bullshit

September 11th, 2007

Now apparently Victor Mair gets a fair bit of respect in Sinological circles, and that’s cool, but sometimes my bullshit detectors get a bit hyperactive, and this guest post of Mair’s over at Language Log set them zinging. First of all, follow the link and look at the photo posted. Why? Because I’m too lazy to steal the photo and post it here myself, so just follow the link. Now, Mair describes the poster in the photo thusly:

This is a 1950s-public-service-ad style placard that appears above the urinals in all the men’s bathrooms at Capital Normal University in Beijing. Similar displays appear in all the women’s bathrooms as well.

1950s-public-service-ad my arse. It’s a very modern style, and there are many posters in similar styles spreading the government’s modern concerns all over the place. It’s a style from the 2000s. That’s why it looks like an advertisement and not at all like an old-fashioned Communist propaganda poster. I mean, a 1950s style anything from China would NOT feature a guy in a Western-style suit unless he was some Capitalist baddie, and yet the suit is obviously the good guy in this poster.

First of all, the handsome young man is enjoining everyone to speak Mandarin **in Beijing**. This must mean that a lot of people at this university and elsewhere in Beijing (much less outside of Beijing, which is supposedly the epicenter of Mandarin usage in China!) do not speak Mandarin to each other.

As Mair states clearly in his post, the ad is in the toilets of the Capital Normal University. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed, but Beijing’s universities have people from all over China, very large numbers of whom speak Putonghua as a second language. And of course there are many others who speak a variety of Putonghua heavily influenced by the dialects of their hometowns. Therefore there is nothing special about this appearing in the supposed epicentre of Mandarin usage.

A further irony is that the administration of the University felt it necessary to post this slogan both in English and in Mandarin, which raises the very real questions of HANZI literacy and the emerging role of English as a rising lingua franca of convenience (as it is in the world’s other most populous country, India).

No. It’s TRENDY to have everything translated into something approaching English. Has been for some time now. And there is no question of 汉字 literacy. If they’ve passed the GaoKao, they must be literate. How the hell else are they supposed to get into university? There is nothing here to suggest “the emerging role of English as a rising lingua franca of convenience”. Anybody who has lived in China and learned the language will be able to tell you that there simply is not a big enough or established enough community of local people who use English as a lingua franca and that when you put two Chinese people from different parts of the country together, the language of choice is Putonghua. And any Chinese person looking at these posters who is not literate in 汉字 most likely does not speak or read a single word of English.

And his interpretation of the pun is so completely overwrought as to be ridiculous. Really, how many Chinese people reading that poster will connect that pun with Sanskrit? Let’s just stick with the 方便-大/å°?便 pun, leave Sanskrit out of it, have a quiet little chuckle, and go about our business, please.

All in all, this is a remarkable sign that is posted at Capital Normal University, a sign that raises a host of questions, many of which cannot be fully answered without knowing the minds of those who thought that the message was vital enough to be posted above all the urinals and stalls in the WCs at one of Beijing’s most important universities.

No, there’s nothing remarkable about the sign. There have been 请讲普通è¯? signs and posters around Beijing for years and years and years, the posters are on a university campus and universities are hotbeds of linguistic diversity thanks to them welcoming staff and students from all over, and modern posters and signs are very commonly written in both Chinese and English even when foreigners are not the target of the message simply because it is trendy to include English on everything. What raises questions is not the poster, but Mair’s guest post.

5 Responses to “bullshit”

  1. John Says:

    The photo, it seems, is being blocked. The link is there, but nothing is getting through. (Is the offending word “propaganda”, which is part of the file name of the picture?)

    Is it a 1950s-public-service-style ad from an American or a Chinese perspective?

    From the description in the text, the picture sounds a bit peculiar.

    I think you’re right about it simply being the trend here to add English to signs. Nothing special in that. Move along.

    The whole fangbian business is merely some linguistic background, but kind of irrelevant to the man in the street. Or, rather, the loo.

    And if there are big conveniences and little conveniences, dare I even ask what an inconvenience might be? Second thoughts, better not.

  2. Brendan Says:

    Mair has a few hobby-horses that he rides whenever possible. One of them is literacy — he, like John DeFrancis, is a big believer in the eventual necessity of romanized Chinese, even though it’s probably much too late to effect this through any kind of top-down effort. Hence his interest in the English translation.

    (I get the distinct impression from this and a couple other posts of his, as well as some messages he’s sent to an academic listserv I’m on, that he hasn’t been back to China in quite a while, or that he’s not really seeing things at the street level.)

    Re: the Sanskrit pun — again, one of Mair’s fields of study is the dialogue between China and the outside world — particularly literary and linguistic cross-pollination between Sanskrit and Old Persian and archaic vernacular Chinese. It’s actually pretty cool stuff, or at least it’s my kind of thing. I didn’t mind the reference to the Sanskrit thing there — I took it as more of a “and by the way…” digression than any attempt to relate it to the squatter ads.

    I do actually think that he has a point about the role of English as a lingua franca (though I would argue that it’s being used more as a prestige language; c.f. hateful 白领 types sprinkling their speech with Anglicisms when Chinese would do just fine) — but not on this sign, where it’s clearly more ornamental than anything else.

  3. wangbo Says:

    John: The photo loaded fine for me yesterday, so I guess it’s a local problem for you, although I can’t see any reason why it would be blocked. I don’t know where he gets 1950s-style from, it doesn’t look like any kind of 50s style, Chinese or Western.

    Brendan: Thanks for the background and a more level-headed assessment. Yes, I’ve noticed Mair has his hobby horses and I’ve ranted about some of them before. It’s frustrating: Surely somebody of his stature should be stepping back and taking a more measured approach to things? Anyway…. I just don’t think Romanisation is going to happen, really, not as anything more than a learning tool as it is now. People have tried before (the name Lu Xun springs to mind) and failed.

    And yes, I would’ve appreciated that Sanskrit comment in a more appropriate setting, it’s something that interests me, too. But it seemed so completely unnecessary in that context. Guess I overreacted. I tend to do that when people get me ranting.

    I see your point about 白领 wankers and prestige. I mean, random English phrases have been sprinkled through Cantopop for years already. And it seems that some of those Anglicisms are creeping into more general use, too. But I think it’s a huge leap from prestige sprinkling of Anglicisms to lingua franca. Just a bit too much of a stretch, I think.

    But I think Mair needs to get his arse back to street-level China. Surely it should have occured to him that there was nothing out of the ordinary about such a sign appearing in a place that would have lots of people from lots of places speaking lots of different languages and dialects?

  4. John Says:

    I checked Language Log again this morning and the picture, which bears no resemblance to anything from the 1950s, is now viewable. I think the LL server has possibly been playing silly buggers again.

    I note that the English I’ve heard coming out of the mouths of Chinese school children outside school are “Oh my god!” and “So terrible”. If that was all the English I needed to teach them, I could’ve been on holiday for most of the past five years.

  5. wangbo Says:

    So, John, I think you see why I screamed “bullshit!” when I read that post.