fireworks store - Marc van der Chijs
Viewing from high-rise balconies is hazardous
(photo by Harry Alverson)
Fireworks stores pop up during the New Year
(photo by Marc van der Chijs)
Chinese New Year fireworks boxes - Christopher Chinese New Year fireworks - fountain
Let’s hope they’re well-shielded from stray sparks
(photo by Christopher)
“Fountains” light up streets and alleyways
(photo by Fox Z.)
extremely long strings of Chinese New Year firecrackers in Taipei, Taiwan Spectators turn their backs and shield their faces during a massive Chinese New Year fireworks explosion
Mile-long strings of firecrackers scare away evil spirits…
(photo by Ming-Yang Sue)
…and people, too, if they know what’s good for them.
(photo by Ming-Yang Sue)
a street covered by firework remnants left behind by Chinese New Year firecrackers in Taipei, Taiwan fireworks exploding during Chinese New Year in Shanghai, China
Firecracker aftermath
(photo by Ming-Yang Sue)
There is an ironic beauty in all
that potential destruction…

(photo by Jakob Montrasio)
view from the Bund of Chinese New Year fireworks exploding over the Huangpu River and Pudong in Shanghai, China Chinese New Year 2011 - Hong Kong fireworks - N.C. Burton - small - 300 x 200
…especially in picturesque places,
like Shanghai’s Huangpu River…

(photo by Sebastien Poncet)
…and Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour
(photo by N.C. Burton)
Chinese New Year fireworks over Hong Kong Island in 2009 Chinese New Year fireworks - fire - Jinjian Liang
Hong Kong’s 2009 Chinese New Year fireworks
(photo by N.C. Burton)
China during the Lunar New
Year: a country on fire

(photo by Jinjian Liang)

Check out these video clips to get an even clearer idea of just how crazy it can get (you might want to turn down the volume first):

A smoking man in the Huxinting Tea House in Shanghai, China The man Dos Equis claims is the most interesting man in the world
“I don’t always drink tea, but when
I do, I prefer Dragon Well.”

(photo by “Pitz76“; click to enlarge)
The SECOND most interesting man in the world.

This month’s Random Discovery Photo is a little different from my usual choices: a striking, artsy, black-and-white photo of a guy who exudes coolness and looks to me like he could give “the most interesting man in the world” a run for his money. The photo was taken in Shanghai’s famous Huxinting Tea House, which you can visit when you tour the nearby Yuyuan Gardens on any of our Mainland China tours that stop in Shanghai. Who knows, you might even run into this interesting character there and have a chance to imbibe some of his hard-earned wisdom along with a relaxing pot of tea. I know I’ll be on the lookout the next time I’m in Shanghai.

In 2004 my wife and I took a trip with some friends to Jiangxi, an inland province that, while no doubt changing rapidly, is still lagging behind the coastal regions in terms of development.  Although it wasn’t the most luxurious trip I’ve taken in China, a little less comfort and a little more local flavor make a trip more memorable, and this one was certainly both fascinating and stimulating.  While there, we visited Mount Lu (廬山, Lushan) and a truly poor local village, among other places, but one experience that also sticks out in my memory is the raft trip we took at Longhushan (龍虎山), whose name literally means “Dragon and Tiger Mountain.” (I was told that the area’s ridges and peaks suggest the forms of a dragon and a tiger, though as in many other places I’ve visited in China, the resemblance seemed pretty vague to me.)

One thing about China is that you can truly get away from it all there, especially in inland rural areas like Jiangxi.  This raft trip was a profoundly relaxing experience.  Check out the trained cormorants catching fish for the fisherman on one of the rafts!

On our Yunnan Highlands Local Culture 11-Day Tour, you might see cormorant fishermen in action on Lake Er at Dali.

Waaaaaarm beer!  Peanuts!  Get yer warm beer and peanuts!  A bamboo raft trip at Longhushan: just like a baseball game, but without that loud obnoxious drunk shouting and crowding your space, and without the threat of a foul ball bashing your head in unexpectedly, and…Ok, it’s nothing like a baseball game; it’s much better, though that beer could have used a little refrigeration. And that raft vendor could use a little more charismatic sales patter.

Our tours that include Guilin feature a raft trip like this one; those that include Dali, the Three Gorges, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Zhouzhuang, and/or Suzhou all feature gondola or boat trips that you may find even more relaxing or stimulating.

During the last part of the trip, we walked overland as the bamboo rafts were portaged past an impassable section of the river.  It was a good opportunity to get some footage of the beautiful farmland in the area, record the deafening sound of the obnoxious local cicadas, check out an ancient Taoist temple (where an immortality pill was created by a Taoist master, who unfortunately doesn’t seem to be around any longer to tell us how he did it), and take a rickshaw ride.  At one point during the walk, a local man started to talk with me, and you can hear him saying that I look like an American before the conversation is cut off.  (The identification of “Caucasian” with “American” is very common in China, and comments like that always make me want to launch into a lecture about why such assumptions are wrong—but maybe he just meant that my flagrantly casual clothing and wide-eyed, foolish manner were unmistakably American, in which case I can’t argue with him.)  After the raft trip resumed, we watched a flashy “cliff acrobat” rappel down the side of the mountain as a prelude to a “hanging coffin” show; the area was once home to the Guyue people, a minority (non-Han) culture that placed its coffins in grottoes in the cliff face.  Unfortunately, either my battery or my tape ran out at that point, so I was unable to record what followed.

If you’re interested in these “hanging coffins,” our tours that include the Three Gorges feature a boat trip that will allow you to see similar ones.

Although Jiangxi attractions like Longhushan and Mount Lu aren’t featured in our tour packages since they aren’t popular destinations for Western tourists, we welcome you to contact us to arrange a custom tour to Jiangxi (or anywhere else that isn’t included in our tour packages).  I highly recommend both of these places for adventurous tourists.

A billboard near Xi'an displaying a lucky phone number - photo by Justin Burner
Unfair: This degree of luck monopolization
should be grounds for an antitrust suit.

(photo by Justin Burner)

This billboard, which is (or was) apparently visible from the parking lot at the terracotta army museum (the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of China) near Xi’an, was photographed by Justin Burner. This is just about the luckiest phone number imaginable in China: eight 8’s. For those of you who don’t know, 8 is considered a profoundly lucky number in Chinese culture and is coveted as a good luck charm in numerical designations of all kinds—even in the United States, if you see a vanity license plate with a bunch of 8’s in it, the driver is likely to be Chinese. Wikipedia has a good explanation of Chinese beliefs about numbers here, and this page includes a lot of interesting additional information.

In fact, the influence of cultural beliefs about the power of numbers can be so strong that a study published in the British Medical Journal found that hospital patients of Chinese and Japanese descent were more likely to die on the 4th day of a given month, as the number 4 is associated with death in both Chinese and Japanese culture. (Patients without this ethnocultural background did NOT die in greater numbers on such days, suggesting that phenomena like this are caused by the psychosomatic power of the belief itself.) The study’s findings are disputed, but it’s still interesting evidence of the potential health effects of one’s thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.

Anyway, by the logic of superstition, this should be just about the most successful business in the world, but I suppose even the best luck can be undone by bad management—or by the laziness of an owner who thinks such a lucky number itself is enough to guarantee success.

In a previous post [to be re-posted in expanded form soon], I mentioned China’s “economic miracle.” The most miraculous thing about it is that it has not (so far) been accompanied by crippling social instability or insurmountable problems. However, the costs of this revolution are also quite real and multifaceted. One of these costs is the rapid loss of China’s traditional culture, including the environments in which this traditional culture was born and has thrived. Although the government is making efforts to preserve the most important examples of its cultural heritage (especially sites that are of value to the tourism industry), in many places old buildings and other manifestations of China’s historical legacy are being destroyed wholesale in favor of rapid modernization.

In Shanghai, for example, vast tracts of the city filled with traditional buildings are being razed and replaced with new high-rise buildings. Though they provide people with cleaner, more comfortable, more modern living and working environments, these new buildings seem to result in a much more isolated and less intimate community atmosphere than the traditional neighborhoods that the majority of Shanghai’s population used to live in. These neighborhoods were built around a style of house called “shíkùmén,” or “stone gates,” which over time often became extremely crowded as they were subdivided into smaller units.

Shanghai - shikumen doors - 250 x 188 Shanghai - shikumen laundry and furniture - 250 x 188
Shikumen doors
(photo by CIT)
Laundry and furniture in a shikumen lane
(photo by CIT)

When I first visited my wife’s grandmother’s neighborhood nine years ago, my impression of these shikumen was that they were usually dirty and unbelievably cramped, and that no one who lived in them could have any privacy whatsoever, or even real comfort. Some of them, in fact, reminded me of rabbit warrens or bunkers of some sort, with ladders, steep stairways, and narrow, dimly-lit hallways connecting their cramped rooms. They were definitely not the kind of place I could see myself ever getting used to.

Shanghai - shikumen residents 1 - 250 x 188 Shanghai - shikumen propaganda 1 - 250 x 188
Shikumen residents
(photo by CIT)
“Humankind has only one planet
Everybody attend to the population problem”

(photo by CIT)
Shanghai - shikumen kitten - 250 x 188 Shanghai - shikumen kitten closeup - 250 x 188
Tiny kitten on a shikumen ledge
(photo by CIT)
A shikumen haiku: Kitten on the edge
Small patch of urban ledge-grass
Precarious life

After having spent some time there and having observed the residents’ lifestyle, however, I came to see the other side of life in the shikumen: the sense of intimacy, interconnectedness, and community responsibility that they fostered, especially given the fact that the same families have often inhabited these houses for generations. For someone who had grown up in such a place, the shikumen way of life would no doubt seem natural and comfortable in a way that life in one of the newer buildings could probably never be. With activities like washing clothes and playing chess often done outside, in the small lanes on which these houses are located, neighbors inevitably interact every day and come to know one another well. In Shanghai’s newer buildings, on the other hand, neighbors often don’t seem to know each other, and they have little incentive to get to know each other, because they’re all comfortably shut away and don’t have to interact. I’ll admit that, yes, I too would much rather live in one of these comfortable new units, which are much more like the apartments many Americans are used to living in. But l can’t help feeling that the disappearance of the shikumen and the resulting fragmentation of Shanghai’s communities has a tragic side as well.

This, then, is a tribute to Shanghai’s shikumen, in the form of these photos I took during a 2007 visit to my wife’s grandmother’s neighborhood. It’s entirely possible that in the next few years these homes, too, and with them a great deal of history, will disappear.

Shanghai - shikumen skyscraper 2 - 267 x 200 Shanghai - shikumen propaganda 2 - 150 x 200
Looming skyscraper in the haze:
Better than the shikumen?

(photo by CIT)
More increasingly rare
propaganda: “Proposal for
establishing a safe family”

(photo by CIT)
Shanghai - shikumen residents 2 - 267 x 200 Shanghai - shikumen skyscraper 1 - 150 x 200
Shikumen residents:
A disappearing way of life

(photo by CIT)
The face of change
(photo by CIT)
Shanghai - shikumen - curving lane - 267 x 200 Shanghai - shikumen walls - 150 x 200
A curving shikumen lane
(photo by CIT)
Shikumen walls
(photo by CIT)
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