Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A bend in Huang He (Yellow River 黃河) near its source

This is a bend in Huang He in Qinghai, the closest to the source of the Yellow River that I have even been to. And it was just beautiful. The river turned 180 degrees in a sharp bend.

The sun was setting when we got there, the moon has already risen, and the last sunrays painted everything yellowish.

I have already seen Huang He near Hancheng (韓城), between Shaanxi (陝西)and Shanxi (山西), in the middle ranges of Huang He. There the river was wide and muddy, really yellowish.

I have also seen Huang He at Lanzhou (蘭州), in Gansu (甘肅). There it was angrily, boilingly reddish-yellow in summer; but clear and greenish in winter.

Now I have seen it even closer to the source in Qinghai(青海). It was clear and greenish-blue in winter, much like it was in Lanzhou. It seems the closer it was to its source, the clearer and greener it gets.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Strategy for Multiple Choice Examination

My colleagues and I had a running discussion on how to set multiple choice questions, and how students handle them. We had speculated on the expected result of ignoring the actual questions in a multiple-choice examination and selecting the same answer for all of the questions - e.g, selecting “a” for all questions without even reading the questions themselves. The expected result was about 20%, if there are 5 choices and wrong answers are not penalized.

Last semester was the first time that I have actually seen one of my students adopting such a strategy, and the result was not pretty - more or less what we expected. And then this semester, a second one. The result is again not pretty.

I hope this does not become a trend - it will be really sad.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gigantic Spaceship?

I stopped to take a photograph of this beautiful sunset while jogging along the TsimShaTsui Promenade two days ago. However, when I looked into the screen of my camera, I saw this huge, fuzzy black disc - which looked like a gigantic spaceship - hovering above the Hong Kong Island. Judging from the curvature of the spaceship, it would be about the size of half of Hong Kong Island.

But nobody else seemed to see it. Perhaps the aliens have mastered stealth technology which made the spaceship invisible? And my iPhone was somehow equipped with advanced technology to counter their stealth technology? It would not be the first time that the iPhone was found to be equipped with unannounced advanced technology.

Or the spaceship was actually a tiny little one hovering just in front of my iPhone?

Or, worse, as my daughter the skeptic suggested, that it was just my finger making the amateurish mistake of covering the camera lens which was awkwardly placed at the corner of the iPhone?

My brain tells me my daughter was right, but my heart refuses to accept such a mundane explanation. Wouldn’t life be more exciting if there was really a gigantic spaceship hovering above Hong Kong?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Qinghai Tibetans

Almost one quarter of the population in Qinghai are Tibetans. With their distinctive language, clothing, food, culture, architecture, and religion. We went up a mountain top to take in a fantastic panoramic view of some of their villages.

The first set of 5 photos sweep from the left to the right. On the left hand side (1 and 2) is a long and narrow valley of fields and village houses.

The third one is looking straight ahead from the mountain.

On the right (4 and 5), another long valley ending in a lama monastery.

The last 3 are close-ups of one of their houses (6), a pagoda (7), and a cemetery (8).

It is a view and a people that we will not easily forget. We said a prayer for the people on that mountain top before we left.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Special “Shaken” Kids at Christmas

In the morning on this Christmas Eve, 30 of us professors and students from the university went to Hong Chi Pinehill Special School to organize a Christmas party for the kids there. This event has actually become part of our tradition - this is the third year that we have organized such a party and the largest group that we have brought along. There were about 30 kids there, ranging from 2 years old to 17. Some were classified as “severe” while others were “mild” in terms of special needs. Some have Down's Syndrome, others are autistic, ... The numbers of kids and helpers were just about equal. So we were able to pay individual attention to each of the kids and ensure all of them could enjoy the party as much as possible.

My heart went out especially to those kids suffering from “shaken baby syndrome”. These are kids who have been physically abused - shaken so violently that their brains are damaged. There is a two year old girl there who does not seem able to speak, does not seem to hear, and probably cannot see, even though her eyes are open. We took turns to touch her cheek and forehead, rub noses with her, and hold her hands, to let her know that someone was there playing with her. Sometimes her expressions changed and her head turned, perhaps in response to us; but we could not be sure.

Another girl’s hands were wound into tight fists. We massaged her hands gently, to help her to relax. After a long while, her hands relaxed enough to touch a balloon. But her hands remained where we placed them - she wouldn’t even move her hands by herself. Most of the time, she just stared into space. Has she given up on life already? Was she aware that we were there? We hoped so, but we could not be sure.

Why did people do such terrible things to these kids? And what is going to happen to them when they grow up? We don’t know. We cannot undo, or even understand the past. But we do have the present, and possibly the future. At least, on this Christmas Eve, we tried to bring some cheer to them. For that, I am proud of our bunch of students.

Here is wishing you all a Fruitful Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Sheep Encounter

I was taking photographs in a small Tibetan village (where Tibetans lived, not that it was in Tibet) when a flock of sheep came around a bend in the road.

When they saw me, they seemed surprised, froze in their tracks and everybody just stared at me. Perhaps they suddenly found someone blocking their way and simply didn’t know what to do. It was amazing, and kind of funny. I found them lovely and wondered if they felt the same. For a split second, it occurred to me that they might charge me. With their long, curly horns, it could have been dangerous. But they did not look threatening at all. Perhaps they were just bewildered.

After a couple of minutes, I realized we were in a state of stalemate, and they were probably not going to make the first move. So I stepped aside. Surely, they then continued their leisurely walk, got passed me, and began to turn around another bend. I was a bit surprised to find that there were no shepherd. So who was guiding them?

Just when the first sheep were beginning to disappear beyond the bend, the black-headed fellow bringing up the rear “Baa ...!” The whole flock just froze immediately. Some of them turned to stared at me again. So that was the leader. But why did it “Baa ...!” at that moment? When they have already strolled passed me? I have no idea.

The whole episode was a little bizarre. But I am happy I got these lovely photographs. I hope you enjoy them as well.

Which one is your favourite?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Mountains and fields

Our trip to the North West was mainly to visit some friends and for cultural exploration. On that front, we were abundantly rewarded. In these pages, I will tell more of the stories while respecting the privacy of our friends.

In the mean time, we were also treated to some amazing scenery. On the way to visit a friend in a small town among the Sala ethnic group (撤拉族), we passed by a small village set in the rolling hills. I don’t even know the name of the village. But the views were so stunningly beautiful that we have to stop to have a look. It was definitely worth it.

It was cold, just a bit below freezing. But it was sunny and the air was still. The sky was so clear we could see a long long way away. It was truly breath taking.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Church in the North West

This is a Christian church just off the main street. I was told it was built more than a hundred years ago, in the late Qing Dynasty. It has been closed during the Cultural Revolution, and is now officially registered with the government.

From the perspective of women, the contrast against a Muslim mosque cannot be greater. While women basically are barred from a mosque, here they are in the majority, as in many other churches in mainland China. When we arrived in the late evening, the choir was preparing to practice for Christmas. There were 20+ women, with no men in sight.

The sanctuary can hold at least several hundred people, and its three services on Sunday are always full.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Muslim women in the North-West

It seems Muslim girls in the North-West attend school and mix freely with boys when they are very young. They seem no different from other Chinese girls.

However, they tend to be married away by their parents while they are very young, and most likely before they are 20. Hence, few Muslim women attend university. An unmarried Muslim woman is an oddity, attracting questions such as: What is wrong with her? Why didn’t someone marry her?

It seems a Muslim man can still have more than one wife, perhaps unofficially. The one child policy applies strictly to the Han, but Muslims can have two. A Hui man in his 30s told me he has 8 brothers and sisters, and he himself has 2 children. That implies the minorities could be growing twice as fast as the Han in mainland China - with huge implications on the demographics of China.

A man can divorce his wife easily. And a divorced wife often finds it difficult to survive on her own, hence she tends to remarry, ...

My wise friend who lives among Muslims has this to say about Muslim women in the North-West: “結婚是人生大事。 不結婚就大件事。 離婚是平常事。 再婚是必然的事。“

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I found a note about pest extermination on my door when I went back to my office on Sunday, having been away for a week. Then I opened the door and found a dead cockroach in the wastebasket. My first thought was: “It is so strange... I have occupied this office for more than 10 years and I have never seen a cockroach. Now they killed one while I was away.”

When I saw that my desk was covered with cockroaches, I was almost in shock. But the worst was to come.

When I turned around and tried to turn on the lights, there was a huge one right next to the switch - and I almost touched the thing - I literally jumped!

Upon a closer look, I realized that they were just pictures. My thought then was: “Hmm... the exterminators have developed a sense of humor, using pictures of cockroaches in place of notices that say‘this place has been sprayed with insecticide!’. But do they really need to put so many of them there?”I decided to just leave the cockroaches there and deal with them on Monday, and beat a hasty retreat.

It was only on Monday morning, when I found that my office seemed to be the only one visited by the exterminators, and, worse, that no exterminators had actually visited, that it dawned on me that I was the victim of a practical joke!

I could not believe I was so gullible. Now I can’t wait to plan my revenge.

Corban Festival - Feast

The Corban is a three day festival. In the morning of the first day, the men go the mosque to pray and celebrate. Women are not allowed there. The only women I saw around the mosque were vendors selling those skull caps (they are called topi, I believe).

Then they slaughter the sheep. And start visiting relatives and friends - a bit like the way the Han celebrate Chinese New Year. But they also give part of the meat to the poor - which is not a Han tradition.

In the afternoon of the Corban Festival, my friend took us to visit this elderly Hui gentleman, bearing a sheep’s leg as a gift - which costed him 85 reminbi. There the Hui gentleman’s wife and daughter brought us a continuous stream of food: salted tea, fried bread, steamed buns, stir-fried mutton with vegetables, fried eggs, stewed mutton with vegetables and potato starch cubes, different kinds of porridge, ... - as is their custom.

Then we went downstairs to watch people slaughter the sheep. While we were watching, a man waiting for his two sheep (each costing 750 reminbi) to be slaughtered invited us to visit his home. There we were served salted tea again, and some dried fruit. He wanted to give us more food, but we were just too full to eat. He has a 10 year old son who is in school. He also has a beautiful teen-ager daughter who is not (in school), presumably waiting to be married off.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Corban Festival - Origin

The Corban Festival (Festival of Sacrifice) is the second most important festival for the Hui (回) Muslims, after the Feast of the Fast Breaking, which came 70 days earlier. It commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim 易卜拉欣 (Abraham 亚伯拉罕) to sacrifice his son in obedience to Allah 安拉 (God). For the Muslims, that son was Ishmael 伊希梅爾 (以實瑪利). For the Jews and Christians, of course, that son was Issac 易司哈格 (以撒). When God saw that Ibrahim was willing to sacrifice his son, He sent a ram to be sacrificed in place of Ibrahim’s son. Hence the slaughtering of sheep.

As far as I know, the Muslim version of the story came from the Koran through Mohammed, some 600 years after the time of Jesus. And the Jewish canon, the equivalent of the Christian Old Testament, predated Jesus.

Hui is a short form of HuiHui (回回), one of the 55 minorities in China. They seem to be an amalgamation of many peoples, starting with some Persians who drifted into China in the Tang Dynasty. Later they were supplemented by many other Central Asian peoples who migrated to China for various reasons.

Now they are spread all over China, with large numbers in Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Hebei, Yunnam, Guizhou, and other places. During this trip, I was deeply impressed by the diversity of the Chinese people. The Hui’s are certainly Chinese, but they are rather different in appearance, culture, history, religion, ... from the Han Chinese. What exactly is the meaning of nationalism in this context? Perhaps nationalism is really outdated as a concept?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Corban Festival - Sheep Slaughtering

The sheep was tied up.

A prayer was said.

The sheep's throat was slit, and the blood drained.

The head was cut off.

A small hole was cut into its hind leg, through which air was blown, helping to separate the skin from the body.

The carcass was hung from a tree, facilitating the skinning.

The skin and the small intestines were sent to the mosque as an offering. Each skin can fetch about 70 reminbi on the market.

The rest of the insides and part of the meat were eaten by the family. The rest of the meat were given to relatives, friends, and the needy.