Moving ...

I have moved my blog over to Blogger, here (Klortho was taken, sigh). The main reason is that Livejournal continues to be blocked here in China. Note that Blogger is, too, but there's a very nice and (mostly) painless work-around for that, which doesn't exist for Livejournal. Also factoring into the decision is the fact that Livejournal sucks.


A student of mine just sent a message, via our email Google group, to the whole class. It was titled "The Nanking Massacre", and was a word document filled with all of the worst images from that time that you've ever seen or could possibly imagine. Dead children, grandmothers being raped, that sort of thing. Here is what I replied:

These pictures are tragic and horrifying, and deeply upsetting.

Now, Tom, I would ask you, what is the point of sending them out? This is, of course, a somewhat touchy political issue. But I would like to share with you my perspective as an American. I'm familiar with the history of these events, and have read a good book about them, "The Rape of Nanking", by Iris Chang. But I have to say that what I'm disturbed by more now is the Chinese fascination with this part of history, and how it fuels anti-Japanese sentiment.

These things are called "wartime atrocities", and, while they are inexcusable, what is a fact is that every country on earth, even China, is guilty of these kinds of things at some time in the past. America is routinely criticized for massacres committed in Vietnam, and, more recently, in, for example, the Abu Graib prison in Iraq. When I read about these kinds of things I feel deeply ashamed of my country, but I think that it's good that people bring them up and talk about them. On the other hand, what about Americans who criticize other country's behavior towards Americans? Believe me, there are a lot of these kinds of people. They talk, for example, of the extreme cruelty that would have to be in someone's heart to fly a planeload of innocent people into a building full of other innocent people. "Who could do such a thing?", they say. And then they use this as an excuse to go to war. This is one of the reasons that the Iraq war started out as fairly popular in the U.S.

Well, when I hear those kinds of things, I cringe. I think it is healthier to look at the wrongs that are committed by my own country, and try to make my country a better, more peaceful place, than it is to dwell on the wrongs committed against my country. So, when you send out this email full of these kinds of pictures, I would ask you, why? What is the point? These pictures are very inflammatory, and are used to incite people into hatred of the Japanese. Is that what you want to do? I don't think that's a very noble goal. The Japanese are people, human beings just like you and me -- I have a lot of Japanese friends, and I know that they are among the best people I have ever met.

I'm not a Christian, but one thing in the Bible is very poignant: "better to remove the log from your own eye before attending to the splinter in your own". If you think I'm wrong that Chinese people have committed atrocities, think again. You just don't hear about them very often, because your news and education have all been tightly controlled.

Breathing Green

Hey, hey, my first posts in such a long time! Aren't you excited? I know I am...

I've been continuing to have a fabulous time here, and am always thinking of interesting things to write about, but always finding that my 力不从心 (the spirit is willing ..., so to speak).

Lately, I've gotten involved in a anti-smoking advocacy student group at Xia Da (that's 厦大, short for 厦门大学, or Xiamen University). The group is the Green Breathing Association. I don't know about you, but my first reaction to the name was something other than enthusiasm. It brought to mind trying to inhale toxic chlorine gas. It think the name is intended to connote fresh, clean, natural air, uncorrupted by smoke or any other man-made chemical, but I usually think of that kind of air as transparent, not green.

It's interesting how I found this group. Those of you who've been following my blog should know that I've been smoke free for over a year and a half now, ever since I had my sister send me some nicotine patches to Shanghai, at great expense, and great trouble to her. Ever since quitting this time, I've become one of those notorious ex-smokers you've heard about: I now detest even the slightest whiff of cigarette smoke, anywhere. China, of course, has a lot of smokers, and not only smokers, but completely oblivious smokers. It's a rare day that I don't encounter somebody who lights up in a public place, often while sitting right under a no-smoking sign stuck on the wall.

So for a long time I've thought about trying to start a student group in Xia Da to fight against this scourge, and to educate people about their rights to a smoke-free environment. I thought about it, off and on, for months, but never did anything more than bounce around on the Internet looking for information. These surf sessions were always frustrating. There's a surfeit of anti-smoking information out there, but it's all so disorganized and nebulous, and I've never found a good site that can help me figure out what I can actually do, as an individual in China, to fight the problem. I'd have loved to have found, for example, a site to help people set up their own student group on a college campus -- sort of a getting-started kit of information and promotional resources.

The last such time, I wandered my way to, which is mainly a site that has hundreds of topic-specific or location-specific email lists. I looked through the descriptions of all of them, and, predictably, there was nothing China-related. So I sent an email to the general "contact" address, describing my situation, and asking for advice. I got a reply right away, suggesting I contact a woman named Bonnie, who was also an American in China. So I sent her an email, and she also responded promptly. At the beginning of her email, she wrote "Greetings from Xiamen". I blinked a couple of times when I saw that -- at first I thought she must have made a mistake, and meant to write something like "Greetings to Xiamen", but then I checked the email I wrote, and nowhere did I mention what city I was in. Hah! What a coincidence, she's right here. Even more of a coincidence, she'd already done what I was thinking of doing all along, and that is, start a student group at Xia Da. Thus I found Green Breathing.

Strange page break

I just read an article in the Shanghai Daily, Warning over danger for non-smokers, and was a little bit surprised to read this last paragraph:
Zhang Liqiang, managing director of the Shanghai Health Education Institute, said the government didn't raise the price of tobacco because the economy of many Chinese provinces, such as Yunnan, depended on the tobacco industry. If the government put up the price too much, it would affect their economic development.

I was surprised because it's rare to read something so negative about the government in a newspaper here. Then I noticed something strange -- this short paragraph is all by itself on "page 2" of the online article. Is that a coincidence, or .... Wait, yes, I checked other articles on the paper, and there are several that are longer, but don't have a "page break" at all. (For the online articles, the "page break" means you have to click a link at the bottom of the screen, in order to continue reading).

Maybe I'm paranoid, but I'm guessing that they inserted this in order to make the negative press just a little, tiny bit less accessible. Maybe fewer people will click through, maybe including some government watchdog agency, who knows? Anyway, what's interesting to me is that there are lots of subtle ways that editors can affect and manipulate the presentation of the information they deliver -- and that's all I want to say about that.

Ironman China website

I've been mulling over the idea of registering for the inaugural Ironman China event, which will be in April next year on Hainan island. Hainan, you'll remember, is the large island in the south of China where the American spy plane had to make an emergency landing in 2001, shortly after Bush took office. It's a big island.

If you draw a outline map of China, as any Chinese schoolchild knows, it looks a little bit like a rooster. Also, as any Chinese schoolchild knows, this rooster has two eggs (what a rooster is doing with eggs is another question entirely ...), Hainan and Taiwan.

Well, take a look at the Ironman China website. It seems that one of the eggs is conspicuously missing. It's exceedingly rare to see this particular omission on any Chinese website, so I was really surprised. If you check out the little link in the lower-left hand corner, though, you'll notice that the site (which is all in English) was designed by an American graphics design company, who must have taken a stock map-outline of China from some other source. It will be interesting to see how long it continues to exist in this state.

China blogs

There's an excellent list of amazing China blogs and other websites up on If you have any interest in China, you should look to some of these resources for news and information. Sadly, this blog didn't make the grade. Must've been an oversight on their part, I guess.

Min Nan

Pinyin Info is a great site about the Chinese family of languages and writing systems. The author (Mark Swofford) maintains a blog, and in his most recent post, he points to a paper, originally published in 1991, that has just been made available online, Linguistic Nationalism: The Case of Southern Min. The topic is the Min Nan language (or topolect, if you prefer), and the politics surrounding its use, and it is a fascinating read. It focuses primarily on Taiwan, but the author also mentions Xiamen (where I live) occasionally.

The paper is fascinating, but it's a little disorganized, and it lacks a clear focus. If you decide to read the paper, let me clear up one thing that might be confusing if you're not already familiar with this topic: Min Nan is the local language that is spoken in Xiamen and neighboring areas. There are several other names for it, which all mean more-or-less exactly the same thing: "Southern Min" ("Nan" in Chinese means "South"); "Taiwanese", "Hokkien"; and "Xiamen (or Amoy) Dialect".

There are a number of things that captured my attention in this paper, that I'll briefly summarize here.

Within Min Nan itself, there is a distinct literary, or written form. Historically this was the prestige dialect within Min Nan, but nowadays, it is getting replaced by Mandarin, leaving only the spoken (vulgar) form still in use. This literary form involved using different words for some meanings, and also divergent pronunciations of other words. What's interesting here is that if one uses Chinese characters to write Min Nan, there is no way to indicate the correct pronunciation of words, and so it would be impossible to differentiate between the literary and spoken forms. He mentions:
in Xiamen for example that the local television station had begun to broadcast news announcements in the literary register of Southern Min, though apparently the news announcer frequently had to consult a senior linguist at the University in order to learn the correct literary Southern Min pronunciation of characters.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the paper though is his description of the politics surrounding Min Nan on Taiwan, and, in particular, the repression of the language by the KMT after they took control of the island in 1945. Particularly after 1949, when the KMT government still had aspirations of taking back control of the mainland, the use of Min Nan was associated with separatism, and was repressed. In an ironic parallel, both the PRC on the mainland and the KMT on Taiwan promoted Mandarin over Min Nan in an effort to "reify ‘Chinese culture’as a monolithic entity".

Another point that he makes very clear is that Chinese characters are not ideally suited to writing Min Nan, in particular, spoken Min Nan:
Characters appeared to be associated too strongly with Mandarin to be widely useful, and it was noted that many Southern Min vocabulary items have no written form. Cheng estimates that 70% of the lexical items of Taiwanese are shared with Mandarin (1985a:353), and could thus presumably be written with the same characters; this leaves 30% non-shared lexical items for which characters would have to be coined.

Crazy English!

I have a Chinese friend who is studying to take a very important, very difficult test to enter into graduate school. The test is next February, and she has come to Xiamen to spend the next seven months doing nothing but studying for it.

The test includes an English portion, and today we were chatting about it, via short messages. Her English is, as I'm sure she herself would admit, not very good. I should clarify that, though, by saying that her spoken English and her listening ability are a bit weak; but, as is typical, her reading ability is phenomenal (I'm not sure about writing).

Today she was complaining about how hard English is, and I asked what the problem was, and she sent me this excerpt from some of her study materials. Her task was to translate this bit into Chinese.
A happy preference and a gracious compliment, but once the writer has allowed himself that much it becomes his duty to reread the book with his glasses on—not only to enter into the story of the writing, but to identify the devices (i.e., the inventions) by which the story was created and made to work upon him.


I Googled it and found this Word document. It turns out, you really need to read the few paragraphs that come before this excerpt in order to make sense of it, but, nonetheless, it's damn hard! Interestingly, the phrase that had her most stumped was "that much".

It reminds me of a time another friend of mine, studying for this same test last year, showed me a set of ten multiple choice English questions (I may have blogged about then, but I can't remember and can't be bothered to check). I figured of course I wouldn't have any problem, but I got three of them wrong! At first I was incredulous, but then, looking at the "right" answers, I had to admit that they were better, but the differences were subtle.

Every Chinese person I know complains about the state of English education here -- that they just learn to take tests but don't learn to speak and communicate well.

Big 5 Personality Traits

Well, this one goes in the "why the hell didn't I know this already?" category. In general, my opinion of the "science" of psychology is pretty low. That opinion was recently reinforced when I stumbled upon this piece, Psychologists Only Play at Science. It reinforced my opinion that most psychologists are full of shit, and most psychological / self-help "theories" are just mental diarrhea that people who are good at promoting themselves foist upon the rest of us.

But then just today I stumbled again, this time across the page in Wikipedia describing the Big 5 Personality Traits. I was surprised mainly because I'd never heard of them. I don't read a lot about psychology, but still, I do read a fair amount about a wide range of topics, and I'd have thought that a concept that's this fundamental and this well researched would have filtered down to me.

It describes five traits that can be used to measure the main aspects of a person's personality. I believe this scheme has validity because the article describes the way that it came about was through mathematical analysis (factor analysis) of empirical data. Factor analysis is an extremely powerful technique that can yank a small number of relevant variables (factors) out of a large pool of correlated data.

I'm guessing that this Big 5 theory, like IQ, is controversial, and for many of the same reasons. People hate to think that human beings are not "blank slates" -- that there are inherent things about us that make us different from one another. "All men are created equal" is a lovely sentiment, but for any particular trait, it's simply not true. It's obviously not true for any physical trait (height, shoe size, etc.). Why should it be true for psychological traits? It seems obvious to me, having lived as long as I have, that people really do have personalities that persist over their lives, and that are extremely resistant to change. I'm not saying I think people can never change, just that it's damn hard, and it's harder to change some aspects of oneself than others.

For what it's worth, here are the results of on online test that I just took. I was surprised (and oddly disappointed) by the results. I would have thought that I'd have scored higher on all of openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. The last trait is "neuroticism", and I scored about where I would have expected there.

Taking this test doesn't change a thing about me, of course, but somehow, it changes everything.

Boy trapped in refridgerator eats own foot!

My sister sent me the sad, sad news that the Weekly World News is folding. I used to subscribe to this back in the early nineties, and it was always great for a laugh. Not just a mild chuckle, mind you, but an obnoxious pig-biting laugh that wakes the neighbors.

This Washington Post story will give you a feel for what the Weekly World News was, and what made it special. Their philosophy of journalism was, "don't fact-check your way out of a good story".

I also remember picking up a copy not too long ago, maybe two or three years, and thinking that it just wasn't funny anymore, and wondering if the newspaper had changed, or if my sense of humor had. I didn't know at the time that it had changed ownership in 1999, and, according to the Post article, that led to its decline.