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Chinese most Difficult Language in the World (2)

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Last Friday I wrote a very long post where I ended up including too many ideas. The main point got a bit obscured as a result, but it was simply this: that vocabulary plays an essential role in learning a language, and that because of this Chinese is not only extremely difficult at an advanced level, but also growing more difficult with time.

I don’t suppose this is groundbreaking research, but it is interesting because most people are not aware of it, and also for its implications in the limit betwen language and politics, two fields we like to cultivate in this blog. Here is the argument in full with conclusions, for examples and details see the previous post and its comments:

  • To learn a new language the main knowledge required is in three areas: grammar, phonetics and vocabulary. Grammar and phonetics differ essentially from vocabulary in that the first two are rules applicable to infinite cases, whereas the latter is raw data. We can call them the Code and the Data elements of the language. The Code elements are finite and not growing. The Data element is practically infinite and growing, to the point that it is not completely mastered even by native speakers.
  • When studying a language, the Code elements play an essential role in the basic and intermediate levels, but at advanced level the real obstacle for communication—and therefore for progress—is Data.  For example, in German advanced students may sometimes use the wrong declension, and in Spanish they may fail to differentiate “rr/r”sounds. These things tend to not hamper communication because human languages are highly redundant. I would never understand “pero” (but) when a speaker says “perro”(dog). Ultimately,  imperfections in the Code elements amount to the same as having an accent: most of the times they are only relevant as metadata.
  • But while Code above a certain level is highly redundant, Data remains essential at every level. Borrowing from this great article: The phrase “Jacuzzi is found effective in treating Phlebitis”is meaningless when either or both of the nouns are unknown. A single missing word can often obscure the meaning of a whole paragraph or article.
  • The number of words used passively in real life far exceeds the typical standard lists of language levels. This is because semi-specialized words—such as ionic, jacuzzi or matrix—are not included in vocabulary lists as they are considered too rare. Certainly each of these words is rarely used, but there are so many of them that as a whole they are actually very often used. This Data element is so large that it cannot be memorized in a classroom, and the only way to acquire it is through many years of immersion.
  • The reason why most language learners never realize this problem is because they are “cheating”. In most languages in the World, this high level vocabulary is practically identical and it doesn’t need to be learned. There is a certain limit level for each language above which most modern words are international and the Data is no more specific of the language .
  • This limit level of vocabulary convergence is different for every language, but it doesn’t so much depend on the language family or geographical origin, rather it depends on the size and the development of the community of speakers. That is the reason why even non indo-European languages like Basque are extremely easy above the intermediate level: the community is not big enough to support complex terms, and all higher Data is adopted from International words. Most people tend to misunderstand and attach too much importance to the concept of language families, and they come up with absurd lists like this one.
  • The internationalization of vocabulary is growing with the advances in telecoms and globalization, especially since English has become the only language of scientific research. There is little point in inventing new Swedish terms in science, for example, when all the scientific community are reading/writing their papers in English. Often, in spite of political efforts to promote a local vocabulary, the economics of language revert the higher Data back to Internationalese.
  • There is only one language in the World that for historical, political and demographic reasons has remained an exception to this trend: that language is Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese or others, the difference is irrelevant  here). It constitutes a parallel system of high level Data that has very few words in common with the rest of the Word. Japanese and Korean are partial exceptions in that they draw from both the Chinese and the International System, but modern words are increasingly International and these languages are converging with the rest.
  • In addition to this, Chinese has a ridiculously difficult writing system unique for its lack of a functional phonetic script. This compounds the vocabulary problem: not only there are more words to learn than in any other language, but each word  contains much more information as it needs to be associated with its corresponding characters.
  • Moreover, since there is no standardized way to transcribe foreign Proper Nouns, even names of places and persons tend to be “translated” into Chinese, sometimes completely departing the original phonetics and becoming Chinese Names in their own right. This adds to the already massive Data element in the Chinese language.

All this takes us to the conclusion: Chinese is the most difficult language to learn at a high level, regardless of the origin of the student.

This is particularly interesting because up to now the right answer to this question was only: “depends on your own mother tongue”.  With the possible  exception of Japanese/Korean students,  this post justifies that Chinese is actually the hardest for everyone else.  Inversely,  it is also very difficult for Chinese to learn other languages, although this is mitigated by the fact that other languages do have functional phonetic scripts.

Another interesting conclusion:  Chinese is not only difficult, it is actually growing in difficulty.

As the World grows more interconnected and technology occupies a more important part of our lives, new semi-specialized vocabulary takes an increasing part in everyday language. Expressions that refer to international concepts such as “spam”or “plasma TV” increasingly take the place of expressions referring to  local cultural heritage.  In this sense, we can say that all languages in the World are converging, while Chinese is an island diverging from all the rest.

Then there are the political conclusions that we can draw from this, but I am committed to writing shorter posts, so we will leave that for the next day. Comments and corrections are welcome to my arguments above.

Chinese is the Most Difficult Language

Friday, November 20th, 2009

There comes a point in the life of every student of mandarin when he feels the call to write about the difficulty of the language. The time has finally come for me, and I will follow the path of the masters. In fact, I intend to go even further. I am set out to prove that Chinese is the most difficult language in the World.

I know I am treading on dangerous ground, and the sect of the Japanese learners is sure to fall on me with all the weight of their declensions. To make this a fair game, I will define first what I understand by difficulty: the time needed by one average person without previous contact with related languages, to attain a functional level, where functional is understood as being able to execute every normal activity in mandarin without significant disadvantage, such as: writing dissertations, hosting formal meetings, reading at a normal speed, chatting in a noisy a bar. I am taking my own level of French as standard measure of this level.

Of course, this standard and the whole notion of “significant disadvantage” are subjective and difficult to measure, but for the purpose of this post it should be enough. Note that the key factor here is utility: I am deliberately paying less attention to aspects such as accent as long as it doesn’t get in the way of normal communication. The reason is that I am considering the language as a communication tool rather than a mark of status, origin or other possible functions. In China, any possible use of imitating accent is lost to most foreigners because the facial features give them away immediately.

Apart form the accent, important fields like Classic Chinese are given very little weight in my definition of “functional”, for obvious reasons. It is true that by using this definition I am weakening my case for the Most Difficult Language, but we can afford that, because our most formidable weapons are still in reserve.

One more thing before I continue: this exercise has been tried many times already, like here, here and here. I am ignoring previous results because the criteria used in each of them—such as teacher’s perception or comparison of certain conventional parameters—do not have any use in real life. Each student is free to chose his own definition for difficulty and functional level, but it seems to me that the one in this post, summarized as “the level needed to use the language seamlessly in native contexts” is the one that most people would naturally accept.

My argument follows the process of studying Chinese through 3 stages: First I prove that Chinese is easy, then I prove that it is difficult. Finally, I will give the reason why Chinese is THE MOST DIFFICULT language in the World. If you are already familiar with the study of mandarin you might want to skip straight to the third chapter.

Chinese is Easy

The simplicity of Chinese grammar at a basic level and the easy pronunciation and memorization (without tones) of the first lists of words makes for a very mild learning curve at first. I’ve had many occasions to compare with students of Spanish in Spain, and almost always the students of Mandarin in China are faster to start using simple sentences. Apart from the language itself, I suspect that the curious and chatty nature of the Chinese is an important part of it.

If you have been in China long enough you have probably seen some of those miracle students that learnt Chinese in 1 year. I have met a few of them myself, and in some cases I was amazed by the results. These people are essentially natural communicators, they don’t need the tones or the characters because they use a very powerful tool in mandarin, which is context. Their intonation and body language channel tons of information, and so they are able to entertain a band of adult Chinese for hours on end, while you sit there bitterly wondering where to put the 了. That is a real story, by the way.

Of course, not everyone can be such a great communicator, but the point here is: for a certain kind of person and for a certain kind of objectives, Chinese can be in fact an easy language when learned in immersion. That is the kind of superficial level that is referred to when you hear someone say “he speaks 14 languages fluently”. It includes just the most basic characters, practically no grammar and long lists of everyday vocabulary memorized without tones. It is nowhere even near my definition of functional level, but it is useful and rewarding, and for most people it is all they need.

It is for this reason that to every foreigner coming to China, especially the curious and communicative ones, I strongly recommend studying Chinese conversation without characters. At this first level it makes economic sense for most of them to study seriously.

Given a prolonged exposure to mandarin speaking environment, a speaker can go a long way without characters. However, for serious students of mandarin, the non-character path is not sustainable. Among other reasons, because it will make it impossible to read and write, effectively leaving off limits large areas of knowledge.

Chinese is Difficult

The potential student should think very carefully before stepping into the next phase. Because it requires an investment in time that is out of proportion with the study of almost any other language, or even with such complex undertakings as, for example, obtaining a PHD. In the vast majority of cases it does not make economic sense, and it is simply not a rational choice. So if you decide to go there, just make sure you have irrational motivations.

The difficulties that appear in this phase, such as characters and tones, have already been described in the excellent articles mentioned above, so I will not go into details. I will just stress the factors of context and interdependence, which I feel are sometimes understated. The idea, summarized, goes like this: Those two diabolically difficult codes that are spoken and written Chinese are made even more difficult to learn because they tend to be not self-supporting in the mind of the student, but relying on each other, and then both of them rely a good deal on context.

This is the most absurd part of the system, because intuitively one would imagine that a (semi) ideographic script is independent from Speech. The truth is that not only they are not independent, but the whole system is so inefficient that Chinese themselves rely heavily on their Spoken language to interpret the characters. This explains, for example, why it is so easy to come up with characters that your average Chinese cannot read, or why they can read a newspaper knowing only 2000* characters but you cannot, as they successfully use their spoken language to remember/guess the missing characters.

In the other direction, the dependence on written material to learn to speak is common to any second language, as being able to read words in a phonetically significant way makes them much easier to remember.  In China, the existing material in proper pinyin (Latin letters with tonemarks) is practically zero, and the tendency of some letters and tones to vary among regions makes it almost impossible to learn them properly just from listening. To make matters worse, Chinese speakers themselves rely on the characters to solve ambiguities, as is often the case with names of people and places, or when they explain a new word: “My name is Jiang,” they say, “the beauty-woman Jiang” referring to the 2 parts of the character 姜. Ambiguities tend to happen a lot in contextual languages like mandarin, even more when a foreigner is involved.

This mutual influence between speech and writing has many other consequences unique to Chinese: for example, it is impossible to write down or even read foreign words without an advanced knowledge of characters, making it very difficult to understand familiar names both in writing and in conversation.

All  these factors (and many others I haven’t mentioned) provide an extremely difficult learning environment for a foreigner. This is the main reason why it is impossible to reach functional level without following a balanced approach on spoken and written language, plus immersion in Chinese culture. It explains why sinologists with a vast knowledge of characters never get to speak the language functionally, and neither do old China Hands living for decades in language immersion. They both stand on a wobbly platform with one leg shorter than the others.

In short, to study Chinese the effort is similar to learning 2 different languages that need to be pursued in parallel**.  And each of these two languages is a LOT more difficult than French (for an English speaker).

This however, has still failed to impress the students of Japanese, who are already grinding their katanas to come after my head. I will admit that, up to here, the Japanese language still has a good chance of beating Mandarin. Move on to the next section to see my checkmate.

Chinese is the Most Difficult Language in the World

Now is when we get to the third phase, that of students at a functional level, without any “significant disadvantage”compared with native speakers.  As far as I am concerned, this phase is just hypothetical: I have never seen a foreigner who got there. I am not saying this person does not exist, I just mean that after 3 years in China I haven’t met any, that is how rare it is.

In terms of the measure standard established, I could phrase it like this: I have still not met a single foreigner who is fluent in Chinese at a level to compete with my own level in French, which is my 4th language, learnt as an adult in 3 years spent in France. I have an accent and a few faux amis, but I can read and write as fast and complex as any of my French colleagues with similar backgrounds, and I can’t remember the last time I didn’t get something on TV. I challenge anyone to get me a non-native Chinese speaker that can speak or write like I do in French, or even at a comparable level. Excuse me if I sound cocky, I am just writing this because it is the basis of the argument that follows.

But let’s get to the real point of this post: Why is Chinese the most difficult Language in the World?

The main basis for this assertion has to do with vocabulary. I think that in most studies about learning Chinese, this factor has been greatly understated. It is in my opinion the single most important obstacle for a student to get to the functional level. Before I explain why, let me give some background:

In the origin there are deep cultural reasons, that come from the fact that China is seen by its speakers as a cradle of civilization. Actually, it can be accurately said that China is one of the cradles of civilization, and the only one that has kept a living language to this day. Linguists will say that the language has changed completely since the times of the Shang, but this is a purely technical objection. Culturally, it is STILL the same people and the same language, it is felt like this by the speakers, and this entails a series of attitudes that are unique to Chinese.

These “attitudes” include not recognizing Latin or Greek as cultural references, and by extension not accepting English or other foreign roots in the creation of new words. This is the heart of the matter. This makes things extremely difficult for foreigners studying mandarin, and also for Chinese studying foreign languages. And it has implications that go beyond the scope of language learning.

Regarding the practical consequences for the student of mandarin, consider this: the active vocabulary required to obtain a standard level of language—for example, the vocabulary required for highest level of HSK— typically contains no more than a few thousand words, which are more than enough for everyday general conversation. And yet, the HSK11 people that I have met were not even close to competing with my French.

The reason is that for people with a higher education, the passive vocabulary really needed to attain a functional level is much larger than the vocabulary required in any standard test of proficiency.  Think of vector, ion or metaphysical. None of these words enter the standards lists of vocabulary because in theory they are technical terms, and yet they appear in normal conversation and you are expected to recognize them even if you have no idea what an ion really is. You acquire these words through a lifetime of living inside a culture.

So what happened with my French? Obviously,  I just learned the few thousand words necessary to get along, and from then on it was extremely easy…  because the vast pockets of specialized  vocabulary were for the most part already known to me. And that is because, once you have learnt to decode phonetics and grammar, and above a certain level of vocabulary, all the languages in the World become almost the same—except for Chinese, that is.

And as a consequence of this Chinese differentiation, the only practical method for most people to achieve functional level is to spend a lifetime in immersion, in order to acquire the vocabulary in all those fields that are not studied in language school and can only be learned through experience. In summary, for a student to become functional it would take, following our three phases above:

  1. Exceptional communication abilities, talent and motivation.
  2. Years of full-time study to learn reading and writing.
  3. Even longer - min around 10 years? - in 100% immersion in China.

Essentially, we are speaking of a person who is dedicated to Chinese as a career, who has a talent for language and who lives in a total Chinese environment for many years. It is not impossible that this person exists, and we might even have someone in comments below who responds to this description. But the conjunction of those 3 conditions in one single person is extremely rare, and for the vast majority of students, functional level in Chinese will always be out of reach.

Excuse the long post, I wrote it out of frustration the other day when I got stuck in the middle of a sentence containing ionic treatment, partly because the word for ion, 离子 (li2zi3) like many other technical words, does not give you any clue when it is out of the context of physics. I would like to see what the Japanese (who are pretty good at saying “ion” phonetically) have to answer to this. Checkmate.

And Chinese has won the dubious honour of being the most difficult language in the World.

NOTES:

*There has been much discussion about this and the number is probably wrong. The point is that even when you get to know more characters than a native Chinese, he will still be able to read much better and faster than you. This is frustrating.

** I am using terms very loosely here, Written Chinese is not in itself a language but a representation of Chinese. It is not really studying 2 languages, but I find this comparison useful to give a feel of the raw amount of data that needs to be stored into your head.

PS. If  you are interested in this debate,  see the summarized and hopefully more clear post here.

First Impressions of Japan

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

First impressions are usually mistaken, but they are also interesting because the eye is alert to any novelty, and the culture clash is rich with ideas. Warning: this post contains sweeping generalizations. Take it for what it is, and if you are serious about understanding Japan you might want to look somewhere else.

I came to Japan quite randomly, I wanted to spend the holidays in a quiet and relaxing place,  and in the week of the Chinese National Day, Japan seemed the only place near enough with the right conditions. I am preparing for the high level HSK later this month, and the plan was to take a few hours a day to practise my characters.

I chose the South of Japan on purpose, with the vague idea that they would probably be a bit more relaxed than in the North, and therefore more suited to my Southern European nature. I soon found out my assumption was wrong.  For one reason, there seems to be no such a thing as “South Japan”. Although this place is clearly in the South, they call it West Japan.  And the character of the people here is diametrically opposed to any notion of latin indulgence I might have harboured.

The cultural shock came right from the first contact. It was the passport controller at the airport of Fukuoka. I had been given the immigration card in the airplane and, like usual, I had quickly filled my “address on destination” box with a lazy “Hotel Nagasaki”. I couldn’t remember the real name of the hotel, and anyway these things are never checked in any reasonable country. In Japan they are.  And that is how I met my second Japanese.

“What did you write in this box?,” said the inspector when I was led to his office, pointing at the place in my card.

“Hotel Nagasaki?” I said.

“There is no hotel by this name”.

“No, no, I didn’t mean it literally,” I explained, “It is short for ‘a hotel in Nagasaki’.”

“Reservation receipt please?”

“Er.. it is in my mailbox, I haven’t printed it out.”

And they took me to a series of offices until they found a place where I could connect to the internet and produce my hostel reservation from hostelworld.  This took about an hour, enough to convince them that I was a dangerous outlier, so the inspector led me to the searching department.

My third Japanese was an older man who did the most meticulous search I have seen in my life, even feeling with his bare fingers all along the sole of my well seasoned travel socks. He searched into every possible hiding place in my bags and my body, except for that precise one that you were just imagining.

All the while, the three of them -my first three Japanese -  treated me with scrupulous respect, constantly smiling, and polite to the point of scary.

One of the things that was shocking in my first dealings in the shops is the “hi!” sound that they emit all the time, to say hello or to hand you something. It comes constantly and accurately, timed like a semiquaver, dressing any human exchange with a singular martial tone.  But the most awe inspiring feature is their absolute, compulsive, anal obsession with cleanliness. This country must be the cleanest place I have seen in the World by a large margin.

I came to this conclusion during lunch in one Western cafe in Nagasaki, were I witnessed some peculiar behaviour. It was raining outside, and every time a new client finished paying his order, the cashier walked around the bar with a clean tissue and bent down to wipe the drops of water left by the client’s shoes. A completely unreasonable action, even for safety purposes, because the other side of the cafe next to the entrance door was permanently wet and left unwiped.

The only explanation, I figured after a while, was that the entrance area was out of the field of vision of the cashier, hidden by the tables. It wasn’t a safety procedure, it was just that she just could not bear the sight of some drops of water on the spotless floor in front of the bar, even if it was almost pure H2O from the immaculate street outside.

I am impressed by this aspect of the Japanese culture, and I wonder how  the thousands of Japanese living in Shanghai cope with the hygiene situation there. I guess this explains why, being by far the largest foreign community in Shanghai, we see so little of them. They must all stick to their Gubei compounds and restaurants and avoid leaving the area unless it is strictly necessary.

The service in the restaurants here is excellent, and the food is prepared with so much care that you actually feel sorry to eat it. The Japanese like things well done, and they manage because, like most Chinese, they are very hard workers. But there is an essential difference in the motivations: Chinese exert themselves for a dream, to buy a car or a better house, or just to avoid being left behind by their fast ecoomy. Japanese already have all those things. Like Westerners, they have little left to dream that can be bought with money.  So it seems that they  work for the sake of work well done, out of a strong sense of duty and perfection.

When I came to Japan, I was prepared to find meticulous people who revere order. I thought it would be somehow similar to Germany, and although that kind of country is not exactly my idea of fun, it definitely fitted the bill for my week of retirement and study. But Japan is not even comparable to Germany. As far as I have seen it goes further in the field of obsession, to an extreme that for a newcomer -a Southern European one, at any rate- feels like borderline pathologic.

I don’t want to judge the character of the different peoples.  Each culture has its own ways, and all is well as long as we get along. I just wonder if the little world of efficiency and perfection that the Japanese have built around them is not but an exhausting illusion, and if, somewhere in the middle of all their productive activity, they find the time to think of what is important and just enjoy. The people I am meeting here-starting from the fourth one- are positive and friendly, and I have no reason to suspect they are not contented.

I have just been speaking with a PhD in electro microscopy who is in Nagasaki for a World congress in the field. He tells me that more than half of the participants are German and Japanese, because these two countries rule in electro microscopy applications. Somehow I am not surprised.

“It is a good thing we have Japanese and Germans,” I told him, “Otherwise we would be in trouble to wipe the dust between the atoms”

Motherland, I love You!

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

xin_412100601194387584036I was pleasantly surprised when I booked my last minute flight to Japan, I got a very reasonable price for the 1st October National Day. When I went to Pudong airport I understood why: the streets were empty in Shanghai, nobody flew at that time because they were all at home with the eyes glued to the TV set, watching as thousands of men and women, looking silly in their flowery dresses, marched on Beijing’s Chang An Avenue.

I had the chance to watch the parade for 30 minutes as I waited to board my plane. I have to say it was beautiful. Sure enough there were  cringeworthy moments, like when the TV showed the communist model peasants, workers and miners, shining like Mario Bros in 256 colours. But of course, a good deal of hypocrisy is always mandatory in these State events, in China and elsewhere. And regarding the execution, I have watched quite a few of the famous mass events in Pyongyang, and I am pretty sure North Koreans are white with envy watching this one, if their state channel even cared to broadcast it.

All this display of patriotism reminded me of the conversation I had last week with little Yi. It was after we watched an advert on TV, the one where the little girl stands on Tiananmen Square squeaking in that ghastly toddler tone: “妈妈我爱你!” (mum, I love you), and a similar girl says the same in Tibetan in front of the Potala temple of  Lhasa. The screen then goes white, and a message comes up: “祖国我爱你”.  Motherland, I love you. I don’t remember which was the company announced, but the advert has been showing continuously for months, and it was the eleventh time I watched it.

I had a delicate stomach that day, and pushed to the limits of resistance, I couldnt help bringing up the subject:

“This is ridiculous,” I said bluntly, “you can’t love a country like you love your mother!”

“Of course you can,” said little Yi, “you don’t understand the feelings of the Chinese!”

“Yeah, right.”

Babbling toddlers and feelings of the people. That was about as much as I could take before lunch. I regretted I’d spoken at all.

“Our country is like a mother for all the Chinese, ” she continued, “that is what they mean.”

“Yeah, OK, except that it is NOT the same. A mother gives you life, she will always love you and no matter what happens, no matter what mistakes you do or how stupid you behave, she will be there for you. A country, if you fail to comply, will just abandon you or even put you to death ”

“Well, it is a different kind of mother. If you fail, the punishment is terrible. If you work hard and succeed, the prize is much greater. It is a mighty mother with higher stakes, what is wrong with that?’

“Nothing wrong, just that that is not Love”

“It is,” she insisted. “Or don’t Christians teach love of God, and isn’t He much more terrible, that if you fail to behave even your life is not enough, and you get an eternity of pain?”

“I…,”

I shut up. She had some point there. I don’t particularly believe in the Christian god, and besides, 2000 years ago they invented a mother Mary precisely to deal with the rough edges of the Old Testament. But it is true that, in religion and in politics, many people in the West feel that same kind of loving feelings as the Chinese. So this was not really a discussion about China, but a more general one on patriotism.

My problem is that I do not accept the word love to refer to a country. For one reason, because I understand love as a feeling that can only happen between persons, perhaps sometimes with animals, but not with things. And definitely not with abstract and easy manipulable concepts like “nation”. But granted, this is merely a problem of language, and I don’t have the authority to prescribe how the word “love” should be used, even less how “爱” is employed in Chinese. Still, there is a more compelling argument against love for the motherland:  I think it is not in the best interest of the “loving” party.

Let’s look at the facts. Human society has to be organized some way, and the power needs to be held by someone. In the past it was the tribe, the emperor or the feudal lord. Now it is the nation-state, nothing particularly wrong with that.  All forms of organization require the respect and participation of the citizens to work, and it is in the interest of everyone to treat them accordingly, once their legitimacy has been established. Therefore, I understand it is important to respect and work for the improvement of one’s country, and I try to do it, just like I do for my company or for my university. But love them like a mother?

It might be that I am speaking from a very European perspective-though by no means mainstream even there. Perhaps I am failing to take into account the particular circumstances of countries like China. Europeans used to be the haughtiest and most virulent motherland lovers, until their excessive feelings brought about ruin and destruction. Patriotism in China never caused any catastrophe of even comparable magnitude, and instead worked well to save the people from foreign-imposed sufferings. So the feelings of many Chinese are understandable, if not necessarily beneficial today.

And still, the key question we have to ask ourselves is: are these feelings in the interest of the citizen, and in the interest of mankind as a whole? Can the World really be in peace if the relation between citizens and their countries is one of blind love, like child to mother? When there is a conflict of interests, is the loving child not forced to fight for his beloved to the last consequences? Since conflicts of interests and greedy rulers are facts of life that will not disappear, is not the love doctrine in contradiction with the ideal of World Peace that most of us profess?

I would like to hear opinions about this. Of course, I understand that for many sentimental people the feeling of love for their country is very much alive, and there is little to explain since it is just a feeling . But Chinese tend to be very rational and in control of their feelings, and when they choose to love it is rarely out of blind passion, but rather because they consider it a good option.  I suspect their patriotism is in most cases the result of a prisoner’s dilemma: if other countries act patriotic, the only rational attitude is to do the same.

But I wonder if people are actually following this logic (ultimately a defensive attitude) or are really so in love with their country and their flag that they don’t even think much about it. And if you do think about it, do you actually believe that a peaceful World is possible in the long term?

Perhaps I think too much sometimes. Perhaps the fact that I am writing from Nagasaki, where I have just seen one of the most chilling exhibitions of human-caused horrors, might have some impact on my thoughts today. And still, I stand by all I write here.

What are your views?

(PS. On the same subject, also see this post just published on Chinageeks)

Race and Sensitivity

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

The discussion about racism in China keeps coming back every once in a while, and each time it arouses the strongest passions. This is a post I’ve been wanting to do for some time, following the interesting comments we had in March, and as a conclusion to the Xinjiang series.

The story that sparked the debate this time is that of Lou Jing, a Chinese half black participant in a TV talent show who has been the object of racist remarks on the internet. I don’t think this is in itself significant, netizens of all countries are well known to post outrageous comments that they would never utter in real life. But quite apart from that, it is clear that there is a particular attitude to race in China that shocks many in the West, and this bears some reflection.

Because it is not just immature netizens, but also respected people with names and surnames who support jokes like this, or write comments like this. Of course, in many cases what we see is just a visceral reaction to accusations coming from the West. It is ironic and surely annoying  for many Chinese to think that, even in a field where China has always fared better than them, the arrogant, patronizing Westerners still feel justified to give them public lessons.

But after the first wave of heated comments has passed from both sides, it is worthwhile to look at things calmly, and see what is the reality behind these misunderstandings. And the reality is that it is all too common in China to hear such statements as “Uyghurs are dangerous” or “Africans are less intelligent”, or even, surprisingly enough, “whites are more capable than Asian”. All of them rather startling comments to a Western ear, but which Chinese never ascribe to racism.

In fact, most seem to follow the simple logic: “there is no problem in China because, unlike Westerners, Chinese are not racist”. This idea clearly comes from the fact that the large majority of Chinese have no experience with different races other than the studio material produced by the propaganda department, where nations are smiling children in colourful costumes. And behind it all is the “Union of the Peoples” inherited from the communist doctrine, which still stands on what might be described as the center of the country:

Mao said

Mao: “For the union of the peoples of the World, hurrah”

I am not implying that this communist ideal was not sincere. It was, and it probably still is for many people. The problem is that, while some decades ago this surely was in the vanguard of tolerance and respect, in the globalizing World of today it just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Because sure enough, the Chinese are right to say that it is not for Westerners to dictate acceptable racial attitudes. But neither is this a prerogative of the Han. Ultimately it is the peoples that feel discriminated, be it Africans or Uyghurs, who should  have a major say. For in any dispute, it is not the offending, but the offended party who decides (within some reasonable limits) what words or attitudes are insulting.

Ultimately, the development of new racial attitudes in China will have important consequences for the whole World, and in particular for its own national interests. The process is still in its initial steps, but already some key challenges are apparent: internally, as more minorities are questioning their treatment by the Han; and externally, as China tries to expand its influence in strategic regions like Africa and South America. All the soft power obtained in these areas will be worthless if the Chinese fail to show convincing respect to the peoples living there.

And again, is China racist?

So is there really a problem, and if so, what can be done to solve it? As some Chinese would have it: Is it wrong just because we say that Asians are better at math and black Americans better at basketball? In other words, is China racist?

From my own observation, China is in essence no more racist than most other countries. Which is to say, very much indeed. Because that is how most of the World is today, and how it has always been. If there is a notable difference between China and the West, it is just one of appearance: we are better at hiding our prejudice.

Indeed, in the West we censor ourselves to a point that it is hardly even acceptable to ask questions like the one in italics, which boils down to: “Do different races have on average different sets of skills?” The non-prudish answer to this is obviously yes, as can be learned from simple observation. Different races, just like different genders, tend to have slightly different characteristics, and this diversity has never been a problem for honest, open minded people, but rather the opposite.

The problem comes when obtuse individuals choose to focus partially on these differences, and then theorize them in a way as to satisfiy some low psychological needs. And at times such individuals have even convinced enough people to be able to rule their country, invariably leading it to ruin and to shame. From old Sparta to imperial Japan, history shows that short-sighted ideas of ethnic purity do not yield best results, groups based on those premises consistently falling behind the creative power of diverse societies.

So, knowing that in every country the obtuse are legion, what has the West done to prevent those outbreaks which oppose diversity and “brought untold sorrow to mankind”? Recognizing that human stupidity knows no bounds and cannot be eliminated, Western societies have instead learnt to sweep it under the carpet. And in an amazingly short period of time, in the second half of the XX century, they have developed a series of norms to regulate speech, enforcing them through the power of the socially acceptable. This non-written code, derisively known as PC, ensures that individuals can remain as prejudiced as ever, but will refrain from making it public, or else face social exclusion.

In the meantime, China’s insular society has never really felt up to now the need to develop these restraints, and so its racial prejudice is able to run free in conversation, shocking the sensitive ears of the occasional foreigner, and earning little goodwill from the peoples they are supposed to befriend.

Should China follow the West?

There is a natural resistance from the Chinese to adopt any kind of PC solution, mostly because they don’t feel the problems described apply to them: in the history of racist madness, they were mostly on the receiving end. And it is fair to say that, as a people, Chinese have always been one of the most tolerant, accepting different religions and cultures at a time when their counterparts in the West were already going berserk to eliminate the infidel. Why would such a civilized society need to apply the same rigid standards of restraint as the wild West?

It should not, in my opinion, and China is right to ignore upfront many of the Western over-reactions. In a healthy community there is nothing essentially wrong with calling a black “black” or a yellow “yellow”, like Chinese and other peoples do. The complex, guilt-ridden American style PC is best suited for the conditions of that particular country, and should not be forced onto the Chinese.

But this is not to say that the system should not be improved. From my observation of some of the affected communities in China, it looks like the present state of affairs is far from ideal. Chinese should work to modernize their rusty, communist era conceptions and little by little come up with a more realistic, more equal and less condescending racial attitude that will be key for the success of the coming challenges, internal and external. And the State alone cannot undertake this modernization. Like in the West, it is society at large, with its authors, and celebrities,  and other public role models that should join in the effort.

Chinese have a golden opportunity now to build their racial attitudes starting almost from scratch, from intelligence and generosity rather than from guilt, and to regain the image of tolerance and good sense in international relations that their country has deserved.

NPC and the internet Thunders: Browsing Tour

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

fireshot-capture-29-e4b8ade59bbde694bfe5ba9ce7bd91-www_gov_cn_zlftThere was some buzz last week on the Chinese internet about this supposedly new concept of  Online Democracy. The excitement started with the weird “elude the cat” story, and then continued when Premier Wen JiaBao chatted online with “internet friends” .  David Bandurski of the China Media Project, who has been watching these things for a long time, was rather sceptical, although  some interesting ideas appeared in his comments.

I go back to this because I am surprised there hasn’t been much said about the internet chats that for the first time have been organized with legislators participating in the NPC-CPCC Annual Sessions. Where has all this gone?  Not even the Chinese language internet seems to be very interested, judging by the search 网络民主.  It is obvious that without a strong push of the propaganda machinery the “internet friends” don’tpay much attention to these initiatives.

And why didn’t the State Media push it this time? Perhaps they are bored of it already, or perhaps  not everyone was very hot for the idea of “online democracy”. For example,  NPC chairman Wu Bangguo, one of the strong men in the politburo standing committee, who made these encouraging statements yesterday.

In the end, it is not so much about democracy (that’s too big a word for the NPC), but more about trying to give it some sort of role in participatory politics that would allow the legislators to take into account at least some requests of the public. The problem is, this year again, the NPC has given an image of being just a big annoying “Carnival”,  where the guest’s only role was to clap at the words of Mr. Wu.

Did I say the only role? No wait, the deputies  also have the duty of making proposals, and some of them must be pretty talented, judging by their phrases “amazing like thunder”.

ULN takes you for a browse

But follow me for a minute as I browse the Chinese internets, see what interesting things we can find on this subject. A good place to start is izaobao, with their daily roundup of bloggy stories: Click to continue »

Back to Shanghai (+SEO Google Goody)

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

What is the meaning of life and work? How can it possibly be so cold in the same latitude as the Sahara desert? Where did you put the camera’s battery charger? What do you mean “where did YOU put”?

These and many others are the fundamental questions you ask when back to Shanghai after a reinvigorating holiday in the South. It is tough to get back to real life. Anyway, I will get that camera running soon enough, and I hope I’ll be posting some of my fruitiest pics in the coming hours, so do stay tuned. Chinayouren is re-Shanghaied.

Hello all.

One of the most rewarding moments after 5 days of Web Withdrawal is when you sit down at the table and open your laptop with eager fingers. What is even more rewarding is to find that my readers are extremely loyal, so much so that stats actually register MORE views this week, while I was absent, than last week as I churned out 1 post/day. Now there, I am not sure how to take this. It makes me wonder. Feel a bit dispensable, what, if you see what I mean. More about this phenomenon below after my next digression.

Now, one thing I have discovered since I got immersed in the blogging world is the Value of Original Writing. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean “original” in the sense of artistic, but just in the sense of “not copy-pasted”.  In this sense I am clearly a Net Original Writing Creator, which explains why I find bits and pieces of my sentences scattered over the Spanish and English internets. I am thrilled. Am I doing literature? Like Moliere’s Jourdain, who spoke in prose ! Or Dylan’s more mundane version: “I am a poet, I don’t know it, hope I don’t blow it”.

Value. Yes, this probably explains why I meet so many people in Shanghai making a living as Copywriters (I am an Engineer, I only recently discovered what “copywriter” means. The first time I heard one guy say the word I though he was a “copyright-er”, as in a lawyer). And I draw my own conclusions from all this. It means that some company guys cannot come up with their own description of their product and need to get “Copy” done by a consultant. I am baffled.

OK, and now to the SEO finding of the day. I am leaving this for the end of the post to make sure readers go through my  chat. Here’s the jewel: I have found an INCREDIBLY EFFECTIVE way of getting your SEO results skyrocketing in days. Which also explains why I got so many hits in absentia: Almost 60% were Google searches.

You can see for yourself on my sitemeter page (link in sidebar). A large part of these searches are in German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese. Not coincidentally, these are the languages that my Google Translator accepts.

And here is the secret: last week I was playing with the translation tool to check its accuracy. I can confirm that, in terms of accuracy Google Translator is still short of perfect, but it is in SEOptimization that this baby is a real breakthrough. Indeed, by playing with it, by translating many of my own pages into other languages, I was inadvertently getting them stored in some mysterious cache and indexed by Google. Result: I doubled my Google hits in a week, with star strings: “La Charte 08″ and “El Presidente Obama”. Funny.

Tip of the day: Dear readers keep it to yourselves and don’t tell Google that I told you. Add translation tools to your blog and make sure you regularly translate posts into as many languages as you can. Soon you will have all the peoples of the world, down to the nuttiest Kazakh herder, rambling into your blog and boosting your stats.

In my experience this works miracles, I am just not sure how long Google will take before they notice the use of Google Translator for SEO purposes and penalize you. For my part I will stop playing with the translator, lest I kill the chicken of the golden eggs.

Unemployment and the Spark of the Revolution

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

You will excuse me for writing two serious posts in a row. It’s been ages we don’t do anything on the Crisis, and these days there’s been a series of articles on the subject that I couldn’t just let pass.

Two of them have to do with the growth projections for 2009. Yawn. We’ve been seeing new projections and discussions thereof almost every week, and after the holidays break it looks like here it is all over again. It is mostly fruitless, because there’s not enough new information between one projection and the next, and so most of the times the changes reflect the mood of the expert more than anything else.

It was however interesting to read this PD article Sunday where one CPC “renowned economist” worried that “China is likely to lose 3.9 million jobs in 2009″ if GDP growth slows to 8 percent. Well, he need not worry anymore, according to other top CPC officials quoted here the very next day, “China Risks Missing 8% Growth Target”, which will be “extremely arduous” to achieve. They are starting to change their tune, again.

And this brings us to a more interesting subject which, although it is as difficult to predict, at least it is more telling than the empty statistical artifice of GDP. I am speaking of Unemployment.

There has been two contradicting articles over the weekend, by Wang Tao from UBS and by Victor Shih. They hold different positions as to what will be the unemployment figures in 2009 and what will be their social impact. In any case, it is worth noting that both of them, with their 15 Million (Tao) and 35-50 Million (Victor) figures, are way above any calculation by the “renowned economist” of the People’s Daily, who gives 1 Million for every % of GDP lost.

Needless to say, I am with the relatively pessimistic predictions of Victor on this issue. Partly because I deeply distrust socio-economic projections issued by banks (you can hardly blame me on that). But mostly because the arguments that Victor puts forward are more solid than Tao’s. Based on his deeper knowledge of Chinese politics,  Victor goes on to analyze the possible consequences of his prediction in a worse-case scenario.

Noting that, even if the government has the capacity (as he calculated here) to subsidize the unemployed families for an extended period,

the current wave of layoffs affects a young and vibrant cohort most capable of carrying violent collective action against the state. Without any systematic triggers, we at least will see a spike in localized riots which necessitate the mobilization of People’s Armed Police (PAP) units all over China. The central government would also be compelled to (and they are doing so already) roll out generous unemployment benefits for migrant workers and college graduates (to the tune of 300-400 billion RMB). If a systematic trigger occurs and instability spreads to a sizable city, we will see the large scale mobilization of both PAP and army units and possibly substantial bloodshed. In most scenarios, the CCP regime would still survive a large scale, cross regional rebellion. However, “overall investor confidence” will be lost.

What is the “systematic trigger” which I refer to? I don’t know exactly what it would be. However, if we look back in history, it can be a wide range of events, including the death of a popular leader, a serious natural disaster, the spread of a deathly infectious disease, a small student demonstration turned violent, religious groups…

This idea of the “trigger” (I called it the “Spark” on my previous post) is right on. It is exactly the element that is missing and the one that will make all the difference: when we have social tension to get the people in action, and intellectuals to draft the road map, the mix is an unstable equilibrium waiting to get in contact with a spark. Of course, Victor doesn’t know what exactly this spark would be, and neither do I because its own nature makes it unpredictable. But I would add to his hypothesis one of my own:

The emergence of a massive wave of protest on the internet that extends to all the forums and BBS simultaneously, with new sites being created faster than the government can block the old, which could create a cascade effect that would force the government to commit its worst mistake: close down the internet altogether. This would add to the protesters millions of online game addicts released from their cybercafes, constituting a serious army of instability.

Check out today’s post by Imagethief on the subject, showing with 2 nice graphs that we have an unprecedented situation in China. Also,  yesterday Jeremiah of the Granite Studio did an interesting comparison of the present situation and the one in 1919 during the May 4th movement. In those times, there was a clear “trigger”: the humiliating treatment of China by the Western powers in the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, including the unforgivable transfer of territories to Japan.

One last note for the optimists: this weekend I learnt of a reputable economics professor living in Shanghai who recently bought 3 months advance of canned food to store in case the situation gets rapidly unmanageable. In a city like Shanghai, if the logistic networks are disrupted we can run out of food in a matter of days. I am still not quite there myself, but I must admit that, since I heard this, the idea hasn’t quite left my head and I tend to go more generous on every visit to Lawson’s.

UPDATE: Oops, I completely missed this one. All Roads has been doing the same comparison and drawing his own conclusions. You can see it here.

Crisis and Old Shanghai

Friday, November 21st, 2008

I was writing just yesterday my latest Crisis article when I realized that in Shanghai we have our own economic weak link, with quite a lot of companies that are suffering as much as the Pearl River Delta workshops. I am speaking of foreign startups in Shanghai.

One of the things that makes Shanghai such an interesting place to live is her magnetic properties that attract all sorts of enrepreneurial metal from around the world. One can read a lot about succesful startups in well informed China blogs dealing with business, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Unless you live here, you can not even start to imagine the thousands of starting business ventures swarming the city. Even in the most modest of social events you will meet a good handful of CEOs in their 20s, always rich with ideas, and typically trying to figure out how to monetize them.

Most of these adventuruos foreigners struggle for a long time before eventually giving up and moving to new horizons. Others manage to run a sustainable business. Very few ever become rich.

But an unusually large number of them are actually going bust right now as a consequence of the Crisis. In the last few months since the summer, already three acquaintances have said farewell to me and to Shanghai, with their dreams broken and their companies bankrupt.

Now, it is probable that for Chinese economy, these bankrupcies won’t have the same impact as the ones on the Pearl River, but they do provide some colourful and very typically Shanghainese tales:

For example. I think of my friend who went to work one Monday to find out that there was no computer, and no chair and table, and no company at all, because the struggling Dutch owner and founder of the startup had been busy over the weekend trying to get the best value off the remaining assets before he disappeared out of the country. Fortunately, this girl was only doing an internship in Shanghai and, as last survivor of the company, she had the difficult task of assessing her own performance and grading herself before taking 2 extra free months to travel in China.

Some recent developments of this new trend can be seen also in this article by CER, which warns us against company-sponsored trips and team builidng events. Does your boss sound suddenly generous in the midst of financial turmoil?  Does it seem a bit odd that you have been invited to this expensive Team Building week up on the pastures of Heilongjiang? Don’t go. Chances are when you are back to Shanghai there is no accounting department left to submit your expenses claims. Or to pay your 2 months due of salary for that matter.

And all this makes me wonder: are we coming back to the good old times of the concessions? The times when only in Shanghai there were dozens of different national jurisdictions where crooks and adventurers of all sorts found the folds where they could flourish; when thousands of foreigners flowed into Shanghai with the most diverse schemes to get rich, usually involving, as Carl Crow would put it: “mixing other peoples money with their own”. Perhaps we never really left that period.

And this leads me straight to the Big Question, which foreigners in Shanghai have been asking themselves for the last hundred years, and which is still a recurrent subject of conversation here: Is it possible to get rich in China?

This is definitely a subject I will be blogging about soon. In the meantime, I strongly recommend that you read this book: “Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom”, by Carl Crow. Among many other things, you will see how little has changed, and how expats in Old Sahnghai answered to exactly the same questions as we ask ourselves today.

One last quote from the book that might help shed some light on the Question above:

Every foreigner went to China with a consciousness of his own [...] mental superiority and a smug satisfaction in the belief that there were many things he could teach the chinese.

To be fair, there are more and more foreigners, especially of the younger generations, coming in today with a serious disposition to learn what the chinese have to teach before they add their own grain of sand. But there are still too many left with the Old China Hand attitude who feel the need to enlighen the locals with their wisdom.

So, here is the first big clue to answer the Big Question: in 2008, just like in 1908, the (few) foreigners who get rich have taken the time first to learn from the country. See the Standard Oil back in the time, or Tudou’s Marc van Der Chijs today.

PS. If you are even slightly interested in China - and if you are reading this blog you probably are - do yourself a favour and get this book immediately from the Shanghai Foreign Language Library or from here.

PPS. If you are my personal friend or relative - and if you are reading this blog you probably are - then just give me a call and come over to my place, I will lend you the book.

Highly Stressful Kaoshi (HSK)

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

I have decided I can’t really run a serious China blog without the corresponding “learn Chinese” section.

So here you go. This first post is about the HSK (汉语水平考试), which is giving me a lot of trouble these days. HSK is the official test for Chinese language organized by the Beijing Language University. Also known as the Chinese TOEFL, or the Chinese Proficiency language. It is a nightmare.

The second and last HSK examination of 2008 will be held on the 22nd November, which is this Sunday. And I have completed my registration and I am joining this time, and I am wondering how I ended up here. One day I told my teacher that I needed some challenge, and before I knew what was happening, it was all set up for me.

Yes, I have always been a bit of a masochist when it comes to languages, but HSK is beyond my wildest expectations. It hurts. It is the most stressful language exam I have ever done. You get less than 3 hours to read and answer more characters than any normal person would read in a week.

The listening part has to be my favourite. They play a CD with a guy babbling in Beijinghua, and immediately afterwards a lady comes up asking a tricky question about what he just said, and in the meantime you are supposed to choose an answer from four different options that have nothing to do with the subject in hand. You are still there wondering if you got the right CD track when there comes the man again with his next old chat. No repeats! you jot down your answer and move on to the next.

Among the hordes of professional Japanese and Korean examinees that will show up at Shifan University this Sunday,  I will probably be the only one there just for the sport of it. That must be the Olympic spirit I acquired earlier this year in Beijing.

GOALS: I am aiming at a 6th Level, which according to the official HSK should be enough to enter a non-language academic program in a Chinese university. According to me, the levels of HSK correspond quite closely to the age of a native speaker, so if I succeed in my goal I will be like a 6 year old toddler. Great! Then I will be able to update the age info on my profile.

That is probably what they meant when they said that China would make me grow.

UPDATE: I am still 5 y.o. I touched the 6 with my fingertips, but was short of 2 points in the grammar section (surprisingly the beijing gangsta-rap listening went fine, I think I got so obsessed with the listening that I overdone it and disregarded grammar). SHIT, I am going in again in April. If there’s anyone out there in Shanghai with similar level who wants to join me in the effort, please write me a note.