Today we’ll talk about “Programming”.
I don’t mean what they do in companies like Google or Microsoft, but of what is done to reach a certain objective, to seek a better future or simply to simplify (perhaps) their lives.
Programming past and future
The title of this article is simple: “The importance of programming in Chinese culture”.
In Italy and perhaps in the West in general we have a barely marked relationship with these concepts, since over-planning things is not looked upon favorably.
They say we should just live in the moment and not think too much about the past or the future.
What they don’t tell us is that the present doesn’t exist because it’s too fleeting, because the past instantly becomes the future, leaving us with the sensation of being able to control our lives while instead we’re victims of the past and the future.
This is something the Chinese have subconsciously understood.
Besides, the Tao symbol also indicates this: something that through a whirlwind movement transforms into something else, without a continuity solution.
One of the differences between Western thought and Eastern thought is discernible also in this concept: the West lives history as an eternal betterment, an eternal effort to improve as much as possible.
Many times also abandoning or ignoring the past to concentrate on the future, whatever it may be.
The East sees things in a different way, for a Chinese person it is all part of a single thing, an eternal cycle of transformation that alternates between prosperous and difficult moments.
It is an eternal breath that includes cycles of inhalation and exhalation and an eternal balancing between opposites.
Junichiro Tanizaki, in his “Shadow book”, explains that the West eliminates one of the two extremes and constantly lives in the search for light; passing from fire, to candles, to oil lanterns, to electricity.
The East instead accepts both light and shadow and even in modern times still use lanterns because they create the effect of light/shadow that well represents their culture.
But in the moment in which all transforms and our past becomes our future, what can we do to have a minimal semblance of control?
The answer is simple: “Program”.
What does “programming” mean, in a culture like Chinese?
But what do we mean by the term program?
It is an undeniable fact that we live in a time in which quick and instantaneous gratification has become the master, in which the efforts and long term undertakings are put aside to concentrate on momentary quick and fleeting happiness.
Think about how many keep track of the number of likes on a Facebook photo, or the number of subscriptions to their Youtube channel.
We’ve perhaps put aside the importance of working day after day to reach a long-term objective and at the same time we deride and denigrate those who strive day after day to reach a goal.
I’m not saying that this concept that pervades the world by now is lost on the Ayi or Chinese farmer, I say instead that in China there are still those who work day after day to reach their objectives.
China is a country that has “programming” inherent in its DNA.
It is a land where every five years styles a “Five Year Plan” to determine their economic objectives, but it is especially the land that has produced the treaty “The Art of War” (Sūnzǐ Bīngfǎ, 孫子兵法).
The Art of War is one of the oldest military treatises in history. It is composed of thirteen chapters that cover various aspects of war but also have applications in other aspects of life, such as the economy, conducting business, running a firm, etc.
One of the key points of this treatise consists in the concept of programming, or the necessity and capacity to attentively prepare every aspect and detail of any encounter.
Once everything, including the unforeseen, has been analyzed and programmed, then winning the encounter becomes obvious and certain.
In the West, there’s the existence of hero figures, those who through an unexpected gesture reverse the situation, putting things in their favor.
There is nothing programmed in all this. The hero simply, thanks to cleverness (Ulysses) or strength (Achilles), manages to reverse the situation and win the battle or war.
In Western films you often see a character that from one day to another, on a whim, leaves their job and goes to live in an exotic place like Hawaii or the like.
Even the Chinese who have decided to change their life and leave to go abroad (twenty or thirty years ago), did so planning well for eventual objectives.
For example, starting one’s own business after two years, bringing over family members within four years, buying a house after six, and so on.
And every objective is pursued with dedication and constancy.
Programming and preparing something thereby becomes much more important in the life of the Chinese that want or must reach their objectives through prolonged effort.
And who are these hard-working people? They’re students, that’s who they are.
Students in the People’s Republic of China are a group of people who since youth have been focused on an objective and work at it, at times against their will, to reach it.
We can identify at least two important objectives:
- Learning the Chinese language (every country, really, have to teach their children);
- Passing the test for getting into Chinese universities (the infamous Gaokao, 高考).
These two objectives can be grouped together into a heading called “Instruction”.
The importance of instruction
Learning Chinese is very difficult, imagine how it is for a child that’s four or five years old. Since it’s very complicated to learn, Chinese children are forced to begin studying it from a most tender age.
From the beginning of preschool they start reading and writing Chinese and by the end of it and at the beginning of elementary school they have to know at least 3000 characters.
To frame the level they reach, we can say that 3000 characters are the number of characters that the average foreigner manages to read (and not to write) after three years of non full-time study and a good starting point to try to pass the fifth level HSK exam.
For a Chinese child it is important to begin early, both due to the intrinsic difficulty of the language and for the fact that there is so much competition.
We know that there are a lot of Chinese and we know that the kindergartens and schools teem with students who at the beginning have more or less the same abilities, capabilities and intellectual faculties.
The important thing then becomes to be better than the others, to emerge from the pack so as to have more opportunities once they get older. To open the greatest amount of paths once they become adults.
It’s also for this reason that from childhood, and thanks to their parents’ greater economic opportunities, they are enrolled in courses for calligraphy, piano, dance, etc.
Imagine how much stress a child of six or seven years must feel, taking lessons until late, returning home and having to go to piano lessons two days a week, to calligraphy lessons another two days during the week, has to make up his math on the remaining days and finally at night has to practice writing Chinese characters until late.
Because Chinese is sadly not a language that you can learn to read and write from one day to another, there’s no alphabet to arrange to form syllables and words.
You have to learn everything by memory.
You also have to admit that all this requires much dedication and sacrifice.
But what’s the point of all this? OK to learn the language, but what’s the point of learning math or physics well?
It is well know that from an early age, Chinese children are frightened and warned of a particular event that, whether they like it or not, they’ll have to face during the last year of high school: the greatly-feared 普通高等学校招生全国统一考试 ,or, simply put, Gaokao (高考).
The Gaokao is a national test that students in the last year of high school are obligated to pass and determines which national university they can enroll in after graduation.
This is an exam instituted in 1952 which is normally administered over the course of two days. At the end of the test a national ranking is compiled on the basis of their scores and through such ranking, in the event of a sufficiently high score, enrolled themselves in a pre-selected university.
Since China is a country under full development and since many parents and grandparents of the young students have found themselves going from farmers to workers in some firm from one day to the next, it’s pointless to specify that the road to college is seen as the main way to guarantee their child or grandchild a life of peace and success.
In the West we have accepted that college isn’t always synonymous with a guaranteed future.
In China however, considering the enormous number of work possibilities, to graduate is seen in a decidedly more positive ways.
Especially because it means to have had to face a certain path of long-term objectives and sacrifices.
It is the dream of of having a reach and peaceful future that brings young students, supported by their parents, to work hard day after day.
Conscious of this, even the schools are arranged in a way to “prepare” kids for the most important exam of their life.
Studying material such as mathematics, English or learning Chinese characters from a young age; they attend afternoon review, reinforcement, or make-up sessions; attend extra-curricular scholastic activities that give them bonus points during Gaokao.
The last year of high school, for example, is totally dedicated to the review and preparation for the test.
The Gaokao is so important that, during the days that it’s held, roadwork in the areas where the test is taking place stops, traffic is detoured and the use of horns is forbidden in the immediate neighborhoods (you should know that the Chinese like using their horns, yet while the Gaokao is going on they magically stop using them.
Crowds of parents take vacations from work so as to accompany their son or daughter to the testing site. Parents wait in expectation in front of the testing places the entire time. The national news give interviews and services around the most important testing centers.
It is truly the most important test of their life, one that will decide their future.
To face stress of that sort you need to prepare for years, step by step, effort for effort.
In the West and in the rest of the world we don’t have anything that can compare in any way.
Obviously there are many critical points in this system but this isn’t the right time to talk about it.
Are there other feasible routes?
I’d like to conclude with a few alternative roads that have developed in recent years.
Let’s start off by saying that the Gaokao route is taken by the majority of the young Chinese population, but in recent years, with the improvement in quality of life for many families, a new road has emerged.
This route is perhaps less stressful, but requires the same enormous effort and planning.
The Gaokao only allows access to state universities, so the highest a student can strive for would be Tsinghua University, Beijing University, etc.
These universities, although the best by Chinese standards, they’re a step below some of the best universities in the world (Harvard, Yale, MIT, etc).
The “plan” is rather simple.
A rich or medium-rich family can have their child attend elementary and middle school in China, have them learn subjects like math and physics, and have them learn the sort of willing attitude toward study.
This is because despite the hard work, superficial Chinese scholastic system is very good on a worldwide level.
Upon finishing middle school, the family buys a house (we spoke of rich families) in a foreign country (such as the united States) and enroll their child in a local high school.
At this point the Chinese child will be far ahead of his classmates in science but will have to bridge the gap using his Chinese mindset toward study any deficiencies in the English language.
Once done with high school they can enroll in a prestigious university such as Harvard or MIT.
Obviously this is a route purely designed for a youth that is always under pressure, but it will be much less pressure than it would be to pass the Gaokao.
Moreover the parents or at least one of the two will have to move to the new country to follow the child.
In every case, each route will be pondered over and evaluated well before taking it.
All will be prepared and programmed well in advance.
It’s perhaps a way to control events.
It is the past that becomes the future.
It is the continual transforming of things.
It is the eternal flow of events.
[Photo Credits (Creative Commons License): www.flickr.com/photos/beryl_snw/]