Language Log has created a map of what languages are considered by other languages to represent “incomprehensibility”, as in “it’s Greek to me.” Predominantly referring to European languages, Chinese is hands down the big winner. I’d point out, though, that Chinese not only refers to it as “Heavenly Script” for the written word, but as “bird speak” for the spoken word.
UPDATE: Turns out that it was a Twitter impersonator. My optimism was misplaced.
The Dalai Lama (or his office, at any rate) has opened a Twitter account @OHHDL. Last March, I argued that according to his own stated beliefs the Dalai Lama and his supporters ought to be using technology like Twitter and Fanfou to engage Chinese Internet users. Now three more steps:
2) Tweet in Chinese
3) Get a funkier Twitter avatar. Baby pictures can be good:
Photo of the Dalai Lama when he was 3, courtesy of The Tibet Album: British Photography in Central Tibet 1920-1950
From the New York Times, February 8, 1912:
Colombia, Mo., Feb. 7, – Hin Wong, who is said to be the first Chinese to receive a degree in journalism, finished his work at the University of Missouri this week and left for New York, where he will remain with his father, a tea merchant, for a short time before going to China. Wong says he will do his part in the formation of a new republic, although he will not accept a government position, which has already been offered to him. He expects to help the unfortunate classes among his people by giving publicity to their condition.
Wong has been engaged as correspondent by a New York newspaper, and will write articles for Chinese papers. He will devote all of his time to acquainting his own people with the actual conditions among the poor of China and their reasons for discontent.
“It is a field of work that has never been attempted in China,” said Wong. “It was my main reason for coming to America to study journalism.”
Less than three months later:
Hin Wong, a Chinese student of Columbia and a trained journalist, left for China yesterday after receiving a call from Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, former Provisional President of China, to join him in achieving the social regeneration of South China. Wong is a graduate of the School of Journalism of the University of Missouri, and has been studying at Columbia for the Consular Service. Wong will be one of several young Chinese educated abroad to assist Dr. Sun in the industrial development of South China.
On April 4 Dr. Sun in a interview at Shanghai said that he had finished the political revolution and was to “commence the greatest social revolution in the world’s history,”adding that in his work he will rely mainly, as in the political revolution, “on our trained young blood.” Then he sent messages to Europe and America for his assistants to return and meet him in Canton as soon as possible.
Mr. Wong was educated in Hawaii, where his father was a Presbyterian minister and a publisher. It was in his fathers printing office that he grew to love newspaper work. In 1907 at his fathers behest he went to the St. Louis Bible College to study for the ministry. There he supported himself by reporting for the newspapers, which rekindled his longing to be a newspaper man. The next year he gave up the ministry and matriculated in the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.
In 1910 Mr. Wong came to Columbia and took courses in diplomacy and consular service. While here he helped organize the Chinese Presbyterian Church, and although 25 years of age, became its elder. Then he formed the squad of Chinese Boy Scouts, founded a school to teach the coolies of Chinatown, became news editor of the Chinese Monthly, and President of the Chinese Students Club.
One of the tasks Mr. Wong carried out was in bringing about peace between the fighting tongs in 1911, and a no less conspicuous success was the management of a fair for famine relief, when thousands upon thousands of tourists visited Chinatown and poured money into the Chinese Red Cross fund. Mr. Wong’s last interest in New York was the agitation among the Chinese merchants to have the old Joss House torn down and replaced with a fully-equipped YMCA Building. His sudden departure for China necessarily leaves this work in other hands.
In Canton, his native home, Mr. Wong expects to relieve the poor by the most scientific means known. After a thorough investigation of the social conditions in a tour which he will make with Dr. Sun and his colleagues, a socialistic scheme is to be tried. Several factories are planned in which capitalists and laborers will share equally in the profit. Then large public works are to be undertaken to give the unemployed work for several years unti they have learned different trades.
Before Mr. Wong left for the West, he said: “We have our political freedom; it remains now to secure our economic independence. It was the realization of the utter impossibility of alleviating the awful conditions of the poor that drove Dr. Sun, twenty-five years ago, to strike at the sole obstacle – Manchu corruption and incompetency.
Hin Wong would go on to help famed China Hand Carl Crow, as well as John B. Powell, whose son John W. Powell would continue to publish the China Weekly Review (and was even tried for sedition by the U.S. for printing Chinese allegations of germ warfare in 1952), which employed Edgar Snow and Arthur Ransome among others.
Hin Wong would later appear at the Press Congress of the World in 1921, according to Timothy Weston’s paper “Newspapers, Journalism and China’s Entry Into the World in the Era of the First World War”:
As Hin Wong, editor of the Star of Canton, stated: “Much injustice has been done to China because of ignorance of Chinese conditions on the part of foreigners… Much misconception regarding things Chinese exists, and it is high time that definite steps should be taken by Chinese and others interested to bring to the attention of the world the existence of a great people with incalculable natural resources capable of bringing peace, prosperity, and happiness to mankind if properly developed and appreciated or curse and war to the world if misunderstood and mistreated.” Hin Wong and his colleagues desperately wanted China to take, and to be permitted to take, its rightful place among the world’s leading nations. They understood that they had a sympathetic audience at the Press Congress and hoped the journalists assembled there would convey what they had to say to their home countries.
By speaking out in this way the Chinese participants were both appealing to the publics in the world’s leading nations and warning them that Chinese public opinion was growing more nationalistic in a way that portended future conflict if foreigners could not learn to treat China more fairly.
Wow. That sounds familiar.
(H/t to Granite Studio for reminding me I used to do this)
Photo from the Sidney Gamble Collection at Duke.
I’ve assembled a new page of various online resources for Chinese Historical Image Collections, ranging from photographs of events and objects to posters to political cartoons. If there are any sites I’ve missed, drop a comment and I’ll add it to the list.
James Fallows wishes he was in China right now to “see first-hand” how people in China are reacting to reports that dam construction may have led to the Sichuan earthquake last year. Here’s a rough translation of the only media report I’ve seen so far addressing the issue:
Foreign Media Stir Up Trouble, Speculate “Sichuan Earthquake was Man-Made”
In the past few days, western media has been spreading the following kind of statement – “Large Dam is the Cause of Last Year’s Sichuan Earthquake”, followed by the rumor that the earthquake in turn induced the current northern drought. Experts believe Western media’s linking of natural and man-made disasters is unscientific and irresponsible.
On January 3rd the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph published a story filed by Shanghai correspondent Malcolm [Moore, only first name published] quoting a “Chinese scientist” saying “Construction and filling of the Zipingpu reservoir in Sichuan altered pressure on fault lines, most likely causing the earthquake.” According to the report, Columbia University professor [Christian] Klose holds the same opinion. This quickly became a hot news item in the Western media. The Associated Press and other media all trumpeted the man-made aspect in their headlines, and a few included photographs of the earthquake’s aftermath to give it additional visual impact.
Gao Jianguo, Vice Secretary General of the China Association for Disaster Prevention said the Zipingpu reservoir couldn’t have brought about so large an earthquake, as a reservoir has never created an earthquake registering over 7.0 in modern history. Experts believe that in covering China’s natural disasters, Western media should use a more objective and scientific approach.
In addition, in regards to Western statements that “China’s current drought was brought on by the earthquake”, the National Climate Center’s director of forecasting Zhang Peiqun says the present drought and the Wenchuan earthquake have no direct connection. “This years major drought is the result of slow changes since last October, primarily the persistent lack of rain. These two events are separated by 5 to 6 months, it is extremely difficult to link them together.” Gao Jianguo says that in disaster research there is a theory of “disaster chains”. One type is a “drought-earthquake chain”. Before an earthquake, underground heat rises up. Up to three years before an earthquake there will normally be a drought. A “flash flood chain” follows the earthquake, as hundreds of kilometers of faultlines can emerge and subterranean water can surface, leading to an increase in rainfall. To say the earthquake was the cause is to obviously reverse the sequence by mistake.
I don’t know anything about geology or climate science, but saying that a reservoir has never caused an earthquake over 7.0 sounds like weak sauce. Doesn’t that mean Gao Jianguo is agreeing that it might have, just as the Western media is saying?
“The present situation of maintaining national security and social stability is grave,” Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu warned China’s leaders this month, according to state media.
The quote followed a list of dissenting behavior that all occurred in January 2009 – Charter 08, the CCTV boycott letter and Yan Yiming’s attempt to bring sunshine to the government budget and stimulus plan, and following it are details on the charter. The average reader would naturally assume that Minister Meng was referring to these events.
But he wasn’t. The full quote was:
孟建柱强调，当前维护社会稳定工作面临一系列新情况、新问题 ，要密切关注国际金融危机对社会稳定带来的影响和冲击，密切关注敌情社情的新变化，充分认识形势的严峻性和复杂性，狠 抓好各项工作措施落实，努力维护国家安全和社会稳定。
Meng was referring to the financial crisis and told the audience to understand the “grave” and complex nature of its effects. This could be an oblique reference to Charter 08 and its brethren, but its really a pastiche of party cliches. As far back as 2004 Meng was telling his audience to “actively tackle new grave challenges to national security and social stability” and “consolidate the Party’s political power”. The Washington Post article ignores this context completely, giving the impression that Meng is responding to intellectuals. In fact, he’s been on a tour of cities for the past couple of months stressing that police need to focus on small cases – he’s talking about community policing of rural unrest, not academic dissent.
Other English-language articles are taking quotes from the Chinese press out of context. One Reuters article titled “China calls for “absolute obedience” from military” and begins with a quote from state media:
China, wary of growing unrest and facing “multiple security threats”, called for unity in its armed forces on Sunday and absolute obedience to the Communist Party.
All military forces should ensure that they “uncompromisingly obey the Party and Central Military Commission’s command at any time and under any circumstances”, the commission said in a statement issued on Sunday and reported by Xinhua news agency.
Reuters puts this in the context of the plethora of political anniversaries coming this year, as well as unemployed graduates and migrants being a potential threat to stability. But these quotes are stock language as well. The original quote in Chinese regarding “obedience”, “确保部队在任何时候任何情况下都坚决听从党中央、中央军委指挥”, appears as early as 2004 (with insignificant differences) in a Baidu News search. And the phrase about the military facing numerous security threats (“我军应对多种安全威胁”) has been used nearly everyday for years. These quotes belong under an Onion-esque headline: Chinese Military Redeploys Stale Rhetoric. They are even less in response to contemporary developments than Meng’s, and there is no mention or suggestion that the military would be used to deal with “social stability” problems, as the New York Times repeated. The term used was 部队安全稳定, or “security and stability of the armed forces“, which generally refers to things like safety training and perhaps also political ideology classes for soldiers. In other words, standard practices.
Adam Minter mentioned the other day that the New York Times published a story on the possibility that there is now a net outflow of cash from the PRC (it is not certain if this is true), and compares it to a Caijing story saying:
To be fair, the Caijing article offers little more statistical evidence than the NYT piece, but – unlike the NYT piece – it doesn’t bury its uncertainty in unconnected anecdotes.
These other articles suffer from a similar problem, stringing together a series of anecdotes that may be connected but don’t actually show it.
As China Geeks points out, many articles (Reuters again, in this case) argue the Party is taking the economic downturn seriously because it wants to avoid another Tiananmen. Western media has a tendency to look at China, particularly in rough times like those now and ahead, through Tiananmen-colored glasses. Though nothing in the military commission report suggests they had disgruntled students on their mind, this article succumbed to the temptation to put them together. These are newsworthy topics, but the article gives false evidence they are intertwined. This is not to say that the Chinese government isn’t concerned about Charter 08 or social unrest, but that these are not examples of its concern. These are examples of jargon.
Once upon a time one of the vital tools of journalists in China was “reading the tea leaves” – reading between the lines of editorials to gather hints about internal power struggles in the government. Some scholars still do it. Perhaps in some cases, like the articles above, this has degenerated into reading things into articles in Chinese state media.
Image by Zach_ManchesterUK @ Flickr.