Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Tang clan ain't nuttin' to f*ck wit'*

Japanese students of the Chinese martial arts who chose to study in Taiwan may also have been influenced in their decision by linguistic as well as colonial affinities between Taiwan and Japan. (Well-informed readers will note that Liu Yun-Chiao was wai sheng ren, that is, one of the mainlanders who fled to Taiwan c. 1948. However, Taiwanese students and, as this post will suggest, possibly even mainland Fujianese speakers could have acted as interpreters.)

Japanese, as well as Korean, borrowed a great deal of vocabulary from Middle Chinese. Most dialects of Chinese (such as Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew and the Fujianese spoken by most native Taiwanese) are found in China's south, brought there over the centuries by refugees from the north fleeing invasions and conquests. In fact, some maintain that the various Chinese dialects are the result of multiple migrations at different points in time, such as the introduction of the Fujianese and Hakka dialects to southern China by those fleeing the overthrow of the Tang and Han dynasties, respectively, thus preserving characteristics of spoken Chinese from those periods. Thus far, however, historians have in spite of their efforts been unable to conclusively link any Chinese dialect to a particular flight from the north.

Take, for example, the word "fist", pronounced "chüan" in Mandarin, "kun" in Fujianese, "ken" in Japanese (Japanese often has multiple pronunciations for a single Chinese character, or kanji; one for the indigenous Japanese word, and another pronunciation taken from the Chinese) and "kwon" in Korean (as in "Tae Kwon Do").

Ironically, even as modern Japanese and Korean preserve pronunciations from ancient Chinese, modern Mandarin Chinese has been largely influenced by conquerors who spoke Mongolian and Manchurian (the Yuan and Qing dynasties respectively), Altaic sister languages to Japanese and Korean. Southerners have preserved ancient vernaculars due largely in part to bloody-mindedness; they'll be damned before they adopt linguistic corruptions introduced by barbarian invaders. The adoption of Mandarin Chinese as the national language of China was quite a hard sell to the numerous southerners among the early Chinese Republicans. I was initially inclined to discount the contribution of, well, stubbornness to linguistic preservation until I recognized my own distaste for the simplified Chinese writing introduced by the communist regime in Beijing, regarding it as ersatz and inauthentic (as any properly brought-up overseas Chinese boy would), which made it easier to imagine my ancestors responding to the linguistic influence of the Huns, Mongols and Manchurians in the same way. (Of course, the isolation provided by the mountains and rivers of southern China probably helped too.) Imagine a modern-day population in England that refused to use post-Norman linguistic changes in its speech.

That said, I am forced to give due praise to the mainland's Pinyin Romanization which, beyond its efficacy, just plain looks cooler in print than any other system of transliterating Chinese into the Roman alphabet.

* It was either this or "What's orange and sounds like a bell?"