Wise Words

Mark Elvin

  • The Pinyin Chinese-English Dictionary edited by Wu Jingrong
    Commercial Press (Peking and Hong Kong)/Pitman, 976 pp, £12.00, November 1979, ISBN 0 273 08454 2

This is a dictionary of a language that does not yet quite exist. If this seems a paradoxical way to talk of standard modern Chinese, the paradox is easily enough resolved by a brief account of its origins. Let us, for the sake of simplicity, take the spoken and the written languages separately.

The subdialects spoken in the northern part of China have long been a mosaic of vernaculars that are more or less mutually comprehensible, but only very more or less. Since the late 19th century efforts have been made to evolve a standard form that would serve as a common medium of communication for all Chinese, whether from the north or not. The 1911 revolution interrupted a Central Congress of Teachers, meeting in the capital to devise such a national language (guoyu). In 1919 a rather complicated National Pronunciation was created, and recorded by Y.R. Chao, who later remarked that for more than ten years he was the only person in the country who actually spoke this artificial correct Chinese. A simpler system was adopted in 1932, very close to the Peking pronunciation system, and used as the basis for the Dictionary of the National Language published from 1937 to 1945. All later dictionaries of standard modern Chinese, including the one under review here, have been based on this pioneering work, although the overlap of phrases defined is now probably under 50 per cent. All of them have been, of intention, prescriptive as much as descriptive.

At the same time as this ‘common speech’ was being developed, there was a parallel movement to adopt the spoken language for writing on serious subjects. As early as 1898, enthusiasts like Ch’iu Ting-liang had attacked traditional literary Chinese (whose more recondite forms could only be understood by a small élite) as ‘a matchless vehicle for keeping the nation in ignorance’. He was overstating his case. Evelyn Rawski’s recent work has shown that there was quite a high level of popular literacy in pre-modern China, enough to support circulating libraries in the cities and a mass of cheap books, some of which sold for as little as the price of a bowl of noodles. Simple literary Chinese, stripped of allusions and erudite phrases, is not hard for a native speaker to learn, and can be a most effective means of communication. It was the basis of most newspaper Chinese in the first half of this century, and still is outside the People’s Republic.

The old written language was largely unintelligible when spoken aloud, but it served as the written esperanto on which the administrative and cultural unity of China depended. With its decline, national cohesion has demanded that everybody learn the new northern standard, at least as a second tongue. The government of the PRC has continued and intensified earlier efforts in this direction, and with a high degree of success, especially among the young.

But unification has had its price. The early propagandists for the universal use of the vernacular believed that its closeness to life gave it an energy and a sensitivity that were impossible for the frozen literary style. Hu Shih pointed to the masterpieces of pre-modern colloquial writing, above all to novels such as The Story of the Stone, and championed books like Han Tzu-yun’s Flowers on the Sea, written in 1894 with Soochow dialect dialogue and a northern vernacular narrative. He argued that the ‘spirit and atmosphere’ of Han’s novel would have evaporated if his Shanghai characters had had to talk in dead literary phrases or even in contemporary Pekingese. Those familiar with the flat quality of the English English of many Scottish writers who sparkle in their own Scots will appreciate the problem. The emerging standard national language, required for reasons of state, is far from being a fully living tongue for most Chinese, to put it no more strongly; and the hope of regional literatures seems to have gone for ever.

The practical necessity for a uniform spoken and written norm will increase if ever the Chinese Government decides to abandon its morphemic script in favour of a phonemic one, such as ours, for general use. (‘Morphemic’ means that the Chinese writing system uses distinctive graphs for the smallest distinctive units of meaning rather than for the smallest distinctive units of sound. Thus ‘heliotropism’ requires three graphs, one each for ‘facing’, ‘sun’ and ‘character’.) Morphemic graphs, like Arabic numerals, do not depend on pronunciation to be intelligible. At present, phonemic scripts like Pinyin can only be used inside China as educational aids. After full language standardisation, they could in principle replace the old characters for general use, purchasing efficiency at the cost of cutting the people off from almost their entire literary inheritance. It is a choice that the Chinese are unlikely to be in a hurry to make.

Various systems of transliterating Chinese have been used by westerners since the 16th century. None of them are much good. Customary practice mixes them up, which compounds the confusion. There is only one argument, but it is a powerful one, for keeping to the current western mixture of two late 19th-century systems – Wade Giles and Post Office. In most newspapers, encyclopedias, atlases, and indices generally, the same names appear as the same, or more or less the same, making effective cross-referencing possible. Introducing a new system, particularly if, like Pinyin, it changes a lot of the initial letters, can only be defended if it is overwhelmingly superior. The one possible candidate for such a replacement was the tonal spelling created by Y.R. Chao and others under the Nationalist Government. In the 1950s, presumably for political reasons, the PRC rejected this and opted for the relatively mediocre Pinyin, which is a version of a Russian system. This presumably irreversible mistake has made the transliterator’s babel worse than it has been since the middle of the 19th century.

Chinese has not had a problem creating new terms for new ideas. As early as 1913, Mateer published a dictionary of Chinese neologisms covering science and current affairs. The usual method has been to match morpheme with morpheme, as in the example of ‘heliotropism’. Sometimes an idea is rendered more generally. ‘Evolution’ is ‘advancing-transformation’, and ‘gravitation’ is ‘attraction-power-effect’. The very ease of this process has led to numerous competing alternative terms. ‘Airplane’ was at first either ‘fly-ship’ or ‘fly-machine’, but in recent years the first of these has been reserved for lighter-than-air craft. There are two main ‘dialects’ of modern Chinese. One is the PRC standard of the Pinyin and the other mainland dictionaries; the other is the Diaspora standard represented by, for example, Cheng I-li’s New English-Chinese Dictionary published in Hong Kong. To give one example only: a ball-point pen is a ‘round-pearl-brush’ in the first, and either an ‘atom-steel-brush’ or a ‘magic-pearl-brush’ in the second.

Translation of western books has led to structural changes first in written and then in spoken Chinese. The old literary style was based on a remarkable, and very economical, system of what might be called ‘two-level complementary linear ordering’. The sequence of ideas at sentence level was from general to particular: contexts of time, space and topic were followed by the agent or the actor, and then by a categorisation, comment, consequence or action, with further detailed specifications appended. Sentences of this sort could be embedded in other sentences. At phrase level, the sequence was reversed, and went from particular to general, with strings of qualifiers preceding the term qualified. Marker-terms were sparingly used to prevent ambiguities and sharpen the sense. There was no exact equivalent of the ‘word’ in our sense. Chinese linguistic chemistry bonded morphemes to each other in a variety of ways and with varying degrees of tightness. There was no inflection, and no parts of speech, though some morphemes and groups normally functioned as such in a fairly unambiguous manner. This summary is far too simple and schematic, but it indicates how the language could operate with no grammar as we would commonly understand it. Translationese has brought overt grammatical constructions and a wide use of suffixes defining word-class. It is still important to be sensitive to idea-order, but the latter is no longer so rigorously observed, being no longer so necessary.

In his superb Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage, published in Hong Kong in 1962, Lin Yü-t’ang labelled compounds as ‘nouns’, ‘verbs’, and so forth. In my opinion, this was mistaken. Thus for zhengyin he gives ‘n. correct pronunciation’. The Pinyin, rightly, has both ‘to correct one’s pronunciation’ and ‘standard pronunciation’ – verb and noun. That a master-lexicographer should have thought such a procedure defensible shows how the tide of change is flowing. The Pinyin dictionary does not analyse the language. Unlike Chao and Yang’s Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese, it does not even label ‘free’ and ‘bound’ morphemes or show which compounds may be split by insertions in certain contexts, and which may not. Nor does the Pinyin show the effect of neighbouring tones on each other, which makes it an unreliable guide to pronunciation.

Somewhat primitive analytically, the dictionary becomes a fascinating document when set in its political and ideological context. An understandable taboo has caused the disappearance of the Kuomintang-flavoured term ‘national language’ (guoyu), an irony in a dictionary devoted to it. Modern notions of a heterodox nature are omitted. The reader will not find ‘telepathy’ (shenjing ganying shu) or ‘extrasensory perception’ (chaoganjueli). Obscene terms are censored. Jiba (‘cock’ = ‘penis’) is missing, and so is the more respectable yangwu, which has the same meaning. Considerately, it omits ‘big-nose’, an uncomplimentary term for westerners. Chauvinistically unacceptable names for geographical features are not even accorded the minimal existence needed for explanations. I am all for calling the highest mountain in the word by its Tibetan name, but to gloss Zhumulangma simply as ‘Qomolangma’ is carrying politico-lexicographical prudery to a ridiculous degree of uninformativeness.

It skirts the ideological minefields, sown during recent factional warfare, with a non-committal prudence. The 1965 New China Dictionary defined ru ‘Confucianism’ as ‘a school which advocated benevolence and righteousness’. The Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Dictionary of 1973 gave it as a school that ‘represented the interests of the exploiting class’. The Pinyin, in 1979, says ‘Confucianism; Confucianist’ and avoids any definition. To be anti-Confucian would suggest a pro-Gang attitude: to be pro-Confucian would hardly be Maoist. More intriguing is the absence of the three terms for the ‘thesis’, ‘antithesis’ and ‘synthesis’ of the dialectic (often shortened to the triad zheng-fan-he). Even the Dictionary of the National Language, produced under the KMT, gives a six-line explanation. Is it because ‘synthesis’ hints at an easing of the class struggle? As the Pinyin helpfully reminds readers under the entry liangfenfa, ‘a Communist must acquire the Marxist dialectical concept of one dividing into two with regard to achievements and shortcomings, truth and falsehood.’ Glosses on terms of Cultural Revolution origin are either absent or inadequate. Kaimen banxue, the system of sending students periodically to participate in productive labour, is merely ‘open-door schooling’. Sanjiehe is given as ‘three-in-one combination’, and explained as the later union of old, middle-aged and young rather than as the original ‘triple alliance’ of old cadres, army officers and new activists. Occasionally political considerations lead to semantic confusion. Thus beiguanzhifenzi, ‘someone under surveillance’, is explained as ‘a person under the surveillance of the masses’, when it is of course the surveillance of the authorities that he is under. Here the wary reader has to translate the translation.

The Pinyin is designed to promote a society cleansed of superstitions and pre-Communist social relationships. The reader of Lin Yü-t’ang’s dictionary will find zhengqi to mean ‘a sense of honour, sense of right, the moral sense’. In the Pinyin it is ‘a healthy atmosphere’. Buddhist terms like zhengguo, ‘spiritual progress through the right path’, and Confucian ones like zhengming, ‘the doctrine of calling a thing by its right name’, have been exorcised into limbo. So have some traditional kinship terms, such as zhengshi, ‘principal wife’, and zhengzhi, ‘eldest son in the senior sublineage’. Status-defining terms of polite address are alive and well in Diaspora Chinese, as may be seen from Kuo Lin-juan’s Present-Day Practical Usage, a textbook for Hong Kong secondary schools. The majority do not figure in Pinyin. In return, there are numerous names of chemicals, minerals and plants, and what seems like the entire lexicon of Chinese medicine. There is an odour of self-congratulation in the dictionary’s emphasis on science, and certain Chinese inventions, such as the seismograph, are written up at some length.

Older Chinese dictionaries illustrated usage with tags such as ‘the filial son grows from the end of the rod,’ and ‘in a badly governed state it is a shame to enjoy wealth and honours.’ In much the same spirit, the Pinyin offers such aphorisms as ‘the lowly are the most intelligent; the élite are most ignorant,’ and ‘where the revisionist line prevailed, bad people were not looked down upon and good people were not looked up to.’ The examples of usage are a catechism of Chinese revolutionary belief (‘without destruction there can be no construction’) and improving exhortations (‘swimming is good for old people too’). I have done no computer count, but the detection and destruction of enemies seems to be a leitmotiv.

The English is full of what may be called ‘PRCese’ – terms which only occur in translations of Chinese Communist texts. ‘Bad element’ designates a person behaving contrary to Party policy, and ‘class status’ is a politically-assigned status defined in terms of a notional economic class.

Just occasionally the chill of everyday life comes through: in the terms ‘residence permit’, ‘food coupon’ and ‘denunciation meeting’, for instance, and in the sad example, ‘few people give birthday parties now.’ Much more entertaining are the proverbs and the picturesque language scattered through the pages ‘like stars in the sky or men on a chessboard’, to use a well-known Chinese expression. Someone who is meddlesome is ‘a dog trying to catch mice’. To insist on examining the realities before being convinced is ‘not to shed a tear until one sees the coffin’. Of someone who lacks self-knowledge it is said that ‘the eye cannot see its lashes.’ Perhaps the most appropriate of these sayings for a reviewer to end on is ‘the full bottle is silent, the half-filled bottle sloshes,’ which refers to the eagerness of the partially-informed to give opinions, and the silence of the wise.