Explaining China, Part II: What Do I Know, About China, and How Did I Learn It?

PRC and ROC and Barbarian Nations

In the map above, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is shown in red, while the Republic of China (ROC) is shown in yellow. “Barbarian” nations (from the point of view of the Han, or the ethnic group we call “Chinese” in English) are shown in orange, and both oceans and large lakes are shown in blue. The third (and only other) majority-Han nation, the island city-state called Singapore, is not shown on this map, as it is too far to the South to be seen here. From the point of view of the Han, “barbarians” have been, historically, those humans who were not Han, while “the Han” can be translated as “the people.”

This historical xenophobia I just described among the Han is hardly unique; it is, in my opinion, simply human nature. The British rock band Pink Floyd explained this, quite well, in the following song, “Us and Them,” from 1973’s classic Dark Side of the Moon. This album, in the form of a cassette tape which had to be purchased by my parents (for I would not let go of it in the store we were in), happens to be the first musical album I actually owned, back when it was newly-released (I was born in 1968). If you choose to listen to this song, please consider this idea of xenophobia, as simply being a human characteristic, while it plays.

Ancient Greeks had the same “us and them” attitude about those who did not speak Greek, and the English word “barbarian” is derived from Greek, with a meaning which parallels what I have described in China. Eurocentrism, in general, in the study of “world history,” is well-known. Moving to another continent, the people where I live, the USA, are famous for learning geography one nation at a time . . . as we go to war with them, of course. Only a tiny percentage of Americans knew where either Korea was located until we went to war there, and we (as a people) did not know where Vietnam was until we went to war there. More recently, Americans learned — twice! — where Iraq is, though many of us still, inexplicably, confuse it with Iran. This list of xenophobic nations is far from complete, but these examples are sufficient to make the point.

When, in 1939, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill uttered the famous phrase, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” he was referring to the Soviet Union (or USSR), although the proper noun he actually used was “Russia.” However, this quotation applies equally well to the PRC, which has one indisputable advantage over the USSR: the People’s Republic of China still exists, while the Soviet Union does not. In the last post here, I began an ambitious series, with the goal of explaining China. I promised, then, that my next post in the series would explain my qualifications to write on the subject of the PRC, the ROC, Greater China, and the Han — so that’s what I need to do now.

I am currently working on my second master’s degree, in an unrelated field (gifted, talented, and creative education). However, my first master’s degree was obtained in 1996, when Deng Xiaoping, while no longer the PRC’s “paramount leader,” was still seen as its most prominent retired elder statesman. It was Deng Xiaoping, primarily, who made (and defended) the decision to send the tanks in, and crush the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, in June of 1989, which I watched as they happened, on live TV. I was horrified by those events, and this has not changed.

During the early 1990s, I began studying the economic reforms which made the era of Deng Xiaoping so different from Chairman Mao’s China, trying to figure out the solution to a big puzzle: how so much economic growth could be coming from an area dominated by a huge, totalitarian, country which, at that time and now, was one of the few remaining nations on Earth which still claimed to be Communist. This study was done during the time of the “New Asia” investment bubble, as it was called after it “popped” (as all investment bubbles do, sooner or later). New Asia’s economic growth was led by the “Four Tigers” of Hong Kong (still a British colony, at that time), Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. South Korea is, of course, Korean, but the other three “tigers,” all had, and still have, majority-Han populations. What money I had, I invested in the Four Tigers, and I made significant profits doing so, which, in turn, led to a general interest in East Asia. 

Motivated by simple human avarice, I studied the Four Tigers intensely, leading me to focus (to the extent made possible by the course offerings) on 20th Century East Asian history, during the coursework for my first master’s degree. There was a problem with this, though, and I was unaware of it at the time. My university (a different one than the one I attend now) had only one East Asian history professor, and he was very much a Sinophile. Sinophiles love China uncritically, or with the minimal amount of criticism they can get away with. When we studied the rise to power of Mao Zedong, and the PRC under the thumb of Chairman Mao, I heard it explained by a man who viewed China, and Chairman Mao, through rose-colored glasses, even while teaching about others who made the same error, to an even greater degree. I had already read one book about the Cultural Revolution, earlier in the 1980s, so I was skeptical, but he was also my only professor. The result was confusion. This was the book I had already read, along with a link to a page on Amazon where you can purchase it, and easily find and purchase the Pink Floyd music posted earlier, if you wish to do so. This is Son of the Revolution, by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro, and you can buy it at https://www.amazon.com/Son-Revolution-Liang-Heng/dp/0394722744/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1468869380&sr=8-1&keywords=son+of+the+revolution.

Son of the Revolution

This book was read for an undergraduate sociology course, at my first college, during the Reagan years. The important thing to know about Liang Heng, the book’s primary author, is that he was, himself, of the Han, as well as being from the PRC itself. The professor for this course wanted us to see the horror of a mass movement gone horribly wrong, and she chose this insider’s view of the Cultural Revolution, during which I was born, to do that. What I heard from my East Asian history professor did not mesh well with what I was taught by my East Asian history professor, and so I left that degree program confused. This professor’s argument, in a nutshell, was Chairman Mao was a figure of tremendous importance (true) who had good intentions (false), and tried to do amazing things (half-true, and half-false by omission, for these were amazing and horribly evil things), but had them turn out wrong (true), with many millions of his own people dying as a result, over and over (definitely true; Mao’s total death total exceeds that of Hitler or Stalin, either one). The “good intentions” part was what confused me, of course, for Mao was a monster, yet, from my later professor, I was hearing him described as a Great and Important Man.

I would have remained in this confused state, has I not also read this book, also written, primarily, by a person of the Han: the amazing Jung Chang, who has her own page on Amazon, at http://www.amazon.com/Jung-Chang/e/B00N3U50ZO/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1468870698&sr=8-2-ent. (On that page, I notice she has a newer book out, which I have not read, and she is such a fantastic author that I am buying it now.) This, by contrast, was her first well-known book, and the one I read as an undergraduate:

wild swans

Wild Swans tells the story of three generations of Han women: Jung Chang’s maternal grandmother (who had bound feet, and could barely walk, for that reason), then the author’s mother, and then finally Jung Chang herself, who found herself a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution at the age of 14. This book tells their story, and is riveting. It has nothing nice to say about Chairman Mao, and contains much criticism of “The Great Helmsman,” as his cult of personality enthusiastically called him, yet he is not the focus of Wild Swans. The author’s family, over three generations, is.

I did my master’s degree work from the Sinophile professor described earlier, and then, later on still, I encountered Sinophobes. The opposite of Sinophiles, people who have Sinophobia have nothing nice to say about China, nor the Han. They hate and fear things Chinese because they fear the unknown — in other words, Sinophobia is a more specific form of xenophobia. 

So, first, I read Liang Heng, and then, later, I started reading Jung Chang. Next, I heard the Maoist viewpoint explained quite thoroughly by my Sinophile professor, while my reading of Liang Heng and Jung Chang had exposed me to an anti-Mao, but non-Sinophobic, point of view, which is a direct consequence of the fact that both authors were actually of the Han, and had direct exposure to Maoism. Later came the Sinophobes, and their written and spoken, anti-Chinese, case for . . . whatever. (Actually, the Sinophobes never make a case for anything, unless one counts hating and fearing China and the Han as being “for” something. I do not.) Later still, one of my close friends studied ancient Chinese history and philosophy extensively, and we had (and still have) many talks about both ancient and modern China, including Chairman Mao, and the silliness of the Sinophobes, but this friend is more interested in talking about, say, Confucianism, rather than Maoism, or Mao himself. I was primed to learn the truth about Mao, but had to wait for the right opportunity.

Think about this, please. How many books have been written that accurately describe Stalin as a monster? How many exist about Hitler? I should not have had to wait so long to find out something about Mao I felt I could believe, and that described him as the monster he was, but wait I did, for no such book existed . . . until Jung Chang came to my rescue, with her next book, after 1991’s Wild Swans. All 800+ pages of it.

mao the unknown story

It took her many years to write this tome, and it was published in 2005. She grew up under Mao, having been born in 1952, not long after the revolution of 1949, which established the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao finally died in 1976. Two years after that, Jung Chang was sent to Great Britain as a college student, on a government scholarship. Being highly intelligent, and not wanting to return to China, she went on to become the first of the Han to receive a Ph.D. at any British university. This book, focused on Mao’s formative years, rise to power, and tyrannical rule, all the way to his death, is, as its subtitle states, “The Unknown Story” of this historical period. Jung Chang was uniquely qualified to write this story, having lived through so much of the events described in her book. She knew how expendable people were to Mao, having witnessed it, and survived. To the extent possible (and she was quite resourceful on this point) she used primary sources. This is why I give her much credibility. 

These are the ways I have learned about China: from three books by two of the Han, long talks with a personal friend, and two college professors with different points of view on China, and Mao in particular. I have rejected the points of view of both the Sinophiles and the Sinophobes, and now I try to learn what I can from other sources, especially sources who are, themselves, of the Han — although I am weakened in this respect by the fact that I am only bilingual, with my two languages being mathematics and English, in that order. If you think this approach makes sense, I hope you will read my other posts, past and future, about China and the Han.

Explaining China, Part I: The Scope of This Series, Which Includes the PRC, the ROC, the Han, and Greater China

China and environs

I’m bringing a new topic to my blog. I’m going to attempt to explain things about China, the largest nation in which the Han (that’s the way to write, in English, the Chinese name for the Chinese people, as an ethnic group) form the majority, as well as the largest nation on Earth, by population. The map above comes from this website. If you’re wondering why, in the map above, Taiwan is the same color as the People’s Republic of China, this series of blog-posts is definitely for you. In a future post, I will deal with the historical reasons for the China/Taiwan puzzle, and the current state of that interesting situation. (“May you live in interesting times” is not a nice thing to say directly to any of the Han, by the way, no matter where they live. It is considered by many people to be part of an ancient Chinese curse, although the veracity of this claim is disputed — a topic for another post, later in this series.)

If you find China, Taiwan, puzzles in general, mysteries which are not fictional, history, current events, and/or the Han to be interesting topics, then this irregularly-published series of blog-posts is for you. If you aren’t interested in any of those topics, my assumption is that you wouldn’t have read this far, anyway. To those who miss the other topics about which I blog, don’t worry: posts in this series will not be the only topic I blog about, by any means, for the fact that I am interested in many things, and blog on many topics, is not going to change.

The People’s Republic of China is also known as mainland China, Red China, the PRC, Communist China, or simply “China.” The government of the PRC is often referred to simply as “Beijing,” the city which is the capital of the PRC. Taiwan, by contrast, is officially known as the Republic of China, or the ROC, or even, by some people, “Taiwan, China” (a term I tend not to use). The ROC’s government can be referred to as “Taipei,” the ROC’s capital, to distinguish it from the government in Beijing. My preferred way to refer to the nation-state which is actually under the control of the Beijing government is to call it the PRC, and I use ROC, often, to refer to the nation-state actually under the control of the Taipei government, which most people call Taiwan, a term I also use. When I only write “China,” I mean the PRC. I also use the term “Greater China,” which is explained below.

The Han are in the majority in both the PRC and the ROC, and these two regions are collectively known as “Greater China,” which sounds like, and in some ways actually is, one nation with two governments, since both governments claim to be the only legitimate government of the nation which is all of Greater China (and, yes, that is confusing, along with “China Proper” on the map above). All of these topics: the nations, governments, regions, and people, are mysteries for most people on Earth — and topics for future posts in this series.

I am not of the Han. I do not speak, read, nor write any variety of the Chinese language. Also, I have yet to visit any part of Greater China. By contrast, I am known as a teacher of both science and mathematics, as someone who does “math problems for fun” (as my blog’s heading-cartoon, which I did not write, puts it), as well as a blogger on many topics that have previously had little to do with China, until this post, from yesterday, which analyzed current events worldwide, starting with recent developments in China. I do not want anyone to think I just started studying China yesterday, for that would not be correct. I do feel that I owe anyone who has read this far an explanation for exactly one thing: why should anyone care what I have to say on these subjects? I will explain that in Part II of this ongoing series . . . and tackling the PRC/ROC puzzle will be coming later, as will other topics.

George Carlin, on Change

change machine

On numerous occasions, I have repeated this experiment, in keeping with the scientific method. I have obtained the same null result as Carlin obtained, each and every time.

Is This What’s Going On? A Set of Questions of Global Concern.

Is This Whats Going On

I have a set of conjectures, and want input from my friends and blog-followers about them. How much of this has actually happened over the past months, weeks, and days?
 
1. The Chinese have been buying huge amounts of silver, thus driving up its price, because…
 
2. The political and business leaders in Greater China are, themselves, sick of living in an environmental nightmare based on decades of high consumption of oil and dirty coal, and are working on building enormous numbers of solar panels to get away from fossil fuel consumption, using lots of silver, which has the highest reflectivity of any element. China’s silver buying-spree is being misinterpreted, globally, because China is not well-understood, outside China.
 
3. These leaders of China have to breathe the same air, for one thing, as many Chinese people with much less power, and going green is the pragmatic thing to do. It is quite Chinese to be pragmatic. Living in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, or other population centers, air quality is a major issue, as is global warming and other environmental concerns — all issues which many Americans are in the habit of ignoring.
 
4. As the Chinese phase themselves out of the human addiction to fossil fuels, total global oil consumption drops. Evidence: gasoline prices fell. I was buying for under $2 a gallon a week ago.
 
5. Falling oil prices have led to severe economic problems in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East. Higher-than-usual amounts of political stability have rippled through the Middle East through the last five years, and this has intensified further in recent months. The latest such development has been in Turkey, often seen as the most politically stable country in the Muslim world, is going through an attempted(?) coup, on the far side of the Middle East from China.
 
6. In the USA, one of the people running for president is a reactionary xenophobe, as well as a populist demagogue, and is running against an opponent with little to no ethical principles who is winning by default because she’s running against Trump. Donald Trump and his people (and he has a lot of people) have been spewing Islamophobia and Sinophobia, and they’ve been doing it loudly.
 
7. Many people all over the world are reacting to the Trump Trumpet o’ Hate, and freaking out. Various end-of-the-world scenarios are been floated publicly, especially in cyberspace. People are getting “off the grid” if they can, either because it’s a good idea, or because they’re panicked. In some places, efforts are actually being made to use the force of government to stop people from weaning themselves off the services of utility companies.
 
8. Few people realize that a lot of this is a set of unintended consequences of China (of all nations) leading the charge to do the right thing regarding oil addiction, from an environmental and ecological point of view, plus having a lunatic run for the White House.
 
9. The rising price of silver, panic-in-advance about a widely-expected coming collapse of fiat currencies, and the pronouncements and predictions of Ron Paul and his ilk, are all feeding off each other, in an accelerating spiral. In the meantime, the political instability in Turkey is capping off a slight rise in gas prices over recent lows, just in the last week.
 
10. Most Americans don’t know much about a lot of this because we’re at a point in the current, nasty election cycle that America as a people has simply forgotten (again) that the world outside the United States actually exists. Ignorance about the Middle East, economics, environmental science, and Greater China is widespread in the best of times. Thanks to (a) the “Donald and Hillary Show” playing 24/7 on cable news, (b) civil unrest at home (brutality on the part of some, but not all, police), and (c) a backlash against Black Lives Matter, with horrible behavior from some, but not all, of the protesters on all sides, and (d) an anti-or re-backlash against BLM is in “full throttle” right now, and (e) unrest abroad (Turkey, etc.), these certainly aren’t the best of times.
 
I invite anyone to weigh in on the subject of which of the above conjectures are valid, and which are invalid. I have deliberately cited no sources, yet, because I am asking for independent peer review, and so do not wish to suggest sources at this point. In addition to “Which of these statements are correct, and which are wrong?” I am also asking, “What am I missing?”

“What’s Your Favorite Color?”

It’s a mystery to me why this happens, but the parallels between different conversations which start with this question are simply amazing. First, I don’t get asked this question unless talking to a teenager . . . and then, nearly every time this happens, the rest of the conversation follows the same pattern.

First, I answer the question honestly, with a single word, by simply naming my favorite color.

black

After telling this one-word, five-letter truth, I then get a response which has become utterly predictable: “Black’s not a color!”

Even stranger: such inquisitions only seem to come from teenagers who are dressed in such a way as to let the following response work: “What color is your t-shirt?”

Sometimes they even look down at that point, presumably to check, which lets them see the answer to my question for themselves:

black

After that one question from me, for some reason, they tend not to say much more. 

Elementary School Mathematics Education Mysteries

mystery

Since these two problems are really the exact same problem, in two different forms, why not just use “x” to teach it, from the beginning, in elementary school, instead of using the little box? The two symbols have the exact same meaning!

To the possible answer, “We use an ‘x’ for multiplication, instead, so doing this would be confusing,” I have a response: why? Using “x” for multiplication is a bad idea, because then students have to unlearn it later. In algebra, it’s better to write (7)(5) = 35, instead of 7×5 = 35, for obvious reasons — we use “x” as a variable, instead, almost constantly. This wouldn’t be as much trouble for students taking algebra if they had never been taught, in the first place, that “x” means “multiply.” It’s already a letter of the alphabet and a variable, plus it marks spots. It doesn’t need to also mean “multiply.”

Why are we doing things in a way that causes more confusion than is necessary? Should we, as teachers, not try to minimize confusion? We certainly shouldn’t create it, without a good reason for doing so, and these current practices do create it.

These things may not be mysteries to others, but they certainly are to me.

[Note: for those who do not already know, I am a teacher of mathematics. However, I do not have any experience teaching anything at the elementary level. For this particular post, that’s certainly relevant information.]