Saturday, March 14, 2009

List of the Month - 10 things China excels at

While I'm in this curmudgeonly, fenwai state of mind....

10 Things China Is Really Good At

1) Inventing stuff (but then not fully developing or utilizing it)
China anticipated the rest of the world in inventing paper and the printing press, yet never achieved mass literacy. First to invent gunpowder, but never made that much progress with artillery and rocketry. Invented the compass, but never did much maritime exploration. Strange.

2) Failing to invent stuff
Like an alphabet. Really, how hard is that? The Koreans managed to transform their character-based system into a very serviceable syllabic alphabet nearly 600 years ago. Amongst the reasons why China still hasn't achieved a high level of literacy....

3) Discovering stuff (but then forgetting about it, or not telling anyone)
The great pioneering voyages of Zheng He ("pretty tall for a eunuch!") were never followed up on. If you believe Gavin Menzies, he even discovered America, but then "forgot" about it. Of course, nobody does believe Menzies.....

4) Claiming credit for other people's work
China likes to claim that it developed the atom bomb independently, when in fact it just bought the technology wholesale from Russia (which in turn had stolen it). It also likes to claim that it liberated itself from Japanese invaders and brought WWII to an end in the Pacific theatre; the American campaign in the Pacific, the atomic bombs, the signing of the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri - this is all rather glossed over.

5) Forgetting its own history (sometimes)
1989? Nothing much happened that year, did it? 1966? A good year for the roses?

6) Clinging tenaciously to its history (at other times)
Gosh, yes - Xinjiang and Tibet have been "part of China" since the Yuan Dynasty, don't you know?

7) "Assimilating" invaders
The Mongols conquered China. Therefore Mongolia became retroactively a "part of China". Most Chinese like to think that Genghis Khan was Chinese. Incredible. Same deal with the last Chinese Empire, the Qing Dynasty, which ruled from 1644-1912: they were outside invaders from Manchuria; but they became "Chinese" by the act of invading. That should really make anyone think twice about invading China!

8) Paranoia, conspiracy theory, and bearing grudges
The bombing of their Embassy in Sarajevo was a 'secret plot' to humiliate the Chinese. And they are never going to forgive the US for it. They just don't buy the "cock-up" theory of history. Western sympathy for the Dalai Lama is a conspiracy to dismember China. The sack of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing is still very much a live issue and an ongoing source of grievance nearly 150 years after the event. Etc., etc., etc.

9) Doublethink
Many Chinese - the fenqing, at any rate - are capable of disowning Genghis Khan's Mongols when you point out that they were a bunch of murdering pillaging bastards who laid waste to half a continent; but then reclaiming them when they remember that they created the "Chinese" empire that included Xinjiang and Tibet. Mongolia had historically "always" been "part of China", yet was allowed to retain its independence from China (asserted since 1911) at the end of World War II, after a referendum; this has never been (and will never be!) an option for Xinjiang or Tibet; no inconsistency there. Etc., etc., etc.

10) Boring its population into acquiescence
The National People's Congress has been meeting this week, so there have been a lot of interviews and political speeches on TV. Chinese political rhetoric is a thing of wonder, truly: no emotion, no variation of pace or tone, little or no meaningful content..... and very, very, VERY long-winded. A cruel and unusual punishment.

OK, I'm done. For now.


Anonymous said...

"Therefore Mongolia became retroactively a "part of China"."

And Britain, France, Japan, etc are, unbeknown to themselves, currently undergoing assimilation into the greater Chinese empire.

Sounds like we've got sound claims for citizenship.

FionaJane said...

You sound like you need a holiday!

Anonymous said...

Allow me to add another couple of things China is really good at (in the past and in the present):

-Oppression and ultimately, destruction of their own (Chinese) people: Hitler and Stalin racked up a lot of kills too, but a lot of them were international kills during wartime. Mao\\\\\\\'s brutal policies hurt nobody except his own people. I don\\\\\\\'t know about you, but if I was a brutal dictator who felt like killing some people, I would rather kill someone who lives overseas and has a different skin color than mine. To enact policies that lead to the death of my own, well that is just silly isnt it?

-Internet and media censorship: Chinese people often claim western media is also censored, and they are correct. To a degree.

Nothing can match Chinas oppressive censorship regimes though, and they know it, even if they dont admit it.

-To further add, I would to expand on your bearing grudges point:

Nothing unites all Chinese people more than their shared hatred of Japan. At this rate, apologies from Japan wont be enough. The Chinese want JAPANESE HEADS SERVED TO THEM ON A SILVER PLATTER.

Never mind that the WW2 Japanese generation has died out. Never let facts and reason get in the way of a good Japanese-bashing.

I might sound like I am exaggerating. But its the simple truth.

Anonymous said...

You literally know nothing about Chinese language. By romanization of Chinese characters will destroy Chinese culture, and high level of illiteracy has nothing to do with Chinese unique system of writing.

Froog said...

Did you see the request for 'non-anonymous' posting, Anonymous?

I know quite a bit about the Chinese language. And I appreciate the aesthetic qualities of its writing system.

However, I think most philologists, educationalists, cognitive psychologists, etc. would agree that the Chinese writing system does create a huge "barrier to entry" - even for people growing up with it as a first language.

The high level of illiteracy in China has a lot to do with the writing system. If the same proportion of the population received the same numbers of hours of schooling in their native language almost anywhere else in the world, you would find much higher levels of literacy.

I agree it would be very sad that much would be lost from "Chinese culture" if the writing system became just an art hobby of calligraphy rather than the mainstream of daily communication; but I think much more would be gained in terms of Mandarin becoming easier to learn (for Chinese and foreigners alike), and in terms of its being able to adapt and grow and improve as a language. Lu Xun and many other Chinese scholars have been of my view on this.

moonrat said...

for my two cents re: language: i think it's really interesting that most cultures way, way back had pictographic writing systems that were eventually simplified into alphabets, while china "clung tenaciously" (to borrow your phrase) to the picto/ideographs, honed/developed/codified them. you should get pacatrue to pitch in on this--i'm sure there's something scientific/data-driven that can be said about alphabetical languages and ease of literacy assimilation.

but if you want to look at purely ridiculous... try japan. they HAVE the alphabets and STILL use the characters. the history of the development of the japanese writing system is just so fantastic that i can't tell it here; i'd lose all credibility.

must mention... a difference between japan and china in terms of literacy development has to come down to the fact that the japanese population is (essentially) monolingual, while there are bajillions of dialects and languages in china. it does seem in the interest of a country with that many diverse linguistic/ethnic/cultural groups to have a relatively simply acquired national language.

(like english is so, so easy.)

Froog said...

Ah, Moonie, how nice to have you back!

I did try to learn some Japanese once, but I know little of the development of its writing system. I feel another 'Wikipedia moment' coming on.

It's often said - somewhat of a 'conspiracy theory', you might say, but I think it's suggested in earnest and might well have some truth in it - that the ruling elites in Imperial China resisted any attempt to simplify the writing system (although I've never heard of anyone trying to develop something like the Korean hangul for China) because restricting the accessibility of literacy was a key element of social control.

Anonymous said...

I just wrote a post about your comment on Chinese writing system.

You are wrong.

Tommy said...

"You literally know nothing about Chinese language. By romanization of Chinese characters will destroy Chinese culture, and high level of illiteracy has nothing to do with Chinese unique system of writing."

Destroy Chinese culture? Did the adoption of romanization destroy Vietnamese culture? Is Korea less culturally rich because of it? Would Taiwan be less rich if people ditched characters for zhuyin? No.

Even my Chinese teacher, who was a professor at a large Beijing university, says that the Chinese writing system is needlessly complex. The grammar rules may be simpler, but the written language is incredibly impractical for learners. Why do you think the simplified characters were adopted in the first place?

With a good alphabet, you can learn to read as soon as you get a handle on what sounds the letters make when paired. With a character system like Chinese, you have to memorize thousands of characters before you have a hope of really understanding simple articles -- which is one reason I don't see Chinese supplanting English anytime soon as a lingua franca.

Gilman Grundy said...

Some things which us foreigners are great at:

1) Homosexuality - we invented it, apparently. At least that's what (based on an informal survey of bar girls, university students and taxi drivers) the majority of the Chinese public think.

2) Infectious diseases - SARS was a bio-weapons project created by the CIA, or so I'm told.

3) Racism - Didn't exist in China before we brought it there apparently. Now, you might be able to look at the history books and see that various racial groups discriminated against others during China's history, but that just shows how little you understand China.

4) Doing everything bad that ever happened to China.

5) Stealing China's mojo.

Anonymous said...

"Destroy Chinese culture? Did the adoption of romanization destroy Vietnamese culture? Is Korea less culturally rich because of it? Would Taiwan be less rich if people ditched characters for zhuyin? No."

Yes! All the historic scriptures and literature will be obliterated. That's culture.

Will Shakespeare still reads as enjoyable if the English alphabets changed?

"Even my Chinese teacher, who was a professor at a large Beijing university, says that the Chinese writing system is needlessly complex. The grammar rules may be simpler, but the written language is incredibly impractical for learners. Why do you think the simplified characters were adopted in the first place?"

Who is this loony professor? Chinese writing system is only difficult for lazy foreign learners. For primary school students in both mainland China and Taiwan, learning to write is not difficult at all. Their examinations rarely test how many words they have learned to write. English course is their headache instead.

Froog said...

I hope "loony" and "lazy" were conscious jokes and not just knee-jerk abuse, TW.

Most people, unfortunately, can't understand and enjoy Shakespeare anyway. Sure, he would become even less accessible if the alphabet were changed. But there would always be scholars who preserved the understanding of the old system, and produced translations or transliterations into the modern system. Literary culture doesn't get "obliterated" by changes in the language or the writing system. (Luckily, there isn't any pressure for change to the Roman alphabet, because it's such a good system - hence surviving for over 2,000 years and being adopted all around the world.)

Your last paragraph, TW, is a bit vague and confusing. Are you saying Chinese is "easy" to learn only by comparison with English? (Not surprising, since English is not the native language.) Or only because it is not so rigorously tested?? (So, not actually easier, just less stressful because of less exam pressure?) Most Chinese I know say that they found it very hard to learn the writing system when they were kids - a lot of boring, laborious effort, and a lot of stress.

Anonymous said...

I just replied your questions on my blog, come and check it out

By the way, when you leave a comment next time on my blog, will you consider fill in your blog address so that more people could link from my site to yours?

Froog said...

No disrespect, TW, but I'm not sure that I want people coming over from your site to mine. I guess you get a lot more Chinese readers than me, and some of those are likely to be the angry and abusive types I complained of in my 'famous' post the other day.

I think of this blog as a private little recreation room. I don't want it to become another Peking Duck!!

I'll come and check out your comments in a moment. Thanks for letting me know.

Anonymous said...

Wrong guess. 99% of my readers are not Chinese.

With regard to my post about Chinese language, so far, two native speakers who commented on your reply disagree with your opinion, and they all have some knowledge about Chinese.

Froog said...

Really? No Chinese readers at all? How do you know that?? Well, you can't be too careful, anyway.

One of those guys on your thread is not a native speaker: Chinese, born in China, though lived in the States a long time and changed citizenship.

And the other has a Chinese wife and has put a lot of effort into learning Mandarin. That does tend to make people a little biased in favour of the language. ("I just spent 500 hours learning characters! The Chinese government had better not phase them out any time soon!")

And they don't disagree with all my points. They mainly seem to be objecting to the practicality of pinyin. Arguing about the treatment isn't the same as denying the diagnosis.

I have my opinion. It is based on sound arguments. It differs from your opinion. No matter how many people you manage to find who appear to partly agree with your opinion, it isn't going to change mine. And I don't suppose I'm going to change yours either.

So, let's leave it at that, shall we? Interesting up to a point, but I think it's all played out.

Anonymous said...

"No Chinese readers at all? How do you know that?"

I use a wordpress plugin for site traffic statistics -- firestats.

500 hours is by no means enough to master a language -- any language.

"Arguing about the treatment isn't the same as denying the diagnosis."

How strange. When did they agree with your diagnosis?

"It is based on sound arguments."

How sound can your arguments be when you know so little about Chinese language?

Froog said...


Really - you have a traffic monitoring tool that can identify the native language of your readers? Must be some kind of TCM thing.

I didn't say 500 hours was enough to master a language. Read more carefully. It was a random figure I plucked out of the air to represent the amount of time that a very dedicated foreign learner of Chinese might spend over the course of a year or two or three just trying to master the characters alone (making the point that it is a hell of a lot of time to devote to something that's not really worth the effort, especially if the writing system succumbs to the forces of evolution within the next few decades).

Go and take a course in logic. I didn't say they agreed with my diagnosis. I just said they didn't talk about it.

Sound arguments are based on logic rather than knowledge of Chinese. I do know quite a bit about Chinese, and an awful lot of comparative linguistics. The latter is what you need to form opinions about the likely future development of languages.

Now let's call this a day, please. You're starting to annoy me. We disagree on this point - fine. But you don't really have anything to say on it, other than that you just don't get the points I'm making about it or don't believe them. OK, end of discussion.

Anonymous said...

Actually,in 1951,Mao said:"汉字必须改革,要走世界文字共同的拼音方向.",which means that Chinese language should be reformed to using alphabets instead of characters.Alphabetic writing was once used in Wanrong,Shanxi Province around 1960.

I strongly disagree to transform our language into a modern artificial alphabetic replacement.I had my first English class 12 years ago in 7th grade and with countless more ours for this language.You can see the result and please do not let my "fenqing" friends at last have a chance to abuse the "arrogant" laughing-at-our-english foreigners:).Believe me,learning English to me is just as hard as learning Chinese to your foreigners.So I think the truth is that Froog took our beautiful non-alphabetic characters as an excuse for not studying hard enough:).

Froog said...

Thanks for the Mao quotation. Maybe that was part of the "30% wrong". The CCP seems to have abandoned the idea these days (although I believe it is still in theory an official policy goal).

Anonymous said...

I strongly disagree to transform Chinese characters into artificial alphabetic .
First, Chinese characters reprent Chinese culture and Chinese history.

Second, there are a lot of homophones in Chinese. So, Pinyin can not replace Chinese characters.

Anonymous said...

About Chinese history, I think you just judge according to western view. But Chinese viewpoit is different. You should understand why Chinese think so (based on the Chinese culture. ) rather than say Chinese are wrong.

Froog said...

I didn't say Chinese were "wrong". Only ill-informed, illogical, and inconsistent. That probably does add up to "wrong", but I didn't actually say that.

And I don't think that's a question of "Western perspective"; it's just a question of being able to think clearly.

Froog said...

You'll find much more about whether pinyin can replace the character system on ThinkWeird's post about that:

My suggestion is that if you used a writing system that enabled you to represent how people actually talk with more accuracy and detail, then a lot of the homophones would gradually become differentiated in their pronunciation.

The ridiculous number of homophones in Chinese is one of the major shortcomings of the language (spoken Chinese often becomes unintelligible, or, at best, prone to unintended and unfortunate puns). And I believe the character-based writing system is at least partly responsible for this.

Anonymous said...

A funny poem, can English do like this?


RE 这个有志青年是个好同志失恋了不失魂落魄自暴自弃颇有男儿气度

Froog said...

Concrete poetry? Yes. Intentional puns? Yes.

Unavoidable puns, we're not so keen on.

Can Chinese do palindromes? Probably not.

Go and read Jabberwocky. Can Chinese do that? (Or A Clockwork Orange, or the middle sections of Cloud Atlas or..... any one of hundreds of English fiction works that use dialect or composite languages or entirely invented languages.) NO.

Anonymous said...

You do not like Chinese, it's fine. You do not want to learn Chinese, it doesen't matter. However, it's not necessary to disgrace/judge Chinese. As for me, I respect every culture even I do not truly understand.

Froog said...

Well, then, Anon, learn to respect the culture of critical analysis - which we cherish in the West, but which is rather undernourished in China. Comment and criticism (even adverse criticism) bring no disgrace and need not imply any disrespect; but they do provide the opportunity for fuller understanding of the world, and perhaps open a path to change and improvement.

Anonymous said...

Really? It seems UK follows US in every aspect.

Froog said...

"Anonymous" -

Please note the request on the comment form for you to identify yourself somehow. You don't have to give your real name, but choose a screen name that allows us to distinguish you from other "anonymouses".

Please note that this is a very old thread now, and you really ought to go and read (and comment on) something else.

Please note that comment-threads are supposed to be a 'conversation', with some kind of linear logic to them. Your last comment bears no relation to mine, or to anything else on this thread. Such complete non-sequiturs bug the crap out of me (not the point itself, just that it's got nothing to do with anything we were talking about), and in future I will "harmonize" them.

Thank you for your attention.