Thursday, May 6, 2010

On Chinglish

May 2, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Shanghai Is Trying to Untangle the Mangled English of Chinglish.” The article begins:

“For English speakers with subpar Chinese skills, daily life in China offers a confounding array of choices. At banks, there are machines for “cash withdrawing” and “cash recycling.” The menus of local restaurants might present such delectables as “fried enema,” “monolithic tree mushroom stem squid” and a mysterious thirst-quencher known as “The Jew’s Ear Juice.”

This information about misspelled, misrepresented, or completely incorrect English is not news. The article is a typical China fluff piece, meant to fill space in an otherwise decent paper. But I have to say, it’s rather disappointing to see that it has managed to stay in the ‘most popular’ category for more than a day. The reason I’m so disappointed is evident in the previously quoted paragraph.

The article begins with neo-colonial beer goggles. For some reason, we’re supposed to sympathize with English speakers living in China with subpar Chinese skills. I mean, we all know that it's completely impossible to learn a language as illogical and fantastical as Chinese. We should feel terrible that our expat comrades cannot read signs. After all, with our linguistic advantages it is unjust that native English speakers should be confronted by confounding signs anywhere in the world!

That aside, what really got me wondering when we went back to the 1920’s was this:

““If you standardize all these signs, you not only take away the little giggle you get while strolling in the park but you lose a window into the Chinese mind,” said Mr. Radtke, who is the author of a pair of picture books that feature giggle-worthy Chinglish signs in their natural habitat.
Lest anyone think it is all about laughs, Mr. Radtke is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Chinglish at the University of Heidelberg.”

There we have it, the true value of Chinglish. Both for laughs (I won’t dispute that) and as a window into the Chinese mind. In fact, I find this to be true of my Chinese. Whenever I say something in Chinese that is grammatically or lexically incorrect, I’m secretly happy. Nothing expresses what I mean better than what I don’t mean.

In this article, we have groups of white people: Germans, American reporters, expats, etc. who find their amusement at nonsensical signs more important than avoiding potential embarrassment on the part of the Chinese. This is both elitist and racist. It is elitists because it makes us feel better about our crappy Chinese when compared to Chinese public English, and it is racist because one gets the sense that this aspiring scholar believes that nonsense signs reflect something of the Chinese psyche. What they really are is simple. They are embarrassing translation errors, which have more to do with a poor language pedagogy than with some sort of reified, ignorant, Chinese psyche.

All this is not my way of discounting the validity of a degree in Chinglish. This topic is actually quite interesting. There are millions of people in China who actually speak Chinglish (this is pidgin Chinese-English) as a second language.

(Photo from:

(New York Times Article:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

An Imam In Xi'an

Ma Yiping is an imam. For over two decades he has prayed, counseled, and worked for the Muslims of Xi’an’s Hui (sino-muslim) community. Like many of the Xi’an Hui, he does business. But his business is a little different, his tiny store in filled, literally bursting, with his own Arabic calligraphy.

Ma Imam was born in 1964 and by the time he was “able to understand things” in the early seventies, religious devotion had been replaced by the fervor of the Cultural Revolution. Mao earned lip service while Ma was taught Koranic verse in secret. Since Xi’an’s mosques were sealed, Ma wandered through the twisting, closed allies of the Hui quarter to the house of a politically disgraced Imam. There were no books, instead, the Imam wrote a section of the Koran in Arabic. He explained its meaning, and helped Ma by holding his hand as they rewrote the verse.

This is where, according to Ma Yiping, his interest in Arabic calligraphy began. His initial learning occurred furtively, desperately avoiding the watchful eyes of Red Guards and other would-be informers. In the 80’s, when the Cultural Revolution was a distant abstraction, Ma entered the Beijing Koranic Studies University. Then he began to take his calligraphy more seriously. Later he studied in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, gaining limited fame as one of the rare Sino-Muslims who represented their combined cultural traditions.

Which brings me to yesterday. Lately I’ve been spending a great deal of time with Ma Imam (A-hong as they say in Persian derived Chinese). My friend D. Wang and I have been making a short film on the Xi’an Muslim district, and since I can talk the Sino-Muslim talk, Ma Imam has graciously given us the opportunity to harass him. Yesterday, Malaysia TV 1 came to Xi’an to film the Imam (He has also appeared on Al-
Jazzera a few times). In his excitement, he invited me to come by and observe the proceedings.

Why, you may ask, does Malaysia TV 1 care about a Hui calligrapher in Xi’an? There are a few reasons: 1) Due to his perceived orthodoxy (good Koranic Arabic, calligraphy, etc.) Ma Yiping is a charismatic representative of the Hui community to the wider Dar al-islam. 2) He is ideally located in Xi’an, a city as symbolically Chinese as Mecca is Muslim, and is an Imam at the city’s most famous mosque. 3) It is of interest to Malaysians, who are neither Arab nor Persian, to promulgate Islamic alterns. 4) He has been on Malaysia TV before.

This post is more of an awkward beginning than concrete introduction. Ma Yiping and his community are worthy of our attention for a number of reasons, which will be explored in future posts. I hope you’re ready for some Islam.

(Here he is on Al Jazeera