Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: opinion
Thursday, 31 October 2013 13:50

Water in Classical Chinese Literature

The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and one of the longest rivers in the world. The Yellow River is the second biggest river in Asia and the sixth biggest in the world. Both are the most important rivers in the history, culture and economy of China.

Ever since the early history of China, the water of the Yangzi was used for sanitation, irrigation and industry. The vastness of the river meant it was often used to mark borders and was an important consideration in war tactics.

The Yellow river is seen as the cradle of Chinese civilization. The most prosperous civilizations in the history of China were mostly situated along this river. Therefore, it is not surprising that images of water are apparent in ancient Chinese culture and particularly in Chinese poetry.


Wednesday, 02 October 2013 16:10

When Dreams Don't Pan Out


Translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart, photo by Cerise Phiv.

Dreams have the dual meaning of hope and desperation: they can represent longing for the future, or they can be an unrealistic fantasy.

"中國夢" (Chinese Dream) . In the middle of August this year, I embarked on my first steps onto Chinese soil. From when I entered the airport, these three characters followed me on my trip. In the papers, in the media, even slogans written on walls at the side of the road, these three characters appeared at every turn. According to the Chinese government, the meaning of this phrase is 'Realize a rich and powerful nation, to reinvigorate the Chinese nation and to make the people happy'. On the surface, this dream not only looks to have a very solid definition, but it seems to have the power to be passed down from the top to the bottom rungs of society.

When conjuring up the Chinese Dream, it's very hard not to associate it with the American Dream, which took its origins in the nineteenth century, which consists of the idea that if you only work hard, you will not lack for opportunities and was pursued and yearned for by people the world over. And now, a rising superpower is staking a new claim in an attempt, it goes without saying, to replace it. Only, amidst this atmosphere of prosperity for all, I can't help but feel a little troubled: Don't dreams represent people at their most unconstrained? People under the same roof often have different dreams from one another, so how could more than a billion people all have the same dream?

By chance, it was at the end of August when I was jettisoned into this dream. Fifty years before, on 28th August, the American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King made his famous speech which featured the famous line "I have a dream", which is probably one of the most widely known dreams in the world. The dream Dr. King describes is one in which "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood [...] that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." So, the American Dream actually turns out not to be realizable with just hard work, certain people are already pre-excluded from it. Half a century has since passed, and even though the US has already elected its first black president, I'm not naive enough to think that Dr King's dream has been realized. One need only open one's eyes to see the multitude of dividing lines that exist in the world today, and what keeps us apart is not only race, but also gender, sexuality, class and even religion...

The Chinese Dream, the American Dream and Dr. King's dream remind me of the era of illusion in Taiwan spurred by the lines "Having a dream is wonderful, hope is never far behind" (有夢最美,希望相隨, you meng zui mei, xiwang xiangsui). These lines, a slogan from an election campaign (Chen Shuibian's election campaign), used the simplest of words to inspire hope in countless people, as if just believing in these words, one could emerge from the darkest of times. However, the reality of the situation is that dreams can't dispel the differences between people and they give us a clear direction, as for Taiwan this turned out to be an even more ambiguous and tumultuous era than what had gone before.

Perhaps, as we sing the virtues of dreams, we often forget that dreams have the dual meaning of hope and desperation: they can represent a longing for the future, if you naively believe that where there's a will, there's a way", allowing you to release your unlimited potential. Or, on the other hand dreams can be an unrealistic fantasy because what you yearn for is so distant from reality, so, in the end, it can only ever be a dream. Of course, if we get to the core of the issue, as the Diamond sutra says, everything in this world is simply a "phantasm". 


Monday, 30 September 2013 13:00

Battle of the Languages: Arabic vs. Chinese

The Arabic language has been my principle subject of study, and means of employment, for the past eight years. Recently I came to Taiwan to have a go at Chinese. Four months on and I can say that Chinese is inordinately easier than Arabic! Why? Perhaps some of has to do with improvements in my own language learning method, but I think it is mainly differences in the languages themselves, and in the approach each culture has to teaching its own language.

The principal difficulty with learning Arabic is the disparity between what we learnt in the classroom and what we would hear on the street. In class we learnt what was called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a formal language used for books, newspapers, on the news, but rarely for speaking. This meant that though we might be able to write at great length about American foreign policy in class, we could not make ourselves understood when asking for a cup of tea in the cafeteria. To further complicate the problem, the spoken language (aamiyya) varies widely from country to country, city to city, and even sometimes street to street. So even if we were taught to ask for a cup of tea, "I want" can be "aawiz", "biddii", "ureedu", "widdi", "nibbi" and many more variants depending on what region our teacher was from. So in some ways I can understand why aamiyya was considered off limits in the classroom.

Indeed, after five years of Arabic study, and three years working as a translator, I still regularly met people who I could not understand a single word of what they were saying. Here, it is a relief that whether I am in Taipei or Tainan people's accents -to my ear- are more or less the same, and unless one is speaking Taiwanese, I have an equally good chance of understanding either of them.

Another difference is the reading. Arabic, with 28 phonetic characters, compared to the thousands of Chinese characters each with a pronunciation that cannot always be inferred from reading, and sharing only 400 different sounds between them, should be easier, right? The problem is that in standard written Arabic, vowels are not expressed and in Arabic more than in other languages, vowels are very important. This basically means that every unfamiliar word I come I still end up guessing at the pronunciation (meaning aside!), and in Arabic there are a lot of words! It is embarrassing that after all this time I still cannot really read a newspaper or a novel without the help of a dictionary. At least in Chinese, once you have learnt the meaning of a character, and its sound, you can be sure it is a friend for life.

However, the biggest difference for me in how easy it is to learn a language is how well this language is taught, and Arabic for the best part was taught pretty appallingly. Think 1970s textbooks about conferences in East Germany and visits to the Middle East by President Bush (Sr.), long dictations, reading aloud, all the things that it has been agreed are not beneficial to language acquisition. The first words we learnt in our Arabic class, as I recall, were "Foreign Minister", "Summit" and "communiqué". By contrast my Chinese class –in a small, newly-opened language school- is fun, fast-paced and the emphasis is placed squarely on being able to speak Chinese and not to read and write it. Also, because there is a smaller gulf between written and spoken language –當然 for example, although used colloquially, can also be found in newspapers and books. In Arabic, similar expressions would usually be used only in oral communication, and confined to a small geographical area, so would certainly not be found in teaching materials- it is much easier to learn common oral language and to feel like I am fitting in- in linguistic terms!

Living in the Middle East and trying to get by in Arabic required me to become incredibly stubborn, mendacious and sometimes downright rude just to be able to speak Arabic and not English in my day to day life. One time in Yemen we pretended to be Kazakhs for a week. In contrast, trying out the Chinese I have learned so far –while shopping, at work, at the many regular language exchange events held in Taipei-I have received nothing but encouragement, and nothing but Chinese! I have found that people are generally patient, and if it is necessary to resort to English, people do so reluctantly. However, my flat-mate, who is fluent in Chinese, repeatedly complains that he finds the opposite, so perhaps it is just a question of perspective, and beginner's enthusiasm!

One sure way in which Chinese has been much more instantly rewarding is the advance of technology there has been since I was studying Arabic. There are now plenty of new ways to acquire a new language, all of which Chinese has embraced. For one thing, smart phones have been a revelation for me. Gone are the days of piles and piles of tatty paper flashcards scattered around the house and stuffed in my pockets. Downloadable dictionaries like Pleco also have the facility to create and test flashcards. I am using the AV Chinese textbook series and I can even download flashcard packs which correspond to the chapters so that every time we have a test, all it takes is an hour or two of scrolling through the flashcards- when I am walking, a spare few minutes at work, before I go to sleep- and that's vocabulary learning sorted. Social apps like LINE also are really good for keeping in touch with the new friends I've made here and a great way of trying out what I've learnt.

I do in fact like Arabic. I have had some amazing experiences, met unforgettable people, and discovered a treasure of literature and poetry. Yes, it is hard, but it was taught using the wrong methods. The way to learn a language today-or perhaps ever- is not to do a university degree in it! Advances in technology, ease of communication and travel, mean that universities often seem outdated compared to the many more ways to learn a language there now are.


Wednesday, 19 October 2011 00:00

Privacy, Intimacy and Teleportation

Jose Ramon Duran, PhD student at National Taiwan University talks about the hazards and the future of the internet.


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