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Changing China through Mandarin

By Teng Biao, translated by Rogier Creemers

Teng Biao (滕彪) is a well-known legal scholar and rights lawyer in China. Read the original here 


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

Chinese Regionalism – The treasure trove of Chinese culture

When many westerners arrive in Beijing or Shanghai, their suspicion that all Chinese really are the same is quickly confirmed. The fact that 92% of China’s population identify themselves as Han, almost seems like an underestimate at first glance in the subway station as the homogeneous mass of tanned skin and black hair surge onto the train.

Today I want to challenge this misconception. Despite first impressions, there are huge regional differences in China.

As with all ethnic groups, the idea of a single common “Han” people is a social construction, not scientific one. Throughout history the definition of “Han” has been murky.

Note: I’m using “Han” here, but it is not clear whether or not a concept exactly like ethnicity existed in ancient China. For the most part “Han” is another way of saying “us” in ancient China as opposed to “them.”

Generally Han referred to a group of people who recognized the current leader, engaged in agriculture, and used Chinese characters. A town could become Han within a few generations and become accepted as a part of the “us” group. As one of my professors in college pointed out (without much applause from the mainland), Confucius’s mother was from a recently conquered tribe, and very likely did not come from a family that would have described themselves as Han. And yet, Confucius came to define the culture itself as it absorbed various groups and ideas under a single label.

You’ll notice the lack of a very important phrase from the paragraph above, “assimilation.” While many of the groups identified as Han share a written language, strong regional identities undermine the concept of a unified culture (I’ve written a little before about regional identities).

And we're just talking about the Han regions; beyond that, China is even more diverse.

This starts to become apparent in just a few visits to different major cities in China. Even those with strong Mandarin abilities might find themselves hard pressed to understand the local dialects as they travel. I was reminded of this on my recent trip to Chengdu where I had to struggle just to understand a fraction of the conversation. The same is true in many of the other traditionally “Han” regions, with Shanghai and Guangdong having particularly strong affinities for their local language.

As you get further from the coast the differences start to appear at ever smaller distances. A group of students from my campus once visited a village just 45 minutes from the university only to find that none of them could communicate with the locals. This is even more impressive given that the group wasn’t limited to students from a single area or ethnic group, yet still no understanding could be reached.

Student from Guangxi counting from 1-10 in Putonghua, Guiliuhua, Zhuang, Baihua and finally English.

Local dialects are just a small symbol of the deeper regional differences that exist between China’s billions of Han. Food, art forms, architecture, traditions, religious beliefs, physical appearance…the list goes on and on. Like the dialects, there are some common threads that run through the social fabric of Han culture, but in my opinion, it’s the differences that give China it’s cultural richness (I’m not the only one who feels this way).

It’s one of the great joys of exploring all of China, and it’s one that too many people miss on their quick trips.

Meanwhile the Party is pushing for a single national language: Mandarin or as it’s known in Chinese, Putonghua – the common language. In places like Nanjing, the local language has already started to lose its traditional flavor, to the point that sometimes it is impossible to tell if a local is speaking dialect or Putonghua.

Even in performances of “traditional” songs and dances, most of the tradition has been lost in the process of repackaging art for tourists. Electric guitars and Beijing accents accompany too many of these pieces as modernity slowly eats away at these cultural treasures.

I hope the next time you get the chance, you try exploring a place where Mandarin has never been spoken in daily life, and enjoy the traditional treats while they still remain.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at Beijing’s unsuccessful attempt to spread Mandarin, and explore whether or not unity actually serves the Party.

China is a real fixer-upper

On my way to the supermarket I pass a man fixing bicycles, a place that can repair virtually any article of clothing and at least three shops that can solve any problem on almost any cell phone. This culture of fixing things instead of throwing them away is something I deeply admire.

New keys, bike repairs, and alterations on the corner near my home

In Longzhou I had a flat tire, so I went to the repairman who worked behind a newspaper stand just off campus. His body was a rich brown, and he hardly had any hair left on his head, just a few wisps combed over. He only spoke the local dialect, and I could only speak Mandarin, but he knew what I wanted when he saw the sorry shape of my bicycle. He pulled a tiny stool (maybe 8 inches off the ground) out of his toolbox for me, and motioned for me to have a seat.

Over the next thirty minutes, he patched the tube in my tire, calibrated the spokes to make sure the wheel was straight, and replaced a missing ball bearing. In spite of his elderly appearance, he was quite spritley around the bicycle, as if his work brought him back to a time when he had first begun working on them. For all his trouble he charged me just 1.5rmb (~$.12).

The cost of any repair in China is surprisingly low; a new button for your shirt ~1rmb, re-soldering wires in your cell phone ~20rmb ($3), even fixing a water heater only cost me 90rmb ($13).  For most foreigners living in China, it’s a welcome surprise.

If you’ve read my post, Back from Europe with new thoughts on China, you know I enjoy contemplating the connection between business, culture, and gov’t. So while it is tempting to say that Chinese people are just more thrifty than Americans, or more environmentally aware, I don’t think that’s really what is happening here.

Let’s be honest, goods manufactured in China don’t always last as long as we would like them to, and that’s the export quality stuff. Items produced for the domestic market tend to be even worse. I have heard that the quality is getting better though. In the 80’s, shortly after opening up, people could only afford “礼拜鞋” (libaixie), meaning “one week shoes”, but sometimes they didn’t even last that long.

So when given lemons, the Chinese people made lemonade. Refunds on these things were not an option, and people’s salaries weren’t high enough to be able to replace even the lowest quality goods, so repairmen abounded. And because of the plentiful work, repairmen were able to charge lower prices, since they knew there would be no shortage of demand for their skilled repairs (it’s not uncommon for a repairman to exceed the original quality); not just in the period of opening up, but throughout China’s history, as there has always been a large underclass.

Today the practice remains, even though salaries are higher and goods are better quality, labor is still incredibly cheap. Meanwhile in the US, cheap Chinese goods and the high cost of labor have developed a culture of waste. When your cell phone breaks, you would hardly consider trying to find someone to fix it unless it was under warranty. In general high salaries create a great number of benefits, but it also leads to a more disposable culture. I hope that as wages rise in China, they find a way to continue this culture of repairs.

Interview with digital dissident 小米2020

This last week I had the chance to chat with 小米2020 (xiaomi) who is one of the organizers behind yizhe group ( This group translates western journalism on China, so that it can be more accessible to common Chinese people. Sometimes because it covers a different perspective, but often because the news is considered to “sensitive” to be reported domestically.

Tom: How would you describe the purpose of Yizhe group?

小米2020: Yizhe is the Chinese word for “translator”. We are all individuals who can understand more than one language. And most of the Yizhe members are bilingual in English and Chinese, with Mandarin as our mother’s tongue. When you can do that, you cannot help noticing that there is a gap of information in terms of what you can access about China on world media and what you can read on Chinese media, not only due to the Great Firewall, but also due to the language barrier. And Chinese, in general, are keen to know others view about them. We are trying to fill that information gap by translating what we can see to those who cannot.

Tom: About how many readers does Yizhe group have, and who would be a typical reader?

小米2020: It’s hard to get an accurate statistics since we encourage reposting of our translations. Once a post is shared and reposted, it’s hard to trace the audience any more, especially for those being reposted for several times.

But the direct subscribers for our RSS and emails are over 20,000. They are our first readers and the spreading starts from this group.

Since We don’t collect personal information about our readers, I am sure what I know is typical or not. But there are at least three types of our readers from the exchange of ideas with them:

1) White-collar professionals or so-called middle-class. Their message usually end with a note saying “sent from my iPhone/iPad.” Both are not cheap but are viewed as trendy in China.
2) Students from college and high schools. They usually would tell you that they are studying and what they have learnt from us are different from the textbooks. So I know. Sometimes they would say they don’t agree with the foreigners saying, but still want to know the other side of the story.
3) The elders. They would like to use certain expressions in their messages. I guess they are retired and keen to find a way to express themselves, once they know how to surf online, they cannot stop it. It’s interesting to notice that there are quite some elders as the audience of foreign shortwave broadcasting in Mandarin like VOA.

Tom: Which article has been the most popular translation for Yizhe, and why do you think so many people were interested in it?

小米2020: The most popular one, with over 1 million hits (by estimate), is our translation of the interview with Premier Wen Jiaobao by Fareed Zakaria on Oct. 3rd, 2010. There are a couple of reasons for that particular piece spread so quickly. The interview was aired on Oct. 3rd, and we finished translation on Oct. 7th.,2010; and the whole period was China’s National Holiday. It is very possible that the censor machine, which involves a lot of human attention, was on holiday too. So the post was not deleted within Great Fire Wall. The interviewee was Premier Wen, some Chinese portal sites might have thought that it was safe, at least Tencent reshared our translation and put it on the top of their portal page. At that time, Wen’s outspoken call for rule of law and democracy was still fresh (compared to public response to his same speech now) and caught the attention of quite a few intellectuals who have always hoped that political change could be top-down, and the call of Wen was such a signal. They reshared the posts and helped it spread. We even got questions from Taiwanese media asking if we worked for Wen, and were deliberately sending out the translation on behalf of him. (Well, Chinese readers are too good to read between lines.)

This year, statistically speaking, the most popular translation is the profile of Hanhan by Evan Osnos from The New Yorker. I guess the article was long—over 10,000 words—so many reposts were cut off, and the readers had to come to our site to read the full translation. This explains the numbers. This article has got over 10,000 hits so far.

Tom: Does being involved with such a vocal group make you worry about your safety? Have you been invited to “drink tea” (euphemism for being questioned) with the police?

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