Can a water dragon breathe fire when it’s wet? And other conundra

Letters from China

By Patrick Murphy – January 2012

The Chinese have an amazingly complicated calendar, but for all its sophistication and complexities you would think they could, at least, get the placement of Spring correct, right? Apparently not, as this is Chinese Spring. What we call “Chinese New Year” is called by the Chinese “Spring Festival.” Hello? It’s January. The days are short, the nights are long and it’s cold as a botch. Spring? Spring? The answer to the question, “Can 1.3 billion people get it wrong?” is a resounding “yes.” More

Why I Love China, Reason #297

Letters from ChinaBy Patrick Murphy – April 2009

The internet in China, as everywhere, can be somewhat user unfriendly. Factor in technoglop in a foreign language (like “Make sure the subnet mask is disengaged”) and it becomes simply impossible to achieve connectivity unaided.

Not only was I faced with that challenge, but my old computer had become unstable. Knowing that we would be returning to our Beijing apartment for several years, I decided on this trip to acquire a desktop computer. More

New Year in Beijing

By Patrick Murphy

Letters from ChinaWe call it Chinese New Year, but they call it Spring Festival. I’ve argued with many Chinese over the years about this misnaming. I think it should be called Winter Festival, because the weather is always cold. “No, no,” they tell me. “Now it is Spring and it will soon be warm!”

One interesting thing I just learned is that until recently the Chinese did not use weeks. Weeks, with weekends, are a Western concept not used in China until the adoption of the universal calendar. The Chinese lunar calendar (also misnamed, as it doesn’t really match up with the lunar cycle– which is why the Chinese have not mere Leap Days, but entire Leap Months) simply started on chu-yi (Day One) and spun through until the end. There was no weekend of rest, just steady work or school, punctuated by the holidays.

Which may be in part why Spring Festival lasts so long. Starting with what we might call New Yearís eve, the night everyone stays up late watching special programs on CCTV and playing mah jongg, the holiday runs through until the Lantern Festival. That comes on the fifteenth day of the new year. But school kids have vacation starting about two weeks before New Year, so they really have about a month off. In Beijing, many restaurants and shops close for ten days or so, as the staff disappears to hui jia or ìreturn homeî to visit family and friends. Planes, trains, and busses are absolutely jammed with people on the move. This year, unprecedented winter storms disrupted travel for hundreds of thousands.

In Beijing, officially sanctioned fireworks stores (more like large tents) sprang up. There were about 550 of them across the city. The result was predictable. Fireworks are officially allowed only on New Year eve and New Year day (plus the fifth, the day to eat chun bing or “spring rolls” filled with sprouts, vegetables, and shredded meat, and the Lantern Festival). However fireworks were a daily, or rather nightly, barrage. Nightly there were Roman candles, firecrackers, and pyrotechnics in the sky. The mood was quite jolly: “Could you sleep last night?” I would ask. “Oh, not very well. Ha ha ha!”

[From May 2008 CAFAM Newsletter]

If It’s Dusty, This Must Be Beijing

Letters from ChinaBy Patrick Murphy

A few years ago, the spring dust storms here were so large and so powerful that they blew across the ocean and hit Seoul, an unwelcome surprise for the Capitalist South Korean neighbors. Locals in Beijing may not exactly enjoy the spring storms that some years sweep in and dump tons of desert dust everywhere, but they are at least able to deal with them. It’s not like Washington, D.C., hit by half an inch of snow and municipal paralysis shutting down the federal government. Here, whether snow or sand, people just put on their face masks and get out their brooms and sweep it all up.

Supposedly, these are the worst such storms in six years. But as with the biggest, best, worst or most, you want to know exactly what they mean. Do they mean the winds were the most powerful? Or that they lasted the longest? Or that they dumped the most dust? Or that they caused the most economic disturbance, or triggered the highest jump in broom sales? Statistics are a great way to mislead, and having seen some really good storms in Beijing, I have my doubts about this new record.

Less than six years ago, I walked Louis and Patrick to their school, and when I turned around to head home, the buildings two short blocks away were gone. Not obscured, not hard to see, just invisible. The sun should have been up, but you couldn’t tell. Our street had vanished. It was like being in a very large, noisy box, with some buildings in it, and some people, and some trees, with the sides and top of the box made of yellow-brown grit and noise.

That storm left a layer over every surface in our apartment, despite the closed and locked windows, and the outer and inner doors opened only long enough to admit people. Floors, tables, chairs, desks had a layer of semi-sticky grit.

If these recent storms were so bad, I ask the news editors, where is all the grit? My desk is clean. Even my bike, which has been sitting on the porch since we left in February, has just the usual dust on it.

But if it’s howling dust one day, it’s a steady rain the next. And then, Ahh! Blue skies and a lovely blustery day follow, such as yesterday. White clouds tearing after one another, the trees with their new, light green leaves bending in the breeze, white fluffy stuff from something like a cottonwood or dogwood rolling along the streets like tiny tumbleweeds. And the flowering trees, of which there are many, all basking in the sun, giving people something to glance at, something other than the recent unpleasant weather to chat about. It’s odd that spring should produce some of the dirtiest weather and some of the freshest air of the year, all so close.

For visitors passing through, who have the rotten luck to meet with a couple days of sand storms followed by cold steady rain, and who then miss the payoff of freshly laundered air, one can only wish they had more time to linger.

But for us, listening to the winds outside and the children playing mahjong, we know that days will follow when the air smells brand new, and the sun shines so brightly everything seems to sparkle, and we might think that there is balance after all.

[From the March 2007 CAFAM Newsletter]

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The Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine provides forums and outreach to promote awareness of and appreciation for Chinese culture. More.

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