Category Archives: Kunming 2010

Chinese at the end of two months

You haven’t seen many postings by me recently, because I’ve left the blogging to Marcia since we came to Kunming. We’ve both been very busy with our Chinese language studies, and I really wanted to focus on that while I was here. But now as our time has drawn to a close, I thought I would share some personal thoughts about our intensive language program, as Marcia did earlier.

Marcia and I have both been amazed at how far we have gotten in just two months, maybe equivalent to two years of college language courses. We can both carry on simple conversations with our very patient teachers, and we can get through some aspects of basic daily life. I got a haircut and seem to have communicated well enough to avoid major mishaps. I was able to buy an antibiotic by name in a pharmacy.

Knowing a little Japanese has been useful on balance and not particularly confusing, although I still occasionally say “ni” instead of “er” for “two”. That one is particularly difficult since Japanese uses the same character for its phonetic sound, so reading it that way is almost instinctive.

Chinese is SO much easier than Japanese. The grammar is simple and quite similar to English. There are none of the levels of formality and politeness that make Japanese challenging even for native speakers. Although tones and unfamiliar consonants make pronunciation a little difficult, we both felt we got over those hurdles after a couple of weeks.

And the characters make sense. I never tried to learn kanji while studying Japanese, although I did get to the point where I could recognize a few hundred common characters. Japanese kanji are difficult because they are an imperfect mapping of a foreign writing system onto a very different language. Writing Japanese with Chinese characters is no more natural than it would be to write English that way. Until you know how they are combined into full words, you never know how to pronounce each character. So although there are only 2,000 characters in general use, you almost need to memorize the dictionary to know how to read them.

In Chinese, with only a few exceptions, each character represents one and only one syllable’s sound, and often that sound is represented within the character. Once you learn a character, you know how it and related characters are read no matter where they show up in each word. So although Chinese actually uses more characters than Japanese, they are a very natural match to the language and therefore much easier to learn. I have now studied over 1,000 characters and every day it actually becomes easier to learn new ones. Although I’m slow and still have a long way to go, I can now read paragraphs in the textbook and a surprisingly large number of street signs. I hope that I can eventually take this knowledge back to Japanese and learn to read that language too.

As Marcia noted earlier, I took a much more formal approach, for better or worse. I believe in learning a language on its own terms, even if that presents seemingly great challenges. I have worked through a textbook focused on vocabulary and characters, since I think this will ultimately allow me to read and progress faster at more advanced levels. It’s not ideal, since I don’t get as much practice in conversation as Marcia.

Challenges are great. Part of me thought we were crazy trying to learn one of the world’s most difficult languages at our age. And yes, it is harder for us to memorize vocabulary than when we were children. And I get very frustrated with all the words I’m forgetting – unless I practice constantly, vocabulary seems to disappear as fast as I learn it. But by being really focused and persistent, I have been able to do something I’ve always wanted to do, and it wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be.

Technology actually helps. Chinese dictionaries have historically been difficult, because they must be organized either by complex writing rules or by transliterated roman characters, neither of which is obvious to non-native speakers. I’ve bought a superb (though expensive) iPhone app called Pleco, which is the world’s most amazing electronic dictionary. It contains several dictionaries with more than 200,000 words, and it uses hyperlinking to easily navigate from meaning to pronunciation to characters to component radicals to related words. Its character recognition is incredible, finding over 95% of the characters I draw even with my lousy handwriting. So I finally have a tool that is as easy as an English dictionary where I can draw an unfamiliar word and see its meaning, history and associations.

I keep all the words I learn in a giant spreadsheet with columns for the Chinese characters, their transliterated pronunciations, and their English meaning. For a while I also tried to capture the equivalent Japanese word to review what I learned last year and to see how closely the writing systems map, but as the volume increased I couldn’t keep that up. But in any case, I now have a tool that I can search and filter as necessary to learn and review new words. It’s much better than flash cards.

When learning a language, one gains an appreciation for the phenomenal complexity of human experience and our minds that have to make sense of it. Although I might know 2,000 words and be able to remember half of them on a good day, I’d need three or four times that to read a newspaper or conduct daily life. Add another factor of two to be truly literate. We could actually approach that with several years of dedicated effort, but it would be very difficult. Children, after all, spend eight years in school to get to that point.

So what can we do with this? So far, not much other than giving instructions to taxi drivers and barbers. We content ourselves with the knowledge that we can travel to remote regions without being completely defenseless. We may come back to Kunming for some more lessons in the fall, and if we eventually come live in China, we can continue learning.

Yesterday we left for Nepal, where we will go on another long trek. As before, internet access will be rare, so there may be long periods of silence from about May 2 to May 29. After that, we plan to move to the Indian Himalaya for more trekking, returning to North America on July 12 for six weeks. In the fall, we will go to what some Chinese call “wugesitan” (the five “stans” in Central Asia). Stay tuned for more adventures.

Kunming Recreates its Traditional Look

Kunming's modernization began in the 1930s and picked up after the Nationalist government moved west during the Anti-Japanese War and located some of its offices in Kunming. As the city grew the old city walls came down. The last of the old city gates were demolished in 1953.

During the 1990s Kunming underwent rapid modernization in preparation for the city's Expo 99. (See blog post titled 'Down with the Old & Up with the New'). During this time of tearing down, street widening and high-rise construction, the city began to recreate some of its traditional look.

The trend began with the reproduction of two city gates exactly like those demolished in the 1950s. The city has also reproduced a massive gate that was Kunming' main entrance during the Qing Dynasty (1660-1911).

The East Pagoda, one of the city's two ancient pagodas dating from the 800s, survives to the present. The West Pagoda, destroyed four times since its construction, has been rebuilt to match its surviving partner. The drab buildings on the street linking the East and West pagodas were knocked down and replaced with traditional-style shops.

Near Keats School, where we are studying Chinese, the city has renovated in the classical style the old Taoist Temple and a collection of other venerable buildings in the temple compound.

Before the street was widened it passed under a Tibetan-style chorten. Now a smaller version stands on a pedestrian way between the Taoist Temple and the wide and busy street.

In his book, Yunnan, China South of the Clouds, Jim Goodman wrote 'One might bemoan the passing of so much of Kunming's old town and regard the resurrected architecture as not quite authentic. But so many Chinese cities have all but obliterated their pre-modern look that one should be pleased that Kunming chose to recreate at least part of its heritage, rather than leave it all buried forever beneath the foundations of the shiny new skyscrapers.'

Chinglish Seen in Kunming

English signage is popular and so is direct translation from Chinese into English.

The translator of this sign consulted an outdated Chinese/English dictionary to find ‘eximious’. And ‘golf elevator house’, is that a place Chinese people can play golf in a high-rise building?

What Chinese/English dictionary did this translator consult? It must have been a pretty old one, since Webster has considered the word obsolete ever since 1827.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the translator had in mind. Was he trying to spell Abercrombie & Fitch, was he purposely making up a new brand name to avoid the nonexistent trademark police, or was this a deliberate play on words?

Information for foreign tourists is often translated into English. But obviously not by a native English speaker. Here's an example from a map of Yunnan for tourists: 'In the remote ancient towns, towering mountains and beautiful sceneries, where ethnic culture dazzles in its own colorful ways, one can be thrown into ecstasy over minority habits and reluctant to leave. A historian you might be, then Nanzhao Iron Post in Midu County, ancient city of Dali could lead you to retrospect to an earlier period of Nanzhao Kingdom. Etc.'

On the surface Kunming appears to be a modern city. But behind the scenes sewer service lags far behind. In an upscale restaurant which caters to both foreigners and well-off locals, this universally understood sign greeted anyone who entered.

There are lots of weird sounding English-language signs. But recently renovated museums have very good English-language interpretation and English-language signs often help us find our way to places we want to go.

Speaking of English, in many first grade classes around China, students begin studying English language. So by the time students graduate from high school or university, they have had years of English language study. I have read that there are more English speakers in China than in the United States. Considering China’s population of 1.3 billion relative to the US population of 310 million, this is not surprising.

Muslims of Yunnan

There are more Muslims in China than in The United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Libya or Syria. Kunming is reported to be 36 percent Muslim. It is not uncommon to see women wearing the headscarf and men wearing a white yarmulke-like skullcap. Unlike in south India, I have not seen women wearing the long black robe.

Overland trade between present-day Yunnan, Laos, Burma, Thailand and India extends as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and probably before. The Prophet Muhammad was a member of an Arab clan that engaged in both overland and overseas trade and Muslims have lived in China from just after his death in 632 AD.

Kubli Khan's grandson Ghenghis is primarily responsible for Kunming's Muslim population. Ghenghis Kahn was the first emperor of China during the (Mongolian) Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). He sent Muslim troops from Central Asia into Yunnan during his campaign to usurp the Song Dynasty and in 1252-53 the Mongols conquered Yunnan.

Ghenghis was well aware of Yunnan's importance as an overland trade hub between India, Southeast Asia, Tibet and the Chinese heartland. He also viewed Yunnan as a springboard for conquest of Burma.

He appointed an Uzbek as governor. Using land and money as incentives, he encouraged high-ranking officials, who happened to be Muslim, to immigrate to Yunnan. Newly settled Muslim men were permitted to take local wives and encouraged to develop trade and commerce. The Hui, Yunnan's ethnic Chinese Muslims, descend from these unions.

Caravan traffic to India and Southeast Asia beceme a virtual Muslim monoply, headed first by the Uzbeki governor and after his death, by his descents.

In the first half of the 1300s Chinese chronicler Wang Dayuan recorded the existence of an 'overland road' from China to Arabia. Muslim traders spread throughout China along existing trade routes.

By the late 1700s caravans of Yunnanese Muslim traders ranged over an area extending from the Chamdo region of eastern Tibet, through Assam, Burma, Thailand and Laos to south Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Guangxi.

China’s Electric Bikes

An electric bicycle is either a traditional pedal bicycle assisted by an electric motor or a bicycle powered exclusively by a rechargeable battery. Kunming’s major streets have lanes dedicated to bicycles. Most bikes travelling along the city’s bike lanes are electric bikes – ebikes. Only the oldest electric bikes look like traditional bicycles. Newer models look like gasoline-powered motor scooters.

Every day my Chinese language teacher, Lulu Ma, commutes to work on her ebike.

Kunming is an ideal place for an ebike. Commutes are short enough for the ebikes’ limited range, the climate is fine year round, the terrain is flat and electric power is plentiful. Furthermore, ebikes currently come under the same classification as bicycles and don’t require a driver’s license to operate.

Because ebikes are soundless, the city is a much quieter place than cities in Nepal, Vietnam, Thailand and India where gasoline-powered motorcycles rule the road. The downside is that Kunming allows ebikes on sidewalks, so one can be on top of an unsuspecting pedestrian with no warning.

Ebikes are zero-emission vehicles, emitting no combustion byproducts. But there are environmental effects of electricity generation and power distribution and of manufacturing and disposing of limited-life high storage density batteries. Even accounting for these issues, ebikes have significantly lower environmental impact than conventional automobiles and are generally considered environmentally preferable. The ebike’s small battery pack makes it a good candidate for solar charging.

China has the world’s largest number of ebikes – as of early 2010 roughly 120 million on the road. According to Wikipedia, electric bicycle usage worldwide has grown rapidly since 1998. The Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports – 2010 Update estimates that 1 million ebikes will be sold in Europe in 2010. The same report estimates that sales in the USA will reach roughly 300,000 in 2010, doubling the number sold in 2009.

In spite of the  ebike’s popularity as an efficient and economical way to negotiate China’s increasingly choked streets, automobile ownership and usage is rapidly increasing. The China Daily estimates that 17 million new cars will be sold in 2010, a 25% increase over 2009. Last year China replaced the US as the world’s No 1 automobile market.

Julia Child’s Flight ‘Over the Hump’

During World War II (China calls it the Anti-Japanese War) the Japanese invaded China and gained control of much of the eastern part of the country. The Nationalist government evacuated its capital from Nanjing to Chongqing. Some ministries and industries moved to Yunnan.

To maintain supply lines into western China the Nationalists built a road from Kunming (capital of Yunnan province) to connect with the famous Burma Road. But in 1942 the Japanese overan Burma and cut off this overland supply route.

By that time America was involved in the war. The Flying Tigers began flying supplies from India over the Himalayas into Kunming – 'Over the Hump'. At that time the route over 5,000-meter (15,000 foot) peaks was one of the world’s most dangerous.

During this period the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was involved in efforts to oppose the Japanese in China and Burma.

If you saw the film Julie and Julia you learned that Julia's husband Paul Child was a US State Department employee. The two met while Paul and Julia both worked for the OSS.

In 1945 OSS moved some of its personnel from India to China. Paul, Julia and other OSS personnel flew over the Hump. Betty MacDonald McIntosh was with Julia on the flight. In her book Sisterhood of Spies (US Naval Institute, 1998) McIntosh wrote, 'The turbulent, unpressurized flight on a rickety C-54 caused some people to get sick and others to pray. But Julia chatted with other passengers and read a book.'

It was while Paul and Julia lived in Kunming that they began their romance.

Yunnan – Half a World from Beijing

Yunnan is home to 24 of China's 55 ethnic minorities and to a third of China's non-Han population. Nearly half of the province's population of over 45 million is non-Han.

Yunnan has been part of China since the mid-1200s when Kublai Kahn overthrew the Song Dynasty. He brought Yunnan under the rule of his Yuan Dynasty and, in the process, made China bigger than ever before.

Over hundreds of years the country's various central governments have made erratic efforts to Sinicize Yunnan. But despite these efforts, ethnic minority people in numerous pockets of the province resisted Han influence. Especially in remote areas along the mountainous western border, minority people retained strong local cultural identities.

During the Cultural Revolution there was a renewed effort to stamp out ethnic cultural identity and bring all of China under a common Han cultural identity. Since the beginning of 'reform and opening up' in 1978, the central government has taken a different tack.

Today the Chinese government permits and even encourages ethnic minorities to practice their traditions, wear their traditional dress, speak their languages and celebrate their festivals as long as they don’t challenge the national unity. But it is an unwritten rule that no ethnic minority may revive traditional practices at odds with prevailing social norms.

Current government policy views Yunnan's ethnic minorities as a valuable tourist attraction. The province's advertising, directed primarily at tourists from other parts of China, presents its ethnic minorities alongside other scenic attractions.

Yunnan’s ’100 Year’ Drought

Yunnan Province and several adjacent provinces in southwest China are in the midst of the worst drought in 100 years. Since August 2009 there has been almost no rainfall anywhere in Yunnan Province.

China Daily (the government-operated English-language newspaper) reported: The drought has left 18 million people and 11.7 head of livestock with drinking water shortage. Millions of people who rely on subsistence-irrigated farming for food, are experiencing food shortage.

Yunnan's climate varies greatly from the temperate north to the tropical south. But all parts of the province lie in the path of the summer monsoon. While both volume and frequency vary as widely as does the geography, during a typical year all parts of the province experience rainfall from May through October. In many parts of the province, including Kunming, some rain should fall during every month of the year.

The severe drought has seriously affected Yunnan's flower-growing industry – one of the chief industries of the province. In 2009 on peak days, Kunming's Dounan Flower Market sold 3 million flowers a day. This year the market has sold only 1.4 million flowers a day.

Tens of thousands of farmers in Yunnan make a living growing and selling flowers. Many small-scale farms have been especially hard hit due to lack of irrigation water.

In contrast, large farms that can afford to use water-conserving drip irrigation are making a fortune from the higher prices they are able to command from the short supply of flowers.

Apart from the flower industry, production of all of the province's major crops has also been seriously affected: tobacco, robber and sugar cane.

Kunming City seems unaffected by the drought. The city is located on the north shore of a large lake. The rather polluted lake supplies water for street washing and irrigating public areas. As elsewhere in China, no one dares to drink the polluted tap water. Purified drinking water is bottled in 20 liter containers and delivered to consumers.

Kunming Vies for National Clean City Designation

Kunming is reportedly competing to be named one of China’s National Clean Cities. Streets are cleaner than in Berkeley or San Francisco. Numerous times each day we hear the ‘happy birthday’ tune from the street-washing trucks cruising up and down Dong Fong Dong Lu oblivious to the 100-year drought in progress. Watch for more about the drought in a future post.

Sidewalks are also clean. Pedestrians throw trash into the numerous bins (including some marked recycle) along every sidewalk. Unlike in Berkeley and San Francisco, the trash bins are emptied regularly and never overflowing. Battalions of workers use ‘grabbers’ to pick up cigarette butts and stray trash from the streets.

So what is the National Clean City award? According to an article in China Daily, Lu Guoxian, secretary of the City Committee of the Communist Party of China, declared “The building of a sanitary city is not only for the title, its fundamental purpose is to improve people’s well-being.”

Avatar in 3-D IMAX

Kunming has Yunnan's first and only IMAX theater. The theater is part of a complex of multiple high rise buildings housing shops, offices and residential dwellings in the heart of downtown Kunming. The development's shopping mall including the IMAX theater opened in January 2010.

When we arrived in town in late February the inaugural show Avatar was playing. Tickets for all shows were still in high demand and went on sale 3 days in advance. On a Tuesday right after lunch at Keats School, we scurried to the box office and secured tickets to see Avatar on the following Friday afternoon.

The 3-D IMAX show was in English with Chinese subtitles. While we had to imagine what the Pandorans were saying, Chinese subtitles translated these conversations as well. (At ordinary theaters the 3-D version is dubbed in Chinese.)

The central government closed all of the non-IMAX, non-3-D shows (the lowest ticket price) due to 'low box office receipts'. The real reason may be that government censors view the story as a bit too close to home: To make way for large-scale new or re-development, government routinely orders people off farmland or to vacate residential and commercial blocks. Not uncommonly, people protest what they view as government's heavy handed tactics.

Pirated versions of the show, dubbed in Chinese, are widely available on DVD, so anyone who wants to see the show can easily do so.