Thursday Feb 07, 2008

Year of the Rat

This will be my 3rd installation of Chinese New Year blog. There had been sad departures this year in Beijing. We have seen many friends leaving their posts, often for something better or bigger. This is a vibrant and fast-paced city. People come and go. Many left their imprints on our hearts.

I wrote two years ago that

Years are numbered in cycles of 60. You can think a Chinese "century" is 60 years. Instead of numbers, Chinese name these 60 with two counters: one in the cycle of 10 and the other 12. The former is called the "heavenly" counter (天干, TianGan) and the latter "earthly" (地支, DiZhi). The earthly counter is actually 12 animals.

Similarly, I wrote last year that.

Chinese years are counted with two cyclical counters, one has ten symbols and the other 12. Together, they make up cycles of 60. In a way, a Chinese century is 60 years. Each counter is characteristically categorized into one of the 5 elements — metal, wood, water, fire, and earth — that make up everything in the universe. These 5 elements are assigned to the first 5 planets of the solar system, respectively Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, and Saturn.

Not only each counter has an element, it is either of Yin or Yang. This year is the 5th on the heavenly counter and 1st in earthly: 25th in the cycle or the year of 戊子 (WuZi). In Chinese numerology, odd numbers are Yang and even numbers Yin. The 5th heavenly counter, 戊, is of the earth element. Adding all these together, we have a earthy and masculine (Yang) rat coming.

This reveals a rarely known factoid about the earthly counters: why are those 12 animals chosen? It turns out the sequence of these 12 animals are alternating in Yang and Yin. Those with odd numbers of toes are Yang animals and those even Yin. The Yin or Yang of heavenly and earthly elements always matches: Yin with Yin and Yang with Yang. The world is in harmony and all is good, except for rats.

Rats have an unique Yin Yang quality. They have 4 toes in their front paws and 5 in the rear; they are both Yin and Yang! For this reason, rat designates the mid-night hour, the time in between Yin and Yang. This makes many Chinese not sure about rats: ghosty, sketchy, shifty. On the other hand, rats reproduce quickly and are impossible to exterminate: proliferating, energetic, diligent, and tenacious. There are advantages to be in the year of the rat. <script language="JavaScript"> TagStart() Technorati("China") Technorati("Chinese Calendar") TagEnd() </script>

Monday Jan 07, 2008

Learning Mandarin: False Eastern promise

I am a big fan of The Economist. Read it religeously every week. But this recent article got me scratching my head. Who was the editor of that issue? This article argues that it is economically a bad decision for British businessmen to learn Chinese.

Three main points are in the article: China will dominate world market soon, Chinese are too hard to learn, and, lastly, elite Chinese professionals already speak English fluently. The return, therefore, does not justify the investment of time and energy.

Let's say all three points are valid, would they draw the conclusion that learning Chinese is not fruitful? In a global market place, speed and information win. Isn't it fearful that the other side know you better than you them? And, how come Brits found Chinese too hard and those elite Chinese are fluent in English? Are Chinese smarter? Work harder? Or they don't look for excuses to do it?

I was in a meeting with an important partner in north-eastern China. The meeting went the normal way, all in English. Presentations, discussions, etc. At the end, action items taken, meeting wrapped up, and everyone shook hands. Just as the chairman of the company is walking out of the door, the CEO, who was just a step ahead of me, whispered something to the chairman. Instinctively, I said, in Chinese, "We can help. No problem. Give me about 2 weeks." Without even pausing a step, the chairman patted my shoulder and told the CEO, "That's it then."

I cannot testify that Chinese fluency is required for a foreigner to function, or even succeed, in doing business in China. Can one win a foot-race with an extra 20-pound bag on the back? Sure! But not in Olympics. <script language="JavaScript"> TagStart() Technorati("China") Technorati("Chinese") TagEnd() </script>

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