Clever people, those Chinese

I guess it must be about two years since I started to learn Mandarin Chinese but recently, my brain haemorrhage has interrupted my study since my neurologist said, don’t laugh, that I should avoid too much complex thought.

Complex is exactly what Mandarin Chinese is.

My Kung Fu instructor, Neil, and I began so that, when we went on martial arts training trips to China, we would be able to speak the language and also, hopefully, get deeper into the Chinese culture, Kung Fu in particular.

I went to China, for the first time, last February, and it was almost as engaging practising the language over there as it was learning Dog Boxing with a revered Dog Style Kung Fu master.

It was an absorbing and revealing journey to Fuzhou in Southern China, not a tourist destination, so therefore all the more interesting.

It would have been a different experience without our limited skills in the language though because everyone we spoke to was delighted that we could speak any Chinese at all.

They opened up, showing us how that often inscrutable Chinese face could transform in an instant to an openly joyful and humourous expression.

Language became a bridge between our cultures, enabling us to see that really, deep down, we had much more in common than we would ever have known if we were merely passing, non-communicating strangers from continents thousands of miles apart.

I had been told before the trip that the Chinese wouldn’t understand my sense of humour and that I had to be very careful not to give offense. I just didn’t believe this and I promised myself, if I could, I would try to use what little of the language I knew to express myself and to try and understand, if only superficially, what the people I spoke to were really like as individuals.

Luckily, my humour caused no more offense than it does here in England and it was truly uplifting to crack some silly phrase and to see it greeted with uproarious laughter.

For some reason, the most successful joke was when a Chinese person asked me,if I was English and I answered in my best Mandarin, ‘No I am Chinese’.

OK, I may not be up for any of those stand-up comic awards just yet but the ice was broken and laughter revealed a shared humanity and an equal sense of irony. So, everywhere I went, I milked this line mercilessly to the same effect.

It was a real loss not being able to go back there last month because of my illness but the language lessons started again today and, it is just possible that by next February I could tell the Chinese why the chicken crossed the road and, if I dare, that there is a fly in my soup.

I was given a piece of Chinese calligraphy by our Chinese translator and friend, Chen, it hangs on my wall at home and reminds me how something that can appear to be so alien can, in time, become familiar.

Our two cultures grew up entirely independently for centuries with no common roots to either our language or our writing and yet, with just a little probing, it is possible to see that we are all looking for the same things.

I hope that governments too will acknowledge or human similarities ahead of our differences whilst acknowledging the qualities each nation has brought to this still too troubled planet.

There is some hope, weirdly, from the film industry. In China, they are making a bio-pic of the life of their famous and much mis-quoted philosopher, Confucius. The government is keen on rehabilitating him after he was banned in the Cultural Revolution.

Confucius say: ‘Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them into crimes.’

Now, if only all governments could learn that one.

That Chinese calligraphy, by a respected local artist, means Dog Boxer – well, so I am told – I feel real pride that I have, at least put my foot into the water of Chinese martial culture and, I guess, a touch of frustration that my Chinese calligraphy is every bit as bad as my normal handwriting.


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