Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chinese: The World's Newest Dead Language

Chinese censors strike again: this time Chinglish (pidgin English based on Chinese grammar and idiosyncratic direct translation) is to be the victim.

Chinglish, RIP 2010?

I think not. Such hybrid language usage is far from dead. This does make me wonder about both the motives and the methods of the government in attempting to impose linguistic purity amidst China's debut on the world stage and accession to the forces of globalism. Mixed messages, a righteous volley against cultural imperialism, or just another imposition of the Great Firewall of China?

One motive may be that Chinglish (as well as English and acronyms derived thereof) can be effective in circumventing government censorship. Outright use of the English word 'government' on some BBSs, for example, sometimes hyphenated or with spaces as additional protection from the censors, allows commentators to directly reference the one party regime. The government could attempt to block input of non-hanzi characters on some websites, citing this new law, but is possible to block English (and Chinglish) from all the various non-governmental mediums such as social networks or text messaging services? Again, I think not.

Let us compare, moreover, living languages--such as the current lingua-franca, English--that attain wide global usage with dead languages incapable of assimilating alien concepts or making them easy to use. This government directive, then, is one step towards a harmoniously dead language, rather than a culturally vibrant, or creative language capable of innovating or renovating itself for modern usage. Less-than-grammatical borrowed appendages of the English language may offend snobs or nativists, but they are part of a larger creative process. Where would English be without bona fide Chinglish phrases such as "long time no see" and "chop chop", much less words like ketchup and tofu? And what of more elite loan words such as fengshui, kung fu, or yin yang? Descriptions such as 'salty/sweet tomato paste' or 'oriental martial arts' lack elegance and insert bulky explanation where none is necessary. The same problem happens when the Chinese broadcasters are forced to use the entire Chinese translation of a simple (and popularly understood) concept such as the NBA.

One last thought: will China soon be attempting to popularize acronyms based on pinyin transliterations of its own language? GCD (Gongchan Dang), for example, instead of CCP (Chinese Communist Party)? Or are any acronyms (by necessity romanized) verboten?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Waving the Bloody Shirt (if allowed)

Something I'd been meaning to get around to mentioning:

>Some months back, I was invited to go on a weekend outing with some of my students, a Chinese colleague, and the colleague's daughter. We were to visit a local museum, or perhaps climb the nearby mountain--I forget which. The important bit is that the outing was called off without explanation. Curious about this, I asked my students what had happened. The weather had been nice; no revolution had yet begun; everybody involved was in good health. Apparently, all students were quarantined within the university that weekend. My colleague probably felt embarrassed to bring the matter up--as with so many other political issues. The reason being that there had been a demonstration in downtown Nanjing, so the undergrad students in their isolated, suburban "university town" developments were being deliberately kept from the fun. This follows a theory (I may or may not have expressed on this blog) that one reason for the university suburbs so popular in China now is the ability to cut the vast majority of students off from the city center in event of any event the government does not approve of. There are, of course, other reasons for such developments, but this anecdote now provided solid proof of this theory. Later, trolling the web, it turned out that the weekend had seen a number of anti-Japanese demonstrations (related to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute).

While I find myself ambivalent at the idea of my fresh-faced young students being fascinated with a sometimes-racist nationalist protest of a matter that could be easily solved through diplomacy and concessions by both sides (and almost was)... I also feel quite sad that they were not allowed to see what a protest/demonstration is. Yet another example of how Chinese citizens, and particularly young people who are no longer children, find themselves unnecessarily treated as helpless, hapless children by their "strict father" government. I wish they could have been given the chance to see both what is nasty and base and what is exhilarating and uplifting in mass protest. They are old enough to discover their position on the matter for themselves. If the protest be an unreasonable protest which the government wished to keep from escalation, perhaps that should be seen as the consequence of frequent government sponsored anti-japanese "waving of the bloody shirt". Regardless, it is certainly not the fault of my students who are merely responding as they have been taught throughout their upbringing to respond.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Sinocan-Catholic Church (and its repercussions)

Does the Pope piss in the woods? I do not know, but, he is currently pissed at the Chinese government (okay, that was horrible). Several ordained bishops of the official Chinese Catholic Church (the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association or CCPA) were more or less kidnapped and forced to witness the ordination of a man chosen by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) without consultation from Rome.


The Chinese side of this story just sounds like Chinese politics per usual: the Revered Guo Jincai had the guanxi (influence) to rise in station, so the CCP made sure that he did so regardless of moral credentials or Vatican approval.

I'm surprised that the Economist--given its home country--was not reminded of a historical parallel.

As in: five hundred years ago, King Henry VIII decided he wouldn't accept a church controlled by a political entity in Rome, so he created his own church--under English state control. True, this occurred within the context of a more general religious schism (the Reformation); regardless, parallels abound.

Today, the Chinese state has created the CCPA for similar reasons: an understandable paranoia about foreign political entities maintaining influential operations within one's borders as well as rivalry with the moral authority of religion in general. Also, there exists (as did in Henry's England) a Catholic church in secret, recognizing the papal authority and meeting privately within members' homes.

Perhaps Rome should just disavow itself entirely of the state-owned Chinese catholic church? Is there really any benefit to be gained from the continued semi-association and semi-legitimization of the CCP's puppet organization? Reconciliation with the state-owned church recognizes that the Chinese government is not as fanatically anti-religion as it once was, but the apparent ascendancy of hardliners within China's government suggests that there will be few if any religious freedoms won through such diplomacy.

The problem, of course, is that the Roman Catholic Church is acquisitive and not particularly content with the knowledge that other forms of Christianity win converts for the base religion. I doubt it wishes to accept--as it didn't with the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches--a schism which creates yet another church more-or-less catholic in tradition but which has no actual ties (moral adjudication or otherwise) with the Roman Catholic brand.

And now the Orwellian twist! The Catholic church decried this latest action by the Chinese government as a violation of Catholic religious freedom. The Chinese government then turned around and claimed the Vatican's criticism as a violation of its (the atheistic state's, apparently) religious freedom. Aside from the question of whether a protest or criticism (verbal) can be a violation of freedom, I began to wonder whether the Chinese government would actually have any basis for argument along those grounds if the Vatican fulfilled its threats of excommunications or came up with any other actions against the CCPA. For that matter, if the threat of excommunication is viewed as an action, rather than a verbal threat, does that mean that the Chinese Communist Party is recognizing the Vatican's spiritual authority to enact such a threat upon the Chinese government's church-like organ? Does this mean that an atheistic government (albeit one that claims the ability to assign reincarnations to politically-acceptable candidates) recognizes a spiritual threat as an actual threat? The CCP does leave itself open for so many hilarious zi xiang mao dun (self contradictions). 

I give you this question: Could it ever be considered a violation of religious freedom to oppose a government's strictures on (or control of) religious activity?

The self-contradiction seems less so if one considers a state-backed church (like the modern Anglican Church) as a fully separate religious entity which citizens are fully free to join or not to join, to respect or disrespect as a religious authority. That would be to say that the Chinese government has the right to do whatever the hell it wants with its church-like organ, and the Chinese people have the right to view that organ with whatever disdain it earns.

Finally, perhaps we should view this matter as the theft of a brand: if the CCPA claims the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church, but views the Vatican's punishments as a violation of the CCPA's religious freedom, then perhaps the Chinese state is guilty of having stolen a brand (the Vatican's) which does not belong to it. This CCPA does seem similar to a shanzhai (pirated, knock-off) product--such as the Blockberry--trading on the good reputation of the product it imitates--such as the Blackberry.

My advice, Pope, is this: Perhaps the time has come for the Vatican to join the WTO and accuse China of moral and/or intellectual property theft.