Glossing English with Sinograms

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For more than five decades, Orville Schell has been one of our leading China expositors.  Having authored or co-authored a dozen books on Chinese affairs, he now turns his hand to a fictional biography with My Old Home:  A Novel of Exile (Penguin Random House, 2021).  Blurb from the publisher:

A uniquely experienced observer of China gives us a sweeping historical novel that takes us on a journey from the rise of Mao Zedong in 1949 to the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, as a father and his son are swept away by a relentless series of devastating events.
It’s 1950, and pianist Li Tongshu is one of the few Chinese to have graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Engaged to a Chinese-American violinist who is the daughter of a missionary father and a Shanghai-born mother, Li Tongshu is drawn not just by Mao’s grand promise to “build a new China” but also by the enthusiasm of many other Chinese artists and scientists living abroad, who take hope in Mao’s promise of a rejuvenated China. And so when the recently established Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing offers Li Tongshu a teaching position, he leaves San Francisco and returns home with his new wife.
But instead of being allowed to teach, Li Tongshu is plunged into Mao’s manic revolution, which becomes deeply distrustful of his Western education and his American wife. It’s not long before his son, Little Li, also gets caught up in the maelstrom of political and ideological upheaval that ends up not only savaging the Li family but, ultimately, destroying the essential fabric of Chinese society.

A peculiar feature of the book is that it glosses many words and phrases with Sinograms / Hanzi  Chinese characters.  It's difficult to fathom why Schell would do this, and why his publisher let him get away with it.

I should stress that the book is not about esoteric readings of the Zhuang Zi or anything like that. Rather, it's a *novel*, and one set between 1949 and 1989. It features the Cultural Revolution, of course, or "Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (伟大的无产阶级文化大革命)", as the book refers to it. Did Schell worry that readers otherwise wouldn't know what he was referring to?


A special note for regular readers of Language Log:

It has always been my practice, with rare exceptions, to provide romanized transcriptions for all Sinograms cited in my posts.  Since the vast majority of readers are not familiar with Chinese characters, it makes no sense to cite them without romanizations and translations.  I also consider it ostentatious, discourteous, and presumptuous.  Here, so that readers can experience the effect of character glosses without transcriptions, I omit them throughout, except for the very end of the conclusion.

I invariably get annoyed when teachers scribble characters all over the blackboard or in lecture notes if there are individuals in the class who are not literate in Chinese.  Even if I only have one or two students in my classes who do not know Chinese, I will always take pains to pronounce the characters, translate them, and may even give comments about their construction if it helps the students to understand their meaning and background.

As always, I ask:  whose ego are you trying to stroke?  Your own?


In Schell's novel, this sort of thing is done not just for phrases of Chinese origin but even for common English words, e.g., "'Christian’ [基督徒]".

To see more examples, click on "Look Inside" below the cover image on this page.

Here's a sample passage from p. 4:

“This afternoon Red Guards dragged Ma Sicong to the Conservatory for a struggle session [批斗会],” interjected his father. “They attacked him as a ‘bourgeois intellectual’ [资产阶级知识分子] and a ‘Christian’ [基督徒], capped him with a dunce hat, taunted him as an ‘ox ghost and a snake spirit’ [牛鬼 蛇神], and then paraded him around the courtyard.”

Incidentally, the character Ma Sicong (1912 [Haifeng, Guangdong]-1987 [Philadelphia]) is based on a real person who was a famous violinist and composer.  He was referred to in China as "The King of Violinists".

For more of the glossing, just on p. 7, I see:

"people" 人民

"class enemies" 阶级敌人

"bad elements" 坏分子

"family background" 家庭背景

"Your father believes the moon is rounder in America than China" 美国的月亮比中国的圆

If you're glossing things at this level, you might as well gloss about a quarter of the book.

It makes no sense.  A gloss is for explaining or amplifying something to your reader what he / she cannot grasp from the text itself.  It only adds insult to injury if your gloss is less fathomable than the text itself.

I should note that, of all the people I showed Schell's novel to, those who have the best Chinese ability (speaking, reading, and writing) are the ones who objected the most strongly to the Chinese character glosses on principled grounds.  Those who are completely illiterate in Chinese either totally ignored the glosses or were left in a sort of daze by them or scorned them ("What's the point?  The characters mean absolutely nothing to me, so why did he put them there?).

My preliminary guesses why he did it are:

1. His Chinese really is not very good and he sheepishly wants to establish his bona fides this way.

2. His publisher foolishly told him to do it to make his book seem more "authentic".

3. For sheer PCness (to make up for being a white man writing about Chinese people).

4. Did it because he was under the spell of a particular Chinese friend on behalf of whom he wrote the book as a sort of biography.

5. To make up for his lack of writing ability

6. To add an exotic flavor / flair / atmosphere to the text

To probe more deeply and psychologically, putting the Chinese phrases there sends the message that "this is a different world.  I have reached it, and am reporting to you from it."  That mood is objectionable, perhaps, for being show-offy, but I also don't like the implication that it IS a different world.  Schell is writing about the struggle to be a normal human being within a horribly harsh context, and at that level there is no difference of world.  It would be the same for us, for an African, for anybody.  Why keep sending the message that "I am talking about a different world"?

Does anyone have any other ideas about why Schell adopted this strange practice?  For whom did he write the book?

It may all seem very silly, but to me it's a quite serious matter when a well-known China hand adopts such a bizarre practice.  What may have caused him to do so?  There are many possibilities (see above for a list), but my top candidates are the following:

1. insecurity over his own Chinese ability

2. he was trying to please some particular Chinese friend or friends

3. he was attempting to impress or intimidate his readers

Whatever the reason for pursuing this baffling procedure, it is bound to elicit a fǎnzuòyòng 反作用 ("counterproductive reaction").


[Thanks to Mark Swofford and an anonymous Chinese literary critic]



  1. alex said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 8:21 am

    didnt read closely as in quarantine in shanghai with 2 kids.

    Could it be for the Chinese native who has only basic English ability?

    "“This afternoon Red Guards dragged Ma Sicong to the Conservatory for a struggle session [批斗会],"

    like someone with ok English could understand 'This afternoon Red Guards dragged Ma Sicong"

    or They attacked him as a ‘bourgeois intellectual’ [资产阶级知识分子

    they attacked him is easy enough

    just guessing

  2. alex said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 8:31 am

    I just looked through it, i guess there are many English words that are beyond Chinese natives with only basic English so maybe not. or perhaps he is worried about his translation into English for native Chinese readers?

    anyway I am one who always appreciated how you included pinyin on your posts! Many times i could read the pinyin but not the characters! and once again today in quarantine I had to laugh when looking at the word 戳 with my younger son and think how hard that is to write for young kids versus chuo or poke

  3. Rodger C said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 8:49 am

    For some reason (or for none), the Wiki article on Ma Sicong doesn't mention that he was usually known in the West during his lifetime as "Ma Sitson."

  4. David Moser said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 9:04 am

    To insert Chinese characters into the text of an English novel does seem like an odd choice. I can say with some certainty that Schell's Chinese is quite good, and I doubt if the decision was to show his bona fides. If it were just an isolated example or two, I might chalk it up to "academic inertia"; that is, maybe he was so used to including pinyin and characters in scholarly articles, that it just seemed natural to keep it up in his work of fiction. But the publisher would certainly have discussed this at length, so it couldn't have been a decision that was made on a whim. I have PPT slide I often use for translation classes that deals with this issue. I show students the following sentence from "Dream of the Red Chamber":

    "Accordingly the nurses conducted Dai-yu through the door into this side apartment. Here there was a large kang underneath the window, covered with a scarlet Kashmir rug."

    So the issue is the word in pinyin, "kang". As I see it, there are three pretty clear strategies for such a culturally specific term in an English translation:

    Strategy 1: Don’t translate.
    “Here there was a large kang underneath the window.”

    Strategy 2: Translate.
    “Here there was a large heated brick bed underneath the window.”

    Strategy 3: Annotate/footnote.
    “Here there was a large kang2 underneath the window.”
    2 Kang 炕 : A large hollow bed made of brick and heated by fire in the winter, usually seen in Northern and Northeast China.

    All of these strategies have been used in various versions of the novel. But the strategy that I would never have imagined using was Schell's:

    “Here there was a large kang (炕) underneath the window.”

    Either the reader knows what a "kang" is, or they don't, but either way, what's the point of including the Chinese character? It's either not helpful at all, or simply superfluous. I don't get it.

    I haven't seen the novel, so maybe there is something about the style or intention that I'm not aware of. But I agree with Victor that this is an odd — and somewhat distracting — translation strategy.

  5. John Swindle said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 9:18 am

    Maybe he started by outlining the story in Chinese and we're seeing remnants of his outline. I don't know. It's strange (奇怪).

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 10:02 am

    @alex, Rodger C, David Moser, John Swindle

    Thanks for all the great comments!

    戳, indeed! Why should Chinese children (and adults) have to suffer to read and write such a simple word as chuō ("poke; jab; prick; pierce; thrust; stab; stamp; seal; chop; [dialectal] to fuck; to have sex with") with that 18 stroke monstrosity? As we've been discussing recently, at normal font sizes it becomes a black blur. Of course, 戳 has an orthographic, phonological, and literary history stretching back more than three thousand years, and specialists in these fields will always have to responsibly contend with this reality (I've been one of them for more than half a century — with no regrets, because this was the time into which I was born). But in the 21st century, when we are surrounded by so many digital and AI aids and such a flood of exponentially growing information? I look to the future, gladly and hopefully.

  7. David Moser said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 10:05 am

    Then again, maybe there is a reasonable purpose for this strategy. As Alex above hinted at, maybe Schell is hoping that many Chinese readers with a very limited reading knowledge of English will attempt the daunting task of reading his novel in English. In order to help out such readers, it would make sense to occasionally include Hanzi for special terms like "struggle session [批斗会]", since there might be some difficulty in matching the English to the special term. But if this is the case, it's still strange that even ordinary concepts like "Christian" would be so difficult for a non-native speaker of English that they would need the Hanzi to grasp the meaning. It would seem that if any reader with a hope of understanding the text in English would at least know basic English vocabulary, even if they might be flummoxed by "bourgeois intellectual." Still seems a weak rationale. Even in a case like this, it would make more sense to just include a glossary at the end of the book.

  8. Jim Unger said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 10:43 am

    As other commenters have suggested, Schell or his publisher probably wants to sell a lot of copies to Chinese readers in the PRC. But the inclusion of characters will not only help Chinese readers with limited English. Adding characters may also be a strategy for avoiding censorship of the book by party hacks whose English is not very good.

    As for the overseas market, the characters will cow some readers, irritate others, but, in any case, are unlikely to result in negative sales results or reviews. On the contrary, I can imagine a postmodernist critic or two gushing about how the characters add to the content of the book in some telepathic way.

  9. David Marjanović said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 12:22 pm

    It would have been a lot more useful – assuming my guess about the intended readership isn't completely wrong – to explain what "ox ghost and snake spirit" means. Just translating it literally only gets me to "it kinda sounds bad, and it's in a list of invective, so it probably is bad"… I appreciate (quite possibly unlike the intended readers, but see above) that this is a four-character proverb, so it may well be an allusion to a 2500-year-old story and can't really be appreciated without explaining that story in a few sentences; but if there's a point in mentioning "ox ghost and snake spirit", then there's a point in including those extra few sentences in the text.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 12:59 pm

    One reason I can imagine is that he wanted readers who knew some or a lot of Chinese to get the full connotations of the words and phrases. Maybe for some people, "批斗会" induces more of a shudder than "struggle session".

    Another reason is that there might be an e-book version where the Sinograms are hyperlinked to pronunciations and background information (such as the source of "ox ghost and snake spirit") for the benefit of English-speaking readers. If so, maybe the publisher didn't bother to take the Sinograms out of the dead-tree version.

  11. David Cowhig said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 1:19 pm

    Yes, I'd say it is excessive.  On my translation blog I put in characters sometimes in the translation for personal names and place names, especially if they are not well-known, and if I translate something in a way that others may not agree. 

    Then I generally add the full Chinese text after the translation because the most interesting stuff posted in China often disappears much faster than in other countries!

    I suppose it could be fun to put the characters in for people starting Chinese or just curious who might look it up on Google and then run some of their results through Google Translate. That is kind of a fringe activity though. I have had fun doing that in Russian playing with the political gossip site Konpromat then run it through Google Translate Once you have it set up in Google Translate, you can just click to bring up the machine translation. Fun, I've looked up Russians in the news on this and found interesting things. Machine translation poison cookie problem caveats apply.

    So that is would be my rationale if I were to throw in some many characters. Naturally, I would have written it up in the book with an explanation to encourage them to play that game with a warning on the limits and pitfalls of machine translation.

    Say for Chinese I might put in lots of characters and then suggest that people look them up and use Google Translate and other tools. On Wikipedia the Chinese language articles on China often have more interesting detail than the ones in English.

  12. Peter Baker said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 1:28 pm

    Ok, I'm just a reader, not a linguist, but this whole thread seems weirdly off-kilter. Schell has created an _artistic_ work, and is trying to create some _artistic_ effect. All these proposed "explanations" completely ignore this.

    Can we expect a post on The Lord of the Rings, speculating about what cynical or mercenary motive lay behind Tolkien's choice to include entire lengthy poems in languages no one can read? Or to fill his maps with labels in made-up scripts?

    FWIW (which is not much, since I haven't read the book myself), my first reaction is that Schell wants to indicate that these words and phrases are stock slogans, rather than attempts to convey actual meaning. He is trying to give the reader a feeling for how jargon-laden, heavy-handed, ideological cant pervades even the most mundane transactions in a totalizing state.

    Even I know that "人民" in this context does not simply mean "people."

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 1:47 pm

    Maybe for some people, "批斗会" induces more of a shudder than "struggle session".

    I probably should have said that maybe Schell hoped it would, since that doesn't seem to have been the result.

    Incidentally, I can think of earlier examples. In C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, there's some conversation in early medieval Latin that's translated into English. A few Latin words are given. "'And yonder whipper-snapper (mastigia) is without doubt your Bishop.'"

    Then there's the reverse—the foreign language and then the translation. In Dorothy Sayers's Clouds of Witness, the letter that unravels the mystery is given first in French, then in rather free English translation. (Search for lettre if you want to see it.)

    And at a, or the, crucial moment in Ada, by Vladimir Nabokov, the narrator Van (who refers to his past self in the third person) writes,

    "‘Mozhno pridti teper’ (can I come now)?’ asked Lucette.

    "‘Ya ne odin (I’m not alone),’ answered Van."

    Showing off? Providing valuable connotations? Not wanting the reader to miss the slightest detail? Satisfying readers who wonder what the Latin word for "whipper-snapper" is?

  14. zheng-sheng zhang said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 3:37 pm

    One possible use for the glosses may be for English learners of Chinese, who may be interested in the Chinese terms for the English words used. Granted that is a very small number of potential readers and this may or may not be what the author intended.

  15. Terry K. said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 3:42 pm

    I could totally see it if it were Chinese things, giving Chinese-reading readers the Chinese term. But the "'Christian'", with the quotes around it, and then the Chinese characters, it makes me feel like I'm missing something. Like whatever nuance of "Christian" is implied by the quote marks is explained to Chinese readers, but not to the rest of us. Which may not be correct, but it's how it comes across to me.

  16. Josh R. said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 7:31 pm

    I find myself in agreement with Peter Baker. I imagine that Prof. Mair is closest when he suggests Schell is trying to create a sense in the reader that he is reporting from a different world, and signaling to the reader that when he uses certain words, they have a meaning and nuance distinct from the English that he is using.

    One can argue with the intended artistic effect, or criticize the effectiveness of its execution, but Prof. Mair's top three candidates at the end of the post strike me as uncharitable in the extreme.

    I would also suggest that the book's artistic effect is intended in the main for those who are not Sinograph-literate, and thus it is not going to hit those of us who are in the same way. I'm reminded of watching the scene in the hospital of Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation." The doctor was explaining, in a very reassuring way, that while there might be a hairline fracture in the main character's toe, they would tape it up and she would be better in no time. I was very reassured watching it. It wasn't until later that I realized that the scene had no subtitles, and the viewer was not expected to be reassured, but rather quite the opposite.

  17. Karl Weber said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 7:31 pm

    @peter baker, I for one would be fascinated to read comments from one or more of the Language Log linguists about the literary and rhetorical effects achieved–or bungled–by Tolkien's use of lengthy quotations in Elvish, Westron, and other languages of Middle Earth in LOTR.

  18. Jerry Packard said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 9:04 pm

    Rather than portraying Schell as manifesting bizarre, ostentatious, discourteous, and presumptuous behavior that his publisher let him get away with, why not assume that the author simply likes Chinese characters and wants to provide them for readers or learners of Chinese who would appreciate seeing the Chinese equivalent of the English?

    In my recent book on the Chinese language ('A Social View on the Chinese Language', Peter Lang, publisher), to be sure, most of the English terms that I glossed in Chinese included pinyin as well as characters and most of the Chinese terms that I used included pinyin and characters together with an English morphemic gloss. But as a book specifically on Chinese language I felt this was a courteous if not a necessary move, and feel that such level of detail might not be necessary in a cultural work such as a novel.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 9:26 pm

    From a professor of comparative literature:

    So unreal. From the list of possible explanations, my choices are 2) publisher told him to add authenticity, 3) to make up for being a white man, and *5) to make up for lack of [fiction] writing ability. Especially 5. It’s a puzzle why talented writers of essays, history, etc should think they can turn to capturing conversation or for that matter, narration. There are famous examples of where this didn’t work out, even minus the gratuitous insertion of Chinese characters, Edmund Wilson’s I Think of Daisy, Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey, plus many non-famous ones.

    Your post quotes the following piece of conversation. “This afternoon Red Guards dragged Ma Sicong to the Conservatory for a struggle session,” interjected his father. “They attacked him as a ‘bourgeois intellectual’ and a ‘Christian’, capped him with a dunce hat, taunted him as an ‘ox ghost and a snake spirit’, and then paraded him around the courtyard.”

    Can this be an interjection even minus the characters? Can it be conversation even? Reads just like nonfiction report. Would his son be “Ma Sicong” to the father?

    Why quotation marks around terms when when this was daily language in that time and in any case is spoken here? For consistency “struggle session” should have qtn marks.

  20. alex said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 9:34 pm

    I cant see that being done for artistic effect.

    and now my curiosity has gotten the best of me and ordered the book on kindle :-) as the link free preview was too short, besides it seems like an important book/lesson for my kids kind of like the movies Katyn and The Killing Fields and Mr. Jones (2019).

  21. alex wang said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 11:54 pm

    Seems like most of the words with Chinese characters relate to the cultural revolution so the question is who are the Chinese characters for and the true audience Ill ask my son to see if he has learned those cultural revolution terms in his public school ended with grade 7.

    after skimming through in the past couple hours i prefer the nonfiction

    The Man on Mao's Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China's Foreign Ministry Hardcover – July 15, 2008
    by Ji Chaozhu

  22. alex said,

    March 15, 2021 @ 3:07 am

    It seems many phrases such as

    "Here the parading children were already seated on their stools in front of a makeshift stage draped with a banner reading “Leniency to those Who Confess: Severity to Those Who Resist (坦白从宽 抗拒从严).”

    "by building a “loyalty wall” (忠字墙) emblazoned with a giant portrait of Chairman Mao. The column told how this “hero of the people” not only continued slopping hogs, but also set about teaching other “rightists” at the farm how to perform “loyalty dances” (忠字舞) in front of his new shrine, as paeans to Chairman Mao’s leadership."

    have Chinese characters. Are these slogans well known slogans of that time?

    The other items aside from names are food items, cultural, or religious expressions.

    It doesn't really bother me as I just for the most part ignore the Chinese as I'm for the most part illiterate.

    Like the book Alexander of Macedonian i might copy and google out of curiosity. but in general ill skim over words like Dobrudja or wiki it

    "The last straw was a disastrous raid which he conducted into the Thracian Dobrudja (spring 339). On his way home he was ambushed and defeated by the Triballi, a hairy and primitive tribe which had provided Aristophanes with some of his best music-hall jokes."

    Now I'm wondering if its for Chinese kids like my older son when he grows up. He is about 7th grade level English and 7th grade level public schools of Shenzhen. His English will keep improving but his Chinese wont too much.

    I don't know how much of these slogans of history they teach on mainland but if they don't then I suppose its nice for my son to know the Chinese. He can clearly read the Chinese he might not be familiar with some of those saying.

  23. Chester Draws said,

    March 15, 2021 @ 4:06 am

    Perhaps it is an after-effect of writing too much non-fiction. Your chosen words for a foreign term are often never going to be quite right.

    If you have to translate the Russian word mir, say, you can be left with some invidious choices. One way is to go "He felt alone in the community (mir)" so that readers with a bit of background knowledge can see your choice.

  24. ~flow said,

    March 15, 2021 @ 5:36 am

    FWIW I read too many texts about China and Chinese language that do not bother to add characters for terms that I would really like to know. I think inserting foreign language material right into the running text is something that has become much more feasible with current technologies and it's a great way to build bridges between languages. I won't speak to the qualities of the book at hand but I will say that from the examples cited here I find it interesting to have the terms like 'struggle session' and 'ox ghost and snake spirit' translated right there, on the spot. Personally I suspect the effect—to weave two languages together—might be better served by adducing the foreign language first and follow them with the term in the text's basic (?better term?) language, like this:

    “This afternoon Red Guards dragged Ma Sicong to the Conservatory for a 批斗会 struggle session,” interjected his father. “They attacked him as a 资产阶级知识分子 ‘bourgeois intellectual’ and a 基督徒 ‘Christian’, capped him with a dunce hat, taunted him as an 牛鬼蛇神 ‘ox ghost and a snake spirit’, and then paraded him around the courtyard.”

    I do not understand why anyone would feel offended by this. I do know there are those who argue that "our readership will not be able to read this" but I find this attitude condescending and patronizing. Recently I worked through a number of old books to see what I would keep and I found a brilliant booklet from the nineteen fifties that set out to teach Germans the art of travelling to Great Britain, and the editors decided to take exactly this approach, mixing the languages right on the spot. If anything is problematic about that particular volume it would be the lack of a clear typographic distinction of the two languages (before the war one would have used Fraktur and Antiqua for the purpose naturally; after the war, serif and sans-serif would be a serviceable choice).

  25. Scott P. said,

    March 15, 2021 @ 5:47 am


    I don't think there is any objection, let alone offense, to including Chinese text in the novel, but the question rather is — why not in pinyin? Wouldn't that do much more to 'build bridges between languages'?

  26. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2021 @ 5:59 am

    Bless you, Scott P.!

    That is sensible, and I would be all in favor of it — speaking for the 99+% of the population who do not recognize a single character.

    This reminds me of the many posts I have written about gibberish, meaningless, ornamental signs in China that are written in Tibetan, Uyghur, and other "minority" scripts.

  27. ~flow said,

    March 15, 2021 @ 6:42 am

    I think adding the Pinyin would be essential for some readers and, at any rate, helpful for everyone where rare characters are used. The only objection I have is that putting the pinyin onto the same line adds serious clutter. Depending on the situation, a typographic solution such as using the page margins or using ruby (furigana) would be needed. I'm a big fan of furigana in Japanese and I'm always happy when I see it being used judiciously.

    As for the readers who do not read or speak Chinese, I am all for giving them a chance to encounter some characters. May they ignore them if they so wish, but even my parents came back from Asia knowing a few essential characters ('exit' and 'which toilet', you guessed it).

    "I don't think there is any objection, let alone offense, to including Chinese text in the novel"—I must have completely misread the OP and a number of comments.

  28. ~flow said,

    March 15, 2021 @ 6:48 am

    BTW putting the characters vertically into the margin, maybe adding teeny guiding marks to link English and Chinese terms could have been a superior solution for the book we are discussing. I realize when I pick up contemporary books from the US that book art in fiction and non-fiction is having a renaissance; as a publisher, I would dream of reaching more readers with beautiful books, and what better way of embellishing a book than with material that is both ornamental and informative?

  29. Rodger C said,

    March 15, 2021 @ 7:00 am

    Getting back to Victor's point:

    “This afternoon Red Guards dragged Ma Sicong to the Conservatory for a struggle session,” interjected his father. “They attacked him as a ‘bourgeois intellectual’ and a ‘Christian’, capped him with a dunce hat, taunted him as an ‘ox ghost and a snake spirit’, and then paraded him around the courtyard.”

    This reminds me strongly of the "dialogue" that appears in quotation marks, or maybe used to, in National Geographic.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2021 @ 7:49 am

    From a learned Chinese friend:

    I read "Clumsy Classicism". It is common for a half-bottle-vinegar to pretend to be learned:)

    Because I'm fluent in Mandarin, I knew immediately that she was referring to Chairman Xi by calling him a bànpíngcù 半瓶醋.

    But what does it mean to call someone a "half-bottle-vinegar"?

    I can well imagine Orville Schell doing exactly that in his novel and then glossing it as 半瓶醋 in Sinograms. That wouldn't help the reader one iota to understand what "half-bottle-vinegar" signifies.

    If an author characterizes someone as a "half-bottle-vinegar", or more likely he would write "half a bottle of vinegar"), a genuinely helpful gloss would be "dabbler; smatterer; dilettante who speaks as though he were an expert".

    The colloquial barb "bànpíngcù 半瓶醋" ("half a bottle of vinegar", i.e., "dabbler; smatterer; dilettante who speaks as though he were an expert") was a common expression in Ming (1368-1644)-Qing (1644-1912) vernacular fiction.

  31. David C. said,

    March 15, 2021 @ 8:02 am

    This reminds of the practice of including English terms in brackets extensively throughout a Chinese-language article or paper, which is done by many academics and newspaper columnists in Hong Kong. Often for concepts that have no widely known translation, but often to show erudition. I doubt most readers would know the English terms that are being cited.

    Perhaps what was done here is just going the other way.

    The late Chinese-Taiwanese author Li Ao, in his novel 上山·上山·愛, also used fiction as a medium to incorporate social and political commentary in dialogue. Much of it reads like non-fiction between quotation marks, sprinkled with quotes in English.

  32. stephen reeves said,

    March 16, 2021 @ 2:44 pm

    Borrowed the ebook from the. library, the characters are distracting, a glossary at back would have been better

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