Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Descendants of Zhenghe's Sailors in Africa


Huaren Note:
The following story was published in The Third of Six Special Millennium Issues of the New York Times Magazine at the URL

1492: The Prequel

Decades before Columbus, Zheng He sailed from China with 300 ships and 28,000 men. His fleet got as far as Africa and could have easily reached America, but the Chinese turned back. What happened? By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF    Photographs by GUEORGUI PINKHASSOV

Chinese blood? Some inhabitants of the African island of Pate believe they're descended from Chinese sailors.

From the sea, the tiny East African island of Pate, just off the Kenyan coast, looks much as it must have in the 15th century: an impenetrable shore of endless mangrove trees. As my little boat bounced along the waves in the gray dawn, I could see no antennae or buildings or even gaps where trees had been cut down, no sign of human habitation, nothing but a dense and mysterious jungle.

The boatman drew as close as he could to a narrow black-sand beach, and I splashed ashore. My local Swahili interpreter led the way through the forest, along a winding trail scattered with mangoes, coconuts and occasional seashells deposited by high tides. The tropical sun was firmly overhead when we finally came upon a village of stone houses with thatched roofs, its dirt paths sheltered by palm trees. The village's inhabitants, much lighter-skinned than people on the Kenyan mainland, emerged barefoot to stare at me with the same curiosity with which I was studying them. These were people I had come halfway around the world to see, in the hope of solving an ancient historical puzzle.

Nicholas D. Kristof is the Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times. He is the author, with Sheryl WuDunn, of "China Wakes."

"Tell me," I asked the first group I encountered, "where did the people here come from? Long ago, did foreign sailors ever settle here?"

The answer was a series of shrugs. "I've never heard about that," one said. "You'll have to ask the elders."

I tried several old men and women without success. Finally the villagers led me to the patriarch of the village, Bwana Mkuu Al-Bauri, the keeper of oral traditions. He was a frail old man with gray stubble on his cheeks, head and chest. He wore a yellow sarong around his waist; his ribs pressed through the taut skin on his bare torso. Al-Bauri hobbled out of his bed, resting on a cane and the arm of a grandson. He claimed to be 121 years old; a pineapple-size tumor jutted from the left side of his chest.

"I know this from my grandfather, who himself was the keeper of history here," the patriarch told me in an unexpectedly clear voice. "Many, many years ago, there was a ship from China that wrecked on the rocks off the coast near here. The sailors swam ashore near the village of Shanga -- my ancestors were there and saw it themselves. The Chinese were visitors, so we helped those Chinese men and gave them food and shelter, and then they married our women. Although they do not live in this village, I believe their descendants still can be found somewhere else on this island."

I almost felt like hugging Bwana Al-Bauri. For months I had been poking around obscure documents and research reports, trying to track down a legend of an ancient Chinese shipwreck that had led to a settlement on the African coast. My interest arose from a fascination with what to me is a central enigma of the millennium: why did the West triumph over the East?

For most of the last several thousand years, it would have seemed far likelier that Chinese or Indians, not Europeans, would dominate the world by the year 2000, and that America and Australia would be settled by Chinese rather than by the inhabitants of a backward island called Britain. The reversal of fortunes of East and West strikes me as the biggest news story of the millennium, and one of its most unexpected as well.

The village's inhabitants, much lighter-skinned than people on the Kenyan mainland, emerged barefoot to stare at me with the same curiosity with which I was studying them. These were people I had come halfway around the world to see, in the hope of solving an ancient historical puzzle.

As a resident of Asia for most of the past 13 years, I've been searching for an explanation. It has always seemed to me that the turning point came in the early 1400's, when Admiral Zheng He sailed from China to conquer the world. Zheng He (pronounced jung huh) was an improbable commander of a great Chinese fleet, in that he was a Muslim from a rebel family and had been seized by the Chinese Army when he was still a boy. Like many other prisoners of the time, he was castrated -- his sexual organs completely hacked off, a process that killed many of those who suffered it. But he was a brilliant and tenacious boy who grew up to be physically imposing. A natural leader, he had the good fortune to be assigned, as a houseboy, to the household of a great prince, Zhu Di.

In time, the prince and Zheng He grew close, and they conspired to overthrow the prince's nephew, the Emperor of China. With Zheng He as one of the prince's military commanders, the revolt succeeded and the prince became China's Yongle Emperor. One of the emperor's first acts (after torturing to death those who had opposed him) was to reward Zheng He with the command of a great fleet that was to sail off and assert China's pre-eminence in the world.

Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He led seven major expeditions, commanding the largest armada the world would see for the next five centuries. Not until World War I did the West mount anything comparable. Zheng He's fleet included 28,000 sailors on 300 ships, the longest of which were 400 feet. By comparison, Columbus in 1492 had 90 sailors on three ships, the biggest of which was 85 feet long. Zheng He's ships also had advanced design elements that would not be introduced in Europe for another 350 years, including balanced rudders and watertight bulwark compartments.

Zheng He's armada was the largest the world would know for 500 years. The grandest vessels had nine masts and were 400 feet long. By comparison, Columbus's largest ship measured 85 feet.

The sophistication of Zheng He's fleet underscores just how far ahead of the West the East once was. Indeed, except for the period of the Roman Empire, China had been wealthier, more advanced and more cosmopolitan than any place in Europe for several thousand years. Hangzhou, for example, had a population in excess of a million during the time it was China's capital (in the 12th century), and records suggest that as early as the 7th century, the city of Guangzhou had 200,000 foreign residents: Arabs, Persians, Malays, Indians, Africans and Turks. By contrast, the largest city in Europe in 1400 was probably Paris, with a total population of slightly more than 100,000.

A half-century before Columbus, Zheng He had reached East Africa and learned about Europe from Arab traders. The Chinese could easily have continued around the Cape of Good Hope and established direct trade with Europe. But as they saw it, Europe was a backward region, and China had little interest in the wool, beads and wine Europe had to trade. Africa had what China wanted -- ivory, medicines, spices, exotic woods, even specimens of native wildlife.

In Zheng He's time, China and India together accounted for more than half of the world's gross national product, as they have for most of human history. Even as recently as 1820, China accounted for 29 percent of the global economy and India another 16 percent, according to the calculations of Angus Maddison, a leading British economic historian.

Asia's retreat into relative isolation after the expeditions of Zheng He amounted to a catastrophic missed opportunity, one that laid the groundwork for the rise of Europe and, eventually, America. Westerners often attribute their economic advantage today to the intelligence, democratic habits or hard work of their forebears, but a more important reason may well have been the folly of 15th-century Chinese rulers. That is why I came to be fascinated with Zheng He and set out earlier this year to retrace his journeys. I wanted to see what legacy, if any, remained of his achievement, and to figure out why his travels did not remake the world in the way that Columbus's did.

Zheng He lived in Nanjing, the old capital, where I arrived one day in February. Nanjing is a grimy metropolis on the Yangtze River in the heart of China. It has been five centuries since Zheng He's death, and his marks on the city have grown faint. The shipyards that built his fleet are still busy, and the courtyard of what had been his splendid 72-room mansion is now the Zheng He Memorial Park, where children roller-skate and old couples totter around for exercise. But though the park has a small Zheng He museum, it was closed -- for renovation, a caretaker told me, though he knew of no plans to reopen it.

I'd heard that Zheng He's tomb is on a hillside outside the city, and I set out to find it. It wasn't long before the road petered out, from asphalt to gravel to dirt to nothing. No tomb was in sight, so I approached an old man weeding a vegetable garden behind his house. Tang Yiming, 72, was still lithe and strong. His hair was gray and ragged where he had cut it himself, disastrously, in front of a mirror. Evidently lonely, he was delighted to talk, and offered to show me the path to the tomb. As we walked, I mentioned that I had read that there used to be an old Ming Dynasty tablet on Zheng He's grave.

"Oh, yeah, the old tablet," he said nonchalantly. "When I was a boy, there was a Ming Dynasty tablet here. When it disappeared, the Government offered a huge reward to anyone who would return it -- a reward big enough to build a new house. Seemed like a lot of money. But the problem was that we couldn't give it back. People around here are poor. We'd smashed it up to use as building materials."

A second mystery concerned what, if anything, is actually buried in Zheng He's tomb, since he is believed to have died on his last voyage and been buried at sea. So I said in passing that I'd heard tell the tomb is empty, and let my voice trail off.

"Oh, there's nothing in there," Tang said, a bit sadly. "No bones, nothing. That's for sure."

"How do you know?"

"In 1962, people dug up the grave, looking for anything to sell. We dug up the ground to one and a half times the height of a man. But there was absolutely nothing in there. It's empty."

The keeper of oral traditions, Bwana Mkuu Al-Bauri.

The absence of impressive monuments to Zheng He in China today should probably come as no surprise, since his achievement was ultimately renounced. Curiously, it is not in China but in Indonesia where his memory has been most actively kept alive. Zheng He's expeditions led directly to the wave of Chinese immigration to Southeast Asia, and in some countries he is regarded today as a deity. In the Indonesia city of Semarang, for example, there is a large temple honoring Zheng He, located near a cave where he once nursed a sick friend. Indonesians still pray to Zheng He for a cure or good luck.

Not so in his native land. Zheng He was viewed with deep suspicion by China's traditional elite, the Confucian scholars, who made sure to destroy the archives of his journey. Even so, it is possible to learn something about his story from Chinese sources -- from imperial archives and even the memoirs of crewmen. The historical record makes clear, for example, that it was not some sudden impulse of extroversion that led to Zheng He's achievement. It grew, rather, out of a long sailing tradition. Chinese accounts suggest that in the fifth century, a Chinese monk sailed to a mysterious "far east country" that sounds very much like Mayan Mexico, and Mayan art at that time suddenly began to include Buddhist symbols. By the 13th century, Chinese ships regularly traveled to India and occasionally to East Africa.

Zheng He's armada was far grander, of course, than anything that came before. His grandest vessels were the "treasure ships," 400 feet long and 160 feet wide, with nine masts raising red silk sails to the wind, as well as multiple decks and luxury cabins with balconies. His armada included supply ships to carry horses, troop transports, warships, patrol boats and as many as 20 tankers to carry fresh water. The full contingent of 28,000 crew members included interpreters for Arabic and other languages, astrologers to forecast the weather, astronomers to study the stars, pharmacologists to collect medicinal plants, ship-repair specialists, doctors and even two protocol officers to help organize official receptions.

In the aftermath of such an incredible undertaking, you somehow expect to find a deeper mark on Chinese history, a greater legacy. But perhaps the faintness of Zheng He's trace in contemporary China is itself a lesson. In the end, an explorer makes history but does not necessarily change it, for his impact depends less on the trail he blazes than on the willingness of others to follow. The daring of a great expedition ultimately is hostage to the national will of those who remain behind.

In February I traveled To calicut, a port town in southwestern India that was (and still is) the pepper capital of the world. The evening I arrived, I went down to the beach in the center of town to look at the coastline where Zheng He once had berthed his ships. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Calicut was one of the world's great ports, known to the Chinese as "the great country of the Western ocean." In the early 15th century, the sight of Zheng He's fleet riding anchor in Calicut harbor symbolized the strength of the world's two greatest powers, China and India.

On this sultry evening, the beach, framed by long piers jutting out to sea, was crowded with young lovers and ice-cream vendors. Those piers are all that remain of the port of Calicut, and you can see at a glance that they are no longer usable. The following day I visited the port offices, musty with handwritten ledgers of ship visits dating back nearly a century. The administrator of the port, Captain E. G. Mohanan, explained matter-of-factly what had happened. "The piers got old and no proper maintenance was ever carried out," he said, as a ceiling fan whirred tiredly overhead. "By the time we thought of it, it was not economical to fix it up." So in 1989, trade was halted, and one of the great ports of the world became no port at all.

Westerners often attribute their economic advantage today to the intelligence or hard work of their forebears, but a more important reason may well have been the folly of the 15th-century Chinese rulers who dismantled Zheng He's fleet.

The disappearance of a great Chinese fleet from a great Indian port symbolized one of history's biggest lost opportunities -- Asia's failure to dominate the second half of this millennium. So how did this happen?

While Zheng He was crossing the Indian Ocean, the Confucian scholar-officials who dominated the upper echelons of the Chinese Government were at political war with the eunuchs, a group they regarded as corrupt and immoral. The eunuchs' role at court involved looking after the concubines, but they also served as palace administrators, often doling out contracts in exchange for kickbacks. Partly as a result of their legendary greed, they promoted commerce. Unlike the scholars -- who owed their position to their mastery of 2,000-year-old texts -- the eunuchs, lacking any such roots in a classical past, were sometimes outward-looking and progressive. Indeed, one can argue that it was the virtuous, incorruptible scholars who in the mid-15th century set China on its disastrous course.

After the Yongle Emperor died in 1424, China endured a series of brutal power struggles; a successor emperor died under suspicious circumstances and ultimately the scholars emerged triumphant. They ended the voyages of Zheng He's successors, halted construction of new ships and imposed curbs on private shipping. To prevent any backsliding, they destroyed Zheng He's sailing records and, with the backing of the new emperor, set about dismantling China's navy.

By 1500 the Government had made it a capital offense to build a boat with more than two masts, and in 1525 the Government ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships. The greatest navy in history, which a century earlier had 3,500 ships (by comparison, the United States Navy today has 324), had been extinguished, and China set a course for itself that would lead to poverty, defeat and decline.

Still, it was not the outcome of a single power struggle in the 1440's that cost China its worldly influence. Historians offer a host of reasons for why Asia eventually lost its way economically and was late to industrialize; two and a half reasons seem most convincing.

The first is that Asia was simply not greedy enough. The dominant social ethos in ancient China was Confucianism and in India it was caste, with the result that the elites in both nations looked down their noses at business. Ancient China cared about many things -- prestige, honor, culture, arts, education, ancestors, religion, filial piety -- but making money came far down the list. Confucius had specifically declared that it was wrong for a man to make a distant voyage while his parents were alive, and he had condemned profit as the concern of "a little man." As it was, Zheng He's ships were built on such a grand scale and carried such lavish gifts to foreign leaders that the voyages were not the huge money spinners they could have been.

In contrast to Asia, Europe was consumed with greed. Portugal led the age of discovery in the 15th century largely because it wanted spices, a precious commodity; it was the hope of profits that drove its ships steadily farther down the African coast and eventually around the Horn to Asia. The profits of this trade could be vast: Magellan's crew once sold a cargo of 26 tons of cloves for 10,000 times the cost.

A second reason for Asia's economic stagnation is more difficult to articulate but has to do with what might be called a culture of complacency. China and India shared a tendency to look inward, a devotion to past ideals and methods, a respect for authority and a suspicion of new ideas. David S. Landes, a Harvard economist, has written of ancient China's "intellectual xenophobia"; the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru referred to the "petrification of classes" and the "static nature" of Indian society. These are all different ways of describing the same economic and intellectual complacency.

Chinese elites regarded their country as the "Middle Kingdom" and believed they had nothing to learn from barbarians abroad. India exhibited much of the same self-satisfaction. "Indians didn't go to Portugal not because they couldn't but because they didn't want to," mused M. P. Sridharan, a historian, as we sat talking on the porch of his home in Calicut.

The 15th-century Portuguese were the opposite. Because of its coastline and fishing industry, Portugal always looked to the sea, yet rivalries with Spain and other countries shut it out of the Mediterranean trade. So the only way for Portugal to get at the wealth of the East was by conquering the oceans.

The half reason is simply that China was a single nation while Europe was many. When the Confucian scholars reasserted control in Beijing and banned shipping, their policy mistake condemned all of China. In contrast, European countries committed economic suicide selectively. So when Portugal slipped into a quasi-Chinese mind-set in the 16th century, slaughtering Jews and burning heretics and driving astronomers and scientists abroad, Holland and England were free to take up the slack.

When I first began researching Zheng He, I never thought I'd be traveling all the way to Africa to look for traces of his voyages. Then I came across a few intriguing references to the possibility of an ancient Chinese shipwreck that might have left some Chinese stranded on the island of Pate (pronounced pah-tay). One was a skeptical reference in a scholarly journal, another was a casual conversation with a Kenyan I met a few years ago and the third was the epilogue of Louise Levathes's wonderful 1994 book about China's maritime adventures, "When China Ruled the Seas." Levathes had traveled to Kenya and found people who believed they were descended from survivors of a Chinese shipwreck. So, on a whim and an expense account, I flew to Lamu, an island off northern Kenya, and hired a boat and an interpreter to go to Pate and see for myself.

Pate is off in its own world, without electricity or roads or vehicles. Mostly jungle, it has been shielded from the 20th century largely because it is accessible from the Kenyan mainland only by taking a boat through a narrow tidal channel that is passable only at high tide. Initially I was disappointed by what I found there. In the first villages I visited, I saw people who were light-skinned and had hair that was not tightly curled, but they could have been part Arab or European rather than part Chinese. The remote villages of Chundwa and Faza were more promising, for there I found people whose eyes, hair and complexion hinted at Asian ancestry, though their background was ambiguous.

The island of Pate today, where one of Zheng He's ships may have foundered five centuries ago.

And then on a still and sweltering afternoon I strolled through the coconut palms into the village of Siyu, where I met a fisherman in his 40's named Abdullah Mohammed Badui. I stopped and stared at the man in astonishment, for he had light skin and narrow eyes. Fortunately, he was as rude as I was, and we stared at each other in mutual surprise before venturing a word. Eventually I asked him about his background and appearance.

"I am in the Famao clan," he said. "There are 50 or 100 of us Famao left here. Legend has it that we are descended from Chinese and others.

"A Chinese ship was coming along and it hit rocks and wrecked," Badui continued. "The sailors swam ashore to the village that we now call Shanga, and they married the local women, and that is why we Famao look so different."

Another Famao, with the same light complexion and vaguely Asian features, approached to listen. His name was Athman Mohammed Mzee, and he, too, told of hearing of the Chinese shipwreck from the elders. He volunteered an intriguing detail: the Africans had given giraffes to the Chinese.

Salim Bonaheri, a 55-year-old Famao man I met the next day, proudly declared, "My ancestors were Chinese or Vietnamese or something like that." I asked how they had got to Pate.

"I don't know," Bonaheri said with a shrug.

Most of my conversations were like that, intriguing but frustrating dead ends. I was surrounded by people whose appearance seemed tantalizingly Asian, but who had only the vaguest notions of why that might be. I kept at it, though, and eventually found people like Khalifa Mohammed Omar, a 55-year-old Famao fisherman who looked somewhat Chinese and who also clearly remembered the stories passed down by his grandfather. From him and others, a tale emerged.

Countless generations ago, they said, Chinese sailors traded with local African kings. The local kings gave them giraffes to take back to China. One of the Chinese ships struck rocks off the eastern coast of Pate, and the sailors swam ashore, carrying with them porcelain and other goods from the ship. In time they married local women, converted to Islam and named the village Shanga, after Shanghai. Later, fighting erupted among Pate's clans, Shanga was destroyed and the Famao fled, some to the mainland, others to the village of Siyu.

Every time I heard the story about the giraffes my pulse began to race. Chinese records indicate that Zheng He had brought the first giraffes to China, a fact that is not widely known. The giraffe caused an enormous stir in China because it was believed to be the mythical qilin, or Chinese unicorn. It is difficult to imagine how African villagers on an island as remote as Pate would know about the giraffes unless the tale had been handed down to them by the Chinese sailors.

Chinese ceramics are found in many places along the east African coast, and their presence on Pate could be the result of purchases from Arab traders. But the porcelain on Pate was overwhelmingly concentrated among the Famao clan, which could mean that it had been inherited rather than purchased. I also visited some ancient Famao graves that looked less like traditional Kenyan graves than what the Chinese call "turtle-shell graves," with rounded tops.

Researchers have turned up other equally tantalizing clues. Craftsmen on Pate and the other islands of Lamu practice a kind of basket-weaving that is common in southern China but unknown on the Kenyan mainland. On Pate, drums are more often played in the Chinese than the African style, and the local dialect has a few words that may be Chinese in origin. More startling, in 1569 a Portuguese priest named Monclaro wrote that Pate had a flourishing silk-making industry -- Pate, and no other place in the region. Elders in several villages on Pate confirmed to me that their island had produced silk until about half a century ago.

When I asked my boatman, Bakari Muhaji Ali, if he thought it was possible that a ship could have wrecked off the coast near Shanga, he laughed. "There are undersea rocks all over there," he said. "If you don't know exactly where you're going, you'll wreck your ship for sure."

If indeed there was a Chinese shipwreck off Pate, there is reason to think it happened in Zheng He's time. For if the shipwreck had predated him, surviving sailors would not have passed down stories of the giraffes. And if the wreck didn't occur until after Zheng He, its survivors could not have settled in Shanga, since British archeological digs indicate that the village was sacked, burned and abandoned in about 1440 -- very soon after Zheng He's last voyage.

Still, there is no hard proof for the shipwreck theory, and there are plenty of holes in it. No ancient Chinese characters have been found on tombs in Pate, no nautical instruments have ever turned up on the island and there are no Chinese accounts of an African shipwreck. This last lacuna might be explained by the destruction of the fleet's records. Yet if one of Zheng He's ships did founder on the rocks off Pate, then why didn't some other ships in the fleet come to the sailors' rescue?

As I made my way back through the jungle for the return trip, I pondered the significance of what I'd seen on Pate. In the faces of the Famao, in those bits of pottery and tantalizing hints of Chinese culture, I felt as though I'd glimpsed the shadowy outlines of one of the greatest might-have-beens of the millennium now ending. I thought about the Columbian Exchange, the swap of animals, plants, genes, germs, weapons and peoples that utterly remade both the New World and the Old, and I couldn't help wondering about another exchange -- Zheng He's -- that never took place, yet could have.

If ancient China had been greedier and more outward-looking, if other traders had followed in Zheng He's wake and then continued on, Asia might well have dominated Africa and even Europe. Chinese might have settled in not only Malaysia and Singapore, but also in East Africa, the Pacific Islands, even in America. Perhaps the Famao show us what the mestizos of such a world might have looked liked, the children of a hybrid culture that was never born. What I'd glimpsed in Pate was the high-water mark of an Asian push that simply stopped -- not for want of ships or know-how, but strictly for want of national will.

All this might seem fanciful, and yet in Zheng He's time the prospect of a New World settled by the Spanish or English would have seemed infinitely more remote than a New World made by the Chinese. How different would history have been had Zheng He continued on to America? The mind rebels; the ramifications are almost too overwhelming to contemplate. So consider just one: this magazine would have been published in Chinese.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company 

Monday, July 11, 2005

Uniting China to Speak Mandarin, the One Official Language: Easier Said Than Done

New York Times:

Uniting China to Speak Mandarin, the One Official Language: Easier Said Than Done


Published: July 10, 2005

DATIAN, China - As a crowd formed around a rare foreign visitor in this town's open-air market, the conversation turned quickly from the price of dried fish and fresh fruit to how many dialects people here could muster.

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Richard Pyle for The New York Times

In Datian, women chat in a local dialect. Some people speak up to six.

Hoisting her cherubic 6-month-old daughter, Lin Jinchun, a 29-year-old dumpling seller, claimed that she could speak two, drawing a quick counterclaim of three from her mother, Lin Guimei.

What was the third dialect? someone asked. "Putonghua," the mother answered, counting the standard national language of China as if it were just another minor tongue. Meanwhile others, shouting above the din, chimed in that they could speak four, five or even six tongues.

As seen by many outsiders, China is a behemoth: the world's most populous country with a galloping economy and a more or less unified culture. But if Putonghua - Mandarin - is one of the world's most heavily spoken languages, in many parts of China it is lost in the mazes of local dialects.

In recent years migrant labor, which has brought about huge population movements from the hinterlands to China's prosperous eastern cities, has obliged millions of Chinese to learn more Mandarin, but by official estimates even today barely half of the population can speak the official dialect.

China has 55 ethnic minorities, many of them with cultural roots in neighboring countries. The linguistic diversity among these minorities, however, pales in comparison with the variety of tongues spoken among China's Han, the ethnic group that makes up more than 90 percent of the population. The Han speak as many 1,500 dialects, with the bulk of those concentrated in the southern half of the country.

The official view here is that all of the tongues spoken by Han are variants of one language, Chinese. But in a country with a traumatic history of civil war and fragmentation, many specialists say this theory may have more to do with politics than with linguistic reality. Many of the Han dialects are almost entirely mutually incomprehensible, more distinct than languages from disparate regions of Europe.

"No one can clearly answer the question how many dialects there are in China," said Zhang Hongming, a professor of Chinese linguistics at the University of Wisconsin who is in China doing fieldwork. "The degree of difference among dialects is much higher than the degree of difference among European languages. In Europe they call them languages, but in China we share a culture, so the central government would like to consider that one language is shared by many different peoples. It is simply a different definition."

Linguists say the Wu dialect widely spoken in Shanghai, to take one prominent example, shares only about 31 percent lexical similarity with Mandarin, or roughly the same as English and French.

The encounter at the Datian market began when the dumpling seller approached the foreigner with a phrase that sounded like "goodbye" in the Wu dialect. Knowing it must mean something else, the foreigner guessed she was asking his name, and provided it, producing a laugh from the woman who explained, switching to Mandarin, that she had asked if he had eaten lately.

For China, the consequences of this linguistic fragmentation are immense. Although no one in government says that local languages should be eliminated, there is a growing awareness that the country's national construction cannot be considered complete until all Chinese can speak a common language, which remains a distant goal.

Indeed, a government survey published last year said only 53 percent of the population "can communicate in Putonghua." In recognition of this fact, broadcasters commonly include subtitles - the meaning of Chinese characters is stable, even as spoken dialects vary - on television programs here to help people overcome comprehension problems.

A 2001 national language law decrees that Mandarin be used in all mass media, government offices and schools, and bars the "overuse" of dialects in movies and broadcasting.

Even by the standards of China's complicated language matrix, Fujian Province stands out for its richness, a dense thicket of tongues laid down by waves of migration over time from central China.

"We have an expression, that if you drive five miles in Fujian the culture changes, and if you drive 10 miles, the language does," said Zhang Zhenxing, a linguist from Fujian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "In recent years, because of economic growth things have been getting better, but there are still an extraordinary number of dialects in Fujian."

If Fujian Province can be said to have a Babel, tiny Datian County can stake a pretty solid claim. In this 800 square miles of rural central Fujian, where fields of rice and tobacco grow in the shadow of tall mountains, no fewer than five dialects are spoken in addition to Mandarin.

To drive a few miles down the road from one village to another is indeed to plunge into a new linguistic universe. Things can be as confusing for someone from the next town as they are for the total outsider.

In one village near the county seat, where an old Daoist shrine sits high above the roadside, a man who said he spoke southern Min, one of Fujian's most widely spoken dialects, tried to exchange words with some boys who said they also spoke southern Min. A few words from each side, however, sufficed to show they were mutually unintelligible.

Chen Wenxian, a shopkeeper in his late 20's in another village, grimaced with incomprehension when a driver pulled up and inquired about the price of shoes in his glass display case. The two switched into heavily accented but mutually comprehensible Mandarin.

Mr. Chen, slouched in his chair behind his counter, shrugged when asked the name of the village's language. Consultations with a cluster of family members did not unearth a name either.

"It's just what we speak here," he said. Asked if he could understand the language in the next village, a short distance down the road, he said: "I have no idea what they speak. Those people talk too fast."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

China's the new building force in Sierra Leone

Any piece on the changing geopolitical landscape:
China's the new building force in Sierra Leone
The Chinese in Africa

Published: 4 Jul 2005
By: Lindsey Hilsum

It's not in the G8, but China's busy investing in Africa's future in everything from the oil industry to luxury hotels. Lindsey Hilsum reports.

The civil war's over now and the people of Sierra Leone are living in peace. On a Sunday morning, Lumley Beach is packed with boys and girls playing on it - it's where the residents of the capital, Freetown, come to relax. The beach is free - but that might be about to change.

"A sort of gate will have to be erected, constructed where people come in and pay a token...."

It's the latest Chinese investment plan - a two hundred million dollar resort complex comprising pagoda-roofed holiday homes, golf course, five-star hotel and helipad.

"As my permanent secretary always says, the early bird catches the worm. Sierra Leone is ready for investment. We're a post conflict country. At this point we cannot wait." - Chernor Jalloh, Sierra Leone Tourism Minister

No doubt rapid investment is needed. The UN says this is the poorest country in Africa, seventy per cent of Sierra Leoneans live in poverty. Electricity is intermittent, many have no running water and sixty per of young men are unemployed.

To Tony Blair, Africa is somewhere which needs healing or saving, and Sierra Leone gets a lot of British aid. But the Chinese are looking at the continent through different eyes. They see it as a source of raw materials, especially oil, which they need for their own development. And somewhere like Sierra Leone, fresh out of war - they think it's ripe for trade and investment.

You can see who renovated the Bintumani Hotel when you walk around it. Everything in it is Chinese - all the construction materials and furnishings, even the signs on the toilets.

The management is Chinese too. The Beijing Urban Construction Group is a state-owned concern, they're building hotels like this all over West Africa. Its part of China's "Go Global" policy - a strategy to transform Chinese companies into multinational corporations.

"Africa is a very good environment for investment, especially at the moment. Europe and the USA are too competitive. But it's not yet very competitive in Africa, and there are certain business opportunities for Chinese businessmen to embark on. That's why we entrepreneurs have come to Sierra Leone, to Africa." - Yany Zhao, Manager, Bintumani Hotel

The new military headquarters; the new government office and parliament; the stadium - all Chinese built or renovated.

"They just come and do it. We don't start to hold meetings about environmental impact assessment, human rights, bad governance and good governance. I'm not saying that's right, I'm just saying Chinese investment is succeeding because they don't set high benchmarks. " - Sahr Johnny, Sierra Leone Ambassador to Beijing

And that's exactly what's worrying anti-corruption campaigners as China becomes the biggest new investor across the continent.

Thirty years ago China was building prestige projects in Africa, like the railway from Zambia to Tanzania trying to spread communism across the continent. It was the Cold War. The Chinese were wooing African leaders away from the Soviet Union and the West. Now, they need Africa to fuel their own growth, and as a proving ground for their new capitalist model of development.

In the last five years China's activity in Africa has swept the continent.

  • Nearly 700 Chinese companies operate in 49 countries
  • Trade has gone up three fold - to 30 billion dollars a year making China Africa's third largest rading partner - ahead of Britain.
  • Oil is the major interest - A quarter of Angola's oil goes to China.
  • And their stake's growing in Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and Gabon.

But it's Sudan that's got the closest links. 60% of its oil exports are now bound for the People's Republic.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Mutual benefits of profits from poverty

Mutual benefits of profits from poverty

By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Kawangware is a shanty town on the northern edge of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and home to the biggest slums in East Africa.

Shop owner Dominic Siasamallisi
Mr Siasamallisi was able to borrow to open his shop

This is not the safest place in the world, so take a local to help you through the maze of soggy rubbish-filled lanes, past the improvised shacks and workshops that are an important and vibrant part of the Kenyan economy.

Suddenly, in the middle of something approaching squalor to rich world eyes, here's a supermarket.

A real shop in a town of tiny stallholders, quite well stocked and with a constant flow of local buyers.

Microlending helps

When the owner Dominic Siasamallisi started selling things about five years ago, he did not have anything like a shop, just a basket of one or two household necessities by the side of road.

The K-Rep Group website
K-Rep's ambitions are lofty

Mr Siasamallisi got his start from a private bank called The K-Rep Group, set up by a Nairobi not for profit NGO, or non government organisation, eight years ago.

K-Rep gives tiny microloans to people who are too poor to be of interest to conventional banks, who always demand collateral in the shape of a vehicle or real estate in case the loan is never repaid.

Because the poor have no collateral to pledge, they tend to stay poor. All over the world, poor people are denied the loans that may help them get onto them up the business ladder, like Mr Siasamallisi did.

Efficient initiative

K-Rep is not itself a charity. It charges a market rate of interest and demands repayment of the loan pretty quickly.

But instead of demanding substantial property as collateral, K-Rep follows the Gramin principle made famous by the microcredit bank of the same name in Bangladesh.

It uses the assets of the poor in place of property, in particular poor people's reputation.

K-Rep's lending officers go out into the shanty towns to speak to friends and neighbours of the would be borrower.

Often the loan is extended to a group of people, acting as cross-guarantors.

Illiteracy doesn't phase the bank: somebody else can sign the loan agreement on behalf of the borrower.

And it works; the default rate at K-Rep is only 5%, and as the microbusiness grows by using the first loan, borrowers come back for more, building a borrowing history and employing more of the poor people around them.

Transformed lives

Microlending is now getting serious attention from international institutions who have been to remote to see its life-changing possibilities in the past, and 2005 happens to be the Year of Microcredit.

The Green Card by Safaricom
Safaricom's phone card allows users to transfer funds

It is very worth celebrating, and it isn't charity.

When these banks make profits, they can make more and more loans to the people who throng their branches every day: the poor.

Even in poverty-stricken Africa, big things are happening.

The lives of the poor are also being transformed by mobile phones.

Shopkeepers such as Mr Siasamallisi are text-messaging their suppliers. Hours of travel and the sending of letters or messages are replaced by a phone call. Farmers are getting accurate information about the market price of their crops as they harvest them.

Phone card currency

But it is bigger than just communication.

Safaricom is Kenya's largest mobile phone company, and almost the country's biggest company, more than half owned by the government.

Safaricom has more than two million users, and it is run by a thoughtful South African engineer called Michael Joseph.

Just the other day he unveiled a new service allowing Safaricom subscribers to buy prepaid phone cards which then enable them to transfer any selected amount of surplus minutes to other subscribers, using text messaging.

You can pay a supplier with it, or even create a little bank of phone call credits to sell to others. What Michael Joseph has actually done is to create a new currency --a cyber currency that can be sent anywhere in the country at the press of a button, without needing a bank account or incurring high bank charges. You see what's happened: the mobile phone is multiplying its revolutionary impact on the lives of the poor, giving them facilities once available only to the rich.

Mutual advantage

The sudden creation of a new kind of global mass market - of people, each with tiny buying power, but hundreds of millions of them - this is the subject of a provocative recent book from the revered Indian-born management guru Professor CK Prahalad of the University of Michigan.

CK urges multinational companies to work to make profits by realigning their businesses to make profits by marketing to the poor.

Professor Prahalad thoroughly approves of this new mobile phone company move in Kenya.

Many people think it's repugnant to make profits out of poor people, but having seen Kenyan poverty at work, I don't agree.

What we're seeing is another example of Professor Adam Smith's remarkable invisible hand of capitalism at work.

The naked self interest of the phone company is reaching out to shake hands with the naked self improvement of people hitherto stuck in poverty, to their mutual advantage.

What on earth will happen next?

Work in Progress is the title of this new exploration of the big trends upheaving the world of work as we steam further into the twenty-first century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.