In short: You take a Dutch guy who wants to become a professional photographer. You put him in China with a camera team and he starts making an incredible portrait of present-day China that everybody talks about. Since this series is almost unknown outside of Holland, I decided to share it here.
Three different series have been produced. The main language is Mandarin Chinese with Dutch moderation and – most important – English subtitles:
Along the banks of the Yangtze (2016)
Through the heart of China (2018)
Chinese dreams (2019)
All in all, I have spent around four to five years in China, I guess. I appreciate the honesty of the people the most. Chinese people are very open about their emotions and can reflect well. The country is and remains fascinating because it is constantly and massively in motion.
The filmmaker Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw
Along the banks of the Yangtze (2016)
The six episodes
Duration: 6 episodes X 43 min.
Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate
How the Dutch filmmaker ended up in China
After finishing high school in the Netherlands, Ruben Terlou went to live in China and make a living as a photographer. A rather unusual step for a young Dutch guy, but Ruben was convinced that China was the place to be for him.
Settling down in Kunming and learning Chinese, he fell in love with the country and the people. He became fluent in Mandarin. But after two years of trying his luck as a professional photographer, he returned to Holland, allegedly broke and disappointed.
He than began studying medicine instead, putting photography second, but still visiting places like Afghanistan to shoot material. He finished his studies cum laude, yet he never became an actual doctor.
Through the heart of China (2018)
The seven episodes
Duration: 7 episodes X 43 min.
Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate
Ruben Terlou: The unappointed China ambassador
Ruben’s China documentaries became an instant hit in the Netherlands. In every discussion about China people would mention his name.
For most Dutch people China used to be a far away place. Little did they know about the people who live there and their daily lives. Ruben’s China series made a change, focusing on a broad variety of topics and letting Chinese locals tell their own story. He showed that Chinese are not incomprehensible strangers, but fellow human beings. Not an easy task, especially under growing political tensions:
It would be nice if my work touches the audience. Because with all that news about the Chinese trade war, misunderstanding towards the superpower is growing. “What a horrible country, that China,” many people say. I want to remove that distrust, hope to paint a balanced and human image of China.
Many China documentaries made by westerners fail insofar that they are deep-rooted in prejudices (and often ignorance) and choose the moral high ground. Most importantly, they don’t bring any new insights.
Ruben Terlou cannot help but see China through the eyes of a westerner, but at least he makes a serious effort of NOT judging and throwing his opinion in people’s faces. But there’s more that makes him stand out from journalists and filmmakers that cover China:
He holds back his opinion and allows people to tell their stories
He’s not looking for cheap sensation
People open up to him and tell him very personal things
He’s a keen observerand a brilliant listener. He knows what to ask at the right moment.
Not only his Mandarin is fluent, he also knows a lot about Chinese history and culture. This is demonstrated in his interviews as well as in his selection of topics, Ruben visits places many Chinese never heard of.
He captures unusual places, people and situations like hospitals, circus artists and vanishing minorities.
China is the ideal laboratory for story telling. Had I made the same series in Belgium, or even in India, my conversations would affect the audience less. Those countries are closer to us. Precisely because China is strange to us, I can expose the essence of mankind. Do you understand? China is linguistically and culturally so different from us that it serves as a mirror.
Chinese like any other language ultimately is a tool for communication. Ruben mastered the language and moved on to use his wits and talents to do great things. What’s your dream? What do you think about his China doc? Please feel free to leave a comment.
In his new show “Granny Knows Best” Jamie Bilbow takes the audience on a journey to rural China to learn from the true kitchen heroes – Chinese grandmothers. How did the British moderator become so fluent in Mandarin?! Three reasons why you should watch the show.
About 奶奶最懂得 (2019)
Duration: 8 episodes X 30 min.
Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate
Three reasons to watch the show
Expand your cooking vocabulary and culinary horizon
Be impressed by Jamie’s Chinese skills and how smoothly he communicates with the locals
Meet 16 wonderful grannies and discover places in China you have never seen before
The 16 inspiring women I met on my journey were such a pleasure to film with and I can’t wait for you to meet each and every one of them! The show promotes the universal message that grannies are the cornerstones of families, they bring us together and their cooking provides an important reminder of how good simple traditional food can be.
Jamie Bilbow speaks Chinese amazingly fluent, knows his cooking vocabulary and has his way of communicating with the locals, making them feel at ease and disclose their culinary secrets. How did he become so fluent?
Jamie (1988) was born in England and moved to Hong Kong at the age of one, but but didn’t learn Mandarin or even Cantonese during the first 18 years of his life. Learning Mandarin became a crucial goal, once he realized that he wanted to become a chef de cuisine in China and learn everything about Chinese food.
His recipe for success: “I say yes to any opportunities that present new challenges, even if they aren’t related to the ‘final goal’. I say yes more often than no and put myself into as many new situations as possible.” (South China Morning Post, 14.06.2017)
These challenging situations include training chefs in North Korea, peddling a hummus cart business, publishing a Western cookbook in Chinese and running a cooking school in Beijing. Before he got famous in China, Jamie also participated in Chinese language competitions with other foreigners.
Not that his fame and Chinese skills don’t speak for themselves, but Jamie actually holds an undergraduate degree in Chinese from the School of Oriental and African Studies(SOAS) as well as a Chinese teaching degree from the Institute of Education, UCL, both based in London.
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 student of Chinese in 2019.
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 Xi and his government for their way of driving modernization forward and dealing with rapid societal transformation. They see him as an example of a strong 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’re afraid of China! Afraid 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, the USA or Europe. I think this is a fair and healthy thing to do. And 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.