How to simplify Chinese language and history for foreigners?
Hosted by Yang Yong, this is a small batch of the weekly literary program Ink&Quill.
China, with its five-thousand-year-plus history and a language system that is seemingly different from everywhere else, may appear to be inscrutable and opaque to many outsiders.
Yet Stewart Lee Beck, an American who has resided in the "Middle Kingdom" for over two decades, begs to differ:"When you get to know people, almost everywhere around the world, but especially I think between China and the US, there is quite more in common between our two countries, two cultures, and people than we even imagine."
Unlike many other languages, the Chinese language doesn't have an alphabetic writing system. [Photo: VCG]
Styling himself as the "managing dreamer" of a project named China Simplified, Beck has worked with some other professionals to demystify China and bridge the country with the rest of the world.
Their brain children are two books: one is a fun guide designed to spark genuine interest in the Chinese language; whereas another is a light-hearted, fast-paced journey through China's long past.
During a phone interview, our reporter Shiyu first spoke with Stewart on his experience of living in China and why he launched this China Simplified project.
Stewart Lee Beck has been conducting business in China for over two decades. He and his team developed the China Simplified project, a program designed to demystify China and its people for the rest of the world. [Photo:Courtesy of Stewart Lee Beck]
Some highlights of the conversation:
On what brought him to China
My first opportunity to work in China came in 1992. I was around 30 years old then. At the time, I was working in the computing industry and flying between the United States and Brazil. An offer came to run product marketing for China and Korea based in Hong Kong. My first thought was: "No, thanks, I want to live in South America." That was my dream at the time. The funny thing is I really had no particular fondness for China at the time but there were lots of clues. For example, my parents gave me the middle name Lee and as a young boy, I insisted I have a panda bear not a teddy bear.
On how much he knew about the country back then
I really had only a superficial knowledge about China and I spoke zero Chinese. I just threw myself into it. When I arrived in Hong Kong for the first time, I had an incredible feeling of deja vu: this is going to be a part of my life. So I flew back to the States, sold everything I owned and came to China with two suitcases. Afterwards, I started speaking some Chinese. I travelled around the country and learnt a lot about the culture and the people. I still find everything in China, the culture, the life, and the way of seeing the world quite fascinating.
In this book, both authors take you on an entertaining journey to the heart of the Chinese language and its hidden culture. [Cover: Courtesy of Stewart Lee Beck]
On why he initiated the China Simplified project
At the time, I was looking to make sense of the differences between East and West. The language, the culture and the way of life of people are actually very different. But then when you get to know people, almost everywhere around the world, but specially I think between China and the US, there is quite more in common between our two countries, cultures, and people than we even imagine. I was just intrigued by the commonality that connect us all and I want to find ways to tell stories to express that, to show that: yeah, we are quite different, but those differences really make us most interesting and at the core we are just people. The China Simplified project was my idea to build this really wide cultural bridge from East to West and West to East. It isn't China or America for dummies. This is really being respectful for what's going on in both countries and saying how can we get to know each other better in order to collaborate towards solving some of the world's most pressing problems.
On why he chose language and history as the subjects of his books
Once I decided that I wanted to do this cultural bridge, I chose language and history as two of the most logical openings to establish the dialogue. Language, because it's the ideal window into the culture; and history, because if you could understand a little bit about history, then you can much understand modern China and its people.
[Illustration by Aaron Gu]
On why he thinks Chinese is the easiest language in the world
You hear people say: "Oh, Chinese is five times harder than Spanish or two times harder than German.”I mean, these are just relative numbers that people make up. My attitude is that if you want to learn to speak Chinese, go ahead and speak it. The easy part is that there is much simpler verb conjugation. There is no masculine and feminine. There is no singular and plural. And pinyin, it helps with the semantic appearance of the language. You don't have to struggle over characters when you are starting off. Now, the hard part of course is to gasp tones and read characters. Yes, these are hard. But eventually you have to read characters of the language. There is no question about it. But I just think you don't have to start off and struggle and get demotivated with looking at hundreds and hundreds of characters that you might see you are never gonna need.
"History Flashback" is a light-hearted, fast-paced journey through China's long past. [Cover: Courtesy of Stewart Lee Beck]
On how he and his co-author condensed Chinese history into a book under 200 pages
In terms of the specific selections of what we put in the book, we found it important to look for people and events that reflect the modern DNA of China, the people and the culture now. Because in order to understand how China is seeing itself reentering the world, you really need to have a view of what happened in the past. So we chose people from different ages who were not just emperors. We looked at who was representative of each age. We tried to deal with the material in a light-hearted, respectful, yet entertaining and enlightening way. For example, we have names for characters. Sima Qian became The Heroic Historian; Zheng He became The Floating CEO because he was in charge of a vast fleet; and Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping became The Fashion Icons for their stylish jackets. So we want to fill the past with the new energy to engage a wider audience.
[Illustration by Yang Kanzhen]
On whether he gains new insight into China after fishing the first two books
I would say I certainly know China more than when I started the project. At the same time, I really feel like the more I study, the more I realize how much I don't know. The whole process of writing these books was a humbling experience but also a lot of fun.
On his advice given to China newcomers
First, read our language book! Second, come to China with an open mind. We have expectations. We have pre-assumption for what it's about. But especially in China, those notions can get defeated right away because you see it's a little bit different from what you thought it was. For people who are coming in, in a way, it's like a mirror. Because you come into China, you can find lots of things to be unhappy about, and you can also find lots of things to be happy about. In any single day, there is plenty of joy, there is plenty of frustration. But in the end, it's really about connecting with the people and finding something to engage yourself with here and having an open mind.
[Illustration by Yang Kanzhen]
If you want to get your hands on the two books, you could go to their website, chinasimplified.com.
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