From the endless summer at home, I have arrived in the late winter of Beijing, a city that with its official population would hold the whole of Australia. The unofficial population is of course much higher. The air was pretty thick when I arrived, due to the fireworks of the lantern festival and the lack of precipitation and wind in winter, but today was stunning. Clear skies and sunshine, although no beach in walking distance.

I’m here to take up my position as Xin Ao International Professor, which involves teaching a couple of courses and then ‘being a scholar’, as the vice-president puts it. The courses are on Western popular culture and religion (undergraduate) and Western Marxism and literary theory (postgraduate). Three hours total teaching in a week, all on Monday. Being a scholar means I am supposed to write, so I should be able to manage that.

I have some visits in the spring to make, invited lectures in half a dozen places in Beijing, and then rail journeys to Sichuan, Henan, and Hunan provinces for more lectures. In between, I plan to visit most of Beijing’s parks (from massive gardens to forest parks) for a day of hiking each week.

Two moments from the past few days. First, the dining halls. In each of the dozen dining halls on campus, about 50 cooks prepare freshly cooked meals for the thousands of students and staff. For an hour and half, three times day, the dining halls are packed with people ordering and eating food. At the end of each session, all the cooks sit down to eat, along with the serving and cleaning staff, who are even more numerous. Then the hall is a sea of white, puffy hats bobbing down to their plates.

Second, a little up the hall from my office is an intriguing office, specifically for the ‘young sinologist.’

I have as yet been unable to find the office for the ‘old sinologist.’