Was There a Dating Tradition in Inner Mongolian Forest Among Chinese Men, Russian Women?

“But apparently this stems from a tradition whereby Russian ladies would meet Chinese men here in the forest and kind of go on dates. But I guess it’s evolved to become more of a, you know, all encompassing thing.”

Those were the remarks in a recent episode of Travelogue on CGTN, or China Global Television Network (formerly CCTV International), that piqued my curiosity.

In Inner Mongolia 2: Life in the saddle, the host of the program Tianran He walked through a virgin forest in the Hulunbuir region of Inner Mongolia, China, when he started talking about these small messages dangling from the trees: “…in the forest there’s loads of these little good luck charms, and most of them are for love, but this one’s like, I wish my dad, mom, granddad and grandma good health.”

And then he explained this came about because of these rendezvous in the woods between Chinese men and Russian women who were apparently lovers.

Naturally, I was intrigued and set off to find whatever I could about this secret tradition in one of northern China’s border regions.

And I looked…and looked…and looked. But nothing definitive surfaced among the many searches I made in Chinese. (Incidentally, the host’s description of those items as “good luck charms” is inaccurate. Chinese would call them 许愿牌, xǔyuànpái, which could translate to “wish cards”.)

To be sure, Inner Mongolia’s Hulunbuir is a very remote destination in China. It’s tucked right up in the northeast corner of the country, sharing a border with Mongolia and Russia.

The close proximity to Russia does add plausibility to stories of cross-border dating in a forest. And if parents back then were anything like today — after all, it’s not uncommon for families to oppose interracial or intercultural love — chances are couples like this would welcome the cover and privacy of all those trees.

But exactly where is this forest in Hulunbuir? Based on the trees in the video, I suspect it’s a virgin birch forest — and there is such a place in Hulunbuir: 白桦林, báihuàlín, the white birch forest or white birch corridor in Ergun (额尔古纳). This area of Hulunbuir borders Russia, making it the most likely candidate.

Chances are, I’ll have to travel there to get the full story from the locals.

Then again, given that China has a long border with Russia (and the fact that white women in China like me are often mistaken for being Russian), there are probably many more forests out there that have served as sanctuaries of Chinese-Russian cross-border love. What stories have you heard?

P.S.: If want to see the episode for yourself, watch it in full on the CGTN Youtube channel:

“You Must Be Russian” – On Mistaken Identity in China and America

“She must be Russian…even her hat is Russian.” 😉

“Are you Russian?” someone asked me the other day here in Hangzhou.

It felt like a total a palm-in-face moment. After all, hadn’t he read my CV, which explicitly stated I was an American, in bold letters?

But the truth is, I had heard this same question – which more often came out as a statement (“She’s Russian”) – hundreds of times here in China. I can’t tell you the many times I’ve been standing on a metro or riding the bus, and all of a sudden I catch someone whispering in Chinese that I’m Russian, never knowing that I understood their every single word.

The thing is, I do understand where this comes from. Because I’ve heard many other white foreign women married to Chinese men share similar stories of being called citizens of China’s Northerly neighbor. Given Russia’s promixity, it’s not surprising.

But yet…sometimes the conclusion isn’t flattering either. Not when some people think we’re Russian prostitutes.

Sadly, I’ve heard stories from white women in China who were stalked and even nearly raped because someone assumed they were “for hire”. My Chinese husband, who has seen how some men look at me (and not always in a good way), makes it his duty to “protect my butt” from wandering eyes.

But here’s the fascinating thing in my case – Americans have also mistaken me for being Russian. Yes, Americans.

In fact, when I was at university, I was stopped on two occasions and explicitly asked if I wasn’t from Russia.

I had to confess feeling a little strange. What was it about me that prompted them to think this? Then again, this is America, a country where news giant CNN actually ran a map showing Hong Kong as part of South America.

Come to think of it, now that’s a true palm-in-face moment.

Do you have any stories of mistaken identity?

First Lady Faina Chiang, Russian Wife of President Chiang Ching-kuo

Faina Chiang with her husband Chiang Ching-kuo and their son in Gannan Prefecture. (By Unknown – http://bbs.big5.voc.com.cn/archiver/tid-2084241.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15237990)

Faina Chiang (nee Vahaleva) and Chiang Ching-kuo were one of the few AMWF couples known as a First Lady and President. But while researching this couple for the blog, I found myself continually drawn to the story of Faina herself, for reasons such as this quote from the Taipei Times:

Chiang Fang-liang lived her life with the weighty crown of first lady. While she never enjoyed the glamour associated with the title, she will be remembered for her stoicism.

Faina and Chiang met and married in the former Soviet Union in the 1930s. In 1937, Stalin permitted Chiang to return to China, so the couple moved there. As many of us in international and intercultural marriages know, it can be tough to settle in a foreign country. Yet as the Taipei Times noted, “the Russian bride followed her husband to China.” They added:

Perhaps Vahaleva had thought little of the different language, culture and traditions in China that would no doubt be a great barrier to her, or perhaps her love for her husband gave her all the courage needed.

Reminds me of how many Western women I’ve known have chosen to move to Asia to be with their boyfriends and husbands, despite the challenges.

Faina Chiang and Chiang Ching-kuo in the Soviet Union. (By Unknown – http://tw.people.com.cn/GB/26741/15384128.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16283523)

Speaking of which, Faina encountered another one all too familiar to me – the parental objection, as described in the Taipei Times:

Chiang Kai-shek was reportedly at first dismayed to have a Communist Russian daughter-in-law. But after the two met, Vahaleva — who has been described as possessing the virtues of a traditional Chinese woman to a greater degree than a Chinese woman — soon won the approval of her father-in-law and was given the name Fang-liang.

She even learned Ningbo dialect and forged a good relationship with her mother-in-law, Mao Fumei (Chiang Ching-kuo’s mother and Chiang Kai-shek’s first wife).

Faina Chiang with Chiang Ching-kuo, his mother Mao Fumei, and their first son Chiang Hsiao-wen in 1937. (By Unknown – http://service.photo.sina.com.cn/show_mop.php?type=orignal&pic_id=4a8a18bfg967637c6b217&pm=1&v=690, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15629523)

As first lady, Faina rarely appeared in public, preferring a simple life behind the scenes:

She was used to doing all the household chores herself instead of employing servants. She would ask for her husband’s approval for everything. Private household expenses, such as water and electricity bills, as well as salaries for servants, were all paid directly by Fang-liang from Chiang Ching-kuo’s paycheck, instead of being deducted as public expenses.

At the same time, Faina never entirely lost her foreign customs, as the LA Times reported:

…she often spoke Russian with her husband and preserved several traditions from her homeland.

“Faina regularly greeted her husband at the airport with a hug and a kiss, to the wonder and embarrassment of Chinese spectators,” Jay Taylor wrote in his biography of Chiang Ching-kuo, “The Generalissimo’s Son,” published in 2000.

She braved many tumultuous years in China with her husband, reflected in the fact that three of her four children were born in different cities in China.

Faina Chiang, Chiang Ching-kuo and their family. (By Unknown – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15237453)
And, unbeknownst to her until after his death, she also endured an adulterous husband whose mistress in China bore him two sons. Imagine how heartbreaking it was to discover the truth through media reports of her husband’s death:

After Chiang Ching-kuo died, Fang-liang reportedly asked her second son Hsiao-wu, “I only have three sons, why are there reports saying I have five?”

Hsiao-wu, who had publicly reconciled with his half-brother Chang Hsiao-yan (章孝嚴/John Chang) chose to respond with silence.

On top of that, she suffered the loss of her three sons in the years after her husband passed away. The China Daily called her “the loneliest woman in Taipei”:

She had no real friends and no descendants close to her. Her closest relatives all lived overseas and even after her death, her only daughter was unable to attend the funeral because she herself was seriously ill.

How tragic.

Faina Chiang Fang-liang in 1944, cropped from the image at http://lz.book.sohu.com/chapter-1251-4-2.html

Faina died of complications from lung cancer on December 15, 2004 at the age of 88. Even though she eschewed the public spotlight, she’ll always be remembered for her hard work, modesty and devotion to her family.