A Chinese Language Journey

by Tom Thompson

In the early 1980s, as the country “turned to the West” and embarked on the rapid economic growth that we now take for granted, I visited China for the first time and began to appreciate how flexible and clever, rhythmic and subtle, the Chinese language could be. From traditional literary Chinese to the official language of government, to the opening of the vast linguistic space of the Internet, it’s been a surprising, sometimes startling, always fascinating, and never-ending, language experience.

It’s not that I had no Chinese language training before that first of what now has been seventy or so trips to China. After four years of university Chinese, as my frequent travel to China began in the 1980s, I had the opportunity to study in a year-long advanced language program organized by Stanford University’s Center for Chinese Studies. No linguistic match for any of my peers, I was perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the shared abilities and high standards of truly gifted fellow graduate students.

My initial experience was an introduction to classical literary Chinese, including poetry, where to my surprise, functional words were often reduced to a minimum and often juxtaposed without any signs of a relationship between them. My efforts at translation read like pidgin English!

Later during the year, I appreciated that the popular arts of folk tales, storytelling, clapper-tales, drum singing, and generally humor are often rooted in ancient literary traditions. In the course work on modern Chinese I was introduced to an equally challenging topic, the official Chinese of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has ruled China since 1949. My basic language abilities were good enough, but I remember how startling it was to appreciate what for Chinese citizens is a bifurcation between official language and ordinary language. It was both Maospeak (mao yu) and Maoist style prose (mao wenti) that dominated China in the 1960s and 1970s

That background is straightforward. When Mao and the CCP won power in 1949, they were determined to employ a massive program of linguistic engineering to change and control China’s population with a political vocabulary that promoted CCP rule. The phrases used by the Party are known as tifa, what, I would call “watchwords.” With considerable nuance, tifa are used deliberately and can be seen as political signals or signposts.

Early on, they became a device with which leaders required people to integrate into their speech and writing phrases and revolutionary scripts that encoded CCP rule. The goal was to create a state of consciousness that promoted political conformity. Tifa are not simple word games, but they reflect the outcomes of power plays within the Party. And even subtle changes of the lexicon communicate changes within China’s prevailing politics. Last year in “A Primer of Important Speeches by General Secretaty Xi Jinping” nobody missed the significance of one of his speeches, on “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” being omitted. These special vocabularies reflect the CCP’s agenda.

The distinctions on the radio, in class rooms, at formal meetings, and in official print are characteristic. The linguistic code of the CCP includes even today, for example, a stifling use of what I call “the technical vocabulary” of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. Especially during the Cultural Revolution, 1966 – 1976, that language included “speaking bitterness” at the politically incorrect, shouting slogans, uttering threats, and demanding punishment. In this mix, adjectives that legitimized the power of the Chinese Communist Party as “great,” “glorious,” and “correct” were essential. Terms that emphasized democratic ideals were welcomed, simply because they resonated politically, even if they indirectly supported totalitarianism.

By the conventions of Chinese Communist Party discipline and unity, party members especially were required to take a stand openly, to “biao tai,” making a public pronouncement of approval whether they agreed with it or not, by using the verbiage necessary. Official Chinese can be deadening, and not literally to be taken to heart. Author Wu Zuxiang once remarked to the American linguist Perry Link: “There is truth in Chinese newspapers, but you have to know how to find it. This often means reading upside down. If they say great strides have been made against corruption in Henan, you know that corruption is especially bad in Henan. If they say dozens of police were hurt in a clash with students, you know hundreds of students were injured if not killed.” Perry Link, in An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics, has written about how the power of tifa can sometimes turn reality upside down. During the spring of 1989 the demonstrations at Tiananmen “student protests were part of a democracy movement until they were suppressed and almost overnight became a “counterrevolutionary riot” . “The phrase,” Perry writes, “remained in place and entered textbooks and the media, and twenty years later many people in a younger generation of Chinese knew no better than to accept the official language for what had happened.”

Not that all of the linguistic engineering was successful in controlling people’s thinking. Mark Salzman, who lived in China in the 1980s, famously observed about the Chinese in official meetings what I’ve also often observed: “During meetings people talk with one another, doze, get up and stretch, or walk around, and in general do not pretend to be interested in what is being said.” Salzman’s conclusion is that over the years the Chinese citizenry has increased their endurance many fold to the Party’s linguistic engineering and when possible has made listening to it optional.

China’s government has now abandoned the totalitarian aspirations of the Mao era. But there’s still considerable risk to voicing dissent as an individual, who must mainly employ subtle linguistic transgressions with the intent to avoid retribution. The use of puns or political satire to mask social and political critiques is far from a new phenomenon in China. The use of “folk similes” (xiehouyu) is well known. They evoke a metaphorical image without fully articulating the resolution of the metaphor. Doorway couplets – commonly referred to as menlian -- consist of two counterbalanced phrases, often poetic in nature, written on narrow strips of paper that are then used to frame the main entrance to a residence or an official building. A medium of choice for expressing dissent has been the big character poster (dazibao), large sheets of paper bearing political critiques in public places. Occasionally, the dazibao have taken the form of creative, often negative satire.

Control of information remains an important tool for authoritarian government in China. Today Mao is gone but the CCP’s assumptions about linguistic ritual as a tool to forge conformity remain in place. The CCP has long prevented gatherings of government critics or public expression of anti-government ideas, in order to isolate critics and potential activists. And it’s in this context that the rise of electronic online platforms has given the Chinese people an unprecedented capacity for exposing, criticizing, and even ridiculing the Chinese Communist Party. As of early 2012, the government counted 513 million Internet users in China and 900 million users of mobile phones!

There are more netizens, as independent-minded Web users are called, than the most extensive, technologically sophisticated and broad reaching system of Internet filtering in the world can control. The result is a perpetual language battle of cat and mouse to circumvent the filters and censors.

Examples of new terms to evade word filters: The term for government (zhengfu) has been replaced by “Heavenly Dynasty” (tianchao). The CCP’s Department of Propaganda is referred to as Ministry of Truth (zhenlibu). The June 4th massacre at Tiananmen Square is often mentioned as May 35th, or 535. The name Mao Zedong can get caught in a filter. Thus, “Original Emperor” (Taizu), or even less respectfully “cured meat” (larou),” because Mao’s corpse continues to lie impervious to rot in Tiananmen Square.

The increasing visibility of various efforts to make plays on words to criticize the government, to accurately report the news, or simply to freely express oneself, often with second level and third level meanings, writes Xiao Qiang at The China Digital Times, may be innocuous on the surface. “But the rapid rise of new euphemisms and the endless creativity of Chinese netizens would make any crackdown futile.” To combat the government’s efforts, in the demand for greater freedom of information and expression, Chinese are well aware of the proverb about the dangers of initiative: “The gun shoots the bird with its head up” (Qiang da chutou niao). Thus, the safety in large scale individual efforts of, in effect, bombarding the Web with a reaction to modern day tifa with the speed of cyberspace. Government budgets for policing the Internet have doubled several times since the 1990s, but it’s becoming clear that the police cannot keep up. But what the future holds is uncertain.

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About the writer

Tom Thompson writes frequently on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Aritcles by Tom Thompson


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