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Get out of Here, Your Excellency!

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

I was very disappointed when I read this story about the US ambassador in Beijing taking part in the so-called “Jasmine” protests last Sunday. This is very bad news for Chinese supporters of democracy (yet again).

First of all, let’s be serious. The idea that the ambassador didn’t know what was going on is an insult to intelligence, his appearing on camera lying to a Chinese passer-by only makes things worse. You might argue he was casually walking around, but in a stroll protest walking around is precisely the way to participate. You might believe he was saying the truth, but that would mean he is an incompetent officer, ignorant of the situation on the ground. Clearly that is not the case.

No, the ambassador of the USA has openly and consciously joined a minority protest against the Chinese government in Beijing. Mr. Huntsman’s action is clearly not due to incompetence, but to careful calculation, based on Western vanity and political ambition.

Don’t American politicians understand that democracy can only win if it is seen as homegrown? What would happen if the French ambassador was seen joining a protest for, say, the health reform in the US, would this help further the Democrats’ agenda? Does this kind of action help the millions of real, anonymous Chinese who hope for a more open system? Certainly not. Click to continue »

A Study of Sex Selective Abortion in China

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

In the 2010 Social Blue Paper, published last December by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there was a very interesting piece hidden among the 330 pages of socio-economic analysis. Under the title “Population problems China should pay attention to between 2011 and 2015″, this article contained some of the newest and most negative data to date about the important problem of gender imbalance [1], published by an official PRC source.

The data was immediately published by the People’s Daily Chinese. A month later, it came out in the English version of the paper, and since then it has been making the rounds of the Western press, with the predictable apocalyptic spin.  Within China, however, the article has failed to spark any significant debate, even though the subject wasn’t censored. It is already positive that the authorities speak openly of this problem, but clearly a different approach is needed to raise awareness and find solutions.

With the help of my sister, pediatrician Dr. Madariaga, I have been comparing data from different primary sources outside and inside China. The CASS data coming from China official statistics turns out to be very consistent with previous outside sources, like the often quoted BMJ study. It is also the most pessimistic of all, and the most politically credible, as the patriotic CASS can hardly be accused of anti-CCP bias.

What follows is my analysis of the existing research from a different perspective. Not to do projections on the future, but to see what these numbers tell us of the Chinese today, and what solutions can be found. The results are shocking, read and judge by yourself: Click to continue »


NOTES:
  1. for a simple introduction to the problem of gender imbalance in China and its potential consequences you can read this article from the Economist []

Language Thursdays: Parsing Chinese 1.0

Friday, May 7th, 2010

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I was flying back from Chongqing recently when I was reminded of the very frustrating problem of reading Chinese. There was a movie on the cabin TV and it had a particularity: it carried subtitles in Chinese and English in parallel, in two lines of comparable font at the bottom of the screen.

As I watched I kept forcing my eyes to stick to the Chinese subtitles in order to exercise my reading (the sound was off) but it was pointless. Every single time, before I had finished reading the Chinese I already knew the meaning of the line anyway. The words in English just seemed to transmit their meaning even if I was not looking at them.

Reading Chinese

We already spoke last year about the problem of Reading Chinese functionally. It is very important for advanced students of Chinese, because progress beyond a certain level depends largely on this ability. Many foreigners are able to read slowly and even do good translations of Chinese texts with the help of a cursor dictionary. But to read functionally, in my definition, is a completely different thing. It means to be able to read all sorts of general texts as quickly and reliably as an average native. Click to continue »

Creating the Landmarks: of Heritage Restoration

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

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One of the things that foreigners enjoy lamenting in China is the destruction of architectural heritage. It is understandable, modern China has a terrible record of heritage destruction, and today there are cities with 2,000 years of history where it is hard to find any trace of old construction. But the worst is that you can witness the destruction ongoing even today, before your very eyes.

It is true that in the last years there is a growing awareness of this cultural loss (and the loss of tourism revenues), and the authorities have started to take measures. Unfortunately, these measures come in the form of “restoration”, usually by the method of demolishing and re-building something vaguely similar, in brand new materials. Of the many infamous examples of this, perhaps the concrete-and-plastic Jing An Temple in Shanghai is the most obvious. Click to continue »

Language Thursdays: Shanghainese Writing

Friday, April 30th, 2010

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This week I have little time to do the Language post, partly because I have been busy writing a short story, partly because I have already discussed a good deal about language in other blogs. I take advantage of this to do the post with my final views on Shanghainese after the long discussion we had on the Wu blog.

The discussion started with an unrelated comment on a language learning site. But what really got me heated up is the painful realization that many Shanghainese speakers – or more precisely Wu speakers – not only don’t protect their beautiful language, but they are in fact actively destroying their rich cultural heritage out of pure ignorance.

If you have been reading me for a while, you probably know that I feel very strongly about languages, and particularly about disappearing ones. Perhaps part of the reason is that I come from a culture where we spend a significant amount of our resources to promote a minority language, so small and useless that it has about 1% of the speakers of Shanghainese. Stupid perhaps, but it is our language. Click to continue »

Languages Thursdays: Punctuation Hell

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

canadagoose_300_tcm9139738_thumb344Today I just wanted to comment on the mysterious world of Chinese punctuation. It is a fascinating field in these times when everyone accuses Chinese of discriminating against our foreign symbols. In fact, there is a kind of foreign symbols that are used in practically every sentence of modern Chinese: the points, the commas, and all the rest of punctuation signs.

As is natural in any language, when the Chinese decided to adopt these signs to clarify their script, they set their own rules for using them. There are many examples of punctuation marks that are apparently identical in Chinese and in Western languages but in fact have different meanings and uses. This is not the main point of the post, but I will stop slightly on one of the example that I think is fun.

The sighing mark

For some reason the (!) that is known in the West as exclamation mark got translated in to Chinese as 叹号, that is, the 叹 mark. This 叹 character is most commonly used today in expressions like 叹气, and its meaning is closer to sigh or acclaim than to exclaim. My theory is this is the reason behind that quirk of the Chinese netizens who write “!” marks on every second sentence. Click to continue »

Travel: The province of Zhejiang

Friday, April 9th, 2010

I never thought of this before, but when I was asked this week which was my favourite province in China, I naturally answered Zhejiang. I have been travelling there again on QingMing holidays and I have been reflecting what a remarkable place it is.

Zhejiang is the smallest province in the mainland, just a bit larger than the Chongqing municipality. But in this small area it contains some of the most beautiful places to visit in China. From the imperial gardens in Hangzhou to the islands off Ningbo or the beautiful cloudy peaks, it is like a whole China in miniature has been condensed there for the traveler to visit conveniently.

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But it is for people watchers that Zhejiang is most remarkable. The almost 50 million people packed there have managed to get the highest GDP per capita of any Chinese province, something even more impressive considering it contains no major cities, and it is usually taken as an example of development through local initiative as opposed to the models in Shenzhen, Shanghai or Tianjin. Click to continue »

Language Thursdays: Language Protectionism

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

canadagoose_300_tcm9139738_thumb34In this week’s language post I want to speak about language protectionism. I am not sure this is the word I am looking for, but if you have been following the blogs for the last couple of weeks you probably know what I mean. It all started with this proposal last month to ban English words from the media in order to preserve the “purity of Chinese language”. Now it looks like the authorities have taken it seriously, and yesterday the TV channels were officially notified of the new language policies.

I am of the opinion that the blogosphere, including some respected linguist sites, have made a lot of noise for no reason. Or rather, for two reasons: one is the old problem of Chinese messing up their PR (the word “purity” is a particularly bad choice in the context of culture). The other one is that the China blogging scene is overwhelmingly American, and it is difficult for Americans to understand the problem of language colonization.

I am a big admirer of the openness and flexibility of the English language. Reading blogs like the Language Log I learnt to appreciate the descriptivist approach to linguistics (to study how a language is, instead of vainly dictating how it should be), and I believe this laissez-faire attitude has helped to make English the richest language in the World. Click to continue »

Language Thursdays: Sexism in Mandarin

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

canadagoose_300_tcm9139738_thumb3In this week’s language post I want to examine the gender implications in the Chinese written and spoken language, and the reactions of the Chinese women to the many discriminatory expressions in use today.

Given that most traditional cultures were extremely sexist by today’s standards, it is very common to have sexist elements embedded in today’s languages. In English, for example, there is the old peeve about what to call a female fireman. Latin languages with their gender declensions are even more problematic, to the point that some daring Spanish feminists like to write “abogad@”, to cover all the possible sexes of a lawyer.

The old Confucian tradition in China is hardly an example of gender equality, and given the intimate relation between Confucian scholars and the Chinese script over the millennia, it is only natural that the characters should carry some important bias. As we will see, the spoken language is not any better, reflecting a society where the woman had a limited role even among the common people. Click to continue »

Language Thursdays: The Holy Fractions

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

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This is a new feature in my blog. It is a follow up of the initial Language and Culture posts last year, and I commit from now on to continue the series every Thursday that I feel like it. The idea is to post about those language curiosities that I encounter in my study of mandarin and I jot down directly on my study desk.

Professionals like you find in the Language log like to mark the difference between a linguist and a polyglot, and I completely agree with them. While I am a fan of linguistics, particularly those of the descriptive kind, I have never studied the discipline seriously and I couldn’t tell a preposition from a palmiped. I am just a curious language learner, and I’ll stick to what I know.

This thought has discouraged me for a while from writing about language,  considering the rich selection of linguist blogs already available. But then I thought, there is a certain level right between anthropology and linguistics, a space wide open to the speculation of non specialists, where living in language immersion is as important as formal training.

I am referring to the observation of how Language and Culture interact with each other, and how a certain character and a view of the World gets imprinted into the language, form the fossils of the remote past to the process ongoing even today. This is the point of the Language and Culture Series, which consists more of questions than of answers. Here is an example: Click to continue »

Sex and Conservatives in China

Friday, March 5th, 2010

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It looks like Charles over at the new China Divide blog has found a new source of clicks to revive the China blogging scene: debating the crackdown on pornography in China.

While I don’t usually support any kind of censorship, I have to say I couldn’t care less for the cause of porn in China. From what I have seen, sex peddlers are the most disgraceful, spammy, virus-ridden and generally useless sites of the internet, and they distract netizens from doing more important things like reading my blog. You can be sure that you won’t find me in the ranks of the protesters when those websites get banned.

There is however a more important problem with banning porn, and it is that the definition of the Chinese authorities goes way further than what we usually understand as pornography. It applies to some wonderful works of art, including films such as An Lee’s Lust and Caution, or this great TV serial and book by Liu Liu. It is used to marginalize some excellent artists like Tang Wei, and in general it contributes to further stifle the creativity of the Chinese literary and artistic scene.

To be sure, many times the banning of “unhealthy” content is just an excuse to get rid of dissidents or to justify protectionist policies. But generally speaking, when Chinese authorities act against porn it is out of a genuine ethical concern. And here is where I see a more interesting angle to the discussion, linking up to the question I asked last year in the post about TV serials and communist ethics: why are the commies so prudish?

From my experience living in various communist and ex-communist countries, I conclude that this is not a strictly Chinese phenomenon. In fact, it is not even a communist phenomenon, but rather a common characteristic of conservative people everywhere. I maintain that the reason why erotic content is banned in China is just that the CCP is an extremely conservative organization, and as all conservatives everywhere they abhor public displays of sex, even if in private they might think nothing of going to the brothel 5 times a week.

Why then, do conservatives tend to have this particular attitude in common towards sex? And in particular, why are communist regimes, all of which abolished religion, at the forefront of sex related puritanism?

The Red Conservatives

First of all, I want to add here a definition of conservatives, just to avoid having the whole discussion turn around the meaning of a word. Like most political terms, this one can have different meanings in different places. The meaning I use for this post is one that I think is most intuitive and understood internationally. From the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Political attitude or ideology denoting a preference for institutions and practices that have evolved historically and are thus manifestations of continuity and stability. It was first expressed in the modern era through the works of Edmund Burke in reaction to the French Revolution, which Burke believed tarnished its ideals through its excesses. Conservatives believe that the implementation of change should be minimal and gradual; they appreciate history and are more realistic than idealistic.

In the case of communist countries like China it is always complicated to use the normal political terms of conservative/progressive, or right/left. The reason is that during 1949-1978 the paradigm was changed, and the old conservatives were exterminated. As a consequence, a  “new country” was created from zero, so for the purpose of Chinese political life, the “institutions and practices that have evolved historically” only count as defined in the history of the Communist Party. And the conservatives in China tend to be communist.

This phenomenon is hardly unique. It follows the logic of revolutionary movements everywhere obtaining mainstream power: their focus suddenly shifts from “changing the world” to “maintaining the status quo”, and conservative mindsets normally take control.

It is hardly necessary to explain this to anyone who has lived in China, but I have the feeling that some Americans still find it strange to call a communist regime “conservative”. If you think all this is just intellectual blabber, you are missing the point. The supporters of the CCP are genuinely conservative people and they behave exactly as you would expect from a conservative elsewhere.

From my conversations with some passionate young men in the CCP, and my long chats in the internet-less nights of North Korea, I have a reasonable understanding of what moves those convinced “communists”: they dislike foreign influence and they attach an absurd importance to nationality and ethnicity; they are averse to anything that sounds like free thinking or questioning of the old ideas; they like to marry traditional girls, pretty by the old canons, who don’t wear mini-skirts or speak too much in public; they don’t like homosexual people and they are quick to call “whore” when a girl behaves exactly like many men do.

The tragedy is that these conservative people will never be able to connect with their counterparts in America, because both sides are still bound by their own religious and Cold War rethoric. Someone should invent a party with the slogan like: Conservatives of the World, unite!

A soup of political terms

I am going to have to cut this here for today, because my new blogging policies don’t let me do more than 1000 words per post. We will continue in the next one, but before I finish I want to mention the very interesting problem of political terms in China.

Due to the reversal of paradigms mentioned above, there is still a good deal of confusion in the West about which English words should be used to name the different ideologies in a communist country. I am no scholar in Chinese politics, but from the books I have read on the subject (including academic works like Victor Shih’s) I get the impression that the terms are not standardized. The only book I have seen that attempts to do a taxonomy is the little manual: “What does China Think” by Mark Leonard.

I am hoping that someone will lend me a hand here and point me to some other resource where I can look this up. In the meantime, from what I remember of that book and my own initiative, the main denominations go as below:

Old Left: Hardliners in the CPP who want to revive Maoism. Contrary to the West, these lefties are actually very conservative people.

Old Right: Admirers of Taiwan and the KMT, practically invisible in the mainland today. I never met one, so not sure if they are conservative characters or not. I assume many members of the FLG would respond to this description.

New Left: Politicians like the Prime Minister Wen, who push for more social policies, equal distribution of the wealth, etc, within the rule of the CCP. The mindset is still conservative, but less than the Old Left.

New Right: Politicians, thinkers and some business sharks inspired in Deng Xiaoping’s “get rich first” who want to give priority to the coastal regions and build a ruthless capitalist system. They don’t have any mindset because they are too busy getting rich first, and they don’t care about political ideology as long as their cats catch mice.

Right Left: This is my own dysfunctional term to include people like Xu Zhiyong or Liu Xiaobo, as well as some within the CCP who call for political reform, democracy and civil rights. Many of them are not dissidents, but just brave party members who dare to raise their voice. These are the only ones that respond to the idea I have of “progressive” mindset.

What do you think of this terminology?

NOTE: This list is not meant to be taken as reference, but rather to invite participation, please do propose any term you want, or point me to some good read about modern Chinese politics. For those who came here to find some sex, please come back tomorrow when I will continue with the main subject of the post and I will attach SEXUALLY EXPLICIT IMAGES of Chinese. Have a nice day.

Low on EQ (2): Welcome to Kamp Krusty

Monday, December 21st, 2009

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Look what I found in my letterbox today. An advert for the "Toothy Rabbit’s Children’s EQ Camp!"

Those of you who are patient enough to stick to this blog might remember the last post I did about the popularity of self-help/business books in China, and in particular those related to Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Not surprising at all, we said, in a society where the education system is ruthless, that the alternative concept of R.Goleman’s EQ is welcome by millions of Chinese with almost religious faith.

But somehow, I think they got it all wrong.

The program in the camp includes courses on leadership,controlling emotions,competitiveness, determination and social networking, among other scary items. The minimum age to access the camp is 3 years old, and the booklet is not exactly describing games, but rather hardcore EQ training from the start. It looks pretty successful too, with some 10 centers already open in China, as you can see in the map below.

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Little girls learn to lift hands like Hu Jin Tao

Now I don’t mean to be more snarky than is strictly necessary on this blog, and I am afraid I might be looking at this from a very European angle. I am told in the US  as well as in China people believe in these things, and I respect you if you do.

But parents: please let the children play, meet new friends, prowl about the nongtang forming bands of little outlaws, ride the bikes around the compound like nutty Shanghai taxis and come back home every other week with a bruised knee and one tooth in the pocket. That will give them loads of EQ. I did that as a kid, and look where I am now, single handedly running Chinayouren.

And I just can’t wait to get the next pamphlet for a "Wacky Mouse Moving your Cheese Summer Camp for toddlers"