Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Character Amnesia 提笔忘字

When I and my two research assistants/camermen set out to Beijing and Xi'an to film our documentary, Brush Up!, we knew very little about our topic. Like the rest of the world, we had been drawn to the issue of character amnesia a year ago (Summer 2010) when a series of articles appeared in major Chinese and English newspapers.

As a non-native speaker and teacher of Mandarin, I am more than well acquainted with dysgraphia: having never been through those grueling years of Chinese elementary school instruction in character writing, my word retension is significantly worse than natives' by comparison--pathological, really (I have to review dozens of characters a day just to stay afloat). That a few journalists and academics were suggesting at the time that technology was to blame for character amnesia made sense to us, even though little hard evidence was available to prove it.

Chinese, unlike so many Indo-European languages, and other doozies, like Arabic, Korean, and Japanese, relies almost exclusively on the memorization of 1000s of whole words in order to attain literacy--no alphabets to sound out on paper what you already know how to say. Japanese and Korean, although both still use quite a few Chinese characters, evolved their own alphabetic systems centuries ago to aid in the more accurate pronunciation and reflection of native vocabulary and grammars. In one sense, an alphabet is essentially a codebreaker for the native speaker and language learner who are already familiar with speech. While Chinese characters do share similar phonetic and semantic elements, they are not systematically applied and can only be detected after literacy is practically achieved, making such codes subjective and arbitrary. In short, Chinese relies so much more on memorization and mnemonic upkeep than most any other language; If you can speak English and know 26 letters you can take on a newspaper or attempt a short essay, in China that'll get you a pack of cigarettes, but only if 烟 happens to be one of the 26 characters you picked up on your ultimate goal to 4000. This means, that the more Chinese rely on their electronic devises to write their characters for them, via simple romanized input (pinyin and other systems), the worse their unassisted character retension and production becomes.

So many of our interviews in China (August 2011) ended in a college student, mother, or artist, consulting his or her cell phone for instruction on how to write a character. All of our interviewees accepted this as a normal fact of life in a technological age, and few lamented it. Some teachers and calligraphers, however, were more sensitive to the implications of character atrophy. For some, dysgraphia threatened more than just hand-writing, it struck at the core of Chinese culture: Hanzi (chinese characters).

The following interview with prominent Xia'n calligrapher Ma Tiankuo is an example of this later strand of thought. (Ma's comments were picked up by the USA Today and featured in MacLeod's front page article on August 31, 2011).

Interview with Calligraphy Master and Shaanxi Calligraphers’ Society Director, Ma Tiankuo

(August 15, 2011, Xi'an, China)

“We walked straight up to my studio where I invited my guests to sit down and enjoy some tea. We dispensed with the formalities fairly quickly as my American guest briefly introduced himself and his project. He told me his name was Kyle David Anderson and that he was a professor at Centre College in Kentucky. He had lived in Beijing and Taipei years ago , as well as Europe, where he first heard about me and Xi’an. He decided then he wanted to interview me as part of a documentary film project on calligraphy and China. He cut right to the chase: ‘There have been a lot of people saying lately that because of the proliferation of computers many Chinese are suffering from character amnesia. Is it true that Chinese characters are in crisis?’; ‘I know some think the problem should be taken seriously. On the other hand, others see character amnesia as rather common and that there’s no need to panic; there’s no way that Chinese characters and calligraphy will fade away in the face of technology. As a well known, middle-aged calligrapher, how do you see this issue?’

“After posing his questions, Kyle solicited my personal opinion and politely asked if his two student assistants and cameramen (Stewart Lowery and John Dickens, seniors at Centre College) could film our conversation. I told him they could. Their comfortable and free approach to the discussion was welcome. I enjoyed their sincerity and openness. We talked about everything.

“My response:‘From what I know, as a result of global industrialization, technological modernization, and the speed of computer popularization, character amnesia is a fairly common phenomenon. It’s certainly very alive and something I have always taken a special interest in. In fact, I seem to remember seeing in the past few years quite a few internet articles discussing the topic. As a calligrapher, I’m particularly sensitive about the whole thing, and have noticed the problem actually worsening.

"I know that folks in their 40s, 50s and older generally attended Dazi (calligraphy) classes in school before the 1980s. Elementary schools always held as a rule at least 2 sessions a week practicing character tracing. In Junior High, there were also a lot of extracurricular clubs, including calligraphy appreciation groups. So, it’s likely that most educated people learned to wield a brush in their younger years. They had a firm understanding and grasp of the basics of writing and calligraphy. At the same time, they developed a sensitivity to the unique structures of characters and their proper stroke order. They also were quite familiar with radicals (roots) and character components. Because of all this exposure to writing nearly everyone had an active memory of the most commonly used Chinese characters and had possessed an aesthetic foundation for the appreciation of calligraphy. Despite the fact they later found other employment that didn’t require writing, they still maintained a healthy ability to recall a large number of characters. And though many never studied enough to produce calligraphy at the artistic level, many still harbored an appreciation for the art of painting beautiful characters. Writing characters was more than a fleeting personal pleasure; it was a life long endeavor for them.

"But now, relatively speaking, young people in their teens, 20s and 30s, suffer from character amnesia to a much higher degree. This is a result of having gone through schools that transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial, scientific, technologically-based system. Practically every student’s residential and scholastic environments have undergone radical changes, adjustments, and reforms. From preschool, through elementary to junior high school, the maintenance, promotion, and strengthening of character writing has continually weakened. In its place, the proliferation and establishment of computer labs has increased. Many students enjoy the daily increase of computer operational skills, but only at the expense of their writing ability. They may know how to take class notes or write down new vocabulary, but not much else. It’s rare anymore to see a class dedicated entirely to practicing characters. Only in a handful of homes do parents sign their children up for afterschool calligraphy classes. Most prefer to choose foreign language or Cantonese. Consequently, very few of the younger generations ever take up a calligraphy course, which only erodes further our inherited cultural base of characters and calligraphy. It's troubling.

"I imagine, though, that one will find the same things written in foreign studies on foreign languages, as well as other similar byproducts of globalization. I only think that the degree of the problem in China is different.


"As far as the significance of Chinese characters and calligraphy...? That system and artistic tradition have been flowing for thousands of years. They are the spiritual embodiment and textual manifestation of the essence of the Chinese people, and house the culmination of cultural and artistic ideals possessed by mankind. The ancients often said that writing contains the truth. This statement is true in a way; in short, writing characters mold sentiment, completes personality, provides tools for self-reflection, and sustains health. It is the the most significant form of expression and spiritual requirement of the abilities of both the literati and the masses. From the earliest times of human civilization, when hard work and ingenuity first created culture and its circulation and exchange, across the primitive ages of rock painting, tribal totemic worship, and scapulary writing, down through the development and evolution of the seal, li, kai,xing, and grass scripts, writing has formed the glue of collective human wisdom. Even in foreign alphabetical systems this is the case. Therefore, characters and calligraphic art are not only the heritage of China but are also at the core of global culture.



Thursday, December 16, 2010

Keeping Africa Out of Focus

Recent popular uprisings in Africa have drawn greater attention to China's crucial relationship to the continent. Updates on rebellions in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, are slow and glaringly fact-starved. Wen Jiabao's 2011 annual work report to the CPC and the State media have expressed concern with the potential contaminations of African and Middle Eastern turmoil and promise that their next five year plan will be aimed at improving the people's lives to ensure development and stability in China. Willy Lams March 2011 article in the China Brief explains:

"Beijing's efforts to uphold socio-political stability and to crush a potential Chinese-style "Jasmine Revolution" have dominated this year's (2011) plenary session of the National People¹s Congress (NPC). The Chinese parliament has approved a budget for wei-wen, an omnibus term that encompasses maintaining law and order, squashing dissent and keeping surveillance on the populace, which surpasses for the first time the expenditures of the People¹s Liberation Army (PLA). Much of the initiatives for this year as well as for the 12th Five-Year Plan (12FYP) period of 2011 to 2015 have to do with pacifying disadvantaged social groupings through boosting their welfare entitlements and restructuring the economy. Remarkably absent are reforms in the political arena."

The following recent editorial in the People's Daily ("in no way representative of the paper's editors") exemplifies a typical international PR diversion strategy to transfer the potential dangers of reporting current events in North Africa into a strategy for vilifying an old rival: the US (something the US, of course, is not innocent of when its own elections come around).

In this article, the news isn't popular uprisings, but the US and Obama's self-serving foreign policy about-face. The story is that the US throws its friends (i.e. Mubarak) under the bus at the slightest sign of trouble. The US is an opportunistic predator, a characterization encapsulated in a central idiomatic expression of the article: "they watch the wind and shift the rudder" (見風使舵):








The following clips from recent documentaries are helping to unfold the ongoing story of China's economic speculations and impact in sub-Saharan Africa.

BBC's Documentary on China and Africa:

Short documentary featured on the blog Danwei:

*Nigerian Jimmy Wang BluesHipHopSoul Star in China
* Reaction to poor coverage of Libyan uprising (April 2011) (Chinese / English)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Return of Confucius

61 yrs after being officially snubbed, Confucius has returned to China. Charred like a phoenix for decades, he has risen again all over China, from grass-roots Classical Chinese summer camps to to the big screen, to a coveted spot in Tian'an men square. Of course, all this comes as quite a schock to those who remember what Mao once said to his nephew about the old sage: "If the Communist Party has a day when it cannot rule or has met difficulty and needs to invite Confucius back, it means the Party is coming to an end."

More than a hundred years ago, Chinese intellectuals and officials hastily jettisoned and denigrated the old sage in the name of modern progress. But they've been scraping helplessly for alternative moral, ethical, and religious frames ever since to prop up their refurbished Chinese society, all to no avail. Now at a time when capitalism and materialism have rushed to occupy the hearts of many with a vengeance, Confucianism has regained its broad value and appeal. Individuals find it gives greater meaning to their lives, and officials calculate it will fill the vacuum that a slowly retreating surveillance state is leaving.

Could this be one of those legendary times that Confucius succeeds in harmonizing society? Or do only certain sectors of contemporary Chinese society serve to benefit from his return? (Does a Confucian-backed Party mean only mainstream Chinese have claim to the benefits of his teachings? See Times, Jan. 2011).


* Mei Hu's Confucius (Film)

* Howard French on Confucius Institutes (NY Times)

* Daniel Gardner's Confucius and China's Rulers (LA Times)

* Daniel Bell's New Confucianism


* What are the reasons for Confucianism's return to importance at this time?

* What are the political and cultural significances of his particular portrayals?

* Are there competing portrayals of the sage? Is there any great discourse or narrative that resolves them all?

* Celebration of
Confucius' B-day 2010 (Guardian)
* New Confucius Statue in Tian'anmen 2011

* Sisci on Confucius Statue (Jan 2011)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Gaming Grievances

It has often been said that the internet is one of China's most dynamic avenues for expression.  This is perhaps why Hu Jintao and the digital SS keep such a tight vigil on its activities.  However, officials have yet to strangle the recent phenomenon that is Nail House Versus Demolition Team.
Gluttonous landowners and developers have been the target of humanity's grievances for millenia.  But in Post-reform China, this crew of moneygrabbers has become especially aggressive and disliked.  The disillusionment of the people of China with their new unchecked capitalism, especially the poor and socially immobile,  has been stoked into a flame that is played out violently on screen and on the ground.  The Gaurdian's (UK) Tania Branigan explains how the goofy fiction of the Nail House game is reflective of real resistance on the ground to violent developers: "In the game, Mrs Ding, still in her curlers, hurls slippers as the men approach, while Grandpa Ding prefers to fire his shotgun.  It might sound improbable, but a real life farmer in Hubei province fought off workers with a homemade cannon" (9/16/10).
Tania is referring to 65-yr old  Yang Youde.  In June 2010, he routed a demolition team a number of times with a home-made arsenal of bamboo artillery canons.  
In a land where free-wheeling capitalists buy off people and property with little resistance and impunity, folks like Youde are a surprisingly annoying obstacle to the making of small fortunes. Youde is resisting his forced removal on legal grounds, however, showing the clash between the landed and landless not as blind, sentimental protest, but as an issue of legality that plagues China all the way around. He who has the gold, makes the rules, the perverted English saying goes. Youde is fighting for a more just and enforceable system of law that will help to stabilize social relations in China and render its legal and business practices more equitable.

While the courageous continue to fight to protect their land and legal rights, however, you can help them air their grievances in a pithy protest world.

Try out Nail House Versus Demolition Team for free at http://www.4399.com/flash/36869_2.htm. Go get them ruthless developers.

*ChinaHush article on Yang Youde
*The Guardian article on the Nail House game

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Charter 8: The Latest Cry for Chinese Democracy

In February 2010, US Ambassador to China, Jon Hunstman, issued the following public statement on the detention and harsh sentencing of dissident and Charter 8 author, Liu Xiaobo:

"We are disappointed by the Chinese Government's decision to uphold Liu Xiaobo's sentence of 11 years in prison on the charge of "inciting subversion of state power.” We believe that he should not have been sentenced in the first place and should be released immediately.

We have raised our concerns about Mr. Liu’s detention repeatedly and at high levels, both in Beijing and in Washington, since he was taken into custody over a year ago. Mr. Liu has peacefully worked for the establishment of political openness and accountability in China. Persecution of individuals for the peaceful expression of political views is inconsistent with internationally-recognized norms of human rights.

We continue to call on the Government of China to release him immediately and to respect the right of all citizens to peacefully express their political views and exercise internationally-recognized freedoms."

Hunstman's is a rare plea and direct criticism of the United States of China's internal affairs. His words convey a genuine interest in the safety and rights of Liu Xiaobo, but more importantly they state in no uncertain terms the kind of freedoms that an international community expects all nations of the world, especially one of its leading partners, to uphold and to encourage. While not explicitly expressing support for Liu Xiaobo's controversial document, Charter 8, Hunstman's appeal to Chinese authorities clearly reinforces some of the document's chief principles: freedom of speech, the recognition and respect of human rights and the deconstruction of a single-party institution.

In this unit, we will examine Charter 8 as the most recent outgrowth of a 150 yr struggle by Chinese progressivists to modernize Chinese culture and politics, freeing it from its own millenial history of despotism and insularity and delivering it into an global community of internationally shared values and rights. The Charter is the late arrived textual progeny of the 1989 Tian'an men movement, and just as that peaceful protest was resisted and punished, so the Communist government has treated Charter 8 and its supporters and authors. Considering the populace's track record for fighting for non-conformists, Liu Xiaobo has little hope of any public support. A March 2010 blogpost by famous novelist Han Han explains the collective psyche that will more than likely numb it to Liu's plight and cause:

"Do Chinese people seek out dangerous universal ideals? Chinese people seek
them, but they seek them at their convenience. To a lot of Chinese people,
the value of seeking such things is not nearly as high as seeking an
apartment building or an online game to play. Because everyone's life is so
high pressure, they don't have any ideals. A mouthful of dirty rice is
enough. There's no big difference between eating it while kneeling or eating
it while standing up... This is a race of people who can eat genetically modified grain and oil distilled from recycled food scraps, drink melamine-infused milk, and take inferior vaccines. Their tolerance is higher than you can imagine. Their needs are lower than you can imagine."

The condemnation of Liu to 11 years in prison for "political subversion" is more than just an exaggerated attempt by the central government to preserve peace and to foster the proverbial harmonious 和谐 society. By comparing the articles and aims of the Charter to some of its referential sources in world history (e.g. US Constitution, Declaration of Human Rights, Czech Charter 77), we will seek to understand just how much Liu Xiaobo's imprisonment is a statement of Communist China's insistence on controlling the terms on which it internationalizes and modernizes. In other words, in a comparative examination of the Charter and its recent treatment by Chinese authorities we will attempt to define the nature of hybridization and intercultural exchange in contemporary Chinese society.

*Charter 8 (2008)
Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 (1977)
Constitution of the United States (1787)
French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789)
*Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN) (1948)
Constitution of the People's Republic of China (1982)

(1) Cite influential places in Charter 8's source texts that talk about human rights.
(2) Why is the issue of federalization so important to the Charter? Which source texts make this an important issue?
(3) What do you perceive are the underlying motivations for the document's appeal to an international liberalism? In other words, what is at stake for the Chinese in modernity by accepting or rejecting its conditions?
(4) What kind of unofficial and official motives do you see informing the Communist government's suppression of this document and its supporters?
(5) How do you imagine the future of intercultural exchange in China and the possibility of its liberalization?

Feng Chongyi's article on Charter 8 (Jan 2010)
Charter 8 Website
Liu Wins Noble Peace Prize (Oct 2010)
Noble Nomination Letter (Jan 2010)
Getting Around the Censors to Mention Liu's Noble (Oct 2010)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Post-80s Pop Novels: The Playground of Dandies and Racecar Drivers

The highest grossing authors of the moment in China are not the bastions of literary seriousness, the politically committed and highly eloquent Yu Hua, Gao Xingjian or Mo Yan. Instead, the giants in the field of publishing come in much more varied and flamboyant packaging.

The 20-somethings Guo Jingming and Han Han are the two most prominent representatives of their post-80s generation, a demographic targeted for its ultra-consumerism, selfishness and political apathy. Guo is the posterboy/covergirl of his generation's fascination with image and *bling* and Han the stinging mouthpiece of its stubborn individualism. When the two aren't writing they're primping, shopping, racing cars or humoring (or cursing) the camera. Sauntering on the track in his jumpsuit, Han was recently seen at the Shanghai Tianma Circuit giving the bird to a panel of judges. If Guo was absent, it was because he had run out of L'Oreal's Bare Naturale and had to charter some in from Paris.

The public images of these new writers, however cuddly or caustic, belongs to a visual generation that has grown up during the explosion of local and foreign medias. Writing is only one facet of their public personae, and sometimes it appears to take a back seat in the shadows of the photo shoot. Nonetheless, Guo and Han are serious writers and seriously good ones, despite the poopoo-ing of critics. Both attained early stardom in their teens and have been prolific ever since. Their deft wielding of the medium and their informed command of the publishing industry as a whole testifies to their precocious abilities. They're both still in their twenties, enthroned atop a tower of publications and a mountain of cash! And they remain untouched by complacency. In addition to cranking out new novels, Guo and Han are also tackling the magazine industry. Guo's I5land and Top Novel and Han's forthcoming Chorus of the Soloists are poised to chime in as contending heavyweights in that ring as well.

*Selections from Guo's N. World N. 世界 (2010)
*Selections from Han's His Country 他的国 (2009)

(1) How would you characterize Guo's lyrical writing style?
(2) How do Han's meandering narratives pose a different kind of narrative style?
(3) What seems to be important to these writers?
(4) What is it about Guo and Han's works that so completely captures the imagination of under20s in China?

Time's article on Han Han (November 2009)
New York Times article on Guo Jingming (May 2008)
Han Han's (in)famous blog
Guo Jingming's blog