恭喜发财!Happy Chinese New Year!

2014 Happy Chinese New Year

In honor of Chinese New Year, which is today, I’m dedicating this post entirely to a discussion of Chinese New Year traditions, culture, and most importantly, FOOD! That being said, here are the most important things you need to know about Chinese New Year:

1) When is Chinese New Year?

This year, Chinese New Year falls on January 31. Because this holiday is always celebrated on the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar, its date in the Western calendar changes every year. It is quite early this year; usually, it is celebrated in the early spring and is often called the “Spring Festival” (春节 - Chun jie).

2) How do you wish someone Happy New Year in Chinese?

Happy New Year! = 新年快乐 (Xin nian kuai le)

Happy Spring Festival! = 春节快乐 (Chun jie kuai le)

…and, if you want to be really authentic, you can say…

May you have a prosperous New Year! = 恭喜发财 (Gong xi fa cai)

In case any of the non-Chinese speakers are wondering about pronunciation, click here.

3) What do Chinese people do to celebrate Lunar New Year?

Lunar New Year is China’s most important holiday. People get time off from work and school and return home to spend the holiday with their families (equivalent in that sense to Christmas in the West). Check out CNN’s article about a really cool moving map depicting travel in China during the holiday.

Fireworks are a really huge part of celebrating Chinese New Year. I have never actually been in China during the holiday, but I once heard someone say that if you’re in Beijing during the Spring Festival, it sounds like a war-zone due to the constant explosions of firecrackers!

During the New Year Festival, elder or married Chinese people give red envelopes of money to younger, unmarried people and children. These are called 红包 (hong bao), and they can contain anything from a few dollars to a couple hundred (depending on the income level of your social circle). Since the numbers eight and six are considered very lucky in China, it is very common to see these amounts in the envelopes. These envelopes come in many varieties, but they are always red. Here’s what they look like:

Hong bao

I am partial to the Hello Kitty one 🙂

Chinese people also celebrate the New Year by preparing special dumplings (饺子 – jiao zi). Although this is a special Spring Festival tradition, dumplings are available throughout the year as well. When I was in China, I would eat them for lunch at my school’s cafeteria for about $1.50! I’m a vegetarian, so I’ve never had the really special ones filled with pork or seafood, but I can attest that the boiled or steamed cilantro filled ones are absolutely delicious. I used to dip them in a vinegary soy sauce with chili and extra cilantro on top. YUM!

Dumplings

4) How is the Chinese Zodiac related to the holiday?

As you may or may not know, 2014 is the Year of the Horse or, in Chinese: 马 (ma). There are twelve Chinese zodiac animals, each one is associated with different years, so all babies born this year will be associated with the horse zodiac. Each zodiac has different personality traits and characteristics, and you can determine what zodiac you are by clicking here. For example, horses are very outgoing, animated, and optimistic.

Horse zodiac

If you’re a snake (like me), then you’re intelligent, materialistic, cunning, and analytical! (Hmm…. sounds good to me except the “materialistic” part)! You can find out more about each of the zodiac signs here. Just remember, Chinese culture does put a lot of stock into these, so even if you think that your zodiac doesn’t suit you at all, it is good to know which animal you are!

On that note, I hope you all enjoy 2014, Year of the Horse! 恭喜发财!

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Lecture Notes: John Garnaut on The Rise of Xi Jinping and the Destruction of Bo Xilai

Bo Xilai on Time

A few weeks ago, I attended a fascinating lecture at my school on recent power politics in China. The talk was given by John Garnaut, a China media correspondent and author of The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo. (You can read more about him and see the details of the program I attended here.) Basically, he talked about the Bo Xilai scandal and trial that took place in summer 2013. It’s quite complicated, so if you want some more details, you can read about it on the Wikipedia article on Bo here, or check out this useful timeline from BBC of the most important events. If you’re a fan of political drama and intrigue, look no further than the Bo Xilai case: truly, the best writer in Hollywood could not have cooked up a more deliciously twisted storyline!

Even though my understanding of this very complex scandal is quite limited, I thought that Garnaut managed to make the topic pretty accessible and also talked about some very interesting and more general aspects of Chinese politics which I will discuss here.

As Garnaut pointed out, Chinese politics are often viewed by outsiders as an inaccessible and impenetrable “Black Box”. Generally speaking, the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP and other government officials are selected in a highly secretive process, and, in fact, most of Chinese politics operate within this very opaque system. Garnaut argues that the Bo Xilai scandal was a game-changer in Chinese politics because it was carried out mostly in the public eye with a higher degree of transparency; not because the policies of the CCP have changed, but because the landscape of China’s politics itself has evolved and transformed. China has a huge and active community of netizens who, despite the efforts of Chinese censors, are accessing twitter and Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform. By doing so, these netizens are exposing and engaging with political scandals (and creating a total PR nightmare for the Propaganda Ministry!) Even five years ago, this level of citizen engagement would have been unfathomable in Chinese politics. Garnaut even pointed out that in some cases, netizens were more aware and knowledgeable of the details of the Bo Xilai case than former President Hu Jintao! Garnaut insisted that social media has really widened the bandwidth of information gathering in China, and it would be impossible to put the Bo Xilai scandal back into the “Black Box” of Chinese politics.

Garnaut also discussed the factional divisions within Chinese politics, which, although fascinating, are highly complex and intricate. Given the transparency issues, it is hard to get a sense of the web of connections, or 关系 (guanxi) that determines one’s fate in the political arena in China. I’m not really going to delve into the issue of factionalism too deeply here, except to say that Garnaut referred to former President Jian Zemin as “The Godfather” of Chinese Politics, which I though was a humorous and accurate characterization!

The latter portion of Garnaut’s lecture focused on current President Xi Jinping, who assumed office in March of 2013. He is quickly emerging as a departure from previous Chinese politicians with an increased attention to the PLA. As Garnaut said: “If Bo Xilai’s fall redefined Chinese society, Xi Jinping’s rise redefined it yet again”.

I found Garnaut’s talk quite insightful and enlightening especially given the complexities of the issues he dealt with. I haven’t read his book yet, but it is definitely on my list!

Dose of Philosophy

子曰:”三人行,必有我师焉:择其善者而从之,其不善者而改之.”

Confucius said: “In a group of three people, there is always something I can learn. Choose to follow the strengths of others, use the shortcomings to reflect upon ourselves.”

Verse 21 of Analects of Confucius Chapter 7

“Red Star Over China” by Edgar Snow – Book Review

In one of my favorite classes during my time as an undergraduate studying East Asian Studies, I was required to read Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow, a classic account of the American journalist’s months spent with the Chinese Red Army in 1936. If you want some more information on the book itself, check out this brief synopsis from the Foreign Affairs website.

by Edgar Snow

by Edgar Snow

Notably, Edgar Snow was the first Westerner to interview Chairman Mao. He became historically significant as an outsider who was granted privileges and information during a turbulent time in Chinese history. Snow outlined his findings in his “classical account of the birth of Chinese Communism”, which claimed the authority of investigative, objective journalism, and was crucial in shaping the Western understanding of China and Chinese Communism.

Snow does display some signs of objectivity throughout his work, especially when he describes Zhou Enlai’s thoughts on the journalist himself: “I have a report that you are a reliable journalist, friendly to the Chinese people, and that you can be trusted to tell the truth…It does not matter that you are a not a communist…You can write about everything you see”. By demonstrating that the Chinese Communists valued truth and were tolerant of different ideologies (tenants of the brand of Enlightenment Liberalism upon which the United States were founded), Snow attempts to create sympathy for the Communist cause in the West. With this statement, he also implies that his account is uncensored, and thus alludes that the information he provides in the following pages is accurate and objective.

Although the author attempts to be objective by asking tough, expository questions throughout the work, “Red Star Over China” must be interpreted with an understanding of Snow’s biases, which arise because he does not adequately evaluate the answers he is supplied with by the Communist leaders, the peasants, the members of the army, and from his own personal experiences. Snow compares the Red army to the White army by interviewing mainly victims of the White army and mainly soldiers in the Red army, and depicting mainly the positive aspects of the Red army and the negative aspects of the White army (unfortunately for Snow, comparing apples and oranges is rarely a convincing strategy). He quotes from members of the Red army: “The Red Army helps the poor”, “It is not like the White districts, where poor people are slaves of the landlords and the Kuomintang” “He [a Red soldier] was fighting for the revolution, which would free the poor”. Of course, utilizing motivational quotations and gross generalizations is not sufficient evidence to prove that the Red army, and by extrapolation the Communist cause in China, is intrinsically “better” (i.e., more humane, more concerned with the general welfare of Chinese citizens, more logical or practical than other ideologies) than the Kuomintang and feudalism, or any other combination of army and government. Despite this, Snow’s testimonies and reasoning did indeed foster a significant amount of sympathy for Chinese Communism.

Snow’s partialities are possibly most apparent in his descriptions of Mao Zedong, of whom he thought very highly. He admired Mao’s intellect, ideology, willingness to live in the exact same conditions as his troops and comrades, talent as a military strategist, charm and appeal, and artistic creative ability. Snow even translated one of Mao’s poems about the Long March, and described Mao as “a rebel who could write verse as well as lead a crusade”. Again, Snow appeals to Western ‘Enlightenment liberalism’, arguing that Mao’s ideologies were well thought out and were constructed according to logical transitions and progressions: “He had in his youth had strongly liberal and humanistic tendencies, and the transition from idealism to realism evidently had first been made philosophically”.

Interestingly, Snow’s fascination and admiration of Mao sets Snow apart from many Westerners who also wrote about China. While authors like Paul Claudel, James Hilton, and Henri Michaux had written about the East as though it were an exotic garden, or a beautiful but stagnant fantasy-land, Snow argued that China was in fact a very dynamic country with change on the horizon. In his description of Mao, Snow writes: “one felt a certain force of destiny in Mao…If their [the peasant’s] “demands” and the movement which was pressing them forward were the dynamics which could regenerate China, then in that deeply historical sense Mao Zedong might possibly become a very great man”. 

While I was abroad in Fall 2009, our group traveled to Yan’an, the birthplace of the Chinese Communist revolution. It was cold and desolate, and I personally found it very difficult to gain an understanding of how the movement was inspired and carried out by merely visiting the place where it began. Edgar Snow’s account offered a lot of insight into this complicated historical event, but also raises a lot of questions: did Snow initially intend to showcase the Communists in such a positive light, or did this evolve as he learned more about the cause? Were Snow’s biases a result of his personal predisposition to socialist ideologies, or did they develop as Snow began to admire Mao Zedong as a personality and leader? How can the reader gain objective insight into the rise of Chinese communism, especially since this particular political ideology is so polarizing?

Perhaps rendering Snow’s account “a classic on the birth of Chinese Communism” is somewhat of a misnomer; as Snow’s work does not merely function as a piece of objective, expository journalism but also proved influential in shaping Western attitudes toward Chinese Communism through the author’s own nuanced partialities. Regardless of one’s views on the biases in Snow’s account, however, the reader must concede that Snow has been able to successfully “penetrate China” on at least two levels; firstly, by simply gaining access to the Communist movement and Party members when no other Westerner was able to do so, and secondly, by identifying Chinese history as intrinsically dynamic and transformative.

So if you’re ever in the mood for some leisurely reading about the historical birth of Chinese Communism, I urge you to give Edgar Snow’s “Red Star Over China” a quick look!

“Dreaming in Chinese” by Deborah Fallows – Book Review

by Deborah Fallows

by Deborah Fallows

 

A couple of years ago, I went on a tour of the lovely Freer Gallery of Asian Art in Washington D.C. If you ever find yourself in D.C., please do go check it out. Like many of the museums on the National Mall, it is totally free to the public and has an incredible collection that is presented beautifully. Also, this museum has one of the best gift shops of any museum I have ever been to (although that may just be the result of my fascination with all things Asia)!

While browsing through imported silk scarves from Japan, coffee table books about Chinese tea, and silver jewelry from Nepal, I stumbled upon a small paperback entitled “Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language” by Deborah Fallows. Since I had studied Chinese language for four years at that point, I decided it might be an interesting read and bought it on a whim. This book is a fascinating account of the author’s experience learning Mandarin while living in Shanghai, and it thoroughly catalogues both the triumphs and pitfalls of acquiring such a difficult language. As a student of Mandarin myself who has also spent some time in China, I found that I could relate to the author’s experiences, especially the humorous accounts of mixing up tones to sometimes disastrous results! It is a rather short read, but I found it both accurate and insightful. Deborah Fallows has a Ph.D. in linguistics and speaks six languages, so she writes from the perspective of a professional linguist. Even though this book is specifically focused on learning Mandarin, I found it very accessible and the author’s journey will resonate with anyone who is interested in linguistics, languages, or Asia in general. It was particularly inspiring for my own study of Mandarin, and I hope it will inspire others to begin learning Chinese as well. I find that, too often, people assume that Mandarin is extremely difficult almost to the point of being impenetrable, and give up before they even begin to learn about it at all! Hopefully, people like Deborah Fallows can attempt to change this pattern by inspiring and encouraging people to take up Mandarin as a second (or third, or fourth!) language.

If you’re interested, check out this NPR review and excerpt from the book.