Books · Taiwan

Green Island- book review

I find it a very ironic time to have read Green Island, a novel about the life of a Taiwanese man imprisoned after the 228 Tragedy in 1948 and his family as they endure Taiwan’s decades of repressive martial law before it became a democracy in the late 1980s. I say this because of recent developments in China, where the president has become an “emperor,” (he even threatened Taiwan today in a speech at a national congress) and worsening political repression and government announcements seem to be harkening back to the sixties and seventies. Single-party authoritarian rule and political repression are what Taiwan, a proud democracy since the late 80s, suffered for decades, during which the events in Green Island take place against.

There are not many novels about Taiwan, so Green Island is rather unique. And by focusing on Taiwan’s turbulent period of martial law, also known as the White Terror, starting with the brutal massacre of the 228 Tragedy, the book is even more special.

The 228 Tragedy was a mass killing of Taiwanese by Republic of China troops after mass riots erupted in 1948 sparked by the beating of a cigarette vendor. Having been a Japanese colony, Taiwan was granted to the ROC in 1945, who behaved like oppressive occupiers, fuelling serious tensions with the locals. The death toll has never been verified but was at least several hundred, though some believe the number was in the thousands. The narrator’s father, a doctor who speaks up for during a public hearing a few days after the tragedy, is arrested in the ensuing crackdown. His family never gets any news of his arrest or whether he is in prison or dead. The narrator was born on the day the tragedy began – February 28 (a public holiday now in Taiwan in commemoration of the victims) and grows up as the youngest child and daughter without knowing her father until he suddenly appears 11 years later.

But instead of a joyful reunion, the father’s reappearance causes complications with the family with his haunted and stern presence. As the narrator grows up, she is introduced to a son of a family friend studying in the US and marries him. Moving to the US in the early 1980s, they start a family in California where the husband teaches at a local university. He is involved in a Taiwanese dissident movement, and when the couple take in a Taiwanese academic who has fled Taiwan, Taiwanese government agents shadow them. This is a chilling echo of reality in those days when Taiwanese agents and thugs spied on and intimidated activists in the US, even committing murder, something that happens in the novel as well. When the dissident decides to write a book about Taiwan, the narrator helps him translate it into English. But a Taiwanese consulate agent contacts the woman and tries to intimidate and bribe her to spy on the dissident. Things become murky as the narrator struggles to decide whether to accept and fear and paranoia creep into her relations with her husband and the dissident. The situation seems hopeless for the dissident movement as the regime continues to rule by intimidation and terror (a state of affairs that would not seem out of place in Taiwan’s giant neighbour across the Strait right now). The book ends with a return to Taipei in the midst of the SARS virus epidemic in 2003.

While I have a general understanding of Taiwan’s 20th century history such as the 228 Tragedy and the White Terror, which lasted from the late 40s to the 80s, I did not grasp the sheer brutality and climate of fear and repression that occurred during that time. Reading Green Island brought this dark period to life and increased my appreciation of how much Taiwan has progressed to become what it is today. What makes this period even more striking is that the 70s was when Taiwan left the UN after the organization decided to accept China and then saw its chief ally, the US break off official relations with it in favour of China. Taiwan’s ensuing international isolation,  which still exists today with less than 20 countries officially recognizing Taiwan, was a big blow to the ruling KMT regime. I got the sense from reading the book that this loss of international legitimacy weakened the KMT and somehow helped Taiwan’s eventual democratization to occur.

At times while reading the book, I thought how Taiwan back then was so similar to China, both being one-party states ruled by dictators (Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek and then his son Chiang Ching-kuo, China by Mao Tse-tung) and with censorship; mass killings; citizen surveillance, secret detention, torture and killings of dissidents. The big difference is that China now still has some of these things. Taiwan now is a completely different place and sometimes given the country’s openness and easy-going nature, it is easy to forget that decades ago, it was under a terrible dictatorship that committed killings and repressive jailing of its citizens. There are some torture and killing described in the book, all the more chilling because it is not over-the-top gory but realistic and based on reality.

Green Island refers to a small isle off Taiwan’s east coast that was used to imprison dissidents like the father, so the main criticism I have about the book is that the father’s 11 years of imprisonment are not described at all. After he is captured and jailed, time goes by and the family picks up their lives until suddenly one day he reappears. While the father’s Green Island imprisonment is traumatic and affects his personality, the isle itself does not feature so I think  the book being named after it is misleading.

You could say Green Island is both the story of a country and a family, both a political thriller and a family drama. There is an air of sadness and fear throughout the book, but it is lightened by the fact that in real life, we all know which side won in Taiwan between the authoritarian regime and the resistance.

Green Island is one of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read and there were a couple of times when I felt emotional and I rarely do so for books. Green Island is not an uplifting tale of heroism and happiness, but a somber story of survival and family that is also the story of a nation.

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China

China enters a new “imperial” age

This week’s biggest news in Asia confirmed what many people have already been thinking. The announcement in China on Sunday that term limits on the presidency were to be scrapped effectively means that Xi Jinping can remain as leader indefinitely. The significance of this is not just that Xi can stay in power forever without stepping down, but that it ends a decades-long safeguard that was put in place by Deng Xiaoping specifically to prevent anybody from consolidating power like Mao Zedong by staying in power indefinitely.

But yet, the move was not totally unexpected as Xi has been trying to follow in the footsteps of Mao, gathering up personal power, creating a personality cult and launching massive crackdowns on society while continuously limiting freedom of expression. However, though Xi might be a powerful leader, China’s most powerful one since Deng, but he is not a great leader. Cracking down on corrupt officials, which also conveniently got rid of lots of potential rivals and their followers; coming up with the grand-sounding but dubious Belt and Road “initiative”; as well as acting belligerent with the US, Japan and Taiwan might seem impressive to some Chinese, but in reality, demonstrates little. The more Xi consolidates power, the more stronger China might seem, but in the long run I think this will be detrimental to China. This move also puts China back in the very slim ranks of nations where unelected leaders stay in power for as long as they wanted, like North Korea and Cuba. Even Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe just stepped down last November after decades in power, and he actually won elections. Previously, the 10-year limit on Chinese leaders meant that China could claim to have a more professional and efficient leadership that was authoritarian but not dictatorial. Xi’s desire to stay in power beyond 10 years, without any limits, means that the leadership is now solely about him.

The announcement was made on Sunday in a lowkey manner, but as the news spread amongst Chinese people, the authorities were quick to begin censoring opposing opinions. Hilariously, they were paranoid enough to also censor keywords like “emigrate,” “migration” and “Winnie the Pooh.” In case you are wondering why a fuzzy, harmless cartoon bear would be banned from China’s online space, it’s because Xi kind of resembles Winnie. There are reports that Wechat and Weibo posts that were critical of this news have been deleted, as many Chinese who previously might have been neutral or silent towards domestic politics have become alarmed.

We are living in dark times with a reckless imbecile in charge of the world’s most powerful nation and a wannabe emperor in Xi leading the second-most powerful one. Just as how Trump’s victory occurred despite many Americans knowing that he would be a terrible president, Xi’s course of action took place despite the apprehension of many Chinese. Just as bad is that the people of the world, most especially Taiwan and neighbouring countries, might have to suffer as well.

Taiwan might have cause to worry the most because one of Xi’s goals is to unify China and Taiwan, by force if necessary. Never mind this is something hardly any Taiwanese wants, but given Xi has no qualms about using force  and repression on his own people, as well as Chinese with foreign citizenship, there is little reason to doubt he won’t hesitate using force on Taiwan. Taiwan will need to stay vigilant, boost its military and economy, and not back down on its sovereignty despite Xi and his regime’s threats.

The only positive I can see in all this is that Xi’s ambition is now out in the open, and people can now more clearly see the real nature of Xi and his regime.

China · Taiwan

China: great, invader, empire, pretender, threat – article roundup

It’s only the beginning of 2018 but there have been a bunch of major China articles which make some vital points about the ramifications of Chinaon the world. Some of the articles are long but they are worth reading.
Check them out below:

It is widely believed China has plans to invade Taiwan but by 2020? This writer thinks so as China might fear running out of time to achieve unification. Taiwanese, or at least 99.9% of them, want no part of being part of China and Xi Jinping seems to be very aware of this. Among the reasons for China to invade by 2020, the writer claims that “more and more Chinese are calling for unification by force,” which if true is very worrying, and that the Communist Party will mark its 100th anniversary in 2021.

From the NY Times’ correspondent Edward Wong who is leaving after 10 years covering China, he states China is trying to recreate an empire. Except it is one propped up by force and repression, not by ideas or ideology. This is a very long article that covers China’s change throughout the author’s time there, and by the end, it is clear he is not too positive. The paragraph below explains it all and might reflect the feeling of many China expats and observers.
Though unabashedly authoritarian, China was a magnet. I was among many who thought it might forge a confident and more open identity while ushering in a vibrant era of new ideas, values and culture, one befitting its superpower status. When I ended my China assignment last year, I no longer had such expectations.”

China has recently been caught attempting to influence local politics and spy on governments in Australia and New Zealand through various means. All this is part of China’s attempt to interfere, influence and even intimidate democratic countries and in large parts they have been succeeding such as getting foreign leaders to stop meeting the Dalai Lama and forcing British publishers to self-censor. Western countries are at a disadvantage, because they are competing against a country in which the ruling regime (CCP) controls everything from the government, corporations, media, courts, and even churches. By this, I mean the party, which puts itself above the country in the constitution and to whom the military swears loyalty, can utilize all aspects of society to do its will (directing companies to make investments in foreign countries such as regarding the Belt and Road “initiative”, funding foreign Chinese student organizations etc). Civil society is almost non-existent as unions and religious bodies are all affiliated with the party.

Evan Osnos, a former China correspondent, thinks Xi Jinping is making China great, thanks largely to Donald Trump relinquishing US dominance and influence in the world. Osnos is a very good writer, but citing the Belt and Road as an example of China’s greatness is flimsy, given it is largely a vague, dubious “initiative” that keeps being talked about but has few concrete benefits for countries other than China. Also, it is not so much China is becoming greater but that the US is willingly retreating, as the Chinese academic below says.
I dropped by to see one of the city’s wisest observers of America, Jia Qingguo, the dean of the Department of Diplomacy at Peking University. “The U.S. is not losing leadership. You’re giving it up. You’re not even selling it,” he said. 

However, Elizabeth Economy, from the Council of Foreign Relations, says not so fast about China ascending the world’s superpower throne. China faces serious economic and environmental problems, and most of all, does not have any true allies or inspire any significant trust and respect abroad. In short, would you want your country to be like China? Would you willingly move your family to China and take Chinese citizenship? Fittingly, Economy’s conclusion is exactly how I feel about China and its claims to world leadership.

China travel · Japan travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Travels in 2017- photo roundup

Happy New Year everyone.
Let’s hope 2018 will be a peaceful, productive and eventful year for us all.

Having gotten the frightful political and news lookback at 2017 out of the way in my last post, here is the lighter stuff — 10 photos representing the best of my travels in 2017. I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore for the first time, took a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and went to see Avatar’s Hallelujah mountains for real in Wulingyuan, China. But best of all, I finally took a trip to Canada, where I studied, and Trinidad, where I grew up, to see family. I’m not sure if I would be doing as much traveling in 2018 but I wouldn’t mind.


Malacca’s Red Square, Malaysia. More a collection of grand colonial buildings near a roundabout and river, the “square” is still the heart of this elegant former Dutch and English colonial port, one half of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Georgetown, Penang is the other half).


Out of all the different cities I’ve lived in, Toronto remains the best. I took a long-overdue trip to Canada a couple of months ago and while it was mainly for family purposes, I still did a little sightseeing.


Wulingyuan national park, Hunan, China. The huge 690-sq-km park is full of limestone peaks like this, which the floating mountains in Avatar were based on. While not as well-known as say, Huangshan, this is the best scenic site I’ve been to in China.


The island of Miyajima, near Hiroshima, is famous for its floating Torii gate. But the highlight for me was climbing Mt Miyajima and taking in the serene views of the nearby islets and the Inland Sea.

 


As part of that long-overdue trip to the West, I went back to Trinidad, where I grew up. This is a view of part of the capital Port of Spain, the northern hills, the sea (Gulf of Paria) and the Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant park in the middle of the capital and the world’s largest roundabout.


While visiting Japan, I went to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The Dogo Onsen is a bathhouse complex centered on a cool wooden building that looks like a castle. I did go in to take a bath after taking this photo.


I’d never been to Vancouver before so it was great to finally visit it. With views like this right next to the city, there’s little doubt why it tops many lists of the world’s best cities.


As I was visiting Trinidad for the first time in almost a decade, I played tourist and revisited many places I’d been to as a child or teenager. This is Manzanilla, one of the best beaches on the east coast.


Despite having seen many skyscrapers, I find the Petronas Towers to be really amazing. Due to their formidable, hefty appearance and the fact there are two of them, they stand like titanic metal sentries of Kuala Lumpur.


I made my first visit to Singapore in 2017 and I was impressed by some of their structures like these weird, futuristic towers at the Gardens by the Bay.

Uncategorized

Goodbye (and good riddance) to 2017

With days left until the end of 2017, it is with a lot of disappointment that I look back at this year and a lot of concern to the new year.
The world is no less messed up than it was at the beginning of the year, and as if to underscore the point, December saw several major tragedies including a deadly train crash in the US, a massive mall fire in the Philippines, a tragic gym fire in South Korea, a mass shooting in an Egyptian church, as well as terrible fires in New York and Mumbai just this week.

The American president continued to make a mess, while the UK struggled to come to terms with its Brexit decision. There is already more than enough written about the US president and his antics online and in print, so there’s no need to mention him further here. China under Xi sees itself as the world’s true superpower, though cracks appeared in its facade, most notably with its recent forced eviction of tens of thousands of its poorest people from Beijing. As China seems to get stronger, its economic debt problems might worsen next year while its technology-enhanced grip on society and information shows no sign of abating. Also, it has kept up a belligerent approach towards Taiwan, with a Chinese diplomat warning China would invade Taiwan if any US naval ship was to visit, and ramping up military drills around Taiwan and claiming this would become normal in the future. However, China has faced pushback from countries like Australia and New Zealand about its illicit activities overseas, as well as increased resistance to its nebulous Belt and Road “project.”

The Rohingya tragedy stunned the world when over 600,000 Rohingya were forced to flee Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh after a military campaign to destroy their settlements and kill Rohingya. It is a massive disappointment given how far the country had come from its authoritarian past in just a few years, and Aung San Suu Kyi went from a symbol of hope to one of disappointment and complicity to what many saw as genocide.

But beyond human rights and the continued political theater of the US and Europe, one of the biggest developments in the West was a backlash against technology as people started to realize that not everything related to technology was positive. Not only does technology not solve everything, it can make things worse as with the proliferation of fake news and propaganda on social media. And worse yet is that the growing use of technology such as smartphones can have a detrimental and addictive effect on people. Major tech executives and insiders have spoken out about the dangers of tech and social media, going so far as to ban their own kids from using it. The growing glorification of tech in the past few years has seen tech entrepreneurs acclaimed as superstars, obscene amounts of money thrown into all kinds of start-ups, and “hip” companies acclaimed as vital disruptors of “staid” industries.

The other big development in the West was a stunning wave of sexual harassment cases that started with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and grew to include directors, actors, chefs, comedians, tech executives, politicians, and even a former US president. It seemed like every day brought some new story about a different famous person, even those who were previously admired or liked a lot, being accused of serious sexual harassment behavior.

Hong Kong saw the selection in March of a new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, who became the first woman to lead HK. But it also saw political farce in its legislation as four pro-democracy legislators were expelled from office for supposed problems when taking their oaths, as spurious a reason to eject elected lawmakers from office there is. Beijing continued to tighten its grip on HK and erode the “One Country, Two Systems” that enforces HK’s distinct status, including approving joint checkpoints (mainland officials will be stationed inside the station and mainland law will apply to those parts, thus violating HK’s mini constitution) at HK’s new high-speed rail station and openly urging HK to accept that it is “part of red China.”

Taiwan saw a few serious protests during the year as the ruling DPP, under president Tsai Ing-wen, found it a little rocky when they implemented or backtracked on some tough measures relating to labour hours and wages and pensions. Internationally Taiwan continued to be bullied by China, which besides increasing military flights near Taiwan and making belligerent statements, lured Panama away to leave Taiwan’ official allies at 20.

There are several other major tragedies elsewhere, such as Yemen and Syria (where civil war has raged since 2011), though at least ISIS has been defeated and in Europe the refugee crisis has improved from 2016. North Korea, with its childish madman leader, has kept on ramping up tensions, making nuclear war a growing, significant concern. This post is already quite long and I don’t want to keep going on about terrible events in 2017.

But while it might appear that a lot of this world is falling apart or in danger of doing so, maybe this is a necessary period of turbulence before serious improvement (politically, economic, cultural, etc) can occur.

With all that in mind, let’s look forward to the new year. Surely, 2018 can’t be worse, right?

Books · China · Travel

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star- book review

The Trans-Siberian Express is one of the world’s most famous transcontinental journeys, spanning across Russia from Moscow to Siberia. But in American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the Trans-Siberian is merely his way back home after a gruelling journey from London to Tokyo across Asia, mostly by train. Theroux crossed Europe by train, went through Turkey and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, before traversing half of Japan. This bold journey was not even the first time he had done in, as it was the repeat of an earlier one he made in the 1970s, which he also wrote about in The Great Railroad Bazaar.

Going through over a dozen countries, Theroux writes at least one chapter about each of them, with India and Japan getting several chapters. Besides those two, I found the chapters on Sri Lanka and Myanmar very interesting as those countries were going through civil conflict and authoritarian rule respectively. The chapter on Singapore is surprisingly colorful as it mentions the seedy side of that super-modern island state. Theroux is scathing about Singapore’s nanny state and its famous leader Lee Kuan Yew. He finds Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary) and Central Asia to be quite bleak and dowdy.

However, one of the most memorable chapters is the one about the Trans-Siberian Express. During the trip, Theroux stops off at a Russian town which has one of the last remaining gulags, which has been converted into an asylum. Theroux talks about how harsh the gulags were, used by a repressive regime under Josef Stalin to obtain mass slave labour by imprisoning its own citizens on often spurious charges to rebuild the economy. Writers were also victims of the gulags, being critics of the state, with Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn being a famous example. Theroux’s local guide also had a direct connection as his uncle spent 25 years in one after being arrested in 1946 for picking up a few grains of wheat from a field because he was desperately hungry. Russia is not a country that I’m too interested or care too much for, but I did feel some sadness for its people after I read this.

During his travel, Theroux meets with several famous writers including Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, and Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer, who he considers a friend, in Japan. He is extremely frank, perhaps too frank, about his conversations with Iyer, during which they talked about other writers including VS Naipaul, the Trinidadian-British Nobel laureate who Theroux had a significant falling out with after having been longtime friends (about which he consequently wrote a book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”).

Though this book was published in 2008, by no means is it out of date. The world may have changed, but some things are still almost the same. Theroux is especially critical of China, decrying its soullessness (though he also says that about Tokyo) in its wanton pursuit of wealth at the cost of its environment, historical preservation and social morals.

Having also read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, as well as Last Train to Zona Verde, which was about his travels through Africa, I would say he is less critical and pessimistic about Asia. However, as with Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (the names of two of the trains he took during his journey) is also a very good read.

China

China’s ironic “open internet”

At China’s annual “World Internet Conference” held this week, Chinese government officials lauded the country’s “open internet” in front of top executives from American giants like Google and Facebook. This is despite the fact those two firms remain blocked in China, along with a host of others including Youtube, Twitter, the New York Times and even Skype. You can’t get any more ironic that, can you?

A case in point is what just happened in Beijing, when the authorities forcibly evicted thousands of residents as part of ostensibly efforts to uphold safety regulations but really was an attempt to force out poor migrants and beautify the city. Kicking out multitudes of your poorest residents onto the streets is ghastly, but it’s not too surprising as this is in line with what China has done, which is take shortcuts to becoming powerful and wealthy by taking advantage of its own people, clamping down when necessary, and censoring any criticism and bad news. As much coverage as the evictions received in the international press, local media coverage of the evictions was actually banned, and social media was heavily censored.

Censorship, control and surveillance of information, whether online, tv or print, ensures that the Communist authorities can keep its people ignorant and fearful, making them unable to openly agitate or form bonds. Unfortunately, what was once seen as backwards and crude, now looks to be the future. I won’t be as pessimistic as these writers who claim that China looks to be “winning” the internet, but it is a very worrying trend, one in line with China’s rise. The fact that the heads of Google and Apple attended China’s internet conference and had to listen to Chinese officials and tech moguls like Jack Ma crow about government policies, including more aggressive intervention, was a sign of China’s growing prowess in tech.

But I was wrong about one thing in my first paragraph. The only thing more ironic about China praising its “open” internet is that it censored social media mention about this very event where it said that. At the end of it, is this what winning the internet is?

China

Beijing kicks out migrant workers

On November 18, a fire broke out in outer Beijing, killing 19 people, most of whom were migrant workers staying in small housing quarters. Since then, the Beijing authorities launched a massive eviction of tens of thousands of migrant workers, claiming unsafe violations of their residences as the reason. As a result, police have simply just showed up at people’s doors and ordered them to leave within days or even hours! Many of these people were forced to leave hastily without guaranteed accommodation and in some cases, leave for their hometowns. It’s obvious the authorities have used the fire as a convenient excuse to evict these outsiders, something which some Chinese have not failed to note.

It’s a very troubling act, but it’s in line with the crackdowns the government has launched on society. Lawyers, NGOs, journalists, Christians and even billionaires have felt the brunt of Xi Jinping and his regime, and migrant workers in the capital are now the latest.
It’s also a vivid sign of the sheer power and cold-heartedness of the Communist Party and Xi. It is good to see a number of Chinese speaking up and doing things like setting up shelters. But even then, the government has already censored some of these efforts.

These migrant workers are Chinese citizens, who come from other provinces and do a lot of the manual and low-income jobs that locals won’t do and which keep society running. Basically, most deliverymen, construction workers, waitresses, repairmen and service staff in Beijing are migrant workers. When I was in Beijing, the people who cut my hair, the real estate agents, plumbers and waitresses I met were all migrant workers. Some also do white-collar and office jobs, such as a lot of my colleagues, though their living conditions are better.

The authorities have announced plans to reduce the number of people in Beijing, whose population as of a few years was at least 23 million. But the way they’ve done it is wrong. Instead of say, trying to boost development or provide more resources and funds to neighbouring cities and provinces, the government has resorted to heavyhanded efforts and outright force to force the most vulnerable people out. Kicking migrant workers out, after having benefited from their cheap labour, is a callous and flawed way of population control, doubly so given these are their own fellow Chinese. Since I left Beijing a couple of years ago, the government has closed down major wholesale clothing markets, shut down small stores on entire streets and torn down houses in hutong lanes.

This government cares little for the rights of its citizens and will continue to arbitrarily use its power to control its people whenever and however it wants. But as long as people in China accept this and don’t try to face up to the party, things will never change.

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Datong and the Hanging Temple


As Datong used to be a capital of a regional dynasty in the 3rd to 5th centuries, it features several historical attractions in addition to the Yungang Grottoes. Foremost among these is the 1,500-year-old Hanging Temple. It doesn’t exactly hang, but it is an elegant wooden temple complex that is built onto a cliff wall. It already looks unbelievable in photos but it is more impressive in real. Sixty-five km from Datong, the Hanging Temple is located within Hengshan, which is also a major attraction in its own right as one of China’s most sacred mountains. As the temple, which was built during the 4th century AD, is precariously mounted on the cliff wall, it is narrow and visitors enter in a one-way direction from top to bottom.
Another historic sight is the Sakyamuni Pagoda, built in 1056, the oldest wooden pagoda in the country. The attractive, large, multi-layered tower stands 67m. While it is impressive that such a tall wooden pagoda could survive for so long, visitors cannot ascend it. I visited this pagoda as part of a day-trip arranged by my hostel to the Hanging Temple and while they are one hour apart, the pagoda is worth seeing as a secondary attraction. That said, the public toilet in the temple grounds was the nastiest I’ve ever seen, which forced me to almost run out without using it, and that is saying something (the only detail I’ll provide is no running water) given how many bad washrooms I’ve been to in China.

Aside from the Yungang Grottoes, Datong is a relatively nondescript and not-so-prosperous city. There are a couple of temples, Huayuan Monastery, a huge compound with several halls and a pagoda, and the Shanhua Temple, which features some attractive wooden buildings. The temples are more sleek than most traditional temples in China, with less animal and deity statues on the curved roofs. The Huayuan Monastery looked impressive, but there is a distinct lack of authenticity as only three of its buildings are original, as an employee told me. Meanwhile, another difference is that Huayuan Monastery’s entrance faces east unlike many Chinese temples, due to the Khitans being sun worshippers.

Datong had a mayor who had huge ambitions to build it up into a tourist mecca, which culminated in creating a new “ancient city centre” and putting up towering, brand-new city walls to replicate ancient walls that had been torn down decades earlier. However, this mayor got transferred to the provincial capital Taiyuan, so the city wall was not completed. In addition, the plan saw thousands of residents relocated and homes destroyed. While the wall looks impressive, it is completely fake so I didn’t bother to visit it.
  
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China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Yungang Grottoes, Datong

During my final months working in China, I took a couple of weekend trips including to Datong, in Shanxi Province. While Shanxi may be better known as the dusty, heavily polluted, coal-producing center of China, it is also one of the country’s oldest core areas of civilization. China’s coal city of Datong was a former capital of the Northern Wei dynasty, a Xianbei (Mongolian) regime which ruled much of northern China from 386-535 AD, from which was built the impressive Yungang Grottoes. Yungang is one of the three largest and most famous Buddhist grottoes in China. The others include the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan, which I’d visited a few years earlier, and Dunhuang in Gansu. Datong also has a few temples, and a large city wall that was newly built to recreate the city’s old wall. Further away from Datong is the Hanging Temple, a wooden Buddhist temple built on a cliff, and Sakyamuni Wooden Pagoda. I also wrote about all this for a newspaper feature about Datong.

Yungang features dozens of caves and countless stone carvings of Buddhas cut onto the cliff walls of a mountain stretching from west to east. There are gigantic towering Buddhas, smaller human-sized ones and even tiny intricate carvings smaller than your hand. The most impressive are the number 7 and 8 caves, the entrances of which are enclosed by multi-story wooden structures. The caves feature giant Buddhas, walls filled with intricate stone Buddhist figures, and cave ceilings painted with colorful murals of scenes from Buddhist legends. It is an impressive sight, as are the giant Buddhas on the outside further down.

 
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