When I first heard about a new book, Mr. China: A Memoir, by Tim Clissold, it sounded like a much-needed debunking of pie-in-the-sky Western investments in China. Unfortunately, however, Clissold’s book spends several pages reinforcing myths about the Chinese languages and Chinese characters.
Chinese characters are central to the language. They provide a link with the past quite unlike that provided by European languages. The characters represent complete ideas rather than just sounds, like liters, so they are different from alphabetical spellings in that they resist changes over the years or between regions. Pronunciation of Chinese words might change over the centuries, but the written character remains constant. The character ? may be pronounced xiang, heung, or hong, but it always means “fragrant.” Separate from the sound and recognizable across thousands of years, the characters keep history alive. When China’s earliest philosophers recorded their ideas on bamboo spills as far back as the sixth century B.C., they used characters, many of which are still in daily use. It’s as if, with a little effort from the reader, the words of Plato or Aristotle leaped from the page in the orginal.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. These are myths.
Later, the author relates the shi shi shi story. Like almost everyone else, he completely misunderstands the piece and reaches entirely wrong conclusions.
The book has many such errors.
Mao tried to simplify the language by modifying the characters.
This statement is a good example of the confusion of language and script that Clissold displays more than once.
Really, this is all quite sad — and typical!