China Rising
By Abdul Turay
Published Postimees 6 June 2011

Here is a random list of things that came into my head:

Wong Fei-Hung, Tsui Hark, Gong Li, Shao Lin, Leon Lai Ming, Stephen Chow Sing Chi, Wang Fei, Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai Shek (also known as Jiang Zhong Zheng), Fa jia, Si ren bang, Han Fei, Shen, Dao, Fu Jian, Bo Yang, Guo Min Dang, Aaron Kwok Fu Shing, Nan Jing, Cui Jian, Tang Chao, Andy Lau De Hua.

To most people here, the above is just a list of sounds. If I were to put together a list of the Western counterparts you would know precisely whom or what I was talking about.

Wong Fei Hung is the Cantonese equivalent of Robin Hood. Nan Jing is a big city, a former capital.

Somebody asked me once knowing that I had once lived in China what the Chinese and Estonian share common. The answer is the Chinese and Estonians share... ignorance,they have a limited knowledge of each others culture.

In April the IMF published figures that predict that China will replace the United States as the world’s largest economy in PPP terms as early as 2016. They later backtracked a little but you get the point. China will be number one sooner or later.

In May, the Chinese announced they are putting forward plans to launch a television channel in Estonian. The Chinese are spreading their influence to Estonia.

The Chinese themselves laugh at the notion that about to take over the World.

“The notion that China wants to replace the United States and dominate the World is myth,” Chinese Foreign ministry Dai Bingguo China’s State Councillor told the press last year.

But the facts are that China’s global influence is increasing and is going to increase whether they like it or not.

Estonians understands that in order to survive and prosper as a nation they need to understand China. Estonians are aware of the challenge, but I doubt many realise just how gigantic the task is. You certainly can’t sum China up in one opinion piece. I won’t attempt to do this, nor will I attempt an analysis of China’s foreign policy ambitions in this article. Geopolitics is a complex area, especially when dealing with China and there are enough pretend experts in the field already.

What I can do is give an idea of just how big the concept of China is.

I ended up in China by accident rather than design. When I was 23, just out of University, I decided to put some distance between myself and my family. One day I quit my job and flew to the other side of the world.

I arrived in big industrial city called Kaoshiung in the Republic of China, Taiwan, with no money and no job. I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anybody and didn’t look like anybody else. I planned to stay only a few weeks, I ended up staying for five years.

I spent my first night underneath a palm tree. I woke up to find myself surrounded by an army of old people dancing around me very slowly in perfect synchronicity. They were doing Tai-chi, which is sort of like a cross between martial arts and yoga and is very popular with the elderly.

Years later I was working as a reporter on a national paper in Hong Kong, I was married to Chinese girl, I was speaking Mandarin Chinese.

Yet after all this time, I still would not call myself an expert on China. As an old flame who now works as a China correspondent for the Washington Post once said to me.

“Nobody is an expert on China, not even the Chinese are experts on China.”

The trouble is China is just simply too big for anybody to comprehend. China is not just a country in the same sense that Estonia or America is a country, China is a civilisation.

It is as though the whole of Europe, North and South America, Australia and South Africa were one country. China is actually many different peoples speaking different languages and practising different philosophies.

Just looking at the words “China” and “Chinese language” in the Chinese language gives us an idea of the scale of it.

The Chinese word for China translates into Estonian as kesk-riik (The Centre Country), the sense of it is the centre of the World. The Chinese not only believed that their country was at the centre of the World but that most of the World was Chinese. They weren’t far wrong, at the beginning of the 20th Century about half the World’s population were Chinese.

The Chinese world for the Chinese language translates into Estonian as tavakeel (The common language, usual language) the sense being this is the common language that everybody should speak.
The common language serves the same function that English does in Europe. There are other types of Chinese languages, Shanghai, Fuijian, Hakka, Cantonese; they’re called dialects but actually they are as different from each other as Finnish is from Estonian, some more so.

The political authorities require everybody to learn the common language in the People’s Republic of China in the island of Taiwan and in Hong Kong, but in reality large numbers of the population speak a different language at home.

I have known people show up in Taiwan thinking they speak the language and then find out not only do they not understand what people are saying but they were irritating people by speaking the “Beijing dialect” as some Taiwanese call it. Imagine some one showing up in Tallinn and then speaking to everybody in Russian.

Then there are the ethnic minorities, who have totally different languages, cultures and religions to the main ethnic groups the Han Chinese. Examples of ethnic minorities are the Manchurians who actually conquered China a few centuries ago and founded the Qing dynasty, the last imperial dynasty, though there are very few people left who speak Manchurian. There are even ethnic minorities who are Turkic, they don’t look Chinese to you or me, they look Turkish, but as far as the Chinese government is concerned they live in China, they speak Chinese, they are Chinese.

There’s an old saying in English that the Chinese are inscrutable. This is nonsense. People are the same everywhere. People are the same in ways that are surprising. In China some young ladies would react to me with terror. Some were scared even to shake my hand.
Their attitude was: “Stay away from me you’re strange, you’re foreign, stay away.”

I used to feel bad about it until I went to Africa for the first time and found out that the young ladies there were behaving in exactly the same manner, even though I looked like them.

Then I realised it doesn’t matter what you look like, young women in conservative patriarchal societies are just afraid of foreign men.

By the way, Estonian young women never behave like that.

There are some things that Estonians and Chinese have in common. Both Estonians and Chinese share a strong patriotism, Chinese are very nationalistic. Sun Yat Sen is the Chinese equivalent of Lennart Meri, respected even in the communist People's Republic. Both peoples are close to the land. Both have a strong work ethic. Chinese culture is conservative and traditional.

If people don’t understand Estonia because it’s too small, then people don’t understand China because it’s too big. The Chinese, or at least the government of the People'sRepublic, has been accused of bullying, authoritarianism, human rights abuse, imperialism and military aggression.

Whenever I read some expert attack China’s human rights record or foreign policy, I always wonder how much time this person has actually spent in China. The people who I know who have spent some considerable time in China and have learned China’s history and culture tend to be a bit more philosophical. Without saying too much about Chinese foreign policy here, I will say there is a Chinese way of doing things.


But this still leavess the central question that I posed at the beginning of this article. How can Estonians find out more about China?

How is an Estonian company which wants to do business in China able to do it, if they don’t know the first thing about Chinese culture? Chinese like Estonians value business partners who take an interest in their culture.

There are opportunities to learn about Chinese culture in Estonia at Tallinn University. Estonia also has a small Chinese community. But if you are not ready to go back into formal education opportunities are a bit thin on the ground.

Most young Estonians exist in a cultural space that looks to the West. “In running toward the West”, away from Russia, decision makers have forgotten that China is also in the East, not to mention the rest of Asia.

Now we have a situation were it is virtually impossible to learn that much about Chinese culture, history, language in Estonia unless you really put your mind to it. I had to go to London to get my fix of the latest movies from Hong Kong. That’s why this initiative from Chinese broadcasters is so welcome, but it is a small gesture. When the average Estonian businessman knows who Andy Lau is, then progress is
being made.