Thursday, June 14, 2012

Funny poem on Chinese regional differences

I have run into this amusing poem about Chinese regional stereotypes here. It's from the "Ich bin ein Berliner" blog of former Tang Dynasty guitarist Kaiser Kuo.

"In Dongbei, whence the Manchus came, the men do like their liquor.
While effusive with their friendship, with their enmity they’re quicker
Though they’re honest and straightforward, at the slightest provocation
They’ll show why they’ve been slandered as the Klingons of this nation.

The leggy Dongbei ladies for their beauty are renowned,
(I attest that in my travels, few more fetching have I found.)
But they suffer from one drawback, and it’s very sad to tell—
When they open up their mouths to speak, they break that magic spell.

The stalwart Shandong people grow as hearty as their scallions
On their noodle-heavy diet they’ve been bred as strong as stallions.
They’re known for dogged loyalty; they’re known as trusty folks,
But a bit slow on the uptake—thus, the butt of many jokes.

In Hunan and in Hubei in the country’s center-south
They say the people there can really run it at the mouth
In Hubei in particular, the saying is often heard
That a single Hubei codger can drown out a nine-head bird.

The Hunanese, in temperament, are piquant as their dishes,
Like duo jiao yu tou—capsicum with slow-braised heads of fishes.
Add to this mix the province’s infernal summer heat,
And you see why Hunan’s Xiang Jun had the Taiping rebels beat.

The teahouses of Chengdu represent the Sichuan Way:
The women toil in earnest while the men drink tea and play.
The Chuan hou plays at mahjong as the Chuan mei cleans and mends,
And like the Sichuan peppers do, she burns it at both ends.

The Pearl River Delta in the southlands of Guangzhou
Is home to China’s most industrious people, as you know:
They’re scrappy and they’re gritty and they’re free of all pretension,
And they’ll make a meal of any living beast you’d care to mention.

They say that Henan people are a sly and cunning lot.
But my ancestors are from there—proving some, at least, are not.
My co-provincials countrywide are blamed for every ill,
While provinces that suck as bad get let off easy still.

The Shanghainese are philistines, and this they’ll gladly own:
Commercial instincts permeate them to the very bone.
Their pride in Shanghai’s petit bourgeois ethos is immense
But what they lack in culture, they make up in common sense.

As you might well have expected, I have saved the best for last,
For my love for Beijing’s people is immovably steadfast.
From their gargling r-drenched accent to their dry sardonic wit,
The denizens of Jing Town are the dope, the bomb, the shit.

Beijingers love to gab, and though they’re lazy and they’re slow,
There’s nothing about politics that they aren’t apt to know.
They may complain a lot about the traffic and the air
But scratch beneath the cynicism and you’ll find they care.

So be grateful that you live here, and be clear on what it means.
Be grateful you don’t live among Klingons, or philistines.
Be grateful for the legacy of Yuan and Ming and Qing—
And most of all be grateful for the people of Beijing."

The part on the Henan people rings very true. Living in Beijing, the most common regional stereotype I have ran into is that the Henanese are basically not a very decent bunch. There is a widespread idea that a lot of them are untrustworthy, swindlers and people to be wary of.

For those of you China-illiterate, Henan is a huge province in north-central China, where Chinese civilization is supposed to have originated. It is the third most populous province in the country, with 94 million people living within its borders. If it were a country, it would be the twelfth most populous in the world. Despite its historical prominence, it is nowadays a relatively backward province which produces rather than attracts migrant workers, and not a few of Beijing's immigrants come from there.

I have never really been to Henan, even though I have crossed it by train various times. Although I have friends and acquaintances from all over China, I have never had much to do with anyone from Henan as far as I can recall, so I really haven't got much personal experience on the matter, although in general I certainly don't approve of negative stereotyping of entire peoples.

The small village in Shanxi where I spent a week last year was just over the border from Henan. Even there, when I asked one of my hosts about this regional stereotype, they replied: "well, not all of them are bad people of course, but it is just that Henan has lots of people and it's very poor, so you get a lot of them who do questionable things to make money". Of course in some parts of the world people might say the same about the Chinese in general: overcrowded and poor, so sometimes they do questionable things for money. I kept that thought to myself however.

The stereotype of people from Dongbei (the Northeast) being heavy drinkers, frank and straightforward, and easy to anger, is another one which I have heard a lot. I have been to Dongbei and know people from there, and I have a feeling that there is some truth to it. Perhaps it is the cold weather which just turns people into heavy drinkers who like a punch up, since Northern Europeans are the same.

When it comes to the Shanghainese, what I have always heard about them is a stereotype unmentioned in the poem: they have a huge superiority complex towards the rest of China, much greater even than the Beijingers do. I have also heard numerous people say that they will insist on speaking to outsiders in Shanghai dialect even when they know Mandarin, just to be difficult. Given the current state of health of the Shanghai dialect, this complaint  may not be heard for much longer.

It is interesting that in China you do not find the same stereotype which exists within Europe, in other words that people from the hotter regions in the South are less efficient and hardworking than the ones from the colder North. This is even though the climactic difference between the South and the North of China is as great as that between the South and the North of Europe. In fact China's hottest region, Guangdong, is supposed to be home to its most industrious people, as the poem mentions. Clearly hot weather and a laid back lifestyle do not always have to go hand in hand