1. Chinese people speak Chinese.
It’s a common misconception among foreigners that the Chinese people speak a single, unified language called “Chinese.” As any actual student of the language knows, the predominant language in China is in fact Mandarin, or, in some regions, Cantonese. Call me nit-picky if you must, but an English speaker unknowingly talking about “speaking Chinese” is an awful lot like saying “Americans speak American” or “Mexicans speak Mexican.” It’s either disregarding the culture or disregarding linguistic variation within that culture, and neither of those are trains you want to be on.
2. Everyone in China eats dog.
After I decided that I wanted to study abroad in China for a semester, I would invariably receive two questions from friends back home:
A. “Do you speak Chinese?”
B. “Are you going to eat dog?!”
Since I’ve already detailed my response to the first question (see above), allow me to unravel this second misconception. For some reason, pretty much everyone in the States thinks that every Chinese person and his mother eat dog meat on regular occasions. Tell a Beijinger that and they’ll likely give you an incredulous look. Now, while it’s undoubtedly true that some people in China do eat dog, it’s not nearly on the scale that most Americans would have you believe. I’ve been here a month and haven’t heard of anyone I know ever even seeing “dog” on a menu at a Chinese restaurant. In fact, as China has become more and more globally minded, the practice of eating dog is increasingly thought of as being old-fashioned or lower-class. Just two years ago there was even talk about legislation outright banning the sale of dogs or cats for consumption. So the next time you hear about the Chinese eating dog from one of your fellow compatriots, keep in mind that it’s hardly a national pastime, that millions of Chinese keep dogs as pets, and that your beloved Toto is far more likely to get sent to the wrong airport than end up in a hot pot.
3. A tunnel dug through the earth in the U.S. would reach all the way to China.
I remember that fateful day while playing in the back yard when my father said to me, “Stop digging up my garden. You’re probably already half way to China by now.” Instantly, opportunities that I never knew existed were displayed before me: if I could only keep up a steady rate of digging, then I would one day make it to China. With new-found determination, I made reaching the Far East by dinner time my goal for the day. Fortunately, I quickly lost interest in my endeavor because no matter how long I would have dug in the United States, I’d have never made it to China. The truth is I’d probably end up somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The closest I could even get to land would be off the coast of Perth, Australia, and that’s if I started in the Providence, Rhode Island area. Using an antipode map (a map that shows your position on the opposite side of the world) we can determine that if you want to dig a hole to Beijing, you would have to start somewhere in Argentina, a little bit south of Buenos Aires.
4. The Great Wall is the only man-made structure visible from space.
This myth was put into question when Yang Liwei, one of China’s own astronauts, could not make out the monument from space. While the Great Wall can not be seen with the naked eye in even a low Earth orbit, pictures have been taken using a 180mm lens that depict small sections of the wall in Inner Mongolia. As for being the only man-made structure visible from space, there are much clearer and more distinguishable pictures of many other landmarks taken from orbit, such as the ancient pyramids in Giza, Egypt.
Image taken by Leroy Chiao from the International Space Station showing section of the Great Wall in Inner Mongolia about 200 miles north of Beijing.
5. China has 5,000 years of history.
It’s hard to say exactly when Chinese civilization began, but scholars agree that the earliest written records and archeological artifacts are from the Shang Dynasty, which began in 1600 BC. While these records reference the earlier Xia Dynasty, no substantial evidence has been found from that time period. Going by historical documents, that only gives China about 3,612 years of history.
6. Breathing Beijing air is equivalent to smoking a pack a day.
The Beijing pollution is certainly not good for you, but it is no where near smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Dr. Richard Saint Cyr conducted a study that revealed the effects of breathing in Beijing air are closer to smoking 1/6 of a cigarette a day. This amount of exposure is comparable to the damage caused by breathing in second-hand smoke. While clean air is still preferable, you can probably return that iron lung you ordered.
7. China owns all of America’s debt.
China is by far the largest foreign holder of debt, with $1.16 trillion invested in the United States. However, this is only a little less than 8% of the $16 trillion in total debt that the U.S. has accrued. Surprisingly, the U.S. is almost equally indebted to Japan, who owns $1.12 trillion. The U.S. government itself is still the biggest lender, owning a solid 2/3 of the total national debt.
8. Gunpowder was invented in China, but wasn’t used as a weapon until the Europeans invented the gun.
It is commonly accepted that the Chinese invented gunpowder. It was originally developed to treat skin irritations. But once its incendiary nature was discovered, it was used for other pursuits, as fireworks and even guns. Yes, the Chinese did realize the military potential in gunpowder and developed a weapon known as the fire lance during the 10th century. These early firearms were made of bamboo or metal tubes and shot flames and shrapnel at the enemy. Considering gunpowder didn’t even make it to Europe until the 13th century, I’d say this one goes to China.
9. The name Coca-Cola rendered phonetically in Chinese translates into “bite the wax tadpole.”
The Coca-Cola Company never released a name with this meaning. However, names like this did surface in China when the beverage was being launched. Before a Chinese translation was decided on by the company, excited store owners were coming up with their own translations in order to make advertisements. Their only intention was to create a Chinese equivalent that sounded like the English name with no regard to the Chinese meaning. This resulted in several interesting variations on the name, including the infamous “bite the wax tadpole” (蝌蚪啃蜡, Kēdǒu kěnlà). Although that sounds awfully appetizing, the Coca-Cola Company opted to go with another name, “to permit the mouth to be able to rejoice” (可口可乐, Kěkǒu kělè). The rest was sweet, fizzy history.
10. Fortune cookies were invented in China and are served at all restaurants there.
Most Westerners that have eaten at a Chinese restaurant anywhere in North America naturally assume that fortune cookies are ubiquitous throughout China, having presumably been invented there. Once western tourists have their first meal in China, they quickly realize that there is no such thing as desert much less fortune cookies. The reason is because fortune cookies (签语饼 qiān yǔ bǐng) as we know them today were invented in California in the early 1900s. To this day, there is much dispute as to whether it was invented by the owner of a Japanese tea garden in San Francisco or the founder of a noodle company in Los Angeles. In fact, the two parties even took the issue to court in 1983, with San Francisco’s Court of Historical Review siding with the city of San Francisco as the origin point, but declining to choose the nationality of the inventor. Of course, the Los Angeles camp vehemently disputed the judge’s decision. In either case, it’s hard to imagine eating out at a Chinese restaurant anywhere in North America and not asking your friends to read aloud their fortunes.
Images Courtesy of NASA