Language is Power

The 3-week intensive Elementary Putonghua course I have been taking concluded with an examination today. While I have full confidence in my performance in the written part, I would say that the 3-minute speech I gave in the oral part was at best only satisfactory. I have yet to fully master the tones and pronunciations, and the knowledge that even a foreigner like the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd can speak my national language much better than me does not sit well!

With China’s importance in the international arena ever growing, so does the worldwide interest in learning the language. When we went to Vietnam during the Chinese New Year this year, we met four young women from Canada and the UK who had been learning Putonghua in China and were taking their holiday break in Hanoi. I believe that there are quite a lot of people from the West who, like these young people, are learning or would like to learn the language. Apart from a growing interest in the country and its culture, one main reason for the fad is that learning the language has become more manageable with the romanised Pinyin system.

Learning Chinese used to be quite a nightmare for foreigners. As Chinese is a character language, each Chinese character has a specific sound and meaning and learners have to memorise them one by one. However, with the characters being turned into romanised phonetic forms through Pinyin, a system created in 1958, learners may be able to master the system and speak the language in a relatively short time, without having to bother with the dreaded characters. The four women we met in Vietnam had only been in China for a few months, but they were already able to speak pretty good Putonghua.

The nationwide and worldwide recognition of Putonghua is a good example of how language reflects power. Before the communists rose to power, the official language was Mandarin, which was the court language used in the Qing Dynasty. Putonghua, while very similar to classical Mandarin, is not the same language. It is a form based on Beijing and Northern Chinese dialects and became standard Chinese after the revolution in 1949. The heavy influence of the Beijing dialect in terms of pronunciation and use of expressions seen in Putonghua today is illustrative of Beijing's political dominance.

The same power game is also evident in the written form of the language. While Chinese is one of the six official languages of the United Nations today, the form being used is simplified Chinese, a form which was also introduced after the communists took power. As the name suggests, simplified Chinese is a simplified version of traditional Chinese. The latter is still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan but now risks being marginalised, for obvious political reasons.

Some language purists say that both Putonghua and simplified Chinese represent polluted forms of the language, it is more chaotic and much of the beauty and tradition of the Chinese language is lost. Proponents argue that both Putonghua and simplified Chinese have contributed greatly to the elimination of illiteracy in China in the last few decades, as they make learning Chinese more accessible. Whatever the argument, there is no doubt that Putonghua, literally meaning "the common speech", will be spoken by more and more people in the foreseeable future.


Finding Faceless from Facebook

I was a little surprised when I recently got a Facebook message from the couple who owned the farm we stayed at when we travelled to New Zealand many years ago.
I have never been an active user of Facebook, ignoring most invitations to communicate over the years. But this couple are different. We were much impressed by their generosity and kindness during our stay at the farm. I remember how they immediately put up the 'No vancancies' sign right after we got there (even though they still had a couple more rooms they could rent out) so that we could have the whole place for ourselves. This time, when I told them that we would like to come back one day and hope that their farm stay business will still be in operation then, they wrote back and said: ‘It doesn't matter if we are not here … you [will] always be welcome at our house. Over the years we have made lots of friends and they become like family.’

It is this sort of hospitality we and no doubt the other visitors appreciate so much.


Waste Basket

And this is the second video, taken in the last summer, a couple of months after Parker and Piper came. Not only were they very playful, but also they were rather creative in the way they played.


A Tale of Two Kitties

It took me all day last Saturday to organise the old videos of Parker and Piper and to shoot new ones and then upload them. There are now seven short films of the kittens on YouTube and this is the first one filmed and uploaded more than a year ago, on Day One they came to our home.

We adopted these two kittens by responding to the following ad:

“Loving home needed for sight-impaired kittens.
One totally blind kitten (called Piper) and one half blind kitten (called Parker), from the same litter looking for compassionate person to offer them a quite, safe home.

These guys are otherwise very healthy (already vet checked), playful and very loving. The blind one 'Piper' has no idea about sight as he was born that way and makes up for it in other ways. He will probably be the most special cat you've ever owned - the bond will be very strong! Many people have told me to euthanize them but they seem perfectly happy so that seems like totally the wrong thing to do.

I would like to keep them together as Parker already helps Piper- especially when they're playing, it's so much fun to watch. (my Vet 'Tiger' at Tai Wai Small Animal Hospital suggested this too, especially for Piper).

I would keep them myself but don't feel it's a safe environment with 14 dogs and 6 other cats! I found them while doing a trap neuter return of all the stray cats at my local club.

Please open your heart and reap the rewards that will certainly come from that.”

Opened our heart we did, and I got in touch with and got to know the kind owner who found and rescued the kittens from a rubbish bin during a “trap neuter return” outing (another name for the “Cat Colony Care Programme” under the SPCA). A request that she made when she gave the kittens to us was for us to let her know how the kittens are growing. She said that some of her friends, very educated ones, upon knowing that the kittens were sight-impaired, suggested that she put them to sleep as they did not believe that they would have a future. She would like to prove her friends wrong by getting news from us that they too could grow into healthy and happy kittens.

They did. And what rewards we reaped by taking them! But that’s for another day.


Beyond the Miracle

'After these things, Jesus went away to the other side of the sea of Galilee, which is also called the Sea of Tiberias. A great multitude followed him, because they saw his signs which he did on those who were sick. Jesus went up into the mountain, and he sat there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Jesus therefore lifting up his eyes, and seeing that a great multitude was coming to him, said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?" This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, "Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that everyone of them may receive a little." One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these among so many?" Jesus said, "Have the people sit down." Now there was much grass in that place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus took the loaves; and having given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to those who were sitting down; likewise also of the fish as much as they desired. When they were filled, he said to his disciples, "Gather up the broken pieces which are left over, that nothing be lost." So they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with broken pieces from the five barley loaves, which were left over by those who had eaten. When therefore the people saw the sign which Jesus did, they said, "This is truly the prophet who comes into the world." Jesus therefore, perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again to the mountain by himself.'

John 6:1-15

The Gospel in yesterday's Mass tells the story of how Jesus fed about five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. The story a very well-known, but there are two important details that deserves our attention but may easily be overlooked if we are just preoccupied with the miracle Jesus performed. One is that the loaves and fish came from a boy. The question to reflect upon is whether the boy was the only one in five thousand with some food to share. No doubt the boy was very generous, but it was unlikely that no other people, mostly adults as the story implies, had some food with them. It was possible that those who did had chosen to remain silent. If we had been there, would we have behaved like the boy or the other people?

The other detail is that Jesus withdrew to the mountain when he perceived that the people were about to make him king. At the moment when, right after the miracle was performed, he was obviously hailed as hero and sovereign, such soberness and humility was almost as remarkable as the miracle itself. How many people in that situation would and could resist?


Sky Dog Eating the Sun?

Millions of people flocked to witness the celestial extravaganza – the longest total solar eclipse in five hundred years. I would have dearly loved to see the spectacular show, even if it was only the partial eclipse that we were able to see in Hong Kong, but as it took place during office hours in the morning, I had to give it a miss. I later saw on TV how spectacular it was, especially when the eclipse plunged parts of India and China into darkness.

Ancient Chinese people tended to believe that a solar eclipse was caused by the sky dog eating the sun and was a bad omen. Such a belief is still held by some Chinese people today, an example being the prediction that there would be a plunge in the stock market on the day.

Make of it what you will, but I see an eclipse as a very graphic lesson about life. Just like many natural phenomena, such as day and night, the changes in seasons, etc., things happen in cycles according to the cosmic order. Likewise, the different stages of our life, even our good and bad fortune, follow a cyclical pattern. We should learn to understand, accept and appreciate the changes rather than trying to hold on to some phases or resisting others.

Another lesson to learn is that while sometimes there are events that appear to plunge our life into complete darkness, we should keep the faith that the huge shadow such events cast upon our life are just temporary or even illusory, and that behind the shadow, the sun is always there, and when the time is right it will dispel the darkness in the most glorious fashion. However gloomy the situation is, it will all come to pass.

Probably because there was no sky dog eating the sun, the stock market did not plunge as some people prophesised, but sometime in the future it will, and then it will pick up again. Such is the cycle in life that the solar eclipse has so spectacularly illustrated in the show last week.


Heat to be cooled off

Another of Hong Kong's temperamental summer visitors came and went. Tropical cyclone Soudelor skirted the South China Coast swiftly last week. Despite Signal No.3 being hoisted, this was not a particularly violent storm. Yes, there were a couple of squally thunderstorms, but those were all but over in a day. Instead of bringing lots of rain and destruction as most other typhoons do, this one served to make a welcome change to the weather, cooling off the stifling heat that had turned Hong Kong into a cauldron earlier in the week.

Before I played tennis Friday evening, my wife called to remind me to drink lots of water. What sound advice it turned out to be. I was to learn from the news on the next day that a man collapsed and died while playing tennis that same evening. That was one of the two deaths caused by heat on Friday.

Over 150 deaths were caused by a different kind of heat in Xinjiang. The mass unrest prompted by a dispute between Uighur and Han Chinese workers in a Guangdong toy factory in June has led to 156 dead, thousands injured and 1,500 arrested. This and last year's riots in Lhasa brings into question the picture painted by China that the majority Han Chinese are getting along harmoniously with the ethnic minorities. To what extent such violence will intensify ethnic separatism or disrupt social stability remains to be seen, but the fact that President Hu Jintao cut short his visit to Italy for the G8 summit to return to China understates the perceived seriousness of the issue.

Is this really a happy, unified nation? Is China's policy towards minorities of official recognition, limited autonomy and unofficial control working? Has it always been in the minds of these minorities that those autonomous regions are by right their own land taken from them by force at some historical points of times? Ongoing developments in Tibet and Xinjiang may continue to throw light on these questions.