Mongolia: Soul Music of the Steppe by Thomas O'Malley

An unabridged version of a Mongolia-themed cover story I wrote for Morning Calm, the inflight magazine for Korean Air (with my photos).

It’s nearing midday when our tire blows. Spilling out onto the hot sand, my driver and guide busy themselves replacing it, while I stand about, trying to look useful. The sun is pinned out across the sky. In the far distance, the salt lake of Khar Nuur shimmers like a mirage. Behind, the massif of Jargalant Khairkhan rises red and barren, its peak dusted with snow. 

Driving through the deserts of Khovd aimag.

Driving through the deserts of Khovd aimag.

Suddenly finding yourself motionless in Mongolia’s epic wilderness is sobering. This is a land for giants. You can drive for hours through grassland and desert steppe, and the view barely changes. You might not see another soul all day. If you’re going anywhere on foot, well, good luck with that.

Fortunately, the tire is replaced and we’re back on our way, bumping along a desert track in Western Mongolia’s Khovd Province. A couple hours later, the driver pulls into a fenced-in compound containing a cabin, a ger (yurt), a grumpy dog and Dashdorj Tserendavaa.

In his sixties, Tserendavaa has lived in this region all his life. He smokes, drinks, likes to drive around in his Toyota Land Cruiser, and he plays a mean morin khuur, the horse-head fiddle that UNESCO inscribed on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008. He’s also, I’m told by way of introduction, one of Mongolia’s three living khöömei (throat singing) masters. Often performed in unison, the morin khuur and throat singing go together like horse and rider. In the cabin, we’re served bowls of salty milk tea and yesterday’s bread as Tserendavaa puts out a cigarette and takes up his instrument. Looking rather like a two-stringed cello crossed with a banjo, it’s worn from years of use. The neck is topped by a carved horse head, while the body is a drum of wood and taut camel skin. Dramatically, he puts bow to strings. “This song is about a legend of the morin khuur and what it means to Mongolian people.” Tserendavaa’s fingers dance as he sings in a wavering baritone, eyes shut.

throat singer

"He smokes, drinks, likes to drive around in his Toyota Land Cruiser, and he plays a mean morin khuur."

Tserendavaa, throat-singing master.

The lyrics, filtered through the sometimes stumbling translation of my guide, tell of a handsome man sent away to the east to war, where he falls in love with a beautiful girl. When his military service is over he must return home, but he vows to come back for her one day. To aid the man on his long journey, the girl gives him a winged horse that carries him westward, swift as lightning, over endless leagues of empty steppe and home.

But it transpires that a girl in the man’s home village is in love with him, and in a fit of jealousy she kills his horse as he sleeps to prevent him from flying back his betrothed. When the man wakes he is devastated. So he does what any heartbroken Mongolian would do. He transforms his dead steed into a musical instrument. The horse’s head and neck become the top of the morin khuur, its hair is turned into strings, a rib becomes the bow, the skin the body of the instrument, and the horse’s wings its tuning pegs. Then the man sits and plays his mournful song for the rest of his days, the same song that Tserendavaa now sings for me. 

There are several minor variations on this story depending on the source, but it seems to follows largely the same narrative, and so one might be tempted to conclude that Mongolian men love horses even more than women, and they wouldn’t be far off. The love for the horse in Mongolian culture is all-encompassing. Pop stars sing syrupy ballads about them. Children get in the saddle at the age of three; by five, some of them are competing in 20km horse races at naadam festivals. Airag – fermented mare’s milk – is the national tipple. You might even say that the largest contiguous and most feared empire the world has ever known, the Mongol horde of Genghis Khan, was built on the back of a horse.

So to understand just how prized the morin khuur is in Mongolian culture, one must first grasp the deep veneration Mongolians harbor for the animal and then acknowledge that the morin khuur is itself a horse, and not just via the origin-story symbolism of its component parts. To play it and listen to it is to gallop over the grasslands, as I’m about to find out.

Batzorig playing the morin khuur. 

Batzorig playing the morin khuur. 

The capital of Ulaanbaatar is Mongolia’s only true city. Roughly half the country’s three million people live here, most of them in ger suburbs that sprawl outward from a compact center of Chinese-built tower blocks and crumbling Russian buildings. It’s in one of these that I meet Batzorig Vaanchig, 39, a celebrated morin khuur master. Seated with the instrument squeezed between his legs and the horse head jutting upward, it’s almost like he’s riding a tiny wooden steed.

Batzorig starts playing, languidly at first. The two strings are tuned a fourth apart, which makes for a mournful wail, like the moan of the wind over the steppe. He speeds up, switching the rhythm from a trot to a syncopated gallop, then slows down again, playing more softly to represent the change of terrain under the hooves. Fingers trill like a bird’s wing over the strings, and occasionally he taps the wood of the instrument like a drum. Then all is quiet, the bow still, and Batzorig simply tickles the strings in faint rhythm, like the ripple of a horse’s mane. It’s remarkable. The morin khuur might resemble a classical instrument, but the performance is something far more primordial.

Batzorig starts to perform khoomi, or throat signing, as he plays, his voice constricting into two separate tonal tracks; he performs ezenggileer, a pulsing style of throat singing that mimics the rhythms of horseback riding. Even though we’re inside, the cumulative effect is astonishing, transporting me out onto the wide-open steppe. A primal call of the wild. Then he stops, puts down his bow, and we plop back down to earth with a thud.

“Playing the morin khuur is like riding a fast horse – when I play, I imagine I’m in the saddle,” says Batzorig. His journey as a performer has borne him far beyond Mongolia. In 2011, his traditional band, Khusugtun, traveled to London for a performance at the Royal Albert Hall, but it was in 2015 that Batzorig and the morin khuur really exploded onto the global scene by achieving second place in Asia’s Got Talent. The performances provided the incongruous spectacle of Khusugtun, wrapped in their del greatcoats, performing Mongolian folk songs for a panel of judges that included Melanie C, the former Spice Girl. After an ovation, Melanie looked at the band and said, simply, “Magical, I’m transported.” Even a Spice Girl was undone by the essence of the morin khuur - music as transportation, both figuratively and evocatively, with the power to convey the listener out across the great grass sea, like a trusted horse, to somewhere distant and long ago.

Carving the horse head. In Manchu times it was often replaced with a lion or dragon.

Carving the horse head. In Manchu times it was often replaced with a lion or dragon.

Not too long ago, however, the future of the instrument, and traditional Mongolian culture, seemed pretty bleak. The whinny of the morin khuur was muzzled during much of the 20th century while Mongolia was a satellite of Soviet Russia. The Cyrillic alphabet replaced Mongolia’s own script, Genghis Khan was branded an imperialist and the status of traditional nomadic culture was diminished, with classical music favored over Mongolian music.

But despite this erosion of traditional Mongolian culture, some nomads still kept morin khuur in their ger, and a few even carried on the tradition of making them, like the family of Baigaljav, pastoralists living in the barren sands of the Gobi Desert. The third son of 10 children, Baigaljav comes from a family line (on his mother’s side) of morin khuur craftsmen. “I made my first instrument when I was 16, back in 1976,” he tells me. “But during the Soviet times, life was hard, and nobody focused much on music.”

He was a rare exception, and in 1991, after Mongolia’s democratic revolution, he opened Egshiglen Magnai in Ulaanbaatar, a tiny workshop making and repairing morin khuur. Today it’s the most famous instrument maker in Mongolia. Around 50 full-time craftsmen and women create 150 to 200 morin khuur a month.

“The secret to making a good morin khuur is practice,” says Baigaljav, as we chat in his office. “You’ve got to listen to the instrument, to know it intimately.” In the workshop next door, craftsmen are chiselling horse heads, whittling out morin khuur bodies and performing all sorts of bending, sanding and polishing. There’s a bewildering assortment of tools lying about, and the floor is thick with sawdust.

But the real treasures are downstairs. Baigaljav unlocks a room containing what amounts to a museum of morin khuur – his life’s collection of rare and wonderful instruments. They line the walls, all sizes, shapes and styles - a veritable timeline of morin khuur history. The older ones are made with skin – goat or camel, even snake – stretched over a frame. In the 1960s, craftsmen began to make the instrument entirely from wood, to get around the damage wrought by humidity. Morin khuur made since the 1990s more closely resemble classical violins or cellos.

Wrong bow position. Whoops.

Wrong bow position. Whoops.

The morin khuur, or its forebear at any rate, is said to date to the time of Genghis Khan,” says Baigaljav, “but no instruments from that era survive.” His oldest example was made for a Mongolian lord in the 18th century. Another is from the late Qing Dynasty, when China ruled the roost. The neck is topped not with a horse head but a lion, painted imperial yellow. Some are inlaid with delicate designs of bone. Others are brightly painted. One morin khuur in the collection is noticeably humbler than the rest – Baigaljav’s very first instrument, made at a time when the future of the morin khuur looked shaky to say the least.

Things couldn’t be more different now. The government actively promotes the instrument, even decreeing in 2002 that all Mongolians should keep one in the home, and, in 2011, 999 morin khuur were played in Ulaanbatar’s Sukhbaatar Square as part of the State Reverence of Otgontenger Khairkhan, one of Mongolia’s most sacred mountains.

In many ways, the enduring success of the morin khuur mirrors the story of Mongolia as a whole. Despite historic hiccups, few other countries have managed to preserve their ancient forms of living – in this case, nomadic pastoralism – alongside contemporary urban existence. Fundamentally, little has changed out on the steppe. Herding families still tend flocks of goats, sheep and cattle, moving with the seasons. The horse still looms large in the national consciousness. If the second coming of Genghis Khan were to enter a ger in modern Mongolia, he’d probably feel quite at home, provided the TV was switched off. He might even pick up the morin khuur if the family had one and belt out a tune. And for those that have given up their old ways and moved to the city, all it takes is a few rhythmic bars to evoke the thunder of hooves, the eternal blue sky and the great grass sea waiting just beyond the window.


Why I (still) love Beijing by Thomas O'Malley

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Just noticed that my "Why I love Beijing", a little ode to the city I've called home for nine years this month, is up on the Lonely Planet website. Here's the thing in full:

I love how Běijīng wears its many faces like Opera masks. In winter the lakes freeze as chill winds whip south from beyond the Great Wall, carrying with them the echo of Manchu rule. But summer Běijīng is all rolled-up T-shirts, icy beers and street-side lamb skewers. Then there’s government Běijīng, when socialist flowerbeds espouse civic harmony, factories power down, and the sky beams a proud blue. Or melting-pot Běijīng, defined by the millions of migrants who make the capital tick. And lastly, my Běijīng. Of moonlit bike rides when the city sleeps, of breezy cafes and culinary quests, and wild rambles high up in the Great Wall watchtowers.

Beijing's White Cloud Pagoda (Baitasi) at dusk. 

Beijing's White Cloud Pagoda (Baitasi) at dusk. 

Nanjing: A Walk Along the Watchtowers by Thomas O'Malley

Nanjing city wall

This article (with pics) was penned for Aspire, the magazine of Hong Kong Airlines. 

Tom O’Malley embarks on an urban hike into the past atop Nanjing’s city walls.

How many bricks does it take to build a wall around a city? This thought nagged at me as I scrambled up the stone steps to Taicheng, a section of weather-worn battlements that still wrap around much of the former Chinese capital of Nanjing.

Popping out on to the crenelated top reveals what must be the most wow view of any city in China. The wall, wide enough for two cars to pass each other, winds away in front and behind like a medieval Mario Kart track. To the north, the glassy expanse of Xuanwu Lake, flanked by willow trees, sparkles in the sun; rising in the east is Purple Mountain, a forested hillock of tombs including those of Sun Yat-sen and the first Ming Emperor; to the south, the seven tapering tiers of a temple pagoda; and to the west, framed against a great curve of the wall, the space-age skyscrapers of modern Nanjing.

About 350 million, by the way. Bricks. That’s according to a small museum I discover inside one of the wall’s restored towers. Equally astonishing is how many of the bricks are inscribed with Chinese characters. These, I’m told, are a maker’s mark, recording the name of the craftsman that made it over six centuries ago. Kilns hundreds of miles away supplied the bricks, and woe betide any that fell short of the required quality. With your signature stamped on it, there could be no excuses for shoddy workmanship.


From the museum, I hike along the Wall for about a mile northwest, skirting the shoreline of the lake, until I reach the Xuanwu Gate, a decorative addition from the Qing Dynasty allowing traffic to pass from the old city to the lakeshore below. From here you get a sense of another feature of the Nanjing Wall – it’s irregularity. The wall traces the city’s natural contours, skirting around the lake and utilizing natural defensive features like river channels and Purple Mountain. It seems an almost organic component of Nanjing’s urban landscape.

But what’s most remarkable is that the walls are still here in the first place. Despite demolition work in the 1960s, two thirds of the 32km-long structure remain, which is more than can be said for poor old Beijing. In the same decade, Chairman Mao presided over the wholesale demolition of Beijing’s walls to make way for a ring road and subway line. As the capital, Beijing had to be shown to be modern, efficient and forward-thinking. In Nanjing, parts of the old wall were torn down to make way for roads and buildings, but the rest was left to fend for itself against time, weather and brick thieves.

Fortunately for Nanjing, the first Ming Emperor was a stickler for quality. Zhu Yuanzhang saw off the Mongols and declared Nanjing the capital of China in 1368, under the new stewardship of the Ming. Pretty much straight away he got busy constructing the city wall atop remnants of wall from older dynasties. It took 20,000 workers 20 years to complete.

All those signed bricks were held together by an innovative mortar of lime and glutinous rice, which helped preserve the remaining Nanjing walls well enough so that it was decided, in the 1980s, that they should be looked after a little better. From then on, restoration occurred a bit at a time – a gate here, a few metres there. Several years ago previously unrestored sections were spruced up, cleared of vegetation and opened to the public in time for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. Today, over 12 kilometres of broad, weather-worn walkways await the wall-walker, while many of the demolished sections are marked by connecting urban parkways or walking routes. 

“In the early twentieth century, major Chinese cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai, Wuhan and Changsha all had their walls knocked down as they modernized, but Nanjing was lucky.” Liu Bin is a Researcher at the Nanjing City Wall Museum, and full of facts about what he sees as Nanjing’s unique cultural treasure. “Most people don’t know that not only is Nanjing’s city wall one of the longest in the world, it’s moat is too,” says Liu Bin, explaining that it cleverly incorporates two lakes and rivers in its design. 

Not all of Nanjing’s ancient structures have fared so well, however. Heading south, I discover very little left of Emperor Zhu’s palace, Nanjing’s own ‘Forbidden City’ built by Zhu in the 14th century. Left to ruin over the centuries, a few broken stone gates and column bases are all that remain, set inside a quiet park close to the Zhongshan Gate, another traffic portal hewn into the city wall. From here I hike a further mile or so south along the battlements to the wall’s south-eastern corner, taking in the sheer scale of urban Nanjing along the way.

Without doubt the single most impressive feature of Nanjing’s walls greets me when I reach the narrow Qinhuai River. The Zhonghua Gate, or ‘Gate of the Nation’ as it was whimsically renamed by Chinese Nationalist Leader Chiang Kai-shek, is a Ming Dynasty fortress gate guarding the ‘front door’ of Nanjing. It looks like a castle, and anyone coming into the city would have had to pass through a series of connecting courtyards overlooked by deadly firing positions, described by one observer as like “catching turtles in a jar.”

In fact, the Zhonghua Gate together with Nanjing’s walls were pressed into service once again in 1937 during the war with the Japanese. The walls were studded with machine-gun placements, ready to defend against the coming Japanese army, who had just taken Shanghai, and they proved a formidable barrier for their better trained and equipped opponents. But as history has proven, the Japanese forces eventually smashed through and what happened next – the Nanjing massacre - is considered one of the darkest episodes in the country’s recent history.

But fortunately, the future for Nanjing’s wall is bright. For 2018, the Municipal Government have announced plans to continue with various restoration projects, including cleaning up the moat, planting more trees alongside the wall, and adding more lighting along its length. Then, explains Liu Bin, they will apply to UNESCO for World Cultural Heritage status.

“Nanjing is one of the four ancient capitals of China with a history of over 3,000 years. We need to remember that history is one of our most important resources, and we must work to keep a memory of our history and culture, and also improve the whole city and make it more attractive.”

During China’s breakneck development in the last few decades, heritage has undoubtedly been an area that has suffered. Wholesale modernisation has meant the tearing down of old neighbourhoods and defunct relics like city walls. Only with time and reflection are people now taking stock and looking back with some regret on the decisions that were made.

And so, appropriately, the last word must go to another Chinese city, 1,300 miles to the north – Datong. Like many others, its walls were lost to time, decay and demolition during the twentieth century. But thanks to the work of an unusually impassioned and motivated mayor, Geng Yanbo (known, somewhat affectionately, as ‘Demolition Geng’), Datong now has an almost complete set of city walls once again. Built from scratch at great expense, and forcing the displacement of thousands of city residents, it was a controversial project designed to ignite tourism in this dusty coal-mining city. Questions have also been raised about its clear lack of historical accuracy (UNESCO status is out of the question), but the Datong walls have drawn great praise from locals and visitors, are a boon to tourism, and lit up at night really are are a sight to behold.

Whether “Demolition Geng” has ushered in a new era of Chinese wall building remains to be seen, but in a strange twist it does go to show that city walls still have a value in modern society – not for defence, of course – but for leisure, and winning hearts and minds.


The Grand Mansion, A Luxury Collection Hotel

This newly-built palace of hospitality boasts beautifully-appointed guest rooms and a commanding location overlooking the Presidential Palace, with many of the city’s best central sights within walking distance.

InterContinental Nanjing

Occupying the uppermost floors of the 450-metre tall Zifeng Tower, the InterCon has been the city’s most glamorous hotel since it opened in 2010. Tastefully decked out rooms come with panoramic views as standard, while Prime Bar on top is a great spot for classy cocktails and juicy steaks.


Dapaidang (Nanjing Impressions)

Nanjing’s most popular traditional restaurant chain, Dapaidang is the place to come for traditional ‘Nanjing salt duck’, marinated in a salt, spice and osmanthus brine, as well as delectable soy sauce noodles and other treats.


This restored historic neighbourhood backs on to the southern-most stretch of the city wall, and offers a number of traditional vendors selling hearty beef dumplings, freshly roasted Nanjing duck and duck fat ‘shaobing’ bread.

See more of my Nanjing photos here

Innovation Nation: China's Return to the Top by Thomas O'Malley

I wrote this China fluff feature for the Johnnie Walker House Edit

When the Qianlong emperor received George Macartney, Britain’s first envoy to China, in Chengde in 1793, he made it quite clear what he thought about trading goods and ideas with Britain:

Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” 

For a nation that had given the world paper, printing, gunpowder, and the compass, and could boast an illustrious civilization stretching back millennia, Qianlong had justification to be dismissive of the European advances.

But had he taken a different tack, the next couple of centuries might have panned out differently for China. Unknown to the Son of Heaven, 8,000km away in England, vast new factories were employing power looms and moving from water mills to steam engines. Production soared; iron-making technology leapt forward. The Industrial Revolution forged ahead at full steam, its technological benefits affecting every aspect of society and reverberating throughout Europe and later the US. China, meanwhile, stood still. It’s economy declined in the final years of the Qing Dynasty. And so followed protracted decades of war, hardship and upheaval. 

After a lengthy slumber, the mighty dragon awoke, nurtured back to prosperity by the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. State industries were privatized, competition flourished, and entrepreneurs were given official permission to start businesses. From 1978 to 2013, the Chinese economy grew by almost 10 percent a year.

For years, ‘Made in China’ and ‘Factory Asia’ became the primary driver of growth, as the world’s most populous country become the world’s manufacturing powerhouse, leveraging its size and low labor costs. But as China’s economy enters a ‘new normal’, from hyper growth to high growth, and with a rapidly expanding middle class, the world is starting to witness the shift from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created in China’. This is the bold new era of the innovative, responsive Chinese company.

China as Global Innovator

 “You should learn from your competitor but never copy. Copy, and you die.”

The words of Jack Ma, a figure of the stature of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerburg in China, and the founder of Alibaba Group, the world’s largest e-commerce company. The first mainland Chinese entrepreneur to make the cover of Forbes, Ma has given the world a suite of wildly successful web businesses including Taobao, China’s eBay (but more expansive in its offerings), a site that accounted for 80 percent of the country’s online commerce in 2014.

The secret to Ma’s success, in the man’s own words, is putting the customer first. “I’m not a tech guy,” he has admitted. “I’m looking at it with the eyes of my customers – normal people’s eyes.” It’s precisely by responding to the evolving demands of China’s enormous customer base that has propelled so rapidly the growth of tech companies like Alibaba.

Alibaba unveiled Taobao in 2003, the same year that another Chinese tech company, Tencent, launched its QQ chat platform. But it was Weixin (Wechat in English), a smartphone chat app and digital wallet with a suite of Facebook-style features, that really sent Tencent into the stratosphere. As of the first quarter 2016, Wechat broke the 700 million user mark.

China’s breakneck development has occurred in parallel with the rapid rise and widespread adoption of the smartphone, meaning an entire generation leapfrogged home PC ownership. Emails and SMS messaging never fully caught on, allowing chat apps like Wechat to seize the opportunity. Wechat, and Alibaba’s Alipay, allow users unprecedented levels of functionality. Both apps are tied seamlessly with bank accounts, letting users do everything from buying dinner in restaurants to taking taxis or paying utility bills.  

Dual Track Innovation

Of course, innovation flows down as well as up. The Chinese government has been busy re-wiring the very fabric of the country for the twenty-first century, in every field from telecoms to travel. In less than a decade, thanks to colossal government investment, China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network, connecting city’s across the country.

Meanwhile in the private sector, a more traditional form of transport is making a high-tech comeback. MoBike is a new start-up, backed in part by Tencent and the brainchild of Wang Xiaofeng, previously head of Uber in Shanghai. It represents the apex of China’s recent innovations in the realms of e-commerce and mobile technology.

In contrast to traditional urban bike-sharing programs, MoBike bicycles don’t need docking stations or a registration process; all that is required is a smartphone. The tech-loaded bikes use a QR scanner to be unlocked and so can be parked anywhere, and located via GPS within the app. The scheme has already taken Shanghai and Beijing by storm since it launched in June 2016, with thousands of the distinctive silver and orange bikes already visible on the road.

"The MoBike model,” explained Gao Fan, an associate professor of economics at Shanghai’s Fudan University talking with China Daily, “is not a result of rational planning by the government, but a product of the innovative private sector." More broadly, it goes to show how willing China is to widely and quickly adopt new ideas and systems, to everyone’s benefit. 

Seeking Soft Power

In October 2016, Alibaba branched out into the movie business, teaming up with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners (previously DreamWorks). Chinese box-office sales are no. 2 globally behind the U.S, and Hollywood is desperate to carve out a share of the pie. Equally, China craves the kind of soft power that the global reach of Hollywood has given the U.S. for so long. This is why, increasingly, Hollywood blockbusters are Chinese co-productions, and stars with global appeal like Matt Damon are heading big budget Chinese epics like 2016’s The Great Wall.

Another Chinese company, Dalian Wanda Group, owned by Wang Jianlin, reportedly China’s richest entrepreneur, has already made great strides in the movie business, acquiring US theatre companies AMC and Legendary Entertainment. But that’s not enough for Wanda. Another target in their sights is the expanding service sector – specifically the global luxury hotel market. In September 2016, after just four years, the group opened its one hundredth hotel.

“For Wanda Hotels & Resorts, our company vision is to become a respected international luxury hotel company from China,” explained Ken Zhu, Executive Vice President of the group. For Ken, building Chinese brands that can stand toe-to-toe with the best in the world is the next logical step in China’s development.

“I believe that in a few years, with our overseas properties opening in the Gold Coast, Sydney, Chicago, London and Los Angeles, we will achieve our vision, while guests from around the world see a respected luxury hotel brand from China.”

Innovation Future

China is sending rovers to the moon, spreading its cultural and economic influence globally, investing in new-energy vehicles (NEVs) on its roads and developing brands that are starting to make the world sit up and take serious notice. But what, if anything, can shackle the rise of the dragon as it soars up the value chain?

Political and environmental issues and volatile stock markets remain ever-present concerns, of course, but for China to realize its growth potential in the next ten years, research by Research by McKinsey Global Institute suggests that two to three percentage points of its annual GDP growth will need to come from innovation, amounting to trillions of dollars.

To this end, the government is pumping serious cash into R&D and more recently, innovation and entrepreneurship education, laying the platform for China’s next Jack Ma. Integrated enterprise ecosystems are in place to nurture hi-tech development, from Beijing’s Zhongguancun with over 20,000 companies to Shenzhen in the south, until recently a fishing village and now home to domestic tech giants like Huawei. And that’s not to mention over a million science graduates coming through China’s increasingly well-regarded university system every year.

Taken together, the prospects looks bright for China. If the Qianlong emperor was around today, he’d surely have to agree. The “Celestial Empire” he presided over is strong once again, and getting stronger.