井底之蛙

Postings by Gina Russo

Contact: gina [at] froginawell.net

Battle for the blogosphere

Filed under: — gina @ 7:29 am

The anniversary for the June 4th movement in China is just about here, once again shining a light on China’s progress in the human rights area in the last 20 years. While the New York Times publish weekly articles about China’s impending doom from censorship, and others continue to focus on China’s brainwashed population which doesn’t understand the concept of human rights or democracy (nor do they care), I think the picture is obviously more complicated, and in fact, a lot of China’s current protest and the government’s baby steps in freedom of speech can be seen online.

I read an article in the 苹果日报 (one of Hong Kong’s more politically driven newspapers) about Zhang Shijun, a former member of the PLA who was one of the “oppressors” in the June 4th movement.  After his experiences on June 4th, 1989, he  tried to retire from the PLA, but was refused and was labeled a “capitalist.” He was then further persecuted in the 1990s for being an anti-socialist and working against the party. He then tried to demand compensation from the army and further inquiry into his treatment. Now, in light of the 20th anniversary, he decided to use a different arena to demand “justice,” and on his own blog he explained his horror and disgust at the sight of students laying in their own blood, and others’ participation in the process. More than that, he encouraged other members of the PLA to step forward and admit their wrongdoings, and has even put his own name, identification number, and phone number on his blog, thus encouraging debate and frank discussion.

While his blog is currently blocked by the firewall, the fact that he is posting it shows some of the cracks in the firewall, and also shows that his case may not be a priority (it also may show incompetence, see for example China’s current battle with the grass mud horse). Similarly, another blog frequented by China’s intellectuals, Tienyi, has not been shut down, though it would seem that a lot of the discussion on the blog could possibly hit a nerve. A friend of mine discussed on his Huffington Post blog that, in reference to the Yang Shiqun incident (see, for other opinions concerning this issue, this other post), that we can see real differences in the way that the Chinese are using the blogosphere to have really frank discussions about human rights, the government, and other “taboo” issues.

I heard a lecture once that says that we need to look at China’s human rights record as a “movie rather than a picture,” meaning that we have to look at progress rather than just criticizing the current situation. China continues to do things that stir up local and international frustration about China’s censorship, but that is not the whole picture. We also cannot continue to compare China to other countries in the world. And while we have to perhaps search for such examples, there is a fair amount of discussion and criticism going on, even under the eye of sometimes reactionary Chinese censors. Perhaps the internet will be the new public sphere, where an online community (rather than a print community) will work towards progress in China.

Chinese Goldilocks

Filed under: — gina @ 11:43 pm

Recently, I’ve been looking at Maoist period elementary Chinese textbooks (or perhaps a better translation would be Language Arts textbooks), which are compilations of stories and essays with “reading questions” at the end. Most of the collections I have found were from the late 1950s, very early 1960s, and early 1970s. Also, many of them have been quite monotonous; especially the later textbooks are story after story about military victory either during the 1930s, the war of liberation, or for later textbooks, the Vietnam war (I particularly enjoy reading about the mischief of the 美国鬼子).

However, I came across a particular set that stuck out to me because, if it had been in English, its content would have been nearly indistuinguishable from an American textbook at the time. This set was published in 1955 was meant for the last 4 years of elementary school. And instead of openining with revolutionary songs and ending with stories of Mao’s great kindnesses or the heros of the revolution, the story was almost nothing but fairy tales and tales about young children. I particularly enjoyed the Chinese translation of Goldilocks and the 3 bears (although in this story, she was just called 小女儿, since, being Chinese and all, she did not have gold locks).

I guess what this points to is a large variety in the content of textbooks, since other language textbooks from the same period are full of stories of the communist-war-hero variety. But not all education was for the sole purpose of teaching children to be good communists, as many of the stories, such as a story about “Mother Winter” which explains how the seasons change, have no moral message at all.

I’ve been wondering as to why these textbooks, which were largely used in Shanghai into the early 1960s, differed so much from how we think of Communist period early education. My guess would be that there was a very high priority on children learning how to read. A man I work with at the archives used this set of textbooks when he was a young child, and he still remembers all of the stories. Children are much more likely to want to read if the stories are about talking foxes and mountains of gold with flying phoenixes than if they are simply propaganda. Perhaps this demonstrates a weighing of the importance of literacy over the importance of “correct thought.” However, as the Maoist period progressed, the latter clearly trumped the former. But to me, this is another reason why the 1950s, a period of plurality and exploration, is such an important period to study (another comment on my own blog about this topic expressed a similar trend). It shows us that we can’t generalize about human rights (as an earlier post suggested) or education throughout the Maoist period.

Pinyin or bust

Filed under: — gina @ 11:21 am

A recent obituary of John DeFrancis emphasized his personal desire to see the Chinese overhaul its writing system, claiming that the failure of the Communist government to move into a complete romanization of the system did not make Chinese as accessible to the masses as it could have been, an idea he also mentions in his books. Little did he know (although he probably did know) that the Communists realized the shortcomings of the character system as well. A publication from the Chinese language reform committee (中国文字改革委员会) in 1956, a small 50 page booklet about new legislation concerning language reform (both spoken and written) and the reasons behind it, the institutions it will affect, easy methods for making the switch from simplified to traditional, etc, explains the disadvantages of the character system. The booklet reads:

In today’s developing China, it [the character system] does not meet the demands of our new modern lifestyle, and it doesn’t satisfy the needs of the people.  In our language, each character has a unique form, but if you know the form you cannot necessarily read it’s pronunciation, and if you can read it’s pronunciation, you cannot necessarily write it’s form, and if you can read, write, and pronounce it, you don’t necessarily know it’s meaning, and only when you exhaustedly memorize each character’s form, sound, and meaning can you truly say that you know the character. Also, the strokes of characters are quite complicated. In 6 years of schooling, students can only study about 3000 characters, and they must be reinforced. Therefore, studying the character system, as compared to a romanized system, takes much more time, nearly 12 years of language study are necessary for a basic education, which is two years longer than most school systems around the world. Also, characters are used in the areas of writing books, copying, using technology, typing, searching words, and others, all of which use a lot of labor. This makes all of these areas that much harder to do, as it requires that we raise the basic level of education and culture, and all of this us done to preserve the character system. This gives the realization of our socialist country and the creation of our new ideals a much larger job to do.[1]

In the end, the booklet determines that because of historic precedent, cultural preservation, and continuity that the character system must be maintained, but all of the arguments against the character system seem quite interesting, implying that that is the next logical step. Perhaps that is why DeFrancis had such high hopes.


[1] 吴玉章。”为促进文字改革而努力.” 文字改革和汉字简化是什么回事?北京:中国文字改革委员会编印, 1956。

A Dictionary that Could Change your Life

Filed under: — gina @ 1:12 am

I see a lot of passing on of digital tools, and a fellow Fulbrighter sent along this link, a Chinese dictionary where you can write in the characters and it looks them up for you. I find it especially helpful for looking up strange characters in names while writing bibliographies. So for those too lazy/poor (like me) to buy a pocket dictionary that has the features, this will save you the trouble of ever having to look up a radical again.

A crack in the firewall?

Filed under: — gina @ 3:54 am

The Chinese firewall seems to be acting up. On Saturday, authors of the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS and other newspapers I’m sure noted that the Times have once again been blocked by the Great Firewall. Some posited guesses as to why, perhaps it was a “controversial” article published in the International Herald Tribune about China’s impending economic problems. Perhaps it was the Chinese government reasserting control after they loosened up for the Olympics. No one knew. Ironically, this happened at the 30 year anniversary of the gaige kaifang, which editorial writer Nicholas Kristof pointed out

For some reason, now, it is unblocked, which the Times celebrated today. The article claims that no one in China knew why it was blocked for a few days. I know that China makes mistakes, but this seems a bit too sloppy for the government and their firewall. I admit, I don’t know a whole lot about the firewall, but this seems like a pretty big goof up to just “happen” for nearly 4 days. Not that a whole lot of people in China read the New York Times, but a lot of expats do, and I assume that the government knows how much it would irritate the Western powers who want to see more human rights in China, not fewer. Maybe it was all these Western papers getting upset about it that caused them to reverse their decision. Or maybe it really was a mistake. I’m not sure.

A Gweilo’s culinary opinion

Filed under: — gina @ 10:36 am

A somewhat humorous article from Hong Kong cites a recent restaurant review from Michelin Guide and a complaint against it by a prominent Macau chef. The chef challenges the fairness of the review because the reviewers were mostly foreigners and, by nature, foreigners can’t be accurate in their review of Chinese restaurants. The chef argued: “如外國人愛吃臭芝士,香港人未必喜歡;我們的腐乳,外國人不會喜歡!四川 的麻辣,他們更受不了which roughly translates as “while foreigners love stinky cheeses, Hong Kong people do not particularly care for them; as for our fermented tofu, foreigners could not possibly like it! And as for Sichuan’s spices, they can’t handle it!” Their arguments also continued with claims that foreigners care more about environment and service, and that foreigners could not understand the Hong Kong concept of , which values small side street restaurants that may not necessarily have a famous name attached.

I was reading this with another Hong Kong friend, and we both agreed there they do have a point. If Chinese people attempted to review restaurants in France, I believe the French culinary community would make a similar argument. And when I read the part about preserved tofu, I made a face that gave away my disgust, and my friend argued “see! There isn’t a Hong Kong person who doesn’t love that stuff!” Similarly, part of a restaurant review, at least in America, has to consider service, and those of us who have spent a lot of time in China know that service means quick, impersonal, and as 热闹as possible.

In some ways this argument reminds me of the former Japanese argument that they can’t eat American beef because their bodies are fundamentally different from everyone else. Language points to this. While foreigners could not possibly like preserved tofu (不會喜歡) Hong Kong people just plain don’t particularly care for stinky cheeses (未必喜歡). Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I believe that the latter represents a measured dislike that still maintains the ability to be objective while the former sounds like a child being forced to eat broccoli. This stems from a larger sense of laowai (or in this case gweilo) inability to fully understand and appreciate Chinese culture (just like American beef can’t possibly work well with Japanese bodies). Apparently this stereotype has now made a pass at our tastebuds as well.

What’s Wrong with Teaching Plato?

Filed under: — gina @ 4:13 am

There was an article in the New York Times I read a few weeks ago which talks about a new push on college campuses to teach a more conservative platform because of the conservative loss on college campuses after the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Specifically, they want to include “the teaching of Western culture and a triumphal interpretation of American history.” In essence, there are these privately funded conservative programs attempting to include Freshmen readers or other courses that “retake education” from the crazy liberal left. These readers include some of the Western greats: Descartes, Plato, Dr. King. But in essence, the idea is to teach the foundations of American democracy in a positive, rather than negative, light.

The article included interviews from professors who were, at first, quite hesitant about this. The article quotes: “At first some faculty members were suspicious of where the idea and financing had come from, said Robert Sackett, a history professor who publicly voiced his concern. Yet he added, whatever the back story, who could object to teaching Dr. King or Plato?”

Indeed, what is wrong with teaching Plato? In fact, it is staggering how many people my age think that Plato is a children’s toy, have never heard of Dante’s Inferno, or believe that Germany won WWI (even if you don’t know anything about history, you would THINK it would be common knowledge that it is a safe assumption to say that Germany didn’t win). But this is not about my frustration with the lack of knowledge among American college students. What is more important here is, why is teaching Plato a conservative backlash? Is there anything fundamentally wrong with this?

To connect this to China (and my research) I have been recently reading textbooks published between 1933 -39 about “being a good citizen” (好公民). These included lessons on everything from washing hands after going to the bathroom, being respectful to parents, standing in line quietly at school, eating a lot of fruit, etc. One textbook even included a 90 minute lesson on posture (I’m still unclear how a teacher could have spent 90 minutes teaching children the importance of sitting up straight). Perhaps this is my Western mindset, but when I read the textbook title 新公民[1]I immediately thought of propaganda. And some of the textbook included more obvious propaganda, such as the importance of bowing to the party flag. But is there really anything about teaching posture or hygiene that screams propaganda? What are the deeper meanings behind this?


If we look at other historians, we can see that much of creating the “modern citizen” was based around behavioral control. Robert Culp’s Articulating Citizenship talks about the Nationalist’s control of time, space and behavior; he even includes examples of student organizations meant to control behavior and hygiene (imagine a student organization today that made sure children showered every day). Even earlier, we have reformers claiming that the best way to reform China is to reform people and behavior. This included everything from clothing and greetings (see Harrison’s Making of the Republican Citizen) to male/female relationships (let’s kiss in public for the good of the country!). Ruth Rogawski’s Hygienic Modernity delves deeply into this, claiming that the use of Western hygiene determined how “modern” a person was. I could go on and on with these examples. At the same time, individuals were often considered microcosms of the nation. If individuals were modern in their hygiene, clothing, and behavior, then the country was modern. This is one of the reasons Japan was higher up on the scale, and one of the ways the Japanese legitimized their colonization (see Ming-Cheng Lo Doctors Within Borders ).

So ultimately, this kind of behavioral control was a way for society, and in this case government, to create the ideal citizen. If we act and dress like Westerners, we will be a modern nation. We no longer want to be feudal and backwards.  There may be nothing wrong with teaching posture or hygiene, but it is important to realize the more subtle meanings and implications behind them.

Perhaps it is a stretch to compare this to the New York Times article; I just found the similarities striking. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with teaching Plato or Dr. King; in fact, I find it imperative that people my age know the fundamentals of Western thought. But before we jump on this bandwagon, the more subtle implications should be realized. Rather than teaching Kipling’s book about the horrors of capitalism, we teach these writers who, in a broad sense, glorify the American system. Plato doesn’t necessarily HAVE to be a celebration of American democracy, but from the article, it seems that is the ultimate goal: to teach college students that America is the ultimate realization of this fantastic system. I’m not sure how I feel about a more pro-America or anti-America agenda in college classes (although I don’t particularly like those terms, they are pretty loaded). I think both are important. We can’t hide what capitalism has done to many countries around the world, and we can’t hide our hypocrisy abroad. But I have undergrad papers where professors forced students to write about how capitalism is the ultimate evil that has spawned all the world’s woes. Certainly, high school student get enough of the glorification of America, and college is where students begin to discover “hey, America has done some not so admirable things…”

But does this mean we shouldn’t teach Plato? Or good posture and hygiene for that matter? I’m not sure.

[1]青番江。 新公民 上海:上海中华 书局。1935Other textbooks used include, 魏志澄,赵景源。好公民。上海: 上海商务书局,1933;王创星。 常识课本。世界书局印行, 1934 to name a few.

The Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House.

Filed under: — gina @ 3:50 am

Robert Culp’s Articulating Citizenship and other articles[1] claim that the largest holdings of textbooks is in the Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House, known in Chinese as the 辞书出版社图书馆, or for short the 辞书 (cishu). The building is in a small courtyard near West Nanjing Road,  a small dusty building made of cement (which makes it quite uncomfortable to look through the card catalog located near the door in a hallway where small heaters cannot reach).

I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be able to use these archives. Culp claims that a letter of introduction was sufficient to be able to use these archives; I was fortunate because my adviser here in Shanghai has an old classmate that works at the Cishu. The workers at the archives were more than happy to fetch materials for me and allow me to read (so far) everything I have asked for; however, others I know have been not quite as lucky with permission to use the archives, as they are private and not supposed to be open to the public.

The staff is incredibly friendly and knowledgeable. They are also quite proud of their library, and are often engaging in conversations about how many foreign people come to their library. The staff and other researchers also love to engage me in conversations. The rules are not strict at all, like some other archives; they will fetch materials at any times of the day, they don’t force us to leave during lunch, and while we cannot photocopy, we can take pictures for a small fee (half the price of the Shanghai library). Finding materials is slightly more difficult because the card catalog is only by title, although for earlier materials it is possible for them to do a subject search on the computer (this is not, however, possible for later materials, as they are only cataloged on the cards).

It is very clear that the library has a lot of material, and anyone interested in education should definitely make use of their collection. It seems that having the support or letter from a Chinese professor, especially one that the staff at the Cishu know, is helpful in facilitating the process. Similarly, knowing exactly what kind of material you need to use seems to make them more likely to let you in. I was never told clearly what was necessary to be able to use the archives as I received different stories from different people, but it seems that having very clear justification for using their archives (as in, I’m doing such and such research, I need such and such material and I can’t find it elsewhere) seems to help a lot.



[1] An introduction to this archive can be found in:
Culp, Robert. “Research Note: Shanghai Lexicograhpical Publishing House Library’s Holdings on Republican Period Popular Culture and Education.” Modern China (2), 1997: 103-109.

奥巴马mania

Filed under: — gina @ 3:22 am

I just joined this website, but I was surprised to see no post about the American elections in China (perhaps I found it surprising because it has been so pressing on my mind). China Beat had a long list of coverage about China’s reaction to Obama (my favorite is “Now it’s ‘cool America'”), but I feel like many of them didn’t really examine how many Chinese people feel about Obama. They make it seem like the average Chinese people all liked Obama because of really solid political reasons, which I think is largely misguided. It is certainly no secret that the Chinese favored Obama over McCain, even though Chinese Obamamania may not compare to other countries, like in Rwanda where on the street in early November Obama pop songs could be heard. The reasons for this varied; many of the older generation, who I met either on the street or in cabs, would talk at length with me about America’s mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how America needs to solve such international crises which we created. The younger generation, however, loved Obama because he was handsome and young. Actually, they could not even properly recall McCain’s name; the most common comment was “We like Obama! Did you vote for Obama instead of…that other guy…what was his name?”

I find it interesting that such fervent political opinions come from a group of adolescents who have very little interest in their own politics. I have a friend who made what I thought was a very insightful comparison in his column for the Huffington Post between our generation in America and the same generation in China. I would like to quote him in saying:

China’s youth stand caught in a remarkably similar generational split as their American counterparts: We both are the progeny of a generation desperately polarized by ideology and history. Simply put, on both sides of the Pacific, our generation is sick of hearing about and fighting the battles of our parent’s generation.

For Americans my age, a large part of Obama’s appeal is his transcendence of the culture wars of the 1960s. In 2004, John Kerry labored to mention his Vietnam service at every turn. In 2008, John McCain made frequent reference to his heroic military service in Vietnam while Obama skirted the issue entirely. My generation didn’t even blink. To those my age, McCain’s invocation of the tawdry aura of pop princesses Britney Spears and Paris Hilton–figures with a decidedly less Baby Boomer flair–had far more relevance than 60s era figures such as Bill Ayers.

For their part, the Chinese youth come from a generation similarly split by ideology, albeit on a much more profound scale. While our parents are still licking their wounds from the 1960s culture wars, here in China, there is silence. Even today, there is simply no discussion of anything pre-Reform era as the divisions are just too painful. Unsurprisingly, among the youth of China, there is a visceral aversion to ideology and politics. Here the youth are not so much post-partisan as they are completely divorced from parti-anything. Names like Bill Gates and David Beckham have far more relevance to their lives than Marx, Lenin, or other vestiges of an ideological battle of a bygone era.

Admittedly, exactly how much of Obama’s post-partisan, post-ideological message penetrated and resonated here in China is uncertain. What is unmistakable to Chinese youth is that Obama’s election represents a change in America that needs no translation nor cultural context. Young, attractive, brilliant, and black, Obama represents to the Chinese youth a forward-looking America uninhibited by the ideology of a previous generation. Whether consciously or not, Obama embodies the very post-ideological spirit that Chinese youth subscribe to themselves.[i]

There is one exception to this lack of political interest (or at least a reason for supporting a political candidate) among young people, and that was young Chinese females’ support for Hillary Clinton. This obviously died down after she lost the primary, but before that, and even sometimes after, young women were unanimous in their support for Hillary, claiming that she represented women’s rights all over the world (as opposed to “we like him because he is a celebrity.”) This was a political message that made sense to them, perhaps because it was a battle they were currently fighting, as in the Post-Mao era, gender differences have become much more distinct.

So how do we explain this Obamamania among young people? Perhaps it is as simple as he is a celebrity (the Chinese I believe focused more on him in the news than anything else) and Chinese youth like the up and coming. Or perhaps it is that Chinese youth really see him as a new America, and a new world, that moves past these battles of the older generation. I’m not sure; all I know is that most of China was happy at the results from November 4 2008.


[i] I would love to provide the link for this, but unfortunately, the Huffington Post is one of those websites blocked by the Great Firewall. This is as much of the citation as I have: Davenport, Alexander. “Obama Brand Captures Chinese Youth.” Huffinton Post. 3 Dec., 2008.

China a growing trend

Filed under: — gina @ 1:19 am

A recent article in the NYT (link at bottom) showed that China is now the 5th most popular destination for American study abroad students, after Britain, Italy, France and Spain. Apparently, over 11,000 students from the US studied in China last year, which is a 10 fold increase from 10 years ago. The article very clearly states that this is due to increased interest in economics and politics rather than a growing interest in culture or history, but this drastic increase is still quite surprising.

I will say I am happy to know that many more students are studying abroad in China, but one things does bother me a bit. From my understanding, to study abroad in France, Spain, or Italy, a high level of that language is required, whereas (as this article points out) most of the study abroad programs in China are all taught in English. Shouldn’t there be similar standards for language for China? I studied in Hong Kong, which is actually probably even worse; I think maybe 10 percent of the people I studied with made any attempt to learn any Cantonese or Mandarin, other than various curse words…

Anyhow, good to know that China is no longer such a far away destination; interest is starting to grow!

Lewin, Tamar. “Study Abroad Flourishes, With China a Hot Spot.” New York Times. 17 Nov. 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/17/education/17exchange.html?ex=1384664400&en=1b4a93e8cf96321d&ei=5124&partner=facebook&exprod=facebook

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