I caught a little bit of the opening ceremonies from the Olympics and found myself wishing I'd kept up with my Chinese lessons. For the first time in my life, New York, Washington or the United States of America no longer seemed like the center of the world. The technological accomplishment coupled with the national pride and cohesiveness of purpose emanating from Beijing made me feel like a citizen of some minor satrapy situated somewhere on the outer fringes of the new Han Empire.
I never came close to real fluency in Chinese, but in the mid-to-late 70s I could read and write it well enough to decipher simple news articles or the cliché and catch phrase-laden speeches of Chairman Mao and discuss them with my classmates in Berkeley's Asian Studies Department. If I'd stayed at it, chances are that by now I'd qualify for a position as some sort of civil servant, perhaps even a provincial administrator, once the People's Republic completes its takeover of the country once known as America.
All kidding aside, it's hard not to see conflict looming between China and the USA, and we can only hope that it will be limited to the civil, economic and cultural level, because I wouldn't bet too much on our chances militarily. Granted, back in the 70s and 80s it was widely predicted that Japan would be ruling the world by now, but Japan didn't have 1.3 billion people and a government that, for a while now, has seemed almost incapable of putting a foot wrong.
Oh, there's that unpleasantness about Tibet, of course, and the sharp restrictions on free speech, the harsh treatment of dissidents, and all that other very un-American stuff. But so far at least, the Chinese government has not only been getting away with it, they've got away with it and still enjoyed widespread support and affection from their people. Hell, the American government is probably much less popular with Americans, land of the free and all that jazz notwithstanding.
One could be cynical and say that the reason the Chinese government is more popular is that it's delivering the goods, consumer goods, that is, in the form of rapidly increasing prosperity while America seems determined to drag all but a few of its people in the opposite direction, and one would probably be right. Nevertheless, the Mandate of Heaven, which is the classical Chinese version of "God is on our side," looks distinctly like it's residing in the Middle Kingdom these days. By the way, the name Middle Kingdom, which is the literal meaning of Zhong Guo, i.e., China, refers to the idea that China exists midway between heaven and earth, and is also quite literally the center of the world. The rest of us live in the suburbs at best. This notion has been rather fundamental to Chinese cosmology and politics for the better part of 5,000 years now.
Be that as it may, what will really be killing me about the next two weeks of nonstop Olympics coverage is the constant mispronunciation of the host city's name by American newscasters. I've been putting up with this ever since Peking became Beijing, but it's lately been reaching a tin-eared crescendo. Listen, you twits, I don't care how sophisticated and international you think you're being by pronouncing the "j" in Beijing as if were the "zh" sound associated with a French "j." The fact is, you're WRONG, and you sound like an ignorant boob to boot. The "j" in Beijing is very much like and English "j," and if you really want to display your savoir dire, why not try learning the proper tones (falling and rising for "bei", level for "jing") distinguish the words ("Beijing" is actually a compound word meaning "northern capital") from the numerous other uses of "bei" and "jing".
Oh, what's the use. It's hard enough to get people to speak or spell English correctly. But once again, if only I'd kept up my studies and been in line for that provincial administrator job. With the autocratic might of the Beijing government backing me up, you can pretty well bet there wouldn't have to be too many tongues cut out before people stopped mangling the name of the new capital of the world.