I had the privilege of recently reading The Golden Child and M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang and enjoyed both very much, so I was looking forward to reading another play by Hwang and ended up going with Ch’ing•lish, also known as Zhōngshì Yīngyǔ in Romanized Mandarin/pinyin, or 中式英语 in traditional Mandarin (though those characters translate literally to ‘Chinese Style English according to Google Translate). The play is a hilarious examination of the flaws of signs and signifiers, exploring how the language we use often serves to undermine the things that we wish to express, and also how our own personal biases influence the words we use and how we interpret the subtext of the language we hear. Typically, though creative pieces that explore semiotics are interesting, then can be more intellectually stimulating and engaging than entertaining, but as Hwang does with conversations on Orientalism in The Golden Child and M. Butterfly, he manages engage in a critical dialogue whilst simultaneously entertaining and creating a play that could have been penned by a Chinglish Oscar Wilde.
Early in the play, Hwang lays out an argument that suggest that actions are valued over words. When soliciting advice from Peter, an English teacher who poses as a consultant, Daniel, the play’s protagonist, is told that contracts mean nothing in Chinese culture and that relationships are what matter most (10). Because the judicial system is greatly flawed, legally binding contracts are not exactly legally binding and therefore carry little weight. Instead, the value of an agreement lays in the strength of the relationship between two people. Peter reinforces this when he speaks of Chinese humility. He tells Daniel that “Anyone who’s really great doesn’t need to say so” (11), implying that one’s actions should speak to their greatness, though Peters suggests he still have a hype man present in each meeting. This is akin to Lao Tzu’s maxim from the Tao Te Ching, which states that “Those who say do not know, and those who say do not know.” Conversations that take place in the play support this as well. When Daniel and Xi, who Daniel is pursuing professionally and romantically, are having conversation, Xi frequently reverts to speaking Chinese even though she knows Daniel does not understand what she is saying. Daniel says: “You speak. Chinese. And it’s important. I can see that. In your face” (57). Without understanding her words, he can see by her physical expressions that what she is saying is important. Likewise, when Peter and Cai, the businessman Daniel is trying to come to terms with, get into an argument, there is no need for a translation to see that the two are upset with each other. It is the volume of their voices and body language that expresses this, not their words. Throughout the novel, Hwang demonstrates how words are easily transcended by physical actions and expressions.
In order to articulate the ambiguity of language, Hwang filters the dialogue in the play through translators in several instances. The translators, though they often cause confusion in some instances, also bring clarity. When speaking to Cai of the merits of his company, Daniel frames his business as “a small family firm”. Qian, the interpreter, not only translates the words, but the subtext as well, stating that Daniel’s company is “tiny and insignificant” (12). Daniel employs euphemistic language to hide the deficiencies of his company, but the translator uses blunt dysphemistic language when relaying the words. On the surface, this seems unfair, and it may very well have been the intention of the Qian to debase Daniel’s company, but Qian could have likewise been trying to make Daniel sound meek and humble in order to make Daniel’s words more suited to the expectations of Chinese culture where debasing humility is expected, a theme Hwang explores with humourous detail in The Golden Child. This goes both ways in the translation. When Cai states that he appreciated Daniel’s “frank American style”, Qian states in English that Cai “enjoys [Daniel’s] rudeness” (34). Rather than employ the euphemistic vocabulary that Cai is employing, Qian insults Daniel by referring to him as ‘rude’ instead of ‘frank’. This process is reversed in some instances, when Daniel says that he has heard Cai is “building a world-class Arts Center”, Qian translates it in a manner that celebrates her employer’s project: “The whole world knows of the economic prosperity coming to Guiyang and awaits the opening of your world-class Arts Center” (21). This euphemistic upgrade of the statement could be a means through which Qian is ingratiating herself to Cai, or a means of making it sound as though Daniel’s words are in keeping with Chinese custom, though the former seems more likely given that Qian made a point of calling Daniel rude. Either way, it demonstrates how the translator’s view of the language and own personal agenda can greatly alter the tone and meaning of the conversation.
Whilst intended euphemistic and dysphemistic signifiers confuse the nature of the signified, language itself is can be unintentionally vague, warping the intended meaning of one’s words. After Daniel agrees that Cleveland was once an agricultural area long ago, Qian takes that to mean that “their crops failed long ago” (14), though the truth of the matter is that manufacturing simply replaced agriculture cities because it was more profitable. Qian, whose translations proved unsatisfactory, is eventually replaced by Bing (and Bing’s translations are about as good as Google’s). When Cai states that he is under a lot of pressure, and that his hands are tied, Bing states that Cai is “underneath his Party Secretary” and that “He is in bondage” (67); not quite the meaning Cai had intended. This particular example speaks to how words that have the same literal meaning function in drastically different ways in a social context. The word bondage is often associated with sadomasochistic relationships, while the expression ‘tied up’ simply means busy. Words like ‘wounded’ and ‘injured’ mean the same thing, but ‘wounded’ is employed exclusively for injuries in military action, whilst ‘injured’ is a catchall for all injuries. Bing is eventually replaced by Zhao, who likewise struggles with translating Daniel’s words. When Daniel states that he “directs all… operations” at his company, Zhao takes this to mean that “he is… a surgeon” (93). This speaks to how words often carry two meanings. Operation can simply mean and undertaking of an organized action, or specifically and more commonly a medical procedure. Zhao makes a similar mistake when he compliments Daniel on being a ‘high roller’, tells him that he rolls “the big craps” (101). The reference is of course to the dice game, but ‘crap’ is also used as a synonym for ‘shit’, and so Zhao’s phrasing comes off as awkward at best. There is also a certain tactfulness that is required when speaking to certain issue. Words have a certain volume to them. One does not want to use too strong a word, or too crass a word, but as Daniel notes, that signage used for a previous event was extremely problematic. A sign that was meant to identify a handicap restroom, read “Deformed Man’s Toilet” (24). Sometimes the words can convey the right meaning, but the wrong tone.
Hwang is a master at role reversal. Whilst many English speaking people find unintended Chinglishisms amusing, English speaking people are no more masterful when attempting to speak Mandarin, which comes through in Daniel’s conversations with Xi after the two start a romantic affair. Daniel hears Xi use the word ‘ài’, which he knows to mean ‘love’, and deduces that she has told him that she loves him. He tells her the same, in English of course, but then tries to repeat the words as Xi’s spoke them in her native tongue. ‘Wǒ ài nǐ’, or, 我爱你, becomes ‘wǔ ā yí’, which translates loosely to ‘my fifth aunt’. Another attempt sees Daniel say ‘Wū hǎi ní’ which translates loosely to ‘dirt sea mud’, or ‘dirty sea mud’. Daniel is eventually able to say ‘ài’ properly, but can’t manage to say “I’ or “you”, and so ends up saying “snail loves cow” (Wō ài niú), and “frog loves pee” (wā ài niào). While a snail having an interspecies romance with cow might seem farfetched, a frog having a case of urolagnia might be even more absurd. Through these humourous exchanges, Hwang manages to convey the organic and ever-shifting nature of language, demonstrating that though it can facilitate communication, it can never transmit true understanding.
Whilst differences in language serve to add much confusions, differences in culture function in much the same was; the differences between East and West are perhaps best conveyed in Hwang’s presentation of marriage. Both Daniel and Xi have what they each call ‘respect’ for their respective marriages, but there is a cultural divide. For Daniel, respect means being honest with his wife about his changing feelings: “good, honest men—tell their wives the truth” (109). This means telling his wife about his affair with Xi. For Xi, respect means upholding the marriage and doing what she can to help her husband achieve his goals and saving him from having to know about how she did it. This means respecting her husband by deceiving him. Because Daniel wants to tell his wife about the affair, Xi ends the affair, telling Daniel that “If [he] do[es] not respect [his] marriage, then [he is] a danger to” hers (113-114). Hwang’s presentation of an ‘Eastern’ marriage seems akin to Joe Orton’s construction of a ‘British’ marriage in his play What The Butler Saw: a pragmatic obligation meant to facilitate social standing, but there are always some commonalities. The cliché husband who bemoans about the spendthrift wife seems is a template for fictional American husbands like Al Bundy;Cai is very much moulded in such a fashion and even looks forward to going to prison as “in prison, [he] will no longer have to listen to [his] wife” (115-116). The words are written as those they were borrowed from the pages of a Married With Children script (which I actually do mean as a compliment).
Hwang’s Ch’ing·lish is masterfully clever and witty exploration of the flaws of semiotics that ultimately demonstrates, as his protagonist concludes in the final scene, that “we really don’t understand each other too well” (123), and though Daniel is speaking to the East and West, this can apply to everybody, be it on an individual level, or a cultural level. Hwang’s use of humour makes the dialogue enjoyable and entertaining, while the subtext provides a plethora of material to engage with for those who are looking to truly engage in conversations about intercultural exchanges and semiotics. The format, which presents English text alongside the traditional Chinese characters and the Romanized Mandarin characters, serves to heighten the reading experience and fully immerses the reader in process trying to bridge the breach between two languages. Hwang documents how language, culture, and personal biases can all muddy communication, but also shows how an understanding of these limits can serve to reduce the confusion inherent in language. The play also deals with other themes, such as capitalism, gender, and orientalism, but the crux of the play is Hwang’s treatment of language and his semiotic lampoon on signs and signifiers (it is no coincidence that Daniel’s profession is that of making signs). This may be my favorite play by Hwang, which is high praise considering the quality of his earlier plays.
If you liked this review, be sure to check out my posts on The Golden Child and M. Butterfly, also by David Henry Hwang, and to get updates on my latest posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler. Be sure to ‘like’, share and leave a comment.
Hwang, David Henry. Ch’ing·lish. Theeatre Communications Group. New York. 2012. Print.