- Playing the Language Game in China: On Perry Link’sAn Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics
Reading Perry Link’s masterful and often amusing reflections on the social and political dimensions of spoken Chinese, I recalled at once a puzzling conversation I had in fall 1980 with a grisly old North China peasant. Our subject was the sudden and bewildering speedup in the collectivization of Chinese agriculture in mid-1955. Using plain language, the old-timer made it quite clear that, despite the reassurances of local Communist Party cadres, rank and file peasants were highly skeptical of—even frightened by—the radical new scheme. I asked why there were so many misgivings. He immediately answered, Tuzi weiba changbuliao! 兔子尾巴 长不了. I understood all the words (Rabbits can’t have big long tails!), but I was confused. We were talking about the socialist collectivization of Chinese agriculture and its economic, social, and cultural consequences, but now he was inexplicably going on about rabbits and their tails. No doubt neither of us was fully aware of it at the time, but the old man was playing what Perry Link calls “the Chinese language game.” Not only was the villager saying that the authorities were trying to do something that in his view ran counter to natural law, he delivered his folksy response in what Link calls the time-honored and powerful 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3 cadence of spoken Chinese.
Many highly specialized books about post-Mao China are published these days. Given the increasing importance of China on the world scene, this comes as no surprise. There is a burning desire to better understand the seemingly ever-changing complexities of the place known as China. Most new books deal narrowly with the profoundly complicated high politics of the Communist Party, the dynamics of China’s domestic and international economic trajectories, or the various new directions taken in China’s regional and global diplomatic relations. A smaller number of books look at Chinese society and what might be called the downside of China’s astonishingly rapid development, highlighting [End Page 31] such pressing topics as environmental degradation, income and class polarization, food safety concerns, lawlessness, alienation, hedonistic consumption, and a crisis of values.
An Anatomy of Chinese is a very different—and in many respects unique—contribution to the tidal wave of new literature on China. It is broad, interdisciplinary scholarship at its very best. Its most basic argument is this: if we really want to understand contemporary Chinese society, culture, economics, and politics, we must take a much closer look at a number of intriguing structures and tendencies deeply embedded in spoken Chinese and pay more attention not only to what people say but the way they say it. These partially hidden modes of expression convey their own meanings and project their own authority. It is important to realize that when my peasant friend used the 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3 cadence to say, “Rabbits can’t have big long tails!” he was knowingly or unknowingly playing the Chinese language game.
Link’s remarkably accessible anatomy of spoken Chinese is really three short, interrelated books neatly combined into one. The issues are complex, but his prose is personal, conversational—even chatty. The first part deals with the fascinating topic of rhythm. Providing many colorful examples, Link demonstrates convincingly that a number of powerful rhythmic patterns are intimately associated with the way Chinese speakers deliver their words. The impact of these cadences involves much more than their lyrical charms. Indeed, these rhythmic patterns are so deeply entrenched in the language that they convey meaning and authority in their own right. One of the many patterns Link analyzes is the qiyan 七言 or “seven word” form mentioned above. This ancient 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3 syllabic cadence is found everywhere in Chinese speech, and its prevalence is no coincidence. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) when iconoclastic Red Guards praised Mao by chanting Dahai hangxing kao duoshou 大海航行靠舵手 (Sailing...