Chinese Stuff, translated by Lui Jun, is a book Amanda picked up in China last year. It’s part of an “Essentially Chinese” series published by the China Intercontinental Press. This book has been my favorite read so far this year. It’s charming, contemplative, speculative, nostalgic, philosophical, surprising: all of these things and always at the least expected moment. I wish this book was a real person we could’ve hung out with while we were visiting China last year.
This is what the book is: each page is a photograph of a single common chinese thing (arranged into chapters such as “Office & Classroom,” “At Home,” and “Attire”) with a single paragraph talking about that item. Some of the items are wholly unique to China (like erguotou) while others are, like, common tools for all people living in our modern world (“suction pump” on page 74 is just a goddamn plunger). The pictures make for an interesting culturally comparative experience, yes, but the magic really happens in the descriptions. You never know what will be said or where the description will go, and it’s so fucking charming it makes me want to cry massive tears of joy.
There’s no way I can fully capture the spirit of the thing for you if I don’t just quote the book directly.
Rolling pin is an indispensable instrument for making pasta. When it does make news headlines, the rolling in is usually a crime weapon used similar to the baseball bat. But that seldom happens and the rolling pin remains a humble member of the kitchen. As the pin rolls back and forth, the dough is flattened, thinned and rounded. In the hands of an adroit mother, the smooth, shiny and chubby rolling pin can work magic. In old times when rice and wheat flour were much coveted scarcities, the rolling pin signaled a big meal. As the mother cleaned the board and pin after making dumplings, noodles or steamed bun, the hungry children would wait around the boiling pot for the great moment.
While we were in Xi’an, walking on top of the city walls, we happened upon a miniature bicycle museum. In the 70s/80s/90s, the most popular bicycle that everyone in China rode was called “Flying Pigeon.” So the bicycle entry brings back warm memories of that late afternoon, but also of little kids leaving school in the French part of Shanghai (when we went looking for Mao’s old apartment).
Bicycle isn’t a Chinese invention, but Chinese bicycles often have a basket in the front and a child’s seat at the back. For decades, hordes of bicycles stream along cars during rush hour, turning the country into a “kingdom of bicycles”. In the 1960s and 70s, bicycle, sewing machine and wrist watch were the three major assets of a common family. If someone lost a bicycle, the public security bureau would handle the case with great force. Today, common bicycles represent the common people’s social status. They carry the duties of sending children to school and getting vegetables on the way home. Often, it’s the grandpa who carries the child, as the parents are busy working in the massive city and school buses are not yet common in China. Parents are invariably concerned about their only child’s safety. Very few families would allow their juniors to go to school by themselves. As more parents send their children to school, more traffic congestion is caused near the kindergartens and schools. Then the parents are increasingly worried about their children. This has become a vicious cycle. China Central Television’s news magazine Oriental Horizon once did a program that shows 85 percent of the surveyed people have been escorting their children between home and school, 83 percent of the parents say their work has been affected. Just like bicycle is a name card for the country, sending children to school has also become a social phenomenon.
Social commentary, especially about how much school work kids have, is a recurring theme in the book, and it always pops up in the weirdest places (after a somewhat logical associative progression, of course). But before this gets too much longer, let me quote one more passage that I loved so much in this book. It takes the rolling pin entry and knocks it up a notch.
The “bullet” used in the popgun is actually a kind of needle. Many Chinese would remember than on the busy street, a peddler would erect a piece of cloth studded with balloons. A few meters away, he puts a popgun on a wooden frame. If someone hits a balloon, the peddler would grant the winner a small award, or allow him or her to play again, free of charge. The popgun doesn’t have a very high accuracy. it takes the shooter some time to find the best angle. Such a game is often played in counties or small towns. Ye Sing left his rural home in Jiangxi province to work in Wenzhou of Fujian. In his spare time, the young man often plays the popgun. With a cigarette at the corner of his mouth, Ye narrows his eyes and zooms in on the balloons waving in the wind. In a loud crack, a balloon disappears. The peddler remains expressionless. A few sparrows take flight.