Considering the topic of my last article, the perverse desire of Chinese to hang on to inaccuracy, it might seem that my new pastime is ranting about everything I might perceive as wrong with China: the language, the customs... everything!
I assure you I am not. I am simply compiling a series of observations made over the years of living here. In no way am I intimating that I alone should be the catalyst for change in Chinese vernacular or society. I hope I am offering up food for thought, though.
Besides, with my schedule this semester, there is not much else to write about. So, here goes!
Sons, Daughters, and People of Dark Skin
In Mandarin, sons are called 儿子 (the first pictogram, 'er' meaning 'son' and the second, 'zi' also meaning 'son'). Nothing wrong with that. Daughters, however, are called 女儿 ('nü' meaning 'female' and... I already told you what 'er' means). From a purely linguistic standpoint, daughters are designated 'female sons'.
Understand the lesser social position that females have traditionally held in China – indeed, all over the world, and you might reason why girl children were called female sons. Could that tradition's stigma enshroud the 'female sons' of today?
There is evidence of that. Female children, historically and today, are not listed on family registers until they marry, and then, only their husbands' names qualify for entry. That is just one example of unspoken social disparity against females.
I am not accusing China of deliberately lessening female impact on society, nor am I suggesting that females have fewer rights (although, there is rampant discrimination against females in the workplace, something China is working very hard to eradicate).
I am aware that language is not static. It evolves. Words and phrases change meaning as the times change. Perhaps now, 'nü er' does in fact mean 'daughter' – with no lingering history of how baby girls were less desirable than male children. With no implied denigration.
The reason I pounce on this example of misused language is because there is a more balanced and fair substitute. 孩 – 'hai', the word for 'child', can be combined with 男 – 'nan', male; or 女 – 'nü', female, to give a less biased description of one's progeny: 我的男孩 – wo de nan hai, meaning 'my boy-child', or 我的女孩 – wo de nü hai, meaning 'my girl-child'.
A comparable example in English would be the eradication of the word 'n i g g e r', now considered one of the most offensive words in the language, and with good reason: that is what plantation slaves were called. However, at one time, this word was not only socially acceptable, people were encouraged to use it in describing those with dark skin and kinky hair. We find examples of this word, casually bandied about in such classics as Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn novels. If you've seen the movie Twelve Years A Slave, you'll know that slaves were referred to as 'N-word' .
Another example of offensive English vocabulary, mercifully archaic these days, are the many words used to refer to women, 'broad' being perhaps the worst. Movies made as late as the 1960s refer to women as broads, a term generally accepted as being derogatory. Its meaning, 'coarse, gross, indelicate' was everything a woman was not supposed to be. Today it is chiefly used as an insult: “What a dumb broad!”
if we accept that language evolves, shouldn't we also hold that words which reflected the values of a society once upon a time should be discarded if those values have changed? Especially if a more equitable/acceptable synonym is available?
On Getting Colder
Without fail, every autumn/winter I have been in China, people have advised me of dropping temperatures, and that I should put on more clothes - as though I had no idea winter was approaching. As though I were confused about what to do when I start getting cold.
This week, the temperature dropped precipitously in Wuhan. Tina messaged: “It is cold today. Wear more clothes.” I wonder if, in her imagination I am sitting in my house, lightly clad and shivering, clueless as to what I should do.
I know that such utterances are expressions of caring in China, but what does it really say?
I am incapable of discerning temperature changes. I have no knowledge of the concept of keeping myself warm, comfortable or healthy. I absolutely need someone to tell me what to do when the weather changes.
Compare Tina's 'wear more clothes' with 'stay warm!', a standard a standard sign-off in English used texts and phone calls, when the weather turns cold. That phrase credits the person to whom the idiom is directed with enough brains to bundle up against the chill.
Can you see why I find Tina's intent kind, but her message offensive? And I am not the only one: elders all over China, who get fussed and clucked at, irritably push against their well-meaning carers, who try to drape them in blankets and quilts at every slight gust of wind.
I have often written about how the elderly in China are treated. It is a hot topic for me because, apparently, I am also elderly, by Chinese standards. Never mind what abilities I demonstrate and that I am obviously in full possession of my faculties, of prime concern for everyone is my supposedly declining mental abilities – to wit, that I must be told to wear more clothes.
Again, tradition trumps common sense and decency. It is traditional for parents to sacrifice everything for their young, even food and comfort and warmth. And it is traditional for grown children to take care of their parents, gently suggesting the parents should don their clothes, rather than saving them to perhaps swaddle chilled children in. And this is accepted as caring, rather than being seen for the offense that it is.
Well-meaning infractions, such as mentioned above, happen everywhere around the world, and on all levels of society. The trick is to recognize its intent while not bristling at its obvious insult. And, of course, to highlight that such instances are offensive and insulting. And try to bring about, or at least hope for, change.