Tag Archives: Chinese culture

Book: Watching the Tree

Watching the Tree

Charming, delightful, concise reflections on Chinese life and culture.
248 pages, ★★★★★

Adline Yen Mah is one of my favourite Chinese authors. Her websites http://www.adelineyenmah.com/ and http://chinesecharacteraday.com/ focus on increasing the awareness of Chinese culture to “anyone who is willing to learn”! She’s even created free children’s books and an iPad app to help spread knowledge of Chinese culture worldwide.

Watching the Tree is a collection of charming reflections about the author’s grandfather and the stories he told. Her grandfather tends to connect Chinese and western ideas: he wants to believe in Confucianism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Taoism at the same time, for example, and couldn’t understand why religious pluralism displeased westerners. The author highlights the similarities between all of them in this book.

The author’s grandfather also describes how Escher’s art, Bach’s music and Zhuangzi’s Daodejing (a text) all tackle the same philosophical conundrums of circular logic and apparent paradoxes. Interconnectedness is a recurring theme throughout this book.

Another example of interconnectedness is when we learn that Hinduism evolved into Buddhism, which evolved into Daoism and also Japanese Buddhism, for example. We learn that China’s lack of scientific progress in recent centuries was attributed to a long-standing tradition of revering philosophers and neglecting mathematics—at least, not adopting a digit-based system of counting, which would have greatly assisted the advancement of maths and science, until the early 19th century. The author also makes connections between the Yi Ching (易经) and Carl Jung, and between hexagrams and binary computing. I love the connections the author (via her grandfather’s stories) makes in this book—it makes this book inclusive, beautiful, and unmistakably Chinese.

I also love how Watching the Tree‘s chapters are named after Chinese famous idioms. Each chapter tells a story that describes both the idiom and an aspect of Chinese life. The tone of these stories is beautiful, charming and uplifting. All the Chinese words are written in Wade-Giles, pinyin and Chinese characters—which makes is accessible for all Chinese learners from all backgrounds.

I recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in Chinese culture. It doesn’t matter how much you already know—this book is beautiful enough to bring pleasure even to those who are already familiar with the ideas it contains. ★★★★★

Essay: A Comparison of the High-School Chemistry Curricula of China and Wales

This essay received an HD (high distinction) from my tutors at Monash.

1. Introduction

I have chosen to compare the high-school Chemistry curricula of China and Wales.

Continue reading Essay: A Comparison of the High-School Chemistry Curricula of China and Wales

Book: China Since 1911

China Since 1911

Explains 1911 to 1989 in more political detail than you’ll ever need to know!
315 pages, 

China Since 1911 is told from a purely political perspective. This book is a concise, authoritative historical account of the 1911 Nationalist revolution to the anti-reform protests of 1989. This period of history was one of China’s most tumultuous: warlords fought each other in the 1910s, the Nationalist regime collapsed into mini-states in the 1920s, Japan invaded in the 1930s, then World War II broke out in the 1940s. Widespread famine took root in the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution uprooted what little progress China had made in the 1960s, Mao’s death in the 1970s left China politically divided and spiritually lost, then anti-corruption protests spread across the nation from west to east in the 1980s, the most famous of which took place in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Only the last chapter of this book, when the dust starts to settle, does China show any signs of hope!

You’ll learn almost nothing about Chinese culture from this book. It documents the internal political struggles that gave rise to certain (crazy) decisions, but makes almost no comment on the social implications of those decisions. The text is littered with names of medium-level Chinese officials whom I’ll never remember. For a social history, I recommend reading Mao’s Last DancerWild Swans or the soothing 窈窕淑女的标准(宋尚宫女论语研习报告)(Chinese) instead.

While China Since 1911 is extremely well-researched, there was not enough social emphasis for my liking. This book should be renamed China’s Political Leadership since 1911 instead. 

 

Book: 100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings

100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings

Perfect material for ProVoc (free language-learning software for Mac)
196 pages, ★★★★

I’ve been studying this gorgeous little book recently.

One of the beautiful aspects of Chinese language is its allegorical sayings. Like idioms, proverbs and set phrases, allegorical sayings enrich daily Chinese conversation and make the people who use them sound more intelligent. Many of these expressions make allegorical references to religion, history, legends or folklore.

Allegorical sayings come in two parts. The first part is an allegory (such as 八仙过海, “Eight Immortals cross the ocean”) and the second part is an explanation that describes  the context you’re in (such as 各显神通, “each displays his/her own unique talents”). This particular allegory is rooted in Daoism.

Some allegorical sayings rely on homophones. For example, 打破沙锅,问到底 is a homophone of 打破沙锅,璺到底. The first part means “break the earthenware pot”. As for the second part, just by changing one character, the meaning changes from “crack it right through” to “get to the bottom of this issue”. Therefore, saying the first part, “break the earthenware pot” can be an allusion to “get to the bottom of this issue” in Chinese conversation. The Chinese adore homophones.

This book explains 100 famous allegorical sayings with explanations and illustrations.

Here are three examples from the book:

  1. 狗拿耗子 – 多管闲事
    Dog trying to catch mice—meddling in other people’s business.
  2. 秋后的蚂蚱 – 蹦跶不了几天
    Grasshopper in late autumn—nearing one’s end.
  3. 小葱拌豆腐 – 一清二白
    Plain white tofu mixed with a little spring onion—as clear as day.

ProVoc is the perfect app for learning vocabulary on a Mac.

ProVoc Screenshot
Full-screen vocabulary slideshows and full-screen vocabulary tests in ProVoc (Free)
  • Create your own vocabulary database or download another user’s vocabulary list from within the app.
  • Click ‘Play’ to view gorgeous, full-screen slideshows of your vocabulary complete with sound, images and videos.
  • Take four types of quizzes based on your vocabulary. Difficult words will automatically appear more frequently than easy ones.
  • Customize just about everything using a simple, aesthetic, high-contrast interface. Create your own quiz styles, customise the slideshow, or share your vocabulary lists for others to use.

ProVoc and this book are a perfect combination for anyone wanting to improve the quality of their spoken Chinese! ★★★★

Book: 窈窕淑女的标准(宋尚宫女论语研习报告)

I finished reading this book before finally learning how to pronounce the first three characters of the title. It's "Yǎotiǎo shūnǚ de biāozhǔn", for reference. 🙂

The good life: a beginner’s guide based on Song Dynasty culture.
Written for women but highly relevant for men too.
322 pages, ★★★★★
Language: Chinese

Maosen Zhong (钟茂森) is highly regarded in China. He writes books and essays, and teaches ‘open classes’ (公开课) about traditional Chinese culture. His academic background is impressive, too: he studied undergraduate in Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, then finished his masters and doctorate degrees in Louisiana and Kansas. In 2003, at just 30 years of age, he was awarded a lifelong position as Associate Professor in Finance at the University of Queensland, Australia. Such an impressive degree collection earns one great respect in contemporary China.

Maosen Zhong uses this pedestal of respect to preach the growing movement of Traditional Chinese Culture (传统文化). His books and ‘open classes’ are mostly about history and Chinese spiritualism, with a particular emphasis on Chinese Buddhism. In my view, Zhong’s teachings are an attempt to plug China’s “spiritual vacuum” (a problem to which almost everyone in China acknowledges); China’s “self-racism” (which causes many young Chinese to reject Chinese norms in favor of KFC, basketball, and California); and the “moral breakdown” that’s occurred since the Communist era ended (from which corruption and other misdemeanors stem). To solve these issues, Zhong advocates moral education (伦理道德教育), a greater influence of Chinese religions in modern life and a greater respect and understanding for China’s own history and culture.

[Zhong addresses China’s] spiritual vacuum… self-racism… [and] moral breakdown

Maosen Zhong first convinces us of the need for moral education not just in China, but worldwide. He appeals to common sentiments by referring to the collapses of Enron and Lehman Brothers, and the Financial Crisis of 2008 that followed. Personally, I didn’t need much convincing: I already know that mainland China is morally bankrupt. People are kept in line by the heavy hand of the government, not by an inner sense of doing what’s right. Thank God for that heavy hand.

The Solutions: society is made up of families, which in turn are made up of people. To build a moral society, we first have to carry out moral education at the individual and family levels.

This book therefore starts at the individual level. It tells us to wake up between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., to open the curtains immediately, to stretch, sweep the floor, make a lukewarm breakfast, and wash the tea leaves ready for brewing after breakfast. And so on. He teaches the tiniest aspects of a good life in polite verbatim. I feel more educated than patronized.

The book then progresses to how to look after your family. There’s a chapter on taking care of your children and a lengthy chapter on taking care of elderly parents. The most minute aspects of life are spelled out very clearly.

“Men and women are equal but different” is very clear in this book. It contradicts the Western feminist movement, which was based on the idea that “women can be men, too”. Despite the Chinese title (which intends the book to be read by “fair ladies”), the role of women is a very minor aspect of the book.

To build a moral society, we first have to carry out moral education at the individual and family levels.

Dozens of key ancient texts are quoted throughout this book, each followed by Zhong’s own interpretations of these texts in a modern context. I didn’t fully understand these text excerpts (古文), but I still get the intended message: “the ancient Chinese would have done better”.

I learned two lessons from this book: the first is, “take great care in absolutely everything you do”. The second is, “no matter how morally you think you’re behaving, you’re almost certainly not doing enough”. China should listen. How to get masses of morally-starved, money-obsessed Chinese to listen to Zhong’s teachings, however, is a tricky problem to solve. ★★★★★