Besieged Fortress - Part 3

In Part 2, I attempted a brief assessment of the accomplishments of Qian Zhongshu.  I assert that his reputation was less based upon his written work than his reputation as an erudite polyglot.  Qian must have surely shocked and awed so many people with his photographic memory of so many texts in different languages.

Recently, in the course of a dinner conversation, the subject of another polyglot of Chinese descent came up.  A younger person at the dining table wondered if such people exists anymore.  I smirked and did not attempt to answer the question at that time.  Afterwards, on further thought, I believe that this is an unfair and irrelevant question for today.

Let me make it clear that I do not mean bilingual persons of Chinese descent, because there are several million of people in Hong Kong who know Chinese and English.  Here, a polyglot is someone who knows three or more languages (and not just dialects).  This requirement implies that the person made an extra effort to acquire another language beyond that which his regular education automatically provides.

I have no means of telling how many polyglots of Chinese descent existed over time.  So I will have to speak to you from personal experience, specifically within my immediate family.  I am going to restrict the references to the paternal side of my family, since the maternal side is Chinese-American which would confuse the issue greatly.

My great-grandfather was a person of the 19th century under the Manchurian Dynasty.  He knew only Chinese and nothing else.  If I can put it bluntly, he belonged to the landlord class that deserved to be overthrown by the Chinese Communists.  But my grandfather was another story altogether.  He made a Faustian pact with his father whereby he agreed to marry a rich man's daughter to join two family fortunes in return for the opportunity to study overseas.  For several years, he traveled in Europe, primarily in France, Germany and Switzerland.

As a child, my grandfather was already famous as a Chinese scholastic prodigy.  His father didn't even know what to think of him and that was how he intimidated his father into permitting him to go to Europe.  While in Europe, he spent much time attending the theater in Paris and elsewhere.  As this was Europe right after the war, he had lots of hard cash which enabled him to bring back several thousand books French drama that were eventually donated to Yenching University.  Unfortunately, I have read that those books were appearing in the used book stalls of Beijing in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.  But I really don't know how many people today would be interested in the plays of Racine and the like.

My grandfather died before I was born.  But I imagine that he must have cut an extraordinary figure to his contemporaries, for here was a Chinese person who was fluent in Chinese, French, German, English, Spanish, Italian and Russian.  Unlike Qian Zhongshu, my grandfather did not have to work for a living.  He was essentially a dilettante, but I also know that he held a couple of jobs.

One of those jobs was as the director of the Qingdao Weather Observatory.  My grandfather probably knew little or nothing about weather forecasting.  But no matter, for Qingdao was a German protectorate and the most important thing was that my grandfather spoke fluent German.  So he took the job in Qingdao because China needed someone like him and besides the weather was good there (especially in the summer), and he lived in his own mansion.  He had a Chinese chef as well as a German chef, and he entertained the Germans with authentic 'home' cooking (as in sauerbrauten)  Later on, my grandfather also taught at Yenching University, which was eventually merged into the Peking University of today.

My grandfather's greatest moment of nameless fame was in the China travel book On A Chinese Screen by Somerset Maugham.  This was an unfortunate encounter when Maugham was visiting China.  My grandfather was being serious whereas Maugham was being flippant and it was a pathetic case of cultural misunderstanding.  I will probably return to blog on this subject later.

My grandfather died fairly young.  Had he lived longer, he might have been as famous as Qian Zhongshu.  Personally, I doubt that because his circumstances did not compel him to write.  As it stands, the only written record attributed to my grandfather is the catalog of his personal library collection, which I came across at the Harvard-Yenching Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

My father was a foreign language major at Yenching University.  This was very much accomplished on his own, since his father had passed away when he entered university.  His domain was in Chinese and English, although he probably knew a smattering of French (why else would he pick a quintessentially French name for me?).  However, his impact on the two languages was significantly higher than his father.

Among my father's literary legacies are a series of English-to-Chinese translations, from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to Brideshead Revisited to The Captive Heart.  He was the founder of the Translation Center at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the translation magazine Renditions.  So his impact on the art of translation was formidable.

But my father was also many other things as well.  He was a movie producer/scriptwriter for several movies and his works are regarded as classics of the 1950s/1960s eras.  He was also one of the acknowledged experts in the study field of the novel Dream of Red Chamber.  The point here is that while my father only had two languages, his interests and coverage were much broader than those of his father, who knew seven languages but was only interested in drama.

As for me, my primary language is in fact English.  I have full comprehension of written/spoken Chinese, and I worked for some years in Chinese-to-English translation, mostly for law enforcement agencies in the United States.  I can also read French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian for professional work, as you might have noticed some occasional translations on this blog.

But I do not consider myself a polyglot.  I do not make a living because I know multiple languages.  My interests are elsewhere.  At various times, among other things, I have been a mathematical statistician with a doctoral thesis on nonparametric multivariate regression, a sociologist who did mathematical models of collective behavior, a computer programmer who coded in IBM assembly language, a media measurement scientist who covers television, radio and print media, a website operator and now, least of all, a blogger.  Along the way, I occasionally needed linguistic knowlege and I acquired them to the necessary extent (e.g. to know enough Spanish/Portuguese to read the Latin American newspapers and magazines whose audiences were being measured and whose websites were being listed).

If you follow the progression of the three generations in my family, you will see what I mean about the original question.  If the goal is narrowly defined as being someone like Qian Zhongshu, versed in multiple languages and writing learned books, there is every reason to believe that this generation should be able to produce someone like that.

But this generation is also faced with an increasingly complex world, in which the role of the pure scholar of philology is no longer plausible.  Today's intellectuals face an astonishing array of information that is not just restricted to a list of literary texts in various languages.  Therefore, the question of whether we will have another Qian Zhongshu is unfair and irrelevant.  I believe that they are everywhere, but on very different terms that reflect the multivalent realities of today.