Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Why a duck stuffed with borrowed logic?

I wanted to get a couple things straight, on the record, to make it all real nice and googlable like.

1) Recently I was talking with a buddy about some confusing, in fact distressing, managerial actions at my school. He shrugged it off by saying, 'Well, you can't expect too much. It's Chinese, and therefore by definition illogical.' I replied, quite matter-of-factly, 'Funny you should say that. "Logic" is a borrow word, you know.' My buddy doesn't study Chinese; I do. And I learned almost as soon as I got to Taiwan that the Chinese word for 'logic' is but a phonetic translation: luójí. For me, having dealt with Chinese culture for only a few months then, the implications were curious at worst and humorous at best. For my buddy, however, who's been here around five years, this was a sheer epiphany. 'Ohhhhhhh! Of couuurrse! Logic is a borrow word! They had to take the word from English cuz they didn't have a word for it until like the nineteenth century! Everything makes sense now.'

Logic is a borrow word.

I leave it to the reader to judge the quality of my buddy's epiphany; for my part, you'll notice, I do not deny it. Moving on. Quickly.

2) Scouring through my Chinese-English dictionary a few days ago during a free period, I stumbled upon perhaps the most useful phrase a foreign teacher could know while trying to teach in Taiwan, or any other heavily Chinese setting. I was looking up the word 'fill in [a blank form]' (tiánbiǎo) and wanted to know how or when else to use tián ('fill'). Scanning down the options, my eyes stoped at the final, noticeably lengthy entry: tiányā. The first meaning is 'to overfeed and under-exercise ducks in order make their flesh more tender and sweet', presumably a technique used to create China's famous 'Peking duck' delights. The second meaning? 'To teach students any and all information needed to test (into a higher level or school).' In other words, to teach by 'stuffing the duck.'

Just as my buddy had his epiphany with luójí, so I had my epiphany with 'stuffing the duck'. No wonder my kids are unused to independent creative activites! No wonder my teaching is always at risk of being subjugated by students, parents and administrators to yield better grades on more tests! China's entire educational system -- as a matter of historical fact, even if my experience weren't probative enough -- is based on stuffing the duck! It is as if scales have fallen from my eyes, or as if The Matrix has finally been cracked and I can behold the real world, warts and all, in stark, numbing honesty. I am not a teacher.

I am here to stuff the duck.

Strangely, the fatalistic mediocrity of it is almost liberating. To all would-be teachers, I declare: Do not fear stuffing the duck; do not fight stuffing the duck; just quack (with convincing 'English noises') and all will be well.

(Of course, in the words of the inimitable Groucho, 'Why a duck?')


Siniac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Siniac said...

Oh my that brings back memories. And to add an even greater twist to the thing my long deceased blog was called The Ruptured Duck.


Anonymous said...

So how do you think the word "logic" got into English?

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Most Esteemed Anonymous,

Long have you denied us your presence. You make a clever point and I want to remind my readers (myself?) how much love I have for this "a-logical" culture. Haters gonna hate, but I try not to hate.

The error in your implication, though, is, I think, this:

Logic got into English the same way "president" and "autonomy" got there: by a people's language inheriting the Greco-Roman patrimony *in that language's very creation*. The difference between English and Chinese is that Chinese predated Greek "logic" (etymologically speaking), whereas English did not predate Greece and Rome, and therefore need not have been borrowed to find a place in such an ancient, vital language. Chronologically, China never needed the west to get "logic", yet, etymologically, it did. "Pizza" or "taxi" or "cool" are different cases, unless you think those terms are as anthropologically fundamental as is "logic", in which case you are either a vapid cultural relativist or… just a youngster, and I welcome the latter.

Certainly, Chinese has its own terms that border on logic, but why should itself be borrowed *as a foreign term*? That dependency suggests something truly profound about the cultural differences involved and I am merely (er, well, in this quite old post, *was*) pondering those differences in a whimsical amateur's way. That "Romanitas" cannot be translated without being borrowed is not a slight against English, but it is also not a vacuous observation about English.

To be fair, the closest parallel in the other direction might be that English (seems now to have) borrowed "guanxi" as an official, but foreign, term of art. I grant that claiming this borrowing phenomenon indicates "the English world" had no prior sense of relational autonomy is foolish, just as saying "the Chinese world" had no sense of rational integrity is foolish… yet, both instances point to an important void in the borrowing culture.

djr said...

I'd be interested to hear what you, as someone with some knowledge of Chinese and Aristotelian philosophy, have to say about Robert Wardy's book Aristotle in China: Language, Categories, and Translation. I've only skimmed through it myself, but you're better placed than anyone else I know (including some friends who are native Chinese speakers but not philosophers) to judge it.