LIME GREEN? SPRING BUD MAYBE?

Beijing, 1 July 2014

For reasons which are too long to explain, a few days ago my wife and I moved out of our apartment and into another one not too far away. Suffice to say that renters have little if any protection in China: “you don’t agree to my doubling the rent? Well, the door is over there. Oh, and by the way, I’ll keep the deposit.”

In any event, this forced relocation has meant that I’ve had to walk a new route to and from the office, which takes me under a new set of trees. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say, which in this case is my discovery of the goldenrain tree, Koelreuteria paniculata, under a row of which I now walk every day. This picture shows nicely the origins of the name. At this time of the year, the tree is covered with bunches of small yellow flowers, which drizzle down on the ground around the tree.

solitary goldenrain tree

In my row of goldenrain trees, planted as they are close to each other – to give shade, which is devoutly to be thanked for at this time of year – I don’t get such an uncluttered view of the trees and their flowers. This is about the best I’ve managed to see.

golden rain tree 009

I also haven’t really been able to see the golden raindrops scattered around on the ground since the street sweepers are very efficient in this part of town. This is all I’ve seen, little piles ready to be picked up

golden rain on ground

although this car parked under some of the trees shows what the pavement must look like early in the morning.

golden rain on car

Actually, it wasn’t the flowers which attracted my attention. It was the seed pods (the tree seems to move from flower to seed astonishingly quickly). Some of them had fallen onto the pavement

seed pods on ground 006

and it was their light, translucent green which drew my eye. I carefully picked up a few – they are very delicate – and took them home. My wife took this in her stride; she is used by now to my bringing home botanical strays. I laid the pods out on our table cloth and took this picture

pods on table - 1 july 001

I’m not sure what to call this green. The clever thingy which in the Word software allows me to have an infinite number of colours for my fonts tells me that in the colour model RGB (whatever that is) it’s about 200 Red, 255 green, and 90 blue. But that’s far too boringly scientific. I would like a name for this green! A search of colour charts for paints, dyes and the like suggests that it could be Lime Green. Or there’s a green called Inchworm, after an inch-long worm of that colour. Or could it be Chartreuse? But that’s too yellow I think. Or maybe Spring Bud; it certainly has something of that tender green which we associate with Spring.

And I really like their shape. A number of websites call it bladder-like. Really, some people have no imagination! Others note a resemblance to Chinese lanterns, which is a much better comparison

green chinese lantern

although I think Chinese lantern makers could profit aesthetically from trying to copy the somewhat rounded pyramidal shape of these seed pods.

Having had my attention drawn to the pods, I quickly noticed how they clustered thickly about the crown of the trees, giving a frosting of light green on the dark green of the leaves, a delightful effect.

pods on tree - 1 july 002

pods on the tree

I understand that the pods eventually turn brown. It will be interesting to see how this changes the visual pleasure which I currently get from the tree on my daily walk to and from the office (intermittently cursing at my previous landlord).

POSTSCRIPT 1, 10 July 2014

Once you see one, you begin to see them everywhere …

I’m in Budapest at the moment, for reasons which are also too long to explain. Yesterday evening, I was walking across a little park when at its exit I stumbled across a goldenrain tree sheltering locals having a quiet evening drink and chat.

goldenrain trees Budapest 003

Here, it’s an immigrant in a foreign land. The goldenrain tree is native to China and Korea.

POSTSCRIPT 2, 17 August 2014

Well, the pods have turned brown. This is what the trees look like now.

golden rain tree with mature pods 002

I don’t know, I think I prefer the pods in their lime green phase.

______________________

Solitary goldenrain tree: http://www.whatgrowsthere.com/grow/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Koelreuteria-paniculata-6.jpg [in http://www.whatgrowsthere.com/grow/2011/07/01/goldenrain-tree-sparks-a-july-golden-celebration/%5D
Green Chinese lanterns: http://10kblessingsfengshui.typepad.com/.a/6a00e39336235e8834014e5f344434970c-800wi [in http://10kblessingsfengshui.typepad.com/10000_blessings_feng_shui/2011/02/lighting-lamps-for-the-lantern-festival.html%5D
other pictures: mine

MAGNOLIA

Beijing, 4 April 2014

One of my abiding memories of Vienna is the magnolias in flower. I suppose it’s always the case that the first months you spend in a new place imprint themselves more forcefully on your brain’s virtual retina than the remaining years. We arrived in Vienna in February, two months later the magnolias were in bloom. It seemed that every garden and every park had its magnolia tree.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We would pass one particularly magnificent specimen as we drove the children up to school every day. It was like living in a multiple exposure photo. Every day, as we swept by, we would note its progress, as the buds opened fully, and then the decay, as the flowers wilted and scattered their petals over the pavement.

A month or so later, it was the turn of the city’s multitude of lilac bushes to bloom, another fond memory which I have of Vienna and one about which I have had cause to write an earlier post.

Yes, they were good times.

And then, when my wife and I came to Beijing, we found our friends the magnolia trees here, waiting to greet us with their blooms after we emerged from our first Chinese winter. A sight for sore eyes, let me tell you, after all that grey dryness of a Beijing winter. There was a pure white variety
magnolia trees dajue western temple
as well as a pinker type which we were familiar with from Vienna.
Tanzhe western Temple
Then, with the passage of time, I discovered that this tree, which I had, without really thinking about it, assumed was European, was actually Chinese! Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. There are nearly hundred different types of magnolia native to China (out of 200-plus native to Asia). The beautiful white magnolia pictured above, which comes from central and eastern China, grabbed the Chinese headlines early on. With its flower rightly regarded as a symbol of purity, it was planted in Buddhist temple gardens and the gardens of the emperors from as early as 600 AD during the Tang dynasty. It is called the Yulan, or jade lily, magnolia; I presume the name refers to the jade-like glossy smoothness of the magnolia’s petals and the sometimes lily-like look of the flower.

A second magnolia which has also been very popular in China for centuries is the Mulan magnolia which comes from Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
magnolia lillliflora
Magnolias of course became favourite subjects of the poets, seeing as they spent hours haunting such gardens.

???

Here is the poem Magnolia Slope by Wang Wei, who lived in the 700s AD and is considered “the consummate master of the short imagistic landscape poem that came to typify classical Chinese poetry” (in the words of David Hinton, who made the admirable translation below).

Lotus blossoms adrift out across treetops
flaunt crimson calyces among mountains.

At home beside this stream, quiet, no one
here. Scattered. Scattered open and falling.

As with many things Chinese which were considered the nec plus ultra by the East Asian fashionistas and trend followers of yesteryear, the cultivation of these magnolias was taken up with enthusiasm by the Japanese, from whence – like the Chinese ginkgo tree of which I have written earlier – it made its way to Europe. And there, in 1820, in the grounds of his château of Fromont near Paris, an ex-cavalry officer turned plantsman, Étienne Soulange-Bodin, crossed the Yulan with the Mulan and created the hybrid saucer magnolia.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
With its large, early-blooming flowers in various shades of white, pink, and purple, this cultivar became immensely popular and spread around Europe (including Austria, no doubt, because I’m sure the Viennese magnolia I described above is one of these), the US, and eventually – I suspect – China, in hundreds of different cultivars as plant breeders continued to play with its gene pool.

Here I have to pause, to consider that other great reservoir of magnolias, the Americas. I said earlier that Asia boasts 200 or more types of magnolias. The Americas are host to another 90 or so. In fact, it was in the Americas, in the Caribbean island of Martinique to be exact, that in the 1690s a French botanist by the name of Charles Plumier discovered and named – in the modern scientific nomenclature; of course it already had a native name, the talauma – the magnolia, after yet another French botanist Pierre Magnol (a lot of French botanists in this story …). I haven’t found a picture of his original drawing of the magnolia which he came across but this one will do as a substitute.
talauma
This picture, with its flower surrounded by a thick crown of leaves, sums up nicely a perplexity I had until I did some reading for this post. When we had been in the US, we had come across the southern magnolia, which looked something like this specimen, that is to say, a tree with very thick foliage and a few flowers sprinkled over the whole.
southern magnolia
Very beautiful flowers, by the way.
southern magnolia-flower
I couldn’t relate all this to the magnolias like those above, which are first completely covered with flowers and only get their leaves after the flowers have fallen. Well, the fact is, they are – botanically speaking – part of the same family. It’s just that it’s a very large family (some 300 members all told), and like in all large families distant cousins don’t necessarily resemble each other very much.

Which brings me to my final coda. The magnolia cousins have drifted so far apart because it is an old – very old – genus. It branched off the main tree of trees, if you get my drift, 100 million years or so ago. Fossils of plants identifiably belonging to the Magnoliaceae have been found dating back to 95 million years ago, while a 20 million year-old fossil has been found of the cucumber magnolia, which is native to the Eastern US and has this small flower with lovely yellow hues (in fact, these yellow hues as well as the tree’s cold hardiness have been exploited to create new yellow-flowered hybrid magnolias).
magnolia acuminata
Magnolias are so ancient that they came on the scene as flowering plants before bees, or butterflies, or moths, existed to help along with pollination. So magnolias have evolved to use for pollination the only insects which were around at the time, beetles or flies.
beetle in magnolia-1
And this co-existence with beetles explains the rather leathery petals magnolias have. Compared to bees, beetles are clumsy insects, clomping around all over the flower and with a tendency to snack on the petals as well as the nectar. The leathery petals protect the flowers from these lumbering but necessary partners in the act of procreation.

Oh, and by the way, magnolia flowers don’t actually have petals, they have tepals. And that’s because the flowers are quite primitive, so their sepals and petals are not distinct and differentiated (no idea what that really means, but it sounds impressive).

__________________
Magnolia in Vienna: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2542/3753020942_3f6c39bb5f_o.jpg [in https://www.flickr.com/%5D
Yulan Magnolia tree in Dajue western temple: http://www.beijingrelocation.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/magnolia.jpg [in http://www.beijingrelocation.com/blog/beijing-trees/%5D
Magnolia tree in Tanzhe temple: http://www.travelchina.gov.cn/picture/0/1403261604282295162.png [in http://www.travelchina.gov.cn/art/2014/3/26/art_15_1202.html%5D
Mulan Magnolia: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d6/Magnolienbluete_freiburg.jpg/800px-Magnolienbluete_freiburg.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnolia_liliiflora%5D
Poet in garden: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/Wang_Xizhi_by_Qian_Xuan.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_garden%5D
Magnolia soulangeana: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3e/Magnolia_x_soulangeana.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saucer_magnolia%5D
Talauma: http://www.plantillustrations.org/illustration.php?id_illustration=90190 [in http://www.plantillustrations.org/epithet.php?epithet=plumieri&lay_out=1&hd=0%5D
Southern magnolia: http://whangareiflora.weebly.com/uploads/8/4/3/9/8439522/6466041_orig.jpg [in http://whangareiflora.weebly.com/exotic-trees.html%5D
Southern magnolia-flower: http://www.magnoliasociety.org/resources/Pictures/images/cultivars/msieboldi8422.JPG [in http://www.magnoliasociety.org/MagnoliaResources%5D
Magnolia acuminata: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-yf82eYSuRd4/T6gSQGfe2bI/AAAAAAAAAnI/6SgLRh0exIY/s1600/DSCF7584.JPG [in http://welkinweir.blogspot.com/2012/05/may-flowers.html%5D
Beetle in a magnolia: http://blogging.la/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/gjb.jpg [in http://blogging.la/2009/06/28/it-caught-my-eye-the-beetle-the-blossom/%5D

WHAT MASK SHALL WE WEAR TODAY, DEAR?

Beijing, 30 March 2014

We’ve had a bad air day here in Beijing.
smog in Beijing
Actually, we’ve been having a series of bad air days, after a relatively long period of good air days. Due to the change of weather patterns as we move from winter to spring, I imagine.

In any event, these days of high particulate levels have led to an efflorescence of masks on the face of pedestrians.
beijingers wearing masks
When my wife and I first arrived here four years ago, the local population stoically accepted the situation. The official government position at the time could be summed up as: “air pollution? what air pollution?” So the masses followed the party line and officially shrugged off the decision by some foreigners to wear protective masks as weak-kneed and effeminate. At most, they would don surgical masks
mask-medical-2
a common enough habit here, although used more as a way to control the spread of the common cold.

Then, about a year ago, with the change in party leadership, the government made it publicly known that actually there was an air pollution problem, and almost overnight Beijingers started wearing protective masks. Such is the power of the party …

My wife and I, though, are made of tougher stuff and have considered all these mask wearers, Chinese and foreigners alike, weak-kneed and effeminate. That is, until now. Because even we, tough nuts though we are, have begun to think that maybe we should also be wearing masks on bad air days, before we get hit with an irreversible case of asthma or worse.

But what masks should we wear? And here, I have to say, aesthetics will play as much a part in our decision as efficacy. Efficacy alone would suggest wearing some sort of gas mask. The problem is, gas masks – at least in their traditional form – are fantastically unaesthetic. Consider this photo, taken in London during the Second World War
gas masks WW2-1
The Londoners in question were taking part in a drill, to make sure they knew how to use their masks in case the Germans dropped gas bombs.

Or how about this one, also from the Second World War, of some bizarre outing in the woods by a bunch of people (scouts?), all kitted up in gas masks
gas masks WW2

Can you imagine us all walking around Beijing looking like this? Already walking around in the smog is depressing enough. Having people looking like this looming out of the fug around you would be enough to give you a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. It would be like meeting a streetful of Edvard Munch’s screamers; one would begin to start screaming oneself.
The Scream lithography
The more modern gas masks have a friendlier design, showing as they do the face of the wearer.
gas mask-modern
I mean, at least you could smile at each other as you pass on the pavement and give each other moral support in this time of trial and tribulation.

But I feel that wearing even such a user-friendly gas mask would really be over the top. After all, we are only being subjected to excessively high particulate levels and not to massive leaks of poisonous gas, which these gas masks were presumably designed to deal with. Good design must be “fit for purpose”, as they say; these gas masks fail on this criterion.

A somewhat pared-down version of these gas masks is available in China, which has the “snout” but not the eye coverings.
mask-1
And that is precisely the problem which I have with this particular mask design. It would make the wearer look somewhat porcine
pig snout
So we need to look further afield for an efficacious but also aesthetically pleasing mask. I have found these on the web and/or seen people wearing them on the street:
mask-2

mask-3

mask-4a

IMG_0374

mask-8a

mask-8
My wife and I have debated the relative merits of these masks. Always assuming that we take the final plunge and buy masks, she would go for the fourth, which gives her space to breathe; she has tried the last mask and found it suffocating. For my part, I would go for the second mask, which I find pretty cool.

Of course, the best would be that NO-ONE has to wear masks. But for that to happen, the party is going to have to take some painful decisions. We will see …

____________________
Smog in Beijing: http://www.csmonitor.com/var/ezflow_site/storage/images/media/content/2013/0114-smog/14755543-1-eng-US/0114-smog_full_600.jpg [in http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Latest-News-Wires/2013/0114/Heavy-smog-in-Beijing-prompts-uncharacteristic-government-transparency-video%5D
Beijingers wearing masks: http://www.thestar.com/content/dam/thestar/news/world/2014/02/24/pollution_soars_in_china_rare_industry_shutdowns_reported/china_smog.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox.jpg [in http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2014/02/24/pollution_soars_in_china_rare_industry_shutdowns_reported.html%5D
Mask-medical: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-10/21/132816417_11n.jpg [in http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-10/21/c_132816417.htm%5D
Gas masks in WW2-1: http://www.moneyandshit.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/partisans-in_World_war2.jpg [in http://www.moneyandshit.com/partisans-in-gas-masks-during-world-war-2n/%5D
Gas masks in WW2-2: http://charlesmccain.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/hist_uk_20_ww2_pic_gas_mask_mock_london.jpg [in http://charlesmccain.com/2013/12/2768/%5D
The Scream lithography: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/50/Munch_The_Scream_lithography.png [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Munch_The_Scream_lithography.png%5D
Gas mask-modern: http://img.xxjcy.com/pic/z14f386f-0x0-1/industrial_gas_masks_product_mf27_full_eyepiece_gas_mask.jpg [in http://www.xxjcy.com/manufacturers/z6a4a78/iz28e1a63-mf22a_type_gas_masks.html%5D
Mask-1: http://gdb.voanews.com/B8CC4108-6777-4820-9381-2F5CFE6AB98E_mw1024_mh1024_s_cy7.jpg ] [in http://www.voanews.com/content/study-finds-coal-pollution-cuts-north-china-lifespan-by-five-and-a-half-years/1697648.html%5D
Pig snout: http://kristilowe.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/istock_000012723567small.jpg [in http://kristilowe.com/tag/pig-snout/%5D
Mask-2: http://www.allergyasthmatech.com/ProdImages/model_photo copy[1].jpg [in http://www.allergyasthmatech.com/SP/Air_Pollution_Mask/101_373%5D
Mask-3: http://www.loftwork.jp/~/media/Images/Event/2013/20131218_frog/r_04.ashx?h=402&w=537 [in http://www.loftwork.jp/event/2013/20131218_frogdesign/report1218.aspx%5D
Mask-4: http://www.myredstar.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Totobobo.jpg [in http://www.myredstar.com/smog-living/%5D
Mask-5: http://www.pri.org/sites/default/files/story/gallery/huang.jpg [in http://www.pri.org/stories/2013-11-11/beijingers-don-masks-defend-themselves-against-dirty-air-and-make-fashion%5D
Mask-6: http://www.i-m-s.dk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/china-air-poll.jpg [in http://www.i-m-s.dk/pollution-finally-a-front-page-story-in-china/%5D
Mask-7: http://www.theworldofchinese.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/top5-masks-master.jpg [in http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2014/02/the-top-pollution-busting-face-masks/%5D

BIRDS IN BEIJING

Beijing, 22 March 2014

A few days ago, as I was walking to work along my piece of canal, I saw, sitting on the lower branch of a willow tree, a small bird which I had never seen before. I’m not a birder by any means, but I do appreciate a beautiful or graceful bird when I see one. This bird had a wonderfully variegated plumage, really very handsome. By the shape of its head and bill I was guessing it to be a member of the woodpecker family. Intrigued, I sidled forward to have a better look. The bird cocked its head, kept a wary eye on me, and finally decided I had invaded too much of its private space. With a quick flip of its wings, it was off, dipping and lifting across the waters of the canal. I finally lost sight of it among the willow trees and buildings on the other bank.

The internet is a wonderful thing, really it is. Yes, there are dark corners where bad, nasty people show and say bad, nasty things, but overall it is a great global market square into which you can wander of an evening and, like young Marco Polo sauntering along Venice’s wharves, hear tales fantastical of faraway lands and pick up information from the furthest reaches of the globe. This burst of appreciation for the internet at this particular moment in my tale comes from the fact that at home that evening, on a whim, I typed “birds in beijing” in my search field to see what I could find. And I immediately stumbled onto the site Birding Beijing! I salute its author, Terry Townshend, a Beijing resident like myself and a dedicated birder, who has put together this wonderful site.

Terry’s site gave me the answer I was looking for. The bird I had seen in the morning was indeed a woodpecker, the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) to be precise. This photo is from his site
great-spotted-woodpecker-small-1
Here is another from a UK site

great-spotted-woodpecker-2
which I chose because this woodpecker has a range which stretches all the way from China across Central Asia and Europe to my home country. It gives me an odd sense of comfort, that: part of home in Beijing.

Terry’s site gave me the answer to one more ornithological question which has been nagging me for the last few years, the identity of another bird which I have often seen here. It seemed to me quite like the magpie, although with much more delicate colouring in its feathers. It seemed to fill the same ecological niche, too, as far as I could gather. Well, Terry’s site tells me that it is indeed a magpie! (although a different member of the family, to be sure). It is the azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyanus). This photo of it is also from Terry’s site

azure-winged-magpie-1

but this one comes from a Russian orthinological site

azure-winged-magpie-2

which I include because the range of this magpie covers East and North-East Asia (so including Siberia).

I’m not sure “azure” really describes the wonderful shade of blue which this bird sports in its wing and tail feathers. A long hunt through various other internet sites makes me think that cornflower blue might better describe this particular shade of blue. The internet also tells me that this colour was one of the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer’s favourite colours. Is the blue in his painting Girl with a Pearl Earring the same?

Girl_with_a_Pearl_Earring

Perhaps it is a slightly darker shade of blue?

Flush from these two successful identifications, I went through the rest of the bird gallery in Terry’s site, to put a name to what else I’ve seen in Beijing. He mentions the the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica), which I’ve had cause to write about in an earlier posting. It seems more common than the azure-winged magpie; I certainly feel that I see it more often. Terry does not include a picture of this magpie (too common, no doubt), so I add here a photo from another site
Eurasian magpie-2
Terry mentions the Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus). I’ve seen that, of course, who hasn’t?
tree-sparrow
I think I might once have seen another bird he mentions, the eastern great tit (Parus minor)
japanese-tit
I’m almost certain I also saw a Eurasian kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) once. I spotted it during a particularly boring teleconference for which I was a passive participant, sitting at my desk and staring out of the window while the others droned on.  I was glad for the lovely distraction of its diving and swooping around my office building.

kestrel

These wonderful photos move me to cite here three poems about birds which I particularly like:

The Eagle, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

The Darkling Thrush, by Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
    When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
    The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.

Lovely …

And yet I’m worried. Last Christmas, when we were in New York, we visited the Metropolitan Museum. On our wanderings through the galleries we bumped into four of these hanging on the wall of a corridor:

Peruvian-Featherwork-cape-1

They are capes, from Peru. They are 1,000 years old, made with the feathers of the blue-and-yellow macaw.

Blue-and-yellow Macaw

How many of these magnificent birds were killed to make these capes? Such needless, selfish destruction! Nowadays, it’s not killing for their feathers that’s killing off birds, it’s destruction of their habitat. But it’s still the same: needless, selfish destruction.

____________________

Great spotted woodpecker-1: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/great-spotted-woodpecker-small-1.jpeg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D
Great spotted woodpecker-2: http://www.worldbirds.co.uk/images/oakes0/photos/image298.jpg [in http://www.worldbirds.co.uk/lesser_spotted_woodpecker.aspx?key=60%5D
Azure-winged magpie-1: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/2013-12-28-azure-winged-magpie.jpg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D
Azure-winged magpie-2: http://onbird.ru/img/photo/golubaya-soroka/golubaya-soroka foto 4 (onbird.ru).jpg [in http://onbird.ru/opredelitel-ptic/golubaya-soroka-584/foto%5D
Girl with a pearl earring: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ce/Girl_with_a_Pearl_Earring.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Vermeer%5D
Eurasian magpie: http://birdsofkazakhstan.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Pica-pica-bactriana-adult-Zhabagly-South-Kazakhstan-province-Kazakhstan-16-September-2009-Rene-Pop2.jpg [in http://birdsofkazakhstan.com/eurasian-magpie-pica-pica/%5D
Tree sparrow: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/2013-10-03-tree-sparrow.jpg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D
Japanese tit: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/2014-01-23-japanese-tit.jpg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D
Kestrel: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/2009-09-14-kestrel2.jpg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D%5D
Peruvian featherwork cape: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/470_Peruvian-Featherwork.jpg [in http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/27107%5D
Blue and yellow macaw: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Blue-and-Yellow-Macaw.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue-and-yellow_Macaw%5D

SNOWY MOUNTAINS

Beijing, 8 February 2014

It was snowing when we got up yesterday, the first snowfall of the season – in fact, the first time there has been any precipitation, rain or snow, in the last four months in Beijing. The city was still quiet after the Chinese New Year, so it was with pleasure that I crunched my way to work through the deserted streets and along my piece of canal, with the small, grainy snowflakes floating down around me.
canal-before
And dimly through the flakes and mist, I perceived a man on the other bank of the canal slowly going through the balletic moves of tai-chi. Magic …

It kept snowing fitfully all day and into the evening, becoming greyer and foggier by the hour. So I just hurried home after work, looking forward to a welcoming wife, a cheerfully lit apartment, a glass of wine, and a plate of pasta. We closed out the world and enjoyed two French detective thrillers before retiring to bed.

This morning, the clouds had been chased away along with the fog, and the sun shone down brightly. How different the world looked! There is nothing like a coating of snow under a bright sun and a clear blue sky to make even the most squalid cityscape look inviting. On our way to morning coffee and lunch, I took a couple of photos of the canal to record the event.
canal-after 004
OK, let’s not get carried away here. Quite soon, all that fresh snow will turn into muddy slush, making a misery for us pedestrians as we pick our way round large puddles, warily avoid being splashed by passing cars, and stay ever alert for a hidden piece of ice under our feet . And even when the snow is still fresh, the view simply cannot beat a snowscape in the mountains. My wife is a good and enthusiastic skier, and when the children were young she liked to take them skiing in the Alps. I, on the other hand, dislike skiing, so it was always with a certain grouchiness that I accompanied them on these skiing expeditions. The traffic jams to get there! The crowds at the shop to hire the gear! The astronomic cost of the ski passes! The kilometric lines to get on the ski lifts! All those peacocks parading their latest ski gear! The morons who skied far too fast down the crowded slopes! The icy wind turning my face into a piece of numb codfish! But even grouchy old me could not avoid a smile when suddenly confronted at the turning of a path with vistas of virgin white snow softly pillowing rocky hill and dale and gathering protectively around the pine trees, while the mountains glittered behind against a backdrop of a deep blue sky.

The only artist I know who has ever captured the beauty of mountains in the winter is the Austrian painter Alfons Walde. Walde was from Kitzbühel in the Tyrol, so he knew the Alps well.  From the mid 1920s onwards, he painted a series of pictures of the Tyrolian Alps during winter. I show here a selection, starting with the first of his paintings I ever came across, in the form of a poster advertising a show of his works in Vienna. I still have that poster somewhere. It is his “Ascent of the Skiers”, 1931

alfons walde-Der Aufstieg der Schifahrer-1931

Here we have “Steinbergkogel”, 1926

Alfons Walde-Steinbergkogel-1926

And here his “Meadows under Snow”, 1926

alfons walde-Almen im Schnee-1926

Walde also liked to paint the inhabitants of the Tyrolian villages. They still wore their traditional costumes back then. There’s still a faint echo of this in Austria’s traditional jackets for men and the dirndls the women wear. This is his “Auracher Church”, 1927-30

Alfons Walde-Auracher Kircherl-1927-30

And this is his “Meeting”, about 1924

Alfons Walde-begegnung

I will be frank. I wouldn’t mind owning one of Walde’s paintings.  But I’m not a millionaire. The best I’ve managed is a print by another Austrian artist

general photos 008

But hope springs eternal. You never know, I may find a Walde in my attic one day.

______________________

pix in Beijing: mine
“Ascent of the Skiers”: Alfons Walde- Der Aufstieg der Schifahrer-1931: http://shop.alfonswalde.com/WebRoot/Store/Shops/es268867/50B4/8486/F7AD/8B37/3A2E/50ED/8962/9095/Aufstieg_der_Schifahrer_1080.jpg [in http://shop.alfonswalde.com/epages/es268867.sf/de_DE/?ObjectPath=/Shops/es268867/Products/PLW35%5D
“Steinbergkogel”:  http://shop.alfonswalde.com/WebRoot/Store/Shops/es268867/50B4/CA47/6775/F975/A744/50ED/8962/CB5B/PLWT36-Steinbergkogel_1080.jpg [in http://shop.alfonswalde.com/epages/es268867.sf/de_DE/?ObjectPath=/Shops/es268867/Products/PLW36%5D
“Meadows under Snow”: Alfons Walde- Almen im Schnee: https://myartmap.com/sites/default/files/walde_2.png [in https://myartmap.com/user/5189/shop%5D
“Aucherl Church”: Alfons Walder-Auracher Kircherl-1927-30: http://www.austrianfineart.at/images/largeorig/Walde-Auracher%20Kircherl-Kat.%202001.jpg [in http://www.austrianfineart.at/detailtest.php?cid=297&lang=%5D
“Meeting”: Alfons Walde-begegnung: http://alfonswalde.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/begegnung_1080_WZ.jpg [in http://alfonswalde.com/cms/?cat=16%5D
pic of the barn in the snow: mine

CHENGLISH

Beijing, 26 October 2013

It is a sport in which all expats in China eventually indulge, that of hunting out prime examples of Chenglish and waving around their finds with glee. The internet is full of examples, and the electronic mirth which they engender echoes up and down the world’s broadbands.

For those of my readers who are not familiar with this sport, I should clarify that Chenglish stands for “Chinese English” and refers to the tangled, fractured, often incomprehensible English translations of Chinese notices that pepper the land. Of course, it’s mean to laugh at these very laudable attempts to reach out to foreigners, and I, who can speak but two words of Chinese and write none, who am I to smirk and titter and these honest efforts to communicate with me?

But really, sometimes I just cannot stop myself from bursting out into hearty peals of laughter at the English notices I am confronted with here. I share with you some of the pearls of my collection – because I must admit that, somewhat guiltily, I photograph the better ones I come across, with the locals generally looking on bemusedly.

This one is still comprehensible, although I rather liked its 18th Century take on the English language
Beijing-lake

This one, too, is comprehensible, although the sign makers are obviously not familiar with modern idiomatic English.

no tossing

This one has a charming Berty Woosteresque feel to it

no tooting

This one was on the door of a restaurant loo – the context explains, I think, the rather medical feel to the sign-maker’s declaration

forbids the bowel movement

Here we begin to descend into the more incomprehensible

no treacherous acts

And now we reach the frankly incomprehensible

ming tombs

for hot heftily no parking

ending with this final poetic note

interior using dont be though

Chenglish has migrated onto T-shirts, sweat-shirts and the like, although in these cases it usually takes the form of a series of English words strung along one after another in lines of gibberish. I have only one photo of this genre of Chenglish.  Normally, I’m embarrassed to be seen by the wearers to be too obviously taking a photo of what they are wearing. But in this case, I sneaked up behind the lady in question as we waited to board a plane.

Kunming

This traveller to China, though, captured a brilliant example of the genre

T-shirt lingo

The language on clothes always remind me of a phase which my son went through when he was learning to talk, in which he just emitted words and half-words in a meaningless jumble but with much nodding of his head as if to stress the important point he was making. My wife and I have concluded that these are attempts by the manufacturers to make their clothes more desirable by making them look more exotic, although I always wonder how the designers choose the words. Do they just open a dictionary at random and pick out words? But who has a dictionary these days? Is there an app which will generate a random string of words at the touch of a key? Is this a side-business for badly paid English teachers?

Sometimes the words on clothes are really quite bizarre, and you have to wonder if the wearers have any idea of what they are declaring to the world from their T-shirts. It is an example of this which I saw yesterday that has got me to write this post. A young girl, up on a stage with a musical group and playing her heart out in front of an audience, was sporting a sweat-shirt on which was emblazoned in beautiful, bright green italics “Failure”. Who on earth would willingly write that on their chest?! Surely, I thought, it must continue on the back with something like “is not a word I know”, or “is not an option” or “is for weaklings”. But no, there was just that one word: Failure.

This really mystifies me. But not as much as a T-shirt I once spotted on a young Chinese girl walking arm-in-arm with her boyfriend which said “Romeo Fuck Juliette”.  Truly weird.

_____________________

all pictures mine, except:

yellow T-shirt: http://wanderlustandafoilheart.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/img_3961.jpg [in http://wanderlustandafoilheart.wordpress.com/%5D

AUTUMN LEAVES

Beijing, 23 October 2013

It’s that time of the year in the northern hemisphere when the trees begin to lose their leaves. If we’re lucky, depending on where we’re perched on that hemisphere, we can witness the glorious spectacle of leaves turning intensely red, orange or yellow before they expire and finally float to the ground. My wife and I had such luck some thirty years ago, when we went “leaf peeping” in Vermont.

vermont fall foliage

We had such luck an equally long time ago in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan

hokkaido fall foliage

And I had such luck, alone this time, on my recent trip to Qinghai province, where the poplars were turning bright, golden yellow.

trees in fall

Alas, we have no such luck in dirty, dusty, smoggy Beijing. The leaves here go a little bit yellow, or just plain brown, before dropping miserably to the ground.

The partial exception is the ginkgo.  Ginkgos are popular trees to plant along streets. They tolerate well pollution and confined soil space, admirable traits for a tree growing in Beijing. And they look handsome, in the summer

ginkos 001

but even more so in the autumn

gingkgo trees autumn

Strange trees, ginkgos. The name already is odd. It was years before I realised that the “k” actually comes before the “g”. Who on earth came up with that spelling? A Dutchman called Engelbert Kaempfer, that’s who, back in the late 17th Century. He was the first European to see a gingko – sorry, ginkgo – in Japan. When he reported it to the European world, he seems to have stumbled over his transcription of the Japanese name ginkyō: what should have been written “ginkio” or “ginkjo” somehow got written as ginkgo.

That double-lobed leaf is odd, too.

Ginkgo Leaves summer

In fact, it’s unique among seed plants. Unique, because the ginkgo is a living fossil. This fossilized ginkgo leaf

fossil ginkgo leaf

is 40 million year old, although the ginkgo is far older. It first appears in the fossil record some 200 million years ago. It did nicely for the first 100 million years or so but then it went into terminal decline. Its range shrank and shrank, the various ginkgo species disappeared, until only ginkgo biloba survived, and survived only in China.

In fact, even the ginkgo biloba probably wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for Buddhism coming to China. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not the ginkgo trees currently found in the wild in China are truly wild or simply feral, that is, grown from seeds that wafted away from domesticated trees. What is sure is that Buddhist monks took to planting ginkgos in their temples as their local version of the bo-tree, the sacred fig tree under which it is said that the Buddha attained enlightenment.

sacred fig

and of course the ginkgo then got included in the Chinese Buddhist iconography – look at those gingko leaves peeping behind the buddha:

maitreya buddha under ginkgo

The ginkgo, having thus gained enormously in stature as a sacred tree, was carefully nurtured by all and sundry and survived – and got carried by Buddhism to Korea and Japan, where our friend Engelbert saw it.

So I suppose it’s really best to admire the ginkgo in the environment which saved it from probable extinction, a Buddhist temple like this one, Dajue temple in the western hills near Beijing.

ginkgo fall dajue temple

___________________

Vermont fall foliage: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/dam/assets/120911072551-leaf-peeping-vt-jenne-farm-ed-sharron-story-top.jpg [in http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/21/travel/fall-leaf-peeping-autumn/%5D
Hokkaido fall foliage: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-HK-XCKr055I/UGvr1pwda3I/AAAAAAAAGc8/oe2ckytpNRk/s1600/%E7%A7%8B%E3%81%AE%E9%AB%98%E5%8E%9F%E6%B8%A9%E6%B3%892.jpg [in http://talk-hokkaido.blogspot.com/2012/10/autumnal-foliage-around-daisetsu.html%5D
Qinghai fall foliage: my picture
Ginkgo trees along the street: my picture
Ginkgo trees autumn: http://chinatour.net/member/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/gingkgo.jpg [in http://chinatour.net/beijing/tour/autumn/%5D
Ginkgo leaves summer: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f5/Ginkgo_Biloba_Leaves_-_Black_Background.jpg/400px-Ginkgo_Biloba_Leaves_-_Black_Background.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo_biloba%5D
Ginkgo leaves autumn: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/GinkgoLeaves.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo_biloba%5D
Fossil gingko leaf: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c5/Ginkgo_biloba_MacAbee_BC.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo%5D
Sacred fig: http://img.xcitefun.net/users/2009/09/117740,xcitefun-sri-maha-bodhi-tree-2.jpg [in http://forum.xcitefun.net/sri-maha-bodhi-sacred-fig-tree-sri-lanka-t38289.html%5D
Maitreya Buddha sitting under ginkgo: http://www.asia.si.edu/collections/zoom/F1911.411.jpg
Ginkgo Dajue temple: http://images.chinahighlights.com/2012/11/4c1ed9eaebda4d74a20d96f4.jpg [in http://www.chinahighlights.com/beijing/article-see-golden-ginkgoes.htm%5D

VARY THE THEME!

Beijing, 19 October 2013

Anyone who visits China for more than a few days cannot fail to notice the many, many pairs of stone animals standing guard in front of any building which has pretensions to be something (although “something” can be no more than a second-rate noodle restaurant). Here is a typical pair of these animals, which my wife and I recently came across in front of the China National Philatelic Corporation.

chinese lion 003

The Chinese call these animals “lions”, which is really a bit of a joke. In today’s globalized world, where images of this iconic animal must surely have been beamed into every corner of every house on the planet, we all know that lions actually look like this:

real male and female lions

One theory has it that the original model for these “lions” was the Asiatic lion, of which a few miserable specimens still linger on in the Indian state of Gujarat. According to this theory, some live samples were brought to China along the Silk Road from Central Asia or the Middle East some 2,000 years ago, as gifts, tribute or whatever. Artists copied them, and then the originals stopped coming. So the artists copied the copies, and then copied the copies of the copies, and … Anyone who has seen the film Multiplicity, where Michael Keaton makes copies of himself and then the copies make copies of themselves

Multiplicity movie

knows what happens: there is a high loss of quality in the picture the further you get from the original.

A second theory is that actually the original model wasn’t a lion at all. It was a chow chow, which is a dog from this part of the world. It seems to have originated somewhere in northern China or Mongolia, or possibly in Siberia. I don’t know what readers think, but I’m not convinced that this

chow chow dog sitting

is the model of the above. Nor am I convinced that another ancient Chinese dog breed, the noble Pekingese (only members of the imperial family were allowed to have them), is the model

Pekingese dog

Such an irritating little dog, I’ve always felt, as it raspily yaps around your feet at some apartment door – a good, swift kick is what it deserves, but one has to be polite to the apartment owners. In any event, while it’s true that the Pekingese’s face has certain resemblances to my stone “lions” (and in fact it’s often called a lion-dog because of this resemblance), I rather think this is an example of convergent evolution: the sculptors went their way with their designs, the dog breeders with theirs, and one day someone said, “Ooh look, the Peke looks just like the stone lions!”.

A third theory, which I find quite convincing, is that actually the models for the Chinese stone “lions” are the stone lions which are often found outside Indian temples. See the following link for a further development of this theory, while here is a picture of one such Indian lion from Mahabalipuram:

indian carved lion

It really does look quite similar, doesn’t it?  I presume that proponents of this theory would argue that it is Buddhism which brought to China the idea of placing stylized “lions” at the entrances of temples and then with time they migrated to the entrances of any important building.

However the design came about, the fact is that this being China, where everything eventually became (and still becomes) formalized, codified and rigidified, these pairs of stone “lions” have been made in exactly the same way ever since the Ming dynasty. The key is that they look nearly exactly the same. Both have the same ritualized snarl on their faces. Both have the same mane of tight curls. Both have the same strong legs. Both are sitting on their haunches. There is only one important difference, fruit of a typical male chauvinism: the male is always – always – made with his paw resting on a ball (representing the male’s mastery over the world)

chinese lion 001

while the female is always – always – made with her paw resting on a cub which is playfully lying on its back (representing the female’s nurturing nature).

chinese lion 002

And sited as they are on either side of the entrance, their heads are always slightly inclined towards the enterer.

There must be literally millions of these stone “lions” scattered across the length and breadth of China, large, small, and every imaginable size in between. I swear, somewhere in China there must be a factory like this

huge-industrial-factory

that churns these damned things out by the thousands every day.

So tedious! So boring! Change, for God’s sake!

So you can imagine that it is with some small relief that I occasionally run across variations on this monotonous theme. Take this pair of “lions” which I recently came across in Beiing, in front of a restaurant.

lions looking at one another

How exciting! They are looking at each other and not the enterer.

Or take this “lion”, which I came across during my recent trip to Fujian.

river gorge 008

Why, rather than glaring at you he really looks glad to see you! And he seems to be offering you the ball to play with. It could almost be a playful Pekingese (assuming those damned dogs play). What a refreshing site for sore eyes.

Or how about this pair of “lions”, which we bumped into in Hong Kong? They were outside some bank as I recall, and not even guarding an entrance. A wonderful postmodern take on the old, very tired stone lion design.

lions in HK

And now, I even see real lions! This picture was taken five minutes after the picture with which I started the post

realistic lion

It was sitting in front of a furniture shop as I recall.

So when will I see two giraffes guarding the entrance to some place?

sitting giraffes

Change, for God’s sake!

____________________________

pair of Chinese lions: my picture
Real male and female lions: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3400/3189788124_26e25201fd_o.jpg [in http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenkeener1621/3189788124/%5D
Multiplicity movie: http://www.thefancarpet.com/uploaded_assets/images/gallery/4480/Multiplicity_41523_Medium.jpg [in http://www.thefancarpet.com/ActorGalleryPicture.aspx?mga_id=46948&a_id=714%5D
Chow chow dog: http://comps.canstockphoto.com/can-stock-photo_csp7744774.jpg [in http://www.canstockphoto.com/search.php?term=chow%20dog%20sitting&type=1%5D
Pekingese dog: http://www.dogbreedinfo.com/images19/PekingeseSissiePrincess11YearsOld1.JPG [in http://www.dogbreedinfo.com/pekingese.htm%5D
Indian carved lion: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2036/2312684736_1f31c1a673_b.jpg [in http://bighugelabs.com/onblack.php?id=2312684736&size=large%5D
male Chinese stone lion: my picture
female Chinese stone lion: my picture
Huge industrial factory: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/x/huge-industrial-factory-9265211.jpg [in http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photos-huge-factory-image6897978%5D
Chinese stone lions looking at each other: my picture
Chinese stone lion in Fujian: my picture
Chinese stone lions in Hong Kong: my picture
Realistic stone lion: my picture
sitting giraffes: http://media.offexploring.co.uk/photos/pamandralph/photos/070212-11-DSC_0112.JPG [in http://blogs.statravel.co.uk/pamandralph/albums/uganda/10149717%5D

SILENT AND DEADLY

Beijing, 30 August 2013

I’ve mourned in a past posting the passing of the bicycle culture which so dominated China until a few decades ago. In that same posting I wrote about a sub-family of bicycles which seems to be surviving the onslaught of the automobile. In this posting, I want to write about another sub-family of bicycles which is surviving; indeed, seems to be thriving: the electric bicycle.

When we first arrived in Beijing, my wife and I were intrigued to see these machines cruising up and down the roads in large numbers. Here are a couple of examples of what greeted us:

electric bicycle-1

(this one being ridden by a lady avoiding the sun, about which I’ve also written in another posting)

electric bicycle-2

I have to say, they immediately reminded me of another motorized bicycle which had played an important role in my teens: the French VéloSolex. For those of my readers who are less than 40, I probably have to quickly explain what this is. Originally (i.e., just after World War II), it was a bike (vélo in French) on whose front wheel had been placed a motor (made by the company Solex).

solex-old-1

This motor powered a small ceramic roller which in turn turned the front wheel through simple friction. And when you wanted to use it as a bike, there was a lever which allowed you to pull the motor and roller off the front wheel. Very simple. Pretty cool. And cheap.

By the time I came along, the VéloSolex had become a bulky bicycle. Or maybe a thin motorbike.

solex-new-1

My parents had bought two of them, for my elder brother and sister. They stayed at my grandmother’s house, ready for use during the summer holidays. As my siblings grew up and moved on, the VéloSolexes passed on to the next sibling. I reckon that by the time I inherited my VéloSolex it was third-or fourth-hand, as it were. No matter, I loved that bike. It was my set of wheels which gave me my freedom, which allowed me to escape from the house when things were really too boring, which they often were in my teenage years.

For me, the VéloSolex was France,

Velosolex_postcard

along with De Gaulle

De Gaullle

the Deux Chevaux

deux chevaux

The baguette

baguette

And Gauloises unfiltered cigarettes, which – I will confess – I smoked for a certain period of my life.

Gauloises Caporal

Who knows where my VéloSolex is now? In some knacker’s yard no doubt.

To come back to our electric bicycles in Beijing, they have one big difference with the VéloSolex: they are silent. Silent and deadly. One of the things which newcomers to Beijing learn quickly – or die – is to look VERY carefully, in ALL directions, when they are crossing a road, even if the little man is green. Right-turn at red lights is allowed, so cars turning right do so, regardless of whether you, the pedestrian, are crossing. Cars which have the green light and are turning left are anxious to do so before the cars coming in the other direction reach the middle of the intersection, so they whizz across it scattering to the winds any pedestrians that might be in the way. All two-wheelers, motorized or not, ignore lights and keep going, weaving around any pedestrians who may be in the way; to make their case worse, they drive on both sides of the road. In this last category of menace, electric bikes are the worst. They move fast, and they are completely silent. At night, they are even deadlier. None of their riders ever bother to put on their lights – so as not to run down the battery, no doubt – and the street lights are not particularly bright. So fast, silent, and invisible. They make me think of torpedoes.

But electric is the future! Even the VeloSolex, whose production ceased in 1988, has now been resurrected in an electric form

Velosolex-electric

And product designers have got into the act, designing excessively cool electric bicycles. And once they are there, you know the product is IN!

cool electric bicycle-5

cool electric bicycle-4

cool electric bicycle-1

So I guess my wife and I had better buy electric bicycles. Not only will we be riding the wave of coolness, but we’ll be running people down rather than being run down. When you can’t beat them, join them.

_________________________________________

Electric bicycle-1: http://thecityfix.com/files/2009/06/cycling.jpg
Electric bicycle-2: http://www.chinasignpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/electricbike_China-Digital-Times.jpg
VeloSolex-old: http://homepage.hispeed.ch/Spridget/solex/prototyp1.gif
VeloSolex-new: http://img175.imageshack.us/img175/8817/solex1.jpg
VeloSolex poster: http://cybermotorcycle.com/gallery/velosolex/images/Velosolex_postcard.jpg
De Gaulle: http://05.wir.skyrock.net/wir/v1/profilcrop/?c=isi&im=%2F5508%2F87355508%2Fpics%2F3147952278_1_2_Nvepv9eQ.jpg&w=758&h=1024
Deux chevaux: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6f/Deux_chevaux_mg_1748.jpg/640px-Deux_chevaux_mg_1748.jpg
Citroen DS: http://www.blogcdn.com/www.autoblog.com/media/2009/02/citroen-ds.jpg
Baguettes: http://www.tranquilla.it/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/baguette-640×442.jpg
Gauloises : http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_siskXeTIdkY/S-6ACEDO1MI/AAAAAAAAADs/-Ny-fMbye2A/s1600/Gauloises+Caporal+-+ann%C3%A9es+40.jpg
Velosolex-electric: http://www.veloecologique.com/produits/128.jpg
Cool electric bicycle-1: http://evworld.com/press/smart_e-bike_profilecityscape.jpg
Cool electric bicycle-2: http://www.evrdr.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/leopard-electric-bike.jpg
Cool electric bicycle-3: http://www.designbuzz.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/vw-folding-electric-bike_xfBve_58.jpg

CHIRPING CRICKETS

Beijing, 16 August 2013

Another phenomenon of this hot and muggy season is the crickets. Every tree, every bush, every blade of grass seems to host a multitude of crickets chirping like crazy. “Chirping” does not adequately describe the thunderous noise the crickets are making. Indeed, last weekend, when my wife and I were walking along a tree-shaded street, the noise in the foliage above our heads was so loud that we both instinctively looked up, half expecting to see a giant, four-foot cricket come tumbling down onto our heads.

A little navigation around my favourite fact-checking site – Wikipedia – has informed me that only male crickets chirp – or stridulate if one wants to be formally correct. They do so for one of four reasons: to attract females (“fairly loud”); to court a nearby female (“very quiet”); to chase off other males hanging around (“aggressive”); and to celebrate a bout of successful copulation (noise levels not defined). Since the noise they are currently making is so deafening, I presume we are witnessing either the first or the third of these stridulatory chants (I sort of assume – by extension of human behaviour – that post-copulatory stridulation will be merely a contented buzz). Not surprising, really, since Wikipedia informs me that crickets mate in the late summer. I presume that every male cricket in Beijing is currently hot under the collar and on the prowl.

Wikipedia has also corrected a fundamental misunderstanding on my part. I had always thought that crickets chirp – sorry, stridulate – by rubbing their legs together. Not so! They rub their wings together. One wing has a large vein – the “stridulatory organ” – which runs along the bottom of it and is covered with teeth. By rubbing the other wing along the teeth, our friend Cricket gets his chirp. And by holding his wings up and open when he does this, he gets a loudspeaker effect. Very clever.

I am moved at this point to insert a few photos of crickets, even though I know that my wife will not appreciate them much. Creepy-crawlies are not her thing and these close-ups of crickets make them out to be quite creepy-crawly.

green_cricket

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I suppose one of the things that foreigners – or at least Western foreigners – in China find odd is the important role which crickets have played, and continue to play,  in China as pets.  To be honest, I personally find it very strange that anyone would want a cricket as a pet. Don’t get me wrong, I find it admirable for people to have small pets – I think it’s ridiculous, even cruel, to have large dogs as pets in a crowded city, for instance – but I think mice is about the smallest one should reasonably go. Having an insect as a pet seems frankly contrarian, especially since their life expectancy is low to very low: for instance, an adult cricket lives about a month before it kicks the bucket, shuffles off its mortal coil, runs down the curtain, and joins the choir invisible (as John Cleese memorably put it in the Monty Python skit about the dead Norwegian parrot).

But important they have been. Over the centuries, Chinese have lovingly built cages for their cricket pets, using materials which go from the most precious to the most humble:

Jade:

cricket cage-3-jade

Ivory:

cricket cage-9-ivory

Ceramic (this particular version has some rather naughty pictures on it):

cricket cage-12-ceramic

Ox bone:

cricket cage-6-ox bone

Metal:

cricket cage-11-zicha

Bamboo:

cricket cage-1-bamboo

There was even a cottage industry – controlled by the Emperor’s household, presumably because it was so lucrative – in growing special gourds to be used as cricket cages:

cricket cage-10-gourd

And of course crickets have graced Chinese scrolls:

scroll with cricket-1

scroll with cricket-3

The extraordinary thing is that crickets still play a role in Chinese life. Here is a picture I took outside some pet shops in Shanghai. This is a string of cricket cages, made of humble raffia or something similar

cricket cages Shanghai 001

while this is a close-up of another string, in even humbler plastic, where you can see the crickets inside, waiting for their new masters.

cricket cages Shanghai 002

The Chinese even used crickets to hold cricket fights.  They still do.

cricket fighting

This I have not seen yet. I wonder if English bookies could get into this game.

english bookies-2

And with that, I wish you goodnight through the most famous cricket of all, Jiminy Cricket:

Jiminy Cricket

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Green cricket: http://ezwebrus.com/wallpapers/insect/green_cricket.jpg
Brown cricket: http://www.marketwallpapers.com/wallpapers/1/wallpaper-3107.jpg
Cricket cages-jade: http://www.paulfrasercollectibles.com/upload/public/docimages/Image/h/j/p/Chinese-jade-cricket-cages-410.jpg
Cricket cage-9: http://img.carters.com.au/134198.jpg
Cricket cage-ceramic: http://www.christies.com/lotfinderimages/d48014/d4801435x.jpg
Cricket cage-ox-bone: http://image.made-in-china.com/2f0j00cvyQhwERqtga/Rare-Fantastic-Ox-Bone-Tiger-Design-Cricket-Cage.jpg
Cricket cage-metal: http://p2.la-img.com/1567/36700/15356320_1_l.jpg
Cricket cage-bamboo: http://www.asiantreasuries.com/cricket%20cage%20%282%29.jpg
Cricket cage-gourd: http://media.liveauctiongroup.net/i/11138/11502127_1.jpg?v=8CE71FC734C5BE0
Scroll with cricket-1: http://p2.la-img.com/1311/38039/16205516_1_l.jpg
Scroll with cricket-3: http://p2.la-img.com/179/30164/11744435_1_l.jpg
Cricket fighting: http://lh5.ggpht.com/-AVooPylAFsg/TrqrCxFnkwI/AAAAAAAARjY/A13FdWkEFfE/cricket-fighting-14%25255B3%25255D.jpg?imgmax=800
English bookies: http://www.teara.govt.nz/files/38947-ap.jpg
Jiminy Cricket: http://www.waouo.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/jiminycricket-236×576.jpg