大山’s "Chinese college" English

A friend pointed me to a discussion on Quora about why foreigners in China don’t like 大山 (dàshān), [I was going to describe who that is, but if you don’t know who that is, go read something else].  I clicked on a link to Mark Rowswell’s (the guy who “plays” 大山) activity page and started reading some of the things he had to say, being very interested since he was saying them as Mark Rowswell, and not under the highly-censored-by-the-Chinese-media character of 大山.

I was shocked by how much one of his answers read like a perfect Chinese undergraduate English major’s writing assignment.

Below, I’ve highlighted what I mean:

[This is his answer to the question “Why do so many Chinese websites use numbers in their domain name?“]

Several detailed and analytical answers have been given here, but I think Joe Yang comes closest to the truth: Chinese don’t feel that Hindu-Arabic numerals are at all foreign. Chinese have adopted this numerical system as a universal standard that is independent of language, and therefore learn it from an early age. In fact, most Chinese now are more comfortable writing numbers as 6, 7, 8 than 六、七、八, much less 陆、柒、捌 (according to the formal full-form writing of the characters).

In other words, Chinese have gradually adopted these Hindu-Arabic numbers as their own, rather than consider them to be a foreign concept.

On the other hand, Chinese do consider the English (or Latin) alphabet to be a foreign construct. Most Chinese do not learn the alphabet until a later age, and are often uncomfortable with its use.

To give a personal example, I used to use the email address mail@dashan.com, but I found that many Chinese did not understand the English word “mail” and even had difficulty understanding when I spelt it out letter-by-letter. After I converted “mail” to the number of my physical (snail-mail) mailbox, 9127, noboby seemed to have any problem understanding. 9127@dashan.com was very easy for any Chinese to remember. (I have since changed the address — no spam, please.)

To conclude, these Hindu-Arabic numbers, which are now universal, are much easier for Chinese Internet users to understand than the English alphabet, which is studied as a foreign language. It’s as simple as that.

I have to be fair and say that after reading more of his answers, it seems he doesn’t always write this way, but as I read that answer, many questions flashed through my mind.  Did he learn English essay-writing in a class in China?  Has he simply read so many Chinese college English essays that it has influenced him that much?  Does he read so much Chinese that his English essay-reading has been severely limited?  Is it because he came to China when he was so young?

The structure — each paragraph crassly labeled with formulaic  introductory phrases — is the norm in China.  Any foreign teacher who has spent any amount of time teaching writing in Chinese colleges has been showered with this.  It’s rare to find Chinese college students writing anything better.

I highlighted “I think Joe Yang comes closest to the truth” in a lighter color because, while using other people’s material instead of introducing anything substantially new is also the norm in creativity-barren Chinese classrooms, Mark’s writing here is genuinely part of a discussion, commenting on and supporting someone else’s point.  It wasn’t meant to be something original.  It just coincidentally completes the picture of a perfect Chinese college English essay.

12 responses to “大山’s "Chinese college" English”

  1. Riley says:

    People don’t like Dashan because A. he’s a tool, B. he’s famous for a stupid reason (white guy speaks good Chinese) C. he’s a shill for the communist propaganda machine. Any one of those reasons is enough not to like Dashan. And, I’m sure some of the ambivalence towards Dashan comes from (at least for expats living on the mainland) being asked about him when you meet strangers. Oh your Chinese is like Dashan’s do you know who he is?

    One other thing, I remember during the Vancouver Olympics he was the reporter on the ground for CCTV5. He was walking down the street speaking English to the locals and it was so funny to see him acting as if he were someone famous and these Canadians had no idea who this guy was.

    So basically, he’s a tool who was in the right place at the right time, watching his show is like watching paint dry.

  2. Of all the things to find objectionable about 大山, his perfectly bland Chinese college essay in English has to be somewhat near the bottom of a very long list. It’s like saying you didn’t like Hitler because of his mustache.

    I’ve encountered non-ethnic Chinese 準-native Mandarin speakers (it’s not their first language, but it’s their stronger language, by a mile, even if they wouldn’t admit it) do the Chinese in English thing like 大山 above, but they all moved there at a young age or were born there. 大山, however, has no similar background.

    Given that, I’d expect any writing, even something on his non-official webpage, to be crafted as well as any document seeking party approval. I’d even expect him to talk to people that way, perhaps even in private: A force of habit developed out of desire and necessity.

  3. Karan says:

    If you hadn’t pointed those bits out in yellow, to be honest, I don’t think I would have thought there was anything at all odd about the article that you quoted. Perhaps it’s the structure that Chinese students are taught when learning English as a foreign language, but it seems to me that it’s just a logical (albeit not very interesting) structure for anyone’s English essay to take.

  4. Greg says:

    What’s the problem with 大山? I enjoy his 相聲 whenever I come across it. I don’t live in China, though, so I guess I’m missing something.

  5. Bathrobe says:

    I have no problem at all with Dashan’s use of English paragraph introductory markers — except the last one, ‘to conclude’, which sticks out like a sore thumb. That is a rather ponderous way to start summing up a very slight set of arguments. If, however, he used ‘To conclude’ after a long and lengthy discussion, I don’t think anyone would bat an eyelid.

    I suspect that Randy has been over-sensitised to this kind of writing from too much contact with Chinese students’ essays. The connectors are wooden but not so totally unnatural that they should be stigmatised as ‘Chinese college writing’.

  6. “To give a personal example” is beyond wooden. This is the internet in 2011. Nobody talks like this unless they are crazy, have a PR team doing their work for them or they are a robot. Unless it’s some Canadianism (which I sincerely doubt) it is as out of place and unnatural as using “In conclusion” or “To conclude” at the end of a massively long 7 sentence (not paragraph mind you, sentence) “answer.” Someone like 大山 bases their livelihood mostly on their excellent command of spoken Mandarin. When you read something that reads like bad PR by a Chinese publicist translated into inauthentic bland English it doesn’t reflect well on him. It’s the same kind of nonsense that’s pushed out by him and the giant English language teaching industry where everyone speaks in a catering, incredibly condescending, inauthetic and wonderfully helpful(read: harmful) “HEL-LO, MY NAME IS RO-BERT. HOW ARE YOU TO-DAY?”-way at half a sentence per decade. They promote direct translation of inauthentic rubbish like putting “To conclude” after an answer of 4 sentences and have no regard for most things that would help you from sounding like an idiot. Normally this wouldn’t be a 大山 problem, but he happens to sign off on putting his name and face all over stuff like that. Given all that, his contribution to the “English Language Education Industry” still ranks very near the bottom of the “big list of stuff that pisses people off about 大山.” (For the record, the new OMG 美語 teaching kids government-approved words “Badonkadonk” is probably about just as useful in helping people not sound like idiots when they talk. But I suppose there’s little harm in learning words people actually use, even with woefully inadequate instruction on usage. And it’s likely better than making them read about UFOs and the pyramids for the first 20 years of their life.)

    Ok, I know what you’re saying, “to give a personal example” isn’t a capital offense. I agree. But I’m sure anyone who’s been here long enough is VERY sensitive and can pick out the slightest bit of inauthenticity until they’ve lost it like 大山 appears to have. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a carry over from “chinese college essays.”

    re: Greg

    Yes, you are missing it. But I’m sure you can go read on the internet, perhaps even that quora post linked to, where there’s likely many people who have expounded on the man, myth and legend that is 大山.

    re: Karan

    “it seems to me that it’s just a logical (albeit not very interesting) structure for anyone’s English essay to take.”

    Sure, anyone’s English COULD take that structure, except that almost no self-respecting native speaker I know from America (where I’m from) past a certain age would EVER write like that.

    Four equals two plus two. Indeed, a completely logical way to express that idea. It just happens that NO ONE ever says it like that and we call it inauthentic and plead for regression to mean if we hear it said by someone learning the language.

  7. Sure, anyone’s English COULD take that structure, except that almost no self-respecting native speaker I know from America (where I’m from) past a certain age would EVER write like that.

    Finally someone who understands the point of this post!

    I could understand if Mark simply didn’t have particularly strong English writing skills, especially since he’s a star in the world of Chinese language skills. But the kind of writing I quoted isn’t a matter of being a little weak — it’s something that native speakers deliberately avoid. But it is also something that seems to be deliberately taught in English classes in China. Yes, I am over-sensitized to this kind of writing, but that might be because I’m very sensitive to (and critical of) writing in general.

    I don’t think anyone could easily come up with parallel examples from other native speakers on the web, especially in so short an excerpt.

  8. Bathrobe says:

    Well, I frequently use “In other words” and “On the other hand” when writing in English. I realise they are mannerisms, but the fact is that I use them.

    “To give a personal example” isn’t something I’d normally use, but I could easily write “Just as a personal example”.

    “To conclude” isn’t something I would habitually use, either, but something similar, like “In conclusion” or “To sum up” might occasionally slip from my pen.

    By the way, you left out “In fact”, which is another mannerism, but I guess it’s not a mannerism that’s been picked up by the Chinese.

    I can see the point you’re making, that this overt marking is a hackneyed and obtrusive formula for structuring thoughts. There is no doubt that you are right in that. But if you hadn’t highlighted those expressions in yellow, frankly I probably wouldn’t have noticed them. I think that native speakers try to hide this kind of structure from view in the interest of flow and naturalness, but I’m afraid I don’t agree that people avoid the expressions themselves. Perhaps careful writers do, but how many people on the Internet are careful writers? Many people just write as they speak, or dash off a few paragraphs (or less) without spending too much time polishing it. Very few people would write a comment and wait till the next day (say) to have another look before sending it off.

  9. BigMountainFan says:

    Dear, netizens.

    A Chinese proverb says, “Saiweng loses a horse.” Nowadays, with the rapidly growing popularity of learning the English language, I think that if we study the English language we can bring respect and admiration to our country, China.

    Thus, Big Mountain, the Canadian man, gives us a proud example. Big Mountain came to China in 1987 when our country, China, began the undertaking of reform and open to the outside world.

    Likewise, Chinese must also study foreign languages to expand our world and see the beauty of another language.

    It can be concluded that, following the example of Big Mountain we can study foreign languages to spread the beauty of our country, China.

    Thank you.

  10. HRB says:

    I laughed.

  11. 云长 says:

    Seriously, it’s a blog. Writing, like all forms of communication, has different registers depending on the context and the audience. Little overzealous here.

  12. Peter Nelson says:

    +5 funny

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