Category Archives: Culture

The Sorry State of Beliefs and Morals in China

I have never been a believer in any religion — but that’s because I’m happily neutral, religion-wise. Chez moi, I don’t approve of, oppose, support, or otherwise get involved with religion.

But I have this thing about people who start abusing a religion trying to make money. As of late I have been keeping my 101 kilometres away from two Starbucks in town: that at Tower III, World Trade Centre, and, beginning today, the one at Shin Kong Plaza. (The latter one is a riot: My wife and I nearly fell over when they started testing a new type of “outdoor sofa”, if we’re to put it this way.)

In Chinese, there’s a proverb that makes you look like you’ve done nothing bad — when you’re the thief yourself. The story goes that this guy was envious of his neighbour, so he nicked 300 taels of silver. Just to “make sure” the neighbour didn’t get suspicious, he erected a sign — “Under this plot of land there are no 300 taels of silver” (此地無銀三百兩).

That’s like the perfect give-away!

In both cases, we’ve seen shanzhai Buddhist monks wearing a standard grey dress with the Zen / Chan character at the back. The kind you see at temples for real believers. Guy comes with this kind of Buddhist ornament and starts peddling his wares.

There’s a city law in Beijing banning unauthorised business practices without a permit. This guy never got himself the permit. Either he is trying to sell us suspect commodities or he is offering suspect services (“May I read your palm? I think you’re rich!”, goes the one at the World Trade Centre).

The worst thing about the whole phenomenon is that fake monks trying to sell you shanzhai goods are the least of your worries. I’ve heard worse horror stories. There are people who go to temples during the day time, then head straight into the nightclubs by midnight, doing all kinds of horrible — and certainly unethical — stuff. These are “devout followers” by day, and “devout abusers” by night.

If Guo Meimei has ruined China’s Red Cross foundation, these sham monks are doing exactly the same to Buddhism. I don’t know what the religion exactly stands for, but I’m sure they can’t stand for evil. If China was trying to “save itself” via Buddhism, these sham monks are doing all they can to make Chinese view Buddhism the same way as they view the Chinese Red Cross. In a country where “alternative cults” are banned, religion is severely limited, and freedoms of conscience come with strings attached, the population is left to worshipping nothing — except for money.

When we get greedy — when 1.3 billion get greedy at the same time, all of a sudden — the end is that a nation of 5,000 years and counting will finally meet its makers. (It’ll also get the rest of the planet in a bit of a worry.)

Socialist indoctrination has not worked in China — there is a very visible and sizeable part of the population of people who have deep-seated doubts about what the 7 PM propaganda news show is trying to convince us “is the truth”. When religion and basic morals give way to nothing but money worship — that’s when we’re in real danger.

This Thing About China, Chinese, and Western Names…

This is by no means something easy. Chinese names can either appear to be too short, too standard, too Japanese-looking or too outlandish.

(Just like train station names except for the one-of-its-kind station with just one letter — 宋 station, aka Song Railway Station. Musical kits optional here.)

I digress. But Chinese names are comparatively more “boring” (but also more “diverse”) when compared with those in other languages — especially those you see in Europe and North America. There’s the “boringness” in terms of how long these names are (probably no more than six characters), but also in terms of what characters are used — these names are unique and diverse in their own ways. I remember the most complex of all characters were around 40 or more strokes per character

But just how many characters make up a name can be an art in its own. Here’s how the whole thing works in general…

  • Two character names (eg 張三) — too “short” and running out of “unique names” (look, we’re a billion and counting!)
  • Three character names (eg 張國民) — too mundane; nearly everyone’s got a three-character name…
  • Four character names (eg 上官文清) — probably a tad too “Japanese”; the Japanese are often known to come “preset” with four character names, such as 田中一郎 (Tanaka Ichiro). So why are they here in Chinese? Most likely through the combination of two family names, or through using a double-name such as Duanmu (端木).
  • 5+ character names — probably too outlandish unless you belong to a nationally recognised ethnic group (56 of those on the mainland, plus a few more on Taiwan), or if you had your non-Chinese name “sinicised” (even here, more foreigners are adopting two or three-character names).

Hard already? Imagine the mess you get when you add a Western name into the whole thing. My Chinese name by characters is 馮琰 (Feng Yan in Hanyu Pinyin) but I add the English name David because few people can both spell and (more importantly for me) pronounce Yan (even I had a hard time doing so).

The other question is how they finish up in terms of the name ordering. I could either be David Feng, or David Yan Feng, or Yan David Feng, if I add my Chinese Pinyin (a la my name given at birth) to my “other names”. And in none of these events would I have a middle name. This is why foreigners registering with the police around China might have minor issues if they have middle names.

Far worse is a hypothetical foreigner that’s married and has the name Annina Stefanie von der Graf van den Bergh. That’s a total of eight names and you could easily imagine the cop freaking out as he struggles to find just what name(s) to register into the police database!

A greater still problem exists my end, for my former Chinese passport did not recognise Western names (I started using David as early as 1988, after a family friend suggested it to me), and I converted to a Swiss passport — totally forgetting any mods to my names. Hence my flight tickets (although not train tickets as of this post) bear my Pinyin name, whereas everywhere else I am known as David Feng (although the odd “ghost” media interview is adamant I “only” have a Pinyin name).

Given how complex names are my end of the world, you could be forgiven, then, if you find it odd that Chinese-looking locals at the Starbucks give themselves English names even if they hold a Chinese passport…

The Chinese Problem with Striking It Rich

The Swiss are known for being as low-key as possible about money. It’s considered extremely offensive to ask how much you earn (whereas in China, it’s part of the small talk for all — locals and expats). In China, people are admired for showing off their money prowess. In Switzerland, people are admired for conformity and integration (or something like that)…

Under Mao, no Chinese had a dream of “striking it rich”. Mao-style communism basically meant that the guy that lived next to you was just as rich / poor as you were, so thefts were very rare. People slept at night with their compound gates unlocked, because they knew that it wasn’t worth all the trouble sneaking an extra pen from the guy next door. A fine back then would have costed you a bike, which back then was as big-ticket an item as a Ferrari in this present day. Under Mao, people were poor, but at least they were more “economically reliable”.

Fast forward to Deng’s reforms. They were needed by all means, but they also meant that people were, basically, showered with cash all of a sudden. Totally unconscious about where that money could be used, most spent it on luxuries instead of storing it away (back then the interest rate for savings was so high that something like CNY 50.— would earn you an interest of CNY 1.02 in just three months’ time or so, if I remembered my passbook records right!). Add increasing deregulation to the mix, and suddenly, you could throw your money anywhere — and as long as you were the first in an up-and-coming industry, you were made a __llionaire overnight.

So why is First Class in China full of Shanxi coal miners (well, that’s what they stereotypically believe to be…) farting and spitting at will? The Chinese nouveau riche have the wealth of a Bill Gates wannabe, but their manners are worlds apart. While their cash may be a fair bit PhD-ish, their manners are still kindergarten-ish. I’m not blindly bashing at random: I have seen my fair share of folks who made it rich — who still managed to keep their amazing habit of farting at will firmly intact. Heaven forbid how many mistresses they have…!

Both “private” people (as in non-gov folks) and “public” people (you know whom!) are candidates for getting it rich. For “private” folks, it’s legal as long as you play by the rules. For “public” folks, if you’re too rich, you get the electric chair! But many “public” folks are more like — To bloody hell with the rules — and they’ve decided to get rich at the expense of the taxpayers. Even folks who’ve made an effort to make China a zippier place to live — like former rail boss Liu Zhijun — got nixed because he helped himself to an excess of public money.

Whilst the rich and the powerful “fight it all out” in the next super big attempt to get as many Bentleys in the car, the rest of us are left wondering just what the heck is up. Worse, education — mannerism — is left in the dark. That stench from First Class is still there because China’s edu system hasn’t, apparently, been too successful in teaching folks (rich and poor) not to fart while on trains (or to play an excess of iFart “tunes”!). China’s edu system needs a major overhaul.

We the Swiss pride ourselves in our neutrality, and I, quite coincidentally as a fellow citizen of this country (turning 721 tomorrow) have the same point of view in other matters, too — especially when it comes to politics and religion; neutrality, but respect without involvements. I have had people from all walks of life — not the least “fortune tellers” and “religious people” — help themselves to their version of a cross-examination of myself — and whatever they say, be it from a superior being or from their own (civilian) two pence — the result is always the same: You should be in the classroom, teaching the kids of tomorrow. That PhD diploma I have should have better things to do than being a makeshift tissue when the house gets flooded in one of these amazingly frequent floods in Beijing these days. I think if I prepared the kids of tomorrow going to New South Wales better for at least what happens after you step off the plane in Sydney Airport, they’ll probably enjoy a smoother trip. And if I continue down this train of thought (operated either by me, CRH or Swiss Federal Railways — I know, odd joke), I think I might just land myself a life in teaching the folks of tomorrow.

Eventually, if one of my future students tweets me back saying The customs officer was so happy that I said Grüezi to him!, I’d be happier than if I just won the aggregate jackpots of the Swiss Lotto, Toto, and Toto-X. (It’s too bad the latter two lotteries went away in 2009…)

David’s English Lessons: DON’T CALL ME “TEACHER”!

Worse: DON’T CALL ME “DOCTOR FENG!”… I have not yet been “christened” a “Doctor” since I have still got to get my final dissertation done right… a la KFC (“We do chicken right!” and stuff like that)…

DON’T CALL ME “TEACHER”, EITHER! In China, every last soul calls a teacher — well, “teacher” (老師). That don’t work out fine for your David here. He prefers folks to straight-out address him as David. Buck naked, we are all the same: we can all eat, drink, go to the toilet and take time off in bed. We’re the same be our skins black, white or yellow. So I don’t for a split second buy the fact that “a teacher is ‘superior’ to a student”. I don’t buy it.

I look up very well to the Western world, where you call a teacher by his family name, plus “Mr” or “Ms”. I look up even better to the world of “personal communications” (so to speak in jargon-ese), where David Feng is just simply “David”. Hence my preference for my students to outright call me David. I don’t want for a second to be referred to as Doctor Feng. It just confines me to that Ivory Tower I never wanted to be in at all. It’s un-Mensch, as Guy Kawasaki might say. A Mensch of a teacher realizes he’s an equal amongst all the other students.

I sure hope my fellow students can nick away some knowledge he or she will put to use one of these days, but I hope even more that chez my lessons, students and teachers can act as equals. In this long stroll in the Edu Trail, it’s much better if the head of the team doesn’t put off airs and acts more like a guy in the midst of a group than an absolute dictator leading it. That’s just my way of doing lessons: I don’t do titles, I do outright human language

China, Please Don’t Fart In First Class…

…and I seriously mean that. I’ve had a few nasty trips on the CRH3C trains from Beijing to Tianjin and back. 30 minutes between the two metropolises sure was sweet, but I once shared a 2-abreast seat with a drunk, farting chimney. The dude next to me smelt like a Mao-era chimney, and when he talked, out came the strongest stench of tobacco. I think what would have made it even less harmonious would have been a bit of flatulence. Gaddhafi did not have it any easier… he farted on TV (no, seriously)…

It’s on that very same issue of uncontrolled farting — or, to be more precise — on the topic of bad manners, that I’m about to let myself loose here on my territory. When I came back at the age of 10 in 1992 during a brief summer holiday visit to Beijing, I was shocked when this local came onto the streets of Wangfujing and let phlegm fly right in front of me onto the street.

I saw this article that Elliott Ng shared on Facebook that the Gap is about to close a fair number of stores in the US while opening a good number more here in China. That’s got me a little worked up. The Chinese spend a great deal of money — both at home and especially abroad — but they’ve poor manners (sad to say) and that makes them lose a great deal of face. I have a pretty dim view of the coal mine CEO who got his “farmer wife” an LVHM bag while farting in first class on a plane (with a load of mistresses no less). China and its people have the money but not the morality. I think no nation is “sane” (so to say) or at least “OK” or “in good standing” without both balanced — or both present and correct. I find it offensive that “my people” (the Chinese) go outside of the Chinese mainland and start spitting, smack in the midst of the Champs-Elysees. You are, of course, entitled to your legal income, but shouldn’t you entitle yourself to some modestly good manners as well?