Tag: culture


14

May 2012

China Ammo for argumentum ad antiquitam

The summer between 7th and 8th grade, I went to a somewhat unusual “nerd camp.” I attended a 6-week “enrichment course” at the University of Tampa entitled “Logic and Critical Thinking.” We covered quite thoroughly the different types of logical syllogisms and logical fallacies. It was a singularly eye-opening experience for me, as many of the arguments I’d heard many times before were suddenly and for the first time exposed for what they were. In another sense, it was a new form of power. Adults rule the world, but they’re not above logic. Being able to identify logical fallacies in the arguments of politicians, teachers, and even parents was a potent little trick indeed!

Recently I read the book How to How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic, which is basically a rundown of various types of fallacies, how to recognize them, how to defend against them, and even how to effectively employ them if you need to.

While a good read and quite entertaining in parts, many examples used in the book probably make more sense to a British audience than an American one. It also feels a little outdated at times, such as this passage on the argumentum ad antiquitam (“appeal to tradition”) fallacy and how it relates to China (links and bold added by me):

> Students of political philosophy recognize in the argumentum ad antiquitam the central core of the arguments of Edmund Burke. Put at its simplest, it is the fallacy of supposing that something is good or right simply because it is old.

>> This is the way it’s always been done, and this is the way we’ll continue to do it.

>> (It brought poverty and misery before, and it will do so again…)

> There is nothing in the age of a belief or an assertion which alone makes it right. At its simplest, the ad antiquitam is a habit which economizes on thought. It shows the way in which things are done, with no need for difficult decision-making. At its most elevated, it is a philosophy. Previous generations did it this way and they survived; so will we. The fallacy is embellished by talk of continuity and our contemplation of the familiar.

> […]

> Skilful use of the ad antiquitam requires a detailed knowledge of China. The reason is simple. Chinese civilization has gone on for so long, and has covered so many different provinces, that almost everything has been tried at one time or another. Your knowledge will enable you to point out that what you are advocating has a respectable antiquity in the Shin Shan province, and there it brought peace, tranquillity of mind and fulfilment for centuries.

Hmmm, “Shin Shan Province,” eh? The use of “province” in two different senses in one paragraph is a little confusing, but I would guess that “Shin Shan” is supposed to be “Shanxi” or “Shaanxi.” Anyway, I suspect that even when dealing in fallacies and tradition, it’s still a good idea to use the name of a province that actually exists.

It’s true, though, that China is still a treasure trove for bullshit purveyors of all kinds, whether it’s China’s mystical past, mystical writing system, mystical vocabulary (“crisis” = “danger” + “opportunity,” anyone?), or mystical traditions. I’m curious if my readers have run into many China-centered argumentum ad antiquitam fallacies out there.


02

May 2012

Peking Opera Masks

Recently Brendan put up a post called Peking Opera Masks and the London Book Fair on the new “Beijing Avengers” group blog, Rectified.name. It’s an insightful take on how contemporary Chinese literature is being represented (and not represented) abroad.

I especially enjoyed the explanation toward the end of his use of “Peking Opera masks”:

peking-opera-masks

> A few years ago, a few other translators and I were talking with employees of a Chinese publishing house who said that they had some books that they wanted to translate into English — things that they said would show foreigners the real China. There was a brief and intense period of excitement, until the publishers said that these were coffee-table books about Peking Opera masks and different varieties of tea. Ever since then, I’ve used “Peking Opera masks” as mental shorthand for the Chinese habit of attempting to interest the world in aspects of itself that most Chinese people don’t give two-tenths of a rat’s ass about. (This same thing affects Chinese-language instruction, but I’ll save that rant for another post.)

Oh yes… you better believe that plenty of Chinese study materials out there are rife with Peking Opera maskery.

(Note: Just in case you have a burning desire to discuss Peking Opera masks in Chinese, these masks are usually referred to as 脸谱 or 京剧脸谱 in Mandarin.)


30

Apr 2012

Mike Sui’s Video

A half-Chinese, half-American actor by the name of Mike Sui (Mike ) has been making quite a stir on Weibo and on the Chinese web with his recent video in which he plays the part of 12 different nationalities/personalities. He does various accents in both English and Chinese (and he’s clearly fluent in both). My favorite is the Taiwanese one (starting at around 7 minutes). Take a look if you haven’t seen it already:

(More details about the video and the Chinese reaction are on ChinaSMACK.)

Interestingly, the video is being promoted in a way that refers to him as a 老外 (foreigner), but Mike is clearly half Chinese, and speaks both English and Chinese natively (or very close to natively). According to various Chinese sources (here’s one), Mike’s dad is a Beijinger and his mom is American. That still counts as 老外?


13

Apr 2012

The Perils of “This Week” and “Next Week”

Sometimes Chinese seems to warp the fabric of space-time. It’s true; culture can warp our perception of reality with Sapir-Whorfian aplomb. I exaggerate, though; I’m talking about interpretations of the phrase “this week.”

At the crux of the matter is the fact that the Western American week starts on Sunday (星期天), whereas the Chinese week starts on Monday (星期一). Most of the time this causes no problems… Unless you’re trying to make plans for the next 7 days on a Sunday. This is such a simple matter; it shouldn’t be so confusing. But if you forget that this discrepancy exists, misunderstandings abound. It’s embarrassing, but I admit: even after all this time in China, if I’m careless in my thinking, I still make this mistake occasionally. (The key is that one doesn’t often make plans for the coming week on a Sunday.)

Here are some diagrams to make the issue clearer:

Understanding "next week" in English

Understanding "next week" in Chinese

So, in the examples above, if I say “这个星期三” on a Sunday, thinking I’m referring to the coming Wednesday (May 9th), I’m actually referring to the past Wednesday (May 2nd).

OK, now here’s the annoying part (for us native speakers of American English): the Chinese way is more logical. Here’s how it works:

1. If you refer to any day of last week (even if it’s yesterday, technically), you use 上个.

2. If you refer to any day of this week (Monday through Sunday, even days already past), you use 这个. It just means, strictly, “of this week.” No ambiguity.

3. If you refer to any day of next week (even if it’s tomorrow, technically), you use 下个.

As long as you remember that the week starts on Monday and not Sunday, it’s all very consistent and logical. The reason this is confusing to non-native speakers like me is that the system that we use in American English is kind of a mess. I hear that many British speakers follow rules that are basically the same as the Chinese ones, but I know from experience that the system used in the USA is much more muddled (examples here, here, and here).

OK, it’s not actually that hard. I’m not trying to add a new item to “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.” But it’s a pretty bewildering experience when it happens to you the first time. The joys of intercultural exchange!

Update: In the original post I said “Western” when I should have said “American.” Apologies for the inaccuracies. The point of the post still holds true (particularly for us Americans).


28

Mar 2012

Awesome Speech Habits of Americans

I’ve been slowly reading through Professor Orlando Kelm‘s book, When we are the foreigners: What Chinese think about working with Americans, and right in the first chapter I was highly amused by this passage:

> Recently, Mr. Jorgensen has been working closely with Xiaoliu Li, the human resources manager for TPC China. Upon entering her office, an aura of competence is immediately apparent. Young, pretty, polished, professional, and easy to engage in conversation, Xiaoliu Li gives the impression that she loves her job. In fact, Mr. Jorgensen usually introduces her to others by saying, “I’d like you to meet our highly competent human resources manager Xiaoliu Li.” Almost sheepishly, she acknowledges the the introduction, always noticing, however, how extraordinary it is to hear “highly competent” when making an introduction. Those types of phrases are, in fact, one of her observations about Americans. “You Americans think everything is great, wonderful, fantastic, amazing, cool, or awesome.” Not only do Americans think everything is awesome; they also say so, using these terms in both casual and formal conversations. That style of speech and feedback seems out of place among Chinese. “Chinese aren’t prone to use those types of words when describing people,” observes Xiaoliu Li, “much less when directly talking to them.” Basically, My. Jorgensen is oblivious to the effect of the way he uses vocabulary. To him, it’s just a matter of having a positive attitude.

My wife has made almost exactly the same observation. She claims that it’s hard to know what Americans really feel about something because everything is “great” or “awesome” or “amazing.” (This is, of course, the opposite of what is often said about the Chinese, who always seem to be “hiding their true feelings,” forever inscrutable to most foreigners.) So to her, it’s not that Americans “think everything is awesome,” it’s that they say everything is awesome, which can, in her mind, only be construed as (at least a mild form of) insincerity. So I guess that’s what we Americans get for being positive and enthusiastic about life: suspicion of insincerity!

Anyway, I’m enjoying this book, because instead of trying to make blanket statements about culture, it takes the case study approach and shares real people’s views on real incidents. (Now if only I had more time to read…)


23

Mar 2012

Ramen by Infographic

I was introduced to this ramen infographic recently by the creator.

Ramen (ラーメン) is actually Japanese, but it has (somewhat unclear) historical connections to Chinese noodles, which could possibly be either lamian (拉面) or lo mein (撈麵 / 捞面).

We Love Ramen Infographic
Created by: HackCollege.com


Interview with Rachel Guo of No Drama Real China

15

Mar 2012

Interview with Rachel Guo of No Drama Real China

Everyone seems to really enjoy No Drama Real China, so I thought I’d follow up my last post with an interview of the creator, Rachel Guo


John: What inspired you to start No Drama Real China?

No Drama Real China host Rachel Guo

Rachel: It’s a long story. My very first trip to America was on July 7, 2011, and the first thing that surprised me the moment I stepped out of JFK airport in New York was how familiar everything was to me! Yes, I watched too many American movies, TV shows, and everything for years, and I even have a little bit of an American accent. What a powerful soft power! And after 40 days of travel in New York, D.C, Seattle, LA, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and a small town two hours from the Canadian border in Washington, I found the other thing that SURPRISED me was that many Americans know so little about China, they asked me questions like:

– “Are there highways in China?”
– “How do you come here? Yes, i know by plane, but HOW?!!”
– “I heard a story that many Chinese families saved money for years so they finally could afford a refrigerator, but then the refrigerators they bought all broke after a while. So the Minister of the Labor Department ran into the refrigerator factory and shot the factory director because they produced bad quality products.”

There’s a lot of drama surrounding China, but where does it all come from? Form the media, American newspapers, and the Internet, which focuses on attracting attention to China’s problems and abnormal things. Some people see one drop of the ocean and think it IS the ocean. It’s not their fault; they don’t get to watch Chinese TV like us Chinese watch American TV, because most Chinese movies and TV shows suck, and the government channels are too cliche. I really want to show something normal to people who want to know a real China, not through a colored lens, no slant, no drama… Oh there WILL be some drama, of course–drama is a part of reality–but not all of it.

John: How long have you been doing No Drama Real China?

Rachel: In September 2011, i bought a small camera and got started.

John: What are your plans for the show, if it becomes more and more successful?

Rachel: 1) Make the program better and broader. If it gets successful, which means there will be sponsors and volunteers, or i can afford to hire somebody, I will get voices from all over the country, which will make it more real. If I could get some better equipment, I could make the production quality better too.

2) Make the program more diverse and more targeted. My group could do interviews in a particular region in China, or focus on particular issues (still no politics though), or do documentary videos, always keeping the style of putting real people’s real lives and real voices in front of the camera, with as little explanation or interpretation as possible. Because once I talk it’ll become subjective, the people will become the way I see them.

3) Use the program to collect data for cultural and commercial research. Maybe it could be a tool for consulting.

4) Actually I just want to keep doing what I believe in and see where it goes. Life always surprises me!

John: Can you describe the process you go through when creating a new episode?

Rachel: Collect questions, interview people, edit, translate, put music in, make an intro video, sometimes I need to find or make some extra material (like the Beat It! Dance). Then, upload, AND THEN do a little marketing. That’s something… it’s so difficult to get people interested in my interviews while sex and drugs stuff get people’s attention. Many thanks to my friends and friends’ friends who helped me a lot by sharing my videos.

John: Are all those people you interview your friends? If not, how did you approach them? (How do you know the old lady?)

No Drama Real China host Rachel Guo

Rachel: Those are my friends, family, people I meet everywhere in my social life, and some random strangers too.
Again, thanks to my friends who support me and introduce people of different occupations to me to interview. It’s so difficult to get strangers to be open to you in China, to be natural in front of the camera, and to share their real feelings. For example, when I travel on the train everyone is stuck together in a small space, so I can do a small warm-up and explain what I am doing, win some trust, and then interview.

The old lady who is a little deaf is my grandma. 🙂

John: Is there a way to submit questions for the show?

Rachel: People usually leave their questions in the comment sections on the ND/RC YouTube page, I check it every day and answer every comment. I’ve also just started a FaceBook page, so please join me there too! I think a lot about the questions people give me; it’s really very helpful. I hope I can have more ways to reach people, so people will feel its easy and fun to ask questions.

John: Is there anything else you’d like to say to your non-Chinese viewers?

Rachel: This channel is actually made for non-Chinese viewers. That’s why it’s on YouTube. I want to say THANK YOU to all people who appreciate it and share it. Your words, your suggestions, your questions and ideas are the greatest support for me. One of my friends works in the U.S. State Department, and he says it’s so difficult to make the right decisions for America-China-Asia issues, because the media only shows the drama, some voters are misled, and they don’t see how important this is. I want everybody to try not to be part of the problem but the solution. That’s what I also want to say to people who hate my program: PLEASE always give truth another chance!

John: 有没有什么想对中国观众说的话? [Is there anything you want to say to your Chinese viewers?]

Rachel: 多谢大家的支持,相信懂得汉语的观众朋友们会看到画面背后更多有趣的信息。欢迎参与与分享。 [Thank you, everyone, for your support. I’m sure viewers that understand Chinese will notice that there are even more interesting details behind the videos. You’re welcome to participate and share.]


06

Mar 2012

No Drama, Real China

A friend of a friend has started a new video series in Beijing called No Drama Real China. The host is a Chinese girl named Rachel Guo. The concept is simple: ask a cross-section of Beijing’s population some interesting questions related to Chinese culture, and present the hodge-podge of answers in all its heterogeneous glory for the benefit of cross-cultural understanding (so, with subtitles, obviously). The result is interesting, funny, and perhaps even educational (especially for all you students of Chinese).

Here are some of my favorites:

Are Chinese People Rich?

Is China a Superpower?

What Are Chinese People Afraid Of?

For the linguistically sensitive, this next one has Rachel dropping what appears to be a few strangely out of place gratuitous F-bombs, but apparently she’s quoting a rather rude online user:

Do Chinese People Eat Everything???

(The video above also has a particularly amusing scene where the old lady can’t seem to understand the clear Chinese of the interviewer.)

No Drama Real China shows a lot of promise! Please have a look at these videos. If you can’t access YouTube, there are also a few on Youku.

Keep up the good work, Rachel!


31

Jan 2012

Three Simple Uses of the Other “Ma” on a Bag

I recently wrote about my personal experience with the particle (not ), and how a dictionary entry helped me get a feel for how the particle is used. That dictionary entry, again, is from the Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary (blog post here):

Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary (2nd Ed.)

> : ma (助) 1 [used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious]: 这样做是不对~! Of course it was acting improperly! 孩子总是孩子~! Children are children! 2 [used within a sentence to mark a pause]: 你~,就不用亲自去了。 As for you, I don’t think you have to go in person.

Not too long ago, I encountered this little coin purse/bag, which offers three very concise uses of our particle :

Money is for spending

The text is as follows (broken into three lines to make it easier to discuss):

> 1:

> 2:

> 3:

OK, now clearly, this is the same particle. But what does this actually mean??

First, “” means something like, “it’s money,” as in, “we all know what money is, and what it’s for.” This could also have been expressed more verbosely by: “” or even as: “就是” (“isn’t it just money”??).

Second, “” quite simply means, “it’s (made out of) paper (as we all know).” Duh. “It’s just paper.” This usage is basically the same as the first.

Last, we have “,” which is slightly different because it’s a verb. Still the idea is quite similar. It’s for spending. You might translate this into English as, “so just spend it!” Another way to put it in Chinese would be, “” (if you feel like spending it, just spend it).

The words on this bag strike me as a Shanghainese, female way of looking at money. But maybe that’s because the bag belonged to a girl I know…


Related Grammar Links:

Expressing the Self-Evident with 嘛 (Chinese Grammar Wiki link)


10

Jan 2012

Dashan on Why Foreigners Hate Dashan

anti-Dashan

After reading this post on Quora, I’m now quite convinced that no one has given the question of “why (western) foreigners hate Dashan so much” as much thought as Mark Rowswell, the man behind Dashan (大山).

I should warn you: the entire answer is quite long, but it’s worth a read. Mark breaks it down into these parts:

  1. Overuse – People are sick and tired of hearing the name “Dashan”;
  2. Resentment (Part A) – Dashan’s not the only Westerner who speaks Chinese fluently;
  3. Resentment (Part B) – Being a foreign resident in China is not easy and Dashan gets all the breaks;
  4. Political/Cultural – People wish Dashan had more of an edge; [I found Mark’s reasons for Dashan’s lack of an edge especially interesting, since they relate to a Chinese tendency toward sensitivity to foreign criticism]
  5. Stereotyping – The assumption that Dashan is a performing monkey.

Looks to me like people can quit asking this question. That’s the answer. But I also feel like we’re getting this definitive answer at a time when all the hubbub about Dashan has finally started to die down.


29

Dec 2011

Shanghai’s Christmas Tourists

The Church

This year I attended the 8pm Christmas Eve mass at the St. Ignatius cathedral in Xujiahui, Shanghai. It reminded me why I normally don’t go to Christmas Eve masses in China. In short, it’s a zoo.

The reason is that Christmas Eve has become a popular holiday in Shanghai, although it’s mainly a date holiday. Traffic was horrible that evening, as couples all went out in search of a romantic winter evening. Many of them went to churches out of curiosity, to see how Christmas is celebrated there.

I imagine the “Christmas tourists” that wound up at Catholic churches were a little bored. Yes, there’s a choir singing Christmas music, but it’s still a Catholic mass, and not a Christmas program. (As I understand it, some other denominations do special Christmas programs to cater to the seasonal tourists.)

For the Catholic Church, it’s certainly a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the church has a rare opportunity to proselytize to a captive audience actively seeking out what it has to offer. (Christian churches are not allowed to actively evangelize in China, so if it’s done at all, it’s normally done quite subtly.) On the other hand, the Catholic Church is there for the faithful, and the Christmas tourists really are a bit of an obstacle to normal worship.

Some examples of how the Christmas tourist disrupt the mass:

– The tourists wander all throughout the church throughout the mass, often talking in loud voices
– The tourists take photos (with flash) and video all throughout the mass, often holding the device up high, distracting everyone
– The tourists take up good seats in a standing-room-only situation, but then try to leave the packed church after 20 minutes when they get bored
– The tourists outnumber the believers, so the priest tends to direct the sermon at them, capitalizing on the opportunity
– The tourists try to receive Holy Communion, even though the priest patiently and politely explains that it’s not for visitors, requiring the priest and eucharistic ministers to do a sort of mini-interrogation to anyone in the communion line that looks suspicious (and they’re surprisingly good at spotting the faking faithful!)

It’s the last one that bothers me the most. In China there’s a serious lack of respect for religion. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given China’s history, but it’s quite startling to be presented with the fact in this way. It also makes me reflect on modern foreigners’ behavior in Buddhist temples (how bad are we?), but I honestly can’t think of anything I’ve ever seen that feels as bad as trying to receive Holy Communion after being specifically asked not to (in one’s native tongue).

Here’s one tourist’s account (from Weibo), which offers a nice (more respectful) perspective:

> 奔波的一天最终归于平静~第二个教堂平安夜,徐家汇天主教堂真的很美,典型的哥特建筑,宏伟壮观,空灵的圣歌,神圣的仪式…就是人太多,挤死了~信仰果真是一种强大的力量。跟着做弥撒时神父在我头上点了几下,没有给我圣体吃,而那些基督徒们在咀嚼圣体时怀着怎样一颗敬畏感动的心~安~

Here’s a rough translation:

> A busy day eventually ended peacefully… My second Christmas Eve at a church. The Xujiahui Catholic Church is really beautiful, with classic gothic architecture, really magnificent, lovely hymns, and a holy ceremony… But there were just too many people; it was super crowded. Faith is indeed a powerful force. Following along in the mass, the priest nodded at me several times, but didn’t give me the Eucharist to eat. But those Christians chewing on the Eucharist were filled with some kind of reverent emotion. Peace.

I assume the priest “nodding” at her was him giving her a blessing. Any non-Catholic can go up in the Communion line and get a blessing, but they’re supposed to cross their arms to signal that they’re not there to receive the Eucharist.

Anyway, lesson learned… next year I won’t be going on Christmas Eve again!


01

Dec 2011

Nicki Minaj’s Chinese Tattoo

Nicki Minaj has one of the more interesting Chinese tattoos out there. It’s not particularly pretty (it was clearly not the ink work of a Chinese calligrapher!), but the traditional characters are correct mostly correct and legible. The tattoo:

Nicki-Minaj-Tattoo

It means “God is with you.”

The tattoo uses traditional Chinese characters:

> 上帝

Here’s the simplified character version (it only differs by one character):

> 上帝

And pinyin:

> Shàngdì yǔ nǐ cháng zài

The grammar, though, seems a little strange to me. The sentence I’m used to hearing (at Catholic churches in China) is:

> 上帝同在

同在 is just a fancy way to say “to be with.” So what’s up with 常在? You’re probably used to taking on the meaning of “often,” “frequent,” or “usually,” as in 常常, 经常, 通常, 平常, etc. “God is usually with you” certainly doesn’t seem like the most confidence-insiring blessing.

Here, though, is used more to refer to a “normal,” unchanging, continuous state. So although neither this sentence nor the Catholic version is everyday Chinese, they both make sense.

When I asked my wife for her impressions on Nicki Minaj’s tattoo, she made the following comments:

– Those characters look like they were written by a poorly-educated elementary school student.
– She should have chosen simplified characters; less ink is less pain.
– Foreigners’ Chinese character tattoos are like our stupid English t-shirts. But at least we can take off the t-shirts whenever we want.


28

Nov 2011

Black Hole for Smart Slackers

Kaiser Kuo posted an article about Beijing last month, entitled Peking Purgatory, Is Beijing a Black Hole For Smart Slackers?

While the article is about Beijing, this paragraph definitely reminded me of some of the things I’ve also felt about Shanghai:

> Beijing, after all, has much going for it in these heady days. Possibilities abound. Opportunity knocks. There’s a buzz here, a palpable energy. It’s a city with edge, full of quirky characters doing interesting things. Change is the one all-pervasive constant. The Beijing zeitgeist is a shape-shifting polymorph, the city a suitable setting for self-reinvention. It’s impossibly big and yet it offers the intimate charms of a small town – that sense of community that many of us found missing back home.

Those that have taken root in Beijing probably might be forgiven for assuming that this feeling is not to be had in Shanghai. I’d say the main difference is that Shanghai is not “impossibly big.” Part of its charm is that the “downtown” city area (obviously, Pudong is not included) is actually relatively small.

But “black hole for smart slackers…” aptly put.


11

Nov 2011

China’s Bachelor’s Day

China’s “Bachelor’s Day” (光棍节) is becoming more and more internationally known. It is still, however, not what you might call “well-known” (that Wikipedia article, for example, is the shortest Wikipedia article I’ve seen in years!). Urban Dictionary offers this definition for “bachelor day“:

November 11, a day represented by four digits of 1, dubbed by young single Chinese. The “Bachelor Day” has been initiated by single college students and, although enjoys no holiday leave, has become a vogue of the day among single white collars.

I wish I could get lucky on the Bachelor Day this year.

It seems that this holiday has yet to catch on outside of China, but one is the loneliest number in any culture, so it may just be a matter of time. Sadly enough, this particular holiday is going to be more and more relevant to China, as the sex ratio imbalance here worsens. Already, I get the sense that the holiday is more relevant to single men than to single women here.

Anyway, the date for Bachelor’s Day this year is 2011-11-11, which is not only a rare concurrence of lots of 1’s in a date, but also extra bachelor-y.

Here are some images I collected from the web which show how this modern holiday is seen in China (and how it seems to focus on single men more):

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

There seem to be a lot of stick-like foods in the imagery, such as 油条 (fried dough sticks) and Pocky, and also a lot of cigarrettes:

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

And, of course, the holiday is also being used for marketing promotions. Taobao even set up a special page just for its Bachelor’s Day (AKA “Singles Day”) promotions: 1111.tmall.com:

Ad for Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

Ad for Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

Bachelor's Day (AKA Singles Day)

I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more and more about this holiday in years to come.


Finally, on a personal note, today is the day that my own daughter (our first child) was born! Hopefully we’re not condemning her to a life of loneliness.

I’m not planning to do any baby posts here (at least, not until the language acquisition begins), but I might be posting a bit less in the (sleep-deprived) days to come.


14

Oct 2011

Camus on China

Albert-Camus-1958

Albert Camus was my favorite of the authors we read in high school; The Stranger (局外人》 in Chinese) was my favorite book. Recently I was reading some of Camus’s famous quotes, and I was struck by how applicable many of them are now to modern China:

“At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.”

“Culture: the cry of men in face of their destiny.”

“The society based on production is only productive, not creative.”

“The myth of unlimited production brings war in its train as inevitably as clouds announce a storm.” [Uh oh…]

“Without freedom, no art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others.”

“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”

“By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”

“The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants.”

“All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State.”

“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.”

“Every man needs slaves like he needs clean air. To rule is to breathe, is it not? And even the most disenfranchised get to breathe. The lowest on the social scale have their spouses or their children.”

“As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.”

“It is a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.” [Many, many Chinese people I know would whole-heartedly agree with this statement.]

“He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool.”

“Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.”

In my experience, Albert Camus (阿尔贝·加缪) is not very well-known in China.

Sources: BrainyQuote, Wikiquote


11

Oct 2011

On the Limits of Ni Hao

After my last post on 你好吗, which I consider “a greeting on training wheels,” I received an email from a reader about the non-interrogative, even more widely used greeting 你好. Brad’s email (slightly edited):

> I drove to a friend’s house [in Qingdao] to pick him up for supper. My friend doesn’t speak English and I’ve only known him for a few weeks. When he got into the car I greeted him with “你好!” (paying careful attention to not say “你好吗?” ha ha). To my complete surprise, he turned to me and said “You know Brad, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, and I’m not saying this to be critical of your Chinese, but I think we’ve now moved beyond having to say 你好.”

> I think I had a dumb look on my face and didn’t know what to say… nor did I know exactly what he meant. I asked him “What should I say? I don’t think I understand.”

> He said that 你好 is hardly ever used by people who know each other well, and it’s fine and dandy to use it between people who know there’s a formal barrier between them (age, acquaintance, colleague, stranger, superior, etc.), but that he considered me a close enough friend to no longer be at the 你好 stage.

> To me, this sounded exactly like the French “vous” vs. “tu” or Spanish Ud. vs. Uds. Again, I asked him what I should then say in such a context. His answer — say nothing! I said that’s impossible… I must have to say something like 最近很忙吗? or even 吃饭了没有? He said I could if I wanted, but it should sound sincere instead of just an insincere verbal gap-filler (I’ve actually heard that line a few times from colleagues who have stopped me dead in my tracks for saying something perceived to be an unnecessary “insincerity” like “you’re wearing a nice sweater today.” I now longer give compliments unless it’s pertinent to the situation, and you know what? Neither does anyone else!).

> I asked him then what he would say, and he just gave me that “E”* grunt noise that might be the closest thing to a brief, low toned and quick “hey” in English, the same kind used to acknowledge someone you know while on the fly when passing them in the hall at work. He then said I could get right to the point after the grunt.

> Shocked! That was my reaction. But even more shocked by the fact that I now can’t recall any “friends” ever addressing themselves with 你好 when we meet as a group. It’s always that E!*, followed by “name”, and then something straight to the point. Even my colleagues (who are friendly with each other, but not friends) don’t say 你好 to each other.

> I know there might be a North-South divide on some of these issues (my southwestern friends all said for them 味儿大一点 meant more 辣的,the Northern friends thought it meant 加香, and the deep Southerners didn’t know what it meant), but I’m wondering if you ran into this simplest of linguistic mysteries in Shanghai?

(more…)


06

Oct 2011

13: a micro-play about this crazy society

Not long ago, my wife and I went to see a Chinese version of the classic play 12 Angry Men. Over the October holiday we decided to go see another play (comedy this time), and what better play to follow 12 Angry Men than a new independent “micro-play” (微话剧) called “Thirteen” (拾叁, which is 大写 for “十三“)?

We ended up really enjoying the 90-odd minute performance. It was created by a group which calls itself “Why Not” in English, and 歪脑 (a transliteration into Chinese which means something like “skewed brain”). The whole play was performed by only three talented young actors:

歪脑 Actors

歪脑 Actors

The promotional poster for the play we saw:

"13 Society" poster

Here’s my partial translation of the micro-play’s description, taken from the introduction on the Why Not website:

> Micro-play “Thirteen” (Society)

> Keywords for “Thirteen”

> comedy, lives of the people, current events, micro-play, improv, interactive, experiential

> History of “Thirteen”

> Shísān: shortened form of the classic Shanghainese slang “shísān diǎn” (thirteen o’clock). “Shísān diǎn” was originally a transliteration of the English word “society,” a pejorative term used in the last century for those who closely followed the trends of the times and obsessed over socializing. Later it was extended to refer to people or things which are “not normal, fun, funny,” and can often have a positive connotation.

> English “society” could refer to the whole of society, a club, or social life.

> The micro-play “Thirteen,” makes use of the “funny, spoof” meanings, but puts more emphasis on the “society, lives of the people” aspects.

> Tagline for “Thirteen”

> Use the “thirteen” attitude to view this era, which 1.3 billion (13亿) people are experiencing together!

> Content Outline of “Thirteen”

> This is the funniest era. It is also the evilest era.

> Here, total luxury and homelessness coexist, Lamborghinis and tractors coexist; here, food prices and rocket ships soar, as do oil and Maotai. Here, there are both Li Gang and Li Chengpeng; there are both Guo Guangchang, and also Guo Meimei. There are the Olympics and the World Expo, as well as the Red Cross. Here, both “China’s Got Talent” and “China’s Sick People” are on every day, while both the country’s GDP and the water levels in its flooded cities are rapidly rising…. Here, what follows hope is disappointment, but following disappointment, a new hope may spring up yet again….

> As it happens, we’re living in just this confluence of events. But without all these events we witness; this play could not exist.

> Whether you’re worried about the stock prices (as disappointing as the Chinese soccer team), or our food quality (as unreliable as the new bullet trains), or, like the Forbidden City, you just can’t hold onto what you treasure most, to tell you the truth, we can’t solve a single one of these issues. But there is one thing we can do: as these dog days make faces at us, we can at least find an opportunity to make some faces back. This opportunity is in “Thirteen.”

> So come on, take 90 minutes of time, 1000 square meters of space, audience and actors, stage and backstage, laughs and curses, pretenders and morons, and let’s all make faces back, and at each other.

> Content and Segments (these may change at any time; this is a Chinese characteristic, if you know what we mean):

[I left these “segments” out, because they didn’t seem to reflect what I saw, as the site warns. Here are the segments we saw, in my own words:]

– Teacher and student skit
– A crackdown on street vendors skit
– A “I won’t stay with you if you can’t provide for all my material needs” modern woman skit
– A series of interview skits
– A kung fu monk skit
– A doctor seeing patients skit (including a very racy but cleverly acted scene where a prostitute brought in a customer who had OD’d on Viagra and collapsed)
– A visit from Cecilia Cheung (张柏芝) skit

This play was quite challenging to follow, because not only was it performed with rapid-fire delivery, but it also referenced a lot of current events, with internet culture thrown in too. There were references to both the Wenzhou bullet train wreck as well as Shanghai’s recent subway accident, for example. Plenty of social commentary.

I enjoyed all three actors, but 苏永豪‘s was especially memorable (pictured above; the guy in glasses). He played so many roles, including several hilarious cross-dressing ones and a number of accents, and he was very funny in all of them. He was also really good in the impromptu audience interaction parts. A real pro performer.

Anyway, if you’re up for the challenge of trying to follow a modern Chinese play, this one probably isn’t an easy one to start with, but it’s definitely an interesting one. It had a fair amount of slapstick and action, too, which would keep you engaged even if you don’t follow a lot of what’s said. At 120 RMB per ticket (here), it’s not cheap, but it’s a much better entertainment investment than Transformers 3!


23

Sep 2011

China Daily Show is great

Maybe I don’t read the right blogs, but it seems like China Daily Show isn’t getting nearly as much attention as it deserves. This China-centric Onion-style “news” site is hilarious. It describes itself like this:

> China Daily Show is not affiliated with China Daily or The Daily Show and is intended for humorous purposes only. All events, characters, names and places featured are products of the authors’ imaginations, or are used fictitiously.

Here are some recent headlines to get you started:

80% of Chinese cuisine ‘shanzhai’: expert
WHO downgrades Chinese culture to “cult,” urges strong caution
Thousands of men now straight after gay website blocked in China
Biden completes “Man of the People” tour by becoming Beijing cabbie
Tibet, Xinjiang vital to keep China chicken-shaped: WikiLeaks
Chinese skipper snares, eats mermaid
Beggar not actually an erhu player: Erhu player


13

Sep 2011

On Moon Cake Economics

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, a day late. I managed to get out of eating moon cakes this year. (Whew! My moon cake eating contest days are behind me…)

Photos of Shanghai residents lining up to buy moon cakes (月饼), rain or shine (but always with umbrellas), from Jing’an Temple in the month leading up to Mid-Autumn Festival:

Jing'an Temple Moon Cake Sales

Jing'an Temple Moon Cake Sales

I’m not going to say much on economics, but this whole “moon cake economy” thing strikes me as quite interesting. While in a taxi the other night, a guest on a radio talk show made some interesting points:

1. The value of moon cake coupons has exceeded the value of the moon cakes themselves.

2. Some people eat moon cakes, but a lot of people just pass them around, gifting and regifting. (The actual quote was: “买的不吃,吃的不买,” literally, “those who buy them, don’t eat them, and those who eat them don’t buy them.”)

3. As the moon cake economy evolves, more and more products are being used as substitutes, such as ice cream moon cakes, soft mochi moon cakes, non-traditional cake as moon cakes, etc.

It’ll be interesting to see where this tradition goes in the next ten years. Will the Chinese try hard to preserve it as is, or will they morph into into something else?


Related links:

Mooncake becomes the fruitcake of China – L.A. Times, 2011
Mooncake economics – Global Times, 2011
A black market for mooncakes in China – Marketplace, 2010


29

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!



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