More Weekend Reading

In the Gettysburg address, Abraham Lincoln said:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. 

Now the Gettysburg address is not the subject of this post at all.  Instead, this is about a chapter in a book written by 張大春 (Zhang Dachun).  This book is titled 《小說稗類》, which would be difficult to translate in English.  But the author has preceded the Chinese-language title page with a page that has these English words: "Passion of the books, by the books, for the books."  This is a play on the Gettysburg Address' reference to the people's government, but it might serve as an appropriate translation of the book title.

Zhang's book contains many chapters, each being a review of a different book or author.  I am specifically interested in the chapter about the novel Sing-song Girls of Shanghai 海上花列伝), also sometimes known as Flowers of Shanghai.  I had written about this book in this previous post Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, with some sample excerpts to explain why it is so interesting (that is, to someone who knows the Suzhou dialect).  I am told that Eileen Chang's English-language translation is ready to go to press at Colombia University Press, but for the reasons that I explained in that post, it will probably be a total bore to English-language readers.  You will understand what this means after you read what Zhang Dachun had to say below.

So what did Zhang Dachun say?  Very interesting things, in fact, which can be generalized beyond this particular novel.  Now I cannot give you an exact translation of his full article, because the English language cannot do justice to Zhang's kind of literary style as well as the details.  So all I can do is to try to get the points across in very simple terms.

The first literary appraisal of Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai actually occurred before the publication of the novel.  During a long boat journey in the late nineteenth century, the author Han Ziyun (韓子雲) of Sing-song Girls of Shanghai encountered another writer Sun Yusheng (孫玉聲) and they exchanged manuscripts to read.  The dialogue in Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai was rendered in the Suzhou (also known as Wu) dialect, whereas Sun used the Beijing dialect in his book.  After reading Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, Sun made a prediction that this book will probably be read by only a few people since the Suzhou dialect is not well known around the country.  In fact, Sun was proven correct and he was also correct about predicting that his own book would be selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

After publication, Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai foundered for a few decades until one of the literary giants of Chinese literature, Hu Shi (胡適), took up the cause.  On June 30, 1926, Hu Shi completed a long introduction to a new edition of Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai.  He asserted that "the greatest contribution by this author is that he used the Suzhou dialect."  Why is that so important?  Hu Shi said: "The national literature of China emerged from the literatures of the regional dialects, and therefore it needs to continue to find new materials, new blood and new life from the literatures of the regional dialects.  Furthermore, speaking on behalf of the national literature, in the broad sense of literature, we must necessarily rely on the regional dialects."

The view that the regional literatures are there to 'enrich' the national literature is perhaps a definining characteristic of the new national language that is based primarily on the Beijing dialect spoken by officials.  For the purpose of establishing a national language, the Beijing dialect was selected because it happened to be the dialect of the national capital.  Other than that, there is no linguistic reason why it is superior to any other regional dialect.  Given this background, we can understand the fundamental assumption: any regional dialect can be co-opted in a by-now standardised manner into the more powerful national language, so as to become a beneficial part.  This is what Hu Shi meant: all the rich vocabularies of the regional dialect will eventually become the "new materials, new blood and new life" of the national literature.

This reeks of hegemony and colonialism.  Somehow, someone is cutting chunks of regional vocabularies out from their original context and then re-purposing them for the national literature.  Hu Shi assigned a supportive and subordinate role to the regional literatures, which are deemed useful only to the extent that they can help the national literature.

Was that what the author of Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai had in mind for his work?  Well, it is absurd to think any author should think that.  In his own words, Han Ziyun said that if Cao Xuejin (曹雪芹) could write Dream Of The Red Chamber in Beijing dialect, then why couldn't he write a novel in Suzhou dialect?

With this understanding, we can go back and revisit the prediction made by Sun Yusheng.  His comments now become obnoxious, but not because he was boasting about how well his own book would sell whereas Han's wouldn't.  The problem was that Sun was clueless.  Yes, he was clueless.  It never occurred to him (nor Hu Shi, for that matter) that Han Ziyun knew exactly what he was doing -- he knew what he was writing and he knew who his audience was.  Han was not writing for people who don't understand the Suzhou dialect, and he was totally not interested in revolutionizing the regional literature or re-vitalizing a national literature.  He took a completely different route by writing in the Suzhou dialect for those people who can understand it.  And I should add on his behalf, "The hell with the rest of the world!"  Both Sun Yusheng and Hu Shi were just projecting their own values, attitudes, opinions and preferences.

In 1983, Eileen Chang (張愛玲) published a 'translation' of Sing-song Girls of Shanghai in standard Chinese.  This was definitely a labor of love.  In her own words afterwards, Eileen Chang was dissatisfied because she sensed that "a bit of something in there had died" (有點什麼東西死了).  You can read my previous post Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai for an example.  Given the apparent failure for the Sing-song Girls of Shanghai to even migrate successfully from Suzhou dialect into standard Chinese in the hands of an expert translator, I cannot imagine how the English-reading world will take to the forthcoming English translation.  

This post is based upon what Zhang Dachun wrote about the topic.  At the outset, I wrote: "Now I cannot give you an exact translation [of what Zhang wrote], because the English language cannot do justice to Zhang's kind of literary style."  So it is the same theme all over again -- some things just do not translate well.

Before you think the Chinese are snobs who would rather keep things to themselves because the foreign devils can't deal with them anyway, I will offer you the symmetrical example.  There is no Chinese translation of James Joyce's Finnengans Wake, and I don't think anyone should bother doing so either.  Finnengans Wake is meant to be read in English (see related Dream of the Red Chamber and the Reverse Opium War).  The Joyce scholar Anthony Burgess has said, "Literature cannot be translated, only the appearance of literature, the arrangement on a page of words which do a minimal job, that of describing action, feelings, and dialogue of a fairly easily translatable kind."  And it is a matter of degree, and there will be books in which translations are simply not good enough.


(Taipei Times)  Beijing struggles to make a polyglot nation conform.  December 3, 2004.

Thousands of years of Chinese linguistic heritage have come down to a squabble over Tom and Jerry.  Dubbed into regional Chinese languages, the warring cat and mouse have been huge TV hits -- and a good way to pass home-grown culture down to the younger generation, programmers say.

Not so fast, says Beijing, which for decades has promoted standard Mandarin as the only Chinese language worthy of the airwaves.  The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has ordered an end to broadcasting in different Chinese languages, saying kids should be raised in a "favorable linguistic environment."

The move has put Tom and Jerry -- or Cat and Mouse, as the show is called here -- at the center of a long-running debate about how to maintain national cohesion amid a linguistic sea of highly distinct regional accents, languages and separate language groups.

"As an artist, I think dialect should be preserved as a part of local culture," says Zhang Dingguo, deputy director of the Shanghai People's Comedy Troupe which does Tom and Jerry in Shang-hainese. "Schools don't allow Shanghainese to be spoken, and now TV doesn't either. It looks like Shanghai comedy will be dying out."

The government calls the Mandarin policy vital to promoting a common Chinese identity in this vast land of 1.3 billion people, 56 ethnic groups and seven main Chinese languages spoken by the Han ethnic majority.

Promotion of Mandarin -- began in the 1920s and became policy in 1955, six years after the communists seized power. Its use has been encouraged through an unending series of social campaigns, including the current one featuring TV presenter Wang Xiaoya on billboards exhorting Shanghainese to "speak Mandarin ... be a modern person."

In the latest campaign, Shanghai city officials are being required to attend classes on perfecting their pronunciation and schools are nom-inating contestants in city-wide Mandarin speech contests.

The languages of minority groups such as Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians are officially recognized and taught in schools. Important documents are translated into major minority tongues and four of them appear on Chinese bank notes.

Rising incomes, greater travel freedom and the spread of education are also helping to break down linguistic barriers. Yet no one is predicting they'll dissolve entirely -- or soon.

"Many parts of China are heading for a situation of what linguists call diglossia, where there is one `high' or public language ... and one `low' or local language that is used among friends and family," said Stevan Harrell, an expert on Chinese languages at the University of Washington.

Use of dialects may even be strengthening in some areas with strong local identities, sometimes for economic reasons. In Guangzhou, broadcasters are allowed to speak Cantonese to compete with the nearby Hong Kong stations.

In places like Guangzhou and Shanghai, prevalence of the local dialect helps exclude outsiders from social networks that are key to securing good jobs and entry to better schools. Outsiders say it smacks of bigotry.

"If you want to find a good job and be a success in Shanghai, you have to speak Shanghai-nese. Even if you do, they can pick you out by your accent and discriminate against you," said Steven Li, an accounting student flying home to Chongqing.

Preservation, not exclusion, was the purpose of Tom and Jerry in dialect, Zhang said.  "You've got Shanghainese kids who can't even speak Shanghai-nese," he complains. "I have friends who've moved to Shanghai and want to learn the language to better integrate into local society.

"Isn't watching TV easier than studying textbooks?" he said.  For now, Tom and Jerry will continue in Shanghainese on video, along with other versions in close to a dozen dialects.

Mandarin's influence reaches deep. Speaking the language well is considered a sign of good breeding and education. And because China has bound use of Mandarin so closely to the idea of national unity, promotion of other dialects can sometimes be seen as insulting if not traitorous. Even at an entertainment awards show in Shanghai, Chinese reporters drown out Hong Kong celebrities speaking in Cantonese with exasperated shouts of "speak Mandarin." 


Chinese poster urging the people 
to speak putonghua in conversations


(Los Angeles Times)  Tom and Jerry at Heart of China's Linguistic Storm.  By Christopher Bodeen.  December 19, 2004.

Thousands of years of Chinese linguistic heritage have come down to this: a squabble over Tom and Jerry.

Dubbed into regional Chinese dialects, the warring cat and mouse have been huge TV hits and a good way to pass home-grown culture down to the younger generation, programmers say.

Not so fast, says the central government up north in Beijing, which for decades has promoted standard Mandarin as the only Chinese language worthy of the airwaves. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has ordered an end to broadcasting in dialect, saying kids should be raised in a "favorable linguistic environment."

The move has put Tom and Jerry or "Cat and Mouse," as the show is called here at the center of a long-running debate about how to maintain national cohesion amid a linguistic sea of highly distinct regional accents, dialects and wholly separate language groups.

"As an artist, I think dialect should be preserved as a part of local culture," said Zhang Dingguo, deputy director of the Shanghai People's Comedy Troupe, which does Tom and Jerry in Shanghainese.

"Schools don't allow Shanghainese to be spoken, and now TV doesn't either. It looks like Shanghai comedy will be dying out," he added.

The government calls the Mandarin policy vital to promoting a common Chinese identity in this vast land of 1.3 billion people, 56 ethnic groups and seven main Chinese dialects spoken by the Han ethnic majority.

"Thank you" is pronounced "xie xie" in Beijing, "do jey" in Hong Kong and "sha zha" in Shanghai. Need to know a price? Ask "wa tsui gim" in Fujian, but "duoshao qian" in Mandarin-speaking northern China.

The pronunciation of Chinese surnames can induce mild identity crisis. Mr. Xu (pronounced "shoe") in northern China becomes Mr. Ko in Fujian, which itself is called Hokkien in the local dialect.

Promotion of Mandarin known here as "putonghua," or "common tongue" began in the 1920s and became policy in 1955, six years after the communists seized power. Its use has been encouraged through an unending series of social campaigns, including the current one featuring TV presenter Wang Xiaoya on billboards exhorting Shanghainese to "speak Mandarin be a modern person."

In the latest campaign, Shanghai city officials are being required to attend classes on perfecting their pronunciation, schools are nominating contestants in citywide Mandarin speech contests, and foreigners are being invited to Mandarin classes.

Totally distinct from Chinese, the languages of minority groups such as Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians are officially recognized and taught in schools. Important documents are translated into major minority tongues and four of them Tibetan, Mongolian, Uighur and Zhuang appear on Chinese bank notes.

Chinese dialects are based on the same system of writing. That means that Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong can enjoy subtitled Mandarin movies and Mandarin-speakers can order off Chinese menus in the far west of the country.

Rising incomes, greater travel freedom and the spread of education are also helping to break down linguistic barriers. Yet no one is predicting that they'll dissolve entirely or soon.

"Many parts of China are heading for a situation of what linguists call diglossia, where there is one 'high' or public language and one 'low' or local language that is used among friends and family," said Stevan Harrell, an expert on Chinese languages at the University of Washington.

Use of dialects may even be strengthening in some areas with strong local identities, sometimes for economic reasons. In Guangzhou (that's Mandarin for the great southern city of Canton), broadcasters are allowed to speak Cantonese to compete with the nearby Hong Kong stations.

In places like Guangzhou and Shanghai, prevalence of the local dialect helps exclude outsiders from social networks that are key to securing good jobs and entry to better schools. Outsiders say it smacks of bigotry.

"If you want to find a good job and be a success in Shanghai, you have to speak Shanghainese. Even if you do, they can pick you out by your accent and discriminate against you," said Steven Li, an accounting student flying home to the western city of Chongqing.

Preservation, not exclusion, was the purpose of Tom and Jerry in dialect, said Zhang, the producer.  "You've got Shanghainese kids who can't even speak Shanghainese," he said. "I have friends who've moved to Shanghai and want to learn the language to better integrate into local society.  Isn't watching TV easier than studying textbooks?"

Zhang cites semi-legal Shanghainese broadcasting that pops up on local radio as evidence of continued demand for dialect programming. For now, Tom and Jerry will continue in Shanghainese on video, along with other versions in close to a dozen dialects.  Oddy enough, Tom and Jerry didn't speak in the original cartoons, so the dialect versions give them voices they never had.

Despite support for dialects, Mandarin's influence reaches deep. Speaking the language well is considered a sign of good breeding and education. And because China has bound use of Mandarin so closely to the idea of national unity, promotion of other dialects can sometimes be seen as insulting if not traitorous.

Self-governing Taiwan's efforts to promote its local dialect have been angrily denounced in Beijing as "anti-Chinese." Even at an entertainment awards show in Shanghai, Chinese reporters drown out Hong Kong celebrities speaking in Cantonese with exasperated shouts of "speak Mandarin."

The annual meeting of China's legislature is a jamboree of regional accents and languages. Delegates, including Tibetans, Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong and Macao, and Turkic Uighurs from Xinjiang in the remote northwest, struggle to make themselves understood in Mandarin. Other delegates and Chinese reporters strain to understand.

The farther from Beijing, though, the tougher communication becomes.  In the bazaar in Minfeng, a town deep in the Xinjiang desert, ethnic Chinese strain to understand Turkic Uighurs' thickly accented, broken Mandarin.

"Every Uighur student who comes here has already learned Chinese in elementary school. Their levels vary wildly, but they can all understand it at certain levels," said Li Qiang, principal of Middle School No. 1 in Korla, a town in central Xinjiang.  But, he added, "we sometimes need to work very hard to understand each other."