December 2008

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Here is the last of the interviews I filmed in Oxford, this time with the cathedral of Merton College in the background. (Free tip: if you conduct an interview in front of a cathedral, time it so the bells DON’T strike the hour for five minutes right when your interviewee is warming up).

Dr James Martin, author of The Meaning of the Twentieth Century, and founder of Oxford’s James Martin 21st Century School (got it yet? here is a guy who likes to think about the 21st century) talks about the bigger picture impacts the rise of China will have on our fragile world in … yes, the 21st century.

After the jump is a coda in which he describes his first visit to China in the 80s, invited by Tsinghua University in Beijing to see first-hand the ‘awful, clumsy, Communist corporations’ of the time. A couple of decades on, and I’m writing from the glistening technology company hub of China, Beijing’s Haidian district: quick stuff, change, when money is an incentive.

Mandarin translations for both (think of it as a late Christmas present?).

Bye for 2008, see you in 2009!

Here is the coda:

tian’s fight

‘Tian’ – one word (most likely the character for ‘heaven’) – presumably found my email address on this blog. He or she mailed me out of the blue towards the end of last month with the below:

Tians first email

Tian's first email

The email of course piqued my curiosity. By ‘make a big case’ I assumed Tian meant petition (the most popular and effective means of protest for those in the countryside to make their grievances known). I wrote a short reply expressing my sympathy and asking for more information. Here is Tian’s response:

His/her follow-up, after I asked for further details

Tian's follow-up, after I asked for further details

I won’t comment too much on this, as I can’t verify the full situation and you can never know (or indeed trust) a person from an email. But here are a few thoughts:

* I see no reason why not to believe this is a genuine attempt to give peasant grievances and Tian’s mother’s planned petition greater publicity. In which case, it’s wonderful that uneducated Chinese read foreign blogs on China (especially one as relatively inconsequential as this one) and view them as a means to get their message out to the world. In a world where traditional publications are on the decline or on the censor’s desk, the blogosphere is the new model for speaking out (this one’s for Jeff Jarvis).

* Tian didn’t answer two of my questions: where is he from? and when will his mother arrive in Beijing? (indeed, to do what, where?) Nor did he reply to my next email, so I’ve no expectations of ever finding out what, if anything, happened. The hopes of peasants who come to Beijing to ‘make a big news’ are all too often crushed by the reality of the petitioning process which is adept at sidelining the issue at hand – or even using strong-arm tactics to sideline the people at hand (as in this tragic story).

* This case (which is too vaguely phrased – ‘somebody killed 13 peasant-worker open’ – to decipher) is only one reminder of the difficulties the majority of Chinese – in its vast countryside – face. Such reminders are always welcome in the comfortable bubble of a foreigner’s Beijing. This month marks the the anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms: which were a wonderful thing, but the results of them today mean that most peasants have been left behind – overtaxed and desperate – while the industrious, lucky and less unfortunately born few got rich first.

This said, China’s government is working hard to correct this. I wish them luck with it. I for one have never felt more impotent.

I posted earlier about a lesson in my Chinese language textbook which my teacher at Beida skipped. I’ve since cornered said teacher, in the friendliest possible way, to see if my theory was correct. My idea was that the lesson was missed because it features a father beating his child, which was deemed to reflect badly on China for foreign students in one of its most prestigious universities.

Turns out I was dead wrong. Either that or my teacher is an excellent liar.

Her less-rushed explanation this time was that the vocab used in the lesson was confusingly complex, so she and the other teacher who uses this textbook decided together to leapfrog to lesson 6. Lesson 5, she assured me, was taught to last year’s students. (None of whom, I presume, left China in a protest at the spreading fictional corporal punishment in Chinese higher education establishments.)

I will continue, however, to humour the little corner of my brain which still believes the controversial content of the lesson had a part to play in their decision. If nothing else, stead-fast belief in a conspiracy theory makes my life feel more glamorous.

While I’m still here, the same teacher told our class today her two jiao on the reform era, inspired by its anniversary this month. The freedoms she treasured most in post-’78 China, it seems, are the freedom to wear flares and the freedom to sing romantic songs. I’m not using irony here: although nothing on freedoms such as freer speech or the freedom of not being desperately poor (my top two from the reform era), little cultural freedoms of personal expression such as these must have made a world of difference to life’s meaningfulness.

Her final word, in response to our comments at remaining closed windows in an ‘open’ China, was that you can’t open such a large window at once, but instead must do it ‘man man, yi dianr yi dianr’ (slowly slowly, a little at a time).

Here are is a quick video (both in English, and Mandarin subtitled) in which I asked Dr Rana Mitter of Oxford University’s Oriental Studies Institute about China’s view of its role in the world:

And a follow-up of Dr Mitter talking about his first trip to China in the 1980s, back when a foreigner in Guangzhou was still something which turned heads:

Street fight

Here’s a shot of a street fight I witnessed by Jishuitan subway. Guilty as charged: I was in the circle which inevitably forms around such fights, secretly hoping things escalate so we can get our cheap gladiator thrills.

The fight simmered more than sizzled, with a lot of writhing on both men’s part to get past those trying to hold them apart – and the occasional blow thrown when they succeeded. The whole business went on for thirty odd minutes after I arrived until the police took both away: no-one seemed to have any clue what the grievance was.

The fighters are, in the foreground clump of heads, far left (obviously) and fourth from left.

Who said my man-purse was effeminate?

'Who said my man-purse was effeminate?'

For those new to this blog, I study Chinese at Beida – Peking University if that’s too esoteric for you. Since the beginning of term, my oral class has been working through the same ‘Hanyu Kouyu’ textbook (details below). We studied lesson 1. We studied lesson 2. Then 3. And 4. It seemed logical to assume 5 was next.

So it came as a surprise when our teacher told us we will be skipping lesson 5. The reason she gave was it was too short (not true, it is one of the longer lessons) and the new vocabulary in it wasn’t so useful (call me crazy if I think knowing the Chinese for ‘news’, ‘to improve’ and ‘knowledge’ is useful).

To be frank, her excuse and the abruptness with which she delivered it didn’t convince me. It then transpired the other classes which use this textbook also skipped the lesson. This likely wasn’t my teacher’s decision but a decision either made jointly by the teachers or – my pick – one made for them.

A quick read of the bothersome lesson later: its dialogue (each lesson uses one or more dialogues to exemplify new words and grammar) tells the story of a boy who comes back home with great test scores. His father is so pleased he offers 300 RMB as a reward. But the boy doesn’t want the cash. Instead, he wants his baba to ‘promise me one thing’: if he continues to do well, not to beat him any more. The Dad (grudgingly) agrees, after arguing that it is only because he beat him that the kid is disciplined enough to do so well in school. The touching ending? ‘Mom, did you hear that? Dad is not going to beat me anymore.’

It seems likely to me that my teacher was instructed to skip the lesson because this story reflects badly on China. Who wants foreign students studying Chinese culture and language to read that beating kids is common practice? True, it’s hardly a dialogue between a Sanlu employee and a quality-controller talking about how they’re sure there’s no industrial glue in this batch of milk. But still…

I will find an appropriate moment to ask my teacher about this, and see if I can weed out who (if anyone) asked her to skip a dozen pages, or if it was simply her and her colleagues’ decision. Check back.

Below: an extract from the dialogue in translation, and its illustration.

*from p.42-43 of ‘Hanyu Kouyu’ second edition (revised), by Dui Guifu Liu Lixin and Li Haiyan, published by Peking University Press in 2004 (reprinted 2008)*

(At home)

Mother: Our son is now ranked first in his class. I think he has definitely become an advanced student.

Father: Good boy! Tell me, what marks did you get?

Boy: A 98 in language, 100 in maths and 96 in foreign language.

Father: Altogether 294. OK, we’ll give you 300 kuai, this is a reward from your mother and me.

Boy: Dad, I don’t want money, I was just thinking…

Father: What do you want?

Boy: It’s not anything I want. I’d like you to promise me something.

Father: What is it? Children can make requests now? OK, tell me.

Boy: If I do well in the future, I don’t want you to beat me again, OK?

Father: Uh… you don’t understand, if I hadn’t been strict with you, you wouldn’t be who you are today. And then how could you get such good scores?

Boy: But Li Ming’s dad never beats him, and doesn’t he study hard?

Mother: All right, all right, time to eat. I also think beating isn’t the best way. Son, dad is just afraid that you won’t grow up right. Will you remember to study well in the future, just like today?

Boy: Yes, I will.

Father: OK son, I promise from now on I won’t beat you.

Boy: Mom, did you hear that? Dad is not going to beat me anymore!