Yu Hua (余华), China in Ten Words (十个词汇里的中国)
One of the major themes of this collection of essays is how under pressure language slips and changes. The first term the author examines is 人民 (rénmín – the people), present in the proper name of both the country and the currency. But “in China today it’s only officials who have ‘the people’ on their lips every time they open their mouths”, as a result of which it feel strange to write the characters or utter their sound. The term has atrophied through political discourse.
He tells a story of how when he was a child he took to repeating the meaningless but somehow heartfelt couplet ‘The people are Chairman Mao, and Chairman Mao is the people’. One day he realised that everyone around him was saying it, yet he was sure he had invented it and they had copied him. It lost all meaning as everyone babbled it in an attempt to show correctness of thought:
I was upset, regretting bitterly that I had made my discovery public. I should have stored it forever in my own mind, safe from anybody else, keeping it for myself to savor my whole life through.
The next chapter examines something similar with the characters 领袖 (lǐngxiù), which properly mean ‘leader’ but during the Cultural Revolution became a “powerful, sacred word, a synonym for ‘Chairman Mao’ – Mao’s exclusive property, one might say.” However, since 1990 and the burst of marketisation that accompanied Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour, the word has proliferated, snowballed, into the chaos of advertising-speak.
It has become the go-to term for any required aggrandisement of a position – “youth leaders, child leaders, future leaders, innovation leaders, real estate leaders, IT leaders, media leaders commercial leaders, and enterprise leaders […] leaders in natural scenery and leaders among elevators.” Along with proliferation comes its own fracturing: the same endless repetition as with ‘the people’, and minimised and monetarised as well. There has been, according to Yu, a corresponding epidemic of competitions and contests to determine these leaders, and this allows him to neatly sum the situation up:
If we were to hold a contest to choose the word that has lost the most value the fastest during the past thirty years, the winner would surely have to be ‘leader’.
Presumably this is fairly congruent in time with the popular play-on-words “xiàng qián kàn” becoming common currency. Said aloud, it is impossible to tell if the speaker is saying 向前看 (look to the future) or 向钱看 (look to the money).
In later sections of the book a similar analysis is performed on words such as 山寨 (shānzhài) and 忽悠 (hūyou), which have moved from being mildly disapproving terms for talking about piracy and cons – in Allan H. Barr’s translation they are rendered ‘copycat’ and ‘bamboozle’ – to their latter-day function as celebratory or self-deprecating catch-alls for these types of unethical behaviour.
An interesting corollary to these above examples might be 同志 (tóngzhì) which for a long period of the twentieth century meant – or at least was translated as – ‘comrade’, and was used in the language of the CCP. Since then it has been adopted by the LGBT community as an identifier, functioning as an adaptation/ rejection of the original clinical, derogatory term 同性恋 (tóngxìngliàn, lit. same sex love). It also plays on the concrete meaning of something along the lines of ‘kindred spirit’.
This is a clear case of reterritorialisation – the reclamation of a forbidden phrase. But what exactly was the chronology? The idea of being someone’s comrade shrivelled up and died. Was the change ‘allowed’ to happen?