Seek truth from facts

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:13 pm

The Atlantic has a post by Matt Schiavenza entitled “What’s with the Chinese Communist Party and Slogans” It’s a nice little piece on the vapid sounding slogans that post-Deng Chinese leaders announce to set the tenor of their reigns. Like papal names these are often pretty opaque to outsiders. What Schiavenza does not discuss is that slogans go back way further than 1978. The Maoist period had lots of them, and you still see both the faded Maoist ones and new ones on walls all over China. Slogans (口號) actually go back at least to the Republic. When you look at the reports of Nationalist period conferences they will often have a list of the official slogans that the conference had decided on. Why was this such a big deal? The best place to look for information on this is David Strand’s An Unfinished Republic

Strand it interested  in the development of modern forms of political performance, like oratory, after about 1900. Although he does not discuss slogans as such, he does talk about how creating new forms of communication was at a premium in the early 20th century.

In a jumbled, creative, and competitive political culture, spreading the word about women’s rights, setting up shop as a political activist, or trying out the role of orator put a premium on making an immediate visual and vocal impact on potential recruits like the young Mao. The multiplying of vocational, educational, and ideological paths ensured competition. Competition rewarded clarity or urgency of message. A critical resource for all political actors of the period was the capacity to imitate and reproduce images and ideas that sold or persuaded as the means to gain a quick payoff or a first step toward seeding deeper values. Greenblatt, in a literary and historical variation on the theme of social and cultural mimicry, terms this critical ingredient “mimetic capital” As either fashion statement or deep-dyed commitment, ” China” sold once the term was recognizable, and so, perhaps more surprisingly, did “republic,” “rights,” “public speaking,” “male-female equality,”” “chamber of commerce,” “people’s livelihood,” “meeting,” [and] “study society,”…Serious political entrepreneurs like Sun Yat-sen mined world, national, and local culture for a phrase or world picture that might excite or reassure such an impressionable and interested audience(p.166)

So this explains why things like oratory (not part of the Chinese tradition) newspapers, reading rooms, etc became important in China. But why slogans? Part of it may have been that you can’t do a nice bit of calligraphy without a nice pithy phrase to work from.  Slogans (sometimes) lend themselves to chanting.  Maybe it ties into the tradition of chengyu (4-character classical phrases), or even reign titles. If nobody has written anything about this someone should. Strand’s book is a good place to start, however.



Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:42 am

All the cool kids are playing with the new Google Ngram viewer, which lets you make graphs of word usage over time. You can search for usage in Chinese, but I’m not sure if they have enough Chinese books to get much out of it. Here is a search for Beijing, Peking, and Peiping.

You can see the steady decline of Peking after Nanjing becomes the capital in 1928, in part I guess because some people are using the new name of Peiping and in part because there is less reason to refer to the city when it is not the capital. (Plus, historical books might keep using Peking. This is based on date of publication. I’m not sure what they do with reprint editions.) The thing that really surprises me is that Beijing gets almost no hits for a very long time. If you fiddle with the controls almost all the early usage of Beijing comes from British English, and not much even there. Peiping dies like a dog after 1949 in British English, but the Americans keep using it for a bit. Whatever sort of English, however, the late 80’s is when Beijing and Pinyin take control.


Sweaty Traitors – Character Simplifications That Just Weren’t Meant to Be

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 5:01 am

I had an old instructor of Chinese language many years ago who took every opportunity to pick fun at the evil Reds on the mainland. I think he fled China in 1949 and never got over it. He loved to pick on their character simplification, saying things like, “Only the Communists would take the heart out of love.” (愛 -> 爱) Or, referring to the wings represented in the character 習 for “to learn; study” – and how this nicely gave us the image of taking flight, he would say, “Ask the Communists how you can fly with only one wing!” (習 -> 习)

I always thought his complaints were humorous but unfair, simplification will always result in such changes, and many (most?) were adopted from existing simplifications used widely in handwriting. The KMT dabbled with simplification as well, even if it never worked out. There are many fans of the simplification process and while I personally find simplified characters downright ugly to look at by comparison, I can’t really explain how I came to this aesthetic conclusion. Perhaps the old teacher brain-washed me, or the fewer simplifications of Japanese, which I studied first, made their mark?

Some simplifications already in circulation before the first round of the Chinese government mandated simplification in the mid 1950s, however, didn’t make the cut.

One that I have come across in the past couple of years and seen used in a wide range of hand written (or etched) documents of the Communist party is the simplification of the character for “Han” (漢) as in the Han people or more generally, Chinese, into the character 汗, which normally means “sweat” instead of the character which was ultimately chosen as the standard for simplified Chinese, 汉.

At one point I thought this might only be the case in documents which were “etched” in the age of pre-photocopy copies, where making curved lines is more difficult, but I have seen the same document use two of the three variations, 漢, 汗, and 汉.

I notice this more often than one might in my documents from the 1930s and 1940s since I study the punishment of traitors, or hanjian (漢奸). This word often appears in my documents as 汗奸. When I first saw it, I did a double take, wondering what horrible sins had been committed by the “sweaty traitors.”

Find the sweaty traitors in examples below the fold all taken from Public Security Bureau or more specifically “treason elimination” reports from 1939-1947 (some have a sweaty traitor, some have both regular and sweaty traitors, and one has the more common simplification):


How do you say that in Changsha?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:10 pm

I found a couple of cool language tools. Both are hosted by the Russian site Tower of Babel, which appears to be run by some serious linguists who have complied a huge number of etymologies.

One site will give you the pronuciation of Chinese words in any of the archaic pronuciations. Want to know how to pronounce a word in Eastern Han Chinese, or what the Shuowen gloss is, this site is for you. It only has about 4000 entries, but a lot of the basic words seem to be there.

They also have a dialect version, so if you want to know how to say something in Fuzhou or Jinan dialect this is the place to go.

For both of these you need to know the wierd linguist romanizations, [UPDATE I think it is IPA] and I’m not sure I have any practical uses for this, but it is still pretty cool


Old Friends in New Contexts

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:44 pm

One of the fun things for me about the “Rise of China” and the prominence it continues to gain in Western media, economics and culture, is reconnecting with old friends from the China side in sometimes random ways. A few months back, for example, my old friend Caroline Reeves hit the blogosphere, guest-posting at China Beat with a History of the Chinese Red Cross, (and part two). I knew that was her research topic back in grad school, but didn’t figure it would ever be part of the popular discourse.

More recently, I discovered that Carsey Yee, another good friend from the days when we read more than we graded, has started making Olympics-oriented instructional videos as a hobby.1 He’s paired up with John Weinstein as “The Two Chinese Characterstm” and they offer slightly goofy, but very clear, little clips. The first, embedded below the fold, is about the proper pronunciation of “Beijing.”2 They’re trying to get to 8,888 views before 8-8-8, and they’ve got less than two hundred to go. The second teaches some basics of cheering in Chinese, including the official two-clap-thumbs-up-two-claps-fists-up cheer approved by the Chinese government. The existence of an official cheer is, in itself, an interesting political and cultural fact: I’ll be watching to see how much it’s in evidence during the actual events.


  1. At least, I think it’s a hobby. They’ve gone to a great deal of trouble, but if there’s money involved, it’s news to me. []
  2. Hint: It’s not French. []


Does learning Chinese bring about world peace?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:06 pm

China Law blog asks an interesting question, and as they specifically call us out for a response, I thought I would say something. The question they asks is “Does having Americans study Mandarin make war between the U.S. and China less likely?” At its heart this is the “why study China” question that I think about a lot. In the literal sense, no, I don’t think that more students studying Chinese will make war less likely. War, as in actual shooting, could probably come about only at the end of a very long period of increasing conflict, and I don’t think dropping 2000 Chinese-speakers into the final crisis would do much good. The bigger question is will more language learning lead to less conflict?
Not necessarily. I don’t agree that getting to know people better will make you like them. Sometimes its only after getting to know people that you can really despise them. But in this case I suspect it might help a lot. At present American relations with China are sort of adrift, but at some point Americans will have to think about China and how to deal with it, just as China is trying to deal with America. I think more knowledge about China, from language classes or whatever, would do a lot of good. China’s relationship with the rest of the world is changing, and Americans need to figure out what, if anything they want to do about it. This is a rather complex question, as even Chinese can’t explain to themselves what their current situation is and where they want to go, just like every other country in the world. Present American popular and elite knowledge about China seems to be to be even worse than that about other places. Mao is dead and the Maoist era is over. China is not a super-sized North Korea that happens to produce Happy Meal toys, yet -lots- of people seem not to be aware of this. I think that there is the possibility that the rise of Chinese capitalism and the existence of American capitalism can co-exist and benefit from each other (I’m an optimist), but for that to happen understanding has to exist. Americans at fancy liberal arts colleges studying Chinese so they can read Tang poetry, business people learning Chinese so they can make a ton of cash, people taking my classes to fill a non-western cultures requirement, its all good.


No need for Clever Speech

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:49 pm
No Need

It is recorded in the Han chronicles that when Emperor Wen visited his pleasure park he went to the area called Tiger Garden. There he questioned the official in charge of the park about the various animals. The official did not respond. The caretaker beside him, however, answered in great detail. Emperor Wen instructed Zhang Shizhi [an attendent] that the caretaker was to be given administration of the gardens because of his ability. But Zhang reminded him of Zhou Bo and Zhang Xiangru, who were virtuous with words to those above them in rank. Zhang advised that if Wen accepted the clever speech of the caretaker as a virtue and raised him in rank, the world must then bow to [the vagaries of] the winds. People will compete in clever speech and truth will become unimportant. The emperor agreed and the clever caretaker was not promoted. Gerhart “Tokugawa Authority ”Monumenta Nipponica 52.1 Story from Shi ji 102




Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:33 am

I caught a couple of episodes of Firefly on TV a bit back. The thing that hooked me was that some of the characters were swearing in Chinese, of a sort. The series is about space smugglers in the far future, and every so often one of the crew will break into Chinese. The Chinese (Mandarin) is not very good, and not very important to the plot. Plus, looking at the on-line glossary of all the Chinese used in the show (I love geeks) it seems that a lot of is stuff that Americans might say that was then translated into Chinese. Or at least it does not sound very slang-y to me. Of course I don’t hang with Chinese space pirates all that much so maybe they really do say things like 太空所有的星球塞盡我的屁股 and 我的媽和她的瘋狂的外甥都

What I found interesting is that according to Wikipedia the explanation for this in the show’s backstory is that the Chinese and the Americans were the main early explorers of space, and thus Chinese is a pretty common language in the future. I’m not really sure the show pulls that off. Nobody seems to really speak Chinese, they just toss in a few words here and there. Still, it was interesting to see the Chinese as the people with a future. The obvious comparisons are Burgess’s nadsat, from Clockwork Orange, which has a lot of Russian in it, and Blade Runner, which I remember as having a bit of Japanese. Now making Science Fiction with Russian in it would seem weird, and even Japanese does not work as well.


Earliest Chinese Writing?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:46 pm

People’s Daily Online is reporting that 7000 year old characters have been found which seem to be direct precedents to known Chinese characters. [via]

The symbols include rivers, animals and plants, and activities such as hunting, fishing and arable farming, as well as symbols recording events, said Han Xuhang, a research fellow with the Anhui Provincial Archaeological Research Institute.

…Xu said the symbols are carved in pairs and also in groups, which express comparatively complete meanings and show the characteristics of sentences and paragraphs.

Many of the symbols are similar to the inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC) and many are still conserved in characters used by ethnic groups today, said Xu.

It’s not immediately clear to my how this is terribly important, since it’s been pretty obvious for a long time that Chinese characters evolve from pictographic origins. Still, it’s interesting.

In other news: The metal used to make Great Britain’s highest military honor, the Victoria Cross, came from China. Apparently the tradition is to use cannon captured in battle: since 1914, the metal used has been from Chinese armaments taken in the Second Opium War. These cannon were used for medals because they were not considered high quality material for recasting cannons, which is what was done with a great many other seized weapons.


Hightower Obituary

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:18 am

If you’re an H-Asia reader, you already saw this, but if you’re not, it’s an interesting look at the 20th century history of Asian literary studies in the US. James Robert Hightower has passed away, after an incredible career in Chinese literary studies and government service.

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