Politics and the Chinese Language

On ChinaFile, Perry Link responds to a number of recent articles offering varying opinions about the choice of Mo Yan as the Nobel Laureate in Literature. In particular, Link responds directly to an essay by Charles Laughlin, in which he defended Mo’s use of satire as a subtle critique of the political system:

The problem with labeling Mo Yan’s jumble of registers as “satire” is that much of it is hard to read as satire and at least some of it seems quite inadvertent. Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death, for example, is set during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, well before the advent of socialist jargon, and yet characters in the story spout socialist jargon. A young woman refers to her lingdaozhe, or “leader”—a word no one used in 1900. Is this satire? Of what? I think it is more likely that Mo Yan was writing too quickly (which seems to me often the case), and allowed his own conceptual habits to seep out unnoticed. Anna Sun is right to suggest that Howard Goldblatt’s translations are “superior to the original in their aesthetic unity and sureness.”

But how much do unnoticed linguistic habits reflect conceptual approaches to the world—or even, as Sun suggests, shape them? Sun quotes George Orwell that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” This is from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” published in 1946, just a few years after the famous “Whorf hypothesis” advanced the notion that different languages lead to different world-views. Among Western cognitive scientists, Whorf has always been controversial. Hence it is interesting that Chinese communists (although there is no evidence that they borrowed anything from Whorf) have always had faith in the same principle. Since the 1950s, the Party’s Propaganda Department has disseminated lists of words for the media “to stress” and “to downplay” as political needs come and go,1 and the unchanging assumption has been that this word-engineering helps to “guide thought.” There is much evidence that it works, too. I was recently talking with a Chinese-language teacher whom I had not seen since 1989 in Beijing. Trying to recall our first meeting, she asked me, “Was that before or after the dongluan [turmoil]?” Teasing her, I asked, “What do you mean by dongluan? Student dongluan or government dongluan?” She replied reflexively: “Student dongluan, of course.” Then she peered at me for a moment, realized what I had meant, and said: “Oh, yes! Government dongluan. The massacre!” Then she went into a long apology to me: she herself had been a student protestor in 1989, had been in Tiananmen Square in the days before the massacre (but not during it); she was on the students’ side; she agreed with me. And yet the phrase “student turmoil” now rolled off her tongue as easily as “Wednesday.” How much conceptual baggage went along with it? How much does this kind of induced linguistic habit reinforce state power? And how much does this sort of thing affect Chinese writers? Laughlin and Sun raise a crucial issue.

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