Cleanse Your Prejudices About the Chinese Here

At this point there are a little more than two weeks left to go before the start of the 2008 Peking Olympics. To prep those Germans planning to attend (although it now seems far fewer foreigners are planning to show up than had initially been estimated), the German newsmagazine Focus has put on-line an amusing set of mini-articles about the prejudices held in the West about the Chinese (Chinese Cannot Pronounce R), e.g. that they eat dogmeat, they all look the same, etc.

If your biggest preoccupation with the Chinese is that they can’t seem to pronounce the letter R, you’ll have to hold your horses, because even though the title of article’s initial page seems to promise clarification on that point, it turns out to be filled merely with introductory text, much of it pretty beside-the-point. (Ex.: “A visit to a Chinese restaurant with its red lanterns and kitschy paper dragons will furnish no enlightenment.”) It’s only starting with the subsequent webpages that the article (no by-line) gets into the meat of things, as it were:

>Chinese are polite, soft-spoken, and always smile: They are polite, but mainly in close person-to-person contact. Out in public it’s another matter, explains our guide to things Chinese, Prof. Karl-Heinz Pohl (Head of the China Studies Department at the University of Trier). There, everyone spits and pushes-and-shoves and eats his/her lunch on the run. And soft-spoken? Hardly: another academic, Jens Damm of the Free University in Berlin, recounts that pre-Olympic ad campaigns sponsored by the Chinese government to try to improve public behavior featured not only “How do I behave correctly in a line/queue?” but also “How do I speak more softly?” And you can forget about all the smiles, too.

Chinese like rice: No, only the southern Chinese; the northern Chinese prefer noodles or bread. It’s also those wacky Southerners – and only them; are they the Chinese rednecks? – who are known for eating anything with four legs including grasshoppers and, yes, dog.

Chinese cannot pronounce R: Ah, here we are. The esteemed Prof. Pohl informs us here that, in fact, there is no “R” among Chinese consonants – although it’s not true that they pronounce an “L” instead where they would be called upon to pronounce “R.” Now, this seems a bit fantastic to me – “No R?!” – and I would dearly love some feedback, to the usual e-mail address, from anyone who knows whereof s/he speaks concerning Chinese phonetics. Since no one among my relatives is actually a Chinese linguistic scholar – and they pretty much define the outer-limit potential audience for this weblog – I might just be out of luck, although I’ll hold out for a miracle of forthcoming expert information on this point in any case and keep checking my Inbox.

Chinese is a difficult language [anyway]: Not really, says Prof. Pohl. The grammar is pretty simple; yes, there are around 50,000 characters to learn, but you need to know only between 1,500 and 3,000 of them to read a newspaper. The real novelty with Chinese is the tones you need to use when pronouncing words correctly. There are for of them, usually you employ two per word: and if you get it wrong, you could say something else way off from what you meant. Confusion is particularly rife around the simple word “ma” which, depending on the tone used, can mean “mother,” “horse,” or “to insult” – just be sure you never insult your mother by calling her a horse!

– Finally, All Chinese Look Alike, don’t you know: Come on now – haven’t you ever heard of Yao Ming, currently of the Houston Rockets as well as the Chinese national basketball team? There you go! Who else looks like him?

No? OK, it’s true that Chinese in general have black hair and dark eyes, but there are significant physiognomic differences among them. Broadly put, Northern Chinese tend to be bigger than Southern Chinese (could it be their eccentric diet that holds the latter back?), and more “pellucid” as well – i.e. whiter of skin, rather than yellower as in the South.

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