Thursday 28 April 2011

How the Chinese count their population...

The National Bureau of Statistics today released the results of its latest population census, and the headline figures are all over the Western media. It’d be far too obvious to comment on them directly in this blog, but there is an angle that I’d like to share with any non-Mandarin speakers.
When I was tracing the length of the Grand Canal of China for The Emperor’s River, several times I came across a phrase which has become a shorthand in recent years for the awesome size of China’s population. 
The phrase is shisan yi 十三亿, “the 1.3 billion”, and it’s a great example of how the Western counting system, which we might assume is universal, is in fact only one way of conceptualizing large numbers.
Traditional Chinese numerals start with one to ten, as you’d expect, with a single character for each (一, 二, 三, 四, 五, 六, 七, 八, 九, 十). Eleven is ten-one 十一, 12 is ten-two 十二, through to 20, which is two-ten 二十, and then all the numbers up to 99 are very predictable: 58 is five-ten-eight 五十八, for example.
It gets different after 100, since the Chinese carry on using a single character for each factor of 10, whereas in Arabic numerals we add an extra nought. So, 100 is bai , 1,000 is qian , and 10,000 is wan . When the Chinese want to express “69,000”, they say liuwan jiuqian 六万九千, or “six (times) ten thousand (and) nine thousand”. The Chinese for 100,000 is shiwan 十万, i.e., “ten (times) ten thousand”; one million is baiwan 百万, “(one) hundred (times) ten thousand”; ten million is qianwan 千万, “(one) thousand (times) ten thousand”. So, 12,345,678 is said as yiqian erbai sanshisi wan wuqian liubai qishiba 一千二百三十四万五千六百七十八, or literally “one thousand two hundred (and) thirty-four (times) ten thousand (plus) five thousand six hundred and seventy-eight”. Even after twenty years I still have to stop and think hard before translating numbers.
But things really start to hurt your brain when the numbers get bigger and denser. The Chinese have a single character yi 亿 meaning 100,000,000, and this is where my original phrase shisan yi 十三亿, “(the) one point three billion”, comes in. It literally means “ten-three-onehundredmillion”, or “thirteen (times) one hundred million”, or 1.3 billion in our terms, so when the Chinese say their total population according to the latest census - 1,339,724,852 - it comes out as “thirteen (times) one hundred million (plus) three thousand nine hundred and seventy-two (times) ten thousand (plus) four thousand eight hundred and fifty two”.
Chinese counting is made even more fun by some extra little points. Firstly, the Chinese use the Arabic system (1, 2, 3...) alongside their own traditional numerals, so you see both everywhere and have to think in one but write in another. Secondly, there is a complimentary series of characters for one to ten, one hundred, one thousand etc which are used when there’s a chance of fraud and where the everyday written characters could be altered. Compare, for example, one to ten in normal and long form...
一, 二, 三, 四, 五, 六, 七, 八, 九, 十 (normal)
壹, 贰, 叁, 肆, 伍, 陆, 柒, 捌, 玖, 拾 (long)
Thirdly, the character yi (meaning 10,000) was traditionally written until the 1950s, when in the PRC at least it was simplified to 亿, which is scarcely worthy of such a big number. To add insult to injury for foreigners, the Mandarin word for “one” is pronounced yi with a high flat tone (though this tone can change depending on what character follows it...) while the word for “ten thousand” is pronounced yi with a falling tone. It’s not unknown for students starting out in Mandarin to ask for “ten thousand cups of tea, please”....

Sunday 24 April 2011

Happy Easter from the Communist Party 共产党祝你复活节快乐

As expected, an outdoor meeting by the Shouwang Church in Beijing today has been broken up by the PSB, and around 30 worshippers arrested and taken to different paichusuo. Pastor Jin Tianming 金天明, who’s under house-arrest, had already made it clear, after previous run-ins with the authorities over outdoor services, that he saw the Bible as commanding Christians to worship en masse, and that since Shouwang were unable to meet in a restaurant they’d been renting and hadn’t been allowed to move into a premises they’d paid some ¥27m for, their outdoor prayer meetings would be the prominently visible “city on a hill” which the Bible calls for. If worshippers are arrested, it is, Jin says, a price they are happy to pay.
But the Communist Party, which is of course constitutionally atheist and very wary both of alternative sources of authority (i.e. God) and, in light of what’s happening in the Middle East, of large public gatherings, is not too keen on Chinese Christians meeting in public to set others an example of tacit “disobedience”. 
There are estimated to be 15m Protestant Chinese in officially recognized churches, and another 5m Catholics, but these appear by some estimates to be dwarfed by the 50m Christians in unregistered churches. The Protestant Shouwang Church (shouwang 守望 is Chinese for “lookout” or “keep watch”) was founded in 1993 and is one of Beijing’s largest “underground” churches, that is to say, its applications to be officially recognized have been refused because its leaders will not follow the Communist Party’s line on what they can and can’t teach. I don’t blame them: nobody in China was ever asked if they wanted to be ruled by the Communist Party, which seized power at gunpoint in 1949, against the run of play, as it were, and has held on to it by crushing any opposition ever since then. The PRC’s Constitution “guarantees” freedom of religion, but that mealymouthed guarantee is made meaningless by the Party’s fear that allowing dissent in this sphere will be the thin end of the wedge and ultimately undermine their rule. 
On a lighter note, I found a Chinese (ostensibly Christian!) website this morning with a bizarre explanation of what Easter means, aimed at a domestic audience. I’ve translated it in full to see if anybody can throw light onto the whole Ba’al thing...
“Easter is the second-biggest Christian festival [?!]. According to the Gospels, after Jesus’ Passion he was resurrected “on the first day of the week”. Because of this, Christians called this “the Lord’s Day” to commemorate Jesus’ resurrection, and gradually the phrase “the Lord’s Day” came to replace the term “Day of Rest”. Activities were held on it, and later it developed into today’s “day of worship”. In the UK, most holidays have their origin in religion. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the full moon of the spring equinox, and originally commemorated the birth of Astarte, half-sister and lover of of Ba’al, a god of West Asian heterodox religious tradition. But today, for most people, Easter is just a commonplace festival when people enjoy the beautiful spring sunshine.”

Tuesday 19 April 2011

“Royal Wedding” goes t*ts up

The story probably won’t make the broadsheets, but in the town of Jiangning 江宁 on the outskirts of Jiangsu’s capital, Nanjing, everybody’s talking about their very own royal wedding.
A Jiangning couple, it seems, decided to celebrate their marriage “in the style of the British royal family”, with an old horse-drawn coach tarted up with “European-style lanterns” and “all kinds of delicate, European-style ornaments” to make it look “extremely classical and elegant”. Those of you who’ve spent time in China are probably already ahead of me in picturing something that wouldn’t look out of place in Michael Jackson’s ranch: there was red velvet and gold spray-paint galore, with incongruous-looking attendants in bride’s dresses, and grooms dressed like Ruritanian soldiers complete with epaulettes and bearskins. Think My Big, Fat, Gypsy Wedding but with Chinese people. The couple were reported to have spent ¥50,000 on the event (around £5k), whose centrepiece was a large “happiness” character made up of ¥100 banknotes, and to have invited 700 friends and family.
It really shouldn’t have taken much forethought for the organizers to realize that gunpowder and equines don’t mix. When the entourage neared the venue that had been hired for the occasion, ¥10,000-worth of firecrackers (presumably “British royal family-style firecrackers”) were lit. Who was to guess that the horses would take fright at a noise that’s intended to put the fear of God into any demons who happen to be passing?
The resulting photos, splashed across the Yangtse Evening News, show the terrified horses being reined in just as it looked as if the carriage would overturn. The bride was reported to have regained her composure before the procession continued on its way.

Monday 18 April 2011

Dogmeat and Rock-Ear Fungus Stew Anybody?

There have been reports in today’s papers of animal-rights protestors in China stopping a lorry full of stolen canines (dare I say “hot dogs”?) headed for the pot. In typical Chinese fashion, the protestors had to buy the animals’ release. This reminded me of an ancient Buddhist tradition called fangsheng 放生, in which the faithful pay to be given a trapped animal, often a turtle, and then release it into the wild. Chinese towns to this day often have a street named Fangsheng Pool Street or something similar, where this once happened. The tradition has crept back in recent years, often attached to Buddhist temples, where you can see elderly peasants sitting beside a cage of small mammals they’ve trapped out in the fields. You pay them a few kuai for the karmic privilege of setting a ground squirrel free (presumably to be recaptured the same night. The circle of life and all that...).
The Telegraph notes that the Chinese have been eating dog for centuries - it’s millennia, in fact, as I discovered in Pei County 沛县, up in Jiangsu Province, when I was travelling the Grand Canal of China for The Emperor’s River. Pei is where Liu Bang, founder of the Western Han dynasty, grew up, and legend has it that “turtle sauce dog meat” was accidentally invented by a local dog-meat butcher called Fan Kuai who was trying to stop Liu Bang from stealing his dog stew, which he’d only been able to do by crossing a river on the back of a giant turtle from heaven. I didn’t say it was plausible...
Anyhow, to get to my point, there are records in Chinese literature from at least the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC) of recipes for dog, but it seems to have been the imperial patronage of Liu Bang which made dog stew one of the vogue dishes of the Han dynasty (the Heston Blumenthal “snail porridge” of its day, as it were). In a short piece by the Han scholar Mei Cheng 枚乘, there’s mention of a recipe which you can all try at home (if you’re willing to break countless laws on animal welfare, not to mention hygiene and health and safety, and good taste). 
Dogmeat stew with rock-ear fungus
Rock-ear fungus (shi’er 石耳, aka shanfu 山肤 or Umbilicaria esculenta) is a rare and valuable Asian lichen. You can harvest it by being lowered down in a basket to the vertical mountainous rock-faces where it grows. As for dogs, well, they’re Canis lupus familiaris, a domesticated form of the wolf, and can be found on any high street.
Take chunks of dogmeat on the bone from a plump, well-fed dog, and poach until cooked through. Discard the bones and chop the meat finely. Meanwhile, wash the rock-ears to get rid of any dirt and leave to soak. Combine the meat and fungus in a pot and add water and seasoning and bring to a boil. Take some rice flour, add a little water to make a paste, and pour into the soup to thicken. When the dish is ready, put the dog-meat into a serving dish and garnish with the fungus. Enjoy a true taste of the Han dynasty!

Saturday 9 April 2011

Iggy Pop and Clown Chorus to play Beijing?

Inspired by Bob Dylan’s concerts in China, and by The Times printing a letter of mine today telling them that his name translates as “Bob Guides Correct Moral Principles”, I thought I’d take a look at how the Chinese interpret the often weird and wonderful names of rock bands into Mandarin.

When the name is more-or-less meaningless in English, for example if it’s just a personal or place name, it can transliterate pretty well. Bon Jovi becomes Bang Qiaofei (literally “Nation Tall Fly”, a meaningless combination of characters), Fleetwood Mac is Foliwu Maike (“Buddha Profit Five Wheat Overcome”), and Van Halen is Fan Hailun (“Model Sea Ethics”). 
Other attempts at transliteration though can fail if there’s any subtext to be lost: the apparently psychedelic “Pink Floyd”, based on the first names of two blues musicians, becomes the rather pointless Pingke Fuluoyide, whose constituent characters don’t mean anything coherent and even fail to get across the idea of “pink”. Lynyrd Skynyrd, a sarcastic Southern-states tribute to a PE teacher called Leonard Skinner, are known in China as Linna Shijinna, which  seems a bit of a waste of a good puerile joke. The Bee Gees, who take their name from the initials of “Brothers Gibb”, are just called Bijisi, which rather robs them of the sole reason for knowing anything about their oeuvre...
...which brings me on to an important observation: because Mandarin doesn’t have any word for “the”, (or any plural suffixes for that matter), the standard way of naming a group in English - The XXX(s) - just doesn’t evoke the same feelings. The Smiths was a perfectly chosen name that summed up the anonymity and pointlessness of life in Manchester in the early 1980s (or at any time, for that matter). But in Chinese they become simply Shimisi (though this sounds much closer to “Smiths” than the romanisation would imply). But Shimisi just doesn’t ring even the tiniest of cultural bells in Chinese. It would be better to have called them “Mr Wu”.
Other bands whose names evoke something quite concrete by their use of the definite article “the” also feel a bit aimless. Take The Eagles, The Cure, The Police or The Clash, whose names are translated very directly into Mandarin (as Laoying, Zhiliao, Jingcha and Chongji respectively) but have quite a different feel when thought of as decontextualised dictionary entries that don’t specify them as nouns or verbs, singular or plural, capitalised or not - eagle, cure, police, clash. Worse, since Mandarin lacks the structure to directly translate our “The XXX(s)” format, it’s normal practice to add the words hechangtuan (“chorus”) or yuedui (“orchestra”) after band names to make it clear what we’re talking about. This gives even the most countercultural of musicians a very middle-of-the-road air: consider The Stooges (Choujue Hechangtuan), which in Chinese means nothing more rebellious than “Clown Chorus”!
Some attempts at interpretation fail quite badly. There are many groups whose Mandarin names are lost in translation, but my favourites are: Led Zeppelin (the bland “Qibolin Airship” ignores the implication of heavy metal); Radiohead becomes “Commandant of the Radio Station”; Def Leppard’s spelling mistakes and loudness are emasculated to Weibao (“Mighty Leopard”); and Pearl Jam, with its referencing of “jam” as a style of music, becomes the bizarrely literal Zhenzhu Guojiang, or “Fruit Preserve Made From Pearls”.
Some groups do cross the language boundary quite well, nevertheless, if their names have enough substance in English to translate directly without losing anything: Foreigner are known as Waiguoren, Deep Purple as Shenzi, Iron Maiden Tie Niangzi, Motorhead Motuotou, Queen Huanghou, The Beach Boys Haitan Nanhai, Guns N Roses Qiang Yu Meigui, and The Sex Pistols Xing Shouqiang, all of them equally meaningful to a Chinese speaker.
Some even gain a certain je ne sais quoi in Mandarin: Rage Against The Machine translates as “Launch a Punitive Expedition Against the System”, The Grateful Dead becomes “The Splendour/Flower of Death”, while Nirvana, which is after all a Buddhist concept, are known as Niepan, an ancient transliteration of the Sanskrit term nirvan.
The most famous group of all, the Beatles, are called Pitou Si in Mandarin, which is not only a transliteration of the sound but also cleverly means “The Four With The Unkempt Hair”. Finally, and amusingly, Madonna is known as Maidangna, which not only manages to miss the cultural reference to the Mother of Jesus but also is only a hair’s breadth away from the Chinese name for McDonalds, Maidanglao

Wednesday 6 April 2011

China has finger on pulse of groovy Western rock

So, Bob Dylan will be playing Beijing and Shanghai. And, as with so much of the UK media’s China coverage, the subtext is more interesting than the story. 

Reports concentrate on the fact that the Wenhuabu will be vetting Dylan’s playlist, with the non-expert left to understand that this will prevent the audience from being exposed to his revolutionary lyrics. Poor Chinese - denied such things as Coca Cola and blue jeans. It brings to mind a well-meaning American I once heard of in Shanghai, whod gone out there with a pile of CDs intending to turn the city’s youth on to rocknroll. This, though, was 2009, and they knew more about Western music than he did...

But of course you can get hold of Dylan’s backlist anywhere in China at the click of a mouse or in any music shop. The pre-approval of live acts is nothing more than a reminder that, even if everybody is already familiar with what’s not being sung, the Communist Party still disapproves, and treasures the prerogative to be seen to do something about it.
And alongside news of Bob’s plans there have been references once again in the UK media to Bjork shouting “Tibet! Tibet!” at the end of a gig in Shanghai in 2008. But while the simple word “Tibet” for many (most?) Westerners embodies ideas of cultural oppression and human rights abuses, almost universally for the Han Chinese it is purely evocative of that mountainous, backward hunk of China that was lucky enough to have its exploitative theocracy toppled by the People’s Republic. Far from being a rousing cry to hearten a crowd of oppressed young Chinese yearning to hear what Icelanders have to say about Tibet, I strongly suspect the outburst was in fact understood more in these terms...
Bjork: Tibet! Tibet!
Man in Crowd: What did she say?
Man’s Girlfriend: Dunno - my English is pretty crap.
Bystander: I think she said “Tibet” - it’s English for Xizang.
Man in Crowd: Why did she shout Xizang? Weirdo.
Bystander: Perhaps she thinks Shanghai’s in Xizang?
Man in Crowd: Hmmm, unlikely. Xizang’s pretty backward.
Bystander: Yeah, lucky for Xizang there was peaceful liberation.
Girlfriend: Erm, I think she’s finished. Hungry?
Man in Crowd: Yeah, I could murder a Chinese.
If Dylan finishes with a cry of “Tian’anmen Square!” he should know in advance that his audience won’t interpret this as solidarity with the student protests that took place before they were born. They’ll just think he’s as proud as they are of China’s most iconic public space.

Monday 4 April 2011

More on overpriced Chinese art...

Forever Lasting Love, a triptych by the artist Zhang Xiaogang 张晓刚 has sold for a record £6.3m.

Since I managed to enrage a good few people with my thoughts on Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds (the Chinese authorities do not - despite their portrayal in the Western media - feel remotely threatened by the frankly shallow linkage between millions of porcelain seeds and concepts of democracy, and, as dissidents go, Ai pushes all the right buttons while standing for nothing of any import so far as I can see), I’ve decided to point out that Forever Lasting Love just isn’t particularly amazing. If it hadn’t cost so much, nobody would be writing about it.
Don’t get me wrong - I very much like Zhang’s Bloodline paintings, which I find haunting and sad, full of the unspoken feelings of loss and love and emptiness that the wasted decades of hardline Maoism evoke for me. If I had the money, I’d gladly waste it on one of them. But Forever Lasting Love by contrast strikes me as a mishmash of semi-digested symbolism. 
Okay, you could do as Zhang himself does and observe that “the painting is built upon the dichotomy of life and death,” while, as Sotheby’s catalogue notes, “the juxtaposition of a baby against corpses lying underground symbolizes the coexistence of life and death.” Wow! If this artist hadn’t set it down in oils I don’t think anybody in China would’ve made that link. Isn’t it nice that the Chinese have somebody pointing out these deep philosophical truths to them? It’s not as if Buddhism or Daoism managed to make any such observation over the millennia, or as if the Chinese had ever been exposed to Christianity or the Enlightenment before 1988...
Sotheby’s goes on: “Zhang Xiaogang garnished Forever Lasting Love with strong religious overtones, betraying compelling influences from Western philosophy and art.” Read between the lines, and beneath the ostensible praise there’s a deep seam of patronization: Chinese artists seem to be commended for grappling with “modern Western philosophy, literature and art,” and the appearance on a Chinese canvas of every borrowed visual metaphor (the Christ child, Mary, a serpent...) is greeted with the same kind of vicarious enthusiasm with which Lord Macartney handed over the latest trinkets to the Qianlong Emperor. If a Western artist had betrayed a compelling influence from the traditional Chinese repertoire, would Western art commentators be lauding him for it, or just shrugging it off as a lazy cultural adoption? There’s a big old double standard at work here.
The entire edifice of modern China could be seen as one big attempt by the Chinese to absorb the West: what else are Marxism and market-based capitalism? Staring as I now am at Forever Lasting Love, the only thing I find remarkable is that, with a couple of decades of immersion in Chinese culture behind me, I genuinely can’t see anything that says “China” to me in this triptych. Not in its materials, its execution, its spatial field, subjects - nothing. If it had been painted by a first-year art student at Goldsmiths it mightve been welcomed by the examiners as a reasonably well executed but ultimately rather trite piece of self-exploration that relies too heavily on unrelated metaphors.
“For Zhang Xiaogang himself,” says Sotheby’s, “and for the Chinese nation, the work constitutes a visual document of the ambitions of Chinese contemporary artists of the 1980s, painting persistently to communicate with the world surrounding themselves.” I’d agree that this is Zhang’s attempt as an artist to play with some of the ideas of Western tradition both visually and abstractly, but I don’t think it has had, or will ever have, any wider effect on the Chinese nation. I simply find such loose reasoning patronizing.