Back to Index

CHINA: History and language



Who are the panda-huggers and how do you spell "panda" in Chinese? It sounds as though Paul Simon's Ying is Bill Ratliff's Yang. Bill says:

"The question on panda hugging is hugging whom when: hugging Mao thirty years ago, as some Stanford faculty and many others did, was one thing, while hugging Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and even Jiang Zemin in the 1990s was/is quite another. Decades ago, those Americans who supported Chiang Kai-shek considered Fairbank a Mao-hugger. Though some of the criticisms of him were excessive, in my judgment Fairbank's last book, the one I recommended (China: A New History), is the most balanced he ever wrote, much more so than the earlier one on the U.S. and China that Paul mentions. With respect to Chiang, of whom Fairbank is often very critical, he is in my opinion more objective than Seagrave.

I completely agree with Paul that isolationism and domestic economic problems were the major factors in determining US policy toward Chiang in the 1930s. I am less impressed by arguments regarding our concern about some of Chiang's shady friends. We will overlook almost anything when we think it serves our national or sometimes even other interests to do so, both in the past and today. It was in the wartime capital of Chongqing (Chungking in the old romanization) that the corruption really set in, a change that is traced in the wartime book by Theodore White, Thunder out of China. My two main points in commenting on the lack of US support were: (1) faced by enormous US and much European indifference, Chiang was driven to look for help wherever he could find it, from both fascists and communists, and the motivation was primarily pragmatic not ideological, and (2) while not giving aid, the US did have trade relations, as Paul says, but these were totally detrimental to China. US trade was mainly with Japan, which throughout the 1930s was invading and occupying China, and much of the iron and steel we sold Japan ended up falling on Chinese heads around China, ultimately in Chongqing. If the US didn't support Chiang in any degree during the 1930s because he was not clearly in control of the country, as Paul suggests, the Japanese at least recognized him as the national leader and government and focused their attacks on him. The weather is often terrible in Chongqing but no problem for Japan because, even when visibility was bad, Japanese planes could fly up the Yangzi and drop their bombs when the river split, for that was Chongqing. How clearly I remember my first Yangzi River cruise on a Chinese ship, for half the passengers were Japanese; as we left the pier in Chongqing, where the down-river cruise begins, they were all on the stern, looking back at Chongqing, toasting I know not what. Of course, this was hardly the only time US trade has strengthened brutes pummeling the innocent. Indeed, many argue today that US trade with China mainly benefits the repressors, an argument I do not buy, but in the Japanese case the aid for repressors and destruction of the weak was absolute. I expect to be passing through Chengdu next May and look

I would add to Paul's comments on language that it is inconceivable to me that a romanization will ever be found to replace the characters because of the limited number of sounds in the Chinese language. The written characters and tones draw distinctions that can not be captured in a romanization. The simplified characters are certainly faster to write, and indeed many incorporate "shorthand" practices used by Chinese over time, even Chinese in Taiwan. Paul points out some of the problems with Pinyin, the official mainland romanization. About 90% of it is like the Yale University system, which I consider the best, but 10% stands as Mao Zedong's enduring contempt for communication between East and West. If a romanization is to convey the sound of the language, it must call to mind the closest possible sounds in particular to those who do not read the original or know the gimmicks of the romanization system itself. The previously "standard" romanization, the Wade Giles, was also confusing unless you knew the rules, but like Pinyin fairly accurate if you do apply the rules. For example, in Wade Giles the letter "p" represented the "p" sound only if it was followed by an aspirate mark (p'ing); without that mark (ping), it was a "b." Ditto with several other letters.

Finally, I suggest that several thousand characters were simplified not only to make it easier for more people to read, an important reason, particularly when you are trying to indoctrinate them, but also to limit over time what moderately educated people can read. In part it was a way to close the door on reading prior to the current regime. Many Chinese who learned simplified versions have some difficulty when they encounter the originals. They are becoming increasingly familiar with many originals now in a way Mao could not have imagined. Karaoke videos are popular in China and most of the them are not made in mainland China, They are from Hong Kong or beyond. The kids sing-along the words they know by heart and lo, on the bottom of the screen, there are the older forms of the characters.

Ronald Hilton - 12/23/01


Webmaster