Giant Baby Nation

For many years reading fiction in Chinese after many attempts remained an unreachible peek for me. When you need to look up a word (or two) in every sentence, reading becomes a chore rather than pleasury. Luckily, it seems my self-confidence is going to be saved by non-fiction.

A book called ¨Giant Baby Nation¨ (巨婴国)by Wu Zhi Hong (武志红)can not be called a national bestseller due to the fact that the book, published in the end of 2016, was prohibited in Mainland China in early 2017. However, I was able to obtain an ¨illegal¨ copy thanks to one of my Chinese professors (who told us about this book in the first place), you can also still but it in HK, Macao or Taiwan.

The book that officially doesn´t exist has stirred a lively discussion online: Are Chinese people really giant babies? Does their collective development seize on the infant level? Is this the source of all social problems in China? To know the answers one will have to read the book and either agree or disagree with its author. And here is the best part. I can actually read this book in Chinese! Unlike short-stories and novels in Chinese, ¨Giant Baby Nation¨ doesn´t have complicated adjectives or verb describing a specific movement (my greetins to Mr Lu Xun), the therminology of the book is intuitive and I can enjoy reading a whole paragraph without looking anything up in the dictionary. This can actually be called reading a book.



Is it possible to learn Chinese?

When I was 7 years old my parents sent me to the¨Oriental Gymnasium¨ in Saint-Petersburg, a gymnasium in Russia is a school specializing in humanities. The proud title of an ¨oriental” gymnasium it received because Chinese was taught there. Back then it was the only school in St. Petersburg that taught Chinese.

Years passed. I did well in all my Chinese classes, I even took part in local Chinese language competitions, never getting very far though. I took interest in Chinese culture, I read Chinese authors (in translation), I also read extensively on Chinese mythology and religion.

The first Chinese-speaking country I visited was Taiwan, and I was quiet enchanted. Returning to Russia I started watching Taiwanese dramas and variety shows, listened to Taiwanese pop. Sadly, they all were more or less the same, I soon grew out of them, besides, German demanded my undivided attention. 4 years of no Chinese followed.

Then Shanghai happened. In Shanghai I spent two years, bewildered by how slow my progress was. Yes, I could speak and write in Chinese. But watching a movie without subtitles? Listening to a radio program? Having a conversation with an uneducated local? Hell no. It took me two years to get to this point in German. Ok, maybe two and a half.

Then three more years in Russia with no Chinese. And here I am again – in Shanghai. My level is as good as it has ever been, and it is still only B2. I still struggle when I watch a news segment, I can´t read a short story without a dictionary, I still make mistakes with my tones, leading to confusion, I can´t always understand what is being said to me (in general, I understand characters better than spoken Chinese).

Of course, I have a theory to explain why it has happened. Sometimes I think that there is a conspiracy in Mainland China to prevent foreigners getting an actual fluency in Chinese, however, it didn´t stop some of my classmates. Some. While most have forgetten 100% of our 10-year grade school course.

I am reading Mo Yan in English, struggling through a collection of short stories in Chinese, studying long Chinese articles on politics, economics and culture… And, yet, I can´t help but ask myself every now and then… Is it even possible to learn Chinese?