Update from China


Communist China has held seven Census exercises since the early 1950s. In mid-May this year the cn.news online website published some of the statistical findings. There are implications for the ratio of children to other age cohorts in a population of about 1.45 billion people.

The population growth rate has slowed down. The average annual growth rate in the past ten years was 0.53%, a decrease of 0.04 percentage points from the previous decade. In some provinces, the proportion of children under the age of 14 is as low as about 10%.

The journalist for cn.news remarks:

“Behind this is the decline of many young people’s willingness to marry and even have children in recent years.”

The report goes on to state that economic development and urbanisation ‘inevitably’ slow down the birth rate. It compares this with what has happened in capitalist countries of Europe, North America and other continents.

 Regarding the slowdown in population growth, Ning Jizhe, director of the National Bureau of Statistics, clearly stated, “This is the objective result of the development of industrialization and urbanization to a certain stage, and it is also a problem faced by countries around the world, especially developed countries.”

In 2015, after much internal discussion away from media attention, China changed its One Child policy to a Two Child policy in urban areas. This radically altered parental attitudes, but now demographical analysts see a need to encourage fertility in marriage so that schools, technical institutes and universities are not adversely affected in the near future.

The reporter goes on: “The high cost of raising children is an important reason why families do not want to have more children. Therefore, to improve the quality of the population, the state still needs to share the family’s cost of raising children and break the barriers of the existing system. There have been many discussions about measures to encourage childcare such as extending marriage and parental leave and providing public provision for childcare.”

Many other points are made and it highlights a conundrum. A sharp decline in parental fertility and the birth rate in developed urbanised societies will have consequences for marital stability, child rearing, educational and social development.

Link: https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_12621021

* Garreth Byrne spent ten years working in different cities of China with Aitece. In the years 2004-5 he worked for a private TEFL company in Suzhou, a scenic canal city one hour by train west of Shanghai. He took taxis on different days to primary and secondary schools to give special oral English lessons. Here are a few photos he took of children he encountered.

The first shows a choral singing practice in a school playground. Another shows children in a class where he taught. The third shows Garreth, in winter clothing, with teenaged children in a middle school.

Last week, sticking to the ‘stay in your own county’ rule, I visited a corner of Kildare that is a great example of ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’.

I was searching for high crosses with the images of two men who lived in Egypt 1600 years ago and never visited Ireland.  Why then were they depicted on Irish High Crosses dating from the 8th century?

The two are Paul of Thebes and Anthony the Hermit. I found them in Moone and Castledermot though they can also be found in places like Monasterboise.  The two are known as the pioneers of the ‘Desert Fathers’  and obviously had a major influence on the early Irish Church.  On one panel they are sharing bread brought to them by a bird and in another two menacing devils are trying to terrorise Anthony.

Why were they so well known in Ireland that they were put on the equivalent of primetime TV? At that time they represented a vision of Christianity that enthused and changed contemporary Irish society. This led to Ireland having a reputation for enlightenment and learning that lasted for the next five hundred years.

My covid project is to find out how they became so well known in Ireland and what attraction they had for the Irish. It gave me a reason to locate the crosses and also to visit a quiet part of the country with an extraordinary collection of historic remains. I made another interesting discovery there that I will share later. In the meantime if you spot any unusual high crosses out there, let me know. If a Chinese person appeared on one of them, now that would be intriguing. 


What have bluebells and miniature horses got in common?

Last Sunday I was in Killinthomas near Rathangan to see the bluebells.

While enjoying the natural display of bluebells for which the wood is famous we came across miniature horses in a nearby field (or were they ponies?)

First the bluebells. We saw them at their best, covering large spaces and carpeting the old forest. They are native only to the west coast of Europe and are loved so much that they are a protected species in the UK and on the logo of the Botanic Society of Britain and Ireland. The great thing about them, besides their ability to change a landscape, is that there is no need for anyone to look after them. They are 100% natural and independent.

The miniature horses were eye-catching also. One of them had the best covid haircut ever.  But were they miniature horses or small ponies? Is height the only difference? Miniature horses were originally bred as pets for royalty but then, in 1842 when it became illegal for children to work in the mines, in England small horses replaced small children. There is also an ancient breed of small horses in China called Guoxia, literally ‘under the fruit tree’. Was it because they were small enough to walk under fruit trees or did they actually work in orchards?

What started out as a relaxing stroll among the bluebells ended up with time spent on google trying to distinguish bluebells from Hyacinth and between miniature horses, Shetland ponies, Connemara ponies, dwarf horses and Guoxia.

Maybe it would be more relaxing to stay at home watching TV. Immersing oneself in nature can bring up all sorts of inviting questions that would never bother you if you stay indoors.


Two years ago I met a Chinese research scholar in Maynooth who could speak 13 languages including Old and Middle lrish. He has studied in Oxford, got an interest in Celtic languages and gone on to specialise in Irish. His wife, also in Ireland,  is a linguistic anthropologist.  

Last week they were in the news because, having been in Ireland since 2011, they applied in Irish for citizenship here but were told to fill out the form in English instead. Prof Qiu, his wife and young child all speak Irish (their son attends a Gaelscoil) and thought that applying in that language would be a good thing to do.

When the matter was brought up in the Dail, the department got  embarrassed and said that the Irish form used was out of date and a new form was not ready.

The Qiu family could not but be a bit surprised, ‘It was not just the delay, it is the attitude towards the Irish language’, they said.

It does say something about a government that surely wants to invite people to Ireland who have much to contribute (and not just money) and are interested in the Irish language and culture.

Fortunately not all government departments are the same. In Hong Kong the Irish Consulate facilitates the Irish speaking Ciorcal Comhra.  

Easter And Eggs

When painting some eggs, with by companions, for a Columban Easter Egg Competition, I learned three things about eggs.

1. Hens no longer lay white eggs. All the eggs in the supermarkets are brown.  Its harder to paint brown eggs!

2. In China they paint eggs red on the 100th day after the birth of a child. The eggs are then hidden and young boys (boys only!) are sent to look for them. The boy who finds one will bring good luck to his family.

3. In the USA they have green-themed ‘Shamrock Eggs’ on St Patrick’s Day.

Speaking of St Patrick, on 25 March 433 he broke the ancient custom of not lighting a fire  on that day (to mark the coming of Spring) until the king on Tara did so. Patrick lit his on Slane first and so gave the occasion a new significance, Easter Sunday!

Photos: Our eggs and Chinese Red Eggs.

March 2021 Update

I usually take these opportunities to report on what is happening in China, especially regarding educational circles, as I am the representative of a group which facilitates Irish teachers teaching in universities in China.  I spent 17 years as manager of the organisation’s headquarters in Hong Kong, now a much-changed city.   

However for the past year the Covid pandemic has put activities on pause though a number of our teachers remained on in China working online or in restricted circumstances.  We hope that travel will be possible again in the autumn and we can resume sending volunteers.

At present kindergartens, primary, middle and secondary schools are open and third level institutes may restart in a limited way by June.  

The country is proud that is it almost covid free and restricts foreign travel to keep it that way.  The lock-down has ended but  regular mandatory tests are held and proof that you are covid-free may be necessary when entering some facilities and shops. People take the pandemic rules and suggestions very seriously and are amazed at how relaxed people are in the West. 

China has developed its own vaccines which it shares with neighbouring and African countries rather than seeing a need to roll them out to all the billion and a half population at home.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong a small but significant number of new cases is reported every day. Commentators on the mainland are not slow in pointing out that this indicates the superiority of their social system.

New Year Daffodils

In these two photos one set of daffodils is Irish,  the other Chinese.

The Irish ones have been standing out in the cold of our front garden since mid-December. They were probably prepared to celebrate a ‘normal Christmas’ and still do not observe social distancing.  They remain alert, despite the harsh weather, as if waiting for someone to tell them what to do next.

I checked with google and learned that daffodils and narcissus are the same plant. They are susceptible to pests, diseases, viruses, fungi, mites and nematodes though ours are very healthy despite the weather and benign neglect.  I just wish our fruit trees could learn from them how to avoid disease and fungi, and even nematodes.

Daffodils came originally from the south of Spain and got to China during the Tang Dynasty (618-909).  Since then they have been popular around the Chinese New Year (next Friday!). In China they are treated with respect, as you can see in the second photo. If they bloom in time for the Festival it is a sign of wealth and good fortune in the year ahead. (Ours, being Irish, of course came out in time for Christmas instead.) 

But beware. A few years ago ten members of the Chinese community in Bristol nearly died because they ate daffodil bulbs and stalks they bought in a local supermarket thinking they were chives just like the ones they used at home when making the New Year festive dish, dumplings. 

There are over 50 species of daffodils so you should have no trouble getting some before Friday, just don’t put any in your dumplings.  

Vovid Update

Another Virus story and a question.

Recently a Chinese student returned home from Ireland for non-virus related reasons. She had personal concerns and wanted to be with her family for the Lunar New Year celebrations (mid-February).

She got a virus test 72 hours before leaving, another during a transfer and one on arrival. Then she when into a two week hotel isolation during which she was tested twice. On arrival back at her home town she got another test and again was negative.

Five days into her home isolation she thought she was safe because of her six negative tests and went out for a stroll in the local area.  The next day her father tested positive. The authorities immediately saw her as the source and not only isolated her but two thousand other people in the town. Some of them were people she had met in the street, in shops and coffee bars, but the others were family members or contacts of those she had encountered.  The girl protested that she had been tested six time without showing positive but when word got out nationally a storm of abuse was unleashed on her. Imagine being castigated by one billion people on social media!

In the meantime, it seems no one had time to ask whether she got the virus after her return to China. When I shared this story with acquaintances I was surprised how their responses differed. Some blamed her for not staying at home for the prescribed two weeks and said she deserved the abuse she got. Others thought what she did was reasonable.  What do you think?

No to the New Year

Happy Birthday Everyone!

In case you had forgotten, at the beginning of the Lunar (or Chinese) New Year an extra year is added to everyone’s age. If you were born at the end of the Old Year it would mean you were two years old in the New Year. A drawback for anyone hoping to play for their county’s minors.  

(My birthdays is listed as I January.)

In China this New Year’s celebrations won’t differ from last year’s which were cancelled by a lockdown.  Thanks to intensive efforts early in 2020, the country was almost free of the virus until the beginning of this year. An outbreak was reported in the northern city of Shijiazuang and by 7 January there were 123 symptomatic and 181 asymptomatic cases there.

Immediately the country was once more declared ‘at war’ with the virus and people were confined to their houses until further notice.

The entire population of the Shijiazhuang (11 million) was tested within a week and a week later a second round of tests was finished in three days. There is no travel in or out, or inside, the city. Factories and offices are closed. Everything stopped. The virus continued however so there was a third round of tests.

Not unexpectedly in these anti-religion days, a rumour started that a foreign priest had brought the virus to Shijiazhuang.  Although there is no international travel and foreign priests are not welcome in China the story spread quickly through social media and the Church took a lot of violent criticism. Eventually a government official stated the rumour was untrue and the attacks have simmered down.  

The ‘we are at war’ approach puts a stop to any celebrations again this year. However it won’t stop you from becoming another year older.

Year of Ox

2020 was the year of the Rat, 2021 is the year of the Ox. So is that any reason for hope?

In Asia the Rat is considered smart and active.  His ‘year’ is the first in the twelve year cycle so the Rat is seen as a sign of ‘new beginnings’ – of love, money and other opportunities.  So far, so good. However the 2020 Year of the Rat was under the influence of another star and foretold to cause all kinds of health issues.  As you know he did create opportunities – for the Covid virus to spread. Active but not very smart. Maybe that is why elsewhere the rat is considered a pest.

Now enter the Ox. In countries where the Ox has been the tractor for muddy rice fields he (or she) is considered hardworking, positive and honest.   Korean proverbs often praise the Ox, Chinese paintings lovingly portray the Ox and Japanese temples abound in Oxen. The Ox‘s image has always been praised, he (or she) is considered the helper of mankind.

So what has the Ox to offer us in 2021?  Well, did you notice that the next vaccine being offered to us, easier to transport and not needing extreme refrigeration, is the Ox-ford. No coincident there.