Tag: history

100 Chinese History Keywords


Apr 2018

100 Chinese History Keywords

I’m not a history buff. I recognize it’s important to study history, and that no educated person should be ignorant of history. So while I do read about Chinese history, I don’t do it a lot. But every time I do pick up a Chinese history book, one of the things that drives me crazy about books on this topic is that so often there are no Chinese characters given for important names. (Or characters are given, but no pinyin.) Is this so hard?

China Simplified has a new book out called History Flashback. It’s a fun read, beautifully illustrated, and it’s actually pretty short! How does one condense “5000 years” of Chinese history into only 200 pages? Well, it’s possible. And although the book does a pretty good job of providing characters and pinyin for the Chinese names and other words mentioned, it seemed like a good starting point for a list of “essential Chinese history terms.”

So using this book as a starting point, my company AllSet Learning teamed up with China Simplified to create this handy list of 100 Chinese History Keywords. It’s a free PDF; no signup needed. Just download.

Download Free PDF

It was hard narrowing the original candidate list of 500 or so to only 100, but I think we did OK. What do you think? Are there any glaring omissions that an intermediate learner would really want?

Apr. 26 Update: We had a repeat word in the original list. It’s been removed, and we’re still at 100!


Jun 2016

Wham! vs. Queen in China

OK, for some reason I was reading Wham!’s Wikipedia page a while back (yeah, I know), and I found this hilarious section:

In March 1985, Wham! took a break from recording to embark on a lengthy world tour, including a ground-breaking 10-day visit to China, the first by a Western pop group. The China excursion was a publicity scheme devised by Simon Napier-Bell (one of their two managers—Jazz Summers being the other). It culminated in a concert at the Workers’ Gymnasium in Beijing in front of 15,000 people. Wham!’s visit to China attracted huge media attention across the world. Napier-Bell later admitted that he used cunning tactics to sabotage the efforts of rock group Queen to be the first to play in China: he made two brochures for the Chinese authorities – one featuring Wham! fans as pleasant middle-class youngsters, and one portraying Queen singer Freddie Mercury in typically flamboyant poses. The Chinese opted for Wham!

It would be cool to see those two brochures, if they still exist. (They’re probably in hilariously bad Chinese, if in Chinese at all.)

Wham! on the Great Wall

So how did the concert go? The Guardian gives an amusing account:

According to Simon Napier-Bell, the band’s manager, Michael tried to get the spectators to clap along to Club Tropicana, but “they hadn’t a clue – they thought he wanted applause and politely gave it”.

He said some of the more adventurous Chinese did eventually “get the hang of clapping on the beat, even learnt to scream when George or Andrew waved their butts”.

The diplomat reported that “there was some lively dancing but this was almost entirely confined to younger western members of the audience. Some Chinese did make the effort, but they were discouraged in this by the police.

Sounds like a blast. The tickets cost 5 yuan. Wham! did not enjoy it.


Feb 2014

The Year of the Horse Chengyu

This is my second “Year of the Horse” Chinese New Year in China, and there’s one thing I’ve noticed: a certain chengyu (Chinese idiom, typically 4 characters long) gets thrown around like crazy in Chinese New Year’s greetings.

That chengyu is 马到成功.


There are a few interesting things about this chengyu, and some points worth exploring.

Is it worth knowing?

Like many learners, you may not want to junk up your brain space with too many useless chengyu. So is this one worth it? Well, it sure gets liberally tossed around at the beginning of the Year of the Horse, that’s for sure.

But aside from that, it’s not a terribly uncommon chengyu. I’ve learned it without trying just by living through one Year of the Horse CNY, and you probably can too, if you live in China or if you’re tuned into Chinese media for the holiday. Tons of repetition of this chengyu.

What does it mean, really?

The nice thing about 马到成功 is that its components are so easy:

: horse (easy!)
: to arrive (easy!)
成功: to succeed (not bad, intermediate-level vocab)

It’s all high-frequency vocabulary, so that’s great. What does it really mean, though? “Horse arrives, success!” Something is missing. Is there some mystical luck-horse that runs around providing success to all it encounters? Not exactly.

If you look up 马到成功 in a dictionary, you get something like this:

> win instant success

Or, more literally:

> win success immediately upon arrival

OK, so if you take 马到 to mean “instant,” than isn’t it just the same as 马上, “immediately?”

But it’s not. At Chinese New Year, the chengyu is used in New Year’s wishes to others. If you were wishing people “马上成功” it sounds like they’ve already started something, and you want them to succeed immediately (like really soon!). Wishing them 马到成功 is wishing a speedy success to whatever endeavor someone undertakes. That makes a lot more sense.

OK, but does that explain why it’s 马到? Not really. Fortunately Baidu has the answer (in Chinese, of course). The chengyu actually refers to ancient warfare, in which cavalry played an important role. If your cavalry could get there on time right as the battle began, you’d frequently be assured a swift victory. (There’s a more complicated story behind the chengyu which Baidu relates, but it’s related to cavalry.)


This isn’t to say that Chinese people have images of cavalry slaughtering their enemies as they wish their friends 马到成功. In fact, most Chinese people probably aren’t aware of the origin of the saying. If you Baidu image search it, you see a whole bunch of images of horses frolicking around, not an enemy soldier in sight.

Using it

Even though the 马到成功 literally means “swift success,” you can also use it by itself to wish someone success in the New Year. You don’t need to add 祝你 in the front for “I wish you” (even though it’s not wrong to say that).

A common greeting that won’t stretch any intermediate learner’s abilities is:

> 新年快乐,马到成功! (Happy New Year, and swift successes!)

And with that, I wish everybody a 马到成功 in their Chinese studies!


Dec 2013

Chinese Pwns Shakespeare?

I discovered this little gem of translation magic in my WeChat feed the other day under the title 中文远比英文美 (“Chinese is far more beautiful than English”). The poem quoted below is widely attributed to Shakespeare online, so the attribution is reasonable. (More on that later.)

Qu Yuan Pwns Shakespeare?

I’ve tried to maintain a 4-line structure to make comparisons easier, but in a few cases it was inappropriate to break the Chinese poem structures, so I left them as is, since the 4-part structure is obvious anyway.

Original English Poem

> You say that you love rain, but you open your umbrella when it rains.
You say that you love the sun, but you find a shadow spot when the sun shines.
You say that you love the wind, but you close your windows when wind blows.
This is why I am afraid–you say that you love me too.
― William Shakespeare

普通版 (“Normal” Version)

This is the “normal” version, a straight translation of the English above into modern Chinese. (This is also the second most accessible version if you want to try reading the Chinese.)

> 你说你爱雨,但当细雨飘洒时你却撑开了伞;

文艺版 (“Artsy” Version)

文艺 literally means “literature and arts,” but these days it’s often closely associated with the phrase 文艺青年, a young person who pursues artistic beauty (especially of the literary nature), but may often come across pretentious to normal people.

You’ll immediately notice how difficult the following translation is compared to the first one; it’s chock-full of hard words.

> 你说烟雨微芒,兰亭远望;后来轻揽婆娑,深遮霓裳。

诗经版 (“Book of Songs” Version)

This one is written in the style of the 诗经, the “Classic of Poetry,” AKA “The Book of Songs.”

You’ll notice a dramatic reduction in length, plus a classical style.

> 子言慕雨,启伞避之。

离骚版 (“Departing in Sorrow” Version)

离骚, also known as “Departing in Sorrow,” is a famous Chinese poem from the Warring States period, written by 屈原, the poet commemorated by China’s “Dragon Boat Festival.”

> 君乐雨兮启伞枝,君乐昼兮林蔽日,


七言绝句 is a Tang Dynasty poem structure using seven characters in 4 “sentences.”

> 恋雨却怕绣衣湿,喜日偏向树下倚。

吴语版 (Wu Version)

吴语 is a “topolect” of Chinese; it’s the family that Shanghainese belongs to.

Shanghainese friends tell me that this version is a little forced and not very poetic (it doesn’t do Shanghainese justice). Seems like it just got tacked on later after a 文艺青年 did the other versions.

> 弄刚欢喜落雨,落雨了么搞布洋塞;

女汉子版 (“Strong Woman” Version)

女汉子 is difficult to translate, but 汉子 normally refers to a man. So 女汉子 refers to a “manly” woman, or more appropriately a “strong woman,” the type that takes no crap from nobody. “你有本事” (literally, “[if] you have the ability”) lends an air of direct challenge to the whole thing, kind of a “what are you gonna do about it?” feel.

This one, like the 吴语 version above, also seems tacked on, since the phrase 女汉子 is trendy these days.

> 你有本事爱雨天,你有本事别打伞啊!


七律压轴 is an 8-line poem format, 7-characters per line. (I don’t know much about this, and my Googling didn’t turn up any definitive results, so if anyone wants to help out in the comments, feel free!)

> 江南三月雨微茫,

The Original Original Poem (in Turkish)

OK, so here’s the thing… That “original” English poem was not by Shakespeare, and it’s actually a translation into English from Turkish. There’s a reason it doesn’t see too “Shakespearean” (especially in word choice). Below is the original word choice:

> Yağmuru seviyorum diyorsun, yağmur yağınca şemsiyeni açıyorsun…
Güneşi seviyorum diyorsun, güneş açınca gölgeye kaçıyorsun…
Rüzgarı seviyorum diyorsun, rüzgar çıkınca pencereni kapatıyorsun…
İşte,bunun için korkuyorum; Beni de sevdiğini söylüyorsun…

Source: http://www.turkishclass.com/poem_136


This little experiment certainly doesn’t prove any superiority or “pwnage,” and the English translation was clearly chosen because it matches existing Chinese poem forms, but… Chinese is still pretty awesome.


Oct 2012

Pascal’s Triangle and Chinese

This is one of those blog posts where I take two seemingly very different topics and connect them to China or Chinese. This time it’s about Pascal’s Triangle, one of my favorite mathematical concepts. In case you’re unfamiliar with Pascal’s Triangle, here are some images from Wikimedia Commons that nicely illustrate the principle:

Pascal's Triangle calculations

Pascal's Triangle rows 0-16

Here’s the China connection (via Wikipedia):

> The set of numbers that form Pascal’s triangle were known before Pascal. However, Pascal developed many uses of it and was the first one to organize all the information together in his treatise, Traité du triangle arithmétique (1653). The numbers originally arose from Hindu studies of combinatorics and binomial numbers and the Greeks’ study of figurate numbers.

> […]

> In 13th century, Yang Hui [杨辉] (1238–1298) presented the arithmetic triangle that is the same as Pascal’s triangle. Pascal’s triangle is called Yang Hui’s triangle in China. The “Yang Hui’s triangle” was known in China in the early 11th century by the Chinese mathematician Jia Xian [贾宪] (1010–1070).

Yang Hui’s diagram contains some interesting-looking numbers. Check it out:

Yanghui triangle

Compare that to Pascal’s triangle above. What’s up with these Chinese numbers? You can follow the upper-right to lower-left diagonal (one row in) to follow the numbers 1-8. You get this:

1. 一
2. 二
3. 三
4. 亖
5. [no Unicode symbol for this one; it’s just 亖 + 一 (vertical)] 6. ᅡ
7. ᅣ
8. [no Unicode symbol for this one; it’s just ᅵ + 三 (horizontal)]

You can gather that 10 is 으 [a symbol I borrowed from Korean Hangul for the purposes of this post], which also looks like “10” turned sideways. 20, though, is 〇二 [except with the 〇 sitting on top of the 二], and so on.

I’ve written before on Chinese number character variants, but these are different from those. The numbers look similar to Suzhou numerals and Shang oracle numerals, but are still a bit different from both. I’m curious if anyone out there know more about these numbers? The diagram supposedly dates to 1303 (more info on Wikimedia Commons).

There’s another personal connection between me and Pascal’s Triangle. As part of my research for AllSet Learning, I make use of basic set theory and higher-level Venn diagrams. Considering that in a Venn diagram, by definition, all possible logical relations between sets must be represented, it can get quite tricky to draw these things when you delve into Venn diagrams with higher numbers of sets (more than 3). But how do you know how many overlapping regions there are in the Venn diagrams as the numbers of sets increase? Pascal’s triangle.

(BTW, some of the research we’re doing now at AllSet Learning could make use of interns with a foundation in statistics, mathematics, or computer science. If that’s you, get in touch! More on AllSet Learning’s interns here.)


Aug 2011

The Four Great Ugly Women of China

Recently ChinesePod was preparing to do a podcast on some of the “Four Greats” (四大) of China [more info in Chinese]. If you’re not familiar with any of these, you might want to listen to the podcast (it’s free). Otherwise, a quick sum-up of some of the most famous ones will suffice:

The funny thing is that in addition to the “Four Great Beauties” (of ancient China), there are also “Four Great Ugly Women” (who don’t seem to have their own Wikipedia page):

  • 四大丑女 (the Four Great Ugly Women)
    1. 嫫母 (Mo Mu)
    2. 钟离春 (Zhong Lichun)
    3. 孟光 (Meng Guang)
    4. 阮氏 (Ruan Shi)

I talked to a ChinesePod co-worker about these famous ugly women. The conversation went something like this:

> Me: So these women were so ugly that they went down in the history books just for that? Isn’t that kind of mean?

> Her: Well, they weren’t just ugly. They also had great talent.

> Me: Well, why not just call them “the four great women of talent” then?

> Her: Well, they were also ugly.

Point taken. Cultural lesson learned!


Mar 2011

Edmund Backhouse: Decadence Mandchoue

I first started hearing about Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944) years ago from Brendan O’Kane and Dave Lancashire. A “self-made sinologist,” he was apparently fluent in Chinese and quite well connected, but was also later exposed as a magnificent fraud. A prolific diarist, he also dwelled quite a bit on the sexy details of the Qing Dynasty.

Anyway, it may at times be difficult to separate the fact from the fiction in Edmund Backhouse’s story, but it’s quite a story. So I’m really looking forward to reading a new book called Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, which makes a lot of Backhouse’s memoirs available for the first time. From the Amazon page:

> Published now for the first time, the controversial memoir of Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse, Decadence Mandchoue, provides a unique and shocking glimpse into the hidden world of China’s imperial palace with its rampant corruption, grand conspiracies and uninhibited sexuality. Backhouse was made notorious by Hugh Trevor-Roper’s 1976 bestseller Hermit of Peking, which accused Backhouse of fraudulence and forgery. This work, written shortly before the author’s death in 1943, was dismissed by Trevor-Roper as nothing more than a pornographic noveletteA” and lay for decades forgotten and unpublished in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Yet even the most incredible tales deserve at least a second opinion. This edition, created using a combination of the three original manuscripts held by the Bodleian, has been comprehensively annotated, fully translated and features an introduction by editor Derek Sandhaus, urging a reappraisal of Backhouse’s legacy. Alternately shocking and lyrical, Decadence Mandchoue is the masterwork of a linguistic genius; a tremendous literary achievement and a sensational account of the inner workings of the Manchu dynasty in the years before its collapse in 1911. If true, Backhouse’s chronicle completely reshapes contemporary historians’ understanding of the era, and provides an account of the Empress Dowager and her inner circle that can only be described as intimate.

Full disclosure: I’m friends with Derek Sandhaus, editor/author of the book. But that doesn’t make this book any less awesome.


Jul 2010

Churchill and Hitler: Evil Supervillains?

Yesterday in the bookstore I noticed these two books, titled 丘吉尔 (Churchill) and 希特勒 (Hitler):

Churchill and Hitler

Now am I crazy, or do these two historical figures both look really evil, perhaps Churchill even more so than Hitler??

Apparently this was just a bad choice of photo (and color) in the cover design, though; if you click through to either Churchill’s or Hitler’s Amazon.cn pages, you see lots of other books in the series. Only Mussolini looks as evil as these two.

According to the introduction on Amazon, the book about Churchill is not an explanation of how he was actually Britain’s greatest supervillain. That’s a relief.


Jun 2010

Quotes from Tales of Old Peking

It’s been a while since I got my copy of Tales of Old Peking. I’ve taken my time going through it. It’s a patient a book, its contents largely magazine-style, most articles only indirectly related to each other. A book like this doesn’t demand your attention or keep you frantically turning those pages until the end. But it’s still a fascinating collection of accounts of old Beijing, through the eyes of foreigners. Below are a few of the quotes I enjoyed the most:

On the City

Page 92:

> I visited Peking about thirty years ago. On my return I found it unchanged, except that it was thirty times dirtier, the smells thirty times more insufferable, and the roads thirty times worse for the wear. —Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, The Breakup of China, 1899

Page 14:

> … But in spite of so much that disgusts and offends one in this wreck of an imperial city, who can deny the charm of Peking, that unique and most fascinating city of the East! –Lady Susan Townley in My Chinese Note Book, 1904

Page 135:

> …if you have once lived in Peking, if you have ever stayed here long enough to fall under the charm and interest of this splendid barbaric capital, if you have once seen the temples and glorious monuments of Chili, all other parts of China seem dull and second rate… when you have seen the best there is, everything else is anticlimax. –Ellen N. LaMotte, Peking Dust, 1919

I may be a member of the Shanghai faction, but I’m not totally immune to the charms of Beijing either.

On Foreigners in China

Page 26:

> As I am here and watch, I do not wonder that the Chinese hate the foreigner. The foreigner is frequently severe and exacting in this Empire which is not his own. He often treats the Chinese as though they were dogs and had no rights whatever – no wonder that they growl and sometimes bite. —Sarah Pike Conger, Feb. 1, 1899

Page 72:

> He has been in Peking nearly four months now, in a comfortable Chinese house studying Chinese history, smoking opium in spite of the prohibition, and frequenting only the Chinese with whom he appears thoroughly at home. He is really very original. –D. de Martel & L. de Hover, Silhouettes of Peking, 1926

The more things change, the more they stay the same?


Mar 2010

The Singularity and the Chinese History of Chess

While reading up on one of my favorite topics, the technological singularity, I recently came across this interesting passage in an article by renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil entitled The Law of Accelerating Returns:

> To appreciate the nature and significance of the coming “singularity,” it is important to ponder the nature of exponential growth. Toward this end, I am fond of telling the tale of the inventor of chess and his patron, the emperor of China. In response to the emperor’s offer of a reward for his new beloved game, the inventor asked for a single grain of rice on the first square, two on the second square, four on the third, and so on. The Emperor quickly granted this seemingly benign and humble request. One version of the story has the emperor going bankrupt as the 63 doublings ultimately totaled 18 million trillion grains of rice. At ten grains of rice per square inch, this requires rice fields covering twice the surface area of the Earth, oceans included. Another version of the story has the inventor losing his head.

exponential growth

> It should be pointed out that as the emperor and the inventor went through the first half of the chess board, things were fairly uneventful. The inventor was given spoonfuls of rice, then bowls of rice, then barrels. By the end of the first half of the chess board, the inventor had accumulated one large field’s worth (4 billion grains), and the emperor did start to take notice. It was as they progressed through the second half of the chessboard that the situation quickly deteriorated. Incidentally, with regard to the doublings of computation, that’s about where we stand now–there have been slightly more than 32 doublings of performance since the first programmable computers were invented during World War II.

> This is the nature of exponential growth. Although technology grows in the exponential domain, we humans live in a linear world. So technological trends are not noticed as small levels of technological power are doubled. Then seemingly out of nowhere, a technology explodes into view. For example, when the Internet went from 20,000 to 80,000 nodes over a two year period during the 1980s, this progress remained hidden from the general public. A decade later, when it went from 20 million to 80 million nodes in the same amount of time, the impact was rather conspicuous.

the singularity

I’d never heard the claim that the Chinese invented chess; I’ve always heard that the game was invented by the Indians or Persians and then later iterated by the Chinese. Kurzweil’s story also seems a bit suspect to me because of its reference to “squares,” which does not match the forms of Chinese chess I’m familiar with, but then again I’m no expert on any kind of chess. Wikipedia has this information on the history of chess in China:


> Joseph Needham posits that “image-chess,” a recreational game associated with divination, was developed in China and transmitted to India, where it evolved into the form of modern military chess. Needham notes that dice were transmitted to China from India, and were used in the game of “image-chess.”

> Another alternative theory contends that chess arose from Xiangqi or a predecessor thereof, existing in China since the 2nd century BC. David H. Li, a retired accountant, professor of accounting and translator of ancient Chinese texts, hypothesizes that general Han Xin drew on the earlier game of Liubo to develop an early form of Chinese chess in the winter of 204–203 BC. The German chess historian Peter Banaschak, however, points out that Li’s main hypothesis “is based on virtually nothing”. He notes that the “Xuanguai lu,” authored by the Tang Dynasty minister Niu Sengru (779–847), remains the first real source on the Chinese chess variant xiangqi.

In my half-assed 5-minute Wikipedia/Baidu Zhidao research, I don’t see reference to the emperor of China sponsoring the invention of any form of chess. Could this be an inaccurate reference to Han Xin (韩信), who is connected to the history of Chinese chess (象棋)? If anyone has more info, I’d love to hear it. Is Kurzweil’s story about Chinese chess, rice grains, and exponential growth just another fake Chinese anecdote, or is there anything to back it up?

Chinese Chess, 中国象棋


Mar 2009

Beatles Songs with Chinese Characteristics

My coworker Pete has just started using Twitter under the name @pearltowerpete, and he’s begun a great series of Chinese puns involving Beatles song titles. Here’s what he’s got so far:

– Hey Zhu De
– The Long and Winding March
– So you say you want a Cultural Revolution
– Twist and Denounce
– Here Comes the Sun Yat-sen

More are sure to follow. Pete is ChinesePod‘s translator. (The funny hashtags (e.g. #cpod5) relate to ChinesePod’s new Activity Stream Twitter integration.)


Feb 2008

Mao: History's Biggest Pimp?

I can’t really believe this, but it’s still hilarious:

> In a long conversation that stretched way past midnight at Mao’s residence on February 17, 1973, the cigar-chomping Chinese leader referred to the dismal trade between the two countries, saying China was a “very poor country” and “what we have in excess is women.”

> He first suggested sending “thousands” of women but as an afterthought proposed “10 million,” drawing laughter at the meeting, also attended by Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.

> Kissinger, who was President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor at that time, told Mao that the United States had no “quotas” or “tariffs” for Chinese women, drawing more laughter.

> […]

> “Let them go to your place. They will create disasters. That way you can lessen our burdens,” Mao said.

> “Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you ten million,” he said.

> Kissinger noted that Mao was “improving his offer.”

> Mao continued, “By doing so we can let them flood your country with disaster and therefore impair your interests. In our country we have too many women, and they have a way of doing things.

> “They give birth to children and our children are too many.”

Story on Yahoo: Chairman Mao proposed sending 10 million Chinese women to US: documents. (via Hank)


Jan 2008

Chinese Torture in Pictures

I just discovered The punishments of China: illustrated by twenty-two engravings (note that there are two pages there). It’s part of the New York Public Library’s collection.

The rack. Digital ID: 1565316. New York Public Library

Hamstringing a malefactor. Digital ID: 1565324. New York Public Library

This instantly made me think of a Qin Shihuang (秦始皇, first emperor of China) museum of torture I once visited in Xi’an. It was full of displays with life-size mannequins being hacked, sawed, sliced, crushed, and torn to pieces. There was even plenty of fake blood. It was pretty bizarre. (Has anyone else been there? I can’t find it on the web, although one Italian site refers to a “Xiányáng Bówùguan” which could be it…)


Sep 2006

Sidney Rittenberg

Sidney Rittenberg

Hank pointed me to an interesting interview with Sidney Rittenberg yesterday. There are various people which call themselves “sinologists” in the world, but I’d have to say that Sidney Rittenberg is one of the most hardcore I know of. You might thing the guy was a little nutty for joining the CPC as an American Marxist back in the 1940’s, but reading the interview he seems quite clear-headed and balanced in his views. (Maybe the clarity came during all the thinking he did in 16 years of solitary confinement in China?)

I still don’t want to be a sinologist, but Sidney Rittenberg is definitely a figure worth learning more about. I’d love to have a chat with him. Here are some more links:

Sidney Rittenberg Wikipedia entry
Remarks at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center 12th Annual Dinner (includes Q&A session)
Future in Review: short bio
– Sidney Rittenberg’s book: The Man Who Stayed Behind


Jul 2006

How to Spot a Jap

How to Spot a Jap

Chinese and Japanese faces

In 1942 the US War Department produced a Pocket Guide to China, which includes a comic book-like section titled How to Spot a Jap. The goal of the section is to teach American soldiers how to differentiate the Chinese from the Japanese. It covers differences in the face, feet, stride, and pronunciation of English. (Do any veterans out there remember this thing?)

I found How to Spot a Jap a fascinating little piece of wartime memorabilia. Go on and “nostalge” about the US’s racist wartime policies. (It sure is a good thing that’s all a thing of the past, right?)


May 2006

History as the Final Judge

This is part three of my professor’s lecture on speech acts. This part is even more of a digression than the thoughts on race and “the weak,” but it’s related to the Confucian quote, and, more specifically, ideas about history.

My professor was saying that he thought that social order required there to be a “final judge” (最后审判者). For the West, that “final judge” has been the Judeo-Christian God and the accompanying system of morality. However, China’s “final judge,” my professor argued, was certainly not religious in nature. So what was it?

According to him, through the ages the Chinese have feared not the judgment of some god or moral system, but rather history. He felt that for China, history is the final judge.

What did China’s emperors have to fear? Certainly not the wrath of anything divine. The only thing they feared was how historians recorded them.

Similarly, parents toil their entire lifetimes because their vision is firmly locked on the future. Their children will have better lives, and they are willing to accept a role in the history of that better future.

I’m not going to write too much about this… This is the kind of thing that doesn’t get written down in my notebook (since it’s almost completely irrelevant to speech acts), but it certainly captures my attention and imagination a bit more.


Apr 2006

Who Wants to be a Patriotic Millionaire?

patriot millionaires

I have this bad habit of randomly sampling Chinese Flash animations and games from time to time. Recently I found this trivia game called 百萬富翁遊戲:愛國版 (Millionaire Game: Patriot Edition). It’s got trivia questions mainly relating to the Opium War and Republican China. I have never been a very good student of history, so between my ignorance and the annoying traditional characters it took me a few tries to win the game. But now I feel confident enough to take on those Hong Kong primary schoolers!

The game kind of made me wonder about Hong Kong’s version of Chinese history. Both the PRC and RoC have ridiculously stilted versions of history. How is Hong Kong’s? Did it change a lot after 1997? I really have so little contact with Hong Kong.


Jun 2005

Origin of Koi

So many inventions and customs originated in China that it’s not uncommon for me to learn one that I never knew about before. Sometimes, however, the claims get a little ridiculous.

My favorite is the claim that the Japanese are actually a lost tribe of Chinese from southern Zhejiang, and that the Japanese language has evolved out of the dialect of Wenzhou. I think the first part is simply a creative attempt to explain Japan’s financial success while holding onto Chinese pride. The second part is undoubtedly rooted in the fact that a lot of Chinese people think that Wenzhou’s dialect–a dialect reknowned for being totally unintelligible to speakers of virtually any other dialect in China–sounds like Japanese. The people that say it sounds like Japanese usually understand no actual Japanese. As someone that understands Japanese, I can assure you that Wenzhou-hua sounds nothing like Japanese.

Recently I ran into another possible example of a far-fetched claim related to Japan. The claim is that the practice of keeping koi (colorful carp) originated in China. I immediately found this suspect, but then figured it was probably largely because my time spent in Japan was my first significant contact with the tradition, and the word koi has been imported into the English language from Japanese (not Chinese) recently. Obviously, neither of these reasons are real evidence that the practice of raising koi really originated in Japan.

I checked my favorite reference, Wikipedia. The koi entry had this to say on the matter:

While a Chinese book of the Western Jin Dynasty (4th century) mentions carp with various colors, Koi breeding is generally thought to have begun during the 19th century in the Niigata prefecture of Japan.

This doesn’t prove anything conclusively, so I thought maybe it would be wise to ask an actual domesticated carp where the practice originated:


Yeah, I thought so.


Dec 2002

Earth-shattering Poll Results!

So many people have been writing me begging for the results of the next poll that I couldn’t wait any longer to post them. (Yeah, riiiiight…) Anyway, I find the results of the latest poll very interesting. Maybe at least one other person out there will too. My latest poll had three parts. I’ve got the data all tabulated and represented prettily in nice graphics, but I’ll just release one result today (ooh! Suspense!). But worry not — it is definitely the most significant poll thus far.

The question was: “Who is the greatest person in 5,000 years of Chinese history?” These college kids have to study a lot of Chinese history throughout their educations. They’ve learned about many a historical figure. They’ve also been subject to quite a bit of propaganda. Given these points (particularly the last one), I fully
expected a landslide victory for Mao Zedong. The guy is still a national hero. He’s still talked about. He’s on every bill now (100, 50, 20, 10, 5) except for the one. (Seems kinda insecure of the government to go that far in promoting the guy, doesn’t it?) He seems the natural choice. In asking this question, I didn’t feed them any answers. I let them come up with the list of people to choose from before I started counting votes. I left the qualifications for being
“great” completely up to them. Anyway, without further ado, here are the results:

Earth-shattering Poll Results

For those of you that don’t know, Qin Shihuang was the first emperor of China. He united China but was a completely ruthless bastard to do it. He’s credited with the Great Wall project and the Terracotta Warriors were made for his tomb. Li Shimin was a great emperor of Tang Dynasty China — China at the height of its ancient glory. Wu Zetian was also a leader from the Tang Dynasty, but she was an empress. I noticed she only got girls’ votes. A vote for her is a vote for Chinese feminism, maybe? Anyway, I’ll let you all draw your own conclusions. If you know who these people are, then I’m sure you’re very capable of that. Post your comments…


Oct 2002

Taxi Tale Interpretation

Not long ago I got pissed off about a little episode involving a Chinese man and a taxi and I made a little entry about it.

I got one response on it from one John B. He’s a guy who taught in China for a short time, and I happened to get in contact with him through some really odd coincidences.

John B. suggested in his e-mail that “the ‘me first’ attitude comes from simple competition for resources. With 1.2 billion other folks to compete with to get everything, I guess you learn to take any opportunity you can get.”

That explanation makes sense, and I might accept it, were it not for my experiences in Japan. China may have the world’s largest population, but the population density of Japan is, for the most part, higher. I can’t quote any statistics on this, but I’ve lived extensively in both places now, and I can assure you that’s the case. So in Japan there should be higher competition for resources.

You might answer that China is poorer, whereas Japan is now a land of plenty (despite the current economic slump), which curbs the “me first” competitive drive in Japan. Recall, though, that after WWII Japan was a third world nation. China may be newer to modernity, but the pre-WWII generation is still around in Japan as well. Both societies have undergone monumental changes in the past 50 years, but China has come out of it seeming much less civil. Why?

My adult Chinese students at the English Department recently offered a compelling explanation. Since they are still young themselves, the students drew mainly upon anecdotes from their parents and grandparents to offer this explanation.

Before Communist China, China was at war. War with Japan, civil war, war with Western imperialism. It was chaos. Out of this chaos came Communist China. Early Communist China was actually Communist. It was communal. People cooperated. People shared. As the U.S. quaked in fear and rage at the global spread of Communism, Chinese people felt a national spirit of goodwill and just plain human goodness that surpassed anything that the nation had experienced in a long, long time. You might dismiss such warm fuzzy good feeling descriptions of early Communist China as propaganda, but I’ve heard a lot of stories. Regardless of certain realities (e.g. the failure of efforts such as the Great Leap Forward*), a lot of Chinese people felt really good. It was a golden time.

That era was followed by the Cultural Revolution*, of course. Cooperation, goodwill, and social progress were replaced by backstabbing, malice, and social disintegration as co-workers, friends, and even family members betrayed each other in the madness of the times. All sense of brotherhood was obliterated by the absolute necessity to look out for number one. One’s reputation, livelihood, or possibly even life depended on it.

The effects of the Cultural Revolution were profound. They linger. Furthermore, Capitalism has long since had its foot in the door, and the Party is looking the other way as the entire leg sexily slides its way in. I’m thinking Capitalist consumerism probably doesn’t help the situation either, right?

And so jerks steal my taxi in China.

They’re still not excused.

* This site on Chinese history, maintained by the Chaos Group at the University of Maryland, is cool because it contains the Chinese (traditional characters) for a lot of the important names and events mentioned.