The Chinese language is comprised of thousands of characters and combinations of characters, each composed of various strokes. Now a human rights group in Taiwan is calling on Chinese journalists and academics around the world to stop the "discriminatory" way that characters for "Jewish people" are written in Mandarin.
There are many Chinese characters for 'you-tai,' or Jew, but the combination that is currently being used refers to an animal of the monkey species, and has the connotation of parsimoniousness," Chien Hsi-chieh, director of the Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan, said recently.
Chien's remarks at a news conference in Taipei, complete with illustrations of the offending characters and the new characters he recommends, were widely reported in Chinese-language media across Taiwan and China.
Chien said the biased Chinese characters were devised by Christian missionaries in China around 1830, when they were translating the Old Testament and New Testament into Chinese and needed a term for Jews.
"A better choice for the word 'Jews' in Chinese writing would be one that is pronounced the same, but written with a more neutral character," he said.
Following the news conference, held in Taiwan's Parliament, a local English-language newspaper quoted Zhou Xun, a Chinese professor at the University of London, as saying that it's not easy to define Jews as a people using a combination of two or three Chinese characters.
"In fact, the current way of writing 'you-tai' to mean 'Jews' indicates the imagined physical difference between the Chinese and the Jews, which is rooted in the tradition of picturing all alien groups living outside the pale of Chinese society as distant savages hovering on the edge of bestiality," Zhou said.
Chien first brought the matter to the attention of the Taiwanese government in 2003 and again in October 2004, where it was discussed by officials in the Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs and the Government Information Office, according to Dennis Lin, a public relations official at the Peacetime Foundation.
The Taiwanese government under President Chen Shui-bian said it would help promote the new way of writing the term for Jews in books, newspapers and on the Internet if local civic groups continued to promote the idea. But the government hasn't taken any concrete action yet, Lin said, noting that the government prefers to let the Peacetime Foundation, a private, nonprofit group, lead the international campaign.
Since Taiwan has no official diplomatic ties with Israel due to Israel's "one-China" policy, there have been no contacts with Jerusalem about the matter, Chien said, but he added that he has spoken with representatives of the Israeli trade office in Taipei on several occasions.
"The Israeli trade office in Taipei has given us its support when we spoke to them about this and said it would be delighted to see this reform succeed," Chien said.
Members of Taiwan's Jewish community, some of whom are fluent in Chinese but not in the ancient Mandarin writing system, are following Chien's campaign in the media, but no one wanted to comment publicly for this article, since "the complex and varied way of writing Chinese characters is beyond most Westerners' comprehension," one longtime Jewish expat in Taipei explained.
The Jewish people are not the only ones that written Chinese discriminates against, Chien added. He also recommended that the Chinese world community replace the currently negative term for Islam ("hui") with a better combination of characters ("yi-si-lan") because the current term has a connotation of paganism.
Send us your comments
Adam Birnbaum, Palo Alto, CA USA
: As a Jew who does speak and read Chinese, the problem here isn't connected to the Jews specifically. Chinese has a very small set of sounds to choose from compared to other languages, and thus even though Chinese incorporates foreign loan words like every other language, it does so using "nonsense" syllables that sound a little like the original language word. The Chinese words for "grape" or "butterfly" are both ancient examples of this process in action. More recently, almost every foreign name or placename that has needed a Chinese equivalent has had the same fate - most Chinese people understand that these characters are just placeholders for sounds, and don't really "mean" anything.
: I received an email from a Jewish reader in the USA today, she wrote, about this article:
Dan, thanks for this -- I've howled endlessly about this for years, even though my own knowledge of Chinese is minimal. But I've tutored in the Asian community and found that the majority of Chinese have been taught very stereotypic attitudes about Jews, which I assumed was built in their language. Now I have proof and can share it with my students. Thanks for this.
Dan Bloom, Taiwan:
A Chinese colleague read this article and she said: "Because Mandarin Chinese does not have syllables that begin or end with more than one consonant, it has fewer syllable types than a language like English (or other Indo-European languages); concomitantly, homophones are far more common in
Chinese than English. So in choosing how to transliterate an English word like Judaism, there are many possibilities. Mandarin doesn't really have the 'j' sound beginning the word "jump", but perhaps even if it did, a character sounding like "you" may have been picked because the transliteration was done off German? I'm not sure. Anyway, there are many characters that sound like "you", particularly if there's no restriction on what tone it takes, and some of
these "you" characters have favorable (e.g. "excellent") or at least neutral meanings."
PS: A well-known case of unfavorable transliteration -- and I think it's true -- is that in 1960s China, John F. Kennedy's
surname was at times transliterated with characters that meant "gnaw on"-"mud"-"earth" -- not a very presidential image!
Shum, MK, Hong Kong:
The well-intended new translation is more likely end up with a blunder. To name just two of the many pitfalls:
1. The old translation of you-tai (here Y1); although this "you" means a rare species of monkey (not always a bad thing, compare the monkey king as a hero in old fairy tales), it is also used as a conjunction, like "as" or "similar to". The second meaning is by far the more common one.
2. The newly suggested you-tai (let's call it Y2) has also a "you" of double meaning. It is a surname. Since "tai" is same in both translations and means Mrs.(in modern Chinese) or "very, too much", so in this case Y2 becomes "Mrs. YOU". More seriously, it means sin, or transgression, or complain, or something like that. I don't think Jews have sinned more than any other people, even they may have complained more, which is necessarily when the world is far from desirable.
Neither Y1 nor Y2 are first-hand translations. They are translations of (perhaps English) translation. Any new initiative must respect both the Hebrew
and the Chinese language. I welcome the discussion, but don't see any easy outcome. It is time that both the world's ancient civilizations - Jewish and Chinese - to meet and learn directly from each other. As one from the later I believe we are the side that has more to gain. May Hashem bless you, Yisrael