The Mindless Conventionality of an East Asian Upbringing

East Asian child rearing is notorious for the heavy pressure put on children, but also famous for the great feats of technical brilliance and hard work many people who grow up under these conditions perform. Kids are sent to evening classes, weekend lessons, hardly have any free time. And then many graduate at the top of their years.

Professor Amy Chua of Yale Law School has recently published a book promoting this kind of strict and achievement-orientated parenting. I read an extract on the Wall Street Journal’s web site, and I find Chua’s child-rearing practices counterproductive and draconian. This is largely because I don’t share her highly conservative ideas of what constitutes success in this world.

To begin with, Chua forced her children to play the piano and violin for hours upon end. The value of this is apparently beyond questioning. I’m baffled by this. Few people can name any classical musicians, and extremely few can support themselves playing classical music. Why should I make my kids do that? Both took violin lessons until they tired of the instrument, and then they moved on to sax and piano, which they enjoy playing but don’t work particularly hard at. It’s just for fun. I certainly wouldn’t want either of them to try a professional career in music unless they were really motivated in themselves.

Furthermore, Chua demanded that her kids be No 1 academically in their years, and she forbade them to attend sleepovers, have playdates, watch TV and play computer games. This is just crazy from my point of view. Since childhood, I have always felt that having a lot of unplanned free time to play and laze about with a book or a computer is an important part of basic quality-of-life. Taking free time and play away from kids and teaching them to avoid those things as adults constitutes tragic misuse of a person’s life, from my point of view.

The qualities I try to cultivate in my kids are

  • Independent critical thinking
  • A sense of humour
  • Verbal skills (speaking and writing)
  • Solid general knowledge and insight into how everything connects up in the world
  • Curiosity
  • Social fearlessness
  • Creativity

As those who have met them can confirm, my kids have all of this in rich measure. I don’t think Amy Chua’s methods would have helped much here, on the contrary. And still, academically speaking, my kids are near the top of their years too.

At the root of my disagreement with Amy Chua lies my cynicism about the value of conventional achievement. I would never go to such lengths to get where Chua is in life, or to get my kids to where her daughters are going, because I don’t find that place attractive. I prefer to work 30-35 hours a week for a modest income and spend a lot of my time achieving nothing, just having fun with friends and family. And that’s what I teach my kids to value too. My goal as a parent isn’t to teach them to excel. It’s to teach them to be happy and have fun.

Update 11 January: Thinking about this, I realised that when I force my children to do things, it’s the opposite of what Chua did (apart from household chores). Ever since my kids learned to use a phone, I’ve made them call a playmate at 10 am on Saturdays and Sundays, to keep them from hanging around alone at home and being bored or watching daytime TV. This has ensured that they are experienced phone conversationalists and that they have always been invited to a lot of parties. Amy Chua prohibited play dates.

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Post-Modernist Historiography

Historiography is meta-history, that is, the historical study of historical studies in the past. It is useful and valuable to historical research as ongoing quality control and provides a kind of user’s manuals for those who wish to use old literature in new studies of the past. Also, it can often help explain political ideas, movements and propaganda in the past, as that field in society often attempts to use and manipulate history. I am, however, of the firm opinion that if you are interested in, say, the High Middle Ages, you have no reason to delve into Victorian ideas about that period. You need to hit the Medieval sources. Meta-studies should always be an adjunct to the real thing. If a subject is abstruse, then its meta-subject is of even less interest to humanity at large.

Chinese history and historiography are the themes of the current issue of Kinarapport (2010:4), the quarterly of the Swedish-Chinese Association. Reading it left me annoyed, because some of the historiography here is of the post-modernist kind marked by knowledge relativism. A relativist historiographer will not criticise the historians of yesteryear on points of fact and suggest more well-supported interpretations of the sources. Instead he will pick apart the arguments of earlier generations and simply leave them disassembled, saying more or less explicitly that any attempt to establish objectively true knowledge about the past is futile.

There’s a fatal inconsistency built into relativist historiography. A relativist present-day writer will not allow for a Victorian writer to have found out any objective knowledge about the High Middle Ages. But he will himself unproblematically claim objective knowledge about the Victorian writer’s views and surrounding world. And so he must, because if he were a consistent knowledge relativist he would have no basis for imposing his own views on a reader and expect to be taken seriously. He would on first principles be unable to say “Victorian scholar so-and-so believed this-and-that about the High Middle Ages”.

Perry Johansson’s contribution to Kinarapport titled “A war over sources, interpretations and territory” is an example of this inconsistent attitude. Already in the third paragraph we run into a couple of revealing scare quotes (and I translate):

Wars are fought over territory, wealth and legitimacy. A central issue in establishing legitimacy is the control over culture and memory. That is why we find among the casualties of war historical remains, symbols, archives, libraries art and also “the truth”.

And he goes on, having name-dropped Edward Said, in a fine 90s “post-colonial” tradition:

The importance of sources to historians is usually described only in heuristic terms with source criticism as the mainstay of scientific objectivist historical research. But since the modern Western humanities arise at the same time as imperialism, it is difficult not to seek a connection to it. What role did racist imperialism play in the establishment of a modern Chinese historical discipline?

Actually, for someone who is primarily interested in pre-Opium War Chinese history, like me, it is not difficult at all to avoid seeking the academic connections with later Western imperialism that interest Johansson. And looking at those earlier millennia, I’m interested in history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist. Let’s find out what actually happened, in China just as everywhere else. That’s the job of an historian. “Scientific objectivist” history is the only kind I recognise as legitimate scholarship. And the funny thing is that Johansson shares this attitude – but only in regard to the birth of modern research into Chinese history. He makes truth claims about events in the early 20th century. The fact that some of the claims are historiographical in content does not place them outside the relativist loop.

Here are a few confident factual statements of Perry Johansson’s from the second page of the article.

“In the inter-war years, Western sinologists and orientalists searched China for source materials and new discoveries.”

“This article presents some concrete facts regarding the development of an historical praxis among a small number of Chinese historians. … [They] fully understood the link between history and the nation, and they saw how Westerners and Japanese began to investigate China’s history and origins, and noted their desire for Chinese antiquities to bring home to their museums.”

“In China, Western archaeology and collecting reached new heights after the fall of the empire and the subsequent three decades of civil and anti-imperialist war.”

Here, Perry Johansson happily tells us about things that happened decades before he was born and at the other end of the continent we inhabit. But he is not willing to grant scholars of that era the same ability to find out objectively about the past. And truth is a word he places in scare quotes.

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Continued Afro-Chinese History Manipulation

In the early 15th century, Imperial Chinese mariners under the eunuch admiral Zheng He made great voyages of discovery in enormous ships. Then the Hongxi Emperor decided that what they had found on far shores was underwhelming, the whole fleet was scuppered and the Chinese paid no further attention to seafaring. In 2007 I discussed a silly story about alleged descendants of Zheng He’s non-eunuch crew in Kenya who had suddenly remembered their Chinese heritage, which was convenient since the Chinese were interested in local mining rights.

Now the Guardian has news about the Kenya – Zheng He – China connection, relayed to me by Aard’s Chinese reporter who happens to share my bed and board. A well-funded group of Chinese maritime archaeologists plans to spend three years searching for the wreck of one of Zheng He’s ships off the Kenyan coast. According to the newspaper, the impetus of the project is “Kenyan lore” about a shipwreck taking place in the 1400s. If so, then I am very sorry for my Chinese colleagues. They have a “likely shipwreck site”, but no actual shipwreck yet.

I hope the project does find a 15th century Chinese shipwreck. But if they do, then this will in no way validate the suddenly remembered folklore. It’s a ridiculous product of current Afro-Chinese economic relations, and I’m sure no well-educated Kenyan or Chinese archaeologist believes one word of it.

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Pray and Get Rich


Being an atheist and a rationalist, I find most religious beliefs quite silly. But religious people vary hugely in their behaviour, and many do excellent deeds. Generally, I find it easier to respect the believer who lives by the core tenets of his faith, as all major religions have pretty reasonable ethical groundwork. Christian charity, for instance, is a fine thing.

On the other hand, I find idolatry and religious egoism particularly risible. And at a Chinese restaurant where I have been a regular for nearly 20 years there is a lovely example of both, as shown above.

Chinese Buddhism is a mess. It is a barely recognisable caricature of the original ideas. In China, religious worship is basically about praying to statues for stuff. And so we find this happy rotund Buddha holding a big honking GOLD COIN aloft to entice the supplicant with his incense sticks. “Pray and get rich!” Just like those sad, sad deluded people who fill midwestern megachurches in the US to hear the Prosperity Gospel.

Tripartite Names in Denmark and China

Danes often have tripartite names, like famous Roman Iron Age scholar Ulla Lund Hansen or NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. And I’ve been wondering how these names are inherited. Specifically, which names get dropped and which ones get passed on to the kids. So I wrote my erudite buddy, osteologist Helene Agerskov Madsen, and asked her to explain.

I learned that the system is not very old (~100 yrs?) and has already started to fall apart. But in its idealised form here’s how it works. The middle name tracks a matrilineage and the last name a patrilineage. When a child is born it inherits its mother’s middle name and its father’s last name. When a woman marries, she keeps her middle name and takes her hubby’s last name. So if the aforementioned Ulla and Anders married, she would change to Ulla Lund Rasmussen, and any children would be named likewise. Yes, Danish children will ideally share both middle and last name with mom and only their last name with dad. His middle name comes down to him from his maternal grandmothers.

Then there are niceties to the system. For instance, double patronymics are avoided, so you won’t see anybody named Svend Nielsen Jensen. And lately it has become common among women to drop the middle name at marriage and instead join their own last name and their hubby’s with a hyphen, e.g. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the leader of the Danish Social Democrats.

Through my rather intimate Chinese contacts, I’ve learned about another tripartite naming system. Most Chinese have names consisting of three ideograms / syllables: “Mao Ze Dong”. Ideally, the first is the name of the patrilineage, the second is shared within a generation of that lineage, and the third identifies the individual. All first cousins on the male line are thus supposed to have the same first two ideograms. My wife and her three sibs for instance share “Cycle” and “Space”. But in the following generation, the system has been applied patchily, so that our daughter only shares her second ideogram (“Family”) with a few of her cousins. Of course, traditionally her name wouldn’t be expected to fit the Chinese system at all since her mother married out into an illiterate Swedish patrilineage.

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Wikipedia Cracks Down On Cult Propagandists

One of my pastimes is writing on Wikipedia. It’s almost unavoidable since I use the encyclopedia daily and keep running into stuff to correct — facts, spelling, stylistic mishaps. In the past, though, I’ve been really discouraged when trying to improve the articles about Falun Gong (a.k.a. Chinese Scientology). They used to be a battleground between Chinese Communist Party loyalists and Falun Gong devotees, both sides trying to cram as much propaganda into the articles as possible. Then the FGers managed to get the CCP guys banned from editing, which was excellent in itself. Unfortunately it led to a prolonged situation where the articles were entirely taken over by cult propagandists, some of whom checked the articles five times a day. And then I got involved. As it turned out, I could do very little on my own.

But back in May, English Wikipedia barred all users on servers belonging to the Church of Scientology from editing the encyclopedia, and two dozen individual user accounts on Wikipedia were zapped too because they had been used extensively to push the Scientology agenda. The crackdown took a lot of work since these decisions aren’t made lightly: you need to document in detail why somebody needs to get kicked out. And now a similar clean-up effort has reached the Falun Gong pages. A swarm of experienced Wikipedians with no pro-FG or pro-CCP agenda has descended on them. Yesterday the nastiest of the FGers (a fellow Scandy, no less) was banned for six months from touching any of the FG articles. And the delicious irony is that this is the very same guy who got the CCP propagandists thrown out!

The reason behind all this clean-up is of course that if a person looks up an organisation on Wikipedia, then the article will be pretty useless if it’s written by people with any sort of passionate relationship to that organisation. If they hate it, if they love it, they’re not the right people to write about it. Myself, I dislike both FG and CCP since I see them as a crazy cult and a totalitarian regime respectively, but I can’t say that I have any strong feelings about either. I just want those articles to be fair, well-sourced and factually correct.

I must admit that I am kind of passionate, though, about those FG propagandists on Wikipedia who kept erasing everything I wrote. So the ongoing change is a double pleasure for me: a set of much-read Wikipedia articles will finally become worth reading, and the doublespeaking cultists I’ve had to deal with get their just deserts.

But on Wikipedia, vigilance must be eternal, because one day new propagandists will appear. They’ll start small just to see if anybody’s paying attention…

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Happy Chinese New Year

i-b8358a1cbc1d0511f19ab220b8f46af1-chinese new year.gif

Happy Chinese New Year, everybody! Today is the first day of the year of the Ox according to the farmers’ calendar.

The Rundkvist family is heavily secularised, to the extent that I have let slip almost all Western observances and have very vague ideas about the Chinese ones. So, to learn what this day is traditionally about, I turn as always to Wikipedia, and learn that I should:

  • Welcome the deities of the heavens and earth.
  • Not eat meat.
  • Not cook.
  • Visit the most senior members of my extended family.
  • Hire a lion dance troupe.
  • Give money to my kids.
  • Set off fire crackers.

Of these activities and abstentions, I find only the visit to family, the lion dance troupe and the fire crackers attractive. Sadly, I have no crackers and I can’t afford hiring dancers. But it so happens that I am spending the day at the house of the most senior member of my patrilineage, viz. my dad. So apparently I’m celebrating!

Never Say Please To Mother

My lovely Chinese wife came to Sweden with her family at age seven and grew up here. This has given her an unusual level of bicultural competence. I like to quip, lewdly, that she’s a dual boot machine with two operating systems and the most awesome hardware, man. She’s like this typical bright Swedish middle-class chick who somehow happens to know everything about China and looks like an Imperial princess.

So I can’t really say that we have grappled with and overcome our cultural differences. She pretty much does that for me on her own. But there are some details where our different upbringings do show. Having read Vinlusen’s recent blog entry, my wife encouraged me to write a few words about manners in the home.

An American acquaintance with a Chinese wife once complained to us, “I really wish she would quit ordering me around”. That made me laugh. What this is really about is that the Chinese don’t use polite figures of speech with their families. Indeed, they may be offended by them as such phrases mark an unwanted distance. You don’t say “Please pass me the salt” to your mom, you say “Pass the salt”. My wife does that all the time with me, straight imperatives, and I often complete the sentence for her with a joke to soften the impact of what I can’t help but perceive as rudeness. She’ll say “Pass the salt” and I’ll pass it, replying “…or I will cut your balls off”. Then we’ll laugh.

My wife once made the mistake of translating a Swedish figure of polite speech when talking to her mom in Chinese. She said, “Could you pass me the salt?” (OK, maybe it wasn’t the salt that one time.) Her mother reacted really badly, as the connotations of such a question in Chinese, when directed at your mom, is basically “Tell me, are you at all capable of passing me the salt, or are you an invalid?”.

In the kitchen, my wife really doesn’t like it when I apologise for pushing her to the side when I need to get something out of the sauce pan cupboard. The correct way to do this in the intimacy of a Chinese family situation is to shove her gently out of the way without as much as a grunt. Apologising puts her on the level of a cleaning lady.

But she tries to remember my Swedish manners, and usually she gets it right. She knows I really need to hear please, thanks and sorry sometimes or I’ll feel mistreated. But every now and then she gets it backwards to comic effect. Once she tried a half-remembered “Would you be so good as to pass me the salt?”. It came out as “You may pass me the salt…” Then she hesitated, clearly feeling that she’d dropped some part of the phrase. So she finished it, ” … if you’re good”.

Update 26 january: And a shoutout to Miss Cellania at Mental Floss and Neatorama with thanks for the links!