First Person: What I Learned in China

Friday November 24, 2006

Although travel is educational not much can be learned from short, packaged tours. You learn more from longer than from shorter tours especially if you’re on your own. I was in the Air Force in the 1950s and stationed on Guam for two years. I learned a little bit there but in two short trips to Japan I learned next to nothing. Not so when I earned my living in China for two years doing the same job Chinese did.  

Teaching may be a greater learning experience than travel. If you’ve ever tried it I don’t have to tell you how marvelous the learning can be, and doubly so when you, a foreigner, work in the homeland of your students. Although I learned a lot it has taken years to digest it and find the right words to express it.  

So here I am almost a quarter of a century from the academic year 1982-3 that I spent teaching English at Anhui Normal University, a residential institution—or a walled enclave—in the middle of a commercial city on the south bank of the Yangtze River some 150 miles up-river from Nanjing, China’s ancient southern capital. Wuhu was, by China’s standards, a middle-sized city with a population of nearly half a million, few of whom had ever seen an American—westerners were not allowed except for a few who had relatives there.  

I returned to China for another teaching stint (1986-7), this time near the Yellow River in Shandong province. Although Liaocheng is on the famous Grand Canal, the ancient waterway connecting the southern and northern capitol, and had been a rest stop for merchants trading between eastern and western regions, it had declined. The once magnificent canal was a dried-up dusty ditch and the once thriving crossroads of commerce had shrunk into a dull, desiccated place where peasant farmers congregated to trade and traffic. The college, residential walled enclave like the one in Wuhu, was off-limits to foreigners and ignored by the local peasantry. Thus, because of the isolation, the job and its duration, I was deeply immersed in a Chinese way of life, ancient, undiluted, undisguised and undecorated with tourist attractions. It was a way of life practiced by the greatest majority people, and as a consequence I learned things that could not be learned any other way.  

To appreciate the importance of what I learned from China it helps to bear in mind a quip attributed to a renowned 20th century British émigré, Christopher Isherwood, herewith paraphrased:  

He little his homeland knows who only knows his homeland.  

A summary of what I learned, therefore, is this: A startling amount of similarity exists and at the same time enormous differences persist; the Chinese viewing us from a distance, culturally speaking, see things that we do not, and visa versa.  


My students 

On October 1, 1949, the day Mao Zedong announced the birth of the Peoples Republic of China, I was 22 years old and so was Ma Lingshang who would later become my student. Although we lived on opposite sides of the planet we had some things in common; we were college students, we enjoyed Russian novels and For Whom the Bell Tolls with Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper was our favorite movie.  

Following that first National Day and because of contentiousness between my government and his, our common experiences evaporated. Three decades passed and suddenly Mr. Ma’s work was terminated and we met. He was ordered to change from teaching Russian to teaching English and I had the job of helping him and eleven of his colleagues learn enough American English to teach it, a job for which I was poorly prepared and had not applied. 

Recycling Russian teachers of my generation was one-fifth of my class load, the other four-fifths were classes of young adults.  

In that academic year, 1982-3, Li Jianmei was a 19-year-old sophomore. Let her stand for all 119 young people I taught at Anhui Normal university—when she graduates she will return to her village to teach in its middle school, live with her family and be near her beloved, physically disabled little brother. 

Mr. Dong was 21 five years later, in 1986. Let him stand for 90 freshmen, sophomores and juniors I taught at Liaocheng Teachers College—like all his classmates and students who would become China’s teachers, Dong does not have to pay for room, meals, tuition, books and medical care and, when he graduates, will be assigned a job. 

What did I learn about them and what did it imply about China and about us? 


China’s oldest and most exuberant holiday is the Spring Festival, two weeks of festivities centered on the Lunar New Year. All commerce comes to a stop as one-fifth of the world’s population coagulates in large family units. These assemblies of relatives decorate the homestead, set off fireworks, present children with sweets, money and toys, perform rituals reverencing their ancestors, prepare and eat special foods, and following in-family observances, go into the neighborhood and visit friends. In Guangzhou (Canton) on the eve of the New Year I saw people on bicycles carrying small leafless trees bearing red berries with which to decorate their parlors. Imagine Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year rolled into one and you come close. 



Aphorisms are popular in China and many match ours, e.g. Lost time is never found again, A stitch in time saves nine, No pain, no gain … But while theirs, like ours are used to inspire the young and guide the unlettered, theirs and ours do not match in all aspects.  

Ma Lingshang and his colleagues were surprised that “Time flies” is as popular with us as with them. However, they say “Time flies like an arrow.”  

I couldn’t make sense of the “arrow” reference. With us, the aphorism expresses time’s swiftness and rests ultimately on sidereal reckoning. To affix the phrase, “like an arrow,” introduces trajectory, direction and aim, notions that seemed to me at odds with experience. I refused to ascribe this oddity to the stereotype of Chinese inscrutability, but despite subsequent efforts to explicate “Time flies like an arrow” I remained puzzled. Until, one day, out of the blue, it hit me! For the Chinese what time had in common with the flight of an arrow was not trajectory, direction or goal but termination. Time ends. Not sidereal, clock time, of course, but life time, mine and yours. In Chinese culture the aphorism, “Time flies like an arrow” captures one’s personal inescapable transient condition. “Time flies like an arrow” adds to our notion of time’s swiftness a perhaps typical Chinese self-regard, that one’s time on earth comes to an end … with the speed of an arrow.  



Vocal language and aural comprehension are acquired by imitation accompanied by minimal instruction. Written language, being a complex, arbitrarily invented system, can be acquired only from methodical teaching and attentive practice. This suggests that the particularities of a language and the way it is acquired and functions must necessarily flow out of the particularities of a way of life, a culture. Exploring the difference between Chinese and English, what conclusions about our differing cultures arise? 

Written English is phonetic and partially inflected–each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a specific sound and suffixes are required. Written Chinese, by contrast, having originated in pictographs, remains neither phonetic nor inflected. Each Chinese character consists of strokes, properly configured and precisely ordered.  

Every Chinese character is vocalized by a single syllable, pure or diphthongal. Words are formed from one, two, three and rarely four characters. It is possible for Chinese children to compete in a writing bee, as indeed they do albeit not nationally, but not a spelling bee. Does this mean that the Chinese are more visually aware than we while we are more aurally attuned? 

Word order is crucial in both languages. But in Chinese proper ordering penetrates more deeply into its written form. For example, reverse the order of the two characters that make up the word for “honey” (feng mi) and you get the word for “bee” (mi feng). Without written language it would have been impossible for the Mandarins to govern The Middle Kingdom.  

Note that even as England reached the zenith of its imperial reach its colonial agents never bothered to learn the indigenous language. Language, in written form, was and is an instrument of power. Was that why the PRC hired me to teach in Wuhu and Liaocheng? 

Furthermore, although literate persons throughout China (and even in Japan) can comprehend a written Chinese sentence, its vocalization by Beijing natives will not be understood by Cantonese, Hunanese, Shanghainese, and a few other disparately vocalizing Chinese (nor by Japanese). 

Finally, writing holds a more superior place in Chinese culture than it holds with us: China’s most revered artists are master writers. With us calligraphy is an art craft but with Chinese (and Japanese) writing is much more than a craft. Predating abstract expressionism by millennia, Chinese writing masters capture their inner feelings with every stroke. Every literate Chinese recognizes the distinctive styles of the great masters. Chairman Mao, for example, was a dedicated writing artist and facsimiles of his artwork are ubiquitous and admired, even today.  



Another way by which linguistic differences echo cultural ones lies with how Chinese are named—the surname comes first. Although this is mundane it is nevertheless significant. Besides, the language makes clear each and every relationship—different words for one’s four grandparents and words for uncles and aunts on the mother’s side that differ from words denoting paternal uncles and aunts. 

It reflects the Confucian teaching whereby the primacy of the family takes precedence over that of the individual. But more can be learned from ordinary naming practices.  

Nearly one billion Han Chinese share a few hundred surnames which make duplications inevitable and at the same time makes a name less important. For example, a majority of the residents of Qufu, the birth city of Kong Fu Tse (Confucius), carry the family name Kong, thus blunting the point of individuality while also voiding the possibility of ordering a telephone directory by surname.  

With us and with Chinese one’s given name functions as an identifying label—“Marvin” is mine. I might just as well be labeled with code, say LSN2 (for Lancelot’s second son). Chinese, however, name people with words taken from everyday speaking—gentle, soft, tender words for girls, “Flower,” “Pearl,” “Joy” and the like, and masculine words such as “Courage,” “Peace,” “Victory” for boys. Thus, Chinese parents have the opportunity to christen (so to speak) their children with specific identifying associations. The given name of a Chinese is less a label than a garment of lofty aspirations. 

More can be said about our inverse ways of naming but one feature ought not be overlooked. With us to give a child the name of an ancestor is to honor that person, but with Chinese such an action is disrespectful, forbidden, and even horrific. While this seems to reflect in the debt that live Chinese owe to their dead relatives, it also echoes the uniqueness of relationships. A Chinese ancestor is not a role model; ancestors are revered, not imitated.  


Traveling in China during school holidays, I saw three separate levels of cost and accommodation: the least for the native born, twice as much for westerners like me and mid-way for “Overseas Chinese,” so-called. At the time all costs were fixed by the central government and thus it was strange that “Overseas Chinese” would be an officially recognized category. I imagined myself informally as an overseas American and yet I was intrigued by the unhesitating ubiquitous use the terms “Overseas Chinese”(and ABC = American-Born Chinese) in contexts that seem to exceed their literal meanings. I did not resent it but I wondered what there was about Chinese culture that allowed the government to give my Berkeley neighbor, say, a 50 percent discount. Does being “overseas” mean something more for my imagined neighbor in China than being “overseas” means for me in Guam? 

Consider some possible implications. It may have been accurate to call Henry Kissinger an overseas American when he was in China pursuing ping-pong diplomacy but would such a designation be proper? I imagine that JFK would not have liked being called an overseas Irishman and I feel certain that Nancy Pelosi would reject being referred to as an overseas Italian. What does “Overseas Chinese” say about the Chinese? 

This locution together with perhaps more significant facts such as the worldwide urban enclaves of Chinese where the way of life differs little from that of the ancestors, i.e. Chinatowns, and the universal appeal of Chinese cooking, indicate that being Chinese takes precedence over being anything else. China is a country, true. But China is less a nation than it is a people.  

Thus, to view China as a peoples’ republic is to acknowledge, not so much its form of governance as much as the cohesiveness of its population. (Note that in the official designation the apostrophe is omitted.) Everywhere the Chinese have made their home, which is everywhere, they have brought their culture with them. And they live it, not just on St. Patrick’s Day or Columbus Day but every day. 



Finally, a few words about religion and morality.  

Throughout its long history China has known factional conflicts and bloody wars but it has never deployed warriors in order to defend a religious creed or to spread one. Despite this fact, religion lies deep in Chinese culture. (The word for heaven is ubiquitous—it also means sky—and simple, only four easy strokes.) 

Buddhism prevails but not exclusively, and because Buddhism is naturalistic and relatively thin on dogma, Buddhists are soft on heresy. For the Chinese, therefore, it is possible to be simultaneously Catholic, Baptist, Methodist and Buddhist. And thus, unlike religions of the book, Christianity in particular, that view history as divinely a guided linear procession through time towards “the city on the hill,” or the City of God, Chinese tend to view history as cyclic, spiraling endlessly toward a heaven/sky populated by ancestors. Religion is history and visa versa. 

To account for what I learned about Chinese ethics I sought a common thread among some disparate observations.  

In the year before I went to China, Jian Qing, Mao’s widow and guiding spirit of The Gang of Four, was formally criticized and sentenced for the part she played in the Cultural Revolution.  

A good friend and colleague confided a secret, that Anhui Normal University had expelled two girls who’d gotten pregnant: two out of 5,000-plus, or a dumbfounding rate of less than .04 percent.  

I once asked a friend, the mother of two teenage boys, how she and her peers taught good behavior. Since Communism holds religion to be “the opium of the people” and provides no alternative list of “commandments” I was curious to learn what moral standard is used.  

“After you’ve explained the proximate justifications and your son still wants to know why he really should not do something, what do you tell him?” I asked.  

She thought for a moment and delivered this forthright answer: “It’s not Chinese.”  

Begging the question? Not really. 

What connects criticism that results in a jail sentence, sexual abstinence among young adults living six or eight to a room, only flights of stairs and concrete walls separating men and women, and virtue/vice based on cultural heritage, plus, of course, saving face?  

I am not sure but allow me to offer a solid clue gleaned from an anecdote.  

I asked a Chinese friend to teach me the word for sin. He hesitated and I repeated “sin” several times. My friend took a small electronic dictionary from his hip pocket and that action told me all I needed to know.  

In Chinese the word for “sin” is not ready to hand. The way we think, i.e. without sin there is not guilt, without guilt there is not punishment, is reflected in our language.  

Chinese culture as I observed it, ignores sin, diminishes guilt but upholds punishment.  

We are so much alike and yet so different. 


Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.