On a recent visit to Beijing with his parents, my grandson took quite a liking to a Dutch children’s song. I bounced him vigorously on my knee and sang a chorus, ‘Hop, paardje, hop; hop, paardje, hop’. When I stopped, he dug his heels in and jumped up and down for more:

For some reason, I remember my maternal grandfather doing the same thing, with a final gallop in which the rider is lifted up and then down to the floor with a huge ‘wheeee’.

Next time I will sing him the whole song in Dutch, which I have now found goes as follows:

‘k Heb mijn wagen volgeladen vol met oude wijven
Toen ze op de markt kwamen begonnen zij te kijven
Nu neem ik van mijn levensdagen
Geen oude wijven op mijn wagen
Hop paardje hop, Hop paardje hop

‘k Heb mijn wagen volgeladen vol met oude mannen
Toen ze op de markt kwamen gingen ze samenspannen
Nu neem ik van mijn levensdagen
Geen oude mannen op mijn wagen
Hop paardje hop, Hop paardje hop

‘k Heb mijn wagen volgeladen vol met jonge meisjes
Toen ze op de markt kwamen zongen zij als sijsjes
Nu neem ik van mijn levensdagen
Steeds jonge meisjes op mijn wagen
Hop paardje hop, Hop paardje hop

The translation of the this delightful song goes roughly as follows:

I have loaded my wagon full with old wives
When they came to the market they started to scold
Now I will never in my life
take old wives on my wagon
Go horsey, go. Go horsey, go

I have loaded my wagon full with old men
When we came to the market they started to conspire
Now I will never in my life
take old men on my wagon
Go horsey, go. Go horsey, go

I have loaded my wagon full with young girls
When we came to the market they started to sing like birds
Now I will take all my life
only young girls on my wagon
Go horsey, go. Go horsey, go

(ht cp for the great photos)

‘If we are unable to read the script, then we are unable to read’. So it is said concerning the ‘traditional’ Chinese script. The saying is really a lament concerning the most recent process of simplification of the script. Of course, it was Mao Zedong and others who instigated this change, which unfolded over half a century from the 1930s to the script used by the vast majority of Chinese, in the People’s Republic and around the globe.

But why lament the process of simplifying the script? For some, the very nature of the script has become a marker of an intellectual and scriptural tradition of more than three millennia. For others, a script that can be used by so many diverse languages and dialects acts as a potent sense of unity. So to simplify the script is seen by these people as an attack on the tradition and on the unity of China. However, the script has also been a symbol of class, or better, caste. The ability to read and write belonged to the select few in the imperial administration, especially those who had undergone the arduous examination system for entry and promotion into that service. The result was that no more than ten per cent of the population as a whole were able to use this formidable and complex script. The remaining ninety per cent – peasants – had no hope of learning it and were actively prevented from using it. Writing was not only a means of power, as Lévi-Strauss would have it, but also of caste.

The communist challenge to the traditional script was therefore a challenge to the power of that scribal ruling class. It was, of course, not simply a challenge to the script. The primary motivation was to empower the peasants, not merely through a new socio-economic system and army training, but also through the ability to read and write. The simplification of the script was therefore a means to this empowerment. The first steps were taken back in the 1930s, in the Yan’an Soviet (where the Red Army had ended the Long March). In the makeshift schools established in huts, cave-houses, and in the open, peasants were taught to read and write in large numbers. To ease the process, a simplified script along with the pinyin (Romanised) system was developed along the lines proposed by Qian Xuantong. The success of the project ensured that the new and easier script would eventually become national policy, a policy that continues today with the latest List of Commonly Used Standardized Characters published in June, 2013. Needless to say, the initial act of simplifying the script undermined the very claim to superiority by the intellectuals who had preserved the traditional script for themselves.

In this respect, some of these intellectuals have never forgiven Mao for what he did. Their response has been to establish a common assumption that the simplified script was a dumbing down – for peasants – of China’s literary and cultural heritage. They also managed to secure the astonishing assumption that Taiwan is more traditional than the mainland. Any visitor to Taiwan can see that it is deeply Americanised and more pervasively capitalised than the mainland. ‘Traditional’ is certainly not a word that comes to mind easily, if at all. Yet, many on the mainland insist it is more traditional. Why? It is simply because Taiwan has not broken with the traditional script. Forget the fact that the Guomintang kept that script as an explicitly elitist, anti-communist measure once it had escaped to Taiwan. Indeed, forget the fact that the process of simplification has itself gone through waves from the time of the Qin dynasty of the late third century BCE, with perhaps the most significant effort during the May Fourth Movement after 1919.

In light of all this, it becomes a little easier to understand the Cultural Revolution. ‘To the countryside’ was the slogan. The intellectuals accustomed to their caste superiority, to keeping the cogs of bureaucracy running, to keeping the peasants ignorant, were now told to learn from the peasants. The intellectuals were not, of course, to give up being intellectuals, but to learn a new way of being so. And a crucial part of that process was to use the simplified script. It is a useful reminder of the depth of Mao’s challenge to the vested interests of intellectuals that he also pondered whether to abolish the script entirely and simply use the Romanised pinyin system. Perhaps he took to heart Lu Xun’s statement, ‘If Chinese characters are not destroyed, then China will die’.

I, for one, am grateful for the simplification. Given that it is a little more difficult to learn a new language as one gets older, and given that Chinese is a challenge at the best of times, the process of learning is somewhat easier with the new script. That is not to say it is easy in itself, but I am thankful indeed that I do not need to learn the traditional script.

Since my first degree was in the Western Classics, I have always been fascinated by its relatively recent origins, the myths it tells about itself, and its fate.

After claiming the scene in the German states, in France, and elsewhere, Classics finally arrived in that imperial latecomer, the British Empire. Understood as a ‘liberal education’, Classics provided the core of the educational curriculum in elite schools. With the bourgeoisie newly wealthy and increasingly powerful, new markers of class identity were needed to distinguish itself from both the moribund aristocracy and working class:

It is hardly coincidental that it is just at this time that several of the decaying provincial grammar schools were revived as public schools – that is, as boarding schools with a nonlocal clientele. Rugby in the 1780s, Shrewsbury the following decade, were the leaders of an expanding group. It was in these schools that the sons of prosperous bourgeois fathers learned how to read and write Latin and Greek, to lose their regional accents and to behave as gentlemen. The curriculum was almost totally dominated by classics: in the lower forms, grammar learning took up much of the time, together with mechanical exercises in verse composition (Stray 1996, 79).

Indeed, the sign that one had been to such a school was an intimate knowledge of the Classics, down to the skill of composing verse or prose in the classical languages. Such knowledge indicated one’s class status and thereby ensured one a key position in the imperial administration. This persisted even when the patronage system of appointments was abolished with the reforms of the Indian Civil Service in the 1850s, for the examination questions were geared to favour those with a classical education.

The genius in this whole system was that classical study was presented as non-utilitarian, necessary for the formation of the whole person, cultured and erudite – unlike the workers who apprenticed for a trade. The calling of Classics was meant to be greater than any worldly concern (so it was presented to me when I began its study). Nonetheless, it was precisely that approach to the world of politics and commerce that rendered one eminently worthy for leadership in that world. This was marked by a hegemonic vocabulary, saturated with classical languages and texts. The ability to engage in classical repartee, to appreciate the subtlety of a classical allusion, to put down those with no or limited knowledge of the Classics by such means, provided a distinct ruling class code.

As Thomas Gainsford stated from the pulpit: ‘the study of Greek literature … not only elevates above the vulgar herd, but not infrequently leads to positions of considerable emolument’.

LATIN. Language natural to man. Harmful to good writing. Is useful only for reading inscriptions on public fountains. Beware of Latin quotations: they always conceal something improper.

Flaubert, Dictionnaire des idées reçue

I am thinking here of two groups who work overtime to distinguish themselves from one another precisely because there is so little separating them. Above all, they assert that their ‘languages’ are distinct, whether Danish or Norwegian, Serbian or Croatian. The catch of course is that there is more variation across the dialects within those countries than between them. So Danes and speak with Norwegians, Serbs with Croats and vice versa. Languages? Only in political terms. Compare the fact that some of the ‘dialects’ in China are as distinct as, say, English is from French.

Anyway, who makes up the ancient version? Philistines and Israelites of course. Or is that Phoenicians and Canaanites, Sea Peoples and Hill Peoples? Their ‘languages’ were hardly that at all, for they could understand each other when they spoke their own dialects.

‘Were you born in Berlin?’ I asked her after she sat down next to me. We were both on the train from Berlin. Thrilled to find someone from Australia since she had lived there recently, she was keen to talk.

‘Yes’, she said.

‘So do you speak the Berlin dialect – Berlinerisch?’ I said.

‘Only when I am angry’, she replied. ‘My mother was from outside Berlin, so she made sure that I did not grow up speaking the dialect. But my father, he is from Neukölln and he speaks it well and truly’.

‘But why do you speak it only when angry’, I said.

‘It’s not a good dialect’, she said.

‘But why not?’ I said.

‘It’s a working class dialect’, she said. ‘In the west, it was very much the dialect of the lower class, while the upper class looked down on it’.

‘What about the east?’ I said.

‘There it was the official language, spoken by everyone’, she said.

‘Is that still the case?’ I said.

‘Of course, east and west no longer exist as they did’, she said. ‘But these differences are still present’.

‘Yeah, I guess such deeper differences don’t disappear overnight’, I said. ‘But do you think that’s a result of the emphasis on workers in the communist east? The language of the working class becomes the official language’.

‘I suppose so’, she said. ‘But now that difference, between a capitalist west and communist east, is overlaid by the difference between middle class and working class’.

‘So a double condemnation’, I said. ‘It marks one as either from the old east or from the working class, or both – at least in terms of the ruling class’.

‘Yes’, she said, laughing. ‘But it’s still not a good dialect’.

One of the weird things you notice about many people in Europe or those who have moved elsewhere is what can only be called a strange type of tribalism. You know the picture: Germans are neat and tidy, if somewhat authoritarian; the Dutch are stingey, even more than the Scots; the English are repressed and don’t wash; the French are arrogant; Italians are corrupt; Greeks are lazy; Turks are losers; Serbs are thugs; Russians are alcoholics; Finns are quiet and carry knives; Swedes are ‘easy’; Arabs are dirty terrorists who oppress women; Australians are primitive and uncultured and the country has roos on every street and doesn’t have ATMs, etc (add others).

At another level, you usually find in everyday conversation that a person is identified by their country of origin: ‘the German across the street’; ‘that Chinese women at the shop’; ‘you mean that Turkish man?’ And on it goes.

Why? Given that I come from a family of European background, I have grown up with this in some way or another. I would suggest that it has to do with the fact that Europe is this weird collection of tiny countries, with myriad languages and ethnic groups – tribes really. (Forget that fact that it impossible to find a pure Dane or Dutch person or Spaniard …) So the way you map the world is in terms of ‘national’ identifiers. As soon as you can name a person’s background, you have him or her pegged into a certain behaviour – as if one’s place of birth has a direct bearing on one’s psychological makeup.

I came across this at a different level in a debate in Bulgaria last year. The others in the group wanted to argue that the definition of a ‘nation’ is ‘one ethnic group’ and ‘one language’. That position quickly becomes unstuck in, say, Canada or even Belgium, let alone an immigration nation like Australia. But they held to it. I was reminded of the debate in Russia before the Revolution and afterwards concerning the ‘national question’, which was tied up with language and ethnic identity. But why was it a ‘national’ question? Same reason, since nation, language and ethnic identity seemed to be inseparable.

How to make sense of this skewed perspective on the world? Apart from the primitiveness of a European perspective on the world, I keep being reminded of Igor Diakonov’s observation in his Paths of History. Viewed from a global perspective, European history and attitudes comprise a huge anomaly that has somehow been asserted as a norm. Maybe it’s time we recognised the anomaly for what it is.

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