Thor's China Diary

Silence of the Elders

@4 January 2000
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The penalties for having a sharp tongue are well known. History is littered with departed chaps who had to drink hemlock, get exiled to rocky outcrops, or have their appendage removed with hot tongs. It's a most unfortunate affliction, but being born to the condition, there is really no cure that can live with self-respect. I continue to stumble on into my second half century, making enemies in high places (as I have since a day in primary school long ago, when my skepticism became a bit too transparent on the subject of that Lord's Prayer thing we were supposed to chant at assembly every morning..)

Darn it, I have tried to be urbane with the professor people here (Wuhan, China). Most of the foreigners who turn up to teach in Chinese universities have no special skills except the mother-tongue blessing of English. Nobody is threatened. Foreign professionals though are, well, unpredictable, a risk to carefully preserved layers of authority and respect. The perils of cross-cultural communication .... Even when Professor ZW banished me from his English department, I put it down to the palace machinations of a scheming minion. As he ushered me out the door a few months ago, he kept saying earnestly "this doesn't mean we're not friends anymore", and "I still want you to do that lecture..".

Ah yes, The Lecture. There was some talk about a benediction of that kind at another Wuhan university when I first arrived there last year too, but the Unseen Hand quickly decided that such an untidy tongue was better left in storage. So I didn't take the proposition too seriously until a Christmas dinner, when Professor ZW accidentally found himself in my company again. Perhaps made careless by the season's good will, he said he really would like me to do a guest lecture on research methods in Linguistics, especially Stylistics.

Well, it was a subject that I did know a useful amount about, something that I could put together crisp notes on without access to a real academic library and a barrage of references. So I did. Spent quite a lot of time refining it into a cogent outline. I was quite proud of it really, and when the great day came there was a nice hand-out of four pages ready, with more ideas than I could decently exhaust in four weeks. Ominously, my mischievous other-self had titled it "Living Dangerously as a Linguist".

The venue was set out in a way that I hadn't seen here (in China) before. Not the usual grim files of nineteenth century desk & flip-up seat units, bolted to the floor. No, this was obviously a departmental board room, with a long hoop of polished wooden table-top running around the perimeter. The professor insisted on going ahead of me, while I waited in his office for five minutes; then with their expectations properly inoculated, I was ushered in to speak. The place was full. His introduction was brief and ambiguous. Fair enough. How do you explain a previously unannounced foreign linguist who has been hiding in the nether regions of that down-market relative, the General English Department? No matter, we had lots to talk about.

Professor ZW, I began, would certainly have a far better in-depth knowledge of the topics we were to touch upon than I (modest murmur of dissent from the left). However, I continued, doing research was not about memorizing volume upon volume of printed words on paper. In fact it was damned stupid to fill your head up with unnecessary junk. Libraries were the proper place to store that sort of thing, not heads; (most Chinese university libraries are perilously close to being empty shells). Even in my own interest area of Cognitive Linguistics there were hundreds of papers published every year ... no sane person could get across all that.. Everyone in the room knew that "doing Linguistics" in their corner of the world precisely meant memorizing one or two volumes which themselves had been condensed, Reader's Digest style, from a slightly larger collection of published books. The ambient temperature of cordiality was dropping rapidly. What the researcher needed to be, I ploughed on, was a lean, mean search-machine, an information manager who had the skills to rapidly find what was required, then analyse and interpret it... So my aim today was to influence their state of mind rather than their state of knowledge..

I looked out at the circle of faces. They looked back, like visitors to a monkey cage, watching the orangutan scratch itself. Were we communicating? For heavens sake let me know if this is too fast, I smiled. My old friend, the chap who had had me chucked out of his teaching program, cleared his throat. These were POST-graduate English majors, he confirmed. Um, well, yes; let's see how we go then..

It seemed a good time to introduce the Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels, those amazing people from New Guinea who share eight hundred languages amongst a modest population of three million. The linguistic fecundity of PNG citizens was not the point of my story today however. The story I wanted to tell was an urban myth (or maybe even true?), but it's real point was germane to the lecture.  During World War II, when the Japanese military machine decided to drop in on Papua New Guinea before invading Australia, the spindly Australian military machine was somewhat desperate to engage the sympathy of PNG nationals. Someone had the bright idea of bringing a group of PNG village leaders on a junket to the Australian metropolis of Brisbane. PNG at that time (especially the highland districts) was barely emerging from four thousand years of stone-age culture. Surely these wise men would be overwhelmed with admiration for the multi-story buildings, the traffic lights, the department stores and telephones... Well, you guessed it, when they went home they had nothing to say about any of these things to their people. Their minds were completely unprepared to register the significance of traffic lights. What they did notice were those strange Australian trees, and a sort of grass they had not seen before, oh.. and some odd, furry animals in the trees which looked a bit like possums but weren't.. Luckily they also decided that the Australians were nicer than the Japanese, and became indispensable allies -- Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels, as the soldiers christened them (after the afro-hair styles).

Well, what was the purpose of telling this? I was hoping that a light would go on in the eyes of my audience. If it did, they kept the candlepower well shaded. In a way, of course, I was a Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angel in China. There were things going on all around me in this peculiar culture whose significance escaped me entirely. But the larger point was that every would-be researcher comes to his subject with a mind that has been cultivated to recognize a certain, narrow band of phenomena, and to exclude all kinds of other things that might actually be of far greater importance.

Perhaps the most important knack in doing creative research is to trick your own mind, to get past those old cultural censors who keep out the unexpected, the unwelcome and the unexplained. It's a bit like learning to see beautiful art out of the corner of your eye, see it by suddenly noticing a shoe, a discarded plastic bag, a leaf, from an odd angle in unexpected light or shadow. Art appreciation is not about going to an art gallery to see dead and certified pieces of "great art", just as original research is not about quoting certified tomes from the Longman Publishing Company.

Once you have learned to notice unexpected things, it is much easier to begin to ask interesting questions. The first measure of research has to be the questions it asks. No questions, no research. Then the questions themselves have to be caged and thought about. Choose your level of generality; think of the even more general questions that give rise to your focus; think of the detailed questions that will stem from it. Frame an hypothesis (or null-hypothesis). You do your best to destroy the hypothesis. If it survives in the furnace of doubt, well then you might be onto something. If it doesn't, well, then you've learned something too. Doing research without a well-planned hypothesis is like going for a stroll in a trackless forest: you'll walk in circles.

It was all getting a bit radical for the zoo visitors. A couple shifted uneasily in their seats. Maybe it was time for a cup of tea. Professor ZW and his side-kick made a break for the door, with strong eye signals for me to follow. No, bugger 'em. I wanted to see if these postgraduates could break their hypnotized poses and ask a human question or two without their guardian at the head of the table. Sigh. Not a chance. I wandered casually around the room. They sat there frozen like a palace guard under inspection. So after ten minutes of pseudo-relaxation we got back to business.

Maybe I could get the Pope in on this act. Some of them knew who the Pope was. The interesting thing about the Pope, for our purposes, was that the poor man could never be wrong. If he said gelrwf out loud, then umpteen million Catholics were all supposed to agree that gelrwf was a god-given truth, literally. Personally, I wouldn't be game to speak at all if anyone believed even a bit of what I said. But the Pope, with his god on his side, was confident enough to hedge his bets just a little. So he had a bishop called The Devil's Advocate. He might be the Pope's old drinking pal (in fact, it was better if he was), but as The Devil's Advocate he had to be an absolute bastard and figure out everything that could possibly be wrong with gelrwf before the Pope went in front of umpteen million television faithful to make his new announcement.

You guys, I growled, looking out at the dispirited multitude, also need your devil's advocates. In fact there isn't a government, a business or a university department that wouldn't be better off learning from the Pope's little innovation... When you've tacked together your great research project, call a seminar of these folk here and ask them to rip it to shreds... then you'll learn something useful..

Now a Chinese academic seminar is a scripted affair where everyone claps politely after the presentation, and nobody would dream of asking a searching question ... it is all about saving face ... The figure on my left was becoming restless again. These barbaric propositions were threatening too many comfort zones. It seemed time to move on.

So let's think about Stylistics in particular. Stylistics, before some rude linguists got hold of it, was pretty well the exclusive domain of academics in literature departments who had to go through the motions of saying deep and meaningful things about how Shakespeare made superb use of syntactic parallelism to move us to great emotional heights, or whatever. It was difficult for generations of literary academics to keep using the same adjectives, so they invented something called literary fashion to decide whether this or that literary critique was the academic masterpiece of its generation. .. ah, my prejudices are showing, and thick-headed though I am, I had the wit not to say any of this to a group of people whom, every instinct shouted, were doing just this kind of Stylistics.

Instead, I wickedly asked what they knew about Forensic Linguistics. A deathly silence hung over the room. Now I really had committed the ultimate sin, for it was clear that even Professor ZW didn't have a clue what I was talking about. Forensic Linguistics was nowhere mentioned in their pre-digested cribs on Linguistics. I'm interested in ideas. The earnest games of social snobbery that folk play amuse me, but have no hold on my sensibility. Stepping back for a moment though, looking around that room with the eye of a guerrilla fighter in the petit bourgeois wars of one-upmanship which places like this run on, I could see suddenly that they perceived here a devastating strike at Professor ZW's respectability. They were appalled; he was appalled.

Oh well, in for one, in for all. This was a whole new career option for them, if they really did want to do something useful with Stylistics. Forensics, the science of judicial evidence, had taken over Stylistics with some relish. The business of Forensic Linguistics was to prove that, say, a tribal elder, really was uttering his own, untutored words, when he told a traditional tale to establish native land title in outback Australia. It was used to verify that some poor schmuck really had written a confession in a police station, instead of signing the literary creation of a cop who wanted a conviction. And it could be used to establish the authorship of documents, books, theses, student essays ... Oh dear, we were getting close to the bone. What the hell.. Let us take, for example, that "book" I was given to proof-read by two Wuhan academics a few months ago, the one that was stolen from the first page to the last, in a peculiar mixture of British and American styles ... Those sometime professors would be gone a million if a forensic linguist got hold of their handiwork in court ....

The ambient temperature had dropped to sub-zero levels. Mercifully, we were out of time. Professor ZW moved stiffly from his chair. He couldn't quite bring himself to say thank you. "We might make use of you some time in the future," he managed frostily. "Goodbye". The throng sat immobile as I made my way out of the room. It would have been lovely to have had a hidden video camera in there to pick up the debriefing.

Cultural guides to China usually have much to say about "face" and how to preserve it. To talk of "China" in such a way though is to take far too large a bite. This is an enormously diverse sub-continent of cultures that certainly form a family, but also show large divergences, in concepts of "face" and most other things. The variations are both social and geographic. Thus the people of some places like Suzhou are thought to be excessively mannered, indirect, even oily, whereas the inhabitants of  Harbin in the harsh far north are known to be brutally frank (but tough and reliable). When honesty is discussed, country people, peasants are (sentimentally) said to be rough but absolutely straight. The mandarins and intellectuals are assumed to be more at the Suzhou end of the spectrum.

A good proportion of Chinese academics see themselves as a refined class (they would never dream of mending a bicycle tyre) with all the distaste for plain speaking which that implies. In such company, to be economical with the truth, or even lie, for the purpose of preserving pleasant relations and "giving face" to those about you is considered virtuous. It is a fair bet that the little coterie of literary types who I addressed in the English department belonged to just this tradition. My ruthless and direct exhortation to ask testable questions and follow the answers where they led would have violated every precept that they held dear. They wanted a "lecture on research method", but uncompromising scientific method (not the garbled double-talk of "scientific socialism"), was a notion that their minds had never been cultivated to comprehend. The talk, as I told them at the beginning, was designed to influence their state of mind. One is never quite sure what words set in train, even when they are unwelcome. Perhaps, just perhaps, in one or two of those minds, something stirred. Perhaps, someday, one or two amongst those bemused listeners will begin to DO linguistics.

Years ago, in one of my first real university lecturing appointments, the anguished chairman of a distinguished academic committee made me a present. At least he had wit. It was a Peanuts poster. Drifting above a thoughtful Charlie Brown was a large, empty speech balloon. The caption below read: "It sometimes shows a fine command of language to say nothing" ..

"Silence of the Elders" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved

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