I’m not sure how people manage to become scholars at the Institute of World Literature of Peking University. According to the blurb, they all have “strong professional competence and high academic achievement”, but they would say that wouldn’t they? I can’t help wondering whether the deal is that you get a cushy office and a nice apartment (by the standards of academe) and in return you have to produce politically correct claptrap that flatters your hosts.
This springs to mind on reading an article in China Daily by one Thorsten Pattberg (not on-line, but it’s a lightly bowdlerized hand-me-down from the erratic Asia Times). He argues that the naughty Western world has overlooked superior Chinese morality because its languages lack the capacity to express the necessary Sinic concepts.
I estimate that there are over 35,000 Chinese words or phrases that cannot properly be translated into the English language. Words like yin and yang, kung-fu and fengshui.
All three of those phrases touch on unscientific mysticism concerning things like energy flows, and in this respect we could say that we have an excellent all-purpose translation for all them, namely ‘baloney’. But in fact, English has a precise phrase for each, namely ‘yin and yang’, ‘kung-fu’ and ‘fengshui’. The author also tells us that the phrase wenming is untranslatable and then proceeds to do just that (‘a high level of ethics and gentleness of a people’), but not before warning us against using ‘civilization’, especially as the noble but too-profound-for-Westerners-to-grasp Chinese word is 1,000 years old and the nasty Western one a late-18th century ‘invention’. No mention of anyone strolling past a little girl bleeding to death, of course.
The idea that people of one culture cannot understand (let alone share) the concepts of another for lack of specific vocabulary is idiotic, but maybe this is what you have to do at Peking U. Meanwhile, I can recommend Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher, which explains, for example, how some peoples get by without a word for ‘blue’ (it’s just a type of green to them, and they get by fine).
Back on Planet Lychee, and former HK Monetary Authority boss Joseph Yam comes out in favour of ex-Chief Secretary Henry Tang as the city’s next Chief Executive. This is not a surprise, since both are old pals and fully paid-up members of the tycoon-bureaucrat mutual adoration society that serves as Hong Kong’s smug, overpaid and inept ruling establishment these days.
What is a bit odd is the sheer effusiveness of Yam’s praise for Tang, including such eyebrow-raising terms as “man of vision, especially global vision,” “a leader who can fight for, protect and enrich public interest” and “a helmsman to lead us through turbulence” and more. This goes beyond respect, politeness, wenming, or whatever into the realm of fantasy.
The backdrop here is Beijing’s continued silence on who will get the job. It’s still November, so there’s no real rush, but even so – people would appreciate a hint. Yam is one of the higher-profile of the relatively few public figures who have come out so far for either Henry or his rival CY Leung. He’s not the sort of intimate that Beijing would use as its representative on Earth to indicate which way the wind will blow and the bamboo bend. The best way to explain it is to use an ancient Chinese word that can’t be translated into immature and feeble English meaning ‘someone who has little to lose by publicly stating a bold and early, and totally predictable, preference, and who might just encourage an emergence of like-minded opinion as a result’.
I am relieved to declare the weekend open.