“The about Chinese schools: they are terrible”

Saga, my now 18 year old daughter, is really having a lot of luck with her writings on Shanghainese schools. She began by writing this piece for The Local — “China Teaches Its Kids to Sit Exams, Sweden Its Kids to Think.” Then she wrote a piece for the Guardian — “Here’s the Truth about Shanghai Schools: They’re Terrible” — which generated an aweful lot of attention and debate. After that the Swedish Radio interviewed her, and part of that interview featured in yesterday’s “Nyhetsmorgon i P1,” the flagship news program.

At some point Saga really has to stop complaining about the Chinese school system. It seems to have served her very well.

How to get yourself an agent

I had an idea to get myself a literary agent. It’s terrible to have to face book publishers on your own. I slave away for 10 hours a day for years on end, and they put my oeuvre in hard-cover only and slap a 150 dollar price-tag on it, to be read by exactly 17.5 people and reviewed by nobody. No, I don’t think I’m J.K. Rowling, but I do write in a reasonably accessible way and my Opium War book is intrinsically very exciting. What could be more fun to read about than an Oriental fairy-tale reduced to cinders by mean foreigners?

My idea was that an agent could help improve my odds. Writers with agents are not pathetic academic types; agents represent potential readers and potential readers represent money. Publishers like nothing as much as money. An agent would help me put my publisher in place.

The only problem is how to get an agent. I’ve been stalking a few of them on Twitter for the past couple of months now. Yet their feeds are not encouraging. One of them — best unnamed — insists that “I’m watching Downton Abbey with my wife,” and “have to stop the show every 90 seconds to explain something.” This is clearly not someone who would publish anything I write. So condescending to his wife! And over such as third-rate TV program!

Agents have the status they have to the extent that they possess the ability to represent the “general reader.” Agents are consequently middle-brow, by definition. They are the kinds of students, in other words, who we gave B pluses on the courses they took as they drifted through university some 10 years ago. And now they are getting their revenge, locking us up in our ivory towers.

chaired professor

I never knew I had a “sciatic nerve,” but now I do. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body and it runs from the back of your spine all down the length of your legs. I now know since my right leg suddenly started hurting as if it was on fire and since I couldn’t stand on my feet. At first I thought it was my heart and Saga was on the phone to emergency services to get me an ambulance, but then, after about a minute, the pain eased and I came back to myself. It f-ing hurt!

Today I went to the doctor for an appoinment. It’s my spine that pushes onto the nerve and this causes the pain. The problem with the spine comes from sitting too much on a chair and not doing enough exercise. Clearly I’ve taken “chaired professor” too literally. I should have been out there in the park with the old ladies at 5 AM doing taiji!

The doctor gave me German anti-inflamatory pills, some Chinese herbal stuff, and a great belt that helps take pressure off the back.All that’s required is that I stay horizontal and rest. I should be better in a few days.

The doctor, ar Ruijin Hospital here in Shanghai, was a man in his 60s, obviously very experienced. He sees 10 cases like this aday. Btw, I got the appointment in less than 24 hours. I shudder to think how long it would have taken in Sweden. Some things about China are very great. The hospitals are one of them.

There’s going to have to be some changes around here — no more chaired professor. I’m going to do yoga, stretching, longs walks, and meditation.

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.