I am a Chinese graduate school student, but Chinese is not my native language. So what would take me ten minutes to read in English will take about an hour to read in Chinese. I am not at all complaining – I of course like the task, otherwise I wouldn't be here. However, it is a real downer to have drudged through three hours of an article about China’s polluted Qinhuai River and realize that nothing was actually said. This thirty-pager concluded with the statement, “It is clear that only when nation, market, and society establish a mutually effecting cooperation method can we then finally realize the solution to environmental protection.” Basic translation: When a country is in working order, things can get done.
I’ll save myself the trouble of translating and tell you that the context is equally as cloudy. In class, our professor, God bless his twice culturally re-educated soul, extolled the writer as one of Nanjing University’s finest – though it is noteworthy here that he used the term “famous” to qualify him. How well known you are (or how much “face” you have) is a common qualifier in China.
One of the author’s key phrases (literally, it was listed in the box in the article’s beginning that says “key phrases”) was “中国特色,” “Chinese characteristics.” This phrase was coined by the Chinese government to explain why China is not like the West. In an attempt to save face and highlight the omnipresent assumption on the Chinese side that foreigners “just don’t understand China,” this phrase has been a defensive shield as much as an intellectual hindrance. China’s economy, considered by most outsiders to be laissez-faire at its laissez-fairest, is dubbed “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” (one visiting lecturer added that by the same token, the Obama administration has made America into a socialist country with capitalist characteristics).
中国特色 means “China is this way because China is China” – further simplified (since Mao instituted linguistic simplification decades ago), “things are they way they are because that’s just why they are” and even further simplified, “Just don’t ask, you won’t understand.” One can hopefully understand why any article that uses the term 中国特色 is one whose legitimacy I am going to doubt. One professor doubled-up laughing when one student tried to use the phrase in the thesis statement of a paper, even switching into English to be sure we understood that 中国特色was, ahem, "bullshit." (Though that is not to say that I think this catchphrase is completely without reason 完全没道理, which is something I can explain in a later post).
My other issue with Chinese scholarship is that it tends to lack clear solutions to problems. Scholars have no trouble pointing out issues and professing that they must be solved by increased attention/cooperation/planning/whatever. However, rarely have I seen a succinct suggestion as to how to fix these issues. Perhaps to do so would be risking one's own well-being; censorship in China is strong as ever, and publishing a suggestion about how to improve society could be construed as a rabble-rousing call to march on Beijing (the government's paranoia of 1989 has never worn off). The question is, how can intellectual growth be fostered in such an environment? The answer is made manifest by my Chinese classmates who are applying to pursue Ph.D's - not in mainland China.
I have heard that in order to be hired as a professor in China, one must publish a minimum of x number of articles. I cannot cite this fact; it is something I picked up in the student lounge late one night during midterms. However, if this is true, and if Ph.D candidates celebrate plagiarism as much as undergraduates and graduate students do in China, then I’m going to have to develop another skill during my time here: finding the gem amongst smoke and mirrors.