Posted by: CS
Fireworks in China - a thing of the past?

As Spring Festival draws to a close in China the eager visitor may have noticed that their China vacation was a little quieter than they might have expected. In recent years the New Year's fireworks have started to get a little tamer than before. Once, a China tour guide would need to severely caution a traveler to avoid thrown fireworks in the streets. Today, that's hardly necessary and as you travel the busy city streets you might even wonder why you were warned in the first place.

A Tradition

China has always celebrated the New Year with fireworks. It dates back to the legend of a mythical child eating monster which once arrived at the beginning of each Spring Festival. It is said that the locals scared the monster off by wearing red and throwing fireworks. Throughout the centuries a trip to China at this time has brought people into contact with millions of people enthusiastically setting off fireworks everywhere they possibly can.

The Problem

The problem with fireworks is that while they work very nicely in rural settings, they don't work so nicely in big cities. No-one wants to spend their China vacation in a blazing hotel where a carelessly thrown firework has set the whole thing alight. Nor do the Chinese appreciate coming home to find their apartment blocks burning to the ground.

Then there's a second issue; pollution. Pollution in Northern China has been particularly bad recently. It's manageable for a couple of days on a China tour but for the locals it's getting down right depressing. There have even been days in some major Chinese cities where people have been forbidden to travel from their homes.

The Chinese press has been full of these stories and the Chinese people are beginning to understand the impacts of air pollution on their lives and their children's lives. They know that one of the ways to prevent the problem from worsening is to stop burning things in their cities. So this vacation time in Beijing firework sales collapsed. According to the Beijing government, 40% fewer fireworks were sold this year than last year in China's largest city.

This has been confirmed by reports from many of the residents of Beijing. They confirm that they are at their wits end with the smog that envelopes the city at times. They are concerned about their health and want to ensure that they don't make the problem worse.

In fact some of the environmental charities have been encouraging a compromise. They've been pitching smaller fireworks as the way to reduce the pollution, but it appears that for most people – they've just decided to skip the fireworks completely.

It's certainly something to bear in mind when you book your China vacation. The reduction in fireworks might make Spring Festival a little less explosive but it certainly means a safer, cleaner China tour. The good news is that this doesn't stop Spring Festival from being a wonderful, warm occasion. Wherever you travel in China – you'll still have a great time.

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Posted by: CS
Chinese Embroidery – A Stitch Throughout Time

One of the best things about a China vacation is the opportunity to immerse yourself in local crafts. Something you want to keep a lookout for when your China tour hits Beijing is Chinese embroidery. This is an art form with over 2,000 years of history and it forms an intrinsic part of Chinese culture. So to help you most of a trip round China’s sewn handicrafts we’ve put together a little introduction to the art.

Han embroidery is the oldest of styles and it’s enjoying a popular resurrection at the moment. It was forbidden for a few years following the Cultural Revolution but the opening up of the economy has made sure that people are receptive to it all over again. It dates back to the ancient Chu state which would have been found along the banks of the Yangtze River. Today, you won’t see embroidery on your river cruise because the industry has begun to travel further inland.

In fact embroidery in China back in the 2nd Century BC was a martial art form. There’s a story that Lui Bei a warlord of the period was destined to face his arch-enemy Cao Cao. Cao Cao was to invade Lui Bei’s territory with a great host gathered to eradicate Lui Bei from the face of the earth. Liu did not panic but instead he made a trip to see every embroiderer in the city. China’s finest responded well and when Cao Cao arrived Liu Bei’s city was draped in majestic flags telling the story of his victories. Cao Cao was so overwhelmed by the sight that he turned tail and fled rather than fight such an imposing enemy.

Today, the embroiderer’s task is a complex one. They need to understand the complex needlework that brings the right results. They need to be a historian richly versed in the changing and intricate styles of embroidery down the centuries particularly those used by different royal dynasties. They should have a strong background in folk culture so that when they want to tell a tale through pattern it will travel across China and be universally recognized. They should also understand painting and the influences of Daoism.

There is a little gender bias in the industry. Throughout history while women have done the physical embroidery, men have been the master pattern makers and designers. Their skills are passed from father to son in every generation. The apprenticeship is a long one each designer will serve for 3 years as an assistant designer and then serve another 5 year term under a master of embroidery.

The finest pieces of Han embroidery may take months to complete. Each piece may require more than one million stitches to realize fruition. The color matching process is painstaking and requires extraordinary attention to detail.

One of the best places to see examples of embroidery on your China tour is the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In fact it’s a great reason to make the Hall a stop on your China vacation. Here you’ll see some of the finest pieces in China from both modern and ancient designers. It’s a shame that you can’t see the embroiderers still plying their art on the banks of the Yangtze during a river cruise but that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the end results.

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Posted by: CS
Ten Shanghai Secrets Everyone Should Know…

Shanghai is one of the crown jewels of a trip to China. This wonderful city, the largest in the world is a China vacation favorite. Your travel plans simply have to include some time walking this complex and mesmerizing place. We've got some secrets to share with you that will help you get just that little bit more out of your tour of this amazing place.

1. China's most populous city was once a tiny fishing village. It was called Hudu. The name comes from a sort of wooden lobster pot that the villagers used to catch fish in. If you have a look at local license plates you can see the Chinese character for Hu (which comes from the village name) on every Shanghai plate.

2. During World War 2 the city played host to over 20,000 Jewish people. Their travel plans weren't based on the joys of exploring China but rather an escape from the oppression of Nazi Germany.

3. Take a tour of the Astor hotel (on Huangpu Lu) and you'll find one of the strangest stories in China. Back in the 1920s there was a man who kept his mistress there. When he found she was cheating on him, he filled the hotel room with live animals. Where he found the kangaroo is anyone's guess.

4. If you'd like to see where the rich and famous go on vacation you'll want to visit the Astor House instead. It's guests have included China's very first premier (Zhou En Lai), a US President-to-be (Herbert Hoover) and the world's most famous physicist (Albert Einstein)

5. If you'd like to take a photo of something really peculiar why not take a trip to Zhongshan Park and see the tallest statue in the world of… Chopin. That's right for some reason China is very fond of the Polish composer.

6. If you'd prefer to get a little thrill from your vacation time then head to Lianhua Lu Station (you can find it on Metro Line 1). It is said to be both haunted and cursed, this may have something to do with it being next door to the largest morgue in China.

7. Or travel over to Nanjing Dong Lu and see the Shanghai No. 1 Department store which was for many years of communist rule the largest shop in the whole of China. Interestingly the store was home to the very first escalator installed in the country too.

8. Speed demons should take a trip from Longyang Lu Station to the airport. The train covers the 30 kilometer distance in less than seven and a half minutes. It's a miracle of modern China's engineering.

9. Sticking with trains did you know that Shanghai South Railway Station is the only circular railway terminus in the world? It has an impressively constructed roof which covers over 50,000 square meters of space.

10. For the perfect China vacation photograph why not go to the Moon River Art Park and take a snap of the most expensive toilet in the city. It came in at just a fraction under $1 million (US Dollars) to build.

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Posted by: CS
Chinese Buddhism

While many people don't associate China with any particular religion there are many religious influences in everyday Chinese life. During your China tour you'll visit many Buddhist and Taoist temples in particular. To make the most of this opportunity on your China vacation it's always good to have a little background before you make the trip. So we've put together a quick guide to Buddhism in China for you.

China Trip: The Tea Fields of Hangzhou

As you might expect, Buddhism made its way to China along the Great Silk Road from India. The first record of Buddhism in Mandarin comes from the year 148 A.D. A Parthian called An Shigao took a trip to Loyang and worked to ensure an accurate translation of the major Buddhist scripts was available to all who wanted access to them.

However, in these early times Buddhism was not always well accepted by the Chinese. Many felt that Buddhism was not contributing to China and some went so far as to fear that its' influences were damaging the country. What probably saved the development of the faith was its marked similarity to the Chinese Dao religion which also emphasizes meditation as a way of balancing your life.

In the early 5th century Buddhism was gaining in respect. The landed gentry were accepting it as a way of rising above the beliefs of the peasants. The faith began to travel to the high court and win imperial favor too. At the same time in China, Indian monks took many trips down the Silk Road to continue teaching as well as translating further works into Chinese.

Then during the Tang Dynasty the Chinese monk, Xuanxang, travelled to India and surveyed all the great Buddhist sites. He made a trip to every holy place he could think of and studied at the famous Nalanda University. When he returned to China he brought over 1,000 translated texts with him. This journey is not only famous but the products of it have had a lasting impact on the further development of all schools of Buddhism both within and outside of China.

Buddhist art is amongst the earliest art forms found in China. On your vacation you might visit some of the caves with stunning 8th century Buddhist paintings or one of the many Buddhist temples with their extraordinary statues.

While Buddhism's star eventually faded during the coming centuries as Confucianism and Daoism merged to become a more popular form of worship in China – it is still highly relevant today. In 2005 a 108 meter tall Buddha was erected in Sanya (an island off the southern coast). In 2006 China hosted the first World Buddhist Forum, people travel from all over the world to share their faith at this event every two years now. The government also placed a ban on any further mining on the sacred mountains of Buddhism in 2007.

In fact wherever you go in China on your vacation you won't be able to miss the influence that Buddhism still has in the country. Its practitioners are pleasant, humble people with a genuine abiding faith that has withstood the test of time. China is, as it always was, one of the most important nations in Buddhist history and development.

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Posted by: CS
A New Job for a New Year?

If you're taking your China vacation this spring festival you won't be able to escape the amazing volumes of people who travel from one end of the country to the other to see their families. However, there’s another mass migration going on at this time of year in China that’s not so obvious. Your China tour is concerned with the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, etc. of the country. So you might not notice the change-over in those people who are out to help you enjoy your trip.

Chinese workers are amongst the least satisfied in the world according to Mercer's bi-annual study on employee turnover. In fact only 17% of people feel they are fully engaged with their companies while an amazing 30% would like to change their jobs today. This isn’t an unknown situation to China’s companies. The usual pattern goes something like this; staff travel home for Spring Festival and once the vacation is over (and they’ve picked up their annual bonus) – they start job hunting. In Guangdong province for example; in an average year nearly 2 million workers change jobs in the first week following the New Year.

So what's different this year? Well, the news story of the month is that Chinese workers aren’t all that fussed about the bonuses they expect to receive in 2013. With the global economic slowdown Chinese firms may have kept their heads above water but they haven’t had the booming growth of previous years either. So before they travel back to their own parts of China, workers are deciding to secure new opportunities prior to their vacation.

The year of the snake is not-felt to bode well for business in China by Chinese employees. They are concerned that the downturn will bite harder than this year and they are worried if they leave their job hunt too late – they’ll be out of luck. That means making the trip round prospective employers before the spring festival and ensuring that they are top of the list when it comes to hiring.

It isn't of course all doom and gloom. The Chinese economy is still growing (unlike most major economies) and workers are beginning to see the appeal in working closer to home too. You see most of China’s big companies are based around the 4 biggest cities in the country; Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. However, the cost of employing people in these cities has sky-rocketed and so has the cost of living. The mass migration of people to remote areas of China has had a real impact in smaller towns and cities. Money flows from China’s big cities to people’s home towns.

In those towns smaller businesses are sprouting up everywhere and more and more big companies are relocating further inland to cut their workforce costs. This is good news for China’s migrant workforce – they may have to take a pay cut to move back home but this is more than offset by the lower cost of living and the chance to spend more time with their families.

This new trend of looking for work before China’s biggest vacation is not the end of the world. In fact it may see a bright new beginning for industry in China. Where people are put ahead of profits and children can live with their parents year round.

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Posted by: CS
A Cashless China?

One thing you'll notice during your China vacation is how few places seem to take credit cards. In fact, if you're looking to buy souvenirs on your China tour you'll almost always end up falling back on cash. If you are lucky enough to find somewhere that accepts cards, be prepared for a whole world of rigmarole. If you don't have your passport you'll have to take a trip back to the hotel to fetch it as they'll need a copy. In fact paying by card in China can often take 20-30 minutes particularly if your purchase exceeds $100.

So it comes as a surprise that in China Daily this week there's an indication that things could soon be changing. The president of MasterCard in China may have 10 cards in his wallet, but a quick tour through the wallets of most of the nation reveals at best an ATM card and often no card at all.

However, the figures from the banks show that this last year they have handed out nearly 330 million cards. That's an astonishing number – that's more than one card per person in the United States and most of these are to new customers and not existing clients. Yet despite that only 14% of MasterCard employees in China work their lives on a no-cash basis. The rest take a trip to the bank to withdraw money on a regular basis.

There's a good reason for China to start implementing better credit card handling facilities. One of the potentially lucrative markets for Chinese businesses is targeting the spending of cross-border shoppers taking a brief China vacation to stock up on cheaper products. Most people arriving from Hong Kong or Macao are going to be armed with plastic and forcing them to use ATMs is a good way of reducing their overall spending.

The biggest problem that the adoption of cards faces in China is the reduced margins of retailers. In a very cost-conscious society like the Chinese society every penny count