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Un-doing the tián (field): Mandarin language and the shift away from Chinese agrarian culture

I am currently learning Mandarin Chinese. I am just a beginner, only in the middle of level two. It is the fourth language that I have learned — English, Spanish, Amharic, which is the language of Ethiopia, and now Mandarin.

What excites me about learning a new language is trying to understand the underlying values of how the world works embedded in it. At more than 5,000 years old, Mandarin Chinese is said to be one of the oldest languages in continuous use today.

Shang Dynasty (c. 16-11th Century B.C.E.) Bone with Inscription. National Museum of China. Beijing, China. Photo source: Elizabeth Tunstall, 2013.

Through learning the most basic aspects of the language, I have come to understand that when the Chinese language was developed, the social values were male-centred and agrarian.

How were the values male-centred? One of the first words that one learns in Chinese class is hăo (好), which means good. The character 女 means woman or in pinyin. The character 子 means child/son or in pinyin.

Thus the very definition of “good” in Chinese society was to have a woman and child. If this were from a woman’s perspective (hetero-centrically speaking), “good” would be made up of the characters for man/male (男, nán) and child.

How were the values agrarian? The character for man/male (男) is made up of two parts. The top part is the character 田 (tián), which means field. The bottom part is the character 力 (), which means strength. Thus, a male is defined as one who has the strength to carry out the major activity in society, farming.

Chinese feminists might say Chinese society is only slowly changing from a male-centred one. Yet, the rate in which China has shifted from an agrarian-based society to an urban one has been rapid.

According to data listed on the World Population Review, 52.6% of China’s total population of 1.3 billion live in urban centres. This number is expected to increase to 70% by 2035. As people living in China become predominantly urban dwellers, I wonder how they will continue to relate to the values expressed in their agrarian-based language.

For example, the character for risk, 风险 (fēng xiǎn), refers to being on a dangerous cliff with strong winds. The typical urban dweller may have never experienced being on a cliff with strong winds.

For them, the notion of 风险 (fēng xiǎn) is only an abstraction. They may experience the risk of being on a skyscraper tower on a windy day, but that is something different. Thus, the question I ask is: what happens when a language, like Mandarin, and its values no longer align with the everyday experiences of its speakers?

Of course, Mandarin Chinese has undergone many evolutions and some revolutions. During the Qin Dynasty (221–207 B.C.E.), Li Si standardised the language.

Placard Depicting the Standardisation of the Chinese Language during the Qin Dynasty (221–207 B.C.E.) National Museum of China. Beijing, China. Photo source: Elizabeth Tunstall, 2013.

World wars stopped the efforts to simplify the language in the turn of the 20th Century. The Communist Party revolutionised the language when it introduced Modern Standard Chinese in 1956, with the pinyin Romanisation system following in 1958.

The Communist Party sought to simplify many of the traditional Chinese characters to order to increase both bureaucratic efficiency and literacy rates. The desire to further reform the language continues. Debate ensued, even in the New York Times, when the People’s Republic of China began proposing more simplifications in 2009.

What keeps me fascinated with the learning of Mandarin is not the traditional versus simplified Chinese characters debate. Rather, I am interested in the differences between rural and urban values and how urban lifestyle experiences might be reflected in the redesign of the Chinese language of the near future.

As a beginning language student, I have no answer to my question regarding what happens when a language, like Mandarin, and its values no longer align with the everyday experiences of its speakers?

And recent discussions with my Chinese language instructor and my Mandarin-speaking friends indicate that they do not have an answer to it either. Perhaps the answer will come the same way as all great innovations — a science-fiction author will write a speculative novel about a “city Mandarin language,” 城市的普通话.

While some day sitting in a café in Shanghai, I will enjoy reading that book in neo-Mandarin, when I am finally able to do so.

Join the conversation

46 Comments sorted by

  1. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Elizabeth, good article, you might think about a visit to Swinburne in Kuching, where I live, it's a great town- a real mix of languages and people.
    I think the most important aspect of written Mandarin is that every "symbol" can be learnt in the reader's own language. So each Chinese character could be a universal written word, exactly the same as our 1 2 3 4... Every school kid on the planet should learn the symbol for good, or bon, or bueno or bagus is 好. Other universal symbols might be up…

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    1. Elizabeth Dori Tunstall

      Associate Professor, Design Anthropology at Swinburne University of Technology

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Hi Colin. Thank you. I visited our Sarawak campus in 2012. I think that the efforts around Esperanto might have been more successful if they were based on universal symbols. Perhaps, I could convince one of my graphic design students to do a project on it.

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    2. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Elizabeth Dori Tunstall

      We will probably find Mandarin morph in Chinglish, with the gap between the old rural world, and the new urban world of finance and technology, communicated using firstly English nouns, then idioms, before a vowel shift, and grammar.

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    3. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Excellent article. But I wonder whether the roots of the characters you specify are not like the hidden metaphors in English. If we study the etymology of English words we find similar archaic origins – but these have long disappeared into the revised meaning of the word

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    4. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to John Newton

      Thing is, the roots in English drift, and get lost. In written Chinese, from what Elizabeth is saying, they remain obvious forever, forever colouring perceptions.

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    5. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Chris Harper

      But maybe only for those with Asperger's Syndrome?

      I know that the average Australin can use idiom which when yu read it literally clearrly shows it 'roots' but it simply never odccurs to them thatt it did originally mean what it says.

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    6. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Evelyn Haskins

      I am in the unusual position of agreeing with Chris Harper ... we westies have a "phonetically representative" alphabet which roughly corresponds with pronunciation ... Mandarin as I understand it has a pictographic system - using highly stylised characters that are in essence pictures which convey meaning directly. There are several ways of pronouncing each character which affect eventual meaning. And the meanings of those pictures - the component syllables if you like - are old and echo the values and political structures of the agrarian society that produced them.

      It's a very different notion of writing - and a different concept of word construction - than our far more flexible if ahistorical grunting.

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    7. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Though that might be a moot point!

      Depends on what you are talking about, I suppose.

      My Mum could never understand my Dad's grunts but we kids could all tell his 'yes' grunts for his 'no' grunts :-)

      Of course my DH's grunts ALL mean "I hear you talking but I didn't bother to listen."

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  2. Chris Harper

    Engineer

    Or, alternatively, structures will remain fossilised in the written language, unrelated to the concepts they convey.

    Although, concepts as concrete as those you offer as examples, man = field+strength, cannot help but colour perceptions so long as both field and strength continue to be represented by those characters.

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  3. Craig Read

    logged in via Twitter

    Loved the article Elizabeth.

    I started learning Mandarin some years ago, but I'm not very good with it. More recently, I started learning how to read Chinese and re-learning German (last learnt at high school).

    I often wonder where our languages are headed in their evolution. While that evolution will certainly create some new grounds for common understanding between cultures, I fear that homogenization will dumb down our spoken and written languages. The biggest risk is the loss of distinctions and concepts that aren't present in all languages. We might not need a dozen words to describe precipitation in Australia, but it doesn't mean they don't have value.

    As a computer programmer, I also wonder what other spoken and written languages can offer to my craft. It would be conceited to believe that there aren't valuable concepts or abstractions to be learned from other sources.

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  4. Robert Marks

    Professorial Fellow at University of Melbourne

    Elizabeth, an interesting article, but isn't the answer metaphor? And after a while, at least in English, the origins of the metaphor are forgotten? Think of the expressions in English which have naval origins which would be meaningless to twenty-first century landlubbers. I guess the characters in Chinese will mean that the metaphors will be remembered longer.

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    1. Paul Weldon

      Research Fellow

      In reply to Robert Marks

      many of those metaphors become cliche, though that doesn't mean people avoid them!

      In terms of English, I thought of 'Chairman'. Two words merged to make a new one, which frequently now gets reduced to 'Chair'. Perhaps the Chinese symbols will be reduced so that any metaphor becomes obscured?

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    2. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Paul Weldon

      Of coure the 'man' in Chairman does not refer to the human make, but the 'hand' as in 'manual labour'.

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    3. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Robert Marks

      I agree absolutely.

      We have so many English words, and idiom/phrases where the meaing has little if any relation to the literal word.

      Some because over time the word has changed meaning but the original spelling is maintained,

      And the other is idiom where a previously meaning phrase has come to mean something else entirely.

      I can remember the day that my kids looked at me in alarm when I told them to put their skates on! :-) Never having heard the phrase before! Not to mention those strange people who have no idea what you mean when you say something was rather 'curate's eggish'.

      And I bought my Aspergerer's Nephew a book of English Idiom to help him understand our crazy speech.

      Or in other words I caot see the chinese really haing mjch difficulty coping with child-woman meaning good. Or why child-man should ever mean bad?

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    4. Paul Weldon

      Research Fellow

      In reply to Evelyn Haskins

      that's a surprisingly commonly held fallacy, almost an urban myth. Google 'etymology of chairman' or, better yet, try the Oxford English Dictionary.

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    5. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Paul Weldon

      :-(

      I tried the "Shorter Oxford Dictionary on Historical Principles", "Chambers 20th Century Dictionary", "Chambers Dictionary of Etymology" and "The MacquarieEncyclopedic Dictionary". (Tut! Where's the diphthong that belongs in Encyclopaedia?)

      Not one of them talks of the 'man' in 'chairman'. Some mention 'chairwoman' and 'chairperson' as later /American derivatives. I was taught (in the dark ages, that these were incorrect and should not be used -- that 'chairman' referred to the person who took charge in a formal a meeting. That the correct address was "Madam Chair" for a female chairman.

      So were my teachers wrong? Perish the thought!
      Next thing you'll be trying t tell me is that I no longer need to double the final consonant when adding 'ing' to keep the vowel short, and that 'exiting' actually means exitting, not exciting :-)

      It is all too much for my vulcanised brain :-(

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    6. Paul Weldon

      Research Fellow

      In reply to Evelyn Haskins

      I'm not disagreeing with anything you just said. The fact that the dictionaries to which you refer are not comprehensive enough to include the known (or suspected) etymology of a word hardly means that my statement is wrong, nor have you said that your teachers said that man came from manus, which is the only statement I am questioning.

      If they said that, I would argue that they took as correct a fairly recent suggestion that, given usage and age, is unlikely. Are you then saying that my Eng Lang…

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    7. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Paul Weldon

      > . . . that my statement is wrong, nor have you said that your teachers said that man came from manus, which is the only statement I am questioning. . . ?

      I never said that your statement was wrong -- nor did I think I had implied it. Just that I could not find any information one way or the other. I was more "shatttered" by the information --another dearly held belief lying mortally wouded in the dust :-(

      And I thought it implicit in my statement that it was my 'teachers' who told me the manus-man connection.
      At this remove from school years i cannt tell you which teacher to lay the blame on :-(
      (If it was my much-hated Latin teacher, can believe that she mislead us all on purpose :-(

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  5. Tom Fisher

    Editor and Proofreader

    Elizabeth, generalising so thoroughly on the sole basis of a couple of characters, and especially extrapolating back 5,000 years through the lens of contemporary feminist theory, makes a very very thin soup. I can barely find a strand of egg in it, no pork or chicken, and no vegetables at all.

    As a 2nd Year tutorial presentation, I'd give you a low Credit at best, say, 63%. As a 1st Year presentation, maybe 68%, for effort.

    First, you fail to acknowledge that all agrarian societies, everywhere…

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  6. David Reid

    logged in via Twitter

    The claim that Mandarin language has been in continuous use for 5,000 years is completely wrong. Mandarin is based on the dialects spoken in the northeast of China. However, there are a number of Chinese languages and these have evolved significantly over the past 5,000 years. Mandarin began to develop during the Yuan dynasty.

    It is also wrong to say Mandarin is a language with rural roots. In fact the language evolved as a lingua franca for the "mandarins" or government officials. Hence it can be considered a language of a certain class of people who were predominantly urban.

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  7. Peter Ormonde

    Farmer

    I knew I was going to enjoy your contributions here. Excellent and complex business ... and I suspect while obvious in the exposure to an ancient language bounded by confucian conservatism, all languages lag the society in which they are rooted to some extent. But I suspect Mandarin might be an extreme case.

    I'd actually stretch the hunch a little further and suggest that a language's capacity to absorb and express new concepts is a critical element of its continued relevance - both to that…

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  8. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    I must say I cheer when a spoken language dies out, as it is a sign of a people moving to a preferred way of communicating. But I would get very upset if evidence of that written language were lost.

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    1. Catherine Grant

      Research Fellow at Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Andy, it's not always the case that the 'death' of a spoken language signals a people moving to a preferred way of communicating. Sometimes outside pressures mean that the change happens against the will of the community concerned, and in these cases, there's no cause for cheering. I've spent some time with the Miriwoong community (East Kimberley) who are making great efforts to keep their language alive, against odds - one example of many where the loss of a language is not indicative of a shift to a 'preferred' language.

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    2. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Now, Andy, you be very careful saying that sort of thing here about indigenous languages in Australia, where folks are frantically developing written versions just to keep them alive - for the benefit of maybe a few hundred surviving traditional speakers.

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    3. Tom Fisher

      Editor and Proofreader

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      Why not preserve traditional languages?

      Folks are frantically preserving opera and ballet in this country, just to keep them alive, as a final bulwark against against dumb-arse philistine ignorance, for the benefit of maybe a few hundred abnormal human beings.

      It has to be stopped, because the bogans are cashed-up and think they have an opinion?

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    4. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Catherine Grant

      Catherine, cultures are in constant change, unless you live cut off from other human beings. "Outside pressures" go with the territory.

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    5. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Yet some tribes cling to their quaint outmoded tongues - the French, the Germans, the Hungarians, yes even the Chinese ... when will they realise they must use English if they want to speak the language of trade, commerce and innovation. The Darwinian struggle of civilisation moves on a pace and they've all lost.

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    6. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Catherine Grant

      Ah, Catherine,
      I feel their a my beloved English gets rapidly overtaken by American :-(

      (I just had to look up "Black Friday" and discovered that in American it has nothing to d with disastrous bushfires at all!!!
      And there was me thinking that a Balck Friday Sale must mean a sale of fire damaged goods!)

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    7. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Actually, their persistence suggests they have far from lost. But natural selection - or memetic selection if you prefer - does not look to be favouring Hungarian!

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    8. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Any of them at all really Andrew ... they're all just clinging to the wreckage ... such a waste of time and money teaching them to speak anything other than the Queen's own tongue really isn't it?

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    9. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Evelyn Haskins

      Evelyn, actually the Americans a more "pure" English than our current UKers, who write in French,and speak Chav.

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    10. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      As long as it's not my time and money, they can speak Calathumpian for all I care.

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    11. Catherine Grant

      Research Fellow at Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      That's true, Andy - I didn't deny that change is inevitable or that outside pressures are avoidable. But this still doesn't mean that the shift to another language is the preferred option for all communities - it isn't.

      I value a diversity of cultures and languages in the world, and therefore support the efforts of communities facing those "outside pressures" to keep their languages and cultures strong.

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    12. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      So they Americans say.

      Ah! I learned "English" at my English father's knee.

      if you read American books, watch old American films you will discive that American used to be mous closer to English.

      Then aso remeber that there is a mass of differnt dialects in Great brotain.

      ABC Australian English is supposedly Cockney, but is actually almost indistinguishable from some of the Midland accepts. Not surprising when you consider where the original British population of Australia originated…

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    13. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Catherine Grant

      I'd say if they require your outsider's help, they have long passed the days of their languages and culture being strong. I think you are mistaking conservatism and insularity for 'diversity'.

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    14. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer

      In reply to Tom Fisher

      It depends on just how much of a language it is, i.e. whether or not it has a written tradition, a surviving literature, necessary for communal survival, how many people depend on it etc.. Even traditional spoken languages, especially those without a written form, are changing continuously, i.e. subject to natural evolution, so what you hear today is not what they were saying even a generation ago, or will be saying a generation from now. The vast majority of languages ever spoken are long extinct…

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    15. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      Yes, the Israelis did not need outsider academic busybodies to resurrect Hebrew! The remote Aborigines would be better off learning Latin, than some long expired oral tradition.

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    16. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      But weren't the Israelis resurrecting some long extinct language when they decided ro resurrect Hebrew?

      Why Latin? That is also a long extinct Language.

      The only reason that these to Languages survive is because they left a phonetic written record.

      Personally I believe that compiling a written record of Indigenous Languages is a good thing to do.

      Whether or not is would be *good* for these pople to speak ONLY their localised langage is the real question.

      Sort-of a bit like Gaelic and Basque, methinks.

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    17. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Evelyn Haskins

      Evelyn,

      Neither Latin or Hebrew have ever been extinct. They are unusual, although not unique, in continuing to be both liturgical languages and languages of scholarship for millennia after they ceased being colloquial but they were never dead per se. Not in the way of Akkadian or Sumerian.

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    18. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Chris Harper

      Sorry. As spoken languages BOTH were extinct. Hebrew before Jesus's time. Aramaic was th Language spoken then.

      Lating stayed ion as the International Language for written stuff, but was not spoken as a regional language anywhere.

      Even apparently, if my sources were correct, during the times of Julius Caesar. It was a written language.

      Amo, Amas, Amat. Amamus, Amatus, Amant.

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  9. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer

    Very interesting. But weren't all early written languages pictographic? And didn't most change because alphabetization allowed for much greater flexibility? Imagine if modern Egyptians were still using hieroglyphics! And pictograms will inevitably entail ambiguity, allowing emotion to intrude and feminists to become enraged. There can be no doubt that English now dominates the world because, fortuitously, it also happens to be the most flexible of written languages.

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    1. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      I read a book many many years ago about Languages in New Guinea. (Library Book -- that's the trouble with Library books --you can never find them again :-(

      As I remember it, they said that any unwritten language changes dramatically over one generation, so that over a few isolated generations distinct languages will develop.
      (And isn't that how all our languages belonging to the one lingusitic group developed?)

      Of course in societies where people are named after natural things (possum, sky, daisy, stormy -- sort of thing) and the convention is that a person's name must not be mentioned after they have died, this change is greatly accelerated.

      So that forming a dictionary of an unwritten language will do no more than fossilise that language in the form spoken when the dictionary was complied.

      Interesting -- but not really 'saving' a language.

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    2. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      English also dominates because of the triumph of English commercial practices, values, and laws. Always follow the money.

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  10. Jim KABLE

    teacher

    A quarter of a century ago when I began studying Japanese - I remember learning the same Chinese characters (kan-ji in Japanese) - especially taking note of the character for man - yet as I lived my nearly twenty subsequent years in Japan - noting that the farmers I saw in the fields - rice and vegetable - were, in the main - women! I imagine that around the world more than 50% of farmers are actually women! Don't be too confused by origins - see how it is! That suggestion of metaphor above seems good to me!

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