Changing China through Mandarin, by Teng Biao

Teng Biao (滕彪) is a well-known legal scholar and rights lawyer in China. Read the original hereTranslated from Chinese by Rogier Creemers

汉语

Even in Robinson’s world of one man, his life required information, reflection and memory. Human society not having information is even more impossible to imagine. It may be said that a person is moulded by the information he or she comes into contact with and masters; a society is the same.

Thinking and memory cannot be separated from language. Modern philosophers have paid more and more attention to the extreme importance of language in human societies. The thinking human (homo sapiens) exists first and foremost as a language human (homo loquens). Society and language have not stopped interacting for a blink: regardless of whether philosophy is concerned, or whether politics or society is concerned, language not only is a tool for expression and memory – language itself has a huge capacity to create reality.

Because of this, all systems that want to control and transform society attempt to control and transform language. (Do you remember “Newspeak” from Oceania?) Movements to transform thinking are at the same time movements to transform language; the education to keep people in ignorance is at the same time an education that promotes a language system designed to keep people in ignorance. The highest effect of controlling language is ensuring that a person cannot produce heterodox thinking, and to ensure that persons cannot become their true selves. Because totalitarian ambitions are not only to transform public politics and transform private lives, but also to transform spirits (“Wreak revolution in your innermost soul”); they are surely aware of the deep effects of this revolutionary tool, language, and know how to achieve the greatest effect.

In the various Spring and Autumn thinkers, Han prose and Tang poetry, Song verse and Yuan drama, Ming and Qing novels, the Book of Odes and the Historical Records, essays and letters, plays and storytelling, calligraphy and couples, Mandarin art has extraordinarily enriched the spiritual world of Chinese, and has made immortal contributions to the culture of humankind. But its fate is similar to that of Russian, and the Mandarin that once created outstanding culture was unable to escape the ravages of totalitarianism in the 20th century. From character reform to revolutionary slogans, from applications to join the party to ideological reports, from the Little Red Book to poetry contests, from model plays to the Three Old Articles, from eight-legged Party writing to language and literature course, from letters to diaries, from film and television to comic dialogue: Mandarin has met with complete abuse and pollution. Totalitarian politics are a politics “without laughter” (dixit Zizek); totalitarian language must be a language lacking in humor, mechanical and insipid. Bloody and hypocritical politics have led to the withering of Mandarin; dull Mandarin has led to the desertification of the minds of the Chinese.

The editorials of the People’s Daily and the CCTV Evening News once were an important part of Chinese people’s lives and, for some, it is still their “compulsory course” every day.  As soon as it turns seven in the evening, some people concentrate their attention on the television to watch the Evening News with the piety of apostles. If they watch a sports program at that time, they feel they have let down the benevolence of the Party, the country, heaven and earth. Every day, people see or hear these phrases in newspapers, magazines or the television:

“The Party’s strong leadership is the basic guarantee for doing good in everything. ……The Party cadres and State personnel across the board must persist in seeking truth from facts, progressing with the times, and maintaining a good spiritual outlook and work style, persist in using their powers for the good of the people, showing concern for them and working for their benefit, so as to better unite and lead the masses to base themselves on scientific development, strive for indigenous innovation, perfect structures and mechanisms, and stimulate social harmony.” (People’s Daily, January 1, 2006)

“Let us raise high the magnificent banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory, completely implement the important ‘Three Represents’ thought, closely unite around the Party Center with Comrade Hu Jintao as General Secretary, carry forward the cause into the future, progress with the times, work diligently in spite of difficulty, pioneer and innovate, and wrest new and even greater victories in the cause of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, imbued with confidence.” (People’s Daily, March 19, 2003)

“Carrying forward Lei Feng’s spirit is consistent with the basic requirement of completely implementing the important ‘Three Represents’ thought, and is a concrete reflection of practicing the important ‘Three Represents’ thought. Launching activities to learn from Lei Feng under new circumstances, we must closely grasp this topic of the times that is to study and practice the important ‘Three Represents’ thought, and we must persist in making the important ‘Three Represents’ thought into a mandatory course for young officers and soldiers to grow and establish themselves, a mandatory course for Communist Party members’ to train them about the nature of the Party, and a mandatory course for leading cadres to govern and use power. The broad officers and soldiers must carry forward the Lei Feng Spirit, earnestly comprehend and deeply grasp the scientific connotations and spiritual essence of the important ‘Three Represents’ thought, persist in using revolutionary theory to guide lives, consciously make the important ‘Three Represents’ thought into ‘nourishment,’ ‘weapons’ and ‘the steering wheel’, ensure that it becomes a formidable spiritual pillar for strengthening political convictions, hold high the magnificent banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory throughout, and determinedly obey the commands of the Party Center, the Central Military Commission and Chairman Jiang.” (PLA Daily, March 5, 2003)

The result of these sentences is not only that they strangle our thinking, but that they also strangle the delight and aesthetics of our language, so much so that chewing wax is more interesting than reading these sentences. If I am required to choose between ignorance and insipidness, I would rather select the former. But totalitarianism requires that we are insensitive towards language, that our souls become numb, and that we are both ignorant and insipid.

Through the round-the-clock and repeated clamor and unobtrusive influence of public language (newspapers, radio, television, plenary reports, red-headed documents, news bulletins, textbooks of history), the flavor of our writing, reading, lecturing and even daily speech is molded. When picking up a pen, we come up with nothing but clichés and hackneyed expressions. When we talk, there are either lies and double talk, or boasts and idle talk. Regardless of whether it is an official, an actor, a professor or a journalist, as soon as someone gets on the stage to speak, they all become prigs as if by appointment. The haughty official’s tune, the hypocrite’s tune, the revolutionary tune, in short, people just cannot talk like normal human beings. A few years ago, someone criticized the television drama “Grand Justice” for not speaking “the people’s language”, and I shared the same feeling deeply. In real life, people who talk like that are either lunatics or political counselors at Tsinghua University. It isn’t just in “Grand Justice”; in all the works with officially-promoted themes, few people speak the people’s language. The characters are either tall, grand and perfect, or false, ugly and vicious. How can they speak the authentic language of humanity when what they do is deceive by either dressing up as gods or playing devils?

“The style of Party newspaper editorials” and “the tune of the news broadcast” indicate that totalitarianism dominates our thinking habits and our aesthetic habits as a dominant grammar and as an official aesthetics. “Wolf’s milk” has become “wolf’s blood” in our veins through language, thinking and unconsciousness. Are there more “microscopic” or more profound “techniques of power” than these?

The governance of writing and speaking is realized through governing language users’ flesh as well as their minds. In order to transform memories, inject ideas into people’s minds and prevent independent writing, a formidable, comprehensive governance project to purge language is required: the work unit system of intellectuals, the prior censorship system, prototypical literature, the officially-promoted themes, language textbooks, political exams, the “five one project,” the writers’ associations, the literary inquisition as well as writers and speakers’ self-censorship. Furthermore, Mandarin has also been trampled beyond recognition by all sorts of banning and filtering technologies. Under so many taboos and restrictions, people can only say one thing and mean another, hold their tongue, make oblique accusations, beat about the bush, and perfect the art of being indistinct and ambiguous. The Mandarin world after passing through the filter is a harmonious society that is beautiful without parallel: “there is no speech that isn’t important; there is no applause that isn’t enthusiastic; there is no policymaking that isn’t wise; there is no path that isn’t correct; there are no popular feelings that aren’t inspired; there is no progress that isn’t smooth; there are no ranks that aren’t united; there are no masses that aren’t satisfied”. Thanks to our wise leaders, life has climbed another step up, enemies have made asses of themselves again, and the situation is excellent everywhere we look.

Because of this, apart from the fact that today’s Mandarin overflows with politicized clichés and prudery, it is also congested with naked lies and shameless perversions: “the Chinese Communist Party has first and foremost rushed into the forefront of the anti-Japanese war, the Communist Party is the mainstay of the nation’s united anti-Japanese resistance”, “the masses enthusiastically welcome delegates of the Two Meetings”, “our country’s human rights situation is at the best period in history”, “there is no conflict between peasants and the police in China”, “There is no one in China who has been arrested for speech online.” Such lies can be found everywhere. In totalitarian ideological language, there is a “class struggle” without “class enemies”, a “democracy” in which the people cannot make decisions, “constitutionalism” in which the Constitution is willfully trampled underfoot, “freedom of speech” that doesn’t let people speak freely, “citizens” who have no power and also aren’t protected by the law, “public servants” who are always higher than the “people” in power and position, “the representatives of the proletarian class interests” who care more for capitalists than workers”, etc. (Xu Ben). Through forced and deliberate misrepresentation, the CCP has changed China.

Mandarin under totalitarianism is brimming with tautologies, self-aggrandizement and gangster logic, it has no use, no mercy, no reason, no fun, and no taste; it is reduced to a language game that has no connection with reality. China’s “fault lines” are first and foremost the fault lines between the signified and the signifier in Mandarin, and the fault lines between Mandarin and Chinese reality. Mandarin is the home of every Chinese person, but nowadays it is as if all Chinese people are living under an enemy occupation.

Under the mirages constituted by false, aggrandizement and empty Mandarin, another, real world of Mandarin has been growing arduously on the solid ground. Behind a world that “puts up a false show of peace and prosperity,” ordinary people’s anxiety and difficulties are hidden; behind forced collective forgetting, there are tenacious individual memories; behind the grand lies and narratives, there is resistance against slavery as well as an incessant thirst for freedom. Public language and official language, often rigid, affected, ugly, dull, overbearing and coarse, has become the target of ridicule, sarcasm and disdain in private conversations.

Browsing some independent Chinese-language media or websites, you see a different world: “United Nations Special Envoy for Torture Novak says China’s use of torture is still broad”, “blind rights defender Chen Guangcheng has been arrested for 58 days without any whereabouts”, “Election results of Dashi Village Challenged”, “Yahoo Company has been exposed again as allegedly providing evidence to the Chinese police, resulting in a prison sentence of 10 years for Beijing online dissident Wang Xiaoning”, “‘Freezing Point’ weekly refuses to publish the reply article of Yuan Weishi”, “After a secret visit and investigation, rights defenders refute the official statement about  the shooting incident in Shanwei,” “On the eve of the Two Meetings, the appropriate authorities have again been searching and arresting petitioners, and a petitioner was struck and killed by a train during pursuit.”

Through folk poetry, underground publications, individual blogs, network periodicals and free media, Mandarin begins to recover its vitality. Ever more people begin to write honestly from their heart; ever more people hope to read truthful, idiosyncratic writing; ever more people begin to think independently and speak the truth. In order to clean out the poison of totalitarian language, and in order to save Mandarin, individual writers, citizen journalists, liberal intellectuals, poets, directors, teachers, students, network writers as well as all conscientious Mandarin users have sprung into action. They do not want Mandarin to become a series of mechanical and dogmatic words devoid of imagination, to become a yoke that confines thinking and suppresses the individual, or to become a writing game of altering history and glossing over reality. Among the writers and journalists locked up across the whole world, the absolute majority are writers and journalist who write in Mandarin. This fact indicates the brave exploration and struggle of Mandarin speakers under grim circumstances.

They are creating a new Mandarin world. This new Mandarin world is continuously vying for members with the old Mandarin world. This process of competition and its results will decide what China looks like in the future. And every person is able to influence this process by answering the following questions: What sort of writing do we read? What sort of Chinese do we use?

The first step in rebuilding civil society is to build ourselves up; building ourselves up needs to begin with re-building our own language. “Power is the language of the powerful, language is the power of the powerless” (Hu Ping). Tyranny has occupied and continues to occupy our homes, bodies and language, and one of the easiest and the most basic works perhaps is to drive away the tyranny of Mandarin from our writing and speech.

May 6, 2006

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About Yaxue Cao

I grew up in Northern China during the Cultural Revolution, came to the United States in the early 1990s to study literature and stayed. I have been writing stories about China, exploring both my own experiences and those of others against the larger picture of Communist China. You can find my work on Amazon.com, and new works are being added periodically.
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11 Responses to Changing China through Mandarin, by Teng Biao

  1. 21grams says:

    where can I find the chinese original?

      • T says:

        A lot of conservative ideas about keeping Chinese traditions probably should keep up instead with time. Surely Traditional Chinese Characters were invented in an era where time was not of essence. Both Japanese and Korean abandoned pure Chinese Character writing long ago in favor of a mixed system of both spelled and Chinese Characters for speed. Only China stubbornly attached itself to the 5000 years old system of writing. This was the motivation to simplify Chinese Characters even before Communists took over in 1949 and a lot of scholars who participated in the simplification process were not communists and their motivation stem purely from trying to borrow the most sensible writing systems from all neighboring countries in order to stem the decline in Traditional Chinese Character usage, and they have largely succeeded. In fact I have met a lot of people from Hong Kong and Taiwan who were trained in reading Traditional Chinese characters but fails to grasp Simplified Chinese characters, but I have NEVER met anyone trained in Simplified Chinese Characters who couldn’t read Traditional Chinese Character immediately. That tells you something about the brilliance of the scientific method used in the simplification process in the 1950s.

        Of course nowadays some people may look back and think the need for simplification was moot, but the fear was real at the time, when computer input were just coming into existence and there were fears a purely hieroglyphics writing system would go the way of Ancient Egyptian Tomb Inscriptions in the coming information age.

        It is arguable that as part of simplification, introducing Latin alphabets as replacement Chinese Ping-Ying (spelled phonetic of Chinese Characters) that made Chinese Character Input somewhat easier during the information age transition period from 1950-2000, and eventually the innovative ABC-style input coupled with modern Word Sensing Technology that made writing Chinese Characters tractable on modern day Smart Phones for the masses. It also allowed China to introduce English simultaneously in schools at the same time as Chinese Character writing, given both uses the same Latin alphabet sets. Nowadays the traditional Chinese Characters really evolved to be in a sense the “Capital Letters” in Chinese language, adding more diversity to what is available to people in the information age, which is always good.

  2. Linar says:

    Mandarin is the home of every Chinese person, but nowadays it is as if all Chinese people are living under an enemy occupation.

    No, it is not.

    • HXM says:

      Hmm…Uyghurs, Tibetans, Cantonese..homeless or not Chinese?

    • T says:

      This is less about language than about paradigm. A paradigm is ideas you think about before you start thinking, and the modern Chinese propaganda machinery is trying to create an official paradigm before people starts to think. Unfortunately that attempt now has to pass muster in the global environment, which means their paradigms need to be successfully argued in English due to the increasing number of people in China who can grasp both languages.

      Based on my experience at work they have so far failed that. When China sent a hand-picked debate team a couple of years ago to America to debate with Northwestern University debate team, the topic that came up was Internet Censorship, and the result was not even close because half way through the debate the Chinese team capitulated and decided to say they are against internet censorship too.

      So whatever the Chinese propaganda ministry does, they are failing to produce a new generation of people with the ability to hold their paradigm alive, which is why I expect these attempts at paradigm maintenance would be wound down within the next generation or so. I certainly had very easy time winning arguments against those propagandist, in Mandarin as well as in English, so much so that they had to resort to use some other underhanded tactics to punish me.

      IMHO the language doesn’t need to change, The fake paradigm needs to die but it is dying already.

  3. Freedom of speech is part of the first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. So is freedom of religion.
    These two freedoms are interdependent.

  4. Kevin Worthy says:

    Reblogged this on Kevin Worthy and commented:
    Wow, what an awesome analysis of the Mandarin language and how it is changing China. Really interesting ideas brought up here.

  5. Pingback: Changing China through Mandarin, by Teng Biao |

  6. Pingback: China: Outrage among lawyers after official calls them ‘cowards’ | China Daily Mail

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