08 August 2008

A Little Knowledge Is An Annoying Thing

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.


Ted said...

Watching the opening ceremonies reminded me of what a
professor (and Chomsky disciple) used to say in the linguistics class that I sat in on, "The 20th century was America's century, the 21st will be China's century."

Anonymous said...

C'mon Larry, lighten up. If it bothers you to hear someone mispronounce a word, the correct pronunciation of which they are clearly unaware of, the polite thing to do is politely correct them. Once that fails, THEN hand over global dominance to the offended party. There is an order to things after all. Write that book dude. Mike

David said...

The U.S. can still handle China's military, as it stands today, at least. Twenty years from now is worth worrying about. Their relations with India are really interesting, as is their relationship with Japan. Japan seems to have zero interest in military, though, and since they're smart enough to realize we can still whip China if need be (at least for a while), I would expect them to stick with us.

China Rising by David C. Kang is a good book about China's leaps and bounds over the past 30 years or so.

Anonymous said...

Peking duck is delicious and I passed the pronunciation test even with my limited vocabulary!

IwikecheeseHAHAHA said...

Larry, you funny, funny old duckie.

WOW... I didn't know Beijing was pronounced like that. Whoopsy-daisy.

I cannot believe I just said whoopsy-daisy.

No, I don't believe that China is going to take over the world.

That would be kinda cool, though. 24/7 Chinese food. Sweet.

WriterOfTheLastPostOohLala said...

Do I talk too much?

Ted, whoever you are-

I don't think that China is THAT cool- after all, did you hear about what happened with the little girl lip-syncing at the beginning of the ceremony? Yeah, not too impressive. And may I remind you that it was AMERICAN media that brought this scandal to light?

Yeah, we're overly-paranoid.

Who ate a duck?

P.S.- Mike rocks. Whoever he is. =D

Brooklyn Love said...

Have any of you ever even been to China?

I was in Beijing last summer, while 'world power' China was gearing up for the Olympics. They still have a long way to go.

So there are somewhat less bicycles, and more taxis. So what?

Their GNP is still well behind relatively tiny Germany and Japan's, and light years behind ours.

The advanced economies like ours and Japan's have left behind manufacturing and are running off of ideas (which are much more lucrative globally speaking). Let's see China manage that. They can't even wrap their mind around the concept of trademark protection.

Their pride and joy bird's nest stadium wasn't even designed by Chinese, but by a Swiss firm.

I think we ought to be much more worried about Russia than China.

iwikecheesehahaha said...

Isn't it worse if there are less bicycles and more taxis?

I mean, for the environment and all?

You know, they could just walk.