My Life: William Lindesay

William of the Great Wall

Wall to wall: I was born in 1956, in Wallasey, England. If you take a ferry across the Mersey, as the song goes, you’re there. Significantly, the ferry goes past Liverpool’s Shanghai Bund-like waterfront to a place with “wall” in its name, so perhaps I was destined for China.

I was schooled at St Aidan’s where the headmaster, Reverend J.P. Macmillan, or “Maccie” as he was known to us, maintained an unconventional approach to teaching. Every week we’d go on excursions, visiting churches, castles or farms. This engendered an appreciation of learning by experience – fieldwork, essentially.

We were also taught subjects without boundaries: history, geography and science were fused into one, which has helped me take a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the Great Wall. Maccie always told us to have three books by our bedsides, a Bible, a prayer book and an atlas. I first saw the wall marked as a symbol in my bedside atlas. I must have been 11 when I told my class that I was going to China to see the Great Wall.

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Nicky Harmen: My Life

Nicky Harmen

Country girl: I grew up in the village of Dauntsey, in rural southwest England, where my parents were farmers. At the age of 12, I was sent to a boarding school in south Wiltshire. I was rather lonely but there was one major compensation: it gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn languages.

My French teacher was inspirational. She was from Adel, outside Leeds, and spoke French with a strong Yorkshire accent. But she made Racine’s tragedies and Mérimée’s Carmen come alive in a way that I’ve never forgotten. I also did Italian and Russian, and was determined to be able to speak and read them.

I remember I tackled Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi. It was challenging for someone with only GCSE Italian but even though I struggled to understand it, it opened a window into another world for me.

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Across the Great Divide

Image: Wang Xiaoyang

On 13 March Xi Jinping dusted off his Maoist vocabulary textbook and called on the Chinese people to wage a “People’s War” against Covid-19. China’s leader appeared resolute for the television cameras despite confronting an unprecedented crisis coming immediately after a tumultuous year. 

“The trade war with America has hit everyone,” Xue Ye, a curator from Hebei province told me at a dinner party in December 2019, not long before the novel coronavirus outbreak became public. “The leadership don’t know what to do about it, nor the Hong Kong issue.” 

The massive protests in Hong Kong were a popular indictment on the Middle Kingdom’s lapse into authoritarianism under the newly crowned “Emperor for Life”. The Stars and Stripes flags and the Union Jacks waving amid a sea of Hongkongers sent a message to the world. “If Hong Kong fails, so goes the world’s first line of defence,” wrote democracy activist Joshua Wong, framing Hong Kong as a new West Berlin.

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One Thousand Families

We stay in 24 hours a day,” says Luō Dàwèi 罗大卫 via telephone from his home in Tianjin. “You can’t go anywhere, you can’t even order things, as no one is delivering. The best word to describe life right now is imprisonment.”

Luo has, like many of his compatriots, endured a sobering Chinese New Year. Despite living more than a thousand kilometers from the COVID-19 epicenter in Wuhan, he complains, “My district is the most seriously affected in the Tianjin Municipality.”

But being stuck at home doesn’t mean he hasn’t kept busy.

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In Lianzhou, China’s Edgiest Photography Festival Turns 15

Lianzhou Foto has emerged over the past decade and a half as the vanguard platform for contemporary photography in China, a veritable Chinese Recontres de Arles. Ask any shutterbug worthy of their Canon or Nikon where they’d like to be exhibited and they’ll likely tell you Lianzhou, rather than other Chinese photography festivals which tend to put scale ahead of substance.

“Lianzhou is remarkable for three reasons,” says Shenzhen-based photographer Lǐ Zhèngdé 李政德, who exhibited his bombastic critique of consumerism-with-Chinese-characteristics in The New Chinese in 2014 and 2016 (which has since become an internationally published photo book ). “The festival has a broad vision, it focuses on reality, and it encourages artists to push toward experimental frontiers.”

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Dissident author Ma Jian: “We used all our strength to tell Hongkongers what loomed ahead”

I’m standing in a mid-summer downpour in northwest London interpreting for a Chinese dissident novelist and the lorry driver charged with delivering a skip on to the Ma household driveway.

“Tell ‘im I’m worried I’ll knock his fence over mate,” yells the bear-sized man from the truck’s cabin.

The 65-year-old writer responds and I translate: “Ma Jian says not to worry, there’s plenty of room and you need to make space for his wife’s car.”

The driver nods and proceeds to manoeuvre the vehicle, eventually lowering the skip into roughly the correct place, leaving the garden fence intact.

Ma Jian gestures for me to follow him through the back garden. “Sorry about that. We moved in last year and are still trying to get the house in order.”

He leads me towards his self-designed shed or “book room”, as he prefers. “Come in, quickly. Honestly, I’ll never get used to this weather.”

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My Life: John MacKinnon

On the wild side I was born in Leeds (in northern England) in 1947 to Scottish parents. I was the grandson of Britain’s first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, though he died before I was born. I can recall some furni­ture and paintings that had belonged to him but I was never much interested in politics and his legacy didn’t affect my early years. Only when my first book was pub­lished did I attract attention as his grandson. However, I’ve always had a socialist streak as I dislike unfairness and will fight injustice if need be.

My parents were both busy doctors and I had four elder sisters so I became quite a wild little boy. Eventually, it was decided that I would be sent to boarding school to be “tamed”, as it were. I was packed off to Bramcote School, in Scarborough, on the east coast of Yorkshire, and that’s where I really discovered nature. We would walk along the beach and there were rock pools brimming with bugs, fish and other wonderful things. I discovered geology and soon accumulated a huge collection of fossils, which I stored in the loft, worrying my parents, who thought the weight might collapse the house.

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Zhan Tian You

This February, the state-owned China Railway Corporation inaugurated the Year of the Pig by announcing railway spending in the region of 800 billion yuan in 2019. While the UK and USA watch their antiquated railway lines crumble, the Communist Party of China views railway development as a core project both at home – sewing the vast territory of the People’s Republic together – and abroad, providing transport infrastructure in places as diverse as Laos and Kenya as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Critics see China’s plans as semi-colonial, with tracks in Tibet and Xinjiang part of a broader placation program, while one-sided contracts in the BRI endebt poorer countries to China. China’s grand railway schemes also trouble economists, who see railways being built simply to stimulate economic growth while China Railway Corporation has, itself, a multi-billion yuan debt.

Whichever platform you stand on, it’s hard not to be impressed by China’s ambitions for the Iron Rooster. If the automobile defined the gas-guzzling American century, a Beijing-backed railway renaissance is looking to define the Asian century.

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Birds of Beijing

Beijing’s old quarters, the area 19th century foreigners dubbed the Tartar City, is made up of hutong alleyways snaking between court­yard houses that were once the residences of Manchu bannermen.

Overhead can often be heard the “chirpy cheep cheep” (accord­ing to the pocket book Birds of China, by John MacKinnon) of the Eurasian tree sparrow.

“This is a common bird in lightly wooded areas, villages and farmland over much of China and can become a pest of grain crops,” writes MacKinnon. “It replaces the house sparrow as the ‘city’ sparrow in the east of the country.”

Walking through the Temple of the Earth, visitors may catch sight of a great spotted woodpecker, which “drum loudly and have a loud explosive call”. Beyond the Marco Polo Bridge, wildlife photographers snap away at great white egrets “with characteristic kink in S-shaped neck” fishing in the shallows of the Yongding River. Ball games in Grand Canal Park may be accompanied by the song of the grey-capped greenfinch, whose “flight call is a twittering dzidzi-i-dzi-i”.

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Shenzhen’s history didn’t start in 1979

The fishing-village-turned-metropolis hook thrown out by countless journalists when writing about Shenzhen neatly encapsulates the fact that a relative nowhere became a serious somewhere after Deng Xiaoping earmarked it as ground zero in the spearheading of reforms, in 1978. To this day, 40 years after the Chinese leader unleashed its long-dormant entrepre­neurial zeal, there is no better (or more readily applied) metaphor for the transformation of China than the sky­scraper-studded cityscape north of the Sham Chun River.

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