The China-Elvis Connection

Posted: 14-02-11 in humor
Tags: ,

Too much has gone on since I last posted to keep up. Hutoon sent a most inharmonious New Year’s card to the world; a citizen watch on Sina microblog has reunited abducted children with their parents; Li Qiming, of “My father is Li Gang” fame, got six years for the hit-and-run death of a young woman; and Egyptian protesters carried Chinese signs in Cairo. Throw in the Chinamuser starting a new job, and there’s just been no way to keep up.

When I started taking Chinese in high school, I was motivated by the challenge alone. It was so vastly different from anything I had ever known, that I burned to make it familiar and my own. Ten years later, the whole world wants the same thing. But can anyone acheive it?

Remember the Daily Elvis, the guarantee that Elvis would somehow pop up on the radio, TV, or in conversation every day of your life? Well, welcome to the era of the Daily China. Peter Hessler said it right: not even the Chinese themselves can keep up with the rapid changes in their society. Not even Chinese people can wrap their heads around China. So rather than try to ride the China wave, I’m going to dive right in and see what’s below the surface. Because “cold jokes” and quirky forum discussions can say just as much about the Chinese world as the headlines and newspaper analyses–and frankly, it’s impossible for one lone netizen to keep up from the other side of the globe.

I invite you to revel in the confusion and enjoy a nice, cold joke on me, courtesy of Lengxiaohua Net (motto: “we say cold”; mascot: evil-looking pink rabbit):

Sharing the Penguin Wave (original text)

A female colleague of mine and I usually get along really well.

Today, Friday, we got sushi together. Afterwards I took her home.

She said to come in and sit a while and drink a little of this old litchi tea she found.

A boudoir is a boudoir, the light was gentle, the music swayed, and the litchi tea was pretty good. We sat on the floor.

She took out a piece of paper and wrote:

F(x) and G(x) in Xo is continuous and has the same limit as A limF(x)=limG(x)=A
Therefore, if a domain of the function f(x) in Xo it is always true that
F(x)≤f(x)≤G(x)
then X approaching Xo has limF(x)≤limf(x)≤limG(x)
A≤limf(x)≤A
f(Xo)=A

Me: Huh?
Saying something coy, she waited for a momemt.
Me: Wait, what?
She said indignantly: It isn’t early, you’d better go home.
I politely closed the door and went home alone.

Wait, you don’t get it? neither do most of the 20 commenters–and the ones who seem to don’t do anyone any favors by posting variations which have the female co-worker writing in Basque and drawing matrices. Happy Year of the utterly confusing Cold Joke Rabbit!

Hu’s in Charge?

Posted: 19-01-11 in economy, microblog
Tags: ,

President Hu Jintao arrived in Washington, D.C. yesterday, probably his last visit to the U.S. before he leaves office next year. While China is a rising superpower, President Hu’s role in that rise is questionable. Just last week, Hu was shocked when Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked him about the J-20 fighter jets tested in Chongqing. This was the first time Hu had heard about the test. The American media is now wondering out loud what it now means to be Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China.

What exactly is the nature of the U.S.-China relationship? Probably not so friendly as the one portrayed on a German Carnival  last February:

This lovely photo popped up on my Sina Microblog feed. None of the post commenters rose an eyebrow to the old-school racism on display. (Racialicious sure did, though.) Instead, a few people wrote some snarky comments:

“Can a promotional ad change this image? It’s hard for a coolie to earn a little dough. Better not waste it.” (I’ll bet he was thinking of the TV ad airing in the States right now, which I saw last night right after a report on Chinese “death vans” for clandestine administration of lethal injections. An odd pairing, indeed.)

“What a happy couple, ha!”

“Mad props.”

The metaphors sure are mixing and mingling here. I’m going to assume Obama and Hu stand for the U.S. and China, since the two real people are really just friendly acquaintances. From an economist’s perspective, China is the taskmaster, not the slave. China is the U.S.’s biggest creditor and biggest trading partner. China keeps the exchange rate of the RMB to the USD artificially low, making exports to the U.S. cheap and imports expensive. And sure, Obama and Hu agreed to $45 billion in US exports today, but that includes a backlog of 200 Boeing jets ordered in 2007. So while that number look favorable compared to $44.6 billion in imports to the U.S. last year, we’re still playing catch-up.

More than the particulars of the U.S.-China relationship, this float reflects fear. You’d think that thirty years of economic reform would have finally put the “sick man of Asia” to rest, but that image still lingers in our conscience. And it’s not just fear of China’s rise on parade here. Obama is seen as a sell-out, abandoning the ideals of his 2008 campaign. It’s not clear what the float makers are really trying to say, if they really meant to say anything at all. But there is clearly tension in Germany as its future depends so much on faraway places outside of its control. China and the U.S. are the big players. For now, the rest of the world will just enjoy the show.

Netizens are tearing out their hair over Amy Chua’s article in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” in which she claims “Chinese mothers” raise successful children through hours of forced piano practice and sanctions on playdates, sleepovers, or anything else fun. “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.” Only through achievement will anything become fun. And something that comes naturally to a child–like an interest in bugs, dirt, or socializing–couldn’t possibly reach the level of “fun” you can only get after Mom threatens to burn all your stuffed animals and starve you until you get that recital piece perfect.

Among the 3,475 mostly angry comments are readers who decry Ms. Chua for racist stereotyping and unscientific argument. She extrapolates her experience with her two daughters (who are not yet adult) to several billion people. Some Chinese commenters write about how hurt they were by their parents’ constant pushing and bullying. Others write that they are raising their children in a decidedly “Western” way, cultivating individuality and self-exploration. And Chunyan Li sighs, “Oh come on, even my 4th grader can sense the satire in the article.” I must admit, on first read I thought the whole essay teetered on the edge of deadpan.

But if Ms. Chua is actually as psychotic about her children’s report cards and music lessons as she claims, then as an ambitious young woman I find her method of parenting particularly disturbing. Sure, she teaches law at Yale and publishes books in her spare time, but how many of these “Chinese mothers” devote their entire lives to the success of their children, at the expense of their own personal fulfillment? Most mothers would only have the time to enforce this amount of discipline if they had no obligations outside of the home. And what does that tell a child, especially a daughter? Play that Paganini like you’re at Carnegie Hall, and someday you, too, can spend your days yelling at your kids to play that same Paganini? If a mother does not pursue her own career aspirations, then why would a daughter think she should? And where are the fathers in all this?

Children evaluate their parents’ lives and decide either to emulate them, or else forge a new path. But children need space to make that evaluation. If we want to encourage our daughters to reach their full potential, we need to show them that we are more than just coaches.

I met too many students in college who were in the business school because their parents thought it would be a good idea. Guilting a child into a finance major, or into engineering or pre-med, may make that child “successful”, but will those professions be “fun” for him/her? My parents always pushed me to work hard (and yes, I played piano), but they also told me to find my passion. “Do what you love, and do it well,” is their motto. Passion isn’t foisted upon us, nor is it innate. We have to go out into the world, trip a few times, and finally stumble upon the path that excites and moves us. Following your dream isn’t always fun, and it doesn’t always take you to the place you expected you’d end up, but if the journey itself keeps us going, that’s more than we could ask for.

Cui Jian Sees Red

Posted: 09-01-11 in microblog, music

Cui Jian, the Father of Chinese Rock, popped up on my Sina Microblog feed (the Chinese Twitter) a few days ago. He’s not a boy idol, and he doesn’t sing sappy love songs. He’s the trumpet-playing, baseball-hatted real deal. Here he is in 1988, in an image by the photographer Tang Shiceng:

Cui’s 1990 tour was canceled by the authorities because of his red blindfold, and because of this song, “A Piece of Red Cloth”:

That day you took a piece of red cloth

Covered my eyes and covered the sky

You asked me what I saw

I said I saw happiness

And this put me at ease

It made me forget that I had no home

You asked where I’d like to go

I said I’ll follow you


I couldn’t see you or the road we took

My hand was grasped in yours

You asked what I was thinking

I said, you decide


I felt, though it wasn’t true,

You were as strong as iron

I thought you were covered in blood

Your hand was so burning hot

And this put me at ease

It made me forget that I had no home

You asked where I would like to go

I said I’ll follow you


I thought, this place isn’t wild

But I couldn’t see the parched land

I thought, I’d like some water

But your mouth blocked mine


I can’t walk on and I can’t cry

My body has withered away

I want to be with you like this forever

Because most of all I know your pain

As of this post, there are 29 comments and 76 reposts of the Cui photo and the opening lines of the song. The comments are mostly those of awe–people requoting the song or begging Cui to play another concert in Chongqing. But others muse on the song’s meaning in today’s world. One poster writes, “There are still people using red cloth, but it’s not their own eyes they want to cover!” Another sighs, “Now this red cloth can’t cover my eyes, so I am in grief.”

Cui hit it big on a television talent competition with his 1986 song “Nothing to My Name”. That song later became the unofficial anthem of the Tiananmen protests of 1989. Miraculously, Cui only had to run from Beijing for a few months after the June crackdown. Cui has been rehabilitated after the government banned him from having concerts in the 1990s, and has toured Taiwan, Europe and the United States.

Cui and his Russian counterpart, Yuri Shevchuk, have the gift to intoxicate audiences without pandering to them. Cui continues to experiment with jazz, rap, folksong, and Chinese classical music. Instead of going over the heads of his fans, though, he cuts straight to their hearts. Their popularity allows them to confront authority: Shevchuk backtalked Putin last year. Cui’s latest album, Give You Color from 2005, continues his decades of play with Communist imagery, both in his lyrics and the album cover itself. But even without an overt Mao quote (which is the title of the first song on Give You Color), Cui has a way of sneaking social commentary in poetically, not with a heavy hand. “A Piece of Red Cloth” pairs dark words with soft guitar and synth. It lulls you into a lyrical piano and saxophone interlude. But those words send a chill down your spine. (Listen for yourself here.)

China has transformed itself in the past thirty years. And yet now, after more than 30 years of reform and wealth and boom, netizens are passing around the photo of Cui Jian blindfolded by a red piece of cloth. Are we still blinded?