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Chinese exam hell

This graph shows just how mad the Chinese educational system is. Beata, my second oldest daughter, is collecting data regarding how often the teachers in her classes mention the word “zhongkao,” meaning “high-school entrance exam” in one day. The zhongkao is the big test, coming up in two months from now, which determines which high-school students will go to and thus — such is the theory — the rest of their lives. Consequently all activities, all teaching, all learning, all everything is geared towards this all-important test of math, chemistry, physics and ancient Chinese. Since September zhongkao has been mentioned over 880 times!

Notice that the number of mentions has increased steadily over the last couple of months and now amounts to around 10 a day. Note also that this only includes explicit mentions of the word “zhongkao,” not general references to “tests” or to “highschool preparation,” etc. Like a good social scientist, Beata points out that the peaks in references in October and January coincided with their regular mid-term and finals — times when the exam frenzy was cranked up a notch.

Is there a relationship between studying for exams and actually learning something? Do students have to be threatened with exams in order to learn? What kinds of human beings are produced by this system? Are these the kinds of people that China (or any country) actually needs? What could they be learning if they didn’t spend all their time studying for these exams?

Btw, Beata just did her entrance exam for the school she is going to in Lund, Sweden. The only subjects tested were English and math and it was super easy. These tests are not intended to single out the best students but only to make sure that all students are above a certain minimum level. That makes sense. Yeah, and the high-school she got into was founded in 1085 [sic!] — back in the Viking age over 900 years ago; William the Conqueror could have been an alumnus! — and it’s one of the most famous high-schools in Sweden. Good for Beata!

Flipping titles

I had a bit of a bust-up with Palgrave regarding the cover. I thought it was beautiful and that they had done a great job coming up with an illustration, but I also thought the title was far to long. It looked ugly and was difficult for casual book-browsers to catch. I wanted to break up the title and put “Liberal Barbarism” above the picture and the rest below. This, apparently, is against Palgrave in-house style.

The Palgrave people then suggested that we break up with title in a main title “Liberal Barbarism” and a subtitle — and they provided various suggestions for subtitles. That way “Liberal Barbarism” could be in a large font and the sub-title in a smaller font. I then suggested that we’d go back to my original idea with “The European destruction … ” as the subtitle. Which Palgrave, very reluctantly and after serious arm-twisting, accepted.

There is a publisher’s lore that the main title has to be packed with key words and that it therefore can’t be catchy or too abstract. For that reason publishers always flip titles around. They thus originally wanted the book to be called “The European Destruction of the Palace of the Emperor of China: Liberal Barbarism.” To me, a title like this just screams of “academic book, hardback only, 87 dollars.” Or worse, “you are desperate to get your book in print so we can treat you whichever way you like and get away with it.” The original compromise was to run the main and the subtitles together into one and that’s what created the problem of the exceptionally long, and ugly, title.

The idea that titles have to be flipped goes back some 10 years and refers to the way search engines used to pick up key words back in the 1990s. Now it’s not a concern.  Google searches everything, all the time.

I won this one in the end, but I’m amazed at the stubbornness of the publisher and their lack of respect for my work and my efforts.

stupid censors stop my mid-term

My undergrads were supposed to have their mid-term today, online, like I usually do it. The page with the exam opened up at 10 AM but five minutes later it all crashed. My first thought was that the database on the server had been overloaded by too many users — RAM on the server is a bit low — but there was no way for me to restart it. There was in fact no way to reach my web pages at all. Checking with friends outside of the country I realized that the pages worked perfectly in the rest of the world. Oh oh, the Chinese censors had struck again!

It must have been all those questions I had about Taiwan, democracy, nationalism, legitimacy and revolution. I bet the censorship filter picked up these keywords when 25 students in the same place at the same time started asking for the same pages. Access to my site was down for the rest of the day. Poor kids, sitting by their computers not knowing what had happened.

I had to change IP address in the end. It went smoothly and now everything should be OK. Until the next time I ask my students to provide an answer to the question: “What is it that makes a government legitimate?”

Suggestions for covers

Here are three suggestions for a cover that I just got from the art dept at Palgrave. I wonder which one I should choose?

I had an idea I wanted a peaceful, pretty, version of Yuanmingyuan to contrast with the often violent content of the book itself. I also don’t want a classical Chinese painting — covers like that are a dime a dozen. I really like picture in the middle, except that the house looks a bit too delapidated. What I want is Yuanmingyuan before the destruction. The cover to the right is out since it shows a building in the Forbidden Palace, not Yuanmingyuan. The cover to the left works, but since it is zoomed pretty heavily it looks a bit indistinct.

Diane doesn’t like the pink but I don’t mind. Admittedly it’s not a very Chinese color, but that’s sort of the point. I want to de-Orientalize the setting.

Another problem: there are too many words in the title. I wanted a colon between “Liberal Barbarism” and the rest, but Palgrave thinks that reduces the number of search results in Google or whatever. Perhaps there is a way to put “Liberal Barbarism” above the picture and the rest of the title below, in slightly smaller font.

Still, we’ll come up with something. This is good start 😉

China’s soft power

In one of my classes we’re reading an op-ed piece by Joseph Nye on “China’s soft power.” Or rather, on Nye’s account, China’s lack thereof. Nye is arguing that no one will look up to and respect China as long as the country has no democracy and is doing poorly on human rights. A state sponsored charm offensive which includes Olympic Games, World Expos and Confucius Institutes makes little difference here. Respect and admiration have to be earned and cannot be fabricated.

Nye is surely right (although “soft power” may still not be the best label). What Nye doesn’t mention, however, are the many examples that exist of a different China. A smart, creative, self-confident China. A China that doesn’t have a chip on its shoulder and is not afraid of the rest of the world. Giving an example to my students, I play this Youtube video:

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Nǎ li yǒu yāpò nǎlǐ jiù yǒu fǎnkàng, 哪里有压迫哪里就有反抗, “Where there is repression, there will be resistance,” was one of Chairman Mao’s most famous sayings. I think the Chairman was right. It makes me very proud and hopeful that there still are Chinese people who agree with him. Especially in this fashion.

This is a further disssion: http://www.chinafile.com/why-chinese-soft-power-such-hard-sell

Yali at Yale

A student on SJTU campus is wearing a Yale sweatshirt, and I’m surprised to see a reference to my alma mater. Then I look again and I realize it doesn’t say “Yale” at all but rather “Yali,” although the font is the famous Yale one. “Another pathetic Chinese attempt to rip off a Western brand,” I think to myself but then I remember that “yali” in Chinese means “pressure.” The shirt is surely a comment on the exam hell all Chinese students go through in order to make it into the Ivy League. How brilliant!

It reminds me of the time in the 1990s when Spike Lee’s film about Malcolm X was drawing big crowds. Black people, and some liberal whites, were wearing baseball caps with an “X” on the front as a way to associate themselves with the legacy. Except the black students at Yale who wore a cap with a “Y.”  The reference to black culture was obvious, yet so was their claim to exclusivity.

Deng Xiaoping is still killing people

Twenty-four years ago, during the “June 4th Incident” at Tiananmen Square, the Beijing leaders, led by Deng Xiaoping, ordered the killing of students who demonstrated on behalf of democracy and human rights. The number of people killed during those days is disputed but it was at least 200 people, possibly well over a thousand. Ever since Deng Xiaoping has continued to kill Chinese people, even after his own death.

It is, for example, common in China that smokers refer to Deng Xiaoping saying: “Look at Deng. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and yet he lived to be over 90. Surely smoking can’t be that bad.”

Or consider the reintroduction of capitalism into China that Deng initiated. According to yesterday’s New York Times 1.2 million people die prematurely in China every year as a result of air pollution.

These deaths are the result of leaders whose decisions can’t be crticized. This includes Deng’s tobacco habit. No one dared to ridicule the supreme leader for his vice and that’s why smokers can go on referring to him as a model.

Putting it all behind me

I went to the hospital today for the doctor to interpret my test results. Everything is OK. The higher values on the blood tests have nothing to do with cancer. It’s just a virus of some kind. No medicine needed. The doctor told me to drink more water! The best thing of all: he suggested I only come in once a year from now on. It’s been five years and one test a year is enough. I really did survive in the end. I really did make it. Now I can finally think it and say it without jinxing my future.

For the first time in five years I can breathe normally again and look forward to many more years, to growing older and then old like a regular person. The story of my cancer is something that happened to me once, but which now is behind me. I will start to forget what happened but thanks to this diary I will also always remember.

another checkup

I’m going in for another set of tests this morning. Nothing special, just the regular 6-months checkup, that regular reminder of my mortality. Is this the time when they finally will discover that the cancer has returned? Of course not. Think positive! (as though how I think has anything to do with it).

Living so close to the edge all the time gives me an insight that normal people don’t have. I would like to use that insight better in the years to come. I would like to make something out of the proximity of the abyss. Then again, isn’t “the proximity of the abyss” just another game I play with myself? An intellectual abstraction? A way to derive a cheap thrill from the predicament I’m in? The actual experience of having cancer, if I recall correctly, was not like this.

I’m taking Saga with me this morning since she is far better at understanding what Chinese doctors are saying. But none of this is anything to get worked up about. It’s just the regular every 6 months routine.

I wish we all could live for ever.

We are leaving China

Big decision in the Ringmar family: we are leaving China! When we came here two years ago, we really thought we would stay for the long haul. That I would work here, if not until the end of my career at least for some good 10 years. But this is not going to happen, and this is why:

  1. the air quality in China is hazardous to anyone and terrible for me. I had cancer five years ago and my mouth has never recovered. Breathing the Shanghai air makes me hurt. Most of the time I sit inside like a prisoner. Shanghai is wonderful but I can’t enjoy it. China is poisoning me. 
  2. the schools are no good for my kids.  Rima, my youngest, is being bullied by the “popular girls” in her class: “we don’t like foreigners,” they tell her and hits her during the breaks. I can’t stand it.
  3. In general, Chinese schools destroy any love of learning. There is constant math homework intended not to teach math, but to humiliate the students and to separate out the top 10 percent that will be able to go on to university. The teachers instil discipline by telling the students they are stupid.  My kids are not stupid, but they are not good at math.
  4. my university has tremendous problems. Lets simply say that teaching and research feature very low down on the agenda of big professors and deans.
  5. Diane isn’t happy with her job. She’s basically an English teacher and it’s not a job she enjoys. There are no proper jobs teaching sociology.
  6. Shanghai is too expensive! We have double income, the smallest of apartments, engage in next to no nightlife and rarely buy clothes, and we can still not scrape together enough money to go visit our families in the summer. My mother is 83 years old and she has Parkinson’s disease. She cannot wait to see her grandchildren and they cannot wait to see her.
  7. There is no future in China. This is not a place where you can make a life for yourself. When Saga turns 18 she will no longer be allowed to live here and the other kids will have to leave one after the other. I’m an “honored foreign expert,” but to be a foreign expert, even an honored one, is not to have a life. We need somewhere to call home.

So we are leaving. It’s scary returning to Sweden after close to 30 years abroad, but at least in Sweden we will be able to breathe. I like breathing.