Not Your Mother’s China – WIF Around the World

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Incredible Facts

About China

China is crazy-big. How crazy-big? Let’s just say if they were having a contest for ‘biggest, craziest nation on planet Earth’, the Middle Kingdom would not only win hands down, it would leave all the other countries scratching their heads and saying “whoa, get a load of that guy.”

There are 1.357 billion people living in China today, a whole billion more than there are living in the USA. The nation is big geographically, too; only Russia and Canada cover a larger land area. And you better believe all this bigness leads to craziness. Craziness so big and bigness so crazy that it’s impossible to fit it all into a single top ten list. But, by gum, we’re gonna try.

10. They Have a Dam So Big it Slowed the Earth’s Rotation

Forget the Eiffel Tower, the Forth Bridge or the Hoover Dam. The Three Gorges Dam is the only true engineering marvel on this planet deserving of the title ‘mind-blowing’. The largest dam yet built, it created a reservoir the size of the Kingdom of Bahrain. It holds back some 39.3 cubic kilometers of water. But the truly crazy part? The dam is so big that its construction slowed the rotation of the entire planet.

Time for a quick science lesson. There’s something called the moment of inertia, which basically describes how fast an object can rotate about its axis. If the object is wider, it can rotate less-quickly, which is why Olympic divers curl up into a tight little ball when doing those crazy flips. Raise a whole load of river water 175 meters into the air, and you’re gonna affect the moment of inertia for the entire planet. The end result? Earth itself slows down.

Now, we should point out that the effect is microscopic. As in, the Three Gorges Dam adds only 0.06 microseconds to the length of the day. But to look at it another way: holy cow, that dam is so big it adds a measurable amount to the length of each day!

9. 30 Million Chinese People Still Live in Caves (and enjoy it)

Imagine being so poor you were forced to move into a cave. It’d suck, right? Like, that’s the sort of thing that nobody has done outside of a warzone in centuries. Well, not quite. Even as you read this, there are currently 30 million people in China still living in caves (equivalent to the entire populations of Australia and New Zealand combined). The craziest part? Most of those 30 million freakin’ love their living arrangements.

The majority of China’s cave dwellers live in Shaanxi province, where the porous soil and limestone cliffs make for easy excavation. Most have been wired up to the mains, many have plumbing, many come with multiple rooms and a lawn, and some even have mod-cons like refrigerators and TV. More importantly, in a country where people still earn low wages, you can rent a big cave for about $30 a month. That’s if it’s not for free. Some families have been passing down ‘luxury’ caves for generations. And the majority of these caves are bigger, nicer, and quieter than Beijing’s apartments.

The LA Times even managed to interview city workers and Communist Party officials who wanted to retire to Shaanxi caves. We’re betting 90 percent of overcrowded New Yorkers would happily do the same, too.

8. Millions of Kids Have Names that Sound Like Hashtags

Remember last time tragedy struck, and you showed your solidarity by retweeting a hashtag? China’s parents laugh in the face of your low-level commitment to good causes. In the People’s Republic, citizens don’t merely use hashtags to show support on social media. They name their children after them.

In mid-2008, a huge earthquake shook the province of Sichuan, killing nearly 70,000 people. In the weeks after, the BBC’s China service reported a wave of new parents naming their children things like ‘Hope for Sichuan’. Noble as this is, it’s also pretty bizarre. Imagine meeting a couple with a kid called ‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘Je Suis Charlie’ and you’ll get some idea of how kooky this trend is.

But then people are always naming their kids after slogans in China. Also in 2008, 4,104 babies were registered with the name ‘Olympics’, in honor of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The BBC found records of kids called everything from ‘Defend China’, to ‘Build the Nation’, to ‘Space Travel’, and ‘Civilization’. That last one, by the way, was so popular nearly 300,000 babies wound up with it. And you thought your name was uncool in junior high.

7. The Army has an Official Division of 10,000 Pigeons

In 2011, Chinese State media made a surprise announcement. No, not the unveiling of Beijing’s first stealth fighter (though well done for remembering that. We knew you were a clever sort of a guy). No, the announcement concerned the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) latest recruits. 10,000 of them had just been assigned to the Chengdu division. They’d been tasked with “special military missions” along the nation’s borders. Oh, and they were all pigeons.

That’s right. China’s PLA has a 10,000-strong official division of birds whose only discernable skill is pooping on statues of famous people. All snark aside, the reasoning here is actually pretty sound. Beijing is way paranoid about a nuclear or cyber attack knocking out their communications systems. In the event this happens, the pigeons would be tasked with delivering messages at high speed between the country’s military installations, especially along the remote stretches of border where keeping in touch is hard enough as it is. There’s even some precedent for this. When Japan invaded in WWII, messenger pigeons were a vital part of China’s defensive effort.

6. On-the-Go Organ Harvesting and Executions

You don’t want to commit a capital crime in China. While plenty of countries still have the death penalty, none kill criminals with the speed, efficiency or sheer gusto of the People’s Republic. China executes more people each year than every other executing country combined, a number that’s even crazier when you realize it includes Iran, Saudi Arabia, and North freakin’ Korea. And this bloodlust has led to some bizarre and unsettling innovations, the most-unsettling of which has to be the ‘Death Bus’.

 First reported in 2009, China’s death buses are essentially mobile execution vans that travel from village to village snuffing out the lives of local prisoners. Even more morbidly, the buses have a surgeon on standby so the dead prisoner’s organs can be quickly harvested after they kick the bucket, and sold on for profit. The key word here is “quickly”. These vans can rock up in villages and knock off 2-3 criminals in a single morning. That’s death row efficiency even the state of Texas would balk at.

5. There’s Only One Time Zone (and it’s crazy)

Before we can do this entry justice, we need to reiterate again just how big China is. It’s roughly the same size as the US. It’s over twice as big as the entire European Union. It dwarfs Australia. Each of those comparative nations/unions has at least 3 time zones, and as many as five. China, on the other hand has only one: Beijing time. And it applies everywhere.

This means Chinese time tends to make sense in Beijing, and is completely mad elsewhere. In the far western province of Xinjiang, for example, the sun doesn’t rise until 10 a.m. in winter, and sets after midnight in summer. That might make sense in Norway or Siberia, but China is way south of either of those places. In effect, locals at the extreme western points of the country have to put up with a timescale that makes zero sense for their circumstances.

As an additional headache, various ethnic groups in China refuse to recognize Beijing time, seeing it as cultural imperialism on the part of the Han Chinese majority. So a doctor’s appointment made for 3 p.m. in Tibet or Xinjiang may mean 3 p.m. Beijing time, or 3 p.m. on illegal Tibetan or Uighur time, and you probably won’t know until you get there and find the place shut.

4. You Must Have Official Permission to be Reincarnated

Let’s say you’re religious and believe in reincarnation. Now, let’s say that you wind up shuffling off this earthly plane in China. What do you think happens next? According to the governing CCP, the answer should be ‘depends on if I filled in the correct forms or not’. Since 2007, Beijing has required citizens to get official permission before reincarnating.

The law, issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, states that anyone intending to return to this mortal coil must follow a strict set of procedures, including informing the Communist Party of who they intend to come back as. Those who fail to do so will… well, we’re not sure, to be honest. Powerful as the Chinese government is, it seems doubtful even they have the ability to stop transmigration of the soul from taking place.

Of course, the real reason China brought in this hilariously odd law is to scupper the Dali Lama’s plans to get reincarnated and keep campaigning for Tibetan autonomy. The Dali Lama responded by saying he’d simply choose to reincarnate outside Chinese-controlled territory.

3. Books are Sold by Weight

The key to selling a book in the west is its title or author. A slim classic novel or a mega-blockbuster by a famous writer will go for far more than a bigger book by a total unknown. Not so in China. Go shopping for books on the streets of Shanghai, and you’ll find yourself paying not according to how good or famous a book is, but according to how much it weighs.

In practical terms, this means a 1,000 page tome by a guy who writes in crayon and can’t string a sentence together is considered far more valuable than a short book like, say, The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. Mad as this sounds, it’s actually kind of useful for students. A short, glossy volume of common Spanish phrases, for example, will attract a mid-range price in the US. In China, you can have it for pocket change.

Before readers in China flood the comments section to point out our bone-headed ignorance, we should note that selling books by weight isn’t standard across the entire country. It’s mainly prevalent around Shanghai and the eastern provinces. But since this includes some of the biggest, busiest cities in the whole of China, we’re gonna go ahead and include it here.

2. Censorship is Even-Crazier than You Think

Quick: what do time-travel, cleavage, The Big Bang Theory, South Korea, and ‘Western lifestyles’ all have in common? The answer is that China censors every single one of them (“they’re all awesome” is another acceptable answer, depending on your level of tolerance for the weekly antics of Sheldon Cooper). These are only a fraction of the innumerable things Beijing feels the need to block its citizens from ever encountering.

Some of the things China considers beyond the pale are crazy even by the standards of authoritarian regimes. Until April 2016, one of the nation’s top-rated programs was ‘Dad, Where are We Going?’, a travel show where fathers took their little tykes on trips around China’s historical landmarks. Then party functionaries suddenly banned ‘celebrity children’ and the show had to be canceled. Other recent bans have included shows featuring gay people, and shows that depict smoking, drinking, South Korea, ghosts, reincarnation, or “feudalism”. We’d guess there probably aren’t that many primetime shows about feudalism out there, but then again, what do we know?

We could go on. China has officially banned talking animals in movies, depictions of online dating when it involves army personnel, and anything starring Brad Pitt. At least they didn’t have to suffer through Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

1. One in Five Humans Alive Today are Chinese

If you need any proof that China is the planet’s future, this amazing statistic is it. It’s one thing to hear that China has a population of 1.357 billion people. It’s quite another to see it put down in such blunt terms. 20 percent of all human beings alive today are Chinese. By way of comparison, Americans account for less than 4.5 percent of the global population.

The only country that comes even remotely close to this mind-boggling figure is India. India has a population of 1.252 billion; still several million short of China, but at least within the same ballpark. After that, it’s a long, long drop to the US, in 3rd place, with a comparatively tiny population of 325.3 million. China’s Pearl River Delta urban conurbation alone has a population of around 42 million, more than the entirety of Poland, Canada, or Australia.

 It’s worth remembering that all this comes after decades of a crazy one child policy that saw the country’s birthrate plummet. If the CCP hadn’t dreamed up its oddball family-limiting plan, probably even India’s population figures wouldn’t be within touching distance. Believe it or not, crazy-big as China’s population is, it could be even crazy-bigger.

Not Your Mother’s China

WIF Around the World

World Wide Words Issue 931 – WIF Style

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World Wide Words

Issue 931

letter-to-editor

Not my pigeon

Q From Helen Mosback: I have just read a serialised version of John Rowland’s Calamity in Kent. It includes this: “In fact, it’s your pigeon, as they say in the civil service.” I was wondering if you could shed any light on the expression it’s your pigeon? I have to admit to being quite taken by the Polish expression not my circus, not my monkeys to indicate that something is not one’s problem, and would be very happy should I have found an equally enchanting English expression!pigeon_png_clipart-671

A Readers may not be familiar with John Rowland, a little-known and neglected British detective-story writer who published Calamity in Kent in 1950. The British Library has republished it this year in its Crime Classics series.

The date of his book is significant, since at that time the expression was more familiar to people in the countries of what is now the Commonwealth than it is now. It had come into the language around the end of the nineteenth century.

The idiom suggests something is the speaker’s interest, concern, area of expertise or responsibility. This is a recent British example:

If posh people aren’t your pigeon, the correspondence on display in this book will be a massive bore and irritation.
The Times, 8 Oct. 2016.

It also turns up in the negative in phrases such as “that’s not my pigeon”, denying involvement or responsibility in some matter.

Despite your analogy with the Polish expression, the pigeon here isn’t the animal. It’s a variant form of pidgin. The name is said to derive from a Chinese attempt to say the word business; the original pidgin, Pidgin English, was a trade jargon that arose from the seventeenth century onwards between British and Chinese merchants in ports such as Canton. The word pidgin is recorded from the 1840s and has become the usual linguistic term for any simplified contact language that allows groups that don’t have a language in common to communicate.

This is an early example of pidgin being used in the figurative sense:

We agreed that if anything went wrong with the pony after, it was not to be my “pidgin.”
The North-China Herald (Shanghai), 1 Aug. 1890.

Most early examples in English writing were spelled that way, though by the 1920s the pigeon form was being used by people who didn’t make the connection with the trade language.

Subnivean

Classical scholars will spot the wintry associations of this word; it derives from Latin nix for snow, which becomes niv- in compounds such as nivālis, snowy or snow-covered. Etymologists point out that the English snow and the Latin nix both ultimately derive from the same ancient Indo-European root. But then humans in Europe have long had plenty of experience of the white stuff.

About four centuries ago, English scholars borrowed nivālis to make the adjective nival to add to our snowy (though French got there first, at least a century earlier). We also have the more recent technical term nivation, not — as you might guess — meaning snowfall but the erosion of ground around and beneath a snow bank that is seasonally melting.

Subnivean is another member of the group, nearly two centuries old. This refers to something that happens underneath snow such as the activities of animals that survive winter beneath it.

Very recently that word has been joined by the linked noun subnivium for the area between soil surface and snowpack. It was coined by a group led by Jonathan Pauli of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They wrote in a paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment in June 2013: “For many terrestrial organisms in the Northern Hemisphere, winter is a period of resource scarcity and energy deficits, survivable only because a seasonal refugium — the ‘subnivium’ — exists beneath the snow.”

Black as Newgate knocker

Q From Jim Mitchell: As a child in South London, when I came in from playing and was a bit grubby my mother would say I looked as black as nookers nocker. My mother was born in 1917. I wonder if she might have heard this expression from her mother?

A It’s very probable. But not perhaps in that form. Your mother’s version is a mishearing of a Londoners’ expression that dates back in written records to 1881: black as Newgate knocker. It has also turned up in the forms black as Newker’s knocker, black as Nook’s knocker and black as Nugent’s knocker.

Curiously, though it has been in existence for more than a century and is currently not widely known, in writing it is now more often found than it has ever been, perhaps because it’s such an evocative item of historical Cockney slang. These days it almost always has an added apostrophe-s:

Her eyes really are black as Newgate’s knocker.
Sunday Times, 19 Jun. 1994.

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Newgate Exercise yard, 1872 by Gustave Doré

Newgate here refers to the notorious prison, originally created in medieval times in one of the turrets of Newgate, a main entrance through the walls into the City of London. Down the centuries the prison was rebuilt five times; it closed in 1902 and was demolished in 1904. The Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey, now stands on the site.

Newgate was a place of fear and loathing to many Londoners, not only criminals but also debtors, who were imprisoned there until they found a way to repay what they owed. After 1783, it was also the place where executions took place, initially on a public platform in front of the building, later inside. For most of its existence it was a noisome, dank, dark and unhealthy place to be incarcerated.

It’s not surprising that it should have been commemorated in expressions. But why not just black as Newgate? Why should its door knocker be selected as the source of the simile?

The phrase Newgate knocker itself is older. It was applied to a hairstyle fashionable among lower-class male Londoners such as costermongers. Though it became widely known from the 1840s, I’ve found a reference to it in the Kentish Gazette in 1781. It referred to a lock of hair twisted from the temple on each side of the head back towards the ear in the shape of a figure 6.

In 1851, Henry Mayhew wrote in his London Labour and the London Poor that a lad of about fourteen had told him that to be “flash” (stylish) hair “ought to be long in front, and done in ‘figure-six’ curls, or twisted back to the ear ‘Newgate knocker style’.” Eight years later, John Camden Hotten explained in his Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words that “The shape is supposed to resemble the knocker on the prisoners’ door at Newgate — a resemblance that carries a rather unpleasant suggestion to the wearer.” Another description came a couple of years later from another investigative social journalist, James Greenwood:

knockerAll, or nearly all, [were] bull-necked, heavy-jawed, and with the hair dressed after a fashion known among its patrons as the “Newgate knocker” style — that is, parted in masses on each side of the head and turned under unnaturally.
Illustrated Times (London), 16 Feb. 1861.

There’s no obvious connection with the colour black. We may guess, however, that Londoners would have imagined the prison’s knocker to be large and made of black iron as well as figuratively black because of its evil associations. We may also guess from the dates at which the two expressions were first current that Londoners took over the hairstyle phrase as a new way to describe the colour, as people have done for centuries with similes such as black as your hat, black as death, black as the ace of spades, black as thunder, and black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat.

As a postscript, I also found this, in a story from 60-odd years ago about the search by a journalist named Bernard O’Donnell for the original Newgate knocker:

His spasmodic search came to an end recently when he was in the office of the Keeper of the Old Bailey, Mr A W Burt. “Where is Newgate’s knocker?” he asked Mr Burt. Promptly it was shown to him. It was on the keeper’s desk. After years spent as a symbol which came to inspire dread among the poor of London, it had found a more useful rôle. It now makes an ideal paper weight.
The Scotsman, 24 April 1950.

Make of that what you will. I wonder if it still exists?

In the news

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Oxford Dictionaries announced its Word of the Year 2016 on 16 November: post-truth. Its editors defined this as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” One example came in a report in The Times on 31 October of comments by the president of the European Council on the signing of a trade deal with Canada:

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“Mr Tusk also denounced the ‘post-truth politics … on both sides of the Atlantic’ which nearly scuppered the deal because ‘facts and figures won’t stand up for themselves’ against an emotional opposition campaign.” Though it has been very much a word of this year, connected both with the Brexit referendum in the UK and the US presidential election, Oxford Dictionaries noted that “post-truth seems to have been first used in this meaning in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in The Nation magazine.”

Last time I mentioned the Danish word hygge, a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being. This has become widely popular in Britain this year, and was one of Oxford Dictionaries’ runners-up as Word of the Year. For the background and the story of its rise in British English, I can’t do better than point you to an article by Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian on 22 November.Image result for post-truth

The newest British buzzword is jam. Not as in the “jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today” meaning of the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass — though the quip has been made several times by pundits — but as an acronym for “Just About Managing”. This refers to the estimated six million working-age British households on low to middle incomes who are struggling to stave off poverty from day to day. The term derives from a speech given by the new prime minister, Theresa May, just after she was chosen by MPs in July. She said of the members of this group, “You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.” Her words became a catchphrase among commentators which has now been shortened.

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Lots of letters

Lots of letters

Boxing Day

Q From Burt Rubin; a related question came from Keith Denham: As an American, I’ve always wondered about the origin of the term Boxing Day.

A Boxing Day is a public holiday in Britain and most Commonwealth countries. There’s some minor confusion these days, in Britain at least, over which day it actually is. The reference books a century ago were adamant that it was the first working day after Christmas Day. However, the name is now frequently attached specifically to 26 December, even if it falls at the weekend, which makes it equivalent to the Christian saint’s day of St Stephen.

Image result for boxing dayWe have to go back to the early seventeenth century to find the basis for the name. The term Christmas box appeared about then for an earthenware box, something like a piggy bank, which apprentices and other workers took around immediately after Christmas to collect money. When the round was complete, the box was broken and the money distributed among the company. The first known example:

Tirelire, a Christmas box; a box having a cleft on the lid, or in the side, for money to enter it; used in Related imageFrance by begging Fryers, and here by Butlers, and Prentices, etc.
A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, by Randle Cotgrave, 1611.

By the eighteenth century, Christmas box had become a figurative term for any seasonal gratuity. By the nineteenth century their collection seems to have become a scourge in our big cities. When James Murray compiled an entry for Christmas box in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1889, his splendidly acerbic description suggests that the practice had become a personal bugbear:

A present or gratuity given at Christmas: in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas.

Though the term Boxing Day for the day on which such Christmas boxes were requested didn’t become widespread until early in the nineteenth century, a few examples are recorded from the previous century. The earliest I know of is this:

Related imageTuesday in Christmas Week, about Eight in the Evening, I was coming over this broad Place, and saw a Man come up to this lame Man, and knock him down — It was the Day after Boxing Day.
Transcript of a trial at the Old Bailey (London), 14 Jan. 1743.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the term seems to have become as closely associated with importuning individuals as Christmas Box itself:

“Boxing Day,” — the day consecrated to baksheesh, when nobody, it would almost seem, is too proud to beg, and when everybody who does not beg is expected to play the almoner. “Tie up the knocker — say you’re sick, you are dead,” is the best advice perhaps that could be given in such cases to any man who has a street-door and a knocker upon it.
Curiosities of London Life, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853.

The custom has died out, seasonal visitors to Britain may be assured, though small gifts are still sometimes given to tradesmen and suppliers of services. The favourite occupation of the day is attending football matches or rushing to the post-Christmas sales.

World Wide Words is written, edited and published in the UK by Michael Quinion. ISSN 1470-1448


World Wide Words Issue 931

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– WIF Style