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Ant Tribe: Sociology with Chinese characteristics

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

yizuI just finished reading that book 蚁族 (Ant Tribe) that is all over the place on the Chinese internet. I was curious why it was becoming so hot here while Western media covered it only briefly. I think I know the answer now, but let me introduce the book first and more on this later.

蚁族 (Ant Tribe) is a term coined by the authors to refer to the masses of young university graduates from the provinces that struggle to survive in the Chinese big cities, living in cramped “Ant nests” in the outskirts, and taking unstable and underpaid jobs that are often not related to their studies.

This social group has sometimes caught international attention, especially during the 2009 crisis, when many papers sent their correspondents to interview jobless students, and pundits even saw there the seeds of a new Tiananmen. But it is Beijing Uni doctorate Lian Si who directed in 2008/09 the first comprehensive study, and “Ant Tribe” is a collection of some of his most interesting results, repackaged for the big public. Click to continue »

YOU have been condemned to 劳改!

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

Reform through labour camp in construction. Pending forced evacuation of previous residents of the area.

Welcome to the 劳动改造 Camp for Reform through Labour. You have been sent here to receive treatment for your 思想僵化. You don’t know it yet, but you suffer exactly the same illness as the people here. Don’t worry, it has a cure: all you need to do is relax, read some books, make some friends, and get a normal life outside the internet.

While you are in the camp, you should practice self-criticism and ardently study the Thought of Youren:

  • This blog is about China, I don’t care what you think of my country.
  • I’m not from 外国, and I don’t represent the official position of 外国.
  • This blog is not against anything except lies and foolishness.
  • A government that doesn’t accept critics from its people is always a weak government.
  • Communism does not work, if it did then the Communist Party of China would actually use it.
  • China suffered injustice in the past, caused by the greed and brutality of some foreign countries, and by its own selfish leaders. I am quite familiar with the history of China and I don’t need constant reminders of these disgraceful events, thank you.

Once you have studied the thought above, go to this website and memorize the complete Thought of Mao Zedong. After you finish your 思想革命化 you can come back to my blog.

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Snail House: A Tale of Modern China

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

W020090318258260613327I have been away for a while because all my holiday time has been absorbed by two fascinating stories of Shanghai, one of them a TV serial, the other a novel.

The serial is WoJu, the Snail’s House, stupidly translated to English as Narrow Dwellingness, or whatever. It has been red hot in China since its first broadcast in November. Alice Liu of Danwei and the Youku buzz blog covered it recently.

As those blogs noted, this has been the most explosive success we remember in Chinese TV serials. In less than a month it sparked heated debate on the internet, attracted millions online and off, and with that came the hideous hand of the censors. One reason for its rapid success is the central theme about the problems to buy a house, which just hit the spot among the young Chinese audiences.

But Woju is much more than a tale of real estate and corruption. It is a gripping drama, with rich subplots evolving around a central love triangle, populated with very real characters. A sharp critique of the modern Chinese society, and by far the best product I have ever seen on the mainland TV. Originally it was a novel published  in 2007 by Liuliu, a Chinese writer that we should be watching more closely in the future.

Here are my impressions of the serial now that I have finished the first 15 chapters.  I will focus on the two main points of interest: the informative contents for anyone looking to understand China, and the quality of the product independently of other considerations. In the end are also some funny things I observed related to censorship and others.

Content

This serial is the paradise of the 中国通, the aspiring China experts.  Anyone trying to understand China should watch it. If the characters are not exactly real (no fiction can ever be) their worries, their problems and their motivations are a hi-fi amplified reflection of those moving the young citizens of China today. It is a concentrate of Chinese reality.

All the elements we have been speaking for the last years are there, not a single one is missing: guanxi building, cadres’ 二奶 (lovers), shanghai men bullied by their wifes, working parents who can’t see their babies, illegal high-interest loans, collusion between developers and local officials, the conflict between shanghaiers and outsiders, the overnight rich of Wenzhou, the ethics of the new China, the 拆迁 or "destroy and move", the "nail people" who resist, the shanzhai mobile phones… you name it.

And all is so precise that you can even see how much the characters are earning in their jobs, what interest the loan sharks ask, or how much it costs a party cadre to get his first little 二奶 (lover).

There are surely better books that depict the Chinese society in the past, but the subject is changing so fast they are all outdated. I do not think there is any other work of fiction today that reflects more precisely the Shanghai society circa 2010.

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"Hello, I’m Secretary Song of the Municipal Party Committee  (and I just shagged your girlfriend)"

If you are learning Chinese, the series is a double must for its great idiomatic mandarin. If you are not, then stand by for the DVDs with English subtitles, hoping the pirates get a human translator with his TOEFL levels this time. There is definitely a market for this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they come up with a movie next year, provided the government doesn’t stop it.

Quality

But more important than all the above is the quality of the product. It is good fiction and good entertainment.

The story is driven by an intense love triangle centered on the young Haizao, played by beautiful actress Li Nian. All the elements listed above, including the winners and the losers of the Real Estate craze, gravitate around this love/hate story that puts in contact two different worlds: the laobaixing and the cadres, the two classes of urban China.

But perhaps the best aspect of the serial, a breathe of fresh air on Chinese TV, is its absolute lack of moral lessons for the public. There are no heroes or villains here. The covetous developer, the unbearably vain wife, the fainthearted Shanghai husband, the enigmatic, outrageous Shanghai girl played by Li Nian. Every single one of them is just human, with weaknesses and ambitions like all of us. Every one of them can be up to the best and to the worst.

Even the corrupt official is all too human. A weak man in a midlife crisis with too much power in his hands and a system that doesn’t check his acts. Corruption, like love, happens as a natural course of events, the result of a sick society and not of an evil personal plan. And Jiangzhou, the Chinese Gotham that stands for Shanghai, is the mighty whirlwind of action where all the characters are hopelessly adrift.

Censorship

Not surprisingly, the serial has been censored by the government. However, it has been censored in ways that strike me as prudish, if not plainly idiotic.

Since I am in Europe now, I have been able to watch the serial on YouTube and compare with the censored one available on the Chinese site YouKu.  There was no censorship on the image above, where a Shanghai Party Official brazenly chats with the boyfriend of the girl he has just raped making free use of his political muscle.

Instead, the images below were censored:

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See the original scene, and below the censored version as shown in China.

This is the first proper sex scene of the serial. In the original version you see the moaning face of Haizao in one quarter of the screen, while the other images correspond to the respective wife and boyfriend, who are shown at home worrying for their loved ones, while they are being made cuckolds of Olympic category.

Is the moaning face of Haizao more obscene than the happy Mr. Song shown above? Draw your own consequences. Also interesting is to note that the producers have participated in the censoring process, and the hot scenes are not merely cut out, but edited and substituted by other originals, as in the larger image of the wife above.

Other Details and Questions

I will come back with more details when I am done with the serial, but for the moment I have 2 questions for the public, and especially for the many Chinese I know who have already watched the whole 35 chapters:

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1- Why does the serial show so prominently the "Coogle" shanzhaied phone of Haizao, is it just to make it more realistic or is it a revenge because Google refused to sponsor?

2- There is one part of the plot I just can’t understand: how can Haizao be a virgin when she first sleeps with Song, if she has been living with her boyfriend for years? Is this a gap in the plot or am I missing some serious (and worrying) element of the Chinese culture?

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"

More on Han Han and post 80s isolationism

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Read this rant against Han Han on the China Daily. I have to say I didn’t like the tone, it reads like it’s written by an envious loser. But it is the intelligent kind of loser, and he hits the nail on the head several times.

He is absolutely right in the main thesis of the article, as copied below from the lede. And he is also right to say that Han Han messed it up in the interview with Time, and his reaction to that in the Youth Weekend was an embarrassing tantrum that didn’t fix the situation at all.

image

Frankly speaking, I was not surprised by the article, Han Han has made many enemies in China over the years, and he should expect them to come at him with the axe the minute he has a faux pas. But he continues to be as arrogant as usual. He knows that inside China, with his post 80s public, he is still invulnerable. Which is probably why Mr. Zhou writes this in English in a paper for foreigners, where he is safe from the Han Han fans.

But back to the point that interests us: the image of Chinese writers in the West. We have already criticized the part of Western opinion in this affair, but I think there is a lot to be said about Han Han as well. He acts like he couldn’t care less how the Media sees him. If he was a teenage punk I wouldn’t be surprised, but he is already pushing thirty and judging by his writing, he is not “without a cause”. On the contrary, he has a clear notion of justice and he uses his pen to hit where it hurts in the powers that be.

So WHY doesn’t he give a damn? Any foreign writer, no matter how successful at home, knows that an interview on Time is pure gold to project an image outside the country. It is many $$$ that Han Han could make outside China, many race cars he could pay for, way more than in the Chinese market where he is selling books at 20RMB, and even then losing business to pirates. No, I can’t believe he doesn’t give a damn. He does, and at this moment he is still regretting the day he met Time.

And that’s where I wanted to get. It’s hard to believe that Han Han isn’t smart enough to give the Time journalists the meat they are hungry for. He could have prepared a couple of slogans, some Polar bears and Justice in the World, without necessarily going into details. But he is suffering from the same problem as most Chinese at all levels, from Hu JinTao to the last of the provincial spokesmen: they do not understand how to use Western media. They consistently lose at this game, they don’t even want to learn it, and then they turn into a matter of national pride what was just a matter of technique.

It has to be a consequence of living so long with Xinhua and the People’s Daily, the Chinese were not bad at it before.

Or do you have another explanation?

UPDATE:  See comments below for the reaction on Hecaitou blog (h/t FOARP)

UPDATE2: I just find that the whole thing was translated yesterday by ESWN. There is also some more material, including an interview in 1510, check it out.

Han Han and the Big Misunderstanding

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

I saw on ESWN this Time magazine interview of Han Han, and since I have written before about him, I think it is worth a comment. It is also interesting because it illustrates the scary misunderstandings between East and West that Kaiser Kuo warned against recently. This is, in my opinion, the key passage:

…despite his youthful bravado, Han, who has published 14 books and anthologies, generally stays away from sensitive issues such as democracy and human rights. His calculated rebelliousness, says Lydia Liu, a professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, exemplifies the unspoken compact his generation has forged with the ruling Communist Party: Leave us alone to have fun and we won’t challenge your right to run the country. "He is known for being a sharp critic of the government and the Establishment but he isn’t really," says Liu. Instead, she says, Han is a willing participant in a process that channels the disaffected energy of youth into consumerism. "The language in his novels and the narrative strategies are very easy to read," says Liu. "Basically it’s all the same book."

Before judging the literary value of the writer, Mrs. Liu makes a moral judgment of his rebelliousness: It is not intense enough to her taste, the issues he deals with are not sensitive enough. I think I’m not too far from the truth if I say that this summarizes the opinion of  a large part of the academic community, and by extension of mainstream Western opinion. You may have noted that Ms. Liu is an expert in literature, not in politics. But when it comes to Chinese politics, we ALL know better than them.

Hecaitou’s blog also posted the interview and we can see some Chinese discuss it among themselves. Allowing for the odd troll, it is a fairly balanced discussion, as expected from an intelligent Chinese forum when they don’t feel observed by Western eyes. Perhaps the 2 most significant comments, that give an idea of the atmosphere, are:

- Compared to those who were criminalized for speaking, Han Han has no courage. He only teases, doesn’t dare to speak about the system.

- You mean, he needs to be a martyr? To fight for your rights, even if it is just a bit, to obtain awareness of citizen dignity, all these are matters that require someone to capture them. To be able to speak from within and disintegrate this system, that is the real master.

A large part of the misunderstandings between East and West come from the unreasonable expectations we have of each other. In particular, Western opinion expects of Chinese public figures to fight heroically and even suicidally against their own government. The Chinese political system is so evil, the logic goes, that any public person worthy of our attention should be dedicated to fighting it.

Now, I am the first who thinks China needs political change and respect of human rights, and I greatly admire the courage of some dissidents. But real heroes should be voluntary, like Mother Theresa, and no amount of public pressure can ever create one. Even less foreign public pressure.

In case I have some naïf reader, it is just as well to inform you here that Western policies are as arbitrary and cruel in the international scene as the CCP’s are accused of being in China. And both are equally full of good intentions. Why don’t we apply the same standards with our own public figures?  Do we require of our writers to fight the system? Have they signed a compact to drive us into a consumerist slumber instead of protesting against injustice in the World?

We don’t do that. We act just like the Chinese, satisfying ourselves with he thought that “The World is unfair, but with a bit of patience and faith in the system, it will eventually become a better place”. Substitute “The World” with “China” and you have the mainstream Chinese thought.

“Hypocrisy”, I was going to write. But I don’t think it’s even that. It is simple closed-mindedness,  the inability to see things from the other side.

Low on the EQ side: the New Philosophy of China

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

51aVuMO1vSL._AA200_ There are some beliefs that, although not originally from China, were embraced so thoroughly by the Chinese that they became part of the local culture. One example is Buddhism, imported from India in ancient times. Another one, I have found out, is the teaching of the modern management gurus, imported from the USA.

It is interesting how analysts of China continue to explain all the  social phenomena with the Confucian tradition, when it seems to me that the Johnsonian and Golemanian thought must be at least as influential nowadays. Walk into any Chinese bookshop or check out the local pirate’s tricycle to see that self-improvement and cheese management titles rule supreme. The glossiest and most liquid books on the front table are the likes of: “Train yourself to start the next Google”, “How I changed myself from a complete idiot to a Fortune 500 CEO”, or “How I built a company that acquired the  company of the idiot in the previous book”.

Now, I have to warn you at this point: the titles mentioned may not be 100% exact, I am illiterate in the field of self-improvement. As a conceited, self-styled free-thinker I cannot help an almost classist repulsion towards those works, and I frown even on the  tricycle that sells them. During my years in the old Europe I happily managed to stay away from the rites of personal productiveness.  But ever since I moved to China, the new philosophy is lurking at every turn of phrase, and all resistance is in vain.

One of the concepts that appears most often in conversation is that of EQ, or emotional intelligence, coined by D.Goleman in his 1995 best-seller. After dozens of Chinese  spin-offs over the years, it has become an everyday expression here. It is not surprising that an idea like EQ should be so popular in the highly competitive Chinese system, where it provides some much needed comfort: don’t worry if you didn’t make it into a top Uni - the books say - because it’s not IQ but EQ that will determine your future. The pair IQ/EQ is also known in Chinese as 智商/情商,(zhishang/qingshang), although I find that the English abbreviation is more commonly used.

Whenever EQ comes up in conversation I like to point out that the concept is unscientific, especially in the loose form in which it is used here. But my wikipedic erudition always fails to impress the locals, and I have seen my EQ summarily analyzed in multiple occasions. The first time this happened to me was during a lunch with my colleague Jia, an otherwise bright engineer, in the first year of my stay in China. I can remember it almost vividly:

- Uln, your Chinese is getting pretty good.
- Thanks -  I ignored it. The comment is standard icebreaker in mandarin.
- You have a very good IQ -  he continued.
- Hm, thanks, you are also not bad.
- Yes, but.
- But? –

He looked me intently in the eye. It must have been the expression called “frank positive emphatic” in page 362 of the emotional book. When the look had been established, he proceeded:

- IQ is not good enough.
- No?
- No, you should watch your EQ.
- You mean, Ah Q, by Luxun?
- No, I mean E-Q.
- So who wrote that one?
- Nobody did.
- It’s  not a book?
- It is many books.
- Is it any good?
- Listen here. EQ is what explains why some people with lower IQ get further in life than others with higher IQ!
- You mean, like guanxi.
- No, like emotional intelligence.
- Ah, I thought…
- Guanxi is just a part of it. EQ is  about your skills to get on in life!
- I see.

But I didn’t see. That human relations and non-technical skills are essential in one’s career was one obvious thing, that I should check my parameters like a cranky old motor was quite a different one.

- Your IQ is Okay - he insisted -  but you should watch your EQ.
- Like what?
- Like there are open positions in HQ, that would be a good move for your career.
- What?
- A corporate level position is the way to leverage your expat experience .
- But I don’t want to live in Paris!
- You see, that is EQ.

I was beginning to feel a bit annoyed by the philosophy. I weathered another “empathic positive penetrative” while I plotted my counterattack.

- So, why don’t you apply to go to Paris yourself? – I said finally.
- What, me?
- Yes, of course, you have much more experience!
- But I am not an expat!
- So what, it’s not required.
- You know, Uln – he paused slightly - I have my children to take care of.
- There are family packages.
- She would never let me, my in-laws would kill me!
- Hah! –I said victorious - You should watch your EQ!
- But I already do!!

And this time he quickly looked away, forgetting the EQ looks, as if to hide some shameful thought. But too late, I had caught him already. It was my turn to pull the thread.

- Jia?
- Yes?
- You are pretty serious about this EQ, right?
- Er, I … do what I can.
- Building  good connections in the company is a good strategy, right?
- Er..  you might say that.
- Like having a friend in the HQ,  for example, right?
- Huh? No, no, of course I didn’t say that..I wouldn’t…
- Jia?
- Well?
- You have an excellent EQ, Jia, you know that?
- Oh, haha, no, no, thanks, you have an excellent IQ…

A Visit to the River Town

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

This business trip in Sichuan is really full of surprises. Today we went to visit the Project, a giant industrial complex which will be, upon completion, the largest factory in the World to produce X. A typically Chinese megaproject on the bank of the Yangtze.

But the surprise came when we went to town for lunch, and I found out that the river that flowed into the Yangtze at that point was called the Wu. I hadn’t realized before, because the industrial park takes a different name, but sure enough, our client confirmed this point: we were in the riverside town of Fuling.

If you have read the classic China book “River Town”, you know why I was so thrilled. If you have not, then go and get it now. Since you are reading my blog, chances are you are one of those crazy Westerners that seek to understand the Chinese. This books explains them all for you, and in the process it gives you a rare glimpse into the life of inland China. It is fascinating, especially if you don’t live in the country already.

The Book

I am taking this chance to do a little review of River Town, so I can start to catch up with my old plans of running a book reviews section. Considering this book is relatively old and already well known, I will just stick to the main points and try to keep this post reasonable.

The story is very simple, it tells the experiences and feelings of the author during his 2 year stay as Peace Corps in Fuling, a third tier town on the Yangtze.  Nothing really happens, except that it is inland China in the 90s, and everything happens. The book is enjoyable from the beginning, almost every page right to the end.

Here are the key points as promised:

- Very enjoyable natural writing, with vivid descriptions of the places and the people. One of the best examples I know of literature meeting anthropology. Memorable is the description of the Fuling streets and their “stick-stick soldiers” in the initial chapters.

- The author is a fine observer, and he has the advantage of direct access to his students, who write down for him their opinions about a variety of subjects. One of the main highlights of the book is the contrast between the Fuling and the Western mentality, expressed on the background of the classics of English literature.

- For the sake of balance, some points I liked less: towards the end the  book looses some strength (not surprising, after the great first half). The scientific detachment of the author can become a bit exasperating, and sometimes it feels like the anthropologist has taken over the writer. The last dramatic scene with the mob doesn’t help to fix this, and I couldn’t help feeling that it was an unnecessary addition. But then, that is only my opinion, and I was never in Fuling in the 90s.

The River Town

From what I have seen today, the town of Fuling is doing pretty well, changing so fast that it is almost impossible to recognize it in the descriptions of the book. For one thing, it took us less than an hour to get there from the center of Chongqing, which qualifies it as a close suburb. This is in great contrast with the backwater river town of the 90s.

Now the Fulingers are going to have some World class production facilities, and a good part of the population will be working there, with thousands more coming from all over China. It feels strange to realize suddenly that I have become myself one of the characters (although a very secondary one) in the story of the transformation of Fuling.

There seems to be only one thing eternal in China, and that is the masses of the working people, the “laobaixing”. Sure enough, the stick-stick soldiers are still there and in good shape, running up and down the stairs with massive loads hanging from their bamboo poles. For them, nothing has changed.

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The Reading Method

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

I know, I should be studying right now, and not writing posts. But I was just breathing slightly between two sessions of 模拟考试, and I reflected on the fascinating process of learning a new language, and on how, when you have been through it a few times, you end up developing your own secret methods to climb up the long steep ladder.

My approach to learning Chinese this year is based on the one I used with my previous languages: The reading method. It can only be used starting from intermediate level. In the case of mandarin, I would say this is not before 2 years of studying at a normal rate.

The method consists of acquiring first a minimum level of vocabulary to understand most simple texts, and from that point on dedicate your study time to the pleasant hobby of reading novels as captivating as possible. If you are a bookworm like me this works very well, because you end up putting in far more hours of study (reading) than you would if it were normal exercises. I know there are also many resources to read Chinese on the internet with cursor translator included, but computers tend to distract your attention very fast, whereas reading a good book gets your eyes glued to the characters for hours on end.

The result of this method is that you end up with a vast passive vocabulary and excellent character recognition abilities. Then it is up to you in your socializing time to go out and try to use these words in conversation, at the risk of locals saying you sound pompous. Sometimes you can even lift full phrases from a novel, and it is fun when you manage to use them in real life. For example, when I was reading Lu Xun’s “AhQ” I placed neatly my favourite line:

Little Yi:我讨厌我的老板,怎么办?

Uln: 你先估量对手,口讷的你便骂,力气小的你便打。

Little Yi:天哪!

Uln: 怎么啦?

Little Yi:你又在练习!

Uln: 我?没有啊。。。

Admittedly, my use of the method is a bit radical. But the social phase is an essential part of it, because once you have used a word a couple of times successfully, it quickly moves into your active vocabulary, and after that it rarely leaves you again. This is only practicable if you live in a Chinese environment, it never worked when I was back in Europe.

Reading speed

The key tipping point in the reading method is that moment when you realize that you can read a story fast enough to actually enjoy it. This is a function not only of your knowledge of characters/words, but also of the interest of the book and of your own personal nerdiness. When I read my first novel “Brothers” last year, I was so excited to taste the Chinese popular literary style that I gladly spent two months ploughing through the 700 pages of chengyu-ridden Yu Hua.

Since then, I have much increased my reading speed, to a point where I can sustainably read non-fiction without falling asleep. The preparation for the high-speed requirements of the HSK has helped me a lot for this, and I must say that, in spite of all my ranting in the previous post, it does make sense to force students a bit. Because the ability to read characters at normal native speeds is one of the most difficult to acquire, in my opinion.

Note that, when I say speed, I am not referring to the speed that comes from knowing all the words in the text. It is obvious that by using less the dictionary it is possible to read faster. My point is that, even for simple texts where all the words are familiar, I still read almost 3 times slower than a native Chinese, even after 1 year of reading books. This is an issue that has appeared only when studying Chinese, and not in any of my previous languages that used latin script, so I have strong reasons to think that it is tied to the use of characters.

I think it probably has to do with the way the brain processes the characters, and the way people schooled in Chinese from an early age have developed differently in this field. The post about reverse pinyin last week pointed me in this direction, and a few experiments I have done with my Chinese neighbours as well. I hope I have the time to write a bit more about this next week.

In the meantime, if there is a non-native advanced reader out there, I would like to hear your experience. Does it eventually get better, and do you manage to read at the same speed as the Chinese? Or do you have the same problem I note here? Let me know.

OK, off-line I go again. I already missed all Tuesday and Wednesday in an absurd meeting in Changsha so I need to catch up. I’ll be back after the HSK, if I haven’t showed up by Monday call the fire brigade.

Back to the HSK (2)

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

e59bbee78987_1 I am back to Shanghai with some interesting anecdotes and some mildly funny pictures of Japan. Unfortunately, I will not be able to post any of that,  because this week I am busy with work trips in China, and especially because this is the HSK week. It is just as well, I guess, after all this is not Japanyouren, and there are funnier travel bloggers out there if you are looking for a laugh.

Before I disappear for a week into my studying den, let me explain you again this business of the HSK. It is short for 汉语水平考试,or Chinese Level Exam, and it is the official standard to measure your level of mandarin, accepted by all universities in the mainland. It is also a very crazy exam, designed to squeeze out of the examinee’s brains as much linguistic information as possible in 3 hours, and then put it down in measurable statistical terms.

As it happens, the HSK is an exam that does not mainly measure your level of Chinese. It measures your determination, endurance and sangfroid, and your faith in a better life after the bell. The good side of it, apart from hardening your soul, is that it gives you a good taste of the ultracompetitive Chinese education system and their university entrance exam. It is even reminiscent of the 科举考试, the old imperial examination to select the bureaucracy, which famously caused some of the candidates to lose their wits and become heavenly kings. For a foreigner who is serious (deranged) enough to try to understand China, this experience is essential.

But back to the facts: This Saturday 17th is the HSK advanced, and I am going to fight for a level 9, out of 11 possible levels. I need to get this degree desperately, for the sole honourable objective of beating my own record. This is the Olympic spirit.

IMG_2248 My practice essays with thoughts on the Four Books

Here are some details of the exam: the reading section contains text with a total of over 4,000+ characters, the equivalent of some 10 pages in a standard format novel, and on that text you have to answer 15 questions (not choose a,b,c,d, but actually answer with a sentence). There is a total of… 15 minutes for this part. I tested with a native Chinese friend and that is the time she took just to read the text at normal speed.

The essay writing is another scary part, because you get so used to typing with the computer that when it comes to handwriting characters you don’t even know where to start. At least here you do get 30 minutes for an essay of 400-600 characters, so you actually have the time to read what you are writing, and to consider if you really want to express your own point of view in an exam which contains exercises like:

The concept of scientific development leads our people towards a more ——- society”  ( a-harmonious, b-harmonic, c-harmonium d-hormonal)

This example is not exactly literal, I am quoting from memory. The point is the HSK has a strong Beijing flavour, and some of the phrases are taken directly from CPC handbooks and the helmsmen’s theories. In a way, it feels like the Four Books of the imperial examinations all over again: the Thought of Mao Zedong, the Theory of the 3 Represents, the Concept of Scientific Development… As the old saying goes: All things they’ve changed, and nothing has changed.

Mao, Jiang and the importance of Ideals

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

jianguodayeNow that I am in a free internet country, I have taken the chance to look at the CDT website, and I have found this interesting question coming from al Jazira: what would have happened if Mao had lost?

I am not in principle against counterfactual history,  it can be useful in many cases to see the events from a different point of view. It also makes for lively pub conversations and blog comments. But the basic condition for this kind of exercise to make sense is, in my opinion, that the chain of events analyzed had any chance to have actually happened.

For example: it might be interesting to imagine how the world would have been if Hitler was killed in the 1944 assassination attempt, or what would have happened if Mao died before the Great Leap Forward.  In a similar way to an experiment in physics, by isolating later factors, we try to  analyze the effects of their policies up to that point. But there is little interest in analyzing the outcome of impossible or even absurd events, other than for humorous purposes. What if Hitler had suddenly become a pacifist in 1941?

Back to the point: “What if Mao had lost?” This question treats the defeat of Jiang Jie Shi as a mere accident of history,  a question of luck in which the outcome, like Hitler and the bomb, could have been decided by fluke.

But the defeat (or rather the retreat) of Jiang was not the outcome of a single battle. People asking this question forget that Jiang had the power for many years, with all the instruments of the State, the largest part of the population and territory under his control, and military and economic aid from other countries. For years, all the odds were on his side. The opportunity implied in the  question “what if Mao had lost?” was already given to Jiang. And the best answer to the question is:

If Mao had lost, Jiang  lost anyway

There were profound reasons that made Jiang’s system impossible. His ideology-or  lack thereof-was not appealing enough at a moment when China needed a catalyzer for all its unleashed energy. Something was needed to rally the people against the oppression of the foreigners and of the local tyrants, and Jiang was not delivering in any of the two fronts. China needed something to believe in.  If Mao hadn’t been there, another leader would have sold the idea, or other worse ideas, and who knows the frightful regime that might have resulted.

This failure of Jiang to inspire, together with the corruption inherent to his regime, condemned him to impose power by raw force.  A scheme that worked well when he moved over to Taiwan with supporters and soldiers in large number relative to the local population, but it simply could not have worked in mainland China. It would have required a level of organized brutality that only a fanatic could accept.

So Mao won, and then what?

So back to reality: Mao won. He played his cards much better and he won by a mile. Then some years later he proved to be less gifted as a politician than as a revolutionary. Worse still-and this is really his worst sin-he fell in love with himself and with power, and he didn’t have the good sense to listen to capable advisers, nor the dignity to retire when he was still in time. The “70% good/30% bad” judgement passed by Deng was probably too generous, but inevitable: to condemn Mao was to condemn the work of his life. Deng could not do more than he did, and of those who came after him, not a single one had what it takes to even dare touch this question.

sense1

And here is, in my opinion, the heart of the matter: why is Mao still so present in the Chinese psychology? When are we going to move on? The Chairman is not just stuck on a wall, he is imprinted very deeply in the collective mind of the Chinese, and through compulsory education, propaganda and parades like last week’s, he holds to his place and no amount of economic progress can sweep him away.

Here is an example of what I mean : Recently I lent the book “Mao: The Unknown Story”, by Chang Jung -a book that is very critical of Mao- to a Chinese friend. This friend is young, and liberal to the point that he believes Dalai Lama is a good man. And yet, when two weeks later I asked him about the book, I got a  reaction that shocked me. “This woman is not really Chinese” ,  “You cannot understand”, were among the broken phrases that he grumbled. I know this book is surely not the most balanced biography of Mao,  and I was open to accept many of his arguments. But I saw there was no point in discussing further, because somehow we had landed in the territory of hurt feelings.

But the interesting discussion today  is not whether Mao was 70% right or 17.5%. The past is past, and there is no use in digging up the skeletons again, except for specialists in history. The key is the present, and the reason why Mao still holds his place should be searched in the leaders of today.

The answer is simple:  Mao is there because he is still needed. No matter how terrible his failures and how cruel the consequences-and most Chinese know them well-Mao is still the only one that gives some ideological content to the system. He provides the meaning to the colourful parade of  last week, and to the other parade of black suited mummies that is “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”.  And that is the reason why most Chinese are so quick to excuse him: “He was good man used by his wife”, they say, or “it was not his fault, he was senile”.

Ideals are important for a society to believe in itself. In the West we have democracy, human rights, religion, a whole range of them to suit all the sensibilities. As often as not, they are utilized by politicians for their own selfish goals and devoided of any real meaning. But at least they are  ideals, and they give us the illusion that our struggle is worth fighting. I see people discussing Obama or Bush, and whatever the real effect of their policies might be, it is obvious that they give a meaning to politcs in America.

In China, on the contrary, the only ideal since Mao died has been Deng’s “Get Rich”.  Many theories have been published since, filling thick books with party rhetoric, but not a single one of them contained anything  that the people could  believe in, or even understand. Once and again, the actions of the party have shown that above any other consideration, the only important objective is GDP, and the maintenace of the status quo.

There is a serious lack of leadership in the communist party of China, partly due to the internal mechanisms of the party itself . Strictly materialistic objectives are quickly dissapointing,  for those that achieve them as much as for those left behind, and the people naturally turn for inspiration to the only ideals available:  nationalism and Mao. And so it happens that the old  portrait  cannot be taken down, because it is there to cover a hole. The black hole of Chinese politics.

Of Language and Culture

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

It is common knowledge that studying a foreign language involves studying a culture. Consciously or not, that is the main reason why people enjoy it. If it weren’t for its cultural content, a language would be little more than an empty set of code-words and rules designed with an exasperatingly faulty logic. And learning languages would be just like memorizing the phone directory, useful knowledge in some situations, sure, but hardly worth years of study.

But languages are vehicles of culture, and that is why we find them fascinating. When you study a language, and especially when you study it in its natural habitat - in a country where it is the mother tongue - you are continuously absorbing the elements of that country’s culture. At the surface level, these learnings are obvious, like when your local barber tells you the story of the Old Fool and the Mountain. But there are deeper levels where the language in itself, through its structure and its semantic relations, carries a cultural load that may go unnoticed by all but the most careful students.

During my practice for the HSK exam these last months, I went through thousands of new words and hundreds of chengyus (the ubiquitous 4-character constructions/idioms that Chinese use almost like words). And when I was fed up of memorizing I would let my mind drift for a while, musing over the learnt vocabulary, and sometimes I ended up finding unexpected meanings.

Here and (perhaps) in future posts I will copy some of the notes I did while studying. Some are just funny misunderstandings, some come loaded with philosophical connotations, and some are surely just the result of my own imagination. Warning: I will indulge in some vast generalizations and home-made anthropology, please bear with me and add your righteous insults in the comments section. Here’s the first three expressions, all baidu linked for examples:

下不了台 - Xia bu liao tai

This is an expression in Chinese that literally means:   Cannot get off the stage. It is used when somebody is embarrassing you in public, particularly when somebody says things that make everyone focus their attention on you. Then he is scolding you, or praising you, or otherwise treating you  ”xia bu liao tai”.

It struck me as very Chinese in the way it is used as a negative expression, similar to the English to embarrass. But in English the negative expression is  more often the opposite, to be “upstaged”  (ie. sent to the back of the stage). Which comes to illustrate this difference between Western and Chinese individuals, the former generally enjoying some degree of public attention while the latter prefer to pass unnoticed and blend in the crowd.

英伦三岛 - YingLun San Dao

This is one of the most perplexing expressions I have come across in Chinese. It literally means “The three islands of England”, using a phonetical approximation of England (“Yinlun”)  that strikes me as pedantic, as it is not the usual name Yingguo 英国.

But the pedantic speaker (or the “Autentic Engrish Vila” advert) is, I am afraid, making a fool of himself. I might be missing something, but last time I checked England was not an island, nor were there three islands in the British Isles, however you look at it. The garbled definition on Baidupedia doesn’t help much either.

This seems to be an old expression, so my guess is someone in the times of the Qing decided thatEngland was a Kingdom of 3 islands. And no amount of  insistence nor letters from ambassador Macartney would change the minds of the mandarins.  So I believe this expression shows another particular trait of Chinese culture, and particularly of Chinese politics.   It can be summarized in the phrase  ”This is what the party says, and we don’t care what reality thinks”. A nice little example with pigeons can be found here.

北京,背景 and the tones of English

This one is a problem of pronunciation. I have observed that everytime I hear the word bèijǐng (背景), meaning “background”,  I automatically think of  běijīng (北京), meaning “Beijing”.  And even though I am perfectly aware of the tones employed by the speaker  (the 4th tone in bei is usually very obvious),  I still can’t help myself from thinking of the city of Beijing, and often pushing the misunderstanding to absurd extremes.

After many times of unconsciously making this mistake, I came to the consclusion that I was influenced by the English pronunciation: Usually when we say Beijing in English we tend to pronounce it in a way that sounds almost like a 4th tone/3rd tone,  that is “Bèijǐng”.  So inevitably my brain is hard-wired to associate this sound with the capital of China, and I am lost in conversation everytime it comes up.

And one question in case somebody knows: what tones do we normally use when speaking in a non-tonal language like English? My guess is that most of the times, in neutral, non interrogative sentences, we use a combination of the 4th and the light tone for the stressed and non-stressed syllables respectively.

And more to come

I still have lots of notes in my studybooks so if I get some good feedback I will roll them out little by little. Let me know what is your interpretation of the above.