There’s good news from China. According to the BBC, the Chinese General Administration of Press and Publication has banned the use of foreign-language terms in all printed and broadcast media, especially English. Foreign words, they say, have “seriously damaged” the purity of the Chinese language. To read the BBC report, CLICK HERE. The reason this is good news is that it means there’s a big crack in the immense, omnipresent and oppressive attempts of that totalitarian regime to exert complete control over its people. You can repress people and make illegal almost any behavior, enforced by eviction, enslavement, imprisonment, torture and death. You cannot, however, legislate what will happen in a language.
You can try. Many have.
Control-obsessed regimes try, because they know language is dangerous. Possibly, there is nothing more dangerous than language. Guns and bombs represent threats, but they can’t be organized into effective opposition without language; that is why a totalitarian state — defensive, insecure, paranoiac — would try to control it. That is why demagogues and criminals use vague or deceitful and misleading language. That miserable little tyrant, Mussolini, both a dictator and a demagogue, tried it with Italian. Buona fortuna with that, Duce, and addio! He was just one example.
You’ll immediately think of 1984, and how Orwell made the limiting of the possible range of thought through reduction of the scope of permissible language a central tenet of Big Brother’s rule. If, ultimately, Big Brother were to succeed, all thought — all possible thought — would be reduced to a single word: “Ingsoc.” With some thousands of word-based characters comprising the language, that task may be too great even for a China that was willing to kill tens of millions of its citizens and displace scores of millions more in its relentless drive to tame its own people. Instead, the censors have decided, apparently, that banning non-Chinese words somehow will help limit undesirable — incorrect, they might say — thoughts.
They’re idiots. Language is beyond even their reach, vast as it is. New influences on Chinese are streaming throughout China in a hundred or maybe a thousand sub-languages and dialects, and flowing in across borders from Tibet and Mongolia and Uzbekistan (what about Hong Kong!), and through a torrent of satellite TV, telephone conversations and the Internet. Comrades, find something more productive to do with your time. You’re going to lose this one. The only languages that don’t change are the ones that were written down by now-extinct people. Perhaps you should adopt Latin as the official language of China. Hasn’t changed much in 1600 years. Very stable. Good probability of tighter control … at least for a while. Good project for you. Get working on that. Or Babylonian. Or some of the other scores of languages that your own regime has made extinct by wiping out tribes of people who inhabited the forests and mountains on your borders — IF you remembered to record any of them before you sent the last surviving members off to prison or the firing squad.
I visited China in April of 2005. The country, and especially Beijing, was already gearing up full-bore for the Olympics, 3 years away. The preparations included exhortations to the entire populace to learn as much English as possible. English, the wisdom went, would be the way for Chinese not only to engage with the outside world of business and commerce and global flow, but would serve as a tool to assure that visitors to the Olympics would find friendly, language-savvy hosts. The result was astounding, because, wherever I went in Beijing with my video crew, I was constantly approached by smiling, eager people of every age, dying to exercise their English. A typical exchange would be, “Hello. Are you from the United States? Where is your home?” The first time this happened, I was guarded, not expecting a friendly conversation in such an utterly foreign city. But the second, third and twentieth time it happened, I enjoyed each encounter more than the last as I found more opportunities to at least speak with people from such a different culture. I met people from Sichuan and Chengdu and Mongolia. They declined to teach me a word of Chinese. They would ONLY speak English, with a wonderful, eager passion, and I was their big opportunity to interact with a native speaker.
The best moment was on the one free day I had, when we visited the Summer Palace. It was a Saturday, and the beginning of one of the Golden Holidays, so the place was swarming with visitors — almost all Chinese, but from every part of the country, come to tour that amazing site. Not far inside the gate, my producer and I encountered a big group of Chinese children, all dressed in red and white school uniforms. As soon as the kids saw this obviously Western, almost-certainly American visitor (I don’t exactly blend in very well in China) they besieged me:
“Hello!” “How are you?” “Where are you from?” “Are you American?” I finally got into a rhythm of answering and giving them questions back: “How are YOU?” “Yes, I’m from America.” “Where are you from?” And when they’d answer, “I am from China,” I’d slap my head in amazement, “You’re from CHINA! Oh my gosh!”
That got a good laugh. Wonderful laughter from children as we shared a moment of pure, human communication.
And, dear Chinese General Administration of Press and Publication, there is going to be another laugh on you. Did you really think you could urge your citizens to learn a language and somehow keep it compartmentalized from the language they speak at home? Your language will change, despite its thousands of years of “purity.” You can’t restrain it. The genie is out of the bottle. Roll with it, baby. And laugh.
© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017. “Nix and Kids” photo courtesy of Shannon Wickliff, all rights reserved. Header photo of tai-chi in Shanghai by Brad Nixon.