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.