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Saving face

[ 2009-10-12 15:57]     字号 [] [] []  
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Early October is Nobel Prize announcement week. It is often an agonizing and even humiliating period for some Chinese who see the prize as the yardstick of our nation's scientific and educational development.

When the occasional overseas Chinese person wins the prize, it somehow accentuates the pain, as it appears to show the Chinese as a race are capable of the highest achievements in science, but we are somehow handicapped by something else, say, our system.

This obsession with the world's best-known awards reflects both our aspirations about being part of the world club and a deep-rooted insecurity about self-worth. We want to be recognized and what could be better than a world-renowned prize?

Take the Oscars, for example. Winners of Chinese ethnicity are so thoroughly embraced in China they are almost guaranteed top salaries and lifetime employment. On the other hand, some Chinese filmmakers, like Feng Xiaogang, who have not been similarly anointed justify their exclusion by dismissing the Oscars as the United States' "domestic affair".

But this line of reasoning does not apply to the Nobel Prize. After all, the winners are rarely Swedish.

What gives the prize special cachet for many Chinese is not the cash prize, nor the prestige within the science community. As strange as it may sound, the gravitas of the Nobel Prize is hammered home by the State-run media that constantly cites the handful of overseas Chinese winners. The names Tsung-dao Lee, Samuel C.C. Ting and Chen Ning Yang are lauded in hundreds of millions of Chinese homes.

To illustrate their household fame, one need only take a look at Chen Ning Yang, who shared the Nobel in physics with Lee in 1957. When Yang, 82, announced his engagement to 28-year-old Weng Fan a few years ago, it made banner headlines across the nation.

Granted, later additions to the Chinese-American pantheon of Nobel winners have received much less media coverage. Ask most Beijingers about Steven Chu and they probably do not know he has become the US secretary of energy. When Charles Kao was made one of the three winners of this year's Nobel Prize in physics, the news was greeted with muted applause. In an online survey at Huanqiu's website, 73 percent of some 6,000 respondents said they did not feel "a sense of glory" about an overseas Chinese winning the prize.

Does that mean we do not care for the Nobel? No. In the same survey, 80 percent "looked forward to a Chinese scientist winning" and 59 percent believe one will "in the near future".

Chen Ning Yang has predicted that Chinese scientists, meaning Chinese inside China, will bring home the coveted trophy within 20 years. Yang has always been bullish about China's education. In numerous speeches he has extolled the virtues of emphasizing basic math skills and adds schools in China do much better at this than the US.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman also wrote glowingly about our education system but there has been a chorus of disapproval here - to the point that someone fabricated the news that an ex-president of Yale University lambasted it from the US perspective. It was so harsh and spot-on it could have been only from an insider.

Yes, we churn out world-class exam-takers, but we tend to smother creativity. Our mechanical approach to learning hardly qualifies us to be pioneers and leaders in science, which requires out-of-the-box thinking. In China, you risk being a pariah if you do not conform. If you don't write a certain number of theses and publish them in certain journals, you risk losing your job or tenure.

That has given rise to a culture of padding academic writing by plagiarizing and presenting a facade of academic richness. Corruption is so rampant it has embroiled presidents of universities and colleges.

Despite all the fanfare, the country is spending much less on research than industrialized nations. For example, the US expends 2.8 percent of its gross domestic product on scientific research, while China spends just 0.83 percent. Since our economy is booming, the absolute amount is expanding, but where is the money going? According to Wang Yanchun, a commentator at Rednet.com, funds often go to the purchase of office buildings and automobiles, while research gets a lower priority.

Science transcends national borders, but literature often encounters the barrier of language. Of all the Nobel categories, the literature prize is the one that the average Chinese covets the most. As of 2008, only one Chinese writer has won, and he - Gao Xingjian - is a French citizen.

Literature is not like science. Since the opening-up policy some three decades ago, China has produced a stream of great writers, some of whom are of Nobel caliber. But there are far more academics in China who read Western languages than Western academics who read Asian languages. So the global exposure of even the best contemporary Chinese writers is limited.

This week, I was asked by a Swedish newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, to share my views on the prize and predict this year's winner. Here's part of my response:

"I don't have any personal preference who should win. Winners, however, should be selected not only by their literary excellence, but by the everlasting value of their work. Many in China consider the Nobel Prize the ultimate award. We can totally understand why those 'flash in the pans' should be eschewed and why the literature prize should not be evenly spread for demographic and political representation. That said, the award in literature does seem to be largely Western-centric with an occasional nod to Asian writers, which can be interpreted as a symbolic gesture of friendliness and goodwill.

"For many years, there was a yearning in China for one of our own to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Now that sentiment has subsided. While it is true it is not a popularity contest and does not have the responsibility to buoy the spirit of a nation, it is losing relevance among lovers of literature in China. So, to answer your question, it does not matter one way or another. The selection process is secretive and elitist, and there is little joy in guessing who will win. As long as it is a worthy choice, nobody will complain - not in public."

I have no idea whom the Nobel jury will select. If an award is determined by a panel of thousands, one can study trends and gauge where the wind is blowing. But if the jury is made up of a dozen people, anything can happen. The dynamics of discussion and persuasion will determine the result. But the five finalists are not made public. Even if they were, the likelihood of making a right guess is not high. Statistically, the winner will be a writer from a Western country. Much as I'd love a Chinese writer to win, say, Mo Yan, Yu Hua or Su Tong, I would not bet on it.

OK, by the time you read this column, the literature prize will have been announced. If the winner is a Chinese person living in China, rest assured people will line up to buy their books. There will be pages of press coverage. Their childhood schoolmates will be asked to determine the initial spark of genius. He or she will be made vice chairman of the writers' association and will make public appearances, many at the government's request, to address the importance of "being a good student while young". The winner will attend so many official functions that it will leave little time for writing.

Maybe it is better they do not win now, only after their creative juices dry up.




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