Familiarizing and Humanizing an “Exotic” Language

By Jason D. PatentMarch 1, 2014

Familiarizing and Humanizing an “Exotic” Language

An Anatomy of Chinese by Perry Link

TRADITIONALLY, academics have built careers — and obtained funding — by developing specific expertise and keeping a narrow, in-depth focus. But a new movement has encouraged a broader, more interdisciplinary approach to research. It’s safer — and more common — for late-career academics to pursue this path. Rather than concern themselves with simple disciplinary advancement, they revel in the pure joy of exploration and seek to create genuinely innovative works that shed light on topics of interest to a diverse readership. The estimable Perry Link has done just that in his latest monograph, An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics.

Link — one of the foremost authorities on Chinese language and literature in the West — sets out to examine the inner workings of Chinese through these three starkly different lenses, which neatly map out the book’s three chapters. He draws from a stunning array of fields, including poetics, literary studies, linguistics, anthropology, history, psychology, philosophy, political science, and sociology.

The first chapter, on rhythm, brings to light a great many aspects of how Chinese is used — characteristics that novices will find fascinating, and that readers with advanced Chinese will find revealing. For instance, Link devotes much attention to two prevalent rhythmic patterns — qīyán (七言) and wǔyán (五言) — which have exerted, and continue to exert, significant influence over how (mostly public) expressions are constructed, from political slogans to public signs to nursery rhymes to television advertisements. How interesting, Link notes, that during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), slogans decrying the “old” continued to be expressed using these most ancient of rhythmic patterns. This just isn’t the sort of knowledge that tends to be taught in Chinese language and literature classes, or in classes on the Cultural Revolution — traditionally the province of political science and history. The author introduces us to various forms and categories of rhythm, and probes deep questions about their origins and possible universality. Again, “responsible,” disciplinary scholarship would not allow for such “speculation” — but speculation is precisely what makes it so enjoyable.

The second chapter, on metaphor, switches directions almost entirely. Link introduces the reader to conceptual metaphor theory. First propounded by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in 1980, conceptual metaphor theory sheds light on how deeply metaphor pervades everyday cognition and language. Link takes the reader on a long and probing tour of several conceptual domains as they are reflected in Chinese and English. These are big topics, handled ably by someone who has taken the time and effort to ground himself in the basic methods and categories of the theory.

Link provides a thoroughgoing and powerful investigation of the ways in which Chinese and English similarly construe time and the passage of events. For example, in both English and Chinese, physical “forward-ness” can refer either to the future (“the days ahead of us” / qiánmiàn de rìzi 前面的日子) or to the past (“before yesterday” / zuótiān yǐqián 昨天以前), depending on the conceived “orientation” of the speaker and of the events. In the process of doing this analysis, Link smashes an old (and inaccurate) claim that there is something fundamentally different between the two languages in this arena — a favorite pastime of Western Sinologists looking to exoticize Chinese. This chapter covers challenging ground both broadly and deeply, leaving the reader with a wealth of new perspectives on the conceptual structures of both Chinese and English.

Link’s third chapter, on political language, is a far-reaching analysis of the starkly different worlds of political language and ordinary language in China, from the Mao period to the present. Link offers example after example of China-specific cases of Orwellian euphemism, abstraction, and other tactics that strip language of the information-sharing functions for which ordinary language is used. He writes extensively of the “language game” that plays out again and again in the political arena, in which language serves primarily to gain and retain power, rather than to inform or assist.

A particularly insightful example is the use of the phrase “tiny minority” (jíshǎoshù 极少数) to refer to political opponents of the Party. Link sums it up elegantly:

Phrases like “small bunch” and “tiny minority” have the added advantage of leaving plenty of room for the average citizen, at the receiving end of the rhetoric, to choose to join the majority. If troublemakers are a small minority, then the choice for you, the average citizen, is easy: come to the center and join the mainstream. If you do, the safety of knowing that the authorities approve is reinforced by safety of numbers. A person who joins the mainstream does not have to defend the choice.

This is but one of many astute observations Link makes about how political language is used in China as a tool of power.

In his epilogue Link runs into a bit of trouble. He identifies two common threads linking the three substantive chapters: inadvertency and meaningfulness. By this Link means that all three aspects of language — rhythm, metaphor, politics — are used unconsciously and are used to convey meaning. The problem is that this characterizes virtually all language. Introductory linguistics courses the world over will emphasize these (and many other) aspects of language from the beginning. The view that language is mostly conscious is a relic of a two-millennia-old philosophical (and later quasi-scientific) tradition, which Metaphors We Live By and, later, Philosophy in the Flesh (also by Lakoff and Johnson, and cited in places by Link himself) set out to debunk, mostly successfully (along with hundreds of other books and articles since the 1970s).

In the context of the book as a whole, this is a minor complaint. All in all, An Anatomy of Chinese is a treasure trove of insights that cannot be found anywhere else. It is not intended as a shining work of rigorous scholarship, but as a set of explorations. (Link himself states early on that he is more interested in discovering patterns than in proving absolute truths.) The reader must adopt a spirit of open exploration, which we are willing to do because of Link’s prior body of work: we trust the author, and so we are willing to go to risky places with him, and there is tremendous value in doing so. In such free-flowing, wandering explorations as this, many questions can be opened up for future, more precise scientific investigation.

Yet Link’s greatest contribution goes far beyond his book’s strictly intellectual offerings. In writing An Anatomy of Chinese, Link brings the heft of a respected Sinologist to the study of language, and in doing so breaks up some treasured myths in the broader world of Sinology. For some reason — perhaps because it makes them seem more eccentric and interesting — “China experts” often feel free to pontificate about how the Chinese language works, perpetuating a set of myths that do little beyond portraying Chinese as some exotic “other”: Chinese “is a pictographic language,” “is a monosyllabic language,” “doesn’t express time,” and so forth. In bringing the tools of linguistics to a popular investigation of Chinese, Link performs what is, ultimately, perhaps the greatest service that social science can perform: demystifying and de-essentializing that which on the surface might otherwise seem imponderable and incomprehensible. And when the subject of study is the language used by human beings who also might otherwise seem imponderable and incomprehensible, the final effect is to familiarize and to humanize. For this Perry Link deserves our respect and our gratitude.


Jason D. Patent is currently American Co-Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing, China.

LARB Contributor

As the Nanjing-based American Co-Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, Dr. Jason Patent is responsible for the management of the Center’s affairs along with the Chinese Co-Director. Dr. Patent received his B.A. in East Asian studies from Harvard University in 1990, an M.A. in East Asian studies from Stanford University in 1994 and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley in 2003. Prior to joining the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, Dr. Patent most recently served as vice president of communications and marketing for Orchestrall, Inc., a Philadelphia-based China market entry company. Dr. Patent’s more than 20 years of China-related experience began after college when he first taught English in the far northeast industrial city of Qiqihar. Since that time, his work has spanned the education, nonprofit and business sectors. He later lived in Guangzhou, Chengdu and Beijing—where in 2004, he became the inaugural director of Stanford University’s Overseas Studies Program based at Peking University.


Dr. Patent also teaches on language and culture, writes on topics related to doing business in China, and is frequently invited to deliver lectures and workshops on intercultural communication. He lives in Nanjing with his wife and two daughters.


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