On Language

Xingbuzelu’s call to replace “China” with “Zhongguo” in the English language is no different from Peking’s insistence that it is called Beijing (because the former term has colonial connotations, but also because it reflects Cantonese pronunciation and thus suggest communication with the West that bypasses the discipline of the Centre). Indeed, after the takeover of Hong Kong, English-language media in the city replaced the term “Mandarin” with the Mandarin term “Putonghua” to denote the official language of China. In other words, China’s official language has to be named in China’s official language.

Public language in China displays a surprising uniformity. The language of advertising, the language of televised entertainment, the official language of the Communist Party and the language of its opponents tend to be quite similar in wording and style. The slogan “Ardently Celebrate the Complete Success of the Fifth Marketing Congress of the Huamao Company (热烈庆祝华茂公司第五项推销会圆满成功!) can hang in a hotel lobby the next day after “Ardently Celebrate the Complete Success of the Twenty-Seventh Congress of the Provincial Party Committee”. In a 2007 Spring Festival spoof leaked to YouTube, employees of China Central Television made a spoof of such set phrases in a rap that went “There is no speech that is not important; there is no applause that is not enthusiastic; there is no support that is not wholehearted” (and, of course, got into trouble with management). But for ordinary television viewers, such language is not something to think twice about. The beer advertisement “May the Fatherland live long! May Huiquan flow forever!” elicits neither competitors’ ridicule nor the government’s objections for profaning its sacred goals.[1]

Internet nationalists use both highly charged, emotive language, reminiscent of their early twentieth-century predecessors (“Chinese, wake up! Wake up!!!!” – 醒来吧!醒来吧!!!), and official-sounding expressions like “solemnly declare” (严正声明) and “strongly demand” (强烈要求). Hackers declare that they must “contribute to the fatherland” and “unify their actions.” When an adherent of the relatively marginal movement to make the supposedly historical “Han costume” the national dress of China declares that “The revival of the Han costume is a necessary outcome of the rules of history, a trend that no force has the power to stop,”[2] it is such an exact copy of Communist Party language that is sounds like a parody, but it is not. Clearly, using the language of officialdom is thought to lend one credibility as it “demonstrates mastery of the state’s rules;” peasants protesting against local abuses of power invariably resort to such language as well.[3] But why does this strategy work in a medium such as the Internet, which we are used to regarding as subversive of all sorts of authority, including those of language and style?

The above examples are consequences of an unprecedented process: a capitalist economy developing under the control of a government whose ideas of linguistic control are modeled on the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, the use of official language outside official venues was uncommon and more often than not subversive (for example, in the context of jokes), and the mixing of official symbolism with commerce almost always satirical. In China, such mixing seems to extend rather than subvert the state’s stronghold on public language. The reasons for this are likely to be found in the relative newness – barely a hundred years – of a unified spoken and written vernacular in China; in the thinness of the literati layer that was able to operate in that vernacular and its decimation in the Cultural Revolution; and, largely for these reasons, in the lack of opposition between “high” and “low” culture (from the Soviet operetta as the model for socialist music there was a logical progression to patriotic pop, and after all, Chairman Jiang Zemin has personally praised the film Titanic). These reasons, incidentally, can account for the slow take-off of the kind of highbrow cultural protectionism that plays an important role in contemporary Russian and Eastern European nationalisms. While these scenes gain inspiration from the “authenticity” of folk dances, organic foods and traditional farming techniques and reject American cultural “junk,” Chinese nationalism has lacked this “material” aspect and has in fact been saying yes to Hollywood and Hallmark without much contention.

The two texts that shocked post-Stalin Russia, One Day of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago, continued a still-unbroken tradition drawing from pre-revolutionary prose and maintained by Bunin and Bulgakov. Post-Mao writers also went back to pre-Cultural Revolution literary models – but these were the classics of Soviet romanticism, like Ostrovsky’s How The Steel Was Tempered and Fadeev’s Young Guard. Wei Jingsheng’s Fifth Modernisation in 1979, Tiananmen Square student leaders’ declarations in 1989, and the Falungong’s Nine Commentaries in 2004 have all used the heavy, ideological phrases of the Communist Party even as they denounced it (“History tells us the Chinese Communist Party is an evil cult”).

The uniformity of the spoken language is similarly striking. According to rules released by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television in 2005, presenters who use regional dialects or “imitate Hong Kong and Taiwanese accents” can be fired.[4] But the government’s concern with pronunciations deviating from the kind of standard Mandarin that, like Peking time, represents the orthodoxy of the Centre (中央), is excessive. Anchors of all sorts of commercial shows on the mainland’s mushrooming TV stations replicate the Peking intonation, gestures, and slapstick familiar from the mother of all official spectacles, the Central Television’s Spring Festival Gala. The People’s Daily has recently described it as a “new folk celebration” that unites 100 million “sons and daughters of China, no matter whether at home or abroad, to the north or south of the Great River,” and “without any preaching, with plenty of inspirational force, naturally expresses … the spirit of the Party’s 16th Congress” through its songs and skits. The reviewer approvingly analysed the show as a “ritual” affirming the affective bonds of the Chinese people, structured by the hosts’ calls “Embrace your family!”, “Thank your friends!”, “Greet your neighbours!” and finally “Eulogise the Fatherland!”. This provides the cue to the “culmination” of the ritual in the massive performance entitled “Coming together of the nation’s soil” (国土会集), in which soil from all China’s provinces, as well as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau is poured into a ritual ding vessel under the solemn guard of army generals. At this point, the song “Love of the Old Soil” (故土情) “transports the sons of China and millions of viewers into the great national sentiments, the great racial goals (国家大情,民族大义) of unifying the Fatherland, uniting the nation, developing the economy, and making the people happy”.[5]

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[1] In fact, there are regulations stating “It is strictly prohibited to use the names, autographs or photographs of Party and state leaders in advertising,” for example, Article 7 of the “Notice on checking the strict implementation of publishing regulations” (有关重申严格实行有关出版管理规定的通知; CCP Central Committee Propaganda Department document no. [2004]7), but it is sometimes violated – for example, the excellent Lion Brand cigars of the Shifang Tobacco Factory have both Mao Zedong’s and Deng Xiaoping’s names on the packaging. Though Stalin and Gorbachev are now similarly to attract customers, it is impossible to imagine that anyone would have had the idea of doing so while the Soviet Union existed.

[2] Post by Xiaojian1 on “国家或民族的气度与服饰无关。反对奥运使用汉服,更反对汉服称为‘国服’” (A country’s or a nation’s bearing has nothing to do with its clothes. Oppose using the Han costume at Olympics, and especially adopting it as “national dress”) thread, Tianya.cn, 15 May 2007.

[3] Stig Thøgersen, “Beyond Official Chinese: Language Codes and Strategies,” in Maria Heimer and Stig Thøgersen, eds. Doing Fieldwork in China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006, pp. 110-126 (quoted from p. 112).

[4] News Roundup August-October 2005,” China Rights Forum 4/2005, p. 6.

[5] Zhong Chengxiang “新的民族庆典,美的文化大餐 ” (A new folk celebration, a beautiful cultural feast), Renmin Ribao, 11 February 2003, 14.

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