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Taipei a woman, Beijing a man

The Straits Times
Singapore, Sunday 12 September 2010

Over lunch with a friend in Singapore some weeks back, I said I was expecting a culture shock moving from Taipei to Beijing.

She was puzzled. Wasn't it just going from one Chinese society to another, she asked.

She was not totally wrong, I thought, as I stopped to look at mothers and grandmas dancing to Chinese folk songs outside my office in Beijing on my way home one Friday (September 10). I often encountered the same scene on Friday evenings outside my Taipei office.

And yet, Taiwan and China are in many ways as different as yin and yang when you scratch beneath the surface similarities.

You can tell just from people's names.

In Taiwan, housing agents I met had words like meng or lun in their names, linking them to Mencius and Confucius. (Meng for Meng Zi or Mencius; Lun, as in lun li, or ethics, often used to refer to Confucian ethics).

In China, there is no sign of the sages in names so far. Rather, a guest on a TV show is named Zhou Mo, which means "weekend". "My mum said a name only had to be easy to remember," she explained.

Instant recall is not a quality that Taiwanese parents would normally look for in choosing baby names. By far more important is the hope that their children would grow up under the positive influence of the ancient philosophers they are named after.

In many ways, the Taiwanese are more "Chinese" than their compatriots on the mainland, where age-old traditions went up in flames in the bonfire of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Much was lost as young Red Guards set fire to books, including the classics, and smashed altars in the chaos of those years.

In contrast, Taiwan under the Kuomintang (KMT) went the other way, stressing the learning of the classics to show that the island represented the true China.

Taiwan has also retained the traditional Chinese script for writing, unlike the mainland, which uses simplified characters.

One difference between the two scripts, for example, is that in simplified script, the ideogram for heart gets taken out of the traditional character for love.

Is that why folk on the mainland seem to put less heart into their tasks compared to their Taiwanese peers, I sometimes wonder.

The differences reveal themselves in small ways, like in the press cards both sides issue.

The card I was given in Taipei was nicely laminated, with a clear photo and my details recorded in a pleasing font; the Beijing card had a blurred photo and the words were unaligned.

As a colleague put it, China has no problem pulling off the feat of hosting a successful Olympics but it cannot be bothered to make decent press cards.

One could arguably trace this difference to the paths both sides took over 100 years ago.

In 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Qing government after China's loss in the First Sino-Japanese War.

In 1945, after the defeat of the Japanese in World War II, Taiwan and most of the mainland came under the control of the KMT.

But Taiwan and the mainland parted ways again after the Chinese civil war in 1949; the victorious communists ruled over the mainland, the defeated KMT kept Taiwan.

Some observers say that after 50 years of colonial rule under the Japanese, some of their cultural traits have rubbed off on the Taiwanese. The attention to detail, for instance. And the emphasis on courteous behaviour.

In Taipei, commuters queue up in subway stations and give way to alighting passengers. In Beijing, I often have to take a deep breath and force my way through a great wall of humanity when I alight from a train.

Another telling difference is the attitude towards the media.

Taiwanese officials and politicians, used to the robust exchanges of multi-party democracy, are much more accessible and open to questions from the press.

In Taiwan, the Government Information Office hands out laminated pocket-sized cards that list the mobile numbers of all ministry spokesmen.

In China, colleagues warn that it is rare for the government to reply to queries. Mobile numbers of government spokesmen? I am told they are as uncommon as a warm winter in Beijing.

And if I enjoyed more or less a free flow of information in Taipei, I soon hit a wall in Beijing -- the Great Firewall of China.

In China, one cannot freely access foreign news websites or social media like Facebook and Twitter because of government controls.

You can scale the wall but it takes time and energy.

Likewise, sprawling Beijing saps a lot out of you with its busy ring roads and crowded trains. Compact Taipei, with its tidy grid, is a breeze in comparison.

Someone in The Beijinger, a listings magazine in the Chinese capital, said if Beijing were a person, it would be a man, probably a smoker and a little dirty. He has been extended a bit beyond his limits but always manages to push forward.

Well, if Beijing is a man, then Taipei is surely a woman, quirky and friendly. She could do with more attention but she values the small things in life and dreams of opening a cafe in an alley one day. Taiwan and China, yin and yang.

Asia News Network

MySinchew 2010-09-12


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