The Westernization of Chinese revisited

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We are all aware of the horrific violence that is currently being visited upon Japanese people, products, and property in China these days.  Here are some photos to give an example of what's going on. This is the result of anger over Japan's assertion of ownership of some tiny, rocky islands called the Senkakus, which China also claims (in Mandarin they are referred to as Diaoyutai or Diaoyudao).

Since China is threatening to go to war with Japan over the Senkakus, this is very serious business indeed. And yet, a "legendary" art collector, antiquarian, and museum director named Ma Weidu 马未都 has supposedly proclaimed:

Xīcí rù hàndiǎn shì sàngshī wénhuà zūnyán  bǐ Diàoyúdǎo wèntí yánzhòng
西词入汉典是丧失文化尊严 比钓鱼岛问题严重
("The importation of Western words in Chinese texts constitutes a greater loss of cultural dignity than the question of Diaoyutai").

Ma Weidu's reputation in Chinese art circles is formidable, and yet he has apparently made such an extreme statement as the one quoted above.  Here are some more articles about Ma Weidu, and this is Ma's blog, where his statement was first published.

Clearly, this is an issue that vexes Ma Weidu enormously, but he is by no means alone in his fear that Westernization represents a dire threat to the integrity and even existence of Chinese.  I've recently written several posts (e.g., here and here) about the inroads that Western languages, especially English, are making in Chinese, and this is a subject I've often touched upon at Language Log during the past few years.

One of the most prolific commenters on my posts is someone who calls himself "joe".  "joe" (who professes to speak for "educated people" and "we Chinese" [but he is wrong about that, since I know countless Chinese who think very differently than he does]) insists that Westernization is in retreat, and he also appears to believe that China does not have morphemes, only single syllable words (although his position on the latter issue is rather wobbly).

Here are just a few examples of his numerous comments (but see especially Mark Liberman's remarks in red inserted in reply to several of joe's comments).

Thus it would seem that Ma Weidu (and others of his ilk) and joe (together with others of his disposition) are talking at cross purposes.  But neither what Ma Weidu proclaims nor what joe maintains will have any significant bearing on the outcome of Westernization.  That will be determined by the fingers and voices of the mass of Chinese writers and speakers.  So far, what we are witnessing is that they love to pepper their speech and prose with Western expressions and increasingly with Western letters.

Grammar notes:

When I initially read the headline introducing the article about Ma Weidu's views on the Westernization of Chinese, I felt that it was illogical and awkward to the point of being ungrammatical, at least according to the Mandarin grammar I was taught long ago:

Xīcí rù hàndiǎn shì sàngshī wénhuà zūnyán  bǐ Diàoyúdǎo wèntí yánzhòng
西词入汉典是丧失文化尊严 比钓鱼岛问题严重
("The importation of Western words in Chinese texts constitutes a greater loss of cultural dignity than the question of Diaoyudao").

First of all, the shì 是 ("is") struck me as being unnatural and unnecessary.  I would prefer just to drop it.  Next, I was puzzled by the space before bǐ 比 (marker of the comparative degree); at the very least there should have been a comma before it.  So I asked half a dozen educated native speakers, and most of them said they thought the sentence was more or less acceptable, though nearly all of them noticed the absence of a comma.  However, they had different explanations for the intrusion of shì 是 ("is") in the sentence.  Some said that it added emphasis, while others opined that it was like the verb "be" in English, and that it caused the sàngshī 丧失 ("lose") following it to become a gerund.  And that is precisely what bothered me, since the sentence was aping English grammar, another example of creeping Westernization!  It would have been much more elegantly Chinese to write just Xīcí rù hàndiǎn sàngshī wénhuà zūnyán 西词入汉典丧失文化尊严 ("Western words entering Chinese texts causes a loss of cultural dignity…").

Upon turning to Ma Weidu's own statement on his blog, I discovered that what he said was quite different and much clearer than what was in the headline:

Zhè shì wǒ kàn bǐ Diàoyúdǎo wèntí hái yánzhòng; lǐngtǔ de diūshī hái kěyǐ zhǎo huí lái, wénhuà de rùqīn huì shēnrù gǔsuǐ…
("It seems to me that this matter [VHM: of mixing Roman letters in Chinese texts] is more serious than the question of Diaoyudao.  Territory that is lost can be recovered, but cultural invasion goes deeply into the marrow…")

The reformulation in the headline quoted above is both more awkward and more disconcerting than what Ma himself said, which is awkward and disconcerting enough.  Furthermore, Ma Weidu was complaining about the adoption of Roman letters in the Chinese writing system, whereas the headline talks about "Western words", which is a much broader concept, with Chinese already having adopted tens of thousands of terms based upon Western words.

[A tip of the hat to Joel Martinsen, and thanks to Maiheng Dietrich, Liwei Jiao, Gianni Wan, Jiajia Wang, and Jing Wen.]


  1. W. Sun said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 4:52 pm

    It looks like that the website Prof. Mair quoted has already removed the shi in the headline. I guess the editor made a mistake trying to combine two sentences from Ma's blogs into the headline:“在汉语中夹杂西文,引西文入汉典(不是外来词)是一个民族在主动丧失文化尊严。” (zài hàn yǔ zhōng jiá zá xī wén ,yǐn xī wén rù hàn diǎn (bú shì wài lái cí )shì yī gè mín zú zài zhǔ dòng sàng shī wén huà zūn yán 。)[Mixing Western words into Han language, introducing Western words into Han dictionary (not loanwords), is for the ethnicity to voluntary lose its cultural dignity.] and "这事我看比钓鱼岛问题还严重,领土的丢失还可以找回来,文化的入侵会深入骨髓,一代人下来,基本上回天无术。" (zhè shì wǒ kàn bǐ diào yú dǎo wèn tí hái yán zhòng ,lǐng tǔ de diū shī hái kě yǐ zhǎo huí lái ,wén huà de rù qīn huì shēn rù gǔ suǐ ,yī dài rén xià lái ,jī běn shàng huí tiān wú shù 。)[ This is something I see as more serious than the Diaoyu Islands issue; the loss of territory can be regained; cultural invasion goes deep into bone marrow; after one generation, basically it will be beyond help.]

    I am not sure about how to translate 回天无术(huí tiān wú shù), Google suggested "back to the days without surgery," which somehow sounds surprisingly fine to me.

  2. W. Sun said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    Sorry, in the first sentence it should be "to voluntarily lose cultural dignity."
    There is another translation I am not sure about In the second sentence, lǐng tǔ de diū shī hái kě yǐ zhǎo huí lái, I think he actually meant "lost territory can be recovered" but that would be diū shī de lǐng tǔ, and lǐng tǔ de diū shī would be the loss of territory, which, however, doesn't make sense if you want to recover it.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

    @W. Sun

    Amazing! They must have made the change within an hour of the time I posted it.

    Somebody's watching, and somebody agrees with my grammatical analysis.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    Since language-purism carping and prescriptivism, however irksome, do not generally lead to riots and property damage (although I can think of a counterexample from early 20th century Greece and no doubt there are others), I'm not going to fault anyone who wants to encourage nationalistic mobs to worry about that rather than the disputed rocks. Think of the ROMANES EUNT DOMUS scene in Life of Brian, where the overwhelming impulse to correct the grammar of others avoided what could have been a fatal encounter between competing nationalisms.

  5. Vince said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 10:25 pm

    @J.W.: Yes, but Life of Brian was a movie, not real life. In real life, it isn't a single centurion, it's an entire movement of people. It's another note in the chorus: it's not deflecting attention from anything, it's providing yet another target to agitate people's feelings. Prescriptivism in itself is relatively harmless, but so is any other belief. If I can give a (deliberately) shocking and extreme comparison, simply expressing a belief in the inferiority of another race of people is harmless on its own, but when it's manifested in a particular context it can be a very troubling sign indeed: you wouldn't try to "deflect the attention" of a lynch-mob to the fine points of racist ideology.

  6. julie lee said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    My mother told me in her eighties (around 1990) that a lot of the time she couldn't understand the language of the Chinese daily newspaper anymore. Chinese was her first and only language, and she knew it very well, could read the classics. But I understood what she meant. I could understand the Chinese because so much of it was a direct translation of English.

    Victor Mair was sharp to catch the ungrammatical SHI是 "is" in the first version of Ma Weidu's Chinese sentence.
    That's what I mean, a lot of English grammar in Chinese that made Chinese frequently unintelligible to my mom, but which I could see was English grammar. Not only that, it was obvious that a lot of the "Chinese" words (in Chinese characters) were from English, recognizable as such to me, but not to my mom or dad, who knew little English. And I don't mean only scientific words like KUAKE 夸克 “"quark" but everyday words like GANQINGHUA 感情化 "emotional", where GANQING is used in an un-Chinese sense and -HUA is directly from the English suffix -al, and un-Chinese. Have a lot of these Englishisms in a passage, and it becomes unintelligble to Chinese of my parents' generation, if they don't know English well. In other words, for that older Chinese generation to understand the Chinese language of present-day Chinese newspapers, they have to know English well—-they have to know a foreign language well to understand their own native language.

  7. hanmeng said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

    The use of the ungrammatical shì 是 is ironic, as one often hears students of Chinese as a foreign language (CSL?) use it.

  8. Taylor B said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 8:57 am

    As to the use of English grammar it has had a huge effect on use of 不. Traditionally it is never used alone, and it is not correctly translated as 'no' but more like 'not'. Hence 不是 (is not) 不對 (not correct) 不能 (not able).

    But today it's extremely common in spoken Chinese to ask somebody "Is that right?" and they will say 不不不, and mean it as we would say in English "Oh no no no."

    That is clearly a grammatical concept being borrowed from English, as I have never seen 不 used that way in older Chinese. I can't speak to whether it is written that way as well, but I've heard in numerous times in the past 10 years or so, prior to that, I never heard it used that way, and in fact if you said 不 by itself I would have 99% of the time been corrected by the person I was speaking to.

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