You’re not allowed to bring guns into the Great Hall of the People. It says so in Chinese, right at the top of the sign at the entrance.
Some of you may be thinking that you could still bring in a handful of ammunition and be all, “Ha, gotcha, suckers! You didn’t say anything about bullets!” But, no, bullets are number two on the list of things you can’t bring in.
One of our classmates from Modern Literature at Beijing University was performing in what we were told was an “international Chinese-as-a-Second-Language speech competition,” and so our whole class, as well as anyone else who wanted to go, got bussed to the Great Hall of the People this afternoon to watch.
Like everything else around Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of the People is big, really big, designed to dwarf anyone who goes into it and remind them that they’re, like, so insignificant it’s not even funny. You can’t really get an appreciation for how big it is until you go inside it and see (after you clear security) rooms upon rooms upon rooms, high-ceilinged hallways stretching off for a finite but considerable distance in every direction, and the odd security guard standing against a pillar as an indicator of scale. If you go during off-hours and see only a small portion of it, as our class did, it’s even eerier: the hallways are half-lit and empty, waiting for an occasion momentous enough to justify their inhuman capacity.
As it turned out, things had not really been explained to us quite adequately: what we were seeing was not ‘The Second Annual Chinese Speech Competition for Foreign Students of Chinese,” but rather the left-overs of it: the speeches had already been given, in earlier competitions (one in Beijing, two in Shanghai), and so what we saw was the awards ceremony, and afterwards performances – songs, mostly – by the contestants.
This being a ceremony – and a state-sponsored one, with high-ish-ranking government officials present – there were of course speeches, and staggeringly dull ones at that. It turns out that thanks to China’s rapid development and upcoming entry to the WTO, as well as its successful Olympic bid, many foreigners have taken an interest in China and the Chinese language. Some of them are even – gasp! – capable of understanding many aspects of Chinese culture! Amazing!
That summary just saved you an hour.
After the Chinese bigwigs had made their speeches, the emcee introduced an Italian professor of Chinese who’d apparently been working to popularise Chinese language studies back in Italy. The professor in question – an older guy, probably in his early 60s – came up and gave a speech, and it was even more torturous than the previous ones.
This wasn’t because of its content, which was pleasantly bland. It was because the man’s spoken Chinese was atrocious: his tones were all wrong, his pronunciation was hard to decipher, and his speech was slow and stumbling as he struggled to read his notes, which he’d apparently written in Chinese.
Obviously, his understanding of Chinese wasn’t bad – he was literate enough to be able to read his speech, even if he wasn’t reading it at anything approaching natural speed – and obviously advanced; he used a bunch of literary conjunctions and four-character set phrases. But his spoken Chinese was worse than many of the intermediate students in the Beida program, and certainly much worse than that of the students in the competition.
It occurs to me that I’m part of the first generation (or one of the first generations) of Western students in recent history to be able to study Chinese as a living language. I mean, until fairly recently, the only option that foreign students of Mandarin had for immersion was Taiwan; now, anyone who wants to can catch a plane to China and get lost in the biomass. Some of us enroll in universities; some of us go to private language schools; some of us catch a train to the most out-of-the-way one-donkey town we can find; some of us go to the big cities.
Previous generations of students studied for hours in language labs with no real chance to use Chinese outside of their classroom, doomed to be little more than deaf-mutes, able perhaps to read and write, but never really capable of holding a conversation, never able to speak without notes.
We, on the other hand, are a bunch of feral sinologues, comfortable and in love with the language we’re studying, aware of its changes, able to debate the merits of soap opera starlets, chat up punk rockers, name a couple dozen euphemisms for masturbation, and spew curses that would make cab drivers go all pale and woozy.
This isn’t to say that people who studied Chinese without ever going to China are irrelevant. Far from it; scholars like Arthur Waley (who never set foot outside England) still managed to gain an impeccable understanding of Chinese literature and philosophy. But now, for the first time in a long time, there’s a generation of Chinese students who can speak and think in the language, and who experience Chinese not as some dead thing fossilized in a textbook, but as a living, changing, vibrant, fun language.
I think that’s pretty cool.