Recently in a debate about martial arts someone said I must not know what I’m talking about because I do not speak or read Chinese fluently. While most people would not say that, they might think it, and certainly there is a prejudice for giving higher regard to someone who does speak the language fluently.
I have a lot of counter arguments I could make but this is really a form of bullying, so naturally I followed my Bullying Protocol: Over admit to everything and concede that the bully owns the space. “Thank you for sharing your great culture with me. Not only do I not speak Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) but I don’t speak any of the many Fujianise dialects, I don’t speak the languages of the Hui minority, or the languages of Shanxi or Henan, or any other the other, by some estimates, 300 mutually incomprehensible languages of the Chinese mainland.”
A hundred and fifty years ago, the hundreds of Chinese martial arts styles out there were taught exclusively in local languages. What I sometimes refer to as theater and sometimes as opera, covers a vast array of professional low-caste performers, and amateur lineages of processional fighting dances, family opera, physical storytelling, circus, and hundreds of traditions which are simply undocumented. The languages used in these performance traditions were often local, but they could also be archaic like Shakespeare, or from another region, or from a formal poetic or vocal tradition.
Regardless of whether one accepts my thesis that theater, martial arts, and religion were a single subject, it is hard to argue that the language of teaching and transmitting martial arts was mutually coherent to people from different regions.
Unless, of course, one thinks the arts can be transmitted with either minimal language, or with minimal language supported by key terms that can be translated and explicated.
Just as an aside, no one actually knows how much of the Chinese population was literate two hundred years ago. I’ve yet to meet a scholar who was willing to come down clean on the issue. It is widely believed that China was historically the most literate society on earth, other than Jews. But what constituted literacy is a tough nut to crack. Being able to read 500 characters might have been very useful, but it probably wouldn’t have made someone literate. In any event the important issue here is that there was one common written Chinese language and all official decrees (from 1644 to 1910) were written and read aloud in Mandarin, Mongolian and Tibetan, all which would have been largely incomprehensible to the majority of people.
The common written language was usually used for what is called “classical Chinese,” but it was sometimes used to transliterate local languages for the purpose of writing down plays or rituals.
The current authoritarian government in China tries to censors discussions about the diversity of Chinese languages, it would prefer that they be thought of as minor dialects, the issue is highly contested.
But back to the main argument about martial arts, learning Modern Standard Mandarin is probably helpful for learning martial arts, heck, it opens up the possibility of talking freely to more people. But a dozen times I’ve been talking through a translator to an older Chinese martial arts master or a Daoist adept who was speaking a local dialect and because I was familiar with the context and content I ended up explaining to the translator what the adept was talking about. That is not a trivial or single anecdote experience, if you’ve spent many years training martial arts you can communicate heart to heart.
During the early part of the 20th Century when martial arts were being ‘purified,’ a key element of the purification movement (Jingwu 精武) was the idea that all martial arts had to be explainable in plain language. In effect, we can morn the loss of a great deal of the subtlety, of local linguistic associations, and highly specific meanings, that were embedded in local languages over generations for transmitting complex martial arts concepts.
I’m not trying to be romantic here about all the stuff that has been lost, what is gone is gone, but if you truly believe lack of language is an obstacle, then the same obstacle applies to people who only speak Modern Standard Mandarin. And the possibility exists that thinking one has the right translation for a key term can actually work to effectively hide or obscure other meanings.
That brings me to the concept of song 鬆, as in fangsong 放鬆. It has most often been translated as ‘relax,’ which is a word that has been so over used and abused in English I can not even tell you what the driving metaphors of it are. The other common translation of song is ‘to sink.’ That, at least, has a driving metaphor which is easy to visualize: sinking in mud.
The character for song represents a person pulling out their hair pin. Which is super cool because the expression, ‘let your hair down’ is easily understood in English. But the meaning in Chinese is more complex. All officials of the government going back a couple thousand years, had regulation hairstyles that displayed their rank. So pulling out the hair pin meant dropping in rank, or giving up rank, or refusing rank. Thus by inference song can mean to sink in status, and thus simply ‘to sink.‘
But the issue can get even more complex. To give up one’s status, can mean to let go of social obligations, social stresses, and social conventions. Thus it can mean to transcend the physical rigidities and emotional tensions that tend to define character and identity. Song can mean to forget your Self.
The theater nudges itself into the conversation here because acting is in effect, to forget your Self, and become someone else. But theater is central to understanding the cultural context of the term song in another way too. Most Opera performance that we know about, both amateur and professional used the hair styles and costumes of the Ming Dynasty. This was an implicit act of visual rebellion because all ethnically Chinese (Han) men from 1644 to 1911 (the Qing Dynasty) were required to wear their hair in a queue under penalty of death. So no ethnically Chinese men would have actually had the experience of pulling out the pin other than through watching or participating in theater!
(Side note: There were street performing groups that specialized in doing tricks with their queues.)
Then there is the sound of the word song 鬆, which is a homonym with the word pine tree! Were it a different tree, this might not be a big deal, but the pine tree is a symbol of long-life. No, that is too weak a statement, the pine tree is an icon of the cosmic force of long-life. The pine tree is practically a deity.
So this is all background to a fight I started about the meaning of the word song 鬆 during a workshop George Xu was teaching a couple of years ago. I don’t remember exactly how it started but George was trying to transmit a subtle idea and the word song 鬆 came up, it was translated, and I contested the translation. Everybody got mad at me and told me to shut up, but I didn’t. In addition to George there were two other native Chinese speakers there. George speaks both Shanghainese and Modern Standard Mandarin, the other two each spoke two additional Chinese languages, so there was a total of six Chinese languages contesting and attempting to explicate the meaning of the word song. The discussion I forced started by examining song 鬆 as a compound with various other characters, because as most linguists have argued, most Chinese words are two characters long. The conversation then moved toward trying to find appropriate English words or expressions to match up. George Xu ended the conversation by offering a metaphor no one else had conceived. He said that song 鬆 in the sense he was using it meant to open up like a pine cone releasing its seeds.
What a shock! After years of thinking song 鬆 meant relax, or sink, or any of the other possibilities we just went over, it may in fact mean something profoundly different, it may mean to physically, mentally and metaphorically open up like a pine cone.