Category Archives: Education

Chinese Sex Ed: A Plea for Sanity

sex-ed-bookBrowsing ChinaHush today, I came across this post about Beijing’s new sex ed textbooks for students from primary school through high school called “The Steps of Growing Up”. Apparently, it’s being condemned as pornography. This article (Chinese) quotes several parents complaining about the book, two pages of which are pictured at right.

The article also contains some concerning statistics that aren’t in ChinaHush’s post. For example:

“The [Beijing Youth Sex Education International] Forum published a report that revealed many [Chinese] elementary school students don’t know how to properly protect themselves [against potential sexual abuse], and could not correctly answer which parts of the body should be private. Of the 435 fourth and fifth grade students surveyed, only 24 of them (5.39%) correctly identified all the private body parts (breasts, sex organs, buttocks). Among those surveyed, 73 (16.37%) were unable to identify any of the private areas.

The researchers believe that since 4th and 5th graders are around the age of ten and about to enter puberty but still can’t even correctly identify the private parts of their body, if they encounter sexual abuse they may not be able to correctly recognize it as abuse and protect themselves.

The survey showed ((The methodology for this is not immediately clear in the news article I’m translating, but I thought it was worth including anyway)) that if they encountered sexual abuse, 81.23% of students had a measurable ability to protect themselves; they could resist or stop the abuser and their knowledge of how to protect themselves was strong. 14.13% of students didn’t know what to do, and treated the sexual abuse as a secret, and when they met with their abuser they would obey out of fear or because they didn’t understand the danger. Additionally 3.89% of students said they felt sexual abuse was “whatever” [无所谓].

Clearly, there’s a need for better sex education. Or so you’d think. But Peking University professor Kong Qingdong doesn’t think so, and he’s on TV talking about it. ChinaHush translated part of his interview, but here’s the whole thing:

Host: So we can see from this that [some] parents have a concern about the textbooks.

Kong Qingdong: We haven’t seen the pictures or the textbooks ourselves, but I believe this father is being responsible, because when something affects their own children, people don’t just talk nonsense. In our educational circles, in the departments where we create teaching materials, there is a slowly spreading wave of foreigner-worship, thinking that whatever foreign countries do, China must also immediately do. They don’t consider [the difference between] China and foreign national situations [国情], nor do they consider whether foreign countries doing that is good or bad, whether it’s effective or not. For example, many experts say that with sex ed, the earlier the better, and that we should not conceal the truth from children, this is what our democracy must do, instill them with this knowledge early on. But they haven’t thought that now our sex ed starts way earlier than before; if everyone really understands sex well, does that reduce sex crimes? I think it doesn’t.

In ancient times, as we understand it now, they didn’t have any sex ed, and adults did not talk about sex with their kids. But this didn’t delay anything, when people grew up they learned about sex by themselves. Look, who gets married but doesn’t know how to have kids? Who gets married but doesn’t have a sex life, I’ve never heard of that happening [Guess he never read this story! -Ed.]. We don’t need education, some things you can learn on your own. For example, eating or going to the bathroom; these aren’t things that anyone taught us to do. They’re a basic life skill. And there are lots of channels of informal education […] Nowadays, we need to target all of our education, and put into practice proper sex education, I can agree with that. But sex education can’t be so avant-garde, we need to think about [what people can do] at different ages. As far as sex goes, it’s better to keep it mysterious. If we take all the mystery out of everything, life becomes boring. As I understand it, the most open sex ed in the world is in Japan, Japanese kids begin to grasp the particulars of sex at a very young age, and what’s the result?

Host: One of their “industries” is very developed.

Kong Qingdong: I’ll tell you, it’s not that their [porn] industry is very developed, the result is that 10-20% of Japanese youths are impotent, without any sexual desires, they’re not even curious about this thing [sex]. Most Japanese men, when they see a woman, they don’t have a sexual feeling, so they have to do something perverted [to get that feeling]. We often call Japan perverted, but Japan isn’t naturally perverted, everyone is the same. How could they be naturally perverted, that’s not what it is, [the problem] is that their sex ed starts too early. So when they see regular sexual activity they’re just not interested, it’s like looking at carrots or cabbage for them. So instead they have to find a handicapped old woman and have sex with her, and only then is it exciting. This disgraces the Japanese people, is it not related to Japan? So I think this father’s concerns are logical, and we don’t need to be so foreigner-worshipping.

Now, leaving aside for a moment the pile of completely unsupported assertions Kong makes here, which start out fairly illogical and end up straight-up racist, lets take a look at this ‘revolutionary’ textbook he’s suggesting is going to turn the Chinese people into a bunch of perverts.

According to this article, the text is split into three levels, one for each level of schooling (i.e., one for elementary school students, one for middle school students, and one for high school students). Here’s a breakdown of the contents by level via chapter titles quoted in the article.

Level 1 – Elementary School

  • “My Body”
  • “Where Did I Come From?” (Link goes to a photo of the pages in this chapter)
  • “Cute Boys and Girls”
  • “Can You Protect Yourself?”

Level 2 – Middle School

  • “Body Changes During Puberty”
  • “Beautiful Young Women”
  • “Strong Young Men”
  • “Learning Skills for Communicating with Dad and Mom”

Level 3 – High School

  • “Accepting Myself”
  • “Interacting With Classmates”
  • “Preventing AIDS”
  • “Being a Healthy Internet User”

Of course, those are just the chapter titles, but from the pages that have leaked online, this textbook looks about as harmless as you would expect. It’s pretty typical; there are illustrations of various body parts, short explanations of how conception works, etc. Not really anything exciting to write home about it. And from the study I translated earlier in the post, it’s clear that Chinese kids desperately need at least a little sex education to ensure that they’re capable of protecting themselves. If you ask kids about sexual abuse and any of them respond “whatever,” you know you have a serious problem.

And yet people like Kong are allowed, nay, invited on television to condemn sex education (and of course, blame foreigners, especially Japanese people, for all manner of “perversions” ((Because everyone knows that old and/or handicapped people who have sex are gross….)) ). It’s truly stupefying. And yet Kong isn’t alone; clearly there are many parents who agree with Kong, more or less.

I don’t have the energy (or, I think, the need) to point out every way in which Kong’s argument is misinformed, flawed, misleading, and racist. Twenty percent of Japanese teens are impotent? Is there even a shred of evidence that’s true? But I do want to address one point here because, in a sort of indirect way, it ties into the rumors we’ve seen flying on Weibo recently.

Increasingly, I feel that people’s behavior with regards to information can be understood at a basic level in the simplest economic terms ((Note that I am not an economist, and economists probably wouldn’t endorse this metaphor.)): supply and demand. Specifically, when there is demand for information, people will always find someone willing to supply it. In the case of the 7.23 train crash, for example, there was a huge demand for information but the government and the media initially supplied precious little. This left a sort of vacuum which was ultimately filled by rumors and hearsay; in the absence of official information many people chose to satisfy their demand with the only information that was being supplied to the public at the time: rumors.

Similarly, children are naturally curious about sex. Yes, even in Japan, I’m quite sure. And without access to any official supply of information, well, they’re going to turn to “unofficial suppliers.” As Kong points out, it is quite rare that people don’t figure out sex on their own sooner or later. The problem is that if you leave children to work it out for themselves, aside from the basic safety and health issues that raises, you can’t be sure what information they’re using and whether or not the perception of sex they ultimately form is healthy.

Note that when I say “healthy” I don’t necessarily mean heterosexual, monogamous, or kink-free. As far as I’m concerned, as long as everyone involved is an informed, consenting adult, there is no such thing as “perverted” (as opposed to regular) sex.

Now, in the absence of sex ed, most children will probably do fine. You have only to look at China today to see that. Sure, they may have had some embarrassing moments of ignorance along the way, but they may make it to the “finish line” with no damage done, as people have indeed done for thousands of years before the advent of laminated pamphlets and the banana-condom demonstration.

So why bother with sex ed at all? Becuase it allows a society some degree of control over where and how children get their information about sex, and whether or not that information is accurate. Left to their own devices, many teens turn to pornography to learn about sex. There’s nothing wrong with pornography as a concept when it’s being viewed by properly-informed adults, but I think most people would agree that plenty of porn provides a rather unrealistic depiction of sex, and that watching porn is not a good way for children to learn about sex.

Similarly, not being open about sex and safety can have devastating consequences in some cases, even if the majority of children can “learn on their own” and emerge unscathed. As evidenced in the study cited above, if children aren’t properly taught about sex, they may not be able to recognize forms of sexual abuse. In fact, in the absence of other, accurate information about sex, they may learn from their own experience that “abuse is normal,” which prevents them from getting the help they need and may lead to even graver problems down the line.

“Learning from experience” is great. But no one wants to learn about STDs from experience. No one wants to learn about the efficacy of condoms in preventing unplanned pregnancy from experience. And certainly, no one wants to learn about how not to prevent sexual abuse from experience.

So please, let’s all calm down a bit. Give kids the information they need to be safe. And while we’re making changes, let’s also try not to let crazy people like Kong Qingdong spout a bunch of racist nonsense on the TV, K?

Chinese Overseas Students, Then and Now

The first Chinese overseas student is Rong Hong, who went to the US to study in 1847, first at Monson Academy, then at Yale. Since then, more Chinese gradually studied abroad, with the first surge appearing at the turn of the 20th century. Back then, China was in a difficult transition period from the late Qing Dynasty to the republican period, marked by foreign humiliation and domestic suffering. But it was also an age of awakening. Hundreds and thousands of Chinese students went to advanced countries like Great Britain, Germany, France, America and Japan to study all sorts of matters. They brought back visions of modernity, which included not only Western technical knowledge, but also society, politics, laws and culture, bestowing great hopes on the modernization of China. They acted like a bridge which connected China to the outside world, and made important contributions in arousing Chinese people’s wake to overthrow the corrupt Qing Dynasty, establish a republic, abolish obsolete traditions, and modernize and strengthen China.

Today, it is fashionable to talk of China as the next superpower. With the shift of power from the West to the East, the special position of Chinese overseas students has also eroded. Perhaps they are no longer needed as saviours of China. They might even need to rely on China’s glories. But beyond China’s economic rise lies authoritarian politics, rampant corruption and mounting social problems. However, the current generation of Chinese overseas students see little interests in making things better. In a few recent articles, Beijing writer and FT Chinese columnist Xu Zhiyuan, and prominent Hong Kong writer Tao Kit, have portrayed them as a confined community, predominately interested in enhancing their personal careers while showing little interests in Western ideas and cultures. In other words, they fail to act as agents of change in China, quite unlike their predecessors.

A confined community

Drawing on his exchange experience at Cambridge University during 2009-2010, Xu Zhiyuan described in FT Chinese how Chinese students in Cambridge live in their own confined world, showing little interests in things around them:

The largest overseas student community in Cambridge is Chinese. Counting in the sixth formers and visiting scholars, it includes nearly 1,500 people. They are numerous and everywhere, but are invisible in Cambridge’s public life. In Varsity, the largest student-run paper in Cambridge, I seldom see their news. I am not familiar with the overly-rich student activity scene, but I rarely see a Chinese face, whether in the theatre showing the tragic life of Alan Turing, in bookshops, or in the cinema screening the great famine of Ukraine. It is also apparent that Chinese students here are not interested in making their voices heard, even when the world media is hotly debating about China.

These Chinese youth live in a new kind of confined life. New technologies and open information have liberated but also destroyed them. Armed with Skype, emails, MSN, Facebook and Youtube, they live a tribal life. Even though they are in Cambridge, they will not miss any popular TV series in China, or the latest film If You Are The One. For them, Britain is just a temporary background. They neither have the ability nor the interests to express their views on Britain or the world. Meanwhile, the rise of China affects them in another way. They no longer view themselves as a progressive force which will improve China. Conversely, they strive to integrate themselves into the current Chinese order. The internal logic of the rise of China has also forced its way into their lives. Three decades of successful commercialism and consumerism is accompanied by political stagnation and incompetence, and a noisy and coarse culture.

Narrow visions

In addition to a lack of interests in the world outside, Tao Kit also pointed out in Hong Kong’s Next Magazine the narrow visions of Chinese overseas students, who are only interested in pragmatic subjects like engineering, finance and commerce, rather than the arts and humanities:

The scope of subjects studied is narrower. Late Qing scholar Shen Jiaben studied law in Britain. He returned to China and tried to reform the legal system based on the British model. At least, he abolished many inhumane corporal punishments. Zhu Guangqian of the republican era went all the way to Edinburgh to study aesthetics, and became a great master after returning to China. While Jeme Tien Yow studied engineering in America, Sun Yat-sen read medicine in Britain, and Liang Ssu-ch’eng studied architecture in the US, at least, there were those who chose to study law and aesthetics in order to enlighten the minds of Chinese.

Today, business administration, finance and technologies are the hottest choices among Chinese overseas students. Who would choose to read Latin or arts history? […] A century ago, Chinese decided to study overseas so that they can contribute to the nation, akin to the spirit of Fukuzawa Yukichi [one of the founders of modern Japan]. Today, Chinese overseas students only care about finding a good job, while the Chinese Communist Party only believes in GDP. […] How can Westerners not view them merely as a group of consumers?

The US public believes that young Chinese students are particularly good at maths. This is a prejudice brought about by the bias in subject selections. Westerners only know that the Chinese are good at engineering and sciences, but not arts and humanities. This is just like how Hollywood views Chinese movies – it is Chinese kungfu rather than romance that is recognized. This is because Western audiences don’t believe that Chinese can be romantic.

Blurred identities

Overseas Chinese students are well placed to bridge the ideological divides between China and the West, and lead social progress in China. But, unlike their counterparts a century ago, they have failed to do so. In another article on FT Chinese, Xu Zhiyuan explained why, and set out the political implications:

When Hu Shih returned to China in 1917, he said to his friend who welcomed him in Shanghai, ‘now that we are back, everything will be different.’ He was referencing Erasmus Darwin’s famous sentence. This was the confidence of Chinese overseas student at its height. They acted as a bridge between Eastern and Western civilizations, shouldering the responsibility to introduce new ideas, technologies and organizations into the Chinese society. In one of his later articles, Hu Shih wrote, ‘we always carry with us new insights and a critical spirit. They could not be found in a race so indifferent and used to the existing order, but are absolutely essential for any reform movements.

Those ‘new insights’ and ‘critical spirit’ often enjoy bad luck. They are swamped by the inertia of Chinese people. Their ambitions, anxiety and constraints are exactly the characters of China itself. But no one can deny their importance. In between the enormous gaps between China and the West in terms of power, wealth and knowledge, they act like transmission belts. However, the tragedy lies here – they are just that. Facing external pressures and internal weaknesses, they never develop their self-determination and value. Their roles are functional – they can build railways, chemical factories or new buildings. But their influence is only limited to the surface of the Chinese society. They are too eager to be useful. They may be noble hearted, aspiring to save the motherland; they may also be calculating, seeking personal successes.

20th century China was just like the Soviet Union criticized by Andrei Sakharov: ‘our society must gradually find its way out from the dead end of non-spirituality. This non-spirituality is killing the possibility of development, not only spiritual, but also material.’

Generations after generations of Chinese overseas students rushed in to join the rank. They helped new China to acquire missiles and hydrogen and atomic bombs, and were recognized as national heroes. But how many of them have followed the line of Andrei Sakharov to question the meaning and value of these actions, and their relationship with the profound suffering of this race? The ability and knowledge they learned from the West turn out to be tools of oppression and illusion directed toward their fellow countrymen.

Fatal Car Accident Uncovers More University Plagiarism

Recently, the “My Dad is Li Gang” incident has been white hot on the Chinese internet. The short version: a drunk rich kid plowed an expensive car into two pedestrians on the campus of Hebei University and tried to drive away — twice — without even stopping to see how they were. One student was killed in the accident, and another seriously injured. When accosted by guards, the kid cried arrogantly, “Sue me if you dare, my Dad is Li Gang.” Li Gang is a high-level police official.

The scandal has drawn attention, again, to the privilege and wealth associated with government officialdom. Li Qiming, the son, has already been arrested — and done some public weeping on CCTV — but the anger and attention has brought to light several other issues. Li Gang, it turns out, owns five houses, and his son was driving a remarkably expensive car, and netizens are enraged at yet another example of official corruption and arrogance.

The Hebei University president, too, has been implicated in a scandal that would never have come to national attention if it weren’t for Li Qiming’s murderous drunk driving. Netizens have uncovered that he’s suspected of having plagiarized 27,000 characters of his thesis. The following is a translation from Wang Keqin’s blog, with occasional commentary interspersed from us.

As early as March of this year, a netizen called “Truth Seeker” posted on the website Xinyusi that large parts of the seventh chapter of Hebei University Party Secretary and President Wang Hongrui’s Ph.D thesis were identical to content from a Master’s thesis written by Yanshan University Electrical Engineering student Wu Jianzhen.

Apparently, at the time, no one was particularly interested, and the story was not picked up by major media outlets. But then…

Yesterday, a reporter from the Morning News borrowed the two thesis from the National Library. After carefully examining them, the reporter discovered that there was indeed a high degree of similarity between Wu Jianzhen’s third and fourth chapters and Wang Hongrui’s seventh chapter, and that many paragraphs were completely identical.

Additionally, the reporter also discovered that Wang Hongrui had been the assistant advisor for Wu Jianzhen’s Master’s thesis. Wu Jianzhen completed his thesis and defense in August of 2001; Wang Hongrui finished his thesis and became a Ph.D in October of 2002, so there’s a one year and two months’ difference between when the two graduated.

From later in the article:

Wang Hongrui’s Ph.D thesis is 123 pages in total, with Chapter 7 spanning pages 92-121 and subdivided into six sections. In total, it contains about 29,000 characters. Aside from a few headings and summaries at the end of sections (270 characters in section 7.1, 300 in section 7.2, 120 in section 7.6 and 1000 at the end of the chapter) that did not appear in Wu Jianzhen’s thesis, about 90% of the content (approximately 27,000 characters) is essentially the same as Wang Jianzhen’s chapters 3 and 4. Most paragraphs are exactly the same, and most of the changes that do exist are just added transition words like “because of this…”, “we know that…” etc.

Of course, this isn’t the first instance of university officials being guilty of plagiarism that China has ever seen. But perhaps it’s instructive to note that whenever a specific place comes under this kind of scrutiny, little corruption scandals seem to pop up everywhere. Right now, Li Gang’s family and Hebei University are feeling the heat. The anger in the air over the accident, the arrogance, and the corruption is quite palpable. Whether that anger will translate into any kind of justice remains to be seen.

More on the “My Dad is Li Gang” and plagiarism scandals on ESWN.

Foreigners Struggle to Combat Chinese Cheaters

Below is a translation of this article by Southern Weekend. The article outlines the lengths that some test takers are willing to go to for good marks, and what foreign testing institutions, like ETS, are doing to stop them.

Translation

The foreign testing institutions’ battle to combat Chinese students from cheating has been going on for years now.

In the quest to go abroad, cheaters have not hesitated to hire substitute test takers, also known as “sharpshooters”, to take tests such as the TOEFL and IELTS on their behalf. Some have even gone as far as to forge degrees, resumes, etc. Such tactics have forced foreign testing institutions to implement tedious measures and protocols. However, in spite of new measures, the “Substitute Test Taker” industry still thrives.

Students Preparing for Exam

Tongji University graduate student “Du Mou” is a sharpshooter who specializes in taking English-language tests [such as the IELTS and TOEFL]. Finding someone [like Du Mou] is as simple as running a Baidu search for “TOEFL test-taker”. Hundreds of websites on pages and pages of search-engine results belong to agencies waiting to serve.

Lin An, a student looking to take the TOEFL, hired Du Mou to take the test for him. They agreed upon a price of 20,000 RMB, which included Du Mou’s guarantee that he would produce four grade 7’s on the test. In addition to taking the test on Lin An’s behalf, Du Mou would handle all of the paperwork, including forging an identity card, which is his specialty.

IELTS requires that before test takers enter the examination site that they provide their identity card, test registration papers, and a color passport photo taken within the last six months. Exam proctors examine these credentials carefully before allowing students to take the test. Such protocol appears to be a safe approach, but Du Mou has a way around this. Using a computer, his photograph and Lin An’s, Du Mou produced a new picture which resembled both of them. This new picture was used to create the fake identify card.

Lin An expressed his worries to Du Mou about using fabricated credentials, but was reassured that the new identity card was a first generation card, and could not be detected by IELTS machines as fraudulent.

Finally, Du Mou chose to take the test in Wuhan, away from Lin An’s home province of Guangzhou. Du Mou said that the Wuhan testing site was “safer” than others. However, Lin An’s worst nightmare came true when Du Mou’s forged identity card was detected as a fake, and he was refused entry to the test site.

The failure of Lin An’s hired sharpshooter proves that IELTS and others have increased their vigilance regarding how they monitor test takers. Since the 90s when the craze to go abroad started to pick up, the battle of foreign testing institutions to combat cheating amongst Chinese students has not rested.

Originally, advertisements offering substitute test-taking services were just a psoriasis for foreign language testing institutions like TOEFL, IELTS and GRE. Now, specific details on pricing and registration procedure can easily be found on any site advertising such services. Such companies even make the services they offer sound valiant, as if you could find them in the Fortune 500: “Ten Years Of Business Producing Glorious Results”.

Example of Substitute Test Taking Website

Moreover, there is no shortage of independent sharpshooters, many of whom recruit and grow bigger by working offline. Du Mou recruits from his school, building up his stock of sharpshooters, enlisting the help of students from prestigious universities, or those serving as teachers at foreign language training schools.

Du Mou frequently visits the forums of schools such as Fudan and posts “wanted” ads in the classified section. Initially seeking students with a high English level interested in part-time translation work, Du Mou requires applicants to submit a photograph along with their resume. When he finds a client who resembles one of the recruits applying for “part-time translation work”, he persuades the recruit to become a sharpshooter.

Another aspect of the battle to combat cheating is that such fraudulent behavior taking place in China is “training” test invigilators, and making them more astute. “Originally, there were limits to how ETS imagined combating cheating, to the extent that they believed students using old tests to study from was cheating,” said a senior teacher at a foreign language training institute. ETS is the abbreviation for America’s Educational Testing Service, and is responsible for organizing GRE, TOEFL and IELTS exams across the globe. In late 2000, ETS sued a New Oriental testing site because one of its teachers, either through memorization or some other means, used ETS’ bank of old tests to create and publish a textbook.

For westerners, exams are for testing one’s ability [to apply their] knowledge and experience, and not for evaluating the polish of their test-taking technique. However, analysis of test questions is the cornerstone to every [Chinese] teacher’s class work [….]

“We’ve begun implementing new procedures and safety measures, which begin at registration and follow a student all the way through until they’ve complete the test,” said an ETS official. Such measures include plain-clothes personnel who attend exams and monitor test takers undercover. These personnel also collect and examine details and handwriting samples from individual students. ETS even takes a picture of each test taker and includes that picture alongside copies of the student’s transcripts whenever it sends transcripts to a business or other institution requesting said documentation [….]

On one internet post, a former sharpshooter outlined procedures administered by some test officials. For example, if the official notices that one’s identity card was recently issued, the official will ask for the identity card number and place of birth, and even call the prospective test-taker to see if his or her accent matches that of the registered birth place. If a test taker often visits the same site, it’s also possible that proctors will recognize him or her from a previous exam. Such details help examiners see through a sharpshooter’s game [….]

In July of 2001, the German embassy established a department to investigate those interested in traveling abroad to Germany. The department’s main responsibility includes examining the authenticity of go approach application documents. The processing fee for the initial application is 2,500 RMB, but includes the stipulation that should the documents initially submitted require further investigation, the applicant agrees to pay another fee as well as provide all diplomas, certificates and transcripts in the manner as Chen Baoya. Applicants may also need to attend a face-to-face interview.

Another Substitute Test Taking Website

Only mainland Chinese students are required to undergo such procedures.

Although some companies dealing in the go-abroad business have shared their trade secrets related to proctoring exams and combating cheating, they have refused to share statistics on what percent of Chinese students cheat. They have made it a point to proctor mainland Chinese test sites just as they would any other site, and hold them to the same international standards. However, the department of the British Consulate General affiliated with cultural education stated, “In view of the enormous scale of operations [that take place in China] and their complexity, we invest a great amount of resources in this area in order to ensure there is fairness in upholding our strict standards.”

The insincerity of some Chinese students has already become an issue for many. In 2000, ETS sent a letter to all American universities suggesting that they carefully examine all admission documents originating from the Chinese mainland relating to the GRE and TOEFL exams.

An ETS official told Southern Weekend reporters, “Chinese students are one of the world’s most gifted, hardworking and dedicated group of students. Just like most other countries, most Chinese students fairly and sincerely take part in exams [….]”

Lu Xun’s Great Withdrawal

There has been renewed interest in Lu Xun’s work, and the work of some other literary giants, in the wake of the announcement last week that some classic pieces were being removed from the curriculum taught in Chinese schools to make way for “new blood”. Lu Xun was not the only author hit but he certainly fared the worst in what some are calling “the great withdrawal of Lu Xun’s works.” Over twenty pieces he wrote are being cut, including “The True Story of Ah Q”, “Medicine”, and a large number of his more famous essays.

Needless to say, this has been a controversial decision. In the days following it, opinions have sprung up on both sides. Many are defending the value of Lu Xun, like this piece by Lin Mei:

“There’s no doubt that reading Lu Xun’s works can help middle school students by strengthening their own independent personalities, fostering their creative spirit, and raising their literary and artistic abilities. Even if they don’t comprehend everything right away, they can think back on their basic understanding later [to understand the works more fully]. Understanding classic works always requires a process. For middle school students to read Lu Xun, you don’t just need a carefully selected table of contents, you also need a teacher who can effectively lead the students into Lu Xun’s literary world.

[…]

Lu Xun can be considered a great traditional representative of Chinese culture, just like Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Qu Yuan, Sima Qian, Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Dongpo, Lu You, Zhu Xi, Li Zhi, Huang Zongxi, Cao Xueqin, Wu Jingzi, Liang Qichao, etc.; his works are a classic representation of 20th century Chinese culture.”

That argument is also adopted by some of the supporters of the “new blood” plan, who say that Lu Xun’s works are so mired in the twentieth century as to be entirely outdated. Diversification, they argue, is healthy:

Cultural diversification in textbooks isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having students introduced to more authors is a win-win, authors can get back into the classroom and have more people familiar with their works, students get more diverse reading and a more complete picture of the world.”

Others have pointed out that the “deleted works list” is somewhat misleading, given that different places have different course requirements. In the report just linked, for example, the reporter found that in Jiangsu, several of the so-called “deleted works” will remain part of the mandatory curriculum, others have just been moved to different levels, and some are no longer mandatory but may be assigned at the discretion of teachers and schools.

Of course, when it comes to Lu Xun, there’s no escaping politics. A commenter on this article, for example, wrote:

“Lu Xun and things like him are just tools the Party uses to beautify the ugly violence of government authority. From the fact that these brainwashed people are taking [Lu Xun’s work] as a treasure and praising it, we can see that the end of our slave society isn’t coming anytime soon.”

It’s an interesting discussion, because so much of literary interpretation is dependent on the context — political, ideological, cultural — that it’s being practiced in. The idea that Lu Xun’s work could be a “tool” for the Communist Party has always seemed ridiculous to me, a Westerner who was introduced to Lu Xun in a context where critical thinking and individual interpretation of literature was highly valued. For me, it’s difficult to read Lu Xun’s critiques of China as he saw it in the 20s and 30s and not see parallels with China today.

Officially, Lu Xun became a literary hero because he was one of the few critics of China’s “old society” who didn’t live long enough to become disillusioned with New China and the Communists (he died in 1936). His work is held up as an example of how terrible things were before the Party — and indeed, things were not by any stretch of the imagination good back then — but the deep cynicism that runs through Lu Xun’s work ought to make it a hard sell as propaganda. Moreover, he has very few nice things to say about the whitewashing of “official” history during Imperial rule. From my perspective, anyway, it’s very difficult to imagine that Lu Xun would be a big proponent of the current government or the context it has created for his work, were he alive today.

Of course, there are entire generations that grew up and venerated (or despised) him explicitly because of his connection to the Party, and studied his work in a context that was, for the most part, carefully arranged to reinforce the Party narrative. He is, to millions of Chinese, a symbol of the Party’s early days.

In any event, changing out Lu Xun for some new blood might not be such a bad thing, but any efforts at “diversity” will be undermined by the fact that anything selected still must fit within the Party narrative, historically and politically. Perhaps some of Lu Xun’s work is being removed precisely because it’s a bit more political than the government thinks middle school curricula ought to be. Or perhaps it’s an honest attempt at diversification. There is — as always — no real way to know for sure.

What do you think about pulling Lu Xun out of the curriculum?

Is “Character Amnesia” a Problem?

Via ESWN, I came across Victor Mair’s most recent Language Log post earlier this afternoon. It deals with what Mair calls “character amnesia”, the phenomenon of Chinese people forgetting how to write the characters for commonly spoken words by hand. This, Dr. Mair asserts, is “a big problem”.

Before going further, I should make it clear that I have nothing but respect for Dr. Mair’s scholarship. His translation of the Zhuangzi is one of my favorites, and as a star-struck undergraduate, I even met him he came and gave a guest lecture to a small seminar class I was taking on Daoism. I feel quite certain that he doesn’t remember me — why would he — but I was impressed by the incredible breadth and depth of his knowledge.

That said, I completely disagree with Mair’s take on “character amnesia”. Let’s go to the videotape:

Pessimists and alarmists have long been lamenting the negative impact of computers upon the ability of Chinese to write characters by hand. See, for example, Jennifer 8. Lee‘s article entitled “In China, Computer Use Erodes Traditional Handwriting, Stirring a Cultural Debate” in the Technology section of the New York Times for February 1, 2001.

If the situation was bad already a decade ago, it is far more grave now that short text messaging is so wildly popular. In “China worries about losing its character(s),” Los Angeles Times (July 12, 2010), Barbara Demick provides graphic evidence of the starkly diminishing powers of supposedly literate Chinese to produce many characters that are essential for daily usage.

Certainly, most students of Chinese have witnessed occasions when Chinese friends (or even teachers) had to pull out their phones to check a character or two before writing them down. But is this a huge problem? Skipping ahead a bit in Mair’s piece:

Demick’s article ends thus:

“It will take a lot of effort to preserve our Chinese characters. It is the same way they try to preserve these old hutongs,” said Zhu Linfei, 24, a Beijing graduate student, referring to the traditional Beijing alleys, now rapidly succumbing to the wrecking ball.

Zhu, who was touring the old bookstores of Liulichang with her classmates to buy calligraphy books, estimated that she had already forgotten about 20% of the characters she knew in high school.

“But it’s not such a big problem,” she said. “If I don’t know a character, I take out my cellphone to check.”

Zhu Linfei is mistaken. It is a big problem that she cannot write 20% of the characters she knew just 5 or 6 years earlier. By relying on her cellphone to check those characters she can’t recall, that percentage will increase with each passing year. Furthermore, every time Zhu Linfei has to stop to take out her cellphone crutch to remind her how to write a character, she is wasting time, and that in itself is a problem.

While Mair may be right that if she keeps using her phone, she’s likely to keep losing characters, it strikes me as a bit presumptuous of him to suggest that something she doesn’t think is a problem in her own life actually is one. His point seems to be twofold. First, her reliance on her phone will cause her to lose more characters as time passes; second, her reliance on her phone wastes time.

In response to the first point, he’s probably right, but only up to a point. Some characters are used frequently enough that it’s nearly impossible to forget them. No matter how often she uses her phone, Ms. Zhu is never going to forget “我” or “是” or “晚上”. Why? These, and a lot of other characters, are things she probably has cause to write by hand at least once or twice a week. “噴嚏” (sneeze, an example Mair borrows from an article by David Moser), on the other hand, is probably not something she has to write often by hand. When was the last time, after all, that you wrote “sneeze” by hand in English? Can you remember a time when you needed to do that?

I would suggest that all the characters a person need to be able to hand-write for frequent, practical use are not going to be lost to this process. While Ms. Zhu may continue to forget how to handwrite characters she learned in high school, the decline will not be constant. At some point, she will have forgotten how to hand-write everything save what she frequently uses when writing things by hand. When she has occasion to write a less common word by hand, she will look it up on her phone. Where is the problem here?

Mair’s second point is that using the phone to look up characters is a waste of time, and it certainly does take time. For each character Ms. Zhu forgets, it will probably take her between 2 and 15 seconds to check on her phone, depending on the model of phone she has and whether or not it’s in her pocket or purse when she realizes she needs it. How often does this happen? I have no scientific data, but given how infreuently one is even required by circumstances to write by hand these days, I suspect it happens at most once or twice a day, and more likely significantly less often than that.

But, coming back to an earlier part of Mair’s piece,

Because of their complexity and multiplicity, writing Chinese characters correctly is a highly neuromuscular task. One simply has to practice them hundreds and hundreds of times to master them. And, as with playing a musical instrument like a violin or a piano, one must practice writing them regularly or one’s control over them will simply evaporate.

That, it strikes me, requires an awful lot more of a time commitment than occasionally pulling out a phone to check a character you’ve forgotten. So why is that not a waste of time when checking on a phone, which takes way less time, apparently is?

Computers, cellphones, smartphones, and all other such electronic gadgets are wonderful tools for communication, but they all exacerbate the predicament of declining ability to write characters among the Chinese population, and they are hastening reliance on alphabetical access to literacy, instead of a direct approach through the 11 or so basic strokes, the 200 or so radicals, and the 850 or so phonetic components. Are these worrisome trends? Can anything be done to stanch the hemorrhaging of active character proficiency at the hands of cellphones and computers? Finally, is romanization inevitable? That is a question to which I shall return in a future post.

While I look forward to Mair’s future post, it seems pretty clear what his take on the subject is, even if he doesn’t want to come out and say it. “Hemorrhaging” is rarely a good thing. And Mair has already told us he thinks that forgetting characters and relying on computers is “a big problem”. He also compares the “character amnesia” to aphasia, a linguistic disability that is caused by brain damage. And one of his comments in the lengthy and worthwhile discussion on the site sheds even more light on his position:

One of my very best friends in China, Xu Wenkan, a senior editor of the Hanyu Da Cidian (China’s equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary) knows how to write Chinese texts on a computer or a cell phone, but he almost never does so. Instead, he writes everything out by hand. If he needs to submit a manuscript somewhere, he can always hire a WUBI drone who will do the typing cheaply and thoughtlessly. When he sends me messages, he always writes them out longhand (and a very beautiful, exacting hand it is) on a piece of paper. In the past he would fax the messages to me, but now he scans them as a pdf and attaches them to an e-mail that has just these words:

====

Please to read the attachment.
Wenkan

====

It was a conscious decision on Mr. Xu’s part NOT to type things with a computer so that he would retain his wonderful ability to write by hand. It is sort of like the samurai Giving up the Gun [: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879 — Noel Perrin’s great book] or Middle Easterners rejecting the wheel in favor of their tried and true ship of the desert, the camel (see Richard Bulliet’s seminal social history on that topic).

That Mr. Xu has opted to maintain his handwriting by forgoing modern technology (or hiring “drones” to do his typing) is perfectly fine. And I can imagine how nice it must be, especially for a linguist, to receive emails written by hand. But it seems rather romantic, and frankly also pretty absurd, to expect most Chinese people to “give up the wheel” like Middle Easterners did ((I also don’t think that’s a very apt analogy, but admittedly I haven’t read Bulliet’s book so I won’t argue the point.)). Surely Dr. Mair is aware that most Chinese people do not have the time or the money to “hire drones” whenever they are required to type something. And even if they did, it’s would be a colossal waste of time.

The idea that China is a country full of people who write beautiful, fluid literature in characters without a second thought is a romantic fantasy, and it’s unrealistic and unfair to expect Chinese people to dedicate massive amounts of time to maintaining an “educated”-level vocabulary of characters so well that they can be written by hand. Those like Mr. Xu who feel that approach serves them are certainly welcome to practice writing by hand often, and I applaud them, but given the social and financial pressures that exist for most people in China, not being able to write “sneeze” isn’t “a big problem.” In fact, given that nearly everyone has a cellphone, it really isn’t a problem at all.

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Guest Post: How Chinese Intellectuals Perceive the Tibet Issue

The following is a guest post and translation by Mindy Zhang. Obviously, as the original email was just private correspondence, the professor was just making some basic points, not writing something he expected to be published. Accordingly, we will not publish his name, the name of his university, and the original Chinese text will not be available for this article.

However, readers should be aware that the author of the email is a major figure in the study of International Relations in China.

Two years ago, when I was in D.C and saw some Tibet activists in person, I found myself utterly ignorant of the issue, and I wrote an email to a professor in my college. He replied in length. The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend from Britain, who was very curious about China’s Three-T issues and his question reminded me of this email. So, I decided to pluck it from my personal mailbox and translate it into English.

Translation

  1. Here is my opinion: what makes Tibet an issue is mainly that some Tibetans, backed by strong international factors, are seeking independence. There have been two major independence-seeking/Anti-Han movements, one happened during the Revolution of 1911, when the British attempted to negotiate with central government (ROC) as a representative of Tibet. The other occurred in 1949, also supported by the British, along with some Indian intervention. It failed and the DL, as a local delegate, signed the Seventeen Point Agreement with the central government (PRC). The 1959 riot was backed up by the CIA and India. Most of westerners’
    essential knowledge of Tibet is mainly from propaganda by Britain and U.S. One particular case in point is that the 1959 suppression was often distorted as an invasion (at least, some westerners I knew consider it as an act of invasion). The Seventeen Point Agreement, which had a clear regulation of Tibet’s autonomous status and its relations with central government, is barely mentioned in books published in western world.
  2. The management of Tibet since 1949 was based on autonomous system and the Seventeen Point Agreement until 1959. Some major changes then were made and the traditional theocracy was completely abolished. The cause of the 1959 uprising can be partially explained by land reforms and ownership reforms implemented in some Tibetan-inhabited areas outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. However, those reformed areas has nothing to do with the Tibet Autonomous Region, where the DL was in charge. That being said, the central government did not necessarily break the Seventeen Point Agreement. Some Tibetan separatists and Americans took advantage of this situation, but it doesn’t make any sense that some [regular] Tibetans did the same thing. (The ultra-Leftist trend during cultural revolution was also a contributing factor to their resentment)
  3. Personally speaking, the current situation is not fully an outcome of central
    government’s religious and ethnic Policy. There is indeed a substantial force in Tibet wishing for secession from China. There is no problem with central government’s policies after the reforms and opening up period; in fact, I personally feel like Tibetans have been quite favored, making some lamas feel they can act above the law. Insurgences like this happened before, in 1987 and 1989. The pattern is quite similar——demonstration, still unhappy, violence in use, suppression.
  4. The whole thing is for sure deliberately plotted and prepared. First, peaceful demonstration (March.10th), violence next (13rd), then there comes the Olympic torch relay. The perfect timing and media’s one-sided response are not a coincidence. I am not suggesting here that it was plotted by a specific government; the international community is increasingly complicated as
    globalization evolves. All the above is just my personal judgment, it would take time to verify.
  5. In regard to western media, they interpret theTibet issue based on their own perceptions, which is a problem that will take time to solve and might be insolvable. Don’t take their comments seriously and let them make noise. The more attention you pay, the more swelled their heads will be. Some Chinese care too much about their comments/evaluation, thus giving them a sense of superiority. Also, media itself is amplifier capable of making a simple word into big news. Those trouble-makers are not a big deal. The Beijing Olympics will work out regardless of all kinds of resistance. Hard-working Chinese athletes will get more golden medals if some western ones are absent [because their nations choose to boycott], and some reception fees, i.e. taxpayers’ money, will be saved if some of them choose not to attend the opening ceremony. The world is a big place; each of us is just utterly insignificant.
  6. Check out Prof. Zhang Zhirong’s International Relations and the Tibet issue (《国际关系与西藏问题》). Tibet is not my specialization and the latest research is not something I am aware of. I have been studying in the international sphere for years and my personal experience is westerners are unaware of many issues. Explain to them if you were in a good position, if not, just forget it. Young people will change as you grow up. The way of displaying patriotism varies from person to person, some are impulsive and some restrained. In all, try to make yourself high-minded. Your upbringing/character also matters, because sometimes you are being judged not just as an individual but as a Chinese.