19 January 2010

China, language, and race

The uniformity of the Chinese people is a myth with deep roots in the West. Part of this is, of course, a product of many white folks’ tendency to think that all Chinese people – indeed, all “Orientals,” according to white folks of a certain age – look the same. These same white folks may also think that all black people look the same, all “Mexicans” look the same (when exactly did Costa Rica become part of Mexico?), and even that all “Arabs” (everyone from Moroccan Berbers to Punjabi Sikhs) look the same: the combination of ignorance and intellectual laziness can go a long way. But black people, “Mexicans,” and “Arabs” are generally quite aware of their own intragroup diversity – and in the last case, they probably would not even be aware that there was a group to which they all belonged, other than that of “non-European human.”

China is a bit different in this respect, because the Chinese themselves have their own myths about their uniformity. Take, for example, the Chinese language(s). It has become fairly common knowledge in the West that there is a difference between Mandarin (northern) and Cantonese (southern) Chinese, largely because with the former dominant in the People’s Republic and in Taiwan and the latter dominant in Hong Kong, both were widely taught in British and American universities. There are other varieties, too: Shanghainese, for example, or the Hakka widely spoken in the Chinese diaspora. (The different forms of Chinese are, incidentally, responsible for the striking difference between stereotypical “Chinatown” Chinese names – Yap, Kwok, Ng – and the names people from China seem to have – Ye, Guo, Wu.) In fact, few Western linguists would consider Mandarin, Cantonese, and the others to be the same language at all, any more than they would consider French, Italian, and Spanish to be “dialects” of Latin.

All the Romance languages are descended from Latin, and their relatedness is obvious. But even when no vocabulary substitution has occurred (e.g., French parler versus the unrelated Spanish hablar, both meaning ‘to speak’), words have often changed dramatically; compare the descendants of Latin filius ‘son’: French fils, Italian figlio, and Spanish hijo. The Chinese situation is similar, with all the different Chinese languages sharing a common ancestor but often little resembling each other. A good example is the name , probably pronounced ngo in Middle Chinese (which roughly corresponds to Europe’s mediæval Latin). It would take a linguist to recognize that the Mandarin Wu and the Cantonese Ng are the same name (in the same sense that hijo and fils are the same word) – unless one were literate in Chinese and considered them merely different regional pronunciations of the same character. It’s quite like if Spaniards and Frenchmen both still wrote in Latin and literally considered hijo and fils (or rather ikho and fis, as they are pronounced) to be regional pronunciations of the word they both wrote filius – and that was indeed roughly the situation in mediæval Europe.

Unlike the French and Spanish, however, the Chinese widely consider the regional variations of Chinese speech to be dialects of a single language rather than languages in their own right. This, of course, gets right to the heart of one of the most politically charged questions in linguistics: What is the difference between a language and a dialect? (The American “Ebonics” controversy of the 1990s was an unusual eruption in U.S. politics of what is a common issue in many parts of the world.) An often-quoted aphorism in linguistics is that a language is a dialect with an army and navy. Catalan has traditionally been treated as a Spanish dialect and Provençal as a French one, although they are much closer to each other than either is to its supposed “standard” language, while Low German is a collection of idioms much more similar to Dutch than to the standard (High) German of which they have been treated as dialects – for that matter, in certain respects Low German is closer to English than it is to standard German.

All this is, of course, related to modern nationalism (sensu stricto): if we define the nation in predominantly linguistic terms, and if we require the borders of the state to coincide as nearly as possible with linguistically-determined national boundaries, then the international-relations repercussions of where we draw the line between language and dialect are clear. As, indeed, might be the implications of treating Mandarin and Cantonese as distinct languages, if one had a certain view of China and the Chinese nation.

We should not assume, though, that even something as simple as the concept of Chinese translates easily. The question of how you say Chinese in Chinese depends not only how you define the Chinese language but on what you mean by Chinese. There are two distinct concepts that we tend to express with the same word – Chinese – in English and other Western languages: 中华民族 (zhōnghuá mínzú, literally ‘Chinese-citizen ethnicity’) and 汉族 (hànzú, ‘Han ethnicity’); we might consider the distinction vaguely analogous to that between British ‘of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ and English ‘of England (and not Ireland, Scotland, or Wales)’, a distinction which also confuses many foreigners. The word Han is, in fact, widely used in English to refer to China’s majority ethnic group, but primarily by academics – as well as by journalists who have just added it to their vocabulary (alongside words like Sunni and Darfur).

The Han comprise, basically speaking, all non-Muslim Chinese-speakers. It is not a racial identity but a cultural one; language is a necessary but not sufficient condition to be considered Han, as attested by the Hui (Chinese-speaking Muslims) being considered a distinct ethnic group. People from China who speak minority languages (and, of course, the Hui) are considered China-the-country-people (zhōnghuá mínzú people) but do not belong to the narrower category of Chinese-culture-people (hànzú people). Interestingly, even though China has been repeatedly conquered by outside groups – most famously the Mongol (the Yuan Dynasty) and the Manchu (the Qing Dynasty) peoples – the Han make up around 90 percent of China’s population and are the overwhelming majority even in the parts of Mongolia and Manchuria which the Russians failed to detach from China. Han people of northern China (reputed to be tall and fair) are said to be easily distinguishable by appearance alone from those of southern China (reputed to be shorter and darker), but though this is attributed to the different “barbarian” groups absorbed by the Han in different parts of China the distinction is not racialized. Except for the unassimilated few on the fringes (Xinjiang, Xizang, etc.) who cling to their more primitive cultures and languages, all are Han and all speak Chinese – at least if we define “speak Chinese” broadly enough.

So while China is not blind to the diversity in its population, it does cultivate a myth of uniformity, even when (as in the case of language) some intellectual contortionism is required to prevent cognitive dissonance. And while the population of China encompasses considerable diversity, all the various peoples – Han and otherwise – do nonetheless fit comfortably in that fuzzy racial category which we might call East Asian. As do, in fact, most of the peoples with whom China historically had nontrivial relations, at least until foreign drug lords with red hair and big noses started taking over the country a couple centuries ago. Since then the Chinese have learned to associate Europeans, despite their sometimes revolting dietary habits, with wealth, technology, and various similarly-desirable things. Africans have not fared as well.

Last month’s Room for Debate piece China’s Changing Views on Race discussed the issue of race in China and brought to my attention a November Washington Post article on the subject, a subject which has been at the back of my mind for the last year or so, as I am currently working on a piece of fiction which includes black Chinese characters. The piece I’m writing is science fiction, but the intersection of black and Chinese is not: it seems a twenty-year-old from Shanghai named Lóu Jìng caused quite a controversy when she appeared on a television talent show last year. Ms. Lóu’s father, you see, was a black man. While this young woman’s father was a black American, there is a growing population of Africans in China: an immigrant neighbourhood in Guangzhou is, according to the Washington Post, known as “Chocolate City” – and many Chinese are not happy about it.

Americans have come to accept that black people can be fully American – well, most of them have – and Canadians aren’t far behind. Many European countries are also coming to grips with having residents and even citizens of African ancestry (some more than others, of course). This is all very much uncharted territory for China, however. As young Lóu Jìng, publicly taunted for being a “black chimpanzee,” found out, Chinese people who look (semi-)African pose a significant challenge to the Chinese myth of uniformity. Tall or short, fair or dark, just speak a Chinese language without being a Muslim and you’re Han. But look somewhat African, speak Chinese, and not be a Muslim?

Ever the optimist, I believe that the Chinese will get over it, just like we did will any day now. But it may be an “interesting” journey.

17 January 2010

Kein MSIE, bitte

The Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik (Germany’s Federal Agency for Information Technology Security) has, the BBC reports, recommended that Germans stop using Microsoft’s infamously insecure Web browser, Internet Explorer. Being the curious type, I found the BSI’s Friday press release on the agency’s Web site. It warns (my translation):

A previously unknown security flaw exists in Internet Explorer. The vulnerability enables attackers, via a compromised Web site, to load and execute malicious code on a Windows computer.

According to the BBC:

Microsoft says the security hole can be shut by setting the browser's security zone to "high", although this limits functionality and blocks many websites.

Not to mention that, according to the BSI, one cannot completely prevent the attacks by following Microsoft’s advice. There is one fix, however: don’t use Internet Explorer. The BSI recommends that, until further notice, users change to einen alternativen Browser.

Treading lightly, the BSI is recommending the vorübergehende (passing) avoidance of Microsoft’s browser. Nonetheless, the American firm is not amused: denying that the flaws in its product – flaws which enabled Chinese hackers to break into human rights activists’ GMail accounts – present any danger to the general user (Chinese human rights activists not being general users or consumers, apparently), Microsoft do not support this warning (in the words of its spokesperson, as quoted by the BBC).

Myself, I’ve always found that denying a problem exists is usually the best way of dealing with things, so I’m glad that Microsoft is validating my position.

But those who feel otherwise (and are still using Windows) might want to check out einen alternativen Browser.

Update 2010-01-18 15:40Z: France’s Agence nationale de la sécurité des systèmes d’information has also issued a bulletin d’alerte recommending l’utilisation d’un navigateur alternatif.

15 January 2010

The curse of Haiti

I guess I’m not the only one to wonder about Haiti. Right-wing televangelist Pat Robertson is apparently also wondering if Haiti is cursed – the problem, though, is that Robertson thinks the country is literally cursed, as in condemned by God for its sins. The BBC quotes him:

They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it’s a deal. . . . Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.

I’m quite impressed that Robertson was able to get access to Satan’s records on this issue; I was under the impression that use of the Infernal Archives normally required the forfeit of the researcher’s immortal soul. Perhaps Robertson would be willing to investigate the Adversary’s involvement with Molotov and Ribbentrop on his next trip down to the archives, since he’s already paid the price of admission...

14 January 2010

A cool fish and a new word

On a less depressing note, I stumbled upon last year’s BBC story about the wonderfully bizarre Dolichopteryx longipes. I blogged about this fish on a now-defunct site when I first read about it a year ago. D. longipes, the brownsnout spookfish, is, you see, famous for its four eyes – or, more precisely, for the two different light-gathering structures which serve each of its two eyes. Most fishes’ eyes – and humans and other mammals, belonging evolutionarily to the clade of fishes, are no different in this – use lenses to focus light. Lenses are not the only optical solution, however: mirrors can do the same job, and with generally better efficiency. (This is one reason serious astronomical telescopes are almost invariably reflectors rather than refractors.) Little D. longipes (probably uniquely) uses both techniques, each eye having both lens and mirror optics. The result is that the fish can see up to the bright, sunlit shallows (with the normal lens) and down to the dimmer, bioluminescence-lit depths (with the reflecting structures) at the same time.

If that’s not cool, I don’t know what is.

I am also indebted to my new favourite opisthoproctid for teaching me a new word – at least indirectly. (No, the new word isn’t opisthoproctid, though that is quite fun to say.) You see, I was perusing FishBase’s entry for D. longipes when I noticed the following in the Reproduction Summary: Mode: dioecism. Quoi? I had to know. And here’s what I found: diœcism refers to a species’s being diœcious (pronounced, according to Merriam-Webster, roughly dye-EE-shuss). That term derives from Linnæus’s (now obsolete) botanical class Diœcia, a subdivision of the Diclinia. The Diclinia (flores maſculi & feminei in eadem ſpecie, according to the tenth edition of the Systema naturæ) had two distinct sexes of flower, as opposed to the Monoclinia (flores omnes hermaphroditi ſunt). The Diœcia bore their male and female flowers on different individual plants – in two different οἶκοι (houses), as it were – while among the other Diclinia, the Monœcia, each individual bore both male and female flowers.

Linnæus’s botanical classes have long been discarded as having no phylogenic validity, but the distinction between monœcious and diœcious species lives on, with the terms now applied to animals as well. So what FishBase was telling me was that D. longipes, with its two-house reproductive mode, has distinct male and female individuals. No kidding! I’ve been living as a diœcious species my whole life and never even knew it.

Incidentally, the expected American spelling of the word would be diecious (œconomics, for example, is rare even in British usage nowadays, and even words like fœtus are nearly always spelled with a simple e in American English). But Merriam-Webster and American Heritage both prefer the spelling dioecious (abstaining, as always, from the use of ligatures), and the Google test reveals a preference for that form in a ratio of almost 30:1. It’s hardly a shock that words wholly restricted to scientific discourse should show unusual orthographic conservatism, but it remains an intriguing phenomenon.

What’s with Haiti?

There are times I wonder if some countries are just cursed; Bangladesh, for example, often seems a contender for the title of Land Most Abandoned by God. We hardly blink when we read that a typhoon has killed another hundred thousand people there. But no place on earth can compete with Haiti. A slave revolt is hardly a promising foundation for a free nation, but in the eighteenth century most observers would presumably have said the same thing about a colonial rebellion. Given that Haiti was the second or third (depending on whether you count the Vermont Republic of 1777–1791) nonindigenous independent state in the New World, one might expect it today to be among the more prosperous parts of the Americas. This is most emphatically not the case: Haiti’s per-capita PPP GDP is half that of the next-poorest country in the Americas (Nicaragua), and Haiti is the second-poorest country outside Africa (Afghanistan, of course, being the poorest). Most strikingly, the rest of the island on which Haiti lies forms the Dominican Republic (not, confusingly, the entirely different island of Dominica), which differs little in geography from the Haitian side and largely shared the same history and demographics until 1804; the Dominican Republic, while not by any means a wealthy country, has a per-capita PPP GDP more than six times Haiti’s. It is said that you can see the Haitian–Dominican border from space: Haiti starts where the island’s forest cover abruptly ends. That’s a decidedly nontrivial difference given apparently very similar starting conditions. So what’s with Haiti?

Cursed Haiti is on my mind at the moment, of course, because it is again in the news, having just suffered a horrible earthquake. Coincidentally, I am currently reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which devotes an entire chapter to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I’m still on the part discussing the Greenland Norse, a society which lasted several centuries before becoming extinct (as compared with Iceland, settled a few years earlier and – recent financial excitement aside – still going strong after more than a millenium, or North America, where the Norse settlement lasted less than a generation). While I can venture some guesses as to what Diamond’s analysis will be, I am very much looking forward to reading it... and blogging about it here.

13 January 2010

De Thanasæ mundis

The obvious question: What is Thanasæ mundi? Literally, it is Thanasis’s Worlds or The Worlds of Thanasis – Thanasis being my given name. Why Latin? Because, inter alias geekitudines, I am a language geek. This is not, of course, to be confused with Greek – though I am that, too, despite having been born in Indiana with a blood quantum of ½.

Why this blog? Simply put: It’s about time. I’ve made a few starts at blogging in the past, but for various reasons (read: pig-headedness) I always wanted to host them on one of my own servers, which meant that it was really more trouble than it was worth... with the entirely predictable result that they never lasted very long. So I’ve finally decided to set aside my rugged frontier individualism stubbornness and let Google do the heavy lifting on this.

Of course I’ll still only post from Linux machines.

But this will be the place where I post random thoughts, links to interesting resources, essays (in the traditional, literal sense of an idea I’m trying out), etc. I plan on maintaining another two or so specialized blogs as well; the first of these, which I am also starting today, is the Commonwealth Encyclopædia, dedicated to the setting of some science-fiction stories I’m writing.