The mysteries of Mandarin

April 21, 2014 by

Shì māo!

I’ve been going through a bit of a wuxia phase lately, basically devouring any wuxia-based movies I can get my hands onto. Things such as the brilliant Dragon (or its Chinese release name – Wuxia), Reign of Assassin’s – which wasn’t too bad, and Young Detective Dee – which while not bad, was not as good as the original. Oh and the Grandmaster – which was – *awesome*.

Wuxia for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to Chinese martial arts. I won’t go into the exact meaning, as that’s a post unto itself, but look at it along the lines of wu = martial, xia = most translations sum it up as chivalry – but it’s more than that. It’s more of a loose translation into ‘doing the right thing.’ Think superheroes and their typical mentality.

Anyhow, I have been meaning to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for a long time. I think I’d only ever seen it the one time – the original time at the movies, where I loved it. How I have not seen this movie since its 2002 release is beyond me, however it was a very different experience this time around.

My appreciation and understanding of Chinese culture since originally viewing the movie have completely changed. And moreso, I now understand Mandarin to a certain degree. I take pleasure in watching Mandarin movies for the language recognition above all else, and to watch Crouching Tiger with a degree of understanding was a great experience.

Learning another language to me is so much more than just remembering all of these crazy new and foreign words. To me, it’s important to understand the mechanics of the language – and so it’s at this point in my language learning life, that I come across things that utterly boggle my mind.

Mandarin is known as an incredibly different language – and it’s true. However, not specifically for the reasons you might think. On one hand, the 4 tones are utterly alien to your every day English speaker – and the character based language also couldn’t be more different. But Mandarin as a language has considerably fewer words than English, and much of the language is simplified – think very basic grammar. Much of the language is implied – not spelled out word for word. The English language for your information, has upwards of a million words…a *million words*! In comparison, they say if you can master around 3000 of the most common Chinese characters, you can effectively read a newspaper.

Anyhow – it’s this simplistic sentence structure that often stumps me, and I found a perfect example in Crouching Tiger.

There’s a scene where Jen (Zhang Ziyi) is visited by her desert lover, Lo. Just after he leaves, one of Jen’s handmaids calls from outside the window, “Madam, I heard a noise, are you alright?” (or words to that effect).

Jen’s reply in Mandarin is: Méiyǒu, shì māo (没有,是猫)

Now in English, the sentence was, “Everything is fine, it was just a cat.”

The Chinese on the other hand: Meiyou = literally, ‘have not’, referring to there being no noise – there is no noise. Followed by ‘Shi (is) mao (cat).
So her literal response in Chinese was, “Is not (noise), is cat.”

Now that to me, is baby speak.

So much of Mandarin translates this way. I asked my former Chinese teacher about this and she said that its true, so much of the language is very simple, however it’s because most other things are implied – ie the have not referring specifically to the lack of sound, the ‘is cat’ referring to the reason for the noise.

Things like this don’t necessarily confound me when it comes to understanding the language, but I simply can’t imagine how it feels to speak fluent Chinese – from an English point of view. Oh god how i’d love to just magically develop the skill for even just a day, and listen to it with my current perspective – but alas, that’s foreign languages for you.

If you’re a fellow Mandarin learner, or even any language, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The air quality in China – oh dear.

March 29, 2014 by

In my regular web rounds I came across an article over at Kotaku which allows you to compare the air quality in China with the rest of the world. The article links to Air Pollution in Asia, a website which offers real-time data of global air quality. Having lived in China, I was more than aware that the air quality was terrible, but this website clearly shows just how bad it is – it’s horrendous.

We had a smoky day in Melbourne the other day, where smoke from planned burnings out East (a bushfire preventative) had the city so smoky it was like a thick fog. That kind of condition is abnormal for a place like Melbourne, where we’re blessed with very good air quality, but is normal for China.

I remember a few weeks into my stay in China, driving along with Pan Zilli (a good friend), and commenting on the haze. It was very smoggy – with visibility down to a few hundred metres at best, and I said to him, “The air is pretty bad today, huh?”

And his reply, “Oh no! Today is clear, the air is good.”

Wut!

Sure enough, he wasn’t kidding. That kind of air became normality. Upon my return to Australia, I couldn’t believe how crisp things looked. From the airport to the trees beside the road as we drove home, everything was crisp and vividly clear. Why? Because almost everything in China is hidden behind the almost permanent blue haze. Buildings 10-20 metres away, would still have this haze before them, never crisp and clear.

There was a tower several blocks away from the school we lived which I referred to as Dongting’s Eiffel tower (we lived in Dongting – or was that Xishan district – that never became clear), and it was always in a state of semi-visibility, despite being so close.

For much of the time we spent in China (during 2008), we had coughs and sore throats, particularly my poor wife who spent much of the year sick because of it. Looking at the map – Wuxi (just southwest of Shanghai) has poor air quality – but nothing compared to what you can see around Beijing.

Seriously – that’s a capital O.M.G. Look at that map – it is a *disgrace*. At what cost are the Chinese paying for their rapid progress? The total destruction and pollution of their formerly beautiful countryside? Or at the cost of their citizens.

Years from now, when the people who are living and breathing this air begin to die from various forms of lung cancers, there’s going to be a reckoning. China is trying to do something about it, but the real question is – have they already gone too far

Tian Yi, Wuxi

A bridge at Tian Yi school where I lived – note the haze between the location of the shot and the building in the distance – and that’s a somewhat clear day.

Remembering China # 6: Suzhou

July 21, 2013 by

Garden of the Master of Nets, Suzhou, China

Suzhou is one of China’s most popular tourist cities, and because of this, you’re either recommended to go…or stay away. When we think of cities as being magnets for tourists, we generally think of westerners, but the Chinese love to travel, and while increasingly many can now afford to travel overseas, due to the high cost of exit visas, most are still limited to traveling within China itself, and for famous cities such as Suzhou, you’re going to encounter thousands of them.

Suzhou is known as being the Venice of China, due to the numerous waterways that intersect the city (specifically the older inner city). These waterways vary in quality from quite beautiful bands of water amongst the buildings, to stinking polluted and stagnant mosquito homelands.

But more than the canals, Suzhou is most known for its ancient gardens, of which there are many still in their original forms. I was lucky enough to explore several, from the most popular Humble Administrators garden, to the Lion Grove garden with its interesting rock formations, to the one pictured above, the Garden of the Master of Nets, which supposedly once belonged to a fisherman.

Each garden is quite different from the next, but one thing they have in common is they are all crawling with Chinese tourists – and worse – tour groups. For the Chinese predominantly travel in large groups led by a leader –  the one waving the coloured flag and speaking into a megaphone – yes, a megaphone. There’s nothing like enjoying the beautifully sculpted gardens to the sound of a distorted Chinese voice yapping incessantly.

The Chinese tour groups are also highly excitable. Happy to be away and enjoying what their 5000 year old, rich culture has to offer, they like to get off the paths and onto the the gardens themselves, ignoring the ‘keep off!’ signs and climbing onto the base of ancient trees to have their photos taken with their victory pose.

To be honest, in many cases it was intolerable. Attempting to photograph some of these gardens minus the people was a feat in itself. I would recommend skipping breakfast and heading to the gardens super early, or possibly during winter where catching them beneath a coat of snow would be mesmerizing.

As for the rest of Suzhou, well it was nothing special really. In many regards, it was a very typical Chinese city, though the whitewashed buildings are somewhat unique to the area. It was a mere 15 minutes by train away from Wuxi, on the way to Shanghai, and is also on located alongside lake Taihu.

Due to the predominance of old buildings and gardens in the older part of the city, the roads are narrow and holy crap are they busy. There’s a abundance of bicycle rickshaws in the area, which tends to be the best way to get around, but be prepared to be clenching your butt-cheeks the entire trip as the way they cut in and out of the cars and pedestrians alike has to be seen to be believed.

But all in all, Suzhou was a fun city to explore, and if you’re visiting Jiangsu by all means check it out.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons review

July 4, 2013 by

The nature of Stephen Chow is irrepressible. With his latest movie – his first movie as director where he’s not starring, Stephen Chow has once again produced an amazing movie. For those of you who don’t know who he is (and shame on you) – go pick up Shaolin Soccer and jump on board the fanboy wagon.

This latest movie is a reimagining of the classic Chinese tale, Journey to the West. I grew up enjoying Monkey Magic, and as an adult, formed a deep appreciation for the entire story, having previously posted about Wu Ch’eng-en’s Monkey here

This movie goes back, before Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy are followers of Tripitaka, to when these famous three heroes were in fact demons themselves and needed to be subdued.

Opening with a village being plagued by a fish demon, we’re introduced to Tang Sanzang, a super scruffy (and very reminiscent of SC) Buddhist monk whose attempting to subdue the demon using children’s nursery rhymes. Though his intentions are good, his methods are seemingly useless, and despite the fact he’s returned the demon to human form, it’s the martial arts wielding Miss Duan who dispatches the demon properly, winning the praise of the village.

From the onset, the movie is Chow’s typical slapstick comedy, exhibiting a unique subtleness that is one of the primary reasons I enjoy Asian movies so much. If you’ve seen Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle, you’ll feel right at home.

One of the things I love about Stephen Chow’s characters is that they’re often ordinary people. From the filthy Tang Sanzang, to the band of eastern mercenaries that travel with Miss Duan, they’re some of the most piss funny characters you’ll find anywhere. My highlight had to be the scenes where these eastern mercs banded together to fight the pig demon – that entire part of the movie was hillarious.

And just like in his previous movies, there’s a love story running through it which becomes really quite touching yet completely comical all at once.

The movie is natively in Cantonese and while a Mandarin dub is available, you’re best to avoid it.

But beyond that, watch this movie!

Remembering China # 5: Shanghai

June 27, 2013 by

Image

Shanghai. Wonderful, amazing Shanghai. I truly love this city, and when I think about China, it’s here that I miss the most. I would give anything to go back there, to live and work.

Shanghai is a city that’s rapidly changing – and not necessarily for the better. This formerly European concession was unlike any other place that I experienced in China. Of the 10 or so cities that I visited, Shanghai had the most distinctive personality.

The thing that makes Shanghai so special, is the old vs new. Beyond the amazing skyline, full of some of the most amazing buildings you’ll ever see, lies a facade of 18th century style European buildings that are truly beautiful. As I walked along a street that ran behind the tourist infested Bund, when I squinted my eyes and the people became just people, and not Chinese, I could have easily been in Melbourne. At night, when the Bund is lit up to the nines, and the old style buildings are glowing yellow with the snapping Chinese flags above each of them, it truly is an amazing sight. Across the river, the Pudong is also aglow, with the famous Pearl tower with its distinctive shape taking centre stage.

But what I loved most about shanghai was its feel. When you really get in there among the twisting roads and lane ways, it’s an amazing place. From the French concession, with its twisted trees stumps before old colonial style buildings, to the older streets lined with alleyways that could easily have been movie sets. There’s power lines and washing hanging above dusty bicycles and old Chinese characters painted on the walls. It’s simply intoxicating.

But unfortunately much of the old Chinese charm is also disappearing. Great blocks of old Chinese houses are being torn down in favour of skyrises. It was among these districts where you would find those amazing laneways, and snapshots of what the older city would have been like. The reality unfortunately is that while these places are visually amazing, the living conditions inside them are the opposite. Many old Shanghai citizens have been relocated out of the central city district into the suburbs, and relocated into high rise apartments.

But i have found that among people who have been to Shanghai, it is a polarising place. Some people love it, others, not so much. I think that it can come down to how you view the city, and what efforts you make to really get in among it. I had the luxury or visiting it on a quite regular basis. Compared to Wuxi, Shanghai was the closest ‘big’ city (they’re all big in China, really), and had the highest prospect of finding foreign goods such as English language novels and various other products. But beyond that, I also had a chance to walk around it like a local – with no agenda, and i think that made the difference. From simple tasks to just going in search of good coffee (which rocked in the French district incidentally) to finding a decent hairdressor, to enjoying watching all the locals do their tai chi and folk dancing in one of the many parks.
I hope to return to China in 2014, and it’s Shanghai that I am most excited to return to, and this time photograph with a proper SLR.

Demystifying the Chinese Economy with Professor Justin Yifu Lin

June 8, 2013 by

I recently attended a free lecture, run by Melbourne University entitled ‘Demystifying the Chinese Economy.’ It was run by former head of the World Bank, Professor Justin Yifu Lin and I have to say that while it was interesting, I didn’t learn really anything new. That was partially because the information was quite raw economical data, speaking about growth in percentages, but also because it was actually quite difficult to understand him speak!

Professor Lin had a fairly thick accent, and I could understand most of what was said, but a couple of times, there was a key word that I just could not work out what it was – it sounded like extortions, but it wouldn’t be that, because it was said in such a way:

“And the reason the Chinese economy was able to sustain over 9% growth for over 30 years was thisdamnedwordIcantunderstand!”

The frustration!

Anyhow, I am glad I went regardless, as I have a continued interest in anything that relates back to China. It did amuse me though, with half the room Chinese – likely economics & business students from the university, and the other half white/westerners, it’s possible that no-one actually understood what was being said! Perhaps if he did the lecture in Chinese then at least half the room would have been crystal clear!
There were a few things that I found interesting in what Professor Lin spoke of. He mentioned that as part of the growth and economic success of China, there of course had been problems too. He felt that the biggest issue that China faced was the disparity in wealth, with vast gaps still remaining between the countries rich and poor. In fact, he said despite the countries success, many Chinese were not happy because of this money disparity.

Professor Justin Lin

He listed several other negatives, which escape me now, but one thing I found interesting was that there was no mention at all to the damage China has caused to its environment as part of this massive growth. Now everyone is no doubt aware of the problem China faces with pollution – all problems of its own making, but what about the neighboring countries? How do you think the Japanese feel about the smog coming across the sea from China to pollute them? How about Vietnam, which is also copping it? It’s simply unacceptable.

Getting back to the reason for China’s success, in a nutshell, it can be put down to China leveraging its strengths as a nation. Back in the late 1970’s when this all began, it couldn’t compete with the other developing economies from a technological point of view, but it could compete in manpower. This has seen China develop into what is often termed the world’s factory.

So what then happens, when all of these millions of workers become fed up with working in factories – for peanuts no less? Yes there are income disparities, but what about quality of life? China now does have the money to upgrade its technology, and while I am no expert in factory based manufacturing, I think that logically, it would follow a path of many other countries, where manual labour is replaced by robots and machines automating much of the process.

What happens to these millions of people if they decide to do something else but slave away in a factory?

He mentioned that other countries could follow the Chinese model of success, but really, I can’t see that happening. There’s no way known you’d get a typical Australian to work the amount of hours a typical Chinese factory worker does, or for such low pay.

One thing I did find interesting, was his answer to whether India would be a competitor to China. I thought that it would, but Professor Lin said that India had focused on growing its service based industry – as anyone who has had to call their phone company recently no doubt knows!
While India created 2 million service based jobs – China created 75 million. I found that really quite telling.

Professor Lin said that by 2030, China would possibly have an economy the size of the USA’s, or possibly (more accurately) twice its size. China has become an absolute beast of a nation when it comes down to the size of its moneybags. It has so much money invested in so many different parts of the world, that I think there’s going to come a time when many countries resent that. I suspect that China might find itself paying a heavy price for its success.

Pissing in China – the greatest question of all.

June 5, 2013 by

Once upon a time, I made a post about people in China pissing in public. I then even made a post about that post, commenting on how it regularly comes up in the webstats as a search term. Today I am making a further post to question this great phenomenon.

 

Why oh why are so many people searching for pissing in China??!  The search term that caught my eye today was none other than, “Chinese pissing websites”
What the fuck people!

 

Seriously – if you yourself have happened to search for pissing in China, i’d love if you could stop by and fill me in as to why. It’s one of life’s great (miniscule) mysteries.

 

Sheesh!

The obligatory pissing image.

Of course by writing this post, i’ve damned myself to another ten years of pissing in China search results plaguing my webstats :)

Remembering China # 4: Tai Hu

June 2, 2013 by

Lake Tai, or Tài Hú is not only China’s 3rd largest freshwater lake, but one of the main reasons that Wuxi is a popular Chinese tourist city. Wuxi is a pretty cool place really, with lots of things to do and see, but for the foreign tourist to China, there’s definitely other places you’d be better off visiting – such as Suzhou next door – or Hangzhou just a short distance away.

Funnily enough, we only went to Tai Hu one time. It was the end of winter and absolutely freezing, but the guy who was charged with babysitting us in those early days, Pan Zili, graciously drove us down there for a look. It was quite pretty actually, and if you pretended that the haze was mist and not smog, you could go so far as to say it was picturesque.

Most of the surrounding trees and grasses were brown and flattened from the recent snow, but there was a nice vibe down there – plus a few pagoda style teahouses (you know, like the ones we imagined as our stereotypical China).

One of the best things about our visit to Tai Hu, was walking across an old looking Chinese bridge(that was probably only recently built) to a small island. On that island, a pack of around 5 feral cats were absolutely going to town on a rubbish bin. Whenever we travel, we always try and find cats – so these feral, scrawny little beasts made our day.

I don’t know why we didn’t go down there more often to be honest. There are several touristy locations, such as Turtle Head park, and a Chinese movie studio where they still film period drama’s and movies, while putting on live shows. I guess all told, without access to a car, it was a bit of a pain in the ass – particularly seeing it wasn’t on the same side of Wuxi as the school where we lived.

The only other time we were going to go there, was a few days before our kiwi friends, Matt & Abby, were about to head home to New Zealand. As the four of us hopped in a taxi and made our way towards the lake, it became darker and darker, until it was what we officially call ‘scary dark’ – in that, it looked like the weather in the USA just prior to a tornado touching down. It then proceeded to dump down rain for the rest of the day, so we just returned to Wuxi city centre and walked around, enjoying the surprised water attacks that would pop out from beneath the tiled pathways.

Tai Hu was actually a very prominent part of Chinese news a few years before we were there. Large algae blooms were appearing in the water, which was a massive issue as it’s still used as one of Wuxi’s primary drinking water sources. There’s even a beer called Tai Hu Shui – meaning literally ‘Tai Hu water’ –  a pretty good beer at that!

The son of one of the owners of the Aussie expat bar in Wuxi said it was terrible. He said that when they turned the taps on, the water coming out was a horrible thick green sludge – mm, mmh! And what causes algae blooms you might ask? None other than pollution – and likely industrial waste dumped directly into the lake from any of the numerous factories in the area.

If you happen to get to Wuxi, do make the effort to visit Tai Hu, and if you do get there, please send me a photo of you in the paddleboat – i’ll appreciate it on multiple levels.

Lake Tai Hu, Wuxi

Lake Tai Hu, Wuxi

Remembering China # 3: Dong Ting

May 26, 2013 by
Dong Ting

Dong Ting, Wuxi

Before arriving in China, I dreamed that the country consisted of beautiful, whispering bamboo groves, full of quaint little tea pavilion’s and lakes. The above photo was the reality.

This photo was taken in Dong Ting – our home while we lived in China. We could never actually tell what it’s name was, as it was either Xisan (or XiShan) district, or Dong Ting. Dong Ting we were told at one point, was where the local government of the district was – and there was in fact a government building of some description several blocks away – but in China, unless you speak Chinese (and possibly even then) – nothing is every completely certain or assured.

The above street was very typical for most cities we travelled through. Rows of low-rise apartment buildings, and beneath them, small, garage-like shops, which had anything from scooter/bike repair shops, to restaurants, to general stores. Many of these shops were permanently dark, making you think they were closed, when in fact they were only saving power. At night, they were generally only illuminated by the most minimal lighting possible.

These stores tended to change on a very regular basis. The buildings above them were often dirty – just like the roads and the sidewalks. The smog in the air often collected in the grout between tiles, or in the sills above windows, so that the grime would streak down the windows themselves.

The sidewalks were always small, intricate bricks – the type of thing that could only be put down in such quantities in a country like China, where there were no shortage of hands to do the work. Because people like to ride their scooters on the sidewalks as often as the road, many of the bricks were broken.

If you look closely, on the left hand sidewalk there’s a brick sticking out  – somehow when it’s been laid, it’s just been put in around the wrong way. All the bricks around it moved closer to fill the void. I feel quite close to this particular brick, as I stubbed my toe on it no less than 3 times – and each time bloody hurt thanks!

You’d often see manhole covers in the middle of the road open, with a few sticks of bamboo jammed into them to warn people. The same with potholes – when they got too deep – the old bamboo stick method worked a treat.

Behind these rows of buildings were often more rows of buildings. They are generally placed so that they form a compound of sorts. In the middle of them, you’d find a few courtyards, often with outdoor gym equipment in them. At night, many of the Chinese would gather to socialise, dance and do exercises. In the morning, these places were for tai chi.

Remembering China # 2: Beijing beer

May 21, 2013 by

Talking about the World Nomad’s travel scholarship prize in Beijing had me thinking about Beijing itself. What an amazing place – really. When you think of China, there are two main places that instantly come to mind (well other than the Great Wall) – Beijing and Shanghai – two cities that could not possibly be more different. While Shanghai is the true land of hyper-lit skyscrapers, Beijing is not really a city in the traditional sense. There is a CBD area, and there are some large buildings, but Beijing covers a large, sprawling area.

Roof lions

The roof kitties observe

Beijing is rich in culture and history, but is also spread out in such a way that it’s difficult to take it all in in a glance. If you go to Jingshan Park behind the Forbidden City, which has a large hill that was actually made from the soil dug out of the Forbidden City’s moat, you can see exactly how extensive the city is – and in fact, it’s probably the place to go if you want the best view of the Forbidden City itself.

Every place you go is flat and long. When you exit the Tienanmen Square train station – finding your way to the square is a challenge that involves a lot of walking. Going from the square past the Forbidden City, down to the Wangfujing shopping street – or the famous night food market behind it – walk walk walk.

Beijing to me though, is most fondly remembered by the tiny rooftop bars that were among the cities famous hutongs (courtyard homes). One such bar we had to ourselves, sitting amongst a large assortment of roof lions and tiny potted plants. From this rooftop, we had a great view of the Bell and Drum towers, and could simply unwind. Downstairs, within the hutong itself, the owner, a young and chic Beijing girl, would play cruisy Norah Jones and other western beats.

Down the road from this place, bordering the courtyard between the two gigantic towers, another tiny bar, marked out by Nepalese prayer flags. Go here, grab a tsingtao and nibble on nuts while you watch the locals play chess and do their dusk exercises.

As the sun began to go down, amongst the hutong’s you’ll find an array of street barbeques suddenly making an appearance. Men armed with hair dryers, lay an assortment of skewered meat over thin grills, then blow them with the dryers to speed up the process. Grab a seat, order 30 lamb skewers and a cucumber salad with a pair of matching tsingtao’s. This place is heaven.

My attempt at a bodgy map of the area. You can see the drum and bell towers at least!

My attempt at a bodgy map of the area. You can see the drum and bell towers at least!


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