One can encounter the Chinese language in a variety of unlikely places. Captain Malcolm Reynolds upbraiding a crewmember in Joss Whedon’s space western TV series Firefly; Chinese characters strewn about Ezra Pound’s controversial epic masterpiece, The Cantos; and in numerous products one sees in finer Asian markets nationwide. For many Western readers, this reviewer included, Chinese represents a completely alien language. The challenge comes from a reader trying to find a point of reference with a foreign language, at least from a technical linguistic standpoint. For speakers of European languages, this becomes increasingly difficult. A Cultural History of the Chinese Language by Sharron Gu attempts to provide a means for non-specialists to approach Chinese, not from the technical and scientific discipline of linguistics, but from the discipline of literary history.
Gu couples this literary history with the premise that, because Chinese is so much older than other living languages, it is more refined and advanced. Gu asserts that,
Chinese evolved into a language as abstract as and analytic as German, as fluid as Arabic, and as suggestive and flexible as English and Spanish. Most important of all, Chinese has become a language of all these capacities at the same time.
Unfortunately, Gu’s book does not deliver on the premise.
A Cultural History tackles a diverse array of disciplines, including archaeology, anthropology, sociology, political science, and a history of philosophy, science, painting, drama, poetry, and literature. A comprehensive history of Chinese musical instruments is followed by an equally detailed history of poetry. Her explanation of the linguistic differences between different words is fascinating. The problem is not with individual sections so much as the overarching organization. The accumulation of details and minutiae overwhelms the reader. While touting itself as a book for non-specialists, it reads suspiciously like a dissertation-turned-into-publication. The book also sets itself up for confusion by its assertion in a single Chinese language, creating a linear progressive history of language evolution. While not a book on linguistics, the relative scant attention paid to major Chinese dialects (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc.) and languages related to Chinese (Mongolian, Vietnamese, etc.) is jarring and confusing.
The confusion reinforces Gu’s assertion, exposing its political agenda. Despite this being “a cultural history,” she writes about “the Chinese language.” The shaky cultural arguments reflect Gu’s nationalist bias. Gu really needed to explain the political history of China, since there are references made to dynasties and the Warring States. One needs to understand from the outset that the China we recognize today does not have the same geographic borders as these older historical entities. The editors should have insisted on a readily accessible apparatus for the non-specialist reader, including lists for: Chinese dynasties, literary terms, philosophical concepts, and words associated with painting, music, and drama.
A Cultural History of the Chinese Language is less a cultural history than a hyper-detailed edifice vainly supporting a thinly-veiled nationalistic mythology.
Here’s some of the Chinese from Firefly. Shiny!