Sunday, 27 February 2011

Do Chinese Characters Lack Creativity?

I have often heard people suggest that the Chinese lack creativity and imagination.In a country with such an overwhelming population, it is often considered career success can only be achieved through early academic excellence and hard-work leading to good university and afterwards a good job. Operating within this rigid structure, it seems inevitable that time spent engaging a creative side is at the detriment for scholastic achievement. The controversial New York Times article " Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" ( outlines a ritualistic lifestyle devoid of fun, with high arts forced upon children in the form of piano and violin lessons.
In fact I feel that such an impression Mainlanders are lacking is severely mistaken; and I have seen sights of beauty in China which have taken my breath away. Over the recent Chinese New Year I have taken a couple of pictures which illustrate as much. In fact the timing of these pictures is crucial: Chinese New Year is a distinctly Chinese festival and this creativity is locally cultivated, as opposed to potentially being some kind of imitation of Western Culture.

However, one thing which I have noticed during my time spent in China is the rigidity of Chinese characters and the inability to modify them as an expression of creativity. Chinese characters are pictorially beautiful, and each character contains a story and history within it that can be fascinating. But this can be a massive draw back...
I think that there is a time in learning every language where you start to have a childish interest in learning swear words. For someone learning English this is easy enough, and vulgar language is isolated into a form where they can only mean as much. If someone uses the F-word then the insinuations are obvious and there is no confusion that they may in fact have wanted to be polite. But China does not have a 26 character alphabet which creates an almost limitless scope for new word creation; characters must be used for there is no alternative. And so it comes to be that the two Chinese equivalents for the F-word 干 and 操, aside from their vulgar meaning, can respectively also mean tree-trunk, to work, dry, empty and to grasp, to do, to speak, exercise.
There is simply zero potential for the creation of new characters. Every character in existence already has some meaning or another. Of course, an individual could create their own Chinese character, but unless they were very high profile they would be unable to make it catch on. Lets suppose I was a Western advertising man and wanted to launch a coconut chocolate bar. Well I could perform a word synergy and call the new brand CocoaNut. The consumer may never have seen the word before, but the meaning is evident. But this creativity is simply impossible in China. You could of course put the characters for cocoa (可可) and coconut (椰子)next to each other, which is what the Chinese advertiser would no doubt do. But the idea of creating a new character which in itself encapsulates the product, is out of the question. No-one would understand what your product was and your chocolate bar would bomb.
One final solution for this advertiser would be to use one of the lesser known Chinese characters. Somewhere in the 80,000 characters in existence, there will be another far rarer character for coconut with a slightly different meaning, lets say "sweet coconut". That advertiser could use that character and try and re-work it's meaning as "chocolate coconut". But he would encounter almost an identical problem to creating his own character: the average Chinese person only knows 2,500 characters, so mass incomprehension of this obscure character is likely. And hence the product may once again bomb.
And this is the reason why the more common Chinese characters may mean so many different things: because somewhere along the timeline of Chinese history each common character has been overlaid with one new meaning after another. If there are only 2,500 common units of expression, but life's thousands of concepts to convey, then the status quo is inevitable.
Of course, there are exceptions. If you are powerful enough then you can get across new characters. The most recent change was changing Traditional Characters to Simplified Characters so the average Chinese person could remember them more easily. That man was Mao Zedong. Not everyone has his kind of power for change...

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Japan + China = Love + Hate

Okay,so I missed the boat when it came to writing a Valentine's Day themed blog entry; but I thought I would make amends by commenting on the strange relationship I've noticed between China and Japan whilst I've been here. As a child growing up the earliest memory I have of any exchange between Japan and China was the textbook controversy in which the Japanese government was accused of forcing ignorance upon its people of Japan's role in murdering Chinese during the Second Sino-Japanese war.

And so it comes that whilst here I have picked up on some intersesting things in the way Chinese people react to Japanese here in China. I do not want to get too profound or historical in anything I may say; I am simply pointing out the curiousness I have encountered.

My Japanese friends often assure me that they are detested by Chinese people; but I have rarely noticed any manifestation of this supposed contempt towards them. In one incident in Harbin, my Japanese friend and I were asked by the driver to get out of the cab on his learning of our nationalities (my friend subsequently became a Korean person for the rest of our time there!), yet outside of this there is nothing but fascination.

From Chinese comic stores where the owner wants to know which Japanese manga series would be worth importing for his store, to guys in a nightclub who want to know whether Japanese girls are interested in Chinese guys ( my Japanese friend says Taiwaners are wanted, mainlanders less so).

In another incident we went to 中关村 (Zhongguancun) to buy a external memory drive. My friend offered the peculiarly strange Japanese coin with a hole in the middle of it in an attempt to secure a cheaper price. I thought we might be laughed away. Instead the Chinese seller asked if we had any more.

Last semesters' Chinese father took up an anti-Japanese stance; yet both of his cars were Toyotas. For all his words; when push came to shove Japan seemed too enticing. He comically tried to explain the cars were made in Chinese factories, but his explanation didn't cut the mustard with me! Perhaps he took the anti-Japanese standpoint; but I heavily doubt any Japanese national has done anything against him personally.

These and innumerable other incidents leads me to believe that Chinese people are fascinated by Japanese people; and in China see them as representative of a wealthy culture which they would love to imitate/be a part of. Any supposed hatred seems one of two things:a cultural knee-jerk reaction stemming from generations' old history, or a way of subverting envy and masking inferiority complex.

I have quite a lot of love for Japan. I think China also has a secret crush...

Monday, 14 February 2011

China Post

Many things in China are far from simple. If you are a Chinese person an inconvenience. If you are a Westerner impossible. And if you are a student of Mandarin, a daily test of language skills and patience. The postal system is a paradigm of the Chinese way. And I only wanted to send some presents to my sister for her birthday.

First of all you need to take your items unwrapped down to the post office so the permissible and and disallowed items can be separated. Afterwards there comes a period of debating why the disallowed items cannot be sent. I had bought my sister a bar of Tesco value chocolate in the Chinese version of the store. Based on the milk content in the bar it wasn't going anywhere (no bad thing: when I got home I had a taste and it was disgusting) If you are persuasive you can move some of the disallowed items into the permissible category. And if you are sneaky you can surreptitiously slip in some of the disallowed items anyway. Next time I think it might be easier to just slip a 100RMB note!

Thank goodness the chocolate didn't make the cut

After this you move onto the weighing section; and you are offered the different postal methods and postage time. Unfortunately the weighing section seems to have a different pricing structure to the the pay kiosks. I have observed that Chinese people don't like losing face; and I think this is a cultural thing. I don't want to make overly simplistic generalisations; but I have encountered Chinese people who lie to you rather than accept they don't know the answer. And in the post office I was told the most expensive EMS service would cost 400RMB. It would take 5 days to get to the UK so I thought it was money well spent. But when I moved to the pay kiosk to pay they told me that it would in fact cost more than double that.

800RMB seems to me prohibitively expensive. It is unfair to compare the cost of international postage from China with the cost of living in China since the worldwide postal system exsists within an Western-skewed price structure. Yet even so. They had a cheap service which would take about 2 months. But that seemed too long. They insisted there was no other way. Until I pleaded; and then they miraculously discovered a 2 week service for 300RMB. I wish they had the postal services on offer written down for clear consumption. But China is not yet this simple. Paid my money and got out.

In conclusion, giving birthday presents to those back home is an expensive exercise: luckily I quite like my sister. Presents. £50. Postage. £30. Yet in the immortal words of Mastercard - giving happiness to those you love. Priceless.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Snow in Beijing

I am quite a big cycling fan. Passionate cycling fan. And this morning I was planning on going out on the ride with the people from the expat club ( here in Beijing. Laid out my cycling kit the night previous; and set my alarm to 7:30. I was torn between the physical desire to fall straight back to sleep, and my mental desire to get fulfillment out of the day. Bleary-eyed I got out of bed and began to get ready, when I figured I might as well look out the window. Roads and buildings completely covered in freshly-fallen snow. I wasn't going anywhere, even if I had wanted to. Deus ex machina and I climbed back in to bed. But not before I had taken this picture from my window. One advantage of getting up early at least. A snow scene with no footprints: unadulterated white goodness. I spent last semester living with a Chinese family; and my Chinese father said that snow on Beijing gave a real glossiness to the city; and changed the atmosphere entirely. I can't help but agree; and the usually grey buildings of my campus have been transformed into something of a iced idyll. Too bad it's too cold outside to actually enjoy it close up...

Setting Up a Blog

I have written a blog before. But this was a while back now. I'm in China; yet time is going pretty quickly. "Life goes pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while you could miss it"*. And in this vain I would like to at least document something of my time spent here in Asia; and the people I meet along the way. It may be not much; but it will remind me of my time spent in the Orient when I inevitably return home. As much for me as for anyone else; I will nonetheless be delighted if anyone is interested in even one sentence of what I've written. Enjoy

*Ferris Bueller