- In Search of Time in Peking Mandarin
Ekaterina Chirkova's In Search of Time in Peking Mandarin is a delightful surprise—at once scholarly, current, and very readable. Perhaps what is most impressive about it is that it reminds us, once again, in a patient and not pedantic or preaching manner, that our definition of what constitutes a "standard" language in any geopolitical setting, China most definitely included, is never as neat and clean as we might believe it to be, despite decades of imposed regularization. And while the volume's advertising assertion that Chirkova's work demonstrates that "some forms that have been considered extinct in Mandarin are alive and kicking in the language of Peking" may be a bit too sweeping a generalization, it does nonetheless manage to address at the microlevel some very significant syntactic and socio-linguistic issues as to the distinctions between Beijing Mandarin and Modern Standard Chinese (MSC).
By means of critical introduction, the perspective that I bring to this review is that a large percentage of us who have been actively involved in the teaching of Chinese as a second/foreign language over the past two decades have, with good reasons that are genuinely justifiable, urged our students to spend at least a sizable amount of time of their composite study-abroad experience in Beijing. And yet, at the same time, many of us have also recognized, at least subconsciously, [End Page 50] that what we have been able to present to and practice with them on their native American shores—linguistically, communicatively, and culturally—has been, at the least, somewhat insulated from what they would ultimately be facing when they took their bicycles to the streets of the northern capital. What Chirkova presents in this book is a quantitatively limited but nonetheless qualitatively compelling confirmation of our concerns.
Chirkova's focus is the role of syntactic aspect in its quasi-tense role within Beijing Mandarin, although she does also briefly discuss several other unique features of Peking Mandarin, both lexical (e.g., the expression biarla 'side') and syntactic (in particular the use of the co-verbs gen and dai as a sort of substitute for zai 'be in'). Stepping beyond what most of us, as both students and teachers, have delineated as the defining morphological components for aspect—namely le, guo, and zhe—Chirkova sets forth a number of empirically based propositions. The less contentious of these claims is that for a significant portion of the Beijing population, le is more than an aspect marker—serving as well in a type of topic-comment delineating role—and there is the need to specify two additional aspect markers, one of which is laizhe. These two observations are not particularly earthshaking; within the past decade, the pedagogically oriented treatises by Yip and Rimmington (1997) and He (1998) regarding le and laizhe, respectively, have provoked many of us to reexamine our prior predilections regarding the bases and limits of aspect. But Chirkova pushes the limits on two more significantly innovative fronts, in her contention that zai is not a marker of the progressive aspect in Peking Mandarin and that de has an even more expansive range of semantic and pragmatic roles, including that of an aspect marker, without explicit requisite linking to shi.
Of these two more significant challenges to the Mandarin status quo, the one regarding zai is somewhat less innovative. If Chirkova had had access to Light's 1989 article, which, in her defense, until very recently (2004) has been out of print for a number of years, she would have had independent expert evidence that, at least by Light's analysis, zai is simply not a marker of aspect in any way, shape, or form. In Search of Time is in this regard fully consistent with the pedagogical orientation presented within Chinese Primer, by Chen et al., which, like In Search of Time, does state that zai is progressive when appearing with zher or nar (Chen et al...