I learned the basics of Chinese chess (Xianqi) while in China. Now I still play regularly with my friend Danny, an American living in Shenzhen. I also play almost daily against Chemist in the U.K., losing with disturbing consistency but still enjoying every game. Here’s where our latest board stands.
I find Chinese Chess much more interesting than International Chess. This board is particularly delightful. It’s Chemist’s move but he’s been sitting on his hands for several days now. Soon he will emerge with a counter to my threatened mate, and no doubt will defeat me yet again. But this position is just so much fun. His Pao (canon) on D8 is in position to take my Zhu (chariot), usually the most valuable piece, on F8, but he will know that doing so will give me a mate with my Ma (horse) saying check on C9 followed by mate with my Pao on B9.
I expect him to counter with his Shi (adviser) from F10 to E9 but from there it’s anybody’s guess. I await his response with ‘bated breath.
While I was in China I regularly published a blog, aptly titled “The Man in China“, which to this day can be found at www.themaninchina.com. It was widely read by my students, who were generally an intensely nationalistic bunch after absorbing government propaganda through their formative years, and often caused some pushback when my opinions were not in line with official policy. For example, I was sternly corrected by several students when I stated the land area of China without including the area of Taiwan. But generally I was allowed to give my personal opinions without any censorship from the administration. I only removed something once, when some nameless prude complained to the administration about the picture I posted of kissing my wife on the big Ferris wheel (Actually, to be clear, I kissed her on the mouth while we rode on the big Ferris wheel). I wasn’t told I had to remove that picture, but they did tell me about the complaint and I removed it because I did not want to fight over such a trivial issue. I also got a visit from the head of our department when I posted my opinion that China could score propaganda points by allowing a dissident, Liu Xiaobo, to accept his Nobel Peace Prize, rather than getting in a huff and trying to suppress the news. To keep the peace, I offered to take the post down if the administration was unhappy with it, but was told that the post could remain up, since it was clearly my personal opinion.
But to get to the point of this post, my best, and most successful (ever) April Fools Day joke was when I posted that Canada and China, after a series of top secret meetings by government officials of both nations, had agreed to merge the two countries to form the largest country in the world, a country to be known as Da Zhong Guo (Big China) in Chinese and Canadada (da in Chinese means big) in English. The advantages to both countries were obvious. China would get improved access to Canada’s immense natural resources and badly needed living space. Canada would gain access to the huge Chinese domestic market for Canadian resources, goods, and products. Win win all over the place.
What made this parody post so successful was that some of my students believed it, and told their fellow students about it with great excitement. More or less the definition of a successful parody. Also, for my students, an example of Poe’s Law, a parody that mirrors society so perfectly that one can’t decide whether or not it’s real or “fake news”.
I saw it as part of my job to make my students just a little more suspicious about news reports. Of course my students were far smarter, and less gullible or naive, than I thought. This was brought home to me when I learned about the Wu Mao Dang, or Fifty Cent Club, which allegedly paid Chinese students fifty cents to counter social media statements critical of the Chinese administration. A social media thread sequence often went like this: a social media post would criticize the government, followed on the same thread by a post supporting the government, followed on the same thread by a post proclaiming “Here comes the wu mao dang again.” My students were no dummies. The brightest people in China, as a matter of fact, despite their indoctrination.
By the way, I recently learned that one of my favorite poems, “You are Old Father William” by Lewis Carroll, one of the very few poems I can recite accurately even when in my cups (Especially when in my cups?), a poem I love for it’s wonderful rhymes, such as rhyming “suet” with “do it”, is in fact a parody of a rather sanctimonious didactic poem by Robert Southey which has been justifiably forgotten, “The old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them”
Amazing what one can learn by following Wikipedia links. I do love the Internet. I’m so grateful to have lived long enough to experience it, while remembering the drudgery of researching in the libraries of my youth.
To get back on track with this post, I can see an argument for limiting the free speech protection for parody. How is parody different from fake news? Can a person publish any disinformation they want if they merely insists, with no indication in the material published, that it was just a joke. A thorny question indeed.
I’ve always wanted to make a difference to this world. I also have a substantial ego that makes me think I can do something as significant as change China’s culture. Hence my campaign in China over a number of years to get the Chinese to wear bicycle helmets. Overall, I guess this is just another of my failures, though I can say that by the time we left China after nine years of teaching there, I was starting to see helmets on bicycle riders. Whether I had anything to do with that cultural shift is debatable.
Brain injuries in China are an invisible plague. A young person doing well in school, on the university track, doted on by their parents, slams their head into the pavement and ends up one of those shabby pathetic creatures sweeping up the litter every night after the market closes. Forgotten. Ignored.
For university students, bike helmets are just uncool. They are trying to fit in, and terrified of being ridiculed by other students. So it was an uphill battle. I bought a hundred or so helmets and gave lectures about the results of brain damage, then offered to give a helmet to any student who would sign a pledge to wear it. I don’t think many students took that pledge seriously. But they did love to get free stuff.
We had fun making a public service promo. I think we might even have managed to get it played on a local station.
I also talked to stony faced Chinese executives, presented my power point pitch, and even took a train to Guangzhou to meet the owner of a helmet manufacturing firm. All I got from that trip was two high end helmets, one for me and one for Ruth, which I had to pay for.
The big plan was to convince a helmet company to donate helmets to all the students, provided the university would make a rule that helmets must be worn on campus. If I’d managed to sell that idea to either side of the equation maybe it would have worked. I would have generated huge international attention for my university, Jiangnan Da Xue, already one of the top universities in China. But I couldn’t sell peanuts to monkeys (no racist metaphor intended, I love the Chinese people) so we left China without a major, culture shaking, achievement. I sure gave it a good try though.
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