Saturday, 10 September 2011

Catching On...

Whilst I was teaching part-time recently, I asked one of my students to play a Western song that they liked. One of the students played a song which introduced a particular feeling of nostalgia in me : a song called ‘Dilemma’ by Nelly. I can’t say that I’ve ever had any deep feelings towards this song, but the tune was one that I liked and I remember one Christmas playing this song on repeat. Either way, I thought of this as one isolated incident, a student with a penchant for American pop rap.
But then a day later I heard someone listening to it walking down the street. And then again I heard it as a ringtone on the tube. And I kept on hearing this tune, and before long I realised this was no isolated incident but a pattern. A song which made number one in the UK four years previously was finally catching on in China.
I recently went to a factory outlet store (a great place in fact with a very Western style and voted number one shopping outlet in Asia)
Whilst there I went to a BMW lifestyle store. I’m sure this kind of store does exist in the West. But I can’t recall having seen it with the Chinese level of frequency. Perhaps many people can’t afford a BMW but don’t want to be deprived of the mythique surrounding the brand. Either way, inside there was a whole section dedicated to the F1 team Sauber. Except that this team hasn’t existed for about two years.
And the lesson to be formed is what is in fashion in the West often takes time to catch on. Or perhaps it won't ever catch on?
And back to a Dilemma. The Barbie store in Shanghai. After 18 months without any success it closed, taking with it the last of the Barbie stores within China. Something about Barbie was not popular in China. Perhaps the hyper-glamorisation of Barbie was something Chinese mothers did not want want to imbue in their young girls. Or perhaps the cultural and historical legacy of Barbie means nothing to the Chinese consumer (although other companies like Lego have become veritable success stories). Or maybe, just maybe, it’s time had not yet come. But Barbie corp had pulled the rug out from beneath Chinese Barbie's feet before it had had the chance to stamp its authority on the Chinese.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Teaching in China

Apologies for my recent lack of any thing resembling a blog post, but I have recently been busy teaching English in the evenings and doing an internship during the day. However, it’s not all bad, and the process of teaching has given me some inspiration for my next entry.

Whilst I was teaching at the language school the other day, my eye glimpsed upon a poster plastered upon the wall for classes with so called “famous teachers’, teachers whose status justifies payment of high salaries, and ensures that students are prepared to pay two or three times the normal amount in order to be taught by them. In itself this is not so strange, after all famous professors in the UK can justify bountiful appearance fees. However, what we are talking about is not university level instructors, rather those tasked to teach English to middle-school and high-school students. Teachers are undoubtedly respected in Western countries, but this level of reverence for what is essentially a teacher in a private language school is incredible. Confucius did of course establish a learning culture within China thousands of years ago, but modern China does not allow itself to be bound by historical legacies, and there can be no way the present cult of the teacher can be solely attributed to the great philosopher himself…?
First of all, it is easy to remember that China has a population which is absolutely vast. There is competition for job places, school places, university places, bus spaces; and the one time I went to Starbucks even that was a standing affair. So anything that can give an edge must be treated as an advantage, especially any form of proficiency in the world’s business language. So heralds the growth in English language schools. But is this just a profit making delusion, or a worthwhile use of a student’s time and parent’s money?
There would seem to be times when a language school’s desire to turn a profit would follow the same path as, and be conductive to, a student’s learning. Well, in my recent experience, not necessarily. A quick check of one of China’s video sites brings up many videos of so-called ‘famous teachers’, many taken hidden-camera style as paparazzi may snap a celebrity. And unfortunately these ‘famous teachers’ are too often indeed redolent of entertainers. In the majority of the videos they are signing, dancing, or doing something else to amuse the students. Often not even in English, the teachers add to their cult of personality by providing enjoyment. Students love it, and they want to come back to the school. Parents love it because their children are happy and it seems like they are learning. The teacher loves it since he is earning more money and reputation. And the language school loves it too since they are securing repeat business and buffing their coffers. Yet it is clear the whole cycle is delusionally flawed, quality teaching is merely displaced by entertainment, parents are hoodwinked into believing class is actually doing something good for their children, and the language school are well-aware that such a method provides rich rewards.
Unfortunately these events are to the detriment of the student: they are learning nothing. It may be fun, but the academic goal that should be central to the whole process is somehow lost in the process. And this is just a single language school. Here in China there are many other schools most likely doing the same thing.
For my part, I try to do some quality teaching. Unfortunately too many students and their parents believe that the mere process of giving money to the language school in enough to secure linguistic proficiency. They send texts, and talk in Chinese, and play games consoles and mess around. They do not do any learning or studying: suffice to say, these things are quite important to improving language ability. It seems perhaps that entertainment even with a bit of teaching is the lesser of two evils.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Number-plate Fetishism...

It would be fair to say that I have a preternatural obsession with number plates. I recall fondly the implementation of the UK's new number plate system in 2000. From that point on, all newly-issued number plates began with a two letter prefix denoting where the car was from. So if the numberplate started with NY, it was from Stockton, North England. Or if it started with LA, it was from Wimbledon, London. Or at least this was the theory behind it. But because of the UKs small size, and the fluid nature of integration between cities, it is not entirely inconceivable a Londoner could go to Scotland to get a cheaper deal on car. Though the plate identifies the car as coming from Scotland, there is a Londoner driving it, and so there is less fun to be had in the detective work.

The ideogram on the left demarcates this car as originating from 苏州 (Suzhou, A province is South-Eastern China) Note the multiple 8s. Chinese superstition and love of this digit makes this number-plate one of the most expensive in Chinese history.

But China is a whole different ball game. Where many people have never left their provinces, generally speaking the prefix of the province on a car plate truly is where the owner is from. And China has such a massive range of different plates it is wonderful. Sections of the military, government, embassies, public institutions, all have their own prefixes. There is such a diversity it is fascinating and breathtaking. I nostalgically look back on a range of books from when I was younger called 'Michelin I Spy.' They were a wonderful collection of books, encouraging children to keep their eyes open looking out for the objects listed in the books. If someone could produce one related to Chinese number plates even I would buy one...A number plate goes on a car, Michelin tyres go on a car, Michelin produces the books; there must be something in this...
I make no excuses for my youthful love of cars, and the above book was no doubt my favourite one of the series

Because I find my eyes often trailing towards the number-plate area of a car, it means occasionally I find myself noticing strange things. One thing I noticed recently pertains to a certain brand of car called Infiniti. To give their brand that little edge, it seems they have started offering number-plate facades which deviate slightly from the norm.

Here the brand name is emblazoned upon a gold plaque

Here the customer has gone for the bling Swaroski look

And last but not least, the classic two-tone petrol style...

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Communist Propaganda, Capitalist Lifestyle...

During my time in China I have frequently seen Maoist style graphics reinvented within a modern context, each time used for different reasons, and leading to differing end-results.

Modern Chinese pop-art seems to be particularly adept at invoking symbols of communism and inverting them in order to mark out and delineate the change in China’s direction, political standpoints, and economy. Chinese art is awash with using this style of propaganda print as a form of contemporary cultural communication.

In advertising its use is also far from clear; often it gives artistic simplicity to the ad which presents a visual emphasis on the product on display, as well as adding a bold adding a bold desirability to the product on offer. Of course, the use of it within advertising is particularly interesting:a style formerly a tool for lauding communist ideologies reinvented as a tool of capitalism.

In other kinds of situations I have seen this style used in public messages and displays (non-governmental), presumably where the strength of simplicity still manages to fulfil original aims. I have seen it painted on the walls around schools, bringing up a kind of idealism to the educational environment, and on entrances to bars and restaurants frequented by older clientele where the propaganda style image brings up a different recollection to the younger generation.

The government also still invokes a kind of stylistic simplicity in it’s public messages which seems redolent of government messages from 40 years earlier. However, often certain colours are softened, figures are given more of a realism and the characters within the poster look forwards to give more of an amiable and less of a non-personal look to the image.

Maoist-era Propaganda

Modern-era propaganda stylism

Above I have noted a couple of contrasts (and similarities) between communist posters and contemporary propoganda style posters which I have come across in the last week. Note the eyeline focusing away from viewer, the striking simplicity in terms of design and colour. The first pair are posters intended as public encouragement posters. Of the later pair, the first is part of Nike's Running Assets Campaign (Wieden + Kennedy Shanghai), the second is a picture taken at the entrance to a building site.

For those interested in original style propoganda posters, there is a wonderful selection worth looking at here.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Busking in China

Recently met up with some friends around 798 Art District in Beijing, an interesting enough place which gives a good place to start if interested in getting some kind of understanding about Chinese art, even though the place is becoming increasingly commercialised.

The area is brimming with local artists of both the musical and artistic kind displaying their wares and strumming their tunes. By chance my friend had his guitar, and I had my bike. If ever the stage was more set for some impromptu busking, this was it.

We started off with a song we had invented more or less on the spot: slightly uninspired, lacking any strong or variable vocals, playing excessively upon repeated chords, and drawn together by three guys devoid of any discernible music talent. Nonetheless, it sounded O.K., and I think we were unlucky not to earn so much as 1 kuai. The lyrics translate roughly as "Tomu loves Zhongguo (China)", and "Shenlin loves Riben (Japan)"

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

State-Sponsored Graffiti

As I was returning back to my Chinese homestay family's house recently, I took a route slightly different to normal. I got a little lost, and ended up cycling past a (kind of) Great Wall of stenciled images and painted figures, all resplendent in colour. Graffiti walls are nothing remarkable. They are a feature of any major city I can recall having visited; a creative output for the artistic, a political output for the disillusioned, an illegalistic output for the subversive.
But after having passed the wall, I began turning something over in my head. For I had never seen graffiti in Beijing before. Perhaps as an attempt to assert dominance over the masses, stamp out individualistic expression, and re-enforce the strength of government, any graffiti is covered up and painted over as quickly as it is discovered. So I couldn't help myself but turn around and go back to take a second-look.

And it was more than worth it. The images are pro-China, in fact their profusion of feelings are not even subtle. But I find the contrast between images which on the surface have such an insouciance and freedom to them, and the underlying message of support for the government, disarming. Of course, China doesn't conform to anything which is imaginable in the West, but imagine a truce between graffiti artists and the local authorities to lay down pro-Conservative Party graffiti on British walls!

In this image a family is drawn together in harmony, expressing their positive outlook through the ubiquitous V-sign gesture, symbolising cheerfulness and indefatigability. Of particular interest, this model Chinese family is twisted slightly from the norm, two cute children lurking behind instead of the normal one. A clever subtle note of defiance from the graffiti artist?

Here we see three Chinese red lanterns, emblazoned with the golden figures "60", "周" and "年"

This indicates the time origins of the wall: 2009 - a celebration of 60 years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
Here there is a celebratory image of the successful Chinese space mission of 2003, which propelled China as the third-nation to enter space. There is a blissful innocence to the image, which discounts the globo-political motivation for the mission. Of further interest is the image of two astronauts next to each other. In fact, China has only sent one astronaut into space, Yang Liwei.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Who Holds the Power?

Last night the power went off at midnight. Which is nothing to get too upset about, except that no-one knew anything about it. Televisions and clocks reset, computers ran out of power, electrical appliances went uncharged, and freezers leaked all over the floor. About two minutes after it happened I angrily stormed down stairs to find out what was going on.
The security guard was sitting there, reading under candlelight. I asked if this was unexpected. He said that he knew it was going to happen due to engineering works. His supervisors had told him. It just so happened that him and his colleagues had not bothered to tell anyone else. Whether out of laziness, unwillingness to enter into conflict and anger, or orders from above; we were left, well, in the dark.
And what a marked difference this is from the UK, where a letter is sent out months in advance of any power cut (in fact this is a legal requirement). British Method: Warn before, deal with the consequences and complaints, then cut the power. Chinese method: Give no warning, cut the power, then shrug off the consequences and complaints saying that what's done is done and there is no going back.
Still, there were rare advantages. It was incredible to see all the student accommodation plunged into blackness; but even better still was to hear all the student accommodation plunged into silence. No televisions, no microwaves, no air conditioning, no speakers, no computers. Just the gentle brushing of the wind across the trees and through my window.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

What's a Gift and What's a Bribe?

When I originally intended to move from my home-stay family to live in accommodation at university halls of residence, I was quite convinced that I wanted to stay in a room of my own.Knowing that single rooms were in high demand and hoping to curry favour with the accommodations office, I gifted a box of Rose chocolates to sweeten the dialogue. The ruse worked, and I have hardly thought any more of it since.

Until my friend recently decided that he too would like to live in the Halls of Residence. On account of being in the middle of term time, and realising that single rooms would now be as rare as hens teeth, he took my idea and upped the ante a little, gifting a bottle of Japanese Saké. And it worked...

Furthermore, a Chinese friend recently showed me the gift which she was planning on giving to one university department with the intention of receiving favourable treatment in changing her major. As if the perfume were not enough, inside was a gift card for 2000RMB (£200)

In itself this gift card is of particular interest. There is no name attached to it, so it is clearly not for personal use like a credit/debit card. But it is also not the same as a store gift card (i.e. for sole use in HMV, Topshop, Waitrose...) Rather it is issued by a bank, to be used in the same way as a credit card, to be given as a gift, and which can only be topped up in large denominations. If ever there was a card more conducive to being given as a bribe (in lieu of cash, of course, which is too overt is its sinister implications) then this was it.

There is an interesting point to be made about what the difference is between a gift and a bribe. Is it dependent on some kind of fiscal trait? Or is it a moralistic difference based on intent? Perhaps it may be considered that a gift is given out of innocent kindness, whereas a bribe has the expectation of something in return. But this is no doubt an overly simplistic simplification, and it has also been said that nothing is a purely selfless act, and gift-giving provides feelings of self-contentment and one-upmanship. What if there is no devious intention at the outset, but the giving of gifts merely provides foundation for latter requests?

On this note, one thing I have heard suggested is that corruption is engrained within Chinese culture, as this "Perceived Corruption Index 2010" map illustrates. Perhaps time spent here has biased my stance and made me apologetic of Chinese faults, but it is important to remember that there are few world economies with such growth as China, as well as associated high inflation. Wages in public and government institutions often considerably trail the increase in the cost of living; and the gift/bribe culture is a simple way of compensating for such discrepancy.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Do your ears hang low, do they waggle to-and-fro?

China has often been labeled as an expert at imitation, a master at infringement of copyright law, and inept at nurturing it's own creative voice. During my time spent in China I have learnt that whilst the first two accusations do hold water, the later suggestion is simply not true. I have seen artistic innovation here which can only marveled at...

However, there are indeed times when even I am taken aback at the invocation of Western culture. On the radio yesterday I heard this song by a Taiwanese pop-hip-hop group. I couldn't help but notice how the first 30 seconds had a remarkable resemblance to a tune I heard quite a lot when I was younger. Well, they do say imitation is the finest form of flattery...

UPDATE (30/06/11): Just the other day I was watching an online television show, and this ad came on. It is ostensibly for 黄金酒 (Huangjiu, A Chinese alcoholic beverage particularly popular in southern China) Yet despite the poor quality of the clip, the tune used is unmistakably familiar. Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells...!

Friday, 6 May 2011

(Chinese Periodic Table) There's 锑,砷,铝,硒...

For those of you interested, the Chinese above is the first line from Tom Lehrer's song "The Elements".
"There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium.." and so on, a song which I became very familiar with when I was younger. I have fond recollection of an event revolving around the chemical elements when I was in my formative years. At this time I was perhaps 12 years old, and I had just moved from junior to senior school. For the first time, instead of having a mixed science class, the three sciences of chemistry along with physics and biology were segmented into specialised subjects.

The chemistry teacher set us a paper in the first class as an observation of our understanding of chemistry, and there was one question imploring us to "Write down any chemical elements that you know of." Most students managed 10, some perhaps 20. I tirelessly wrote down more than 80 elements, in the exact order and more-or-less the exact lyrics of Tom Lehrer's song. I will cherish the bemused and surprised look on the chemistry teacher's face for the rest of my life...

And this brings me on to the topic of this blog entry. See, when I left school I thought that I was done with chemistry, but recently I have started to develop quite an interest in the Chinese periodic table. A while back I suggested that new Chinese characters could not just be created out of no-where since most people would not understand them. Well, in fact, I was wrong. In very specialist cases they can be, and one example of this is the periodic table.

Early Chinese characters had already been found for the Five Traditional Metals: Gold, Silver, Copper, Iron and Tin; along with Lead and Mercury; but around the industrial age there was a need for the creation of characters to depict the recently isolated elements.
And the technique used is a fascinating one. Depending on the state of the element at room temperature, firstly one of 4 different radicals (this is not the sound part, it just contributes to the meaning) were used. 钅(metal/gold) for solid metals, 石 (stone) for solid non-metals, 氵(water) for liquids and 气 (air) for gases.

Some of the time a sound is then given which most of the time would correspond to the Western description of the element.
For Example: Sodium, depicted in the periodic table as Na, when translated into Chinese derives it sound from 内 and its metal state钅to make 钠. This is pronounced na in Chinese, an intentional similarity to Na

Aluminium, in the same way, utilises the character 吕 for the sound and pairs it with the metal radical 钅to make 铝. This pronounciation is , with strong correlations to Aluminum.

Other elements are purely meaning based. Hydrogen for example, since it is the lightest of elements, takes the character for light (轻) and pairs it with the radical for air (气)to give 氢.

One other kind of elements invokes a concept I mentioned in an earlier blog article, that of re-inventing obscure characters with a new meaning. The characters 镤,鈹 and 鉻 originally meant respectively "raw iron", "needle" and "hook", but these meanings have long been lost to most people and re-invented by chemists/translators as protactinium, beryllium and chromium.

So, to come to some sort of conclusion; it is in fact possible to invent new characters, but only under certain conditions. The creations must come to represent something which is agreed on and definitive. As a representation of Western elements already in some finite structurural template it is do-able, if it was an advertiser wanting to invent a word not so easy. And in today's technological climate there are some strange reprecussions. Tom Lehrer at the end of his song pointed out that
"These [elements] are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, there may be many others but they haven't been discovered."

And indeed, some of the newly discovered chemical elements, and new creation of characters for them are just new. Copernicum, for example. This is simply too new an element and character, so new that it has not been added to my Chinese input system. Even if I wanted to type it, there is simply no way of doing so. Good thing I'm not writing a paper in Chinese on the discovery of Copernicum...

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Chinese Internet Slang

My Chinese is starting to reach a level where I am interested in browsing internet forums. But Chinese slang is quite a barrier to fully understanding what is going on and what is being I thought I'd post just a few of the vast array of Chinese slang terms I've come across...

One thing which never ceases to fascinate me about the Chinese language is how the meaning of an obsolete or lesser used character may be reworked the into something else.

This character's actual meaning is "Abutilon Avicennae, a plant of the jute family." But the majority of the population (particularly youth) use it as is an emoticon meaning embarrassed or frustrated. That Chinese characters contain this inherent potential as proprietary internet symbols is remarkable. Perhaps you can work out what this character's alternative pop cultural meaning is :

Often slang usage shares similarities with Western usage. The phrase n多的 , where 多的 means "many of" simply comes to mean "a lot of something, a quantity to the power of n". Other memes invoke stories from Chinese history. The number 250 has the alternative meaning of "stupid". The story goes that a historical king put a bounty of 1000 gold pieces on the head of one of his rivals. 4 people came forward, all claiming that they had killed the rival. The incredulous king asked how all 4 of them could possibly have murdered him, and asked what should be done with the bounty. The 4 replied in tandem to split the money, 250 gold pieces each. The king, realizing the latent idiocy of the 4, ordered for them to be removed from his court and executed for deception. In this way the figure 250 has come to be mimetic of stupidity and thoughtlessness...

One other slang expression, admittedly rarely seen on internet forums, but of interest nonetheless is 5213344. The pronunciation "wu er yi san san si si" bears a strong resembleance to "wo ai ni sheng sheng shi shi" meaning "我爱你生生世世” In English: "I love you, you are my everything..." Try writing 5213344 in a text message or card to your partner and see the curious look on their face...

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Smile For Japan

As previously mentioned, I have a fair few Japanese friends in Beijing; most of them quite shaken up by the effects of the Sendai Earthquake, ensuing tsunami, and several aftershocks.
Two days ago my Japanese friend suggested a project to help out the Japanese people in the small way that he can: by canvassing the messages of support from Chinese and foreigners here in Beijing. Together we developed a plan to take a white board, ask people to write messages of support on it, and then take their pictures.

The weather has been beautiful the past couple of days so we started the project without hesitation; and the pair of us have taken pictures of messages of support in several areas in Beijing: Tiananmen Square, The Olympic complex, and several universities in the Wudaokou area.

It has been an experience far more interesting than I imagined. Many Chinese people harbour a deep respect and concern for Japan: most Chinese people asked if my friend's family was OK, taxi drivers gave free lifts when they heard about our project plans, and I never realised so many Chinese people could speak at least a little bit of Japanese.

Non-Asians were equally good in helping us fulfill our undertakings; and there were some very nice messages of support for Japan. Seeing is believing, and the uploaded YouTube video is well worth the time spent watching....

For anyone with an interest in my Japanese friend's blog it is well worth a look

Monday, 14 March 2011

What's in a Name?

Last September, when I was fresh off the plane in China, and just moved into the house of my homestay family; I was asked by my homestay mother (a teacher), whether I would be interested in teaching English to a group of Chinese schoolchildren from ages 5-7 in her local primary school. Eager to score brownie points with the family, and naturally interested in helping share my mother tongue, I agreed.

On the first day at the school, the Chinese teacher supervising my spoken English class asked me to take the register. I picked up the list of those who should be in class, and began to read out the names. Chinese names are generally constructed of 3 characters: the first character a surname, the last two characters the given name. I read the first surname, and then instantly became stumped on the given name. Those two characters I had never seen before, and I had no idea how to pronounce them. A familiar pattern came to emerge; that being I was often familiar with the surname, and completely ignorant to how to read, let alone pronounce, the given name. Clearly there was something going on here...

And as it turns out, there is. In Great Britain, the 100 most common surnames are found in around 20% of the population. Yet in China the top 100 surnames are found in more than 90% of the population. Even more; in a country the size of China, and with a population as numerable as it is, that means that a lot of people have the same surname. So in order to provide a unique and distinctive surname for their progeny, Chinese parents resort to choosing names rare and uncommon. In the UK this would be no particular problem; the Latin alphabetic denotation of the name explains more or less the pronunciation of lesser used names. But in China, where names are denoted by characters; those names which are denoted by rarer characters are simply unpronounceable unless the reader knows what that character is.
My Chinese name is given in this format: the surname is common, and the given name is rarer. When I first arrived in China I could not understand why teachers, and people who I showed my visa or student card to were unable to pronounce the Chinese characters. I assumed somewhat naively that they must not be as educated and learned in Chinese characters. But I was wrong; and recently having spoken to some of the brightest people in the country at Peking University, they assured me that they have just the same problem with many surnames: they are simply unable to pronounce the rare characters which make up the name.
Perhaps it is a poor reflection on me that it has taken this long to cotton on to the nature of Chinese names; but it leads me to think...Next time I complain about being rubbish at remembering what someone is called, I should spare a thought for the Chinese. One could be the brightest spark in the country and would still struggle with names...

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Do Chinese Characters Lack Creativity?

I have often heard people suggest that the Chinese lack creativity and imagination.In a country with such an overwhelming population, it is often considered career success can only be achieved through early academic excellence and hard-work leading to good university and afterwards a good job. Operating within this rigid structure, it seems inevitable that time spent engaging a creative side is at the detriment for scholastic achievement. The controversial New York Times article " Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" ( outlines a ritualistic lifestyle devoid of fun, with high arts forced upon children in the form of piano and violin lessons.
In fact I feel that such an impression Mainlanders are lacking is severely mistaken; and I have seen sights of beauty in China which have taken my breath away. Over the recent Chinese New Year I have taken a couple of pictures which illustrate as much. In fact the timing of these pictures is crucial: Chinese New Year is a distinctly Chinese festival and this creativity is locally cultivated, as opposed to potentially being some kind of imitation of Western Culture.

However, one thing which I have noticed during my time spent in China is the rigidity of Chinese characters and the inability to modify them as an expression of creativity. Chinese characters are pictorially beautiful, and each character contains a story and history within it that can be fascinating. But this can be a massive draw back...
I think that there is a time in learning every language where you start to have a childish interest in learning swear words. For someone learning English this is easy enough, and vulgar language is isolated into a form where they can only mean as much. If someone uses the F-word then the insinuations are obvious and there is no confusion that they may in fact have wanted to be polite. But China does not have a 26 character alphabet which creates an almost limitless scope for new word creation; characters must be used for there is no alternative. And so it comes to be that the two Chinese equivalents for the F-word 干 and 操, aside from their vulgar meaning, can respectively also mean tree-trunk, to work, dry, empty and to grasp, to do, to speak, exercise.
There is simply zero potential for the creation of new characters. Every character in existence already has some meaning or another. Of course, an individual could create their own Chinese character, but unless they were very high profile they would be unable to make it catch on. Lets suppose I was a Western advertising man and wanted to launch a coconut chocolate bar. Well I could perform a word synergy and call the new brand CocoaNut. The consumer may never have seen the word before, but the meaning is evident. But this creativity is simply impossible in China. You could of course put the characters for cocoa (可可) and coconut (椰子)next to each other, which is what the Chinese advertiser would no doubt do. But the idea of creating a new character which in itself encapsulates the product, is out of the question. No-one would understand what your product was and your chocolate bar would bomb.
One final solution for this advertiser would be to use one of the lesser known Chinese characters. Somewhere in the 80,000 characters in existence, there will be another far rarer character for coconut with a slightly different meaning, lets say "sweet coconut". That advertiser could use that character and try and re-work it's meaning as "chocolate coconut". But he would encounter almost an identical problem to creating his own character: the average Chinese person only knows 2,500 characters, so mass incomprehension of this obscure character is likely. And hence the product may once again bomb.
And this is the reason why the more common Chinese characters may mean so many different things: because somewhere along the timeline of Chinese history each common character has been overlaid with one new meaning after another. If there are only 2,500 common units of expression, but life's thousands of concepts to convey, then the status quo is inevitable.
Of course, there are exceptions. If you are powerful enough then you can get across new characters. The most recent change was changing Traditional Characters to Simplified Characters so the average Chinese person could remember them more easily. That man was Mao Zedong. Not everyone has his kind of power for change...

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Japan + China = Love + Hate

Okay,so I missed the boat when it came to writing a Valentine's Day themed blog entry; but I thought I would make amends by commenting on the strange relationship I've noticed between China and Japan whilst I've been here. As a child growing up the earliest memory I have of any exchange between Japan and China was the textbook controversy in which the Japanese government was accused of forcing ignorance upon its people of Japan's role in murdering Chinese during the Second Sino-Japanese war.

And so it comes that whilst here I have picked up on some intersesting things in the way Chinese people react to Japanese here in China. I do not want to get too profound or historical in anything I may say; I am simply pointing out the curiousness I have encountered.

My Japanese friends often assure me that they are detested by Chinese people; but I have rarely noticed any manifestation of this supposed contempt towards them. In one incident in Harbin, my Japanese friend and I were asked by the driver to get out of the cab on his learning of our nationalities (my friend subsequently became a Korean person for the rest of our time there!), yet outside of this there is nothing but fascination.

From Chinese comic stores where the owner wants to know which Japanese manga series would be worth importing for his store, to guys in a nightclub who want to know whether Japanese girls are interested in Chinese guys ( my Japanese friend says Taiwaners are wanted, mainlanders less so).

In another incident we went to 中关村 (Zhongguancun) to buy a external memory drive. My friend offered the peculiarly strange Japanese coin with a hole in the middle of it in an attempt to secure a cheaper price. I thought we might be laughed away. Instead the Chinese seller asked if we had any more.

Last semesters' Chinese father took up an anti-Japanese stance; yet both of his cars were Toyotas. For all his words; when push came to shove Japan seemed too enticing. He comically tried to explain the cars were made in Chinese factories, but his explanation didn't cut the mustard with me! Perhaps he took the anti-Japanese standpoint; but I heavily doubt any Japanese national has done anything against him personally.

These and innumerable other incidents leads me to believe that Chinese people are fascinated by Japanese people; and in China see them as representative of a wealthy culture which they would love to imitate/be a part of. Any supposed hatred seems one of two things:a cultural knee-jerk reaction stemming from generations' old history, or a way of subverting envy and masking inferiority complex.

I have quite a lot of love for Japan. I think China also has a secret crush...

Monday, 14 February 2011

China Post

Many things in China are far from simple. If you are a Chinese person an inconvenience. If you are a Westerner impossible. And if you are a student of Mandarin, a daily test of language skills and patience. The postal system is a paradigm of the Chinese way. And I only wanted to send some presents to my sister for her birthday.

First of all you need to take your items unwrapped down to the post office so the permissible and and disallowed items can be separated. Afterwards there comes a period of debating why the disallowed items cannot be sent. I had bought my sister a bar of Tesco value chocolate in the Chinese version of the store. Based on the milk content in the bar it wasn't going anywhere (no bad thing: when I got home I had a taste and it was disgusting) If you are persuasive you can move some of the disallowed items into the permissible category. And if you are sneaky you can surreptitiously slip in some of the disallowed items anyway. Next time I think it might be easier to just slip a 100RMB note!

Thank goodness the chocolate didn't make the cut

After this you move onto the weighing section; and you are offered the different postal methods and postage time. Unfortunately the weighing section seems to have a different pricing structure to the the pay kiosks. I have observed that Chinese people don't like losing face; and I think this is a cultural thing. I don't want to make overly simplistic generalisations; but I have encountered Chinese people who lie to you rather than accept they don't know the answer. And in the post office I was told the most expensive EMS service would cost 400RMB. It would take 5 days to get to the UK so I thought it was money well spent. But when I moved to the pay kiosk to pay they told me that it would in fact cost more than double that.

800RMB seems to me prohibitively expensive. It is unfair to compare the cost of international postage from China with the cost of living in China since the worldwide postal system exsists within an Western-skewed price structure. Yet even so. They had a cheap service which would take about 2 months. But that seemed too long. They insisted there was no other way. Until I pleaded; and then they miraculously discovered a 2 week service for 300RMB. I wish they had the postal services on offer written down for clear consumption. But China is not yet this simple. Paid my money and got out.

In conclusion, giving birthday presents to those back home is an expensive exercise: luckily I quite like my sister. Presents. £50. Postage. £30. Yet in the immortal words of Mastercard - giving happiness to those you love. Priceless.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Snow in Beijing

I am quite a big cycling fan. Passionate cycling fan. And this morning I was planning on going out on the ride with the people from the expat club ( here in Beijing. Laid out my cycling kit the night previous; and set my alarm to 7:30. I was torn between the physical desire to fall straight back to sleep, and my mental desire to get fulfillment out of the day. Bleary-eyed I got out of bed and began to get ready, when I figured I might as well look out the window. Roads and buildings completely covered in freshly-fallen snow. I wasn't going anywhere, even if I had wanted to. Deus ex machina and I climbed back in to bed. But not before I had taken this picture from my window. One advantage of getting up early at least. A snow scene with no footprints: unadulterated white goodness. I spent last semester living with a Chinese family; and my Chinese father said that snow on Beijing gave a real glossiness to the city; and changed the atmosphere entirely. I can't help but agree; and the usually grey buildings of my campus have been transformed into something of a iced idyll. Too bad it's too cold outside to actually enjoy it close up...

Setting Up a Blog

I have written a blog before. But this was a while back now. I'm in China; yet time is going pretty quickly. "Life goes pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while you could miss it"*. And in this vain I would like to at least document something of my time spent here in Asia; and the people I meet along the way. It may be not much; but it will remind me of my time spent in the Orient when I inevitably return home. As much for me as for anyone else; I will nonetheless be delighted if anyone is interested in even one sentence of what I've written. Enjoy

*Ferris Bueller