One in a Billion Names

For students of Chinese, one of the first rights-of-passage is being given a Chinese name. Usually a teacher or other person versed in the the subtle art of naming has this honor. The process occurs by: (1) Selecting a one-character family name from the surprisingly short list of most common names, one that typically begins with the same sound as the English last name; and (2) Selecting a one- or two-character given name, one that typically begins with the same sound as the English first name, and may or may not sound like the whole first name. The given name generally comes from an obscure literary or mythical reference, or coveys a grandiose sentiment, such as heroism for men and elegance for women (perhaps not so different from our own naming practices).

After much consideration, my first Chinese teacher gave me the name 杜照石 (dùzhàoshí). The surname is relatively common, and has the “d” from my last name. Mimicking the sounds of my first name within the confines of Chinese phonetics, the given name comes from consecutive lines of a poem by the 8th century tang Dynasty poet, Wang Wei. Together the characters mean “illuminated rock” – and fortuitously the first character 照 is used in the word for taking pictures (photography is a lifelong hobby of mine, though my teacher did not know that).

It’s a good name, very intellectual sounding, and many Chinese friends and colleagues have complimented me on it. But, honestly I don’t really like the name, and one thing in particular bothers me: though the surname is common, not a single Chinese person that I’ve ever met or heard of shares my given name. Though some Chinese choose unique names, they are generally discouraged by the government, and thus rare. When Chinese come to the US, they either go by their Chinese names (which is only confusing because the surname comes first and pinyin are somewhat hard to pronounce for English speakers), or they adopt a common English name and keep their Chinese surname (many of which English speakers have become familiar with). Why, then, do we not do the same?

My parents named me after my great-grandfather, a man who was greatly admired as the family’s patriarch. It’s a name I use proudly. Although my Chinese name is functional (people in China can easily pronounce it, and I have gotten pretty good at explaining its origins as a conversation starter), it really has very little personal meaning to me. It’s simply a part of  the way I present myself in everyday Chinese life (see Goffman 1959).

I understand that Chinese phonetics cannot easily accommodate my english name. But, why can’t I just use a common Chinese name? Why do non-Chinese go to such lengths to create pseudo-Chinese names? This seems to further accentuate our foreigness. In the end, I’d rather keep the name I was born with and remain who I am: An American trying to speak Chinese – not an American trying to be Chinese.

What remains unclear is whether taking a Chinese name is simply a gimmick, or whether it serves a function for non-Chinese trying to engage with China. There’s certainly a precedent for phoneticizing foreign words with Chinese characters, notably foods and place names. But, these are generally commonly used words, with which the Chinese have become familiar. The same is true for a handful of foreign names, for example 大卫 (dàwèi) for “David”. But, how do the Chinese view foreigners’ names not common in China, either with their native pronunciation and spelling or using Chinese characters?

More than a Middle Class

A billion people in China are NOT in the middle class.

Typically we hear about the roughly 300 million people that make up China’s middle class. This figure makes marketers drool, and is the cause for much self-congratulation by the central government. Even the most cynical China watchers concede a hearty applause. Indeed, over the past generation, improvements to the lifestyles of this rising middle class are nothing short of amazing.

Of course, in China having 300 million people in the middle class means that approximately 1 billion people have yet to reach this socioeconomic level. This group includes marginalized rural populations, the urban poor, and nearly 300 million migrant workers.

While the business opportunities and economic success stories typically come from the middle class, my research suggests that the real space for innovations and market disruptions can be found among the 1 billion people forgotten or left behind by China’s breakneck development trajectory.

{To give credit where credit is due, I have adapted this perspective from CK Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.}

Knowing what we don’t know: the Chinese economy

One thing that strikes me about us serious China observers is that we are frequently and completely wrong about the direction China is headed. In the 1980s many top analysts predicted that without democracy China would be unable to grow its economy. Later, many asserted that only with a free and open Internet could China maintain its growth.

Wrong on both accounts.

The Chinese development model has now become the first serious competitor to the Washington Consensus since the Cold War. More and more developing countries model their growth strategies on the Chinese state-managed market economy.

We must continue to be vigilant with both our investigations and critiques of the Chinese system. However, it seems unwise to view it as an immature or inherently flawed system that will inevitably evolve to look more and more like the US model. And its success is emboldened by its growing popularity.

As it has in the past, failing to accept this will continue to produce misguided policies toward China.

Zika: The China Connection

Growing concern about the Zika Virus may seem like a strange topic for this blog. In recent years, China has of course had a variety of viral epidemics. However, the knee-jerk response of several South American countries raises an unfortunate reminder of parallel histories of forced population control in the two regions. China famously used doomsday models to justify its one-child policy (Greenhalgh 2005), and forced sterilizations were all too common throughout South America, for example, in Peru.

At present, El Salvador, due to perceived risks from Zika, has begun to urge woman to refrain from getting pregnant until 2018. In a characteristically heavy-handed responseBrazil has deployed its military to “spread awareness” of Zika in the lead up to Carnival. Though there is not yet a vaccine, Zika has a very low mortality rate. While evidence suggests that the virus may be the cause of an uptick in birth defects, the correlation remains unverified. Thus, given the dark history of forced population control in the region, it seems reasonable to suspect that Zika is just another in the long list of justifications for targeting poor, rural groups – where Zika-infected mosquitoes are likely more prevalent.

While based in historical precedent, this theory is not meant to be a conclusive assessment of the current situation in South America, of which I am by no means an expert.  This is merely a caveat from a China scholar to the experts who must now assess the broad implications of the Zika outbreak.

Debt to a Master, Fei Xiaotong

A student of Bronislaw Malinowski, Fei Xiaotong presented an empathetic and prescient account of the problems facing changing village economies in his native land of China. His career was greatly disrupted by two decades of persecution under the Cultural Revolution (Fei 1981). So much suffering and mismanagement could have been avoided if only Mao had listened to the brightest social scientist in the land. Fei nearly mirrored the communist ideology (though not its action-plan), foreseeing that the decline in domestic industry and high land rents would lead to a peasant revolt. He argued for a “reasonable and effective land reform” (Fei 1939:286), knowing that “if the agrarian situation is defined in technological terms only, the actions followed will be limited to technological improvements” (Fei and Chang 1945:306). This foreshadowed, if not directly informed, a main argument of the post-development critique, namely that traditional societies are incorrectly assumed to have inefficient means of production which must be replaced in order for development to occur (see Frank 1966; Dos Santos 1970; Escobar 1995).

Fei sought to include the land and business owners, whom he viewed as victims of the government’s funneling of capital to the foreign treaty ports instead of into the rural districts (Fei 1939:284). Though this inclusive approach doomed him during the Mao years, it ensured his legacy and influence among anthropologists, both in East Asia and worldwide. In fact, in 1980 he was given the Malinowski Memorial Award at the 40th annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology in Denver, CO. During his acceptance speech, a tearful reunion with colleagues from whom he had been separated for years, he framed the central role of a “People’s Anthropology” in the creation of a peaceful and prosperous society (Fei 1981:19). He knew that rural areas must not be left out of the development process (Fei 1989:106), and that peasants are not stupid simply because they are illiterate, “just as an urbanite is not stupid for being unable to catch grasshoppers” (Fei 1992:46). Such empathy serves as the benchmark for inquiries into the societal changes resulting from the transition to industrialization and capitalism as experienced by the billion+ people in twenty-first century China.

Getting Guānxi

“Those who exchange presents with one another
Remain friends the longest.” ~From the Hávamál(Mauss 1990[1950]:1)

The exchange of gifts or money for favors is commonplace in China. Both the national government (the CCP) and foreign observers tend to gloss this as bribery. However, more broadly in Chinese society, such exchanges are central to the production and maintenance of guānxi (关系) networks, a horizontal form of social organization rooted in reciprocity. Guānxi is based on fluid, person-centered networks, rather than fixed social institutions (Smart 1999:130), and emerges from a system of reciprocity in which social capital takes on a material value. Though China has a long-established gift economy, guānxi has proven critical to conducting business under the current system of market socialism with its ambiguous and often-changing bureaucratic rules.

One can think of many instances of guānxi-like exchanges in our own culture, or other cultures under study for that matter. This is in line with a current trend to incorporate the concept of guānxi into the analysis of Western practices, particularly in the business world. In fact, a search for “guanxi” on Amazon.com revealed 224 paperback books, most of which are geared toward either using guānxi to do business in China or to succeed in business in general. It should be noted that Kipnis (1997) is the first academic work to appear and is listed fifth on the list. However, the majority of the works have titles such as Guanxi for the Busy American or Guanxi and Business Strategy.

This is not to suggest that the academic works somehow give us a better understanding of guānxi and its real-world applications (though their methodologies may indeed be more rigorous). Certainly the business books often present the concept in much more digestible and easily-applicable terms. The point here is that guānxi has entered popular English jargon, and been accepted as a framework for conceptualizing interpersonal relationships that rings true beyond the Chinese context.

Of interest is that the business books recognize guānxi as a term originating in the social sciences, and frequently cite academic works in their definitions (e.g., Langenberg 2007:1). This is noteworthy, of course, because the term is originally an emic one. That is, it was used by normal Chinese people long before academics began employing it as a “gate-keeping concept” (Appadurai 1986:357) for the study of social organization in China. In this respect the business books are returning it to its original usage in the lives of everyday people.

The business books usually dedicate a relatively short section of the introduction to the definition of the term. Langenberg (2007) uses just over eight pages, and this is particularly long compared to similar works. In fact, the first book on the Amazon “guanxi” list defines the term in just one paragraph with not a single citation (Buderi and Huang 2006:6-7). Including that definition, “guanxi” only appears five times throughout the whole book, never adding more explanation and merely referencing Bill Gates (the central figure of the work) as having either good or bad guānxi (Buderi and Huang 2006:6,90,218,232,242).

In the end, the purpose of such books is not to explicate the term in all its manifestations, but merely to give the reader a working knowledge of what is certainly a vital part of doing business in China. This is encapsulated in the question: “How can guanxi be integrated into business strategy?” (Langenberg 2007:9). The answer to such a question, both in terms of general business practices and in the specific case of Microsoft’s move into China, serves as a utilitarian introduction to the use of guānxi in the Chinese context.

We can imagine a businessman, before embarking on his venture to China, picking up such a book. Even a skim through the introduction and some of the key chapters would at least make him aware of the use of guānxi in the Chinese context. He would of course make many missteps during his initial attempts at creating guānxi connections. Yet, the Chinese would probably chalk most of these up to his being a foreigner, and largely let him get away with them. As he went along, presumably learning from his mistakes, he would slowly begin to master the art of guānxi in a variety of contexts. We can also assume that eventually he would be far better at it than someone who had merely done a thorough review of the academic literature on the subject.

Thus, we see that even a rudimentary introduction to the concept of guānxi can have the effect of revealing the concealed mechanism behind interpersonal relations in China. The point is that one must experience guānxi in order to understand it, and more importantly, actually use it in real situations. In this way, the blending of guānxi into Western thought is a partial remedy to the long-standing problem with Orientalism of failing to see the Asian experience as a human one (Said 1994[1978]:328).

Sources of Chinese Conduct: Pissing on the Street

China has experienced unprecedented changes over the past two generations. Its economy has grown to be the second largest in the world (the first largest by some measures). Hundreds of millions of its citizens enjoy a standard of living unimaginable just forty years ago. Its elder leaders and teachers grew up in a largely rural society. They experienced some of the worst famines and societal upheavals in history. And yet, in 2018, roughly 60% of China’s enormous population lives in urban areas, a number projected to increase significantly in the next twenty years.

Nowhere are the effects of this urbanization more evident than in Shenzhen. The city of 10+ million in southeastern Guangdong Province was little more than a series of fishing villages before it was declared the first special economic zone (SEZ) in 1980. This thriving metropolis has since become one the country’s main hubs of trade, finance, and innovation.

The crescent-shaped urban sprawl begins in the southeast with the bustling, often-chaotic Dongmen Market. The Chinese expression 人山人海 (lit: people mountain, people sea) seems apt for an area that, according to a survey I conducted in 2014, receives approximately half-a-million visitors on any given weekend. The narrow alleys, wet markets and vibrant street vendors season this border area with the spice of raw, human commerce.

Moving west along the main arc of the city, we come to Futian and Coco Park, Windows of the World, and swooping south, finally arrive at Shekou. These areas, in varying degrees, are sharp departures from the street-level petty capitalism of Dongmen. The shimmering windows of high-rise office buildings tower above broad, clean boulevards. There are numerous high-end malls, and both the shopping and eating are priced for the business elite, Chinese and expat alike. Yet, one thing unites the decidedly distinct eastern and western parts of the city: the sight of parents letting their children piss on the street.

I’ve seen it at 9:00 on a Friday night on the busiest pedestrian road in Dongmen, and I’ve seen it at noon on a Monday in one of the ritziest malls in southern China at Coco Park. A toddler with crotchless sweatpants squats by the curb, while his father checks text messages. A mother holds her daughter over a trashcan, with a public restroom no more than 20-feet across the hall. Interestingly, a nationwide poll revealed that only 11% of Chinese people think it’s not okay for parents to let their children piss in public.

anti-spitting_poster

Public expulsion of bodily fluids, hopefully limited to urine and saliva, are both common and relatively harmless in villages of 200, 300, or even a thousand households. Let’s not forget that no more than thirty years ago, the majority of China still lived in such places, and that these people are today’s parents, grandparents, teachers and leaders. But, in cities of ten, twenty, even thirty million people, with some of the highest population densities on earth, these rural norms quickly become public health hazards. In fact, the Chinese authorities embarked on an aggressive campaign to end public spitting during the SARS epidemic. I hope it won’t take another major outbreak for them to take action on public urination.

MH 370: Beyond Tragedy

As the search for debris enters its fourth week, the surreal circumstances of Malaysian Air Flight 370’s disappearance persist. However, as the possibility of finding survivors has evaporated, the tragedy has become indelibly real. The loss of MH 370 (March 8) and the Kunming Massacre (March 1) together violently took 182 Chinese lives in a single week. We, Americans, can certainly relate to China’s frustrations in its search for answers. Yet, it is the types of questions they are asking that may lead to greater cooperation and in fact fraternity between our two nations. As Malcolm Moore (March 4) asked, “Has the global Jihad reached China?” Furthermore, if the disappearance of MH 370 was a terrorist plot, are there links to Kunming? These questions alone seem to align China’s interests with the US War on Terror. The answers will determine the strength of our common interests, but the questions themselves begin to define US-China relations for the coming decades.