Wild swans

Wild Swans is the true story of three generations of women in the twentieth century. My mother recommended I read this book a long time ago, its been sitting in her library for years now and I could hardly bring myself to read it because I just knew that if she thought I should read it it would be a harrowing tale! But I have resolved to read it during the holidays when I have more time and don’t mind my mascara dribbling down my cheeks. The book was first published in 1991 so its been out for over 20 years now , has  been translated into more than 30 languages and sold more than 10 million copies. Here is one of the reviews on the book.

“Riveting, an extraordinary epic. A work of true, living history drawing deep on family memories, an unmatchable insight into the making of modern China and the impact of war and totalitarianism on the destinies of a quarter of the human race.” Richard Heller , Mail on Sunday.

“China Has Another 300 Years To Go…”

According to Zhang Weiying, an economist, that’s how long it will take China to get a market economy  . He was quoted in the Gaurdian in response to a case against an entrepreneur in China, Wu Ying.  According to the Gaurdian Wu Ying is facing the death sentence because her business empire failed and she has been charged with fraud and raising money outside the banking system.

The problems seems to me that the Chinese government want to have their cake and eat it. They encourage entrepreneurs like Wu Ying but are not prepared to support them as the  banks prefer to lend money to state- owned enterprises. This means that entrepreneurs seek capital from other sources,  private lenders who are looking for a better return on their money as interest rates from banks is so low. However in China it is illegal  to raise money from private lenders.  So its a catch 22 situation.

It’s obvious that the system is at odds with its ambition .  No amount of money on fancy PR can erase the brutality of a regime that holds out a carrot to its people but beats them when they bite.

Ceramics Workshop

Posted on March 22, 2012


 On Friday I took part in a ceramics workshop which I must say was very enjoyable indeed. We used porcelain and moulds . The workshop is part of our Made In China module and we have looked briefly at Chinese ceramics. This is my version!

First of all we cut a piece of porcelain clay and worked it , a bit like kneading bread dough . Then we rolled it out quite thinly and placed it on a mould , shaped it with a damp sponge into the countours of the mould, cut off the surplus clay carefully with a wooden knife and then I added ball feet. Later in the afternoon I painted it with cobalt which is a blackish colour when applied but which turns blue once it is fired.
This is my “Chinese “ceramic
Bowls we painted
Dipping bowls into the glaze practise session.
The dishes above had already been made for us so that we could practise painting with the cobalt and Chinese brushes. Later that day we glazed them and they were taken away to await their turn in the kiln. So it might be a week or two before I see the results. Thanks to Sean for the workshop it was great fun.

Interview With Lui.

For this assignment I contacted a friend of mine and asked her if she knew any Chinese people that I could contact to interview. Fortunately my friend, a potter had been teaching at St Andrews University and had met a young Chinese student. I have named her Lui.  Lui has asked that I do not use her real name .

I sent a message to Lui through Facebook and she agreed to meet me, answer some questions and tell me a bit about herself.I noticed that Lui had some traditional Chinese artwork on her Facebook site and that she was working on an exhibition of Kirkcaldy’s potteries. So I was quite hopeful that we would get on well as she seemed to appreciate art & crafts.So on the agreed date we met in St Andrews at a pub and after introducing myself I bought her a drink and invited her to tell me a bit about herself.

Before coming to St Andrews Lui spent 8 years in Beijing, she studied English language and literature. She comes from a middle class family. Her mother is a doctor and her father is a manager and works in an office in a big institution. She didn’t say what this institution was. Lui’s parents have supported and encouraged her throughout her education. The view is that if you are better educated you will have better prospects in the future. Education is very important to her family. Lui has noticed that young people in the U.K are more independent of their parents than in China. It is important for her to consider her parent’s wishes but she thinks that in the UK children often do their own thing.

Lui had a book that she carried into the pub on Daoism so I asked her about it. She said that although not everyone studies that philosophy it has been subconsciously handed down through the generations and is part of her culture. In part the Daoism philosophy teaches how to perform your responsibility in society. It looks at life from the angle that everything is part of nature; we should not be afraid of whatever comes upon us but welcome it, as we ourselves are part of nature. This she feels is in  contrast to the American culture, which perpetuates the myth that if you work hard you can be successful. The American Dream she says is a dangerous culture as life is not like that.  Confucius, she says teaches us to first of all think of yourself, your family, your country, and finally humanity in general. So be a good person, always respect your parents as they have raised you and given you everything you need, look after them when they get old.

I asked Lui what she thought was the biggest difference between her generation and that of her parents and she said that it was the age at what her generation were getting married. It was rare for someone in her mother’s generation to marry late, they could afford to have a family and they wanted a stable family life. Whereas today people in their 20’s, especially in big cities, have so many opportunities and freedoms – sometimes too much and they don’t know what to do with it!

We spoke a bit about the consumer culture and the products that are made in China and how the Chinese are very good at reproducing Western ideas when it came to products. Did she think that China would start to produce goods that reflected more of its own culture? Lui hoped this would be the case and she proudly told me that China’s culture has lasted for 1000’s of years. Her grandfather was a scholar of Chinese literature and wrote books. She said it was her generation’s responsibility to continue the culture of China into the future. She could see problems though for China in the field of research and development as standards have been set by the West , standards that do not always sit well with the Chinese.

She then talked about the Terracotta Warriors and if you look closely you will notice that they have only a single eyelid, which is a sign of the Han people. The Han people served the emperor of the middle kingdom and although she has a double eyelid she  thinks she is descended from the Han, on her fathers side. Her mother is Manchu. She laughed about this and said that Chinese people joke about their lineage and debate about who comes from where.   Lui is very enthusiastic and proud of  her cultural heritage and noted that more and more Chinese are taking an interest in their past.

This picture is of a Terracotta Warrior , if you look close you will see the single eyelid of the Han.

Lui is an only child as a result of the one-child policy and when I asked her about what she and her mother felt about how that policy has impacted on their lives she says that her mother and father have been able to give her so much more than if she were part of a bigger family and that although she sometimes gets lonely she has an extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents. There is a big family reunion at New Year at her grandmother’s house and it is a very warm and happy time, the family is very important in China.

I asked her about the political situation in Tibet and she said that all countries have their problems  and why is China singled out for abuses when so many other countries have similar problems for example Britain has had problems in Northern Ireland. I asked  about Tiannamen Square but that subject was a no go area. “It’s in the past – forgotten now things have moved on and are getting better”.

It was  interesting chatting to Lui , I  found her to be very forthcoming on most things but she wasn’t comfortable talking about political events that cast China in a bad light which is understandable considering the fact that she has led a fairly comfortable life in comparison to many Chinese people. When you and your family benefit from a system you are hardly going to turn around and criticize it. Lui said that it is better not to have strong political opinions and take sides .  Lui goes back to Beijing after her year studying in St Andrews.


The first book The Good Women of China by Xinran is a book I read a couple of years ago and I have reread it to remind myself why I thought it was such a great book. This is a true account of a woman who ran a radio programme in China after the Cultural Revolution, the show focused on women and she encouraged them to call in and share their all too tragic stories of how the Cultural Revolution impacted on their everyday lives.

The second book I picked up in a charity shop for £2 . Despite my initial humming and hawing over whether I should bother getting it it has proved a good investment of a meagre sum. Will Hutton is a writer for the Observer, a former editor of the Observer and  former economics correspondent for the Gaurdian . In this book he explains why China must embrace the mechanisms that make business government accountable to the people if it is to throw off the burden of a weak enterprise system, corruption, social protest, and enviromental degredation. I highly recommend this book as it has given me a deeper understanding of the bigger picture and the challenges that face China and the rest of the world as China grows in stature on the world stage.


Made in China .

Many of our clothes come from China and that is the reason that they are so cheap. I can remember when I was a teenager clothes were much more expensive and I had a lot less of them. Today there is an amazing choice because of cheap imports from China.

However not everyone is jumping on the Made In China bandwagon and some have opted out. Mostly this is happening in the USA as they see huge job losses in their country as the manufacturing has moved to China. I came across a blog in the course of my research and a slogan which is proving popular with customers in the USA is “NOT MADE IN CHINA” .

One family on a blog I discovered has made it their goal to stop buying Chinese products where possible but they say it can be very difficult. If they can source a similar product from a reliable source where conditions are good they will go for that or try to do without. The foremost reason they have taken this decision is that they are Christians and are taking a stand against a regime which they see as being repressive. They say that when conditions improve for the people in that country then they will reconsider.


They are not alone. http://www.friendsoftibet.org/mic/This sight lists some prominent figures  including the Dalai lama who urge people to boycott goods from China because of the brutality against Tibetans .

I asked around some of my friends and family to see what they thought about buying goods from China and whether they would continue to buy cheap goods from there even if they knew that the working conditions in some factories were horrendous and that the workforce is often exploited.

My friend Maggie said that she would definitely boycott any goods where the workers were not treated humanely and likes to buy “Fair Trade’ goods when she can. Also she buys some of her clothes from a company called Nomads which is a Fair Trade clothing company.

Another friend I asked for his thoughts on buying goods from China said that most people have bought goods from China which have used cheap labour and that maybe they would be worse off if we stopped buying their products.

My daughter Rachel had a look through her toddlers clothes and said that most of them were made in China ,she buys a lot of the baby clothes in Next. The clothes that were not from China were made in Italy and were clothes which I had passed on to her from my youngest daughter. She said that the clothes that were labelled Made in Italy were far superior in design and quality and always looked good but the cheaper Made in China clothes were fine for everyday and a fast growing child. I asked her if she thought you could hand the garments down the generation like I had done with my Italian bought clothes and she said no not the ones from China.

My daughter observed that if she could afford to she might not buy her child’s clothes from China.  Despite the fact that workers there may be suffering bad conditions price was paramount. She said people were too busy, too tired to think after working all week and if people could get cheap goods that were fit for purpose then most people wouldn’t really care about their provenance.  I asked her if buying less but better quality was an option she would consider and she said it might be.

My wardrobe is stuffed with clothes .  I decided to look at a few of my favourite  pieces and see where they were made.First a Moschino jacket, made in China. This jacket is well made and the tailoring is excellent .

Pringle of Scotland knitted skirt- silly me, I thought this at least would be made in Europe but no- made in China. Good quality and expensive.

Max Mara jacket, made in please let it be Italy… Doesn’t say!

Peruvian Connection dress, expensive and well made- made in China.

One of my favourite brands is Avoca Ireland, jumper and skirt – made in EU.

Out of Exile cardigan, lovely design and embellishment-made in England.

Tate & Style scarf-, funky and good quality -made in Scotland.

Most of my clothes are produced in China .  I found out about a town just outside of Florence in Italy where the Chinese have moved in and are producing cheap goods with a Made in Italy label. This has upset many of the locals who want their area to be associated with high end quality products. In this case the Chinese  immigrants have been producing on demand fashion in sweatshop conditions right in the very country that has become synonomous with luxury fashion. http://welkerswikinomics.com/blog/2010/11/22/the-great-wealth-of-china-shaping-the-world-economy/

What is upsetting the locals is that the Chinese are sending their profits home to China and not investing it back into Italy and also it is claimed that they are becoming more adept at tax evasion than even the Italians themselves.

I think China can produce quality goods but they are expensive, but that applies everywhere not just in China. I think that the better quality goods which are produced in China are for established western brands who insist on a quality product. These same western brands are having to insist on better working conditions for the employees who work at their factories because customers are becoming more enlightened as to working conditions. They don’t want to feel guilt about products they buy and brands have to keep their customers happy or sales will drop and their reputations will suffer.

I think over all we all need to be more aware of where our goods come from and the impact the production has on lives and the environment.  I for one would like to see brands declaring what factories they use so they are accountable for what goes on inside them.