Saturday, December 4, 2010

Rise of the Rooster

We all need to know more about China. In today's blog, however, I don't want to get into the litany of facts that others have been covering. Instead, I want to bring up something rather simple: What does China look like?

I mean on the map. The shape of China - what does it resemble?

Everyone in China learns what animal the map of China resembles. But practically no one outside of China knows.

The question came up for me when I was visiting Beijing for the first time a couple of years ago. I found myself in a cafe with some newfound Chinese friends. They could speak English well enough for us to communicate; I was grateful because I don't speak Chinese. Well, somehow, the conversation fell upon my international travels. But my friends did not know the words in English for the various countries of the world. (Funny how the word for "Belgium," for example, doesn't come up when you're learning basic English.)

So, I started sketching a map of the world on a napkin to point out countries. I did a pretty good job with the Americas and an ok job of drawing Europe, but when it came to Asia... well, I just drew a circle where China was supposed to be.

"That's not what China looks like!" said one of my friends, incredulously.

"Um," I said, "I don't know the intricacies of the borders, but I've got the location right: south of Russia and Mongolia, east of the Central Asian countries, northeast of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and north of the Southeast Asian countries, west of the Koreas--"

My friend interrupted me. "But China has a very specific shape. It's easy to draw. And it looks nothing like what you drew.

"China is shaped like a rooster!" she concluded.

She drew the rooster on the map, and, sure enough, that was definitely China. I asked her if this is something she came up with herself. She just laughed. It turns out that everyone in China learns this as a child. It is deep-seated in their minds – this is how they imagine their nation to be shaped.

I think that it's taught to children so early in China that they take it for granted. When I ask people from China if they know what the map of China resembles, they simply shrug "of course." But, perhaps because they take it for granted, it doesn't seem to be something that comes up for outsiders. No one I've chatted with from outside of China knows about it. Most people are really surprised by it. Some people mistakenly think I'm making a joke. And almost everyone is struck by how obvious it is, once you point it out.

I should note that ignorance of the rooster connection is something I've found world-wide, whether I ask people from the United States, Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia... Even people I've met from Taiwan don't know about it. Now, of course, there are some folks who do know. If you Google - China rooster - you'll find plenty of pages. Here's one that came up for me today.

But, ok, so you've learned a bit of trivia. So what? What can knowing the shape of China teach me about international political economy?

One thing that comes to mind is the territorial integrity of China. Chinese people know how their country is shaped, right down to little details.

The capital, Beijing, is at the throat of the rooster.

Harbin is the eye.

Shanghai is on the chest.

The Xizang Autonomous Region (a.k.a. Tibet) is part of the tailfeathers - and it is very much part of the rooster. Try plucking the tailfeathers off of a real rooster and see how fast he gouges you with beak and claws.

And speaking of those claws - some say that the island of Taiwan represents one of the feet - they ask, how long can a rooster stand on one leg? (I ask, can a more moderate conception of the rooster leave Taiwan out?... Or can we someday have 1 rooster with 2 or 3 systems? This may become a central question for the future of international security.)

The territorial integrity of China is important to Chinese governments in part because of the history of empires collapsing following the loss of territory. Let's set aside questions of endogeneity. If this is what Chinese governments believe, then separatist movements will not be tolerated. I learned this from my friend and colleage, Pierre Landry, author of Decentralized Authoritarianism in China: The Communist Party's Control of Local Elites in the Post-Mao Era. On the extent and importance of Chinese nationalism, he recommends China: Fragile Superpower, by Susan Shirk. On the value of Tibet to the PRC, I recommend recent research by my friends/colleagues Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann (the paper is here). They show that when the Dalai Lama is received by a country's government at the highest level, the country suffers reduced access to Chinese markets - exports to China drop. Check out the story here. (And for my view, click here.)

Finally, the #1 reason to remember the rooster shape is that it is a great way to get young children interested in learning the geography of a country that is going to become even more important over the course of their lives. Also, teach them to ask/state, "who"/"Hu" is the president of China. (They may also have fun with this: "Who is the next President of China? No, Hu is the current President. Xi ("she") is the next President.")

Roosters, wordplays, and China - great fun for the kiddies...


  1. Jim, many many many countries use such devices: The Netherlands is a roaring Lion, Finland is the Finnish Maiden, etc. etc. etc. etc. It's very interesting and probably also a devie to commit to defend the "homeland" but not go for more than the homeland.

  2. Rooster is already an acceptance of loss of territory, Mongolia, Tuva etc., which was not the case in Taiwan (at least legally speaking). That is why they did not learn that Republic of China looked like rooster. I forgot what animal they chose instead.

    By the way, it is quite unnecessary to learn the English name of "Belgium", since their country is breaking apart, hehe.

  3. Wow, this is important -- and I got to be this old without knowing. You reminded me that I learned that Ireland is a teddy bear. I can't remember who told me that, but I am positive it was one of my aunts or uncles. But they all look alike, or maybe that was just when I had to look way up in the air to see them.

    Did you fix the link for "Tibet" to come up in the U.S. on purpose? A comment on the Tibetian Diaspora?

    Hope all is well with you & that the universe is treating you kindly,

  4. it also kind of looks like woody woodpecker, now that you mention it

  5. Before losing Mongolia, China had a shape of "begonia".

  6. @Anthony: A begonia?! It was probably worth it to get rid of Mongolia. Roosters are way cooler! How did you find out?

  7. The map's, globe ,and all who held the dumb end of the tape measure ??/ Globe you people are still in the ore stone age.

  8. The map's, globe ,and all who held the dumb end of the tape measure ??/ Globe you people are still in the ore stone age.