31 December 2011


Wushang Gaungchang is a rebuilt commercial area located in Hangzhou. It gives a taste of what old China was like to satisfy the touristic desires of modern Chinese and foreigners alike. Most of it is all new construction, which is a testimony to both the degree that traditional Chinese architecture has suffered and to low standards for heritage conservation. I did, however, spend a bit of time venturing behind the newly constructed facades of Hefang Jie to get a glimpse of some more hopeful signs of what can be done with enough care and attention to the past. More often than not historic buildings with an even greater pedigree are torn down.  In the video at 0:56 it is possible to spot a hastily spray painted character in a white circle, 拆, which is shorthand for demolish. It is a common site in all Chinese cities. I have a background in restoration so it was remarkable to witness the slower, more deliberate efforts on maintaining these buildings. I enjoy finding positive developments in China. I took these photos in 2009 and have not been back to Hangzhou since.

The above photos gives a good sense of the nature and methods of construction. I cannot date when these structures were originally built. It is possible to see the combination of post and beam construction with the major members still in the round along with sawn boards and plaster lathe to fill in the voids. The one wall in this case is of common red brick with a mortar overcoat. The roofing material is made up of grey overlapping clay tiles. The tarpaper seems to have been an attempt to lessen the discomfort of these draughty buildings or a sign that at one time the residence was subdivided.
These two workers unwittingly posed for me. It's possible to see a single beveled hatchet in hand that is used to remove the waste from the mortises that one is sitting on. The plane seems to be handmade or passed down through the generations.
In another section, two more workmen are assembling timbers. The scarf joint on the right hand side stands out as an example of their craftsmanship. It was undoubtedly cut with the bowsaw that rests against it. The posts rest on a carved or turned stone plinths.
A closeup of another scarf joint. I see no evidence of any mechanical fasteners on these joints.

Another workman lays out the mortises on another timber, using an ink brush and a very light square. An off-centered tenon cut to fit and match up flush with one side of a round post can be seen.
A view from the courtyard reveals the state of the original workmanship. Original woodwork stands out as darkly oxidized in contrast with the newly placed vertical pine paneling. The delicate tracery of the banister molding shows loss. The various pieces might be for disposal or to be part or the reassembly. One leg of sawhorse rests on the pile.
Looking up at the second floor walkway from the central courtyard, it's possible to see the degree of loss and one step in the restoration process. Along the dripline can be seen the decorated ends of the clay roofing tiles.

A close-up of one area where the woodwork seems to have suffered very little damage. By eye, it looks to be machined applique in this case. A beaded edge highlights the arris on this and many wooden elements.

Here a stonemason cuts the design for a drain cover. I have seen many examples of this kind of onsite work being done in China when one might expect it to arrive finished from a quarry.

Lastly there is this image showing the construction of some of the buildings in this area. This exterior wall consisted of random use of stone and brick masonry covered with a thick sort of daub onto which was applied a smooth plaster coating. The effect was to give an appearance of solidity and uniformity.

14 December 2011

Word Empire Idea

Thorsten Pattberg has recently been making an impression in a few media outlets with an essay in which he attempts to assign blame for the lack of Han Chinese philosophical contribution to western imperialism and bemoan the barriers of arrogance against accepting Chinese terms into a worldwide lexicon. He supplies a few quotes and some examples, but in the end, it's his unwritten motives that stand out and not his linguistic persuasiveness.
Pattberg frames his essay this by pointing out that the general terms in Chinese used to denote philosopher, democracy, and civilization have different connotations than their equivalents in western languages. There can be no dispute that history, context, and usage can have such an effect on the meanings of words. Pattberg simply chooses to ignore what every thesaurus makes clear and pretends that he is as ignorant as a casual reader.There are many words in any language that can be found to have no exact equivalents in another. This is not new nor exciting to anybody who has looked at such matters. Definitions can even vary between native speakers across generational, class, and regional lines. This is the reason why dictionary entries are ranked by number in order of most common usage. Exact correspondence from one language to another is not controversial. It only becomes a controversy when a lack of overlap between terms in one language and another becomes a kind of sticking point upon which one can skewer an innocent strawman.
"I estimate that there are over 35,000 Chinese words or phrases that cannot properly be translated into the English language." It's impossible to know what to make of such a number or what to make of what it means to properly translate a word. Adding "phrases" to the number of untranslatables is a qualifier that lets him off the hook of accountability. He might be alluding to Chinese Yanyu 諺語, proverbs, often in a 4-character phrase, called Chengyu 成語. Dictionaries exist to compile these expressions and to explain their meanings. Even the Chinese can be confused due to the truncation of phrases taken from literary sources. But the purpose of Pattberg's essay is not about how to understand Chinese nor the challenges of translation.
Pattberg checks off his points by attempting to overwhelm most readers with their lack of knowledge of the Chinese language. He then makes the following claim: "In many countries, adopting Chinese terminology is a taboo." If it is a taboo (or is that even the right word?), then how can he have mentioned earlier in his essay the adoption of Chinese words into English. "Words like yin and yang, kung fu and fengshui.", words he claimed were all untranslatable. He seems to suggest a kind of circular argument: words are untranslatable when they are borrowed directly and therefore not translated. I wonder what Pattberg's definition of proper translation is. And in how many countries exactly is it taboo to say: tea, typhoon, gung-ho, soybean, or kowtow? Has anybody felt the need to refer to a one-handled, iron pan for stirfrying vegetables euphemistically lest he cause others to blush?
It took me a few readings to understand why I needed to reread this essay so often. Pattberg is an academic but, or because so, he is an inferior scholar. By this I mean that he wants to construct an essay well enough to make himself appear like a viable candidate for an academic post. I suspect that he really wants a permanent position at Beida. It's probably also why he wrote his book, which even now has only gotten one comment on its googlepage. In fact, his writing style reads like so many essays by Chinese students that I have had to edit. I suspect that his intended audience is the Peking University faculty selection committee.
The essay ends with an appeal that we all adopt Chinese terms as part of a larger discourse, specifically, minzhu (democracy), wenming (civilization), and shengren (philosopher). Yet there is no reason given as to why such terms ought to be adopted or how anything can be gained by doing so. Some languages are very conservative when it comes to borrowing foreign terms. e.g. Icelandic, Chinese; whereas, some languages are promiscuous with incorporating foreign words. e.g. English, South Korean.
In more adoptive leaning languages, words are borrowed when speakers and writers decide that a foreign term has advantages. Two examples pointedly bear this out. The word guanxi 关系 has gained a foothold in English to describe relationships inside Chinese society and between businessmen. Its general meaning of connections, or network with hints of cronyism and nepotism made its adoption useful in describing guanxi's overwhelming importance within the context of China. It remains to be seen whether guanxi might used in a general sense.
Another way for a language to borrow from another is with a calque, an overlapping of words from one language onto another's. The founding of the People's Republic of China was a heady time of news ideas and bold political energy. For those people who lacked the obligatory revolutionary fervor, techniques were developed to persuade them to conform to the right-thinking manner of the new ruling power. The Chinese term for this is 洗腦, xinao, or literally 'washing brain'. Directly from this wording along with knowledge of the technique the calque, brainwash, entered the English language.

Pattberg bemoans the lack of Chinese terms in a wider discourse while he ignores evidence of words that have entered general usage. He simultaneously interweaves bits of China's humiliation narrative into a poorly constructed thesis on comparative linguistics, beginning the essay with the assertion that he earns the charge of "culture treason" for highlighting such injustice. For the record, words are borrowed from the Chinese language when there is a need, not simply because doing so might help a postgrad curry favor with his Chinese academic advisors.

07 December 2011

China through the eyes of a Czar

Original article
There are many people who write about China and it can be a challenge to sort the drek from the gems of wisdom that are contained in their writings. Most, however, are undoubtedly sincere in in their purposes. China is afterall an important topic of academic, business, and social inquiry. There are, on another hand, those who write about China for unclear reasons and with personal motives. There was something about a recent opinion piece that caught my eye and got me to think about its author and his intentions. Steve Rattner is a man of many talents and with many career turns, whose connections with the New York Times staff entitled him to submit an essay about China. His observations bear close scrutiny and his conclusions deserve mockery.

Rattner has held many positions in his storied life, but cheerleader for the Chinese economic model seems to be the latest stint on his carreerpath. Or he might be a parttime shill for G.M. international. Ever since Thomas Friedmann perfected airport journalism, it has become trendy to become an instant expert on any region of the globe while earning frequent flier miles. Rattner begins his contribution to Sinology by vaguely referring to much of the recent bad press about China.
"Hardly a day goes by without news of yet another economic problem facing China. A frothy real estate market. Quickly rising wages. A weakening manufacturing sector. Tightening lending standards."
First of all, what exactly is a 'frothy real estate market' and why is it a problem? There are very clear structural, and simmering problems with the Chinese real estate market. Why does he choose to compare it to a tasty cappuccino? Is frothy perhaps a bit of venture capitalist jargon? Next, he has: 'quickly rising wages' as a problem. For whom is a rising wage ever a problem? Clearly for the people Rattner is writing this essay for, I can surmise. And then, 'a weakening manufacturing sector'. For China to continue its development into an advanced economy, it will shift more of its wealth creation to the service sector, just has happened in every other postindustrial society. So how is this anticipated development a problem and for whom? Lastly, he ends his list with 'tightening lending standards'. This last one is the most bizarre feature to highlight as a problem. If only the USA had such a clearly defined problem during the last decade while loose lending standards helped to create the housing bubble of 2008.

I like reading about China. I don't read Chinese so I have to rely on the many bridge 'blogs that provide translation of many media highlights and postings from the Chinese language intranet. Most of these are managed by volunteer translators, some Chinese and some nonHan. The quality varies. The best ones have been blocked on the mainland; another relatively good one has been subjected to denial of service attacks from hypernationalists. A new 'blog from inside China appears from time to time with both meaningful content and analyses.

But the editors of the New York Times evidently believe that one visit by one of their own is more valuable than whatever those who specialize in China can ever hope to enlighten. Of course, having been the able car czar under Obama who saw to the restructuring of General Motors and Chrysler affords him a special perspective. It's a pity that he only found time to visit GM assembly plants and to sing their praises in the NYT piece. 
"... G.M. achieves American levels of productivity, quality and worker safety — with pay that is a small fraction of levels in the United States." 
So at least we can understand a bit better for whom the quickly rising wages are a problem. And so he further assuages the investor class to not worry with the most tonedeaf and heartless bit of his writing:
"This illustrates China’s great strength: its ability to relentlessly grind down costs by combining high labor efficiency with wages that remain extraordinarily low." 
To illustrate his point, he cites Foxconn as a positive example. I doubt Rattner met any of the workers who have their wages ground down in order to make China strong.
The rest of the piece is where he sings the praises of the Chinese model for development. On the one hand, he does mention: "China’s economic success is colored by its opaque political system, repressive and riddled with corruption." And yet according to Rattner's priorities, the political system is not even a problem worthy of mention at the outset of the piece. Yet all is well as he concludes, on the other hand: "...a populace that appears more interested in economic advancement than in democracy." Because in Rattner's mind, the same people who are having their wages ground down by a political system are willing to forego better governance because that same system is advancing them economically. But does Rattner hate the working class so much? He recently clarified his position:
"Perhaps I misspoke. Perhaps my remarks were misinterpreted. So let me be clear, I have no desire to see auto workers (or anyone else) take a pay cut,". 
Cutting, in a strictly tool and die sense, is, in fact, quite different from grinding down.
To be fair to Rattner, he is truly concerned about one minority group, the investors in China who might be worried about how so much corruption might affect their bottom lines. He dismisses this all with a comparison with the USA.
"Not unlike the United States in the 19th century, China’s early stage of industrialization has brought with it an unsavory wild West flavor, from cronyism to fraudulent accounting, ..." 
It's really odd for him to claim that China is still in its early stage of industrialization unless he is focussing on the level of labor rights and trade unionsim, which clearly he is not. China's leaders want it to move into a more balanced economy, which means de-emphasizing manufacturing and a greater development of the service sector. Rattner's claim that China is both at the same level of US productivity and at its early stage of industrialization is both awkward and selfserving. In Rattner's mind it's all good because China's debt, which might or not be larger than the USA's (possibly due to fraudulent accounting?) is being spent on infrastructure.
"Notwithstanding accounts of 'roads to nowhere,' China has vastly improved its core infrastructure. Its government arguably does better than ours at allocating capital." 
Is there anything that China can ever do wrong? Or the USA do right for that matter? Is he possibly hinting at the misallocation of the TARP funds or of the $82 billion of public funds to bail out the US auto industry, which he supervised. One might even hope that he is referring to the indefinite military ventures, but I doubt that is much of Rattner's concern.
Rattner then proceeds to list even more reasons to invest foreign capital in China, finalizing his pitch with the most assuring of assurances for the investor class: "...China is likely to continue to get away with reforming only slowly." 30 years of 8% annual growth and, as as as Rattner can foresee, it will continue on indefinitely.
Steve Rattner is an interesting man by many accounts. While he is not even the only billionaire on the NYT staff, he has worked his way up to that level from beat reporter. His most recent title is that of chairman of Willett Advisors, LLC, which for all intents and purposes is just a rebranded version of Quadrangle Asset Managment with most of the same staff and likely a good deal of the same investment funds. Before QAM, he was with Lazard Frères & Co. to which he matriculated from Morgan Stanley after getting his start in the investment banking world at at the now defunct Lehman Brothers.
One theory is that Rattner is just doing what he can to stroke the egos of high level Chinese officials. The NYT is considered the only newspaper that the Chinese politburo pays attention to. Fallows at the Atlantic often mentions this. Rattner is indeed well positioned; being in the middle allows him more easily to play both sides against each other. And isn't that what a hedge fund manager's real job all about? There is something jarring to read an editorial shift to the second person. Starting in the title, "Will China Stumble? Don’t Bet on It", he then plays a tourguide, "Visit the General Motors plant on the outskirts of Shanghai and watch Buicks..." By the end, the piece comes across as a salespitch for China composed by a very wordy bookmaker.  A hedgefundmanager is a very well compensated and privileged bookie. I have no doubt that Rattner has been making bets on China, but while he encourages others from one side of his mouth to make long bets on China's upward growth, I strongly suspect that he has a good deal of smart money on short trades.