Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from 2013

Etiquette and the Problem of Rejecting in Chinese Culture

As I have explained in other posts, the function of etiquette and formality in Chinese culture is deeper and more substantial than one may assume in the West. Many foreigners in the Middle Kingdom have noted the importance of ceremony, ritual and etiquette in Chinese people's every day life. This should not be understood as a superficial phenomenon, but as a reflection of the very structure of Chinese society. In fact, formality is a result of the significance of hierarchy and social roles. 
That etiquette has always been a cornerstone of Chinese social interaction can already be seen in the works of Confucius. "Etiquette is nothing but reverence,” he argued. “If the father is revered, his sons will be happy; if the elder brother is revered, the younger brother will be happy; if a ruler is revered, all his subjects will be happy" (Boden 2008, p. 210).
As Jeanne Boden explains:
In ancient China the 'Ministry of Rites' was extremely important. All rites, rituals and c…

Travel Impressions – Differences Between Taiwan and Italy

Last week I returned to Italy after a whole year spent in Taiwan and Hong Kong. I believe I am not the only person who sees his own country in a different way after living for a long time abroad. 
From this point of view, my almost four years in Germany weren't as groundbreaking an experience as my two years in Asia. Germany and Italy are technically two separate countries with different culture and history. And yet, for hundreds of years they have been neighbours, they share a common set of values and historical developments. Greco-Roman civilisation, Christianity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Age of Discoveries, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Age of Nationalism, the two World Wars, and economic boom and many other historical processes are shared by most European countries. One can hardly explain the history of a single European country without talking about what happened in the others. 
East Asia, on the contrary, was for centuries isolated from the West, d…

The Myth of the "Deceitful Chinaman": A Few thoughts About Politeness and Etiquette in Chinese Culture

As I mentioned in my previous post, many Western observers and expatriates living in China have noticed a difference between the way Chinese and Westerners communicate. Chinese are often criticised for their alleged lack of 'honesty' and 'transparency'. In the 19th and early 20th century, there was a tendency to regard Chinese people's communication strategies as the result of the 'deceitfulness' and 'insincerity' of the Chinese.
In recent times, this interpretation has shifted towards a milder one, according to which Chinese value face-saving, unoffensive and indirect communication in order to avoid confrontation.
I would like to challenge this view and argue that the apparent 'indirectness' and 'vagueness' Westerners notice in China is rather the consequence of hierarchy, social roles, 'collectivism', and power distribution. 


Honesty vs Deference: Western and Chinese Views on Politeness and Etiquette
Let us briefly examine two …

"Do Chinese Lie?" - The Myth of the "Deceitful Chinaman"

A Chinaman is cold, cunning and distrustful; always ready to take advantage of those he has to deal with; extremely covetous and deceitful ("China," Encyclopedia Britannica, 7th ed., vol. 6 [1842]; quoted in The Things They Say behind Your Back: Stereotypes and the Myths Behind Them, p. 115) They [the Chinese] are well-behaved, law-abiding, intelligent, economical, and industrious, - they can learn anything and do anything ... they possess and practise an admirable system of ethics, and they are generous, charitable, and fond of good works, - they never forget a favour, they make rich return for any kindness ... they are practical, teachable, and wonderfully gifted with common sense (Sir Robert Hart [1975]: The I. G. in Peking: Letters of Robert Hart, Chinese Maritime Customs, 1868-1907 (2 Volumes), p. 27). 
These two extremely different generalisations about China symbolize the difficulty of Western observers to make sense of this country. Even today, there are Westerners who…

Taiwan's Weather and Cold Houses

If you go to Taiwan, one of the things you absolutely need to get used to is the cold at home during the winter. In fact, in Taiwan, parts of mainland China and other Asian countries there is no heating system at home.
I really want to tell you this because I got a cold this week and I'm feeling awful. The weather in Taipei is a big challenge for foreigners. Only two weeks ago it was as hot as summer. I think as late as last weekend I ate and enjoyed an ice cream, and I was still wearing shorts. 
Fooled by the heat, I underestimated Taipei's winter, which came all of a sudden this week. The temperature dropped from around 28-30 degrees to between 12 and 22 degrees; of course, this would make most Europeans smile, but it is a humid, nasty kind of cold. Since houses have no heaters the cold follows you everywhere, you just can't get rid of it. I guess people think it's not worth installing a heating system at home since the winter is short and the temperature constantly go…

Original National Taiwan University College of Medicine (臺大醫學院舊館)

During the early years of Japanese rule in Taiwan, casualties among Japanese troops and colonialists were numerous. On the one hand, Taiwanese partisans fought bitterly against the Japanese, causing fatalities among the soldiers. On the other hand, the Japanese experienced difficulties in adjusting to the Taiwanese climate, so that illnesses were widespread. As a consequence, the colonial government established facilities where soldiers and civilians could be treated. 



Already in 1895 the Japanese founded the Dainihon Taiwan Hospital, which is today's National Taiwan University Hospital. Because there weren't enough Japanese doctors available, in 1897 an Academy of Medicine was founded, where Taiwanese doctors could be trained. In 1919 the institute was upgraded to a College of Medicine, and in 1936 it became the Taihoku Imperial University Department of Medicine (Taihoku was the Japanese name for Taipei). 

Lee Teng-hui and the Issue of Taiwan's Independence

In 2007, former President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) Lee Teng-hui (simplified Chinese李登辉, traditional Chinese李登輝, pinyin: Li Dēnghuī) astonished the Taiwanese public when he declared to Next Magazine that he did not support Taiwan's independence [1]. 
For many years, Lee had been considered one of the most influential supporters of Taiwan's independence. In the 1990s, he had repeatedly angered the People's Republic of China and was denounced by Beijing as a 'separatist' who was pushing for an independent Taiwan. His political stance made him enemies on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. In fact, both the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang) support eventual reunification and adhere to the "one China" principle.
In 2001, Lee was even expelled from the Guomindang, the party that he had led for 12 years. Although he had retired from active political life in 2000, during the election campaign he became the spiritual leader…

Qing Dynasty Anthem (1911-12) - China's First Anthem

On October 4, 1911, the Qing Empire issued China's first national anthem, known as Gong Jin Ou (Chinese: 鞏金甌; pinyin: gǒng jīn'ōu, literally "Cup of Solid Gold"). It was the 3rd year of the reign of 5-year-old Emperor Xuantong (better known as Puyi).
Because the Qing Empire was not a state in the modern sense, it had never had a national anthem before. Zeng Jize (1839 – April 12, 1890, traditional Chinese: 曾紀澤), one of China's first diplomats stationed in the West, observed that Western nations performed national anthems on official occasions. In 1883 he composed a song in honour of the Qing Empire ("普天樂") and sent it to the Qing court, but the song was never officially used. 
In the following years several songs were produced in succession, which were used as semi-official hymns from time to time. One of them was Praise the Dragon Flag ("頌龍旗"). The song was composed in 1906, when the Board of War and the Bureau of Military Reorganisation were m…

Why Chinese Women Are Obsessed With Men's Height

One day I was talking with a Chinese friend of mine about relationships. At one point she said something that struck me: "It doesn't matter if a guy is ugly as long as he's tall." I was quite surprised by these words, but I didn't pay much attention to them. 
As I met more and more Chinese, it became clear to me that "height" was a recurrent theme when Chinese women talked about a suitable partner. Many of my female friends mentioned men's height: "He's good-looking; what a pity he's so short!" "I like tall men" "A guy liked me, but I didn't want to date him. He was short", etc. etc. 
In her book about factory girls in China, Leslie T. Chang describes this phenomenon:
Height was a universal Chinese obsession. In a country that had experienced malnutrition and even famine in living memory, height signaled fortune, and it functioned as a proxy for class.
Height was also an advantage for women, though. The taller t…

Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Hong Kong

Yesterday I went with my language partner to the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, part of the so-called Jumbo Kingdom, in Aberdeen Harbour. 



View Larger Map
The floating restaurant is a gigantic boat built in the style of a Chinese imperial palace, with the addition of modern elements. It offers Cantonese food and, most importantly, yum cha. Yum cha (simplified Chinese: 饮茶; traditional Chinese: 飲茶), literally means 'drink tea'. The name is deceptive, because yum cha actually refers to a Chinese-style lunch or early afternoon meal served with tea. The meals consists of dim sum, a word that comprises a wide range of small dishes: steamed buns, dumplings, siu mai, rice noodle rolls, vegetables, roasted meats, congee porridge, soups etc. 
Usually, the dishes are put on carts, and then waiters push them around the restaurant. When a customer wants something, he calls the waiter and takes one of the baskets or boxes from the cart.
Unfortunately, I and my language partner were very late, becau…

Hong Kong Past and Present - Old and Modern Photos of the Dragon City

Hong Kong is one of the most exciting cities in the world, and part of its charm lies in its modernity. Dubbed 'the most vertical city in the world', Hong Kong captivates visitors with its futuristic architecture. But Hong Kong was not always like this. For more than a century, what one saw were monumental European colonial buildings. Chinese architecture and quarters were relegated in the less central areas of the city. 
The European-style city has disappeared almost completely. With the economic take-off starting in the 1960s, Hong Kong embarked on an era of modernisation. Colonial buildings were demolished one after another. Only the most representative ones have survived. The past didn't matter. People relentlessly marched toward the future. 
Hong Kong was thus the first Chinese city to have transformed itself into a modern megacity, long before mainland Chinese cities created their own aesthetic modernisation. 
I prepared a short video that shows some of the changes that…

Hong Kong, as Seen from the Island Tram

The Hong Kong tram is one of the symbols of Hong Kong. It covers a large part of Hong Kong island, stretching from Kennedy Town in the west to Shau Kei Wan in the east. One line branches off to Happy Valley. 
The tram started operation in 1904. At that time, it followed the waterfront, before land reclamation transformed it. Judging from old pictures from the pre-World War II period, the trams' design is basically the same, both outside and inside. However, today all trams are double-deckers. 
The tram is one of the cheapest means of public transport in Hong Kong, with a fare of only 2 HK dollars. Compared with the underground system (MTR), the tram is very slow, given both the age of most trams and the traffic. If you're in a hurry, you'd better take the metro. But if you want to enjoy a nice view of the city, then the tram is a great choice.

Perpetuating Humiliation - The Reemergence of Chinese Nationalism After 1989

The political and moral collapse of Communist regimes throughout the world in 1989 marked the beginning of a new era in global geopolitics. At that time, it seemed as if the capitalist-democratic Western system had triumphed and all countries in the world were destined sooner or later to accept the allegedly irrefutable verdict of history. Very few people would have bet on the survival of the CCP in China, or on the success of Deng Xiaoping's reform programme. The PRC appeared like a dying relic of a past age.
The true meaning of the year 1989 remained inscrutable to those who didn't want to see. Western bias was too strong. In 1989 a new China was born; a China that combined East Asian-style developmentalist economic policies, autocratic statehood, and nationalist ideology. 
The CCP regime survived the collapse of the Soviet bloc because the path it chose was different from that of its Communist 'brothers'. The PRC had already in the late 1970s embarked on a period of r…

Where to Stay in Macau - Apartment in Coloane

A few months ago I went with two friends to Macau. As I explained in my earlier post, Macau has much more to offer than just casinos, and I recommend to anyone who stays in Hong Kong for a while to pay a visit to the former Portuguese colony.
In my previous post I forgot to mention where I and my friends stayed, so I'd like to share this information now because it might prove useful to travellers.
Instead of booking a room in a hostel or hotel, we decided to rent an apartment for one night. This is not the cheapest option, but for one or two nights it's certainly affordable. Moreover, we could see how an average apartment looks like and also live there as if we were local people. We used a website called airbnb.com, where you can find flats or rooms to let.
The apartment was located in Coloane, in the southern part of Macau. On the map (see below) Coloane looks pretty far away from the most interesting parts of Macau, but remember that Macau is small. In fact, we always walked fr…

Singapore and the Myth of Free Market Economics

Singapore is a success story. As founding father Lee Kuan Yew said in his autobiography, Singapore moved from being a third world country in the 1960s, to being one of the richest countries on earth by the end of the 1990s.
Singapore is a city-state which in the middle of the 1990s was half the size of Hong Kong, with a population of 3.04 million (Kwong / Chau et al. 2001, p. 1). A former British colony, Singapore's political situation after WWII was tumultuous. The city was granted independence from the British Empire in 1958. Singapore's leaders, however, did not want to found a separate state, but to become part of neighbouring Malaysia.
In the 1959 elections, the People's Action Party (PAP), which still rules Singapore today, "promised clean, efficient politics and pledged to address issues in education, labor, housing, health, social security, economic growth through industrialization, and merger with the Malay Federation as a pathway to full independence from B…

How Free Are Media in Hong Kong? About The "Silent Majority" and Media Partiality

How free are media in Hong Kong? This is a question I couldn't help asking myself these days. In a previous post I wrote about Alpais Lam Wai-Sze, a primary school teacher who swore at police officers because they allegedly did not prevent a Communist association from harassing members of Falun Gong, a religious group that is illegal in mainland China.
The media response to this event in Hong Kong was very critical. Not critical of the police, but of the teacher and of Falun Gong. I would go as far as to say that the teacher has been the victim of a slander campaign.
How deep Hong Kong media's self-censorship is, has become clear to me by reading the South China Morning Post (SCMP). The SCMP, which was once considered one of the best English language newspapers in Asia, constantly features pro-establishment, pro-Beijing, and anti-democracy articles. One example of this I could see yesterday, on Monday 19.  
On page A2 appeared the usual column by Alex Lo. I have talked a few time…

Hong Kong and the Anti-Democratic Rhetoric

This month, a video of Hong Kong primary school teacher Alpais Lam Wai-Sze sparked great controversy. During a demonstration on July 14 she was filmed swearing at a police officer. At first it seemed she was protesting against the police cordon and her lack of access, but it later became clear that the reason why she lost her temper was different. Other videos uploaded on YouTube clarify the context of her reaction.
According to the Epoch Times, on July 14 Falun Gong practitioners were harassed by members of the Hong Kong Youth Care Association, a group associated with a Chinese Communist Party agency. The Falun Gong is a religious organisation that is illegal in mainland China, but tolerated in Hong Kong (note).
The teacher scolded police officers in harsh terms for not protecting the Falun Gong practitioners against members of the Hong Kong Youth Care Association, which is known in Hong Kong for having staged anti-Falun Gong campaigns in the past. According to the Epoch Times, "