Remarks on the slogan for the Beijing Olympics
by Victor H.
University of Pennsylvania
In cybernetic / IT terms, which is more economical? This is not even taking into account that there are only 26 letters of the alphabet to deal with, in contrast to at least 26,000 characters that have to be separately considered when determining memory size.
Note on the strokes of the Chinese characters
- Some people write shì with 4 strokes, others with 5, and still others with 6. The standard orthography calls for 5 strokes, and that is the number I've used in my calculations.
- Letter strokes are for standard, printed (English) forms. Cursive forms would be drastically fewer for both languages, but English would still require less than half the number of strokes needed to write this slogan in Chinese characters.
- The question of how to group the syllables tóng yī ge (tóng yīge, tóngyī ge, tóngyīge, or as I have given them) is extremely complicated, involving personal preferences and different grammatical analyses; it would take a separate paper to discuss the reasoning behind each of the variants. Because of the lack of consensus, I have adopted the default position of separating all three syllables. Even if we combined all of them (though very few people would champion that position), however, Mandarin would still have 6 words, and the number of syllables and pen(cil) strokes would remain unchanged.
Note on the English and Mandarin words for "world"
Almost everybody I know pronounces the English word as wuruld, i.e., with two syllables, yet all the dictionaries I have consulted mark it as consisting of only one syllable. That's understandable, because we would normally assume that a syllable should minimally have at least one vowel, but there is obviously no vowel between -r- and -l- in "world." (Technically, though, I guess you can call the -l- "dark," which means that it functions almost like a vowel. Still more technically, I suppose it is what phonologists term a velarized alveolar lateral approximant.) The actual (as opposed to the lexicographical or phonological-theoretical) bisyllabicity of "world" is attested by generations of poets who have rhymed it with "furled," "whirled," etc.
There's a very different tale to be told about the common Mandarin word for "world." Shìjiè is composed of graphs that individually mean "generation, era, lifetime" and "boundary." They were brought together over a thousand years ago to render into Sinitic the Buddhist Sanskrit term LOKA(-DHAATU), which was also rendered as shìjiàn, composed of graphs that individually mean "generation, era, lifetime" and "space between." So how do we get from this translatese for LOKA(-DHAATU), which signifies the finite, impermanent realm, to the contemporary understanding of shìjiè as "world"? (Bear in mind that ancient Chinese did not have a word that means what we now mean by "world." Instead, they had concepts like tiānxià ["all-under-heaven"], sì hǎi zhī nèi ["all within the four seas"], and jiǔzhōu ["nine administrative divisions"], all of which basically indicated the Chinese empire, beyond which was a cloud of unknowing and barbarism.) It was not until the second half of the 19th century that shìjiè was transformed by the Japanese (using the pronunciation of the graphs as sekai) into the equivalent of English "world." I call words like this (which began in Chinese with one meaning, went to Japan and acquired another meaning, and then were sent back to China with the newly acquired meaning) "round-trip words." See Sino-Platonic Papers, 34 (October, 1992), 5-13. The transformation of the old Buddhist Chinese shìjiè into the Sino-Japanese word for "world" is documented in Federico Masini, The Formation of Modern Chinese Lexicon and Its Evolution Toward a National Language: The Period from 1840 to 1898, Monograph Series No. 6, Journal of Chinese Linguistics (Berkeley, California: Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 1993), p. 197.
Note on the unnaturalness of the Mandarin slogan
The Mandarin version of the slogan is unnecessarily wordy. The repeated tóng yī ge, with its insistent emphasis on sameness or even identicalness, is clumsy and pedantic, and the tóng part of it even sounds a bit wényánish (like Literary Sinitic). The Mandarin version would sound much better and more natural if the repeated tóng yī ge were reduced to just yī ge (or yīge, according to the official orthographical rules for Pinyin [all other numerals except for yī are to be separated from the measure word that follows them]). This would save two syllables and 12 pen(cil) strokes, and it would also bring the Mandarin slogan more into alignment with the English.
When I first encountered the Beijing Olympic slogan a couple of weeks ago, I had a strong sense that it may have been thought of in English first and then translated into Mandarin. (It wasn't just the awkward wordiness of the tóng yī ge. Even the mèngxiǎng bothered me*. The whole slogan just didn't sound like fluent Mandarin that could be uttered naturally.) Sure enough, a little bit of research proves that this is indeed the case. The English came first and the Mandarin was translated from it.
- Yǒuxiē rén juéde shìjiè hépíng shì yīge mèngxiǎng. ("Some people feel that world peace is a vain hope.")
- Ā! Nǐ -- Lǎo Féng, hái yǒu zhèi zhǒng xiǎngfú de mèngxiǎng! ("Ah! Old Feng, you still have vain hopes of enjoying happiness!") From the 1933 novel Zǐyè (Midnight), by Mao Dun.
Many of us still remember the slogan that was used when China put in its bid for the 2008 Olympics: "New Beijing, Great Olympics" in English, but -- strangely -- xīn Běijīng, xīn àoyùn in Mandarin, which really means "New Beijing, New Olympics"! (Àoyùn is short for àolínpǐkè yùndònghuì.) Perhaps the intentional mistranslation was the result of a tacit admission of presumptuousness. In any event, once Beijing won the right to host the 2008 Olympics, the city fathers set about trying to find a more glamorous slogan. Given the globalistic way things are done in China nowadays, they invited suggestions from supranational consultants. The firm that ultimately came up with the winning proposal has the improbable name of China Click2 International Consulting, and it is headed by an American-Chinese woman named Susan Pattis.
No matter how the slogan was selected, its official announcement was surrounded with much hoopla.
And you can see it with pomp, circumstance, and ceremony here:
These put a very interesting spin on the slogan:
In the end, I'm happy that the powers-that-be decided to write the Olympic slogan in vernacular Mandarin rather than in Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese). They could, after all, have written yī shì yī mèng (4 syllables, 4 "words," 21 strokes [traditional] / 18 strokes [simplified]), but nobody talks like that, and few would understand it when spoken aloud. Furthermore, writing yī shì yī mèng instead of tóng yī ge shìjiè, tóng yī ge mèngxiǎng (or, better yet, yī ge shìjiè, yī ge mèngxiǎng) would mark a definite step backward in the attempt to democratize the written language.