Frivolous Friday

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[Editor’s note: It seems that quite a few of our readers are as fond of jianbing as we are here at China Beat HQ. This morning’s post on the tasty breakfast dish garnered a number of responses on Twitter (revealing that not everyone is a fan, though all have strong feelings on the jianbing issue), which I’ve collected below, followed by one story sent in by a reader via email. And fellow UC Irvine graduate student Aubrey Adams directed my attention to this basic recipe for jianbing, in case I (or anyone else) wants to attempt making them at home.]

From reader Marc Epstein:

Dear China Beat-

It’s difficult for me to express how moved I was by your post today on jianbing. I studied abroad in Beijing two years ago and came back in August 2010. The time in between, though, was torture.

There’s a small street near Beijing Foreign Studies University in Beijing’s college town, Haidian District, [that] study abroad students here have aptly named “Food Alley.” Only one day into my semester here in Spring of 2009 I had discovered the jianbing stand at the far end of Food Alley, past the restaurant with red lanters we creatively called “Red Lantern Restaurant,” and only one window beyond “Spicy Noodles.”

Every time I think back to that fateful early February day I’m surprised by a couple of things. One is that the jianbing stand was still open so close to Chunjie. The other is that, for me, my experience with jianbing wasn’t love at first taste. Rather, it spoke of an initial connection, one that with time could become as unbreakable as a bond between man and food possibly can.

I never went more than two days without eating a jianbing and, if I ever missed a day, I would make up for it by having two the next. When I went back to the states, I was struck by sudden cravings for my food addiction. Besides periodic headaches that may or may not have been related to the deficiency, I would also wake up in the middle of the night because of nightmares that the jianbing stand I frequented had been torn down, or somehow I couldn’t find it. I even once dreamt that the jianbing stand now only sold “Pizza Jianbings” and you could only find it two floors up a modern mall in the place of Food Alley. (I’m almost positive that pizza jianbing is the form my subconscious has taken for the fear of a changing Beijing.)

This story has a happy ending. Though Red Lantern Restaurant and most of the other restaurants that lined food alley have been torn down, the jianbing stand has thus far survived. I moved back to Haidian in August and went immediately to visit the Anhui family of three that worked the stand. They remembered me immediately and our friendship has grown stronger with each passing jianbing.

Thanks to all who have joined us in today’s jianbing-o-rama!

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Wednesday morning began like any other. I poured some cereal, made a pot of coffee, and flipped open my laptop to catch up on what had filled my Google Reader and Twitter feed overnight. One of the links I clicked on took me to Evan Osnos’s Condé Nast Traveler article about the ongoing “creative destruction” of Beijing, where my morning routine ended as soon as I read this paragraph:

At a stall just inside the western entrance, I order a fresh jianbing, a Beijing specialty of a piping-hot crêpe, made before my eyes on the griddle then folded around an egg and seasoned with chives, black sesame paste, coriander, mustard-plant leaves, and fermented soybean sauce. (Once, on an eating trip to Beijing, chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten pronounced the jianbing “the best breakfast in the world.”)

Suddenly, my healthful breakfast of whole-grain cereal and reduced-fat milk had become completely unappealing. Jianbing. Now that is a way to start your day, chowing down on egg, crepe, and crispy fried bing out of a thin plastic bag that always seems inadequate to hold the enormous delicacy within it. The best breakfast in the world? Yes, indeed.

Jianbing vendors, however, don’t roam the streets of Orange County, California, and I doubt I could assemble anything remotely resembling a true jianbing in my own kitchen even if I tried. Besides, half the enjoyment of jianbing is watching the creation come together atop a hot griddle stationed on a Beijing sidewalk. Quite simply, I wanted a jianbing and there was nothing I could do about it.

So, like any good 21st-century web user, I took to social media to express my discontent. Within hours, several of my US-based friends had joined me in lamenting the lack of jianbing in our lives. And thus, we decided to put our frustration to creative use, resulting in this: our first crowdsourced China Beat post, where we come to celebrate the humble jianbing.

Kate Merkel-Hess has mined the internet and put together a quick visual introduction to the food for anyone wondering what we’re talking about and why we’re so obsessed. First, a jianbing maker in action:

Mouth-watering photos from Beijing Haochi’s posts on jianbing and jianbing sauces. Also see their feature on the Suzhou jidan guanbing, a cousin to the jianbing:

Konrad Lawson, a Harvard University grad student and contributor to Frog in a Well, shares this jianbing memory:

Lawson and jianbing in 2004

When I was studying Chinese at IUP in Beijing over ten years ago there was something so comforting about the fact that, no matter how cold the winter mornings got, somewhere on the Qinghua campus roads between my dormitory and my first morning class there would be a jianbing seller ready to feed me. Was it a healthy breakfast? No. Did I really know what was in the brown mixture he ladled out from what looked like a well-used paint bucket? No. Was it the cheapest, most delicious, most awesome way to prepare me for my day of studies ahead? Yes.

So much did I love my simple jianbing, and so charmed was I watching the craftsman swirl a splash of batter around on his (only years later in Shandong would I come across my first female jianbing seller) round heated slab to just the right shape and thickness before adding the other ingredients, that I dedicated a homework essay to it. Using all of our most recently acquired vocabulary, only some of it remotely appropriate for such a composition, I wrote my ode to the jianbing and read it out in class. In it I not only lauded the craft and dedication of the jianbing maker, and the brilliant simplicity of the product, but suggested that, given the chance, this simple Chinese crepe was destined for greater glories. Create a cooperative of fifty dedicated jianbing makers with their talent and the entrepreneurial savvy to find the perfect time and perfect corner, and let’s deploy them on the streets of New York, London, and Paris. Let them charge ten times or more what it cost at that time on Qinghua campus (2RMB) and customize it to the needs of the local market and a world of fusion foods. Don’t like that fried dough? We have a healthy baked version. Don’t like that meaty sauce? We have a spicy hummus spread. The possibilities are endless… Alas, my teacher had no faith in my vision, and more justifiably, even less in my ability to make the case in Chinese.

MEC: If you’d like to share your jianbing adoration, tweet your thoughts to @chinabeat, or send an email to thechinabeat[at]; I’ll keep adding responses as they come in.

Have you ever wondered how you might have fared as an opium trader in the early decades of the nineteenth century? Maybe not . . . but now you can try your hand at the trade nevertheless. UC Irvine grad student Christopher Heselton alerted us to this opportunity by sending along a link to High Tea, available free online from Armor Games. Players are given a tea order that they have to meet by a certain deadline, but must first raise capital to buy the tea by joining the ranks of opium smugglers operating around the Pearl River Delta. Watch out for the Qing authorities!

For a more serious look at the Opium Wars, check out the excellent Visualizing Cultures website at MIT, where there are several features on the Canton trading system and the wars, including a unit on the Opium War as seen from Japan.

There are also two forthcoming books that those with an interest in the topic should pick up. The first is The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 by Robert Bickers, due out later this month in the UK, though no US publication date has been announced yet. The second, which will be available later in 2011, is The Opium War and Its Aftermath by Julia Lovell; for previous writing by Lovell on this subject, see her 2009 China Beat post, “It’s Just History: Patriotic Education in the PRC.”

Have you ever wondered what it would look like if Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” were performed by a Cultural Revolution-era musical troupe? Perhaps not. But thanks to this video on Tudou, the question you never thought to ask has been answered.

The video has been making the rounds on Twitter this week (follow us at @chinabeat!); thanks to Kaiser Kuo for bringing it to our attention.

By the end of this post, readers will have been able to click on a word to be introduced to the sounds of “Redgrass Music” (a genre that uses Chinese instruments in a novel manner), seen the special look of a curious vehicle recently displayed in Shanghai that one journalist has said should be called a “Lexiac” ( like a Pontiac from the front, like a Lexus from behind), and discovered something important that Zhang Yimou and Jane Austen have in common (hint: surprise appearances by the undead are involved in each case). First, though, some background about “mash-ups” (aka “mash ups” and “mashups”), for “China Beat” has dealt with this subject before and even run pieces with mash-up-like titles, but never before confronted the phenomenon of contemporary mash-up mania head on.

The first point to stress is that mash-ups are not completely new by any means. Even if the term has a short history, the mixing and matching it suggests has been taking place in China as well as all sorts of other place for ages. Fusion food was already a big thing way back in the twentieth century. (And what were nineteenth-century creations like chop suey and chow mein if not a kind of culinary mash-up avant la lettre?) Artists have been bringing together elements from and playing with juxtapositions of features of different genres and even different media for centuries, even if it is only recently that such efforts have been called “mash-ups,” “samplings,” or “post-modern” efforts. Turning from cuisine and art to politics, China is one of many countries that has a long experience with approaches to ideology that involve striking juxtapositions of concepts and assumptions, with just two of many examples being the effort by the Taipings (1848-1864) to fuse aspects of Christian eschatology with various kinds of indigenous concepts and the current experiment with “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” which Nicholas Kristoff has dubbed “Market Leninism,” a term that captures even more effectively the mash-up-like quality of the approach.

Still, one could certainly argue that, thanks partly to the ease with which new technologies allow for re-mixing and combining, there’s something special about the current rage for various kinds of mash-ups. (Even though the literary one currently making news, which features Austen characters battling zombies could have been published before the days of computers; it could just not, as the creator has noted, been published before Pride and Prejudice went out of copyright and entered the public domain.) The mash-up has become so omnipresent that there’s not just one entry for the term in Wikipedia, which likes the hyphen-less spelling of this sort of hybridity, but four separate ones, running the gamut from “Mashup (digital)” to “Mashup (web application hybrid),” with “Mashup (music),” aka “bootlegging,” and “Mashup (video),” aka having fun with YouTube (a format that has introduced new audiences to such classics that of the genre that pre-date the coining of the M word as “Bambi Meets Godzilla”
and “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island”), in between.

This said, I’ll invite readers to figure out where exactly they fall on the spectrum that runs from the “there’s nothing new under the sun” to “the coming of the web has changed everything” continuum where mix-and-match creations are concerned, and simply make what they will of these 5 mash-ups created within the PRC (the first two of which have ties to the Warcraft family of games, whose popularity in China we’ve dealt with before on this site, here and here:

1. Pride and Patriotism and Zombies (hat tip to Danwei)…

Not content to wait to see exactly how Zhang Yimou, who choreographed the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Games, handles the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, some Chinese students, who don’t seem to have a satirical intent (but I’m not sure how one would know if they did) have come up with this version of that upcoming event (the real thing takes place October 1, 2009), substituting monstrous and mythical characters from Warcraft 3 (like those shown below) for the humans who will actually do the marching that day.

2. One World (of Warcraft), One Dream

In a similar vein, here, from the ChinaSmack site, is a monstrous mash-up, featuring World of Warcraft characters, which has fun with the song that was used to whip up excitement for the Beijing Games (note the original version of the song below it, which has Jackie Chan and other celebrities taking turns with the lyrics).

3. Redgrass Music (hat tip to James Millward of “The World on a String” blog, and Chris Hesselton for alerting me to the good post awaiting me there)…
The music speaks for itself if you click here.

4. Confucian Blues

Staying with music, there’s a fascinating video of novelist/vocalist Liu Sola available here, originally broadcast on CCTV, which looks at her writings and includes clips of her on-stage experiments with fusing styles as dissimilar as Chinese Opera and American Blues.

5. Last and Maybe Least, the Lexiac…
Shown here with front and back views, of course…

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