The future of Chinese language learning

Victor Mair has some compelling thoughts on the Language Log on the future of Chinese language learning, and how we might soon be rid of brute force “rote memorization (sǐbèi/jì 死背/記 [lit., “deadly memorization”]).”

When I began learning Mandarin nearly half a century ago, I knew exactly how I wanted to acquire proficiency in the language.  Nobody had to tell me how to do this; I knew it instinctively.  The main features of my desired regimen would be to:

1. pay little or no attention to memorizing characters (I would have been content with actively mastering 25 or so very high frequency characters and passively recognizing at most a hundred or so high frequency characters during the first year)

2. focus on pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, particles, morphology, syntax, idioms, patterns, constructions, sentence structure, rhythm, prosody, and so forth — real language, not the script

3. read massive amounts of texts in Romanization and, if possible later on (after about half a year when I had the basics of the language nailed down), in character texts that would be phonetically annotated

The problem was that all of my language teachers insisted that I memorize hundreds of characters right from the very start.

How shall we use these marvelous tools, and what are their implications for Chinese language teaching / learning?  I could expatiate on the virtues of these new applications for days, but here I shall merely outline them under several points:

1. they will eliminate the need for the dreaded, boring, antiquated, stifling tīngxiě 听 写 / 聽寫 (“dictation”) exercises

2. they will banish the fear of character amnesia (electronic devices are already writing our characters for us)

3. they will enable students to read massive amounts of quality texts on the widest possible variety of subjects without having to endure the agony and drudgery of looking up characters by radicals, stroke order, shape, etc. — I wasted years of my life on exactly those tasks — and it is precisely the reading of large quantities of real Chinese that facilitates the acquisition of a confident Sprachgefühl for the language in diverse contexts

Read the full article.

Shanzhai Meets Open Source

From Hacked Matter’s feature in the Atlantic:

Take, World Peace Industrial (WPI), a Taiwanese electronic sourcing company located in Shenzhen, as an example. The company’s application technology unit (ATU) spends millions annually to develop reference circuit boards, called gongban 公板 (“public board”). A gongban can be used by a variety of different companies, who either incorporate it in their products directly or build atop it as they please via modifications. ATU develops 130 gongbans annually in areas ranging from smart phones, tablets, smart watches, smart homes, and industrial controls—and distributes the designs for free. WPI then makes money by trading in the boards’ components.

“We call this shanzhai in Shenzhen. It’s a mass production artwork,” explains Lawrence Lin head of the Application Technology Unit at WPI.

Read the full article.

Art Basel Hong Kong: What I Saw

Art Basel Hong Kong ran from May 15-18. Here’s an absolutely subjective take on what I saw when I visited. Apologies for those works I’m unable to credit; it was a hectic Sunday and I didn’t have the time to note down the artist and gallery for every piece that I photographed.

First, the fun stuff.


I spotted a kids tour group where the adults had leashed the kids together in case they got lost.


There were several open areas for large works, often ones that had an element of public engagement. This circular table tennis setup was one of them.

Then, of course, there was a selection of world famous, blue chip art.


Above: Takashi Murakami.


Above: Keith Haring.

Hong Kong artists also made quite a showing, though I have to admit they’re more familiar to me because I’ve seen their works around town.


Above: Adrian Wong. (Wandering baby not part of installation.)


Above: Wilson Shieh.

Even more abundant was art from China.


Above: Liu Wei. It’s hard to see it from the photo but this painting is wall-sized and seems to be hand (not machine) made.


Above: Some sort of calligraphic revival piece from the Hanart TZ booth.


Above: Featuring Shenzhen’s Window of the World theme park. Artist unknown.

Last but not least, a couple of works that caught my eye but I don’t know who or where it’s from.




Coming of age in a culture of information paternalism in China

Editor’s note: this is a summary of some of the ideas that are presented in Tricia’s recent talk the Berkman Center, Talking to Strangers: Chinese Youth and Social Media. The video of the full talk is now online, and we highly recommend watching it in its entirety.

Tricia’s research discusses how Chinese youth are experiencing their coming of age in a culture of information paternalism. That she does not call it censorship is an important distinction, because in China today, the dominant narrative around control is “father knows what’s best for you.” Here, “father” can refer to an actual teen’s parents, relatives, teachers or the Chinese government.

This dense sphere of paternalistic control (on top of the historical-cultural forces at work) drives Chinese teens to seek alternate channels of expression and socialization online:


To effectively escape, Chinese teens experiment with their identity and grow up online by cloaking themselves under pseudonyms and login handles. This type of experimentation, the polar opposite of on and offline real-name social networks, allows youth to develop what Tricia calls an “elastic self.”

One great finding was that Chinese youth had developed an entire chain of rituals to convert an anonymous social interaction into a real life close connection. Interactions begin by finding people on social networks with similar interests or horoscopes. This then turns into casual conversation and e-cards for birthdays. That in turn leads to people sending little physical gifts to each other to verify a physical address. And then people will share their phone number, followed by a photo and then, lastly, a 30-second video conference to ensure the veracity of the photo.

In the same way Chinese youth are finding each other online, they are also discovering more parts of themselves. Tricia structures the phases of the elastic self as 1) exploratory, 2) trusting, and 3) participatory. Only in the last phase do teens become politically active, and not everyone makes it to third phase.

But Tricia is careful to highlight that most people in China are not going online to vent about the government. They are, for the most part, there to hang out and enjoy themselves [which is, frankly, what we all do on the internet around the world].


The talk ends on a high note: the elastic self allows this new, online generation of Chinese youth to become more socially complex, coordinated and independent. And that can only be a good thing for this world.

A sneak peek from China’s new animation-house upstart

From its Youtube page:

“Little Yeyos” is the first short film from Light Chaser Animation, a startup animation studio based in Beijing. Light Chaser was founded in 2013 by Gary Wang, the founder and ex-CEO of, China’s leading video sharing website. Its goal is to produce top quality animated films.

Via @c10n.

Maker City: Hong Kong

Reposted from my personal blog.


Last Sunday, I was invited by the Institute for the Future as part of its Maker Cities program to speak about how makers are working to improve the future of Hong Kong. I was joined by other representatives from all over (New York, Kathmandu, Tel Aviv, Shanghai…)

I’ve included the slides to my presentation below.

Back the new edition of the Kowloon Walled City book!

We posted some of photographer Greg Girard’s photos a while ago, and it looks like they’re ready to jet set a new edition of their book along with previously-unseen photographs and research.

Back out their Kickstarter now.

Join us at Maker Faire Shenzhen in April!


Join us at the upcoming April 6th Maker Faire in Shenzhen!

For starters, Lyn will be speaking there alongside an international cast of researchers, hackers and entrepreneurs. And there are also a series of great workshops, including a course by a “mommy hacker” (pictured above) for kids interested in electronics.

More information at

P.S. Maker Faire Shenzhen is once again co-organized by our friends over at Seeed Studio.

A new blog on “moving images & digital creativity in and around China”

Helmed by our friend Sam Culp, the POV by P.I.G. blog gives us a fascinating look at the worlds of film, digital advertising, and (for lack of a better term) art in China. Below are some highlights from their recent posts.

An interview with Shanghai-based designer Francis Lam, who made an iOS app that lets you make these…

Instagram from @bbfish

Instagram from @bbfish

Vintage soap packaging from the 80s from Douban…


GIFs from RCA student Inkee Wang


Read more at POV by P.I.G.

A new form of sociality among Chinese youth: the Elastic Self

Editor’s note: our very own Tricia Wang will be giving a livestream presentation of her dissertation research this coming Tuesday. Here’s what it’s about.

The sudden availability of social media and open-market capitalism is creating new spaces in China that are shifting norms and behaviors in unexpected ways. This research investigates and explains the phenomena of semi-anonymous interactions among Chinese youth in online communities by introducing a sociological framework called the Elastic Self, which is characterized by the feeling that one’s identity is malleable and involves the trying on of different identities that are beyond the realm of what would be considered normal displays of one’s prescribed self. In informal online spaces, Chinese youth have achieved greater freedom to express heterodox identities without shame or anxiety by forging social bonds with strangers and maintaining distance from people they know, who might seek to enforce conformity to a single identity prescribed by traditional social and political norms.

Through these informal interactions online, Chinese youth are laying the groundwork for a public sphere with social ties based more on friendship than on blood ties or guanxi; on trust, rather than fear; and on self-expression, rather than self-restraint. These changes have potentially transformative power for Chinese society as a whole by altering the way that people perceive and engage with each other on personal and social levels.

Catch her talk at the Berkman Center (live! online!) at February 18, 2014 at 12:30pm ET here.

If you miss that, you can read the abstract and dissertation in full here.