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June 5, 2009

Chinese on China: Dragons or Insects?

“Chinese people…” the man from under-developed Henan province lead his sentence, emphasizing the words, looking into the distance, and pausing for dramatic emphasis in the way that Chinese men have that means, I’m about to explain how this world really works. I’ve encountered this exact sentence lead across social lines in China, from Lexus-driving factory owners to drunken college students in bars to the man from sitting next to me here on the train from Henan, the impoverished province with an image problem.

In these situations, I’m used to listening politely, nodding my head, and avoiding disagreement while men like this tell me how I don’t understand China, don’t understand (Chinese) women, or don’t understand why America’s in Iraq. The opinions are provocative from time to time, but they’re rarely unique enough to make special effort to remember them, so I was surprised when I found myself mulling on the words coming out of this man’s mouth.

“Chinese people,” he says, pausing for effect, “are some of the smartest people in the world. Just like the Jews—those Jews are smart, aren’t they?” he asks, looking in my direction for the obligatory nod of agreement to a statement that’s so overwhelmingly general that I’m really not willing to go into it. So I nod, not out of agreement, but out of a desire to get the conversation moving.

“Look at Chinese around the world. Very successful,” he says, summing up the state of the Chinese diaspora without even needing a verb. “But look at things here. Still a mess,” he continues, proving his utter freedom from verbs.

“We have a saying: Yi ge Zhongguoren—yi tiao long. Yi qun Zhongguoren—yi tiao chong.” A single Chinese person is a dragon; a group of Chinese people is an insect.

His words are spoken with definitiveness, even though they are far from his own. This same idea was argued back in the 80’s by social critic Bo Yang, whose once-banned book got me in hot water all across Asia with locals from the very diaspora it describes.

As the train barreled toward Beijing, the power of his words struck me. His words were powerful not in their precision, but in their representation of a tough question the Chinese culture has had to face.

Think of the question from the perspective of the man sitting next to me on the train. Waves upon waves of his countrymen leave the country and become successful in business and academia from nearby Malaysia to the shores of the United States. Their success in business alone has caused anti-Chinese riots and destruction of Chinese stores in multi-ethnic Malaysia and Indonesia, while across the ocean in Costa Rica convenience stores are known popularly as Chinitas, or “little China’s.”

At the same time, he sees the world developing and racing past the poverty of his dusty, overpopulated province. To make sense of the contradiction—emigrant success and local poverty—he’s accepted the idea that Chinese people by themselves are smart and hard-working—in other words, they’re “dragons.” Yet when Chinese people are put into a group, things start to go wrong and the mighty long becomes a mere chong, an insect. To understand this man’s words is to understand how many Chinese people view themselves.

From the Chinese people who worry over this question, opinions differ on exactly what characteristics are at fault. Popular opinion is with Bo Yang, who says the problem is a lack of social cohesion and willingness to work together. The irony of this view is that, in Western eyes, it’s China’s over-cohesion and collectivism that has led to disasters like the Cultural Revolution. Here the doctor’s prognosis depends entirely on the label on his passport.

Others have argued that restrictive social norms, like a lack of open communication can cause irrational behavior. Malcom Gladwell gives a heart-wrenching example in his book Outliers where Korean modesty between pilot and co-pilot ended up slamming a jet liner in the side of a mountain in Guam.

Yet for most men like the one sitting next to me on the train, how Chinese culture creates big, group messes is not terribly important. What’s important is the self-perception of the mighty Chinese dragon.

As our train continued onward, my conversation with the man petered out. Exhaustion from my travels set in, but the man’s words stayed with me well after the train stopped, I walked out of the station, and I nodded a silent goodbye to him as he took his ill sister for treatment in Beijing that was unavailable in his home province. With a bit more reflection on the man’s words and the Chinese consciousness, I thought, I’ll be able to start my own sentences with his same long pauses and staccato emphasis, “The thing about Chinese people…”

June 7, 2009

The Mystery of Chinese Medicine and Moonwalking

My brother Alan arrived sweating back to our small hotel room in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, with a report from his run in a nearby park: “There were more people jogging than walking backwards!”

He added after a brief pause, “That’s if you count the female cadets that were doing drills.” He held his hand as a maitre di would hold a serving platter, with the palm facing down, as though emphasizing the qualification for the sake of accuracy.

Jogging may be slowly spreading in the middle kingdom, but the phenomenon of walking backwards is already firmly established. I had seen it in Beijing and thousands of kilometers south, in Guangzhou, where—at the time—I happened to be sitting next to my friend Confucius.

“Why is that guy walking backwards?” I asked, pointing to the old man shuffling in his slippers around the pond decorating South China Normal University.

“That can cure chronic diseases. That’s a traditional belief,” Confucius informed me.

Chinese medicine can work in mysterious ways, focusing on the flow of qi and the balances of internal and external heat, but perhaps most mysterious is how walking backwards would cure chronic diseases.

Perhaps it’s this counter-intuitiveness that’s made walking backwards shrink to being only as popular as jogging in this small park in Hohhot—but only if you count the female cadets running drills.

June 12, 2009

How a Chinese Character Shows a Nation at Change

Conservative-since-Confucius China is changing, and this single character is proof: 冏. (Those with Chinese-character-blind computers click here)

In ancient Chinese, jiong meant ‘light’ and ‘bright,’ depicting a window with light shining through. Yet like many characters, jiong fell out of use until Chinese netizens rediscovered the character, grafted on a new meaning, and made it easily the hottest word in China. Instead of meaning ‘bright,’ it’s seen now as a grimacing face, complete with pain-slanted eyes and a mouth pried open with desperation. Think of it as Chinese-character-netspeak for ‘OMG!’

After climbing from the brink of disuse, the character now pops up everywhere hip, from chat rooms and online ads, like this ad that riffs on the character for its matchmaking service,


to the names of the hippest stores in the capital city, like this shaokao restaurant in Beijing.


But it wasn’t always this way. Mao’s simplified characters aside, Chinese characters have changed so little that I could easily read 600-year-old Ming Dynasty carvings made by army delegations venturing through Ningxia’s Helan Mountain Range.

Change has often been criticized here in the Middle Kingdom. Even recently, those who played with Chinese characters have been been attacked for it. Most famously, artist Xu Bing brought on a storm of criticism in 1990 for “not respecting Chinese characters” when he created new Chinese characters for his Tianwen art exhibition in Madison, Wisconsin.

Yet only two decades later, the popularity of jiong is evidence that the openness to play with language—without being seen as betraying the integrity of Chinese characters—is on the rise.

Xu Bing’s fortunes, not so coincidentally, have changed too. Once the center of controversy, Xu Bing is now vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, one of the best-regarded art schools in China. 冏!

June 14, 2009

One Reason why 1.6 Billion People are so Skinny

The arrival of Maidanglao (AKA ‘McDonald’s’) and KFC; rising disposable income; proliferation of sedentary office jobs; and families getting to work and school in private cars. There are plenty of reasons why more and more obese children are popping up in the street’s of China’s wealthy urban centers and why China is seeing its first problems with obesity as a public health problem.

Yet signs of things to come be damned, China’s populous could still whip my hometown in a fill-the-VW-Beetle contest, and there are many reasons why that’s still the case. I discovered one reason frying in the sun on the cement of the Longmen Buddhist Carvings Park in Henan, China’s most populated province.


China’s agrarian past—and present—might help explain why I found the evidence laying on the ground, rather than in a garbage can, but China’s agrarian culture has also endowed this vast country with snack habits much healthier than the Pringles and Pop Tarts I grew up with. Simply try to imagine anyone in the US, outside of the Greenpeace office staff, chewing on a cucumber for a snack while they take a walk in the park.

Yet like littering, I suspect the cucumber-cum-snack tradition is on the way out. The fact that I’ve never seen local Beijingers chowing down on cucumbers and the fact that I’ve never seen the neighborhood 7-11 stock cucumbers-to-go are probably signs of things to come.

June 16, 2009

Found in Translation (Part I)

A lot can be lost when translating between English and Chinese, but in this series I look at Chinese and English translations and find out how much is gained in translation. —————-

An American doing business in Hong Kong and China since the 1970’s started a bi-lingual blog under the pseudonym ‘Sibuxiang’ (四不像). In explaining his choice of nom de plume, he explains that ‘sibuxiang’ carries the meaning of ‘neither fish nor fowl,’ describing the author’s not-quite-American, not-quite-Chinese third-culture identity.

His posts are rare peeks into Maoist China, but they’re also intriguing in their side-by-side bilingualism, which are pinned-down examples of differences in language and culture.

In one post, Sibuxiang describes going to a store in Changsha where he asked for cigarettes in Chinese while the shopkeeper stared at him dumbfoundedly, eventually uttering, “Sorry, I don’t speak foreign language.”

Sibuxiang persisted, explaining, “I know. It’s not a problem. I am not speaking in a foreign language now. I am speaking to you in Chinese.”

The story is interesting—perhaps even more so because the same thing still happens 30 years later—but it’s also revealing in how he makes his request to the shopkeeper.

The English reads:

I said again “Comrade, may I have one pack each of these cigarettes please?” and mentioned the Chinese brand names of the ones I wanted, while pointing them out to him, one by one.

The Chinese right by the side reads:


Directly translated back into English, the request reads:

“Comrade, these cigarettes, bring a pack of each.”

‘Please’ and ‘may I,’ absent from the Chinese, had somehow found their way into the English version. Both versions sound natural in the original, but the result is different right down to the grammar: the English is a question and the Chinese is a command.

The reason is the difference in politeness norms toward servicepersons in the US and China. In China, walking into a store and getting right down to business by directing the serviceperson for what you want is perfectly acceptable. This directness might seem strange in a culture where getting people to state preferences and tell you what they want can be like pulling teeth. Yet paradoxes like these are explained neatly by the fact that behavior in China depends heavily on whether or not you know the person you’re talking to. There’s a set of politeness norms for friends, family, and coworkers, and there’s a vastly different set of norms for strangers.

When I’m in China and I’m translating from my English thoughts to speak Chinese, I wind up phrasing requests in the form of a question, as Sibuxiang wrote: “May I have…?” “Can I get…?” Two years into China and I’m still finding this habit hard to break, even though when I literally ask waitresses for certain dishes, I often see them pause for a second, trying to make sense of my strange request.

I’m still trying to break the habit of asking for dishes, but sometimes I can be resistant to change. At the very least, I’ve decided to keep thanking waitresses when they bring food to the table and shopkeepers when they sell me bottled water, despite being told numerous times by my Chinese friends that this is weird.

The standard way to say ‘you’re welcome’ in China is to say literally, ‘Don’t be so polite,’ or ‘no [need to say] thanks.’ Like most niceties, they’re spoken without making people think of the literal meaning. Yet after encountering this strange laowai, shopkeepers change their tone to one of surprise as if to say, “Really, you don’t need to thank me when you’re buying something from me.”

“That’s OK,” I respond in Chinese. “In a way, I’m speaking a foreign language.”

June 18, 2009

流氓网:Creep Net

In looking over the hilarious Cantonstinople blog from Guangzhou torch-bearer Gus, I found a guide to everything an aspiring liumang needs to know about this city of millions.

The article reads like a Michelin Guide for stalkers-in-training, providing battle plans based on stereotypes about the beauty and suitableness of women in various parts of Guangzhou, as well as hints about where best to lure their fancy.

One extract reads:


Smart, vigorous, lively, and witty are the university girls. You will come across such young ladies in their blossoming years, when loitering in the University Town in southern Guangzhou, where more than 10 universities are located. The best places for romantic encounters are dining halls, libraries and the dormitory blocks.


In the words of Gus, “Whoever thought of the line ‘romantic encounters’ is either writing for an audience of rapists or people who live inside romantic comedies.” That’s a thought that sums up neatly the simultaneous creepiness and pitifully un-self-aware hilariousness of this article. ‘Loitering’ is another tragic word choice, which can only lead one to think of adorning it with an appropriate adverb: menacingly.

Even more admirably, the entry on restaurants encourages predation on migrant workers or, more seductively, “migrant ladies,” while starting with an unassailable premise:

Women like eating. Restaurants with a nice ambience and delicacies attract fair ladies, especially the places specializing in Sichuan, Chongqing, Hunan or North China cuisine. These provinces and regions boast pretty females in China. Many of these migrant ladies live in Guangzhou and like dining out at the restaurants that cater their hometown flavors.

Your eyes can feast on the brilliant appearance of these dining women and even waitresses as well as the appetizing food at the restaurants like Mao Jia Wan (Hunan cuisine) …

The article is complement with low-res pictures of women—captured seemingly without their approval—hanging out in Guangzhou’s C-Union club and enticing language: “shining and lovely girls in dynamic and fancy vogue are all around you.”


“Enjoy it and good luck!” the article concludes. It’s my guess that anyone basing their romantic hopes on an icky article like this are going to need more than luck—perhaps a Get Out of Jail Free Card for starters.

June 22, 2009

Gender Roles in the Middle Kingdom

China’s never been known as a center of brawny masculinity. This could explain a sight I’ve seen in China from north to south, east to west, seen here in Changchun’s Puppet Forbidden City:


It’s a Chinese virtue to pamper your girlfriend—to be thoughtful and take care of her needs—just as girlfriends are expected to thoughtful toward their boyfriends. Thus, step out onto nearly any busy street in China (check that, no need to qualify streets in China as “busy” and “not busy”), and you’re likely to see a boyfriend with his girlfriend’s purse slung over his arm—a sight you’re hard pressed to find in the States.

As a long-term resident in Chinese society, I find myself picking up habits from the environment around me whether I like to or not, like a home-schooled kid’s orientation week at Oberlin. Yet no matter how much I soak up, I’ve decided I’ll draw the line at walking around with a purse. Like my continued desire for breakfast cereal, some American habits never die.

June 25, 2009

Found in Translation (Part II)

A lot can be lost when translating between English and Chinese, but in this series I look at Chinese and English translations and find out how much is gained in translation. —-

There’s a transparent glass sign standing in the fake Forbidden City built for the old Japanese-controlled puppet state in Changchun. The English-Chinese-Japanese glass sign stands next to the swimming pool that the Japanese invaders built for China’s last emperor. With a tone of non-judgment rare for official signs in tourist attractions, the sign reminds visitors how the emperor was not actually allowed to swim in the pool, out of respect for the custom that an emperor should not reveal his bare body.


When I look at the sign, I think of my cell phone. My Chinese cell phone loves to tell me what I should do. When I type in the character for WILL my phone suggests SLEEP. When I type in WANT my phone suggests TO CRY JUST CRY. Having a Chinese cell phone is a bit like having a pocket-sized Chinese parent.

Sometimes the suggestions of my Chinese parent help me type faster; sometimes they make me laugh; but at times they also give me hints into Chinese culture. My cell phone is to me, with its Chinese character-typing software and its ceaseless recommendations for what I should type next, a pin-down-able source of insight into Chinese culture.

Perhaps most subtle is the suggestion my phone brings when I type in le. Le (了) is a past-tense particle sometimes similar to the English -ed suffix, as in earnED, cornerED, and fillED.

Because Chinese puts all of the other when, how, and where modifiers before the verb, this le character usually comes at the end of sentences. Thus, when I type in le, my phone suggests first a comma.

Similarly, when I press the 1 key once, the Chinese software gives me a comma. It yields periods only when I hit the key again. You probably want a comma, my pocket-sized Chinese parent seems to be saying to me.

Yet the English program gives me a period first and comma second. What’s going on here?

The glass sign back at the fake Forbidden City is evidence my phone’s still doing its job. To convey nearly identical information, the Chinese uses 5 commas and 2 periods. The English cuts the explanation into twice as many sentences, using 4 periods and 2 commas.

For English speakers, reading Chinese sentences can be an exercise in short-term memory, since rules for parsing sentences are much more lenient in Chinese. Chinese speakers, on the other hand, need to be careful to avoid taxing run-on sentences when writing in English.

This advice I find easy to swallow, and I’m not adverse to my phone suggesting that I get more sleep, but the advice to cry to my heart’s content—it’ll take more than a few glass signs to convince me.

June 29, 2009

China: Matriarchal Society?

While reading my Ancient Chinese textbook’s chapter on historical China’s confusing name system (including hao, shi, xing, and ming), when I stumbled upon the book’s explanation of why the character for “surname” has a woman on the left side: 姓.


Many ancient surnames, like 姜,姬,姚,嬴,娰, have the female radical [女] , hinting that our ancestors formerly had a matriarchal society.

Surnames are important signs of the family line, so the fact the woman radical is attached to so many surnames could be a hint that China used to be a matriarchal society, just like certain tribes in Yunnan, in southwest China. However, that’s a large conclusion to make from just a few characters. I’ll leave the question to historians.