The Teochew Store Blog / culture
Poll of the Month: Should all Teochews be called "Teoswa-nang" 潮汕人 as currently in mainland China, instead of "Teochew-nang" 潮州人?
A New Year is here again. This is the time when many of us look back to take stock of our experiences in the past twelve months, and make plans to better ourselves with a list of resolutions.
The idea of New Year resolution is closely tied to modern concepts of time management and goal settings, although its root is traced to religious festivals from the West. At its centre is the notion that time exists on a linear time-scale, as indicated by the progressive numbers that mark each different year. However, time was not tracked in the same way in the old Chinese society, which used a lunisolar calendar tied to the four seasons of nature, as well as a recurring sexagenary (60 years) cycle. In this world that our forefathers were familiar with, perpetuity, and not progress, was the keyword.
The emphasis on the perpetual is critical in shaping aspirations and hopes in ways different to what many of us are used to. Here the individual self is merely a part of a larger scheme of things, and the pursuit of his/her personal ambitions are secondary. Instead future happiness is staked on the well-being and the achievements of the next generation. While this is not unique to the Teochew people, no one else takes this more seriously than any Teochew father or mother. At any family gathering, there is always a proud uncle boasting how well his son is doing in his career, or a grinning grandmother counting aloud the number of grandchildren she has.
Coinciding with the evolution of the competitive modern society, recent generations of Teochew parents have made their primary concern the performance of their children in school. Good grades, they believe, will translate into good jobs and security in life. By performance in school, this often refers narrowly to the attainment of high scores in academic subjects like English, Mandarin (or another local national language), science, mathematics, history, literature, etc. At the same time, any interests in other fields, including different aspects of the Teochew culture, is deemed as irrelevant and burdensome. More than once comments have been noted from young overseas Teochews of their parents’ criticism of their desire to pick up the “useless” Teochew language. Not a small number of friends have also questioned the purpose of promoting something as “backward” as the Teochew identity. Its practical value as a medium for business in Southeast Asia, they point out, has greatly diminished since the 1970s.
But as the old saying goes, there are many things money can’t buy. And moving forward in life is not only dependent on the plans we make today. Looking to the past to learn from those who ventured ahead of us in life’s journey is just as important.
One of the best ways to do so is paying attention to the counsel of our Teochew elders. You see, Teochews are traditionally “village people”, whose lives are not regulated by power of the law or the knowledge of elites, but by the agreement of members of family and neighbours on “the immutable law of reason”. This reason contains lessons in life picked up and accumulated over many generations, and further refined from endless debates over tea and across the dinner table. As a result, even a simple conversation with an old Teochew can yield nuggets of wisdom that cannot be learned in any textbook or prestigious MBA courses.
Take for example, five words left behind by my grandfather: zo nang dieh lao sik 做人著老實 – “we have to honest at all times” – forms a short, but precious cornerstone advice invaluable for anybody. My grandmother’s advice to me to marry only a partner who is of “one heart and mind” (dang sim dang yi 同心同意) with myself is another that I fully cherish. Because Teochew wisdom is not housed in books, but shared through daily interactions, enlightenment to the principles of living a rewarding life is not limited solely to the highly-educated, as this short interview with this sparkling former noodle-seller shows:
In the coming year some of us will be seeking “completion” by making “root-finding” trips to our ancestral homeland, while others will strive for the same by more learning and more sharing. The Teochew Store hopes that we can be part of your journey in 2015.
We wish all our fans and readers a Blessed and Fruitful New Year.
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But what if we are asked to give the definition of a “Teochew”? It is not every day that we get asked something this difficult, but a kid, your kid, might just be curious enough to do so. Or who is a “pure” Teochew? Don’t sniggle. I have come across several comments on Facebook by “pure-blood” Teochews finding out, with considerable pride, how many are like themselves? Recently I came across another Facebook post by a person who half-jokingly announced himself as a “more real” Teochew than others because he was born in Teochew city itself and not overseas.
In a way, these boasts are not invalid. Although Teochew people have been trading with Southeast Asia since at least the Song dynasty (from the 10th century), and tens of thousands became labourers in different parts of the region after the late 17th century, these emigrants were almost exclusively male, and those who could afford, always returned to their home village to retire. On a survey of Swatow in 1858, Lord Elgin reported of a habit amongst the “Chinamen” seeking work in Singapore (presumably referring to Teochew men) who sometimes brought home with them their Malay wives, leaving them in place of ancestry, and returning to Singapore without them. Accordingly children at that time who were not of “pure-blood” were rare, and even many of them were brought up in Teochew.
Of course things have changed greatly since about a century ago when the advent of steam shipping, civil wars and Japanese invasion led to the migration of Teochew women in significant numbers and many Teochew people setting up families abroad permanently. Due to economic and political factors, the majority of their overseas-born children and grandchildren have never gone back to Teochew and with time, grew up and embraced ways of life different from their forefathers. It was once taboo for a Teochew should marry a non-Teochew, not even another Chinese, inter-racial marriages is now a largely acceptable norm amongst members of the diaspora. Therein lies the question – do you still count as a Teochew even if you are of partial Teochew descent?
By Teochew tradition this is determined solely by your paternal lineage. But of course reality is always more complicated. Some time ago, I came across again on Facebook the spirited defence of a Teochew lady of her “non pure blood” daughters’ heritage. She revealed that she is married to a black man, but while her girls do not look like her, they speak the Teochew language even better than some of their cousins. Rather succinctly, she pointed out that she has always been proud of being Teochew because “our culture has gone through so many dark time (sic) in history, and our strength is based on an open spirit that has allowed us to adapt ourselves wherever we are, and to absorb the qualities of any country we live in.”
It is interesting that this proud mother should stress her daughters’ fluency in our language. I know a girl in Swatow who speaks Teochew daily at home, but told me that her grandfather was actually a Hakka – a language that she has no knowledge of. She sees herself as a Swatow native, and in manners and customs, she is no different from her neighbours or friends. Do such assimilated members of the society count as Teochews as well?
Eminent French sociologist Emile Durkheim noted that kinship through common ancestry (either real or perceived) and marriage does not ensure the cohesion of a community in the long-run. Instead individuals see themselves as one people when they share values, beliefs, customs and a way of life lifestyle fostered. Unlike the modern consumer “culture” that extends its influence through the media and the internet, a traditional culture like the Teochew one thrives on the intimate interaction and primarily oral communication between its members, which creates a collective consciousness. It is this consciousness that is both unique and exclusive, which gives us our enduring identity.
Accordingly, fluency in the Teochew language not only allows us to bond with the elder members of our family, but also serves as a key to unlock knowledge to the treasures of our heritage. Of course, this is not to say that the Teochew identity is exclusive to those who speak the language well, or language competency is the sole measure to the level of our “Teochewness”. Many aspects of our fine culture can be expressed in another language (as we do so on this site) or even in non-verbal forms – such as cooking. But it is also true that we lose a great proportion of ourselves as a community if we forsake our mother tongue. With a diminished proficiency and vocabulary, our ability to pass on what we know to the next generation is compromised.
Being Teochew is a birthright, an exclusive privilege. At the same time, being Teochew is knowing and embracing an appreciation of life shaped by wisdom and experiences accumulated and passed on from generation to generation. The heritage we have cannot be taken for granted. Whether “pure blood” or otherwise, we hold a torch in our hands that we need to pass on to our children to keep the flame burning.
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Stories, who doesn't enjoy hearing them? Especially bedtime stories when we were kids (or perhaps even till now)... How about some stories out of Teochew - the very same ones told to our great grandparents when they were little? Here's one:
THE MISTAKE OF THE APES
A thriftless man, who had a scolding wife, resorted to the woods to hang himself; but after he had tied the noose his courage failed, and he went home. His wife, on seeing him, said he had been gone so long that she had begun to hope he would never come back. This so wounded his feelings that he declared his intention of ending his life, and again betook himself to the forest. There he passed from tree to tree and deferred the act from hour to hour, till he entered a strange gorge, and sat down in the attitude of a musing Buddha under a branch on which he decided to fix his rope.
Being exhausted by fasting and fatigue, he fell into a deep sleep, and was presently discovered by a wandering ape, who reported to his tribe that he had found their ancestor. A council of the elders was then called around the sleeping man, and after due inspection they unanimously decided that he was indeed their ancestor, and should be their king. So they carried him to their stronghold in a wooded glen, enthroned him in an arbor, and surrounded him with offerings of fruits and nuts. When he awoke he found his wants so provided for and his servants so deferential that he thought he might greatly enjoy life among the apes. They continued to bring as tribute to him the best of their gleanings in the neighborhood and all the treasures they collected in their excursions to distant regions. He saw where they had stowed the valuable articles accumulated during past years, and at his leisure he examined and assorted them.
One day when the apes were away he took all their portable wealth and made his way out of the forest and back to his own door. His wife, seeing him more shabby than ever, poured reproaches upon him, but he silenced her by putting a piece of gold in her hand. Having enough to live comfortably upon for many years, the woman became companionable. She soon told her intimate friend that her husband went away to kill himself and came back rich, and this friend urged her own husband to do likewise. He in turn importuned his lucky neighbor to disclose to him the method by which he got his fortune. Having promised secrecy and a share of the plunder, he was intrusted with the story of election to headship among the apes, and was given direction how to reach their retreat. He then set off, followed the same route, sat in the same attitude under the same tree, and awaited the arrival of the scout who should call the tribe to carry their returned chief into their fastnesses.
The apes had meantime deliberated, and had concluded that a being who had deserted them, taking with him their goods, was neither their sire nor sovereign. So when a young ape foraging for provisions saw this second man under the tree he returned home and notified the tribe, whereupon the apes, moved to indignation and anger, surrounded him in force and tore him in pieces.
You love it? So did I. Well there's another 39 more Teochew folktales collected from Swatow by American missionary AM Fielde in the 1880s in Chinese Nights' Entertainment: Forty Stories told by Almond-Eyed Folk Actors in the Romance of The Strayed Arrow.
Happy reading. =)
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Almost every tourist in Teochew would have visited the ancient prefectural city of the same name. The reconstructed Ming-era Guangzi city gate 廣濟門, Siangze bridge 湘子橋 and the Memorial Arches Street 牌坊街 bring us back to times when the place ranked alongside Guangzhou and Quanzhou as the grand centres of economy and culture on the southern Chinese coastal.
Yet within the Teochew region, the influence of Teochew city did not extend beyond the banks of the Hang-kang 韓江 river by where it stands. The variety of Teochew spoken here, although seen as gentle and refined, and acknowledged as the “high” form of the language (till today it is insisted upon as the performing language for Teochew opera), is never deemed as a standard for all to conform. Instead people in Teochew accept that “whatever language you speak depends on which river water you drink” and the result is a rich spectrum of local accents and vocabularies that change quite literally along the flow of the different rivers. Teochew city has a history of over 1500 years. So why hasn’t the people it governed achieved a homogeneity in speech?
Well, there is firstly no need to and secondly no desire to. By far and large, Teochews are village people. Through close inspection, you will come to find that many parts of Swatow outside the old city district are actually urbanised village clusters populated by their original inhabitants. Many of us who are city dwellers will view dimly of this characterisation. In our minds after all a village is a small, undeveloped and backward place, as opposed to the vibrant modern metropolis that is ever-expanding. But this is a biased view that fails to recognise the true character of a village.
A village is not a primitive, downsized town or city. A city is a centre created for the extension of political and economic control of surrounding areas. It is built by its native rulers and migrants (both willing and unwilling ones), and its wealth is generated by trade or military coercion of neighbours. An imposed system of rewards and punishments govern all activities in the city. A village, on the other hand, is an organic settlement. Its population usually consists of members of a clan or a handful of clans, and increases through births and marriages. Beyond blood and marital ties, the people are united by common economic exploitation of locally available resources, and a heritage defined by collective consciousness. While the pride of a city is its power and wealth, the strength of a village is the resilience of its people’s identity.
Because a village is a small community, the children attend the same school, the women shop at the same marketplace, and the men drinks and chat at the same open spaces. The lives of its members are enriched by close interaction and daily communication. Although this type of lifestyle now eludes those of us who live in cities, social media has allowed the re-creation of the aspect of regular socialisation. Virtually on cue, thousands of Teochews across the world have transcended geographical divide to come together in a growing number of Facebook groups and pages to share memories, information, travel photographs and not a few recipes for our favourite Teochew dishes. Just a few years ago people were saying that Teochew is a dying culture, but you will be surprised (as I am) by the level of Teochew-related activities online.
Many of these online communities are without rulers and builders, but they thrive nonetheless on the basis of our shared identity and dreams just the old villages continue to do so in the land of our forefathers. If you are looking for a “village” to join, here are a few Facebook groups and pages that you may wish to look out for:
潮人潮语 Closed group: 9,671
柔佛潮州八邑會館 3,994 likes
我是潮汕人 I Am DieSuaNang Public group: 3992 members
im teochew!! Public group: 3885 members
Singapore TeoChew Nang 新加坡潮州人 Closed group: 3278 members
Gaginang Public group: 2215 members
潮州人 ~ TEOCHEW NANG (แต้จิ๋ว Triều Châu) Secret group: 1197 members
潮人在越 ( Người Triều Châu ở VN ) 1,038 likes
民都鲁潮州公会 876 likes
Singapore Teochew 新潮人 Sin Teo Zin Public group: 822 members
新加坡潮州八邑会馆 Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan 706 Likes
International Teochew - We are Gaginang! Public group: 539 members
潮語大家講！Cùng nhau nói tiếng Tiều! Public group: 525 members
Người Triều Châu - Teochew - 潮州人 Public group: 478 members
潮州人2 ~~ TEOCHEW NANG 2 Secret group: 465 members
柬埔寨潮洲人 423 Likes
潮州自己人 Public group: 349 members
Gaginang UNSW - Teo Chew Student Association (TCSA) Public group: 315 members
潮州人 Public group: 311 members
Teochew Public group: 294 members
Teochew Sibu (诗巫潮州公会) 256 Likes
Teo-Chew Association (TCA) at UCLA 2014-2015 Closed group: 228 members
新加坡潮汕留学生联合会 (Xinchaoliu) 225 likes
吉兰丹 潮青团 197 likes
Teochew Australia - We are Gaginang! Closed group: 194 members
Sydney University Teochew Association (TCA) - 雪梨大學潮州會 Public group: 181 members
Teochew Indonesia - We are Gaginang! Public group: 174 members
Teochew Segamat Closed group: 159 members
Teo-Chew Association (TCA) @ UCI Closed group: 151 members
潮男潮女 128 likes
Teo-Chew Association @ UCSD Public group: 110 members
柔佛哥打丁宜潮州会馆 Public group: 107 members
Teo-Chew Association (TCA) at UW Public group: 106 members
Teo-Chew Association (TCA) at UCLA Public group: 97 members
Teochew New Zealand - We are Gaginang! Cosed group: 79 members
Chaozhou 邦 Cosed group: 73 members
Teochew Kang Hay T'ng 70 Likes
Teo-Chew Association of Southern California | 美國南加州潮州會館 Public group: 64 members
Gaginangs in Germany Public group: 41 members
Special Interest Groups & Pages
潮藝館 （Teochew Puppet & Opera） 1,779 likes
Teochew Letters 1041 Likes
金玉楼春潮州木偶剧团 1,009 likes
香港潮商卫视 CSTV 894 Likes
Teochew Language 750 Likes
What Teochew Say? 547 Likes
新新荣和潮剧 Teochew Opera 337 Likes
潮剧珍藏 251 likes
Teochew Opera Fan Club 243 Likes
返乡里去潮州 Go Chaozhou 193 Likes
新加坡揭阳会馆潮乐团 Public group: 187 members
The above listing is not exhaustive and excludes several smaller groups (of less than 50 members) and pages for restaurant and eating places. Last but not least, do “like" and follow our Teochew Store Facebook page if you love our work!
Ask other Chinese of the reputation of the Teochew people and you will probably get descriptions like hard-nosed businessmen, diligent and thrifty workers, and in the case of Hong Kongers, perhaps even unruly members of clannish gangs. These stereotypes were no doubt true to an extent relevant to our forefathers’ struggle for survival in a difficult stretch of time in history. Yet behind these impressions of being calculating pragmatists, Teochews hold above the authority of reason in the regulation of manners and behaviour.
In any situation of negotiation or conflict, all parties are always urged toda-dau-li 呾道理, to speak “the immutable law of reason”. As Lin Yutang (in My Country and My People) explains, the correctness of this reason is not based just on logical reasoning, but also reasonableness in touch with the human nature. Being reasonable allows situations to be handled with flexibility, understanding and realism. Being reasonable means matters of business are discussed over sessions of tea, and not thrashed out over endless revisions of lengthy proposals and contracts.
In the belief of Teochew people, knowledge of this eternal reason is assumed to be possessed in any civilised person. It is a universal authority higher even than written law. Laws after all were historically prescribed by emperors in faraway imperial capitals. As a 1868 British publication observed, people from Teochew were “noted for their independent and turbulent spirit” and “rank among those who are sparing in their allegiance to the court of Peking, and seldom yield up the quota of revenue justly due to the emperor”. It is thus this invisible hand of reason that keeps order in the whole Teochew society even when centres of political power rise and fall.
One of the lasting memories almost every visitor takes away from Swatow is the disordered state of its traffic. Especially during peak hours, the main road junctions are choked with taxis, public buses, motorcycles, three-wheelers, bicycles and modern sedans that seem out-of-place in the tired-looking city. However amidst the apparently mad jostles for the right of way that the traffic lights and road lanes barely have power to restrain, we see also the magic of reason at work. Like dancers on a stage, motorists and pedestrians move ahead and step sideways in prefect synchrony to allow the movement of everyone without accident or gridlock. Spend enough time in the city and you will appreciate the beauty of spontaneous order.
A society shaped by the reasonableness of its common souls, rather than reasoning from the top, supports the pursuit of happiness for all. True there is no Eiffel Tower and roadside restaurants for dating couples are rare in Swatow, but Teochews are a hopelessly romantic people. This is seen in the love of our older folks for storylines centred on love in the Teochew operas, over plots with patriotic themes that are preferred in northern China. Especially popular are local folktales where the main characters’ true love overcome the rigidities of the ideal Confucian society that stand between them and forever happiness.
Amongst the many Teochew opera plays, none is as well-loved as the tale of Sou Lak-nio 蘇六娘 – the sixth lady of the Sou family – that the troupes also never tire of performing. Set in the Ming dynasty, this equivalent of Romeo and Juliet out of Gek-yor 揭陽 (Jieyang) tells of a love between the young daughter of an esquire and her cousin that was threatened by her father’s agreement to marry her to a scholar from a well-to-do family. Despite his love for his only daughter, Sou Lak-nio’s father refused to heed her protests as the arrangement was made by a senior member of the Sou clan. To allow a girl final say against her family elders’ wishes was considered outrageous and shameful for a respectable family. This forced Sou Lak Nio to attempt to take her own life by jumping into a river on the eve of her wedding. However unlike the Shakespearean version, this story ends on a happy note. Sou Lak-nio’s faithful servant girl Tho-hue桃花 finds her in time and with the aid of an old friendly boatman helped her elope with her cousin. Freedom triumphs in the end over “proper” society with the approving applause of the crowd.
Or watch the all-time favourite 1957 movie version of Sou Lak-nio below:
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#1. The homeland of the Teochew people sits on the Southeast coast of China, near-equidistant between Hong Kong and Taiwan, although through large-scale emigration from the early 19th to mid-20th century close to half of all Teochews now live in more than 40 countries and territories overseas. If Teochew is a country, it would through its land area of about 10,000 sq km be the 169th largest in the world (after Lebanon), and through its population of approximately 25 million (inclusive of all Teochews worldwide) the 50th biggest (ahead of Australia).
#2. Historically Teochew existed as a prefecture in imperial China that was created in 413 CE. Originally called Ngee Ann ("Righteous Peace") Commandery 義安郡, it was first given the nameTeochew 潮州 (literally the "Tidal Prefecture") in 592 CE. Teochew prefecture became defunct after China became a republic. Its centre of administration was shifted in the latter half of the 20th century from the Teochew prefectural city (listed by its Mandarin name “Chaozhou” on maps) to its port of Swatow 汕頭 (Shantou), causing Teochew to now be referred in mainland China as "Teo-swa" (潮汕).
#3. The traditional Teochew society’s basic social unit is the extended family defined by paternal lineage, and not the nuclear family or individual. The head of a household is the grandfather, and accordingly, first cousins are considered siblings and addressed as brothers and sisters. Care and protection of members, as well as the perpetuation of lineage, are held firmly as its core purposes. In order to fulfil these, husband and wife in many families in Teochew adhere strictly even in the present era complementary gender roles, whereby the responsibility of the man is all external engagements, while the woman has complete charge of domestic affairs.
#4. Besides the family clan, the Teochew personal identity is rooted in one’s place of ancestry. This refers to the village, and also the county, where the family clan resides. Teochew prefecture had eight counties during the late Qing period. Accordingly, overseas Teochew organisations usually name themselves as the "association of eight counties" (poih ip 八邑), which are namely Hai-yor 海陽 (renamed Teo-an 潮安 in 1914), Gek-yor 揭陽, Teo-yor 潮陽, Jaopeng 饒平, Pholeng 普寧, Huilai 惠来, Thenghai 澄海 and Hongsun 豐順.
#5. The Teochew region has been inhabited by humans since about 8,000 years ago, a period that dates far longer than China’s supposed 5,000 years of history. This is shown by archaeological artefacts comprising stone tools and a pottery shard discovered on the offshore island of Namoa 南澳. A coherent collection of evidence belonging to a series of archaeological cultures dubbed the "Teochew Prehistoric Trilogy”, including the largest prehistoric kiln site ever found in China, reveals the occurrence of indigenous progression from the Neolithic Stone Age to Early Bronze Age between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago.
#6. All the cities, towns and large villages in Teochew are located by the coast, or along the region’s four major rivers, namely Hang-kang 韓江, Iong-kang 榕江, Liēng-kang 練江 and Ng-kang-ho 黃岡河, or their tributaries. This is because more than two-thirds of Teochew’s terrain are occupied by undulating mountains and hills and until the previous century water was the main mode of local transport. Communications between Teochew and other parts of China and foreign lands were also conducted primarily by sea.
#7. The Teochew saying “whatever language you speak depends on which river water you drink” aptly depicts the classification of spoken Teochew into several dialect clusters corresponding to the region’s different river catchment areas. However, the Teochew vernacular is in essence a single language that is closely related to the native speech of adjacent southern Fujian, known commonly as Hokkien or Taiwanese, or formally as Minnan. The Teochew-Hokkien family of vernaculars is exclusive and not mutually intelligible with other forms of spoken Chinese. It is also observed by linguists to possess ancient elements that pre-date the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Apart from the vernacular form spoken in daily life, the Teochew language has a classical literary form traced to the 7th to 13th century Tang and Song dynasty era. This can be heard in Teochew opera performances. About half of all Chinese written characters can be read differently in Teochew in two or more ways (colloquial and literary). This phenomenon is called dual reading.
#8. The golden age of Teochew was in the Song dynasty when it was one of the wealthiest areas in China. An agricultural revolution drove a rapid population expansion, while the export of fine porcelain on the Maritime Silk Road transformed its prefectural city into a leading centre of commerce. Even in the early part of this prosperous period, Teochew was lavished with comparison as the home of Confucius and Mencius by the sea (海濱鄒魯), and many aspects of Teochew fine culture, including architecture, wood carving, porcelain craft, embroidery and music, were inspired.
#9. Nothing delights a group of Teochews more than sitting around a table to share a few dishes of Teochew cooking. Seafood and green vegetables are always served, while an emphasis on freshness and authentic taste of ingredients, the perfect balance of sweetness and saltiness, as well as colour and presentation provide the secrets to achieving the Teochew taste. The touch of the Teochew people to regale the gastronomic senses was already memorialised as early as the Tang dynasty in a poem composed by the eminent poet Han Yu, and till today Teochew food is widely recognised as one of the finest representations of Chinese culinary.
#10. Harmony in the relationship between nature and man sits at the heart of Teochew understanding of well-being. In all things, beauty is seen in simple exquisiteness, and not grandeur or opulence. In daily life, this is best exemplified in the Teochew custom of drinking kanghu tea 工夫茶. In a plain ceremony, the host prepares and serves the elixir of life in miniature teacups over several rounds, invigorating not only the body and mind of his guests but washing away also all differences in class and opinions.
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