Fossils in language

I’m familiar with words for relations within the large extended Indian families, the single word that expresses whether your grandmother is from your father’s or mother’s side, the clear difference between your father’s elder or younger brother, the lack of such a differentiation for his female siblings, the lack of differentiation between an older sibling and cousin of the same sex, and so on. When we got married, and The Family and I slowly learned these words in another Indian language, we also found the interesting occasional differences. For us these relations are living and important, they affect our social ties.

grandfatherWhen I started learning Chinese I was not surprised that there is an equal variety of words for elder and younger sisters and brothers, for uncles and aunts, based on the order of their births, for grandparents. But in China these are linguistic fossils. For two generations there have been no siblings. A lost taxi driver in Wuhan will call out Meimei (meaning younger sister) to a passing woman to stop and ask for directions, in startling contrast to one in Kolkata who will call out Didi (meaning older sister). But these are synthetic uses. Very few in China have siblings: gege, didi, meimei, jiejie, or uncles and aunts: bobo, jiujiu, guzhang, gugu, yima, or cousins. On the other hand, walking in a park you will keep hearing the words yeye, gonggong, nainai, laolao as children call out to their grandparents. Changing the structure of families is a genuine cultural revolution, a complete break with China’s own past. But language is tenacious, the fossils of these relations remain.

The gulf

grandfather

In the crowded Yuhua garden I saw this person keeping a tender watch over his sleeping grandchild. He was completely unaware of me as I took the photo, but immediately afterwards he noticed me. I saw a shadow of some doubt cloud his expression, so I smiled at him and pointed to the baby. He seemed to understand, and smiled back.

Now, looking at the photo I see someone my age from China and realize that his youth was wasted in the violent upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. For me these events came as distant stories read, but not understood. It took me many years of reading testaments from people of this generation to understand how they grew up with a feeling of complete uncertainty. For this man looking after his grandchild is not just what you and I would imagine it to be. It must also involve a sense of wonder and relief that those years have ended and his grandchild will grow up in a different world.

Even if we had shared a language, even if the political system had been different, it would have been difficult to talk about these things with a stranger. But perhaps in some suitably round about way I might have been able to get some idea of how he views these changes. But that is two imaginary worlds removed from the one that he and I live in.

A cat that catches the mouse

As part of my education on China I’m trying to read something other than history and travel books. There is a lot of modern literature, and there are movies. And there is also interesting journalism. Several years back I’d read a book Pallavi Aiyar about her time as China bureau chief for the Chennai newspaper “The Hindu”. I must read it again.

Two books which I read recently talk of China from completely different perspectives, but are strangely similar. The first is “China Road”, a book by a reporter, Rob Gifford, who travels from Shanghai to Korgaz (a border crossing to Kazakhstan) a large part of it along the old silk route. The style is the modern western travel book: a little bit of a drifter, a little of the old orientalist adventurer, and very much the commentator from the first world. The second book is “China in Ten Words”, written by Yu Hua, a Chinese author still living in China. Again, this is a familiar voice, of an older person growing up within a culture which has changed unrecognizably within a lifetime: commenting on the changes and trying to identify the constants in the culture.

When China was going through the Cultural Revolution, India was not doing too well either. There was a shortage of food in both countries, but middle-class Indians generally thought they were better off. Now, two generations later, the question that the middle class asks is how we can do as well as China. There are hard facts behind this. In 1980 the average per capita income of a person in China was 30% less than in India; in 2013 it was 350% more. There is a throwaway discussion in Gifford’s book which says that the legitimacy of the Chinese political system depends on continuing improvements in people’s lifestyles, whereas India’s democratic system only means that non-functional governments get removed in an election, even if the alternative is no better. This is an explanation which I have read from Pallavi Aiyar too, so I wonder whether this is folk wisdom among foreign journaists in China.

Whatever.

India and China seem to have arrived at roughly similar circumstances in two completely different ways. In fact, many of the stories in these two books seem like they could have come from India. Yu Hua uses four words to anchor his discussion of modern China: disparity, grassroots, copycat and bamboozle. These are words that the Indian press could very well use to describe aspects of today’s India.

Did the cultural revolution destroy the old China? This is never stated, but implied in both books. I wonder. I was once taken to dinner by my Chinese colleagues at a restaurant built to impress. It was a space built like a hangar to hold a couple of Dreamliners. I saw two wedding dinners in progress. We were led deep into this space and into a private room for our banquet. Sometime during the dinner I asked one of my hosts about the calligraphy carved into one of the walls. There was consultation between several people before the words were translated. I was told that this was not easy to read because the characters were in an older style. It was a classical poem copied out by Mao Zedong.

A cat that catches the mouse is a good cat, no matter whether it is black or white. (Deng Xiaoping)

The Cultural Revolution certainly changed China enough that today’s nation could emerge. In some sense it was a fast track to modernity, but at the expense of one lost generation. The Indian experiment is certainly not on any kind of a fast track, but who knows where it will lead in a couple of generations? Will the Indians of the 2050s look back on the past four generations as lost? The answer may well determine the staying power of Bollywood: going by Kishore Kumar’s songs or the remakes of Amitabh Bachchan movies, the generations of the 1960s and 70s were not lost.