June 25, 2008

Laughing at the Government

Filed under: China,east-west,politics — Kim @ 3:53 pm

When I went to live Hungary in 1991, it was not that long since the fall of the Berlin wall, the lifting of the iron curtain, and all the consequent changes to the region. And so there was still a fair bit of talk about “the bad old days” and my curiosity about what life under Communism had been like was satisfied by normal conversations without me having to be overly nosy about it.

And people at the time still told “Communist jokes”. These were largely concerned with how inefficient Communism was (or rather had been) or how stupid the police/soldiers/politicians (enforcers of Communist doctrine) were. And often they had an anti-Russian slant to them.

Some samples…

A man is queuing for food in Moscow. Finally he’s had enough. He turns round to his friend and says “That’s it. I’m going to kill that Gorbachev,” and marches off. Two hours later he comes back. “Well,” says the friend, “did you do it?” “No,” replies the other, “there was an even longer queue over there.”

Capitalism stands on the brink of the abyss. It will soon be overtaken by Communism.

Three prisoners in the gulag get to talking about why they are there. “I am here because I always got to work five minutes late, and they charged me with sabotage,” says the first. “I am here because I kept getting to work five minutes early, and they charged me with spying,” says the second. “I am here because I got to work on time every day,” says the third, “and they charged me with owning a western watch.”

And there’s even an Olympic related one…

Brezhnev reads a speech at the Winter Olympics “O-O-O-O-O.” “No,” his aide whispers to him, “that’s the Olympic logo.”

Well, we live in a Communist country here in China, don’t we? And have I ever heard any Communist jokes here? No.

I can only guess at the reasons really, but the first thing that springs to mind is that while the Soviet Union was presiding over an unconcealably crumbling and risible economy during the 1970s and 80s, China’s economy under the stewardship of those Commie bastards has quite obviously been on the up and up since the death of Mad Mao. (Maybe it was an ironic joke to put him on the banknotes?)

And so a fair few of the kind of Commie jokes told above simply wouldn’t be applicable for modern China, and so would not be funny.

But if it is true, as one pundit has it, that “The Communist joke was by nature deadpan and absurdist—because it was born of an absurd system which created a yawning gap between everyday experience and propaganda” then there should have been jokes-a-plenty during the years of Mao’s misrule, where the gap between reality and government propaganda was more than yawning, it was gaping and gigantic…it was sound asleep. But I have never heard or read any jokes from the Mao era. Perhaps everyone was too shit scared or starving hungry to tell jokes. Political jokes are dissent and dissent was deeply dangerous during Mao’s murderous reign. Or perhaps I have just missed them somehow because they never got translated from the Chinese and published in places I might read.

But another reason I don’t know any Chinese Communist jokes is probably because the Chinese don’t actually make as many political jokes as Europeans. After all, this Soviet Union era joke would certainly apply to China today…

When was the first Russian election? The time that God put Eve in front of Adam and said, “Go ahead, choose your wife.”

Now, credit where credit is due…since Mao shuffled off his mortal coil China has progressed a lot in several ways, not simply economically. And the CCP has to be given some credit for that. But the government in China needs more jokes to be told about it. It deserves some satire and some jibes for locking up decent people like Hu Jia, and for censoring anything it doesn’t agree with, and for treating its adult citizens like children (not least by refusing them the vote), and for trying to erase or alter its sordid past.

Not to laugh at the CCP would be laughable.

Anyone know any good Chinese Commie jokes??

June 21, 2008

Down the Pan

Filed under: intro — Kim @ 4:35 pm

I’ve been sitting on this little story for a while, but as it’s been more than a year now since the “unfortunate event” I feel ready to let it out. Well, I’ve been the perpetrator of some truly clownish mishaps in my life so far, but this one is perhaps the worst. Just to set the scene, I should tell you that the wedding ring on my finger is not the first. One day about a year ago when I was living with my sister in law’s family, well, how can I put it…

Instructions Concerning How to Flush your Wedding Ring down the Loo

1 Take a big dump in a small asian bog and then use too much loo paper, so you
need to flush twice.

2 Flush once, then wash your hands with a good old fashioned bar of soap.

3 Get soap stuck under rim of wedding ring.

4 Take off wedding ring and run under tap, then get some loo paper and start
wiping off remaining soap. Leave ring inside the paper for no good reason.

5 Finish off washing your hands. Space out.

6 Realise that loo is ready for second flush and flush it.

7 Turn back to the sink and see some toilet paper lying around which you then
just have time to throw in the pan so the second flush takes it down.

8 Finish washing hands…dry hands and look for wedding ring. Look some
more. Get puzzled. Get worried. Stop, calm down. Replay previous
actions in mind. Reach step 7 then get sick feeling in pit of stomach.

9 Groan loudly in panic. Check pan to see if everything has gone down. It
has.

10 Leave bathroom and explain to spouse and family that you have just
flushed expensive and treasured symbol of love and conjugal attachment down the pan.
Explain again slowly and put up with verbal remonstrations and shakings of head in
disbelief.

And the moral of the story is? Well, as any Chinese will tell you, it is quite obviously…”never flush paper down the toilet!” Use the little bin nearby. I should say that all this happened when I was relatively new to China. I always use the bin these days.

And my wife is still my wife. She was wise enough not to take my blunder as a symbolic act.

June 10, 2008

Hate thy Neighbour

Filed under: China,culture,teaching — Kim @ 5:11 pm

We looked at Wilfred Owen’s well known WW1 poem Dulce Et Decorum Est in class today, and I tinkered around with things a bit to get the discussion going.

Before I explain my tinkerings, here’s the original poem:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

I didn’t show the students the full poem straight off. I chopped off the last 4 lines…the ones with the “message”…which just left the graphic descriptions of the horrors of war.

I then asked students to decide whether it was, broadly speaking, an anti-war poem or whether it was designed to make readers feel pity for the poor English soldier and so hate the Germans/the enemy more, and thus, broadly speaking, a pro-war poem.

Most thought it was an anti-war poem, so then I surprised them by showing them these “last 4 lines”, baked earlier by me:

My friend, you would not then deny our cause is best
Or try to teach our children that humanity is one.
Here is the truth: Dulce et decorum est
To kill the Hun.

I had to explain that “the Hun” was a derogatory term for Germans during WW1, but after that they were all agreed that it was a patriotic poem aimed at stirring up raw passion against those who would gas “our boys”.

All of which is nonsense of course, and I admitted it and showed them the original ending and after some discussion we agreed that the original is more powerful/profound/humane etc. But the vastly different interpretations caused by the tweaked ending does indicate the ambivalence that can result from mere depictions of war.

And, yes, here comes the inevitable Chinese slant on this…I don’t watch CCTV that often, but when I browse through the channels here it’s pretty much odds on there’ll be one showing evil Japs doing despicable things to brave Chinese. I don’t watch these films/dramas so I can’t comment, but am I a cynic/pessimist for expecting that the “message”, the semantic tweak to depictions of war, is more along the lines of “Chinese are great and Japs are vicious scum” than “War is a disaster”?

Can anyone confirm/disprove my hunch?

June 8, 2008

Spence does Reith

Filed under: China,culture,east-west — Kim @ 4:46 pm

This year’s Reith lectures are about China and are being given by Jonathan Spence, a Sinologist of some renown. His best known books are probably “The Search for Modern China” and “Mao Zedong”.

The Reith lectures are held annually in honour of John Reith, who was the first and probably the finest Director-General of the BBC. He was the guy who coined the wonderful mission statement for the BBC, namely that it should “Educate, Inform and Entertain”. Astonishingly, Reith was given the position despite having absolutely no experience of broadcasting. He simply had a feeling that he would be able to run any company he put his mind to and so when he saw the advert for the job in the paper, he applied. That sort of thing doesn’t happen any more.

The lectures are being held in the British library this year, home to the oldest book in the world… printed in 868 AD in China. The Reith lectures are a rather “British Establishment” affair and if you listen to them you will hear they are chaired by the prim and plummy sounding Sue Lawley and feature questions at the end from people such as The Archbishop of Canterbury and Oxford Professors of Chinese.

Spence himself is a rather phlegmatic sounding scholarly type and his lectures are solid and well-crafted rather than inspirational. More informing and educating than entertaining. He is also himself an establishment figure, having been educated at Winchester and Cambridge.

Why am I banging on about their backgrounds? Well, these are the kinds of people who ran the British Empire and I can’t help thinking how much things have changed since those not-so-distant days. Spence himself is married to a Chinese, something that would have been rather shocking/baffling until quite recently. And, generally speaking, the Chinese are talked about with respect and Chinese journalists are invited to ask questions at the end. Again, until quite recently, the British Establishment wouldn’t have given a toss what the Chinese thought about what they thought about China…intercultural dialogue was not really their forté.

Spence is giving 4 lectures in all and the first, on Confucius, has already been given and is available online.

Worth a listen. Especially as Confucius is such a hot topic these days.

June 4, 2008

Mei you!

Filed under: China,Dalian,east-west — Kim @ 10:14 am

I remember reading about China in the British papers about 20 years ago and one story that stuck for some reason was about how horrible it was to go shopping in China. It wasn’t really the fact that the choice was so limited, apparently, it was that the shop assistants were surly, unhelpful and almost always answered “mei you!” ( not have/we haven’t got any) when asked where something was. The writer, who had been living in China a good while I remember, said that he had come to hate that word more than any other.

Well, China is changing and China has changed. I find shopping in China to be a pleasurable experience most of the time as there’s somewhere to find anything and the staff are usually helpful, if sometimes a bit thick. But it seems that old habits die hard and that the old enemy “Mei you!” is around more often than it should be.

I was in my local Tescos with my wife a couple of days ago and we wanted to buy a plunger. We were looking around the bathroom section and not having much luck when along comes an attendant and so my (Chinese) wife asks where the plungers are. “Ah, Mei you!” she said confidently and went on about her business. Fine, but as we turned the corner of the next aisle we were faced with a fairly large selection of plungers. So of course I picked one up and used it give a good plunging to Miss Mei You’s silly snout. Anyway, not a big thing of course, and you have to expect idiocy from time to time but “the curious affair of the plunger in Tescos” reminded me of another baffling incident quite recently.

My parents were here for a short visit a few weeks ago and as my mum is an inveterate postcard sender, off we went to Xinhua (the national bookstore) to purchase postcards. My mobile has a handy little dictionary so I looked up the Chinese character for “postcard” and presented it at the help desk. We were told by the lady that postcards were up on the third floor but just as were about to trot off the help desk lady had a thought and asked us whether we wanted postcards of Dalian…yes, we said, that would be nice and she shook her head sadly and gave us a “mei you”. Ah, really, what a shame, so I thought I’d ask her where it would be possible to get postcards of Dalian and was struggling to understand her answer when an English speaking Chinese bystander saw the situation and stepped in to help translate. “She thinks you can get postcards of Dalian at the museum” (miles away) ah, thanks, I said, but there are none here, right? The kind lady checked for me… “mei you!”

In any case, my mum decided that generic postcards of China would do, so off we went to floor 3 and found a postcard rack at least half full of postcards of Dalian.

Odd! Not to mention silly. Especially since that was the only postcard rack in the shop,so it wasn’t as if there were lots of them and this one could have been overlooked.

I’m not sure why on either of the two incidents I got a “mei you” but it could be something to do with the shop staff not wanting to admit ignorance or just not really caring if they sold anything or not. Anyway, if I was dictator of China I would introduce compulsory memorization for all shop staff of the phrase “Sorry, I’m not completely sure, but you might try looking in ….”

gotta go now…off to the shops.