May 3, 2007

Foreign Mud

Filed under: China,politics — Kim @ 7:08 pm

Anyone who doesn’t know about BBC Radio 4’s “In Our Time” with Melvyn Bragg is missing out on a weekly treat.

There’s an online archive so you can gorge yourself on a 3-year backlog of intellectual, informative and engaging chit-chat.

Last month the eggheads were yakking about the Opium Wars and this can be found at

In the last ten minutes they start talking about how Chinese governments have used, and continue to use, the Opium Wars as a way to stir up national resentment against foreigners and “to unite the people so that they don’t start asking questions about their leaders.” Which is an interesting bit, obviously.

There is also another part (19mins thru) where they talk about an incident that apparently sparked the first Opium War off . So, basically, on July 12 1839 some British sailors in Hong Kong got steaming drunk and decided they want to get totally wankered…so they stagger into Kowloon to buy some more booze off a local grocer. Mr Chinese grocer unwisely refuses them because he thinks they’ve had enough and so they kick him to death and steal his liquor.

Brits haven’t changed much. Aggressive alcoholics are endemic in the UK and I believe the Chinese are more civilized in this respect.

But anyway, the Chinese comissioner Lin Tse-hsu demanded that the perps face Chinese justice. The British captain refused and said they would be punished by British justice. So far, so typical I guess, but the intriguing bit is the ensuing “Battle of Kowloon”.

Lin decided to starve the Brits into submission and so ordered his fleet of junks (junkies) to attack British ships if they tried to come ashore. Ok, fine, but this was at a time when the British navy was very strong (30 years after Trafalgar) and their warships much more technologically advanced than anything China could put to sea.

Here is a western version of what happened next:

On September 4, two British merchant ships and a launch from the newly arrived warship attacked three Chinese junks that tried to prevent them from landing at Kowloon to obtain water and supplies.

Although the Chinese warships returned the British fire, they did no damage to the British ships, and were forced to retreat after being badly shot up by cannonballs.

The captains of the defeated Chinese junks feared that their failure would be viewed by higher authorities as a disgraceful act of cowardice. The captains therefore reported to Commissioner Lin that they had won a victory and had sunk a British ship.

And here’s a Chinese account:

On September 4, 1839, five British naval vessels launched a surprise attack on the maritime forces of Dapeng Fortress in the waters off Kowloon. Chinese troops in fishing boats, led by General Lai Enjue, defeated the better-equipped enemy. The Kowloon naval battle is now widely considered the start of the Opium Wars.

So, not much agreement on what happened there then. And why is it that I find myself trusting the western source more? Hmmm, must be because I’m English I guess. Yes, that must be it!

The western source also describes Lin’s hubris

Lin assumed that his Chinese warships were superior to the ships of the British navy. He thought that Europeans were primitive barbarians. British fabrics were inferior to Chinese silk, British earthenware was inferior to Chinese ceramics, and the general behavior of British seamen seemed uncivilized, so Lin assumed that the British navy must be inferior to the Chinese navy. Lin did not know that even British civilian merchant ships were armed with cannon that were far deadlier and more accurate than any of the guns of the Chinese fleet.

And I find this fairly convincing because as is well known, at least where I come from, British naval superiority meant that Britain went on to kick the Middle Kingdom’s arse in two short Opium Wars.

So there you have it. Both sides come out of this looking terrible.

British = Drug peddling, aggressive, thuggish, exploitative, arrogant and bullying.

Chinese = Drug addicted, deluded, backward, more worried about face than facts, arrogant and “losers”.

The “Battle of Kowloon” was 1839. Fourteen years later, on July 8, 1853 Commodore Perry’s notorious black ships steamed up to Tokyo and scared the crap out of the Japanese.

Both China and Japan were pretty much traumatised when they found out the full extent of how far behind the west they were when it came to modern military technology, but only one managed to do something about it quickly.

Japan decided to avenge their national humilation. They tooled up sharpish and by 1905 were strong enough to defeat Russia. Japan then went on to start up its own Empire, the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” which was supposed to free fellow asians from the yoke of the white man. Trouble was, the Japanese colonialists were widely preceived as arrogant, exploitative and murderous, and were by and large hated.

Let’s hope the Chinese are wise enough to “avenge their humiliation” in a less aggressive way.

One über-grump over at doesn’t see that happening…

Some people I know go on about how China is getting better – they are wrong. It is getting worse, fast. The level of extreme nationalism is already high, and there are many days I feel like a Jew in 1936 Germany. There’s trouble coming, and it’s being planned at the highest levels. Getting the ‘People’ fired up, resentful, and hating foreigners is only one part of it.

Just remember: Hitler got his Olympics, too.

Well, fuck pessimism like that. I don’t see the Chinese as expansionist war-mongers. Yes there is Tibet and yes there is Xinjiang, but I really don’t see China today as being anything like as aggressive as the turn-of-the-twentieth century Japanese or the Nazis. Sure, some Chinese feel humiliated and a voluble minority make boastful, vicious threats, but they are an adolescent, unempowered minority. Most Chinese love their country but do not want to fight anyone else to prove it. And I can’t see the CCP provoking a world war.

Right or wrong prognosis? Only Taiwan will tell.

November 27, 2008

Chewing the fat with Peter Hessler

Filed under: China,east-west,language,teaching — Kim @ 4:53 pm

Just to state the bleedin’ obvious from the outset, part of the process of getting to know a place is talking to the locals. When you’re a tourist it’s fairly easy and forgivable to whizz through the sights, scoff some of the cuisine, buy some souvenirs, and then piss off out without exchanging more than a few service-oriented verbal transactions. But when you actually live somewhere you’d have to be a real retard/recluse not to have at least a few conversations with the natives.

And conversations are of course invaluable for finding out about a place and for getting insights into the hearts and minds of the people who live there:for getting at the nub of the national psyche, if such a thing there be. Often, the most interesting parts of travel books are the transcribed conversations – or the approximations of them – and it seems to me that a travel writer’s skill at conducting and then vividly and pertinently rendering conversations (as opposed to interviews) is probably the key skill of the genre. After all, a journalist can go out and interview and observe, a historian can do research, and economists and social scientists can ply their trade with facts and figures…but travel writers have got to go and “meet the people”. And they have to have the conversational skills to draw people out, and they have to know how to listen carefully and how to ask the right questions. And they have to have patience and curiosity and respect…and then they have to have time. Good conversations take time, and to get to know a nation you need to talk to a fair few of its inhabitants.

So one of the reasons why Peter Hessler is my favourite travel writer on China is because this is something he does so well. River Town and Oracle Bones are full of insights gained from simply knowing how to talk to people, and a lot of the laughs and a lot of the liveliness in his books come from the way Hessler writes up his chats with Chinese. Oh, and the fact that he speaks excellent Chinese also helps of course!

He is also perceptive when it comes to the nature and structure of conversations. In the following extract he alerts us to how both the flow and the content of a conversation can tell us something not just about individuals but, to an extent, nations.

foreigners always talked about how difficult it was to understand China, and often this was true, but there were also many ways in which the people’s ideas were remarkably uniform and predictable. There were buttons you could push – Hitler, Jews, the Japanese, the Opium wars, Tibetans, Taiwan – and 90 percent of the time you could predict the precise reaction, including specific phrases people would use.

This rings true with my experiences too, although I’d put the percentage much lower:at about 40-50%. Compared to Westerners, Chinese (and Thais and Japanese) tend to be rather conformist in their opinions and certainly any topic concerning nationalism or politics is likely to elicit some stock responses. As an English teacher, some of my work hours involve “conversation” with adults in small groups or one-on-one. It’s not quite the real McCoy, I know, but still a lot of the time I am basically being paid to chat, while occasionally correcting errors or helping with vocabulary. In fact, some of my classes are grandly and vainly titled “Salon” classes (“A salon is a gathering of stimulating people of quality under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings” …from wiki) and during a recent “Salon” class on the topic of “famous people”, Mao came up like a bad penny. Sure enough 3 out of the 7 people in my class who chose to talk about Mao said what a great man he was and used exactly the same phrase; how Mao had “led China out of the darkness”. Naturally I pointed out this this was complete horseshit and that not only had the Maonster made a pig’s ear of ruling China, he had actually set back China’s development by decades while causing a huge and unforgivable amount of unnecessary human suffering, more specifically Chinese suffering, in the process. Ha! Not really…I just nodded and corrected a collocational anomaly.

And Hessler also has some good comments on the potential import of cross-cultural conversations. Take the following for example when he bumps into a railway mechanic in Yan’an…

The mechanic and I talked for a while and then as a polite way to show that the conversation was ending, he said solemnly, “Our two countries have taken different roads. But now we are friends.”

“Yes” I said, “We can forget about the problems of the past.” Many of my random discussions in small places like Fuling and Yan’an ended like that; the people seemed to feel a need to summarize the relations between China and America, as if this had a great bearing on conversations at hand. Often it was the first time they had spoken with an American, which made our interaction seem like a momentous occasion. I liked that aspect of spending time in remote parts of China…every casual conversation was a major diplomatic event.

And the reason I like this little passage so much is that it brings into focus very nicely an issue that is always on the sidelines and occasionally pushed to the forefront of my expat life. The fact is that as expats our comments and conversations with Chinese have a resonance that can raise even the most banal discourse to a more significant level. Whether we like it or not, many Chinese feel that we are representatives of our nation and they will judge our home countries in part by the kind of conversation they get from us. It’s a bit daft on some level, I agree, but on further reflection almost all of us do this much more than we should. It’s hard to keep reminding oneself that all countries are a mix of people, and so instead of saying to ourselves “this is a silly comment” or “this is a rude person” we tend to think “that was a typically stupid Chinese/Japanese/British comment” or “Chinese/Americans/Russians are so rude”. I wish people could get away from such silliness, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

There is also of course a basic human decency in being polite to people and respecting their points of view or taking their questions seriously, but as a teacher and as an Englishman abroad, I do sometimes feel a kind of a “diplomatic” responsibility to tolerate silly or uninformed questions and to not hurt people’s feelings by attacking opinions I disagree with too forcefully…hence I bit my tongue when my students praised Mao. (Also, I have to atone for the Opium Wars of course.)

When the acclaimed writer Aldous Huxley reflected on his lifetime’s strivings to understand the human race he came out with the following “It is a little embarrassing that, after 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give to people is to be a little kinder to each other.” Well, a lot of life is made up of small talk with people we don’t care much about, but our conversations can be small acts of kindness too, and as we all know, one of those is never wasted.