Category Archives: China Impressions

Under the Dome – Investigating China’s Smog

 

The exception to the rule (mask-wearing in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China)

Mask Wearing (Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Almost a year ago I wrote in my posting “China as I See it“:

[I]t is not uncommon to see city-dwellers wearing face masks to protect themselves from dust, pollution, and germs in general. All across China, cities are experiencing extraordinarily high levels of air pollution. In Kunming, (where pollution levels are somewhat lower than in many other cities in the country), most people do not wear masks that filter pollution particulate matter. Instead, fashionable face masks are often worn as accessories; people want to look good while trying to avoid dust from ongoing construction, germs, and smog. When the pollution is “high” it looks as though there is fog outside. I have experienced this grey/yellow atmosphere in Beijing, produced by extremely dangerous levels of pollution (one can barely see a few blocks away). My teachers claim, as do many others, that it is just fog, but I have noticed that I am sensitive to the air quality as it worsens, and I monitor the air quality index so I know it is definitely not fog when the mountains surrounding the city, or the tall buildings in the distance, are shrouded in a cloud of grey. I bought myself approved masks for heavy pollution conditions, but the majority of the Chinese population buys its masks in convenience stores or other stores where the fashionable models are available. Very few people wear masks that really protect them – although this is beginning to change, thankfully. It’s a small first step because, of course, the greater issue of the pollution itself needs to be addressed.

In Kunming, where I lived from September 2013 until March 2014 and where the air was relatively clear and clean (you could actually see the stars at night), pollution levels would occasionally go above 150 – which means the air quality is unhealthy and that “[e]veryone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects,” according to http://aqicn.org ). I sometimes found it insufferable. Yet, compared to other areas in China, the air in Kunming was relatively breathable.

Exception to the Rule (most people who drive motorbikes in Kunming still do not wear masks - at least not in early 2014)

Mask Wearing (Many people who drive motorbikes in Kunming still do not wear masks – at least not in early 2014)

Walking Kunming

Walking Kunming (During my six months in Kunming it felt as everyone wore a mask but when I looked through my photographs it was practically impossible to find anyone wearing a mask as the three photos in this blog posting attest to.)

Flying over Beijing the pollution is like a wall that one collides with. As you get closer, suddenly, you can barely see a thing outside the airplane window – and what you do see is masked in a thick haze of yellow. This situation is tragic and China has claimed that it wants to reduce its pollution by 2017. Unfortunately, the government has barely taken a stab at it and has censored Chai Jing’s film, Under the Dome – Investigating China’s Smog, which *was* posted on Youku and Tencent until about a week ago (it is still available on YouTube – a site that is blocked in China). This film could have had a key role in promoting public awareness to pollution’s environmental and health issues. No longer.

Yaxue Cao, the editor of the website China Change, comments in his article Under the China Dome – A Reality Check: “The film galvanized public opinion and consolidated its awareness to an unprecedented level. It peeled apart the multi-faceted causes of pollution. It is a mobilization of the public, and it sets expectations for a war against environmental disasters. The film works on many layers of the public psyche, and not all of them are welcomed by the government. This probably explains why it was spectacularly promoted and then shut down.”

And another article in China Change: The Four Forces of China’s Politics of Smog, by  Wu Qiang.

I can only hope the Chinese block of this film is lifted. If you are reading this, however, YOU can watch it: Under the Dome – Investigating China’s Smog

About Face

Yuang Yang Rice Terraces, Yunnan Province, China

Yuang Yang Rice Terraces, Yunnan Province, China

The portraits I took in China between September 2013 and March 2014 are predominantly of the elderly and the very young. As a “laowei” (foreigner), I was particularly struck by the faces of both the children, who will be carrying the impact of the country’s rapid change into the future, and the elders who remain the bearers of centuries-old history and tradition.

I have always considered connecting with people to be one of the central aspects of travel. At heart, instead of going to many of the “must see” travel sites, I would rather meander and observe, interact with, learn about, and photograph people I encounter.

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

I discovered early on that Chinese people rarely look someone in the eye. Apparently, steady eye contact is viewed as improper and can be regarded as an act of defiance. My attempts to establish a link in this manner were not always reciprocated. However, perhaps because I smile a lot I was often rewarded with eye contact and a smile in return. When I photograph, I approach a person because something about his/her face or demeanour strikes me as worth recording. I seem to have a facility for getting people to agree to let me take photographs of them. Despite the fact that I often get uncomfortably close to their faces, somehow they allow me into their personal space.

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

I met many wonderful individuals in China with whom I broke bread or had the opportunity for brief conversation (despite my fledgling Chinese). Asking permission to photograph them often allowed me to engage and connect with them. Even if we could not easily communicate, many still let their guard down. I tried to capture those moments.

inhong, Yunnan Province, China

Jinhong, Yunnan Province, China

Hong Kong, China

Hong Kong, China

Le Ju Village (Temple Caretaker), Yunnan Province, China

Le Ju Village (Temple Caretaker), Yunnan Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Tulou, Fujian Province, China

Tulou, Fujian Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

A Letter to the Newton (Massachusetts) Community

“Henry Degroot is a student at Newton North High School, Massachusetts. He wrote a pro-democracy note in a Chinese student’s notebook during an exchange program in Beijing and signed it. A Chinese teacher found out. Henry was detained for five hours, forced to apologize by his American teachers, and, back to America, the school barred him from prom.”

Read more:  A Letter to the Newton (Massachusetts) Community from China Change

 

China Seen Through the Eyes of a Venture Capitalist

A friend read and forwarded a blog posting about China to me. It was written by a venture capitalist in the health care industry. She wondered if this person’s interpretation of China might have a slightly different slant than that of an artist. It turns out the article was of great interest and written clearly (i.e., not in business-speak so that I could enjoy it!!). I pass it on to you: VC Road Trip Across China.

And to round out the above posting… a blog entry from China Change: What does it mean for the world, for the US, and for us as individuals to have an authoritarian China, with the world’s biggest economy soon and 1/5 of the world population, that rejects universal values?

China as I See it

Boy, Kunming

Boy, Kunming

When I first headed to China in 2012, I presumed I would find the culturally rich country with a long and enduring history, that I knew from reading and from museum exhibitions; and magnificent, vast, natural landscapes that I’d seen in movies, photographs, and paintings. I also expected, from what I had read in the news, overcrowded cities and evidence of the reckless exploitation of natural resources. Having travelled in Southeast Asia, I also anticipated a wide assortment of diverse and tasty food. I did not have many preconceptions about the people other than presuming that they might be better educated and perhaps more mobile than those in the other, somewhat less-developed, regions of Asia that I had visited. I had hoped to encounter warmth and hospitality. Some of my preconceptions have proved true but I’ve also had some unexpected revelations. As I wrote in my posting, First Impressions of China, China is neither a third nor first world country and is changing at tremendous speed; public transportation is fairly top notch, construction is faster than lightening, consumption is high, and it is hard to tell whether the infrastructure will be able to take all this rapid growth. Yet, despite all this recent transformation, it seems that family, food and tradition are still central to the Chinese people and their values. Because I have met so many wonderful people over these seven months in China, I have decided to share with you just a few photos of their many faces.

Feeding Seagulls from Russia During Migratory Season, Kunming

Feeding Seagulls from Russia During Migratory Season, Kunming

I came to China to study the language in September 2013 (I’ll be leaving the country at the end of March 2014). My sole incentive was to try to better understand this country’s people and culture. I have succeeded in learning quite a bit on all counts. So, in no particular order, here are my updated impressions and some of my discoveries about China.

Hygiene: Garbage is thrown on the streets in cities, towns, and villages, since people are employed to pick it up (although those who are really in the countryside seem to take great care of their environment). Much of the population continues to spit on the ground (it starts with the clearing of the throat – a sound I’ve learned to dread – and is followed by phlegm shooting like a spitball onto the ground, where the vestige pools. Most men smoke, and in the cities women are beginning to do the same, although they often do so in secret because it still is taboo. Cigarette butts too, are thrown onto the ground.

The western-style toilet is making its way into China – particularly in big cities, where you may find a few of them in a row of toilets in public washrooms. In most places, however, there are still squat toilets (often without toilet paper, or water, or soap). In some instances (such as in bus stations), these toilets drain directly into an outhouse-like hole or trough, and are without doors for privacy. I have been told that when some Chinese find a western toilet they actually may stand on the toilet seat and then squat. Some toilets are clean, but from what I’ve seen, a great many are not. Cleanliness aside, there is something so basic about this experience that I actually enjoy using them anyway. In the West, we are very private about the goings-on in our bathrooms. We lock the doors and don’t want anyone around. I like that in Chinese bathrooms the ego is relinquished and disposing bodily waste is just what we do. How unflushed faeces, or splashed urine, reflect on hygiene is a whole other story. Here is a link to images of an array of Chinese toilets.

As I mentioned in my First Impressions posting, babies are clothed in pants that are split along the crotch, so that the moment a baby needs to relieve itself, parents can hold him/her over a curb, next to a tree,or wherever convenient. I have always found this a brilliant idea, until I recently saw a mother holding her child over a restaurant sink meant for customers to wash their hands.

Lastly, it is not uncommon to see city-dwellers wearing face masks to protect themselves from dust, pollution, and germs in general. All across China, cities are experiencing extraordinarily high levels of air pollution. In Kunming, (where pollution levels are somewhat lower than in many other cities in the country), most people do not wear masks that filter pollution particulate matter. Instead, fashionable face masks are often worn as accessories; people want to look good while trying to avoid dust from ongoing construction, germs, and smog. When the pollution is “high” it looks as though there is fog outside. I have experienced this grey/yellow atmosphere in Beijing, produced by extremely dangerous levels of pollution (one can barely see a few blocks away). My teachers claim, as do many others, that it is just fog, but I have noticed that I am sensitive to the air quality as it worsens, and I monitor the air quality index so I know it is definitely not fog when the mountains surrounding the city, or the tall buildings in the distance, are shrouded in a cloud of grey. I bought myself approved masks for heavy pollution conditions, but the majority of the Chinese population buys its masks in convenience stores or other stores where the fashionable models are available. Very few people wear masks that really protect them – although this is beginning to change, thankfully. It’s a small first step because, of course, the greater issue of the pollution itself needs to be addressed.

Husband and Wife, Kunming

Husband and Wife, Kunming

Driving: On city streets, drivers seem to lack situational awareness.  It appears, to an outsider and pedestrian, that no one pays attention to what is around them. Those on motor bikes do not check behind them as they move from the sidewalk onto the street. The average driver travels as though part of a school of fish. In the West, roads are lined for traffic flow and we stick to these lanes, unless passing another vehicle. In China, delineated traffic lanes strike me as being mere suggestions. It’s not that China doesn’t have traffic laws but many drivers are probably ignorant of them and just follow the crowd instead. From what I observe, infrastructure and resources need to be improved. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of cars and scooters on the road and this change has occurred much too quickly. There are few traffic police and instead, just recently in Kunming, they have hired ordinary citizens to attempt to reign in drivers when a light turns red. There is a need for aneffective legal system to deter the behaviours that cause traffic jams and, no doubt, accidents.

In Kunming, electric scooters are widely used. They are quiet and environmentally efficient. The vehicles are plugged in overnight, and can travel for about 40 kilometres before needing another charge. In this regard, China is certainly ahead of the West, where there is still objection to electric vehicles, no doubt because of big oil interests.

Man, Kunming

Man, Kunming

Education: China has great respect for its teachers, a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Modern Chinese education began about a century ago, but because of the Cultural Revolution it was slow to develop and has lagged behind the West. Unlike in North America, educators are highly regarded and garner great respect and admiration. Children attend school six days a week and take many after-class lessons. They are expected to study hard and succeed. Parents hope that their children will eventually go on to university and improve their lives.  The general population realizes that in order for the country to succeed and to develop economically and socially, it needs to make great progress in the world of science and technology, economics, etc. Education is key to all of this.

Old Friends, Kunming

Old Friends, Kunming

People: One of the most interesting aspects of Chinese culture is its mixture of direct and indirect behaviour. Most people are usually very blunt, and tell you exactly what they think and feel. I discovered early on that people rarely look at you in the eye. Apparently, steady eye contact is viewed as improper and can be seen as an act of defiance (when people become angry they often sustain eye contact). When a Chinese parent disciplines a child, that child is expected to look down. In the West, in contrast, children are often told, “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”  And yet, I have a had a number of people keep a strong gaze fixed on me; it has just been without looking me in the eye – usually they will look between your eyes, at the bridge of your nose, to avoid engagement. I have found that my attempts to establish eye contact have not always been reciprocated. Yet, perhaps because I smile a lot, I am often rewarded with eye contact and a smile in return.

In the city, the Chinese people are becoming more confident. There is an assertiveness that verges on rudeness. I have had people fight me, though not quite literally, for a taxi. On the Beijing subway and on buses in all of the cities I have visited, younger people remain seated when an elderly person boards a vehicle. When people bump into you on the crowded streets, they do not apologize. They don’t seem to hear my frequent apologies as I brush past them, and I have learned to not bother saying anything. These teeming urban centres can be difficult to negotiate if you come from the West. I tend to like to move at a brisk pace but I am learning to be more Zen (ha!) and just go with the flow, establishing my own space within the crowd. It is a matter of nudging, bumping, and navigating your way to your destination.

Then again, China is a populous country where people live in extreme proximity to one another. They are accustomed to having very little personal space. People walk down the street arm in arm – men with men, women with women. Another way in which people come in close contact is through gradually edging toward someone with whom they’re engaged in conversation. This is the Chinese way to connect with you and I love it!

Old Friends, Kunming

Old Friends, Kunming

Food: The majority of local food is sold on the street and in smaller local markets. Agriculture and gardens abound wherever there is space – although this means mostly on the outskirts of cities. But the city also houses many communal gardens, as well as individual vegetable patches that are planted near riverbanks. I do believe, though this is unconfirmed, that this may, in part, be related to the rural migration to the city. Also, the older Chinese population still recalls the time of The Great Famine. Food is, in some ways, the heart of this country. When an animal is eaten the whole creature is used, and often, one cannot mistake the animal on the plate. When ordering food one finds that everypart is available, from head to toe and everything in between.

Although I am not a vegetarian, I have mostly avoided meat and fish and, instead, have enjoyed doufu and vegetables prepared in a myriad of manners. When I do not eat at school, I snack or have a meal on the street or in inexpensive, local restaurants. Two of my favourite foods in Kunming are a) Dai “cuisine” and b) Hot Pot.  Eating Hot Pot is a communal, and therefore social, activity. Meals, in general in China, are eaten “family style,” with shared common plates or dishes – both at home and in restaurants. People sit around the table and everyone from young to old is included in sharing the meal and conversation. In Kunming I have two favourite places where I devour Hot Pot. The activity proceeds as follows: you choose 1) a broth (mushroom, chicken, spicy, etc.) for yourself in some places and for the group in other places; 2) together you choose the foodstuff for the table (raw meat, tofu, vegetables, noodles); and 3) sauces, spices, etc., for yourself — that you select from an open bar and take back to your table. You add the food into the boiling broth, let it cook, and then, with chopsticks, dig in!!!

I have become a natural at both putting my chopsticks directly into the communal plate to serve myself, and putting any bones from meat I’ve eaten directly onto the table. It’s so simple and natural and without fuss.

China may be synonymous with tea, as per the expression “not for all the tea in China,” but every morning, when I wake up at 5 a.m.-6 a.m., (before my 8 a.m. breakfast at school), I drink Nescafe instant coffee. Starbucks abound here but there are MANY individual cafes, each one quirkier and sweeter than the next. These coffee houses are full of splendid atmosphere but the quality of the drink does not always match the decor. Cafes are still primarily for the Laowai (foreigner) although there is a growing leisure-culture among the younger generation and those with money, in which coffee is part of the day. In any case, the best and cheapest coffee I have found is moments away from my school and, happily, I am a regular!

Mother and Son, Kunming

Mother and Son, Kunming

Family: The family unit is still highly valued in China and respect for elders is taken seriously (although, unfortunately, this is changing slowly, as noted in the section above on youth, the elderly and transportation). There is also great focus on children and Chinese traditions revolve primarily around family. In the past, a home accommodated multiple generations and the father/husband was the indisputable head of the household. Today, the father remains a family decision-maker but no longer exercises absolute control. Another change in family tradition is that children do not always live at home until they are married, and arranged marriage is becoming a thing of the past. Chinese family culture is further discussed in three articles on the website seeingredinchina.com (apologies: domain name expired April 26, 2014):

Typically a family would live in a small compound with 3 buildings opening onto a shared courtyard. The kitchen was considered the center of the home. The entire village typically was made of a few clans who could trace their families back to a common ancestor (this wasn’t the case in cities). This gave people few reasons to ever leave their village, and made it difficult to move to a different village. Some villages would construct ancestral halls to honor their common ancestors which helped to preserve family trees. In such a society, family is more important than any other unit in society, even the government…

Chinese family culture changed during the era of the Cultural Revolution:

… Mao saw the clan and the family as institutions that kept the peasants oppressed so he issued several policies to break down the family structure. Families were made to eat in cafeterias; which meant no home needed a kitchen, children were raised in daycare centers instead of being looked after by relatives, parents were cremated instead of buried, and the ancestor tablets (family records) and ancestral halls were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s attempts to remove the family from the center of Chinese life ultimately failed, but not before destroying a few aspects of traditional culture.

… [A]ncestral temples were destroyed most families lost the records of their extended family… Chinese women [have] the same rights as Chinese men. This means that far more women are now working outside the home, and women now also exercise their right to divorce. This empowerment has changed how parents view their offspring, as it is now thought better to have a daughter than a son if you want to ensure that you will be taken care of in retirement.

Women’s growing role in the work place has left a gap in the family structure for child care. In the communist period, factories built daycares to remove the importance of family. When State-owned enterprises privatized they closed their daycares. To address this problem it has become common to have the grandparents move in for several years to help with raising the child. So it is still common to find the three generations living together under one roof.

Other miscellaneous thoughts:

  • Haggling can be difficult if you’re not familiar with the practice. However, for many services and goods in China, prices are not written down anywhere. You are expected to negotiate. I have learned to establish a price point and am always prepared to forego the purchase if I cannot get the item for that price. Typically, I dicker by starting at a lower price than I intend to pay and working my way up to my price point. Sometime I have to literally walk away, to land the deal I am looking for. This is all part of the dance.
  • China is one of the few countries with high-speed trains. Above the doorway at each end of a train car, the recorded speed is posted. When I travelled from Beijing to Shanghai, the train reached a speed of 312km/hr.
  • I hear that there is corruption and abuse of power within the various levels of government here, which results in dramatic income inequality. Those with money and connections usually get what they want (as is the case in many other parts of the world).  Despite growth and infrastructural improvements in Kunming, many people live in poverty. Developers and investors continue to build, and much of the new construction remains empty. Not only are city blocks being razed but so is the countryside, as cities keep expanding. I understand there are fears about the safety of these buildings, although hearsay indicates that stricter laws arestarting to be implemented so that the onus is on the developers/builders/owners, with huge fines and even the death penalty for those responsible, should a building collapse. Unsubstantiated but interesting: I have also heard that these empty buildings are intended to house displaced people in the event of a disaster. If this is true, it indicates that China is a country that is concerned about its citizens.
  • Odd names for stores: Many stores in Kunming have names that are not quite French, not quite English, and just plain strange. Here are a few of my favourites:  “The Van is Foot” (a shoe store); “La Four” (my favourite cafe – do they mean le four — the oven, in French — or L.A. 4 for the Jazz quartet? The decor does not suggest either); “A Cup of Rigorous Attitude” (another cafe. the name says it all?); “PRICH” (women’s clothing – rich? bitch? rich bitch? it is an odd one); “Unsightly and Peculiar”  (another clothing store – who wouldn’t want to shop here?); Rambo Bread Works (killer bread?); Sincere Space (I passed by this building quickly, on the bus, the other day – it looked like it could be an apartment or office building).
  • And of course, the smog in major urban areas is terribly hazardous to one’s health. The pollution here is insufferable. Even in Kunming, where the air is relatively clear and clean and you can see the stars at night, pollution levels can go above 150 (which means the air quality is unhealthy and “Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects,” according to http://aqicn.org ).
Watching Caramel "Animal" Candy Being Made, Kunming

Watching Caramel “Animal” Candy Being Made, Kunming

But!!! I still enjoy the streets filled with people yelling at each other or into their phones. In the hotter areas men roll up their shirts so that their bellies are exposed – I suppose to cool themselves without taking their shirts off entirely. There is a cacophony of honking horns from cars, buses, and motorcycles, warning people in smaller vehicles (including cyclists) and pedestrians, that they are coming your way, so beware! What we consider to be private is often public in China: in interior city blocks and in the countryside, for instance,people wash their dishes on the streets. Life is not clear-cut in China. It is complex and nuanced – as societies tend to be. Much work has been done to make changes in this country (many of them positive) but clearly it is not a simple task (see my post “Raising China“). I am far from opposed to progress; change is a constant in our lives. I just hope the Chinese government will be able to ensure the basic dignity of the Chinese people while they continue to institute society-wide, long-term solutions to their country’s problems, and address the needs of their citizens. Tradition is an important part of any society and many people in China are steadfastly holding onto theirs, so that change may, perhaps, be slowed down to a more natural and thoughtful pace.

Tea at the Confucius Temple, Kunming

Tea at the Confucius Temple, Kunming

I hope that with continued emphasis on education (and higher education, in particular), Chinese citizens will be equipped with the knowledge and experience to implement integrated, sustainable growth. My greatest hope for China is that it will hold onto its rich, long, history and complex culture, while looking far down the road as it moves forward. I am optimistic that it will find a way to use a whole/holistic system approach: that its natural resources will be respected and that both smaller and larger communities in this country will ultimately benefit.

Woman, Kunming

Woman, Kunming

Hell in China

The concept of Hell (Diyu) in China is based in Buddhism, and consists of an underground maze with eighteen levels. Souls are taken here after death to atone for human sin. Once the soul has been cleansed of its sin, it can rejoin the living by means of reincarnation.

I visited Guandu Zhen (Guandu Old Town), south of downtown Kunming, where, in the centre of the town, I saw Vajra Pagoda (built in 1457) and a few temples that surround it. The following photographs are of the spectacular images of “Hell” I came across in a mural in one of the temples.

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple - Hell

Guandu Zhen Temple – Hell

Hanzi: From Pictographic Writing to Simplified Characters

Meaning Jia Gu Wen Jin Wen Xiao Zhuan Kai Shu
sun Chinese symbol for sun; Jia Gu Wen. chinese symbol for sun; jin wen Chinese Symbol for sun; Jin wen Chinese symbol for sun; Kai shu
moon Chinese symbol for moon; Jia gu wen chinese symbol for moon; jin wen Chinese symbol for moon; Xiao zhuan Chinese symbol for moon; Kai shu
human Chinese symbol for person; Jia gu wen. Chinese symbol for human being; Jin wen. Chinese symbol for human being; Xiao zhuan. chinese symbol for human being; Kai shu
mountain Chinese symbol for montain; Jia gu wen. Chinese symbol for mountain; Jin Wen Chinese symbol for mountain; xiao zhuan Chinese symbol for mountain; kai shu
bird Chinese symbol for bird; Jia gu wen Chinese symbol for bird; Jin wen Chinese symbol for bird; xiao zhuan. Chinese symbol for brid; kai shu
fish chinese symbol for fish; jia gu wen Chinese symbol for fish; Jin wen chinese symbol for fish; xiao zhuan chinese symbol for fish; kai shu

The above from: http://www.foreigners-in-china.com/chinese-symbol-history.html

Since arriving in China at the beginning of September, 2013, I have been told by many people that in order to really learn Chinese, to truly understand it, one needs to learn Hanzi. This has not been my goal as I study the language in Kunming, Yunnan Province. My only intention has been to try to better understand China and its people by learning a little of the language and by simply living (and travelling) here for eight months. I have, however, found that learning words via flashcards that incorporate both pinyin and Hanzi has really sparked my interest in the meaning and origin of words through Hanzi.

Writing in China has evolved over 3000 years (some even say over 4000 years). Hanzi is the Chinese word for “Chinese character.” These characters are symbols that convey the meaning of a word. According to Hanzim.com, “[t]he earliest uncontroversial [pictographic] examples are the so-called ‘oracle bone inscriptions’ of the Shang Dynasty period (most of the 2nd millenium B.C.E.).”  Many of these early characters are similar to those used today.

Although Hanzi have evolved for centuries, it was during and after the Communist Revolution that Chinese script underwent a process of development into a standardized and more simplified script. In fact, it seems that Chairman Mao wanted to replace Hanzi with pinyin (a system of Romanized spelling for transliterating Chinese). I am thankful for pinyin since it has made my studying somewhat easier.

Radicals (pianpang bushou) are another important element of Hanzi. They are symbols and sometimes also stroke/symbol components meant to help people understand and distinguish the characters and put them into context. These radicals recur in Chinese Hanzi and may be combined to make up different characters. Some stand alone although most characters include radicals. Therefore, to understand the meaning of Hanzi, one needs to be able to identify the radicals. There are 214 of them. As an example, the mù radical “木” means: wood; tree; or wooden. So, if you combine three of these radicals together like this: 森 then you have the word sēn (forest). 木马 (mù​mǎ) is a wooden horse / rocking horse, and, 木工 (mù​gōng) means carpenter / woodworker.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, learning Chinese is unbelievably difficult; it is slow, frustrating, and seemingly impossible to get past the VERY basic stage. At this point, for me, it still feels tantamount to climbing Mount Everest! To think that I have already completed 2/3 of my studies and can barely speak or understand a thing. And yet I have been told I am doing very well!

Like elsewhere in the world, people in different regions of China speak differently. There are many dialects here: Mandarin, Cantonese, “Kunmingese” (perhaps not a real dialect), Naxi, and many, many more. Despite the fact that certain characters may be pronounced differently, the written language and meaning is the same. Below are links to diagrams of interest that demonstrate how Hanzi has evolved. I have also included just a few examples of Hanzi / Chinese words (in no particular order). I find that Hanzi logically illustrates the meaning of words. Some are so brilliantly visual in how they are put together; they produce a definition or phrase far more evocative than any I’ve seen in the English language:

  • AIRPLANE: 飞机 – fēi​jī (fēi =fly / jī = machine) Notice that “jī” includes the radical mu -木. At one time many machines were made of wood.
  • MAP: 地图 – dì​tú  (dì = earth; land; soil; ground / tú = diagram; chart, map, picture) ;
  • BAD LUCK: 倒霉 – dǎo​méi (dǎo​ = to place upside down; fall over / méi = mildew; mould; bacteria; fungi)
  • LIPSTICK: 口红 – kǒuhóng (kǒu = mouth; hóng = red)
  • IMMEDIATELY (straight away): 马上 – mǎ​shàng (mǎ​ = horse / shàng = on top; above) This word refers to the days when someone needed to get somewhere quickly and hopped on his/her horse.
  • NON-SWIMMER: 旱鸭子 – hàn​yā​zi (hàn​ = dry / yā​ = duck)
  • APPLAUD (clap): 鼓掌 – gǔ​zhǎng (gǔ​ = to drum; beat / zhǎng = palm of the hand)
  • ABOUT (approximately): 左右 – zuǒ​yòu (zuǒ​ – left / yòu = right)
  • AVOCADO: 牛油果 – niú​yóu​guǒ (niú​ = ox; cow / yóu = oil; fat; grease / guǒ = fruit; result)
  • JEALOUS: 吃醋 – chī​cù (chī = eat / cù = vinegar; jealousy)
  • SO CLOSE YET SO FAR: 咫尺天涯 – zhǐchǐtiānyá (zhǐ = an ancient measure unit of length / chǐ = ruler; measure of length / tiān = sky; heavens / yá = border; horizon)
  • SO SO (average; just passable): mǎ​mǎ​​hū​hū  – 马马虎虎 (mǎ​ = horse / hū = tiger) Here is a story behind the origin of this word: Long ago there was a painter who had two sons. One day the older son walked by and saw his father’s work which was near completion. He asked his father “What is that?” The father replied, “A horse.” The son said it looked more like a tiger to him than a horse and walked away. Later that day, the younger son happened upon the painting and asked his dad, “What is that a painting of?” The father answered, “It is a tiger,” to which this son said, “Oh! It looks like a horse to me.” The father decided he may, in fact, not be that good at the art of painting. Clearly he was mamahuhu.

And then of course you could by mistake say, “Wǒ xǐhuān páiduì” (“I like to stand in line”) rather than, “Wǒ xǐhuān pài​duì” (“I like to party”). But that is another story…

http://www.hanzim.com/hanzi.php/
http://www.foreigners-in-china.com/chinese-symbol-history.html