Murong Xuecun: Corrupting the Chinese Language

At The New York Times, writer and free speech advocate Murong Xuecun looks at the lasting effect of Mao-era revolutionary jargon—still delivered to the masses via Party anthems and state propaganda—on the Chinese language, and by extension, on the contemporary Chinese psyche:

More than 60 years of Communist hate education, inane propaganda and the comprehensive destruction of classical civilization have spawned a new style of speaking and writing. The Chinese has become brutalized — and the Communist Party is largely to blame.

It’s not only government proclamations that clank with harsh cadences and revolutionary fervor, but also literary and scholarly works, and most disturbing, private speech.

[…] The roots of this New naturally go back to Mao. In his 1942 Yan’an speech exhorting authors and artists to “serve the people,” Mao called for writers to use language people can understand. Even in essays he wrote before the Communist Party took power, Mao rebuked the use of “shady” words that “the masses” wouldn’t understand. In direct response to Mao’s dictates, the party apparatus promoted “the people’s language” — a plain and easy to understand style.

[…] The Communist Party’s dumbing down of our language was a deliberate effort to debase public discourse. The Cultural Revolution took this to an extreme: Intellectual discussion, along with reason, were thrown out the window. In this atmosphere, words lose real meaning. The party can then use words to obfuscate and lie.

[…] This deliberate use of language to obscure and confuse serves a clear objective: to conceal the reality of China’s lack of democracy and indeed to pretend that democracy exists. [Source]

In the essay, refers to Perry Link’s 2012 article “Politics and the Chinese Language,” (via CDT) in which the scholar asks “how much do unnoticed linguistic habits reflect conceptual approaches to the world—or even […], shape them?” Link has written the introduction to the New York Review of Book’s upcoming publication of an English edition of Eileen Chang’s 1956 novel “Naked Earth.” NYRB this month published an adaptation of Link’s intro, in which he reflects on the sustaining relevance of Chang’s early observations on the politically pragmatic use of language:

[…] In Naked Earth, one young woman suffers a torrid criticism session, ends it with a self-denunciation, and then steals away to weep in solitude. Someone discovers her and accuses her of “only pretending to accept criticism.” Thinking quickly, she explains that, no, hers are tears of gratitude: “Everybody was so concerned about me, so enthusiastic in helping me to make Progress.” Does her explanation pass muster? Yes, but less because it is credible than because it reinforces the exterior mask that says “I submit to the organization.” To the powers that be, that demonstration is more important than what she actually thinks.

Over time, the need to maintain a correct exterior turns public political language into a kind of chess game. You make moves in order to get what you want, and you avoid bad moves that would bring punishment. […]

[…] Eileen Chang’s acute observation of political language in China in the early 1950s reveals patterns that have persisted ever since. Maoist extremism has passed, but it remains true that an incorrect word-performance in public can be costly to a person’s interests, and it is still the case that one person can earn credit by reporting the misstatements of another. […] [Source]

May 27, 2015 12:40 PM
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Categories: Politics, Society