Tag Archives: China

China’s English-language megacontest

This post is from Nina Porzucki. Read it if you like but for the full effect, listen to the podcast above.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee plays out this week and while you may be excitedly watching the best spellers in the US battle it out in Maryland, halfway around the world in China, Beijing’s kids are competing for a different kind of title: China’s Best English Speaker.

The Star of Outlook English Competition, sponsored by CCTV, the Chinese State television network, is the largest English competition in the country and, ostensibly, the world.

A sea of parents eagerly await to see when their child will perform. Cameras galore. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

A sea of parents eagerly await to see when their child will perform. Cameras galore. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Hundreds of first through third graders, middle school and high school students gathered at a compound an hour outside of Beijing in the hopes of winning a place to compete at the National Championship this summer. They’re up against a mere 5 million of their peers from around China.

Getting to the national finals, which is televised in front of a huge audience, is an almost Herculean feat involving round after round of exhausting, multi-day tests. But winning means fame, entrance to a good college, a bright future. That’s how former national finalist Michelle Cui explained it to me.

“Such exposure on TV if you make it to the national final and all the things that comes with it will look so good on your track record and CCTV is the deal. … It’s really the maximum exposure an individual can get,” Cui said.

Today, Cui works in advertising and lives in Seattle. All of her fellow competitors have gone on to do interesting things: Host TV shows, write books, one even became the CCTV White House correspondent.

Jack, 7, and his mom at registration.  They lived for a few years in Washington, DC.  Jack remembers that he liked "Capitol Hill" the best.  That, and picnics.  Jack's will perform his favorite song for the talent competition, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Jack, 7, and his mom at registration. They lived for a few years in Washington, DC. Jack remembers that he liked “Capitol Hill” the best. That, and picnics. Jack’s will perform his favorite song for the talent competition, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” (Photo: Sunny Yang)

The kids I met this weekend want to win. Perhaps their parents want it even more.

“I’m not nervous,” 7-year-old “Jack” Zhou Zihan tells me. “I’m looking forward to win the first prize.”

Jack is fairly typical of the Beijing kids I met. They’ve lived abroad, traveled extensively; they’re part of a rising, affluent middle class. Jack lived in Washington, DC, as a toddler. His mother worked at the Chinese Embassy.

He studied English at a very young age, his mother told me. The golden age is two or three, she says, the same age that native speakers learn.

“I want him to be an ambassador between the two countries and around the world,” she says.

Some of the costumes and props were incredible. This little girl is dressed up as Beijing opera performer. The theme of the speech portion of the competition was "I Express China to the World."  Beijing opera was a pretty popular topic as you might imagine. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Some of the costumes and props were incredible. This little girl is dressed up as Beijing opera performer. The theme of the speech portion of the competition was “I Express China to the World.” Beijing opera was a pretty popular topic as you might imagine. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

There are many, many parents with high expectations and blind, or perhaps deaf, love. After witnessing the talent portion of the competition, it’s clear the kids can speak much better than sing English.

But their talents weren’t limited to songs. Contestants had just one minute to show off any way they chose. There were magic tricks, flute performances, one salsa dancer, a couple of Rubix Cube experts, a hockey skater. By dinnertime Saturday night, one of the judges, Hester Veldman, looked bleary eyed.

“I watched 450 talents today. I heard the Frozen song about 300 times,” she says.

Kids and parents crowd around to see the list of finalists. Out of more than 400 kids that competed in the Beijing semifinals, only 80 move on the final round and only 9 from each division will move forward to the National semifinals. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Kids and parents crowd around to see the list of finalists. Out of more than 400 kids that competed in the Beijing semifinals, only 80 move on the final round and only 9 from each division will move forward to the National semifinals. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Veldman’s originally from the Netherlands, but she’s been teaching English in Beijing for the past year. This is her first time judging this kind of competition.

“The parents are really serious about it. I saw a dad who was actually commanding his son to move this way and stand that way and don’t do this and speak louder. They’re used to that pressure. They’re used to it from being in kindergarten all the way to now. So, to them, it might feel like summer cam,p but with our western eyes we think ‘Wow that’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid.’”

"Harry" Xing Wang dressed up to take the stage as Obama circa 2008.  (Photo: Sunny Yang)

“Harry” Xing Wang dressed up to take the stage as Obama circa 2008. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

And then there are kids like Xing Wang, who calls himself Harry.

Harry’s tiny, with glasses. He looks about 11, but he’s 13. Whatever he lacks in size he makes up double in confidence. Harry’s never lived abroad. His parents don’t speak English. They moved from Inner Mongolia to Beijing five years ago. Harry started learning English in the third grade, which is relatively late. Beijingers start in the first grade. But while Harry’s English isn’t the best, he is teeming with ideas. He tugs at my sleeve in anticipation of telling me his talent, which he eventually does.

“Today I’m going to study a part of Obama’s speech. His speech he said in Chicago. Maybe it’s the first time he became president,” he tells me.

Sure enough, Harry takes to the CCTV stage in a red tie and dress slacks and delivers Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech. He came up with this talent idea himself, he tells me. He’s a big Obama fan and he figures, many of the judges would probably be Americans, so this speech would surely make them feel patriotic and surely get him a high score. Clever kid.

Harry performs Obama’s speech to great applause. One judge calls out, “you should run for president.” Harry bows thank you and runs off stage. He is beaming. I whisper a question.

“How do you feel?”

“Very good,” he says.

Harry gives Obama's acceptance speech, hand gestures and all. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Harry gives Obama’s acceptance speech, hand gestures and all. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Outside we speak a little about his feelings for his own president, Xi Jinping — or Chairman Xi as Harry calls him.

“You know Chairman Xi, he is trying to do something called Chinese dream,” he tells me.

President Xi’s Chinese dream, he says, is to help China rise again, to become an important and powerful nation.

“So what’s your Chinese dream?” I ask him.

“I’m going to do my best to help my country grow up.”

Harry may think his country may be in need of growing up, but he himself appears to be doing just fine. He finds out he’s survived the Beijing semifinal and final round. He’ll be headed to the National Semifinals in June — just one round away from the big televised event.

Harry passed out after a grueling weekend. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

Harry passed out after a grueling weekend. (Photo: Sunny Yang)

When I went to wish Harry good luck, I found him passed out, asleep in the back of the auditorium. He doesn’t need my luck anyway. He already told me he’s confident he’ll make it all the way to the TV. I wonder if he’ll give an encore performance of Obama’s speech on CCTV.


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Is China in the midst of a second golden age of poetry?

Poets Mo Mo and Yu Jian reveal a commemorative plaque at the the First Lushan New Century Famous Poets Summit.  (Photo: Heather Inwood)

Poets Mo Mo and Yu Jian reveal a commemorative plaque at the the First Lushan New Century Famous Poets Summit. (Photo: Heather Inwood)

Read this post from Alina Simone. Or listen to the podcast above.

A few weeks ago in Beijing, a dozen well-known poets got together.

Among them was an IT guy who wanted their help testing out a new app for a social network — not based on sharing friends, photos or business contacts, but about sharing poetry. He convinced them to each recite some of their work.

Yibing Huang recorded his poem, “Shoulder to Shoulder We…” into an app called “Poem For You.” According to Yibing, the poets were skeptical. They weren’t “app” kind of guys. Was this really a good venue for poetry, they wondered? But, within minutes of the poets uploading their poems, he says, “there were hundreds of people ‘liking’ them and writing comments.”

Poets Gao Xing, Xiao Xiao and Yibing Huang at the "Poem For You" recording session in Beijing. (Courtesy Yibing Huang)

Poets Gao Xing, Xiao Xiao and Yibing Huang at the “Poem For You” recording session in Beijing. (Courtesy Yibing Huang)

Hundreds of ‘likes’ within minutes. In the US, where poetry can feel like the exclusive domain of MFA grads and disaffected teens, I would never say to someone, “If you really want to understand America, read some modern poetry.” But in today’s China, where it seems like everyone is writing poetry, that might be just the thing to do.

“Maybe you hear a poet like Zheng Xiaoqiong, who’s going to read a poem she wrote when she was a migrant worker in Southern China,” says Jonathan Stalling, editor of Chinese Literature Today, of the scene at a typical reading. “She’ll be talking about the vulnerable bodies of her co-workers, dancing like dust in the afternoon sun, reflecting off the machinery on the factory floor. The next poet could be Luo Ying, the pen name of Huang Nubo, who’s one of the most wealthy men in China and writes poetry from the point of view of a capitalist.”

As in other spheres, the Internet has proven a huge democratizing force in the world of Chinese poetry, leveling the playing field for migrant workers and millionaires alike. But love of verse was already there. Chinese poetry has 2,000 years of tradition at its back. Parents read it to their babies. Kids study it in school. But the thing is, most Chinese believe poetry peaked in the Tang Dynasty. That ended more than 1100 years ago. So for today’s poets, their chosen art form’s exalted status can feel like a double-edged sword.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, new poetry is dead in China,’” poet Ming Di says. She loves the ancient poets, but feels the strict classical forms they pioneered tended to dead end after, you know, a few hundred years.

“Poets in the Tang Dynasty already did their best. And we in 21st Century have to do something new — either we bring something new to the old form or go our own way.”

And they are. Modern Chinese poets are exploring radical new terrain when it comes to form, sentence structure, and perhaps most importantly, subject matter. At the far end of this spectrum, according to professor Heather Inwood, is the “School of Rubbish.” (Although, she says, “you can also translate it as the ‘Trash School,’ or something like that.”)

vvvInwood teaches Chinese cultural studies at the University of Manchester in England and is the author of “Verse Going Viral,” a book about China’s new media scenes. “The ‘School of Rubbish’ became famous for writing poems about, basically, bodily excretions,” she explains. “Their goal was to go one meter lower than the ‘lower body’ — that was the name of an earlier poetry group around the turn of the millennium that wrote about sex. So they were thinking, ‘If we can’t write about sex because that’s already been done, what can we write about that will open people’s eyes to new ways of thinking about poetry?’”

And the answer was: Poems with a toilet theme. Of course, not everyone is convinced this is a hallmark of literary progress.

“People have argued … modern or contemporary Chinese poetry has not completely found its own legitimacy,” says Yibing Huang. “Some people say, ‘Is this a poem?’ You know, ‘This morning, I woke up. I drank a cup of coffee… Life sucks.’ People say that’s not a poem because it doesn’t rhyme. It doesn’t fit a certain expectation.”

Yet, social media may be turning the tide. This past January, WeChat, a messaging and social networking app, produced an unlikely media darling whose poems don’t rhyme and don’t avoid the fact that, yeah, sometimes life sucks. Yu Xiuhua had two books come out in one week and sell out overnight — 15,000 copies.

In addition to being a poet, Yu is also a farmer from a rural village who was born with cerebral palsy. As Ming Di points out, “Some people even consider her [to be the] Emily Dickinson in China.’”

Ming has translated some of Yu Xiuhua’s poetry, including her most famous poem, “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You.”

    To spend or to be spent, what’s the difference if there is any?

    Two bodies collide — the force, the flower opened by the force,

    and the virtual Spring brought by the flower — nothing more than this,

    and this we mistake as life restarting.

    In half of China, things are happening: volcanoes

    erupt, rivers run dry,

    political prisoners and displaced workers are abandoned,

    elk deer and red-crowned cranes get shot.

    I cross the hail of bullets to sleep with you.

    I press many nights into one morning to sleep with you.

    I run across many of me and many of me run into one to sleep with you.

    Of course I can be misguided by butterflies

    and mistake praise as Spring,

    and a village similar to Hengdian as home.

    But all these are absolute

    reasons that I spend a night with you.

Shi Zhongren recites his poetry at the Zhu Gangzi peach blossom poetry meeting in a Beijing suburb. (Photo: Heather Inwood)

Shi Zhongren recites his poetry at the Zhu Gangzi peach blossom poetry meeting in a Beijing suburb. (Photo: Heather Inwood)

It’s hard not to feel good about social networks like WeChat if they can launch a woman like Yu Xiuhua into literary celebrity. And WeChat recently debuted a new program where every evening at 10pm it publishes a poem read by a “daily guest,” including luminaries like China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan. WeChat’s goal for the project is to help people “develop a deeper understanding of life.” Hard to imagine Twitter doing that.

Recently a popular Beijing anchor read “Shoulder to Shoulder We…” one of Yibing Huang’s poems on WeChat. Yibing is thrilled about the exposure the Internet brings him. But what is this all this doing to Chinese poetry?

“In a way I would say there is a danger in contemporary Chinese poetry,” Yibing says. “There is a kind of intellectual laziness. Taking poetry more for its entertainment value or eyeball effect.”

Social media has ensured there’s a lot more poetry out there, but Yibing argues it also makes the good stuff harder to find. How many microblog posts do you really want to scroll through to get your poetic fix? True that, but I wonder if purists are also miffed because they believe poetry is supposed be difficult — and a little out of reach. For this crowd, clickability has taken away some of poetry’s luster, and that’s unlikely to change. But as a vehicle for enjoyment, poetry has always been more unicycle than bullet train. Even the simplest poem requires a lot more of us than settling back to watch a movie.

The Internet isn’t going to kill poetry, people deciding it’s not worth that effort will. And that doesn’t seem likely to happen in China anytime soon.

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China’s linguistic landscape is changing as rapidly as its cities and lifestyles

The children of migrant workers are taught Mandarin at a school in Shanghai. Many speak a regional dialect at home, and some don't speak Mandarin at all when they arrive for the first day of class. (Photo/Ruth Morris)

The children of migrant workers are taught Mandarin at a school in Shanghai. Many speak a regional dialect at home, and some don’t speak Mandarin at all when they arrive for the first day of class. (Photo/Ruth Morris)

Here’s a guest post from Shanghai-based reporter Ruth Morris…

As it stands, Mandarin is the language of government, commerce and pop songs in China. But not everyone is excited about learning it.

While the government insists Mandarin is necessary for social cohesion, some of China’s ethnic minorities have pushed back. Tibetans students, for example, have protested plans to shift nearly all their classes into Mandarin—a policy they say represents a larger campaign by Beijing to dilute Tibetan culture and assert political control.

There have been protests in Cantonese-speaking parts of China too. People there are worried their native dialect is being forced out of public places and into the home.

But the general trend points in the opposite direction. Despite protests and lagging investment in rural education, not to mention the prevalence of regional dialects, Mandarin usage is growing at a breakneck pace.

Just seven years ago, state media reported only about half of China’s population spoke Mandarin, compared with about 70 percent today.

Government policy lags social desire

Steve Hansen and Kellen Parker are the founders of Phonemica, an Internet project that invites people to upload stories in dialects derived from old Chinese. They say China’s staggering economic growth is playing a big role in Mandarin’s expansion. Increasingly, Mandarin is the language of survival, and opportunity.

“I think honestly, in many areas of China, government policy is lagging social desire,” Hansen said.

China’s unruly linguistic landscape is known for its groupings of wildly different dialects that go back hundreds of years, spread over a vast geography.

“The reason it’s so diverse it because it’s so huge. I mean, you have hundreds of millions of people,” said Hansen. “Many of these people, for hundreds of years, they grow up in the same valley. They stay in the same valley. And what’s interesting about China is a lot of them, up until now… have not moved around a lot.”

Menial jobs

Now that’s all changing, fast. Bullet trains crisscross the country. And migrant workers shuttle between home villages and factory floors hundreds of miles away.

On a recent morning in Shanghai, 60 kindergartners—the children of migrant workers from all over China–repeated phrases in Mandarin while their teacher rewarded them with stickers.

School administrator Lai Zherong said many of the school’s students don’t speak Mandarin when they arrive. But they pick it up quickly. Without Mandarin, she said, they risk being slotted into menial jobs when they grow up, on construction sites or factory lines.

Beijing says about 400 million Chinese cannot speak the national language. But Parker, of Phonemica, says: don’t blink.

“I think that number is going to be much, much smaller in 20 years,” he said, then added: “I think it’s going to be shockingly smaller in 20 years.”

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Observing the Tiananmen Anniversary with ‘Big Yellow Duck’

China’s Internet users tried to keep memories of the Tiananmen Incident alive through use of popular memes like the Rubber Duck. (Weibo via Tea Leaf Nation)

China’s Internet users tried to keep memories of the Tiananmen Incident alive through use of popular memes like the Rubber Duck. (Weibo via Tea Leaf Nation)

Here’s a post from my Big Show colleague Traci Tong…

June 4 was the 24th anniversary of the bloody crackdown by Chinese authorities against student protesters in Tiananmen Square.

China’s leaders go to great lengths to prevent people from remembering what happened.

That includes banning online searches for words or phrases like “Tiananmen,” “tanks,” or “June 4th.”

Today Chinese censors added another phrase: “Big yellow duck.”

Rachel Lu, editor at Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine that analyzes China’s social media, said the big yellow duck refers to a giant rubber yellow ducky, similar to the bathtub toy.

"Tank man" blocks a column of Type 59 tanks near Tiananmen Square during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.  (Photo: Jeff Widener /AP/Wiki Media)

“Tank man” blocks a column of Type 59 tanks near Tiananmen Square during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. (Photo: Jeff Widener /AP/Wiki Media)

The duck is 54 feet high and is an art installation that’s been floating in Hong Kong’s Victoria harbor for the past month.

The floating duck has become a minor celebrity. An anonymous poster on the Chinese social media network, Weibao, took four images of the duck and superimposed them on that iconic image of the four tanks during the Tiananmen Square pro democracy protests.

Lu says the duck has now become a symbol to remind the Chinese people about the Tiananmen Square event in 1989.

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Attitudes to graffiti from ancient Egypt to modern China

Second century graffito depicting a man worshiping a crucified donkey. The inscription translates as “Alexamenos respects God.” It may be mocking a Christian soldier. (Photo: Palatine Museum, Rome/Wikipedia)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Nina Porzucki

The Chinese teen who scrawled some graffiti on an ancient relic in Egypt caused an uproar last month.

While Chinese officials and netizens gave the kid a really hard time, turns out the boy might have simply been channeling ancient Egyptian habits.

Remember that scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”? Brian is marking up a wall, and is caught by a Roman soldier who corrects his grammar. Well, that bit may contain more truth than you know.

In ancient times, graffiti didn’t connote vandalism as it does today.

Turns out graffiti was something done by the elite and well educated as a way, you might say, to show off good spelling.

Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Oxford University Egyptologist Chloé Ragazzoli about contemporary attitudes to ancient graffiti.

Crusader Graffiti in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (Victorgrigas/Wikimedia Commons)

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Translating the Untranslatable: ‘Finnegans Wake’ in Chinese

The following is a guest post from The Big Show’s Leo Hornak.

One of the best known novels of the 20th century, Finnegans Wake, has been variously called great, unreadable and untranslatable. It may be all of those; it may be none of them. But right now, it’s a literary sensation in China.

Not every work of literature is destined for the best-seller lists. But recently, James Joyce’s novel has been doing very well indeed– in China. Copies of the first translation of Finnegans Wake available in mainland China have sold out.

Books in translation are often popular in China, but they tend to be global bestsellers like the Harry Potter series. So why has a text from pre-war Europe proved such a hit, particularly, one which has a reputation for being almost incomprehensible– even in its own language?

Congrong Dai

“I realized that Finnegans Wake was a great book,” says Congrong Dai, who spent eight years working on the translation. “This book can change the idea of Chinese reader. Besides, introducing this book to Chinese reader is my responsibility.”

Joyce’s newest translator says that Chinese readers can learn a lot from Joyce’s experimental novel.

Finnegans Wake is a book of freedom,” she says. “I do not only mean political freedom. Joyce will create new words to transcend social restraints. So the making of a new word shows Joyce’s disobedience.”

The creation of new words, the disobedience– perhaps a form of rejection of society– is one of the things that has made Finnegans Wake so notorious, and so infuriating for many readers. Almost every line is alive with puns, filthy double entendres, ancient Dublin slang and quotes from other authors.

Because the language in Finnegans Wake is so dense and complicated, translating it into another language might seem an impossible task. Is it even possible to convey any of this in translation?

“Yes, it’s possible and its been done,” says Michel Hockx, a professor of Chinese at the University of London. “Most of his work has been translated. Anything can be translated into any language.”

James Joyce

Is it more difficult to translate something like Finnegans Wake than any other piece of literature?

“I would say so,” Hockx says. “I mean it took the German translator 30 years. And the French translator 18 years. It’s really hard. There’s so many things that Joyce does with the language in terms of puns, in terms of different etymologies. He just creates a language of his own.”

If it isn’t exactly beach reading, there could be many reasons why Finnegans Wake has proved a hit in China. After all, there can be many reasons for buying a book.

Some people may “just want to have it on their coffee table,” Hockx says. “You know how many people are actually going to read it? I will frankly admit that I own a copy of Finnegans Wake that I haven’t finished either. I just felt I had to own it. So there is part of that happening.”

Read Congrong Dai’s A Chinese Translation of Finnegans Wake: The Work in Progress here. For more on how Chinese puns work, and how some Chinese use puns to avoid censorship, check out this post and podcast.


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Comic Book Snacks that Talk Back in Two Languages

Third grader Finn Myers (Photo: Yen Yen Woo)

Third grader Finn Myers (Photo: Yen Yen Woo)

The other day, I was in Chinatown in New York City, eating dim sum with Yen Yen Woo and Colin Goh. They’re a married couple, transplants from Singapore.

For reasons that’ll soon become clear, I couldn’t help imagining that those little Chinese snacks we were eating were…alive. Now, some Asian food items really are alive when you put them in your mouth—but that’s a different story. The dishes we we’d ordered weren’t moving, except for the fact that I’d just viewed them in another form—walking, talking and fighting.

Here’s a taste of Goh and Woo’s creation, Dim Sum Warriors: “Their bravery and skill have inspired millions worldwide, while the mere mention of their names causes enemies to quiver like tofu.”

Dim Sum Warriors is a comic book that started as an iPad app. It started online, and now is out in book form, the reverse of most tech-savvy comic book series.

Goh and Woo created Dim Sum Warriors partly for their daughter, Kai Yen Goh. She’s learning to understand both English and Chinese by using the app.

“We felt especially because we were bringing up a daughter in America we wanted something that would represent her mixed-up cultural heritage,” says Goh.

On an iPad, you can read Dim Sum Warriors in English or in Chinese. Or, you can flip between the two languages. If you want to hear the audio, you tap a word balloon. If you hold your finger on the balloon, you get a translation—script and audio.

(Courtesy: Dimsum Warriors/Yumcha Studios)

Click to view a larger clip. (Courtesy: Dimsum Warriors/Yumcha Studios)

Nick Sousanis is a big fan of Dim Sum Warriors. He teaches a class at Columbia’s Teachers College on using comics in classrooms. He says the Dim Sum Warriors is that it makes clever use of some relatively new behaviour patterns.

“If you read the New York Times on the web and you want to know what a word means, you click on it,” says Sousanis. Dim Sum Warriors operates like that. “You can see the action you know what the characters are doing, you see the word. You can associate the word with what that action is. It just synergistically holds together.”

Kids seem to like it too. Third-grader Finn Myers, who lives in New York, says he’s read Dim Sum Warriors “at least” seven times.

“It’s like you’re doing two things at once but you don’t even know,” says Finn. “You’re learning the language and reading.”

Now, that’s something of dream for language teachers—distracting students with a strong narrative so they want to read on.

Of course, it may not work on all kids. But Finn’s teacher Kyla Huang says Dim Sum Warriors will be a valuable addition to many classrooms. Huang says Chinese teachers in the United States do more than teach. They’re “also authors” of teaching materials because there aren’t enough officially approved materials available in the US.

It helps that Dim Sum Warriors is an iPad app—iPads and other tablets are already a big hit in many schools

Yen Yen Woo tried out Dim sum Warriors on some other 3rd graders. She said they liked the idea of Chinese food items talking to each other. But something was missing.

“They all said ‘what about scallion pancakes…and spring rolls?’” says Woo. “They also said teachers should have them read it just before lunch because it’s going to make them very hungry.”

It’s true, you do get hungry. But you also want to read to learn how the likes of Crown Prince Roast Pork Bao fares in the face of the evil Colonel Quicky Noodle. (Woo and Goh describe him as a mixture of Robert Downey Jr and a mutant pot of instant ramen.)

Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Colin Goh’s favorite character is the pompously-named Master Phoenix Claw, who’s actually nothing more than a chicken foot. But in dim sum menus, chicken feet are described as phoenix claws. “I always envisaged him as a sort of used car salesman,” says Goh. “He’s always trying to pull a fast one on everyone.”

There’s the blend again of Chinese and American culture. Who could be more American than a car salesman? What could be more Chinese than a menu item with an over-the-top name? Put them together and you get something new.

“A lot of the comics in the past have portrayed Asians in this stereotypical way, like you’re either dragon lady or the mysterious Zen master,” says Woo. “We really wanted our child to grow up being confident of her own culture and to see all these character as being part of the universe.”

And so in Dim Sum Warriors there is American-style teenage introspection, but also kung fu fights, albeit enacted by dumplings. Just the idea of a comic book is American, or at least not Chinese. Most Asian comic books are Japanese, though comic book scene in Taiwan is picking up pace.

It’s from Japan, too, that the idea of talking food comes. The Japanese have featured various personified food items in comics and cartoons for years. But with its breadth of characters, Dim Sum Warriors takes things a few wacky steps further.

Even though you can now read Dim Sum Warriors the old-fashioned way, you need to experience it as originally conceived, on an iPad, for the full effect.

To grasp the difference, Colin Goh casts his mind back to when he was teenager, obsessed with Japanese pop culture. He taught himself the language in a painstaking way, “by sitting there with manga and three dictionaries and trying to figure out what they were saying.” The iPad, he says, “enabled us to make the comic into what I would have wanted back when I was 15 years old.”

Another advantage is that apps debut in scores of countries—less of a distribution problem than books. So far, though, there are fewer Chinese using Dim Sum Warriors to learn English than the other way round. Woo and Goh hope to change that with a visit to China later this year.

They even have the idea of turning their fantasy into a stage musical—another American genre making inroads in China.

Here’s a previous post and podcast featuring Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo. They talk about their role as editor of a dictionary of Singlish, the mashed-up street patois that all self-respecting Singaporeans use.

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How Technology is Changing Chinese, One Pun at a Time

This post is written by Nina Porzucki.

When Sabrina Zhang and Jack Wang took their high school writing exam in China they remember a funny new rule written at the bottom of the test.

“You can’t use Internet words in the writing,” remembers Zhang. But, says Wang, “It’s just natural right when we use it. It’s the youth way of expressing ourselves.”

What might seem like the petty irritation of an old-fashioned professor might actually be something bigger. There are now more than 500 million people online in China. They are microblogging, instant messaging, texting. The result is changing the Chinese language says David Moser, an American linguist living in Beijing.

According to Moser, the Internet has become a place for people to play with the Chinese language. Puns and wordplay have a long history in Chinese culture. Chinese is the perfect language for punning because nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones. Homophones are two words that sound similar but have different meanings like hare that rabbit-like creature and the hair on your head. In Chinese there are endless homophones.

“Because there are so many homophones there’s sort of a fetish about them,” says Moser. “As far as the culture goes back you have cases of homophone usage and homophone humor.” Many times forbidden or taboo words in Chinese are taboo precisely because they sound like another word.

A good example of this is the number four, which in Chinese sounds like the word for death and the number eight, which sounds like the word for prosperity. Moser has a Chinese aunt who used to work for the phone company and she could make money selling phone numbers. People would beg her for a phone number with a lot of eights. “People would actually give her gifts or bribes for an auspicious phone number,” says Moser.

Today, wordplay online has less to do with getting auspicious numbers and more to do with getting around censorship. Moser cites an example of a recent phrase he saw online mentioning the Tiananmen Square incident – only the netizen didn’t use the words “Tiananmen Square” or even 6/4, which refers to the date the incident took place. Tiananmen Square and 6/4 are both censored online. Instead the netizen referred to the “eight times eight incident.” Moser was confused when he first saw the reference. “And then I figured out, eight times eight is 64,” says Moser.

The Internet is ripe with clever examples of how people evade the censors. However, censorship is just one reason netizens play with words online. Another is the very technology that enables people today to input Chinese characters onto their cell phones and computers.

Jack Wang explains how he types Chinese characters with his phone. He uses an English keyboard and uses the pinyin system. Pinyin is the method for converting Chinese characters into our alphabet. For example, the Chinese word for “today” is 今天, which is rendered into pinyin as “jintian.”

Wang types the English letters “jintian” on his phone. As he types the first three letters, “jin” a list of Chinese characters pops up on the screen. Each different character sounds just like the word for today, “jin” but means something completely different. Wang points to each possible character and explains its different meaning: gold, clothes, only, and finally 今, the character for “today.”

Everyday, people are typing in a word like “today” and seeing all of the potential homophones for that word. This says David Moser has fueled wordplay like never before.

“I think that’s given rise to a lot more puns then would normally have been uttered in the earlier days when you had to just pull everything out of your head,” says Moser.

People have gotten even more creative playing with this input system to intentionally create new Chinese slang, translating English phrases into pinyin and then into Chinese characters. The meaning of these new words can seem random but they’re not. For example the Chinese character for glass, 玻璃, pronounced “boli” has come to mean “gay man.” Turns out, the slang term actually comes from an English phrase, “boy love.” But netizens have abbreviated the phrase into the English letters “B L” and then they looked for a similar abbreviation in Chinese, typing “B-L” into their computers and out popped the character for glass. “Suddenly the word glass was being used for male homosexuals,” says Moser.

The Internet has even given out-of-date Chinese characters new life. One of the most popular of these new old characters is囧 pronounced “jiong.” The character looks like an unhappy face with drooping eyes and a frown. People started using the character like an emoticon, representing embarrassment or frustration. However, virtually nobody knows what the character originally meant. There are thousands of obsolete characters like 囧and part of the fun is mining these forgotten characters to create new meanings.

But, this casual inattention to the meanings of these characters online concerns some linguists like John Pasden. “We’re getting weird mutations of the language mixing with English phasing in and out of Chinese and non-Chinese,” says Pasden. “This complete disregard for the meaning of the characters has some serious long-term implications if it keep going on.”

Pasden worries that once people divorce the meaning from the character they will start wondering, “Why am I writing all these strokes if I’m just using it as a sound?” Then its a slippery slope towards simplifying to a phonetic writing system says Pasden.

For 19-year-old Jack Wang, this is not a problem. This new word play is the future. “I think we should catch up with the time,” says Wang. “If people use it, we should use it.” Then right on cue his phone buzzed with a new text.

Patrick Cox adds:

Here’s the video to the North Korean song I mentioned in the pod, Excellent Horse-Like Lady, sung by Hyon Song-wol:

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Slipping in out of foreign tongues with Yang Ying and Sherard Cowper-Coles

Yang Ying (Photo: Yang Ying/MySpace)

In the pod this week, Yang Ying’s polyglottish music. And Sherard Cowper-Coles’ polyglottish diplomacy.

Music as Language

Yang Ying grew up in the 1960s and 1970s during China’s Cultural Revolution. It was a time when people deemed enemies of communism were forced to work as manual laborers.

That happened to Yang’s father, who ended up working in a coal mine.

He thought his daughter might escape that fate if he taught her to play an instrument-well enough to enter an elite music academy.

And so she learned to play the traditional two-string erhu. She studied under her father’s tutelage for several hours a day. Because the family’s apartment was so small, and the walls so thin, she would practice the erhu in the park.

The hard work paid off. Yang won a national competition playing a famous piece of music called River of Tears.

Her success led to a place at a music conservatory in Beijing. From there she became a soloist with the Chinese National Song and Dance Ensemble. She performed for countless foreign dignitaries on their visits to China, including American presidents.

“I played for Ford, Carter and for Nixon,” Yang says. “I remember three. I probably performed for more.”

More important to Yang though, were her tours of China, where she learned about the country’s regional differences, the music and the dialects. The many dialects of Chinese “really had an effect on the music.”

But while Yang was being exposed to new sounds, she still had to perform the same old stuff.

As an erhu soloist with a renowned national ensemble, “you probably only play two, three, four repertoires your whole life.” Yang says it tired her out. “And I really wanted to do something new.”

It was the late 1980s. China was opening up. Yang started going to rock concerts put on by the US Embassy. Clubs were opening, bands were forming. She taught herself the bass guitar. She said it was like learning a new language.

Yang founded Cobra, China’s first-ever all female rock band. She knew that she was breaking several taboos at once, and that many people would disapprove.

Yang says her father was “not very happy.” And other classical musicians, “thought I was crazy.”

Yang tried to infuse some of Cobra’s songs with traditional elements. She even re-imagined a traditional folk song as a rock anthem.

That spirit of anything-goes fusion ultimately moved Yang in another direction. She emigrated to the United States, and began studying jazz. She recognized common elements between jazz and Chinese folk music. Both rely on improvisation, and make the instrument sound “as if it’s singing, like the human voice.”

She started playing the erhu with an American jazz group.

Today, that has brought her back to China, where she and her group are performing at the Beijing Nine Gates Jazz Festival.

Should diplomats learn the languages of the countries they’re assigned to?

Diplomat Sherard Cowper-Coles says yes. But, he adds, be careful not to  overreach.

Cowper-Coles tells two stories of foreign language overreaching.

The Hebrew Overreach

When he was the British Ambassador to Israel, Cowper-Coles liked to try out the Hebrew that he had learned.  So once,  in a restaurant, he ordered (he thought) chicken breast. He did this, logically enough, by combining the  Hebrew words for chicken and breast.  But to the native Hebrew ears of the restaurant’s staff, the dish he had actually requested was not one they had ever before served: a woman’s breast on a chicken.

The French Overreach

Cowper-Coles also tells a story about Tony Blair. Blair “had learned his French in a bar outside Paris” between high school and college. So it wasn’t perfect.

Fast forward several decades. Blair, as Prime Minister, was hosting his French opposite number Lionel Jospin. After a “drinky” lunch,  Blair decided to address the French media in French. Intending to say something like “I’ve always been envious of Lionel’s policies and whatever positions he’d taken,” Blair instead said “J’ai toujours envie de Lionel, même en toutes positions.”  (Roughly:  “I’ve always lusted after Lionel, in all positions”).

At least that’s the way Cowper-Coles tells it.

Also in the pod this week:  teaching in two languages in Massachusetts, where bilingual education is banned. And Pakistan’s Sindh province is introducing mandatory Chinese for schoolkids aged ten and older.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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Ai Weiwei’s translator, Belgium during linguistic wartime, and Rastamouse

Arrested Chinese artist Ai Weiwei wrote a blog that was, if anything, even more provocative than his art. We hear from Beijing-based translator and art critic Lee Ambrozy who has translated Ai’s blog posts into English.

Next in the pod, fellow Big Show podcaster Clark Boyd on the trials, tribulations and silliness of living in Belgium, where most people define themselves not by nationality but by  mother tongue. Clark lives in Brussels, which is officially bilingual. Most of the rest of Belgium is determinedly monolingual — Dutch in the north, French in the south.

I put it to Clark that Belgium is a bit like the former Yugoslavia, but without the guns. I was feeling pretty good about that thought until he told me I was by no means the first person to articulate it.  He also said Belgians have it way too good to take up arms over their linguistic differences — despite the fact that they cannot form a government, and they may even one day opt to slice the country in two.

That got me thinking: when we talk about conflicts sparked by language, are we missing the point?  There’s no question that language can be an emotional issue. But how often is is the root cause of a disagreement?  Mostly, it seems, language either awkwardly stands in as a symbol for the real cause, or it is used by the protagonists as a weapon to divide people in conflicts whose roots are material — land, water, minerals etc.

In Belgium, there’s not much of a material divide. The Dutch-speaking Flemish are richer than the French-speaking Walloons, but not that much richer. Nor do they control the preponderance of land and resources. Which may be why Belgians aren’t trying to kill each other.

Also, as Clark points out, even though there isn’t much shared culture in Belgium there is some, and it’s important:  Belgians, he says,  have a universal admiration for surrealism (Magritte is a native son). That must come in handy, given the topsy-turvy nature of Belgian public life.

In honor of all things Belgian, the pod’s Eating Sideways segment offers up one French expression, and one Dutch.  Listen to the podcast to decide which describes Belgianness most accurately…

Finally, Alex Gallafent has a report on  the latest children’s TV hit in the UK. It features Jamaican-British musical mice, with dialects that are offending English purists. This summer, incidentally, Rastamouse will be “playing” Glastonbury Festival, Britain’s premier music festival.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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