The Easy Thrills of a Difficult Language: Chinese For All of Us

by Tom Thompson

There's a new, brilliant language book out that gives meaning and power to Chinese clichés and linguistic routines. It was just published in February, and it is already a classic. Perry Link's Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, and Politics (Harvard University Press) is the first comprehensive study, in either English or Chinese, on language and politics in China. Mr. Link served as an interpreter during the Ping Pong Diplomacy of the 1970s. More recently, he is Professor Emeritus of Chinese Language and Literature at Princeton.

Either for the new-to-Chinese reader, or for even a native Chinese speaker, Link writes with an enviable feel both for the lowbrow and the highbrow.

Want an example?

A sign on a Beijing public toilet reads 禁止随地大小便 (jìnzhǐ suídì dàxiǎobiàn) 'Don't relieve yourself anywhere you like.' The pattern of syllables and the tonal rhythm has pervaded elite poetry, folksongs, and proverbs for hundreds of years. In Chinese, it's called 七言 (qīyán 'seven speakings'), and Mr.Link uses his mastery of classical Chinese to explain its influence today.

My own less professorial experience is simply that public messages in this kind of Chinese somehow are transformed and seem more formal and exalted than if put in ordinary language. A favorite of mine that Link writes about is the lovely and lyrical 蟑螂死光光 (zhāngláng sǐ guāng guāng) 'Cockroaches: Dead to the last one!' That little public admonition is set in chiyuan's partner, wuyuan, a five character syllabic pattern.

During China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao exhorted the Chinese people to "smash the four olds," old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Yet when the Red Guards in Tiananmen Square chanted "We want to see Chairman Mao," they unknowingly used a classical rhythm that dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) and is the embodiment of "the four olds." The author reveals how rhythms, conceptual metaphors, and political language convey time-honed meanings, ofwhich Chinese speakers may not be consciously aware.

Link does write about distinctions between ordinary spoken Chinese and the official language of the Chinese Communist Party. He's maybe at his best, channeling George Orwell, with descriptions and explanations of how ordinary citizens learn to play language games, artfully wielding "officialese" to advance their interests, or to defend themselves from others.

Link even fearlessly dives into the arena of linguistic relativity with the influences of Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir. As they theorized long ago, humans explore the world along the lines prepared by their native language. From a Chinese perspective, for example, there's a tendency of viewing things happening to people, which from the English language perspective, there is a tendency to place emphasis on people doing things. Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive psychologist, has written about language-bound Chinese visual conceptualization and processing skills, and Link describes how fascinating her research really is.

In this process, Perry Link makes linguistics and Chinese language accessible, and even fun, for all of us.

About the author

Tom Thompson speaks Chinese and has made seventy or so trips to China. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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