Friday, October 22, 2010
Just read Deborah Fallows' smart and clear-as-water book, "Dreaming in Chinese." As a trained linguist, she chooses the topic of Chinese words and builds her book around it, weaving in her own experience of living in China. It's the kind of book I like, a hot plate of chop suey, seemingly simple, mixing up things, and mysterious as Charlie Chan's "Confucius say." It cracks me up, however, when she addresses the term 老百姓 (laobaixing, "ordinary people"). Fallows writes, "At the showcase military parade in honor of the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic, President Hu Jintao deliberately invoked the Party-speak of the Moaist era, bypassing laobaixing for the culturally laden period word tongzhi [comrade]." As good a linguist as she is, Fallows doesn't seem to understand how the term is used in Chinese. For Hu to say "Greetings, laobaixing" would be somewhat like saying "Hello, y'all yokels!"