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Funny Interlude

January 6, 2009

Now, I in now way agree with the sentiments here, but it is still very funny. 

fail-owned-screw-china-fail1
Thanks to http://www.failblog.org
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Should You Even Bother to Learn Chinese? Part 2

January 4, 2009

Back after the Christmas hiatus I wanted to return to the topic of Chinese language learning.

In a previous post I gave some reasons why you may consider it not worth learning to speak Chinese when doing business in China.

Obviously, as I Chinese speaker I did take the time to learn Chinese and thought it a worthwhile exercise, as such I must have had some pretty good reasons for doing so. Here are a few thoughts:

Practicality:

Speaking Chinese shows a long-term commitment to China. Once you are over the highly annoying conversations about your Chinese ability people often do relax and treat you more as they would a fellow Chinese. It won’t happen all of the time but it is nice when it does.

95% of the time, your interpreter will be absolutely hopeless*, speaking poor English, adding their own bits here and there and generally making life much more difficult than it needs to be. Much better to actually be able to speak directly to people than rely on someone else.

If you do chose to live in China for any period of time then it really does help to be able to pay your electricity bill, get a taxi, order a meal or generally just do more than ‘get by’ or ‘survive.’

Speaking Chinese allows you to speak to the other 90 odd percent of Chinese people who do not speak English. Imagine just how skewed an opinion of Britain you would have if you only spoke to 5 percent of the population. Even more so if it was only the 5% that were educated enough to speak a foreign language.

Enjoyment:

Chinese is an amazing language- it is not so much conceptually difficult as just completely different to western languages and requires a huge ‘brain shift’ in order to learn effectively. This is a rather fun process and a great challenge.

As adults, I think that we lose some of the thrill of learning and gain a fear of looking silly when starting new things. It is spiritually good to actually do something that is so different and new, no matter how old you are.

Employment:

This is a tricky one, people will tell you that speaking Chinese is a wonderful door-opening skill that will be your passport to riches and glory. It isn’t. Being super smart, a polymath and also speaking Chinese may well be, but speaking Chinese alone makes you about as attractive to a prospective employer as a gansu peasant.

Combine the ability to speak Chinese with just about any other important skill, however, and suddenly you become very attractive. If you are already a highly skilled engineer/ lawyer/ researcher/ IT expert and you take a couple of years out to learn Chinese then this is a winning combination.

If you are looking to study Chinese then my advice here is to study law or economics first, then plan to spend two years in China learning Chinese and networking. It will stand you in much better stead than a degree in Chinese ever would.

Conclusion:

Hopefully, by now, you have decided if learning Chinese is actually worthwhile to you. Over the next couple of posts I will look at where to start learning, how to start learning and a few clever tricks to help you on your way.

*Shameless plug: Interpreters provided by my company are not hopeless, in fact, they are generally rather good so if you do wish to have your own interpreter then we can provide one at a reasonable cost.

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This is what happens when you don’t get the concept of a slow news day…

December 20, 2008

Picking up on other news just briefly, I am really in two minds about this article about a Chinese man in Kunming holding his girlfriend out of the window.

Reported in both the Times and the Telegraph in the UK almost word for word the same.

The Times allows 300 character comments on all articles and so the hatred started, accusing them of anti-China bias. The article then droped from front page of the website with pictures to second from bottom of the global news section.

Then the comments started disappearing. Hmm this all smells a bit fishy to me.

I can’t work this one out in my head- perhaps anyone else out there can throw in their opinion?

  • The argument is that the reporting is anti-China because it shows a negative. The Chinese don’t like this as you have probably guessed by now from my other posts.
  • The paper is then accused of bias because people claim that this would not be reported if it were New York or elsewhere in the world. But is that true? Taking a hostage is a relatively common thing but holding her our of a window- that is more like the stuff of films. This is actually worth reporting from a sensationalist human interest story point of view.
  • The guy was talked down by negotiators, this is remarkable because China clearly now has effective hostage negotiators. A clear sign of increased police training and the desire to solve problems without just shooting people.
  • One might want to consider this against the hugely negative reporting of police in the UK following the Stockwell shooting and the shooting of a 15 year old in a Melbourne park by Australian police recently.
  • Some Chinese cry foul for reporting this story but it could have been a lot worse. It seems that the police did rather well, solved a situation and all over. Thus painting them in a pretty good light.
  • Amazingly, even the biased British press decided not to turn this into anything more than a human interest story. Progress, one might say.

At the end of the day though, this only got on the front page because there was absolutely nothing else to report. That is what happens when you have a free press, who are trying to make money and they run out of things to say about the credit crunch.

It then got demoted from the front page, I guess due to the comments. Chinese censorship at work in the UK? The Times is a business and they walk a fine line between doing their job and keeping potential consumers happy. This applies to all of us, no matter which industry we may be in.

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This is what happens when you don’t get the concepts of a free press or satire…

December 18, 2008

Look, I couldn’t resist.

Yes, I know I am just picking up on someone else’s blog but when the article is this good, there is really no need to be original.

Many thanks to danwei blog!

Click HERE

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Should You Even Bother to Learn Chinese?

December 17, 2008

Before I get go on with thoughts on actually learning Chinese I wanted to address this topic.

Chinese, perhaps quite rightly, has a reputation for being one of the hardest languages on earth to learn. Certainly, it is not an easy language but since when has something being difficult meant that you shouldn’t do it?

I’ll get onto the difficulties of learning Chinese in another post and suggest ways to make life easier but for now it may be worth considering if it is even worth doing in the first place.

Firstly you have to consider your interest and involvement in China.

If you plan to actually live in China then I’d say being able to order a meal, buy a bottle of milk or pay your electricity bill is going to be a useful thing to be able to do.

I find, for the most part, people who live in China and still maintain learning Chinese is not worthwhile are just kidding themselves. There are, however, some convincing arguments against learning Chinese, particularly if your main focus on China is going there, doing the business and leaving with the minimum of fuss and bother:-

  • Devote your time to what you are good at- you only have so many hours in a day and you may want to devote them to your product. You can always hire a translator but you may not be able to hire someone to do your job as well as you can.
  • Speaking Chinese well may actually be giving yourself a demotion- it doesn’t look good to end up translating for everyone when you are the CEO. Using a translator also gives you thinking time, being the translator means you never get time to stop and think.
  • For some reason, the Chinese believe that foreigners can’t learn their language and are shocked if you speak Chinese. The first 20 minutes of every conversation are about you and your ability to speak Chinese. This is annoying, boring and wastes time when you’d rather be getting on with the job in hand.
  • Unless you are an exceptional linguist and speak lots of languages then it can make you look too China focussed. This may be a good thing but if you are trading on your international pedigree having taken 5 years out to learn Chinese can make people suspicious of you.
  • Some Chinese will not trust you and assume you have picked up some of the negative aspects of their culture. Remember, it is not just foreigners who think Chinese can be untrustworthy- many Chinese think that too!
  • Some people claim that they can in fact speak perfect Chinese but choose not to so that they can gain an advantage in meetings etc. These people are all, without exception, liars. Starting off a business relationship by lying to someone is madness and bound to end in failure. In addition, unless you are a champion poker player with nerves of steel and 100% concentration, at some point you will react to something said and give the game away. This would not look good at all.
  • Last, and most importantly you will be compared by every Chinese person you meet to Dashan. This makes you hate him and possibly wish him harm, which is unfair as I am sure he is a nice guy just using a talent to make money in this world.

My next post will be on the reasons why you should learn Chinese.

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The Amazing Chinese Language. Part 1.

December 15, 2008

I have decided to get away from politics and culture for a while. As interesting as a little analysis is, it is a key aim of this blog to help people actually do business in China as well as understand China.

I plan to write a few posts about language- hopefully not too divisive a topic!

Looking at the last few posts we might surmise the following:

  • Watch what you say and do- insults can be perceived even when you don’t mean one.
  • If you are going to use Chinese as the front cover of your magazine (or marketing document/ website/ enormous tattoo on your back)* then you’d probably best get some help with the language and make sure the person who is helping you is a) not an idiot and b) doesn’t have a sick sense of humour.
  • Always get an expert to help you choose a Chinese name for your business and make sure you have a Chinese name for your business to at least look like you mean to stay in China longer than just to extract a quick profit.

Over the next couple of posts I will be talking in more depth about the issues surrounding learning Chinese, whether or not you should even bother and how to go about it.

Firstly, in this post we’ll look at Chinese as a concept and some of the things to consider before learning Chinese. Chinese is an absolutely amazing language- some people believe that all languages are created equal and to say that one language is better than other is wrong.

I profoundly disagree.

  • Chinese, as a written language, is ideographic, the characters are not all pictures but many came into being originally as pictures. Only about 5% still bear any relation to their original picture. I will not go into detail now about how the characters are made up and formed but there is at least some method to it- you do not literally have to learn thousands of pictures and it does all start to make sense after a while.
  • This means that when you read Chinese you have a very different experience to reading English and it is rather enjoyable.
  • Contrary to popular belief you absolutely cannot separate the sounds from the writing. When you read the characters, they still trigger a sound in your head like that of a language with an alphabet- you do not scan them soundlessly.
  • You can learn to speak Chinese without learning to read and write. But you shouldn’t. I have never started anything with the intention of never being any good at it- you simply cannot ever grasp Mandarin without having some understanding of characters. The sounds are too similar- you have to be able to distinguish homophones by being able to write them. Trust me, it may be painful at the start but you will never regret gaining at least a basic knowledge of the written language.
  • Chinese, fortunately has a really simple grammar. No cases, declensions, tenses, voices moods and all that yucky stuff to learn. Conceptually Chinese is actually pretty simple, the bad news is that as there is little grammar you do have to wrote learn sentence patterns and that can take a bit of work. You don’t have to be smart to learn Chinese but it does take a lot of work.
  • If you don’t learn your tones from day one, and I mean actually learn them and get them right then all Chinese will think you are retarded and not be able to understand a word you say. Get your tones right or you have wasted your entire effort learning thousands of words.
  • Do not get overly hung up on Simplified (Mainland) and Traditional (Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao) writing forms, personally I do not care much for simplified Chinese and prefer the full form but really, you only need learn simplified to start with. Much of the simplified language is based upon forms of the same character that have been in use for hundreds of years and it is the only form used in Mainland China. If you can, learn both forms for each character but if time is an issue, simplified will do just fine. You can always go back and learn the traditional forms later when your brain is more used to learning characters.
  • There are many dialects of Chinese but all you need learn is Mandarin. You will find wherever you are in China they will have a different dialect and will switch into that one to stop you understanding but that happens to Chinese people too. Learn to speak Mandarin well and you will get by pretty much everywhere.

So we have a few basic ideas down. In the next posts I will talk about where to start learning, good courses, how much time you are going to have to devote to it and maybe even put a few exercises down to help you.

* If you are considering any of the above please do contact me at chris@sino-cass.com.au and I will gladly proof things or translate them properly for you.

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The Politics of Economics and Chinese Culture

December 10, 2008

It is nice to have intelligent comments left on a blog. According to my stats in hundreds of readers per day I am getting very few comments. This is probably a good thing as I briefly kept a blog a couple of years ago that was taken over by pro falungong types leaving non-sensical anti-China rubbish and I will not stand for that.

Having said that, however, I do very much welcome comments and questions.

I write this article in response to Menin, who seems like an intelligent and reasonable person, perhaps struggling to come to terms with modern China like so many people. I have spent the last 12 years in and out of China (mostly in) and the pace of change never ceases to amaze me. My feeling is that it must be quite hard to understand if you are stuck right in it. It is certainly hard enough to fathom as a relatively impartial outside observer.

Menin says that he/she (sorry not sure which) worries that the increased trade with the west will lead to a decrease in Chinese values, Chinese culture and rampant consumerism. I am not sure how long it has been since you were last in China but I can tell you that your fears are valid, if a little late. China is, without doubt the most money obsessed, consumer driven, materialistic place I have ever been in the world.

I make absolutely no value judgements about what I say above, I just state the facts as I see them and the urban Chinese of today really really like to earn and spend their money.

The current situation in China is what happens when a people rises out of poverty at such a fast rate. Some get rich first, they wish to show off their wealth, others work to become rich. In theory, at least, you get trickle down economics where the wealth is slowly spread throughout society and consumer spending drives economic growth. All good things for alleviation of poverty.

That is not to say that all Chinese people are money stupid. China has a household savings ratio of approximately 40% which is, I believe, the highest in the world. People save for a rainy day and they understand that the state will not always bail them out if things go wrong (this is a good thing cf the idiotic situation now in the States).

Lack of available consumer credit also helps greatly to keep normal people from going under- things are now changing with the availability of credit cards but for the most part banks are unwilling to lend the average man on the street easy credit in the same way as in Britain or the States.

However, consumerism is rampant. People aspire to luxury goods in China in a way that just doesn’t happen in the West. Wealth is worn on the body and showing ‘face’ all important.

You can never really tell the wealth of an aussie by looking at them. The guy sitting next to you in a cafe dressed in bordies and thongs, no watch and driving a ford is just as likely to own a three million dollar boat or a couple of nice holiday homes. The space, easy access to water and lack of people here in Australia has made the culture fundamentally different to that of China or the UK, for example.

I would be interested to know the average net worth of Rolex watch owners in China vs the UK vs Australia. My guess is that in the UK a Rolex is something you buy with a bonus or when you really feel like splashing out on something because you need little else. In China, it is the first sign that you are starting to make money. A declaration to the world that you ‘have arrived.’ In Australia Rolex sales are tiny, people usually only buy one if they are really into watches. To own an expensive watch but not a boat might be seen as a little odd.

To say that consumerism is a Western concept is entirely wrong in my opinion. It is human nature to consume, just read Tang Chinese texts and people were amassing wealth then, just like now.

To say that reform and opening up have damaged Chinese culture is partly right but the one certainty in economics is that in the real world, nothing happens in a vacuum.

It is a cast iron fact that Chinese people today have little understanding of Classical Chinese culture. You will have to travel a long way to find someone who has read the Dream of Red Mansions in the original classical Chinese let alone someone who has a real understanding of Confucian, Mencian, Legalist texts or has even read them.

Most people know a few set expressions, a few basic stories but that is about it. There are a couple of TV shows based on the great classics but the less said about this the better.

Knowledge of traditional Chinese martial arts is also massively on the decline, Chinese teenagers want to play basketball, not learn Kung Fu or Qigong. I studied Yongchun Quan for many years before moving to China, always having access to good teachers in the UK. On arrival in China I found it very hard to find a teacher and ended up falling out of practise.

Nobody except for the Chinese decided to make Yao Ming a national icon- it follows on that children will want to emulate him.

It was not foreigners who decided to simplify the written language to make it easier to learn but in turn, making it more difficult to read ancient texts.

It was not foreign influence that caused the Chinese classics to be dropped from the school curriculum. Foreigners did not decide during the cultural revolution that anyone even owning classical texts should be punished and considered anti-revolutionary.

Again, I mean NO disrespect or criticism. Is it not the case in the UK also that children no longer learn Latin or Greek the way I did at school?

Perhaps it is the way of the modern world that we are all doomed to use text speak from now on. If LOL means laugh out loud perhaps I can suggest OMDB for ‘over my dead body’.

Menin, as someone who is deeply passionate about Chinese culture and who devoted many years to the study of Classical Chinese (70% of my finals papers were on a dead language that few can read anymore) I humbly suggest to you that it is not trade, business or reform and opening up that has caused the lack of interest in traditional Chinese culture but the force of the last 200 years of Chinese history.

Certainly, some of those 200 years have seen interference and influence from foreign states but the absolute nadir for interest in traditional China came at the period when China was shut away and isolated from the rest of the world.

When enough people have been brought out of poverty and have realised that whilst money may provide security and therefore happiness. Possessions for the sake of owning owning only brings the hollow desire for more.

When everyone has enough to eat, people will spend the money to collect and preserve great works of art.

When people realise that basketball is incredibly boring they may well start to learn Qingong again.

When people tire of reading the translated version of Covey’s 7 Effective Habits for Losers who Dream of Being Effective they’ll realise that the Dream of Red Mansions is one of the most entertaining books ever written.

It may take some time but trust in the innate goodness of Chinese culture and do not lightly blame foreigners for all bad influences.

It is nice to blame others for things, I would like to blame that scumbag Blair and nu-labour for killing Latin in British schools but sadly I don’t think it is as simple as that. He didn’t invent the TV or the internet and they are also factors.

I am going out on a limb here but foreign interest in what made China great may well actually be the catalyst for a renaissance in Chinese culture.

Is it not being now in the States that makes you, Menin so much more interested in your own roots?

You seem to fear that the exposure to western values will kill Chinese values. What makes you think Chinese values are weaker?

Perhaps it is China that will influence the west- perhaps as China expands and gains more influence it is us that will change. China has changed my world view forever- I believe that it will also change the views of other westerners.