September 29, 2015

Horse 1994 - What Kind Of People Are You?

English is a language which is the bastard child of Germanic tongues, Viking tongues and then got infected with Norman and later French tongues. This unruly child with a penchant for theft, then proceeded to steal words from just about every language it came in contact with and every language it could find. Thus the phrase "I'm watching kangaroos on television whilst in my pyjamas and eating potato chips" contains words which have roots in at least eight languages.
To cope with this penchant for theft, larceny and stealing, it helps that English uses the Roman script. Admittedly neither J or U appeared in Roman but that's a very big story which I'm not concerned about here.

Chinese though, which is as diverse a group of languages as the set of Romance languages, uses a standard set of  logograms which are called 'Hanzi' in standard Chinese. Being logograms though, the ability of the script to absorb new words is not as flexible as in English; which leads to some strange sort of results.
I thought it interesting when I was looking at the front page of the Australian Chinese Daily and saw a picture of David Cameron (presumably about that story about Lord Ashcroft's book) and noticed that he was described as being 英国人. I knew what those last two characters were but had to look up the first. The results were surprising and they made me think about how Chinese people might think about everyone else in the world.

Chinese - 中国人 - "Middle Country" people
This is obvious. If you look at a map of the world published in Australia, then Australia is in the centre. An American map of the world has America at the centre and the English even went so far as to send the Prime Meridian through the Greenwich Observatory. 0º passes right through London.
It is natural that Chinese people see themselves as the Middle Country. Humans are an egocentric lot and Chinese people are no different.

Japanese - 日本人 "Origin Of The Day" people
Having studied Japanese, I know many 'kanji'. Kanji literally means 'Han characters' and they presumably date from the time when Japan was a puppet state of China. Japan calls itself 'Nihon' which means the 'origin of the sun' and even their flag is commonly called 'Hinomaru' which means the 'circle of the sun'. The Land Of The Rising Sun is nominally the first Asian country to see daylight;' so it makes sense that the characters reflect that.

Korean - 朝鲜人 "Towards Freshness" people
Yeah... I'm struggling with this one. I'm hoping that I've made a hideous translation error because this is just crazy bonkers cloud cuckoo land stuff. 

Indian - 印度人 - "Print Degree" people
Again because I don't speak a word of Chinese, I'm really struggling with this. I always thought that China was the land that invented paper but maybe Indian paper was just really renowned. Indian documents in the Kharosthi language have been discovered from as far back as the 4th century BC and I do know that India was the source of many pigments for ink - hence why it picked up the eponymous 'India Ink', I suppose.

Mongols - 蒙古人 "Ancient Illiterate" people
This does not surprise me at all. It's worth noting that the barbarian neighbours to the north succeed under the Mongol leader Kublai Khan, in crushing the existing ruling Song dynasty and setting up the Yuan dynasty in 1279. That 'great' wall suddenly isn't looking so great any more.

Italian - 意大利人 - "Meaning Big Profits" people
Marco Polo certainly wasn't the first European to visit China but he was the first to write detailed accounts about his trip there. If the story is true, Marco Polo was welcomed into the courts of Kublai Khan and probably made a great deal of money through trade. Does this mean that the Chinese saw the Italians as patsies from whom easy profits could be extracted? More than likely it's just 'I-da-li-ya' that has been transliterated.

American - 美国人 "Nice" country people
French - 法国人 "Law" country people
German - 德国人 "Moral" country people
These three epithets I find intriguing. Are Chinese people trying to bestow honour upon other people in the world? These sorts of descriptions are the kind of thing I'd be looking for if I wanted my own special logogram. Who doesn't want to be called 'moral', 'lawful' or 'nice'?

English - 英国人 "Hero" country people
I don't know if this was applied to the English before or after the Opium Wars but if it is after, maybe this is a piece of sarcasm. "Yeah English people, you think you're heroes don't you? Real smart". 

Australian - 澳大利亚人 - "Proud Big Profits Inferior" people
Admittedly Australia is probably too new a country to have its own logogram and so like the name 'Tangbao' for Malcolm Turnbull, Australia gets something that sounds similar "Ao-da-li-ya'. It's kind of unfortunate that the set of characters which describes Australia when transliterated, also describes Australia pretty well. We are the country full of inferior boorish people from whom big profits can be made. Dig up our dirt and then make it into stuff before selling it back to us. Big, dumb and stupid - that's also how New Zealand sees us as well.

Our new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been nicknamed 'Tangbao' 汤包 in Standard Chinese, which is a rough interpretation of how his surname sounds. Tangbao are either sweet custard filled buns or gelatinous soup filled buns. The literal meaning of 汤包 as far as I can make out means 'soup package'.
This very much reminds me of JFK's "I am a doughnut" speech on  June 26, 1963 when he said "Ich bin ein Berliner". Is a soup bun better than a doughnut though?

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