Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin

For those of you who are studying or have studied Chinese (in China at least), were it not for this man, Zhouo Youguang, you would be learning  the language without the benefit of Pinyin.This is the guy who decided that the letter q would represent a ch sound, x an sh sound, and an i the semi-vowelled r sound.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pinyin, it is the standard Romanization system used in China to phonetically represent the sounds of Chinese characters.  Chinese has tens of thousands of characters, but only about 400 ways to pronounce them.  In other words, once we learn how to say these 400 ‘words’ we can actually say (not to be confused with speak) Chinese.


After studying linguistics in the US  (where he was a friend of Albert Einstein), he returned to China in the 1950’s and was given the task of coming up with a standard Romanization of Chinese. It was introduced in 1958.


This past week Louisa Lim, Beijing correspondent for NPR did a fascinating story on this 105-year-old professor. She writes:


When Zhou was born in 1906, Chinese men still wore their hair in a long pigtail, the Qing dynasty still ruled China, and Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. That someone from that era is alive — and blogging as the “Centenarian Scholar” — seems unbelievable….


It took Zhou and his colleagues three years to come up with the system now known as Pinyin, which was introduced in schools in 1958. Recently, Pinyin has become even more widely used to type Chinese characters into mobile phones and computers — a development that delights Zhou.


“In the era of mobile phones and globalization, we use Pinyin to communicate with the world. Pinyin is like a kind of ‘Open sesame,’ opening up the doors,” he says.


Today he has become an outspoken advocate for political reform in China. You can read/listen to Louisa’s full report here.


105 years old and still going strong!


(image source:



Insider, Outsider, and a Dying Toddler

You may have heard the news this week about a toddler in southern China who was run over by a small van (twice) and left unattended in the road while at least 18 people walked by without offering any assistance. The entire incident, from the girl first being run over to the arrival of a scrap collector who finally carries her out of the street was captured by security cameras and, as you can imagine has caused quite an uproar here in China.The video is all over the internet, but I will not link to it here; it's too disturbing.

Chinese social media exploded with discussions about how such a thing could happen.  Some say it is just another example of the breakdown of morality in a modern China that only values money. Others lay the blame at recent cases where bystanders have helped someone in need, only to be accused of causing the injury in the first place and thus being held financially responsible by the court. In other words, to help might bring the helper and his/her family mafan ("trouble"), both legally and financially.

Someone online started a "Stop the Cold-heartedness" campaign.

I also think that the insider/outsider mentality that I wrote about in my previous post plays a part in situations like these, which are actually common in China.  The difference here is that it was filmed for the entire world to see.

Interestingly, in all of the articles and analyses that I have read about this, the only journalist who's mentioned this aspect is Austin Ramzy, of Time who writes in a piece titled  Amid Anger Over Grisly Collision, China recognizes a Humble Hero:

"In his 1939 work Peasant Life in China, Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong examined how social obligations were determined by the closeness of relationships. Fei "called this a concentric pattern of social relations with positions measured by how close one stood in relation to the actor," Linda Wong wrote in her 1998 book Marginalization and Social Welfare in China. "The more distant the location from the centre, the weaker the claim, so that ultimately one did not have any obligation to people unknown to oneself."

I don't know you, therefore you aren't.

Some are calling for the establishment of  "Good Samaritan" laws to prevent these types of incidents. I suspect that the cultural context of the Good Samaritan story was similar to China, in that there were clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders, Jews and Samaritans, and this is exactly why the story must have been so radical to those listening.

May we all (Chinese and foreigners) be more like the Good Samaritan, challenging cultural conventions and saying "God knows you, therefore you are."


Three more good articles:

Would a Good Samaritan Law in China have Helped Little Girl (Josh Chin, China Real Time Report)

A note on Chen Xianmei, China's most famous "trash collector." (Adam Minter, Shanghai Scrap)

Shocking Foshon Incident Reveals an upspoken illness at China's core (Yajun Zhang, The Guardian)



Beijing Erhu Player

Back in the day (late 1990’s) I used to ride my bike downtown a lot.  From where I live out on the west side of Beijing ‘downtown’ meant the area around Tiananmen Squre and the Forbidden City — the center of the center of the universe, so to speak.

At that time there was still a community of houses tucked between the Forbidden City walls and the moat, and the wall outside the Meridian Gate was a favorite gathering place for retired musicians to practice their instruments and their singing).

I used to love riding down there, hopping off my bike and listening to them play and sing.

The homes between the wall and the moat are gone now and the area along the Meridian Gate wall has been covered over with grass and made inaccessible by a fence.

I don’t know where the musicians ended up, but I’m glad I have this photo of an erhu player practicing in the shadow of the Forbidden City.


Insiders and Outsiders are Different

Last week, as I was riding the train across Manchuria on my way to/from Changchun, I read a fantastic novel called “Snowflower and the Secret Fan.”  Set against the backdrop of the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century, the story is about the ‘inner’ life of women in Jiangyong County, in southern Hunan Province.


At a young age, Lily and Snowflower become ‘sworn sisters’ a commited relationship whose bond is stronger than marriage. They communicate with each other using Nushu, a secret women’s language  unique to that particular area of the country.  In that era, the education of girls was confined to household tasks and virtues necessary to be a good wife to a future husband. Marriages were arranged by a matchmaker, and often when the girls were only 5 or 6.


Once Lily and Snowflower become sworn sisters, there lives are forever intertwined as they go through the traditional female seasons of life:  Daughter Days, Milk Years, Foot-binding, Hair-pinning Days, Rice and Salt Days, and Sitting Quietly.


Here is an excerpt:


“During the next year, my education in the upstairs women’s chamber bagan in earnest, but I already knew a lot. I knew that men rarely entered the women’s chamber; it was for us alone, where we could do our work and share our thoughts. I knew I would spend almost my entire life in a room like that. I also knew the difference between nei – the inner realm of the home — and wai — the outer realm of men– lay at the very heart of Confucian society. Whether you are rich or poor, emperor or slave, the domestic sphere is for women and the outside sphere is for men. Women should not pass beyond the inner chambers in their thoughts or in their actions. 

I have long understood that Chinese culture is an ‘insider/outsider’ culture, where distinctions between ‘inside and outside,’ ‘us and them’ are very important. There is a common Chinese saying: nei wai you bie (“insiders and outsiders are different”) — which illustrates this. In  in the Chinese worldview there are only two kinds of people in the world — Chinese and foreigners (known as waigruoren – outside country people). Even within Chinese society there are deliniations between insiders and outsiders — local people vs. people from other places; those who are classmates and those who are not classmates;  people with whom one has a relationship and people with whom one doesn’t have a relationship.  The rules for interaction between those who are insiders and those who are outsiders are also different, with Confucian rituals of courtesy primarily extended to insiders, not outsiders (or strangers).


Until I read this book, I had not thought about the nei/wai (inside/outside) distinction in terms of gender roles in society. It was a fascinating new (yet ancient) twist on a familiar concept.


(image source:


NOTE: I am starting a new chapter in this blog — comments! Click on the comments link below and let me know if you’ve read the book and what you think.





Ma Taitai

Last week I made a quick trip up to Changchun to visit some friends and do a workshop for some folks studying Chinese.  Since I lived in Changchun for 8 years in the 1990’s, trips there always have a bit of a ‘going home’ feel for me.

My time in the city was very short, so tops on my list was paying a visit to Ma Taitai, the woman who had been my baomu (housekeeper) for 6 years.

She’s 83 now and lives in a small apartment by herself.  She has 2 daughters that have begged her to live with them, but she will have none of it.  She’s not about to leave her beloved zaoshi (morning market) and friends who come daily to play mahjong. To say she’s a free spirit would be an understatement.

One of her daughters took me to visit her on Friday afternoon, and we had a wonderful couple of hours together. When I arrived she gave me a big hug and said “my American daughter!” Then she sat me down opposite her, grabbed my hands and leaned forward.  “You know I’m 83 now.  When am I going to get to come to Beijing to attend your wedding?  I really want to do that, you know!”  I laughed and assured her that were I to get married in Beijing, I would definitely invite her, but I also suggested that she better not be sitting around waiting for that to happen.”  She sucked her teeth in exasperation!

Once we had that settled we moved on to talking about all the other American families she worked for in the 1990’s, especially the babies that she had cared for. Where were they? What were they doing? Which kids were married now? There are photos of everyone of them on her fridge and she can still rattle off every single (Chinese) name.

She had me in stitches telling stories of her time with the foreigners and commenting on everyone’s Chinese ability (or lack thereof, in her opinion).  I suggested that she should write a book, an idea she thought was absurd.

Never mind what she thinks….the next time I go up there I will have tape-recorder in hand to capture her stories.




How Bad is the Smog in Beijing?

This bad:

(Photo source:


These pictures were posted on the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo this week.  They were not actually taken this past weekend, but this is pretty much what it looked like here on Sunday. I think that for about the tenth time this year I made the statement “this is the worst smog I’ve ever seen in Beijing.”


The BeijingAir Twitter feed from the US Embassy indicated that the air pollution was off the charts.  Literally — the top of the scale is 500, and their numbers topped those. This usually creates a bit of an international incident because the Chinese government’s readings are always about half what the embassy’s readings are. Some think that it is because of this Twitter feed that the Chinese government blocked Twitter in China. They were afraid it would confuse the people and disturb social stablity.


I don’t think folks here are confused.  Who are you going to believe? The government or your dying lungs?




Still Wearing My Sandals

When I left my house this morning my housekeeper, noticing that I was wearing sandals, let out a yelp! Never mind that it was 70 degrees outside,  this was obviously not acceptable.

I have heard it said that in the former Soviet Union there used to be a joke: “If you see a Bulgarian, beat him.  He will know why.”

As I nervously walked past the grannies with their grandkids in the playground outside my apartment building, I had a nagging fear that these grannies live by a similar rule:  “If you see a middle-aged foreign woman wearing sandals after October 1, beat her.  She will know why.”

I have previously written about the great cultural clash that my sandals have become.  You can read about it here.

100 Years Ago in China

Chinese imperial history always seems so distant, so ancient.  It’s easy to forget that we are only a hundred years away from a time when the Qing Dynasty still ruled China.  As recently as a hundred years ago an emperor (albeit a child) was still  living in the Forbidden City, many aristocratic women had bound feet, and most of China’s coastal cities were under foreign control. Mao Zedong was a child and the Chinese Communist Party had not yet come into existence.

But on this day in 1911, it all came crashing down in what has come to be known as the Xinhai Revolution. It started with an uprising in Wuchang which brought an end to the Qing Dynasty and 2000 years of imperial rule in China. Within a year the Republic of China (whose government still lives on in Taipei) was established and Sun Yat-sen became China’s first president.

Of all of the momentous events of the 20th Century in China (the Boxer Rebellion, the Long March, the Rape of Nanking, the Founding of the PRC in 1949 and subsequent political campaigns), the Xinhai Revolution is probably the least well known. But it’s significance should not be underestimated since it set the stage for the great philosophical, political, and military battles that would rage across China for the next half a century.  Old China had been brought down, but what a new, modern China was to look like had not yet been decided.

Would it look to the west for inspiration, adopting western ideas and methods of democracy and science? This was the vision of the May Fourth student movement that would emerge in 1919.

Would this merely be an interlude between dynasties, as all previous dynastic falls had been? This certainly seems to have been the thinking of Yuan Shikai, the Republic of China’s second provisional president who declared himself emperor in a ceremony at the Temple of Heaven. No one else recognized his imperial status and a few months later, he was dead.

In the chaos that followed, central authority collapsed and China descended into several decades of chaos, often referred to as the Warlord Era. It was in this milieu that the Chinese Communist Party was born, and with it the vision of re-uniting China under the banner of Marxism, a vision that eventually won the day.

Today has been an interesting day in “Greater China” as the governments on both sides of the Taiwan Straits have tried to claim the legacy of the Revolution.  “The Xinhai Revolution is mine!”  “No, it’s Mine.” “Is not!”  “Is too!” And so on, and so forth….

In Taipei, the day was marked with parades and public celebrations. In Beijing, the leaders gathered in the Great Hall of the People to read each other speeches. Everyone else got a Jackie China movie.

What an amazing century!


If you’re interested in learning more about the Xinhai Revolution and its significance, check out these articles:

 From Sun to Mao to Now (The Economist)

100 Years After the Xinhai Revolution (China Media Project)

Fear of Dragons (The New York Times)

1911: The Xinhai Year of Revolution (China Heritage Quarterly)


(photo source: Cultural China)