Qingxin remembers that the character 万comes from ** in the Oracle Bone Script—a scorpion with large pincers and a poisonous sting at the end of its jointed tail. How does a bug come to mean ten thousand, as in “毛主席万鋸” — Chairman Mao lives ten thousand years, a slogan she’s made to write a thousand times a day? She wants to look it up in her Shuowen Jiezi, but all her books were confiscated and burned. If she remembers correctly, it’s speculated that scorpions once plagued the central plain, so when people saw the sign, they saw not just one scorpion but tens of thousands of them. Now, three millennia later, on the same central plain, she is labeled “毒蝎,” poisonous scorpion, and ordered to write a word that comes from the same insect a thousand times a day. Is she, then, a “poisonous scorpion,” releasing tens of thousands of scorpions back to the central plain each time she writes down the word? It’s confusing.Complete story available online at Georgia Review
Note: While the Chinese characters display, The Oracle Bone characters are graphics and so do not display; ** is substituted. See the online story to view the characters as intended.
I could sum up this story in one sentence: it’s about the ability of language to hurt or heal, set in 1966 during China’s Cultural Revolution. But when have I ever let one sentence suffice. It’s a lot more interesting to look at it from three different points of view: the linguistic information, the historical setting, and the very personal, yet very universal story of a mother and her child. These three elements blend together to form a story that’s satisfying on an intellectual and emotional level.
Because I have an interest in language, and took a mooc (yes, I know, I’m always taking those darn moocs) about the earliest history of China and thus have some basic exposure to oracle bones and the evolution of the written language over the past two thousand years, I was fascinated by the stories of the words chosen as examples in the story: ten thousand, zero, bad, and most importantly, good, which in Mandarin is hao.
One of the primary tenets of linguistics is that words are arbitrary symbols for their meanings. That’s true to a large extent; there’s no connection between the sound we make for “cat” and the furry purrer curled up by the window. But within a language, there is often a history to words, and this story does a wonderful job of showing how the ideas of scorpions turned into the word for ten thousand. But a story needs emotional resonance, and for this, Qingxin’s thoughts as she writes her punitive assignment, her memories as a teacher, and her tender moments teaching her child her own love of language, provides that.
But language is also shown as punishment.
The character 无 is simplified from 無, which comes from ** —a person dancing, waving bouquets of flowers, for the dead. Now, the word means zero, nothing. There’s no more dancing for the dead, no rituals, just a dead body dumped somewhere, turned into zero, nothing. His body was dragged onto the shore. Three Red Guards took her there: “We got something to show you.” They looked mischievous. There was no dignity in that waxen face either, with garbage caught in his collar, riverweed in his hair.
They asked her to slap his face. She looked at them.
“Slap his face—he is bad,” one said. “He knew he was bad, that’s why he killed himself, which makes him even worse.”
“There’s no need to explain to her,” another said. “You do what we ask you to do. You are all bad!”
Both had been in her Chinese class and her husband’s history class—that was two months ago, in the pre-revolutionary era, when they were merely adolescent bullies with military fathers. Now they are judges and executioners.
As I read this, I wondered why it is that numerous American books and movies reflect on the experiences of Holocaust survivors, but relatively few on those who suffered through the Cultural Revolution. A different situation, to be sure, but does that explain it? Am I just underexposed? Is it more about American Eurocentrism (for white America, at least)? In any case, we are not spared the horror in this story.
And through it all is Qingxin, whose main concern is her daughter. Whatever horrors she has undergone during the day – beaten, humiliated, scorned – she pours tenderness and love onto her daughter. When the girl sees her mother’s bruises and wounds, and shows fear, Qingxin assures her, “I won’t die until I know you’re safe.” Part of that safety is passing on the language that comforts her, the history of words that are now being twisted into something else, making sure her child has a foundation of self-respect she can draw on no matter what, just as Qingxin does. The contrast between the words for good and bad is a direct reflection of her reality:
But she thinks of the word itself. It comes from **, a kneeling person with breasts, a woman, ** , holding a child, ** . It suits her, doesn’t it? At night she holds her daughter in her arms, and in the daytime, as she’s made to kneel in front of others, she is still holding her, even though no one sees it.
And she thinks again of the word 坏 that hangs in front of her chest and is yelled into her face every day, which comes from **, a person crying by the crumbled city wall for her lost home. It also suits her in that sense: she is the one who has lost her husband, her home, and wants to cry by the crumbled world.
I often marvel at the coincidences that accompany my readings. Just as I’m reading a story about, say, butterflies, an article appears in one of my feeds about butterflies. It’s probably more about being especially primed for certain topics. In this case it was words, so when my favorite medievalist retweeted a quoted poem, it leapt out at me in a way it might not have a few days ago:
Words have loyalties
to so much
we don’t control.
Each word we write
according to poles
we cant see; think of
or an equal stringency.
It’s hard for us
to imagine how small
a part we play in
holding up the tall
spires we believe
our minds erect.
Then north shifts,
and we suspect.
Ryan’s poem was written more about the shifting norms of poetry itself, but it fits so well with this story it reveals the universality of language itself, how it is both a blessing and a curse, can be used for good or evil. This is something to remember as words have again become weapons; it is we who make them so.