West meets East

I’ve just come back from around 10 days in China, visiting Nanjing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and have a whole new perspective on this part of the world. I was not able to work Beijing into my trip this time, which was frustrating because I know there is a lot of good science happening there.

What was really different about this trip was that I came away feeling much more of a connection to China. It was great to meet new people and to renew more longstanding scientific contacts – but I also had more time (and, perhaps more importantly, more confidence) to travel between cities, have breakfast in local cafes rather than hotels, and generally get to know each place a little better. Previous trips (this was my fourth) required such a packed schedule that jetlag and the whole novelty of China completely dominated my experience.

Now that I’m sitting down to write about the experience, the first thing I’m inclined to do is draw some analogies with western countries. But analogies only go so far – even when they fit relatively well, they break down in the face of China’s distinct character. I do feel more knowledgeable than I have after previous visit to China, but I fully expect that future visits will reveal further dimensions and
facets to this immense and complex country.

On some level, China reminds me of the US: it’s a huge country with vast distances to travel between locations, and has a tremendously strong sense of a single nation. Everyone I met considered themselves “Chinese”, and there is a strong sense of a binding history and cultural underpinning. Also, similar to the US, China (and Chinese…) is aware of its size and economic power, and is conscious of having strong voice on the world stage. Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing are cosmopolitan cities, with a sometime exuberant celebration of the past 20 years economic growth. I won’t stray into geopolitics – it’s not my field of expertise at all – but a country of this size with sophisticated metroplotian areas will almost certainly make a big impact on science over the next couple of decades.

China shares some features with Europe – notably a diversity of language and culture across many provinces. Chinese provinces are often larger than European countries, and often have similar overall GDP. The many Chinese “dialects” are better described as different spoken languages, but importantly they share a set of written characters (with some modifications).  The implications of having a universally comprehensible written language for such a range of linguistic groups are profound.

My initial impression was that China had two major languages – Cantonese (used around Guandong and Hong Kong) and Mandarin – with various dialects, but this trip really impressed upon me just how diverse the linguistic landscape of Mainland China is. For example, Shanghaise is a dialect of Wu, which is a language family predominant in the eastern central area. When I was out for dinner in Shanghai with a Mandarin speaker, the waiter spoke to us in this lilting tone (Shanghaiese, as it turned out) and I turned to my companion for translation; she smiled, shrugged her shoulders and shifted the conversation to Mandarin. It was like dining with an Italian colleague in Finland and thinking she would know Finnish.

I’m much more aware now of the distinctive character and cultures of China’s provinces, which, along with the importance of personal networks, resonates with Europe.

While it’s fun to draw familiar parallels, China is clearly nothing like a mixture of the US and Europe. It is hard enough to completely understand the historical perspectives and cultures of one’s neighbours – it is going to be a long time before I will completely grasp the fundamental complexities of China. What I can say now is that its diversity is more and more fascinating to me, and something to be celebrated.

I wrote some time ago about scientific collaboration with China (see East meets West ), focusing on the positive aspects of openness and collaboration in engaging with this and other emerging economies (i.e. Brazil, India, Russia and Vietnam). As scientists, we have the good fortune of being expected to share scientific advances, discuss collaborations, discover new things jointly because they are the right thing to do – socially and strategically.

China already has some leading scientists and excellent scientific institutions, and I am sure this will only grow in the future. But communication is an essential component of community, and social media has been highly beneficial in keeping information flowing in much of the global scientific community. It’s frustrating that news platforms like Twitter are blocked in China. The EBI has set up a Weibo account (www.weibo.com/emblebi) where we will be posting (in English!) news items from the EBI. Hopwfully this help keep scientists in China up to date with developments at the EBI – so please do distribute to your Chinese colleagues.

On a more personal note, I’ve discovered that my first name (Ewan) is pronounced (in some dialects) almost identically to Yuan (a Chinese word for money). In Wikipedia, one of the pronunciation descriptions of Yuan is written identically to one of Ewan (what more proof do you need!) but I am not clear (a) if this is a variation in pronouncing Yuan in Mandarin or a dialect shift and (b) what tonal form it has. I’d be delighted to get some sort of linguistic survey of Yuan forms geo-tagged across China. People who have read my name sometimes get confused because they have a pre-formed idea of how to pronounce it (often “Evan” or “Ee-Wan” – one to save for my next Star Wars role).

So it’s useful to know that I can say, “Ewan, like Money, Yuan,” and this will provide some relief to my new acquaintance, who can file the name alongside a well-known phrase. (And before you say it, I know that I am just as bad when it comes to pronouncing some names – Chinese or not – in other languages!)

So – I’m “Money” Birney. I can’t quite work out whether I should be proud or a bit worried about this moniker.

Many, many thanks to my hosts and the new people I met on this journey: Ying, Philipp, Jing, Jun, Huaming, Hong, Laurie, Scott and many others. I look forward to seeing you again, and learning more on my next trips to China.

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