Monday, December 21, 2015

Five great China expat memoirs

Many foreigners who have spent time in China feel compelled to write a memoir about their experiences in this big, mysterious country. Unfortunately many of these books turn out not to be especially entertaining or interesting. Just because you've lived in China, it doesn't mean you have either good writing skills or anything insightful to say about the place. Every now and again though, a book comes out which really manages to capture the essence of the foreign experience in China. Here are a few of the best ones I have read so far.

River Town, by Peter Hessler

This classic remains the standard for the "foreigner in China" genre. In 1997 young American literature graduate Peter Hessler ends up on a two year stint teaching english in Fuling, a small town near Chongqing, in the proverbial middle of nowhere. New to China and not knowing a word of Chinese, he has to figure everything out for himself. His book is a superbly crafted description of his experiences, and what he comes to understand about China and his own culture in the process.

The book doesn't gloss over some of the less savoury aspects of the society which Hessler finds himself immersed in, but he always does his best to find poetry and beauty where he can. Hessler's students, young adults from the Sichuanese countryside training to be teachers, really come alive in his description. The challenges and the fun of teaching English literature in the middle of China are also described quite vividly.

After writing this book Hessler moved to Beijing, where he wrote another two books about China and became well known for his ability to describe the country to American audiences. He has now moved to Cairo, where he is trying to learn Arabic and write about the Middle East.

Mr. China, by Tim Clissold

A memoir by Tim Clissold, an englishman who set up shop in Beijing in the early nineties as a young, starry-eyed businessman with dreams of making it big in China's new market economy.

After a year of studying Chinese in Beijing, Tim was hired by a Wall Street banker referred to only as "Pat" (in actuality Jack Perkowski), who needed someone to oversee how the millions of dollars he was pouring into Chinese factories were being put to use. Inevitably all sorts of unforseen problems arose, from factory bosses escaping to Las Vegas with 58 million in cash, to other bosses transferring land to rival factories personally owned by their associates. Tim had to run around China from one end to the other, trying to deal with all the mishaps and explain them to incomprehending American investors.

The book is certainly entertaining, and does its best to be culturally sensitive. At the same time, it reads a bit like an expose' of the kind of business ventures which unprepared, amateurish Westerners would throw themselves into in the China of the nineties. Apparently Jack Perkowski now blames Tim Clissold for many of the problems the book describes, and has refused to read it. Perhaps he should have thought it through before hiring a clueless young man with one year's experience in China to oversee 418,000,000 dollars in investment?

The Forbidden Door (La Porta Proibita), by Tiziano Terzani

Tiziano Terzani was an Italian writer, journalist and adventurer who spent decades living all across Asia. He was well known in Italy for his deep knowledge of Asian languages and cultures, and for his fascinating travel books.

Terzani and his wife eating with some Chinese friends
Terzani was fluent in Chinese, a language he learnt in Stanford in the late sixties, and always curious about China. As soon as the country opened up slightly to the outside world in the early eighties, he moved to Beijing as a correspondent for a German magazine. Terzani arrived in the Chinese capital in 1980, when foreigners where still extremely rare. He immediately did his best to integrate and learn about his new home, refusing to remain confined within the diplomatic compound where foreigners were forced to live at the time. He rode a bike, sent his children to a local school (which they hated), travelled around the country hard class, and got to know as many people as possible. In the end the authorities got fed up with this man who just wouldn't stick to the script; in 1984, Terzani was arrested on the fabricated accusation of smuggling artistic treasures out of the country, "re-educated" for a month (which mainly consisted in him having to write nonsense confessions), and then kicked out of China.

The book he wrote on his years in China (called La porta Proibita in Italian) is a fascinating portrayal of the country in the early eighties: in some ways so different from now, and in some ways exactly the same. It also offers something different from the Anglo-Saxon perspective of many foreign authors who have written about China. Although Terzani was enthralled by Maoism as a young man, he became highly critical of the Chinese system after moving there. At the same time he discovered the real, human side of China, which he found much more interesting and exciting than the faultless facade which the authorities attempted to show the outside world.

Unfortunately Terzani died of cancer in 2004, after spending his last few months in the hills of his native Tuscany. No other Italian has since written about China as insightfully as he did.

Foreign Babes in Beijing, by Rachel DeWoskin

Rachel DeWoskin, the daughter of an American Sinologist, arrived in Beijing in 1994, aged 23, to work in an American PR firm. Before long Rachel, who had no acting experience and shaky Chinese, was offered the starring part in a TV soap on a foreign lady who falls in love with a Chinese man. The show was hugely successful, gaining over 600 million viewers, and Rachel turned into a celebrity and a sex symbol overnight.

Her memoir is a sensitive, amusing description of her five years in the Chinese capital, during which Rachel delved into the city's emerging alternative arts and rock music scene and met all sorts of curious characters, while holding down a variety of jobs. China was an exciting and bewildering place to be at the time, and Rachel always did her best to keep an open mind on what she experienced.

The book is a great portrayal of what expat life was like in Beijing in the nineties, a time when you could receive an offer to appear on TV just for having a foreign face and being able to put three words of Chinese together, everyone was curious about Westerners and their culture, foreigners were only allowed to live in certain neighbourhoods but would happily flout the law, and the traffic and pollution were still at bearable levels.

Why China will Never Rule the World, by Troy Parfitt

After a decade spent living in Taiwan as an anonymous English teacher, Canadian Troy Parfitt got fed up with hearing supposed experts back in the West go on about how China was going to become the next superpower and a dominant influence throughout the world. This just didn't chime with his experience. So armed with his ability to speak Chinese and his first-hand knowledge of Chinese culture, Parfitt decided to embark on a long journey through Mainland China and Taiwan, and craft it into a travelogue with an agenda.

The first part is a bitter and sometimes hilarious description of his travels through the Mainland, which are replete with the sort of of misadventures any old China-hand will be familiar with: revolting restrooms, rude, unresponsive or just plain idiotic staff, dismal accomodation, tacky "ancient ruins" rebuilt 20 years ago, scams and touts etc.... Parfitt finds almost nothing to like in China, and he is not afraid to say it like he sees it. His descriptions of his travels are replete with historical and cultural digressions, during which he dismisses Chinese culture and all it stands for. In the end, Parfitt concludes that China is condemned to remain authoritarian forever, and has no hope of gaining any kind of real global influence any time soon. Although he has no love for China's current rulers, he sees the roots of the problem as lying even deeper, in Confucianism and the country's basic cultural identity.

In the second part of the book, Parfitt tours his adopted homeland of Taiwan, and meanwhile tells us his impressions of Taiwanese society which he gained from his years of living there. He describes Taiwan as being a better place than the Mainland in almost every way, but he still finds Taiwanese society to be lacking in many important respects, and he blames Chinese culture and education for the lack of critical thinking, ignorance and obtuseness which he perceives all around him.

Obviously Parfitt's conclusions are highly provocative and debatable, and not everything he claims about China is true. It is not true, for instance, that you never see people exercise outdoors. (Has he ever been to a Chinese park?) I don't find it to be the case that nobody ever knows the way to anywhere, a constant theme throughout the book. Parfitt's historical anecdotes are interesting and informative, but often biased, and dismissing the whole of Chinese history as nothing but war and chaos is highly simplistic. At the same time, I think anyone who knows China properly will find themselves secretly agreeing with him every once in a while.

If this book deserves to be read, it is mainly because it gives vent to some of the negative attitudes and frustration which many long-term foreign residents develop towards Chinese culture. At the end of the book Parfitt describes how he decided to move back to Canada, finally fed up with Taiwan and Chinese society as a whole. This was clearly a long overdue decision.

Monday, December 7, 2015

"Red Alert" over smog in Beijing

The Chinese government has issued its first ever "red alert" over Beijing's air pollution. The entire population of Beijing, myself included, received text messages both yesterday and on Sunday warning about the upcoming pollution. The first message warned about severe pollution from Monday to Wednesday, and said that schools should suspend outdoor activities, and vehicles which transport earth from construction sites should suspend their operations.

The second message spoke about terrible pollution from Tuesday to Thursday at midday (when strong winds are predicted), and warned that cars will only be allowed on the roads on alternate days. It also suggested (the Chinese term used was 建议) that Middle and Primary schools suspend classes, and that enterprises consider "flexible working arrangements". My company is actually allowing everyone to work from home tomorrow.

The funny thing is that the pollution is nowhere near as bad as it was on Monday and Tuesday last week, when the PM 2.5 index reached 600, a level which hadn't been seen since the first "airpocalypse" in 2013. And yet because of the lack of an official government alert, people seemed to be less concerned than they are now, when the PM 2.5 still hasn't gone above 300. The difference is apparently that the heavy pollution has to be forecast to last over three days in a row for there to be a "red alert". Go figure.

If you don't live in China or another place with dreadful air pollution, you are probably unaware of the significance of the PM 2.5 index. In order to give you an idea, the WHO considers safe levels to be below 25. In no major European city does it usually go beyond 100 even on the worst of days. Once you get past a level of 150-200, the pollution becomes visible to the naked eye. Especially in the winter, this is a common occurrence in Beijing. Like most Beijingers, I can eyeball the PM 2.5 level based on how far I can see out of my window. If I can make out the high rises in the next neighbourhood, I know it can't be too bad.

The air quality may not be improving, but what has changed enormously since I first came to Beijing is the level of public awareness. Just a few years ago, most people here had no idea about PM 2.5 levels, and did not give the air quality too much thought, or even distinguish between smog and natural fog. Only very few wealthy people and foreigners possessed air purifiers, and almost no one wore a face mask.

Especially since 2013, awareness has increased exponentially. Air purifiers have appeared in many households of ordinary means, and those who can't afford the expensive ones buy cheaper and less reliable ones. Although you can still hear people say that it's better not to use a purifier at home in order to for your body to "get used to the pollution", such attitudes are on the decrease.

More and more people also wear masks on smoggy days, and not just the useless little surgical masks they used to wear, but the imported masks with a filter which you can buy in 7-11 (25 yuan for a packet of five). Recently, a small but increasing number of people are actually going around with a mask connected by a tube to a little oxygen tank strapped to their arm. Below is a photo a friend of mine took today on the Beijing subway. Underneath it is an advertisement for such a contraption.

 


The extraordinary measures that ensured clean air during last year's APEC summit and this year's military parade have shown the people that smog in China's capital is not actually unvanquishable. Now that they've understood that air pollution is bad for them, I wonder how long it will take for them to start considering such dreadful air quality to be unacceptable on principle, rather than an annoyance which you just have to bear.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New bout of dreadful air pollution in Beijing

Over the last couple of days Beijing has been struck by one of the most dreadful spells of pollution of the last few years. PM 2.5 levels have soared to 600, and the entire city has been covered by a thick, grey blanket of smog of the kind which smells bad and makes it dark and gloomy even in the middle of the day. This morning however strong winds finally arrived and blew it all away, allowing us to see the sky again.

Here's a couple of photos taken by a friend of mine from inside Beijing's famous CCTV tower. The first one shows the view out of his window this morning, and the second one shows the same view yesterday. Scary stuff.


People were beginning to hope things were looking up for Beijing' air quality, after a comparatively smog-free 2015, but the last few days have brought everyone back down to earth. At least this time most of the people out on the streets wore face masks. It seems like awareness of the ill health-effects of smog is increasing.

The Syrian conflict

The Syrian conflict seems to have become the defining issue in world politics. Much recent front-page news, from the refugee crisis engulfing Europe to the terrorist attacks in Paris to the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, involve what is going on in Syria in one way or another.                                  
                                                      
The fact is that the fighting in Syria is increasingly coming to resemble the Spanish Civil War: a conflict which not only tears a country apart, but also becomes a battleground for a global struggle between foreign powers with competing interests and ideologies. The narratives being peddled by the international supporters of the two sides at war are very different, but they both share a disconnect from what is actually happening on the ground. It is ideology and wishful thinking which seems to guide most of the commentary on Syria, rather than a hard look at the facts.

Basically there are two main international narratives concerning the conflict in Syria. One we could call the mainstream Western narrative: an oppressed people rise up against an oppressive dictatorship in power for decades, inspired by the "Arab Spring" revolutions in neighbouring countries. The regime fights back, and it turns into a bloody civil war. Although Western governments consider the emergence of the Islamic State to be a huge threat, they maintain that Assad is a bloody dictator who has massacred his own people and has to renounce power if there is to be a solution for Syria. The so-called "moderate rebels" are considered to be the good guys worthy of support, fighting against both Assad and the Islamic State fanatics.

The other narrative is the one being peddled strongly by Russia, more quietly by China and other allied countries, and increasingly by the Western left-wing and others who have a bone to pick with US foreign policy. According to this camp, the secular regime led by Assad maintained Syria's stability and prosperity for decades and acted as a bulwark against religion fundamentalism. Then one day, using the excuse of the Arab Spring, the US and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia above all) fomented rebellion against Assad, and funded Muslim fundamentalists and terrorist groups to fight against Syria's legitimate government. What followed was the destruction of what used to be a peaceful country, and the emergence of the plague known as the Islamic State. Assad deserves support in his fight against the foreign-backed terrorists, and the Russian airforce is providing it.

Both these narratives respond to the worldviews and to the geopolitical interests of those who spread them. There is some truth to both of them, and also much simplification. The Syrian conflict started when popular demonstrations against Assad, inspired by what was happening in Egypt and Tunisia, were met with gunfire by the regime. That the US somehow pulled the strings is unlikely. It is much more logical to presume that Syrians took to the streets for the same reason that people did in other Arab countries: because they were fed up with living for decades on end under the same corrupt, inefficient and brutal regime. When they were met with violence, they responded with violence.

On the other hand, over four years after the civil war began, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it would have been better if nobody had challenged Assad in the first place: Syria has not moved towards becoming a better country, it has simply been devastated by war, turning into a place from which people are escaping in droves. All its ethnic and religious faultlines have exploded, and Syria has become a battleground on which Iran on the one side and Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other battle for power and influence. Even if eventually a better alternative to Assad emerges, Syrians will have paid a huge price in the process.

And then there is the composition of the rebel forces: it is an undeniable fact that Muslim fundamentalists now constitute a large part of them. The Islamic State's caliphate, spread out between what used to be Syria and Iraq, is attracting lunatics from all over the world. Syria's ancient non-Muslim minorities are being threatened and driven out. And then there are the other Islamist organizations operating in Syria, like Al-Nusra, Sunni fundamentalists who have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.

The Baath Party held onto power in Syria through brutality, as such regimes have always done in the Arab world (just look at the infamous massacre which Assad Sr.'s troops carried out at Hama in 1982). At the same time, it probably did prevent the country from descending into ethnic and religious warfare, while maintaining a relatively "secular' public culture. If the regime goes, there is no saying what could replace it. All this does lead some credence to the narrative of what we might call "the authoritarian camp": sometimes stable regimes had best not be toppled, regardless of how bad their human rights record might be, because the only alternative is chaos and ethnic conflict.

At the same time, the view that we can only choose between Assad and religious fundamentalism is simplistic as well: for one thing the Syrian rebels are not made up entirely of Muslim fundamentalists. There are other rebel factions which are more moderate, including the Free Syrian Army, which fights both the regime and the Islamic State at the same time. Then there are the Kurds, who fight for their independence as they always have done, and have become one of the main sources of resistance to the Islamic State. The self-governing Kurdish enclave of Rojava, which sprung up after Assad's forces withdrew from the region, is said to be an amazing experiment in secularism, grassroots democracy and women's rights in the Middle East.

According to most reports, Russian airstrikes are not aimed only or even mainly at the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, but also at more moderate rebel factions which want to overthrow Assad. What's more, Russian missiles have been killing Syrian civilians in droves. People who berate the US for propping up friendly dictators and engaging in bombing campaigns which kill civilians in the Middle East, but then support Russia for doing the same thing, might wish to consider whether there isn't a certain hypocrisy in this.

What remains clear is that the real losers are the ordinary people of Syria, who see no end to their suffering in sight. Further bombings by Russia, the US, France or Britain are not going to provide a viable or just solution.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Martin Jacques is at it again

Martin Jacques is at it again.

The ex-Marxist intellectual has jumped on the occasion of the Chinese president's controversial visit to Britain to pen an article for the Guardian, in which he lauds David Cameron's cosying up to China as "the boldest change in British foreign policy since the Second World War". Apparently it shows that "Britain can prosper in the Asian-oriented and Sino-centric world rapidly unfolding before us".

For the record, I have no problem with the British government cultivating a good relationship with China. Engagement with other countries will only change China for the best. Still it's funny to see a leftist intellectual congratulating a conservative prime minister for his courage in grovelling for money and investment at the feet of a government whose prime ideological mover is basically raw nationalism, but China does strange things to people.

I have already claimed on this blog that if you want to gain a real understanding of China, the last person you should turn to is Martin Jacques. To anyone who has lived in China long-term and/or knows the country properly, his views appear superficial and uninformed. Jacques speaks no Chinese, and the only time he actually lived in Mainland China was when he spent a term teaching in Renmin University, Beijing. If someone who had only spent a few months living in San Paulo and spoke no Portuguese claimed to be an expert on Brazil, most would be skeptical. When it comes to China though, people are a little more gullible.

Judging from Jacques' bestselling book, "When China Rules the World", he seems to be entirely unaware of China's massive problems, and in any case has never offered any explanation of how they could be solved within the country's current system. His arguments are based on pseudo-Confucian mythologizing and the simple fact, known to all, that China's GDP is very large and getting larger. He claims that the world of the future is going to be a "Sino-centric" one, even though China's cultural and ideological influence on the rest of the world remains close to nil, something that fawning Sinophiles like him are quite unable to explain. He seems to be entirely oblivious to the increasingly strident nationalism in China, and its tensions with its neighbours.

In his new article Jacques makes the claim, which is always trotted out in any pro-Beijing polemic, that over the last three decades China has lifted 600 million people out of poverty, which has been "the single biggest contribution to human rights over the last three decades". Although China's economic growth has indeed been impressive, I think that calling the creation of wealth by any means necessary a contribution to human rights is a very debatable proposition. Let's also remember that other countries in Asia have seen huge economic growth as well, and it's only because of their smaller populations that the total number of people lifted out of poverty looks less impressive.

He also claims that China has become a much freer society over the same period. This is true if you compare the situation today with 1980, but it ignores the fact that China has not been getting any freer over the last ten to fifteen years, and in fact over the last three years it has actually got decidedly less free. Inevitably, Jacques claims that we have to resign ourselves to the fact that China will never be like the West, and understand it on its own terms. I think everyone agrees that China, just like Japan, Korea or India, will always be very different from the West. The problem with understanding China "on its own terms" is when this comes to mean blindly accepting the self-serving narrative of its ruling class.

Of course, the article doesn't make any reference to the obvious slowdown in China's economic growth, or to the recent stock market crash, instead just repeating the prediction that China's economy will be twice the size of the US economy by 2030, and that the whole world depends on China for growth and capital. Be it as it may, it is clear that Beijing's huge reserves of cash just waiting to be spent are still appetizing enough for the Chinese president to get the red-carpet treatment on his state-visit to London. It is hardly surprising that Martin Jacques should be pleased.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Holiday in Thailand

I've just got back from a holiday in Thailand.

Last August I was wondering where to go for China's one week national holiday in October. I considered going to visit a friend in Bangladesh, but he couldn't guarantee he would be there. I considered an extremely adventurous Central Asian trip spanning China's Xinjiang province and Kyrgyzstan, but then I realized that we would have to spend most of the holiday traveling through the deserts and steppes on long-distance buses. Finally I looked at options for South-East Asia, and came across some cheap tickets to Bangkok.

Thailand is probably Asia's most popular tourist destination, but for various reasons, which are quite unconnected to the country itself, I had never been particularly interested in going there. I've never been a fan of holidaying in "tropical paradises", and in fact I have no habit of going to the beach at all. I don't swim very well, and lying on a deckchair relaxing all day is hardly my idea of a holiday well-spent. I like my holidays to contain a certain amount of excitement and adventure, and I try to avoid tourist hotspots, which Thailand clearly is.

The more I looked into it however, the more the idea of going to Thailand grew on me. Away from the notorious tourist haunts like Pattaya and Pukhet, Thailand is actually host to one of Asia's most fascinating cultures. What's more it's warm, relaxed and easy to get around (none of which would have been true of Kyrgyzstan).

At last I snapped up the tickets for Bangkok, and set off on the 28th of September with my girlfriend, a few days before China's national holiday actually begins. Our journey started off in Macau, where we changed planes and spent a night. Macau was the last constituent part of China which I hadn't yet been to (Hong Kong and the Mainland being the other two), so it was good to go there. The city is a mixture of glitzy casinos and old cobbled streets from the Portuguese era. What is striking is the Portuguese writing still to be seen all over the place, even though I doubt many people speak much Portuguese.

We then flew on to Bangkok. As I took the train into the city, what struck me most were the amazingly colorful and beautiful Thai temples sticking out from the grim buildings around them. Thai Buddhist temples truly are some of the most cheerful and attractive religious buildings out there. Bangkok definitely came across as more modern and prosperous than Hanoi, the only other South-East Asian capital I have visited up to now.

Central Bangkok

We stayed in a nice hotel in the new city centre, and in the evening we took the boat down the river to the historic centre of Rattanakosin. While wondering around I noticed a roadside stall selling bags of fried grasshoppers and assorted bugs, so I decided to try them. They were crispy, but pretty tasteless. After a while we made our way to Kao San Road, Bangkok's notorious backpacker haunt. I immediately felt relieved I hadn't chosen to stay there, as it is messy, noisy and entirely removed from the local culture.

Bugs on sale as a snack in Rattanakosin

Next morning we visited Bangkok's Great Palace, the palace where the kings of Thailand resided from 1792 until 1925. It turned out to be truly one of the most amazing royal palaces I have ever seen. It was both majestic and tantalizingly exotic, the walls adorned with murals showing scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, in which an army of monkeys fights against one of demons. The grounds were packed with tourists, about 80% of whom were Chinese. When you travel to any of the countries surrounding China, especially during a Chinese public holiday, the sites are almost as packed with Chinese visitors as the Forbidden City would be. Luckily I didn't witness any of the bad behaviour which has made Chinese tourists in Thailand sadly famous.

A man meditating in his store in Bangkok

After that we embarked on the eight hour journey to Kho Chang (Elephant Island), an island in the far east of Thailand, near the border with Cambodia. Although it has now become a holiday destination, it is not nearly as packed with people as some of the more famous islands in Thailand's South. We stayed at a fancy resort on the island's coast, which only cost about a third of what it might have done in China. The island is quite large and ringed with little settlements, all of which are touristy. Most of the tourists seemed to be either Chinese or Russian, interspersed with some Western backpackers.

The island of Koh Chang as seen from the boat approaching it

We spent a lazy first day on a tropical beach. Even though I don't usually go to the beach, I can see why people travel thousands of miles to relax on beaches like these. It certainly beats Brighton or Qingdao. On our second day we went on a snorkeling tour. I had never been snorkeling before, and seeing all the tropical fish and coral up close was quite amazing. Our third day on the island it started to pour with rain.

Although October is the tail end of the rainy season in Thailand, most days you only get brief tropical downpours, after which the sun comes out again. This time however it just poured and poured for about two days straight, with only brief interruptions. The locals seem to just ignore the rain, and ride around on their scooters even during torrential downpours. After spending most of the day holed up in our room, we decided to do the same: we donned our raincoats and rode our rented scooter around the island anyway. The hot weather meant that getting soaked wasn't too bad. When the rain got really heavy we would quickly stop and dash into a restaurant for cover.

A Koh Chang beach
Our last day on the island we did a classic tourist in Thailand activity, in other words riding on the back of an elephant. We booked a tour at one of the local elephant parks, and then we rode on the back of a huge Asian elephant for about an hour, which was fun in spite of the rain. Apparently these highly intelligent animals could be found as far as Turkey and Shandong province in China only a hundred years ago, but now their habitat has been drastically reduced. If I had read articles like this one before going to Thailand, I might have thought twice about the ethical implications of elephant riding. Then again, the elephants at the camp which organized our ride seemed pretty cheerful and well looked after, but still what would I know?

 
  A trainer riding an elephant on Koh Chang

That afternoon we left the island and took the ship back to the Thai mainland. After spending a few days on Koh Chang I totally understand why people will spend weeks wiling away their time on Thailand's coast and islands. It's cheap, the locals are always friendly and helpful, the food is good, and you can just kick back and relax. There are probably few countries which can match Thailand in these terms. There is certainly nowhere in China, including China's own tropical island of Hainan, which can even begin to compare.

After leaving Koh Chang we decided to stop at a town called Chanthaburi on the way back to Bangkok. Although it is mentioned in guidebooks and has a couple of attractions, the town is by no means a tourist destination, so it gave us a chance to see something of the real Thailand. We stayed at a cheap local hotel which turned out to be a bit like a low-end Chinese hotel you might find next to a train station. It was extremely scruffy, and there was no hot water in the showers (in tropical countries this is often considered to be a luxury). To be fair, a double room only cost the equivalent of 5 euros a night.

Chanthaburi has the distinction of being an important center for the trade of precious gems. Bizarrely there is a small community of Africans living there, mostly involved in the gem trade. We walked down one street which was entirely filled with African men hanging around chatting. The town looked rather similar to a Chinese town of the same size, with similarly run down blocks of flats. On the other hand it seemed a lot more empty and sleepy then a Chinese town would ever be. We could find virtually no restaurants, only street-stalls, and most of the shops seemed to be shuttered even though it was a Monday. All the same, the people were almost all cheerful and helpful in the typical Thai way.

A monk walking in front of a temple in Chanthaburi


Few people spoke any English, so I had a chance to try out my phrasebook Thai. Learning Thai is basically like learning Chinese, but with a phonetic alphabet replacing the characters. The language has five tones, and the way in which sentences are strung together is very much similar to Chinese. In fact, I can't help thinking that the linguists who classify Chinese and Thai (as well as Vietnamese) as belonging to entirely unrelated language families are clearly mistaken. The similarities between these languages, all of which use tonal systems and have similar ways of constructing the phrase, are too striking to be coincidental, and probably point to a common origin at some earlier stage.

In any case we rented a scooter (this seems to be the simplest way to get around in most of Thailand, with private taxis very rare), and went to visit a waterfall just outside the town. Next to the waterfall there was a path which ran through a thick tropical forest, replete with hanging lianas which luckily never turned out to be poisonous snakes. After going back to the town, we visited the biggest local temple, in which there was a huge golden statue of a reclining Buddha. Thailand's profound popular devotion to Buddhism is one of the country's most striking aspects. There are shrines everywhere, and most passers-by will automatically put their palms together in a Wai gesture when they pass one. Saffron robed monks can be seen on every corner. In Chanthaburi even a local government building displayed quotations from the Buddha in both Thai and English on its walls.

While my old pre-China self would have rejected all this piousness as superstition and as a way of controlling the minds of the downtrodden, my new post-China self  sees it more as an admirable preservation of tradition and as a way of providing people with a set of values which go beyond mere materialism. It is funny how China can change your perspective on things. Of course I know very little about Thai society, and how Buddhism ties in to the personality cult of the king and the social injustice which certainly exists in the country. Perhaps if I lived in Thailand for a while and spoke the language, my perspective might change yet again. Certainly South-East Asian Buddhists can also be religiously intolerant, as one can see in neighbouring Burma today.

That night we took a five-hour bus ride back to Bangkok, and the next morning we got on a plane headed back to China. After this first taste of Thailand, I can't wait to get the chance to go back and see more of the country. Then again, neighbouring Cambodia and Laos are also enticing destinations. And I still want to see Kyrgyzstan one of these days. 

Posters like this one, in English and Chinese, are quite common in Thai temples

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Anti-gentrification" or antisemitism?

The idiotic "anti-gentrification" protest in East London, which targeted a cereal cafe' in Shoreditch for the terrible crimes of being a hipster hangout and selling bowls of cereal (certainly fair trade ones) for £3.20, leaves me feeling pretty disgusted.

The problem of a lack of affordable housing is very real, in London, Beijing and all the world's big cities. But it's not going to be resolved by attacking small independent businesses catering to people who belong to subcultures which the protesters don't like. It's also silly to attack "outsiders" in an area which has been a haven for immigrants for centuries.

But what makes me really worried is the language used in the manifesto calling for the protest. Here's the opening lines:

"Stand up to gentrification!

Our communities are being ripped apart – by Russian oligarchs, Saudi Sheiks, Israeli scumbag property developers, Texan oil-money twats and our own home-grown Eton toffs. Local authorities are coining it in, in a short sighted race for cash by “regenerating” social housing."

Israeli scumbag property developers? I am not well informed about how many Israeli property developers are active in London, but I am pretty sure that they are not such a big presence compared to other countries. Note also that the word scumbag is not used for any of the other categories. No "Russian scumbag oligarchs", no "Saudi scumbag sheikhs".

Let's not mince our words: the reason why Israelis are specifically mentioned, alongside Russian oligarchs, Saudi Sheikhs and "Eton Toffs", is that these people hate Israel as such, and can't resist the temptation to drag the country into issues which have nothing to do with it. And quite frankly, when you have such an irresistible urge to vilify the only Jewish country in the world and its people, you can hardly complain when someone suspects that you might be motivated by antisemitism. 

Writing in the Guardian, Audrey Gillan criticizes the latent xenophobia behind the protest, but fails to specifically take note of the pointless and suspicious mention of Israel. It's lucky that the area where the protests took place is no longer heavily Jewish like it used to be. I'm pretty sure that otherwise the cereal cafe' wouldn't have been its main target.

Five myths about learning Chinese


1) Chinese is impossibly difficult

The most widespread myth concerning Chinese is that it is practically impossible for non-Chinese to learn it. This myth is commonly held both by outsiders and by the Chinese themselves, who will sometimes tell you that their language is the "most difficult in the world" with a kind of odd pride that their forebears managed to come up with such an impenetrable tongue. The truth is that while Chinese is certainly one of the hardest languages to master (at least for non-Asians), it is by no means impossible to do so.

The list of Westerners who have acquired fluent Chinese is by now quite long. You can see some examples in this previous post. Even in China people are starting to get less impressed when they hear foreigners speak their language well, although it can still attract amazement. The fact is that if you have a keen intelligence and a few years to dedicate to it, learning to speak Chinese to a functional level is perfectly possible.

Modern technology has also made things a lot easier. While remembering how to write Chinese characters by hand is indeed almost impossible unless you do nothing else but write Chinese for years and years (like Chinese schoolchildren), it is now almost never necessary to do so. Writing Chinese with a computer or a mobile phone is a lot simpler, as it only involves imputing the word in pinyin, and at most recognizing the character (which is many times easier than remembering how to write it). Electronic dictionaries are also incomparably easier to use than paper dictionaries, in which it is virtually impossible to find a character unless you already know how it is pronounced.

2) Chinese isn't really that hard

An opposite myth, peddled by Chinese language schools and sinologists and others who want to sell the language, is that Chinese isn't really as difficult as all that, especially if you use the right method. The reality is that mastering Chinese takes an awful lot of time and dedication no matter how it's done. Stories you hear about people who could speak fluent Chinese after only living in China for a year or so are to be treated with great skepticism.

You may hear claims that Chinese has an easy grammar, and this is more or less true. The point though is that the hard thing about Chinese is not its grammar. Chinese essentially has two aspects which make it difficult: the writing system and the tones. Learning the thousands of characters necessary to read the language is not unachievable for an adult, but it will take years of memorizing and practice, and there are no shortcuts. Claims that you "only" have to learn 3 or 4000 characters, as opposed to the dozens of thousands of words you need for English, ignore the fact that those characters can be put together in all sorts of ways to make up other words.

The tonal system is in some ways an even bigger obstacle than the writing: for those who did not grow up speaking a tonal language (most of humanity), it is just extremely unnatural to use tones to convey meaning. Learning to reproduce the four tones of Mandarin Chinese in isolation is easy enough, but learning how to use them smoothly while speaking is a huge feat. Even if you manage to memorize the tone of every syllable, actually convincing yourself to say the words like that is hard. Some people seem to have a natural ability to just pick up the tones by osmosis, but they are few and far between. Most people will just end up with toneless Chinese unless they make a conscious effort to learn the tones.

Add to all this the numerous characters which can have two or more different pronunciations according to their meaning, the hundreds of "four-characters proverbs" constantly used in writing, the high number of homophones guaranteed to confuse learners, the occasional use of traditional characters even in Mainland China etc etc... and you get the picture. Learning Chinese, while not impossible, is very tough. Just like learning Japanese or Arabic, it will take a Westerner years of work.

3) Learning the tones isn't necessary

This is a piece of advice which foreign learners sometimes get from well-meaning but misguided Chinese friends: don't worry about the tones, they aren't necessary. Even if you don't use them, "we Chinese will understand you anyway". There is a degree of truth in this: as long as you talk about pretty basic stuff in an otherwise correct fashion, most Chinese will be able to understand what you mean from context in spite of your lack of tones. However this changes as soon as you want to discuss deeper topics, or if you say a word in isolation (for instance, when you give a taxi driver the name of a place you want to go). The ability to understand toneless Chinese seems to vary from one person to another as well.

But there is an even better reason not to take this advice: if you speak Chinese without tones, it sounds pretty dreadful. People may understand you, but you are going to end up sounding extremely foreign for the rest of your life. It's a bit like speaking a European language and not conjugating any of the verbs. People can probably understand you anyway, but it's not a good reason to do it. 

4) In many parts of China people don't speak Mandarin

You may hear people claim that Mandarin (here meaning 普通话 , China's official language) is only spoken in Beijing and will be almost useless in other parts of the country. This is nonsense. This state of affairs did hold true 100 years ago, and perhaps even 50. It is however quite untrue nowadays. The reality of the situation is that Mandarin is spoken just fine by all the young and the educated throughout the PRC (the exception is Hong Kong, because of its separate history and system). In fact, some of the other "dialects" (which might just as well be called languages) are unfortunately dying out in urban areas. In big cities you may struggle to hear anyone speak the local dialect.

Things do change when you go to the countryside, but in my experience even in little villages the young are able to communicate in good Mandarin, even if the middle aged and the elderly are not. As long as they don't go to Tibet or to remote areas, the chance that the average foreign traveller will meet anyone who can't communicate in Mandarin is tiny. Even when travelling in Guangdong, supposedly the province most attached to its own dialect, I had no trouble getting around with Mandarin.

It is true that people in the South of China sometimes speak Mandarin with a strange accent, and get some of the sounds wrong (in some areas L and N become mixed up, while in other areas it's H and F), but if your Chinese is up to scratch, it shouldn't be hard to understand people. Sometimes Mandarin spoken with a regional accent is enough to throw a foreign learner with basic Chinese, but that says more about their own abilities than it does about China's linguistic unity.

5) You can learn to speak Chinese without learning to read and write it

Due to the nature of the Chinese language, with its non-phonetic writing system, it would in theory be possible to learn to speak it without learning how to read and write it at all. You could learn how to say all the words, without ever learning the corresponding characters. The reality however is that it is extremely unusual for people to learn to speak Chinese without learning the writing as well.

Although there are certainly plenty of foreigners in China who pick up some basic Chinese phrases without knowing how to read at all, it is very hard to progress beyond that level without learning the characters at the same time. Any language course will teach you the writing system, and very few people have managed to get far with Chinese without learning it out of a book.

All the same, it is a widespread misconception among the Chinese that foreigners who speak their language are still likely to be quite unable to read and write it. If they think about it at all, they may assume that foreigners learn Chinese entirely through the medium of pinyin, or just by speaking it. They may also assume that Chinese writing is simply too difficult for foreigners to master. The following scenario has happened to me a number of times: I chat with a Chinese person in their language for a while, without them even commenting. Then at some point they see me read a message in Chinese on my mobile, give me a puzzled look, and say: "wow, you can actually read Chinese". Well d'oh.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

This is not a Muslim invasion

As the wave of Syrian refugees continues pouring into the promised lands of Europe, it would be advisable to respond to the rhetoric coming from sections of the European public and political class about a potential "Muslim invasion".

The worst culprit in this regards is certainly Viktor Orban, Hungary's very right-wing prime minister, who recently used the term "Muslim invasion" in a speech. He also claimed that Hungarians know what it is like to live with Muslims, because they had to experience it for 150 years. He was referring to Hungary's conquest by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. Why this should provide the basis for dealing with a modern influx of refugees, I have no idea.

Orban is a pretty scary character, who is openly disdainful of democracy and what's more is getting the support of the majority of Hungarians. When a prime minister publicly uses language like that, it inflames the situation and legitimates popular prejudice. But the truth is that this refugee crisis has exposed a nasty strain of thinking across Central/Eastern Europe, with Slovakia agreeing to take in 800 Syrian refugees, but only at the condition that they are all Christians.

Luckily, many Western European countries have been far more accommodating with the refugees who make it to their borders. But even in Western Europe there has been some nasty rhetoric and protests, originating from movements like Germany's Pegida, an acronym for "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West". Although Germany has been commendably generous in taking in refugees, there have also been numerous arson attacks on shelters meant to house refugees, and physical attacks against the refugees themselves.

It is important to remember that we are talking about hundreds of thousands of Syrians spreading out over a continent of 500 million people. They are escaping a war-torn country, or they are leaving Turkey after being stuck there for years without the permission to work. They may well decide to return to Syria once the situation improves. There is no way that they constitute a "Muslim invasion" of anything (not to mention that not all Syrians are Muslim).

More generally, looking at the actual statistics, it is a simple fact that there is no risk of Europe turning Muslim any time soon. Muslims do not even constitute 10% of the population in any EU country. The country with the highest proportion of Muslims is France, where they are 7.5% of the population. In Germany they are 5.8%, in Britain 4.8%, and in Italy 3.7% (and not all of them are especially devout or practicing). In Hungary, the country which the worst rhetoric is emanating from, Muslims are less than 0.1%. Throughout the European Union, the Muslim population has grown at a rate of 1% a decade, from 4% in 1990 to 6% in 2010. At this rate, they will be 10% by 2050. The end is nigh!

I don't disagree that some Muslims hold unacceptable attitudes. Last summer's wave of attacks on Synagogues and Jewish targets throughout Europe came mainly from Muslims. It is a fact that the children of Muslim immigrants don't always develop attitudes closer to those of the societies they grow up in, and sometimes become more radical in their beliefs than their parents. If I really thought Muslims were going to become the majority in Europe, I might be concerned, since I have no wish for my own society to adopt Muslim mores. All evidence suggests that there is no risk of this however.

The fact is that taking in refugees from war-torn Syria is a reasonable thing to do, and Europe as a whole is quite able to absorb them. Talking about a Muslim invasion or the "Islamization of Europe" at a time like this is plainly irresponsible, especially when people are worried about their futures and looking for a scapegoat. What the crisis has highlighted, however, is the need for a proper mechanism by which the various EU states can coordinate and decide how to share out the burden. As usual, in times of need it's every European country for itself, with the EU counting for little. 

Syrian refugees walk along a railway track to cross the Serbian border with Hungary

Friday, September 4, 2015

Lukashenko and his son win the hearts of the Chinese

An interesting feature of yesterday's parade was the collection of foreign heads of state who came to attend the event.  Most surprising was South Korean prime minister Park Geun-hye's attendance. Apparently she took a long time to decide whether to come. Her presence might have to do with how much the Koreans are still resentful of Japan, and it might also be to do with North Korea's Kim Jong Un refusing his own invitation to attend.

Apart from Park and Ban Ki Moon, the other leaders who gathered in Beijing were mostly autocrats, from Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov to Egypt's Al Sisi. And then of course there was Putin, the star of the show, who was allowed to stand right next to Xi Jinping. This parade was clearly about cementing Russia and China's alliance as much as anything else.

Another foreign leader who really attracted attention, on the other hand, was president Lukashenko of Belarus, who brought his 11 year old son with him to watch the parade. The Chinese public fawned over the boy, and images of the child chatting to China's first lady went viral. Lukashenko apparently brings his son along with him to official visits all the time. Although he denies this, many claim that he is in fact grooming his son to succeed him - and the kid is only eleven.

Lukashenko is often referred to as Europe's last dictator, and not without reason. He has ruled over Belarus for over 20 years, during which the country's opposition has been completely crushed. Although elections are held, they are not generally seen as free or fair, and he wins them by a landslide. His regime is steeped in nostalgia of the Soviet Union, and the economy is still heavily ran by the state. He claims that his authoritarian style has helped Belarus to avoid the poverty and turmoil of other former Soviet countries, a claim which appears to have at least some grounding in fact. Belarusians are consistently more prosperous than Ukrainians, for instance.

Unsurprisingly, Lukashenko used to receive strong backing from Russia. The curious thing is, however, that since 2010 his relationship with the Kremlin has seriously deteriorated. Last year Lukashenko even publicly criticized Russia's actions in the Ukraine, and expressed support for the new government in Kiev. No one seems to be quite sure whether the Belarusian leader is really trying to reposition himself, or just get better trade terms from Russia, which remains the country's largest trading partner.

The Chinese, meanwhile, happily maintain excellent relationships with both Lukashenko and Putin, as yesterday's parade attests.

Lukashenko and his son pose with Xi Jinping and his wife

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The great parade

And so ends the great parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Anti-Fascist Victory.

The whole of Beijing, the capital city of the world's second largest economy, a modern metropolis of 15 million souls, has been basically put on standby for the sake of this parade. The whole city center has been pretty much in a state of lock down for the last few days, with important avenues and subway stations closed to the public, and many establishments also forced to close. Beijing's usually busy streets were practically empty of cars this morning.

To a great extent, not only Beijing but the whole country has been gearing up for the occasion for days. The entire nation got a special holiday today so they could watch the parade. Chinese TV has been showing almost nothing but programs about the parade and documentaries and old films on the "War of Anti-Japanese Resistance" for the last few days, with most normal programming suspended.

I watched the parade on TV in my flat (although I actually saw some of the fighter jets from my window). It was certainly a huge and impressive display, spectacularly well choreographed, but you would expect nothing less from the Chinese state. If there's one thing they are good at, it's putting on a show. All the same, the whole event left a bad taste in my mouth.

It's not that I have a problem with celebrating the victory against fascism in the Second World War, and in fact I hope it is never forgotten. That many Chinese contributed to this struggle with their lives is also undeniable. What I do have a problem with, on the other hand, is the way that it is officially commemorated in China. In contemporary government discourse, there is very little focus on fascism as an ideology, and what it actually means. In fact, usually the word fascism is barely used, and the enemy is simply referred to as Japan or "the Japanese devils". And there is little attempt to present the Chinese fight against Japan as part of a wider global struggle against injustice and inhumanity.

Instead, the lesson which the Chinese people are supposed to draw from this chapter of their history is narrowly nationalistic: "we, the Chinese people, struggled against the Japanese, the last in a line of foreign invaders. Now we must make China strong, so nobody invades us again". In modern Chinese discourse, the Japanese are often demonized as a people who have an eternal instinct to invade other countries, and who still remain militaristic and aggressive towards China. And this in spite of Japan's army never firing a shot in anger since 1945.

Let's also not forget how the struggle against Japan is now officially presented as being led by the Maoists, when actually the Nationalist party bore the brunt of the fighting. And of course, the downplaying of the fact that it was mainly the United States who beat Japan in the Pacific, enabling China's liberation (this can be compared to all those European countries where the role of the local resistance in defeating the Nazis is exaggerated, while that of the US/Britain is downplayed).

The message today's parade was supposed to send to the ordinary Chinese is "look how powerful our military is; nowadays no country would dare to mess with us". Not really much of a celebration of world peace and the values of anti-fascism, then. It certainly had the desired effect on some people: my wechat feed is full of nationalistic posts from Chinese acquaintances, expressing their pride at seeing their country displaying all those tanks, jet fighters and ballistic missiles. Having said that, a Chinese journalist friend wrote the following post in her wechat: "they are using the fascists' methods to celebrate the anti-fascist victory".
 
military helicopters form the number "70" in the skies of Beijing

Thursday, August 27, 2015

No comment




This news item was published yesterday on 网易 (Netease), one of China's most popular web portals. The comic effect was clearly intentional, and it looks like the website has already been forced to take it down, but before they did it had the time to make the rounds on Wechat.

Here's what it says:

Burma (Myanmar) unblocks Facebook. Only four countries now blocking it.

Burma recently announced that it was lifting the ban on Facebook, the world's most popular social networking site. There are at present only four countries in the world which still block Facebook, including North Korea, Cuba, Iran and others.

Wonder who the others might be?

Friday, August 21, 2015

China's economic slowdown: does it matter?

There's been a lot of hand-wringing about the Chinese economy's slowdown recently. In the space of a month, Shanghai's stock index suddenly dropped by 30%, and the Yuan was suddenly devalued by 4.4% against the US dollar. It has been speculated that the official figure of 7% annual GDP growth may well be exaggerated, and we may be talking about "only" 4 or 5%.

Quite frankly, all the concern sounds a bit over the top to me. The stock market's drop of 30% followed a rise of 150% over the previous year. The Yuan's devaluation wasn't really that huge, and it is a far cry from the years in which it was much more severely undervalued. What is true is that the Chinese authorities will always take draconian policy measures to try and fix any economic problem which presents itself, as can be seen from how they attempted to stop the stock market from dropping further. They are just congenitally incapable of not interfering heavily and unpredictably in the economy. Then again, leaving financial markets to fix themselves through market forces also produces dangerous imbalances, as the 2008 financial crisis in the US has shown.

The bottom line is that China's economy cannot continue growing by 10% a year for ever (and if it did, the world's natural environment would suffer all the more as a result). Even 4 or 5% growth is above the global average after all, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be satisfactory. China is already a moderately well-off country, and most of its problems are caused by social and political factors. Further GDP growth won't make them go away. Only political reform will. Even the dire poverty which still exists in the countryside and among the migrant workers could be ameliorated simply by distributing the wealth more evenly. After all, China has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world (going from one of the most equal in the early eighties).

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Are our kids tough enough? Hopefully not.

I have just finished watching the first episode of "Are our kids tough enough?", the BBC program in which a team of Chinese teachers take over a British school and conduct classes using Chinese methods and curricula.

The program is certainly entertaining and well made, as you would expect from the BBC. At the same time, it can hardly be taken as a serious comparison of the two educational systems. You can't just take a bunch of students out of the system they were brought up in, and expect them to adjust. It is also not surprising that faced with unfamiliar teachers who mostly speak their language less than perfectly, teenagers begin to act up (although the disrespectful behaviour of some British teens is a real problem).

As the BBC has made clear, the inspiration for the program came from the idea that Chinese schools are positioned at the top of world rankings, and that they outperform British ones. This notion was widely peddled by the British media as a result of the 2013 edition of the influential PISA report, which compares the educational achievements of students in different OECD countries. The result was that high school students in Shanghai ranked first for mathematics, reading and science, coming just above China's Asian neighbours, and way above Britain and all Western countries. The only problem is that the report's methodology was deeply flawed.

While all the other countries included were surveyed in their entirety, in the case of China only Shanghai was included in the report. PISA did survey some other Chinese provinces (all of them relatively rich and prosperous ones), but the authorities only allowed the results for Shanghai to be released, supposedly because they were the best ones.

The problem with this is obvious: comparing a single city to entire countries make little sense. Shanghai, the richest and most developed city in China, which contends with Beijing in attracting the nation's elite, is clearly unrepresentative of China as a whole. What's more, I have serious doubts that the survey even included the children of Shanghai's poor migrant workers. These children usually lack a Shanghai hukou, which means that they are effectively excluded from Shanghai's public schooling system, especially when it comes to high school. 

This didn't stop international and British news outlets churning out articles with headlines claiming that Shanghai's educational system was ranked "the best in the world", or that Shanghai's (or even China's) students are the "brightest in the world" (For examples, see here, here and here). 

Soon afterwards, British education minister Elizabeth Truss went on a visit to some Shanghai schools, and wrote an almost impossibly fawning and naive piece of flattery about the Chinese educational system and how great it is, especially at teaching maths. Apparently it is a myth that Chinese children are in school at all hours: "actually, their teaching time is similar to ours. But they use it much more efficiently". This is the country where some high schools have classes on saturdays and sundays as well, something I have personally witnessed.

The article concludes with the minister, clearly awe-struck by Shanghai's skyscrapers the way many first-time visitors are, claiming that the respect for maths and the belief in every single child on display in Shanghai should inspire us all. This was followed by a taxpayer-funded program to bring maths teachers from some of Shanghai's best schools to come to Britain and train local teachers in the Chinese ways. Suddenly, everyone is falling over themselves to praise a system they know nothing about.

It is true that Shanghai's results in the PISA test were impressive. It even outperformed Singapore. Clearly Shanghai's schools must be doing something right. I also don't find it hard to believe that the average Chinese student is three years ahead of the average British one in maths. It is a simple fact that Chinese schools (like other Asian ones) have a more demanding maths curriculum than what is normal in Western countries.

The jury is still open, though, on whether Chinese and other Asian students' superior achievements in maths and science are due to a different approach to teaching, or simply to much longer hours spent studying, whether at school, at home or in special after-school classes. It isn't hard to get better results, when you spend three times longer on your books. It is also the simple truth that Chinese education does not encourage critical thinking to the extent that the British one does. Nor does it seem to foster a real love of learning and of reading for reading's sake. It is more about working yourself stupid to get into a good university and have your future set. 

All in all, I don't think that China's educational system is geared to produce especially creative, enlightened or well-informed citizens. And what's more, many Chinese are well aware of this themselves and want reform. As long as China's universities remain average, claims to its educational superiority are going to sound pretty hollow. There may be a thing or two the British could learn from China about how to teach maths effectively, but it probably stops there. The discipline and dedication of Chinese students is the result of values and pressures which the British couldn't hope to replicate if they wanted to.

And by the way, when one of the Chinese teachers in the program claims that British kids aren't motivated to work hard because they know that in Britain "you are given money even if you can't find a job", she is wrong-headed. If British students don't spend all day doing homework it has nothing to do with the existence of a welfare state, which is something to be proud of. 

Maths teacher Zou Hailian patrolling his students in Bohunt comprehensive, Hampshire.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Five common misconceptions about Chinese history


Since China is a country which lends itself so well to myth-making and mystification, it is hardly surprising that misunderstandings about Chinese history abound. Some misconceptions are more common among outsiders, some among the Chinese themselves, and some are shared by all sides.

Here are five of the most commonly heard myths about China's past.


1) China was historically cut off from the world

Many outsiders see China as a country which was completely sealed off from foreign influence for thousands of years. Ancient China was indeed a relatively isolated civilization, surrounded by deserts and impassable mountain ranges. The Himalayas separated it from India, Asia's other great civilization, and its Northern and Western borderlands were made up of huge, inhospitable expanses of steppe and desert. Its main foreign contacts were with its own Confucian offshoots of Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Having said that, China was far from completely cut off or impregnable, both geographically and ideologically. In the most obvious case of ideological contamination, Buddhism was introduced to China from India over 2000 years ago, and became the country's most visible religion. Later on, the Silk Road brought a large amount of foreign people and ideas into China. Especially during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), often seen as China's most glorious period, the country was quite cosmopolitan.

The Tang capital Chang'an (modern Xian) was one of the most international cities in the world, as well as one of the largest. It included a Persian bazaar catering to Iranian tastes, and Nestorian Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Zoroastrian places of worship.  It was during this period that Islam arrived in China and drew quite a number of Chinese converts, as testified by the Hui Muslims today. It was also at this time that China's only traditional Jewish community was formed, by foreign Jews who settled in Kaifeng. They lived completely free of ethnic persecution for centuries, until they gradually assimilated. This shows that it wasn't always impossible for outsiders to become Chinese.

Of course China's traditional openness shouldn't be exaggerated either. Even during the Tang Dynasty, laws were passed segregating foreigners from Chinese in the capital. The Chinese attitude towards outsiders was always ambiguous and tinged with suspicion. Even though the definition of Chineseness was not racial, foreigners had to adopt Chinese customs in order to be accepted. The non-Chinese peoples in China's vicinity were looked down upon as Barbarians. In later dynasties, attitudes became increasingly negative and inward-looking.

2) Ancient China was sexually conservative

Many Chinese have come to see their own tradition as a sexually conservative one, while sexual openness is associated with the West (and the Japanese, who are seen as a people of closet perverts). The reality however is that for most of history the opposite was the case.

Since they did not follow monotheistic religions like Christianity or Islam, with their obsession over what people do in bed, in the past the Chinese had a much more relaxed attitude towards sexuality than Europeans did. The local religion/philosophy of Daoism saw sex as a path to happiness and longevity. Sex was not really a taboo, especially for the upper classes who knew how to enjoy themselves. Wealthy men would often have numerous concubines, and prostitution was allowed and regulated during some periods.

Even homosexual activity was tolerated in old China, at least as a way for men to release their sexual tension. Although the idea of people being exclusively homosexual was rare, just like in Ancient Greece homosexual relationships "on the side" were not seen as a problem. Some emperors even had male lovers within their harems.

The Chinese however shifted back and forth in their attitudes, and the Qing Dynasty was a comparatively puritan period. Then the Europeans came crashing into China's history, and the Chinese were influenced by the puritan Western attitudes on sexuality and marriage. Only now are attitudes starting to become more liberal again.

Having said that, I do think that some of the old tolerance is still visible in China today. In spite of homosexuality being illegal until 1997, most Chinese don't really seem too bothered by it (as long as it is not their own children who are gay, since they are expected to marry and give them grandchildren). Attitudes are certainly much more relaxed then in Muslim countries or Africa, where a violent opposition to homosexual love is still the norm. Sex shops also operate pretty openly in cities across China. And let's not forget the mind-boggling custom of inviting strippers to perform at funerals, which sporadically occurs in rural areas (although many people wouldn't dream of it, and the government keeps trying to put an end to it). Or Taiwan's half-naked "betel nut beauties".

3) China has 5000 years of history

Most people around the world would shake their head if asked exactly how long their country's history was. In China however, everyone knows the answer: China's history is 5000 years long. The 5000-year trope is learned in schools across the country and generally accepted as fact. Even foreigners who move to China quickly take it up. The problem is that it is a highly dubious claim.

It is hard to define when a nation's history starts, but no matter whether we take the adoption of writing or the emergence of the first cities as the starting point, China's history is not 5000 years old. The first accepted example of Chinese writing are the oracle bones, which date back to just over 3000 years ago. Chinese history prior to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) is hard to disentangle from myth. Farming probably did exist in China 5000 years ago, but this is true of many other places as well.

While is not true that China developed civilization earliest (Iran, Egypt and most of the Middle East definitely came first), there might be something to the claim that China is the world's "longest continuous civilization". Chinese imperial history does indeed present an amazing degree of coherence and continuity from the time of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the first real Chinese empire, until the Republican revolution of 1911.

The Chinese imperial system, based on the pillars of Confucianism and the examination system, was probably the longest lasting political construct of all times. It even maintained exactly the same official written language for over two millennia. No other country, from India to Egypt to Italy, can claim anything quite like it.

4) The Korean and Japanese languages come from Chinese

In spite of what most Chinese (and many others) believe, the Korean and Japanese languages do not derive from Chinese. To a linguist, they very obviously belong to a completely different family of languages. Their phonetics, structure and basic vocabulary all attest to this. Most linguists classify both Korean and Japanese as language isolates. Some see them as related to each other, and possibly even to Mongolian and Turkish (highly contentious). Nobody however relates them to Chinese.

The reasons for the persistence of this myth are easy to see: historically the Koreans and Japanese received much of their culture from China, which was the main center of civilization in East Asia. As such, a huge amount of Chinese vocabulary seeped into both languages. This can be compared to the way that a large amount of French vocabulary penetrated into English after the Norman invasion. Even nowadays, many Korean and Japanese words maintain a pronunciation similar to the Chinese equivalent.

What's more, both the ancient Koreans and the Japanese took to using Chinese characters to write down their own languages. The problem is however that the structure of these two languages differs considerably from Chinese. The latter is an analytic language, containing no grammatical inflections (no tenses, no voices, no singular and plural forms etc). Words never change their form. Korean and Japanese, on the other hand, do have plenty of grammatical inflections. As such, the non-phonetic Chinese writing system isn't really suited to representing these languages.

As a result, both the Japanese and the Koreans eventually developed phonetic alphabets of their own, which they would often mix with Chinese characters when they wrote. The Koreans have now almost abandoned the use of Chinese characters, except in ceremonial contexts. The Japanese continue mixing the different writing systems all the time.

To a linguist, however, the use of the same writing system and the presence of much borrowed vocabulary does not mean that Korean or Japanese can be said to derive from Chinese, in any way, shape or form. They are, rather, unrelated languages which were heavily influenced by Chinese throughout history.

5) Genghis Khan was Chinese

This particular misconception is only widespread within China, where most people take it as unquestionable fact. This is because of the way Chinese schoolchildren are taught their history.

To many Chinese, the Mongols are historically a part of the Chinese nation. It is true that the whole of what is now the Republic of Mongolia belonged to China throughout the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). China currently still rules over part of historic Mongolia, the province known as "Inner Mongolia". Although most of the province's population is not Mongol, there are still more Mongols within China's border than there are in the independent state of Mongolia. Mongols are thus officially classified as one of China's 55 ethnic minorities, which is reasonable enough.

The Mongols of the 12th century, however, were simply not Chinese. Genghis Khan, who was born North of Ulan Bataar, would never have seen himself as Chinese. If anyone had suggested it to him, he might well have cut their heads off. It is true that his grandson Kublai Khan conquered the whole of China and founded the Yuan dynasty. He then posthumously declared his grandfather to be the founder of the Dynasty, or 太祖.

Chinese schoolbooks now describe the Yuan dynasty as a legitimate Chinese dynasty, but at the time most Chinese despised the Mongols as foreign invaders. Even if you want to define China's Mongol rulers as Chinese, however, extending this posthumously to Genghis Khan is quite preposterous.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A few interesting facts about the Taiping Rebellion

Nanjing's Zhan Yuan Gardens, former headquarters of the Taiping rebels

During a recent trip to Nanjing I visited the Zhan Yuan Gardens, which date back to the Ming Dynasty. In the nineteenth century these gardens became one of the headquarters of the famed Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and they now contain an extensive museum on the Taiping rebellion. The visit inspired me to find out more about this fascinating chapter of China's past.

For those of you not too well-versed in Chinese history, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was an unrecognized state set up in 1851 as a result of a massive rebel movement known as the Taiping. The rebels, mostly disaffected peasants, were led by one Hong Xiuquan, a man who had convinced himself that he was the second son of God after having a nervous breakdown due to his failure to pass the imperial exams.

The Taiping Kingdom's capital was based in Nanjing, which was renamed Tianjing (the heavenly capital). This oppositional state managed to continue existing until 1864, when the weak and outdated imperial troops finally managed to defeat it (but only because the British and French decided to help). The Taiping ruled over a large swathe of Southern China at their peak.

The Taiping kingdom was run according to an egalitarian and pseudo-Christian ideology. The equality of the sexes and the equal sharing of resources were promoted, and the Taiping set up their own system of civil examinations, which were based on the Bible rather than the Confucian classics, and open to women. The rebel leaders however quickly slid into corruption an hypocrisy, keeping legions of concubines even though polygamy was banned.

The Taiping were finally defeated after years of warfare, which cost the incredible number of 20 million lives, especially since civilians were targeted by both sides. It is rather easy to see these peasant rebels, moved by egalitarian ideals and a half-understood Western religion, executing landlords in the areas they occupied, as a precursor of that other Chinese revolution a century later. Unsurprisingly the rebellion is now described positively in official Chinese accounts, and the museum I visited certainly made this clear.

There are some interesting but less commonly known facts about the Taiping rebellion: for one thing, it had an ethnic as well as a social dimension. A disproportionate number of the rebels were either Hakka or Zhuang. The Hakka are often compared to the Jews in Chinese history, since they are a minority who have been scattered across China, and often marginalized, but at the same time have produced a large number of famous politicians and revolutionaries. Deng Xiaoping, Sun Yat Sen and Lee Kuan Yew were all Hakkas. And so were Hong Xiu Quan and all the other leaders of the Taiping rebellion.

The Zhuang, on the other hand, are China's largest recognized minority, a people who speak a language related to Thai and live mostly in Guangxi province. The Taiping rebellion began in this province, although it did not in the end become part of the Heavenly Kingdom.  An awful lot of Zhuang joined in, perhaps because of friction with the Han as well as general discontent. The Hakka, the Zhuang and other minorities continued to feature prominently throughout the rebellion.

Another not commonly known fact, which I found out thanks to the museum in Nanjing, is that quite a number of Westerners fought for the Taiping. They were often missionaries, or sometimes just adventurers and sympathizers. They included Brits and Americans, but more surprisingly also Italians. A Corsican and a Sardinian even became officers in the Taiping army. The museum displays a list of names of foreign Taiping soldiers, including an Italian named "Antouio" (supposedly Antonio) and a "Moreno" from France (probably the Corsican). It even claims that Antonio led the "Italians and the Blacks fighting for the Taiping army". That there were even black people fighting for them is really surprising. I wonder if this is actually true.