Monday, July 23, 2007


I ran into one of my favourite former students by happy accident this Saturday afternoon.

She was giving her American boss a little tour of my neighbourhood. We stepped into a nearby restaurant for a drink and a chat on their roof terrace.

At one point, she observed rather bitterly that "One of the reasons foreigners love China so much is that it gives them the chance to be judgemental all the time."

I can see her point. It must get rather wearing to be constantly hearing so much criticism from visitors to the country. Heck, we are all guilty of it from time to time. And many foreigners, I fear, do whinge and condemn rather too relentlessly, without much insight or any sense of tact.

However, I do also feel that my student was exhibiting here a rather too common Chinese reaction of being over-sensitive, over-defensive. The Chinese, alas, are generally very intolerant of criticism: they tend to view it always as unwarranted condemnation, even when it is constructive and justified. Indeed, they are apt to take offence at even quite innocent observations on their country and culture; on occasions where clearly no offence was intended, nor could even be reasonably inferred. Conversations with Chinese friends can be quite a cultural minefield.

Her boss and I smiled when she went on to suggest that this wasn't something we'd do at home. Oh, no - we do it all the time, everywhere, about everything. Yes, we probably overdo it sometimes; perhaps carping criticism does become a knee-jerk - always accentuating the negative, and denigrating the positive.

But this does seem to be something that is too seldom found in China - a tradition of critical thinking and open discussion. To observe, analyse, and form judgements is a good thing. The word 'judgemental' only acquires a negative connotation when the judgements made are inaccurate or unjust, excessively negative, hypocritical, insensitive, or derived from an inadequate knowledge base.

So, sorry - but China is a PFU country: there is lots to criticise here. We foreign guests in the country would probably criticise it a lot less if the Chinese themselves were able to criticise it more.


Anonymous said...

My sister asked me how I could go back for another year when all I do it criticize everything about it. And I told her it's more fun to complain about the things that drive you nuts, than to be nice.

My students were always shocked when they'd say something bad about America and I agreed with them. They always expected me to defend every little thing about it, to which I'd laugh.

Froog said...

Yes, one of the most disturbing things I find about the typical Chinese mindset is that there seems to be no differentiation between the country, the people, and the state/government. If you disparage Hu Jintao, you are taken to be insulting the whole 5,000 years of Chinese history and culture and every individual Chinese person alive.

That's quite a trick the CPC has pulled off there (through its control of the education system and the media, I suppose - although I suspect that the roots of this Chinese 'patriotism' are much older and deeper).

I used to think that America was the most fiercely patriotic country in the world - but you guys are really quite restrained compared to the Chinese.

I am usually very wary of being too 'offensive' in this blog, but.... I've had it in mind for a while to write a post (or a whole series) of posts) on Why Chinese food sucks. I think the time may now have come; I feel in the need of a bit of a cathartic vent.

Anonymous said...

Probably incorrectly spelled more frequently than any other word I have come across. Guilty of this myself.

I remember screaming to a roommate one day that the morons who were making the headlines for a newscast on the tele couldn't even spell Judgement!

He pointed out that it was Judgment and I have felt it my duty to do the same from that day forward.

Probably wouldn't have said anything if this had been a recent post, but way back here, its kinda like pointing out to a mate that he missed a loop when putting on his belt.

Froog said...

Says who?

Every authoritative dictionary allows both spellings, and my impression is that 'judgemental' continues to be slightly the more common.

I don't have access to the OED, so can't check the etymology in detail, but I rather suspect that the shorter version is more recent, probably an American simplification (along the lines of 'favor' for 'favour', etc.).

I'm not sure if this is a British/US distinction; and I don't really care. 'Judgment' just feels wrong to me: ugly (three consonants together, never good), unnecessary, illogical.

Anonymous said...

It always felt wrong to me as well and now I am furious. I just typed out some sentences on my word processor and it indicated that both judgement and judgemental were misspelled.

The OED is the standard, and sure enough, judgement and judgment are both acceptable.

Also, found this interesting link about it:

Well, maybe only interesting to me as I wish I could now go back in time about 10 years and yell "HA! I WAS RIGHT!" to my roommate and undo all the corrections I have forced upon people over the years!

Disregard, on second glance, your belt is fine.

Froog said...

Thanks for that link there, Hopfrog.

I'm really spooked about that thing about English judges passing judgment. I was a lawyer once, and, although long out of the game, it bothers me that I don't ever recall having come across that particular linguistic oddity. I am inclined to doubt the sources who claim that.