On Sunday, China released a 31-point plan mapping out the next six years of the nation’s urban development. Between now and 2020, the government will take steps to modernize agriculture and transform into a consumer driven, service-based and environmentally friendly economy, all while ameliorating the various social and economic gaps between urban and rural, and coastal and inland that have widened since Deng Xiaoping opened the country to free market activity in 1978. China will also superintend the urbanization of an additional 100 million migrants into cities, while granting urban status to 100 million of 234 million total people who currently live in cities but can’t access basic services.

Social and economic imbalances featured prominently in the plan issued on Sunday. The document stated that while China’s urbanization rate has risen to 53%—lower still than nations with comparable per capita income levels—only about 36% are legal urban residents, meaning that 17% cannot access education for their children and other government services in the areas where they live and work. The urbanization rate is 62% in China’s eastern regions, but only 48% and 44% in central and western regions, respectively. And finally, the urbanization of land has far outpaced the flow of people into cities, a process that has, in the words of the report, “wasted a large quantity of arable land, threatened food and ecological safety, and increased local government debt and financial risk.”

The government reflected its hopes and concerns in overlapping definitions of urbanization.  “Urbanization is the necessary road that modernization must take, the way to resolve the issues of farmers and agriculture, the pillar of coordinated development between regions, and the important lever that will expand domestic demand and promote industrial advancement.” And further: “Urbanization is a natural, historical process that accompanies industrial development, the gathering of non-agricultural activities in the city, and the movement to cities of an agricultural population. It’s an objective trend of human society, and a symbol of a nation’s modernization.” Urbanization is both an end and a means: the mark of a modern society, as well as the policies that will direct China towards that goal. It is the cause of and cure of many of China’s woes.

Zhou Qiren, a Chinese economist that advocates hukou reforms, stronger land rights and land reform, describes urbanization as a feedback loop in which population concentration stimulates economic activity, which in turn leads to greater population concentration and greater economic activity. In China this feedback loop has proceeded unevenly. Concentration of industrial activity, and urbanization of land, have occurred much faster than increases in population density. The result is that China’s cities are relatively under populated. Tom Miller emphasizes this point in his book China’s Urban Billion: “This matters, because China has to feed one-fifth of the world’s population with just 7 per-cent of its arable land. Around 80 per cent of China’s urban residents live in cities with a population below 5 million, similar to the figure in the United States, whose land resource per head is eight times greater.” Zhou Qiren ascribes the imbalance between land and people to long-standing policies that have limited the free flow of rural migrants to cities.

The urbanization of land is particularly riddling. Local city and town governments have long relied on acquiring, selling, and mortgaging land to raise money for infrastructure projects, pay for public services, and boost GDP. The negative consequences of the program—high property prices, inefficient use of land, opportunities for corruption, and environmental degradation— are familiar, and the government has been taking steps to reform the system. The new plan prioritizes economic, efficient use of the land, demanding that local governments take population density, production potential and environmental concerns into account when expanding cities.

The more intractable issue, however, is the legal discrepancy between “national land” and “collective land.” Urban land is subsumed into “national land,” while rural land is considered “collective land.” Yet only “national land” can be legally mortgaged, sold, or treated generally as a financial asset. Urban residents can sell or mortgage land despite the fact that the government technically owns it. Rural dwellers enjoy no such right. Only local governments have the right to purchase “collective land” and convert it to “national land.” The result, argues Zhou Qiren, is that land acquisition and seizure have become the only ways for China to incorporate land into the market system.

The new plan does promise to take measures to grant equal legal rights to “collective land,” including granting rural collectives the ability to independently put land onto the market. This is a step in the right direction. But the strong financial incentives that drive the urbanization of land don’t look like they’ll disappear immediately. According to the Land Resources Bureau, 4 trillion RMB worth of land was sold in 2013. So far, land reform has generally been limited to certain pilot zones across the country, and may arrive too late for those who have already lost their land.

On top of this, the expected 100 million additional migrants will not be moving to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Shenzhen. Nor will they be moving to work in factories producing cheap goods for export. Instead, the government hopes that the migrants will move into small and medium sized cities and towns with populations between 500,000 and 3 million. Miller supports the argument that this dispersed method of urban development is wasteful. But the government is moving forward. The plan promises to expand the country’s rail network, connecting smaller cities to normal speed and high-speed trains. It has also promised to relax hukou restrictions in small and medium sized cities to ease the process of migration. But the plan vows to restrict the growth of larger cities, already tilting under the physical pressure of an enormous population. The “China Dream” might come true for millions of people over the course of the next 6 years. It just might not come true in the place they imagined it would.


At various times living in China I’ve sensed what I’ve read about religion here. The number of religious believers has been growing for several years, for a number of reasons. The most common refrain is that the deterioration of Communist ideology and the rise of a faithless market economy have left people searching for meaning. At a Buddhist temple over the weekend, I got the impression that the number of Chinese Buddhists is rising. The head monk, Zhong Xian, leads a 180 km march each summer from Changsha to a temple in the Hengshan mountain range, and he told me that participation had increased each of the last three years.

Christianity is also on the rise, and the question is how far it will go. A scholar of Chinese religion, Richard Madsen, estimates that the number of people who identify as Christian will peak at between 7-10% percent of the population, joining a plurality of other faiths. In an interview for the New York Review of Books, Madsen discussed his upcoming book on happiness in China, which he described as a project “about searching for the good life in China in an age of anxiety.” Madsen cited a study that claimed that happiness levels are diminishing in China. He said that economic and social changes — movement from country to city, the erosion of the village as a cultural and moral institution, and slowing economic growth — are fuelling the search for new “moral anchors.”

A growing body of research finds an association between happiness and economic indicators. The Prosperity Index factors well-being and income into its measure of prosperity. Contrary to what Madsen suggests, China ranked 51st globally in 2013 in the Prosperity Index, up ten places from 2009. It moved up twenty-seven places on the Economy sub-index due to “an increase in capital per worker and a fall in inflation,” and 13 places on the Social Capital sub-index thanks to “more people helping strangers.” (I’m skeptical that inflation in China has fallen.) The United States has maintained a relatively even ranking since 2009, though predictably, its economy sub-index fell 11 spots in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

But only two questions on the health portion of the Prosperity Index’s survey relate to mental health.  Another body of research finds connections between social equality and anxiety levels in a society, and inserting this relationship into the picture suggests that the definition of “happiness” needs to be broadened to account for a range of psychological and behavioral issues.

In a Feb. 2 Op-Ed in the New York Times, co-founders of The Equality Trust Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett reviewed a number of studies linking mental health to social status and inequality. According to the authors’ own findings, depression and mental illness were more common in countries with larger rich/poor gaps. The tie they forged between inequality and mental health hinges on a study by U.C. Berkeley researcher Sheri Johnson, who concluded that depression can be a response to a feeling of subordination within systems of behavioral dominance, where “we recognize and respond to social ranking systems based on hierarchies and power.” One study that Wilkinson and Pickett discussed found that countries with bigger income differences tend to reflect deeper worries about status; another found self-aggrandizement more widespread in unequal societies.

What constitutes ‘status’ in China is not the subject of this post, but there are some indications that economic security is related to social comfort. Homeownership, for instance, is a constant worry of young college graduates— to say nothing of migrant workers — who often feel that a home is the bedrock of a stable marriage. And constantly increasing housing prices have made homeownership an enormous financial challenge, amplifying the anxiety.

China, like the U.S., looks like the type of country prone to high correlations between anxiety and income inequality. Its 2012 Gini coefficient — a decimal point between 0 and 1, where 0 reflects perfect equality and 1 represents perfect inequality (one person has all the money) — China scored a 0.474, above the 0.4 level where experts say social dissatisfaction starts to appear. (The U.S. scored a 0.45 in 2007.)  China’s 2012 Gini coefficient was down from a peak in 2008, however.  So there is good news. By at least two measures, the outlook in China is optimistic: inequality is decreasing, and some indicators of well being are improving. What about mental health? That’s not for me to evaluate in this post, but the answer could us tell us something about how religion will continue to evolve in China.


A few weeks ago a friend, Zhang Wei (In English: Zhang Why) asked me if I wanted to spend part of the Chinese New Year at a Buddhist temple in Hunan province. I committed. At the last minute, Zhang backed out for a warmer climate — Beihai, in Guangxi province— and replaced himself with his friend, Zhang Meng Zhi, a.k.a. Mengzi, a.k.a. Michael. Fate, the intersection between the inner cause and the outer effect, sent us packing for Guangji Temple, tucked away in the Hengshan Mountains of Hunan province.

The Hengshan Mountains are one of the five great mountain ranges in China. Zhu Rong peak, the range’s highest point, was named for the Chinese mythological god of fire, and looks out over its neighbors, which are covered by ferns and bamboo. Guangji Temple lies in the shade of one of the peak’s steeper faces, squeezed between two slopes that flow down into a valley. Aboard the high-speed train, as the landscape outside whizzed by like a picture reel, Michael referred me to a series of diagrams he had drawn in his journal related to Chinese mythological elements: earth, wood, metal, water, and fire. He plugged the last two digits of my birth into an equation that produced the number two. Two was located in the northeast corner of a three by three chart. “The northeast is the most suitable place for you to live,” he told me.

Michael hails from Shaoxing, Zhejiang, the hometown of legendary Chinese writer Lu Xun. He maintains good sense of humor and an optimistic outlook, and prides himself on his knowledge of Chinese culture. He is generally humble, but can be direct. “Few people surpass my knowledge of Chinese culture,” he once told me. After many years spent working at a state-owned company in Hangzhou, Michael left and started his own business designing interiors for apartments, factories, and hotels. In 2005, Michael divorced from his wife and left their daughter, now a teenager, in his ex-wife’s custody. Around the same time, Michael traveled to Wuhan for a project and never left. He described the city as “dirty,” “chaotic,” and “full of construction sites,” and the local dialect as displeasing to the ear, though he had grown to like the city over time. He had studied Buddhism previously, but began practicing only last year. He attributed his increasing appetite for the religion to fate.

When we arrived on Wednesday afternoon Guangji Temple looked like a sanatorium: cement, square, fenced in from the wilderness and cloaked with an emptiness resulting from the guests’ absence for afternoon naps. The architectural detail on the inside made up for an intimidating exterior. The temple sits wrapped within a moat and a two story building filled with all the elements of a pensive weekend retreat: bedrooms; a kitchen and dining room; various rooms for prayer; a toolshed and office; an activity hall; a special room to practice calligraphy and painting; and ping pong tables. Each room looks through ornate wooden window frames into a stone hallway that keeps the temperature cooler indoors, even as light from outside patterns squares along the floors, infusing the place with a soothing austerity.

The two of us met Zhong Xian, whom we call Shifu, or master, a monk in his early 40s in charge of Guangji Temple, in a cluttered waiting room outside of his office. Shifu decided to become a monk on a whim in the early 1990s after his first visit to a Buddhist temple. A victim of a difficult local dialect, he taught himself Mandarin by listening to tapes, and over time cultivated a sonorous voice suited perfectly for the chants he issues each morning during prayers. Shifu’s expression, oscillating unpredictably between stern and jocular, is etched on a round, shaven head, giving the look of a face drawn on a Ping-Pong ball. Over tea we discussed United States geography. He and Michael briefly disagreed about whether America was bigger than China. Shifu became serious, and put the matter to rest. “In fo, all are one.”

For the five days that I spent at Guangji Temple, Shifu hovered in the background of a weekend getaway flavored lightly by religious practice. He took a commanding role at prayers and meals, but busied himself in his office or on errands for most of the day. The only requirement at the temple was attendance at morning prayers, which lasted for an hour beginning at 6 a.m. each day. One of three full time workers would stand in the hallway and bang two wooden sticks together to wake up the other guests. Then they would beat a gong made of hide inside the temple to announce the beginning of prayers. For most of the hour, the 8-15 other guests would stand and sing along with Shifu, whose voiced boomed through a microphone off of the temple’s walls, where gargoyles looked on in with varied expressions of terror, piety, and malice. Every now and then Shifu would clang a small bell and we would kneel on a leather cushion. One worker would mark the pace of the song by beating a wooden drum that looked like a brain, while another beat a different hide drum. For fifteen minutes we would slowly walk in circles within the temple, at whose center sat the shrine of a fat, smiling Buddha. I understood little of the text we were reading, but a lot of the repetitive chants were phrased as simple reverences for Buddha.

After prayers and breakfast the rest of the day was ours. Most other guests were from Hunan province, and came alone. A woman from Changsha and her mother left two days into the week, and a young couple appeared on our last day. There was Ayuki Lau, a resident of Hengshan pursuing her undergraduate studies in Wuhan; Shang Guan, a young woman professional from Changsha; Linda, a divorcée and mother of two from Changsha living in Hong Kong; Si Mao, an artist from Yueyang, Hunan; and Fu Kui, a man from the Miao minority who does business in Jishou, Hunan. Some people volunteered in the kitchen or garden, others spent the day loafing by the pond or practicing calligraphy, and others, like Michael and I, divided our time between vacation and labor. The meals were delicious — fresh vegetables seasoned in the spicy, Hunan style — and well worth the cost: free. Shifu told me that the temple, in practice, was run as a commune.

As guests we got a long very well as a group, developing friendships over the course of five days. I had come into the weekend with some reservations — previous experience has taught me that religious groups can, in some instances, overwhelm curious newcomers with subtle efforts to persuade. But there was no didactic or educational component at Guangji Temple. From what I gathered, the texts we read did not offer any narrative, and while we greeted and addressed one another by saying amituofu  (‘merciful Buddha’) and shixiong (apprentice), discussions drifted to the affairs of “down the mountain,” of everyday life. As someone tasting Buddhism for the first time I found myself not far off from the other guests. The others seemed to be searching for something, but no one seemed fervent; personal goals, the need to find comfort or rehabilitate, and the urge to make sense of things never entered into the religious dialogue. Shifu and others did ascribe fortunate occurrences — the weekend, especially — to fate, the only Buddhist concept that emerged repeatedly and was within grasp. And in a way, the concept of fate seemed to fit in with the lax attitude of the place. If the inner cause only partially corresponds to the outer mirage, no ‘result’ emerges. Why force someone into religion if it’s not clear that fate is channeling one there?

The main question I failed to answer, however, was where all the money came from. Who or what was supporting such carefree and noncommittal experimentation with Buddhism? The only cost I incurred in five days was the train ticket. On the first day of the Chinese New Year, Shifu handed out red envelopes to the guests each filled with 100 RMB (about $16). The temple was gorgeous, nearly brand new, and yet without the kitsch of temples milked for tourism revenue. I suspected that Shifu, good with words, especially in earnest moments, also had a way with government officials, who he described as helpful. I asked Shifu if the government officials he knew were religious. He put them into a matrix: those who say they believe but don’t, those who believe but don’t say, those who say they believe and mean it, and those who don’t believe and don’t say anything. The local government had helped knock down a small group of houses to build Guangji Temple, in 2005, and were helping to pave the way for an enormous Buddhist complex somewhere in Hengshan, which Shifu said was one hundred times larger than Guangji temple and would cost 2 billion RMB. To whom will that temple be open? I’ll leave that question for another post.


As January winds down, Wuhan transforms. Stores begin to close, traffic begins to dwindle, and streets feel less crowded, like a drain emptied a river of people back to somewhere else. In Chinese, this period translates roughly as the Spring Transit. Not much changes in the older neighborhoods, like mine, Xichenghao, where ties to the countryside are remote, forgotten, or residents too busy to return home. At the end of December, residents began to hang raw fish and meat out to dry next to their laundry as part of a traditional curing process. With a long pole, one person would hook the meat and hang it from an electricity wire, while one or two others provided the backseat driving and commentary. The process takes days, and finishes before Spring Festival begins. The meats are meant to last far into the year. The traditions of Spring Festival remind one how recently it was that Wuhan was just one piece of a larger agrarian economy, marking time according to the harvest, as opposed to the teeming modern city that it is today. Since living in China I’ve come to appreciate the timing of Spring Festival. It occurs in the dead of winter, early February. Marking time’s passage by the position of the moon, subject to change each year, seems to capture time’s fluid nature better than a date fixed on a calendar.

Xichenghao means West City Moat. During the Qing Dynasty, the hill that shades this neighborhood formed a natural defense barrier, and residents dug a moat at its foot. Few obvious signs of the neighborhood’s past remain. Narrow brick alleys weave between unplanned cement apartments built during the 1980s and 1990s, with older, one story tiled houses interspersed here and there. The neighborhood feels like a country village crammed into the middle of the city. Young people have either left or are too busy to appear, leaving the neighborhood filled with grandparents and grandchildren during the day.

Vendors pack together where the narrow channel that runs through the neighborhood meets the larger boulevard linking Xichenghao to the outside world. They sell all sorts of food: garlic, onions, ginger, fish, pork, pickled vegetables, fish, frogs, turtles, lotus, peppers. All meat is killed on the spot. Anyone on business hurries through the narrow lane that runs through the neighborhood, which often clogs with traffic. Breadbox vans wait for vendors to clear their produce from the street; motorcyclists flank pedestrians at any edge, honking at and passing older folks before they can turn around to look. On the longest winter break of my life, I’m in a strange place, a foreigner stuck somewhere between childhood and retirement, wondering whether I’ll be able to pick up a government subsidy if I stick around long enough.

Money is usually the first subject that my neighbors and I discuss. Several days ago I spoke with an older woman on a cement patio outside her house who asked me where I was from and what I did in Wuhan. I told her that I am an English teacher. She formed an L-shape with her hand, a symbol for the number eight in Chinese. I knew what was coming. “You probably make 8000 RMB per month,” she said. I denied that I make that much. During my first year in Wuhan, I taught elementary school students and earned a decent salary, especially compared to someone my age in Wuhan, and lived in a fully furnished apartment. Each month I saved about 50% of my earnings. As I ascended from an independent tutoring center to a prestigious university, though, my pay took a cut (I expected the cut). This year I go to the Party Affairs Office to collect a stack of cash bills, but the pay is lump sum and as the months go by the stack gets lower and lower. My neighbors scowl at my low salary, but are impressed by my rent, which is only 400 RMB per month, about $80. If they don’t ask, I’ll often follow up the salary question with that fact, which usually elicits approval.

Xichenghao is a poor neighborhood. With breadwinners at work or elsewhere during the day, I form my picture of the neighborhood through the retirees and fruit sellers, who voice their complaints about money early on in our conversations. People are cheerful, but negative; always friendly and generous, but just scraping by. A few days ago I complemented a man on the spot he’d staked out for his house and his small garden. “It’s a terrible house,” he said. Another older woman told me not to film her because she was poor. “Is he from Xinjiang, or a foreigner?” asked a neighbor, referring to the northwest region home to China’s Turkic Muslim population. “Why did you come to such a poor neighborhood?” a man asked me several weeks ago. The last time locals made significant improvements to their houses occurred during the 1980s, and most buildings wear a decrepit charm, with patches of red brick exposed where cement has eroded. Each month, the retired folks pick up a payment of 1000 and 2000 RMB from the post office. The amount of the check varies according to how long they’ve been retired for. “It’s enough to eat,” one woman told me.

Two waves of migration populated the neighborhood. The first round occurred in the early and mid 1950s, before the establishment of the household registration, or hukou, system in 1958. Although China’s constitution, written in 1954, guaranteed the freedom to migrate, officials nullified the rule in practice, mandating migrants to obtain sponsorship from an employer or school to obtain a local hukou. The floodgates opened again in the early 1980s, when the government began to experiment again with free migration. In thirty odd years the percentage of China’s population located in urban areas increased from 20% to over 50%.

A lot of my neighbors decline to share their names. A woman who sells fruit nearby my house avoids the question when I ask her, even as she invites me to sit down and chat. In the 1980s she came to Xichenghao from rural Hubei province to marry her husband, whose father built their cement house during the 1970s. Each month she picks up a check from the government for 700 RMB (about $112). She insists that she has no other choice but to work, but she also acknowledges that she’s not in the fruit business to make money. I asked her how much she earned per day and she said “pennies.”

A short, mousy, yet pretty woman who sells fruit right beside her told me that their relationship is great, which is lucky, because they’d be forced to share each other’s company either way. Around the corner, a fruit seller who I address as “older sister” despises her neighbor, a friendly woman who also sells fruit. Several months ago the a dispute over the placement of umbrellas led to blows, and older sister pointed to a mark on her eye from where the woman had hit her. “She’s an ugly person,” she told me. Most of the time when I pass through it seems as though one is simply ignoring the other’s existence—each orbiting around the other, constantly maintaining an aloof distance. I try to maintain a neutral stance, buying an apple or banana from one when the other isn’t looking.

My cheap apartment in Xichenghao came without a kitchen, and cooking a meal takes half a day. Because restaurants nearby are cheap I rarely eat in. This fact stands out most prominently in the minds of my neighbors, who, now knowing how much I earn per month, harangue me about my eating habits at every opportunity. Eating out is, after all, more expensive and less healthy. When I met the women selling fruit yesterday they brought up the fact immediately. “Where are you going to eat during Spring Festival? All of the restaurants will be closed. Food will be way more expensive!” They shared a laugh.

I usually have trouble explaining what American food is like to them. Chinese can often identify a region by it’s cuisine — noodles are a staple food in the north, rice in the south; food gets spicy in western Sichuan and southern Hunan, and sweet in Zhejiang and Jiangsu. People from Guangdong eat anything. I’m usually stumped by the question: What is the staple food in America? Here, a lot of Chinese will interject and say that Americans must eat a lot of hamburgers. I tell them that hamburgers are more of a specialty item, eaten more in during the summer or when Americans dine out — not a staple food. Perhaps American staple food lies somewhere between meat and potatoes and Mexican food. I say we eat a lot of salad and sandwiches. This answer usually confirms suspicions, and when I said this to the women selling fruit they gave a satisfied nod.

A lot of times I find my usual gang of fruit sellers squeezing the same details out of me that I am out of them, painting a portrait of a country and then placing a person in context. They start from measurable and logistic details and move to abstract questions. How long is the trip from Wuhan to America? How many times per year do you go home? How much does a plane ticket cost? Where do you want to get married and settle down, here or there? Is it easy to earn money in America? (“It’s easy to earn, but not easy to use”—one cross eyed man’s thoughts on the subject.) How poor is the countryside there? Which is more fun, here or there?

As fast as the city changes, Xichenghao has remained the same, but likely not for long. The neighborhood is an attractive place for property developers, given its location next to the Yangtze, and housing prices nearby are rising. The fruit sellers think that the neighborhood will be gone in three to five years. Across from Xichenghao loom several blue and white apartment buildings that give the larger area, Jiyuqiao, its reputation for expensive housing. A Mercedes Benz outfit along Riverfront Boulevard shows what’s coming. It makes sense that in a few years Xichenghao will be blown over, trampled by the city’s development, a high rise on top of a cement apartment on top of a moat. In the dank alleys at night, rats scurry over a future memory living in the present.


Ye Ming drove down the highway further away from Wuhan city. Small villages began to define the landscape more so than construction sites. Destruction is inevitable for some villages, whose residents will eventually relocate into places like Zuo Ling New Town. Ye Ming drove to the outskirts of one small village and parked next to a dirt field littered with construction equipment. The white liquor distillery sat among a group of buildings next to the field. Ye mentioned that during the Mao era — he did not say whether the 1950s or 60s — Hubei farmers would dry out lakes to increase farming acreage. The dirt field, slightly depressed in the ground, looked like it could have been one such lake.

A stench of pigs, wafting from a sty across from the distillery, hit us as we stepped out of the car. (When I poked my head inside the sty later, I was surprised to find the stench less pungent, the pigs an un-muddied, pale pink.)  Ye introduced me to a man and woman working in the distillery. They were producing a type of white liquor distilled from rice encasings. A pile of the stuff lay in the center of the dark room, giving the whole place the smell of cereal. In concert, the three of them outlined for me the process of distilling, from the initial round of heating and fermenting to the boiling and pouring of the alcohol. Like whiskey, white liquor burns the esophagus on the way down, but radiates warmly throughout the diaphragm and lungs. This particular kind had a grainy freshness to it.

After leaving, Ye drove us to the next village over. He parked in front of an eerie looking empty town hall that resembled a church, but emblazoned with the star crest of the Communist Party. I imagined the loudspeaker on the roof blaring propaganda of some kind in earlier days. As we walked through the village, Ye Ming chronicled its architectural history, pointing and dating houses, explaining different ways in which bricks were made. He was difficult to follow; the words and nomenclature he used to explain the building techniques were above my vocabulary level. An older woman showed us three bricks with ornate carvings next to the door of her house, which she valued at 20,000 RMB.

Finally, we barged into the courtyard of a larger home, which Ye Ming said must have belonged to a wealthy peasant family. The entrance had no ceiling, and the floor was tiled with large stones. A square canal used to channel rainwater cut a rectangle through the floor. Inside, old pictures of the family rested on a mantle, and the noise of a television leaked out into the courtyard. Ye Ming said that he knew the family. As he showed me to the kitchen, an old man, half awake, ran out into the courtyard in his pajamas, startled by the intruders. Ye Ming explained what we were doing, and the man nodded in approval, straightening the thick mop of gray hair on his head. “We’re here to invest,” Ye Ming told him in dialect. “He’s from the Hubei Provincial Museum,” he said, beckoning towards me. His tone was not tongue-and-cheek.

“How much would you want for this place?” Ye Ming asked him. When the man said no less than 1 million RMB, Ye Ming heaved his body back as if in laughter. They reached a standoff after Ye Ming assured him he would never get that much.

I asked the man, who was 63, where his children lived. “In Shanghai,” he said. He didn’t know what they did there. “How do you not know what they do there?!” Ye Ming exclaimed. The man shrugged. He said that the house had been in his family for a long time. He added that the courtyard had been used to receive visitors on horseback. On our way out, I mentioned this fact to Ye Ming. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he said. “He has no culture.” Not like our delegation from the Hubei Provincial Museum.


A billboard envisions a green living project in a suburb of Wuhan. Time will tell how closely these idyllic renderings approximate reality.

Yesterday I made a 2-hour journey to Zuo Ling Town to visit a 74-year old man named Qin Zong Wen who I’ve befriended over the past several months. Qin wears a fedora and sells soda and cigarettes from the back of a moped cart licensed to his son, who is in his 30s. The place they call home, Zuo Ling New Town, is a blip of several thousand relocated households on an enormous piece of land called The Future Technology City, which will absorb Wuhan as the city expands outwards.

Each time I visit I try to squeeze some of Qin’s past out of him. In the late 1970s, Qin traded his city hukou (household registration) for a rural one. Usually this transaction occurs in the opposite direction — migrants from the countryside dream of obtaining a city hukou, which would give them access to social benefits like healthcare and education for their children. But Qin, who remained a bachelor throughout the Cultural Revolution, was forced to make the move in order to marry his wife, who held a rural hukou. At the time, it was only possible to switch from urban-rural, not visa versa. In August, the Qin family moved into an apartment unit in Zuo Ling New City that they bought with compensation provided by the local government for their old home, which had been razed by a property developer.

After lunch, I browsed the main street of Zuo Ling New Town, where two thirds of the shop fronts lay empty. Every time I visit Zuo Ling New Town I feel like I’m checking up on an ongoing construction project. When relocated families were allowed to move to their new homes in September, the entire complex was only partially finished. In between the apartment buildings workers lay cement for sidewalks and build gardens. Children attend classes in a sleek new school building. Construction is already underway on another enormous block of apartment buildings on the space of land next door.

It is perhaps too early to gauge whether Zuo Ling New City will mature into the bustling community that the billboards promise. The shops that are occupied mostly house temporary contractors who specialize in home renovation and interior decoration. I walked into a small grocery store that looked permanent. The owner, Ye Ming, who sat at the counter, was an expert conversationalist, and after exchanging normal pleasantries he began surveying the selection of white liquor that lined the shelves, detailing the differences between strains of liquor, their alcoholic concentration, and subtleties in brewing method. When I didn’t understand a word — which was about every other word — he wrote the character in my notebook.

A self- proclaimed white liquor expert, he admitted that he did not often drink the stuff. He told me that he would show me around a local white liquor distillery. We left the store under the care of his wife, who he described as a workaholic.


This week Sina News ran a lively retrospective of the hottest trending topics on Weibo in Hubei Province in 2013. In addition to owning Weibo, China’s largest microblogging site, Sina aggregates news from across the country, including province by province. The retrospective provides a narrow look at China by focusing on Hubei, which, with roughly the same population as Italy, is large enough.

A mundane news day in Wuhan this year usually consisted of some combination of stories about the city’s subway construction, rising housing prices, investigations of corrupt officials, and pollution updates. The occasional anomaly swept through Weibo before being forgotten, until now. This fall I picked up a free local newspaper at the subway station each morning, and found that most of the time there was at least one lead story about the subway. In many regards this list looks like it could have been distilled from anywhere in the world. More than a review of local gossip, this retrospective recalls the fleeting snicker, gape, or tear that local news sometimes injects in to the sameness of any given day.

Honorable Mention: No Eating on the Subway

While #noeatingonthesubway didn’t make the top five trending topics in Hubei this year, I decided to give it an honorable mention because it struck a personal chord. On a subway ride in March, a Wuhan woman decided to film a girl next to her eating “hot dry noodles,” a Wuhan signature breakfast snack, after repeatedly telling her that eating was prohibited on the subway. As the woman prepared to upload the photo to Weibo, the girl dumped the noodles on the woman’s head in protest and tried to delete the photo. Unfortunately, it was the nature of her tantrum that earned the girl small-scale notoriety on Weibo.

After words, some micro bloggers characterized eating on the subway as an “uncivilized” form of behavior. In Chinese, the words “civilized” and “civilization,” connote a standard of good behavior and manners, more so than their English translations. Propaganda signs around the city — usually placed in front of construction sites — urge citizens to “pay attention to being civilized.” My interpretation of this principle is that advancing “civilization” entails not just becoming more modern, but adopting modern manners and acting modern as well.  Wuhan’s year old subway, the first in China to go under the Yangtze River, represents the greatest achievement of the city’s collective advancement, and its pristine environment, in contrast to the choked streets above ground, magnify the blight of any given “uncivilized” transgression.

Earlier this year I learned my lesson about “uncivilized” behavior. In May, I was eating a loaf of raisin bread on a crowded subway ride to the airport with my sister, when a woman told me, in English, “No eating on the train.” I looked up at her and saw a man behind her holding a camera, filming me. They must have been filming some sort of “uncivilized” behavior vigilante justice show. How I wanted to stuff my bread into her smug mouth! But I put it away instead, thinking of the unfortunate trial by Weibo that the angry girl eating hot dry noodles was forced to attend.

#5 Shit Storm Ruins Dance Hour

Synchronized group dancing is a favorite past time for older city residents across China. Take an evening walk and you will usually encounter a group of older women, and sometimes men, dancing in a park to music played on a boom box. One group of women in Hankou, Wuhan, took to dancing in the courtyard between several apartment blocks.  The loud noise disturbed the neighbors. After several pled in vain with the women to lower the noise or dance elsewhere, an unidentified neighbor decided to play hardball. CCTV reported that this person hurled feces at the dancers from a window, covering the women “all over.” A woman interviewed in the report said that neighbors had previously sprayed water at the dancers for the noise, but that this time they really showed “a lack of morals.” The report did not describe how the neighbor hurled the feces.

#4 Gao Kao Winner Loses Girlfriend

After earning top score in Wuhan on the science section of China’s famed nationwide college entrance exam, gaokao, in June, a student named Huang Yiqing revealed to his Weibo followers that he had suffered a loss: his girlfriend. “I got famous across the city,” he wrote, “but I couldn’t get you not to leave.” I’ve never heard a Chinese friend reflect positively on their high school experience. Most remember it as a miserable ordeal involving gym-suit uniforms and endless cramming for gaokao. Huang’s lyricism was warmly received by other microbloggers, who perhaps caught a flicker of their own high school romances. Better luck in college, guy.

3# Baby Stolen

On November 2, a newborn baby boy was kidnapped from a hospital in Tongcheng City, Hubei Province. Initial reports of the abduction attracted national media attention, according to a local report, as calls from all over the country rang in at the Tongcheng police investigations department. The hash tag #stolennewbornboy made its rounds on Weibo. Several days later, police burst into a hotel room in a nearby town and found the baby asleep and healthy next to his kidnapper, a 34 year-old woman named Wang Mou. “I just wanted to raise a child,” she later told a local reporter. But her backstory was more complicated.

Wang Mou had lost contact with her husband of fifteen years, with whom she had had a daughter and who worked in another city. She was all but legally divorced. In 2010 she started seeing another man, and in 2011 they moved together to work in Shanghai. Her new husband had three girls from a previous marriage, but said he wanted to have another boy with Wang Mou. Wang Mou felt that she needed to produce a child to stabilize her new relationship. But a sterilization procedure she had previously undergone left her with few options. She returned to Tongcheng from Shanghai in February after telling her partner that she was pregnant. Desperate to come up with a child nine months later, she decided to pass off another as her own. She apologized to the child’s parents after being apprehended.

#2 Bottle Dude

On November 11, Xiantao county pig farmer He Yanbin was driving home in the rain when his car slid off a small bridge and landed upside down in a bed of reeds. He retained consciousness, but remained unable to dislodge himself from the driver’s seat as rainwater continued to inundate the field. Fortunately, a fisherwoman nearby saw the flipped car below the bridge and flagged down the next driver, who called the police before smashing He’s back window, which was suspended in the air, with a hatchet.

Enter #bottledude. Police officer Zhang Weili arrived on the scene, bent under the car’s trunk, and threaded a tube connected to a bottle of oxygen to He, who feared that the car’s front would sink deeper into the mud, drowning him. Officer Zhang maintained the pose for an hour. Finally, reserves arrived on the scene and hoisted He, cold and alive, out of the riverbed. “I just remember that it was cold and I was coughing,” He told the media. “The water was up to my chin and breathing was difficult. If Officer Zhang hadn’t given me the oxygen tube and continued to comfort me, I don’t think I would have survived.”

# 1 The Two Faced Chengguan

In the past fifteen years chengguan have emerged as one of China’s most perplexing phenomenon. A “para-police force,” as labeled by Human Rights Watch, chengguan are officers “tasked with enforcing non-criminal urban administrative regulations” who have “earned a reputation for excessive force and impunity.” Armed with ambiguous law enforcement privileges, chengguan have become notorious for picking on the weak, particularly those who run informal businesses on the streets.

Hence the attention given to the curious case of Gui Wenjing, the two faced chengguan. A lanky, ten-year veteran chengguan, Gui patrolled parts of Wuchan’s Hongshan district by day. Starting last May, Gui embarked on a mission that garnered national attention: selling tea cups each evening alongside other people “laying mats”— selling goods on the street without permission — thus joining the ranks of those who he was supposed to police during the day.

According to Hongshan’s chengguan headquarters, Wen’s night job as a peddler was part of a two month undercover mission assigned by his superiors to more fully understand the issue of “laying mats” and evaluate whether chengguan policy was “well-placed” and “humane.” That mission was derailed after 33 days, however, when a micro-blogger with the psuedonym “Cha Ba Zi” posted juxtaposed photos of Gui working both jobs onto his Weibo account. In the frenzy that followed, some expressed sympathy with Gui, arguing that his family faced financial difficulties like any other, and that his peddling was done of necessity, not choice. Others suspected that the character “Cha Ba Zi” was a chengguan ruse, and that the undercover mission was in fact a publicity stunt undertaken to improve the department’ image.

To discredit critics of Gui’s mission — which was kept secret from other chengguan in the department — the department produced a journal that Gui had written for 33 days while undercover. Some journalists doubted the journal’s authenticity; a reporter from the People’s Daily noted that all entries had been written with one pen, suggesting forgery, but no foul play was proven. Gui was spotted again in his normal line of duty in early October, at a market that a local newspaper reported had been set up as a pilot project by the Hongshan chengguan department to legally host business people who “lay mats.”