Can anything be called "typically Chinese"?

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Can anything be called "typically Chinese"?

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des. 16, 2006, 4:12 pm

This topic came up implicitly in another thread. Let's talk about it at length here. The Fogies have some ideas on the subject, but we'll let others open the discussion.

Editat: des. 17, 2006, 3:19 pm

>1 Fogies: Fogies

I'm not clear where your question is leading. But here's a stab. 成語 "adages" are a "typically" Chinese phenomenon. A couple I jotted down in my notebook:

1. 成者為王﹐敗者為賊寇 "The victorious is king; the defeated is bandit"

2. 新官上任﹐三把火 "The new official conducts affairs with fervor," after which is becomes business as usual. Corruption, slackness ensues.

What's typically Chinese, I suppose is the understanding of the cyclical nature of all things. victory, stagnation, collapse.

Perhaps you are suggesting that there isn't anything "typically" Chinese? Human culture and nature revolves around the same set of issues. The problems in ancient Chinese history are cropping up in youthful America.

btw: I am working with trial Nanji Star software.

des. 17, 2006, 4:35 am

The question seems to need a distinction: are we talking about things that are typical of the Chinese -- but may also be typical of many other cultures? Or things that are more typical of the Chinese than other peoples, and that make the Chinese distinctive from other peoples?

I am assuming that the latter is more the intent of the question, and in any event I see it as the more interesting direction.

Then, adages are typically Chinese, but perhaps not dramatically more so than many other cultures. Many cultures have rich collections of adages and proverbs.

And the Chinese are not so distinctive in emphasizing the cyclical nature of things. That idea, springing from the cycles of nature and life itself, is common, for example, in Hindu and Greek culture and many others. Christian-influenced cultures, and particularly the post-Renaissance West, are relatively unusual in seeing history as having a direction (e.g., the idea of 'progress') or an end point (e.g., the apocalyptic notions of a final religious climax for all humanity).

A couple of aspects where I see the Chinese as "more so" than other peoples:

1) primacy of the family unit over the individual

2) tendency to bureaucratize almost everything
Famously, the government, from early times down to the present, but also many other areas, including classifications and ranks among the gods and spirits; and very precise titles and ranks for family members both above and below one's own generation (to a far greater extent than anything in English).
An amusing example of bureaucratic emphasis is in the famous story of Yang Guifei (楊貴妃), the loving concubine of a Tang emperor who was forced into suicide when he suffered military reverses and she (and her family) were blamed for influencing him to poor judgments. The point for present purposes is that "Guifei" is not her name (which was Yang Yuhuan 楊玉環) but her rank: Yang the top concubine. She is almost always referred to in the bureaucratic rather than the personal manner. ('Concubine' gives a somewhat misleading impression, since she was not any average harem girl, but rather came from an office holder family, and was able to have many of her relatives appointed to high positions.)

des. 17, 2006, 9:24 am

Wow, lots of good stuff here. Y'all will keep the Fogies busy for some time.

>2 belleyang: belleyang (and any others who are interested in translation from Chinese; the rest of you may as well skip this post)

A thing that bedevils all translators is having to render things said in a language where certain distinctions can be ignored into another in which those distinctions must be made. Someone long ago coined the terms "factitive" and "putative" to label a distinction that is routinely ignored in Chinese but must be made in some other languages. For example, 小之 could be translated either "They made it small" or "They thought it was small," but you've got to choose one or the other and if context doesn't give you that you're in trouble. That word 為 in the first adage you cite has both factitive and putative senses. Also, even though it's often perfectly adequate to translate 為 as "to be" you want to keep in mind that it is much closer in meaning to "to do" or even "to make." Instead of simply "is king" the Fogies would render that as "gets to be king." And we think the putative sense comes into play in the second half, which doesn't mean that if you fail in rebellion you will necessarily engage in banditry, but that a failed rebel acquires the status of a bandit. And here, too, use of the word 為 indicates that it happens to him because of things he does, not that it's his inherent nature.

Editat: des. 17, 2006, 10:36 am

>3 pechmerle: pechmerle

" 2) tendency to bureaucratize almost everything" Bingo! One old text says something to the effect that even the business of heaven is carried on by a supernatural bureaucracy.

We agree with belleyang that "Chinese past to present is a continuum." Not an unchanging sameness, but a continuum as in a spectrum, with totally different colors at the ends but each color between merging smoothly into its neighbors. Bureaucracy is a thread (to change the metaphor) that runs through the whole tapestry of Chinese history, but is really very different in different eras. We share the opinion that it most likely developed from the need to dig and maintain irrigation works and to control the distribution of water. Early offices were hereditary. The Chun Tsew (春秋) relates incidents from a time when the hereditary office-holders were slowly being displaced by appointees chosen by rulers or their chief ministers. Later one of the chief concerns of Chinese philosophy in its great flourishing era was what kind of men should be appointed to office, those of general intelligence or those with specific skills or those of demonstrated accomplishment or whom. During the Han dynasty we see the beginnings of the examination system that by the nineteenth century had burgeoned into (we don't think this phrase is too strong) an intellectual cancer, but it was still quite simple in the Han, and most appointments were made by personal recommendation.

You mention 楊貴妃. It was during the Han that the custom of giving official rank to imperial consorts was instituted. There were several of them and each was precisely specified as to its prerogatives by naming the bureaucratic rank to which it was equivalent.

Editat: des. 17, 2006, 3:51 pm

>4 Fogies: Fogies:

"The victor gets to be king; the loser comes to be called bandit" Do you think this is clearer? But then it also loses the terseness of the original.

>2 belleyang:
Regarding, adages/sayings. The sayings of the ancients are rife in every day speech, and more so among the scholary. It's a sign of learning. In the West, they would be flagged as cliches. Methinks, this is typically Chinese.

des. 17, 2006, 4:32 pm

>6 belleyang: belleyang Our answer is yes to both your points about #4. We're going to start a new topic on problems of translating and we're just now preparing the first post in the form of a description of how we would approach the problem of arriving at a high-quality translation of this aphorism, so please watch for that.

On quoting aphorisms, that situation with regard to English-speakers has changed noticeably within the 20th C. When many more studied Latin and Greek as schoolchildren, brief phrases in them were quoted so often there was even a special name for them "tags."

Editat: des. 17, 2006, 10:36 pm

Typically among the scholars:

Love of terseness and subtlety (含意) in literature, in speech, in art, and in material objects.

Even in long novels like Dream of Red Chamber, the phrasing is compact. This is made visible in the love of material objects such as jade, pearl and agate for their inner glow, preferring them over the apparent sparkle of gemstones like the diamond. In art, the love for 寫意, a few expressionistic brushwork executed all in blacks and a range of grays.

Editat: des. 17, 2006, 8:56 pm

>4 Fogies: Fogies, Art of Translation. Exactly.

The funny thing is that there is a cottage industry in popular linguistics finding odd lexical items for very specific things / situations and making loads of unfounded conclusions from them. But it seems to me that how one generalizes is much more interesting. And, as you say, the things we actually lack the words to indicate aren't such exotica, but semantic combinations: dog/wolf, lemon/lime, loan/borrow.

I look forward to your new discussion on translation generally.

>6 belleyang:,7 belleyang, Fogies; Aphorisms.

How can we make a solid distinction between Tully and TV Land's 100 Greatest Catchphrases?

des. 18, 2006, 6:51 am

On a lighter note (Light? Fogies?! Yes.) long ago and far away, when one of us was in grad school, the question came up of when in history we can say modern China began. As the evening progressed the talk devolved into what is Chinese and what isn't. In the wee hours, as we split up to stagger home, someone asked, "Well, did we conclude anything? What is typically Chinese?" And the tipsy reply, "Eating noodles with chopsticks!" Our memory of that was jogged recently by reading of the discovery of the remains of a bowl of noodles from four thousand years ago.

des. 18, 2006, 10:12 pm

And Marco Polo either didn't notice, or didn't think it worth mentioning, that people all around were eating with chopsticks!

Editat: des. 20, 2006, 3:28 am

Arthur F. Wright wrote: “Historical precedence, had for the Chinese, a power not found in other societies.” pg.8 Sui Dynasty: The Unification of China, A.D. 581—617.

This is related to what I mentioned about adages in>2 belleyang:. The adages are lapidary saying of the long-dead sages, words that can be relied on to correct, mend contemporary problems. In the above passage, Wright was referring to the men of Sui who looked back to the Qin but even more to the Western Han rulers, for ways to reunify the country after the centuries of warfare following the collapse of the Eastern Han.

Editat: des. 20, 2006, 3:47 am

>7 Fogies: Fogies

>9 MMcM: MMcM

A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the
outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language
is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared
aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted
idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. --George Orwell

Applies to Latin...Chinese idioms, TV Land, no??

Editat: des. 28, 2006, 3:47 pm

Caution. The Chinese are "typically" cautious. Take for example the I-Ching, which advises prudence at ever step. Its wisdom is in prudence. If you should use the book for divination, it will never it suggest: stake all, gamble all. Qian is the all positive hexagram (six solid lines, six 9's) When you are at the top of your out, because what goes up has to come down.

Editat: gen. 2, 2007, 6:36 pm

What was typical of old Chinese was the high premium placed on education. There were four classes in China, and the scholars ranked the highest. Two couplets from the 三字經

養不教﹐ 父之過. If a father neglects to educate his children, he is at fault.

教不嚴﹐師之墯 A teacher is not able to instill diligent study in his students, he is indolent.

For a culture that so highly-valued education, what a pathetic situation is the current state of the PRC, where generations of scholars were abused and suppressed. A friend of mine, a Chinese-American arts educator, has just returned from China, where she has been trying to jump start curriculum in the PRC’s top universities.

All those bright shiny skyscrapers going up in the major cities look rather vacuous when children in the countryside lack books and qualified educators.

Reading about ancient China only makes me weep for China today. What happened to education in 禮, ceremony, rites, and especailly basic manners (!)

gen. 26, 2007, 11:53 pm

You know there is an experiment going on in China with the revival of 'Confucian schools' at the primary grade level. I don't know much about it, it was a short article in the paper a while ago (a year or more). I'll be interestied to see where that goes, if anywhere.

How are you doing on reading the 三子經? I've carried my copy with annotations and pronunciation around for 25 years and still haven't had the time to sit down and read and remember it properly. I've pretty much decided that when I retire, I'm going to have to go back to school!

Editat: feb. 10, 2007, 7:37 pm

>16 mvrdrk: mvrdrk. Alas, I have set it aside for the time. The part I will ultimately memorize will be from 44 through 64. Good to combine the memorizing while walking for exercise. I decided to read Analects, jump into primary source, and then come back to 三子經. I am reading literature in the Greek World, edited by Oliver Taplin so I can compare this axial period in human history. It gets claustrophobic to stick only to China.

Editat: feb. 9, 2007, 7:37 pm

I think one way of approaching this question is to try to make a distinction between Chineseness as interpreted through the instruments of that culture and Chineseness as interpreted in a more affective manner.

For example, an affinity for the song "Bizarre Love Triangle" or the group "Boyz to Men" probably does not fall within the locus of items considered to be Chinese if you look at it in terms of things which could be "classified" as being Chinese. But if you were to look at a Chinese American group of teenagers or twentysomethings then a predilection for these things would be apparent.

The distinction is of some importance because of the potential for experiencing a dissonance between epistemic notions of Chineseness and the nature of what actually is felt, by people who feel themselves to be Chinese, to be typically so. Going from one narrative to the other is problematic . . . the study of China is primarily a geographically localized and historical one in the US, and, despite the merits of this approach, its application to actually existing Chinese culture should be severely delineated. The effects of electronic media are quite visible and "typically" Chinese in their own way (think of stereotypical images of neon lighting in Hong Kong).

feb. 10, 2007, 1:46 am

The search for the "typically Chinese" necessarily must look past surface phenomena to deeper, longer lasting features. Contemporary music, eating Western fast food -- these may not reflect change at a fundamental level. (Or they may, but it's an open question.) See for example, James L. Watson ed., Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia, discussion of how local culture has changed the way McDonald's operates from its standard model.

In a better studied case, Japan has absorbed massive amounts of Western technical knowledge and popular culture. (Tokyo, too, is loaded up with neon.) Yet there is still a great deal of visible continuity in Japanese culture in such areas as relations between parents and children, men and women, boss and employee, native and foreign (even quite well educated Japanese still look on foreigners as distinctively "different" from themselves, and intrinsically incapable of fully understanding them), etc., etc.

feb. 10, 2007, 4:16 am

Although I agree that cultural/national groupings are meaningful, in the sense that there are cultural practices, perceptions or dispositions which are common across a particular grouping and possess a certain amount of permanence, I do not feel that these can be usefully characterized from the standpoint of an analysis that focuses on the interpretation of historical, literary, artistic or linguistic features.

I would argue that exposure to contemporary (assuming you mean pop and a bit of western music) and Western fast food implies change at a fundamental level of cultural practice. Taken by themselves, they're not such a large change, but such experiences are part of an interconnected system of changes which reorient society and individual/societal perceptions in a broad and fundamental fashion. Would you agree? It seems to me that, during my youth in Hong Kong, fast food and contemporary music was connected to British rule, which implied a stock exchange, industrialization, sanitation, public housing projects, mass transit, suppression of trade unionism, television and radio, etc. etc. I suppose one could argue that these are not fundamental, but I strongly disagree.

Let's take religious movements such as Soka Gakkai or Falun Gong as an example. Certainly there are characteristically national elements in these religions, in the sense that there are identifiable historical threads which these religions develop. But is this a correct perspective for understanding what makes such organizations distinctive? Is the commonality between such organizations and various other "modern" religions important, or should one attempt to localize something distinctively cultural within them? I'm not saying that the attempt to localize cultural content is invalid, but I am saying that, after having done so, one ought not to say that this content is typical (characteristic).

I would say that this approach is also of limited utility in understanding the culture of expatriate groups who have undergone a certain amount of assimilation - for example members of the Chinese diaspora. I do agree that there may be some set of practices, beliefs, etc. that can be identified as being common to the majority of such groups. But I do think that they are small enough that one could not call them typical or characteristics, and that all these elements are mutable, given a generation or two.

(What do you do with English speaking Chinese Americans who eat fast food and listen to contemporary music? There must be something better than arguing that their lives are not fundamentally Chinese. That's dangerously close to Amy Tan.)

If contemporary, hybrid imagery is not permitted to be characteristic, then it seems to me that we are saying that basic cultural content does not change. I feel (though I can see that others might not agree) that Chinese history itself mitigates against such a view. I also feel that this type of argument is implicitly nationalist when used in politics. Solzhenitsyn comes to mind.

feb. 13, 2007, 11:12 am

Is there a way in which Chinese hip-hop is typically Chinese that Lebanese hip-hop is not typically Lebanese? Is there an a priori type?

What about the layers of signification in the diaspora?
- a typical Chinese shop.
- a typical Chinese shop in Chinatown.
- a typical Chinese shop in Chinatown with a Vietnamese owner.
- a typical Chinese shop in Chinatown with a Hoa owner.

feb. 13, 2007, 1:13 pm

>21 MMcM: I'm not sure what you're asking. I would assume that Chinese pop culture is typically Chinese in the same way that Lebanese would be Lebanese.

Unfortunately, all the examples I know are from Taiwan and I'm wondering if that falls under diaspora? I have to admit to being delighted to discover wuxia rap and rap about filial piety, themes I think of as typically Chinese (but in fact are probably equally probable in Japanese or Korean).

>19 pechmerle: I've always assumed Japan was different from China, not having gone thru the various political purges of culture. I think the Chinese diaspora communities cling more tightly to older cultural attitudes and practices in some ways partly as a defense against foreign surroundings and partly because it hasn't been dangerously incorrect to keep old 'imperial' vestiges.