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In a tiny town by the name of Nuanquan, not too far from the sprawling metropolis of Beijing, a curious tradition of throwing molten iron pulls in a growing crowd of tourists every Lunar New Year. The tradition is called da shuhua (树花) which has the literal translation of ‘hitting tree-flower’ and is named after a forgotten technique of shaking trees to retrieve their blossom.

When the molten iron is thrown against an icy wall, it produces an incredible explosion. The sparks in the explosion are said to resemble falling blossom in the fashion of da shuhua.

Once being dubbed the “poor man’s fireworks”, this dangerously thrilling activity comes from the creativity of its residents from centuries before, who could not afford the luxurious fireworks made from gunpowder packed into hollow bamboo stems. Thanks to Nuanquan’s enterprising nature, the town resorted to its steel works and Blacksmithing heritage to find an alternative. Hence throwing molten iron for entertainment was born and helped to forge the town’s identity. Year upon year, town dwellers would donate their scraps of iron for a spectacular fireworks show during the Lunar New Year festival.

China’s firework obsession at the time of New Year has a dubious future due to the government’s recent crackdown in banning firework displays. Fireworks release the pollutant PM2.5 into the air which contributes to some of the worst cases of pollution on the planet.

However, da shuhua shows no signs of stopping as more and more tourists flock to Nuanquan in an act of re-discovering their Chinese traditions. The shows are becoming extravaganzas in their own right with a variety of acts and music around the staple event of throwing molten iron.

Students interested in reading AMES or Oriental Studies would do well to consider the act of da shuhua in its cultural and historical context. Geographers and Human Scientists may be interested in the conflict of tradition and environmental pressures in modern China.

A recent article by ‘Quartz’ online has stated that ‘Archaeologists have found the tomb of China’s Shakespeare.’

Archaeologists in the south eastern region of China have released a statement that they have been able to identify the tomb of a man called Tang Xianzu. He was a renowned late 16th Century playwright who is often dubbed the country’s Shakespeare. Student’s wanting to apply for HSPS and Archaeology and Anthropology can explore concepts such as cultural imperialism and the arguments surrounding imposing western figures on other cultures. Does comparing Tang Xianzu to Shakespeare detract from his own relevance within Chinese culture?

Students wanting to apply for Archaeology or Oriental Studies may then want to look into the discovery of his remains as a prompt to explore the context behind many of his plays. Tang Xianzu was known for his defiance of nobles in the Ming Dynasty. His plays explored controversial themes like the triumph of humanity over hierarchy and authority.

The remains of Tang’s tomb are filled with stories, and other parts of China’s history even after Tang’s death. The tomb suffered devastating destruction in the Cultural Revolution, a decade long political movement that began in 1966. This period plunged the country into a chaotic turmoil which saw various historic sited ransacked and destroyed. Students that are applying for History may use the discovery of Tang’s tomb as a reminder that the discovery of such objects are useful to build a more intricate and concrete picture of the past and highlight the linear path of history.

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was introduced 1861 during the British rule of India.  It criminalised sexual activities that were considered “against the order of nature”.  On the 5th September this law was struck down in relation to activities of the LGBT community, a huge step forward in LGBT rights in the nation with many now calling for same-sex marriage legalisation.  Indian society is broadly considered to have strongly conservative values, particularly in the lower income population of this very class-based society.  Yet traditional religions of India can be seen to be far more aligned with queer rights than those of the West.

An article published on Quartz identifies how the karmic based faiths contain ideas that support queer rights.  These include the lack of a judgement day, therefore the possibility of eternal damnation, and that the body, personality and sexuality are outcomes of karmic burden making them natural.  God and nature are one and infinite (ananta).  Applicants for Theology and Oriental Studies can consider how the juxtaposition between these concepts and the colonial language of Section 377 highlight the impact of religious foundations have on the variances between contemporary values.

Manil Suri, of the New York Times, points out how he has experienced very little homophobia when visiting his family in Delhi. Bollywood is arguably ahead of its Western counterparts with the increasing depiction of gay characters as much more than mere caricatures.  Importantly, India can be used as a model for other non-Western societies to follow because it can be viewed without an Imperialist, Western, authority that often is seen as patronising.

Applicants for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies should question whether the historical and religious foundations of Indian culture will result in LGBT rights becoming more accepted within its modern society.  Also are other countries more likely to follow suit in increasing judicial liberties or consider these constitutional reforms Western influence in India?

The Chinese government plans to launch its Social Credit System in 2020. Many recent news reports have looked into exactly what this means for the inhabitants of China and whether it is a force for good or bad.

The scoring of this system is fundamentally wrapped up in the increasing technological world that China has come to represent.

The online website ‘Wired’ has explained that ‘The Chinese government is pitching the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance “trust” nationwide and to build a culture of “sincerity”. As the policy states, “It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.”

The result of this social credit system and the rating an individual is given could then be used by employers to decide whether to offer you a job, by banks to decide whether to give you a loan, or even by prospective partners.

However, many other news outlets have argued that this is draconian and poses a threat due to being far too pervasive into individual liberties. Students that are hoping to study HSPS may want to look into the tension and judgement shown by western news outlets on their opinion into these changes within Chinese society. Furthermore, are these comments truly reflective or understanding of Chinese society and showing it in a truly holistic picture, or merely placing western views onto the new system?

Students hoping to study Sociology or Computer Science may want to think more closely about the potential effects, risks and potential power that technology can have in the 21st Century world. China has shown control over what its citizens see (with the banning of sites like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter) and also know is using forms of technology to track and monitor citizens thoughts and movements.

The centrality of language to human existence, as well as questions over the human capacity for language has been a hot topic for linguists over numerous decades. Noam Chomsky famously proposed the idea that humans possess a ‘’universal grammar’’ – suggesting that people instinctively organise a new language according to a logical hierarchy, not simply by learning which words go together, as computer translation programs do.

So what place do computer translation programmes have in the development and future of language? As technology improves, machine translation is becoming increasingly popular – where services such as Google and Bing can give quick (though often rough) translations for tourists. Computer translated material for professional use is usually post-edited for both accuracy and style, but machine translation systems can be trained to deal effectively with restricted subject matter, choosing the best translation for words with multiple meanings. The European Union is the best example of this, with the legalistic and narrow base of bureaucratic language making machine translation much easier.

Although machine translation is still in its infancy, historian of languages Nicholas Oster (whose recent book The Last Lingua Franca will be absorbing reading for students of English, Modern Languages, Oriental Studies, Linguistics and Anthropology) pins his hopes on the power of computer translation as the best means of preserving English as one of the world’s foremost languages. Oster’s book highlights how the percentage of people who have English as their mother tongue is actually shrinking, casting doubt on whether people in the future will want to learn English at all.

The increasing capabilities of machine translation, on the other hand, Oster argues, should mean that, for the vast majority of the world’s people, the quick-and-dirty translations available from the likes of Google can only get better. In the grand scheme of things, computer translations will be a better option for most rather than the tireless hours spent learning English.

Oster’s overriding faith in preserving powers of technology has drawn some criticism, with some questioning whether speech recognition of computer translations will ever come far enough to replace the generally unstructured conversations people have on a daily basis. Nevertheless, the case can still be made that machine translation has come a long way in the past decade, and will continue becoming more important in the future. As Johnson, the Economist’s language blog anticipates, ‘’For many people who are born, live and die without ever leaving their home regions, MT [machine translation] will be good enough for the few times in their lives they need to interact with foreigners. Speech recognition has got a lot better, making slow and carefully enunciated speech decently (if not brilliantly) translatable.’’

Standing at 12,400 feet, and listed as a ‘’sacred place’’ by UNESCO’s World Heritage Foundation, Mount Fuji is one of Japan’s greatest national symbols. Scientists both in and out of Japan, however, now fear that the active volcano could be reaching ‘critical status’ – which could prove disastrous for the small island nation. Studies by Japanese scientists, as well as research coming out of the Institute of Earth Sciences and the Institute of Global Physics in France, indicates that Fuji could soon produce an eruption that could rival the last one in 1707. The explosion over 400 years ago blanketed vast areas of Japan in ash and resulted in grave destruction across the country.

The newly-published study reveals that the shock waves from the March 2011 Tohoku-oki offshore earthquake, which registered at 9.0 and precipitated the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, has dangerously increased the pressure beneath Mount Fuji.

The volcano lies 60 miles southwest of Tokyo, and given the damage brought about by the 1707 eruption – when the country was far less populated – scientists, politicians and business leaders are growing uneasy at the prospect of a new explosion that could bring catastrophic damage, crippling much of the nation’s economy. 

Although science is unable to predict when this might happen, the novel approach adopted by researchers should be of great interest to Geologists, Earth Scientists and Geographers looking to learn a little more about the science behind volcanology and seismology. Scientists carried out a giant scan of the bowels of the Earth, based on the huge mass of data recorded after the mega-quake by Japan’s Hi-net system, the densest network in the world, with 800 seismic sensors. They focused on signals commonly known as seismic noise, the result of constant interaction between ocean swell and “solid” earth. Although in the past such data has been dismissed as background interference, it now forms a central feature of this new study.

Recording these fluctuations allowed the researchers to map the geological disturbances in the bedrock of Japan caused by the seismic waves following the violent quake in 2011. As a lead researcher on at the Institute of Earth Sciences explained, “Seismic waves travel a very long way, going round the world several times . . . Their movement makes the Earth’s crust vibrate, and rather like a shock wave this produces breaks or cracks in the rock”.

With the troubled region that is the Middle East constantly making the news, it may be difficult to keep up to date. For those interested in Politics, History, Middle Eastern, Oriental Studies, or world affairs. Here is a brief survey of some of the most recent developments in the region:

Just three years ago, the Arab Spring bloomed across North Africa and the Middle East. One-by-one, long established rulers and regimes fell in the wake of popular protests across much of the Arab world. Despite the initial thrust for change, counter-revolutions have swept the table, and new waves of radical violence have taken hold. The election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt came after months of violence following the deposition of the previously elected Muslim Brotherhood. In Syria Bashar al-Assad has seemingly held on to power despite the controversy and pressures for reform coming from both within Syria and the international community. Iraq’s recent history of conflict shows no sign of abating as the Islamic Sunni organisation ISIS have begun taking over large parts of Iraq and Syria in a bid to establish an Islamic Caliphate (Islamic State). Now the conflict in Palestine and Israel has again escalated, forcing widespread debate and protest among members of the international community (have a look at an animated overview of the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict ). For more information on the ever-changing state of affairs in the Middle East, try the Middle East Monitor and Muftah for a more diverse perspective on world events. 

What’s the definition of the word ‘achievement’? To answer this your first thought might be to look the word up in a dictionary. Indeed, this week Tom Chivers has written an excellent article discussing why he thinks of The Oxford English Dictionary as ‘one of humanity’s greatest achievements’. But what if you looked up ‘achievement’ in Johnson’s seminal dictionary of 1755? Or any of the multitude of examples you can find in the British Library? Do you think you’d find the same answer? With ‘adorkable’ recently finding its way into the Collins English Dictionary, all these topics lead the English or Language enthusiast to absolutely key questions about their subject. Where does meaning lie? Can you pin down the meaning of a word? And if the answer is no, then why do authors bother writing anything down at all?

The 21st of June was the longest day of the year. In England, many flocked to Stonehenge to… well, do a number of different things. The history of Stonehenge is an interesting one, and the historian Ronald Hutton remarked of the C20th neo-druid revival (a brilliant EPQ topic if ever there was one) that “it was a great, and potentially uncomfortable, irony that modern Druids had arrived at Stonehenge just as archaeologists were evicting the ancient Druids from it”. However, on the other side of the world, the Chinese solstice “xiazhi” was being celebrated in a slightly more tense way in the southeastern city of Yulin. Since around 772 BC, Chinese people have eaten dogs to celebrate the solstice. However, things are changing rapidly, and although some are doggedly holding on to the tradition (apologies), the animal rights lobby is beginning to win. The local government have now banned its officials from participating, and there a major concerns over the sourcing of the dogs for slaughter. There’s a growing tension between local traditions and increasingly globalised moral values that any PPE, Politics, Oriental Studies, Philosophy and Geography students should have a well-read opinion on.

To many people, studying a language is synonymous with verb tables, grammar lessons and the endless repetition of vocabulary. But what exactly is a language, and where do you draw the line? For example, would Cantonese be considered a language? The Hong Kong education department doesn’t think so, posting a message to the opposite on its website before removing the claim later. So what would Cantonese be considered as, if not a language? A dialect? And what, exactly, is the difference between the two? A thought for the Linguists to contemplate.

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