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Happy Christmas. Liu Xiao Bo got 11 years.

Friday, December 25th, 2009

Happy Christmas everyone. Sad Christmas for China, and for all of us who love that country and who believe in freedom, dignity and truth.

Exactly one year ago, on Christmas Day, I published this post about Liu’s Charter. I was critical with the initiative for many reasons: it contained contradictions, it was reactive rather than active, and it was not a Charter to unite all the Chinese. But most importantly, the way the document was drafted ensured that it had not a chance to fly.

The initiative was practically born dead, Charter was never a big subject in China even in early 09, it was the crisis and the stimulus that we watched at the time. The party had won the game from day one, so what point in bullying Liu now, one year later? Clearly, just to set an example to ensure that the rest of the signers will shut up, and to avoid new initiatives in the coming years. “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey”, the Chinese tradition says. And that is NOT justice, but a disgusting mafia trick.

Even if you don’t believe in democracy for China—even if you think (like I do) that the hypocritical governments of the West have no lessons to give here—even if the Charter was probably not the best way to attain the noble principles it professed. Even so, any decent person can see that a document like this should never be a reason for a man to be deprived of his freedom.

The party knows this, and it is again censoring and lying on the internet to hide its dirty deed from the people of China.

Now the story has been picked up by the CNN and it is making some noise. If we are lucky and it goes far enough, maybe even Obama will give us a memorable line. But it will not change anything, because all this is part of the deal with China. And the sentence is nothing more or less than what could be expected of the Chinese government today.

Liu knew this well, and he decided to go on in spite of it. That is because he is an idealist and a hero. He will be remembered.

More on this case here. Also, from my own blog: here, here and here.

These are the principles that 303 brave men published in China in 2008:

Freedom. Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.

Human rights. Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.

Equality. The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every person—regardless of social station, occupation, sex, economic condition, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or political belief—are the same as those of any other. Principles of equality before the law and equality of social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.

Republicanism. Republicanism, which holds that power should be balanced among different branches of government and competing interests should be served, resembles the traditional Chinese political ideal of “fairness in all under heaven.” It allows different interest groups and social assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures and beliefs, to exercise democratic self-government and to deliberate in order to reach peaceful resolution of public questions on a basis of equal access to government and free and fair competition.

Democracy. The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government. Democracy has these characteristics: (1) Political power begins with the people and the legitimacy of a regime derives from the people. (2) Political power is exercised through choices that the people make. (3) The holders of major official posts in government at all levels are determined through periodic competitive elections. (4) While honoring the will of the majority, the fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of minorities are protected. In short, democracy is a modern means for achieving government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Constitutional rule. Constitutional rule is rule through a legal system and legal regulations to implement principles that are spelled out in a constitution. It means protecting the freedom and the rights of citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power, and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.

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.


*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.

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.

Xinjiang conflict: Happy ending for the party

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Following last week’s posts about Xinjiang conflict, I see this AFP dispatch: China promotes Xinjiang armed police chief. Mr. Dai,  the man at the top of the armed police has been promoted. Which means that the first of the failures I noted in the last post (i.e. failed to protect the citizens on 5th July) has not been recognized as such. This is hardly surprising. Chinese leaders measure success by the yardstick of stability and harmony, and from this perspective Mr. Dai’s performance was remarkable. Suddenly faced by a conflict of unprecedented violence, with the World’s media right at his doorstep, he managed to stabilize the situation in record time. How much articles like this have contributed to his promotion, probably we’ll never know.

In the meantime, my Xinhua RSS is spitting the following headline: Zero refusal for foreign reporters. The State Council has announced this new policy that will ensure better treatment of foreign journalists requests, which will have from now on the right to be denied (as opposed to being ignored). Now, I don’t dream for a second that this is going to change the situation substantially – this blogger might take me to task if I did – but let’s say it is positive that at least somebody in the State Council understands the key issue: the consistently poor image that the Chinese government’s is giving to foreign media, and by extension to the whole World. In any case, this decision is directly connected with the succesful experience of media opening during the Xinjiang conflict.

TLR conclusion

Just have a quick look at what comes from Xinhua these days, with fairs in Urumqi and diplomats (even Turkish ones!) visiting Xinjiang for an oil rubbing session. Meanwhile, Rebiya finds no more countries to host her speeches and the slightest attempt of a comeback from the Western Media is rapidly thwarted by glorious internet friends.

The unmistakable scent of victory is in the air. The party is satisfied with how it all turned out, and prizes are handed to the heroes. Wang Lequan and Hu will probably benefit from this, and with them all the proponents of stability-uber-alles. Congratulations from my little blog.

However, there is  a downside. Singing victory so quickly  means that the problem is seen as a one-time event, an outside attack masterfully controlled by Wang and his men. But all seems to indicate that there are deep contradictions in Xinjiang and in China’s interethnic policy as a whole, and ignoring this reality can only spell trouble in the near future. To make matters worse, by imprisoning China’s best men, the leaders effectively blind themselves to the only reliable way of understanding the problem: independent field research.

Is this really a victory for the long term sustainable development of China? I am afraid not.

Crossing the GFW and one interesting Idea

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

This week I had some interesting conversations on other blogs, mostly regarding my state of internet blockdom and the possible actions that a webmaster can take to solve this problem. I will share here some conclusions that might be of interest.

Just to make sure we don’t forget anything, I will go first over the most obvious points:

1- If you are any kind of commercial undertaking, or if you depend on your site for a living, please pay attention to what you publish. Sites in English have quite some leeway to publish political content, but the bigger you get the tighter the line will be, and any kind of political activism can get you down.

2- The worst position is when you are big enough to attract the censors attention, but small enough to be insignificant in the general scheme of the internet. Say the BBC gets blocked: this makes a lot of noise, and eventually the Chinese government feels the pressure to reopen it. Inversely, if you stay small enough, you will never be blocked regardless of what you write. When you are in the middle, like these sites, the risk is biggest.

3- Finally, if you are already blocked, you can try your luck at 9 Dongdajie, Qianmen, Beijing, as a commentator suggested (this is the address of the Beijing Public Security Bureau) or any official body of your choice. I have no experience with this, and I am very skeptical about the results, but it is not impossible that the legal system works once in a while. We have seen stranger things in China.

Getting through the block

Once you have gone through the points above and decided that none applies to you, here are the typical solutions for users to get through the Wall. There are many of them, so I will just list the most well known, such as: lists of free web proxies, ad-supported or fee-based VPNs, networks like Tor or activist software like Freegаte*.

I will not go over each of these because you can find lots of information on the internet already, but I have tried a few of them and they all more or less do the trick: you can open in China sites that have been blocked by the GFW. These solutions are well known to the Chinese netizens users, as you can see in this Chinese blog which has even more options, such as giving a SSH number and code to your users.

So, you might think, what’s the big deal with the Great FWall? It is full of wholes big enough for a whole horde of Mongols, like it’s always been.

You are right, and yet, the GFW is a powerful system. For anyone who had a website blocked, it is very easy to see the impact on the stats of incoming hits from China. Depending on your size and content, it can be down to a 25%, and if you remain blocked for some time, chances are most readers will not find their way back to you. My guess: a combination of laziness, hi-tech aversion, and the excess of info flowing on the net means that a missing site is quickly forgotten, and few go through the trouble of opening a proxy for you. Click to continue »

Chinese Pirates and Shanghai Stories

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Last night I went to the evening organized by Earnshaw to launch their two latest books: “I sailed with Chinese Pirates” and “Shanghai Story Walks”. I have been a fan of Earnshaw Books since they published the first of their series of reprints, Carl Crow’s “Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom“, my favourite China read of ’08. Since then they have continued to publish new originals and reprints faster than I could read them, so I jumped on this opportunity to try to catch up.

The event was announced - and recommended - on the Shanghaiist calendar, so I thought I’d get there a bit earlier to catch a seat before the masses arrived. Actually, apart from the collection of smiling ladies with cups of tea that populate all these literary events, the attendance was pretty moderate. It came as a shock to me, but I suppose not everyone is interested in fascinating expat stories that happened 100 years ago.

Too bad for them. The evening went really smooth, with a bit of blues by the big man Earnshaw, great atmosphere and free drinks just for showing up. But what I enjoyed most were the two presentation speeches. If you have been to literary festivals you know how boring these things can get: people who can write are not necessarily good speakers, more often than not they are timid individuals who find themselves forced to deliver hour-long speeches, and they take ample revenge by boring the public to the marrow.

This time it was different. The presentations were brief, well prepared and yet spontaneous, and with their repertoire of pirates and big-eared gangsters they managed to catch our ear. Suffice to say that I ended up buying both, in spite of my firm resolution to not bring any more new books to my home on the verge of collapse. But let’s have a look at the babies:

The author of this book, Yvette Ho Madany, is originally from Shanghai, and she draws from her family connections and from her own research to guide us in a series of story-walks around the city. She told us the tragic life of Mrs. Dong and the spicy beginnings of the JinJiang hotel. A must-read and must-walk.

Expat intelligentsia hero Paul French spoke for the original author Mr.Lilius, who was unable to attend, presumably due to his demise in 1977. Mr. French gave us a well-rounded speech with some good pirate jokes and enough teasers to make me run to the stalls and get the product. Then, like usual, he scolded us for being XX century citizens and paying attention to the GDP instead of to Pirate Queens, and if you ask me he was damn right on that one, arr!

The reading List

Now, I know what you are thinking and you are right: I am brazenly posting a Book Review post when I haven’t read a page of the books in question. I sold my soul for a free glass of Chinese red wine and some good vibes, I admit it. But frankly speaking, the efforts of Earnshaw to bring us of those old gems, first on his website and then on fine quality paper editions, deserve already all my praise. And let’s not forget that I owe them the discovery of the inimitable Carl Crow.

As for these 2 new books, I will read them and I will walk them, and I promise I will get back to this post and update it with my frightful reviews.

On a side note: These last 3 months I have dedicated an absurd proportion of my free time to reading in Chinese. I have just finished my third novel, and I am very proud of that, but in the meantime normal reading has been on hold, and the List has got completely out of control. I am afraid I will not catch up with myself before the Summer holidays. More about my experiments on Chinese reading in coming chapters.

China Underground: the Review

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

china-undergroundI first read about  “China Underground” last Friday, during my daily browse of the China blogs. I had never heard the name of Zachary Mexico before, but the review on  China Beat made me feel curious, so after work I stopped by the Garden bookshop and got my copy. Only 24 hours later I had been to a speech by the author, queued at the Shanghai literary festival to get his autograph, and finished reading his complete works. I guess this qualifies me as his fastest fan.

Over the weekend I spoke with a few friends about the book and I could  feel some resistance. Some China hands clearly disapproved of the cover’s pop approach to a grave subject like the Middle Kingdom - a friend of mine from New York even warned me against what looked like “an East Village poser”.  All this probably explains why the few  who had actually read the book were so excited about it:  they weren’t expecting it to be readable in the first place.

Not having any kind of prejudice against pop illustrated covers, I found the price tag fair and the promise of a fresh perspective on China exciting enough to give it a try.  Here’s the results. Click to continue »

Chinese Politics and the NPC

Friday, March 13th, 2009


NATIONAL PEOPLE’S CONGRESS - Let’s admit it. We’ve been watching closely the NPC, we read all the material available and we have written about it. And yet, this year again, we have no clue what the NPC is for. According to their own website, the NPC has legislative functions, so we tend to compare it to a Western parliament.  Some Chinese have compared it to a Carnival instead, and Party top leader Wu Bangguo has stated very clearly:

“The people’s congress exercises state power in a unified way”, that is  “different from the Western model, which separates the powers of the 3 departments.”

His speech asserted that “China will never copy the Western political systems”,  going to great lengths to explain the advantages of the “socialist system”. No separation of powers, that is the key. He could have saved the effort and drafted a shorter speech: “We will continue to monopolize the power because we think it is the best for our country (and for us)”. Which feels very much like a direct response to Wen Jiabao’s political reform statements 5 days earlier during the same Congress.

I will leave the high level tea leave reading to the professionals, but I count already two hardline statements from top level politburo members in less than a month, while Wen JiaBao’s constant democratic initiatives get little echo. I am of the opinion that Wen is untouchable this year, while economic and political hazards require the full support of the Chinese people to the party. But as soon as the danger is past, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him unexpectedly retire.

The mysterious life of the Characters

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Over the weekend I read this post on zompist that creates a new writing system for English called  “Yingzi”: how would English look if it was written with characters. h/t FOARP

It is an enjoyable read and it is useful to explain to those back home that don’t study Chinese how characters work. In Europe, when you say you are studying Chinese, people always ask the same questions:  is it true that each character is a word, is it true that they are all “pictures”? And these questions are very difficult to answer accurately, as even expert linguists don’t seem to agree on whether characters should be considered words, or even on what is the proper definition of “word”.

The article is also great in that it draws conclusions that go beyond the purely linguistic, and might help understand to non Chinese-speakers the particular importance of the script in shaping the history and culture of China.

The complexities of the writing system, the inherent interest of the pictorial elements, the cleverness inherent in graphic compounds like woods and the radical-phonetic system, and even sociological facts such as the time it takes to learn the system, and the fact that English speakers of all nations can use it whatever their native dialect, would also combine to give the writing system an overwhelming character of its own. It would be seen as more important than speech; there would even be a tendency to think of words as derived from characters rather than the other way around.

And it is true that in China the writing system has an importance that trancends even today into all areas of life, from art forms to humour, marketing and, through the inherent ambiguity of  the characters’  “independent existence”, to the political speech. Expressions used by Chinese leaders can have hundreds of political analysts around the World scratching their heads and engaging in endless debate  about their real meaning, like was recently the case with Hu Jintao’s 不折腾 (buzheteng).

This only happens in China, a country with a population of 1.3 billion people and 20,000 odd characters living together in the same territory.

Click to continue »

Update: The first Lies about President Obama

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

I don’t usually do direct accusations on this site, because I know better than searching conflict, and I understand nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes.

But this one I cannot let pass, it is too low and too gratuitous. It is sad: why does it have to be  China who tells the first Lies about President Obama, only 20 minutes into his presidency. This is how they respect one admirable man, and 1 Billion of their own listeners.  (h/t shanghaiist).

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Yes, he said that. And yes, they are on the wrong side.

Comments welcome.

Obama’s speech seen from China

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

The guests just left, what a night! The tense atmosphere of a final match in my Shanghai apartment; high expectations and a sense of History. Friends, all of different nationalities, sharing my wine and watching the first speech of President Obama. The silence during the 18 minutes was complete.

Is it only me, or the first half was more intense than the second? The former was full of the brave ideals we wanted to hear; the latter, more martial and patriotic, containing the obvious honesty, courage and loyalty, together with the reference to race.

It is 3am in China. I will leave it to American experts to analyze more deeply, I just want to highlight this passage which stands out from the rest:

We reject as false the choice between our safety and our Ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the Rule of Law and the Rights of Man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.


Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

“Rule of Law and Rights of Man”. Yes. And how to achieve them in the World? By the “justness of our cause, the force of our example”. That is exactly what we wished to hear. It has become true in the speech, and I sincerely hope it will become true in real life.

Many things can change in the World if our most powerful country -our 老大, or “eldest”, as many Chinese humbly refer to America- conducts itself according to these principles, abiding by those same laws that it proposed and signed, and creating new ones as its Ideals may require.

For, though the oath forgets to mention it, the responsibility of the highest political power on Earth is towards the whole of Humanity. And only a great man can be up to that position.

It looks like for the first time in many, many years, we have found our Man.

Crisis and Opportunity in the President’s speech

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

I can’t wait to see the speech tonight. I have spent the whole midday lunch hour (and a bit more) tinkering with the NYT and others speech analysis sites. I have learnt more about the speeches of previous American presidents that I ever knew before. And in particular I have learnt one surprising detail.

Those who have been following this blog from the beginning might remember that initial article I wrote about the Crisis and the Great Wall of China, which was published/linked by a few of the big guys and helped put my English blog in orbit. Well, that post contained the old gag of Crisis and Opportunity -both words sharing one character in Chinese- which was at the core of its reasoning.

The detail I found with some embarrassment today is that this is a widely used rhetorical device in American politics, probably first included by JFK in a few of his speeches. Of course I never pretended I’d invented it myself,  I guess I just heard it somewhere, but I had no clue it was so well known. Following my internet search for the origin of the expression, I ended up in a very popular blog which is an authority in Language use, the Language Log. There I read that my wordplay was just is “a misperception”:  危机 (weiji) doesn’t really originate from “Dangerous opportunity”. Etymologically, that is.

I don’t mind some experts contesting the origin of the expression. Actually I hold my own opinion that, even if the strict etymology of the word is not “dangerous opportunity”, it is obvious to all Chinese that the character 机 of Crisis is part of the very common word 机会 (opportunity). Knowing how Chinese love playing with their language, it is certain that millions of times this parallel Crisis-Opportunity must have been drawn in China. A more interesting question is to know if this expression actually describes the Chinese character, which I hope is properly settled in that old post of mine.

But what I do find a bit embarrassing is to realize that half the World was already aware of my little Chinese wordplay that I thought so clever. To the point that even Homer Simpson knew:

Lisa:  Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use
       the same word for "crisis" as they do for "opportunity"?
Homer: Yes! Cris-atunity.
From chapter "fear of flying", 1994

And now, back to the Inaugural speech. I have to be off in a minute to our own inaugural party in Shanghai, but let me briefly comment that there is a slight chance that the Crisis-Opportunity gag will make it into the speech. After all, the time is exactly right, the Crisis is there, China as well, and many are speculating that Obama might echo Kennedy’s famous speeches.

Although, to tell you the truth, I very much doubt it. Obama is a better speaker than that, and beyond those old formulas. I am sure he is going to coin something big instead, one of those phrases that tomorrow people will be muttering in the office, and which for generations to come will be copied by lesser speechwriters (and bloggers) in search of inspiration…

Let’s see what happens.