Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Maiji Mountain

We went on a little three-day trip west of Xi'an along the route of the ancient Silk Road to see a mountain high in the valleys outside the city of Tianshui in Gansu province. The mountain is famous because of carvings of Buddha figures on the near perpendicular face of the mountain and the numerous caves or grottoes carved into the cliffs each of which contain Buddhist statutes and iconography that are about 1500 years old.

It was a rough trip mostly because it was by bus over very rough roads following the Wei River valley up over the mountains. Although this is a major trucking route leading to western China, in some sections it is only two lanes wide thereby leading to traffic jams. There is a new super highway under construction that is rather dramatic because much of it is perched on high pylons as it crosses the valleys and the river or disappears into mountain tunnels rather than clinging to the sides of the mountains as did the road we traveled, but in the meantime the current road has deteriorated leading to a slow, bone-jarring trip for us with many stops and delays.

The Wei River valley is photo-op heaven. The valley is a tribute to intensive farming. Beautiful terraced plots climb the hillsides outside every village and town. This time of year, all are luscious green, not with rice as is the common picture of China, but with wheat and rapeseed, the latter being in full bloom with yellow flowers. There are also terraced orchards of apple and peach trees sitting high on the sides of these mountains some of which are in bloom and all of which are well tended.

Farmers are out everywhere working the fields and orchards. There is little mechanization--I saw only two rototiller-type machines--but I did see several ox-drawn plows in operation and one being pulled by a human. The soil appears to be rich and deep.

Many fields were growing crops in plastic-covered hot houses or in rows where leaves were poking through plastic sheeting laid on the ground to retain moisture and curb weeds.

Everything was a treat to the eye. Maiji mountain was a wonder. I don't know how the ancient monks carved all those figures and grottoes on the cliff face so high up. Since there are deep holes in the rock around all these figures, it appears they erected a framework of scaffolding that rested on timbers that were seated in these holes.

Of course, all the original wood scaffolding has rotted away, but the tourism ministry has replaced it with concrete and steel. It is quite safe, but the steps are still steep and when a stiff wind is rushing across the cliff face and you're hundreds of meters above the ground it is still unnerving and you find yourself gripping the handrails extra tight.

I can't say much about all the Buddhist carvings we saw, because I don't understand what all the symbolism means. It's was all a little strange and off-putting, but you have to admire the devotion of those who dedicated maybe their whole lives to these carvings. They were dramatic, and the whole experience of climbing so high up and seeing things that were so old was worth the 10-hours trip it took to get there.
It was even worth the 13 hours it took to get back. The return was dramatic because we went over the same road only in the rain, which turned out to be the cause of numerous truck accidents, which in turn caused hours worth of delays. Chinese cargo-hauling trucks are enormous. They are much longer than what I've seen in the U.S. and Europe, so when we encountered them on the hairpin turns on this road, they took most of the roadway.

We first encountered a car carrier whose rear axle had slid off the road and whose cab protruded out into half the roadway. Cars and even our bus could still get by one-by-one, single file, but since the accident had occurred on a turn the long cargo trucks could not, although they tried which only resulted in a traffic jam.

We sat on the bus for about an hour while the police tried to sort it out, but eventually the guys got out and stood on the side of the road to watch the action. It was pretty dramatic seeing these big trucks straining to get their loads moving uphill. Their exhausts were belching black smoke as the engines accelerated, the cabs were bouncing with each surge of energy, and the pneumatic brake systems were hissing compressed air as the drivers alternately engaged and released the brakes while maneuvering between a steep drop off on the outside of the turn and the broken-down car carrier on the inside of the turn. The front outside wheels were within centimeters of the sharp edge, and on the inside the truck’s loads were scrubbing against the car carrier’s cab. After several of the larger trucks had cleared the wreck we were permitted to pass through, but looking back at the side of the mountain we could see several kilometers of backup that took the rest of the day to clear.

But we were not home free. Several hours later traffic stopped again. When we got to the front of the backup we found several big trucks inching their way through a tunnel. Trucks jammed one lane inside the tunnel and could not move, and in the other lane was a truck with a large load squeezing through. It had a large section of a crane on the bed, and the top corner was catching on the wall of the tunnel while the other side was catching the loads of the trucks in the other lane. Men were all around pointing and gesturing, cursing and yelling, while the driver swung the steering wheel first to the right and then to the left until his rig was through.

Behind him emerged kilometers and kilometers up backed up traffic, which passed us as we stood on the side of the road watching. For reasons unknown, our lane did not move for another hour. But I didn't mind. I watched and watched as China passed before my eyes. There were sweating, rough-looking Chinese truck drivers with cigarettes hanging from their lips, farmers in their motorcycle pickups carrying loads to numerous and varied to describe, well-dressed city folks in their SUVs, young couples on their motorcycles usually with a young child squeezed in between mom and dad, a small van filled with school children their noses pressed to the windows--a cross section of the 1.3 billion people who inhabit this beautiful land.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

China's Second Language

Fortunately for those of us who use or understand English, it is easier to get around in foreign countries than it used to be. English is becoming the international language. Certainly it is the language of international business. At Xi’an International Studies University in China where I teach, it is the most popular foreign language because students who have any desire for continuing contacts with the West (or to work for an international business) realize that English is essential. English is taught as a required subject in most schools in China at both the elementary and high school levels.


In fact, when mainland Chinese students learn English they actually have to learn two languages. That is because they have to learn an intermediate language called “pinyin.” This language converts Chinese characters into a phonetic version using the Latin or English alphabet. Thus the personal name of 杨晓华 is rendered as Yang Xiaohua in pinyin, which can then be read and understood by English speakers.

The use of computers has probably raised pinyin from being an obscure language system of interest only to linguists. The Chinese have their own software for creating documents in Chinese characters on the computer, but given the fact that they use the same “qwerty” keyboard as Westerns, there has to be an intermediate language. Using a Chinese language plug-in, the Chinese can use Microsoft Word to type in pinyin words and have them converted to a choice of Chinese characters. The writer then only has to select which Chinese characters are closest to his or her meaning and they become part of the text.

Furthermore, the Chinese have adopted the almost exclusive use of Arabic numerals in expressing numbers. I have been in business offices where accountants are working in large MS Exel spreadsheets where the words are in Chinese characters but the numbers are all the recognizable 1, 2, or 3. This is the numeral system used with mobile phones, sticker prices, advertising, and so on. The ancient Chinese numerals are rarely seen.

China’s Second Language

For these reasons, plus government urging, English has become the defacto second language of China. Most street signs in major cities and the directional signs on major highways are in both Chinese and English. This would be the equivalent of seeing all the signage along I-80 or the M-5 appear in English with Chinese subtitles.

English appears along with Chinese on the signs above many shops. In English-speaking countries this would happen only in Chinatown shopping districts.

The labeling in stores of products made by Western companies is usually in Chinese, but there is often enough English on the packaging (albeit in small lettering) to recognize what it is.


Nevertheless, the prevalence of English in China is only a thin veneer. Once you get away from the tourist or university environments the number of English-capable Chinese drops off radically. Although most young people have acquired some English proficiency in school, if they do not use it, the words evaporate.

So I have often been stuck when encountering a sea of Chinese writing I do not understand, such as a shelf of Chinese products in the grocery store where not one word is in English.

I have a similar feeling when confronted with a computer (such as in the computer labs where I sometime teach) where you know you are looking at a Windows XP screen because all the icons are recognizable but it is otherwise unreadable because all the words are in Chinese. I can navigate for awhile just using icons, but eventually I get down to screens with Chinese words only, and then I am stuck.

Sign Language

So what is an English-only-speaking person to do? It is amazing how much can be accomplished with sign language. One can think of a whole range of hand gestures and head shakes that can communicate yes or no, bigger or smaller, too much or too little. My wife and I bought a camera the other day where the two lovely young sales girls did not understand any English, and we did not understand any Chinese. We pointed out what camera we were interested in, and they showed it to us. The on-screen menu was all Chinese, but they were able to navigate to the settings in the camera that set English as the standard language.

They had a brochure in English that described the specifications of the camera, and we mutually went over the number of mega pixels, camera speed, zoom capability, etc, exclusively with head nods. They showed us the sticker price. A headshake and hand wave by us indicated that the price was too high. They handed us a small hand-held calculator where we punched in our counter price. A look of agony passed over their faces as if we were driving them to the poor house, and they typed in their counter-counter price. Then we looked pained. They threw in a camera case. We crunched more numbers. They threw in a flash card. Body language indicated they had nearly reached their limit. One final number was entered into the calculator and the deal was done. There were smiles and handshakes all around without a word of English having been spoken.


Written Chinese characters are beautiful, and they are very economical. You can express thoughts in only a few characters that it would take a sentence to express in English. I see them on signs and shops all around town expressed in multiple forms. Some are in block style, some in what we would call italics, and some in a flowing script. As with English letters, they can be written to evoke a sense of elegance on the one hand or in a comic style on the other.

Some of the characters are downright beautiful, and the Chinese take pains to make them even more so through the delicate art of calligraphy. To them calligraphy is art. The art museum in Shanghai has a gallery dedicated just to calligraphy.

Masters of calligraphy become famous, and books have been written about them and their styles, such as Chu Suiliang, a chancellor in the Tang Dynasty over a thousand years ago.1

In many of the parks around China, retired people can be seen practicing calligraphy by writing on the pavement with long brushes dipped in water or a stick with water-soaked padding on the end. They write long passages of poetry in water that then evaporates an hour later under the hot sun. To keep themselves alert, they write one passage with their right hand and then another with their left. It becomes a kind of Tai Chi for the mind.

There is much to appreciate about the Chinese language. It is strange and mysterious on the one hand and beautiful and appealing on the other. For an outsider like me, it seems like an only partially-blossomed flower whose true beauty can be revealed in full bloom only if I take the time to learn its secrets.