The Earthquake

Mudan - China's national flower

The earth­quake: I was run­ning back to my apart­ment from the class­room for some­thing, and didn’t feel a thing. The oth­er for­eign teacher here stag­gered out of her apart­ment and said she thought she was dying. I told her to put her head between her legs and I’d get a doc­tor. While I was rac­ing back to the admin­is­tra­tion build­ing all these peo­ple start­ed pour­ing out of build­ings. We had to sit in the sports ground in the sun for a cou­ple of hours. Miss Uni­verse turned up after a few min­utes look­ing sheep­ish.

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Covert & Overt Values

rock wisdom - Zhengzhou

My own first intro­duc­tion to Chi­nese thought and polit­i­cal econ­o­my was a uni­ver­si­ty course in New Zealand in 1974. I espe­cial­ly recall one book, Mark Elvin’s “The Pat­tern of the Chi­nese Past”. If you are not famil­iar with the argu­ments in this book already, there is a rea­son­able sum­ma­ry at Ama­zon . Of course, Chi­na is any num­ber of “coun­tries”. With 20% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion it could hard­ly be oth­er­wise. Noth­ing is more fool­ish than the out­sider who pre­tends to “know” Chi­na, but cer­tain­ly the sec­ond most fool­ish is the Chi­nese per­son who pre­tends to “know” Chi­na. Yet we are gen­er­al­iz­ing crea­tures. Prob­a­bly we have form stereo­types to func­tion at all. Look­ing at that vast con­glom­er­a­tion called Chi­na we can all dis­cern flavours, ten­den­cies, pref­er­ences, pat­terns…  that are dif­fer­ent from, say, the Euro­pean mix, although we may argue about what the vari­eties mean.

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pensive child - Zhengzhou

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A Child Goes Missing

ZRTVC campus - Zhengzhou

Each evening I walk for an hour or two, and some­times one of the stu­dents tags along. This is won­der­ful, since she can bring mean­ing to the blur of Chi­nese street life around us. Yes­ter­day, she point­ed out a tragedy that I would have walked right past:

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Zhengzhou pregnancy poster

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Post Office Blues

The Chi­nese Post Office con­tin­ues to excel. We’ve had scraps before. This was the out­fit that wouldn’t let me send Christ­mas cards in dif­fer­ent sized envelopes, or send copies of my the­sis to an Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ty in any box but their own.

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Chasing Out The Devils

night sky Zhengzhou

Zhengzhou has been under heavy attack for sev­er­al days, appar­ent­ly to chase out accu­mu­lat­ed dev­ils. These aren’t minor explo­sions, though I have been dodg­ing small boys for a cou­ple of weeks. The streets are cleared of the usu­al surg­ing crowds and most shops were shut­tered yes­ter­day. Every rooftop and court­yard is smok­ing with cordite. The favourite seems to be a thing that is a metre long and about 2.5 cm in diam­e­ter. This ejects explo­sive devices at ten sec­ond inter­vals, and they trav­el for about 100 metres before shat­ter­ing with a mighty boom. Basi­cal­ly, it is a mor­tar. Heav­en knows what the casu­al­ty fig­ures are. All the for­eign dev­ils except me have cer­tain­ly been chased out of town.

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Zhengzhou fantasy wall

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The Iron Rooster and The White Dragon


Chi­na has one of the world’s biggest rail net­works. With 20% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion that is hard­ly sur­pris­ing, and it still comes nowhere near meet­ing demand on exist­ing net­works, or on actu­al net­work cov­er­age in dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed provinces like Henan with its 100 mil­lion + peo­ple. It is a mind-bend­ing logis­tics oper­a­tion, great­ly improved since I last knew it (1998–2000) when you couldn’t even buy a return tick­et. At that time the rail sys­tem, like Chi­na itself, was an assem­bly of feif­doms, each jeal­ous­ly guard­ing its influ­ence and finances. Things have mel­lowed a bit, though around 20 peo­ple a day are killed some­where on the net­work (bet­ter than 600 or so deaths a day on the roads, accord­ing to the OECD). From time to time even a main trunk line may be vir­tu­al­ly closed for hours at a time as some “leader” flash­es through under max­i­mum secu­ri­ty in his spe­cial train. At its worst, as in the Chi­nese New Year, you can have impos­si­ble crowds fight­ing for non-exis­tent seats. 100,000 were camped out around Guangzhou sta­tion this year. At its best, on the main line bul­let trains (D-trains) there is air con­di­tioned com­fort with air­line type uni­formed host­esses.

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A Christmas Story

Zhengzhou Railway Station

This city of Zhengzhou is show­ing me new faces at every turn. There are vast pres­tige com­plex­es and broad tree lined avenues along­side scenes that come straight from Hogarth’s Eng­land. As the sea­sons change you can move from balmy autumn walks by the river­side to bleak canyons and cul­verts of mouldy con­crete where street sell­ers try to eke out a liv­ing.

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Christmas crowds in Zhengzhou

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Well, hello again

Zhengzhou Skyline

Thor’s Chi­na Diary began in 1998, from Wuhan where I taught in a cou­ple of uni­ver­si­ties. The air was dif­fer­ent then in more ways than one. They gave me a lit­tle green book list­ing all the things that for­eign­ers were not sup­posed to do. Chi­na was get­ting some con­fi­dence in wicked cap­i­tal­ist ways, but the pub­lic lan­guage nev­er said so. Things were cheap, but the salary was laugh­able. And the real air was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

A record of those times can still be found at . It all came to an end a cou­ple of years lat­er when I was sucked off to South Korea, a finan­cial­ly rich­er des­ti­na­tion with its own charms, but def­i­nite­ly a cold­er expe­ri­ence on the local friend­ship front. Of course, I’ve changed a bit too. Ten years in East Asia does that too you … an old fool turn­ing into an old­er fool? Maybe I’ve just learned to mod­er­ate my Aus­tralian road rage, imi­tate the locals who are pret­ty tol­er­ant most of the time. The big dif­fer­ence there is that ulti­mate­ly I have a tick­et out to a dif­fer­ent set of absur­di­ties, while they are stuck with the local absur­di­ties.

This new park­ing spot, Zhengzhou in Henan Province, cen­tral Chi­na does not look promis­ing from a dis­tance, but close up it’s not too bad at all if your sur­vival kit is in order : an air con­di­tioned apart­ment and a cred­i­ble income, it least by Chi­nese stan­dards. The city is as flat as a pan­cake, but made decent by its tree-lined avenues. Twen­ty kilo­me­ters away across the parched plains, the Yel­low Riv­er wends its slug­gish way between high earth lev­ees, but Zhengzhou’s main claim to fame nowa­days is as a rail­way junc­tion. Amaz­ing­ly the sky is often blue, some­thing I nev­er saw in Wuhan. The urban pop­u­la­tion is sup­pos­ed­ly about 4 mil­lion, and seems to be grow­ing fast, fed by uncount­ed rur­al-to-urban migrants. There are lux­u­ry shops and the direst pover­ty side by side. Satel­lite TV is banned, and any Google search will auto­mat­i­cal­ly stall if you enter “Zhengzhou”, but if you can walk around these kinds of author­i­tar­i­an anachro­nisms, the mood on the streets is pleas­ant enough. Around here they are big on al fres­co din­ing, foot­path style, but if you want a sim­ple cof­fee shop you’ll per­ish. Three thou­sand, five hun­dred years ago this was the cap­i­tal of Chi­na, so I guess they’ve had time to sort out the local pref­er­ences. Any­way, it suits me well enough for a while…

post­script : Any­one inter­est­ed in a wider range of Thor’s ideas, his CV, poems, pho­tos, and a bunch of stuff on teach­ing and learn­ing Eng­lish as sec­ond lan­guage should check out That is a sprawl­ing web­site, not a blog.

cheers, Thor

Zhengzhou University campus

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