Rally Rally

Posted on September 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Jinggu Rally. No Comments

China’s “Golden Week” National Day holiday is right around the corner, and this year I’ve managed to arrange a rather unusual and exciting adventure. I’ll be heading to Jinggu, a small town in southern Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region, to work as a translator and gofer at an off-road rally organized by a friend here in Kunming.

I still don’t know all of the details, and having never been to a rally before I can’t even imagine what it’ll be like. All the same, I’m sure I’ll take plenty of photos and have some stories to tell when I get back to Kunming on the seventh.

Internet access will be sporadic or non-existent so hang tight. If you’re looking for a China-blogging fix, check out the sites listed in my blogroll on the right sidebar.

And for those readers and friends within China, have a great holiday :)

(Photo by Flickr user Fabiano Marques under a Creative Commons license)…

Burma Update: China to Stay Silent?

Posted on September 27th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World. 2 comments

On Tuesday I wondered whether China would stick its nose in the current uprising in Burma to help its business partner, the ruling military junta. China’s largest constraint, I felt, is its very public non-interventionist policy, a position popular throughout the globe.

As the junta has begun violently dispersing peaceful protests, China has thus far remained silent. Via Foreign Policy’s Passport, an analyst from RAND believes China couldn’t flex its muscle in Burma even if it wanted to. An excerpt:

China has interests and involvements in Burma, but limited leverage. Burma is not some kind of client state of China. It is a xenophobic, divided, tribalized country with a nationalistic government; it bears more resemblance to one of the less coherent sub-Saharan African states than to most other East Asian countries. It’s not an easy place to influence. Through most of the 1980s there was a Burmese Communist Party, which consisted primarily of the Wa tribe plus Chinese leadership. When the Wa decided to turn anti-communist in the late 1980s and chased the Chinese leadership into China, China’s influence in the country was drastically reduced but there was little China could do without military intervention. So Beijing basically sat by passively when it happened.

There’s a crucial lesson in that episode. The fact that China has economic involvements in this neighboring country and sells weapons to it doesn’t mean anymore than when big U.S. companies are involved in some third world country and the U.S. government also sells weapons to it. Those things imply neither political commitment to a certain regime nor any ability to change the regime. The Chinese have been pressing Rangoon diplomatically for some time to liberalize the political system. Going beyond that to some kind of active Chinese attempt to impose a new kind of politics would be like the U.S. invading Mexico to clean up Mexican politics, but much messier because Burmese nationalism and tribalism make Mexico’s nationalism and Iraq’s tribalism seem modest by comparison.

One would hope that our experience with regime change in Iraq would temper somewhat the occasional neocon fantasy that China could simply install a new regime in North Korea or the apparent new fantasy of some liberals that China could just install a different kind of government in Burma.”

I doubt most liberal Westerners actually believe China, of all countries, would install a more liberal regime in Burma, but the rest of this analysis sounds convincing to me. All the same, I do think we may see a time when China’s anti-interventionist rhetoric will come into conflict with its strategic interests, and the consequences of that conflict would be very telling.…

A Note About Currency

Posted on September 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. No Comments

Just to clear up any confusion, here is a legend for deciphering my references to money.

As an American who lives in China, I think in two currencies: the US dollar and the Chinese yuan. Currently, the US dollar is worth about 7.5 yuan, down from 8.2 when I moved to China in 2004.

Most of you know that the most common slang term for a US dollar is “bucks”. Others exist but I only ever refer to dollars or bucks. They’re interchangeable.

In China, the currency is called 人民币 (Ren2min2bi4) or “people’s currency”. The other official name for the currency is å…ƒ (yuan2) which basically means “dollar”. The nationally used slang term for yuan is 块 (kuai4) which literally means “piece”.

So if you read that I spent 50 kuai on something, think of it as 50 yuan or about $6.75.…

Film Rental Idea

Posted on September 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 1 Comment

Yesterday I rented a movie in China for the first time. Instead of being given a set number of days to keep the film and paying a standard price, I put a 10 RMB deposit on the film and was told that each day I held onto it would set me back an addition 1 kuai. When I return it today, I’ll be given 9 RMB back.

Isn’t this a much better system than the one we (as in Americans) have? In the US, as you probably know, customers pay a small fee to rent a movie for a few days, and movie rental businesses charge them extra for returning a film late. Late fees, in fact, comprise the bulk of a movie rental place’s income.

Wouldn’t it make sense to, instead of late fees, just charge each customer a deposit set at twice the value of the film? Imagine being able to rent a recent film (say “The Bourne Ultimatum”) for 4 bucks a day with a 45 dollar deposit. Instead of worrying about late fees, you could simply take it back when you’re ready and be given money back in exchange. If you forget or blow off returning it, the film will be yours for twice the retail price, and you won’t have Blockbuster or anyone sending you a bill in the mail.

Here’s a problem. A deposit is no big deal at 10 RMB (about $1.25), but 45 dollars is a lot of money. Most people wouldn’t hit the rental shop carrying that sort of cash. Also, charging and then un-charging credit cards would be a time-consuming hassle. Deposits of this sort tend to work better in societies where everyone pays with cash, like China.

In any case, I wonder whether anyone in the US (or anywhere else) has given this a try before and how well it worked. Or, as it seems, nobody goes to rental shops anymore and just uses Netflix.…

Burma and China

Posted on September 25th, by matt_schiavenza in China and the US, China and World. 2 comments

While Burma’s* recent uprising is a purely internal affair sparked by rising fuel prices, some Asia observers have begun wondering if, or when, China will involve itself in the affairs of its neighbor. Should Beijing decide to intervene, we might see the first chinks in what has been China’s successful international relations philosophy.

In the past five years China has positioned itself as the ideological opposite of the United States in foreign policy, a convenient position due to the globally unpopular Iraq War. Broadly put, China’s mantra has been “stability”. Any regime that supports Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, remains silent on issues of human rights, and allows Chinese companies access to its raw materials will have friendly relations with Beijing. China regards human rights issues as domestic concerns only, and has criticized the US for bringing up human rights as an issue in foreign relations.

Given China’s support for stability and its indifference to democratic movements, Beijing naturally would prefer the junta to remain in power. A chaotic civil war would threaten Chinese business interests or possibly spill over into sensitive border regions here in Yunnan Province. In addition, the Communist Party might fear that a successful transition to a democratic regime (a so-called “Orange Revolution”) would inspire China’s own internal dissidents. China’s interests in Burma would be for the protests to cease as peacefully as possible and for the status quo in Burma to continue.

Yet what if the Burmese do manage to topple the junta and establish a government less friendly to Chinese interests? Beijing would be faced with a dilemma: either respect its foreign policy norm by staying out of Burmese affairs, or using its status as an emerging global power and East Asian hegemon to force the Burmese to accede to its wishes. The latter action would elicit a harsh condemnation, something Beijing certainly doesn’t want less than a year before the Olympics. Either way, what China decides to do (or not to do) will say a lot about its commitment to its very public non-interventionist rhetoric.

*Burma’s official name is “Myanmar” but I’ve elected to use its original name throughout this post.

(Photo of monks in Burma by Reuters and featured in The Daily Telegraph)…

A Survivor Fantasy

Posted on September 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Media. 2 comments

In college my roommates and I had a running joke that Survivor would get really interesting if they relocated their show in some of the world’s trouble spots. Instead of the Australian outback or some Pacific island, why not have Survivor: Chechnya? Or why not Iraq, or Afghanistan? In fact, perhaps the producers of the show could work out an agreement with the US government: one invades countries and create chaotic hellholes, while the other schedules a season of Survivor there. I think I smell a Strangelovian plot.

I bring this up because the current season of Survivor has been filmed right here in China, and while it can not be called a “trouble spot” by any stretch of the imagination, the producers appear to be avoiding any reference to modern China while focusing instead on cliches. According to its Wikipedia entry, Survivor China began with a Buddhist ceremony (managing to offend a devout Christian competitor) and each person was handed a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The two teams have been named 飞龙 (fei1long2) “Flying Dragon” and 战虎 (zhan4hu3) “Fighting Tiger”. The logo, as Dan Washburn notes, “has just about everything you would expect from an American logo about China except for Yao Ming and a takeout box”

What I find interesting is that, for a series about China, all aspects appear to focus on classical Chinese imagery, the sort that only exists today in Chinese television costume dramas. The Wikipedia article goes on to note that the Survivor producers had extraordinary access to the Shaolin Temple and the Great Wall, and I’m surprised they didn’t pull a Bertolucci and ask to film in the Forbidden City.

I would prefer, of course, a Survivor set in modern China. Imagine the possibilities. You could instruct two people to go to the Shanghai train station at Spring Festival time and somehow come away with two hard-sleeper tickets without being crushed by the onslaught of people. How about crossing busy intersections in any major cities- at night? I would also enjoy watching people swim in Kunming’s own Dian Chi lake and avoid emerging with an extra limb due to the excessive pollution. There are plenty of challenges in China without building artificial obstacles. At least Fear Factor, one of the more watchable American reality TV shows, uses authentic situations in their episodes.

Finally, while we’re on the subject of Survivor and China, Ling Liu at the Time blog reminds us of the show’s controversial division of contestants by race in 2006, a subject that prompted host Jeff Probst (photo above) to say about Asian people: “When you start talking to a person from Asia, you realize–wow! They have all different backgrounds!”. One wonders if the reporter who uncovered this gem redacted a follow-up comment along the lines of, “I just thought they were all shrimpy yellow slanty-eyed rice eaters!”.…

Myths in Studying Chinese

Posted on September 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Language. 3 comments

First, a disclaimer. As an intermediary student, I’m by no means an expert in the Chinese language. Those of you who speak and read at a higher level are encouraged to correct any mistakes I make in this post.

I do, however, feel familiar enough with the language to correct some basic misconceptions common among beginning students or foreigners learning informally in China. Here is a short, informal list of these myths and why they’re wrong.

1.The spoken and written languages should be learned separately because they have nothing to do with each other.

Several people come to China with the goal of learning how to speak Chinese. Few, though, seem willing to invest the effort to learn characters. Because they’re so unfamiliar to those of us who came to China without having studied an Oriental language before, we assume characters are nothing but a hassle best to be avoided. I’ve met dozens of foreigners who say, “I just want to speak; I don’t care about characters,” thinking ignoring the written language would simplify learning how to speak. In fact, those who never learn to write often find that their spoken level plateaus and that progress slows to a crawl after a fairly short length of time.

So what is the relationship between characters and oral Chinese? As most everyone knows, characters aren’t phonetic. However, each has a particular meaning and when these meanings are learned, guessing the overall meaning of a word becomes much easier. For example, in Chinese the characer 电 (dian4) roughly means “electricity”. When combined with the character 话 (hua4), which means “talk” or “speech”, the Chinese word for “telephone”, 电话 (dian4hua4) is formed. Similarly, the root character 电 is found in the Chinese words for “computer” (电脑) (dian4nao3), “movie” (电影) (dian4ying3), and “television” (电视) (dian4shi4). In fact, Wenlin (a computerized English-Chinese dictionary) lists no fewer than 997 Chinese words containing the character 电. All, with the exception of a few idioms, have something to do with “electricity”. Without visual use of the character, I’d find it more difficult remembering new Chinese words that contain it. Being able to see it on paper (or on a monitor) makes retention a far greater possibility.

2. If you learn 3,000 characters, you’ll be able to read a Chinese newspaper article.

Ah, the favorite canard of Chinese-language students everywhere! Somehow, someway, this idea has become so widespread that virtually everyone who comes to China believes it. Inconveniently, it’s false.

As mentioned in myth No. 1, most Chinese words are a combination of two or more characters that often have discrete meanings of their own. For example, it would be entirely possible that a student might know the character 电 (dian4) “electric” and è„‘ (nao3) “brain” without knowing that, when put together, they mean the relatively simple term “computer”.There are thousands of similar examples. In fact, I’ll sometimes find that I can read every character in a particular passage yet cannot extract their meaning because I haven’t seen them combined in that way before. Also, Chinese is a language rich in idiom, so sometimes even knowing what the characters mean together don’t convey their actual usage. To quote a simple example, the Chinese term 旱鸭子 (han4ya1zi) literally means “duck raised on dry land”. However, any Chinese person can tell you that the term refers to a person who can’t swim. Idioms exist everywhere, but in Chinese they’re particularly tricky because of the existence of characters.

A more accurate saying would provide a certain number of words necessary to read a newspaper, yet as far as I know nobody has come up with it.

3. Because of regional accents and dialects, when Chinese people can’t understand you, the likeliest explanation is that they simply don’t know enough standard Mandarin.

Here’s a myth that’s both self-serving and condescending, yet commonly voiced by foreigners of all stripes. Imagine this scenario: A foreigner approaches a Chinese person and attempts to communicate a basic idea, using the correct vocabulary and decent syntax. The Chinese person smiles and says they don’t understand. The foreigner, thinking the Chinese person is either stupid or treacherous, gets frustrated and either repeats the sentence in a louder voice or walks away frustrated. Then, in a conversation with others, the same foreigner will explain away his communication problem as the fault of the Chinese.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I know this scenario well because, in the past, it has accurately described my behavior. Yet I’m far from the only foreigner who has done this, and I hear it regularly from those who have reached their wits end due to their failure to communicate.

The fact is, most everyone in China (outside of Tibet, Xinjiang, or remote countryside villages) has no difficulty understanding Mandarin even if they don’t speak it well themselves. Any miscommunication most likely results from either a syntax error (to quote your calculator), a tonal error, or an improper or unusual use of vocabulary. Recently John at Sinosplice wrote (and I paraphrase) that he didn’t learn to speak Chinese well until he took full responsibility for any communication error. He would, for example, remember words or phrases he couldn’t express clearly and take special care to learn their tones before using them again. This practice is wise and ultimately far more gratifying than pompously telling others that the locals are too ignorant to understand your Chinese.

On occasion you will meet a Chinese person shocked into silence by your white face or big nose and thus unable to compute that you might be speaking Chinese. These people are few and far between, though, and using them as an excuse won’t get you anywhere with the language.

4. Tones aren’t important, most Chinese people don’t use them, don’t worry about them.

Here’s a corollary to point number 3. Because learning tones is time-consuming and difficult, most foreigners try to avoid tackling them altogether and rely solely on context for meaning. They’ll listen to rapidly-spoken Mandarin and assume that the tones are one big hoax and that they don’t matter to even Chinese people. Others have said that only the first and last tones in a sentence really matter, as the middle is simply a jumble of sounds anyway.

There is an element of truth to this. Often Chinese people will make tonal errors just as in English we often say something incorrect out of habit or convenience. In addition, Chinese in more remote provinces (such as Yunnan) make tonal errors unheard of in more orthodox-Mandarin regions such as China’s Northeast. Some beginning students (especially Korean and Japanese ones, I’ve noticed) obsess over tones and exaggerate each tone to the point of incomprehensible speech.

Just because one shouldn’t obsess over tones doesn’t mean they’re not important. On the contrary, learning them requires far less time and effort than speaking incorrectly and fuming that the Chinese cannot understand you. I have recently begun watching a lot of news on TV and believe me: tones are used.

5. Stroke order is impossibly complicated and makes little difference anyway. There’s no reason to learn it.

Stroke order, for the record, refers to the procedure of writing each Chinese character. Many foreigners, even those who have decided to learn how to read, feel intimidated from writing characters by hand due to the perceived difficulty of doing so. In truth, stroke order tends to be logical and it doesn’t take much time before you’ve got it down cold. In fact, I’m usually immediately aware that I’ve written a character wrong just because it doesn’t “feel right”.

It’s also a myth that stroke order doesn’t matter. Chinese people immediately notice when a character has been written improperly and will not hesitate to point it out. Ben, in conversation, once likened stroke order to spelling and I agree that this analogy is most apt. Most educated Americans, for example, recognize instantly when a word is misspelled even though we understand it anyway.

I can say that I would personally feel less sympathetic toward a foreigner who brusquely refused to learn proper English spelling, so why should we expect any different of Chinese people who are regularly told stroke order doesn’t matter?

This list is likely incomplete and/or inaccurate, so please contribute any suggestions or modifications in the comments below. Broadly speaking, though, my list serves as a warning to foreigners who think cutting corners will help them learn Chinese faster. The language takes a lot of time, practice, and effort, and while methodical learning might seem boring it really is the easiest and best method for any language, especially Chinese.…

Boycotting the Olympics? A Bad Idea

Posted on September 20th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World. 2 comments


Several influential people, including a US Congressman and presidential candidate Bill Richardson, have recently floated the idea that the US ought to boycott the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games if China doesn’t apply more pressure on the government of Sudan to halt the ethnic cleansing in Darfur. The logic behind this idea is as follows: the Olympics are very important to the Chinese government, any irregularities or mishaps will be highly embarrassing, and so therefore the threat of a boycott gives the US leverage in furthering its various foreign policy goals.

Of course, boycotting the Olympic Games for political reasons has happened before. The US and several Western European countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow games to protest the USSR invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union retaliated by boycotting the Los Angeles games four years later. It’s safe to say that neither boycott achieved much of anything other than ruining the dreams of several Olympic athletes.

Why would anyone expect the situation to be different for China in 2008? Does Governor Richardson, or Congressman McCotter of Michigan, really think China will amend its behavior in response to a boycott threat? If history is any indication, China would dig in its heels and feel even less inclined to accede to American foreign policy goals. In addition, a boycott would not bring any sort of desired political change in Beijing. The Olympics are a source of pride for the Chinese people, not just for the Communist Party. Any international effort to isolate Beijing would only result in an increased support for the ruling party, certainly not the desired objective of the US or anyone else.

There are other avenues that the US and Western Europe can take in getting Beijing on board, and most of these entail traditional realms of diplomacy that don’t involve humiliating a vital nation of 1.3 billion people. …

A Cautionary Tale

Posted on September 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. No Comments

One of the first things I learned as a newbie in China was to stop thinking in terms of US dollars. After all, most expats are paid in Chinese currency at a salary that, while high by Chinese standards, would barely qualify as minimum wage in most Western countries. The 30 RMB beer you shrugged off as “just under four bucks” seems much dearer when you realize it constitutes a third of your hourly wage.

This anecdote I’m about to tell should serve as a warning to those who take the “think in local currency” advice a little too far. Last weekend I finally got around to replacing the soft plastic tip of my left earphone, which had fallen off during my trip. I walked into the same electronics shop where I bought my earphones and asked for one. The clerk reached into a small drawer and pulled out a plastic baggie full of them, and offered me one.
“How much?”
“30 RMB”
Incredulous, I pointed out that the tip was just a simple piece of plastic. I offered him 10 RMB. He smiled and shook his head. “It’s 30,” he said.
“That can’t be right,”
“It’s the price”.

We bantered like this for a little while longer, but I couldn’t shake the impression I was getting ripped off. I turned around and walked out of the shop without saying thank you or goodbye.

Thinking about it, I realized that I had balked at paying a mere four dollars for a tool I really could have used. Four dollars! Had I walked into Radio Shack for the same purpose, and was quoted the equivalent price in dollars, I would have handed the money over without thinking twice. Yet in China, where 30 RMB can be a dinner for three, I loudly objected in the middle of the shop.

Of course, I decided later I had made a mistake and if I could do it over again, I’d have just handed over the money and replaced my tip. Unfortunately, I’m too embarrassed to go back to the same shop where I had caused a mini-scene, so who knows if I’ll find what I need?

Sometimes it does pay to think in your own currency. …

Cultural Revolution Propaganda- A Flickr Find

Posted on September 18th, by matt_schiavenza in History. 1 Comment


I’ve always been fascinated with China’s Cultural Revolution, particularly its iconography. A Flickr commenter translated the Chinese on the left as: “conduct yourself like this!” and the bottom as “promote revolution to the end!”, and while I’m too lazy to double-check, a quick glance says this translation is about right.

(photo by Flickr user chinamatic)…