Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Water Caltrop, Yam Beans, and "Asparagus"

Always intrigued by new cuisines and new ingredients, we stopped to buy some vegetables that I have not knowingly eaten prior to now. Outside of the Buddhist temple that abuts Nanguan Park, which is a stone's throw from where we live, a man was selling these interesting-looking vegetables.

Water Caltrops for Sale                                       Photo credit: Deborah Zhang (c) 2013
Wikipedia says of these:
The water caltropwater chestnutbuffalo nutbat nutdevil podSinghara (Hindiसिंघाडा)سنگھارا (Urdu) or Pani-fol (Hindi: पानीफल) is any of three extant species of the genus TrapaTrapa natansT. bicornis and the endangered Trapa rossica. The species are floating annual aquatic plants, growing in slow-moving water up to 5 meters deep, native to warm temperate parts of Eurasia and Africa. They bear ornately shaped fruits, which in the case of T. bicornis resemble the head of a bull, each fruit containing a single very large starchy seed. T. natans and T. bicornis have been cultivated in China and India for at least 3,000 years for the edible seeds.
While I have eaten water chestnuts previously--mostly in American Chinese food--I have never seen anything like these. They are beautiful and as the Wikipedia entry states, positively bovine in their appearance with a hint of orchidness. Georgia O'Keefe would have had a field day painting them!

I just cooked four of them as a sample. They are delicious, but nearly impenetrable. Chef-A-Gogo describes his experience with these popular tidbits when he was introduced to them in Phuket, Thailand. He explains that they are not crunchy like a water-chestnut, but much more like an actual chestnut--you know, the kind that December's carolers sing about roasting on an open fire.

Chinese Nutpick with Mother-of-pearl handle

As we do not have a nutpick, we are using our tea awl to dig out the meat.

Wikipedia continues,
Water caltrop has been an important food for worship as prayer offerings since the Chinese Zhou Dynasty. The Rites of Zhou (2nd century BC) mentioned that a worshipper "should use a bamboo basket containing dried water caltrops, the seeds of Euryale ferox and chestnuts" (加籩之實,菱芡栗脯). The Chinese Herbal Medicine Summary (本草備要 published in 1694, written by Wang Ang 汪昂) indicates that water caltrop can help fever and drunkenness.
As you can see from the first picture above, our street vendor was also selling chestnuts, which are for sale everywhere in the streets of Beijing, much as sweet potatoes are, as well. He was not selling the water lily seeds of Eurayle ferox, though. These, I am quite sure, I have never seen.

"Chestnuts Roasted on an..."  Photo credit: http://perceptivetravel.com/blog/2013/02/08/wangfujing-snack-street-beijing/

Photo credit: http://www.changdashanyao.com/
I bought a ¥10 bag of the mountain yam bean. It weighs about 2 kg and will do nicely for a couple of yummy dinners. Now I must set about how to prepare them. It is not easy sometimes to find recipes.

On Sunday morning, we had brunch at a spicy fish hot-pot place with an old colleague of mine from the High School Attached to Northeast Normal University and she and her husband ordered something which the Chinese-English dictionary calls "asparagus", but is really bamboo shoots. NPR has a wonderful story about the kind of "asparagus" that I am trying to identify for you.

Photo credit: Laura McCandlish for NPR

Monday, October 14, 2013

Surname, Given Name

A suggestion for Google and others

This is a silly and short blog post, but one of the things that irritates me most in this era of the smartphone is that there are no obvious protocols for the data entry of Chinese names. Google Contacts allows me to enter the phonetic first name and phonetic last name, but in China, "the last shall be first and the first shall be last."

Would it not be smarter to say surname and given name? Is there some culture, readers, where this convention would not solve my problem? It is rather embarrassing to call Wu Zhang when I meant to call Zhang Wu (names changed to protect the innocent).

If you are more interested in this topic, there are a plethora of interesting articles available on the most popular names in Chinese. Li (or, as we spell it out West: Lee) is the fourth most popular. As usual, Wikipedia is a good place to start.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Beijing Botanical Gardens

Photo credit: Deborah Zhang

Yesterday morning I rousted Deborah and said we needed to be on the train by 8:30 AM. Our destination, not Bangor, Maine, but the Beijing Botanical Gardens. It took precisely an hour and a half to get there.

The Conservatory or Beijing Botanical Garden Public Greenhouse. Photo credit: You Are Not From Around Here
One of the points-of-interest is the Conservatory. As the Confucius Institute say, in typical Chinglish:
Beijing Botanical Garden Public Greenhouse, designed by Beijing Institute of Architect, is located in the western part of Central Axis Road of Beijing Botanical Garden which is at the foot of the Fragrant Hills...Beijing Government invested nearly 260 million Yuan to construct the world’s largest single exhibition greenhouse taking an area of 9800 square meters and a floor space of 5.5 hectares. Its space is as twice as the greenhouse in Kunming World Expo, making it one of the big events in China’s architectural history.
I did not go inside, but will go back in a month when the hills are bathed in vermilion (Beijing's peak foliage season is a month later than Vermont's peak by my guesstimate).

We paid the ten yuan entrance fee and then an additional two yuan fare to see the bonsai exhibit, which had more cool stones than funky little trees, but was nonetheless delightful. It was a bit rushed so we swirled through the bonsai garden in order to allow Deborah to make a 2 PM appointment, which she learned about at 9:20 AM while we were en route.

The roses were in full bloom and were, florally-speaking, the highlight. There was also a tribute to Cao Xuexin, the author A Dream of Red Mansions--one of the four great classic novels. I have read half of it, as earlier posts have indicated.


"Making Honey" Photo credit: Deborah Zhang

A bit fuzzy, my photo of an old printing press of Dream of Red Mansions.

A neat little insect enjoying the sunshine and clean air in the shadow of the Fragrant Hills.


A group of children played delightedly in the vicinity of this detailed sculpture.


Very cool lily pads within the confines of the Bonsai Garden's inner-sanctum. 

On our way out, we bought a plant from the same vendor that was pedaling this pitcher plant. The plant will sit on our coffee table, which we call a cha ji (tea table). It is customary and proper to have a plant on your tea table to remind those sipping tea (pin cha) of nature, because tea ought really to be consumed out of doors in the verandas of Cao Xuexin's great novels or even high in the Fragrant Hills.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Concerning the Black Stones that are Dug in Cathay, and Are Burnt for Fuel

It is a fact that all over the country of Cathay [China] there is a kind of black stones existing in beds in the mountains, which they dig out and burn like firewood. If you supply the fire with them at night, and see that they are well kindled, you will find them still alight in the morning; and they make such capital fuel that no other is used throughout the country. It is true that they have plenty of wood also, but they do not burn it, because those stones burn better and cost less.
-Travels of Marco Polo, Book II, Chapter XXX (circa 1300 A.D.)

Coal for domestic use being transported by use of a tricycle. Is this saving or adding to emissions? (Wikipedia, Brian Kelley from Auggen, Germany )
They Burn Better and Cost Less
As the Line 10 subway train chugged through the station called Yuanmingyuan, which is the site of the old summer palace plundered during the Boxer Rebellion (the Chinese call it the Invasion of the Eight Power Alliance, for good reason), I tugged on Deborah's sleeve, pointing to the footnote from my edition of Polo's Travels, in which my new Kindle has allowed me to become enmeshed. It says, in relevant part, "Near the capital coal is mined at Yuen-ming-yuen, and in a variety of isolated deposits among the hills in the direction of the Kalgan road, and in the district round Siuen-hwa-fu.  (Sindachu of Polo, ante ch. lix.)"

It then continues:
But the most important coal-fields in relation to the future are those of Shan-tung, Hu-nan, Ho-nan, and Shan-si [known in the pinyin as Shandong, Hunan, Henan, and Shanxi]. The last is eminently the coal and iron province of China, and its coal-field, as described by Baron Richthofen, combines, in an extraordinary manner, all the advantages that can enhance the value of such a field except (at present) that of facile export; whilst the quantity available is so great that from Southern Shan-si alone he estimates the whole world could be supplied, at the present rate of consumption, for several thousand years. "Adits, miles in length, could be driven within the body of the coal.... These extraordinary conditions ... will eventually give rise to some curious features in mining... if a railroad should ever be built from the plain to this region ... branches of it will be constructed within the body of one or other of these beds of anthracite." Baron Richthofen, in the paper which we quote from, indicates the revolution in the deposit of the world's wealth and power, to which such facts, combined with other characteristics of China, point as probable; a revolution so vast that its contemplation seems like that of a planetary catastrophe. [my emphasis]
I am struck by the prescience of the two observations of the Baron Ferdinand Richtofen to which I have drawn attention. [The baron was the uncle of the more famous "Red Baron," a successful flying ace known to the post-WWI generation for his daring feats and to the post-Charles Schulz generation because of Snoopy.]

The Baron of whom we are currently speaking was born in 1833 in Prussian Silesia. He traveled extensively and had a mountain named for him in China; there is still an eponymous peak, the tallest in the Rocky Mountain National Park's Never Summer Mountains. He is also said to have played a role in identifying gold fields in the decade following the American Civil War.

It took him some time to visit China after his initial intrigue was drawn there, as the Middle Kingdom was, at that time, immersed in the Taiping Rebellion, which continues to be the single bloodiest war in history by some accounts, possibly claiming 100 million lives. When he did get there, his notes were voluminous. The 1911 version of the Encyclopedia Britannica records,
In a remarkable series of seven journeys he penetrated into almost every part of the Chinese Empire. He returned home in 1872, and a work comprising three large volumes and an atlas, which, however, did not cover the entire field or complete the author's plan, appeared at Berlin in 1877-85 under the title of China; Ergebnisse eigner Reisen und darauf gegründeter Studien. In this standard work the author deals not only with geology but with every subject necessary to a general geographical treatise. Notably he paid close attention to the economic resources of the country he traversed; he wrote a valuable series of letters to the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, and first drew attention to the importance of the coalfields of Shantung, and of Kiaochow as a port. [my emphasis]
It is in this second passage that I find a curious disconnect. If he thought that stripping China of its many resources was tantamount to a "planetary catastrophe," why then was he writing letters to the men he knew would be first in line to exploit them? This topic is explored in an interesting paper by Ghassan Moazzin, a graduate student at Cambridge on the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. His conclusion is simple, "It was only when he started to employ imperialism in order to develop his career and finance his work that he gradually grew more dependent on it. Simultaneously the closer his relationship to imperialism became the more his work was influenced by it." This certainly seems like a plausible explanation, unless the venerable Henri Cordier, who offered the meticulous notes on Polo's Travels, was himself making loose with Richtofen's characterization.

Anyway, these are the encouraging numbers from the government today. China is serious about climate change...or, at least, about reducing air-borne pollutants for its increasingly outspoken populous. When will the United States get down to business?



N.B. The word adits in the footnote of Cordier means the horizontal mouth of a mine, but does not appear in Bill Gates' MicrosoftWord dictionary.



Monday, October 7, 2013

Wendell Berry on His Hopes for Humanity

On Opium and Boxers

Why Edwin Meese the Third is Like William Jardine

As you may know, it is fairly easy to watch or listen to anything you want here--TV shows, documentaries, films, etc. Intellectual property rules are mooshi like pork. Last night, I settled down fairly late, in my den and dressed only in my boxers, to watch Episode 2 (Opium), having not seen Episode 1 (Sugar), of a BBC series called Addicted to Pleasure; it was supposedly view-able only in Scotland. The other two episodes deal with whisky and tobacco--two other scourges of the British Empire in which Scotsmen played a leading role.

In this segment on opium, though, Brian Cox does a brilliant job of jogging our memories about two-hundred years of history...except, as he notes, he is not jogging our memories at all, because, as in America, the Scottish textbooks are markedly devoid of mentioning the two major opium wars (First Opium War from 1839 to 1842 and Second Opium War from 1856 to 1860) or much at all about the trading of opium with China, which began in the 1630s.  On the other hand, as well-dressed, Chinese-born Professor Yangwen Chen from the University of Manchester proclaims into the camera with a righteously accusatory edge in her voice:
[In China] textbooks from elementary school to middle school to high school to university highlights [sic] the wrong-doings of the so-called imperialists. Students would be led to the site where the opium war took place. It has become part of what they call the patriotic education program to educate Chinese youth like me so that we remember what you have done to us.
In fact, the Battle of Peking in 1900 and the invasion of the Eight-power Allied Forces is also a small entry in most history texts, usually under the pseudonym "The Boxer Rebellion." The British & World English Dictionary still defines Boxer as, "a member of a fiercely nationalistic Chinese secret society that flourished in the 19th century. In 1899 the society led a Chinese uprising (the Boxer Rebellion) against Western domination that was eventually crushed by a combined European force, aided by Japan and the US."

Anyway, of the opium-focused episode that I watched, BBC's short review states:
Scotland is plagued with over 50,000 drug addicts and one of the roots of this addiction is the opium poppy. In this second episode, actor Brian Cox travels to China to discover how the seeds of this modern-day addiction were planted during the height of Britain's trading empire. Since then opium has fuelled the world's largest drug-smuggling operation, earned vast fortunes, triggered war with China and inspired medical breakthroughs. Brian Cox reveals how Britain unleashed the most dangerous of addictions on the world, and how the consequences still haunt us today.
This tells you only a little bit, though. The illustrative tales that Mr. Cox brings to life are, as he notes with a nervous laugh, exceedingly cruel and pervasive. In the days of yore, missionaries brought "Jesus pills" of heroin and morphine to cure people of their addiction to opium, which was smoked, drunk, and otherwise imbibed until the invention of the hypodermic needle. More than 13 million Chinese were addicted to opium at one point. The Canton System gave rise to nine factories in Guangzhou (aka Canton) that were raided by an angry Qing emperor. Fighting broke out and the future barons and Members of Parliament William Jardine and James Matheson, two trading partners who controlled a major proportion of the opium trade, won their place in British history. The junior Matheson was sent slinking home by his business partner, Jardine, to convince Parliament to send ships.

William Jardine
Jardine, Matheson Co. (now Jardine Matheson Group) is still a going concern with a towering office complex in Hong Kong that employs more people in its conglomerate than any entity but the government. Its website innocuously states, "Since its foundation Jardines has been one of Asia's most dynamic trading companies, often having to reinvent itself in order to survive and prosper. Reflective of the times in which it traded, the Group has led the way in many businesses and has helped bring prosperity to the region."

They do not mention the word opium once in the three segments of their company's timeline that stretch from 1830 to 1939. Still, there is little debate about what happened. I suppose certain past leaders of Iran could pretend that it never happened, much like The Holocaust, but historians mostly agree: Jardine and Matheson led England to war. Actually, they marshaled the Royal Navy for a wholesale slaughter in Britain's most ignominious war.

This is decidedly on point today, because when historians write the history of our times, they will need to tell the story of how the government shutdown was orchestrated by angry billionaires. Edwin Meese III is one unpatriotic, despotic, sick old man. I remember him from 1986 when I did my very first research paper for Mr. Green on Meese's messy role in the Iran-Contra Affair. Meese resigned in the wake of the Wedtech Scandal just a bit later. He is the William Jardine of today. Out of incredible self-interest, he is prodding our nation's "leadership" to do things that will be judged immoral and outrageous by future generations.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Acupressure Slippers and other Indulgences

Recently, I have been rather self-indulgent.

I have bought a Kindle paperwhite, which is already transforming me into an avid commuter-reader stumbling along the underpasses between subway stops buried in Faust and The Odyssey. I have subscribed again to The Atlantic. I have already read a book on Basho by the poetess Jane Hirshfield--more of an essay than a book, I suppose, and am several chapters into Marco Polo's Travels.

I have also bought a bicycle and will momentarily bike across the city, despite the fact that the air has deteriorated again. After a few horrible days, we had some positively wonderful days and now it is back in the "unhealthy" range again. I will go from Dongzhimen to Weigongcun, should any of you wish to Google Map the route.

Finally, I got myself a new pair of slippers. According to one source, these are the key features of my new slippers:


  • Rich LeKang natural pebbles massage with tai chi magnet
  • Artificial selection of grinding natural pebbles and agate stones, according to plantar acupoint scientific arrangement through pebbles natural arc to massage foot reflection zone, stimulate foot points there by relaxing tendons, relieve fatigue, promote blood circulation to reconcile reins and the function of balancing Yin and Yang

Functions and role:

  • Smooth, promote blood circulation and reduce fatigue
  • Expel toxin accumulation and keep healthy
  • Improve endocrine balance, nice shaping
  • Strengthen metabolism and keeps youth
  • Restoring degraded organ function and prevent illness
  • Stimulate cells to produce energy and prevent aging
This picture came on the box!