59 - Looking Both Ways

                              shang    qián  
                              |     /
                              |   /
     zuǒ __________| /__________ yòu
                            /|
                          /   |
                huò  /     |    xià.   

Being sometimes a little slow, it was only this week that I learned the words for position and put them together. Shang and Xià are up & down but also on & off transport, zuǒ and yòu are left and right, but people marching shout yī, èr as in One, Two—which makes a troop marching sound like a donkey. Which in turn means that an American hears democrats¹, I discovered also this week.  I can see the sense in avoiding the longer second and third tones.

Qián and huò are ahead and behind.

So what?  Big deal?

Ah. Put this with my confusion as to why on earth Chinese people insist on running backwards. Oh, yes they do. Sitting in a coffee shop and watching a stall-keeper filling an odd moment with a little exercise, I saw the lady trotting to and fro in front of her kiosk, always backwards. On the track—where I run less and less often from the frustration created by obstructive, mindless idiots with no sense of track etiquette—there is always someone ‘running’ on the track backwards. This is different from the nitwit who insists on going the wrong way, clockwise. A common sight on the streets, more so in the early morning, is someone proceeding at a casual pace—backwards—with just the occasional (and insufficient) glance over a shoulder to see where they are going. Given the state of the pavements, I think this a mad idea, but what do I know?

When I ask what it is that induces Chinese to choose to pace or jog in this wayand the slower versions will include vigorous clapping that keeps the whole arm straight, which has the added advantage of the leper’s bell—I am told that “it uses more muscles”, that it “is traditional” and that “it is good for you”. Numerically, it may use more muscles: I cannot believe it is better for your health than the motion we were built for and it certainly is not, by my lights, aerobic exercise. But then I don’t walk along the street hitting my backside with a fist either, and I often see (elderly) ladies who do just that. British comedians would wet themselves in anticipation of using this, (“does my bum look big...”) if they could do it without appearing racist; Chinese see this as entirely normal. But then, it IS entirely normal and a provably common sight.

Other recent language learning has been exploring descriptions for time.  The word tiān means sky, weather, day, God, heaven and nature. Doubled,  tiāntiān, is ‘everyday’. The yesterdaytodaytomorrow series is zuótiān, jīntiān, míngtiān. Note that yesterday is zuó (2nd tone) and that right is zuǒ, third tone. This is a pity. If ‘yesterday’ must use the same letters in pinyin as ‘left’, I’d like tomorrow to be right-day, or yǒutiān. Which, it turns out, has no meaning I can find. I read from left to right, so left-day makes some sense in trying to remember it.

However, adding a day each end, we get:
qiántiān,  zuótiān,  jīntiān,  míngtiān,  hòutiān.

So the day before yesterday is a day in front of you, qián, and the day after tomorrow is a day behind you, huò.

Now, this makes sense to a Chinese, but not to most westerners. The local thinking is that from where we are metaphorically standing, our past is visible to us, so it is in front. Conversely, the future is unknown, so it is out of sight and must be behind us. 

This looking forwards at history goes a long way to explaining the veneration of ancestors (that of which I hear about but see little evidence, see comments on walls and old buildings in other essays, including Ancestor Worship).

Having the future out of sight explains why I keep banging my head against a wall of incomprehension when I want some planning to occur: everything in the future is already labelled unseen and unknowable.

My mistaken ‘left-day’ for yesterday now makes less sense. My assumption on reading direction is further confused by top-bottom conventions in written Chinese (does it let the ink dry better? No left-handers, remember).

It may also explain the need to go running backwards in a sort of twisted application of logic that says if I face the way I have been I must actually be going forwards …
... it may explain the local (ZhaoQing) fascination with rowing, where most of the participants face backwards…
... but I don’t suppose it goes any way towards explaining the appalling driving habits, do you?

Turn this thinking around and look at what the westerner says: he or she looks forwards into the future and reckons that history lies behind them. So everything the westerner ‘sees’ is about progress, planning and what is to come. The easterner points out that the history is knowable and visible at the very same time that the westerner says it is to be ignored “been there, done that”. The westerner doesn’t quite say “history is bunk”² but the west does have a telling habit of ignoring its history. To be fair, I think mankind as a whole has that tendency and historians are encouraged to write to me with the first five occasions of such blindness that occur to them....

Now this is a cultural difference !

DJS 20100108
2015 small edits; still waiting for the first historian...

1   Democrats are donkeys, apparently. I suspect Republicans are elephants. One brays kicks and is stubborn and the other herds, knocks trees over and pulls up grass, roots ‘n all. Isn’t characterisation a minefield? Oh, and both are grey; many shades, by repute.
http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/182100.html

     Henry Ford (1863 - 1947) was the founder of the Ford Motor Company, the father of the assembly line and of mass-production, and one of the wealthiest and most famous people who ever lived. However, history is bunk is probably one of the two things that most of us can recall that he ever said. The other being "People can have the Model T in any colour - so long as it's black".

What he actually said (is recorded as having said) about history was:
"History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today." (Chicago Tribune, 1916).
His gung ho,
don't concern yourself with the past, live in the present – philosophy was also apparent in a couple of other quotations:
"You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do.”
"If you think you can, you can. And if you think you can't, you're right."


Ford's autobiography, My Life and Work, 1922, includes this passage:
In 1909 I announced one morning, without any previous warning, that in the future we were going to build only one model, that the model was going to be "Model T," and that the chassis would be exactly the same for all cars, and I remarked:
"Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”

Ford was being somewhat playful in making that remark. Model Ts were, in fact, offered in a choice of colour early in the car's lifetime around 1908, and again after 1926. The statement was true when Ford's biography was published, in 1922, and when he was cutting costs by using a type of quick-drying paint that was only then available in black.

DJS adds: I cut out some text and I note that the 1909 quoted announcement is after the moment in the Model T history (1908) when other colors (sic) were declared available.

© David Scoins 2017