Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Chinese English-Learning App with Artistic Cats, Buttocks, and American Spirit

sports field at the University of South China in Hengyang

One day as I was walking by the above sports field at the University of South China in Hengyang, Hunan, I heard a student practicing English. While wearing earphones and looking at the screen of her Xiaomi mobile phone, she would say a word and after a brief pause say a sentence which included the word.

As part of her preparations for an important English test, she was using an English-learning app a friend of hers had recommended months ago. The Chinese name for the app is "百词斩". I am not aware of an English name, so I will use its romanized spelling in pinyin: "Baicizhan". Browser-based and paper-based versions are available at the Baicizhan website. It is also available on both iTunes and Google Play. Although Baicizhan provides a link to iTunes, for the Android version Baicizhan now offers a direct download, not surprising since Google is heavily blocked in China.

After looking at the online version, I would say it certainly has room for improvement. I am not familiar with language-learning theory, so I will refrain from conducting a full review of Baicizhan. However, I won't refrain from sharing a bit about how it works and some striking examples.

A section usually begins with multiple choice questions:

question for "artistic" on Baicizhan

One voice says the word and another says the sentence. After choosing the photo one thinks best matches the sentence, the answer is provided along with the word's definition:

definition of "artistic" with photo of a kitten wrapped in a towel on Baicizhan

The above example is from a section Bacizhan says is using a nonstandard vocabulary list. Based on the section's name and other examples, it appears to deliberately use strange or funny examples to help people remember the words. Even so, it seems peculiar to say the photo of the kitten is a good answer for the above question.

Here are two other examples of Baicizhan's wit in the same section:

definition of "absolve" with a photo of a monkey touching a cats head

multiple choice question with sentence "My grandma is a bitter conservative" with one photo including the image of an older woman and the words "Back in my times the bathroom was used to shit not to taking pictures"

Many of the English words in the section were rather familiar to me, but I did learn (or perhaps relearned) something:

multiple choice question with sentence "Yes, I'm holothurian"

Photo 2 is the correct answer. I now know that "holothurian" is another name for a sea cucumber and that the word can be used as an adjective. I dissected a sea cucumber in a high school marine biology class and ate my first sea cucumber–they are a Chinese delicacy–in Jinan, Shandong. Some sea cucumbers are especially remarkable in their ability to "confuse or harm predators is [sic] by propelling their own toxic internal organs from their anus in the direction of attack". But I don't think that is the reason Bacizhan described the cat as holothurian. Instead, it is presumably referencing the cat's shape. I can't find a single instance of a cat being described as holothurian anywhere else. Regardless, Bacizhan delivered. I now know the word and await an opportunity to use it.

Overall, the words, questions, and images I saw in other sections, some of which include vocabulary to prepare for American or Chinese college entrance exams, were more mundane, though some still gave me pause.

sentence "If you can't control him mentally, sometimes you have to use force" with photo of a woman pulling man down on his knees by his tie

sentence "Ahh, look at that. Her buttocks are pretty nice." and photo of woman wearing a thong

And none of what I saw online captured the American spirit like what caused me to stop as I was walking by the student in Hengyang. I heard her say, "Facsimile. This is a facsimile of the original U.S. Constitution; of course it's not real." When she said the sentence, her phone wasn't displaying a Starbucks cup or an insect like I had seen on other students' mobile phones. Instead, along with the sentence and definition for "facsimile", it displayed an image of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. flag, and a military dog tag.

student showing a Xiaomi smartphone displaying the page for "facsimile" in an English language learning app.

It appears to be a cropped version of a stock photo by Sergey Kamshylin.

The title of the photo: "Freedom is not free".

Well, at least Baicizhan is free.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Seven Tiananmen Tweets

Much has been recently expressed and shared regarding the events at Tiananmen Square 25 years ago and their lasting impact in China today. Below are seven people's tweets I retweeted (shared) last week during my moments on Twitter (if no images automatically appear, viewing this post on the blog (not in a reader) and / or enabling javascript may do the trick). The tweets are brief and only a small piece of the picture, but they say much.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Cars and Bikes Instead of Boats in an Hengyang Alley

Today, I walked down a much drier Yudetang alley in Hengyang. It was flooded several days ago, but where I had seen a boat before ...

boat on flooded street

I saw a young student walking by some cars.

young student walking down an alley

And instead of a submerged vehicle ...

vehicle submerged in water

I saw a woman with her bicycle.

various people doing what they're doing

At least one older woman I passed recognized me from my previous visit, and she spiritedly greeted me. I didn't get to take any raft rides this time, but I did get to walk through a narrow portion of the alley I hadn't seen before.

narrow alley

Yesterday, I returned to the pedestrian area next to the Xiang River which I have seen both flooded and dry. This time is was half-flooded. That didn't stop people from enjoying the area, including a couple having their wedding photos taken.

couple having their wedding photo taken while standing on a partial submerged stone railing and kissing

That is all. If all goes well, I won't have anything more about floods to share.

An Expiring Deal with a Changing Chinese People

In "For Tiananmen leader, a permanent exile" Ananth Krishnan's interview of Chinese dissident Wu’er Kaixi touches on a deal the Chinese government made decades ago:
Despite the two decades of unprecedented growth in China since 1989, [Wu’er Kaixi] believes the Party will face growing calls for political reform and anger against rising corruption — the same two demands that propelled protests 25 years ago.

“They struck a deal with the Chinese people in 1992 to give people a certain degree of economic freedom in exchange for political submission. That was a lousy deal because both economic freedom and political freedom is something that, to begin with, the Chinese people are entitled to. But this deal is also expiring. Once you give people economic freedom, they will become a little bit more powerful and they want more freedom. Because they want to be able to protect the money they made, they want rule of law, fair competition.”
In "Tiananmen, Forgotten" Helen Gao shares what it has been like for some to grow up under that deal:
[In] the post-Tiananmen years, life was like a cruise on a smooth highway lined with beautiful scenery. We studied hard and crammed for exams. On weekends, we roamed shopping malls to try on jeans and sneakers, or hit karaoke parlors, bellowing out Chinese and Western hits.

This alternation between exertion and ennui slowly becomes a habit and, later, an attitude. Both, if well-endured, are rewarded by a series of concrete symbols of success: a college diploma, a prestigious job, a car, an apartment. The rules are simple, though the competition never gets easier; therefore we look ahead, focusing on our personal well-being, rather than the larger issues that bedevil the society.
And in "The economic backdrop to Tian'anmen" Rob Schmitz highlights how even though people may want a new deal, whether because they feel "left behind" or a "little bit more powerful", people whose life has been more "like a cruise on a smooth highway" can have concerns about possible changes:
University of California’s Jeffrey Wasserstrom says 25 years later, with China’s economy now slowing down, there are signs the Chinese people want to renegotiate this deal – it’s no longer clear that making more money is an option. "Now I think there’s a sense that if you’ve been left behind, maybe you’ll be permanently left behind," says Wasserstrom. "And also, with the rising concern with issues like food safety, and heavy polluted air and water, I think it’s not so clear to people anymore that they can assume their children will live better lives than they did."

"People are angry, but people are worried that if something changes, would anything get better?" asks University of Michigan's Mary Gallagher. "I don’t think people in China have much confidence in democracy right now, and looking around them they may feel particularly people in the cities and people in the middle class may feel that democracy could end up even worse. It’s a much more segmented society, and people who are wealthy and who are middle class have much more to protect. And when they think about democracy, they think about majority rule. And I think majority rule is scary to them."
These excerpts together tell a story which resonates with what I have learned in China. In the future, I will share some thoughts on some of the seeming contradictions and important issues they raise. But for now, I simply recommend reading the pieces by Krishnan, Gao, and Schmitz. They each have their own story to tell about China 25 years after June 4, 1989.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

25 Years after June 4, 1989, in Hengyang, Hunan

I don't know what occurred in Hengyang, Hunan province, on June 4, 1989. But I do know a small portion of what occurred there today. As I thought about what happened 25 years ago in China, I took an afternoon walk in an urban area of Hengyang's Shigu district and saw that ...

Some people cooked.

woman cooking outside in Hengyang

Some people ate at a street food market.

street food stalls in Hengyang, Hunan, China

Some people ate at a McDonald's.

people at an outdoor service window at a McDonald's in Hengyang, Hunan, China

Some people ate at a restaurant under a bridge.

restaurant under a bridge in Hengyang, Hunan, China

Some people played cards and drank tea under a bridge.

people playing cards and drinking tea under a bridge in Hengyang, Hunan, China

Some people waited for passengers under a bridge.

mototaxi driver sitting on a motorbike under a bridge

Some people used a mobile phone.

man looking at his mobile phone in Hengyang, Hunan, China

Some people read a newspaper.

man reading a newspaper in Hengyang, Hunan, China

Some people bought something at a newsstand.

people at a newspaper stand in Hengyang, Hunan, China

Some people bought something at a department store.

people walking about a department store in Hengyang, Hunan, China

Some people bought a rabbit.

rabbits in small cages for sale on a sidewalk in Hengyang, Hunan, China

Some people sat.

woman sitting on a stool in Hengyang, Hunan, China

Some people rested.

man sitting down with his hands clasped and head bowed down

Some people worked.

men working on a large sign

Some people played.

young women playing badminton

Some people asked a foreigner to take their photo.

two boys

Some people simply said "Hello!" to a foreigner.

woman and man smiling for a photo

Some people wore matching shirts.

Some people wore a distinctive shirt.

woman wearing a shirt with the portrait of someone who looks like a princess on her back

Some people wore a shirt with English text.

young woman wearing shirt with text 'DO WANNA LET MOMENT AWAY"

Some people wore a shirt with an American symbol.

woman wearing shirt with an image similar to the US flag

I saw much today, yet almost all of it reminds me of what I have seen many other times in China. It was as if today "may as well be just another day", like what I saw two years ago in Xining, Qinghai, or three years ago in Chengdu, Sichuan.

Well, there was one thing I saw which gave me pause. So after passing a young man, I turned around and caught up with him. I told him I liked his shirt and asked if I could take his photo. Without hesitation, he gave his consent.

He didn't ask me why I liked his shirt. I didn't ask him why he wore the shirt.

How many people in China are asking questions today anyway?

young man wearing shirt with text 'It's time become brave. brave means that you stand up to peapole"

Google Blocked in China (Part 10¹⁰⁰)

Recently reported the increased blocking of Google's services. As described by Dan Levin in The New York Times:
The authorities in China have made Google’s services largely inaccessible in recent days, a move most likely related to the government’s broad efforts to stifle discussion of the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4, 1989.

In addition to Google’s search engines being blocked, the company’s products, including Gmail, Calendar and Translate, have been affected.
I have done some repeated testing over the course of several hours at my location in Hengyang, Hunan province with the VPN I use to "break through" China's Great Firewall (GFW) turned off and using a local DNS servers. My experience was mostly consistent with what is described except I was able to reliably reach:

1. Google China's "splash page" at
2. Google's map service for China at
3. Google's translation service for China at

The map and translation services were useable, but some components didn't quickly or ever load. Notably, all of the above services appear to be based in mainland China. Mainland Chinese users are redirected to Google's Hong Kong servers for other services. Except for one brief initial moment, I have not been able to access Google's services based on servers outside of mainland China.

I would also like to comment on two sentences in the post:
Back in 2009, Google decided to remove itself from China so that it no longer needed to censor its content. But it seems that Google is quite happy that GFW does the censorship work for them.
To be clear, Google has not fully removed itself from China and still has offices, employees, free lunches, etc. here. In 2010 it did stop censoring its search results per China's rules and redirected some of its services to servers in Hong Kong. I would not be surprised if Google is "quite happy" not to be censoring as it did in China before. But I doubt they would characterize the GFW as doing "the censorship work for them". Google has already made it clear it would no longer censor regardless. My guess is that Google prefers the GFW selectively blocking Google search over completely blocking it. But what would make them "quite happy" is if the GFW ceased to exist.

During the course of today's testing, I noticed some curiosities that deserve further attention. If they prove noteworthy, I will share them while also moving forward with posts on other themes.

Finally, as this post proves since I need to access blocked-in-China Blogger to write it, my VPN is working as usual at the moment.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

PLA Soldiers, Chengguan, and a Raft Ride During a Flooded Dragon Boat Festival in Hengyang

Last night the rain was especially heavy in Hengyang, Hunan province. When I set out this afternoon, most seemed relatively normal in the central urban area where I have spent most of my time, like last week when the Xiang River flooded a pedestrian area.

However, while walking down a street not far from Yueping Park, I looked down an alley I had not passed before named Yudetang (余德堂) and saw something rather unexpected.

flooded Yudetang (余德堂) alley in Hengyang, China

During a confused split second I wondered whether I was looking at a canal, but I quickly realized that an area in a hilly section of Hengyang had flooded. The water came up to the waist of one man of average height who jumped into the water further down the alley. While I was there, another man said to me that surely the U.S. would not have problems like this. I told him that sometimes the U.S. experiences flooding that wouldn't look very different.

I soon saw the arrival of a boat with residents guided by two People's Liberation Army soldiers wearing their urban camouflage uniforms.

People's Liberation Army soldiers wearing urban camouflage uniforms navigating a boat with residents from a flooded neighborhood

I then headed back to the main road and soon found nearby an intriguing route up a hill.

steep outdoor stairs in Hengyang

After reaching the top and going down a different set of stairs, I soon found myself facing another flooded area.

flood waters almost completely covering a white truck

A group of people gathered near the edge of the flood appeared bewildered to see me, and we were soon having a friendly conversation. They said the area has flooded previously but never before had the water risen so high.

Soon, a raft passed nearby, and after a bubble of activity several people hailed it. To my surprise it was not for themselves. Instead, they excitedly told me I could board it. I had no need for a boat ride and was looking forward to exploring another set of stairs, but a woman encouraged me to get on the boat and told me I could take more photos. I then noticed that although there were no soldiers aboard, one of the rowers was a chengguan, a law enforcement officer for urban administrative regulations and the "least-loved public official" in China. I really didn't want to be getting in the way, but the chengguan insisted, in a friendly manner, that I come aboard.

So I departed my new friends. Several of them looked rather amused.

smiling people in Hengyang

During the middle of the trip, I saw a group of men trying to move a car.

men pushing a car partially submerged in flood waters

And after a 5 minute journey, I disembarked at an area with its own set of onlookers.

tube pumping out flood waters

My thanking the chengguan caused a bit of laughter. As the chenguan rowed away, I pondered the fact that the end of my raft ride had been filmed by a news crew from Hunan TV.

chengguan rowing a raft in a flooded street in Hunan

I then climbed some stairs to a long balcony and backtracked a bit. Progress of some sort had been made with the car in deeper waters although debate erupted over what to do next.

men in shoulder deep water around a submerged car

There were activities elsewhere, although I didn't stick around long enough to figure out what they had planned.

men untangling some rope or wire

For others, there was nothing to do but watch.

people sitting next to a flooded alley in Hunan

Eventually, I decided to depart, and I took one last look back.

men holding a raft

As I approached a main street, I saw a street sign indicating I was now at the opposite end of the same alley where I first noticed the flooding.

A local news report (in Chinese) confirms what the residents told me--this is not the area's first flooding.

Although the boats are somewhat fitting in an ironic manner, this certainly was not how I expected to spend the Dragon Boat Festival today in China. I am sure others felt the same. It was a somewhat surreal experience for me at times, but mostly I felt bad for the residents who have to deal with the flooding. Hopefully next year's holiday is more festive for them and all boats are far from their street.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Leap-the-Dips and a Roller Coaster at Hengyang's Yueping Park

Along with other attractions, Hengyang's Yueping Park has a small roller coaster.

metal roller coaster with track going through a giant cats mouth

Its small size reminds me of the first roller coaster I ever dared ride. Leap-the-Dips was one of my favorite amusement park rides as a child, especially due to its interweaving design and lack of fast speeds or big drops. I was also riding a piece of history. Leap-the-Dips, built in 1902, is the world's oldest roller coaster.

Although I have since developed a taste for more extreme roller coasters, Leap-the-Dips remains special. Lakemont Park in Logan Township has changed quite a bit since my childhood and lost much of its charm during some misguided development in the late 1980s, but fortunately Leap-the-Dips survives. If you are ever in the area of Altoona, PA, USA, I recommend stopping by the small park to enjoy a blast from the past on the wooden roller coaster.

I didn't notice a name for the metal roller coaster in Yueping Park and don't know if it has any remarkable history to tell. But, yeah, I rode it.

about to go through a giant cat's mouth while riding a roller coaster

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Wi-Fi and Notes in a Hengyang Black Tide

Admittedly, it was the name of a cafe on Changsheng Road in Hengyang, Hunan, which first caught my attention.

Black Tide (黑潮) cafe in Hengyang, Hunan, China

But I have returned to Black Tide (黑潮) several times due to its decent inexpensive iced milk tea and the friendly woman who has been working there anytime I have stopped by.

cup of iced Black Tide (黑潮) milk tea

When there, I have seen a mostly younger crowd. Sometimes they are using a piece of modern technology, whether a laptop ...

boy using a laptop at the Black Tide (黑潮) cafe

or, more commonly, a mobile phone, useful for taking advantage of Black Tide's free Wi-Fi.

girl viewing Chinese video on a mobile phone and many colored notes with messages on them at the Black Tide (黑潮) cafe

And sometimes they are writing messages on colored paper to publicly post there.

Free Wi-Fi, mobile devices, and colored notes with customers' messages can be found in many other cafes in China. This mix reminds me of issues and questions I earlier discussed regarding the value of looking at people's offline world when conducting user research for online services.

And it shows, like a reading protest in Thailand (related AP report), how paper can still matter in a high tech world.