Wednesday, November 17, 2010

中国特色 and varying quality in Chinese scholarship

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.


  1. Can the Chinese read or scan through Chinese script with its many different characters, as rapidly as English can be read or scanned? Complicated symbol systems have caused stagnation in some situations. E.g., Roman numerals held back the development of modern mathematics because of the way they were placed together for addition and subtraction, which prevented the invention of algebra until arabic numerals came along. I just wonder if the Chinese language with so many characters is really practical today, given the small keyboard sizes on phones and so on?

    "... 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."

    Were you looking for political ideas or technical analysis in the paper on the Qinhuai River?

    A chemical treatment plant to cure the problem, or a political solution to prevent pollution, or maybe a hybrid with a chemical treatment plant as part of political solution? Here in London, the Thames was very heavily polluted until the 1980s. If you legislate against pollution too early, you kill the industrial revolution before it can afford to develop and apply the expensive technology needed to clean the environment up.

    Does China have rigorous criteria for pollution standards, and if so what are they based upon? I'd be curious for example as to what radiation standards are implemented by the Chinese nuclear industry, and if it takes seriously the paper of Chen and thirteen other physicians on the apparent benefits of low level radiation in Taiwan, "Is Chronic Radiation an Effective Prophylaxis Against Cancer?", Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, v9 n1 2004, and Luckey's more recent paper in the same journal, v13, n2, 2008? After a radioactive source was accidentally mixed into industrial steel in Taiwan, 10,000 persons unknowingly exposed to low-level radiation in Taiwan over periods of 9-20 years, cancer rates fell by a factor of 33, from 116 to just 3.5 per 100,000 person-years; while genetic defects fell by a factor of 15, from 23 cases per 1,000 children to just 1.5.

    Radiation delivered at a hundred times the natural background dose rates stimulates the use of body resources to produce more natural production of DNA repair enzyme, protein P53, serving to focus more of the body energy resources upon repairing DNA breaks and thus reducing the natural cancer and genetic risks: "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger".

    In the West, freedom of speech allows politically incorrect facts to be censored by the fashionable media. :-)

  2. My modern Chinese history professor at Beijing U once deducted a full ten out of ten points for one of my answers on my final exam. The question: Who was Li Da Zhao? And why was he important? My Answer (abridged): He was a staunch Marxist-Leninist who used to work at the Beijing U library, extremely influential in future CCCP ideology, etc etc...

    The professor explained that I received no credit because I failed to state that Mr. Li Da Zhao was the FIRST Marxist-Leninist in China.

    Not only is that an impossible claim to prove (or disprove for that matter), my attempts to convince him that in the long run his first-place-ness is really, quite irrelevant. But he would have none of it.

    I think this is remotely in line with your submission that the Chinese way of thought is "it is because it is."

  3. S.Z., what an interesting story, from an outsider's point of view. I wonder what role we can expect, if any, that professors and students at universities will play in shifting away from this accepted banal way of thought- because historically in many other countries, Universities are the setting for the beginning of more liberal thought and seeds of change.