Tag Archives: history

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!

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Museum Space – the Museum

1 Oct

A museum is a built-for-purpose institution that showcases the riches of the country – and tells its story, through the display of objects. It is an artificial space, constructed, curated – a nodal point of State ideology.

In a Museum, ancient objects are displayed in order to justify a current state of affairs. The Museum is a device that uses the past for the purpose of the present, weaving them together in an articulated narrative, through the organisation of its rooms and labelling system. Old writing on bones, in other words, authorises the powers that be.

Navigating a Chinese museum, I have to learn a new museography. Art is not organised by period, but by medium: painting, calligraphy, bronze, jade, porcelain, fabric. Somewhere on the side, there will be Buddhist artifacts. And a separate section, as big if not bigger, will explain history, with objects in glass cabinets, wall frescoes and lifesize reconstructions of crucial events.

Exploring the painting section of a Chinese Museum is an exercise in modesty. You do realise how I little you know. You realise how local your art history knowledge is. The linear development I learnt at school – perspective in the Renaissance, impressionism bringing perception and light into painting, leading to the triumph of abstraction in the 20th Century – is irrelevant here. In the Tianjin Museum, I spent a long time looking at a very long, beautiful landscape by Zhu Da, amazed by the abstraction of his style.

I thought he would be somehow contemporary with Impressionm. I was shocked to realize that he painted in the 17th century. As Niklas explained, he was a brdige from the Ming to the Qing dynasty, painting in that period of great historical turmoil for China. Maybe these abstract landscape were a form of escape; or maybe the conflict of white, and dark, and the various shades of grey, somehow mimetically symbolize a transition from old to new, and the seeping influence of the Ming over the Qing, of the Han over the Manchu?

The evolution of Chinese aesthetics over time is different from ours. Discovering Zhu Da at 33 made me realise how ignorant I had been. I also realised it when looking at a half-disappearing picture of a child from the Song period, dated around 1000.

It was eerily realistic, and signifying one of these happy, prosperous periods of artistic history (often the apex of a culture), where people care about simple scenes – like the late Roman empire, 17th century Holland, or 18th century France. But then, maybe China’s painting, or one branch of it, is particularly looking at reproducing the simplicity of natural life.

The most interesting section in a Chinese Museum, for those analytic intellectual brains like mine, if of course history, where ideology comes closer to the surface. The Capital Museum in Beijing is a good example of how China now positions itself as an equal partner in global history. In the semi-darkness of the ‘culture of old Beijing’ section, I looked at the chronology running along the wall, and had a real experience of displacement when I saw the picture of Confucius alongside Egyptian papyrus. Through the powers of curation, both were, somehow, made to be part of the same mental space. Part of the same narrative.

There it was, world history read from a Chinese perspective. It is part of the rise of China as a new global power, to appropriate Ancient History – all of it. Who knows, maybe the Italian and Greek economic crises could be solved by selling off some Antiquities to the Chinese government – and let them claim our Mediterranean past as part of their own history? Which, after all, in a globalising world, is no longer separate from ours.

Jiefang Bei Lu – day and night

19 Aug

I live just off Jiefang Bei Lu – ‘JieFang Bei Lu he DaTong Dao de JiaoKou’, is what I tell the taxi drivers taking me home. In the heart of the old French concession. Known as ‘finance street’, it is home to many bank headquarters – and has beautiful classical architecture.

It is rich in historic buildings – like the first ever post and telegraph office in China, which I pass on the way to the market or the bus stop.

 It is also lovely by night, when I walk back from XiaoBai Lou – like an atmospheric film set in Paris.

Sometimes, it’s hard to live in China – but them, I go for a walk around the block, and I think, it’s not so bad.