East Asia


Bulldozer battles: Transformers defeated in China

Nicky Lovegrove

Society and culture | Asia


In case you missed it, last week Decepticons and Autobots came back to Earth to fight a mighty street battle in Hebei Province, China. Taking the formidable form of screeching forklift trucks, the rival sides fought for dominance in a thunderous display of vehicular sumo wrestling. Traffic was interrupted during the melee, which saw two trucks felled and four others damaged. Reports say one human was injured by the toppling bulldozer, while another suffered a gunshot wound in the course of the battle.

Okay so there were no Transformers involved. But everything else about that paragraph is true. Check out some footage of it here:


According to Chinese news sources, the forklift battle was caused by a dispute between two rival cement mixing companies, both of which believed they had the rights to supply concrete to a county construction project. Two drivers were injured, one by a gunshot (somehow), but both are in a stable condition. While police are undertaking an investigation into the incident, the key question at the fingertips of derisive Chinese netizens seems to be: were the forklift drivers graduates of Lanxiang Vocational School?

Most people following Chinese-language news over the last few years will know of Lanxiang in Shandong province as China’s favourite scandal-plagued school. Lanxiang has been embedded in controversies ranging from cyber-espionage to public love affairs to Communist Party politicking. In 2010, the New York Times published an article claiming the school could be linked to several recent cyber-attacks launched against Google and other American corporations, with the purpose of stealing data and trade secrets. In 2014, a massive brawl broke out at the school involving dozens of people, including the 70 year-old founder of the school Rong Lanxiang, who allegedly injured his hands during the fight. Rong was already no stranger to media controversy, that year having been accused of tax evasion and violating China’s birth limit laws, as well as being involved in a messy public divorce with his wife over an alleged mistress. This was not a good look for someone who also happened to be a member of China’s National People’s Congress.

These controversies aside, the school has also been lampooned on Chinese social media for its overly dramatic advertisements, which come across more like a trailer for a Hollywood blockbuster than for a technical college which trains chefs and bulldozer operators. One of Lanxiang’s slogans has become particularly famous online: “When it comes to excavator technology, who is strongest? China’s Shandong Lanxiang!” In the wake of the 2014 brawl incident, Chinese netizens have delighted at misquoting the slogan as “When it comes to a punch-up, who is strongest? China’s Shandong Lanxiang!”


So it is no surprise, when a video of acrimonious forklift drivers engaged in a dramatic public brawl goes viral, that jokes about Lanxiang Vocational School come in thick and fast on social media. “In a struggle between Lanxiang elites, us mortals can only look on from the sidelines” declares one netizen. Another suggests that the bulldozer display was merely Lanxiang students practicing for the school’s rendition of War and Peace. But my favourite was the commentator who found the script to the next installment of the Transformers franchise:
“Optimus Prime: Megatron, you are truly contemptible. You speak of a duel, but then get your Decepticons to attack me by surprise!
Megatron: Wake up Optimus! You fool, it was Shandong Lanxiang who defeated us both!”

3 minute read

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Learning Asian languages: A dummy’s guide

Sophie Ryan

Society and culture | Asia


There is a divide in Australia. The divide I am talking about here is between those with proper access to Asian language learning and those without. Many people, unfortunately, will respond to this concern, saying something along the lines of:

‘In most places people can speak English anyway.’

There is a real problem with this attitude, and perhaps even writing about this issue is cliché and futile. But I write from a first-hand, Caucasian, Australian perspective on this issue. Let me tell you friends: truly learning another language is hard, especially Asian languages like Mandarin, and you have to be patient. There is no such thing as learning a language in a few months online; you won't survive when you travel to that actual place. You have to want to learn the language, and keep interested. Sometimes, this gets tough when the learning gets difficult.

So imagine this: a first year university student studies a foreign language for the very first time. That was me two years ago. Did I jump into the deep end? Definitely. Was it a silly move? Maybe. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

To begin with I found Mandarin next to impossible. In fact I probably found it the most difficult out of most in my class. That is why I am a self-professed dummy. After thirteen years of education in regional NSW and no background in Asian languages, I started studying at the best Asian languages institution in Australia. I had no idea what I was doing half of the time and looking back I sure did make it harder for myself than needed. How did I do it? I tried not to be too dismayed by my marks, and just like Dory, I kept on swimming. In other words, you learn the methods of Asian language learning, and it does get easier.

When you’ve mastered the way to learn this new language, you start to enjoy it a bit more, and this is where the fun begins. You start to have long conversations with your lecturers, and inadvertently insult or amuse them.

Let’s say you wanted to go to the internet café in China, you would use the word wǎng ba,(网吧). However if you use those words in a slightly different tone(王八), you are effectively saying 'mother f**cker.’ In summary, be careful with your Chinese tones, very careful.

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However, there is also an all too important response to my argument that mustn’t be ignored: ‘I have no interest in learning another language. I know nothing about the culture, and how will it help me in my daily life?’

For the average Australian, this is a very good point, and only a few years ago, I would have made this point myself.

When I started year 11, and my priorities were focused on: a) what subjects scale well? b) what subjects do I enjoy and will be good at? and c) what subjects scale well? The attitude towards learning a foreign language, if even considered by students, was that it was too hard for its HSC scaling, so why bother? I’m sure I was not alone when I say this.

This is the type of attitude that is making Asian language learning hard work for us Australians. It is hard, but it doesn’t have to be. From my personal experience what could have made it an easier transition into tertiary life would be if I had a wider access to learning any Asian language from a much earlier primary school age, not just French and German, which was offered. It is at this age bracket when the mind is a sponge; it’s not work at all. Whether or not youngsters are interested in the language or not, being exposed to a wider variety of Asian languages would spark an interest in later learning of these languages and cultures.

That’s the kind of approach we ideally should have when thinking about learning foreign languages, because if we think of it as work too much, we’ll burn out. As a university student, this is a work in progress for me. But I’m a self-confessed dummy, so if I can do it, you can too. We are all aware of the ‘Asian Century’, so why not say 你好!?

4 minute read

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A Shanghai Dispatch

Bernice Chen

Society and culture | East Asia


Shanghai’s largest bookstore, Shu Cheng on Fuzhou Road (a rather naff translation is ‘Shanghai Book City’; ‘Wall of Books’ is too ominous) is a monolithic building with eight cavernous stories of maze-like shelving. Like all the best bookstores, it’s stocked with mini shopping trolleys, here energetically pushed by parents busily purchasing tutorial books for their children. Slightly less busy is the floor dedicated to ‘Classics of Marxism-Leninism’, where you can pick up Xi Jinping’s latest, ‘The Governance of Modern China’ for 8 yuan (around $1.60). Other departments are more familiar: fiction, non-fiction, multimedia, stationery and the ubiquitous Starbucks.

Most of the book stock is shrink-wrapped to prevent in-store reading, although usually one of each book is available for perusal. The system makes sense when you realise how lovingly worn those unwrapped books are, or when you discover every conceivable horizontal seating or vertical leaning nook and cranny has been commandeered by readers. The readers - usually young, some middle-aged or elderly - completely unfazed by the noise and bustle around them, often peering into half-opened books so as to politely avoid breaking the spine, spend hours sitting in the same spot until the book is finished.

Of particular interest is the enormous array of sheet music, including Westernised arrangements of Chinese classical standards. I’d be a bit wary of these beyond their curiosity value: as a young piano student in the days before the Internet, well-meaning cousins meant I discovered first-hand the peculiarities of Chinese editions of the Western musical canon. The situation hasn’t changed dramatically - arrangements apparently aim to save paper and assume you have either six or fourteen fingers.

There is an entire floor of Chinese-language translations of non-Chinese literature: scanning the shelves to see completely unfamiliar Spanish or Japanese titles beside Middlemarch or Nineteen Eighty-Four or, indeed, War and Peace, it’s an interesting reminder that our literary horizons are strongly limited by our language skills. Classics are well accounted for, often in competing translations for your pleasure. The selection of modern fiction is also wide but charmingly haphazard. There is John Fowles’ A Maggot but not The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated but not Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Representing the Australians, one finds Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda) but not Patrick White. The odd selection makes you imagine two publishers and a put-upon translator, impulsively deciding they like one book and not another; thus dictating the vagaries of what is unleashed into the Chinese market.

Shu Cheng is on Fuzhou Road, the traditional destination for books, art and literary supplies in Shanghai. Spy on beautifully-dressed Shanghainese hipsters and survey the state of contemporary Chinese art in the rarefied air of the historical Shanghai Fine Arts Bookstore. Also on the same street is the Shanghai Foreign Language bookstore, which has an excellent selection to cure all homesickness, and a wonderful cafe. As you can buy almost anything off street-side hawkers in China, Fuzhou Road presents no exception: this is probably one of your only lifetime opportunities to buy books, notebooks, or pens off a large bike-powered wagon with cars whizzing by, a policeman striding ominously (and ineffectually) through the milling crowd.

The rest of the street is restaurants and coffee chains stuffed with students, or stationery and art stores. Chinese stationery stores are enchanted places: tiny spaces crammed full of every conceivable writing implement or accessory, from fine-nibbed, almost invisible pens to rug-sized sheets of bright-pink card stock. Stationery storekeepers are unsurprised by any request or inquiry and will either be mildly grumpy or mildly disinterested, an occasionally refreshing departure from the prevailing model of Chinese customer service. On the dusty back shelf of a hole-in-the-wall store I found a gift for my grandfather: spectacular silk-covered calligraphy books with concertina-bound pages a millimetre thick. For myself, Baixin Stationery (founded in 1912) has creamy notebooks bound in traditional Chinese fabrics.

Some stores primarily stock Chinese calligraphic supplies: brushes, inks, inkstones, seal stones, thick rich paper. I like to gawp at the largest brushes, over a metre high, which are primarily used by calligraphy masters for large banners (think weddings and corporate openings). Their other use is particularly charming: take an early morning walk in a local park and you might spot an elderly person carrying one of these huge brushes and a bucket of water. They practice calligraphy standing up, using the pavement as paper and water as ink. It’s a form of exercise and meditation and flows beautifully in an echo of the tai chi practitioners nearby. After they leave, pouring out the bucket into a flowerbed, the words slowly evaporate in the heat of the day.

4 minute read

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Taiwan archaeology and the Zou people

Will Zou

Society and culture | East Asia


Taiwan is an island-bound by many narratives. I would like to share with you one academic narrative and one personal anecdote from my three weeks spent in Taiwan. I was in Taiwan under the auspices of the ANU in-country learning course, aptly titled ‘Archaeology in China’. We toured by bus around almost every major city, and certainly every archaeological museum in Taiwan. The archaeology of Taiwan retraces the stories of the Austronesians, peoples who settled in Taiwan over 7000 years ago.

Austronesians are everywhere today, according to academics. They are the progenitors of a constellation of people spread from Madagascar to the Pacific Islands, and as far as Hawaii (see Figure 1). How they sojourned across the oceans remains a mystery.

[caption id="attachment_926" align="alignnone" width="300"] Figure 1: Austronesian dispersal from Taiwan (in bracket is the approximate year of dispersal)[/caption]

Evidence from the fields of archaeology, linguistics and genetics tell the same story — the Austronesians migrated far and wide across the span of five thousand years. Pottery and earrings dug up by Archaeologists on many of these disparate countries share distinct features (see Figure 2). For example, the double animal-headed earrings excavated in Vietnam and the Philippines were formed out of a particular type of jade. The jade is produced naturally only in Taiwan. Similarly, linguists believe that the people across these island countries form a part of the larger Austronesian language group. That is, the languages across the Pacific, Oceania and other regions once shared morphological, phonological and lexical innovations. Aside from the excavated evidence and linguist reconstructions, preliminary genetic research suggests the indigenous population on these disparate islands were once very similar to Taiwanese Austronesians. The Austronesian migration theory suggests that Taiwan has its own unique and enduring history. As the evidence suggests, this is a compelling narrative.

[caption id="attachment_927" align="alignnone" width="300"] Figure 2: The largest excavation site in Taiwan — Beinan[/caption]

Politics pervade Taiwan’s many narratives. That Taiwan has a history unique to mainland China is a narrative propagated in contemporary Taiwanese history, too. The National Museum of Taiwan History is one such locale where this story is apparent. Beneath the veneer of ‘scientific’ history, the museum promotes Taiwan as a unique island with a distinct and heterogeneous history and identity. Taiwan’s various ‘colonisers’ of the past four hundred years (from the Dutch, albeit for trading purposes, the Ming dynasty, the Qing dynasty, Japan and the Republic of China) are equally represented despite the fact that some of them only stayed in Taiwan for a relatively short period of time. For example, the Dutch were in Taiwan for less than thirty years, yet their representation in the museum is equal to that of the Qing, who administered Taiwan as a part its own province for over one and fifty years. The Museum attempts to enjoin its visitors (many of whom are Taiwanese students) to believe that Taiwan is uniquely different to People’s Republic of China. As a result, Taiwan’s indigenous voices and its own people’s agency are drowned out. Visitors leave the museum with the sense that Taiwan is helpless in the face of its various ‘conquerors’. The primacy and agency of Taiwan’s indigenous people, and its own agency are obscured through such a lens. Instead, what I found far more interesting was the Japanese Emperor’s speech of surrender pronounced to his people at the end of World War II. Now that was a historical moment of freedom, albeit brief, in Taiwan’s history! (See Figure 3)

[caption id="attachment_928" align="alignnone" width="300"] Figure 3: National Museum of Taiwan History — Japanese Emperor's WII surrender speech, translated into classical Chinese on the bottom half of the picture[/caption]

Culture does not live in museums. I arrived in Taiwan a weekend before the course began. A fortuitous meeting on the bus to Mt. Ali, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Taiwan, led to a weekend spent living with an indigenous community on the mountain. The Zou are one of nine officially recognized indigenous groups in Taiwan. Over the next two days, I lived with, dined with, explored with, learned from, listened to and prayed with the Zou community. They treated me with great hospitality, and they showed me how they adapted to modernity as they wished. When pesticides sprayed in tea plantations ravaged them with insidious health problems, they planted organic farms. They debunked the stereotype that tea was traditionally grown on the Mountain, tea plantations in the region began only in the past three decades. Instead, they drink coffee. In 2007, one of their brightest young entrepreneurs won the national coffee growing and brewing contest. Ever since, coffee is their source of pride.

I witnessed the power of the Christian Priestess, who spoke English, Japanese, Mandarin, Hakka and the Zou language. She was a natural leader. The church is the epicenter of the community, and a space for adults to teach their children the Zou language. With the help of others, the Priestess spent sixteen years translating the Bible into the Zou language. For her, the government’s minority language education policy could hardly be relied upon to ensure the continuity of the Zou language. After all, successive governments change education policy at a whim. For the priestess, the Church, made up of her and her own people, will last longer than any incumbent government’s policy directive.

Museums used to educate the public of living cultures. Jeff, an archaeologist research student, told me that in the 17th and 18th century, museums displayed things from living cultures, brought back from abroad, to educate the public about other parts of the world, educating them of a culture that was still thriving.

As for me, I would rather speak to, listen to, and feel the power and presence of a people who are alive and who are adapting according to their needs. A people whose concern arise from the solemn sadness in their eyes, and whose joys pulsate above the chorus of their hymns.

We are restless spirits. Our inclinations are the same as Austronesians on Taiwan, both in the past and in the present. The memories I keep are those found on the road. Below are some mementoes.

[gallery type="slideshow" size="medium" ids="929,930,931"]

6 minute read

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