Elements of Chinese History

With the Chinese New Year in full swing, this month we are looking at different aspects of China. I will look at some elements of Chinese History.

Chinese ceramics

China is well known for its ceramics industry. Perhaps one of the most well known items are the Ming vases. The Ming vases were created during the time of the Ming Dynasty that survived for almost 300 years, starting in 1368. This time was one of the flourishing of arts and culture in China. These beautiful ceramics of white and blue encapsulate this and remain a visual reminder of the past. Such was the influence of this style of pottery that the Royal Worcester Company founded in 1751 started to create pieces inspired by this.

Ming Dynasty Vase

Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army is one of the most incredible collections of sculpture still surviving. The army was created for the tomb of the first emperor of China – Qin Shi Huang, the army is made up of over 8,000 uniquely detailed life size sculptures which is quite a feat by any measure, especially when you consider that this was created over 1,000 years ago without the aid of modern machinery to mass produce it.

Terracotta Army displayed in Xian museum, China


Tea, one of the most popular traded goods was actually at one time quite hard to get hold of. Tea was originally from China and was only found there and exclusively cultivated. It would take Robert Fortune, a plant hunter from the British East India Company to successfully export the plant. It is thanks to him that we now have different varieties of tea such as Kenyan, Darjeeling and Ceylon.

China has many interesting aspects to its history, please feel free to comment below.


Horticultural Gems of China

This month we will be looking at a small selection of the wonderful plants that come from China.

The Trachycarpus Fortunei, a.k.a the Windmill Palm has become an increasingly common sight in UK gardens in recent years.

It originates in central China, from the Hubei province southwards, at high altitudes of up to 2400m (7847ft). The trees are dioecious, having either male or female flowers.

The palm makes a wonderful specimen plant, also it is very winter hardy. This coupled with the everlasting desire for more varied and increasingly exotic plants makes the Trachycarpus a real winner in the garden.

It can be slow to start but after three years it generally begins to grow fairly rapidly, providing conditions are favourable.

Trachycarpus Fortuneii – Pictured in a UK Suburban Front Garden

Prunus Persica, the Peach Tree has long been in cultivation. This Chinese native has become a firm favourite with fruit producers and gardeners alike. Unfortunately in the UK the Peach Tree is susceptible to Peach Leaf Curl, a fungal disease that deforms and damages the leaves.

Peach Tree in Bloom

Juniperus Chinensis, Chinese Juniper has many cultivars that are popular amongst gardeners. With spikey evergreen foliage and a striking glaucous blue colour it makes a striking addition to the garden.

Foliage of Juniperus Chinensis cv. Pyramidalis

The Rhododendron is another species group that has many genera hailing from Asia, with many species from China itself.

Flowers and Foliage of Rhododendron Ponticum

One particular Rhododendron, the Rhododendron Ponticum has become an invasive species in large parts of the UK, particularly parts of Wales and Scotland. It is believed to be once a native of the UK, but was eradicated here at the time of the last Ice Age and has since been reintroduced.

There are numerous wonderful and differing plants that come from China, due in many parts to the Country’s large size and expanse of several climatic zones.

A Taste of Chinese Literature

We are starting a new overarching theme of ‘Countries and Continents.’ As we have recently celebrated the new Chinese Lunar New Year of the Rooster (a sign which two of our contributors share) we thought why not look at China first. In this post I will share some of my favourite Chinese writers and my favourite of their works.

China has a rich legacy of literature, there is of course the classic philosophy of the Tao Te Ching(Penguin books great ideas) (Penguin Great Ideas) which is seen as a guide to life for many people today and the principles in the classic military text The Art of War (Penguin Classics) dates from the Fifth Century BC is still used as a management guide today.

Of the contemporary writers available to us in English translation three of my favourites are all women writers. They all have a clear strong voice and write in both fiction and non fiction. China is a country which has seen such massive social change becoming the economic superpower that it is today and such change creates a hugely rich narrative that can be seen in the literature produced by writers.

Jun Chang

The first writer I will talk about it Jun Chang. Jun Chang is perhaps best known for her biographical account Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China which examines the lives of three generations of women in her family from her grandmother to herself. She compares and contrasts the lives of these three generations and looks at the lives of women in particular in China and how their lives have changed. I remember the vivid description she has of her grandmother’s bound feet and the sad life that she lived in subjugation to her ‘General’ husband. Jun Chang herself writes quite meaty tomes, but if you were after a historical perspective of women in China then you would not do wrong to persevere with Wild Swans.

Xue Xinran

Xue Xinran is another one of my favourite Chinese writers. As a journalist, she first emerged not unlike Jun Chang actually with The Good Women Of China: Hidden Voices her non fiction account of the lives of women across China. Xue Xinran had a talk radio show ‘Words on the Night Breeze’ where women would ring her and talk about their lives, she used some of these stories to form the basis of this book. The womens’ stories are compelling and range from the poor peasant women of the countryside to women working in cities. They show the effect of policies such as the one child policy and the position of women in society at the time. Her recent novel Buy Me the Sky: The remarkable truth of China’s one-child generationslooks at the effects of the One Child Policy and the little Buddha phenomenon that is said to have occurred from this policy where some children are not as prepared to deal with life’s challenges as once before as they can be pampered and seen as very precious.

Xioalu Guo

Xioalu Guo is another of my favourite Chinese writers and writes both fiction and non fiction as seen recently in her Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing up which tells the story of her journey to reconnect with her family’s roots. Her fiction books seem to share themes of disconnect and alienation in their narrators’ psychology. I have read many of her books but my favourites among them include A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers about a Chinese girl living in London who is unsure of herself and where she is going in life who then travels around Europe to find a sense of purpose and direction. The book UFO in Her Eyes is another one of my favourites and deals very cleverly with the huge social change of a village in China. The novel also uses clever techniques such as pasting in “official” government reports in addition to the narrator’s account of the rapid social and economic change to the village. 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is about a girl who travels from the poverty of the countryside to Beijing but who then becomes disillusioned as her dreams of success in the film industry in the big city are harder to reach than she imagined.

All of the above writers explore the barriers that women face in a rapidly changing society from achieving their potential. As China increases its economic power and social change it will be interesting to see what the future holds and how this is reflected in Chinese literature.  There are ever increasing Chinese writers appearing in translation and these are just a few of the many that will continue to appear and I look forward to exploring these in the future.