Friday, December 25, 2009

圣诞快乐 (Merry Christmas)

It was christmas yesterday, but as usual living in China I have not really celebrated it.

Christmas is of course not a public holiday in China (it's amazing how many Westeners still find this surprising when I tell them), since it is not a traditional Chinese holiday. However, in Chinese cities it has now become impossible not to notice when christmas is coming up. Although the level of excitment over christmas is not nearly as high as it is in the West, the Chinese are also increasingly aware of it, at least in big cities. Shops and restaurants often display signs saying "merry christmas" in English or in Chinese and christmas decorations, and I have seen some christmas trees in shopping malls and public places. I have also attended a couple of christmas shows held by a university department and a high school. I have even seen waiters in restaurants wearing santa claus hats. Of course, for most Chinese people in practice christmas doesn't mean very much, not least because it is a working day. Last year my Chinese teacher initially set an exam on christmas day, although after all the foreign students complained it was moved to the 26th (at that point some people tried to complain again, but luckily and quite rightly the teacher took no notice).

The Chinese name for christmas is 圣诞节 (shengdanjie), meaning the "holiday for the birth of the saint". Even so, I am doubtful that many Chinese even know what is actually being celebrated at christmas. The exception to this of course is the minority of Chinese christians. For most Chinese it is simply a Western holiday, and so it is considered of interest and worth imitating. In recent years the Chinese have become more and more aware of all Western (or at least Anglo-Saxon) festivals, from Hallowen to St. Valentine's day. The funniest thing is when Chinese friends wish me a happy thanksgiving day, not realizing that it is only an American holiday, and that people in Europe are hardly even aware of it. However, I am glad to see that the main holidays in China remain the traditional Chinese ones. The biggest Chinese festival, the real equivalent of what christmas is for the West, remains the Chinese New Year, and I hope it stays that way. It would be so boring if the whole world started celebrating the same holidays.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What are the prospects for Chinese becoming an international language?

The "Beijing Center for the Promotion of Chinese overseas" has started a recruitment drive to find young Chinese volunteer teachers who could teach the Chinese language in other Asian countries. They will pick a total of 300 people in Beijing to join a total of 1000 to 1500 Chinese teachers who will go to countries like Thailand and the Phillipines to teach Chinese. In some Asian countries, like Thailand, teaching Chinese is now a compulsory part of primary education.

China's rise on the world stage has predictably given rise to a huge increase in interest for learning Chinese among non-Chinese people. Asian countries near China are the ones most affected by this phenomenon, although it is also present in the rest of the world. It was estimated by the Chinese minstry of Education that by 2010 there will be 100 million non-Chinese people learning the language of Confucius worldwide. The prime minister of Australia Kevin Rudd is proud of being able to speak fluent Chinese, and I am sure there will soon be other similar examples. The Chinese government is clearly aware of how beneficial it will be for China if people around the world learn Chinese, and is doing its best to promote this. In 2004 it set up the Confucius Institute, a public organ whose aim is to promote the Chinese language and culture worldwide. It currently has set up 282 institutes in 88 countries. The government is also handing out scholarships to foreigners to come to China and study how to teach Chinese as a foreign language, with the aim that they will then go back to their countries and teach it.

The Chinese which is being learned around the world is of course 普通话 (Putonghua), known in English as Mandarin Chinese. This kind of Chinese, the official language of the People's Republic of China, is also gaining ground in the large Chinese communities in South-East Asia, which traditionally speak Southern Dialects of Chinese. In Singapore, whose people are mostly of Chinese origin, the government is actively promoting Mandarin at the expense of the other dialects, seeing it as the language of the future. And in Hong Kong, which when it was governed by Britain only used Cantonese Chinese, more and more people are learning Mandarin.

Of course, interest in learning a language tends to rise as the power of the country where it is spoken rises, and Chinese is no exception. The widely held perception in the rest of the world that China is on its way to become a superpower is what is fueling this sudden passion for learning Chinese. The real reason for the global dominance of English lies of course in the fact that it is spoken in the United States, although incredibly there are people who are genuinely convinced that English gained its current status as a lingua franca for being easy to learn. As a language becomes more widely learned, the country where it is spoken gains further advantages, being able to export its culture, music and films more easily, and increase its soft power. The Chinese government is clearly aware of this, and is doing its best to export its language. This is quite normal, and legitimate.

Is there any chance that in the future Chinese might replace English as a kind of global lingua franca? Personally I find it hard to believe that Chinese will ever come to be widely known by the general public in the West, although one never knows. Apart from anything, it is so much more easier for speakers of European languages to learn English, or Spanish, or any other European language. What I could maybe see happening is Chinese becoming a kind of lingua franca for East Asia, which is where there is the most interest for learning Chinese. After all, English is not much easier to learn than Chinese for the average Korean or Cambodian, and in fact some other Asian languages (specifically Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese) have borrowed heavily from Chinese in the past, so part of the vocabulary is similar. Knowledge of English has never really become very widespread among the masses of East Asia, with the exception of the Phillipinnes and maybe Malaysia and Singapore, which are former colonies of the USA or Britain.

But isn't the Chinese writing system too difficult for it to become widely known worldwide? The fact is that learning the Chinese alphabet is hard, but not as hard as many imagine. It is possible to learn to recognize the few thousand characters one needs to know to read an ordinary Chinese text within a couple of years if one lives in China, and even not living in China it is still not that prohibitive, especially starting as a child. Learning to write by hand is more difficult than just learning to read, but nowadays computers make writing by hand less of a necessity. Of course learning Chinese would be difficult, especially for school children who don't live in China, but then isn't learning English terribly difficult for Asians too? How many years do Chinese students struggle with English before gaining any kind of fluency? And how many of them never do? Plus the extremely illogical nature of English spelling means that in a sense the spelling of every English word has to be learnt by heart, just like every Chinese character. Of course it's not the same, but it does mean that English children take longer to learn to write than any other children in Europe, and this hasn't stopped English from gaining its huge worldwide popularity.
Coming to spoken Chinese, I can only say that in my Beijing university I am already using my very bad spoken Chinese to communicate with some of the foreign students who come from places like Thailand or Kyrgizstan, who don't know English but have learnt Chinese. They use it to communicate with each other as well, and they seem to manage just fine, despite the general misuse or lack of tones.

The fact is that when a language has a powerful country and culture behind it, and it is perceived as useful or even necessary, then there will be people who will suddenly be able to learn it, no matter how difficult it is. Keeping this in mind, it's not impossible to imagine that one day even in the West knowledge of Chinese might become relatively widespread, at least among the elite.

The Taiwanese pop group S.H.E. have made a song in honour of the increasing international importance of their language. It's called 中国话 (Zhongguo Hua), and you can hear it here, although there are no English subtitles.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The lethal injection to replace the firing squad

The north-eastern province of Liaoning has become the first Chinese province to make lethal injections the standard way of executing criminals, rather than firing squads. The Higher People’s Court of the province stated on its website that “lethal injection can reduce the fear and suffering experienced by criminals. (…) It is a symbol of progress and civilization, and also serves to punish criminals”. This seems to be part of a general trend. It was reported in June that lethal injections will eventually become the only method of execution of criminals in China, completely replacing firing squads. The director of the Supreme People's Court was quoted as saying that this method for terminating a person's life is "cleaner, safer and more convenient", and also more humane. Even in this area China is obviously falling more in line with international standards, or at least with American ones.

Public executions of criminals have also pretty much ceased in the last few years, and the death penalty in general is being handed out less and less freely. Even so, it is clear that we are still a long way away from abolition. Serious crimes like murder are still most often punished by death. What's more, even very serious cases of corruption and other crimes not involving direct murder can be dealt with through the death penalty, including even drug dealing. This year, two executives from the Sanlu group were sentenced to death for their part in the melamine-tainted milk scandal which caused the death of at least six children. Just a few days ago, an official was executed for pocketing staggering amounts of Yuan illegally. To be fair, only the most severe cases of corruption are dealt with this way, the ones which in the United States might attract sentences of decades in prison. And after all, by now the Chinese application of the death penalty is in some ways more "civilized" than it is in the US. At least there aren't any public executions any longer, while in the US every execution is still public in some sense, since the relatives of the victim are invited to watch.

Personally I am dead against the death penalty (no pun intended). However, I realize that if I were Chinese I would probably be in favour. Most of the Chinese people I have asked about the issue seem to consider the death penalty a natural way of dealing with serious crime (having said that, I have encountered one or two exceptions). Many people are also clearly not aware that this penalty no longer exists in many other countries. A Chinese girl who I had a language exchange with a few years ago in my university in Britain was quite surprised when I told her that the death penalty no longer exists in the UK, even though she had lived there for a few years. A very intelligent Chinese student (now studying in Canada) who I discussed the issue with last year told me that since China has so many people, "extreme laws" are necessary to keep order. Invoking the huge population as a justification for pretty much any aspect of how China is organized seems to be common in Chinese thinking. Others claim that in traditional Chinese thinking, someone who takes a life should pay with their own life. At the same time, I would not make too much of cultural differences in explaining the persistence of the death penalty in China. After all, in England in the nineteenth century you could be hanged for far more petty crimes than the ones for which you can be executed in China today.

In any case, even though there is much that I like about China, this readiness to dispense with the lives of criminals is one aspect of the country I find quite unappealing, and I can only hope that it will go on becoming less and less common as international attitudes on such matters become more influential.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The one-child policy

It was reported yesterday that Chinese experts have called for the country's notorious one-child policy to be changed. They claim that the country now faces a gender imbalance because of this policy, and an ageing population.

The policy is one of the things about China which everyone has heard about in the West, and it is usually seen unfavourably. However, the perspective most Chinese people have on it seems to be very different, ambivalent and even accepting. Of course, to Westeners the idea that the state could intrude on such a private decision in people's lives seems unacceptable. However in China, because of differences in culture and history, the idea that the state can impose similar restrictions on its citizens for the sake of the common good does not seem so strange.

The policy is not enforced as strictly as many imagine. For a start, it only applies to the Han, the main ethnic group of China, and not to any of the 55 minority groups (why is anyone's guess). Couples made up of two single children are allowed to have a second child. Furthermore, rural coupls in many areas are allowed to have a second child if the first one is a girl, in order to prevent the phenomenon of female infanticide or the abortion of female foetuses. Couples whose first child is handicapped or deceased can also usually have a second one. If a couple breaks the law and has a second child when they are not supposed to, they usually just have to pay a fine. In practice, a lot of families do have more than one child, especially in rural areas, and they simply pay the fine. I have a lot of Chinese friends who have brothers and sisters. In urban areas the policy appears to be more widely followed than in rural ones.

The policy certainly has had its well publicized drawbacks, the main one being cases of female infanticide in the countryside. In the Chinese countryside, sons are still often considered more valuable than daughters. Although cultural reasons certainly come into it, another good explanation is that in areas where farm work is still carried out using traditional methods, boys are more valuable because of their superior physical strenght. Although there have been cases of female infanticide in rural areas, the actual extent of the phenomenon is debated. Nowadays, thanks to ultrasound scanning which reveals what sex the phoetus is, it is possible to simply carry out an abortion if the phoetus turns out to be female. This practice is illegal, but however it is still common.

China currently suffers from quite a wide gender imbalance: the sex ratio at birth between males and females was of 117:100 in mainland China in the year 2000, which is significantly higher than the natural baseline (which is around 105:100). It is estimated that there will be 30 million more men than women in China by 2020 (however this has to be seen in the context of a population of 1300 million). Other Asian countries also have a higher proportion of men than women, although maybe not as high as China. The Indian economist Amartya Sen has written widely about this phenomenon, talking mainly about his native India, where the sex ratio is also quite skewed. The reasons for this phenomenon obviously have to do with the bias in favour of boys leading to baby girls receiving less high-quality health care and nutrition, as well as selective abortions which also occur in India. Even countries like Taiwan and South Korea are affected by this, although recently South Korea's gender ratio has become more balanced because of the increase in the standard of living and education. In the case of China, however, statistics seem to show that the gender imbalance has got worse since the introduction of the one-child policy, which has to be at least partly responsible.

Defenders of the policy point to the reduction in the birth rate of this overcrowded country. Since the introduction of the one-child policy in the early eighties, the birth rate has fallen from about three births per woman to around 1.8 in 2008. Others respond that the birth rate had already been dropping previously because of the increase in the standard of living and education, and it would probably have gone on falling anyway without such an extreme policy being imposed.

Personally, I can understand why a lot of Chinese people feel that there is a need for such a policy. It is one thing to read about overcroded China is, and it's another thing to experience it everyday. Once you have travelled in the absurdly packed third class of a Chinese train during the spring festival, with people sleeping on the floor all over the place, you can begin to appreciated the problem. In my experience, the Chinese are all very aware of living in a country with too many people. Whenever you have a discussion with a Chinese person about any of the social problems of China, they almost always begin their reply by saying: "in China there are too many people....". This almost seems to become a kind of justification for everything which is wrong with China. Even when I had a discussion about the death penalty with a Chinese student, he told me that extreme laws are necessary to keep order in China "because in China there are so many people".

Statistics on the population density of China hide the scale of the problem, because they obscure the fact that about 90% of China's population lives in about 50% of its territory. The North-Western area including Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai and Inner Mongolia is huge but scarcely inhabited because of the inhospitable terrain. The South-Eastern Chinese heartland is the really densely populated region, and it is just as overcrowded as India.

Even though the Chinese birth rate may have been falling even without the one-child policy, the policy has clearly speeded things up. There certainly are couples in China who decided only to have one child because of it. I can see that any reduction in the birth rate can only be a good thing, for China and the world. As for the worry about the population ageing, this is a problem which all developed country have to face, not just China. Although I can see that it will cause problems, I also feel that the planet is overcrowded, and it is basically a positive thing if birth rates drop. If this means that for a period there will be more old people than young people, so be it. It's not the end of the world.

It may be that China will soon embark on some kind of less extreme family planning policy. It was certainly a good idea to allow couples in rural areas to have a second child if the first one is a daughter. The problem of the gender imbalance should also be addressed by educating people, and trying to create the conditions for people not to feel the need for having a son rather than a daughter. All in all, I can't help feeling that some attempt to discourage people from having a lot of children would still be positive. But it will probably be economic development and education which will push the birth rates down more than anything else.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Chinese, the Jews and Israel

One refreshing aspect about China in comparison to the West (or of course the Middle East) is that practically no one has any strong preconceived ideas about the state of Israel and its conflict with the Arab world. Well educated Chinese people have usually heard about the conflict, in my experience, but their notions on it tend to be vague. Most of them feel about as strongly about the Arab-Israeli conflict as most Westeners do about the Taiwan issue or the civil war in Sri Lanka, in other words not at all. Last year, during the brief Israeli offensive in Gaza, it made a change to be in a country where practically everyone was completely indifferent, and just saw the event as a far away war which is no concern of theirs. The Holocaust and the whole history of the Jews (犹太人or Youtairen in Chinese) also don't elicit particularly strong feelings in most Chinese people, who only know about these things in the vaguest terms. Although there have been some Jewish communities in China in the past (in the photo you can see some Jews from Kaifeng, Henan, from the later 19th or early 20th century), they have always been few and far between, and their influence on Chinese history has been virtually none. Furthermore, none of these traditional communities have survived until this day, since they have all integrated into mainstream Chinese culture (perhaps the lack of persecution was the reason for their integration?).

Of course, the Chinese government officially embraced "Third World solidarity" and anti-imperialism in the past, and until the 1980s it had no relations with Israel and officially supported the PLO (even though Israel was one of the first countries in the world to recognize the People's Republic of China in 1948, the favour was not returned). However it never made a big thing of the Palestinian cause, which is simply too far from the concerns and the history of the Chinese. And in any case nowadays the whole ideology of international anti-imperialism has fallen out of fashion in China as well. In 1992, China and Israel established diplomatic ties, and the two countries now enjoy a fruitful economic and military relationship.

Although most Chinese people have no preconceived notions about Israel, they do seem to have one about Jews: they are very intelligent. Whenever I have mentioned to a Chinese person that I have Jewish origins on my mothers side, they usuallly look very pleased and say something like: "oh, that's good, the Jews are very intelligent." Educated Chinese people have usually heard that in the West there are masses of famous Jews in every field, and that this clearly points to some superior intelligence they have. (of course, there must be hundreds of millions of Chinese people who have never heard of the Jews at all, but that is another point). I remember that the first time I was in China, I was having a meal with a group of Chinese accademics in the city of Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu province. At some point I asked them if they had any opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of them said: "yes, I support Israel, because I have heard that the Jews are very intelligent."

Of course the idea that Jews are automatically "very intelligent" which many Chinese seem to have is also a kind of prejudice, but at least it is a positive one, and there do not seem to be any negative stereotypes about Jews circulating, which makes a nice change from Europe. The traditional Chinese respect for education and hard work means that the Jews' achievements are seen with respect, rather than suspicion. One Chinese girl did once tell me that "the Jews are very clever, and so they are very succesful in science, politics and business", but she didn't seem to attach any negative feelings towards being succesful in business, and this was only one of a list of things which the Jews are supposedly good at. I actualy feel that Jewish communities and Chinese ones around the world have quite a lot in common (although size is of course not one of them. There are more people in the Beijing municipality than Jews in the world). The position of the Chinese communities in South-East Asia, succesful but mistrusted and with no political clout, can't help but remind me of some Jewish communities of the past.

Who knows, in the unlikely event that Jews feel unwelcome in the West again, perhaps China and Asia might become a new haven for them, the more accepting, forward-looking places where the Jews could feel at home.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

To have or not to have the Chinese Swine flu Vaccine?

Here in China, public worry about swine flu is about as high as everywhere else in the world. Even though for a long time the Chinese authorities quarantined anyone who was found to have a temperature on entering the country, in the end the flu was obviously not deterred by such measures and penetrated China, just like you would expect from a flu.

There are different figures about how many people have died of it, depending on how the deaths are recorded, but it seems that around 40-60 people have already died of the illness in China, with dozens of thousands being infected. Here in Beijing, there seem to be even more people walking around with little masks on their faces than there usuallly are. A few weeks ago, a university student in a Beijing university died of swine flu (not in my university, fortunately), and hundreds of other students turned out to be infected.

The Chinese health authorities have already managed to domestically produce millions of swine flu vaccines, and they plan to vaccinate 65 million people (or 5% of the population) by the end of the year. Up to now, over 12 million people have already been vaccinated. Beijing receives priority of course, and they are talking of offering the opportunity to be vaccinated to all the Beijing residents very soon (but will it really be all the residents, or only those with a Beijing Hukou?). It must be said that China is the first country to be able to produce so many copies of a swine flu vaccine, but many are uncertain about the safety of this Chinese-made vaccine. It does seem a bit suspicious that China has been able to produce millions of vaccines before any other country, and it maybe that the vaccine's safety standards are not of the best. Many people are refusing to have the vaccination because of concerns over its quality.

Personally, I was offered the opportunity to be vaccinated last friday, alongside all the other students in my college (all the university's students in Beijing are being offered the vaccine), however after thinking about it a lot I decided to decline the offer. There have been a few cases of people having anaphylactic shocks after being vaccinated, and I do seeem to have a slight predisposition towards allergies. The message which we were given a few days previously about the vaccination was not encouraging. It stated that one should not take the vaccination if one is allergic to a long list of things, including eggs and some chemicals I have never heard of, and that anyone which chronic diseases (or of course a cold or a flu) should not be vaccinated. Finally, it asked those who would be vaccinated to wait on the premises for half an hour "to make sure they are ok". I have taken vaccines in the past, and I have never been asked if I was allergic to anything beforehand. I have certainly never been asked to wait half an hour after the vaccination in case I felt ill.

The whole tone of the message made it feel like the health authorities are not too confident of their own vaccine's safety, and this pushed me towards deciding not to take it. The next day, the headline on China's only English daily was "two die after H1N1 vaccine", although on closer inspection it appears that one of the two people died 8 hours later of a heart attack, and it was probably just coincidence, while the other case is still being investigated, and no news is available at present. In any case, it does seem that there are serious concerns over the vaccine's safety, and I personally know various other students, both foreign and Chinese, who decided against taking it. The day after the vaccination, a message was passed on to the foreign students who had taken it asking them not to shower for one week! Although there is some idea that one should not shower for a while after a vaccination, I have never heard of not showering for a week. I suppose no one will take the advice too seriously. My roomate, who was vaccinated, has certainly already showered without dropping dead.

Personally I feel that the risk posed by the vaccine is probably tiny, but the risk posed by swine flu is also extremely small at present. After all, 40-60 people dying in a nation of one and a half billion is not a cause for panic, is it? And most of them probably had underlying health conditions anyway. However, if the swine flu gets more widespreadd and takes more lives, I may still change my mind and get vaccinated. Plus, if most of Beijing does get vaccinated, that would also protect me up to a point I suppose.

I am aware of the fact that if I was back in Britain or Italy, I would still not have the chance to be vaccinated. However, with their huge population and limited resources, the Chinese authorities are probably so keen on avoiding a pandemic that they would be quite prepared to start using a vaccine before all the necessary safety checks were made. Of course, vaccines are never completely safe, and new ones less than ever. In other countries, people are also debating whether getting vaccinated is a good idea, as I have discovered by looking through the internet. The issue is confusing, but the for the time being I have decided to wait and see....

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Who decides when it snows and when the heating comes on in China?

Beijing was graced by its first snowfall this year last sunday. It is very unusual for it to snow so early in Beijing. Infact, it was the earliest snowfall in 22 years. However, there is more to it than just a freak weather phenomenon. The Chinese authorities quite often seem to engage with attempts to modify the weather, especially by inducing or increasing rain artificially over Beijing and the north of China to alleviate drought, which is often a problem in this arid region. Sunday's snowfall was at least partly induced by seeding the clouds with 186 doses of silver iodine. According to some reports, the aim was just to make it rain, not snow, but a sudden cold front which descended on sunday made it snow heavily, disrupting the traffic and power grid and delaying many flights. The temperature did indeed drop very suddenly between saturday and sunday, going from 13 degrees to below freezing. The weather forecast had already been reporting that it would snow for several days, and so I wonder how many days in advance the clouds had been seeded, if they were not expecting to produce snow. Others claim that the effect of these weather manipulation techniques is exagerated, and that it is impossible to predict what the result will be.

Anyway, another problem here in Beijing was that in most places, including my dorm, the heating was still not turned on when the snow came and temperatures outside dropped below
zero. The thing is that in China, the heating system is centralized. In the North of China, defined as everywhere north of the Yangtze river (or everywhere blue in the picture above), buildings usually have central heating, however it is not turned on until a specific set date, which in Beijing is usually november the 15th. Although some well off people and some offices have their own private heating systems, most people have to wait until the 15th of november for the heating to come on (it is then turned off on march the 15th.) It is well known that the two weeks before the heating comes on and after it comes off are the most uncomfortable time. This year however, they have decided to turn the heating on early here in Beijing, due to the unseasonal cold. They finally turned the heating on in my dorm on monday, although we had already experienced some pretty chilly nights, and I was forced to buy myself an extra blanket. Today it's a bit warmer outside, and they've turned the heating off again.

In some northern regions which are technically in Siberia, the heating comes on earlier. However, in the whole of Southern China, that is South of the Yangtze, it doesn't come on at all. Although again some wealthy people may have private heating, the vast majority just don't have any. Although the winters in the South are much less cold than in the North, with the temperature rarely dropping below zero, it is still unpleasantly cold inside the houses sometimes, and people often keep their coats on even inside. When I visited the south of China during the last Spring festival, I got used to keeping my coat on inside the hotel room or house I was staying in, and getting undressed to have a shower was always unpleasant.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fragrant Hills, but very crowded

Last weekend, I visited a well known site outside Beijing called 香山 (Xiang Shan), or the "fragrant hills", as it is usually called in English. I was invited to go by a Chinese student who I am doing a "language exchange" with, and her three roommates.

The place in question is a natural park just outside Beijing, on my campus's side of the city. It consists of hills covered by forests and dotted with traditional buildings and relics. The highest peak, Xianglu, is 557 meters high. The park is particularly popular in the autumn, when the numerous maple leaves turn red, covering the place in red. I find that the Chinese have a very strong cultural tendency to appreciate flowers, leaves and plants, and this is the kind of thing which reallly warms their heart. Chinese students often ask me what particular flowers or trees are called in English, and of course more often than not I don't know the answer.

Anyway, we went to the park on an october saturday with lovely weather, exactly on the same day that the entire rest of Beijing had the same idea. Given Beijing's huge population, if you go to a famous site exactly at the time of year when it is most popular, and on a weekend with nice weather, you are bound to find it is packed. Naively I thought the park must have space for everyone, soo it wouldn't be a problem. However, even getting to the place proved to be a major issue. We planned to take a bus, but the bus which takes you to the park was so full that it was impossible to even get near it, let alone get inside. Even though it passed by at a frequency of about every 10 minutes, we immediately saw that it was useless even trying to get in. We decided to go by taxi, but the only taxi driver we managed to stop refused to go, saying that there would be too many cars around the park, and it would take him too long to get back out. We spent ages, literally ages, trying to stop another taxi, but every single one was engaged, even though in Beijing there are usually free taxis available all over the place. Perhaps everyone else had the same idea. In the end we decided to take what is known as a "black car", in other words an illegal taxi. The only problem is that in a normal taxi it would have cost us about 10 or 15 yuan for the trip, while in a black taxi it cost 10 yuan per person (about 1 euro actually, but all the same...). What's more, even the driver of the illegal taxi refused to go to the entrance of the park, saying that there would be too many other cars, and left us somewhere which was a 20 minute walk away from the park. Of course, the road to the park was jam-packed with other Beijingers going to get their share of fresh air. At the entrance, we had to struggle through an absurd mass of people to buy a ticket. Only undergraduate students are given discounted tickets, not post-grads, so I had to pay the full price. However, the girls I was with (who are also doing a master) had fake undergraduate student cards which you can apparently buy for 10 yuan outside my campus. I must do that sometime.

Anyway by the time I got inside, I was already quite tired, and it was already much later than we planned. We decided to give up going up the highest hill in the park, which is what most people do, and just walk around the base of the hills. Wherever we went it was full of people, on the paths, on the grass, on the rocks, etc.... however, we managed to relax a bit and have a nice picnic on the grass. Of course, the Chinese girls I was with were very excited about the red leaves, although personally I must say that I found the traditional Chinese buildings much more interesting than the leaves. Getting back home was of course also a feat. The queues at the bus station next to the park were unbelievable. However, in the end we made it back to out campus.

It is after days like this that one really appreciates the wisdom of the one-child policy, and almost wishes they would enforce it more strictly!
(The photo is of the crowds waiting to catch the bus to get back home)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The typical mistakes the Chinese make when speaking English

When Chinese people speak English, there are some specific mistakes which nearly all of them tend to make, and some specific English words and expressions which they all tend to mis-use or else overuse like mad. Most of the mistakes which the Chinese typically make when speaking English are connected to particular features of the Chinese language, and now that I am learning Chinese I am beginning to understand the reasons behind some of the most frequent mistakes.

Anyway, here are some mistakes and mis-uses which I have encountered again and again in the English spoken by Chinese people, especially university students:

1) This one is a constant: mixing up "he" and "she" (or "him" and "her", "his", and "hers"). This is a mistake which virtually all the Chinese people who can speak English make, even ones who know English very well. The reason is obvious: in Chinese, he and she are both pronounced exactly the same way, in other words "ta" with the first tone. However, they are actually written slightly differently: 他 means "he" and 她 means "she". All the same, in Chinese minds there obviously isn't the idea of distinguishing between he and she while speaking, and this is clearly very difficult to overcome.

2) Getting adjectives and nouns mixed up. How many times have I heard things like "He is a very patience person", "my assignment is very emergency", "the professor is very humour", "Chinese adverts are not very creativity" etc...

3)Mis-using the word "play": the first time a Chinese adult asks you if you want to meet and "play together" some day, it can be a bit disconcerting. Using the word "play" to refer to adults hanging out or going out together is common, and a bit comical at first.

4) Mis-using the word "let": in Chinese there is a single word, 让 ("rang") which means both "let" and "ask", as in "I will ask my friend to come out" (not as in "to ask someone where the station is"). As a result, the Chinese tend to use the word "let" to mean ask, for instance: "I will let my friend to come out with us on tuesday" or "I will let her to do me this favour".

5) The constant overuse of some particular English words, first and foremost "hometown" and "delicious". This is not really a mistake, but it does allow you to spot a Chinese person a mile off. In China the food is never good, it is always "delicious", and no one ever goes back to their village, town or city for the holidays, they always go back to their "hometown". The word hometown is apparently taken by the Chinese to be the translation of the Chinese word 家乡 (jia xiang). Sometimes they even think that the word doesn't only refer to towns or cities, but can also refer to regions or countries, so for instance a Chinese classmate once asked me: "is England your hometown?". The word is so ubiquitous that I even use it myself when talking to Chinese people.

This is just a short list, the first examples which came to my mind, but I'm sure that anyone who has taught English in China would have many more to add.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ten things I like about China

Ten things I like about China:

1) the general exoticity of it all.

2) being able to walk around the streets at night and feel perfectly safe.

3) the fact that the Chinese don't have a culture of going to the beach (I don't like to either).

4) the modest and unconfrontational attitude which is built into the Chinese psyche.

5) the fact that most people don't practice an organized religion.

6) people staring at me on the street. It's nice to be in the center of the attention without doing anything to deserve it.

7) the fact that people have absolutely no strong preconceived opinions about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, or any other divisive issue in the West.

8) the food of course. Especially the fact that almost all the foods I don't like, for instance chocolate, tomato and cheese, are relatively rare.

9) the fact that the girls are so girly. No swearing, getting drunk, smoking, etc.... because it's not girlish. And yet that doesn't mean that they are all stuck in old-fashioned ideas about gender roles and sexual issues.

10) how the Chinese go out of their way to help foreigners, to an extent which is sometimes so extreme it's almost embarassing. It's also very convenient if you happen to be a foreigner.

11) the weather of Beijing (I'm kidding this time).

I won't list 10 things I don't like about China, for fear of causing offence, but when it comes to Beijing, the weather, crowded public transport and the days with scarce visibility (because of a combination of the pollution and the weather) would spring to mind. Not to mention the tofu they sell on the streets which stinks so much you have to keep at least 10 meters away. And the internet issue.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

the Chinese writing system

What is the Chinese alphabet? Can it rightly be viewed as an extremely uneconomical phonetic alphabet, or as a pictorial one?

Some linguists have claimed that the Chinese alphabet is in fact not a pictorial writing system in which every character represents a concept, as it is often assumed, but rather a phonetic one, in which every character represents a sound. In this case, it would certainly have to be the most extraordinarily uneconomical phonetic alphabet in the world, since it contains thousands of characters, while most phonetic alphabets get away with 20-30 letters! It is estimated that the average educated Chinese person knows about 6000-7000 characters, and at least 3000 or 4000 are used in ordinary life.

Now that I have been learning Chinese for a while, and got a grasp of the basic structure of the language, I would say that it is basically a mixture of the two.

On the one hand every character does indeed represent a certain syllabic sound. For instance every Chinese person knows that the character 巴 is always pronounced "ba" with the first tone, or that 马 is pronounced "ma" with the third tone, regardless of the meaning. This is how foreign names are transliterated into Chinese. For instance, the Chinese name for Barak Obama is 巴拉克 奥巴马, pronounced ba-la-ke ao-ba-ma. The fact that the last character in Obama's name actually means horse is completely irrelevant. There are a few characters which can be pronounced in two different ways according to the meaning, for instance 得 is pronounced "de" with the second tone in some cases or "dei" with the third tone in some others, depending on the meaning. However such cases are quite rare. Most characters always maintain the same pronunciation. From this point of view, the writing system could be regarded as a phonetic syllabical system, with each character representing a syllable.

At this point, the question would be why thousands and thousands of characters are necessary. After all, only a few hundred syllables exist in Mandarin Chinese. Of course, every syllable can be pronounced with any one of four different tones, multiplying the number of possible sounds by four, but this still wouldn't explain the huge number of characters. The answer lies in the fact that there are large numbers of characters which are all pronounced in exactly the same way. For example the four characters 往, 网, 辋, and 罔 are all pronounced precisely the same, in other words "wang" with the third tone. However, the first one means "towards", the second one means "net", the third one means "a circle that is connected to the spokes on a wheel", and the last one means "to deceive".

It is hard to maintain that the Chinese alphabet is purely phonetic when confronted with this. Which other alphabet has numerous different letters which are pronounced in exactly the same way? At the same time, it would be wrong to view the Chinese writing system as it is popularly viewed in the West, in other words as a system akin to the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt, in which every character is a picture representing a word in its own right. The fact is that most Chinese words are actually made up of a combination of two characters. Many of the characters only have a vague or general meaning when on their own, and only acquire precise meanings when they are combined with another character. It is also misleading to think of the Chinese characters as "pictures". When Chinese writing first developed a few millenia ago most of the characters really may have been highly stylized pictures of what they were supposed to represent, but by now there is usually no obvious relationship between the shape of a character and its meaning. However there are some characters which have maintained and obvious pictorial resemblance to the concept they represent, for instance 伞, which means umbrella, or 门 which means door. It must also be said that many Chinese characters were simplified after the revolution in 1949, so as to make the alphabet easier to learn for the people. However, the traditional forms of the characters, although more complicated, often had a more obvious resemblance to the concept they represented.

An interesting question is why a great civilization such as the Chinese one has never adopted a straightforward phonetic alphabet with a few dozen letters, just like virtually all other advanced societies have done centuries ago.

Part of the answer may lie in the large number of homonyms in the Chinese language. Like I mentioned, there are large numbers of characters in Chinese which are pronounced in exactly the same way, but have different meanings. The Chinese do not think of them as being the same word, since the characters are different. If Chinese were written with a normal phonetic system, all of these words would be written in exactly the same way, introducing an element of ambiguity. On the other hand, perhaps that wouldn't be such a great problem. After all, when the Chinese speak, they seem to be able to distinguish between the different homonyms on the basis of the context. Another factor is the tonal system. When Chinese is transliterated to the European alphabet with the Pinyin system, a special accent needs to be put on every word so as to distinguish the tone. However, one would think that historically the Chinese could have developed special letters to represent the four tones without any trouble. Perhaps the real reason for the failure to develop a phonetic writing system is the relative phonetic poverty of Chinese, which actually has a rather limited number of combinations of sounds in comparison to most languages. If the language were written phonetically, it would look rather boring and repetitive, as it does when it is written in Pinyin. The characters instead make it extremely varied and interesting.

Whatever the reason, the Chinese characters have survived for thousands of years, and they are obviously too engrained in the culture to make it possible to do away with them. The system is certainly inefficient and difficult to learn in comparison to other writing systems, however it is obviously possible to use it for the purposes of a modern society, as the Chinese have been doing cheerfully for decades. It may take Chinese children years and years to learn to read and write, but in the end they do. After all, learning a few thousand symbols is not beyond the abilities of the human brain. Even I can now recognize hundreds and hundreds of characters after being in China one year, without even studying Chinese full time. True, learning to write the characters by heart is much harder than learning to recognize them, but nowadays computers allow you to write Chinese by writing the words in Pinyin and only having to recognize the characters on the screen. It is true that apparently even well educated Chinese people sometimes have trouble remembering how to write some of the less common characters by hand, but it could be answered that English spelling is so illogical that even well educated native speakers of English make spelling mistakes. And the fact that the Chinese have not crossed over to using the pinyin system for most purposes, despite its availability, testifies to the resilience and practicality of their traditional writing system.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China

Yesterday was the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, a momentous occasion here in Beijing. The first of october, China's national day, is a holiday every year, but this year it is a particularly big affair, because it is the sixtieth one. The city has been gearing up for the occasion for weeks, with phrases like 欢度国庆 (happy national day) and the number 60 visible everywhere, as well as lots of Chinese flags.

The day was marked by a huge parade in Tiananmen square. Of course, it was near impossible for ordinary people such as me to even get anywhere near the square (the subway stations nearby had not been in use since the previous afternoon), so I have watched the event on television, just like most Chinese people.

In the few days before the event the air was particularly heavy and polluted in Beijing and the visibility was highly reduced, but on the previous evening some rain (which apparently was artifically induced by the authorities) managed to clear the air in time for the parade. Watching the lovely blue sky, I wish the authorities would do this to the weather more often!

The parade was truly impressive, with countless numbers of people in Tiananmen waving placards of different coulours so as to form different shapes or Chinese characters, and lenghty parades of different army units, groups of students, representatives of ethnic minorities and what not. Chairman Hu Jintao was of course the star of the occasion, going round in a car to review the troups and giving a little speech. The former chairman Jiang Zemin was standing close behind him on the podium, which was in front of the forbidden city. I was pleased to find that I could understand bits of the speech and the commentaries on television. Words like "renmin" (the people), "fazhan" (development) and "Xin Zhongguo" (the New China) kept cropping up.

Watching the military parade and the smiling crowds, I felt caught between my European left-wing suspicion and dislike of great military parades and my understanding of the fact that most Chinese feel genuinly enthusiastic about the occasion and are not at all cynical about it. I am sure that most of the students of my university who were not selected to take part in the parade would have felt absolutely honoured to be able to do so. I am also aware that the military parade is not perceived as a show of aggresiveness directed towards other countries, but simply as a display of China's might. Plus, the revolution whose anniversary is being celebrated was a genuinly progressive affair which brought change and improvement to most Chinese, whatever happened later.

Watching the images of the event on television, I realized that I could finally read and understand the Chinese sentences on the two big red placards which sit on either side of Mao's portrait infront of the forbidden city. One sentence reads 中国人民共和国万岁("long live the People's Republic of China", or literally "ten thousand years for the People's Republic of China") and the other one reads 世界人民大团结万岁 (long live the unity of the world's peoples).

In the evening a big show was held in the square, with lots of singing and dancing and fireworks. Watching it on television, what I found particularly impressive were the people waving coloured placards and flags to create different shapes in the center of the square. The impression of moving images which they managed to create from above was simply astonishing, and must have taken months of non-stop practice. I have never seen anything quite like it. Then again, the Chinese are always good at coreography and at putting on a show.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Stay in Vietnam

(The photo is of my roommate from Beijing in a bar in his hometown near Hanoi)
My stay in Vietnam lasted about a week. I spent most of it in or around Hanoi. Before going there, the main thing I knew about Hanoi was that it is absolutely packed with motorbikes, and this is the first thing which strikes most visitors. My expectations were not disappointed. Indeed, most of the inhabitants seem to be equipped with a scooter, which they use to carry around virtually anything. What I didn't expect is that most of them do actually wear helmets, because it is now mandatory to do so and fines are given to those who don't comply. My Vietnamese roommate from Beijing came to pick me up at the train station with his own little motorbike. With an experience which comes from years of practice, my roommate (who is about 1.60 ms. tall) stuck my large suitcase on the front of his motorbike, me on the back, and sped off trough the bustling streets of the capital, dodging other motorbikes in every direction. After taking me on a tour-de-force through Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum (which is no less magnificent and displays no less reverence than Mao's one), the museum of Ho chi Minh and a few other famous sites, my friend (whose name is Hien) took me to his home, which is in a small town outside Hanoi. The little town immediately struck me as the "real" Vietnam, lacking the touristy atmosphere of central Hanoi. Although the country is obviously quite poor, I did not see any desperate poverty of the kind one finds in the shantytowns of India or Latin America.

Vietnam's culture is traditionally very influenced by China's, setting it apart from neighbouring countries like Laos or Thailand, which have been more influenced by India. The influence is very obvious in the temples of Hanoi, which display the Chinese characters which Vietnamese used to be written in. However, I found that the country's atmosphere is still relatively different from China's. The economy is far less developed (although in Hanoi nice cars and fancy shops are now in evidence, and I didn't visit Ho Chi Minh city, which is supposed to be bigger and more developed), the pace of life seems more laid back, and the people are also significantly shorter than the Chinese, especially the Chinese from the north. My roommate from Beijing seemed much less short among his own kind! Another thing which struck me was the large number of government propaganda posters along the streets, displaying a typical "Soviet block" kind of style, which has now fallen out of fashion in China.

After staying a night in my flatmate's town and a few days in Hanoi, I visited Halong bay with an organized tour. (I usually abhor organized tours, but in this case it seemed the simplest option, given my lack of time and total ignorance of Vietnamese). Halong bay is the most famous natural wonder of Vietnam, a bay with thousands of little islands in different shapes and sizes. I spent a night on a boat in the bay with a small group of other tourists. The bay was indeed beautiful, although it was also absolutely packed with foreign tourists, and we never spent a moment without various other boat loads of tourists in sight. I also tried my hand at kayaking for the first (and perhaps last) time in my life. The guide's English was characteristically incomprehensible. Although a higher proportion of people seem to know a bit of English in Vietnam than in China (or at least in Hanoi than in Beijing), they seem to have even more difficulty than the Chinese in pronouncing English words and sounds, and it is often a real challenge to understand what they are trying to say. Or perhaps I have just got used to the Chinese accent.

On my last day in Hanoi I went out with some local Esperanto-speakers. The ones I met were very young and surprisingly fluent in Esperanto. One of them, a 21 year old university student originally from the Vietnamese countryside, had only studied the language for six months but spoke it extraordinarily well and clearly, especially given the Vietnamese's seeming inability to speak and pronounce foreign languages. Another proof of the relative ease of Esperanto, I suppose.
In the photos below you can see, in order of appearance, a street from my roommate's hometown, government propaganda posters in Hanoi, a woman with a traditional hat in central Hanoi, and a view of Halong Bay from my ship's deck:

Monday, August 31, 2009

Journey to Vietnam

I have just returned from a week long visit to Vietnam. The main reason behind the visit was that my Vietnamese roommate from Beijing is still home for the summer holidays, and he was terribly keen for me to visit him in Vietnam, inviting me several times to go down and see him. I thought it would be a good opportunity to see the country, and it would also be interesting to see my quiet roommate in his own environment, so I took the chance.

I decided to go to Hanoi from Beijing by train to save money, even though the ride takes almost two days. Getting hold of the tickets was extraordinarily difficult. In Beijing, it is very easy to buy a train ticket to any destination within China, but buying train tickets to foreign destinations like Vietnam or Mongolia is another matter entirely. I went to the gigantic West train station of Beijing, which the train itself leaves from, and I was told by the lady at the information desk that I could buy the ticket in the Central train station, which is quite a distance from where I was. I trekked to the Central station and found the special ticket booth for foreigners, where the staff can speak English. I was told that I should go to the West station, which I had just come from. After I protested, the woman went and checked with her colleague, after which she advised me to go to a travel agent in a nearby hotel. Exhausted after a day of going around Beijing in the sun, I got to the hotel to find the travel agent had already closed for the day.

The next day I went back to the travel agent, and they told me that I should go to another travel agent near the West train station. Getting increasingly frustrated and wondering if anyone really knew where to buy the ticket, I went to the other agency, this time by taxi. Having got there, I was told that they do indeed sell the tickets, but however the person responsible had already left for the day, so I should come back tomorrow (it was already the afternoon). The next day I came back and finally I bought the ticket, conducting the negotiations entirely in Chinese. Unfortunately there turned out to only be tickets available for "soft beds", in other words for the fanciest class, so a plane would not have cost much less. Between buying the tickets and getting a visa, I spent a good five days rushing up and down this huge city in the boiling heat.

After recovering for a day, I set off for Vietnam on sunday afternoon. I shared my berth in the train with three Chinese men, who were very keen to chat with me. Unfortunately my Chinese still isn't really good enough to hold proper conversations, although I managed to tell them a bit about myself. There were quite a few foreigners, since the train was headed to Vietnam, and it only leaves twice a week. In the booth next to mine there was a couple of middle aged English chaps who turned out to be going by train from Britain to Singapore (!). One of them was filming out of the window, hoping to turn it into a documentary. There was apparenly a story behind it about how one of these men had been born in Singapore and brought up by adoptive British parents, but he had recently been contacted for the first time by his real mother in New Zealand, and he was going back to the place where he was born, and then on to New Zealand to meet her. He works as a television documentary producer and hopes to be able to make a decent documentary out of it.

All the Chinese passengers in the train got off before Vietnam, and by the time we reached the border the next night, it was only me and about eight other foreigners left in the train. We had to wait on the border for ages, and then take another train to Hanoi, which arrived in the Vietnamese capital at 8 in the morning. In all the journey took about 40 hours.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Snow in Beijing

In the last two days there have been some heavy snowfalls in Beijing, the first real snow to grace China's capital this year. My Vietnamese roommate finds this quite exciting, since he has never seen snow before.

In Beijing it usually snows more often in the winter, but this winter has been particularly dry, and the peasants have been suffering because of draught in large areas of Northern China. I have read that the recent snow in Beijing was at least partly artificially induced by the authorities through iodide sticks which were fired into the sky, so as to ease the draught. The Chinese authorities sometimes resort to such methods to prevent or encourage rain and snow, even though their effectiveness has not been conclusively demonstrated

Anyway, here are some photos of Beijing unders the snow.

(my campus)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Happy 牛 year!

The title of this post is a pun which has become extremely popular in China over the last Spring festival (the holidays for the Chinese new year). The chinese character 牛 is pronounced "niu", like the English word "new", and it means "ox", and the year which has just started is indeed the year of the ox. Thus happy 牛 year!

New year's eve was on the 25th of january this year. I spent it in a tiny little village in Guangxi province, in the South-West of China, near Vietnam. I have a friend in my university who comes from there originally, and she invited me to spend the new year at her family's home.

The experience was very interesting. The village was extremely small and remote. The only shop in the village belonged to the parents of this girl, and it was placed in the entrance to their house. All it had on sale was a few basic items. The people of the area are not Han but Zhuang, the biggest ethnic group in Guangxi, and they speak a language which is completely unrelated to Chinese, although almost all of them are also able to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese.

The local people were very friendly and gave the impression of being happy and relaxed most of the time. The weather was relatively warm during the day even though it was the middle of the winter, since I was deep in the south of China.

On new year's eve I experienced some of the local traditions related to the new year. All the houses in Chinese villages usually have red scrools pasted around the door, with phrases wishing fortune and prosperity written on them. On new year's eve, the old scrolls are scraped off and new ones are stuck up, at least in the village where I was staying. I encountered my Chinese name "Jixiang" on quite a few of these scrolls, since it is a traditional expression meaning "auspicious". The Chinese seem to attach an awful lot of importance to symbols of good omen and good luck, and traditions pertaining to this. It is also common to find a drawing of a fish on the scrolls, since the word for fish is pronounced the same as the word for wealth. A Chinese character which one sees almost everywhere during the new year period is 福, pronounced "fu", which means good luck. You can often see it on posters stuck onto doors, sometimes written upside down, as this is also meant to bring good luck.

(two examples of the red scrolls pasted around the doors of Chinese houses)

Next to the village there was a little temple for the ancestors, where the local people brought offerings to the deceased on new year's eve. One of the most common offerings was a chicken. People also offered bills of fake money with huge numbers written on them, which were then burnt. Some of the houses in the village also had an altar for the ancestors inside.

In the evening everyone in the village set fire works off again and again, creating a huge racket. The children seemed to be having an especially good time. Of course, the family I was staying with had a huge meal in the afternoon to mark the New Year.

(The village where I stayed)

(Fireworks set off on New Year's eve)

Chongqing and Qijiang

During my New Year holidays I took the chance to return to the place where I taught English for a few months four years ago. The little town where I taught is called Qijiang, and it is an hour's drive away from the big city of Chongqing, which is well known throughout China.

(Central Chongqing)

Coming back to Chongqing after four years, I had a chance to witness the pace of China's development first hand. I had the feeling that the city has changed a lot since the last time I was there, even though four years is not such a long period of time. There are noticeably a lot of new high-rises and less old, run-down buildings. Although the city still has some shabby areas, everything somehow looks newer and smarter, especially in the center. It is hard to know how much of it is just down to my perception, but I saw some things which were definitely not there four years ago: there is an ultra-modern monorail which crosses the center of the city, and I also visited a new multi-storey building on the Yangtze river (shown in the photo) built in a traditional style, full of fancy shops and restaurants. Of course, for many ordinary people life has not changed a great deal: the local Esperantist who found me the teaching job four years ago still lives in a cramped flat in an old and run down apartment block on the city's outskirts.

I had the same feeling when I visited Qijiang, the town where I actually taught English: even though it is hard to put my finger on why, I had the definite feeling that the place had changed and developed considerably in just four years. There was a brand new modern supermarket, which didn't exist when I lived there, and the road outside the school where I taught now has cement on it, while four years ago it didn't. When I went out in the evening, I came across a huge new night club which didn't exist the last time I was there. Of course, living conditions are still quite simple for many of the people, as I witnessed when I visited the home of a retired school teacher who used to know Esperanto many decades ago, although he appeared to have forgotten it completely.

I have read that Chongqing has been showered with money by the central government in the last years, and it has developed faster than most other places, becoming the richest city in Western China. The pace of development is probably not as fast in other regions. Also, it must be remembered that life in the villages and the rural areas remains extremely simple.

The one thing development has not brought these places is a big influx of foreigners. Even in such a big city as Chongqing, foreigners remain quite rare, although I did see a few in the center.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Taking a train in China over the new year.

I have just got back from three weeks of travelling for the holidays for the Chinese new year. The new year is the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, a bit like christmas in the west. This year new year's eve fell on the 25th of january. My university gives its students around a month's holiday for the new year.

During this period, every single Chinese person who can goes back home to celebrate with their family. It is the one moment in the year when every Chinese family expects to be together. All the migrant workers in the big cities like Beijing also go back to their homes in the countryside, often travelling for days. The transport system, and especially the train system, is put under huge strain during this period, as dozens of millions of people return home.

I had the brilliant idea to start my travels by taking the train from Beijing to Chengdu on the 13th of january, just as the holiday season was getting started. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, the province which was hit by the earthquake last year, and it's almost on the other side of China from Beijing. Me and the Chinese girl I was travelling with only started looking for a ticket seriously a few days ahead, even though it is advisable to buy your ticket weeks ahead if you want to travel during this season. It turned out to be impossible to find a ticket for a bed. All we could get was two tickets for hard seats on a train which would stop at every station and take 31 hours to get to Chengdu.

Most of the Chinese people who I told about this were horrified. Everyone warned me that travelling with just hard seats over the new year period is horrible, that the trains are unbelievably crowded, that people sleep on the floor and that sometimes you can't even go to the bathroom because there are people there too. A girl who comes from that part of China tried to push me to take a plane instead, even though it would have cost ten times more (my train ticket only cost about 100 yuan). I was so put off I almost decided not to go, but in the end I thought it might be an interesting experience and I went all the same.

The train ride was indeed quite uncomfortable, although not as bad as some people had predicted. The train left at 10 in the evening and arrived at 5 in the morning two days later, so I effectively had to sleep on the seat for two nights. The train was indeed compeltely packed, with people who just had "standing tickets" sleeping on the floor. Climbing over people to get to the bathroom really was quite an effort. In the morning I had to wait in a queue for a full hour to go the bathroom. However, the train became less packed towards the end. Me and my travel companion brought our own food and drink, just like everyone else, although they did sell food on the train. Washing my hands was also next to impossible, and my legs got quite bad cramps from spending such a long time sitting down. The girl I was travelling with comes from a little village next to Beijing, and so she had never needed to travel by train over this period, and she also found it quite uncomfortable. However, in the end we survived and we reached Chengdu, where we went to our hostel by taxi and collapsed into bed.