Updates On Learning Chinese

It’s been a few weeks since my last post on learning Chinese, so here is new info for anyone interested.

1. In case you missed a late update to the original post: “Because of the simplicity of the grammar, Chinese often feels like slang to speakers used to more formalized languages; i.e. slang such as ebonics. A good example is Hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn (好久不见), which literally means “Long time no see.” Apparently it made its way into Anglo slang through Chinese immigrants in San Francisco…”

2. Many Chinese province names are amazingly literal. For instance, Shandong (山东) means “east of the mountains”; Hebei (河北) and Henan (河南) mean north and south of the river, respectively, while Hubei (湖北) and Hunan (湖南) mean north and south of the lake; Guangxi (广西) and Guangdong (广东) refer to west and east widths, respectively; Yunnan (云南) has connotations of south clouds; and the island province of Hainan (海南) means south sea. Likewise for cities. Xi’an (西安) is the western peace; Shanghai 上海 means “on the sea” (sort of like Приморье?); and, of course, the various jing’s denote capitals. So Beijing (北京) is the north capital, Nanjing (南京) is the south capital, and Dongjing (东京) – otherwise known as Tokyo – is the east capital. The very name of the country is literally the “Middle Kingdom” (中国).

3. A friend (and 同学) recently told me that when he was traveling in China this past year, he came across a group of schoolchildren on the train out on a school excursion. They were eager to practice their English and they spoke surprisingly well. This wasn’t Beijing or Shanghai, but a relatively rural backwater. This anecdote supports the contention made on this blog that human capital in the youngest Chinese generations is at least as rich if not more so than in the West – what percentage of Americans can fluently speak a second language? – and as such this guarantees the country’s rapid future development.

It is a very studious and test-based culture. You can see this on a recent BBC series on the Chinese school system. Many foreign critics, as well as many Chinese themselves, argue that the focus on group and rote learning undermines individual creativity and stunts individual development. (That is partly why so many aspire to send their children to Western universities like Oxford or Princeton). To an extent they have a point; certainly, given the rapidly diminishing returns to studying more than an hour or two per day (as the brain can only absorb so much), spending all day in the classroom or library is very ineffective, almost idiotic even. That said I would argue that even that system is still superior to what passes for education in many schools in Latin America, where it seems little gets done or taught (see PISA scores); and increasingly, in many Western countries (where the focus on individual creativity and self-esteem has reached such ridiculous levels that they directly get in the way of learning basic facts and skills).

4. Western (and Russian) conceptions of time envisage it as going from left to right. The Chinese envisage it going from top to bottom; for instance, next week is literally “below” or “downwards” week. This is more accurate, reflecting the law of increasing entropy.

5. Just for yalensis. ;)This poem is a good illustration of why alphabetising the language really is a bad idea.


Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

6. At least in the US, many Chinese restaurants have different names in English and Chinese. For instance, the “Great China” restaurant in Berkeley is actually called “Bountiful Harvest Year” (丰年) in Chinese. Westerners and legal documents know it as “Great China”; the local Chinese community knows it by its Chinese name.

According to street wisdom, in some cases this discrepancy arises out of the desire to avoid paying taxes. Competition is stiff, profit margins are low, and any advantage helps. Once the IRS latches on to a restaurant, it changes its English name and reconstitutes, while its Chinese-name “brand” remains intact. (Obviously, in no sense am I implying that “Great China”, which is a famous and long-established institution, engages in this practice. It is mostly small eateries in America’s Chinatowns).

7. Just as Westerners think of the Confucian cultures as “Asian”, “The East”, “East Asia”, with little accounting for differences between Vietnamese and Koreans – let alone Fujianese and Manchurians – so do many Chinese bracket in Italians and Americans and Swedes as belonging to a monolithic “West.” This can come across in language. For instance, the entirety of what we think of as “modern” medicine is known as “Western medicine” (西医) whereas traditional Chinese remedies relying more on acupuncture, herbs, etc. is “central medicine” (中医).

8. The Chinese name for San Francisco is literally Old Gold Mountain (旧金山).


  1. Yalensis says:

    @anatoly: Thank you for informative blog, and congratulations on your continuing progress with the Chinese language. By reading your blog, I have learned the following Chinese words:
    “he” = “river”
    “hu” = “lake”
    “hai” = “sea”
    [I notice that these 3 water words all start with the letter “h”, is that a coincidence, or, more likely, are they variants of the same proto-word?]
    “shan” = “mountains”
    “yun” = “clouds”
    [Again, is it a coincidence that these words end with the “n” sound, or is that a marker of the plural?]
    ‘an = “peace”
    “shang” = “on” (preposition)
    “jing” = “city”
    [Points of the compass:]
    “bei” = “north”
    “nan” = “south”
    “dong” = “east”
    “xi” = “west”
    Did I get those right?
    Now, as to your delightful tongue-twister (shi shi shi… etc.) obviously this speaks to the issue of homophones. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any homophones in Russian(?), but I know in English there are many homophones, for example “to”, “two” and “too”. Three completely different words, used to be pronounced in 3 different ways, but then, through sound changes over the centuries, came to be pronounced alike, causing many headaches and humorous misunderstandings for speakers of the language.
    If English were to reform its orthography, as I recommend, these 3 words would all have to be spelled alike, something like “tu”. Well, what to do to avoid confusion? This is one of the factors holding languages back from reforming older orthographies.
    Well, I have a proposed solution for this problem: in the case of homophones, simply add a subscript to show which “tu” you mean. Here is an example of proposed phonetic spelling: “Ay wud layk tu(1) bay tu(2) bananaz tu(3).” (“I would like to buy two bananas too…”). Which homophone variant gets which subscript would have to be decided by whichever institute or national academy is responsible for composing standard dictionaries of the written language.
    Similar thing could be done in Chinese, therefore with the addition of subscripts the tongue-twister could be decipherable if written in pinyin.

    • @yalensis,

      You’re right on all counts, you have high linguistic intelligence! One minor point, though – albeit not one you can decipher from the place names (which aren’t written in pinyin when in an English text) – is that these “hai”, “nan”, “jing” etc. should all be written with markers to indicate which of the four tones they belong to.

      Foregoing tones means that Chinese will have a truly difficult time understanding you. ;)

      I notice that these 3 water words all start with the letter “h”, is that a coincidence, or, more likely, are they variants of the same proto-word?

      I wouldn’t jump to conclusions. For instance, 江 = jiang1 (as in province of Heilongjiang, 黑龙江 lit. Black Dragon River) also means a river; but unlike 河 / he2 it refers to a specifically really wide and big river.

      川 is chuan1 and also means river, though now its largely archaic. But it does survive in the name for a Chinese province, Sichuan (四川) which lit. means Four Rivers.

      And an ocean is 洋 = yang2, so no visible connection there either.

      As for “n” endings, they are very, very common. Like every 3rd word or thereabouts. Because the only consonants on which a Chinese syllable can end is “n”, “ng”, or “r”. So no possible connection there.

      I’d be really cautious about trying to deduce these connections without a really good grounding in Chinese etymology. There’s a lot of debates there even among experts. ;)

      • yalensis says:

        Thanks, Anatoly. Yes, deciphering languages is a lot of fun, but it does take many utterances before one can draw etymological conclusions. In my Introduction to General Linguistics class (undergraduate level), as an exercise, we were given something like 10 pages of utterances (for example, “The man took his dog to the hunt in the days when the sun was low in the sky…”) from a completely alien non-Indo-European language class. You get the utterances (in international phonetic alphabet) plus a literal translation, and then try to figure out the words, prefixes, endings, etc. It’s like solving a puzzle, and quite fun! And this is exactly how early anthropologists initially deciphered some of these unknown languages. To do it, they obviously needed an intelligent bi-lingual native speaker who could provide both utterances and translations. If such was lacking, then many of these languages died out, unfortunately.

      • The 氵 radical means water.

        • yalensis says:

          @charly: In terms of historical linguistics, does anyone know what the proto-word for “water” was (phonetically, that is, not the hieroglyph) in the proto-Chinese language? I mean, way back in the days before syllable-final consonants morphed into tones? For example, proto-IndoEuropean-Hittite had 2 “water” words, one was something like “wodar” (becoming English “water”, Russian “voda”), and the other was something like “hokwa” (becoming Latin “aqua”). “Water” is such a basic-concept word that it seems to survive intact throughout the millenia in many different language families.

          • The current word is “shuǐ” (水). It seems similar across Chinese / SE Asian languages being “seoi2″ in Cantonese, “swu” in Korean, and even “thủy” in Vietnamese so I’m assuming they all come from one similar common source.

  2. What percentage of Americans can fluently speak a second language?

    Huh, which country is famed for it being monolingual?

  3. “This anecdote supports the contention made on this blog that human capital in the youngest Chinese generations is at least as rich if not more so than in the West – what percentage of Americans can fluently speak a second language?”

    I don’t think that the mere fact that someone has learned a foreign language says much about his intelligence. Learning Chinese writing, especially in adulthood, is of course an exception. That does require brains and a lot of patience.

    For most of human history most people had to have been bilingual or trilingual. I’m assuming that learning multiple languages is more like walking than like doing differential equations – the ability to do it is a human universal. The modern situation where we have huge highly-homogeneous languages spoken by tens of millions each, and where a person can function adequately knowing just one language, would never have come about without modern government-run educational systems and modern media. It’s not normal. For most of human history every village and every hunting band would have had its own dialect. This is still true in Africa and in Papua New Guinea. A woman marrying into the neighboring village would have had to learn a new language. There would have usually been a lingua franca used in market places, more often a couple of competing ones. If there was a literate elite, it would have used a different language entirely. The current situation in the anglosphere, where not even the elites, not even intellectuals, are expected to know more than one language, is, I think, bizarre and historically unprecedented. And it may not last, either.

    I do think that the mean IQ in China is high, by the way. Beyond statistics (which can always be fudged), this is supported by my impression that Chinese-Americans tend to come from backgrounds that are ordinary for southern China. And they do extremely well in schools here. Immigration from India and Cuba was skewed towards the elites, but I don’t think this is true of Chinese immigration. Anecdotally, these seem to be just ordinary people from the southern provinces.

    “Many foreign critics, as well as many Chinese themselves, argue that the focus on group and rote learning undermines individual creativity and stunts individual development.”

    I don’t know if that’s true. If Amy Chua didn’t force her daughters to study, would they have really become more creative? If young, athletic Kenyans didn’t concentrate on long-distance running, could any of them have become Olympic sprinters instead? Weightlifters? Is it really a relentless focus on marathons that prevents Kenya from ever winning any 100m medals? I would bet on the answer being “no”. Both as individuals and as groups, different people are naturally good at different things. Normally, we get the farthest by exploiting our strengths to the fullest, not by spending all of our time working on our weaknesses.

    I’m a big nerd, for example. Would it have been smart for me to want to break into acting when I was young? News anchoring? There are people out there who’re spectacular at that without any effort at all. If I spent 20,000 hours practicing being suave in front of a camera, would I have become some sort of a threat to George Clooney? Would it have been an intelligent way to spend my time? But the sort of thing that Ken Jennings did – THAT I could have probably tried to emulate. In short: most of the time the smart way to go is to exploit one’s strengths, and for the average Chinese, studiousness (ru: усидчивость) is the big one.

    “Western (and Russian) conceptions of time envisage it as going from left to right. The Chinese envisage it going from top to bottom…”

    Another such observation: it appears from their writing system that the ancient Chinese assumed that we think with our hearts. Seems weird. Wouldn’t they have noticed that head injuries tend to mess with the victims’ thinking?

    • If Kenya had the same doping tests and doctors as Jamaica than i certainly expect them to win medals.

      A lot of your examples are in reality just hard work and the right environment.

      • Brother Karamazov says:

        AFAIK, nearly all prominent Kenyan long distance runners came from the same valley. People in that valley are unique because many have a gene, which somehow blocks feelings of tiredness. This explains lack of prominent sprinters too. There are many similar examples, e.g. North Europeans are much more likely to have a gene blocking effects of alcohol, than e.g. far Eastern Asians.

      • Charly, it would be very strange if every person and every kin group had the same exact levels of the same exact talents. Evolution isn’t supposed to work that way. A belief that different environments wouldn’t have produced different abilities in different peoples is not compatible with the belief in evolution.

        As for sprinting vs. long-distance running, I’ve read that the former requires lots of fast-twitch muscles and that the latter requires lots of slow-twitch muscles. I’ve also read that West Africans have lots of the fast-twitch kind, and East Africans of the slow-twitch kind. I’m sure that doping is available in lots of countries besides Jamaica. You think the Chinese government, for example, would pass up a chance like that? If almost everybody does it, then the differential success rates averaged over long periods of time are probably back to reflecting natural differences.

        • I doubt that on average Jamaicans are better sprinters than Kenyans. But sports isn’t decided by averages but the extremes. And there are also Kenyans with fast-twitching muscles but they don’t develop their talent into sprint champions because in Kenya there isn’t money and fame in it unlike Jamaica.

          • Should read: I don’t doubt that on average Jamaicans are better sprinters than Kenyans.

          • Olympic medals wouldn’t bring money and fame in a poor country? I don’t believe that for a second. This is a clear example of “if they could, they would.”

            In sports especially, money and fame follow objectively-measured success more often than they create it. If this weren’t true, Saudi Arabia would win dozens of times more Olympic medals than Kenya and Jamaica combined, South American teams wouldn’t compete on equal terms with European ones for the World Cup for 80 years straight, and Kenyans wouldn’t outperform the entire developed world in marathons decade after decade.

            • Being number 8 in the nation Jamaican sprint championship makes you kind of famous in Jamaica. And with fame comes money.

              I don’t know if the marathon runners are famous in Kenya but they make big bucks (at least in a Kenyan context) running marathons but the money they make is peanuts from a Western perspective. Besides you don’t know if you good in the marathon until you tried it and not many people do that in the West at an age that you still can become a champion.

    • I don’t think that the mere fact that someone has learned a foreign language says much about his intelligence.

      Learning European languages is pretty hard for Chinese. They have to grasp two complicated things not present in Chinese: (1) lots of new sounds, and the whole concept of disregarding tones and linking across words with multiple consonants as opposed to a limited set of syllables; (2) in many cases, a much more complicated grammar.

      Well, I agree with your wider point – that language learning isn’t as intellectually demanding as high-end math and sciences. I was just highlighting an interesting (counter-conventional wisdom) anecdote, plus it does indicate that Chinese schools – even rural schools – are on the whole doing a really good job if they can teach children to foreign language fluency (this is something that even many of the best grammar schools in the UK don’t manage).

      I don’t know if that’s true.

      My main point there is while encouraging a studiousness is good (and far better than the glorification of the lack of it, which now prevails in some quarters) many Asians take it to ridiculous levels.

      For instance, the effectiveness of study plummets after an hour or two due to declining marginal returns. But nonetheless some parents insist their children spend their lives tucked in front of books in their rooms. Not only are they getting minimal value out of about 75% of that time, but they also fail to develop social skills. This is very counter-productive, even idiotic. (This is a major reason why there are relatively few Asians in the upper echelons of business and management in the US, despite their greater academic achievements relative to whites. Many become a kind of intellectual proletariat.)

      Of course, this is bad for them; but good for the US. (If it hadn’t been for this intellectual proletariat Silicon Valley wouldn’t be anything like what it is today). Very bad for the US if indigenous Asians adopt mainstream US attitudes and the inflow of human capital from abroad declines (both are now happening). China itself doesn’t face this danger because its mainstream culture very much prizes academic achievement and this will presumably remain the case for at least another generation.

      • Learning a language depends on need and exposer. Neither of which schooling excels in.

        ps. Are American films dubbed or (only) subtitled in China because my experience is that dubbing and not speaking English well go hand in hand

        • yalensis says:

          I suppose it is a matter of personal preference, but I personally hate watching dubbed movies. In Soviet period, all foreign movies were dubbed into Russian, and I think this was insult to the intelligence of audience (assuming they would not go to see movie if it wasn’t in Russian, even though Russians are universally literate and able to read subtitles).
          I personally would rather see foreign film in original language with subtitles. Ditto with operas: public enjoyment of operas really shot up when theaters began to show translated super-titles at the top of the stage.

          • Be happy that it is dubbed. In some markets (read US and somewhat China) they remake it and you can’t see the original at all

      • Brother Karamazov says:

        AK: “Well, I agree with your wider point – that language learning isn’t as intellectually demanding as high-end math and sciences.”

        Cannot agree with you on this. Brains of different people are organized and do work in different ways. For example, the most talented student among my uni (a top sci/tech in SU – PhyzTech) classmates was always struggling with English. Well, for majority of us it was not much important at that time. However, he was not able to master it even in perestroika in spite of the cardinal change of his attitude towards languages and spending good time in the US. It is the English which did not allow him to get a place in a western uni – the only chance to continue his fundamental research, which was everything to him. In contrast, many of those who are objectively much less math/sci gifted and minded, but more “languagable” managed to do this.

        Another example is a man who can easily memorize a hundred or two of lines of a computer code, but year-by-year struggles to remember faces of more than 6-8 students in his class in spite of teaching them whole academic year. Yet, there is a friend who still cannot write a code of more than 5 lines long, in spite of my many attempts to teach, but easily remembers a few dozens of newly met people in a couple of hours meeting.

        Who is more intelligent? I do think it is valid to compare intellects across different types of activities. Just performances within the same one. I would also recommend to read Netochka Nezvanova, if you did not yet. This Dostoevskii’s reflection on studiousness and giftedness is superb.

  4. yalensis says:

    On Chinese historical linguistics:
    I found this interesting link on the internet. Authors trace proto-Chinese languages back as far as 4000 BC:
    The Proto-Sino-Tibetan (PST) homeland seems to have been somewhere on the Himalayan plateau, where the great rivers of East and Southeast Asia (including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Salween, and Irrawaddy) have their source. The time of hypothetical ST unity, when the Proto-Han (= Proto-Chinese) and Proto-Tibeto-Burman (PTB) peoples formed a relatively undifferentiated linguistic community, must have been at least as remote as the Proto-Indo-European period, perhaps around 4000 B.C.
    Another interesting site correlates proposed reconstructions of proto-vocabulary.
    Specifically, the proto-Sino-Tibetan word for “water” is speculatively reconstructed thus:

    Proto-Sino-Tibetan: *χĭw(s)
    Sino-Caucasian etymology: Sino-Caucasian etymology

    Meaning: water, moisture
    Tibetan: hus moisture, humidity; khu-ba fluid, liquid.
    Kachin: khoʔ2 to spill.
    Lushai: huʔ wet.
    Kiranti: *kù

    Note that the asterisk in front of the word indicates that this is a theoretical/reconstructed word and not by any means a proved utterance.
    I am little rusty on my international phonetic alphabet, but I believe the reconstructed word *χĭw(s)
    begins with a voiceless (=without vibration of larynx) guttural fricative (like Russian X).
    Note that this would be back in the days before tones came about in Sino-Tibetan languages. Tones only became needed after syllable-final consonants fell off or merged.
    Note also that some linguists even believe that way way way way way way way way way way way way back (like 100,000 BC!) this might even be cognate with Proto-Indo-European “water” word “*hokwa”, but don’t get excited because this is EXTREMELY speculative.

  5. sinotibetan says:

    Dear Anatoly and yalensis,
    Wow! Very interesting discussion about the language of my motherland!
    Came here , thanks to yalensis highlighting the discussion. :)
    I have great respect for both yalensis and Anatoly … I have nothing to say but both of you are amongst the smartest people I know! The Chinese language is certainly a very difficult language to learn and Anatoly’s progress is very, very impressive. Unfortunately, I am not good in written Chinese as I am not from China(I am Chinese diaspora in South East Asia and attended vernacular school where we learned English and Malay) although I speak Mandarin and a smattering of my ‘mother dialect’ – Kejia hua(Hakka language), Cantonese(sadly mostly ‘swear words’ from Hong Kong movies) and Hokkien dialect(a Minnan hua from Southern Fujian around Xiamen). I am one of that so-called ‘Westernized Chinese diaspora’.

    I have much to say about intelligence, Chinese admiration for academic achievements(my parents drilled this into me from a very young age – I have to say, it worked for me as I do LOVE learning till today!) and the clash of Western and Chinese culture but that’s for another day(hope I will find the time!).

    Just a few points regarding Mandarin(which I think is the ‘dialect’ most people consider as ‘Chinese language’):-
    1. The Southern Provinces have dialects that are very different and not mutually understood by Mandarin speakers:Zhejiang, southern Jiangsu, Shanghai and parts of Anhu – Wu dialects,i Guangdong – Yue dialects, Fujian – Min dialects(eg Minnan, Minbei, Mindong), Hunan – Xiang dialects, Jiangxi – Gan dialects, Hainan Island – Qiong(a subdivision of Minnan) and Kejia hua in the mountainous areas of Guangdong and Fujian mostly. Apparently these dialects retain many characteristics of the ‘Old Chinese’ prior to the Manchurian invasion. Most of these dialects are also extremely tonal – if I am not mistaken some Minnan hua have 8-10 tones(cf. the 4 tones in Mandarin)! Manchurian rule led to significant changes in the spoken language of Northern China(many Turanian-Sinotibetan admixture). The Southern provinces have dialects that are in practical terms languages – perhaps somewhat analogous to French, Romanian, Spanish, Italian and Portugese with “Latin Vulgate” progenitors. I suspect the Fujianese are descendants of the ‘original Chinese’ with Min Yue(now extinct) and similarly Cantonese with the Tai-Kadai Yue people(now extinct) – long lost cousins of the Zhuang in Guangxi-Zhuang province of today.
    2. Most of the Chinese diaspora in the West(and South East Asia) are from the southern provinces(as noted by some commentors above) – especially from Fujian, Guangdong and Zhejiang. The ‘psyche’ of these people(and their predilection for business) are probably quite different from the Northerners. Some people from these provinces speak ‘non-standard Mandarin’ – i.e. Mandarin with a distinctive ‘slang’.
    3. Surnames encountered in South east asia and migrants to the West like Tan, Chua, Chan, Lim, Chee etc. are ‘dialect surnames’ – not standard Mandarin surnames! Eg. Ling in Mandarin is Lim in Minnan hua; Chen in Mandarin is Tan in Minnan hua, Chan in Cantonese and Chin in Kejia hua(interestingly Tran in Vietnamese and Jin in Korean!). Paradoxically, the mainland Chinese in their quest for ‘standardization’ lost this ‘dialect heterogeneity’ – we Chinese diaspora kept our ‘dialect names’ but our relatives in Mainland China no longer do so – at least not in their ‘official names’. Interesting, huh?


    • yalensis says:

      @sinotibetan: Wow, it is amazing that you learned so many dialects growing up. Thanks for discussion on Chinese dialects, like most westerners I am not very familiar with that part of the world and did not even know there were that many dialects!
      Thanks also for your kind words. Now, I cannot speak for Anatoly, who I do believe is quite brilliant, but I realistically see myself as only average intelligence. But as child I got reputation for being very smart, and to an extent I believed my own hype. Like you, I had parent pushing me to study all the time; in my case it was not a “Tiger Mom”, but a “Tiger Dad”. I was a bookworm, loved to read, studied all the time, was always good at taking tests, did very well in school. Teachers loved me, and I got all puffed up thinking I was some kind of genius. Then I grew up and got out into real world. What a disappointment to discover that I was only of average intelligence, and so many people around so much smarter than me! Don’t worry about me, though, I was able to adjust to reality and find my niche. However, if I could go back in time and change one thing about my childhood, then I would spend less time reading books, and more time learning a musical instrument!

      • sinotibetan says:

        Dear yalensis,

        Am up late studying and read your comments. Wow, we do have many things in common!
        “but I realistically see myself as only average intelligence”
        “I got all puffed up thinking I was some kind of genius”
        “What a disappointment to discover that I was only of average intelligence, and so many people around so much smarter than me!”
        These things you said about yourself is true also for me!!

        “then I would spend less time reading books, and more time learning a musical instrument!”
        Never too late to learn a musical instrument although I agree it’s harder when one gets ‘older’. I can play the pianoforte – but started very young, age 5 years old. Still play the piano – I actually love doing so as a hobby – mostly Western classical music(the easier ones – my favourite composer is [unfortunately not Russian but German] J.S. Bach); and pop. Good for relaxation. Unfortunately, I am bad at Jazz and my regret is never learning the strings – acoustic guitar and the violin.

        Just some stuff about Chinese admiration for academic excellence:-
        “The Chinese divide society into four classes, in the following order of importance: the scholars, the farmers, the artisans and the merchants……The farmers, the artisans and the merchants, being all part of the sap of the earth, are humble, quiet, self-respecting citizens. The farmers are placed, by Confucian theory, at the head of these three classes, ….They, together with the merchants and artisans, all look up to scholars as a class entitled to privilege and extra courtesy, and with the difficulty of acquiring a knowledge of the Chinese written characters, this respect comes from the bottom of their hearts.”
        From: My Country and My People – by Lin Yu Tang
        Lin Yu Tang was talking about Chinese society during the last days of Manchu dynasty and the ‘democratic’ period and the above had been the case as early as the Warring States period of the Zhou , moulded into Chinese psyche perhaps during Han, Tang and Song and went on till then. We Chinese , still do think, that the smart and brilliant should be respected and better still be rulers. A nation is too important and complex to be ruled by fools. If an autocrat is smart(and ‘benevolent’) but democracy lead us to be ruled by a fool, we would rather accept autocracy, That’s the Chinese ‘pragmatic’ mode of thinking – in general, that is. We are less enthused by ‘idealism’ which I think is a very Western trait. That is , of course, changing. The younger generation is very much influenced by Western ideals – that started after the downfall of Qing, got squashed for a while by Mao and now ever since Deng opened China up, the younger generation-at least the richer ones in the coastal provinces, admires ‘all things Western’ and they absorb these ideals in a massive way. Nowadays, I think the merchant class(ie businessman) is ABOVE scholar in capitalistic China. In true Chinese pragmatism, people want to be scholars with the hope of becoming rich. I think some are realizing that being a scholar or even a genius does not guarantee material wealth. So. values are changing fast in China and whole of East Asia. “Money rules and money can ‘buy’ respect!” – that’s the values that capitalism ‘teaches’ Asians nowadays.


        • “The Chinese divide society into four classes, in the following order of importance: the scholars, the farmers, the artisans and the merchant”

          What is the difference between this almost any other people in history?
          Rulers/Civil Servants/Priests/Knights first. Farmers officially second, but in reality last.
          Than artisan and way last merchants, but they equalise it with money.

          • sinotibetan says:


            To be a top ranking ‘civil servant’ in ancient China was to pass the very difficult Imperial Exams. I was just trying to explain that perhaps our history explained why we value academic achievements today. I do not think that such Exams existed in the history of most other peoples though I stand corrected. Of course, in the history of European nations, many brilliant people did become civil servants and ‘rulers’ but there were no ‘institution’ like the ‘Imperial Exams’ to ‘select’ these people out for those positions.

            ” Farmers officially second, but in reality last.”
            Indeed. But the founding Emperors of Shu Han and Ming were peasants/farmers.


            • Most areas in Europe were ruled by not particulary large states and you don’t have to use exames if you already know the persons well. But institutions that were to big for that did have exams. See for example the church and the gilds.

              ps. Europe was much more self-organised than China

  6. sinotibetan says:

    Err…correct an error:-
    (I am Chinese diaspora in South East Asia and attended non-vernacular school where we learned English and Malay and no Mandarin/Chinese)


  7. sinotibetan says:

    Dear Anatoly,
    “My main point there is while encouraging a studiousness is good (and far better than the glorification of the lack of it, which now prevails in some quarters) many Asians take it to ridiculous levels.”
    You are right about this. I was(am still, perhaps?)not good in ‘social skills’ and that could possibly be due to my childhood mostly studying in seclusion. I think in my country, that’s changing a lot. In terms of studiousness, I think the younger generation in my country certainly lacked the rigour, discipline and stamina like that of my generation and those before me. The older generation of intellectuals in my country have almost photographic memory, my generation has already declined and the subsequent ones, ‘they are too spoiled’! I think for the majority of Asians migrating to the West , within the next 2 generations, they will lose this ‘studiousness’ and become like the majority.
    I think the right path is a path of moderation. Studiousness must continue to be encouraged; including rote memory. But NOT to the extreme of the Asian ‘Tiger Mom’. The Western concept of individuality, creativity and innovation is good as well. Studiousness without individuality – innovation and new ideas will be lacking. Individuality without knowledge – ideas cannot be changed to reality.
    Being ‘English educated’ allowed me to be open to Western thinking – especially with regards to science and maths. I found that studiousness helped me to retain knowledge and that really helped me in the ‘ideas and innovation’ part. I hope that we in Asia will be able to balance study and ‘socializing’ – and I think I’m more optimistic for us Asians who remain in Asia than those who migrate and live in the West because we receive an ‘attenuated Western influence’.


    • Aristotle already complained that students of his day weren’t as studious, smart and disciplined as the previous generation. This let me to the conclusion that every neanderthaler was a genius.

      • sinotibetan says:


        Thanks for the sarcasm.
        “This let me to the conclusion that every neanderthaler was a genius.”
        Since civilizations and generations ‘wax and wane’, ‘rise and fall’ in cycles and civilizations and peoples started from crude, primitive beginnings, that inference is invalid. ;)


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