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Extra! Avatar is NOT about China

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

avatar-china-movie-poster-560x798 By the way, I watched the movie Avatar last night. It was an amazing experience for a China observer, and I draw this enlightening conclusion: the film has absolutely nothing to do with China.

Even if the king of the internet and man of the year Han Han thinks the opposite, the plot has as much in common with the forced evictions in China as it has with the cruel seal huntings in Greenland, or the extinction of the smurfs.

Which makes me think we are all suffering a phenomenon of hyperobservation, if that is the word I want. It was warranted in the case of 2012, where China was explicitly displayed, but let’s give ourselves a break and not scan every Hollywood number for signs of Chineseness.

Apart from this, if you want my opinion the movie was just OK, nothing to write blogs about. I have to say I am more of a reader than a movie watcher, I am focused on the plot/characters and the special FXs tend to leave me cold. On the other hand, I guess my watching it on my 2D Television without special glasses or even beer goggles didn’t help much. And to be fair to the Chinese commentators translated on ESWN, most of them (except HH) were just rambling about the technical level of the FX.

Ah, by the way, Avatar DVD was already on the tricycles already as of last weekend, and the series Woju just came out yesterday. My local retailer stopped me as I rode back from work, he was keeping an eye for me. No English subtitles included though, not even Chinglish.

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?

Chinese the most Difficult… (and 3)

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

In the first two posts of this series, we saw that Chinese is the last language in the World to maintain a complete set of independent vocabulary roots and a non-phonetic script to represent them, what we might call a separate Word System. For this reason I argued that Chinese may be the most difficult language to obtain full fluency, regardless of the linguistic background of the student.

But there are more interesting implications than the mere difficulty of the language, in particular cultural and political ones. Because the refusal to use loans and phonetic script is the result of conscious decisions. There is nothing in the language itself that forbids import of foreign words or use of an alphabet, indeed, there are already some exceptions of direct loans in current use that are written in latin letters, such as DVD or KTV.

Chinese has a parallel Word System diverging from the rest of the World, and the government has an active role in the maintenance of this system. However, this policy is not unilaterally imposed from above. It is certainly encouraged by the education system, but Chinese speakers seem to follow it naturally and often prefer Chinese roots even when not supervised. This is in contrast with the situation in many countries where the system tries to protect local terms, only to find that people still prefer “email” to “courier electronique”.

Anyone living in China long enough realizes how aware Chinese are of their long history and their status as a different civilization. This discourse is irritating for Westerners, because it reminds too much of ultra-nationalistic creeds back home. But it has one essential difference with those creeds: in the case of China, it is true. As we said before, China is justified to see itself as a cradle of civilization, and it is the only such culture that has survived practically independent from World mainstream till modern times. This cultural awareness is the main reason for the preservation of the language as we know it, surviving different regimes and even periods of chaos.

When we study Chinese we are not merely learning another language, we are learning the words of a parallel World, the last independent system of vocabulary and writing that humanity still has. It is the most similar experience available on Earth to learning the language of another planet. If Chinese is really so hard to learn, this should provide enough motivation for anyone to try it.

Political considerations

Mandarin is not in itself a very difficult language, what makes it hard is its complex Word System, which is for the most part not essential (that is, the language could still exist with loans and an alphabet). This System makes it hard for foreigners and Chinese to communicate, and it is a serious obstacle in the education of the Chinese. In the last century,  development has been the main priority of China in order to recover her past glory, and inefficient relics have been torn down without blinking, just like the Walls of Beijing. Chinese words and characters are the last of those obstructive monuments to remain, and by far the oldest of all. It is a miracle that they have survived till today.

The invention of convenient methods to input characters on a keyboard has made the future of the characters seem more secure, but their permanence is by no means ensured. Many famous linguists have argued for the use of pinyin as main written language and elimination of the characters from daily life, not least of them Lu Xun, or the late John de Francis. Much as I admire these men and their work, I am completely opposed to their position as a matter of principles. I don’t suppose anyone will believe me in this age of economists, even less in the China of the new philosophies, but I have this to say: Efficiency is not a supreme value. In fact, it is not even a value in itself, but just a means. And a sad means it would be to recover the greatness of China, if there were nothing left to recover.

I think it is clear to most Chinese today that their Word System is too precious to abandon it for the sake of efficiency. However, some reasonable concessions can be made which might ensure the very survival of the System in the long term. In particular, the acceptance of foreign loans for new technical words might facilitate the access of Chinese to foreign research and the incorporation of foreign talents when the real Chinese brain-drain starts in earnest. The complete acceptance of latin script to represent phonetically foreign Proper Nouns (which is already used informally) would also be a step towards efficiency without sacrificing the heart of the system, and would be of great help for all the Chinese trying to learn English.

Apart from the practical issues considered, no less important is the mentality underlying the Chinese Word System. The growing common vocabulary in all the languages in the World represents the recognition by most cultures that there is a large part of common human culture, and that, since this part is only going to become larger with the progress of technology, the sensible solution is to adopt a common language to communicate it. By deciding to stay apart from this system, the linguistic choice of China represents a stance opposed to the rest of the World, and in a certain way it perpetuates the traditional isolation of the Middle Kingdom even in the age of Global interconnection. The insularity of the Chinese internet community and the misunderstandings between cultures that have arisen from it are, to some extent, a consequence of this choice.

The part played by the language in China’s relations with the World is probably not of the first importance. But even today this part is not negligible, and with the advances in communications, nobody knows how vital it will become in the future. Ultimately, it is only up to the Chinese to decide what language they want for themselves. We can only wait and see, and hope that they find a way to stay connected with us, while preserving their unique heritage of Words.