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A Blue Spring is coming to Shanghai

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Finally, after a long week of intense NPC-CPPCC coverage, the first signs of the spring are starting to bloom in the press of Shanghai. The Oriental Morning Post opens with a picture of the large billboards promoting the EXPO on New York’s Times square, while its archrival, the more conservative Shanghai Morning Post, shows the two Big Bosses of the city speaking to a congress of Haibaos.

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The Shanghai Morning Post has the most interesting headlines, both coming from the press conference given yesterday by the Shanghai delegation in the NPC. Both statements are of interest: Click to continue »

Sex and Conservatives in China

Friday, March 5th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Red Conservatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A soup of political terms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think of this terminology?

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

Caonima! The Double Meeting is here again!

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Oriental Morning post

The Oriental Morning Post of Shanghai is doing a nice coverage of the annual NPC-CPPCC meetings. I liked today’s paper edition, which carries a couple of cute alpacas right next to a picture of Hu and the boys walking down the aisle from the CPPCC they’ve just inaugurated.

It is a long story for those that haven’t been watching, but these lovely animals on the top left have come to mean a rude invective in Chinese, and one wonders if there is not a young malicious editor in the paper doing the front page layout. Because I mean, the news that “Alpacas cost  5,000 EUR in the animal fair” is hardly top front page material today, is it?

Anyway, this time of the year has come again and here is the Double Rubber Stamps Fair, or 两会, invading all the Chinese media. Yesterday I even watched the inauguration on CCTV, heroically exercising my listening skills with what is arguably the most boring political event of the year. In case you missed it, imagine a massive Madame Tussauds with thousands of figures where every one of them looks exactly the same as the next and sits in the same position. Add to this a brief performance of the national hymn and there you go,  开幕了!

Even if it is widely recognized that the 两会 has little political power, and that important decisions are taken beforehand by other organs, the show is still important for China watchers, as many policies are announced at this time. In theory this is an act in which the People (through the regional representatives that attend the meetings) propose new ideas to the Government. In this spirit, other channels have been opened recently, like the internet chats of Wen Jiabao.

This year we even have what looks like an independent initiative by private newspapers and websites to change the hukou system. Although I am skeptical that the proposal will fly (some of the articles have already been censored) it is good to see that private initiative is alive and that there is still some bit left of independent journalism in China bold enough to unite and propose policy changes.

The Oriental Post also carries a little interview with one of the most thundering delegates of the 两会, Ms. Zhang Xiaomei. This delegate was very popular on the internet last year as an ultraprolific drafter of astounding proposals. Some netizens worry that this year, as all the delegates have been equipped with free laptops (with taxpayer money!) Zhang’s performance will be enhanced, and the number of thunders may even exceed that of the previous years.

Here are some of the famous proposals of Ms. Zhang, many of them look like what left wing, feminist groups would propose in Europe. It is understandable that many netizens are skeptical: it is all a show giving a fake impression of political freedom that is in fact inexistent. But my personal opinion is that, whatever the real intentions of Ms. Zhang and the thunder delegates, it is always positive that there are people with the initiative to propose different views. Absurd or not, this activity is certainly a more positive image than the submissive wax figures of the inaugural sessions.

As Xu Zhiyong stated yesterday, the Chinese people have a mission to accomplish. When the time comes, the existence of an active civil society will be precious for China, and initiatives like mentioned above are a good sign that the spirit is alive under the surface.

And that is all for the inauguration of the 两会 this year. More coverage if necessary after the final conclusive session.

CLARIFICATION: The inauguration I watched yesterday was only that of the CPPCC, the NPC has a separate inauguration on Friday which will be even more grandiose, as it is the largest one with all the regional delegations.  Don’t not miss that one!

Extra! Avatar is NOT about China

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Snail House: A Tale of Modern China

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Content

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quality

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

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

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

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

Censorship

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

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

Instead, the images below were censored:

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

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

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

Other Details and Questions

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

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

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

Chinese the most Difficult… (and 3)

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Political considerations

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Euro-Obama in China

Monday, November 16th, 2009

barack_obama_the_french_sun_king So Obama is in China, and even if he is not my president he is still my favourite president. Here is my first-hand analysis of the visit.

The most important news, surprisingly gone unnoticed by all observers, is that Obama wants to become Euro-bama in Chinese. That is how I read the new spelling of his name in characters, as proposed by the website of the white house :

欧巴马 (oubama) will replace 奥巴马, where 欧 is the Chinese character for Europe, making the name sound in Chinese like Euro-Bama.

Some might say that the new spelling is chosen for greater phonetic similarity, or because it is standard in Taiwan, but when have politicians listened to the linguists? There is a clear political motivation in the naming of Euro-Obama, and I see a bright future in the project.

I think I speak for a large number of Europeans when I say we are very happy to see this plan finally in execution. Mr. Obama, please sweep away all our bunch of incompetent presidents and prime ministers, and become King of the European Union. Then, perhaps, in the next meeting with China you can represent our united interests, instead of having each European tribe sending its little pathetic chief for the CCP to cleverly divide and manipulate a la Sun Tzu.

One of the things I like of being European is that you can be thoroughly unpatriotic against the UE, and nobody cares. Dear commentators of the Washington Post, please do not worry anymore. America is not in decline yet, and it will not be for a long time. Among other reasons because it is needed by European countries that are too incompetent to unite in international politics. And indeed, when the Chinese people see Obama, they see a leader of the West as much as they see a leader of America. Because seen from here, the concepts of West, Europe, America, or Euramerica (欧美)have never been all that distinct.

After this important geostrategic consideration, you can continue to read what else is to read about the visit. Essentially nothing, because no real news have emerged yet, and most journalists and bloggers alike do their best to fill in their columns with China generalities. Apart from the links above, interesting questions are:

  • Will Obama comment on the Human Rights Watch report about black jails and other human rights issues? Of course this will not happen, no more than Hu will elaborate on the new theories of the Liberation of Tibet. But it is interesting for the sake of debating.
  • Perhaps more likely is that he mentions the environment, as this blog suggests. I am pretty sure the two leaders will mention it, actually, a different thing is how much of a commitment will come from the meeting. From the voiceless rest of the World we will be watching to see if the 2 giants finally decide to make a move and quit sending their fumes to our back yard.
  • Finally, a lot of articles out there speak of Obama-mania and make a big deal of the Obamao icon, which has been circulating in China since before the election. My view is that young modern Chinese tend to like Obama, and he is marginally more popular than Bush was. But there is no such thing as the Obamania we saw in Europe, and most people here adopt a cold stance of “wait and see”. The minute 欧 mentions some delicate issue or  meets some old lama, it will take no more than a minute of well phrased CCTV news to wipe the Obamania into thin air.

So already, quit the Obamaos and give me some Eurobamas, we are growing tired of politics over at the other side of this continent.

Stab in my back: TV Serials and Communist Ethics

Friday, November 13th, 2009

I have realized lately that, due to a certain unbalance in my training methods, my Chinese reading skills might be running ahead of my speech, and I have been forced to take severe corrective measures. At the risk of turning this into an SM blog, I am going to speak today of the terrible penance I imposed on myself to make up for that error. Brace yourself: I watched a whole 22+ hours communist TV serial on CCTV, all in a single week and pausing to understand every word and chengyu.

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It is the latest super production of the “Red Army against Capitalists” kind, called 冷箭, or “Stab in the back”. The first chapter was launched the day of the 60th Anniversary, on CCTV 1 prime time, proving that it was born to be big. Even if it didn’t live up to expectations (it was switched later to CCTV 8 nights), I am guessing that more people have watched this than the “Foundation of the Republic” film that so excited Western minds. Admittedly, there is little buzz on the internet about 冷箭, but that is just because the target audience is a different (and much larger) group than the internet community. My own investigations with taxi drivers indicate that it had a very strong following, at least in the first weeks.

For all those who complained about political propaganda in the “Foundation of the Republic” (or in Independence Day, for that matter), those are just amateur efforts next to this “Stab in the Back”. Because the Stab is not concerned with distorting facts, but with edifying and providing a complete moral system for the people. And like most of these widely watched Chinese TV serials, it still follows loyally in the spirit of the first moralizing plays organized by the 1930s partisans in Shaanxi.

A Little Critique

Regarding artistic merit, I will just briefly say that, although this looks like one of the highest budget “Red Army” serials to date, an improvement in quality does not follow. The main problem is the visible incompetence of its producers and actors almost without exception. Knowing that Chinese are very well capable of doing good films when they are given some freedom, I can only suppose this is the result of dead imaginations bureaucratically selected and nurtured by CCTV mummy-cadres.

In this case the main story is about — surprise- a Long March towards the West, where the Captain discovers that there is a Capitalist enemy spy infiltrated in the team. In fact not only one, but two, and three, and more are found in every chapter, until by the end of the serial the largest part of the brigade are actually undercover agents. This gives the poor captain played by borderline Huang Zhizhong countless occasions to run his fits of histrionic paranoia, apparently a main selling point. One can’t help wondering why all those spies don’t just get together to kill their clownish captain, rename their brigade with the KMT star, and get on with their counter-revolutionary business.

I don’t know if you have experienced this before when watching a film, but it is one of those instances when deplorable script and performance manage to kill the suspension of disbelief right from the first sequence. Then, suddenly, you find yourself watching a bunch of adult people walking around in funny clothes and uttering pointless nonsense. The result is embarrassing.

I have never been much of a TV watcher, but I do understand that TV films are substandard anywhere in the World, and nonsensical plots or braindead dialogs are by no means exclusive of China. Even the fixation with the deeds of the Red Army marching West is not necessarily more ridiculous than, say, the fixation with illiterate cow herders during the golden age of Westerns. But there is something in these Chinese serials that makes them unique beyond the obvious propaganda and quality issues, and that is the complete set of values that they embody for the edification of the masses.

Edifying the Masses: A Communist Catechism

This is the first time, (and most surely the last) that I watch a complete Chinese propaganda serial, but I believe that the effort is not wasted. Because only getting inside these long works one can appreciate that deeper level that flows underneath, the construction of  a public moral system that is very much akin to Religious Instruction.

Here are a few of the points I noted while watching the Stab, for the benefit of those who want to understand these works without throwing 22+ hours of their life down the drain:

  • Love: The scenes of love are tacky to nauseate an armored brigade, with perhaps the best example in this scene in minute 40 chapter 4, when the captain “falls in love”. In general, love among the communists is virtuous and innocent, and always secondary to the interests of the organization. There is not the slightest romantic indulgence, no concessions to passion other than for the party. When the communist lover is told that her beloved is a Capitalist spy, she abandons him on the spot, and volunteers to kill him if necessary.
  • Sex: Of course, this puritanism does not stop the young lieutenant from having proper sex (under the sheets) starting chapter 25, in a clear effort by the authors to attract more audience. “乱搞男女关系!” (disorderly do man-woman relations!!) chastely exclaims the captain when he gets the news through a disgustingly virtuous informer. But worry not, the ethical purity is safeguarded. These two sinners have betrayed the higher cause, and they receive their deserved punishment without further delay: death at the hands of some brigands.
  • Violence: We have  seen enough of the likes of Eastwood in Alcatraz to have some expectations about the frightful fate of new prison inmates (especially if they are male!). I don’t know to what extent this violence is consistent with reality, but what I am pretty sure is that prison wardens do not tell off the inmates screaming “don’t be naughty”, and major disputes in the common cells are not settled through pillow fights. This is exactly how things are done in 冷箭, making the whole experience for the high level KMT prisoners like a children’s Summer Camp. This is one of the most puzzling parts of the communist ethics, and the most difficult to grasp in a movement that was imposed largely through violent revolution. It seems to come from a belief in molding mentalities through peaceful labour, but, as we will see below, it has little to do with the Christian notion of “turning your other cheek”.
  • Class virtue: Virtue is presented as a characteristic of the proletarian class, and salvation must necessarily follow. Like the ancient Christians looking for consolation in the Bible before they were thrown to the lions, so the Chinese Laobaixing today seem to find solace in these serials, while they wait for the next corrupt CCP cadre to come and tear their homes to serve a rich developer. The notion of a Final Judgment that accompanies this kind of teaching is represented through the iconic verses of the Internationale, sung at several points in the serial, with the main theme conspicuously inspired in the melody of the first verse.
  • Forgiveness and Revenge: There is an appalling scene of revenge (ch 31 38:00) when the main spies are apprehended, that completely shocked me after 20 hours of mellow bloodless harmony. The righteous blows of the officers are completely devoid of mercy, enjoying the raw pleasure of revenge. In my observation of the Chinese, this represents very well the paradox of their ethical system: Chinese are by nature far more tolerant than any Western people, but –perhaps as a necessary consequence – once a certain level of crime is attained, this sets off a mechanism of ruthless punishment where the object ceases to be seen as human. This is perhaps the most important difference with Christian influenced ethics, where our less tolerant natures were softened by the love doctrines of the New Testament. The whole discussion of death penalty in China vs. Europe is an interesting modern development of this difference in outlooks.

Some Conclusions

There are many ideas here worth commenting further, perhaps one of the most interesting would be to see how this communist system of ethics is working (or failing) to keep the always delicate balance between 道德 (virtue) and Deng Xiaoping’s 致富 (getting rich).

Clearly, Chinese are not the only ones to introduce ethics into their TV serials. Popular Western serials have long been educating us with teachings as varied as respect for minorities, tolerance of homosexuality, patriotism or democracy. But crucially, while the Western system of moral instruction has evolved with the times and deals with problems facing today’s society, the Chinese system has remained stuck in the 1930s, with the characteristic rigidity of Religious ethics. As a consequence, there is a growing, insurmountable gap in China between the ideas preached and the real needs of the ordinary citizens. This may be having the catastrophic effect of eliminating all ethics from mainland Chinese life.

When we speak of problems like perceived racism, corruption, lack of respect for the public goods or environment, how much of these are related to a lack of a realistic, up-to-date moral support, or to the hijacking of ethics to serve the single interests of the CCP power elite?

I would like to say more about this, but unfortunately this post has got out of control already, and I know nobody reads past the first 1000 words. Write your ideas below about any particular point and if we get some interesting discussion going on we can try to expand the subject in a new post.

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.