Wearing skin heavily

A brief exchange between two comment-makers Fox and ex-PSLE candidate amused me somewhat, because it illustrated a tension that is everywhere, yet not many people see it.

ex-PSLE candidate wrote:

I study [Mandarin Chinese] because I know that it is a basic responsibility on my part, as a Chinese. I would be really losing face if I said I was a Chinese and didn’t know how to converse, write or interact in Chinese fluidly!

To that Fox replied:

Why is studying Chinese a basic responsibility on your part? What is the moral impetus behind it? Will you be a bad person if you don’t study Chinese? Would you have been less honest, less charitable, less friendly, less sociable, less generous, etc if you hadn’t studied Chinese? Who put this idea in your head? What is a losing face situation? Millions of people descended from Chinese emigrants live in America, Canada, Australia, Europe, etc. Many of them cannot speak or write Chinese…..

In the human species, some variations are visible, others not so. The visible variations include skin colour, hair colour, build, age and pitch of voice. Because they are visible, we take them into account when we interact with others, or we use them to classify people. Personality differences are much less visible, and, failing to remind ourselves that these exist, we easily slip into a mode where we assume the other person is just like oneself.

I have long noticed that people can be put on a continuum, at one end of which are people whose sense of identity is very much anchored with a group; at the opposite end are those who would define themselves for themselves — the term “free spirited” comes to mind. Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle, and in any case, it may well shift with age.

The thing about belonging to a group — tribe, clan, ethnicity, religion, etc —  is that it saves you a lot of trouble figuring out who or what you are, but it also means that you’re mostly signing on to a package deal. It’s not easy to pick and choose the values and beliefs, responsibilities and obligations, without risking your membership altogether. In return however, there are huge benefits. Groups are usually very good at providing social support, a mutual loyalty that can be extremely valuable.

Most of us never make any conscious decision to be part of this group or that group. We are born into one, or two, and we are brought up with the values and beliefs that characterise the group, though some individuals, from young, never quite fit; they have no interest in conforming. Other individuals when they grow older chafe at the constraints imposed by the package deal, ending up questioning the ethos of the group.

We all start as dogs with their pack instinct, but some of us wander out as loner cats.

* * * * *

The comments I’ve excerpted above indicate that the parties used the word “Chinese” to mean different things, leading inexorably to a difference of opinion. For one, the word is an identity label, and like all identity labels, it brings in train a host of unstated markers and belief systems. Facility with the Chinese language is one such marker and failing to live up to it naturally entails feelings of guilt or inadequacy. For the other, the word is just a dispassionate descriptor of a genealogical fact and to him there’s  a logical gap between the mere descriptor and all the other assumptions that the first speaker brings into play.

One wears skin heavily, the other lightly.

There’s also something very interesting about how Mandarin Chinese has been internalised as the mother tongue. The questioning sort would contest the validity of this, but to do so would be to fail to understand that the chief purpose of markers is to mark out a group, not necessarily to be true to history. Markers can change if need be.

How do they change? Sometimes circumstances force a change. Tiny ethnic Chinese communities in a sea of non-Chinese-speaking people (e.g. the Chinese in Jamaica) may not be able to sustain the language, so over time, they drop it as unviable and rely on other markers instead. Other times, authority figures within the group decide that there would be political or other advantage to switch markers.

This was what happened with the Chinese. As modern Chinese nationalism rose in the early part of the 20th century, there was a feeling that all the disparate peoples of the Empire of China should begin to see themselves as a single nation, instead of being a mere collection of imperial provinces and counties. Hence, in the spirit of the times, community leaders both in China and in the Singapore and Malayan diaspora gradually adopted the language created by Guomindang (Kuomintang) in the early years of the Republic as a badge of their new identity. This created language, though substantially based on the Beijing dialect, was in those days called Guoyu (the “national language”), now called Putonghua (the “common language”). In Singapore, we call it Mandarin.

* * * * *

Ethnicity is not the only delineator of groups we can belong to. Religion is another.

One thing about religion though, is that it typically comes with enormous historical baggage. This presents adherents with a cornucopia of choices as to which articles of faith, texts, interpretations and rituals to prioritise. There’s no way one can do justice to the entire body of tradition; one has to pick and choose. Herein lie opportunities to select some for their marking value. Like all groups with an urge to make themselves unique, the choice will tend towards those beliefs or practices that set themselves apart from people of a different faith, even from those of the same religion, but a different sect. More time and energy has historically been spent searching for differences rather than universal values. The history of religion is replete with contests over markings.

And like how Mandarin came to be adopted as the marker language for Chineseness despite its ahistoricity, modern-day evangelical Christianity has argued that marriage has always stood for a monogamous union of man and woman in a willing and mutually loving relationship. They call it “traditional marriage”, except that it’s a pretty recent phenomenon too.

As Rita Nakashima-Brock argued in her Huffington Post essay Prop 8, Judge Walker and the Biblical View of Marriage Equality most marriages described in the Bible were nothing of the modern sort:

The Bible presents multiple views of marriage, and most actual marriages it depicts are terrible by modern standards. “Traditional marriages” in ancient biblical times were arranged as transfers of the ownership of daughters. The tenth commandment lists wives among properties like houses and slaves: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17, also found in Deuteronomy 5:21). Marriages occurred via deception, kidnapping, adulterous seductions, theft, rape, and murder, and were often in multiples so that the pater familias could amass land, flocks, and progeny and cement political alliances. Abraham, David, and Solomon had marriages that would be illegal today. The book of Hosea likens the mercy of God to a husband who has the right to beat or kill his adulterous wife, but spares her — for this, she was supposed to be grateful.

Yet, her arguments will fall on deaf ears. These present-day churches’ stance on marriage is intended as a temporal marker of identity (despite language suggesting timeless truth). Church members subscribe to it as part of the package deal for belonging to the group. Asking members of these congregations to interrogate their positions on the matter is almost beside the point. Their sense of identity will not incline them to question the markers which their authority figures have laid down as important.

Those who are of a questioning nature will either have left these churches for others, or become non-Church-going Christians — people who value their spirituality more than the tribalism demanded by group dynamics.

This also explains why many lesbians and gays continue to stay within churches that regularly denounce their sexuality from the pulpit. They find it very hard to sever their identification with a group they have gotten used to. Like Chinese who feel guilty about not being able to speak Chinese, it’s easier to live with the guilt than to break bonds and turn their backs on something they consider fundamental to their sense of being — the group.

41 Responses to “Wearing skin heavily”


  1. 1 prettyplace 9 September 2010 at 00:30

    ‘More time and energy has historically been spent searching for differences rather than universal values.’

    The desire of one person to control with his or her own idealogy.
    Power of idealogy. We live in concentric circles or choose to accordingly. Its important for Singapore to start teaching philosophy in secondary school, like France.

  2. 2 Tanky 9 September 2010 at 06:51

    Our need for daily safety and convenience (from having to think about things constantly) keep us in our groups. We are men, therefore we “naturally” react this way; we are “Christian”‘ therefore we do this. However, this need locks us in a world of constant conflicts between groups. The instant connectivity of the world of Internet gives the impression that conflicts seem to be increasing and escalating in intensity. I am not sure if this is true but it’s probably right to say that the frequency of conflicts between countries, peoples, religions, have not reduced over the past 100 years.

  3. 3 Fox 9 September 2010 at 10:55

    Actually, I’m quite a Sinophile and enjoy many aspects of the Chinese culture, having been raised in a Chinese-speaking family. I also have many friends from China, HK and Taiwan. Of course, there are aspects of the culture that I dislike. What I simply object to is the notion that one is obliged to conform culturally to some particular ethnic group’s practices or habits simply because of one’s ancestry. I find this notion as palatable as arranged marriage or forced conversion. If your culture/language is so appealing, why worry about people abandoning it?

    Based on my experience, I’d say most people from China, HK and Taiwan don’t really care about how well I speak Mandarin. It is nearly always the testy conservative fellow Chinese Singaporean who keeps harping on my imperfect command of Chinese.

  4. 4 Fox 9 September 2010 at 11:32

    Let me add this: ethnic group identity is often reinforced by myths of common hardship/ancestry/history. Take the Jews for example. The myth is that they are a special people all descended from Abraham who immigrated from Mesopotamia. Oh, they were also enslaved by the Pharoah and miraculously escaped across the Red Sea. At least this is what the bible says. What archaeology says is a lot different. The ancient Israelite were simply a sub-ethnic group of Canaanites who had emerged in the Bronze age as a distinct culture. There is no evidence of any exodus from Egypt. Ancient Hebrew is very similar to and intelligible with Phoenician and other Canaanite languages.

    Closer to home, many Chinese Singaporeans speak with pride of the 5000 years of Chinese civilization and of being descendants of the Yellow Emperor. Of course that is not true. A bit reading up on Chinese archaeology will reveal that:
    1. The Huaxia civilization originated from a small part of North China and eventually spread across North China with advance agricultural technology.
    2. In the Bronze age, most of Chinese China had not been sinicized. Sinicization of Chinese China took thousands of years, across many dynasties.
    3. 5000 years ago, around 3000 B.C., there were many Neolithic cultures (Majiayao, Qijia, etc) in China, with different pottery styles, agricultral practices, metallurgy technology, etc. We certainly did not have any unified Chinese civilization. It is very likely that the people of those cultures did not speak the same or even related languages. People speaking languages from the Austro-Asiatic, Tugusic, Tai and Mongolic language families most probably lived in China before they were Sinicized.
    4. People of North and South Chinese descent can be readily distinguished through genetic testing, indicating their divergent genetic ancestry. So much for being descendants of the Yellow Emperor.

    Of course, when it comes to the glorious 5000 year-old Chinese civilization, never let the facts get in the way.

    • 5 KT 9 September 2010 at 21:22

      The Han Chinese didn’t have a common language until Qin Shi Huang. But that doesn’t stop present day Hans from emotionally identifying with Mandarin. No one traces his roots back 5,000 years and decides that Mandarin isn’t their ‘mother tongue’ because he’s from some god-knows-what tribe that used a different language.

      Once upon a time, we were all enemies. You don’t have to look at 5,000 years of history to realize that China is highly diverse. You can see diversity aplenty in present day China. But there’s lots of unity within the diversity. That’s cultural identity for a big country, which is different from cultural identity for little red dots.

  5. 6 Lee Chee Wai 9 September 2010 at 12:25

    I am a “banana” (yellow on the outside, white in the inside) and proud of it. It has, however, not stopped me from possessing the interest and desire to learn about my cultural heritage, history, literature and yes, even language. Damn what others want to say about me because I cannot manage Mandarin well.

  6. 7 tk 9 September 2010 at 14:06

    Those who are of a questioning nature will either have left these churches for others, or become non-Church-going Christians — people who value their spirituality more than the tribalism demanded by group dynamics.

    indeed. have a look at some of the responses by practicing catholics to the pope’s impending visit to the UK:

    http://newhumanist.org.uk/2369/an-audience-with-the-pope

    however instead of becoming non-church going christians, it would be tempting to think that once they leave the church (for surely this pope, after protecting child rapists, will not revoke such mild traditions as hetero-only marriage and men-only priests) they end up questioning why they need a magic sky-man at all.

  7. 8 George 9 September 2010 at 15:14

    I think we all should not allow the politicians to lead us by the nose on this issue. That many of our forefathers hailed from China is but an accident of history brought on by the needs and circumstances of the time our forebears lived in.

    Is it really important who our forefathers were and where they come from when it has little bearing on how we are living now even if we still have living ties via relatives in the motherland/fatherland?

    So some can trace their ancestries back several generations, say from pre-PRC China to the present or Mother India. So what about it? Is it really the ‘kaki nang’ feeling? Absurd isn’t it?

    To my mind, only your present Nationality counts and matters. It’s commonsense and it’s reality. You ancestors were dead and gone. In what way does it matters beyond giving you a faded, vague and hazy past?

  8. 9 waxscribble 9 September 2010 at 21:58

    Just wanted to point out the unfortunate irony that when I visited, the Google Ad below your post says “Beautiful Chinese wives”.

  9. 10 Rooting For The Empire 9 September 2010 at 23:41

    KT: “The Han Chinese didn’t have a common language until Qin Shi Huang. But that doesn’t stop present day Hans from emotionally identifying with Mandarin.”

    I think Qin Shi Huang built his capital in Xianyang City. The commonspeak of that era has been lost to history. Jicheng (later called Beijing) was over 900km away, a peripheral city during the Qin Dynasty. It would rise to prominence as the centre of government when the Mongols ruled China during the Yuan Dynasty.

    In reality Standard Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, selected by a ROC language commission in 1912, many many centuries later.

    It was chosen as a matter of political convenience since the Beijing dialect has been used as officialspeak by the Imperial courts since the Ming Dynasty.

    “No one traces his roots back 5,000 years and decides that Mandarin isn’t their ‘mother tongue’ because he’s from some god-knows-what tribe that used a different language.”

    In the Qing Dynasty, apart from court officials southern Chinese commoners don’t speak northern Chinese dialects and thus it is impossible for the Beijing dialect to be literally their mother tongue.

    Also, I find it odd for you to refer to modern southern dialects as tribal, since these are spoken by millions of urbanites today.

    As for your opinion about emotionally identifying with Standard Mandarin – may be true in northern China, but clearly not the case in Singapore, at least not initially.

    “We are fortunate that no single dialect is the predominant mother tongue in Singapore as Cantonese is in Hong Kong. Otherwise it would be most difficult to get Mandarin accepted other than as a step-mother tongue. Fortunately no one considers Mandarin a step-mother tongue. All the same, we do well to recognise that Chinese still have deep emotional ties to dialects. These emotions hinder our complete acceptance of Mandarin. When parents registered their children’s names, between Aug 82 to Jul 84, one-fifth registered only their dialect names, a total rejection.” – PM Lee Kuan Yew (1984)

    Chinese Singaporeans did not emotionally identify with Standard Mandarin, because the vast majority of them did not come from northern China, thus the Beijing dialect was never their mother tongue.

    • 11 KT 10 September 2010 at 02:23

      By ‘Chinese’, I meant those in China, who identify with written Mandarin despite their diversities pointed out by Fox.

      I didn’t use ‘tribal’ with reference to modern southern dialects but rather southern and northern dialects used in China 5,000 years ago. Anyway, ‘tribe’ doesn’t necessarily pertain to ‘primitive’ cultures. There’re lots of tribes amongst urbanites.

      You’re largely referring to the spoken language, I think, of which there’s no standardized version. Most southern China Chinese in fact could not speak Mandarin as recently as the late ’80s at least, before migrant workers became common. Unlike you, I was referring to the written language. Wasn’t that standardized by the first emperor?

      As for Singaporeans not identifying with spoken Mandarin, I’m not so sure about that. Despite the deafening noise from the anti-Mandarin camp, Channel 8 TV programmes are far more popular than Channel 5. How do you explain that?

      • 12 Ponder Stibbons 10 September 2010 at 10:44

        The so-called “dialects”, which are really different languages from Mandarin and not subsets of it, are also written differently, even today. They use the same stock of characters but have combinations that do not exist in Mandarin (just like English and German use [nearly] the same alphabet but have different words). Just go watch YouTube videos that contain subtitles of Hokkien songs, and you will see combinations of characters that make no sense in Mandarin but are intelligible phrases in Hokkein.

        Calling Hokkien (say) a “dialect” of Mandarin is like calling German a “dialect” of English. In both cases, the two languages compared share many similarities and have common roots at some point in the past, but they are not mutually intelligible.

        I don’t deny that most Singaporeans nowadays identify with Mandarin more than other Chinese languages in their ancestry. But the dominance of Mandarin in Singapore wouldn’t have come about without the banning of other Chinese languages from public radio and TV and explicit promotion of Mandarin at the expense of other Chinese languages. At that time, this was often justified by claiming that Mandarin somehow reflected the “roots” of Singaporean Chinese. But given that most Singaporean Chinese came from regions that spoke non-Mandarin languages, it was a spurious argument. It would have been like telling speakers of Low German that they should learn standard German and avoid Low German to connect with their roots.

        I would have less issue with the “roots” argument if the Speak Mandarin campaign had not been accompanied with a deliberate attempt to destroy the real linguistic roots of many Singaporean Chinese.

      • 13 KT 10 September 2010 at 14:06

        The kind of Chinese dialect most Singaporean Chinese know is the colloquial version. Think (low-brow) Hokkien songs, as Ponder Stibbons said. This version, I believe, doesn’t actually have a written equivalent. Which is, hence, ‘invented’ by tapping on and modifying standard written Mandarin.

        But there’s a formal version which is, I believe, written in the same way as standard Mandarin. Think Hokkien or Cantonese business correspondence, newspapers (proper ones) or school textbooks. This was the version which was standardized by the first emperor standardized, and which most Singaporeans have no contact with.

        With Mandarin being formally taught in schools, Singaporeans’ grasp of the language is generally quite poor. What are their chances of doing justice to Chinese dialects, which can be extremely elegant, complex and expressive, without the benefit of classroom coaching? And given that the teachers of dialects – who are mostly uneducated parents/grandparents – know only the low-brow version? My guess is zero, even if the Singapore government had not promoted Mandarin at the expense of dialects. In other words, the command of dialects would be far worse than the embarrassingly poor command of Mandarin. If that’s the case, is there any point in identifying with dialects instead of Mandarin? Is there any point in not promoting Mandarin so that more Singaporean Chinese can command a splattering of crude Hokkien or Cantonese?

      • 14 Fox 10 September 2010 at 17:21

        There were no southern Chinese dialects 5000 years ago because south China had not even been Sinicized. Chinese was the language of the people who lived along the Yellow River. Most of the people who lived in South China did not speak Chinese at all apart from the odd military commanderies or colonies. They probably spoke very different languages and had different cultures/traditions before they were assimilated by the Chinese culturally and linguistically. That assimilation was a gradual process that spanned many dynasties. Chinese historical records during the Han dynasty clearly indicate that the land south of the Yangtze river was largely populated by the un-sinicized Baiyue people.

      • 15 Fox 10 September 2010 at 17:27

        “Despite the deafening noise from the anti-Mandarin camp, Channel 8 TV programmes are far more popular than Channel 5. How do you explain that?”

        Chinese-speaking Singaporeans watch a lot more TV than non-Chinese-speaking Singaporeans? There are more Chinese programs to watch than English programs?

        How do you explain the greater circulation of the Straits Times compared to Zaobao? Or that English library books have a far greater circulation than Chinese books?

  10. 16 Rooting For The Empire 10 September 2010 at 14:47

    KT: “No one traces his roots back 5,000 years and decides that Mandarin isn’t their ‘mother tongue’ because he’s from some god-knows-what tribe that used a different language.”

    KT: “You’re largely referring to the spoken language, I think, of which there’s no standardized version. Most southern China Chinese in fact could not speak Mandarin as recently as the late ’80s at least, before migrant workers became common. Unlike you, I was referring to the written language. Wasn’t that standardized by the first emperor?”

    Usually, the terms ‘Mandarin’ and ‘mother tongue’ refer to the spoken language which is why my response is focused on the spoken language.

    Since you have changed the topic to the written language – there was a set of standardized characters (隶书 Li4 Shu1) in the Qin Dynasty, many of them still recognizable today.

    However, the grammar structure of the written language (古文 Gu3 Wen2) of that era is the ancestral form of Classical Chinese (文言文 Wen2 Yan2 Wen2) and is very different from modern Vernacular Chinese (白话文 Bai2 Hua4 Wen2) which developed from the language spoken by northern commoners and thus associated with Standard Mandarin. It was popularized during the 1920s, many many centuries later.

    In short, neither written Vernacular nor spoken Mandarin exist in the Qin Dynasty.

    “As for Singaporeans not identifying with spoken Mandarin, I’m not so sure about that. Despite the deafening noise from the anti-Mandarin camp, Channel 8 TV programmes are far more popular than Channel 5. How do you explain that?”

    Again you have decided to change the topic, now to the relative popularity of Channel 8 and Channel 5 programmes.

    I’m not a media mogul so I can’t explain precisely why one TV channel is more popular than another.

    I do know that the policy of banning non-Mandarin shows and dubbing them into Mandarin with Chinese subtitles was done from the late 1970s until well into the 90s, so there wasn’t any choice. Perhaps non-Mandarin speakers simply read the subtitles, or rented video tapes.

    Early RTS and Rediffusion did have southern dialect content, and they were also popular. Who from that period can forget Wa Sang and Ya Fong?

    But since there never was a southern dialect-only TV channel vs Mandarin-only TV channel, the relative popularity of their programmes cannot be determined.

    • 17 KT 10 September 2010 at 16:04

      ‘In short, neither written Vernacular nor spoken Mandarin exist in the Qin Dynasty.’

      Would 白话文 exist without 文言文 and 古文, its forebears? Surely you don’t expect any language to remain absolutely static and unchanged through hundreds or thousands of years? Was what Shakespeare wrote in English?

      • 18 Fox 10 September 2010 at 17:11

        KT,

        I think you are confused. Mandarin/Hokkien/Cantonese did not exist during the Qin Dynasty. Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese are distinct daughter languages which evolved separately from Middle Chinese dialects which in turn evolved from Old Chinese. The relationship between Mandarin Chinese and Hokkien is akin to that between French and Italian. Traditionally, most educated Hokkien/Cantonese/Teochew speakers from pre-revolutionary China did not learn modern written Chinese as we know it. Instead, they used Classical Chinese or some version of it. For example, if you look at the Chinese letters composed by professional letter writers in Singapore in the 19th century, most of the letters were based on Classical Chinese and are nothing like the language you find in Zaobao which is largely composed in written Mandarin Chinese.

      • 19 KT 10 September 2010 at 17:33

        ‘Traditionally, most educated Hokkien/Cantonese/Teochew speakers from pre-revolutionary China did not learn modern written Chinese as we know it. Instead, they used Classical Chinese or some version of it. For example, if you look at the Chinese letters composed by professional letter writers in Singapore in the 19th century, most of the letters were based on Classical Chinese and are nothing like the language you find in Zaobao which is largely composed in written Mandarin Chinese.’

        19th century? Was anyone anywhere in China writing in modern Chinese?

      • 20 Fox 10 September 2010 at 17:39

        “19th century? Was anyone anywhere in China writing in modern Chinese?”

        There was vernacular literature, some of which was based on Mandarin Chinese, some on Cantonese, etc. For example, Hongloumeng was written in mix of Classical Chinese and Mandarin Chinese mainly because the author was from North China.

        There was nothing written completely in what we would recognize as modern Chinese today.

    • 21 KT 10 September 2010 at 16:58

      ‘But since there never was a southern dialect-only TV channel vs Mandarin-only TV channel, the relative popularity of their programmes cannot be determined.’

      Why do you have to compare Mandarin vs southern dialects? Why can’t you compare Mandarin vs English, supposedly Singapore’s first language?

  11. 22 Fox 10 September 2010 at 14:52

    @KT,

    Actually, there is no such thing as formal written Hokkien or formal written Cantonese. Written modern standard Chinese is based entirely on Mandarin Chinese.

    Written classical Chinese is based on the Old Chinese of Confucius, Mencius, etc. It is a essentially a dead language (and has been so for almost 2000 years) and is very different from written modern Chinese.

    • 23 KT 10 September 2010 at 15:53

      Compare an official written statement released by the Hong Kong government and how it’s read in front of the media, vs the verbal discussion during the press conference or amongst the civil servant prior to the release. The former is what I call ‘formal’; the latter is what I call ‘colloquial’. A lot of colloquial written words are not found in standard written Mandarin. Or at least, that’s the case for Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew, the three that I know.

      • 24 Fox 10 September 2010 at 16:58

        “Compare an official written statement released by the Hong Kong government and how it’s read in front of the media…”

        What they are reading out is essentially a Cantonese pronunciation of written Mandarin Chinese. Written Chinese is based on Mandarin Chinese, by design given the majority of China’s population spoke Mandarin dialects as their mother tongue at the turn of the last century. That’s why colloquial Mandarin Chinese is so similar to written Chinese and colloquial Cantonese is way different from written Chinese.

      • 25 KT 10 September 2010 at 17:12

        ‘What they are reading out is essentially a Cantonese pronunciation of written Mandarin Chinese.’

        Duh? If there is a Cantonese pronunciation for every word written, then it is written Cantonese to me.

        Were HK government statements before 1997 different from now? If not, were they written in Mandarin Chinese as well? Why on earth would they do that? Ditto for textbooks and business letters? Why didn’t/don’t they just stick to (what I call) colloquial Cantonese for everything?

      • 26 Fox 10 September 2010 at 17:41

        “Duh? If there is a Cantonese pronunciation for every word written, then it is written Cantonese to me.”

        There is also a Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese pronunciation for every character written. Therefore, it must be written Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese to you too.

  12. 27 Rooting For The Empire 10 September 2010 at 15:22

    KT: “The kind of Chinese dialect most Singaporean Chinese know is the colloquial version. Think (low-brow) Hokkien songs, as Ponder Stibbons said. This version, I believe, doesn’t actually have a written equivalent. Which is, hence, ‘invented’ by tapping on and modifying standard written Mandarin

    …And given that the teachers of dialects – who are mostly uneducated parents/grandparents – know only the low-brow version? My guess is zero, even if the Singapore government had not promoted Mandarin at the expense of dialects…”

    At last we have arrived at your key point – the issue of class and prestige.

    The implication is that Mandarin is more atas than Hokkien. Maybe because Mandarin is the officialspeak of the ruling class in the most populous country in the world.

    A similar attitude to those who feel that English is more atas than Chinese because English is the officialspeak of the ruling class in the most wealthy country in the world.

    I like discussions about atasness. Just say it out directly instead of diverting topics to Qin Dynasty history or TV programme popularity.

    “And given that the teachers of dialects – who are mostly uneducated parents/grandparents – know only the low-brow version? My guess is zero, even if the Singapore government had not promoted Mandarin at the expense of dialects.”

    Mandarin can also be ‘low-brow’ (eg. in terms of creative insults) and taught by mostly uneducated parents/grandparents. Until the past century most Chinese commoners who were not scholars or court officials were illiterate.

    The vast majority could not read or write, much less be conversant in 文言文, and so the Beijing dialect, like any other modern dialect, propagated orally.

    • 28 KT 10 September 2010 at 16:44

      ‘At last we have arrived at your key point – the issue of class and prestige. The implication is that Mandarin is more atas than Hokkien . . . . Mandarin can also be ‘low-brow’ (eg. in terms of creative insults) and taught by mostly uneducated parents/grandparents . . . . A similar attitude to those who feel that English is more atas than Chinese because English is the officialspeak of the ruling class in the most wealthy country in the world.’

      You missed my point completely! I was implying that Hokkien can be as ‘atas’ as Mandarin. Yet, how often do you hear atas Hokkien in Singapore? Singaporeans have absolutely mangled Hokkien, as they have the other Chinese dialects, Mandarin and English.

      Of course Mandarin can be low-brow. I hear low-brow Mandarin in Singapore all the time. Creative insults, however, are anything but low-brow. In fact, low-brow insults are not at all creative! To insult with creativity, you need a good command of the language you’re using. Sadly, most Singaporeans don’t have that.

      I don’t think Mandarin is more atas than Hokkien or less atas than English. But I do think a good command of a language/dialect is more atas than a poor command. If you are not capable of appreciating the complexities of the spoken and written word and expressing yourself in a multi-dimensional way, doesn’t that reflect your lack of intelligence? And hence lack of class and prestige? Do you speak in the same way, regardless of contexts and emotions, to colleagues, family members, service staff and the American President? I don’t. And if that’s being atas, then I’m proud to be atas.

  13. 29 Rooting For The Empire 10 September 2010 at 17:07

    “Would 白话文 exist without 文言文 and 古文, its forebears?”

    They have different grammar structure so it’s not accurate to say that 文言文 is the forebear of 白话文.

    Besides, Classical Chinese is more atas and mostly used by rulers and scholars, whereas Vernacular is mostly used by illiterate commoners unless said rulers and scholars drop by a 龍門客棧 to 飲啖茶,食個包.

    “Surely you don’t expect any language to remain absolutely static and unchanged through hundreds or thousands of years? Was what Shakespeare wrote in English?”

    Though Shakespeare didn’t just write in English; he wrote in Ye Olde Ænglisc which is much, much more atas than modern low-brow Globish.

    Actually he didn’t.

    Nevertheless old language is still automatically more atas, such that if Qin Shi Huang spoke Standard Mandarin with a Beijing-er lilt and issued Vernacular orders to his court officials, then Mandarin is atas enough to become my mother tongue, similar to how Shakespeare spoke Ameeerican-style English and wrote his plays in l33tsp34k is atas enough for English to become my 1st Language.

  14. 30 KT 10 September 2010 at 17:19

    ‘They have different grammar structure so it’s not accurate to say that 文言文 is the forebear of 白话文.’

    So did 白话文 jump out of a piece of rock or fall from the skies? Where did it come from?

  15. 31 Rooting For The Empire 10 September 2010 at 18:49

    “You missed my point completely! I was implying that Hokkien can be as ‘atas’ as Mandarin. Yet, how often do you hear atas Hokkien in Singapore? Singaporeans have absolutely mangled Hokkien, as they have the other Chinese dialects, Mandarin and English.”

    You are right. To prevent further mangling of these languages we should put them into a sealed jar with formaldehyde, like Latin.

    And of course Hokkien can be atas; if you can play politics with a language it can be atas. If you can use it to compose a song it can be atas.

    阮若打開心內的門窗

    Cantonese also of course can be atas, if some people rather be called Cheung than Zhang then it can be atas.

    一生所愛

    “Of course Mandarin can be low-brow. I hear low-brow Mandarin in Singapore all the time. Creative insults, however, are anything but low-brow. In fact, low-brow insults are not at all creative! To insult with creativity, you need a good command of the language you’re using. Sadly, most Singaporeans don’t have that.”

    But… but since Mandarin is language of the rulers how can it not be atas? I thought atasness is determined by power, not by the refinement of the content.

    If a King scolds you, he is being atas. If a Pauper scolds you, he is being low-brow no matter how many flowery metaphors he uses. I thought that this is how society works, so don’t confuse me leh<—(notice the disatasness of the non-Mandarin non-English particle 'leh')

    "If you are not capable of appreciating the complexities of the spoken and written word and expressing yourself in a multi-dimensional way, doesn’t that reflect your lack of intelligence? And hence lack of class and prestige? Do you speak in the same way, regardless of contexts and emotions, to colleagues, family members, service staff and the American President? I don’t. And if that’s being atas, then I’m proud to be atas."

    Of course you atas tinggi, you speak to American President leh. Now in honour of your atasfulness should I switch my mother tongue to American English?

    "So did 白话文 jump out of a piece of rock or fall from the skies? Where did it come from?"

    Something so atas must have fallen from the sky, how could it be propagated by illiterate, stone-headed commonfolk.

  16. 32 Rooting For The Empire 10 September 2010 at 19:05

    “You missed my point completely! I was implying that Hokkien can be as ‘atas’ as Mandarin. Yet, how often do you hear atas Hokkien in Singapore? Singaporeans have absolutely mangled Hokkien, as they have the other Chinese dialects, Mandarin and English.”

    You are right. To prevent further mangling of these languages we should put them into a sealed jar with formaldehyde, like Latin.

    And of course Hokkien can be atas; if you can play politics with a language it can be atas. Cantonese also of course can be atas, if some people rather be called Cheung than Zhang then it can be atas.

    “Of course Mandarin can be low-brow. I hear low-brow Mandarin in Singapore all the time. Creative insults, however, are anything but low-brow. In fact, low-brow insults are not at all creative! To insult with creativity, you need a good command of the language you’re using. Sadly, most Singaporeans don’t have that.”

    But… but since Mandarin is language of the rulers how can it not be atas? I thought atasness is determined by power, not by the refinement of the content.

    If a King scolds you, he is being atas. If a Pauper scolds you, he is being low-brow no matter how many flowery metaphors he uses. I thought that this is how society works, so don’t confuse me leh<—(notice the disatasness of the non-Mandarin non-English particle 'leh')

    “If you are not capable of appreciating the complexities of the spoken and written word and expressing yourself in a multi-dimensional way, doesn’t that reflect your lack of intelligence? And hence lack of class and prestige? Do you speak in the same way, regardless of contexts and emotions, to colleagues, family members, service staff and the American President? I don’t. And if that’s being atas, then I’m proud to be atas.”

    Of course you atas tinggi, you speak to American President leh. Now in honour of your atasfulness should I switch my mother tongue to American English?

    “So did 白话文 jump out of a piece of rock or fall from the skies? Where did it come from?”

    Something so atas must have fallen from the sky, how could it be propagated by illiterate, stone-headed commonfolk.

  17. 33 Ponder Stibbons 10 September 2010 at 19:41

    KT wrote:

    “With Mandarin being formally taught in schools, Singaporeans’ grasp of the language is generally quite poor. What are their chances of doing justice to Chinese dialects, which can be extremely elegant, complex and expressive, without the benefit of classroom coaching? And given that the teachers of dialects – who are mostly uneducated parents/grandparents – know only the low-brow version? My guess is zero, even if the Singapore government had not promoted Mandarin at the expense of dialects”

    A major reason why Singaporeans have a poor grasp of Mandarin is that they neither speak it at home nor use it in their daily discourse! Before the push to eliminate other Chinese languages, these languages were widely spoken at home, more so than Mandarin was.

  18. 34 Ponder Stibbons 10 September 2010 at 19:46

    KT,

    Written Cantonese is not the same as standard written Chinese spoken in Cantonese.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Written_Cantonese
    Money quote:
    “written Cantonese has been used in Hong Kong for legal proceedings in order to write down the exact spoken testimony of a witness, instead of paraphrasing spoken Cantonese into standard written Chinese”

  19. 35 Ponder Stibbons 10 September 2010 at 19:50

    Finally, there are also various writing systems for Hokkien. I don’t know why you dismiss all of these as ‘lowbrow’, and why this is relevant at all to their status as a written language distinct from Mandarin. Sure, they share some characters, but English and Dutch share the same alphabet and many words with German, yet we don’t call them the same written language as German.

  20. 36 KiWeTO 11 September 2010 at 08:56

    Highbrow, lowbrow and the varying states of “Atas-ness”, it is all about socio-economical (read political) pecking order in any organization (whither economic, nationalistic or familial.)

    YB’s point was just that inertia and a need to belong is the primary reasons why people can practice a hypocrisy in their thoughts, and commenting on the varying levels of conflicting ideas in their heads (eg: gay+muslim, feminist+chinese familial subservience).

    E.o.M.

  21. 37 cantonese speaker 11 September 2010 at 23:33

    I don’t identify with Mandarin Chinese. I’m a young(er) singaporean, 22 this year and I consider Mandarin Chinese my step-mother tongue. My entire family speaks in Cantonese. My grandparents at both sides speak -only- Cantonese (not Mandarin), and my parents speak it to me as well.

    Regarding written Cantonese – yes there is such a thing, but it is not commonly used. The characters used are traditional characters, but certain words have different grammatical structure from ‘normal’ Mandarin. I realised this problem when a Southerner wrote a message for one of my work departments and no one could understand it even though the characters were familar. It makes absolutely no sense at all in Mandarin.

    • 38 KT 12 September 2010 at 14:53

      ‘Regarding written Cantonese – yes there is such a thing, but it is not commonly used.’

      Written Cantonese is not commonly used? Yeah, right. Tell that to the Cantonese in HK and Canton.

  22. 39 hahaha 13 September 2010 at 11:04

    Seriously, if Chinese continues to live in China, I cannot see all these debates happening.

    We all adopt to the enivornment we live in. If you are comfortable where you are, you choose your path, you choose your conviction. When someone asked you why you cannot read or write Chinese, it should not bother you a bit, isn’t it? “malu”, “lau kui” or “lose face” dont come into the equation anymore.

    You owe it to yourself to get familiar with your roots, if you so choose to. But if you do not, you are no more or no less a Chinese. (think illiterate people who cant speak or write anything properly!)Are these guys less of a Chinese?

    You are only less Chinese if you openly bash your own culture, dispise them, or renounce being one. Otherwise, be proud. PERIOD.

  23. 40 Anj 14 September 2010 at 08:48

    I am bewildered and surprised that Lee Chee Wai seems proud to call himself a banana – OMG – I hate that term that some Chinese in White countries have given themselves and worse, seem proud of it. Banana – how derogatory! The want, the need by some Aisnas to be considered “white” whether inside or out, is such a cultural cringe. White people don’t see you as white so please don’t try to be pretend that somehow you are like them. And what’s so great being white any way. The world especially finacially belongs to Asia now. Be proud to be Asian. I live in Auckland and my beloved of 24 years is White but I never try to pretend to be White – why bother to be someone you are NOT. Yes the old Chinese and descendents of those old Chinese thinks they are bananas. How so sad. Most of them are brown not pale yellow anyway. Be care what you call yourself – less you skid on your skin!! The saddest thing is that they are more Asian in their thinking (inside) than Asians in Asia!!! I love Asia she is who I am🙂

  24. 41 Anj 14 September 2010 at 09:03

    PS: I hardly speak Chinese being away from Singapore for 30 years of my life and I have forgotten most of the Mandarin forced fed to me at school. But I just need to look at the mirror to see who I am – I don’t need to have to speak any Chinese languages to confirm my identity. Why should I be ashamed. I confidently explain that to people and they accept it. I think what’s worse is speaking broken Chinese hahaha Singapore’s take that Singapore Chinese who cannot speak Chinese should somehow be ashamed is flawed. I am a Singaporean and a portion of Singaporeans do not speak Chinese and I am one of that part. Nothing to be ashamed of at all. So don’t beat yourself up. No one really cares unless you want to carry on a conversation in Mandarin – I have lived all my life after school with no Mandarin and I am happy and successful.


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