Confucianism and Trade Imbalances

The enlightened dictatorship of money

Posts Tagged ‘language

“Occupy Obama”

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I recently learned a new Chinese word: 屌丝, which translates directly to something like “pubic silk.”  In a way, it’s a more elegant term than it needs to be, since “hair” could be used instead.  Anyway, even though I’m not sure I quite understand the full connotations, it’s clearly an insult – something about people who have no pride, no money, etc.

I then ran into this article about “屌丝” “occupying” Obama’s Google+ page last February (so I’m a little behind on this story…I don’t exactly get paid for this.)  For a short period, the GFW failed and allowed people in China unfiltered access to google+, and Chinese users took the opportunity to post messages on his wall.

“It is everyone’s responsibility to promote the Chinese language.”  These words now appear on US President’s Obama’s google+ page; how do Obama’s fans feel?

“Mr. President, I want to teach you Chinese, so that you can read all these posts.”

“Can such high popularity help you in the next election?” Chinese 屌丝 asked on Obama’s google+ page.

Funny enough, I hadn’t heard anything about this in the Western media. So I decided to check it out.

The comments have been almost uniformly free of the vitriol that often rages on the Internet. And, to the extent that harsh sentiments have been expressed, the criticism has been more often directed at the Chinese government. One user did write that it was disappointing to see how “weak” Obama was on the issue of human rights in China.

Even more surprising is the unusual absence of jingoistic China defenders who commonly rebut pro-democracy, pro-America comments in Chinese internet forums.

As you can see, the comments range from fawning to mischievous to thoughtful. More than a few ask for a Green Card or American citizenship. And, of course, there are a few Americans who resent these Chinese users posting in their native language as opposed to English – or who simply use it as an opportunity for sarcasm.

Although the last commentary seems to be more along the lines of the Chinese coverage, it seems like a real gap on the way internet commentary is perceived.


Written by Maofucious

January 1, 2013 at 4:48 PM

Posted in Confucianism

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China schooling the US

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I knew it had to happen someday.  The rough consensus among China-watchers is that the best precedent for China’s rise, at least in the realms of economics and business, is Japan.  One peculiar phase of the Japanese-American relationship was when Harley-Davidson ended up redoing its entire production methodology based on what it had learned from its Japanese rivals (who were willing to help, in order to defuse trade tensions.)  The Japanese Production System might have been inspired by an American consultant (Deming), but American companies never became world-class experts in applying it.

I ran into an article the other day, although minor, that marks the first time I’ve ever heard a similar story about China.  Ford’s China social marketing team was sent to the US to train their counterparts there.  Many people know that the Chinese government controls almost every form of communication.  The word 宣传 sort of shares the meanings of “propaganda” and “marketing;” ‘red envelopes’ are an expected practice at press conferences.  And of course Facebook and other American-based social networking services are blocked.  But focusing on the top-down aspects of this phenomenon neglects that it comes equally from the bottom up. Despite all of the censorship, there really is a vibrant Chinese internet. People simply expect their information to come from sources close to them – another aspect of the Chinese attitudes towards geography I’ve mentioned several times before.

A lot of this seems very different from Japan.  Innovative marketing and Kanban production are very different things, implying very different personality types.  It’s important when making the comparison to Japan to note that there are some deep-seated differences that have nothing to do with Capitalism or Communism.  On the other hand, these examples do both come from the auto industry – an important status symbol in either production or consumption.

Written by Maofucious

December 9, 2012 at 3:26 PM

The hierarchical logic of the Chinese language

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What number is halfway between 1 and 9?  Is it 5, or 3?  I have a graduate degree, and I’ve read The Black Swan, so I’m quite comfortable answering 3.  This also a natural answer for children, traditional peoples, and animals, according to researchers at MIT.  But logarithmic thinking is apparently driven out of people with an intermediate level of education. How could one go about teaching logs without scary multiplication tables and the constant e?  One of the best ways I could think of would be the Chinese language (as an example of fractals in general, but again those can be scary for kids.) For instance, take the pictogram for heart.

This character can be used separately, or in combination with other characters to form ‘words’ (which were not really a concept in Chinese at all until outside contact was established.)


Literally, “inside the heart” = psychology (or just “inside the heart”).  But the character can also be squeezed into portions of other characters, as a “radical.”

情  患  恭  必

So shish kebab (I’ll let you figure out which one that is) your heart = disaster or anguish.  But then there’s chengyu, another level above words consisting, typically, of four characters, generally with some logic to their placement.  For instance:


“heart goes up, heart goes down.”  Sometimes, chengyu also have history behind them, something like an inside joke (although the heart character doesn’t lend itself to good examples of this, as far as I know.) So the Chinese language is built around this concept of nested levels, of the type you get by using power laws, very different from the Western logical, grammatical mindset.

Written by Maofucious

November 24, 2012 at 10:47 AM

Posted in Confucianism

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IQ, language, and political economy

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There hasn’t yet been enough controversy on this blog, so I will now talk about race and intelligence.

The American Conservative (who I don’t normally read) has an article on how Asian IQs seem to be invariant to economic development.  Asians in general (now I’m talking about Asian immigrants to the US) aren’t rewarded for their above-average IQs.  This guy (apparently an academic who wants to remain anonymous) thinks it’s because their verbal-analytic skills lag other races, compared with visuospatial skills. This shortcoming makes it more difficult for them develop lawyer-type skill sets, and it ultimately impacts economic growth.  I won’t comment on his theory of an IQ cutoff for economic development, and gaussian vs. linear regression, but I did notice that the way he treats his data to subtract 6.5 points from Asian IQ statistics.

All of this fits into my preconceived notions of how the Chinese language fits in with the culture.  (The Chinese language is a cultural foundation for all Confucian societies.)  Chinese has no grammar, using classifications and complex rules of the type lawyers would be expected to understand.  At best, all of its rules are situational, applying to groups of a few words.  (In policy terms, I would relate this to industrial growth policies.)  The language is also hierarchical (with an obvious political analogy) as certain themes reappear in related contexts.  I think the best way to illustrate this might be in reference to my point in the last post about little kingdoms and geography.  Place names typically have two characters.  One of those characters is likely to be some kind of moniker for the area as a whole, and so you are likely to see that character in the names of smaller districts (down to danwei) within the district, or around the  district.  One example off the top of my head is Guangdong province, which borders Guangxi and has Guangzhou as its capital.  (Dong is east; Xi is west; and zhou might be translated as -ville; although these transformations don’t always follow these sorts of formulas.)  This process is replicated in the the highly transparent evolution of the characters themselves.

This sort of setup makes it natural to base economic growth on evolutionary trial and error, arbitrated by face. This entire process creates a strong sense of conservatism that helps mediate between the highs and lows of economic development – what the American Conservative article was getting at.  Also, I suspect this relation to characters and geography has something to do with why Asians’ visuospatial skills are so well developed.

None of this, by the way, says anything about the direction of the causality.

Written by Maofucious

September 22, 2012 at 9:38 PM

Human factors blindness

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James Fallows’ new book China Airborne has been receiving high praise from unusual suspects, including Tyler Cowen (a micro- guy with no particular interest in China, who said it was one of his favorite books this year), and The Peking Duck, who declared upfront that “few topics could bore me as much as avionics and the aerospace industry” before praising it highly.  So I really need to get a hold of a copy – but in any case, I already have a few comments based on a portion quoted in The Peking Duck’s review.

but [China] lacks the “soft” ingredients necessary for a fully functioning, world-leading aerospace establishment. These include standards that apply consistently across the country rather than depending on the whim and favor of local potentates. Or smooth, quick coordination among civil, military and commercial organizations.

These “soft” ingredients are a huge part of air safety.  About a decade ago, Korean Airways was on the verge of going bust because of air safety concerns, before experiencing major improvements.  These concerns were largely of the “soft” variety, and particularly relating to Asian culture: copilots would not speak up to pilots’ mistakes; former military pilots were promoted unfairly; expat pilots were treated poorly.  The leap from an organization that meets expectations most of the time and on that never makes a mistake – as airlines are expected to do – is largely based on culture, not technology.

In February, a flight going into Haikou was forced to divert due to weather.  Long story short, it received a runaround from three airports before landing in Shenzhen with only a few minutes’ worth of fuel left.  A Chinese media account of the story from last week notes that the Shenzhen airport communicated with the plane using non-standard language, causing a misunderstanding that caused it to first attempt another landing in Guangzhou (which was also rejected due to weather).  It also notes that the airport staff would be dealt with “severely,” with no further explanation of the exact communication problem.  This example illustrates how important it is to be unambiguously clear when you have a ticking time bomb-type of situation.  And the Chinese (or Asian) educational system, with its fixation on multiple choice tests, does not really teach communication very well.  (For all you English teachers out there, don’t let you students convince you that they have writing skills in their native language – just not English!)

I don’t want to say any more about this particular situation, not being an expert.  In general, however, I note a blindness in Asian cultures towards human problems (beyond simple punishment), and a fixation on technological solutions.  This attitude can be seen in Japan, towards Fukishima; in China, towards the Great Leap Forward Famine, and in countless other situations.  One situation that I learned about last week in a lecture from an NGO working in North Korea is that they see their food situation as their number one priority, and fuel as second.  The NGO wants to move them towards mechanized agriculture, which requires – fuel.  But they can’t get the North Korean bureaucrats to see the problems as being connected in any way, and they won’t sway from the above language.  Most other types of Asians can at least see how technical factors can often relate to each other, but even then the human factors seem to go over their head.

The implications of this mindset go far beyond air safety.  In fact, this forms the basis for an almost stupidly simple way to explain Asian trade imbalances: whereas increasing supply is a technological problem, getting people to spend more and increase demand is a human problem, and thus more difficult for them recognize and solve.  It can get more complicated from there, but that’s the core.

Written by Maofucious

June 28, 2012 at 12:08 AM

Language and reality

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Hello world, this is my new blog, which is still under construction and will improve over the next few weeks as I figure how to use the WordPress interface.

The subjects of this blog, as the title indicates, will be Chinese culture and economic imbalances.  The vast majority of my posts will include at least something related to one or other of those topics.  I may also have a thing to say about Europe, because their economic imbalances are quite analogous to those in East Asia; I’ll also go deeper into Chinese (and other Asian) culture than you might really need to know to understand trade.  In any case, it will be a sociological perspective on the economic forces shaping the world for now and at least the next few years.

So what exactly, the reader asks, does Confucianism have to do with trade imbalances?  Well, if it isn’t obvious already, then there’s no way I could really explain it to you.  As spoken in the timeless classic the Dao De Jing:

The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao.  The name that can be named is not the eternal name.


Which is to say, you’ll have to keep up with my blog (ha ha).   Having quoted those famous words, though, I should offer my own bit of interpretation.

My way of looking at Daoism and other Chinese philosophies is that the meanings are inseparable from the words that describe them (a point that’s especially important for non-native Chinese speakers).  Look again at the Chinese: the entire passage uses a total of five unique characters.  “Dao” and “name” function as both nouns and verbs (“Dao” as a verb tends to mean “to know” in modern Chinese.)  So the meta-meaning one might draw from that passage is one of utter simplicity, everything functioning in its exact place.

At the same time, there is another dynamic going on, totally opposite of this simplicity, encapsulated by the frequent use of the term “technocratic.”  This term tends to imply that political relations are so complicated that the body politic becomes an effective ‘black box,’ not worthy of further dissection.  My contention is that this dynamic between stupidly simple and absurdly complex – a very different dynamic than the good and evil we see from Abrahamic religions – is the best way to dissect Asian politics and economics.  (This sense of morality makes its way into rule of law.  I don’t want to enter the debate with some Mississippi judges about whether religion is the basis for rule of law – there could just as easily be causal pathways the other way around, from the culture to the religion – since it is reasonably clear that the two build on each other symbiotically.)

I will refer frequently to linguistic analysis in order to make my points, as language both shapes and is shaped by reality.  So there will be a few Chinese lessons at some point.

Leave some comments about how this blog really lives up to its subtitle – I may get a “testimonials” section going at some point, and I could feature you!

Written by Maofucious

June 21, 2012 at 3:27 AM

Posted in Confucianism

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