political language

political language
Contemporary Chinese cultural expression enjoys a linguistic richness and variety unprecedented under Party rule. Written styles are enriched by classical Chinese, late-dynastic vernacular, Republican-era writings, Kong-Tai usage (see Kong-Tai style), Maoist diction, regional argots and all manner of foreign influences. After the years of politically induced linguistic paucity during the Cultural Revolution era, this efflorescence of language was gradual. But politics never expunged linguistic variety. Although books were burnt or banned, many young and older people still managed to read illicit works in secret, or they enjoyed books that were reprinted as part of the arcane political purges of the 1970s, in particular the anti-Confucius campaign.
Most words of the Cultural Revolution era are marked off with quotation marks, a punctuated cordon sanitaire that says look but do not accept. The sixty-sixes and ninety-nines that are still used for ironic or negative effect were a European import, but they came into their own during the Cultural Revolution when much of the pre-1966 world was consigned to imprisonment within quotations. While the laudable sayings or quotations from theoretical paragons like Mao, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were printed in bold type, all that was condemned appeared between quotation marks that questioned the very ‘truth’ and ‘value’ of their existence.
While the sarcastic quote mark is still widely used, much Maoist-era language has fallen from daily use. The verb gao (originally meaning ‘do’ or ‘screw’ in Mao’s patois) remains, but for many years the educated have often replaced it with the more conventional word zuo (do, make). Although in retrospect many feel that gao geming (making revolution) is just what they did. Most persistent are the evaluative terms that colour official pronouncements, leaders’ speeches and every civic campaign. There is no neutrality in the political realm, things are black-and-white, and there is a rich connotative language to depict it. These ‘descriptive-evaluative’ words, as the Russian philosopher Mikhael Epstein calls them in his work on totalitarian language, are terms that combine both descriptive and evaluative meanings; they communicate not only information but also a particular ideological message, or concealed judgments that take the form of words. This kind of language, which reached an apogee during Mao’s last decades, is marked by an ability to employ ideologically laden words to weaken opposing sides while taking advantage of the resulting confusion.
The Chinese language has a rich and venerable lexicon of words that were converted under both Nationalist and Communist rule to act as ‘descriptive-evaluative’ words. It is a lexicon that was, according to tradition, first formulated by Confucius when he edited the history of the State of Lu, the Spring and Autumn Annals, judiciously choosing expressions to describe political actions in moral terms. Classical scholars talk of Confucius creating a ‘Spring and Autumn writing style’ (chunqiu bifa) which relied on a vocabulary of baobianci, or judgmental words, to praise (bao) or censure (bian) every political act and event contained in the annals of Lu. In modern usage, all activities beneficial to the Party-state are represented by words with positive connotations or baoyici, while those that are deleterious in nature are condemned with negative verbs, nouns and adjectives, or biianyici.
Even now, the style of denunciation and modes of criticism current in mainland Chinese culture readily echo habits of mind and language inculcated by decades of Party rule. Even in an environment of increased free speech and media openness, the rhetorical style of totalitarianism (that is, a style that attempts a total embrace of all aspects of life and thought) and constant moral evaluation and judgment, and its refusal to allow for critical self-reflection, retains its appeal. Nonetheless, the militaristic style of language and enunciation has gradually given way to a more civil tone. TV and radio presenters speak with a less strident tone, although when necessary they can still don Mao suits and intone official condemnations with steely resolve as in the past.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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