Circa 1956. Sometime in the predawn hours of the Cultural Revolution. A black, red-flagged limo pulls up in front of the Chairman’s dacha in idyllic West Lake. A weary looking Minister of Culture, Hung, steps out of the car, and is ushered inside by the guards. He hands off his gloves and coat to the staff and, with a briefcase in hand, heads straight to the Chairman’s den.
A wooden door embellished with a red sickle and hammer clangs open. The Chairman is seen wielding a brush behind the desk in the midst of composing another one of his rousing speeches in traditional language. The den is lined with bookshelves, which are stacked with dusty tomes and handscrolls, apparently penned in the traditional language.
The minister bows from the hip, head over toe, his legs slightly wobbly. The Chairman looks up from under his spectacles. “What do you have for me, Comrade Hung?” he says, frowning slightly.
“Begging your pardon, sir. Reporting on—uh, that is—about the Han DseReformation. Sir, I ca-can’t—” The Chairman cuts in. “May I remind you that can’t is not in my book?” He picks up a pocket-sized red book from the desktop and waves it in the minister’s face. Embossed in gold on the red cover is Wisdom of Chairman Mao, apparently written in simplified language.
“No-no, Comrade Chairman. That’s not what I meant. Forgive me…” He finds words in short supply, as he gasps for oxygen. He manages to regain his composure and begins to blurt out the opposing opinions from the academia. He reports that renowned linguists, scholars, Confucius elders, and the entire controlled media were gathered to work on the reformation of the outmoded traditional language. The methodology is simple. Chinese characters are made up of anywhere from one to thirty to forty strokes, perhaps more. To simplify you just take all the lengthy words—say eight or nine strokes or more, and chop off the excess, like taking a cleaver to a piece of pork belly. No use for the extra fat (words).
Had this been English, Washington could lose its ton, the minister muses. Not sure what that would do to Whitehouse. But it’s a good rule—when in doubt, simplify. You can use it on any language, in any culture; even on people, if necessary. One can easily imagine chopping people down to size—say anyone taller than five-eight (that would be five-ten for westerners. Let’s give the Asians an inch or two)—chop-chop. That way there will be no ridiculous seven-footers to deal with in the paint. There could be a thousand uses indeed—a Swiss army knife of sorts, if you will. The more Hung thinks about it the more he is proud of himself for being so clever. He has outdone himself. He couldn’t help but smile a bit.
“Wipe that smirk off your face. Show me some real stuff,” says the Chairman.
Hung flips open the briefcase and hands over a stack of papers. Pointing at a bunch of characters on the pages, he sizes them up as follows:
Take these four characters: 愛Love, 廠factory, 親dear, and產birth. All everyday words in life. In the simplified form, the character love becomes爱, without the heart 心 in the middle; factory is now 广, making it an empty shell, devoid of workers or machineries that were there a moment before; dear is now 亲, missing the other half 見, which by itself means see—so now we have dear but no see; as to 产, the life 生that was inside has just gone AWOL.
The Chairman pauses his brush and fixes his gaze on the minister.
“You know, words got out and people begin to sing their own renditions in the streets,” says the minister.
“Really? What do you mean?”
“Well, goes like this—
An estimate of 2,200 commonly used words will be on the chopping block, the minister goes on, and it’s not without problems. The biggest stumbling block being time. The chairman wants it done in four years. But changing the face of 2,200 characters in four years is tantamount to fast-tracking evolution overnight. “You know what one old scholar said to me?” the minister says. “‘Our words are not made of alphabets. Each character is unique, and it can’t be cut to suit or reshaped overnight like some kind of jewelry piece. Words are people; they evolve, as do humans. Change the face of a language is tantamount to changing the face of the people…’ blah, blah, blah,” says Hung. “The nerve, comparing words to people.”
The Chairman motions Hung to approach. The minister winces as he turns to face the Chairman’s cold stare. He does not know how else to explain it but to tell it straight. It’s his responsibility to mine the words. Changing the appearance of a word changes all of its associations on which other related words depend for meaning. Each character in the Chinese language is unique and they build on each other to form new, compound characters, which then evolve into even more complex words. Most of the 30,000 words in the dictionary descended from merely 250 basic characters through thousands of years of history and evolution. Imagine these words getting a face change virtually overnight, their roots gone forever. Besides—
“What? Out with it,” says the Chairman.
In a wavering voice, the minister relays the concerns from the scholarly experts on the imminent catastrophic impact on the cultural reference systems. Ancient scrolls, cultural sites, fossils and cave carvings, not to mention tomes upon tomes of history, all recorded in traditional language, are now doomed to become objects of amnesia overnight. Reforming history necessarily means destroying it. People will become strangers to their own culture…
“Let me understand, you’re saying that my four-year plan is—” Mao drops his brush and takes off his spectacles, “unrealistic?”
“Ye-yessir. No-no-sir. Sorry sir. That’s what all my experts tell me. Not me, sir, you understand—I’m all in,” again with a bow.
The Chairman gets up from his desk and starts to pace around the room. “I’ve been thinking about this myself lately. And I concur. The Four-Year-Plan may be a bit ambitious, but no one else needs to know. It’s just a random number I threw in for our big brother in the Kremlin.” He looks up at a large map on the wall. China lays bare like a shriveling maple leaf. A big chunk of the northern lands is missing, as though some worm has taken a big bite out of it. The Chairman points his finger at the missing part, namely the Outer Mongolia, now a newly minted buffer zone that was gifted to Stalin in Yalta.
“The Russians are taking over the territory, pushing our people out,” Mao said. “Those who stayed behind were forbidden to speak their native language. They were forced to speak Russian. That’s how they do it. Stalin told me himself—to tame the people, you fix their language first,’” he said. “But I can’t deal with that right now. Outer Mongolia is done. Nothing we can do about it. Now we must bring down the old bourgeoisie. It must go, and it must go now.” He fixes his eyes on Hung and cleaves his fat palm through the air. “Chop-chop.”
“Chop-chop?” The minister’s face turns white.
“Not you, moron,” says the Chairman. “I mean the old language. Just do it. Chop it up—slice or dice, whatever. The traditional language is too difficult for the masses to learn, that’s the reality. The rest of it is pure nonsense. Who cares about the street noises! It doesn’t matter. Revolution has consequences. We’ll deal with whatever side effects after we take care of our enemies. Is that clear? Now off you go.”
The minister steps back and takes his leave. The Chairman picks up the red book and thumbs through the pages. Before the minister reaches the door, the Chairman calls him back and tosses the red book to him half-way across the room. “Give me the traditional version,” he says. “Can’t read this crap!”
Written by: John Tsao
I had been an engineer–now retired, trying to write, and is currently enrolled in the Short Fiction class at CCSF. Formerly I’ve attended the MFA program in nonfiction at USF and graduated in 2014. I’ve been writing ever since.