This is the second book I read this summer about someone from America living in China. Unlike Susan Conley, author of The Foremost Good Fortune, Deborah Fallows embraced China and tried to enter into the culture and language as fully as she could. Susan Conley resisted and remained a stranger in a strange land even before her diagnosis of breast cancer. Deborah Fallows found everything in China an opportunity for learning and growth.
The main point of the book is the Chinese language. Through the story of her language quest we learn a lot about the Chinese people (the Laobaixing) and their culture.
The Laobaixing are quite different from "The Chinese" - the government and the societal leaders. She tries to explain the difference, but I feel that it can be compared to the idea of "the people" from the movie The Grapes of Wrath: "They can't lick us. And we'll go on forever, Pa... 'cause... we're the people."
The Chinese language (Mandarin dialect) fascinated me. In some ways, it seems to be a very simple language. Words are usually small and made up of one or two syllables. Longer words are just a combination of those short words. (lao=old, bai=hundred, xing=names....kaixin=hai(open) + xin(heart) = joyous...Fangxin=fang(put in place) + xin(heart)=set your mind at ease....)
The sentence structure doesn't seem to be very complicated either. It seems to leave things to the speaker's body language, inflection and the context of the speach. But, it's one of the things that makes Chinese a difficult language - that and the sounds. The way a word is said can change the meaning of the word. For example, the word shi can be pronounced several ways. I don't have the right diacritical marks here, so I can't show the difference in inflection. Depending up on the rise or fall of the voice, shi can mean lion, or ten, or to make or to be...
There was a writer named Chao Yuen Ren who designed an early version of a way to render Chinese in the Roman alphabet. He wrote a story about a lion-eating poet that consisted of 92 Chinese characters, all pronounced "shi". Deborah Fallows says that "shi" sounds like "sure". I imagine it's probably "sher" not "shyoor".
"The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den is the story of a poet (shi) named Shi who loves to eat lions (shi shi) goes to the market (shi) to buy ten (shi) of them, takes them home to eat (shi) and discovers they are made (shi) of stone (shi). Such language play works because the Chinese sound system usus only about 400 syllables, like shi that have multiple meanings."
This book was so fascinating to me. I'd love to learn more about the Chinese language. I don't think I'd ever be able to pronounce it - I wouldn't be that good at the subtle nuances of the sounds.
It was an interesting experience to read the two books about China this summer. I'd love to continue with more books. I'm glad I did read these because they gave me an appreciation of the Chinese people. I get so upset with China, but know I know that I can respect the Laobaixing.
This is the cover of another edition of the book. I thought it was interesting.