Chinese and English: The Language War

Andrea Berrini
May 23rd, 2014

Which will dominate - Chinese or English? Or can they live together?

I am an Italian. I spend part of the year in Beijing so I am writing in English, sitting at my desk in one of the most important capital cities of the world, where hardly anyone can speak English. I am barely able to pronounce friends’ names using the right tone of the four that Mandarin has (and when I slip up, I am aware of the possibility that I am insulting my friends). I should add that I am writing this post for a prestigious online magazine in English, with contributors from all over the continent and, obviously, from mainland China, too. But I could never be a regular blogger or contributor for any Chinese literary magazine.

I am too old to study Mandarin: only by studying hard for years would I be able to really talk to others, rather than merely to exchange basic information. But this is a big deficiency. It is my desire to understand people on the road, in restaurants, on buses: to understand their thoughts, their complaints, or simply the common subjects they discuss just to pass the time: is it the weather, and polluted air? Or politics? Or which news they consider intriguing enough to spark a conversation? If I were able to speak Chinese I could really interact with the local “literary scene” rather than going around asking: ‘Please, do you know any writer or poet or editor able to speak English? I wish to meet as many as possible.’ (The usual answer is: why are you so interested in talking to writers? Isn’t it better to read them?).

This question is fundamental in contemporary Asia: which language will be the universal transactional medium for peoples speaking Malay or Telugu, Mandarin or Cantonese, Indonesian, Korean or Thai? Will they use English, just because of the internationally acclaimed media coming from the West? I doubt it.

What I am sure of, having spent much of the last six years in Asia, is that we are confronting a sort of language crisis. Decades ago, when Europe was facing the same crisis within its borders (French was still the language most used in diplomacy, English was rising as the business language, and in Eastern Europe everybody was studying Russian, while Italians and Spaniards could only complain and fiercely stand up for themselves), a Portuguese poet and writer, Fernando Pessoa, dared to describe this confrontation as “the language war.”

Now, setting aside the confrontations that are silently building up in geopolitics (consider Chinese vs. USA/Japan in the East China Sea where “Exclusive Air Defence Zones” overlap and are currently crossed by bombers from both sides; or the South China Sea, where China claims a sovereignty that bordering countries deny): can we now speak instead about the language war between Chinese and English? Yes we can.

Pessoa wrote that: ‘(…) ultimately, victory conditions are: (1) great literature, (2) effectiveness and perfection of language, so that it constitutes a workout for the mind, (3) self-sufficiency of the language, so that language is sufficient for all cultural purposes.’ The poet was right at that time, at least with regard to Europe. But here in Asia we have a different situation. Cultural armies are confronting each other. They call it soft power, and everyone is engaged in the fight.

This country, where I am writing this piece, has set out a comprehensive machinery to spread its own culture and language(s). Confucius Institutes around the world have been plied with plenty of money, and use it for their purposes. In China itself, local bodies are ready to give translation grants to publish carefully selected Chinese authors.

In contrast, I see a proliferation of literary and writers’ festivals across Asia. English is the medium for the publishing industry. Western embassies, cultural institutions, even banks are sponsoring them. Just to give an example: when Indonesia was chosen to be guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015 its government began giving grants for translation into English (and German of course): so that the international publishing industry and its audience would be able to read Indonesian works.

But I have one objection. Is the widest audience of readers in the world English, or Chinese? Recently the NOP World Culture Score Index disclosed that for Chinese readers the average reading time is 8 hours per week, while the highest result for Western English-speaking countries is the USA with a mere 5.46 hours. Draw your own conclusions.

Meanwhile, I have seen evidence of a similar debate arising in Singapore. A couple of years ago at the Singapore Writers’ Festival, I asked: Why doesn’t the SWF run a panel on such a subject? The answer (after flipping through the programme) was: Here it is! But it was in Mandarin, with no English translation…

My Italian publishing house’s Facebook account is following English-speaking publishers and bookshops as well my friends’ Chinese bookstores in Singapore: on both sides, monolingualism is strictly the rule. It is sad, I tell you: writers and intellectuals should be able to build bridges between cultures, but here the top player is Google Translate.

Bridges between cultures: as a Westerner this is what I need. I understand that placing this additional subject near the end of my article may look like a digression, but it is not. I was born in Milan but have spent years in Asia, and especially in China. The reason I wish to build bridges between our two continents is that I am sure Asia has a lot to tell me about who I am. And yes, that’s you, who live in the fastest growing and urbanizing continent in the world; you who live in this uniquely experimental society, where hundreds of millions of peasants are transforming themselves (or at least their sons and daughters) into an army of employees travelling on underground subway systems and spending their weekends in shopping malls.

The transformation Asia is facing can seem to be a time-lapse nightmare, where people struggle to adapt. In just two or three decades Asia has rushed along the same path the West took – relatively quietly – over two centuries. And to us, looking at that is fascinating: we can remind ourselves that our current lifestyle is not a cosmic duty, but is just what is happening now: the far past was different. My son and daughter know nothing about that past: you Asians know because you saw it only twenty years ago. And that is why you know there will be a future: the transformation is still going on, you see it and discuss it in your daily life: it is the subject that writers, movie directors and artists have to confront. I wonder if you are shocked by this. Or rather, I hope you are! Because through this shock you will find great stories to tell, and to write.

I need this bridge from Europe to Asia: because I feel myself already imprisoned in an old, almost sleeping Western suburbia and need to be released from it: I want to quit! So please, dear friends of mine from Asia, do write the great global suburban novels. You young people can: you have the eyes to see. We old and depressed Westerners cannot.

And this is the point.

In which language will you write? If you write it in Chinese rather than English, please translate it. Otherwise this poor Italian who has spent 30 years of his life trying to achieve a decent knowledge of English will now have to start studying Mandarin. Neither Dante nor Leopardi will be of any help to him in this.

But on the other hand, if you write in English, make it available in Chinese too!

That is why I am so concerned about the “Language War”: I am looking eastwards in search of a better explanation of the future that is arising now, and I really wish not to find two different ones, in two different languages. I hope Asian contemporary literature will be driven by writers’ choices and by their individual voices, rather than by money spread around by English-speaking or Mandarin-speaking institutions. We Westerners strongly need to be freed from our own old claustrophobic suburbia by true tales of the new world over there: please do write them freely, and not as a result of a confrontation between the two linguistic universes and their competing sponsors.

I do not know whether it will be English or Chinese that will dominate. I have no answer, and no solutions. But please, you also build bridges. Enable us to participate in both linguistic worlds. Let’s not have a confrontation in which there must be a winner and a loser.

At the end of it all, however, we Italians will be forced to translate them anyway: from English, or from Mandarin. But that is what we shall do, and it’s a task we carry out with pleasure.


Andrea Berrini
Last blog date: Jul 18th, 2014


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