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  • An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics by Perry Link
  • Edward M. Gunn
An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics by Perry Link. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. viii + 367. $39.95.

An Anatomy of Chinese in three chapters, on rhythm, metaphor, and politics, opens discussion of aspects of language to an audience broader than technically minded scholars. To do this the author has selected certain topics that are intriguing for nonspecialists as well as specialists, minimized technical jargon, proceeded with an anecdotal exposition, and sought to make cultural generalizations of the most wide-reaching kind. Given the author’s unquestionable command of spoken Mandarin, his erudition in Chinese prose and poetry, and his familiarity with Chinese politics and Chinese writers, such a project is welcome. Moreover, where so much attention among scholars of modern Chinese literature has been focused on change in modern Chinese language and writing, An Anatomy of Chinese probes features of modern Chinese—rhythm and metaphor—that have remained relatively or completely unaffected by change. The author’s aim is high, in the spirit of Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations and Noam Chomsky in Language and Mind, who cites Wittgenstein, that “the aspect of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity (one is unable to notice something— because it is always before one’s eyes).”1 The chapter on “Politics,” which grows in large part out of the exploration of rhythm and metaphor, also seems to share Wittgenstein’s concern that the “limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”2 The research is well grounded in earlier scholarship, returning to where so much of it began in the 1960s with the publication of Yuen Ren Chao’s A Grammar of Spoken Chinese3 and the studies by T. A. Hsia and H. C. Chuang of metaphor and political discourse.4 It also adduces the more recent scholarship [End Page 354] of Chinese-language linguists and social scientists, as well as cognitive linguistics inspired by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By5 and observant comments by other writers and scholars in the humanities.

Such an informed, interdisciplinary approach ideally could lead to a cultural criticism that engages scholars and writers across many boundaries. The chapter on rhythms is devoted first to extensive exploration of a distinctive Chinese language capacity and preference for particular rhythms at the level of words, phrases, clauses, and strings of each. The five- and seven-syllable lines of classical shi verse have remained so appealing even outside the writing of shi that there is “a cultural preference for five or seven [syllables] that steers usage in that direction” (p. 64), and arrangements of syllables into a pattern of three/ three/seven are entrenched in composition in a manner that is “deep and pervasive” (p. 79). Lexical items and phrases also follow rules of rhythm. The exceptions only prove the rule. Ultimately Link’s focus is on whether there is meaning to rhythm, whether a statement reworded into a version shorn of rhythm means the same thing as its rhythmic construction. This line of questioning raises the issue of whether rhythm produces for native speakers a sense of a statement’s sounding “right,” which might be glossed as “acceptable” or “persuasive.”

The chapter on metaphor presents and synthesizes Chomsky’s observations on universal human lingual endowments and Benjamin Whorf on linguistic relativism. Following a discussion of how languages universally conceive of time in terms of space, but of space in varying ways, Link concludes: “Does one language lead its speakers to think differently from the ways speakers of other languages think? Yes, for some concepts. But does the structure of the human mind condition and limit the ways any person thinks, regardless of language or culture? Also yes” (p. 135). There follows a careful exploration of differences in conceptual metaphors in Chinese and English. Much of the focus is on how English favors “ontological metaphor,” that “turn [End Page 355] complex processes into entities, use nouns to label them, and thus make them easier to talk about” (pp. 9–10). But these substantive, nominal metaphors, many...


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