Follow the Living Buddha

Seeking enlightenment and energy drinks in Shangri-la – Alec Ash

Listen to Kaiser Kuo read an audio version of this story

The plane juddered in a stomach-turning lurch as it banked steeply to the left, clearing a hilly ridge to reveal Shangri-la. It was a moment we have all had: a sudden jolt of turbulence, or drop in altitude, that reminds us we are in a metal box miles above the hard ground – before a safe landing makes us feel like milksops for ever doubting. Yet here the irony was too delicious. The town of Shangri-la in southwest China, after all, was named for a fictional lamasery stumbled upon after a plane-crash landed a group of Europeans in a Tibetan mountain valley. Now it has become a Chinese tourist town in the East Himalayan foothills, served by half a dozen flights a day. A crash landing would be grimly poetic.

This township in northwest Yunnan wasn’t called Shangri-la (Xianggelila 香格里拉in the Chinese phonetic rendering) at all until 2001, when the nondescript Tibetan county of Zhongdian won a bid to retitle itself after the fictional paradise. Investment and tourist renminbi followed the same illusion, and soon the place was unrecognisable. Five-star hotels sprung up, where once there were wooden country homes. Yak hotpot restaurants, Buddhist trinket shops and ‘ethnic’ dancing performances entertained guests looking for Tibetan flavor. The nearby Songzanlin monastery was refurbished, alloted a field-size carpark and fitted with electronic turnstiles. Paradise, indeed – for the local economy. I didn’t find enlightenment, but my wallet was certainly enlightened.



Roots and Branches

Courtney Han visits her ancestral home in China

My Dad grew up in a small fishing village about two hours northwest of Shanghai. His stories about his hometown sound more like Mount Olympus than a poor Chinese village with a flooding problem. According to him, nowhere else in the universe was the air as sweet, the trees as lush and the jade-toned water as beautiful as in the laojia.

I was born in Beijing, where my mother’s family lived, and moved to the US when I was five. My father’s experiences growing up in rural China were as different from my American childhood as a fish from a bird’s. His colorful stories about playing midnight hide-and-seek in fields, yanking river eels out of mud holes, climbing trees to peek at bird nests – they never happened on my visits to China. Instead I was coddled, stuffed with exotic foods, and kept under strict observation.



Serve the People, Discipline the Party

Jonathan Chatwin visits a new museum dedicated to Party Discipline in Wuhan

“Do you know where Mao’s old house is?” the hotel receptionist asked his colleague. The screen of my phone was zoomed in on a small grey square, labelled ‘Comrade Mao Zedong’s Former Residence’. Neither of them had heard of it, so they called their manager over, and the four of us stood in the echoey, white-tiled reception of my cheap Wuhan hotel, reorienting my phone to try and figure out where I was going. Eventually, one of them spotted a nearby subway station they knew and told me the quickest way across town. “He came here in 1966,” the manager told me. “Did you know he swam in the Yangtze?”

A few hundred yards down the embankment from my hotel, I had already seen the enormous metal numerals which commemorate the date of the swim the hotel manager was referring to: 66.7.16. The hot morning of July 16 1966 was one of eighteen occasions when the Great Helmsman swam in China’s great river at Wuhan, and indisputably the most well-known. A showy demonstration of physical vigour, it prefigured his return to Beijing, where the next month he threw himself into promoting the Cultural Revolution.



Taiwanese Theatre During Coronavirus

A theatre troupe rebuilds after a fire and the pandemic – James Chater

In August last year, when Liu Ruo-yu, the artistic director of U-Theatre (優人神鼓), saw the charred remains of the group’s rehearsal space and spiritual home on Taipei’s Laoquanshan, her first thought was not to what might have been incinerated, but a question: “Heaven, what is it you want to tell me?”

The devastating fire destroyed much of the group’s compound, and with it numerous drums, props and other musical instruments essential to their performances. It was the beginning of what, on the surface, should have been the most challenging year in the group’s history; just six months after the blaze, the worsening pandemic forced Liu into canceling all of their upcoming shows.

However, even as Liu posed the question to the heavens on the day of the fire, indistinctly, she already knew the answer: “We had to stop…we had to come home.”


Tracing the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway

Looking back down the tracks at French Indochina’s legacy in southeast Yunnan – Thomas Bird

The Map of the Current Situation dating back to 1898 hangs in the halls of Yunnan Railway Museum. It depicts the Qing Empire encroached upon by a bulldog with a lion’s body, an eagle swooping across from The Philippines, a grizzly bear stopping through Manchuria and a frog sliming its way up from Southeast Asia. These invasive species represent Britain, the USA, Russia and France respectively, while Japan looks on from the side lines, a jealous rising sun holding a leash around Taiwan’s neck.

With a population numbed by opium and ruled by aloof Manchu royals hauled up in their Beijing citadel, turn-of-the-century China made easy-pickings for hungry colonial powers who began to slice old Cathay up like a birthday cake.

Most of the competing powers constructed railways, which served to open up the economy in a realm with few good roads. But beyond its practical functions, the railway also acted as a territorial marker, an agent of empire, provoking historians to coin the term “railway imperialism”. Russian tracks laid a cross through Manchuria, expressing the Tsar’s clandestine plans to dominate in the Northeast. Germany built a large section of the north-to-south Jinpu Railway through its sphere of interest in Shandong with Great Britain building the rest. In fact, Britain was perhaps busiest of all, constructing the KCR line in cooperation with Chinese engineers through the Pearl River Delta as well as the Imperial Chinese Railway from Beijing to Mukden (Shenyang).