Ways the Chinese are not Modernizing

If you believe the hype, China is either going to replace the U.S. as the dominant world superpower or is going to start World War III by trying. While I think it is far too soon to make any call like that, I can understand what people are seeing: a country that has long been backward and stuck in a Communist rut is advancing by leaps and bounds into a major industrial power. This recession produced hardly a blip on the country’s radar, as it continues to wow everyone with its achievements.

But not everything about China is modernizing. Oh, sure, they love their iPhones and BMWs, but there are some very old Chinese habits that are not going away any time soon.

Not that we Americans would understand.

1. The Chinese Calendar

We are all familiar with the Chinese calendar in at least one respect: the annual Chinese New Year celebration, and the 60-year cycle that is tied to those 12 animals that supposedly determine our personalities. But there are far more holidays that are based around this calendar: the Lantern Festival, the Pure Brightness Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Mid-Autumn Festival, just to name a few. See, the Chinese have used this calendar since at least the Shang Dynasty (that’s the 14th century B.C. to us), and was used to calculate everything from the best harvest times to the prediction of eclipses.

To this day, there are many superstitions around this calendar – weddings, funerals, and even business deals will be based on what are the most “lucky” dates. Newborn babies’ names will be determined, in part, by what day they were born on the Chinese calendar.

Sure, the Chinese today use our Gregorian calendar for most everyday things, but there is a sort of national pride in their old system that prevents the Chinese from abandoning it entirely. Both the People’s Republic and Taiwan use the two calendars co-officially, and in some older Taiwanese documents you can see the use of the Chinese calendar date rather than the Western one.

2. Chinese Characters

This says "dragon". Or "pet", depending on the context.

This one is interesting because for a while there the Chinese government actually tried to get rid of these things.

Seriously. When Mao Zedong was in power, the Communists developed a plan to first simplify the Chinese writing system so it could be learned more easily, then gradually replace it completely with “Pinyin”, a system for writing Chinese using the Western alphabet. The ultimate goal was to maximize literacy by making it easier to learn how to read and write.

This ultimate goal was still being pushed into the 1980s, with propaganda presented in both writing systems.

"Take steel as the key link, leap forward in all fields." In case you were wondering.

Then reality struck, like it often does. Just as we Americans reacted strongly against being forced to use metric, so the Chinese reacted strongly against being forced to use the Western alphabet.

Why? Well, there are several reasons. For one thing, Chinese is not one language, but about 13 different languages with many sub-dialects. Pinyin was designed for Mandarin, the most widely-spoken language. Which is great if you speak Mandarin, but not so good if you speak Cantonese or Wu or Min Nan or Xiang. The Chinese system of characters, complicated though it may be, is designed with the idea that it can be used by speakers of any Chinese language, and they can understand each other in writing even if they can’t understand each other in speech. It is so good at this job that even non-Chinese languages use Chinese characters.

Furthermore, the very difficulty of learning Chinese writing makes it a point of pride to have mastered it. From age five, Chinese children spend years of practice learning to read and write in Chinese characters, memorizing flash cards, doing writing exercises, and so on. This means Chinese children have invested so much time and effort into learning this system, they don’t want it to all be for nothing when that system is replaced. Chinese characters are a matter of both personal and national pride, a symbol of what makes China, well, China.

3. Chinese medicine

Not only are centuries-old traditional Chinese medicinal practices not going away, they are actually being adopted right here in America. There is even a college in the San Francisco Bay Area teaching these ancient practices to Western students.

It is not unusual in China for a doctor to prescribe both “Nasonex” and an acupuncture session for your allergies. It is perfectly normal for a Chinese pharmacologist to deal with both prescription drugs and common herbs for patients. In China, these forms of medicine have remained in use on a sort of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” justification – if the point is that you feel better in the end, why not keep using the same techniques great-grandma used to feel better?

Western medicine long ago decided to scrap herbs and spices for lab-created chemicals encapsulated into pills, but in China you just don’t see that happening. And Westerners with more open minds, and maybe a bit of nostalgia for the days when everything wasn’t so “science-y”, are willing to give those centuries-old Chinese medicinal practices a try. Thus, in this area, not only is China not modernizing, but some Westerners are un-modernizing.

Source: A Chinese class I took in college.

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