“A billion voices: How China built a common language”
In this conversation, David Moser, author of “A Billion Voices: China’s search for a common language”, talked about the political and cultural backdrop behind the adoption of Putonghua as the lingua franca of China.
Moser is a Sinologist who obtained a Doctor of Philosophy in Chinese studies from the University of Michigan. His book superimposed the transliteration of Chinese civilisation, the transformational phase from 1914, and how language was a part of that. It captured the idiosyncracies of language, the May Fourth Movement, the committees that were put together by that era of leaders, and the personalities involved.
Moser said, “Once the Qing Dynasty fell and the Republic of China took power, one of their challenges was to emulate what they saw from the great powers of Europe, the great countries, like England, like Germany, which to them, they looked at this model, and they said, all these countries, what do they have in common? It's one people, one country, and one language. All these countries had a unified language”.
Moser teaches at Yenching Academy, Beijing University, and has been a visiting scholar since 1987, and a visiting professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. He has lived in China for over 30 years and held multiple academic positions at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and Capital Normal University. Moser also worked at China Central Television (CCTV) in Beijing as a programme advisor, translator, and host.
The following key points were discussed:
- The challenge of unifying the Chinese language
- Westernisation and modernisation were led by a unified language
- Confucianism and the Chinese characters were seen as a drag on the Chinese culture
- Romanisation of the Chinese language
- The diversity in dialects and accents
- Political agenda behind a unified language
- Tension between cultural identity and national identity
- Resurgence of Confucianism
- Essence of language is speaking
- Asymmetry in information between China and the US
The following is the edited transcript of the interview:
Emmanuel Daniel (ED): There are many aspects about China’s journey from the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1917 to the modern superpower it has become today that are instructive to those who are interested to understand the story.One aspect that is not discussed very well is the evolution of the Chinese language in holding the country together and harnessing it with the literacy required to carry it into the 21st century.
The Chinese language is in itself ancient, complex, romantic and fascinating. But the Young Turks of the May Fourth Movement in 1919 were determined that the Chinese language had to be romanised and even replaced because of the cultural shackles that it represented in their quest for keeping up with the Western world.
The story that evolved was a fascinating one, and is captured in this book, “A Billion Voices: China’s search for a common language”. The writer of this book takes us on a journey from the early initiatives to create a common language, the lively stories of the huge divide between northerners and southerners, traditionalists and contemporary speakers, and the hundreds of dialects that used the same text but spoke so differently that Chinese people from different provinces barely understood each other.
When Mao Zedong stood on the podium on 1 October 1949, he spoke in his heavy Hunan dialect that had to be kept simple to be understood across the nation. It’s a fascinating book that captured the all-too-human drama of human egos from the north and south, the fist fights and the verbal abuses from which the process eventually did come together.
The writer’s name is David Moser. He has lived in China for well over 30 years. He intimates a heavy Beijing accent when he wants to, participates in cross-talk sessions on national television and is very much a part of the story that he writes about. He teaches at Yenching Academy, Beijing University, and has been a visiting scholar since 1987, and a visiting professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. Why is your Chinese better than mine?
David Moser (DM): I’m flattered.
ED: It’s true. When did you start to learn Chinese?
DM: I started learning Chinese in the 80s.
ED: Really? Who taught you?
DM: I self-studied Chinese. I have never taken a class before. However, I married a Chinese wife. Everyday I learn from her, live with her. And sometimes we would argue, I would lose terribly every time. But my Chinese got better and better.
ED: My interest in all things cultural, there's an economic, social and political element in there. You actually dealt with those things, those were the defining characters that brought the language together. And the Putonghua that we speak now is a simplification of an extraordinary problem that they had on the language.
In the book, what you did very well was you superimposed the transliteration of Chinese civilisation itself, that transformational phase from 1914, and how language was very much a part of that. You captured the May Fourth Movement, you captured Sun Yat-sen, and then the committees that were put together by that era of leaders, and then the Kuomintang, and then the Communist Party, and then right up to today.
You just captured the essence of the flow of how the country created its linguistic identity. When you did that in the book, you also captured the interesting idiosyncrasies of language, which really there’s an oral element to it, there's a written element to it. In China, the two are not necessarily together all the time. You captured that very well. And then the committees themselves and the personalities. The things that you had to say about Wu Zhihui, the original chairman of the committee was so funny. It was like a character right out of a storybook, huge personality, take it or leave it, talking down to the southern people and so on. Later on you had Zhao Yuanren, who actually translated the work of Bertrand Russell. Did he actually translate that famous book by Bertrand Russell on China?
DM: No, he was Bertrand Russell's translator when he was in China, along with John Dewey and other people. He translated Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland into Chinese.
ED: David explains in his book that when Alice in Wonderland was translated into Chinese, new Chinese words had to be invented to capture the new English words. Zhao’s无聊的话 [wú liáo de huà] was Chinese for “Jabberwocky”. The Mouse’s long and sad tale was also a pun on the word “tail” in “Alice in Wonderland”. Neither the Chinese words for “tale” or 故事[gù shì] nor “tail” or 尾巴 [wěi ba] captured the pun well. So, Zhao did an ingenious job of transliterating the pun itself. He played with the Chinese word 委屈 [wěi qu], which loosely means “grievance”, and came up with a made-up combination 尾曲 [wěiqǔ], that literally meant “a tail in a curved shape” and looked sad, thereby capturing the pun.
And that itself is a story because Alice in Wonderland itself is allegorical. And even in the English language, he created a lot of new words. And that whole story of how he created new words in Chinese, that transpose that. So, there's a lot to have in terms of a conversation with you. So first, I'm going to ask you about the book itself. When was that book published?
ED: What were you struggling with most of all when you were putting the book together and trying to tell the story of how China unified its language?
The challenge of unifying the Chinese language
DM: It was a problem. I think you can see that the book is very condensed. They wanted that they said, “Don't make it too long”. It was hard to condense all that historical information into a short book. Actually, it was not that hard for me because the issues that were dealt, that the country was dealing with, and that the language planners were dealing with, were actually the same kind of issues that we foreigners, that I deal with and dealt with when I first started learning Chinese. This notion that the characters are not phonetic or they're very mildly phonetic, that there's so many of them that are simplified and complex ones. And then also the reality of the dialects because most people don't realise when they're studying standard Mandarin (Putonghua) and others in the country. When they come here, the first reality they face is everyone doesn't speak that language. And everyone doesn't speak with that accent. So, all those problems and issues that I've been struggling with for 30 years, my task was just to explain them very clearly and simply for the novice reader, for the non-specialist reader. So that was my challenge. And it was very hard to do. The book was like three times longer when I finished it. It was a process of cutting lots and lots of content before I got it to the final one.
ED: It was technically sophisticated and yet simple. It captured the sophistication of language in a very simple way. And then it told a story as well. The things that I took away from the book, which I'd like to have your views on. Firstly, the largeness of life of the personalities involved in shaping China. Tell us a little bit about that. And do you see those large personalities today?
DM: Very good question. I’ll answer the first part first. I think it's important to realise that when the story starts, it’s at the fall of the Qing Dynasty. And you have to think of where China was and where the intellectuals and the leaders were at that time. And what they were facing, really, as patriotic intellectuals, was cultural survival. I mean we tend to forget looking at China the way it is now that China was on the verge of being overrun, taken over, invaded.
ED: And it was pulling in every direction, and linguistically so.
Westernisation and modernisation were led by a unified language
DM: And also there was the May Fourth Movement in particular, not really them but the late Qing, was the shock of discovery of the West, and how far they were ahead of China technologically, and in terms of political systems and ideologies. These people, in part, they were great because they had a great problem to solve, which was how do we make China strong again? How do we Westernise? Does that mean the same thing as modernised? Is Westernisation and modernisation the same? And part of all of this process was the language. You have to read my book to get the full story. Part of the problem was that China's language, written language — well, there were two problems. One was that there was no such thing as the Chinese language. And once the Qing Dynasty fell and the Republic of China took power, one of their challenges was to emulate what they saw from the great powers of Europe, the great countries, like England, like Germany, which to them, they looked at this model, and they said, all these countries, what do they have in common? It's one people, one country, and one language. All these countries had a unified language.
And particularly, Japan even had gone through a similar sort of process during the Meiji Restoration. And when the first Japanese war broke out, the Chinese suddenly realise these Japanese armies are so strong and efficient. One of the reasons was, they could all speak a common language, and they're all literate, they could all read. And China was filled with a vast number of people in the countryside who are moderately illiterate, and there was no single language that they all spoke. Basically, these thinkers, and these writers, these creators, they were solving a bigger problem than just language unification. They saw this as the only way to get China to become strong and powerful, like a Western country.
Confucianism and the Chinese characters were seen as a drag on the Chinese culture
People like Lu Xun, the writer, people like Chen Duxiu, people like Hu Shi, these great figures of the early 20th century, they all had this in common that they all were directed at reforming the language. And what's always fun for me when Chinese people read the book, or Chinese people learn about what I'm writing about, there's aspects of this that Chinese people in fact don't know, they haven't read about in their history, and they're surprised to find out. And one of them is that, first of all, the May Fourth writers were very anti-Confucian. They were saying, “We’ve got to get rid of Confucius. His ideology is retrograde, it's patriarchal, it's sexist”, and all this thing. But the other thing they attacked was the Chinese characters themselves. And this is something that a lot of Chinese really don't know, people like Lu Xun, and other writers, and some of the characters that you're talking about like Qian Xuetong, were sort of rabid, kind of viciously critical of their own culture, because they saw this as a drag on the culture.
There were lots of very serious writers who were saying, “We've got to eliminate the Chinese characters because they're a drain on the intelligensia, and they're a bar to literacy”. It's a block on literacy, you can't expect illiterate peasants to learn how to write 5,000 Chinese characters. So, the Chinese language and the writing system had become very elite, very overly complicated. And it really took an entire lifetime to master that and to be able to read, and they said, “We've got to do what the foreign countries did, we've got to have a vernacular literature, and we've got to have a writing system that it's easy for people to read and it's phonetic”. So, these big characters that you were talking about, they were big because they had to think big, they couldn't afford to just get in their ivory tower and just continue, they had to actually solve huge problems. And part of the fun for me in the book was to explain why they had a sense of crisis and how this led to the advocacy of enormous changes in the culture and the language.
ED: In fact, this thing about people who think there's a form of democracy, there’s a form of consensus building mechanism at play here, which a Westerner would not call a democracy, but yet there is a consensus building process. Not everything comes together by dictate or something like that. That plays out very strongly in your book, and it still plays out today. That is one of the reasons I was so excited to have this chat with you, because when I talk to the economists, that's how China's economic policies. Responding to global challenges, and there is a global consensus, like in economics, you have the Washington Consensus, which is neoliberal and so on, bearing down on developing countries. There's China developing its own response and then pushing back the global themes. And in the case of the written word, what you're saying is that there was this thinking that it should be romanised. But romanisation never happened. Where is it now? Is there still that second thought that maybe at some point the Chinese written language will be romanised in order to give it a lot more currency or flexibility or something like that?
Romanisation of the Chinese language
DM: The push for romanisation really became stronger before Mao took power. We know that when Mao was at Yan’an preparing his troops for the eventual conquest or liberation of Beijing, one of the first things they wanted to do was eliminate the characters and initiate a kind of a romanised system. They already had one that they were using to teach Chinese, to the peasants in Yan’an. But Mao took power and he had so much on his plate. He promised to do this but didn't do it, which is probably a pretty good idea. It would have been a disaster. Right now, this issue of the characters is a little bit irrelevant because of the computer. So, it was continually relevant throughout the 50s and 60s in the teaching of Putonghua, which they had to develop pinyin. But pinyin was just an aid in pronunciation. It was never meant to be a romanised version of Chinese that you can read out loud. It was always a problem.
Even when I came here in the 1980s it was a huge problem for foreigners learning because the writing system was not phonetic. So, you had to go learn these onerous tasks of looking up a word in the dictionary and trying to remember what it is and learning the pinyin system, and learning how to write the characters by hand. In a way, all of that's gone by the wayside. It's not relevant now because they have the computer, and we have digital tools. And people no longer have to write by hand. So, there's no reason to cancel the characters now because they can work in cyberspace, they work quite well in the digital world. The only task you need to do is learn how to recognise them. But that's much easier than learning how to write them.
The diversity in dialects and accents
The other part of my book that is, though, relevant now is the dialects. And that's very important, because I think you hit on something that there's something important about understanding the modern state and what the problems China is trying to solve. Because the problem was that China was never a monolithic entity, like we tend to think that it is or was. There are illusions of that because everyone was reading the same books and reading the same characters and supposedly engaged in the same. But in fact, China was always a very diverse country and culture. The diversity was always there. And when Mao took power in 1949, it was still there. And that meant you had a lot of different regions that spoke not just different accents, but totally different languages, and they are as different as French and Italian.
And you had different regional ethnicities. There were the Han dialects that were different dialects of the Han language. And then there are the words like Tibetan and Uighur. So that was a fact of Chinese life. It's still true today. I can only give you just some idea that the tension now was one that started when they began to try to unify the language. And the question was as China's quite diverse we have all these different regions and dialects, do we want to create a common language so that everyone can just speak the same language and communicate when they're together, but let the local dialects and local cultures continue to function and to proceed into the 21st century as a separate kind of system? Or is the hope, is the ultimate goal, that Putonghua, the national language, will gradually supplant these dialects that they will gradually erode and go away and we will have a unified country that only speaks one language?
Political agenda behind a unified language
There are these words that we used originally when Mao took power. The “people” were referred to as “renmin”. And if you see, renmin is everywhere, Renmin Ribao, renminbi, renmin so on. It was the “people”. And this is how we were supposed to envision the Chinese people. Well, this has always been a tension because the Chinese people are not this unified. If you say the Tibetans in a monastery, and mandarins in the Zhongnanhai are all the same people, they're not. They're very different people with very different mindsets. So, this became a little bit troubling to them as they began to try to move China and unify it, not only linguistically, but also politically.
If you notice, Xi Jinping, when he took power, he began to have a change of language. He began to use the word “minzu”, which is more like a “nation” and “nationality”. So, “people” means one thing, but a “nation” has more of a sense of cohesiveness. A nation or a national, like an ethnic nationality, in English, we also say a nationality is like an ethnic group. So, you see these signs around Beijing in Chinese saying, “If the people have faith, then the nation has hope, and then the country is strong”. So, there you see it, the people is everyone no matter what, but the nation is a different thing. And so they begin to push in the direction of having everyone speak the same language, not just because it was a communication tool, but because it was a patriotic thing to do. And it's very interesting in the promotional materials for Putonghua, they're very explicit. It says, “Learn Putonghua and be a good patriot”. And they even say explicitly, “Learn Putonghua and strengthen the cohesiveness of the Chinese nation”. It's not just a linguistic agenda, it's a political agenda.
ED: It is. In fact, if I were to draw the timeline in your book, the questions that the May Fourth Revolutionaries were asking themselves, now what do we need to unshackle in order to free our being Chinese. And then when the country was coming together, they said, “Oh, what do we need to hold this together”? And then because of wealth actually, if you fly now to Chengdu, they insist on speaking their own local dialect. Putonghua is for when you go to Beijing. Don't speak that in Chengdu. And since 10 years or so ago, they started teaching Shanghainese in school. And then you have the Guangdong problem, which is the Pearl River Delta.
DM: That has to do with Hong Kong also.
ED: And then you've got Hong Kong in there. In fact, it was just this week that President Xi made a speech saying that we are a multicultural country. I thought it was a major milestone that we are a plural society, we are a cosmopolitan country. We're not a one country. And he didn't say xiaomingzu, he said minzu, nation. He wasn’t speaking like a Han speaking to the minority in that sense, “We’re all one people, one nation”.
DM: There’s a tension there.
ED: There's a tension and there's an intention as well. And I guess that what's happening there is that they are finding their way along without forcing it because they know that if they forced it, there will be tensions and reactions from different parts of society.
Tension between cultural identity and national identity
DM: Well, they occasionally go overboard, whether you mandate that the schools teach in the local dialect, or they teach in Putonghua. And that has been a losing battle for the ones who want to keep the local dialect in the school. As they are saying, “No, no, no, only Putonghua in the schools”. Well, once that happens, the children forget how to learn the local dialect. And not only the dialect, but that whole culture dies out. But then there are tensions there too, because the parents don't want to see their kids grow up and become estranged from their own culture, and they can't talk to their grandparents. But they also want their kids to be able to assimilate into Chinese culture and speak standard Mandarin so they can get a job. So even the parents are conflicted. Do we just let the dialect go away? Or do we somehow try to keep both of them there so that they have a cultural identity and they also have a national identity? It's a tough problem.
ED: And the interesting thing about what you say in your book was that because of the revolutionaries in the May Fourth Movement, there was a de-emphasising of Confucianism, and there’s a discussion of how much of Confucianism is actually carried in the literature, in the text, in the word. There’s 50 years of that and then there's a resurgence of Confucianism. How much of Confucianism was lost? And what is the Confucianism that exists today?
Resurgence of Confucianism
DM: That's a good question. Of course, Chairman Mao was part of that May Fourth soup. Let's put it that way. He was with those people. When he took power, Confucius was not something that he wanted to be part of the new China at all. As we know, he banned Confucius. He critiqued Lin Biao and Confucius. And little kids are also, “Down with Lin Biao”. Who's Lin Biao? Who's Confucius? They don't even know. Mao was adamantly opposed to it.
In the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping took power, there was a loosening of Confucian studies as an academic aspect. Also, there was a loosening of religious studies overall. You can now study Buddhism, you can study other things. After the reform and opening up in the 80s and the 90s, there began to be a sense that China had lost a sort of moral compass. And part of the reason was there was no indigenous kind of value system that they could point to. If you say, well, it's Marxism, Leninism, Mao Zedong thought. But there's nothing in that that tells you how to be a moral person. You'd be a good person by just supporting the Party and supporting Marxism and Leninism. That doesn't tell you much. Also they noticed that lots of people were turning to Christianity, they're turning to Buddhism, or other kinds of religions. And it was obvious that there was a felt need for some kind of a moral sense. Society seemed to them to be heading towards chaos.
Now enters Confucius. They said Confucianism has several advantages. Its indigenous Chinese value system. It's not a religion. The metaphysical component is virtually zero. It also stresses order, obedience to authority, family values, and so on. Of course, it's pretty sexist. But you do what the Catholic church did to Christianity, which is they cut out all the parts they don't want and put in all the good stuff. And that's the core mantra. So now we have Confucius institutes and everything's named after Confucius. It's not that Confucius really had a comeback, because if you talk to the people out in the street here, no one's going to say, “Are your Confucian”? You’d say, “What are you talking about? No”. But the upshot of all this is Confucianism is still in the Chinese DNA. And this notion of the way they treat families, that harks back to Confucian values.
ED: Also, what's interesting is the way in which Chinese people build knowledge has changed. In the days of the dynasties, it was the mandate from heaven and so on. Then Sun Yat-sen turned it around with the three min (Three People's Principles) – minzu (Nationalism), minquan (Democracy), and minsheng (livelihood). And it's from the ground up now. And when you turn something like Confucianism from the ground up, as opposed to an edict, value system that is imposed on you, it begins to look different. It's something that can be translated by ordinary people. I think you've said that the reason Confucianism gained popularity is because ordinary people are able to comment on it and contextualise it.
DM: It's embedded in the language not just in the texts and things but in the ways that people talk. In everyday life they will use these Confucian terms like “ren” and “yi”, benevolence and righteousness. The way they talk about “xiaoshun”, there's a word we don't even have a word for that in English, filial piety. That's a concept in China. Even the fast bullet trains are called hexie, harmonious society. So, it’s embedded in the Chinese value system, without even being explicit. It was during Mao's period as well. It's just that you couldn't talk about it explicitly. So I think it's something the Chinese couldn't get rid of. It is part of the value system and this notion of cooperation and hierarchy is baked into the system really.
ED: Now, here's something that is personal to me, and I really want to know from you, which is I have face to face classes, and my teachers also do classes with me on WeChat. I have any number of application tool sets and so on. Give me a sense of your own Chinese journey.
Essence of language is speaking
DM: Wow. Well, in a way, the first part of my journey has nothing to do with now because the realities are so different. When I first started learning, the only way to do it was with books, and usually pre-prepared books that had all the translations there. And just looking up a character in the dictionary could take a minute or two to three minutes. The problem back then was the same one we have now, tones and grammar, but also how do you use reading to increase your listening and speaking. You alluded to it a minute ago, the problem with Chinese language is that in an alphabetic language, reading, speaking and listening are all one skill. Because if you can read it, then you can say it. And if you can say it, you can hear it and it reinforces each other. In Chinese, the characters are just mute, usually you see a character, you don't know what it means you don't know how to pronounce it, you first got to get the sound. And then you get the sound, you've got to get the meaning. And then you've got to remember the sound again when you see the character. And that's a very slow process. So that was my reality then.
I quickly learned something that the teachers don't understand, even the ones now. And it's just a linguistic truism that we've known for hundreds of years. Saussure, the French linguists, said that the essence of language is speaking, is the oral language, not the written language. And because Chinese is so visually oriented, the characters are so important, Chinese teachers used to and still make the mistake of thinking, “We got to get these characters into the person's head”. They’ve got to learn what they look like, write them. And that's just totally backwards. Usually when I learned French or another European language, there's no question because the writing, the speaking and the listening are all part of the same thing. But in Chinese, you have to make a choice. You can't do it all at once, because it will delay you so many years.
What I learned was that I need to learn how to speak this language. And then whatever I can learn to read and write will come along naturally as the years go by. But I've got to jump in and start really speaking. And the only way to do that was to design my own curriculum. And basically I had to say, what do I need to say and how much do I need to say it. So, I kept little books and things I would say, “How do you say this”? And they would tell me, “Alright, I got that”. And it wasn't usually just a word or a character or an entire phrase. And that's how I did it and most other people were still reading the textbooks. I never did the textbooks. I did it all on my own and the people who went to the courses would say, “It’s going to take you four or five years to even get to where you can do anything”. And I said, “I don't want to waste five years of my life just so I can”. So, I jumped in. I started learning xiangsheng, which is crosstalk, this comedy form.
ED: Which you're very good at.
DM: Well, that's how, that increased my Chinese a lot, but I got people to help me by transcribing the scripts and then I would listen to it and I could speak it. Nowadays, I would say my advice would be you don't have to worry about the characters, writing is not an important skill. Don't let them tell you that you have to do tingxie (dictation), write 50 characters a day. The skill is recognising them and you don't need to go through this process. You can digitise it, you can use the Plecos dictionary or whatever. You can take a text and just have the computer read it out loud to you or you can just press a button and look at the tones and the definitions. So, I say, live in the digital world, process Chinese in the digital world. But in everything you learn, try to focus on speaking. So read things that will help you speak, so read dialogues, read movie scripts, read TV scripts. Of course, read anything you want, but read some classical Chinese, read anything you want, but basically try to read text that will help your ear and then help you speak. That's my advice.
ED: That's very good. But you know what you're saying is that now that we have all these technological aids we can use them. Living in China, how much of an American are you still and how much of a Chinese have you become? I ask this today because of the internet, and because of the polarisation of views on culture and on countries and geopolitics and all that, there is a “it's either this or that” kind of view. There are Americans who have not liked China at all. Chinese are generally gracious to us Americans, I see that as well. They only asked to be respected for what they are. But at the same time, there are things which are Chinese which needs to be discussed critically. And you're part of this society. So, where are you now, in terms of what happens to you when you see all these differing views being thrown at you?
DM: Yeah, it's kind of confusing. Things have changed so much in the last 10 years. If we had the same conversation 20 years ago, I would have very different thoughts.
ED: Which will be?
Asymmetry in information between China and the US
DM: In the late 1990s, and early 2000, when the internet came along, I would have told you, “Oh, the two cultures are just merging, they're coming together. There's a lot of common ground. We have a lot of common language. They actually want the same things we do. And they're becoming more Westernised. We're happy to learn their culture. And more academics are coming, here everything is kumbaya”. It’s what I would have said, I would have thought there are some hurdles I have to go through, and there are some sticking points. But basically, the two cultures are just merging. Now, I wouldn't say that. I would say because of various things, political aspects, it is sort of like with the internet and communication is done all over the world, you would think that a common language and lots of familiarity with the other person would create sympathy, empathy, cooperation and positive feedback. Quite the opposite.
The new media and the internet, everything has created a new space where people can create tribal identities, you know this very well. We're now learning these information bubbles. China may know a lot about the US, but now they know almost too much. They know exactly what we say about them, and they don't like it. One of my obsessions now is this deficit or asymmetry between the information in China and information in the United States. The Chinese know a lot more about us than we know about them. And that goes for America, especially. And I think it's dangerous. It's very, very dangerous for many reasons we can talk about. But I think I wouldn't have been saying this in 1999 or 2005. But I think we're in a real crisis now because the internet and these tools have not brought us back sort of closer together, it's created a kind of a similar left-right polarity in the United States with the Republicans and Democrats. I look at Chinese media now and I think this looks like the Fox News of China. And then you know the actual Fox News is there. And then they have a Fox News out here in which you cannot say anything good. Anything good is not welcome on that channel. And so, we're caught. And it's dangerous, it's very dangerous.
As to me as an American, I'm an American, I can't change that. My body language, everything, I'm still an American. I realised that that's not something I can change, but it's not something I care about. And most Chinese people don't care. They want me to be an American. But what has changed since I got here is I've realised that there's a lot of values that I had interiorised and I still apply, that I now feel a little bit ashamed of or a little bit sorry about that I see as American and I realise that there's Chinese values that counteract those or they are oppositional to those. And there's a lot of things we can study about Chinese way of being a person, in Chinese culture. But having said that, of course, there's plenty that they admire about us. And they will say it openly, their entrepreneurialship, their creativity, their fearlessness to pursue new ideas.
I'll tell you a story. This is so telling. I was teaching a class that had my American undergraduate students, and their Chinese roommates in the same classroom. And so, we were talking about cultural differences. And one of the Americans mentioned, well, a new thing, we talked about YOLO. Y-O-L-O, you only live once. And the Americans said, “Yeah, I would say that's one of my values. I mean, we try to YOLO. Yeah”. And one of the Chinese students said, “Yes, I agree, that is so wise. YOLO, you only live once. That means that whatever you do, you should be very cautious. Don't take any undue risks, don't do anything that might harm you or create problems”. And I just said, “Oh my god”. This is such a crystallisation of Chinese way of looking at things and the American way of looking at things. And they’re both correct. But there's just a different orientation there that I could see crystallised in that. I think you agree with me that those differences are quite precious, really. We need to find ways to merge those and understand those. But we're in a position right now where no one's in the mood to talk about that synergy. People are now only in the mood to restore, respect, autonomy and sovereignty, “Shut up and let me do what I want”. It's tragic. It's very sad.
ED: I'm actually benefiting from you and a whole range of people. Both Chinese and foreigners living in China, and you need to live here to make sense of the reality that's already been created. The buildings are real, the railway is real, the roads are real, the lifestyle is real, and the luxury and the comforts are real. This is not a figment of someone's imagination. This country has done well for itself. And when a country of this size does well for itself, it has a voice, it has a dignity that we all must pay attention to. How we contextualise according to our own dignity depends on a number of factors. Of course, nobody likes to be pushed back. Western civilisation doesn't enjoy being pushed back and being told that it's passe now or something like that. So, there's a dynamic in motion at the moment. And it's very important to keep an open mind. And it's for people like us who live here, who do business here, who interact with the people here that we realise you don't just label the country and call it something and then put it away in a box. This is not a country that you can do that.
DM: You’re from Singapore, right? Do you think that that affects the way you perceive China? I mean, me as an American is quite different. But you, there are these ties, there's the Asian identity, there's all kinds of things. You must experience things differently from me.
ED: To some extent, coming from Singapore and coming from a former colonial heritage helps me to see both sides. And something else, which I think hasn't been added into the equation, countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Korea and Japan, are precursors to what China is today. We are the forerunners of what China eventually became.
DM: You're even the model. You were one of Deng Xiaoping’s model.
ED: We were the proof of concept. And then you see how it transformed an entire country. So, I have a mental map, a timeline, with which I see what's happening. The purpose of this conversation is to capture the essence of how you saw certain decisions being made in an area that people don't even think about, which was language. It's so interesting reading your book that I saw committees at work, I saw personalities at work, I saw policies shifting over time, I saw nations being created on the back of putting a language together, and the pushback today on the unifying nature of language.
DM: Thank you.
Country: China, United States, Singapore, Japan
People: David Moser, Emmanuel Daniel, Lewis Caroll, Bertrand Russell, Chen Duxiu, Lu Xun, Chengdu, Mao Zedong, Confucius, Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping