Archive | September, 2013

Mooning the Party this Mid-Autumn Festival

20 Sep

mooncakeIt’s Mid Autumn festival in China: a lunar holiday where families get together over a healthy dinner of seafood, offal, chickens’ extremities and pig anus to complain why their youngest sons/daughters/nephews/nieces aren’t married yet, while their kids fire up the Galaxy Note for the 71st time that day.

I’m being flippant of course. The lanterns bedecking every house, block of flats and public building in Hong Kong at this time of year are actually quite lovely, especially at night, and the giving of thanks to the moon – in years gone by to celebrate the harvest – is a lot more spiritually nourishing than the veneration of a magic Jewish baby.
It’s also nicknamed the “moon festival” and locals eat mooncakes – a traditional Chinese food (danger team) which usually consists of a round pastry-wrapped pie filled with a disgusting slurry of lotus seed paste, red bean paste, or something equally offensive to my delicate western pallet. Imagine tasting a selection of lovingly prepared mooncakes and you’ve just imagined eating a pack of Revels with all the nice ones taken out.
Still, legend goes that back in the 14th century, the humble mooncake helped China topple the mighty Mongols, after Ming revolutionaries communicated  by baking secret messages In the pastry. Mmm delicious revolution .
Sticking the Vs up to the Party

The festival this year has also coincided with more online unrest in China, this time concerning the so-called the Big Vs. These are weibo’s verified account holders, or at least, some of its most popular users, many of whom have accrued followers in their millions and become pretty influential as opinion movers and shapers online.

The problem is that the Communist Party doesn’t much like it when mere mortals start speaking their brains, especially if their thoughts are at odds with Mao, Deng, Marx et al.

Witness the case of poor old Charles Xue, a Chinese American venture capitalist. Now I don’t have much time for VCs, their over-inflated egos and their massive wallets, but Xue has been a powerful voice on Sina Weibo, usually for social good. His campaign against kidnapping in China, and support for Deng Fei’s clean water campaign managed to effect real change in a country where things usually only get done when palms are greased, guanxi tapped and prostitutes exchanged in luxury 5 star hotels.

Unfortunately, rather than let Mr Xue do his thang, the Party decided in its wisdom to make a scapegoat of him. It has been clamping down of late on any online discussions it doesn’t like the sound of, with the increasingly paranoid air of a meth-addled tramp. The great and good of Zhongnanhai call it a campaign to rid the Chinternet of online “rumours” – there’s even jail time promised for popular tweeters whose messages are deemed to fall in this category – but to be honest, it’s just an excuse. I mean, you don’t see Xinhua hauled over the coals for republishing as fact so many Onion stories by now it’s just embarrassing.

Yup, if the Communist Party of China were a person its family and friends would have staged an intervention long ago.

So Xue was arrested the other week for soliciting prostitutes and banged up at His General Secretary’s pleasure to think on his debauched behaviour. Now if it actually happened, he did break the law, fair and square. But quite tellingly, Xue was then paraded before state-run CCTV apologising, not for his filthy whoreing, but for spreading online rumours. Exactly what does his social media profile have to do with his nightime sojourns with ladies of sexy repute? Exactly.

It was such a blatant stitch up it would be funny, if it wasn’t China. The more troubling back story, of course, is that the whole new online rumour clamp down is already stifling debate on an interweb already patrolled by the formidable censorship apparatus of the Great Firewall.

I’ve said it before but once a government creates this kind of a society they can forget about building any kind of cultural soft power to spread throughout the world. Bland TV, bland state-approved movies, awful music and a culture where no one wants to stick their head above the parapet, start an innovative online business, build the next Google.

Already the Big Vs are rushing to have their verified status removed on the country’s microblogs. The rationale is that without the giant letter next to their name they’ll attract less attention. It’s unlikely to work.

Pretty soon they’ll be forced to rely on mooncakes to spread their message.

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China who? Why Chinglish is not ‘sweeping around the world’

6 Sep

chinaflagOh dear. Reasons why China won’t rule the world #359. A classic People’s Daily article caught my eye last weekend. It describes how Chinese loan words and Chinglish phrases are finding their way into everyday English conversations across the planet.

As if this weren’t a subtle enough message from the Communist Party mouthpiece, it wheeled out a rent-a-quote academic, in this case Meng Dehong from Beijing Foreign Studies Uni, who claimed, with reference to the Middle Kingdom:

“The more civilised, more advanced and more attractive the country is, the more influential the language gets.”

Now Meng is spot on there, with one crucial caveat – that applies to English (England and the US), not China.

The Daily gives as its examples of China’s growing cultural-linguistic importance in the world the words shuanggui (quasi-investigation); chengguan (municipal officers); jiujielity (hesitation); and, most tellingly, don’ train for “bullet train”.

Er, sorry guys, I know you and Japan have history but you have to admit, if any loan word is going to appear in English for “bullet train” it would be shinkansen, hailing as it does from the country that invented the frigging things. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever read or heard the other words out and about, and I live in Hong Kong.

Ditto the Chinglish phrases We two who and who? meaning “We are good friends”; Go and look meaning “We will see” and No money no talk, apparently meaning “Without money, any talk is spared”. Even the People’s Daily translations sound a little odd so to utter them down the pub they probably come across at best as the incoherent mumblings of an escaped psychiatric patient.

“Hello, can I introduce you to Steve? We two who and who!”

“Er, sorry?”

“We two who and who!!!”

“Um, are you having a seizure?”

As Shanghai Daily points out, the only Chinese words that have ever found their way into English, include gung-ho and kowtow and the phrase “long time no see”, which translates in that word order from the Cantonese.

They are incredibly few and far between. Now I’ve no doubt this will change gradually as China flexes its muscles on the world stage, but let’s not confuse economic dominance for cultural. It’s not helped by the fact that, with the best will in the world, Chinese students often don’t assimilate particularly well with others when studying abroad – preferring their own cliques to sharing their culture, and language, with those from other shores.

To my mind the only Westerners likely to drop obscure Chinese words into sentences are pompous journalists and the sort of people you make a habit of avoiding at parties, but will inevitably be stuck with for 30 will-sappingly long minutes, usually at the beginning. In the kitchen. While you’re still sober.

Another route Chinese language could take to find its way into the Western lingua franca is if the Middle Kingdom had a free press we could respect, engage with and learn from, but that’s about as likely to happen as Xi Jinping taking a dump on The Communist Manifesto. Until then, spurious articles on how Chinglish is sweeping around the world are exactly the reason why it won’t.

One other route for the Chinese language to penetrate our homes is of course through popular TV shows and movies. But honestly, when was the last time you saw one of them? If the combined firepower of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Ang Lee, and over 100 years of colonial tinkering in the Middle Kingdom hasn’t made an impact then I’m sorry, but it’s probably never going to happen.

Or as they say in Beijing: “We two definitely not who and who!”