For our second episode of Barbarians at the Gate, we have a very special episode. I’m not sure you can have a VSE when it’s only your second installment but when you can get two scholars of the Chinese language as highly regarded as David Moser (CET Beijing Capital Normal University, Sinica Podcast) and Brendan O’Kane (Paper Republic, University of Pennsylvania) in the same room you just have to get it done.
We talk about David’s new book A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language and the recent debate over whether it’s fair or is it Orientalist to criticize Chinese characters.
Brendan and David debate the relative ease — and importance — of learning to write and read Chinese characters for language learners and David wonders if including Brendan in this discussion isn’t the equivalent of bringing Yo-Yo Ma to a debate on learning the cello.
We also delve into the history of Mandarin (“Putonghua” and “Guoyu”) and how this “Frankenstein of a language” emerged to become the standard languages in the PRC and Taiwan. What does government’s support of “Mandarin” as part of a project of national unity and state building mean for the future of the other Chinese languages including Shanghainese and Cantonese?
Finally, David and Brendan each give their advice for studying Chinese.
David’s new book:
David Moser, A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language (Penguin Books, 2016)
Te-ping Chen, “Writing China: David Moser, ‘A Billion Voices’,” Wall Street Journal: China Real Time Report (May 30, 2016)
The Debate over Chinese Characters
Ted Chiang, “Bad Character,” New Yorker (May, 2016)
Tom Mullaney, “Chinese Is Not a Backward Language,” Foreign Policy (May 12, 2016)
David Moser, “Backward Thinking about Orientalism and Chinese Characters,” Language Log (May 16, 2016)
Brendan drops a reference to this classic work by John DeFrancis….
John DeFrancis, Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984)
Language Software mentioned in our discussion of learning Chinese…
Images from the Stefan Landsberger Collection at chineseposters.net.