Part 1 of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China: Common Expressions

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Lisa See

Lisa See

 

Chinese Lessons: Part I

I will be travelling to China later this summer. To prepare, I have stocked up on books about China. I am currently reading two of them:

  • China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a rising Power by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn
  • Flower Net by Lisa See, a detective novel set in the U.S. and China.

**Both of these books were published in the 1990s. I do not know to what extent their information is out-of-date.**

From both of these books, I am learning some key terms and sayings that shed some light on Chinese history and culture. Although one book is non-fiction and the other fiction, the two works reinforce each other with the terms and themes they introduce.

Overview        I have learned so far that I am a foreign devil who should be careful not to bang dakuan anybody, lest I get a reputation for being porcelain with scars. I can expect Chinese people to be polite and hospitable to me, but I should not expect to learn anything about them beyond superficial niceties. I haven’t a clue where my laojia is, which only reinforces my barbarian status. I have no guanxi in China, which is a nation of reinzhi, so I should be particularly careful to sweep the snow in front of my own doorstep and to not bother about the frost on my neighbor’s roof. I know that the roof beam that sticks out is the first to rot, so I won’t stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. Otherwise, the God of Thunder will smash my tofu hide into a pancake!

If that is not enough information for you, here is a brief guide to some common terms and sayings.

Glossary:

Every Chinese person is governed by a “triangle” instituted by the Communists::

  • the dangan, the secret personal file, which is kept by local police stations and work units. This file contains a record of political mistakes (such as criticizing the government) and errors in behavior (such as fornication). This information follows a person throughout their lifetime, keeping him from getting a job, being promoted or moving from province to province.
  • the danwei or work unit, which provides employment, housing, and medical care.
  • The hukou or residency permit, which essentially keeps people from moving away from the areas in which they were born.

When a Chinese person meets another Chinese person, he/she needs to know his laojia, his “ancestral home,” where his family came from—meaning the village of his ancestors. (Kristof and Wudun 38) For Americans, knowing one’s ancestral home is considered a mildly interesting, but essentially useless piece of information. For me, at least, a person’s laojia matters not a jot. In China, it is absolutely essential information.

Guanxi = relatives or friends in high places who could help/protect one. Having guanzi is essential for success. My sources tell me China is corrupt on a mind-boggling level, and without connections, one is doomed.

China is governed by Renzhi (rule by individuals), rather than Fazhi (rule of law). Sure, there are laws on the books, but they seem almost irrelevant. The rulers (from the top of the hierarchy all the way down) seem to do whatever they want.

On Foreigners:

  • Non-Chinese people are “foreign devils,” if not barbarians, and are all potentially dangerous.
  • Chinese people are instructed to not to say what they think around foreign devils. “Don’t show anger or irritation. Be humble and careful and gracious. . . Draw them in. Let them think they have a connection to you, that they owe you, that they should never cause you any embarrassment. This is how we have treated outsiders for centuries” (See 52).
  • Sheryl Wudunn, a Chinese-American journalist, was called jiayangguizi, afake foreign devil. (Apparently, her Chinese heritage prevents her from being a “real” foreign devil.)

Being porcelain with scars = being a loose woman.

Bang dakuan = to pick a person up (in the sexual sense.)

Quotations and Common Sayings

“Be sure to prevent any contact between the barbarians [non-Chinese people] and the population.” –Emperor Qianglong, October 11, 1793, ordering the authorities to keep foreign visitors from talking to Chinese (Indicating the long tradition of China keeping itself isolated from the outside world.)

“Those who use the past to criticize the present should be put to death, together with their relatives.” –Li Si, Chinese prime minister in the third century B.C. (58) (Perhaps a bit brutal?)

So much in China followed the principle leigong da doufu, the God of Thunder smashes the tofu.” In other words, the powerful crush the weak. (Kristoff and Wudun 5)

Seeing is easy, learning is hard. –Chinese proverb (taken from Insight Guides: China)

Government policy was neijin, waisong, meaning “tranquility on the surface and repression on the inside” (Kristoff and Wudun 24).

Lu fen dan, biaomian guang: it’s shiny on the outside, just like donkey droppings. (Said of false facades)

The Chinese imperial tradition recognized no place for individual rights. Everyone tried to blend in according to the social norms; otherwise the authorities would qiangda chutou naio, “shoot the bird that flies in front of the flocks.” (K and W 280)

The culture of silence derives in part from the traditional Chinese emphasis on keeping one’s head down. A popular saying reminds people that “the roof beam that sticks out is the first to rot” (K and W 254).

Sweep the snow in front of your own doorstep, and do not bother about the frost on your neighbor’s roof. (In other words, mind your own business.)

———————-

I am American rather than Chinese, so you, my dear readers, do not have to mind your own business.  If you are knowledgeable about China and you find this information wrong-headed, please let me know.  Feel free to enlighten me on other aspects of China you think I should know about!

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