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 ...
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