China: 自相矛盾 & the “Eastern Moscow”

 

334 BCE: “My shields are so sturdy, nothing can pierce them!” a street vendor yelled amid the chaos of a marketplace in the state of Chu. After the unexpected conquest of Yue, everyone in Dangyang was in high spirits – especially the vendor; he knew he was going to make a pretty penny from all the smug infantrymen.

“My swords are so sharp, there’s nothing they can’t pierce!” he shouted merrily, already thinking about all the ale he would be able to buy that night. The vendor, along with everyone else in Chu, did not know of life without warfare – for the past two centuries, the states of Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan, Zhao and Chu had been battling for control.

The vendor twiddled with the ends of his sash as he beckoned customers to his stall. He was very proud of how far his family had come. The incessant warfare provided the customer base and capital for his father to experiment with new metalworking techniques and create more advanced shields and swords.

“How about you take your sword and pierce your shield with it?” a peasant woman asked the vendor. She smiled slyly at him and readjusted the bundles of woven silk on her back, waiting for him to answer. The vendor’s face turned red as he realized his mistake: a sword that can pierce everything and an impenetrable shield cannot co-exist.

~~~

That was my own creative version of the ancient Chinese story behind the idiom “自相矛盾” (zì xiāng máodùn). The original story, which we studied in my Classical Chinese class, does not include nearly as many details nor mentions the gender of the person who questioned the vendor. But I’ve always loved reading historical fiction, so I figured I’d take a stab at writing my own! (haha, get it? ‘stab’ – like the sword)

自 translates to ‘self,’ 相 means ‘each other’ and 矛 is a sword while 盾 is a shield, so if you haven’t figured it out already yet, “zì xiāng máodùn” means self-contradiction!

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The original 自相矛盾 story in my textbook

Well, I hope you enjoyed that little story, and now I’ll tell you about how things have been going these past two weeks in Harbin. In my last post, I wrote about how every crisis sparks an opportunity, but honestly such a mindset is easier said than done.

When the director of the CET Harbin program came to Ole Miss a few months ago, a student asked her what the dorms would be like. She laughed and said, “you’ll be so busy studying, you’ll barely have time to eat and sleep, much less worry about the conditions of the dorm!”

At the time I shrugged off the directors comment, figured that she was over-exaggerating, but I’ve come to find out she was not – on average, I attend four hours of classes a day and I’d say that for each hour of class I have at least two hours of homework.

I’ve been struggling a little bit – the course load is intensive, I feel like my Chinese proficiency is not as good as it should be, and I’ve been sick with a stomach bug, head cold and sore throat.

But I’m going to take my own advice and stop complaining, because I have nothing to complain about. I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to live in China and learn so many new things – such as the story I shared above. Not to mention, I always say that I love Chinese, so then why am I complaining about Chinese homework? Seems like a bit of a 自相矛盾, doesn’t it…?

I know it sounds cheesy but instead of thinking “ugh I have to get up early to go to class tomorrow,” I’m making myself think “I get to go to class tomorrow.”

I mean how many people get the chance to translate ancient Chinese texts into modern Mandarin? Study a topic of their choice on-on-one with a professor? Perfect their Chinese pronunciation with speaking drills? Read and discuss contemporary short stories in a foreign language?

I bet the clever peasant woman I fabricated in the 自相矛盾 story would be thrilled at such an opportunity. Instead, she – like other low-class women of ancient China – were confined to weaving in the home and subject to abuse from their farmer husbands.

With that being said, let me tell you about the highlights of the past two weeks!

  • A few of my classmates and I discovered an awesome massage parlor with really friendly owners – one actually called her husband and told him to bring her 6-year-old son to the shop to meet us all; it was really sweet. I’ve been recommending more international students to go this massage parlor and the owner is insisting on giving me a free 拔罐 (báguàn) in exchange for all my help. Báguàn is the alternative medicine practice in which cups are suctioned onto one’s back and is meant to dispel blood stagnation. I’m planning on going tomorrow so I’ll let you know how it goes!
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Me and my classmates with the owners of the massage parlor 🙂
  • There are advertisements all over the city for an eyewear company called “Helen Keller,” which makes me laugh every time.

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  • My roommate, Xiao Cui, and I went to watch one of the World Cup games in the school cafeteria – they set up a huge projector and we used our meal card to buy beer and snacks. Neither of us like sports but we like the background atmosphere. It was so funny because every time a team scored or came close to scoring a goal, everyone in the cafeteria would stand up and Xiao Cui just sat there and said “why??”
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Me and Xiao Cui

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  • Harbin is known as the “Eastern Moscow” because of the Russian influences on the architecture. Prior to its founding in 1898 Harbin was a small rural settlement, but with the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway, the city grew as immigrants flooded in from the Russian Empire. In 1920, the population of Harbin was 300,000, of which 100,000 were Russian.

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Street in Harbin

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  • I went to an underground museum on Zhongyang Dajie that had a huge freezer-room full of ice sculptures and a long ice slide. Harbin has also become known as the “Ice City” for its famous International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival in the winter.

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  • Spring pancake: 春餅 chūnbǐng is a traditional northern Chinese food and is normally eaten to celebrate the beginning of spring

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  • We ate zongzi 粽子 from the school cafeteria to celebrate the Duanwu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival). Zongzi are sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves.

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  • I tried a sample of the 紅腸: hóng cháng or smoked red sausage which is Harbin’s specialty. The flavor is similar to Lithuanian, German and Russian sausages since it was first manufactured in 1909 by a Lithuanian staff in a Russian-owned factory in Harbin.

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  • I went to the celebration for the graduating seniors at Harbin Institute of Technology. HIT has 25,000 undergrads, around 13,000 grad students and is well known for its focus on science and engineering. The celebration included singing and dancing performances, some of which were done to English music, such as Jessie J’s song “Price Tag”. My favorite part of the celebration was when four teachers got up and talked about their favorite moments at HIT and how much they were going to miss the students – it was really sweet.

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They had a game where everyone joined a raffle from their WeChat apps on their phone (WeChat is the most popular Chinese texting/social media app)
  • Randomly bumped into a Russian dance performance on the HIT campus

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