Not that much. I mean, if I asked a random person sitting in a random waiting room with me “So, what do you think about the Taiping Rebellion?,” I’d probably sound informed. But, generally, I started the China game pretty late in the day—not advisable when trying to catch up on 3,000 (4,000 or 5,000: take your pick) years of history. Especially when that history involves 56 ethnic groups, a bunch of surrounding countries, quasi-permeable national boundaries that change from time to time, approximately two zillion names and locations, and all of it wrapped within the Chinese language(s). And the latter itself has its own ridiculously complex history.
There is a game some academics play called “Humiliation™.” The idea is to sit around and identify books in one’s discipline that you haven’t read; the most embarrassing lacuna wins. I used to win with Plato’s Republic, but then I screwed up my substantial competitive advantage by reading it.
This blog will have a bit of that about it. I first went to China in 2007, and I’ve been trying to learn Mandarin/Putonghua/HanYu since then. I can say a few things, I can read a few things, I can write some characters. But when someone says something to me, I often haven’t the slightest idea what he or she is saying. Things are improving, but it is a bit embarrassing to be so bad at a language after 12 years. I do, however, persist, so I have obstinacy on my side. I told my Chinese tutor, the lovely and wise Xiao Shu (who will be discussed again, no doubt) that I was confident I would be fluent by the time I was 187 years old. She gave me the same look she usually gives me when I say something, regardless of the language in which it is said.
But I’ve read a lot, listened a lot, watched a lot, and lived about a total of two years in China; this academic year will be the longest (11 months) continuous period. I’m just about ready to identify the tip of the iceberg. If I understand just part of the tiniest part of that iceberg, that may be all I can hope for.
Mostly I just want to be prepared in case someone behind me taps me on the shoulder at the grocery store and asks “”So, what do you think about the Taiping Rebellion?”
I’ll be ready.