Do you remember back in 2003 when nobody really knew anything about China and didn’t care? Back when most of what you knew of Indian economics belonged to a period in which it was referred to as the ‘crown jewel’?
It has dawned on me that the surge in interest in South-East Asia really only began pretty recently. Before that it had of course been a part of the world which generated a certain amount of interest. The mindboggling reality that the region contained half of humanity was often recalled, yet not fully comprehended. The memory of long gone dynasties and civilizations, fascinating and mystical world religions, plus some kind of grasp on the war in Vietnam was about as much as the average Joe Blow needed to know. In the seventies and eighties the West was forced to acknowledge an emerging economic power in Japan – an anomaly in an otherwise established Western world system. A few miniature ‘tiger’ economies have also been on our radar for a while (Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea). But South-East Asia as a whole still did not seem to hold more importance than any other region until just recently, when that begun to change. Nowadays, people have a real awareness of Asia as an emerging global economic powerhouse. Many believe that a shift in the global economic order is occurring, and no matter how fast or impressive the development is anywhere else, such as in Botswana or Argentina, nobody can steal the limelight like the two major powers of Asia.
I have asked a few people, and while most seem not to have been conscious of it many agree that there has been a relatively sudden change in the common perception and interest about Asia. What is your experience of this? Has there been a change in media attention? Even if you really prefer the sports pages of the paper, or even if you feel like you lack enough knowledge to reply – I still really want to hear what you think!
Filed under East Asia, media
… is a Chinese frigate doing outside the coast of Libya?
After the country achieved independence, a Cameroonian leader said the above. Kwame Nkrumah promised that with independence Ghana would become a paradise within a decade. Of course we now know it wasn’t going to be as easy as they had thought it would. And I think that illustrates quite nicely how unreasonable it is for us to expect of China, or any other developing country, to be everything we want them to be in a flash. Rome wasn’t built in a day, things like effective legal systems aren’t built in a decade.
We sometimes quite conveniently forget some of the events accompanying the development of Europe and America. Such as a repressive, paranoid church which imprisoned scientists like Galileo Galilei, burned witches, waged Crusades and launched inquisition movements. Or wars that were so frequent that most had lost count before the Muslims brought us paper. Not to forget the near-eradication of Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals, and slavery which was a part of modern Western history into the twentieth century. The things we pride ourselves in having today, came at a price, and it was seldom pretty.
There are a lot of things that I don’t agree with when it comes to civil liberties in China, such as lack of freedom of press and political freedom. Workers rights in China are a particular interest of mine. But if we simply “open the floodgates” I don’t think it will do anyone any good – least of all the Chinese public. The Chinese Communist Party is no longer communist but in name, and it is adapting and gradually loosening up. Already in a few decades it has come far. China is changing little by little, economically as well as politically, and I think it is the way it should be. The CCP is much more competent than the regimes of, say, Syria or Myanmar. And unlike the Soviet Republic, they’re not sitting on their hands waiting for the system to collapse.
Though most Westerners would undoubtedly reject the idea, there is a conception at the political level in many non-Western countries, notably China, that the role of propaganda in the West is just as important as anywhere else. It is just very subtle, and much more successful.
But is this idea really so ridiculous? Certainly, Western media lack many of the characteristics that we associate with propaganda. (Just to be clear, in China propaganda is not a negatively loaded word.) By contrast, the West has a free press that is not controlled by any one centralized power or strict ideology. There is unhindered discussion and debate. But there are, many will argue, many strong consensuses, as well as a desire to conform to political correctness. Does this, without us noticing, mean that media installs us with biases and presuppositions?
Funny? Yes. True? Maybe…
In any case, although oversimplified, it’s a well point made.
Media today is falling over itself to provide information on the new kid on the block, but here’s a commendable relic from a time when China was not much noticed by the Western world. Mind you this is from 1902, on a series of lectures by Herbert Allen Giles on China and the Chinese, which I think everybody should enjoy and read or, if you prefer, listen to. If you’re not too interested you’d might want to skim through some of the drier language related parts, but in any case this is remarkably well-written.
As many of you probably know, Chinese characters carry meaning rather than sound. (I know there are also what’s called phono-semantic compounds, but give me a break). In fact though it contains both meaning and sound, and although people speaking in different languages may connect different sounds to the same character, the character always has the same meaning. This has made it possible for various dialects or languages throughout China to exist while still being able to understand each other by writing. Convenient, right?
And this extends not only to mainland China and Taiwan. Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese – all of which are linguistically unrelated to Sinitic languages – have created their own pronunciation for Chinese characters known as Kanji, Hanja and Chữ Nho.
This brings me to the real point of today’s post, which is a funny little tale about the clumsy early adoption of the Chinese system of writing in Japan.
Back in the day, Japanese elites had to learn to read and write in Chinese. Unlike the Chinese however, they had no written language of their own, which led to some bizarre occurrences. For example using the sounds of Chinese characters to form Japanese words, even if the actual meaning was just plain silly. If a Chinese person was to sit down and read the Kojiki, a collection of myths from 8th century Japan, he wouldn’t be able to understand much if it at all despite the fact that it would be written in Chinese characters. If he were to read it out loud, a Japanese person passing by would be able understand it perfectly. The Chinese on the other hand would probably end up seriously worrying about what was wrong with the people of Japan as well as wondering what “secret-tea-sky” meant and if perhaps “wooden-chicken-river-pot” had anything to do with it.