Archive | October, 2011

Bu dong

31 Oct

I’ve heard a few foreigners teaching English or French in China say: ‘My students are really dumb. They’re so passive. They never take an initiative.’ After teaching my first classes in China, I realised, indeed, that many students hated inductive hands-on learning methods. I would try to make them guess the meaning of a new word or describe a grammatical rule from an example I gave. Most of them stood silent; some entered a kind of error mode, where they just repeated ‘bu dong, bu dong, bu dong’ – ‘I don’t understand’.

It doesn’t take much to find out, these students were not stupid: they were terrified. Terrified of saying the wrong thing; terrified of guessing meaning, rather than memorizing and repeating. My intuition was confirmed in practice. I decided I would acknowledge their terror – rather than deny it. I strove to create a safe space, by mocking my own approximate Mandarin, and explicitly repeating that, yes, it was terrifying to learn a new language, and guess the meaning of a new word. It worked, I had nodding heads, first, and after a few weeks of extreme psychological cushioning, a class of smart, enthusiastic and funny students. The same who repeated ‘bu dong, bu dong’, were guessing meaning – and often got it right!

They were able, but it was not their spontaneous way of going about it. The Chinese way of learning is based on reproduction and repetition. There is a reason, beyond ideology: how else would you learn the characters? Most languages are transcribed alphabetically: a series of 20 to 30 signs is enough to reproduce all the sounds of the spoken language. Therefore, once a speaker has mastered them – and it’s not very long – they can start writing, and reading, and arguing. Not so with Chinese: each ‘unit of meaning’ – a syllable with a particular tone – corresponds to one character. There is no simple and diret relation between a character and the word it represents. Characters have to be learnt, through repetition and imitation. Before exploring individual thinking, people must go through the long and slow process of learning from the past.

This doesn’t mean Chinese people are incapable of verbal creativity. Chinese has developed sms abbreviations, like the funny ‘3q’ – read ‘san kyu’, using the Chinese word for ‘3’, ‘san’ – for thank you. But, traditionally at least, personal expression was more about embodying tradition in a particular way, than breaking away with it. The ultimate expression of this would be calligraphy. Calligraphy is an art of self-expression, achieved through the written interpretation of chracters on paper. Expression – the self – is not about making something our of nothing. It is about embodying what you received in a certain way; it is about relating to your own tradition.

Gernet, reflecting on the work of Chinese philosopher Wang Fuzhi, says China is about commentary and slow deformation, when the West is about Debate and frontal opposition. One particular expression of this is how historical writing form an important part of the Chinese canon of Classics – unlike the West, where fiction and philosophy dominate. The Chinese way of reasoning starts from the particular, from what happened, rather than what may be. History matters more than fiction. Is it still the case today? And how much does that inform the ‘Chinese worldview’? Also, how much do we foreigners need to know about Chinese history, before we can really start discussing and debating with Chinese people – rather than repeat ‘bu dong, bu dong’ – I don’t understand China? Comments are welcome!


Last Minute

29 Oct

China is a last minute country. The issue is not so much time keeping – arriving on time – as late arrangements. I wrote about how trains can only be booked a few days in advance. There might be an underlying logic to it. People wouldn’t bother booking them early, anyway. Because everything is constantly shuffled and rescheduled.

For some reason, this is correlated with a state of permanent distraction. People always forget things, or forget to tell you things. Is it the education system? A coping mechanism in such a complex environment ? Or just laziness? In any case, to the outsider, it makes the situation worse.

Coming from a culture where everything is planned in advance, this constant emergency reaction proved extremely tiring – at work in particular. I’ve always thought arranging everything at the last minute was a form of tyranny. To push their agenda, those in power – in private, corporate or public settings – use ’emergency management’. If something is urgent, there is no time for negotiation and patient discussion. Things have to move, now, and Executive decisions have to be followed.

For some reason, the state of affairs was reminiscent of Paris. And I think I found a key to the French – or Latin – character; why French people are so attracted to Napoleonic ‘strong man’ figures. Why they will prefer to ‘follow Republican rules’, rather than engage in ‘Democratic debate’. Because democracy takes time, and effort, and foreward planning. Whereas you can be lazy all you like when things don’t have to be debated and discussed. You can live the moment fully. Then a wave of emergency comes; and you just obey.


27 Oct

Lifting a finger in China requires, at least, a Masters in politics. Everything is the subject of complex and endless negotiations. Everything involves elaborate power display and threats.

At a basic level, everything is complicated. Alliance francaise, for instance, where I worked. In other countries, Alliance Francaise is run as a local association or a not-for-profit company. But there is no legal status for associations in China. So Alliance Francaise is run as a joint venture between France and Chinese Universities – which breeds endless complexities in hierarchical protocol, project development, and daily business administration.

In history class, I used to hear how people fought for Freedom of association in the late 19th century. But I took so much for granted that I didn’t understand what people were actually fighting for. Freedom of association does not exist in China. People belong to the State and their families.Father – and mother – dictate their rule. Children obey. The arbitrary demands of parents are ‘a form of love’, and as such, must be respected. Where they go, you follow.

I read in one Jacques Gernet’s Essays that Chinese culture can be interpreted as a tension between Confucianism on the one side – a semi-religion that proposes filial devotion as a way to social perfection – and taoism or buddhism on the other side, which on the contrary propose a return to nature and calm through personal meditation, and distance from existing social bonds.

But is the freedom of Buddhist meditation what a European or a Westerner would recognize as freedom? Gernet gives a beautiful analysis of the difference between Christian extasy and Buddhist mediation: “Whereas the extatic Christian mimes the fight between body and soul and the soul’s union with God, Indian meditation exercises aim to reach the depths of the spirit, and fuse it into an absolute beyond all distinctions. In the deepest meditations, there is no ‘subject’ any more. Therefore, there can be no soul and body or, for that regard, fight of the one against the other.’ The self and the world are one. Whereas extasy is extreme tension, dramatic fight, meditation is conceived of as a return to the original quietness. It allows those who have mastered it to reach universal being, in their own depth.”

Is there something definitely ‘Western’ in that extreme assertion of the self? The self asserting its resemblance to the creating God by fighting against its angel. Honouring your ancestors and father by resisting, as they did – including resisting your own father. Hence heroes: Hector, Patroclus, Christian Martyrs, or Che Guevara: all figures of resistance. In the face of evil (or the enemy), they do not embrace the flux of life, but stand hard against it. They were defeated, but they stood upright – and therefore, their defeat became a victory.

Nothing of the sort in Chinese tradition, where supreme victory, quite the opposite, is victory without a fight. China does not have martyrs, or hero worship. Chinese heroes are those who survive hardships, and live on to tell their story.

In the European tradition, freedom is the opposite of slavery. It is the possibility to self-determine, rather than submit to the will of another. Courage is a prerequisite for freedom. Freedom is the resolution to say ‘no’ when we disagree, and live – or die – with the consequences.

The Chinese word for freedom is ‘Zi You’ – to posess oneself. Self possession, in the Chinese context, is actually the result of a hard fight. Like in the West, the willingness to die can be the touchstone of freedom. And there have been Buddhist monks who decided to suicide, or sacrifice parts of their bodies, as an ultimate form of freedom. Yet they were not part of a heroic resistance, in the Western sense. Dying for your ideas is not a particular cause for praise – not dying, and pushing them ahead is probably better.

People talk about restrictions on freedom in China. They accuse communism, they want political diversity, multiple political parties. Why not? But as a Chinese friend was telling me, this is not the heart of the matter. A very dense web of tyranny runs through all layers of society. Through families, friends, neighbours, superiors, and the complex system of GuanXi that rules virtually everything.

Yet all hope is not lost. There is some progress happening, in individual freedom, through web communities, feminism, gay rights, and relaxed HuKou laws allowing people to change cities more easily, so as to get away from their families and clans. QQ groups and a relaxed attitude to dating, all of those are slowly building a circle of personal freedom, outside family domination. The apolitical youth is, actually, planting and growing the seeds of freedom – like young people in Moliere and Marivaux’s comedies, when advocating for the freedom to choose their romantic partner as their spouse, were preparing consciences for the French revolution.

Untill people wash off the tyrannical ethos, breeding fear and agression, making a joke of civic virtue – what can be the point of multiple parties ? But maybe, step by step, young generations will start saying no to their parents, or bosses; and assert their control over their bodies and their time. Gaining concrete freedom, in their day to day life; and preparing for more, in the future.

North and South

25 Oct

My friend Niklas is obsessed with dialects. During the time we spent together in Northern China, he kept saying, excited ‘this is the real Tianjin voice’, or – even better – ‘a real Beijinger’. He’s a musician, with a fine ear for language; and these were sounds he’d never heard live before.

Niklas comes from a samll town close to Suzhou, in Jiangsu province, not far from Shanghai where he’s now finishing a Master’s in German. As a result, he can speak various forms of the Wu dialect – Shanghai, Suzhou, and his homtown’s. He told me that all Southerners are at least bilingual like him, able to speak their own dialect, and official Mandarin. This is a key distinction between North and South. On the one hand, a multilingual South, with many competing cultural centres – Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Guanzhou, Xiamen, Hong Kong… versus a monocultural North, clearly dominated by Beijing.

Of course, he’s a true southerner, with a biased vision. Still, Beijing is the seat of Chinese power, and has been so for a while. Since the capital moved here, four centuries ago, the best and brightest have come from all provinces to pass exams and work here, where the court of power was. For that reason too, Beijing has been a multicultural city for centuries, with a mix of old Beijingers, northerners moving to ‘the big city’, bright young things from all over China seeking success in the capital, and international investors or diplomats.

Countries often have competing cities: New York and LA, Madrid and Barcelona, Melbourne and Sydney. The traditional Chinese opposition is between Beijing and Shanghai – but these two cities also came to represent two Chinas. As always, labels attach: political versus commercial; unruly versus organised; cultured versus materialist; barbarian versus delicate; and others, along the same lines.

I once articulated the distinction in more concrete terms with Aaron. I was complaining, again, about the bad service in Tianjin; but also trying to find ways it could be improved it, by understanding the cultural causes. I was putting together theories, when Aaron simply said ‘you would actually get better service in the south’. For instance, when you go for dinner late, or early, southerners will serve you, whereas in the North, they just send you away. Then he added ‘they like money more, down South. Here, they just want enjoy life.’

I ventured an hypothesis. Traditionally, the Southern regions around the mouth of the YangTse river have been the richest in China. They still are, and Shanghai enthusiasts explain how Beijing will never be the real centre of China, because its hinterland is poor, whereas Shanghai has Hangzhou and Suzhou, Nanjing and Ningbo, rich cities, and a rich countryside, all arond it. Yet these regions are not the centre of power. But it may be the result of a wise choice. Chinese history can be read as a series of invasions from the North-West. Each time, the barbarian tribes assimilated, settled – and became the guardians of their new country, protecting it from other invasions; untill a new wave of barbarians came, and the cycle started again. All of this happened in the North. Meanwhile, the rich Southern cities could focus on their own business – happy to pay for these idle Northerners to keep the outside worlds at bay, and absorb shocks for them.

In other words, Southerners are the traditional workers; whereas Northerners are the soldiers – and like proper soldiers, they act lazy, loud, and dirty, with no great respect for written rules, but obedience to the man in command and its loud orders. This is why everything in the North is confused and messy, and why you can only get things by shouting and feigning anger in Tianjin and Beijing. The difference in service quality between North and South China can be read as an expression of the cultural difference between an imperial military culture, and an erudite commercial culture. I was happy with my little structural interpretation.

Aaron agreed – politely – but then proposed another, more Hegelian interpretation. The Southern regions – this time he meant Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang – were traditionally the poorest in the country. For that reason, people there had to work harder. And they got used to it, then started to become richer. Hegelian dialectics all over. I followed his train of thought, saying that in the south, you work more, but life is easier, because the system works with you, and life is more organised. Aaron – who spent some time there studying – disagreed. The power of money has its own downsides. Things do work better, but these rich people have their privileges, and its really hard in the south if you don’t have money. Images of Hong Kong movies came to mind, which I contrasted with my Beijing impressions.

Which got me thinking again about lazy northerners, and their loud affect, their theatrical bouts of anger, and their way of seating on the street, simply getting on with their lives. Maybe there is virtue, somehow, in this mild idleness. I do have a few Beijing enthusiasts among my friends. Surprisingly, one said Beijing was the most relaxing of all big capitals. If you follow the Northern way of life – not running after profit and focusin on simple daily pleasures – it can be a lovely place to stay.

I thought, he may be right. Maybe, for the contemplating foreigner, curious to know more about ‘Chinese culture’, Beijing is a better place than Shangha. I even thought, maybe, Beijing is the place where friendship – that most eminent of martial virtues – can be formed and nurtured. One day, when we were walking around the Hutongs, Juliette told that Beijing is a great place if you know people, and do things with them, or go to parties. ‘Beijing is great when you have friends’, she reflected, then adding ‘but then it’s true everywere, right?’

Right, but is it possible everywhere – or could Beijing, and North China, be among these rare places where the balance is such that you can actually form and keep friendships? Where doors – and people – eventually, open?


23 Oct

One thing I understood in Tianjin: life as an expat can be lonely. Beijing and Shanghai have growing populations of foreigners now, and there is a grain of good among the numbers. But – Koreans excepted – they still think of Tianjin as a frontier town; and as such, it appeals to a weird mob.

Roughly speaking, there’s four types of expats in Tianjin. The first are the mechanics. Aerospace technicians flown over from Toulouse to train local staff in the new Airbus factory. Or similar profiles, I suppose, from other countries. In France, they’re normal people – a good job, but no particular status attached. In China, they think they’re on top of the world. And so come out with a string of pseudo-wise judgements about the country: ‘they just haven’t evolved’, ‘it’s hard to get them to work’ or even ‘it’s a new country, that’s what I like about it’. Painful.

The second are the Gold Diggers. They read about the Tianjin boom – 15% of GDP growth per year in the middle of the GFC. They heard it will be the main Financial centre in East Asia – some time in the future. So they came early, to get their shares in the local market at early bird’s price. I met one of those in a bar, receding hair and Lenin-style glasses, a waitress hanging on his neck. He thought he was inventing cool. His bar-snack was opening soon. There would be kebabs.

The come the spouses, a more interesting and varied mix. They come in two kinds: European partner, or Chinese partner. The first are handbag housewives, who spend their husband’s expat package on maids and manicure. Most are not working, and spend their days complaining about the life of luxury they live in China, pining after a proper baguette or a nice cup of coffee with milk.

The second are more colourful – and come in both genders. They came first as a student, or on a visit; they met a Chinese partner, and they decided to stay. Most of those work as language teachers, or in some sort of mediating role. As time passes, they become more and more Chinese, and talk of how everything is changing. They have a touch of sadness to them – life in China can be tough – but they’re settled here, have respect for people around, and make an effort to understand. The one problem with them is – newcomers endanger their exceptional status; and though they are a worthy lot, they tend to know better than you.

Finally come the students. They’re in China to learn Chinese, for a year, or just a few months. Either Tianjin was not their first choice, or they come from a remote place. But they’re enjoying it, or try to. They write blogs, go to cafes, and have a try at market food with adventurous internationals. On week-ends, they train to Beijing and hang out around the cool bars.


21 Oct

Everyone heard about Guanxi, that mysterious web of relations running through Chinese society, that weird tribal archaism, which stands in the way of making business in China. Having often said that China resembles Italy, I would like to try and understand it from my own Mediterranean background.

The main point of Guanxi is that it’s not about how qualified you are. It’s about who you know, and who will pick up your phone calls.

It sounds bad, but let’s have a think. On a professional level, is not the capacity to rely on existing networks of support a key to success in projects? At a more personal level, can you really trust a person with no friends? And at a more metaphysical level, is not our social inclusion fully part of our identity, not just a late addition to the core nugget of our pure being?

Of course, Guanxi can feed existing inequalities. Because it builds with time, and so depends on the family you come from, and the school you’ve been to. Interestingly, I found Chinese people particularly faithful to their high-school pengyous, who stand somewhere in between the family member and the chosen friend, as people we didn’t really choose, and people we’ve known forever.

But there is a democratic element in Guanxi. Sure, some Guanxis are more powerful than others. But the world has many levels, and multiple hierarchies. Here is a story: one of my Chinese friends suddenly fell sick, and needed to go to hospital. Beds are hard to get, especially when you’re not in critical condition. He got a space in a double room rightaway, through his parents’ Guanxi. I mocked him – ‘your parents have a doctor friend, a lawyer friend, they know all the right pepole.’ He corrected me, ‘actually, one of my parents’ very good friends drives the car of this hospital’s director – and it’s much better Guanxi than knowing a doctor here’. So Guanxi-power does not align immediately with social status. A cook, a driver, a cleaning lady, may be more powerful than a company director in a given situation, because they have direct connection to the key person in that context. Because life is complex, and you need all sorts of people for all sorts of situations. Therefore, you should nurture all of your relations, not only the powerful ones. That is the very democratic wisdom of Guanxi.

Guanxi’s about a world with many layers and hierarchies, a complex world – not unlike the one we live in. Guanxi might even be the principal counter-power in China. But Guanxi’s also about what we may wish to call ‘right wing virtues’: being true to your family, respecting people you know you can trust, and relationships that have been cemented with time.

In the end, I think I don’t mind Guanxi.


19 Oct

Beijing and Tianjin are very different cities, in their ethos, functions, and shape. Beijing is clearly centralised around the forbidden city, the empty centre of political power, now ultimate cultural symbol of China’s old and magnificent tradition.

A map of Beijing shows a series of embedded squares, surrounded by concentric ring roads – up to number 6 now – the first one circling the Forbidden city.

Superficially, Tianjin’s map is also made of concentric circles. But the symbolic centre is harder to pinpoint. Is it that bump North of the river, where the Italian concession is? That other bump to the Eastm on the South bank, where financial institutions line up Jiefang Bei Lu? Or is it where commercial Binjiang Jie crosses commercial Jin Jie?

Historically, the centre should be at the old Chinese city, in the North Western corner of the central rectangle.

According to Aaron, who is a Tianjin native and real estate analyst, the centre is at the opposite end of that rectangle, at the XiaoBaiLou crossroads, at the border of the former French, British and German concessions, marked by the European dome of the Music Hall.

But not everyone agrees to that location, again. My house on Jiefang Bei Lu was only ten minutes north of XiaoBaiLou. Yet one of my colleagues disagreed when I said I lived ‘in the centre’. Although she couldn’t identify it clearly, for her, the city centre was more to the south, somewhere between the BaLiTai University district, TV tower, and Olympic city.

Who’s right? It doesn’t really matter, because a new centre is in construction, still further to the South. In the new district of BinHai, 40 km down on the river mouth an entirely new city is developing, which is planned to rival PuDong in Shanghai, and become China’s main financial centre.

A fast train will connect Beijing to the new BinHai district in 45 minutes, via Tianjin, creating a polycentric North Chinese megalopolis – at least, according to plans.

What will be the centre of the new Binhai district? An empty square, like Beijing, to enclose political and symbolic power? A crossroads, like Tianjin, where goods and people can be shifted around? Or something different still – some giant information hub? a field of public touch screens? – or just a grid of office buildings, radical acentrality, taking on the new shape of power in the age of constant networking.