The “Mysterious Orient” has fascinated me from childhood. I spent five years in Asia as a journalist, entranced by the sing-song tones of the Thai language and the odd Western Romanization of Chinese characters. I had fun some years ago crafting this short piece for East West Perspectives magazine.
“The Mysterious Disappearance of Mao Tse-Tung”
The unexpected disappearance of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung – and his abrupt replacement by someone with the suspiciously similar name of Mao Zedong – startled many American newspaper readers last year. Had Mao Tse-tung been posthumously purged, a victim of Party politics? Were the Tse-tung and Zedong families related?
The mystery deepened when China’s Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping suddenly stepped down in favor of another fast-rising unknown, Mr. Xiaoping. But when Peking vanished overnight from the map, leaving behind a million bewildered bicycle riders pedaling through a strange metropolis named Beijing, American readers really began worrying. What on earth was happening in China?
The curious disappearance of Mao Tse-tung, it turns out, is merely the latest episode of a long-running linguistic sleight of hand which has involved Emperors, scholars, and diplomats for centuries.
The problem is the Chinese language. Chinese writing uses characters, or ideograms, in place of an alphabet, making Romanization difficult. These brush-stroke characters represent an idea or word rather than a sound as our alphabet letters do. Transliteration is further complicated by the need to indicate tones because tones change meaning. For example, the Chinese word ta with a rising tone means “answer”; pronounced with a falling tone, it means “great.” In addition, certain Chinese sounds don’t even exist in the English language.
Western attempts to phoneticize Chinese started with Marco Polo, but British diplomat Sir Thomas Wade developed the first successful Romanization. As Britain’s Minister to Peking, Wade felt the need to improve Anglo-Chinese relations. Better-trained interpreters, he reasoned, would help the two nations communicate more effectively. In 1839, Wade published in Hong Kong his famous Hsin Ching Lu, subtitled a Book of Experiments, being the first in a series of Contributions to the Study of Chinese. Together with later adaptations by Professor H.A. Giles, the system became known as the Wade-Giles system.Under Wade-Giles rules, tones are indicated by numbers raised above the line in superscript. The ambiguity of English pronunciation gave him additional trouble. For example, the same letter “s” in English can represent completely different sounds, as in “yes” and “measure.” In the latter case, Wade substituted the letter “j” to represent the “sh" sound found in English words like “measure.”
Wade’s Romanization system was officially adopted by the Chinese government’s Customs and Postal departments, but other scholars persisted in their attempts to build a better mousetrap. In the hundred years that followed, a half-dozen, additional phonetic systems appeared, meeting with limited acceptance. The Wade-Giles system, which gave the Western world “Mao Tse-Tung,” seemed here to stay. But in the early 1950s, a new candidate sprung up – the pinyin system. Developed by Chinese scholars shortly after the establishment in 1949 of the People’s Republic of China, the pinyin system gradually gained favor within China. And as the political clout of the People’s Republic grew, so did the international acceptance of pinyin – which finally brings us back to the mysterious Mao Zedong.
After much hesitation, China’s State Council in Sept. 1978 formally adopted pinyin as the standard Romanization system for China. Schools and publications were ordered to employ the system. Changes swiftly followed. In January 1979, the Peking Review became the Beijing Review; Mao’s Latin surname changed from Tse-tung to Zedong; Chou En-lai became Zhou Enlai. Western editors reluctantly abandoned Wade-Giles and began switching over to pinyin. The new rules did allow some exceptions, however: established trademarks, trade names, and traditional spellings of such historical figures as Confucius and Sun Yat-sen, for example.
Still, a substantial number of new tongue-twisters continue to bedevil the foreigner. “There is no way the Occidental mind encountering Xiang in print can convert this name to a sound that resonates in the skull,” lamented newspaper columnist Russell Baker in a New York Times article. “If your experience is like mine, you quickly turn the page and read about somebody pronounceable like Gandhi or Arafat.”
Perhaps Baker and most Americans are giving up too quickly. After all, as the Chinese say, “a thousand mile journey begins with a single step.”