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 I do not know to what extent their information is out-of-date.**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.)

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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!

WWW.Wednesdays: What are you reading?

The blog “Should Be Reading” started a series called http://www.Wednesdays.

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To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next

Here are my answers for May 21, 2014.

What are you currently reading?

Two books, both on China.

  • One is nonfiction, a reportial  on China by husband-wife journalist team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn  called China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power. I am almost half-way through. I know so little about China that I cannot comment on how accurate it is.  It is already 20 years old, so I would suspect it is at least somewhat outdated.   However, it is highly readable, engaging, and informative–especially for a reader (like me) whose knowledge of contemporary China is hazy at best.  Some of the reviewers said they focused too much on the sensational rather than the ordinary.  That may be true, but perhaps that is to be expected from journalists.  In any case, I love it so far and would recommend it to others interested in China.
  • A mystery novel set in China called Flower Net by Lisa See.  Lisa See is Chinese-American (as is Sheryl Wudunn, by the way).  This is the first of her “Red Princess” novels which feature American attorney David Stark and Chinese detective Liu Hulan.  I have a soft spot for mystery novels set in foreign countries, so I am really enjoying it.   See is obviously writing for people who know little about China.  She often inserts comments into the narrative like “Chinese people are quite reticent so….”    On the one hand, this seems intrusive, but on the other hand, I find cultural insights informative.    There is actually quite a bit of overlap of themes between China Wakes and Flower Net.

 

What did you recently finish reading?

Her by Christa Parravani.  I did a post on this book last week.

What do you think you’ll read next?

Not sure.  I have so many books piled up, begging me to read them!  But maybe this one:

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. I heard an interview with him on NPR. He tries to answer the question of why some children succeed while others fail. He believes much of it has to do with character rather than with IQ or other cognitive traits.

What about you?  What have you read recently?