Literature Review: Deborah Fallows’ ‘Dreaming in Chinese’

Amazon.com $12.94

2010

It wasn’t that long ago that I last posted a literature review, and so it seems strange that I am posting one so soon afterward. I purchased Deborah Fallows ‘Dreaming in Chinese’ a while back, and have had it on my waiting list. Having finished ‘Mr. China’, I picked it up and managed to finish it within just a few days. I have been left with very mixed feelings about this work, but hopefully this review will give you some further insight.

‘Dreaming in Chinese’ is written by Deborah Fallows, wife of the Author James Fallows who has written a number of great things, many of which for The Atlantic. Amazon led me to believe that this book focused on the author’s journey through learning Mandarin as a language, which I interpreted to mean that this book would read more like a novel or a memoir, at the very least holding a consistent story line that followed the course of the author’s experience. I was a bit mistaken to say the least. But I think before I go any further, it is important to give Fallows a proper introduction, as it would be wrong to continue without. The author is a linguist by education and sometimes by trade, and has lived around the world, having spent years in Japan and China (namely Shanghai and Beijing).  She certainly has the credibility to make comment on the Chinese culture. Keeping her academic background in mind, the work that she has presented in ‘Dreaming in Chinese’ will make more sense to most readers.

Fallows has written her work in an attempt to show the endless nuances of Mandarin Chinese, and in many respects has done an amazing job. Most languages hold deep ties to the culture from which they stem, but Chinese has a particularly strong connection; it would not be unwise to say that the language and the culture are inseparable. This is a point that Fallows does an excellent job of conveying through recounting shorts experiences from her time abroad, and then linking them to Chinese written characters that hold particular significance within the context of the story.

The very curious image in the footage was the profile of the carrying: everyone, from soldier to young child, was carrying someone on his back. In America, this “piggyback” posture is usually part of field-day games. But in Sichuan, this style is still pervasive.

Bei 背 “to carry on one’s back.” When I asked my Chinese friends about it, they said, “Oh yes, that’s how you do it in Sichuan. The terrain is hilly and treacherous and steep. You’re usually on mountain paths, and the only way to carry is on your back. That’s the way Sichuan people do it. Bei.”

This example comes from Fallows’ recollection of the days following the massive earthquake in Sichuan, in May of 2008. In English, it is possible to convey the idea of carrying something or someone on your back with just as much clarity as you can within the Mandarin language. Mandarin, however, has a word that has the specific connotation of carrying on one’s back. There is much more culture tied into this one character, 背, then there is within the equivalent words in English. This is the case with Mandarin as a whole, in which most words hold significance that takes at least a few words to convey within other languages. In addition to bei, Carry on one’s back, there are characters that suggest carrying on one’s person, as well as carrying in the arms or hands. As Fallows’ demonstrates through the statements of her Chinese friends, this word contains a very specific focus, and a strong cultural tie within China. This word worked very well not only to describe what the soldiers and people of Sichuan were doing, but also fit the culture of Sichuan as a place.

Having words with such significant meaning begets a language that is incredibly complex and rich. The distinction between carrying ‘on the back’ and ‘in you hands’ gives each situation its own being, making the choice of words very important. This complexity, however, can result in frequent confusion and misunderstanding between speakers, something that is not uncommon even with a native speaker of Mandarin. It has often been said that less is more, and this is certainly the case with Mandarin, except that is seems as though less, in this case being sounds, leads to more confusion. As Fallows notes, Chinese only has around 400 syllables, whereas English is more in the range of 4000. That’s quite a leap. The result is simply that there are large numbers of words that sound identical, yet have radically different meanings, resulting in a frequent need to revisit and clarify one’s meaning in conversation.

“Sometimes when talking on the phone in English, it’s hard to distinguish between the sounds for “s” and “f”. If context isn’t enough to sort out the confusion, you can seek clarification by saying “S” as in Sam.”, or “F as in France.”

The Chinese use this, too, with whole syllables. Say there is a word in Chinese, like xin, which I know means “new” 新. I hear the word xin used in a context where it can’t sensibly mean “new”, so I might ask the speaker, “Xinnian de xin?” (New as in “New Year?”). He might respond, no, “Kaixin de xin” (Heart as in “open heart,” which means “Happy”) where xin 心 means “heart” and kaixin means happy.”

In this particular chapter, Fallows explores this world of simple yet complex. Because so many words are similar if not identical in pronunciation, Chinese is an ideal language for use in both jokes and wordplay as a whole. The Chinese are very aware of the capacity that their language holds for phonetic manipulation and greatly enjoy seeing it put to use. It can also be advantageous in avoiding the government sensors that restrict use of certain words and language online, allowing the ‘netizens’ to convey their controversial feelings without being flagged by the sensors.

All in all, Fallows does a very nice job of portraying these nuances and the way in which the language ties in with the culture. And yet, for one reason or another, I still didn’t particularly enjoy the book. In part, I think that I started out with the wrong mindset. Even midway through the book I was still waiting for the main storyline to develop, and finally realized that it probably wasn’t going to work out that way. Ultimately, I don’t think that I can really discredit Fallows for this. It is, in essence, more of an academic examination of the language than it is a story. Fallows is very methodical in the way that she cuts each chapter with a focus on a specific aspect of the language. One of my complaints about the work is simply how short it is, and that the Chapters seems to close before you feel as if you have gotten into them. Once again, academic in nature. The book accomplishes what it sets out to do; to give a sense of the complexity that exists beyond the simple framework of Chinese, a language basic in structure but massive in culture and commitment required to master.

The question remains, then, of who should read this work. I think that this book will appeal to quite a number of people. If you are early in your study of the language and want to know what you are getting yourself into, then I believe you will certainly find some interesting aspects to what Fallows writes. If you are a fourth year student and feel like you are stuck and making no progress, I also think there is much to be gained from reading this work. It can show you how much there is to learn beyond the matter of gaining vocabulary and grammar. Now if you are out to read an intriguing story, this probably isn’t for you. There isn’t a whole lot that actually “happens”, and I didn’t come close to being able to draw out any sort of narrative progression. Long story short, if you are a committed language student, this is for you.

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