Son-of-Heaven's new clothes

David Prager Branner (charmii@U.WASHINGTON.EDU)
Sun, 3 Apr 1994 12:03:08 -0700

You people complaining about contorted prose have NO IDEA what you
are missing unless you have struggled with scholarly writing in
literary ("classical") Chinese. In philology and criticism, one of
the high points came in the Manchu period, which was before the
vernacular was a permissible medium of scholarly expression. Not
only is the language as dense as brick, but it had long ago come to
be a form of communication almost independent of speech and
unfettered by the ear's convenience. Grammatical relationships are
often impossible to identify until you have figured out the meaning
by feel; there is usually no punctuation. Writers took the arts of
cliche and allusion to levels that I am sure are unknown in the
West, so that you may find yourself staring at some little two-
character nugget meant to call up the emotions of a whole story the
author expected his readers to know by heart, but for which you will
search fruitlessly in modern dictionaries. For a thousand years
the values of education and the esthetics of prose were defined by
the maze of civil service examinations. The very breath of Chinese
scholarly life has come to stink of the bureaucrat. I don't see how
Western writers - even the most esthetically numb of them, such as
Kant or Derrida or Chomsky - can expect to master in a few decades
what the Chinese have developed over the two-and-a-half millenia
of their bureaucratic civilization.
David Prager Branner
Asian Languages and Literature
University of Washington, DO-21
Seattle, WA 98195