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November 29, 2018

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Whose language is it anyway? Chinese words are gaining traction internationally

Ink wash art is naturally mesmerizing for the amazing beauty of the brush dancing on rice paper in a way that evokes the rhythm, power and elegance of flowing water.

In simple, yet complex, black and white it is uniquely evocative. It captures both the essence of this vast country and its thousands of years of history in a form that has no parallel in the world.

As part of the China Shanghai International Arts Festival, an exhibition at the China Art Museum in Shanghai, “Beyond Ink,” which runs through December 5, features work from 31 modern Chinese artists showcasing how the form has integrated traditional and modern work in an international way.

The Chinese equivalent for “ink wash” is shuimo — shui (water) and mo (ink).

Importantly, to appreciate shuimo is to gain a deeper understanding of the harmonious relationship between man and nature.

Ink and shuimo are both widely accepted in the art world nowadays. For instance, a 2015 Hong Kong art fair was called “Ink Asia.” A series of auctions in 2013 at the Sotheby’s in New York bore the name shuimo. A roving exhibition titled “Shuimo” was held in 2015 in Beijing.

As Professor Lin Mingjie of the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts says, the magic of shuimo has perhaps inspired artists and art forms in the same way Jackson Pollock and Inoue Yuichi’s “drip painting,” Cai Guoqiang’s fireworks and Tan Dun’s music have done.

The question is, do these two words have certain nuances of meaning, although they practically refer to the same thing? Artist Shi Mo says “ink” is a more internationally accepted term than shuimo. His American artist friends echo this view.

Setting standards

But some people argue these two terms are not interchangeable because shuimo epitomizes the unique charm of Chinese traditional culture.

Titles like “Beyond Ink” remind us of the subtlety in cross-cultural communication and we should try our best to eliminate possibilities for confusion by setting standards on translation of quintessentially Chinese elements.

We may look to our Japanese neighbors for inspiration. There are an estimated 200 commonly used English words of Japanese origin, ranging from arts and clothing to cuisine, martial arts and religion.

A typical example is sushi, the world-famous Japanese delicacy.

For Japanese and native English speakers alike, the word instantly conjures up the same mouth-watering images of the exquisite rice rolls.

Due to a form of consonant mutation known in Japanese as rendaku, the su of sushi is spelled as zu instead of su when a prefix is attached. So in lieu of makisushi, rolled sushi is pronounced as makizushi.

As complex as the rule may sound, it hardly inhibits understanding or communication when one dines out at a sushi bar.

The same is less true for the Chinese language with its more complicated usages and variations arising over the course of thousands of years of history and multiple influences from local dialects.

The centuries-old exchanges between China and foreign countries have given rise to a wealth of English words of Chinese origin.

Mixed influences

Besides already well-known examples like dim sum, which originated from Cantonese, widespread adoption of words using pinyin like feng shui and guanxi (social business networks) has increasingly enriched the Western discourse about China.

Many English words of Chinese origin are the result of foreigners’ percetion and imagination of China and influences from Chinese dialects like Cantonese and Hakka.

Unfortunately, some words may lead to misunderstanding Chinese culture, as evidenced by the recent controversy surrounding the Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana’s chopsticks ad campaign.

The fashion house cancelled a recent show in Shanghai after its ads featuring a woman struggling to eat pizza and spaghetti with chopsticks sparked a social media outcry.

Originally, the word “chopsticks” came from English seamen in the 17th century and caught on in China as the slang “chop-chop” was synonymous with kuai — the Chinese word for “quick,” as well as a homophone for chopsticks (kuaizi).

The use of pinyin in spelling English words of Chinese origin should be promoted as it goes a long way toward solving problems resulting from poor translation of phrases rooted in Chinese traditional culture. Shuimo, for one, crystallizes the inheritance and innovation of the age-old art form.

By the way, in Japanese-style English, chopsticks are called hashi. So why don’t we Chinese say kuaizi instead of chopsticks?

As the world becomes increasingly globalized and languages mix and the origins of words get lost, it is important to be proud of China’s contributions — which will only increase over the coming decades as its global influence rises.


Chen Kangling is an assistant professor at the China Institute, Fudan University.


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