Category Archives: China

The Language of Noodles (Linguistic Notes on Understanding Chongqing Xiaomian)

I like noodles in an amateur, casual sort of way. Brother Lamp, whom I wrote about in my recent article “Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive,” is in a different category. He’s obsessed. He’s crazy about them. He’s so infatuated that an outside observer might categorize his relationship to noodles as a sickness.

The term “noodle obsessive” is an awkward translation: it captures some, but not all of this passion. This is a translation issue: in Chinese, Lamp is a 面痴 (mianchi).

The first character, mian 面, means noodles. The second character, chi 痴, means infatuation; it is literally translated as “silly or idiotic; crazy about something; insane or mad.” The character can be broken down into two parts: the outer section 疒, which represents an illness of some kind; and the inner part zhi 知, which means to know and provides the overall sound of the word (zhi —> chi). To be a 痴 is to be an obsessive, sure, but it is a level above and beyond. It is not just crazy about something in the way that we are all crazy about something, but literally crazy, linguistically more similar to a disease than a love.

Brother Lamp’s preferred noodle, Chongqing xiaomian, is itself confusing. It means “little noodle,” yet its distinct importance comes from the fact that it is not, in fact, little. Walk down any street in China and you will see stores selling all kinds of local snacks, or xiaochi 小吃 — little eats. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and Chongqing’s neighbor to the northwest, is a hotbed of world-famous xiaochi, including dan dan mian 担担面. (Dan 担 means to carry on your shoulder; the name dan dan mian comes from the Sichuanese street vendors who carry it on a pole on their shoulders to sell it).

Some versions of Chongqing xiaomian, bursting with Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil, taste indistinguishable from Sichuan-style dan dan mian. Many people who are not Brother Lamp consider the differences to be marginal; yet to a true mianchi there is a key distinction: dan dan mian is a snack (xiaochi), while xiaomian is a staple food (zhushi).

Historically, xiaomian was served in portions of 150 grams, or three liang, a Chinese unit of measure equivalent to 50 grams. Dan dan mian, meanwhile, was only two liang. A two-liang bowl, Brother Lamp says, leaves you hungry for more; it is merely a snack. A three-liang bowl of noodles — and I will attest to this fact, having eaten far too many three-liang bowls of noodles — will leave you full. Extraordinarily, painfully full.

This linguistic difference is irrelevant in modern society, obliterated by consumer choice. At any xiaomian stall, you can order two or three liang bowls; at some, like Zhu Lin Beef Noodles, you can order a mere one liang. Yet during the early years of the People’s Republic of China, when food was rationed and resources limited, the difference between a two liang bowl and a three liang bowl meant something more.

To Lamp, the difference matters. After all, his identity depends on it. 

Administration in China’s Higher Ed System: A Problem of Kind, Not Degree

Where there is a problem in an American university, a university administrator will be hired to address it. It does not matter if the problem has a solution: as Stanford sociologist John Meyer cynically explained in a lecture this week in Beijing, as formal organizations such as universities expand beyond their core mission, the answer is to hire a professional to accommodate each additional new function, no matter how difficult or unnecessary it may seem. “You have to hire a professional,” he said. “That’s how you prove that someone is doing something when they should be doing nothing.”

While the American higher education system has been dominated by growth in the number of administrators, the crux of China’s higher education shift in the last decade-plus has been an unprecedented expansion in the number of students. The Chinese higher education system counted 36.5 million students in 2852 postsecondary institutions in 2015. From 2003 to 2013, total enrollments increased more than 200 percent, more than 10 times the growth in the United States over the same period

The 2016 budget expenditures for the 73 national universities in China. Even if you don't read Chinese, you can figure out that the numbers drop off pretty quickly.

The 2016 budget expenditures for the 73 national universities in China. Even if you don’t read Chinese, you can figure out that the numbers drop off pretty quickly.

Since the Chinese government began the latest round of higher education expansion in 1999, at the tail end of the Asian Financial Crisis, it has excelled at enrolling students but struggled to actually educate them. Most students will enter middle- and lower-tier schools, but funding and attention remain concentrated on the most elite schools — even compared to merely elite institutions. Tsinghua University, one of China’s top two schools, is slated to spend 18.2 billion yuan in 2016; more than double every other school in the nation except Peking University, Zhejiang University, and Shanghai Jiaotong University. (see chart, right)

Many scholars and commentators criticize the university’s administrative system for holding back the development of China’s higher education. But although the inequality between schools is reminiscent of problems in the United States, the administrative issue that plagues China’s higher education system is a difference of kind, not of degree. As I explain in my new piece in this month’s Washington Monthly, China’s problem of over-administration is a question of concentrated political power, not of administrative bloat.

Administrative expansion, combined with decreasing state funding, more price discrimination, and the Chivas Regal effect that equates higher price with higher quality, has spurred massive tuition increases in American higher education. It is extraordinarily expensive to go to college in the United States: the annual cost of attending an elite private college, or a public college for out-of-state students, is far higher than the median household income in the country.

None of this can apply in China because the state controls all of these levers. Tuition levels are set by the state and have not increased in a decade. Most schools rely almost entirely on government funding for their revenue; few universities except for the most elite schools can draw a significant amount of money from other sources, such as donations or external grants. Continue reading

China’s Overseas NGO Law: Further Philosophical Thoughts

A few weeks ago, I wrote about trying to understand China’s perspective on the recently-passed Overseas NGO Activity Management Law in Foreign Affairs. I mostly talked about practical consequences, but the law raises further, more philosophical questions — the kind of questions that no editor in their right mind will allow to be casually introduced in a 1,200 word article. And thus God invented the follow-up blog post.

Part of the difficulty of interpreting the law is that there is good reason to be deeply conflicted about foreign NGO activity anywhere in the world. Overseas NGOs made major contributions to China’s development; in part due to their success, foreign NGOs such as the Global Fund have now rerouted much of their development aid to poorer, less-developed nations. China has become both a recipient of foreign assistance and a provider, as more Chinese NGOs are going abroad. Lifting China’s status as an equal global player was part of the motivation of the law: as Peking University’s Jin Jinping argues, Chinese groups operating abroad “face the restraint of local laws in the countries where they are operating.” Overseas groups in China, therefore, should do the same. By codifying the rules of NGO activity, the overseas NGO law tells foreign NGOs: if they want to operate in China, they have to play by China’s rules.

This is an inevitable stage of NGO development across national borders and political systems. The Catholic priest and radical writer Ivan Illich famously argued in 1968 that all volunteer activity abroad was to “pretentiously impose” a foreign set of values on a country. Volunteers should focus on problems within their own societies, rather than go elsewhere. Regardless of a volunteer’s intentions—and why he titled his argument “To Hell with Good Intentions”—Western volunteers abroad are “salesmen for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise.” (In this framing, China’s push for its NGOs to go abroad is its own form of the opposite push: selling a delusive ballet in the ideas of non-democracy, hierarchical governance, and state intervention. I call it “Good Intentions with Chinese Characteristics”) Continue reading

In Which I Launch a Righteous Crusade for Justice in the Wanfujing Apple Store, Beijing, China

If you are a foreigner in China who speaks even the slightest bit of Chinese, the first three sentences of every conversation are identical. The simplest poorly pronounced ni hao elicits effusive praise about your intelligence. You assure your conversation partner that your Chinese is, in fact, quite poor; they respond with further praise or genuine disbelief. The first few times I had this interaction, right after I moved to China, I kept messing up halfway through: I could not properly demur because my Chinese was not good enough to understand that I was being complimented on my Chinese.

You swear to yourself that you will not let the constant flurry of undeserved compliments get to your head. Your language skills — amazing! Your ability to use non-fork cutlery — impressive! Your ability to enjoy fresh, delicious local cuisine — without parallel! But it invariably does: what is meant as encouragement seeps into a pervasive sense that your ability to perform basic tasks gives you a path around any and all barriers in your way. We claim to not want to be treated as special, but of course, deep down, we find it hard to refuse. Privilege, like cheap wine at a catered reception, is constantly on offer for no reason except that you happened to show up.

This, I believe, was my state of mind when I set out to for the Beijing Apple Store to fight the paradoxes of modern capitalism filled with the fervor of righteous justice. Read the whole thing on Medium.

Chinese Foreign Policy Initiative or Independent Boutique Shop?

China’s foreign policy initiatives claim to be forward-looking. Hipster fashion: the opposite. Beijing-based cross-cultural comedian Jesse Appell and I worked together to try to find where they meet. Welcome to: Is this a Chinese Foreign Policy Initiative or Independent Boutique Shop?

    1. Belt and Road
    2. Aggregate Supply
    3. Friends and Neighbors
    4. Going Global
    5. Gravel and Gold
    6. The Rising States
    7. Give and Take
    8. The Silk Road
    9. The New Silk Road
    10. Trend of the Times
    11. Band Together
    12. Dream Collective
    13. Community of Shared Destiny
    14. Timeless Trends
    15. Neighborly
    16. Strut
    17. New Stone Age
    18. Peaceful Rise
    19. String of Pearls
    20. Supply and Advise
    21. Iron and Resin
    22. Win-Win
    23. Modern Cooperative
    24. March West
    25. Coolly Observe, Calmly Deal with Things, Hold our Position, Hide our Capabilities, Bide our Time, and Accomplish Things Where Possible


Answer key:

Independent Boutique Shop: 2 [San Francisco, CA], 3 [Austin, TX], 5 [San Francisco, CA], 6 [New York, NY], 7 [Portland, OR], 8 [Bronxville, NY], 11 [Meridian, ID], 12 [Los Angeles, CA], 14 [Thurmont, MD], 15 [Chicago, IL], 16 [South Austin, TX], 17 [Los Angeles, CA], 20 [Miami, FL], 21 [San Francisco, CA], 23 [Chicago, IL]

Chinese Foreign Policy Initiative: 1, 9, 10, 13, 18, 22, 24, 25

Both: 4 [Toronto, Ontario] and strategy to encourage business investment abroad, 19 [Elmira, Michigan] and description of China’s military activity in the Indian Ocean

Life Under the Dome: The Political Economy of Pollution in China

A subset of my thoughts on pollution in China, particularly about why it’s so hard to fix, is up on Priceonomics.

In short, it’s part of the detritus lingering over a larger pattern of uneven development in China. In Beijing, which has reached a much higher stage of development than its neighboring areas, the desire to cut down on pollution has reached levels both high (top government) and low (a growing sense of frustration and awareness from people who previously thought nothing of it).

And of course there is a gratuitous and strangely specific metaphor about pizza-making establishments. Because China is a land of metaphors, in addition to the pollution.

Recent Activity: On China, On China, On China

I have finally had a chance to reflect on some of my experiences being an American in China.

Previously, I reflected on some of my experiences being an unproductive American in China.

I have also had a chance to reflect on some of the major themes that I encountered in my preliminary research in China. These are broad outlines, and my current research is aimed at digging more deeply into these issues, how they are reflected in policy, and what that means for, like, the world or whatever.

Praying to He, She, or It in Chinese: How Chinese Third Person Pronouns Avoid (Some) Religious Gender Issues

Like many Jews in America, my family belongs to a Reform synagogue — the most progressive and liberalized of the three major Jewish schools. Every Sunday morning, all of the other Jewish kids in the greater northwestern New Jersey region and I were dragged out of bed by our parents and brought to Hebrew school to learn about Jewish history, language, and culture and to collectively complain about having to get up early on Sunday morning to learn things. One of the most memorable lessons we had dealt with what the idea of God looked like; we were instructed to draw a picture of God. There was, of course, no wrong answer: the student who drew God as an ice cream cone was as correct as the student who copied Botticelli. (NB: Someone did, in fact, draw God as an ice cream cone. I regret to say that it was not me). God was neither male nor female; tall nor short; in our teaching, the teachings and importance of God could not be simplified into a dude with a beard but rather remained an abstract concept to give life meaning and direction.

The Old Testament of the Bible, however, was written before the women’s suffrage movement and other reformers jumpstarted the still ongoing push for gender equality. It was also written before the volunteers at our community temple drafted the curriculum for Sunday school. Thus, the Bible, whether read as literature or gospel or something in between, contains not only some rather traditional views of gender relations but also plenty of gendered terms relating to reverence and God. In popular culture, the Judeo-Christian God is viewed as an old white man with an impressively long beard who bought some excellent real estate in the clouds before the housing bubble started on Earth. In the text, God is referred to as “he”, “king,” “lord,” and more, all assuming that the higher power is not only omnipotent and omniscient but has exclusively male characteristics.

Around 2008, the Reform Jewish community decided that religion ought to reflect community values of gender equality. Our religious materials were outdated. New prayerbooks were issued, and all references to God as a male were changed: “He” became “You”; the “king” became the “sovereign”; “lord” became “ruler” or “the Eternal,” etc. Some congregants viewed the changes as important manifestations of gender equality, others as awkward, grammatically questionable, surface level changes.

But in Chinese, it turns out, this problem doesn’t exist.

Unbeknownst to many, China not only has Jews – but has had Jewish residents for nearly a thousand years. A handful of Jewish traders came to China via the Silk Road and settled in the ancient Song dynasty capital of Kaifeng, along the Yellow River in north-central Henan Province. Although the community’s original language and records are in Hebrew, over many centuries, dynasties, and floods wore away language as well as many, if not nearly all, of the customs – until the opening up and reform of China starting in the late 1970s gradually led to a renewed interest in Judaism within the community and among Jews abroad. Because no residents of Kaifeng can speak Hebrew and few English, all of the prayers, explanations, and discussions are in Chinese.

For Chinese speakers learning English, one of the most difficult elements of English to remember are gender pronouns. Native Chinese speakers will frequently refer to men as “she” and women as “he”, sometimes mixing the two interchangeably in a conversation. (For example, today, from a friend: “My wife is very smart. He scored the highest on his school exams.”) This is either a language gap or the most extreme form of progressive anti-heteronormativity in existence.

In reality, spoken Chinese does not differentiate between any personal pronouns: he, she, and it are all pronounced tā. The difference comes when they are written. Each of these Chinese characters can be broken down into two parts, one of which represents part of the meaning and one of its sound. The right side of the characters for he and she are both identical: 也. But the left side varies based on the specific person being referred to. Adding the radical meaning ‘female’ (女)creates the character for she (她), while adding the character for ‘man’ (人)results in the character for he (他). (When used in combination in simplified Chinese, the man radical is slightly altered from its standalone form, hence the difference in how it looks). The character for ‘it’ is now written 它 in simplified Chinese but can be written as 牠 in traditional Chinese, composed of the character for ‘cow’ (牛)and referring to any animal or physical “it.”

Thus although spoken Chinese has no need to awkwardly but grammatically correctly include phrases like “he or she,”a speaker of written Chinese still has to deal with this issue when he or she is writing with Chinese characters. In most cases, that is — in other ways, written Chinese has managed to solve this problem. If spoken Chinese avoids the gender problem through brute simplicity – everything is pronounced tā – written Chinese avoids the problem through specificity.

The Chinese translation of ‘he’ when referring to God (上帝)is also pronounced tā, but it is written not as 他, 她,or 牠 but as 祂. As with the other third person singular pronouns, the right side of the character is the same. But the left side is neither male nor female but a radical meaning ‘spirit’ that is also used in words like 神 (meaning deity or divine). Thus, the concept of God translated into Chinese is neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ nor an ‘it’ referring to any day-to-day object but rather a unique pronoun just for things that cannot be explained by the human world. Even though the character has to specify which third person pronoun is being used, the options are not just man, woman, or thing; the language itself reflects a differentiation between the material world and the spiritual one. When a Jew prays in Chinese, either through reading or speaking out loud, then, the pronouns are only attached to an individual’s conception of God as whatever God is. God is just as much of an ice cream cone as a man.

Of course, the rest of the translated prayers in are peppered with 王(king), 父 (father), and plenty of other references to God as an anthropomorphic masculine being. But as long as we’re not trying to talk about God in human terms, the Chinese language supplies some very helpful gender-neutral but meaning-rich pronouns. Now, instead of Hebrew, all of the Sunday schools in America can turn to teaching Chinese.

The Importance of Tones, Parts I – III

Chinese is a tonal language: in Chinese, tones convey meaning, rather than (or in addition to) what the speaker wants to emphasize. The same sound with different tones can have a completely different meaning. (For that matter, the same sound with the same tones can also have different meanings, but let’s not talk about that.) Speaking a tonal language is a great way to be reminded that when your friends and family in America call your singing “tone-deaf,” they might have actually been on to something.

Although the concept of tones is a daunting concept to people who are wildly afraid of even thinking about learning Chinese, keeping track of your tones is important. Choosing the right tones can have a distinct effect on whether the person you are talking to thinks you are a crazy person or not a crazy person, which can be a useful distinction.

Without further ado, the importance of tones, explained in three examples:


经济 (jing1 ji4, meaning: the economy) — something I know a lot about
竞技 (jing4 ji4, meaning: sports) — something I don’t know a lot about


笑话 (xiao4 hua4, meaning: jokes) — something I spend too much time thinking about
消化 (xiao1 hua4, meaning: digestion) — something my mother spends too much time thinking about


小偷 (xiao3 tou1, meaning: thief) — something that does not describe me
小头 (xiao3 tou2, meaning: small head) — something that describes me very well

As should be clear, these clarifications are frequent occurrences in my life. Whether I am a crazy person or not a crazy person is still unclear, however.

New Student Orientation, Chinese Style

The beginning of the new school year is always one of the most fun times of year: wide-eyed, cheery, overwhelmed hordes of young people arrive on campuses around the world and proceed to get in the way of everyone trying to get anywhere on time.

The new school year for Chinese university students kicked off earlier this month, and banners went up around campus welcoming the new students. Pop-up stalls selling every type of plastic household item imaginable appeared all around in parking lots and along walkways. The window in my office faces one of the main squares of the university campus; from my desk, I had a full view of the new student orientation activities that were about to commence.

At universities in the United States, new student orientation is a time of brightly-colored t-shirts and RAs chanting and screaming until they are hoarse. I remember my own freshman orientation very clearly: Before I had even arrived at my dorm, my RAs were waiting outside screaming my name — they were apparently able to identify me from covertly tracking me down on Facebook — to welcome me to the dorm. I was then informed that my dorm was the best dorm of all time, and that no other dorm could say the same. Over the next week, new student orientation proceeded with an unimaginable number of embarrassing icebreakers and time to learn our respective “dorm chants” about why our dorm was, in fact, superior. Then we were treated to a series of seminars about the dangers of alcohol and sex, soon followed by consumption of alcohol and time for flirting.

Chinese new student orientation, however, turns out to be a bit different than that of US colleges and universities. New student orientation in China is not about learning which dorm is the best and chanting slogans supporting your dorm; instead, Chinese new student orientation is mainly composed of mandatory military training.

The first things that stand out are the sounds: the blaring of patriotic Chinese music, the coordinated stomping of feet, the gruff barking of Chinese military officers. Then the sights: the stiff backs, the swinging arms to and fro, and, of course, the familiar neon pink new student orientation t-shirts emblazoned with “2014.” The chants and slogans are there, but they are not about dorms but national patriotism.

A very poor photograph of a very interesting sight.

A very poor photograph of a very interesting sight.

All incoming university students, regardless of their future endeavors, are required to participate in this military training. High school students participate in similar training at the beginning of the school years as well, although as of yet no word on what color t-shirts they have to wear. National defense education extends down to primary and junior high school as well, although not through full military training. According to the law, national defense education should be part of “related curricula” with potential for incorporation into extracurricular activities.

As these are not future military officers, the goal is not to train students for actual military altercations, as most students probably do not march in unison to attend class. Instead, there are four established aims: promote patriotism, help develop good personal character, shape collectivism, and benefit later learning.

In its current form, the training appears to be mostly focused on instilling discipline. The students have to stand outside all day in the late summer heat, retracing the same steps over and over.

As journalist David Logan wrote last year in The Diplomat, “The goal most commonly cited by both trainers and trainees was the cultivation of self-discipline. The same discipline required to weather early morning drill formations, so the logic goes, will also help students succeed in the classroom and cope with their newfound independence.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Chinese students seem to regard this new student orientation as a nuisance rather than a particularly effective means of disciplinary training. Some students have suggested to me that it is mostly an exercise in standing outside in the heat all day rather than anything actually related to patriotism or the Chinese military. Others have suggested it is an exercise in conformity — forcing everyone to march together in exact unison is perhaps an attempt to “shape collectivism,” as proponents describe it.

The combination of heat, goose-stepping, and hordes of teenagers, of course, has its detractors. This year has been particularly contentious, as a number of incidents have occurred during training. According to the New York Times, five students in Wuhan, one of China’s notoriously hot cities, fainted in the first 20 minutes of training. In Hunan province, more than 40 people were injured after a scuffle broke out during a high school military drill.

There is no way to determine whether this military training helps improve discipline or effectively promotes conformity and collectively-oriented thinking among students. At the end of the day, as with many interactions between individuals and the State here in China, most students appear to grudgingly accept the requirements. Then, as soon as the school year starts, they probably forget everything and anything related to the previous week’s activities.

In this respect, of course, it is similar to new student orientation in the United States.