Westerners foolishly believed that once China opened itself to the world, it would become more like them, but lately strong, CCP led nationalism has been on the rise in China. How do learners of Chinese react to this political situation? Does it demotivate them to learn Mandarin?
Recently, someone send the following statement to me:
In China, I do not have political discussions with Chinese people. If a Chinese person makes a political comment to me, or asks me a political question, I will respond with, “I do not have political discussions with Chinese people“.
I was left to guess what he meant. Was it too uncomfortable to discuss politics? Too dangerous? Pointless maybe?
No matter how many people claim they study Chinese for themselves and their own benefit, this example shows that nobody learns Chinese in a complete vacuum. You study Chinese? What do you think about the social credit system? Not an uncommon question if you are Chinese language student in 2020.
But do the current political situation in China and the international tensions really change anything? Does it make China and the Chinese language somehow less attractive to learn?
In this blog post, I can only scratch the surface of this question. However, I want to shed some light on the discussion by showing how learners of Chinese deal with politics and which arguments they use.
Does the political situation in China demotivate you to learn Chinese?
1. Indifferent: the apolitical learner
Some people don’t care about politics. Politics isn’t part of their motivation to learn Chinese. For them the political situation doesn’t change anything, doesn’t matter what they hear on the news or read on the internet. They have their own intrinsic motivation.
For someone with a strong interest in the world of politics, this is hard to believe. How can someone turn a blind eye to the reality in a country? But then again, what composes that reality? How can you ever be sure you know the truth?
2. Fluid situation: the political landscape is ever changing
If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 20 years ago (or 50 or 70 years ago etc.). Political circumstances are never stable. If they are part of your motivation to learn Chinese, you make yourself vulnerable. As soon things change for the worst, your motivation is affected.
If you’re interest is in Chinese music or Shanghai
cuisine, why indeed be bothered by such external factors you cannot control?
3. The people-does-not-equal-government argument:
No matter where you go in this world, people are divided into two groups. Those who govern and those who are governed…
One argument that keeps showing up in this discussion is that we shouldn’t condemn the people for their government, most of all in countries that can’t be called representative democracies.
This distinction indeed seems fair. There is no point in dismissing an entire country and all its people, only because you think you can’t stand its leaders, their views and whatever they are doing (or not doing).
And just because you visit or even live somewhere, doesn’t imply you support or trust the government. So at the end of the day, people ≠ government.
News about China – be it positive or negative – affects people’s
interest in the country, its culture and language, but not always in the way
you would expect.
Based on all the negative media coverage, you could decide to stay as far away as you can from China, never learn the language or have any dealings with the inhabitants of the middle kingdom. On the other side – if you’re more pragmatic – , you might just as well argue that you are going to learn the language and help the people affected by these negative things or at least try to be helpful in some way.
Either way: China is becoming more and more important on the world stage. For the pragmatist learner this is a good thing. He is not limited by ideology or moral judgements about China and doesn’t feel obliged to point his finger at others.
5. Nationalism as a demotivating factor
Some people do get demotivated by China’s new nationalism which is creating a climate that is less welcoming and even hostile to foreigners – or so it is said. Party ideology guides you everywhere you go and the cult around XJP is getting more and more obtrusive, not only foreign observers have noticed. Many are worried that China is “drifting off” in a totalitarian direction.
And there is more disappointment. Some longtime laowai have discovered that they’ll always remain “aliens” and outsiders in China, no matter how deep their understanding of the country and its people have grown. Others even fear being scapegoated once China’s economy declines or political and economical tensions between the West and China rise.
Is this kind of nationalism unique to studying Chinese? Can one have the same experience studying other languages like Japanese, Turkish and Arabic which have their own brands of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia? It can be hard if you admire the culture, only to discover you are not welcome and never will be a true part of it. Obviously, this last point is not unique to immigrants in China, but a problem with an universal quality.
6. Love it!
I almost forgot this one. Many people all over the globe admire the Chinese state for its way of driving modernization forward and dealing with rapid societal transformation. They see XJP as an example of a strong technocrat leader.
Does it demotivate me?
Yes and no. I noticed it’s all too easy to be influenced by negative news about China. And here in Europe, almost everything I read about China is negative. (“We” are of what China might become in the future when it decides the rules of the new world order). However, our understanding of China is still very limited.
Ultimately, it’s my own choice to pay attention to this negative and biased news or not. I prefer listening to an insightful China podcast, talking to locals or reading a serious book about China. My goal has always been to stay open-minded and understand different perspectives.
For every negative statement about China I can make an equal remark about my own country, Europe or the west in general. I think this is a fair and healthy thing to do. And it’s good to put things in their right historical perspective as well. No, China is not a democracy, not in today’s western sense, but when has it ever been? Why do we always project our own wishes and expectations on others?
Another important reason to not let yourself get demotivated by politics is this: the world of politics is a day-to-day, month-to-month thing, where as learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor. It doesn’t come without a huge investment of time and energy which is why you should get your priorities straight. It actually makes a lot of sense to protect your motivation and keep a healthy distance from politics if it’s starting to become a negative influence. The apolitical positions mentioned above all reflect that.
Furthermore, the intellectual and aesthetic pleasure of learning Chinese language and culture(s) is undervalued. There’s seems less and less place for that in today’s world. You have to defend yourself against people doubting the usefulness of your endeavors. If your interest is beyond the mainstream – and it doesn’t even have to be some obscure branch of knowledge – you just don’t fit in anywhere.
Anyway, philosophy, artsAND the study of languages, in my view, should be located above politics. And that doesn’t mean you don’t care and aren’t interested.
Whatever happens in the future, there will be a practical value in knowing the Chinese language. The reasons may vary from work, Chinese family and friends, traveling and hopefully, changing something for the better.
Does the political situation in China affect your learning? Please feel free to comment on this topic down below.
This blog doesn’t discuss politics of any kind and that’s not going to change, but on the first of October something strange happened on my WeChat feed. Without warning all the more or less harmless content turned red!
The East is Red
Instead of the usual bourgeois pictures of food, cats and traveling, an endless stream of Chinese national symbols and fervent “birthday wishes” dominated my WeChat moments: from kids dancing and waving the Chinese flag, to “Xi dada” inspecting the military parade and greeting the soldiers.
Not that it’s any of my business, but all of a sudden Xi Jinping and the party were allover the place! And people who normally don’t involve themselves in politics on any level, now wrote messages in the most patriotic tones, celebrating the 70th birthday of the PRC. I even saw people making selfies in front of their televisions, showing the world that they weren’t missing a single word of their benevolent leader’s speech.
学习强国: “Study Xi and strengthen the nation”
Which reminded me of this Chinese app “xuexi qiangguo” that a Chinese friend showed to me not so long ago. It’s an app designed to study Xi Jinping’s thoughts and ideas by watching video’s and reading texts. Of course, you can earn points and are competing against other people. The higher your score, the higher your position in this online Xi JP study club.
Needless to say, all your activity on the app can be tracked and is (probably) linked to your ID, at least if you work for the Chinese government. It’s the updated version of Mao’s little red book which in the craziest days of the cultural revolution Chinese people had to carry around everywhere they went and cite from memory.
But anyway, my main concern here is to answer the question which level of proficiency you need to reach to understand Xi Jinping’s PRC anniversary speech, held on Chinese National Day (01.10.2019), before he drove past the military in an open car, greeting and thanking the soldiers.
Listening to it myself, I understood more than I expected, not least because the Chinese president spoke slowly and clearly in Standard Mandarin.
Although I recognized many familiar words and phrases and could grasp the meaning of most that was said, when I ran Xi’s speech through a Chinese text analyzer, the statistics told a different story, even revealing an “advanced” difficulty rating. “Advanced” meaning that the text is way beyond intermediate level and not an easy read.
Taking a closer look at the vocabulary and the idioms used, the speech indeed is rather difficult and contains many subtleties of CPC political language that – I guess – only insiders and experts can fully apprehend. The main message though is clear: “China is back, we’re strong and we’re here to stay”.
Top ten of most used words
In the top 10 of most used words, we only find common characters. In his 8-minute speech Xi used the word 人民 (people)twenty times and 中国 (China) fourteen times. This is followed by the adjective 伟大 (great, magnificent) which Xi mainly combines with 祖国 (motherland), but also with the following words:
中华人民共和国 (People’s Republic of China)
中国共产党 (Chinese Communist party)
中国人民 (Chinese nation or Chinese people(s))
复兴 (Renaissance (of the Chinese nation))
The Chinese president used the word 世界 (world)to point out China’s growing strength and global meaning and urged the Chinese people to stay on the path of steady and peaceful 发展 (development), telling them to 坚持 (persevere) and keep pursuing socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Here is the top 10 of his most used words:
人民 rénmín (20X)
中国 zhōngguó (14X)
伟大 wěidà (10X)
中华 zhōnghuá (9X)
我们 wǒmen (8X)
全国 quánguó (6X)
世界 shìjiè (5X)
发展 fāzhǎn (5X)
共和国 gònghéguó (5X)
There is still much to be said, but then again, this is not a political blog. This blog post just goes to show that sometimes politics in China is hard to ignore, even if you are “just trying to learn the language”. In particular on Chinese National Day.
Back in the days of Mao Zedong, one could hardly open a Chinese textbook that wasn’t full of revolutionary slogans and communist role models who sacrificed themselves for the socialist cause.
I think we all agree that political ideology should never be the main focus or even a major part of a language study, unless your interest in politics and state affairs is the reason you study Chinese (which is OK!). Please feel free to comment your thoughts about this topic down below.
Luo Haiyan has just graduated from university in Shanghai. Like hundred thousands of other fresh graduates, she’s about to enter the Shanghai job market. This is where her climb to the top of society starts. But what if she – as a result – becomes a “leftover woman”? Isn’t the shame of ending up as “剩女” too big to ignore? Can she really fulfill her dream of rising to Shanghai’s top 10 percent?
Why I recommend Women in Shanghai for Chinese learners.
The Shanghai dream
The ingredients of “上海女子图鉴” taste to you like a bowl of boiled rice flour balls covered in caramel sauce? That’s just a sign you are starting to appreciate the Shanghai dream:
Drinking red wine from huge glasses, ordering mocha or coffee americano (美式) instead of hot water. Having your private driver driving you through Shanghai. Living at top locations in the city center. Using Apple products only. Wearing the right handbag. Always be dressed in the newest fashion.
The Shanghai dream is never questioned. The viewer is simply expected to share the dream. How could you desire anything else?
Luo Haiyan is just an average girl from some Chinese cow town. There is nothing special about her. No traumatic events in her past make her stand out. No character traits that separate her from the masses. She’s an average girl, however, she for some reason wins the favor of her female boss and then success comes rolling in.
Putting off marriage
But the spectrum of options, even for a young and attractive woman of the emerging middle-class, remains limited in Chinese society. The recurring question is – of course – who will she marry?
The handsome neighbor guy, her responsible colleague, the ambitious entrepreneur, the elder billionaire? The more successful she becomes, the pickier she gets. Her mentor Scarlet reminds her that true freedom means never to become depend on any man.
Is this series any good as learning resource?
For our purposes here, let me just give a few points why Women in Shanghai is suitable learning material:
The rather thin plot is not too difficult to follow, even if you don’t understand every conversation
Mostly putonghua with a taste of business Chinese
Gives a feeling of modern life in Shanghai (the idealized, glamor version, that is)
Should you for whatever reason not be very interested in Shanghai: similar series have been made. Same concept, different city!
The Beijing version seems to have slightly better plot and even contains touches of irony here and there. Like the scene where the main actress pukes into her Gucci hand bag (or whatever brand, I forgot) that she finally could afford to purchase.
Today it’s been exactly 52 years since the Dutch writer and diplomat Robert van Gulik (1910 – 1967) passed away. Best known for his Chinese detective novels, Van Gulik also was a respected scholar, chain-smoker and gibbon admirer. He spent most of his life, however, serving the Dutch government in diplomatic service.
After his studies in Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese in 1935, Robert van Gulik joined the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although he made a career as a diplomat, van Gulik devoted most of his spare time to his books, writing and musical instruments.
The duty to his country brought him to unusual places: He lived and worked in China, India and Lebanon. In 1958 he became ambassador to Kuala Lumpur and in 1965 his appointment as ambassador to Tokyo followed.
It’s been said about Van Gulik that he was “a westerner with an eastern heart”. Looking back, Van Gulik wrote that his childhood in Indonesia played a crucial role in this:
In 1914, four years old, I left with my parents from my hometown of Zutphen to Java and attended primary school in Surabaya in Batavia. In 1923, we returned to the Netherlands for good and my father settled in Nijmegen where I went to the Stedelijk Gymnasium. My childhood in Java, however, had made a deep impression on me, and it were these memories which would determine my future path: the Chinese banners in Glodok aroused my interest in Chinese writing, and wajang performances gave me a preference for the eastern story that I never quite forgot. The nostalgic memories of my early childhood made me decide in my high school years to return to the East as soon as possible. That happened immediately after my promotion to a doctorate in Eastern literature, in Utrecht in the year 1935; be it then that the east turned out to be China, Japan, India and Malaya, and not Java where I have never been back.
Tong Tong — Het enige Indische blad ter wereld 8e jaargang, nummer 12, december 1963, p. 9
Throughout his life, Van Gulik was admired for his deep understanding of Chinese culture. His identification with the culture was deep-seated and reached a level where he seemed almost more Chinese in his ways and thinking than Dutch, although this last point was denied by people who knew him well. This is how a former colleague remembers Van Gulik:
Knowledge of Eastern languages and insight into foreign civilizations can be mastered by Westerners to a certain extent, but a complete identification with them remains rare. Van Gulik was such an exceptional appearance, as a result of which he had already become a legendary figure in China and beyond during his life. His complete command of language and culture preferably led him into areas of scientific work that others had recoiled from or were too peculiar to be approached by a Westerner.
He served three years in China (1943 – 1946) as first secretary of the Dutch delegation during particularly turbulent times and was located in Chongqing, the provisional capital of the Republic of China under Chiang Kai-Shek.
One anecdote from this era has survived. When asked by his government for a political assessment of Mao Zedong, he was grievously mistaken and more or less assumed thousands of years of tradition would prevail over current turmoil. Van Gulik saw Mao as a “temporary figure, a phenomenon of limited duration”.
Intellectual and artist
Van Gulik always found time for his intellectual and artistic pursuits and published on Chinese ink stones, painting, music and gibbons, his favorite animals. He himself was a highly skilled calligrapher. Playing the guqin, the qin (琴), was another of Van Gulik’s passions. Of his scientific works, his studies of sexual behavior in Chinese antiquity is most renowned. In China, he is know as 高罗佩 (Gāo luō pèi):
As Chinese rendering of my name I chose KAO LO-P’EI, KAO representing the GU in van Gulik, and LO-P’EI being a phonetic rendering of my personal name Robert. To this name I have stuck throughout the years, and it is by this name that I am known in the Far East.
Van Gulik’s best-known works, however, are the sixteen Judge Dee detective novels. These he wrote in English and were later edited into Dutch by himself. He also illustrated these stories with his own Chinese-style drawings.
The character of Judge Dee is based on a historical figure who lived in the Tang Dynasty. Van Gulik was inspired by ancient Chinese detective stories which he adapted and made accessible for non-Chinese readers. Reading the novels, you get a taste of ancient Chinese society, its judicial system, Confucianism, Taoism, superstition and elite culture:
His novels accessibly deal with aspects of Chinese history and culture. Judge Dee, the main character of the novel Dee Goong An, was based on the judge/ official and detective Di Renjie, who lived in the 7th century (during the Tang Dynasty). The classic 18th century version of Dee Goong An, with the name The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee was first translated into English by Robert van Gulik. This became a success and Van Gulik decided to continue his writing and to create his own original judge Dee stories. There are many interesting differences between the traditional 18th century version of the classic 18th century novel and the version written by Van Gulik. He mixed styles of Western detective novels into traditional Chinese stories with an eye to modern Western readers.
“我的渡口” or “My Ferry” struck me as a rather slow and silent movie, conversations between country people being of the minimalist kind with many things left unsaid. The main reason to watch – apart from the scenic beauty of the Hubei river landscape – is probably to get a taste of traditional, rural China which is so completely different from modern Chinese society.
Duration: 92 minutes
Subtitles: Chinese only
Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate
The story about a father and son can be outlined in a few sentences. Laotian has been working as a ferryman on a small rowing boat for all his life. His wife has died and recently his health has been declining, but he doesn’t want to give up his trade. His only son, Xiaotian, who has been jobbing downtown, now has returned to spend his holidays with his father. Xiaotian, who has been struggling as a migrant worker to survive in the big city, loves his father, but doesn’t have a high opinion of his trade and his stubborn ways. His father never accepts any money, the villagers leave some cabbages or potatoes instead. Xiaotian’s feelings change however, when he starts rowing the ferry himself in order to support his old man.
Tradition and modernity
Basically, it’s a story about father and son and the conflict between the old and the new. Can a fourth generation take over the small ferry business? How to react to the changing circumstances? How to respect tradition and still survive without becoming a stick in the mud?
From a cultural perspective, “My Ferry” is a striking display of “filial piety”. Xiaotian may disagree with his father’s plain view of the world, but he would never openly disrespect him and make him loose face in front of others. It’s really compelling to watch these traditional Chinese family relations where feelings for each other are usually expressed in an indirect way. In other words, no hugging, no “I love you, dad”, no “goodbye, son, I’ll miss you” and so on.
When we look deeper, we also find the archetypal figure of the ferryman who appears in many cultures. He typically is a solitary and silent figure, not very well liked by the people and transcendent in the sense that he isn’t really part of this world, but forever in between. Laotian, still very concerned with the practical world and his local community, could be seen as a Chinese manifestation of this archetypal figure. There’s wisdom in his simplicity.