05 Feb


In James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon, a group of westerners stumble upon the city of Shangri-La, an ideal society – at least moderately so. Hilton's magical Shangri-La is thought to be inspired by both the myth of Shambhala and the contemporary work of a National Geographic field reporter in western China in the 1920's and 30's. People have been looking for Shambhala for a while now. Buddhists, Theosophists, warlords, and even Nazi occultists sought the mythical kingdom in vain. Despite it being entirely fictional, people still go looking for Shangri-La, too. Several years ago, the government of Zhongdian, Yunnan (adjacent to Tibet) decided to cash in on the story and renamed their whole county, thereby making finding Shangri-La a no-brainer. Hilton's Shangri-La may have had a grand piano and bathtubs from Cleveland, but the ultra-frou-frou Banyan Tree Hotel and Resort in Ringha has a mini-bar. This hyper-politicized travel dreck from last summer's Guardian has an interesting take on the effect of tourism on the area.
But Lijiang and its Disneyfied presentation of Old China offers, possibly, a glimpse of Shangri-La's fate. Among the stalls selling cured yak meatballs and deep-fried chicken's claws, visitors can be spotted clutching KFC family buckets. An Oasis track can be heard blaring from an unseen alley.
Which reminds me of this great post over at Ape Rifle, which I never would have seen if it weren't for its resurrection on the Hao Hao Report. Thank you Hao Hao Report. The Dali Llama ;) recently weighed in on the effect of the new rail service linking eastern China to Tibet. He's not happy.
“Beggars, handicapped people are coming. Their number is huge. Also jobless people facing difficulty in Chinese mainland are coming”... The DL said Beijing was forcing poor villagers to relocate to T'bet and was also sending uneducated young girls from the countryside to be “inducted as prostitutes.”...They say it will only increase Chinese migration, dilute Tibetan culture and militarise the region.
He goes on to claim the railroad will spread AIDS and destroy the environment. I'm hella disappointed in him. The notion that a Shangri-La can survive only as long as its existence remains a secret isn't new. All sorts of people believe that their culture can only continue if unexposed to foreign influence, but we have plenty of names for that kind of small-mindedness. Besides, if there is one belief system that'll survive, it's that one. It's already happened once. The 13th century saw the rise of the greatest conqueror in the history of the world. Having engineered the perfect weapon of war, the Mongolian horse, Genghis Khan and his son Ogodei rode the Mongol hordes like a freight train over Asia and eastern Europe. Upon encountering a new territory, the Mongolians would issue an ultimatum: if you surrender, we'll only kill some of your strongest men, but resist us and we'll kill you all. However, when it came to administration of conquered territories, the Mongolians were quite permissive and allowed people to go on worshipping how they would. Especially in T'bet. As a matter of fact, the Mongolians were so affected by the T'betans' peculiar flavor of Buddhism that many converted. Genghis's grandson Kublai even took a monk as his personal advisor. The monk, named 'Phags-pa, so impressed Kublai that Kublai eventually put him in charge of the government of T'bet – thereby establishing the theocracy that tDL claims inheritance of. Things change. There's no need to fret. Besides, I'd be a lot more worried about places like Banyan Tree Resort than handicapped prostitutes, if I were him. I've been doing a lot of thinking about xenophobia recently. At least, as it applies to language. Check out this billboard in downtown Qingdao.


I'm pretty sure my fifth grade English teacher would get offended by this, but it is an interesting case. Most instances of incorrect English I see in China are due to innocent mistranslation or blissful ignorance. Not this one. Haagen-Dazs knows exactly what they're doing. Notice that the company hasn't put the billboard in Chinese, as one would expect them to have done, what with this being China and all. And the fact that Haagen-Dazs is an international company owned by Pillsbury means that the ad was probably made for and used in another English-speaking market (one assumes in a grammatically correct form). That means some marketing genius intentionally flubbed the copy. Should we, as keepers of the language, be offended? I don't think so. The consumers get the message. The language has served its purpose. When I get a batch of new students, usually they're averse to working in pairs. Some have explained that they want practice with a native speaker, and many think that practicing with other non-native speakers is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, reinforcement of all of their own worst habits. To combat that perception, I parry with the most commonly asked question ESL teachers encounter. “What's the best way to learn to speak English?” I ask. I get the routine answers: practice, talk, speak, listen to tapes, watch English movies, listen to boy bands. At every one, I shake my head. When they give up, I tell them that the best way to learn English is to be born in an English speaking country. {MOANS}. I then point out that China is an English speaking country, as more people, due to its immense population, speak English here than most countries on the planet in which English is the official language. Language, culture – nothing is static. There is no Shangri-La. 1.3 billion people are about to change the language. I, for one, welcome the change. Bring on the new. Always like first time.


  1. 1
    February 6, 2007 at 1:05 am

    A front page headline on today’s Wall Street Journal proclaims “Tired of Laughter, Beijing Gets Rid of Bad Translations.” The story, nestled between “How War’s Expense Didn’t Strain Economy” and “Bush sends a $2.9 trillion spending request to Congress today,” bemoans the loss of “the loopy English translations that appear on the nations signs.” “Fans of the genre are mourning the end of an era.”

  2. 2 February 11, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    Which reminds me of this great post over at Ape Rifle, which I never would have seen if it weren’t for its resurrection on the Hao Hao Report. Thank you Hao Hao Report.

    No problem ;-)

  3. 3 February 26, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    It’s all about the money. It’s always about the money.

    English won’t change that much — a new dialect will form instead. Which one do you want to be speaking?

  4. 4 March 2, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    Welcome, Wesley. I hope you enjoy the site.

    I’m not sure what “it” is (cue Faith No More lyric), but I usually shy away from that particular mantra. It’s used by very rich men to get relatively poor (but aspiringly rich) men to do whatever the former want. Bad mojo.

    As far as a new dialect forming, I agree completely. But I wouldn’t say “instead”. I think of all of those dialects as English. As to which I want to be speaking – whichever one gets me the ice cream.

    Hmmm. It’s all about the ice cream…

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