Why I’m in China

Wednesday, October26th, 16 days left

Still sick today, though I slept a little better last night. Still can’t use my CPAP because it “burns” my nose. By evening, my sore throat was gone, still had the occasional cough, which vigorously reminded my that my diaphragm muscles had had enough. My nose is running, but I think it’s my allergies being aggravated by the irritated walls of my nose. So, it’s two ibuprofen, a dose of Benadryl, and a reminder to stop whining and be more Bogey! Here’s lookin’ at you, kid!

I got a lovely call from a couple of friends from California. I was asked several questions that I thought might be good to answer here, too.

Why did I come to China?

I wanted to learn about Chinese culture and language from the ground floor, not processed or packaged, but in the raw. I am looking for cultural characteristics that may give me insight into what kinds of software the culture might produce. I am especially interested in the impact by the culture on the development of reputation systems.

What is hardest part about learning the language?

Sorry you asked… There are two big barriers for me:

First, learning to hear and speak Chinese means having to retrain my ear to a tonal language, and retrain my tongue in ways it’s hard to describe. There are several (I think at least 5 major) dialects of Chinese. Everybody learns Mandarin, but the dialects do influence the pronunciation. If you already know a particular dialect, then the pronunciation of Mandarin by native speakers of other dialects can be handled pretty easily. But for me, hearing so much variation in the pronunciation of words is difficult. Since I don’t know what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to, and have already specialized my hearing for American English, I often get lost in trying to find a consistent pronunciation in Mandarin.

Second, the written language is a completely separate language. There is little correspondence between written Mandarin and spoken Mandarin, other than a memorized link of each character to its pronunciation. It’s very different from Western languages, which have written languages that are phonetic, where the spelling of the word is a good clue as to how to pronounce the word [Note: Of course, American English takes words and sounds from other languages, complicating the pronunciation, like the difference in pronunciation of words like dough and cough.] Chinese characters originated as pictographs, sometimes giving a clue as to their meaning by what the “picture” looks like, but giving no clues as to how the word is pronounced. [Note: This last point may be subject to change, because I have had teachers point at the root of a character and make a sound, which might indicate that compound characters are actually pronounced by compounding the sounds associated with each sub-portion of the character. But I am not sure about this, yet.] So written characters are a second language, which require just as much memorization to learn as the spoken language. [Note: There is a third language, pinyin, which is the “Rosetta Stone” between written and spoken Chinese. It is a newly adopted (since 1958) phonetic language, using Roman characters a-z and ü, along with tonal accent markings which gives the phonetic pronunciation of each character. WARNING WILL ROBINSON! I have been to six Mandarin language classes so far. Of the six teachers I’ve had, two of them kept changing the tonal markings on the pinyin as they listened to their own pronunciation. There is the “official” pinyin, and then there is the local pinyin. The tones are most important when one needs to emphasize the correct word. If the correct word is obvious, the tone is not so important. On top of that, tones vary depending on the previous tone and the next tone. For example, because it is hard to follow a falling-rising tone with another falling-rising tone, the first falling-rising tone becomes a rising tone. This makes the saying of first-learned words like “thank you” (xiè xiè) and “hello” (nǐ hǎo) different from the actual tonal markings in pinyin! Boy was I glad to finally find that out as I struggled to say these words as written, but heard them pronounced differently.

Second (part B):  Reading characters is one thing, while writing them is something altogether different. To read Chinese characters, I must learn the nearly infinite handwritten variations, each telling enough, but not necessarily everything, about the character. There are some official fonts, like on the computer, but these fonts are too generic and boring for most handwritten character writing. So, as I walk around, looking at Chinese characters, I can do okay with the generic fonts. But the artistic fonts that make characters unique among all the other artistic fonts, are very hard for me to read. Once again, it would probably behoove me to learn a particular written font (like the official one that used to be taught to children in school), and then learn the variations. But that means years of study before I can buy anything in the store, where artistic fonts are a kind of trademark for brands.

Second (part C): I have a few more comments on written Chinese.

  1. Children are no longer taught how to draw characters with brushes and ink (per two teachers I talked to), but the “stroke order” of a character is still critical. Character recognition software in China often keys off of the first few strokes, narrowing down the choice of characters so quickly that typing in Chinese is really easy, if you know the stroke order of the character. But most people I have watched use pinyin, without tonal marking, to bring up the correct character. Before this innovation, character input on computers was cumbersome.
  2. Using a pen to write characters eliminates the variance of stroke width at beginning, middle, and end of the stroke. It also encourages a certain “short-hand”. If a character is easily recognized with the first few strokes, there is little incentive to work hard at making the rest of the strokes clear. I have had to ask four of the six teachers to please, write the characters with their clearest handwriting. This is not always well received. And my need for clear character writing is soon forgotten, replaced by the font I call Mandarin doctor’s prescription.

What do I mean by “reputation systems”?

I am in China to see if there is something about Western culture that makes it harder to develop software related to reputation systems. Is there something about the U.S. cultural focus on the power of the individual (and the perspective from the ego) that might keep us from developing important trust-building systems on the internet?

Even more specifically, I am interested in writing software that provides at least a 10-fold increase to the number of people in the world that an individual can trust. The internet has provided a portal to much larger interaction between individuals. But access is just the first step. These connections are of little value to me if I can’t trust what they tell me. I want to develop a software infrastructure that allows people to have 100,000 people they can trust on the internet.

Why do I think China has something to teach me about social software?

I was raised in the U.S. and am curious about the “blind-sidedness” of my own perceptions. My experience with artificial intelligence, statistics, my own depression, and life in general tells me that there might be ways to think about problems that are hidden from my particular cultural point of view. Perhaps China can open my eyes to alternative perspectives that would provide natural incentives to produce more software geared towards a “community” need, in addition to an “individual” need.



About jamescmarch

A child of the '50's in rural Pennsylvania, an adolescent of the '60's in southern California, and a political activist of the 1970's in northern California, I have been a husband, a college graduate, an expert witness, a banker, a father, a software entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. Today, I follow my heart by writing.
This entry was posted in Chengdu, China, Sep-Nov 2016. Bookmark the permalink.


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