“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman


By Eric Abrahamsen, published

A recent review from the NYT Sunday Book Review begins like so:

Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s wonderfully stylized new novel, “Running Away,” begins with a question: “Would it ever end with Marie?” That’s only fitting for a book that leaves so much unanswered — we never learn the narrator’s name or occupation or, indeed, why his relationship with Marie, his Parisian girlfriend, is tanking. Those aren’t the only riddles, either. From the outset, the narrator fails to divulge why Marie has asked him to deliver $25,000 to a Shanghai associate, Zhang Xiangzhi.

Now I may be afflicted with some occupational disease here, but to me the only thing that stands out in that paragraph is the fact that an author with a French name, writing an English-language thriller, has not only chosen to set part of his international storyline in China, but has given a major character a Chinese name containing two "zh"s and the dreaded "x".

We are often assured, perhaps spuriously, that one of the drag factors on the acceptance of Chinese literature abroad is pinyin: those spiky, unpronounceable names with their "Q"s that lack "U"s and "Zi"s that you just know, with the dread certainty of the unprepared test-taker, aren't pronounced "Zee". If these warnings are to be believed, our poor readers, upon encountering a name like a bad Scrabble hand, move their lips for a while, perhaps spitting upon the page in an abortive attempt to master the unfamiliar, and then hurl the book from them.

My counter-argument here is that it's not the unpronounceability of pinyin that is the problem, but simply the unfamiliarity. The old Wade-Giles system, which had apostrophes in it for God's sake, is by contrast not only familiar but actually evocative, recalling Fu Manchu, the Tao Te Ching, Mao Tse-tung and chow mein (yes I know those aren't all proper Wade-Giles). The last time China and the West had any sustained period of cultural contact was say the 1880s to the 1940s, a time when Wade-Giles was ascendant (or else people made up any old shit), meaning that that style of romanization now conjures up a China that people felt they had a handle on: queues and rickshaws and junks and The Good Earth and Shanghai and Hong Kong and men in funny hats plowing behind oxen.

Pinyin, by contrast, conjures up nothing. There is no evocation, no association, no romance, no sense that one knows where one is. Pinyin isn't even associated with Communism, really, just with what came after, and what the hell did come after, now that you mention it? There are precious few stories or characters that come to mind when the reader happens across one of those little chemistry experiments gone wrong; they hold no magic or memory.

Give them a couple decades, and a few dozen good books, and they will.


# 1.   

Shingqkuei Jaw Yuanrenn Shian.sheng .de Gwoyeu Romatzyh meiyeou derdaw goangfann tsaeyonq, I guess.

This argument never made much sense to me either -- people read novels with Russian and Polish characters, after all, and Dai Sijie's (not Tai Ssu-chieh's) Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress didn't appear to be held back greatly by the presence of Pinyinized character names. Wade-Giles may be more evocative for some, but I think it is probably a generational thing: my grandparents would all have known the city I live in as Peking (which is Postal romanization, incidentally, not W-G, which would render it as 'Pei-ching'), but to anyone my age it has always been 'Beijing.' Ditto Teng Hsiao-p'ing and Mao Tse-tung. The only Chinese figures I can think of at the moment whose names are better-known to people my age in W-G form are Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu; everything else seems to be shifting -- if slowly -- towards Pinyin.

Brendan, January 3, 2010, 3p.m.

# 2.   

I find the very cleanliness of pinyin to be its greatest advantage, as opposed to the Wade-Giles system that stinks of Orientalism.

 Canaan Morse, January 3, 2010, 5:13p.m.

# 3.   

I think it's more or less arbitrary -- Wade-Giles has a few things to recommend it from a linguistic standpoint (e.g. recognizing that the sound Pinyin represents as 'b' is unvoiced, and closer to an unaspirated 'p') -- the associations with Orientalism are more in the mind of the reader than in the system itself. Interesting note on the history of the system: Wade was a Protestant missionary who developed the first form of the system; decades later it was refined by Herbert Giles, who absolutely loathed missionaries. The two never worked together, as far as I know, despite what the name of the system might imply.

Brendan, January 3, 2010, 5:16p.m.

# 4.   

Indeed "occupational disease"...looks like Chaplin in Modern times, stressed out his assembly line, frantically ...screwing up everything (sorry for this rather fortuitous metaphor) ! This book at least deserves slightly better, even here, even if it's not the point. I enjoyed reading it when it was published in Paris in 2005 [It got the Medicis prize. I almost felt in love myself with this mysterious Marie at the time; China is just the fun part, but rather well done; of course this French author knows well his China -as well as Japan apparently- (this China part was why I read the book in fact in the first place, I confess); but the key and romantic part happens in fact on a remote Italian island -can still feel the warmth and the smells in the air-; this book is part of a kind of series in fact, with Marie all along -2002 "Making Love" (meaning one last time, in Tokyo, with Marie); 2009 "The truth about Marie" -didn't read them yet; but will probably do-]. Besides, thanks after all for the tip-off, concerning publishing; I would have never thought that such a book (rather French and low profile) would ever be published in the USA, world leader of literary xenophobia with only 2-3% of foreign books... a good example (or counterexample) precisely concerning this other post not far from here http://paper-republic.org/links/the-translation-gap-why-more-foreign-writers-arent-published-in-america

Arthur Syel, January 26, 2010, 9:26p.m.


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