China

Chinese language learning tips and resources

I’ve written before about resources for Mandarin study, but I’ve found some new websites and tricks that I wanted to share. Here are some ideas, which will mainly be of use to intermediate (and perhaps some advanced) Chinese learners. As always, I have no financial ties or personal connections to any resources that I suggest:

Tips for using Pleco. If you aren’t using Pleco, as a Chinese language learner you probably should be. There is a plethora of free resources available to learn Mandarin. But Pleco is the one app that almost everyone studying Chinese uses. It’s a Chinese language dictionary. But it also serves to teach you stroke order, much like Skritter (which I also have and love). It also has flash cards, so that it’s also an alternative to Anki app. After I have a Chinese class on iTalki my tutor sends me a copy of the white board. I then enter all the new words into my “useful words” file in Pleco. That way I can study the words that I’ve used in my discussion, which is a more organic way to study vocabulary than relying on the HSK word lists (although we all do that too, right?). One feature that I particularly like in Pleco is that you can set the Chinese dictionary page to brush, and trace out a character that you see, in order to look up its definition. All these tools are pretty well known. But even many advanced learners may not realize that in Pleco’s settings you can change the font color by tone. I have set my colors to the ones that I saw on Zhongwen- red is first tone, orange is second, green is third, and blue is fourth. But you can set the color to anything that’s memorable for you. It’s much easier to quickly note a color, as opposed to reading a diacritic or a number. This step just makes it a little bit easier to recognize and remember tones when using Pleco.

Two great podcasts: I’m not yet at a stage where I can easily listen to Chinese language podcasts. I’m hoping to reach that level in a year or two. But there are two podcasts that I highly recommend, both of which are in English. “One Chinese Word a Day with Teacher Lin” by Everyday Chinese is just what the title promises. Every day Teacher Lin will introduce one word, as well as two or three other words that are built with it. Most episodes are two to four minutes in length. It’s a good way to build vocabulary without a large time commitment. Mandarin Slang Guide with Joshua Ogden-Davis provides more in depth information. One of the challenges that all modern language learners face is the difference between the language that we encounter in our textbooks, and what we hear in person. For me, I especially struggle when Chinese speakers start to use number or internet slang. Ogden-Davis typically brings different guests onto his program, to discuss slang related to everything from sex to the most recent topic in the news. Of course, language learning is sometimes as much about cultural study as grammar and vocabulary. Ogden-Davis and his guests always seem to do a great job contextualizing slang words. Just be warned, with some episodes you may not want to play them in the car if you have young children in the back.

Three books: For an intermediate level Mandarin learner I’d recommend Jianhsin Wu’s book, the Way of Chinese Characters. I have a friend (an advanced Chinese language learner) who swears by the publisher Cheng & Tsui’s works, and this book makes me want to explore their catalog more. The book provides historical information on 670 Chinese characters. It sounds really dull, right? But it’s not. Every character is accompanied by a sketch related to the word, which helps to make it memorable. The character is also provided in earlier scripts, so that you can see how it has evolved through time. And there is a brief discussion of the text and it’s history. Many characters have unexpected or striking origins, which may help you to memorize them. The book also typically lists four words that are built using the original word. So by the end of the book, you’ll have been exposed to around 2,600 words. Of course, you’re unlikely to remember most of them. But some will stick. I like that this book does not use the HSK lists, because it’s also good to explore vocabulary outside this one canon. But if you are a beginner, another work may be a better choice.

I also like ShaoLan Hsueh and Noma Bar’s book Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese, which is a more accessible work for beginners. Bar’s illustrations are simple and spare, but also help you to remember words’ meanings. Much like Wu’s book, the word selection is unrelated to the HSK or standard word frequency lists, which can sometimes be a strength.

Lastly, years ago my Chinese teacher (thanks Qing Qing!) suggested that I order a Chinese picture dictionary as a means to learn vocabulary. There are many to choose from, and they are often quite inexpensive. I’ve found that to be an enjoyable alternative to more standard works on Chinese characters. Most public libraries probably have one Chinese picture dictionary too.

ChinesePop: If you want to find a great resource to study Chinese characters, but don’t want to pay, this is the site for you. Of course, there is a special level for people who choose to provide financial support, but the free level is also outstanding. The website CharacterPop allows you to view characters, which are animated so that you can see them written stroke by stroke. The characters are broken down with their individual meanings, so that you can better understand the word’s connotations. One of my favorite features is that people provide their own sentences to help you to remember the character. It’s always good to have more than one way to study characters, so this may be a good option for you.

Remember, language skills are highly variable day to day, so don’t worry if you have a class or a conversation during which your ability seems to crater. It will come back. There are no shortcuts. It’s all about the time. Whatever you do, just don’t give up.

Shawn Smallman, 2022

Censored: China and its Digital Secrets

Roberts, Margaret E., Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.

In my online “CyberWar and Espionage” class I show a famous clip of President Bill Clinton talking about China’s efforts to censor information online (p. 76). He wished them well with that, and said that it was similar to trying to nail jello to the wall. Over the years I have noticed that this footage often infuriates students -especially international students- who view it as an example of American hubris. Of course, in the years that followed not only did China successfully create an entire digital ecosystem, it also managed to successfully control critical information. And China’s example has since been followed by a plethora of authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning states (p. 7). But what strategy did China use to achieve this seemingly impossible goal? This question is at the heart of Robert’s insightful and carefully researched book, Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall.

In essence, what Roberts argues is that the standard approach to censorship -which relies on fear- would no longer work in a digital era: “The costs to governments of fear-based methods of censorship are more severe in the information age, as there has been an increase in the number of producers of information in the public domain” (p. 54). Instead, she argues, China adopted “porous censorship.” This does not mean that China can delete all negative information. Instead, China’s approach has been to raise the costs of information (which she terms “friction”), by imposing what equates to a tax on time or effort (p. 2, 42). What this means is that elites are often able to invest in technology (such as Virtual Private Networks) that allow them to escape the limits of censorship, while the masses cannot (although there are risks even with VPN usage. See p. 163) Still, this approach achieves two goals. First, it creates a division between the elites and the masses (p. 6, 8). Second of all, it avoids popular anger or backlash, when people realize that information is being censored. If people don’t understand that a particular web page takes four times as long to load as a deliberate policy, they are less likely to become irritated (p. 121-122). At the same time the government can promote other information (flooding), which can distract from the negative content that they want to obscure (p. 5-6): “Friction and flooding are more porous but less observable to the public than censorship using fear, and therefore are more effective with an impatient or uninterested public” (p. 18).

What Roberts is trying to do is to explain how a government can simultaneously have a digital environment which is ubiquitous, while also limiting information that might undermine the regime. Her work achieves this goal, and explains why a regime such as China does not target absolute censorship (p. 4). Censorship doesn’t have to be perfect to achieve its goals (p. 4). By concealing censorship the government minimizes its costs, which include drawing the attention of its citizens to certain topics (p. 8).

Roberts prose is at times prolix. There are moments where she repeats ideas or elaborates on examples, when a more concise treatment would have worked as well. But the book also rewards attention. At the core of her work is a detailed look at censorship in China, which is based on pain-staking research on such topics as how the Chinese states censors information about the immolation of Tibetan monks (p. 19, 155-162). Her ability to digitally scrape information from the Chinese online environment is impressive, and her analysis of this data is rigorous (see for example pp. 122-145). While this allows us to have a deeper understanding of China’s digital world, what’s even more significant is how she develops a theoretical understanding of censorship. This allows not only to better understand the choices made by the Chinese state, but also other forms of censorship in democratic countries (p. 16-17).

Most of all, the book creates a new perspective of censorship, which breaks down simple binaries of free and unfree. Yes, there is censorship in China. But the notion of “porous censorship” allows us to understand how the Chinese state achieved the seemingly impossible, and created an effective censorship apparatus for a fully digital citizenry. Of course, this system has an authoritarian underpinning. Google was eliminated, and a uniquely Chinese digital environment created (p. 55-58). The Great Firewall blocks key websites (p. 109). But most Chinese don’t necessarily perceive that they are living in a heavily censored world (p. 25, 110, 150, 165). They can find information online. The Chinese equivalents to YouTube and Twitter work for them. And sometimes they unleash scathing criticism of government officials or policies (p. 113). But censorship is also pervasive: “For typical Internet users, the government uses the strategy of porous censorship to walk the fine line of controlling information while preventing censorship from backfiring” (p. 115). The laws regarding what citizens can post to the internet prohibit a wide array of information (p. 117). All social media in China requires that citizens sign up using their real names (119): “Previous studies have estimated that anywhere between 1 percent and 10 percent of social media posts are removed by censors on Chinese media social sites” (p. 151). There are clear limits on expression, but the government tries to conceal these restrictions as much as possible.

The velvet glove has worked effectively, even though during a crisis -such as in Wuhan during the early COVID-19 outbreak- fear still remains an important tool, particularly for “journalists, activists and key opinion leaders” (p. 116; see also 119). Roberts argues that although it is an effective strategy, porous censorship can be a destructive approach for a regime when faced with a crisis (p. 10, 14). But it’s also true that China’s regime has to date effectively overcome multiple major crises, including the February 2020 Wuhan debacle.

Two decades ago it was widely believed that the rise of the internet would undermine authoritarianism globally (p. 12). That didn’t happen. As Roberts describes, “political entities have a wide range of effective tools available to them to interfere with the Internet without citizens being aware of it or motivated enough to circumvent it” (p. 13). But she also describes the “dictator’s dilemma,” namely that censorship comes with costs, one if which is that increases the likelihood that the regime will become too distanced or out of touch with its populace (p. 22-23, 52, 111). This rich work of political science scholarship describes how China has sought to resolve this dilemma, so far with remarkable success. Of course, there are economic and political costs to this approach (p. 76). But in the end, China has created a nuanced and layered strategy to control digital information, as Roberts thoughtfully details. I think that this book would be an excellent choice in undergraduate senior seminars and graduate classes that address censorship or authoritarianism.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Card in a Shenzhen hotel, which explains the internet restrictions to guests. Photo by Shawn Smallman

 

Did a strange lab leak cause the COVID-19 pandemic?

Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

In November and December 2019 a novel corona virus began circulating in China. The world -and China’s citizens- first learned of this thanks to a group of Chinese whistle blowers , including Opthamologist Dr Li Wenliang, who would ultimately die of the virus. These whistle blowers were denounced by their administrators and some of them -such as Dr. Wenliang- received a police warning. After he died from COVID-19 on February 7, 2020 there was a wave of popular outrage, and sympathy for his pregnant widow, which caused authorities to censor Chinese social media platforms. So the Chinese state sought to conceal the COVID-19 outbreak in its early stages, much as it once did with SARS. But where did the virus come from? And what do we know about its origins?

Wet markets have often been associated with the start of earlier outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as avian influenza and SARS. This makes sense because these environments bring together a diversity of wild animals that may carry unknown pathogens. Packed into cages in poorly ventilated areas, viruses can passage across the species barrier in a way that would be difficult to achieve in the wild. When the outbreak first appeared in China, many people first looked at cases that appeared to be associated with a local wet market. But as earlier cases became known, the tie to the wet market lacked strong support in the data, although a recent study perhaps strengthens this case.

Attention turned to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which reportedly had collected novel bat viruses, including some from a cave in Yunnan. Lab leaks have caused pandemics before. For example, in 1977 an influenza pandemic swept the world. Because the virus was nearly identical to historical samples from an earlier outbreak, there have been suspicions that it began as a result of a lab leak in the Soviet Union. Gain of function experiments -in which scientists deliberately increase either the transmissibility or infectiousness of an infectious agent have been controversial for many years for this reason. Accidents have happened.

Nearly a decade ago I was attending an influenza conference in Oxford, and happened to have breakfast with three well-known figures in the field of influenza virology. One of the people at the table was an outspoken advocate for gain of function research. This person’s work had attracted international controversy on this issue. He/she was an outspoken, confident person, who was more than willing to talk about the gain of function debate, and appeared to enjoy both the attention and the controversy. I thought that this person was eloquent, informed and generous in sharing their thoughts with a complete nobody like me. I was enjoying the conversation immensely. But as the discussion went on, another person at the table -a legend in influenza virology- became increasingly glum looking as he or she picked at their eggs. I felt increasingly awkward, and noticed that my charming colleague didn’t seem to be noticing their colleagues’ withdrawal from the conversation.

Finally, the gain of function researcher turned to another person -a German colleague- and said words to the effect: “You understand how these constraints are maddening.” And this German researcher said (as best as I can recall): “Yes, but I don’t do anything nearly as dangerous as you do.” One thing that I loved when I used to lecture in Germany (actually, I loved everything about Germany) was how frank my students were in giving feedback, and this response was true to form. What I took from the debate was the extent to which gain of function research worried even those people with the best practical knowledge of laboratory work with influenza viruses. As time has passed, there has been increasingly skepticism that gain of function research will produce knowledge at all worthy of the risks. But did the Wuhan Institute of Virology in fact have novel corona virus sequences, and -if so- what kind of research was being done with these strains? …

The sticky intermediate language trap

I am a Chinese and Portuguese language learner, which is one of the great joys of my life. I’m currently somewhere at the lower intermediate level in Chinese. I’m studying around HSK 4 level material (old level), although since my tutors are Taiwanese my curriculum doesn’t match the mainland’s well. I love Chinese study, and typically spend at least an hour a day at it. But I also find -as most language learners do- that the intermediate language level has some challenges. I want to talk about those in the context of Chinese, and some advantages too:

  1. I sometimes have enough vocabulary to ask a question or tell a story, but not enough vocabulary to understand the response. It’s like playing ping pong, and I can hit the ball over the net, but sometimes I just stand there when the ball comes back.
  2. It’s difficult to see consistent improvement in your language ability. At the basic level, your language skills can improve significantly in a month. Those days are gone.
  3. Worse, your language ability can seem to fluctuate widely from day to day. I had a rough language class last summer. My teacher told something to the effect: “Sometimes you speak at the HSK 3 level or even higher. And sometimes it’s like you’re at the beginner level.” It was true, and I was struggling to understand it. I talked to me friend Kim in Applied Linguistics, who said that linguistic ability depends so much on context. Are you tired? Is it a topic that you’re not fully comfortable with? For some reason, are you and your tutor not having the best day? Your language level is not fixed but fluctuates, which we need to learn to accept.
  4. Yes, it helps if you’ve already learned another language. But that can also be a trap. I truly learned Portuguese living in an apartment in Brazil with my student roommates and their friends. My first four months living on my own in Brazil my language learning was painfully slow. But then in the next five -when I started living with my room-mates- my learning sky-rocketed, and felt nearly effortless. At this point, I’m not sure COVID-19 is going to allow me to travel to Taibei for my Taiwan Fellowship this fall. So I may have to continue learning Chinese outside of an immersion environment. Of course, that’s likely how most people in the world learn a language. So we need to keep learning strategies to stay motivated. But my main point is it’s not good to compare your ability or path in one language with another, which can be demotivating. In Portuguese my focus is currently on learning European vocabulary, slang and structures. But I want to stay with a standard south-eastern Brazilian dialect in my own speaking. These kinds of language choices are so far in the future with my Chinese that there is no point comparing the two languages. Don’t compare. What worked with one language won’t always translate to another one.

Of course there are some advantages at the intermediate level:

  1. With Chinese, it’s much easier to learn new characters, because most of them build on older characters. Oftentimes I can guess how to say an HSK 4 level word based on the characters, even if I have no idea of its meaning.
  2. I can begin to read stories. I’ve begun graded readers with “Journey to the West.” The first month trying to read was painfully difficult. Over the last few months it’s become dramatically easier. Even though my overall Chinese doesn’t improve in short periods, it’s possible to make major progress on sub-areas of your language ability in a time period that still feels meaningful. I’m not yet at a good enough level with my listening to follow Chinese-language podcasts, but I hope to reach that point in the next year or two. I feel that point -when you can really read and listen on your own- is when you start to make rapid progress.
  3. It’s possible to be more independent. I am beginning to think that I don’t need a teacher as much as a conversational partner. I can study textbooks, grammar and vocabulary on my own. What I need is someone who can help me to use what I’ve learned. I think that this takes some pressure off learning, because you can be more self-directed. Of course, for many people a more formal curriculum is motivating. I really needed that for my first few years studying Chinese. But I’m finding that I’m at the point that I don’t want to do any more homework with numbered exercises. I’d much rather discover a new grammar point while talking, and then go read about it on my own at the Chinese grammar wiki. This makes language learning more flexible and fun.

How do we as language learners deal with these challenges? I really respect Steve Kaufmann, a polyglot, who speaks Japanese, Chinese, Arabic and many other languages. One point that he makes is that it’s about spending time with the language, and not focusing on small victories or defeats. If you do, you’ll become dispirited. You won’t likely see much progress in the space of a month any more. But you will over a year. Kaufmann also argues that you need to vary your input method. If you keep focusing on just one approach -a tutor, a software platform, graded readers- you’ll burn out. I find this to have been really great advice, and try to consistently switch how I study, often more than once in a day. Lastly, Kaufmann says that you have to make language learning fun. Or you won’t do it. I actually think that’s the most important advice.

I always say the same thing about language learning. There are no short-cuts. You have to put in the time. Find a way that gives you joy; spend time with it regularly; and don’t take it too seriously. Just don’t give up.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

For language nerds- -if you are interested in how people learn a language -and the language acquisition model that many polyglots follow- I recommend Matt in Japan’s channel. You can see a brief video about Matt’s learning journey and experience here.

The warning signs in Hong Kong

In 2017 I traveled to Hong Kong to do research for a paper about the pandemic risks posed by wet markets (marketplaces which sold and slaughtered live animals). I traveled to wet markets large and small, and took notes on their practices and clientele. I also interviewed public health experts and doctors about the territories system to control avian influenza in poultry.

Card in a Shenzhen hotel, which explains China’s internet restrictions to guests. Sorry for the bad lighting. Photo by Shawn Smallman

While in Hong Kong, I also traveled to Macau and Shenzhen. When I crossed into mainland China, I was struck by the extent to which information was restricted. It’s one thing to know that China has a separate digital ecosystem. It’s another to no longer be able to use Google Maps, and to know that there’s no point in even trying to use a VPN to connect with websites at home. When I arrived in Shenzhen, I found this card in my hotel. You couldn’t access your files in Google Drive, check Twitter, watch a YouTube video, or see your kids’ posts on Instagram. The Great Firewall of China is  both pervasive and efficient.

While I was in Hong Kong, I also had an opportunity to talk to someone whom I greatly respected. At one point in our discussion they asked me “Do people see what is happening here in Hong Kong? Are they following what is happening here?” I said that no, in my opinion most Americans did not. In the United States people were focused on the new presidency of Donald Trump. She/he seemed very disappointed by my answer, and asked the same question again with slightly different wording. I gave the same answer. In 2017, I don’t think most Americans -and perhaps most Europeans- were carefully following what was happening in Hong Kong. That would change over the next year and a half. …

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