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When Tradition is Flattened by Policy

When Tradition is Flattened by Policy

 
 

A “tomb-flattening policy” in Henan province has sparked intense controversy, with millions of tombs reportedly destroyed by local authorities in a quest to turn graveyards into farmland.

The policy can be seen as a historical extension of land-saving reforms implemented after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which discouraged burials and made cremations mandatory.

At the time, even notable scholars such as Zhou Zuoren supported the reform. In an article published in 1951, Zhou wrote: “The problem now is that land is important for the sake of production. We have to see how the land can be given back to the living, so that the dead are not harming others without benefiting themselves.”

Indeed, funeral customs have changed greatly in recent decades, as more Chinese have chosen cremation over burial for dead loved ones.

Such choices may be made for either religious reasons (for instance, Hindus choose cremation) or economic factors, as in the case of China, where the amount of arable land is limited. Cremation is the norm in Japan, where the cremation rate is 97 percent, and in Britain (70 percent). But the rates are low in larger countries such as in Canada (38 percent) and the United States (25 percent).

China has a vast amount of land, but it has limited amount of arable land and a huge population. Thus, the government’s decision to reform funeral customs was unavoidable.

However, Henan’s “tomb-flattening policy” went too far, stirring wide-scale resentment.

In traditional Chinese culture, covering over or digging up a tomb is considered viciously degrading. Not much has changed in the context of contemporary culture.

A grave under civil law, whether it contains remains or personally symbolic commemorative items, belongs to the deceased’s next of kin. It’s also a receptacle for human dignity, according to the Chinese constitution. Therefore, it is obvious the policy put in place in Henan has been a serious affront.

In the city of Zhoukou alone, about 2 million graves were leveled over the past three months, personally affecting tens of millions of people. Local officials are human, too, so they should understand people’s feelings.

So what kind of pressure and what kind of a bureaucratic system prompted these officials to risk infamy by approving such outrageous measures?

The pressure is two-fold. On the one hand, it comes from China’s “red line” policy aimed at ensuring that the nation’s total amount of arable land never goes below 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares). The idea is to protect the nation’s food security, and any official who challenges this bottom-line policy can lose his post.

On the other hand, land use is a driver for regional growth and local government revenues. Local authorities have to find ways to deal with the process of urbanization and regional industrialization. If there is no land available to sell, economic development won’t be sustainable, and local officials won’t have any achievements to brag about.

Feeding Development

A huge amount of land has been needed to spur China’s economic development. Local governments have proven their dependence on land in recent years through campaigns to demolish homes and relocate households. Tomb-flattening is a further demonstration of land dependence in pursuit of growth and revenue.

Governments at all levels in recent years have been selling land in bulk for building new residential communities, economic zones, and research parks. As a result, we are very close to the 1.8 billion mu red line.

Due to political constraints, China’s land expropriation policies have been tightened, limiting the amount of property available for development. Nonetheless, local officials are not short of ideas for making land. Some are reclaiming barren hills or filling in the sea. Farmers have been forced off land and into apartments. And now we are destroying cemeteries.

So where is this leading?

It’s typical in China to use the strict and vast bureaucratic system to promote economic and social development. But the system has disadvantages. Tomb-flattening is a perfect example of the harm inflicted.

Henan’s policy has serious legal consequences. In the case of forced tomb removal, article 20 of the Mortuary Service Administration Act says improperly buried remains can be forcibly removed. But according to the Administration Enforcement Law that took effect in January, the act contains no enforcement provision. So a gravesite move must be approved by civil affairs officials through an administrative decision and approved by a court.

Had Henan authorities followed this procedure, they could not have converted so many graveyards so quickly, not even in ten years.

Second, value and cost calculations follow the internal logic of the bureaucracy. Career promotion is an incentive and “political achievement” a yardstick. Officials follow this without thinking about the overall interests of a community.

This is why even when scholars such as Yao Zhongqiu, a research fellow at the Cathay Institute for Public Affairs, call for the protection of traditional Chinese culture and people’s freedom to worship, tradition still bears no weight in the face of the pressure felt by officials.

It is hard to calculate the hidden social cost of mental anguish. It does not affect “political achievements,” so it’s not even considered.

Many local governments know all too well how a bureaucratic system works. If a local official fails to fulfill policy goals, the local party chief can be removed. So a massive amount of land is opened up for agriculture through a policy of tomb-leveling that officials dare not question.

Caixin Media Company Limited is a media group dedicated to providing high-quality and authoritative financial and business news and information. Through periodicals, online content, mobile apps,...
Why Read This?

The expression “greenfield development” is rarely heard in China, even though economic growth is closely tied to new construction and commercial/industrial/agriculture-related property development. The reason is simple: The greenfields are gone. Most of the land space suitable for buildings, factories, mines, and food production is already occupied. Thus, government expropriation of farms, villages, Beijing hutongs (alleys), and much more has been at the heart of the nation’s property development push. Writing for Caixin, political scientist Wang Yong describes and rails against the latest trend in land expropriation: gravesite grabbing for new farms. His piece is based on a report published November 7 in the Zhoukou Daily newspaper citing the destruction of 2.3 million of the city’s 3.5 million graves.

By Wang Yong, professor at the China University of Political Science and Law

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12.16.12

In Bo Xilai’s City, a Legacy of Backstabbing

CAIXIN

A deathbed plea brought an unexpected guest to Li Zhuang’s home one day last March, setting in motion a legal process that soon may clear the Beijing lawyer’s name, throw out a number of convictions, and close a sordid chapter of the Bo Xilai story.The visitor was Gong...

Caixin Media

12.07.12

China’s Dream Team

CAIXIN

The country’s recent leadership transition was widely depicted as a triumph for conservative hardliners and a setback for the cause of reform—a characterization that has deepened the gloominess that pervades Western perceptions of China.In fact, nothing could be further from...

Caixin Media

12.03.12

Toxic Effects and Environmental Nondisclosure

CAIXIN

High-profile talk emphasizing environmental action at the Communist Party’s 18th national congress attracted a lot of attention. News from the November proceedings spurred industry demands for more information and pushed stock prices higher for companies that make environmental...

Caixin Media

11.23.12

Asset Transparency Urged to Fight Government Graft

CAIXIN

Calls for government officials to disclose personal and family assets are growing louder in China, mainly in reaction to the rising number of corruption cases affecting officialdom.And some officials are listening. A local Communist Party official in Hunan province, for example,...

Caixin Media

11.17.12

Political Reform: The Way to Go

CAIXIN

Sections of the 18th National Party Congress report that have justifiably generated the most attention are references to political reform.Anyone who did not harbor unrealistic hopes about the congress and its outcome can read the report and find indications of progress in the...

Caixin Media

11.17.12

As 18th Congress Ends, a Peek into the Process

CAIXIN

Over the past twenty years, economist Zhang Zhuoyuan has witnessed and actively participated in building the nation’s economic policy.He participated in the drafting of reports at each of the Communist Party’s three previous national congresses, setting broad policy and...

Caixin Media

11.12.12

Weighing Risks Amid a Wealth Management Boom

CAIXIN

Is China’s wealth management business a booming profit volcano for investors, or just another smoke-and-mirrors pyramid scheme?It’s a question dividing the nation’s bankers and banking regulators as investors of all kinds pour cash into bank-sponsored wealth management...

Caixin Media

11.05.12

Scenes from a Leadership Transition

CAIXIN

Jiang Zemin’s Lyrical MemoryCompiled by Caixin(Beijing)—A glance at off-hours correspondence between two veteran leaders has added a lighter dimension to the recent public appearances of former Politburo members in the run-up to the party’s 18th National Congress.Li Lanqing...

Caixin Media

11.05.12

Thanks, But No Thanks

CAIXIN

On the last day of Zhao Xiang’s short life, her request to donate every organ possible to save the lives of others was brushed off by the president of Shenzhen Liulian Hospital.Zhao, her parents, and transplant specialists from the Shenzhen branch of the Red Cross Society of...

Caixin Media

11.02.12

18 Reforms for the Party’s 18th Congress

CAIXIN

China’s leadership handover comes at a critical moment for society and the economy, and changes are in order.The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party this month comes at a critical time described by economist Wu Jinglian as “a tipping point for China’s economic...

Caixin Media

10.26.12

Below-Belt Blows in Kungfu Restaurant Battle

CAIXIN

The crestfallen former chairman of fast-food restaurant giant Kungfu Catering Management Co. Ltd. is awaiting a verdict after a trial on corporate embezzlement charges apparently instigated by his former business partner’s wife.If Cai Dabiao is found guilty in Guangzhou’s...

Caixin Media

10.19.12

Flying Splinters

CAIXIN

Liu Futang expressed a sense of foreboding just before his recent arrest by posting a microblog entry that began, “If one day I’m invited out for tea, please don’t worry about me.”“Drink tea” is a euphemism in China for an unwanted interrogation by government...

Caixin Media

09.28.12

Bo Xilai Ousted from Communist Party

CAIXIN

The Communist Party has expelled Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing, who’s been embroiled in corruption allegations since early this year.The Politburo made the decision on September 28, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Bo will next face criminal charges.On...

Caixin Media

09.28.12

Living on Dangerous Ground

CAIXIN

Fractures had long plagued the rocky mountainside next to Huang Daihong’s home. When an earthquake jolted Luozehe County in Yunnan province, Huang watched a large black boulder release a shower of stones that instantly killed her neighbor.The September 7 quake that struck the...

Caixin Media

09.20.12

Hit TV Show Sings Song of Media Model Success

CAIXIN

A reality-talent TV songfest popular in more than forty countries around the world has become an instant hit in China, underpinning enthusiasm for an experimental business model linked to media sector reform.The Voice of China’s debut show in July immediately won high audience...

Caixin Media

09.17.12

How a Protest in Beijing Stuck to the Script

CAIXIN

On the afternoon of September 16, rows of policemen and security personnel in black T-shirts lined Beijing’s Liangmaqiao Road near the Japanese embassy during protests over the Diaoyu Islands controversy. Security guards were visible everywhere, both in the middle of the road...

Caixin Media

09.14.12

Why War is Not a Possibility

CAIXIN

There won’t be a war in East Asia.The United States has five military alliances in the western Pacific. Its allies are South Korea, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore. And American battleships are busy patrolling the seas.Without a go-ahead from Washington, there...

Caixin Media

09.14.12

Moneyless Pensions Yield No Gold for the Old

CAIXIN

SHENYANG—Morning breezes turn chilly in late August, signaling fall’s approach in the Tiexi factory district.For the unemployed men and women standing on sidewalks between a labor bureau office and a park every day at 6 a.m., the change of seasons is a reminder that searching...

Caixin Media

09.07.12

Despite Regulations, Bus Travel Still Risky

CAIXIN

Thirty-six people died recently on a Shaanxi province highway when a double-decker bus slammed into a fuel tanker.The crash underscored ongoing demands for beefing up traffic law enforcement and improving the design of these often-crowded overnight buses, which transport nearly...

Caixin Media

09.07.12

Long Ride for Justice

CAIXIN

Lea Cao had his first inkling that something was wrong when he got a long-distance phone call from relatives in southeastern China.His family members in Fuzhou phoned Cao in New York to say that his parents and brother had failed to arrive at the local train station as scheduled...

Caixin Media

09.05.12

Making a Killing on Herbal Medicine

CAIXIN

Mushroom gatherers converge and crawl on hillsides in Qinghai province every March while foraging for wild caterpillar fungus.Theirs is not a garden-variety morel hunt. Caterpillar fungus is a hard-to-find parasite that infects and mummifies a host before forming a mushroom, the...

Caixin Media

08.31.12

Tall Order in Ordos

CAIXIN

A desert city infamously littered with new but vacant apartment buildings and idle construction sites is getting no relief in the parched climate for local government budgets.Ordos, where local leaders have been trying for years to build a thriving community almost from scratch,...

Caixin Media

08.25.12

Gu Kailai: Getting Away with Murder?

CAIXIN

Closer Look: Nearly Getting Away with MurderBy Zhang JianjingShortly after Bogu Kailai received a death sentence with a two-year reprieve, four former high-ranking Chongqing police officers were sentenced to jail terms ranging from five to eleven years. Each officer was convicted...

Caixin Media

08.18.12

Economist Lin Yifu on State-Sustained Growth

CAIXIN

Standing up to a wave of pessimism about China’s prospects for continuing high-level economic growth is no easy task.But economist Lin Yifu, who recently retired as a senior vice president and chief economist at the World Bank, is holding his ground with a prediction that China...

Caixin Media

08.13.12

We Make It Pour, Declare Cloud-Seeders

CAIXIN

Will it be clear or gray skies today? Increasingly, the answer in China may be decided by the government.The Chinese have been seeding clouds for decades. Airplanes equipped with rocket-launchers and chemicals for inducing rainfall are based in thousands of counties across the...

Caixin Media

08.09.12

Subsidized Cartoons, Comics Tickling Too Few

CAIXIN

Breaking into the animated film industry usually requires a basic plan for blending colorful images and clever storytelling in ways that entertain the public—and make money.Since 2006, however, animated film start-ups in China have done quite well with a lot less effort by...

Caixin Media

08.03.12

Queerly Not Dangerous

CAIXIN

Several authors of a “danmei” fiction website were recently detained by authorities. The injustice is so glaringly obvious that I can’t stop myself from saying something.Danmei (or “boys' love”) fiction is particularly interesting only to a minority. The idea comes from...

Caixin Media

08.02.12

Landlords of the Rings Push Urban Rents Higher

CAIXIN

A twenty-six-year-old woman who moved to Beijing from a distant town for work could be a poster child for urban China’s latest housing market phenomenon: skyrocketing rents.The woman, surnamed Fang, said goodbye to Liaoning province three years ago for a job that paid 2,400...

Caixin Media

07.31.12

Shedding Light on the Solar Crisis

CAIXIN

After Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd., a Wuxi-headquartered photovoltaic cell producer, went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 2005, China’s solar industry grew at an astonishing speed. More than 200 photovoltaic product manufacturers are operating in Zhejiang province...

Caixin Media

07.26.12

Mass Medal Preparedness

CAIXIN

China’s Olympic training system demands its athletes give their all—and not expect much in return.It’s a structured, planned, and government-funded system specifically designed to churn out winners.While other countries around the world build Olympic teams with professional...

Caixin Media

07.26.12

Buried Under Water

CAIXIN

Ding Zhijian, a 34-year-old editor at a children’s literature publishing company, was on his way home after meeting a colleague when a horrific rainstorm hit Beijing.Earlier that day, his wife had asked Ding not to leave the house. It was the weekend, after all, and rain had...

Caixin Media

07.19.12

Vineyards Pop Corks on Chinese Wine Investors

CAIXIN

Wine-tasting party conversations among investors in China are increasingly sounding like sour grapes.Some well-heeled wine investors have been anxiously debating whether a price bubble for investment-grade wine is getting ready to burst. Others complain that counterfeiters who...

Caixin Media

07.19.12

More than Medals for China’s Olympic Stars

CAIXIN

China’s best athletes have not only broken records but they’ve hauled in increasingly sizeable cash bonuses from central and local governments for their champion, medal-winning performances at Olympic events.Between 1984, when China re-entered the Olympics arena, and the 2008...

Caixin Media

07.11.12

Economic Ties that Bind

CAIXIN

Labor leader Wayne Swan has his finger on the pulse of the Australian economy as the nation’s deputy prime minister and treasurer, which means he’s well-equipped to explain factors defining the increasingly robust relationship between China and Australia.The period since...

Caixin Media

07.11.12

Railroaded into a Fast-Train Technology Trap

CAIXIN

The professional dreams of a team of locomotive designers and rail systems engineers sped along steel tracks through the countryside of northeastern China.The year was 2003, and high-speed track testing was under way between the cities of Shenyang and Qinhuangdao for the China...

Caixin Media

07.06.12

Land of Vanishing Lakes

CAIXIN

The last lakes in Hubei province are shrinking so fast that no one knows whether new government regulations—the latest leg of a sixteen-year-old environmental scramble—can reverse the disappearing act.The province has been losing its once-bountiful lakes for about a hundred...

Caixin Media

07.06.12

Fighting the Filth

CAIXIN

Has the division of spoils from China’s rapid economic growth become a one-sided affair? The answer is less abstract when one considers the state of the nation’s environment.Waterways are barricaded by garbage, mountains gouged with dusty pits, and the air in many major...

Caixin Media

07.06.12

Powering Down Coal-Fired Economic Expansion

CAIXIN

Slowing nationwide power demand and coal consumption, twin barometers for economic growth, suggest the Chinese economy may be sailing into the doldrums while at the same time changing its course. Electricity use in May rose a relatively mild 5.2 percent compared to the same...

Caixin Media

06.29.12

Barclay’s Diamond Offers an Optimistic Vision

CAIXIN

A calm, confident Robert Diamond discussed financial restructuring in Europe and economic options for the Chinese government during a June 14 interview—thirteen days before the British bank where he serves as CEO, Barclays Group, was fined for manipulating interbank lending...

Caixin Media

06.29.12

Shale Gas Race

CAIXIN

The shale gas revolution in the United States has led to a debate in China over shale gas development. But can the United States really achieve energy self-sufficiency? And if it can, what are the implications for China?Ever since the Nixon era, almost every American president...

Caixin Media

06.27.12

Cash for China’s Homegrown Smartphone

CAIXIN

Xiaomi Mobile Internet Co. has raised US$216 million, its CEO says, raising the total value of the upstart, homegrown Chinese smartphone maker to US$4 billion.If Lei Jun’s claim is accurate, his two-year-old company’s value is close to the market capitalization of Research In...

Caixin Media

06.20.12

China’s Food Fright

CAIXIN

There’s no denying that the gastronomic horizons of Chinese cuisines sometimes verge on the infinite. But on factors of food quality, there’s little subtlety or nuance for safety standards. In the past five years, the number of public food and drug safety scandals has hit...

Caixin Media

06.18.12

Recurring Dreams for the Rule of Law

CAIXIN

On the Beijing campus of the China University of Political Science and Law stands a dramatic monument inscribed with the words of legal expert and former university president Jiang Ping: “Rule of Law for Everyone.”Jiang’s words carry special weight, even from retirement,...

Caixin Media

06.14.12

Uproar over Aborted Fetus Photo

CAIXIN

A Shaanxi Province woman provoked an uproar with an online posting of a photo showing her with her seven-month-old fetus after what she said was a forced abortion.The gruesome photo was reposted across the Internet in China, prompting provincial officials to...

Caixin Media

06.08.12

Road Show Media Bandits Squeeze IPO Hopefuls

CAIXIN

Buying media silence is a common first step toward an initial public offering in China that siphons billions of yuan every year from companies seeking investors in Shanghai and Shenzhen. The phenomenon has been documented by the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC)....

Caixin Media

05.28.12

Rail Builders Shift Interest to Overseas Mines

CAIXIN

After a three-year wait, China Railway Construction Corp. Ltd. (CRCC) recently won permission to launch a major copper mining project in Ecuador. The production agreement signed April 25 by Ecuador’s government and Corriente Resources, a Canadian company jointly controlled...

Caixin Media

05.25.12

Policeman Burned for Dealing With the Devil

CAIXIN

On March 17, the Chenzhou Public Security Bureau announced Huang Bailian had been removed as head of the police department’s drug squad. Huang offered a simple explanation for his sacking: “This is retaliation.” Three years earlier Huang, who is forty-eight years old...

Caixin Media

05.23.12

Identity Crisis Rattles Volvo’s Chinese Owner

CAIXIN

New models bearing the Chinese-owned Volvo badge shared a luxury spotlight at the Beijing International Auto Show in April with perennial stars Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Lexus.But behind the diamond-studded presentation was confusion over the legal status of Sweden-based Volvo Car...

Caixin Media

05.18.12

Demography and Destiny

CAIXIN

China is facing a demographic reckoning that is approaching a nightmare.For thirty years, the government has been obsessed with keeping population growth down, often resorting to late-term abortions and other brutal measures. The panic now is that China is growing old before it...

Caixin Media

05.18.12

Message in a Bottle for Spirits Maker Moutai

CAIXIN

A glass of Feitian Moutai packs a wallop, which is one reason why the 106-proof baijiu is a hit among influential government officials.They also like Feitian Moutai because a single bottle, thanks to special arrangements between state agencies and distiller Kweichow Moutai Co....

Caixin Media

05.18.12

Era Ends for China’s Legendary Stock Picker

CAIXIN

Investors who closely followed the stock picks of one of China’s most successful brokers are wandering in the wilderness—and wondering what will happen next to their unemployed luminary Wang Yawei.In April, and without warning, Wang resigned from his position as a star public...

Caixin Media

05.09.12

Along the Xiang, It’s Toxic from the Tap

CAIXIN

Water flowing from the Xiang River into the faucets of Hunan Province homes has been dangerous for decades. The central government first classified the river’s water as toxic in the 1980s. But the river was being called the most polluted in China as early as 1978, years before...

Caixin Media

05.04.12

The Ruins of Yuanmingyuan

CAIXIN

On a balmy, moonlit evening in the autumn of 2010, I took my son out to Yuanmingyuan to wander among the ruins. The 150th anniversary of the destruction of “The Garden of Perfect Brightness”—often called the Old Summer Palace—was approaching and I wanted him to see what...

Caixin Media

05.04.12

Chinese Firms Try Scoring with Spanish Soccer

CAIXIN

When NBA journeyman Damon Jones signed a shoe deal with sporting goods maker Li Ning in 2006, he became the first in a long line of American basketball players to win a sponsorship from a Chinese company.Today, China’s Peak Sport Products leads other domestic companies in terms...

Caixin Media

05.02.12

Garish Flowers of War

CAIXIN

The Flowers of War begins December 13, 1937, with young convent girls fleeing for their lives through a besieged Nanjing shrouded in mist. The first words heard are those of the lead girl Shujuan: “Everybody was running that day but no one could escape the thick fog.”It feels...

Caixin Media

05.02.12

Yearning for the Yuan

CAIXIN

London is forging ahead with plans for yuan-based financial services by developing an infrastructure and banking services that match its ambitions for the Chinese currency. On April 18, the city welcomed the first yuan-denominated bond issuance outside China’s sovereign...

Caixin Media

04.25.12

Watery Grave for Yangtze River Fish

CAIXIN

(Beijing)—Fishermen along the banks of the mighty Yangtze River have long spoken of emptier nets and longer waits for a catch.On April 2, an unusual auction held in a downstream city in Jiangsu Province added weight to their bleak reports: A single, 325-...

Caixin Media

04.18.12

Unscathed by Scandals, Official Promoted

CAIXIN

(Beijing)—Although sacked once for the coverup of the 2003 SARS epidemic and a second time for blocking media coverage of the 2008 Shanxi mudslides, Meng Xuenong’s career has always bounced back.According to the website of the China Youth Political...

Caixin Media

04.06.12

China: The Worst Place To Retire

CAIXIN

China is facing a crisis over providing for the elderly as its population ages and the supply of labor diminishes. The Beijing News reported in late March that state-run homes for the elderly in the capital are overcrowded. One had 7,000 applicants waiting for a vacancy,...

Caixin Media

03.29.12

Give Wenzhou What It Needs

CAIXIN

The development of China's private economy requires financial support, especially private financial support. Wenzhou is the home of the private economy. With 99.5 percent of companies falling into the category of small and micro enterprises, one in three people in Wenzhou is a...

Caixin Media

03.19.12

Fair Trade

CAIXIN

A typically opaque investigation can begin with a tip from a Shanghai Stock Exchange official and end with a ten-year jail term for a businessman convicted of insider trading. What happens in between is a carefully guarded secret. Likewise hidden from the public eye are the...

Caixin Media

03.19.12

An Insider's Account of the Wukan Protest

CAIXIN

For months, thousands of villagers in Wukan, Guangdong Province, staged large protests over illegal land seizures, rigged elections and official corruption. The unrest started in September, and as the months wore on they attracted nationwide, then worldwide, attention. Finally,...

Caixin Media

03.09.12

Ex-Officials Battle Plan to Build Nuclear Plants

CAIXIN

Work on China’s nuclear power plants started picking up again about a year after the Fukushima disaster in Japan. But the meltdown in March 2011 was still fresh on the minds of four retired cadres in Anhui Province’s Wangjiang County. They filed a petition opposing the...

Caixin Media

01.20.12

Melodies of My Youth

CAIXIN

When I was a child, my family had an old-fashioned phonograph that had been passed down from my grandfather. It required hand-winding and used a bamboo needle, and it came with special silver tweezers for cutting the bamboo needles. On the side of the phonograph was a logo...