Friday, July 22, 2005

Lu Xun on the Chinese "national swear"

(revised July 22 1255 -0400)

Apparently, my earlier post on Lin Siyuan's article "Inquiry into the Chinese and Foreign Philosophies of Swearing" has been picked up by various sites, including Language Hat, sparking some discussion in the comments section there. In an addendum to the earlier post, I also mentioned Lu Xun's 鲁迅 essay "On (the swear) 'Your Mother...'" (lun tamada 《论『他妈的』》); Chinese etext). Well, I've translated most of it below. Language Hat should be thanked for prompting me to get cracking on it.

The language used--earlier twentieth century ("May Fourth") Chinese, plus the many learned classical citations, make the piece not that easy for me to translate. I have not been literal in all instances, and suggestions for improvements are most welcome. Language Hat also helped with a Russian bit (see below), and for suggesting corrections. All material in parentheses--and all hyperlinks (no, Lu Xun was not known to be html savvy)--are added by me. "[1]" = End Note 1.

You can find out more about Lu Xun here (wiki page).

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Lu Xun 鲁迅, "On (the swear) 'Your Mother...'" (lun tamada 《论『他妈的』》)

Those who live in China will often have occasion to hear the swear: tamade (他妈的) and others like it. I think the geographical distribution of this phrase is probably as wide as the lands upon which the Chinese have set foot; and I'm afraid the frequency of its use may not be less than that of the polite nin hao ya (您好呀). If, as some have put it, the peony is China's "national flower", then this has to be considered China's "national swear" (guoma 国骂).

I grew up east of Zhejiang—Mr. Xiying's "somewhere" [1]--the variant of the "national swear" in circulation there is very simple: it is only limited to the ma (i.e., "mother"), never involving others. It was only after I started traveling that I began to appreciate the richness and subtleties of the national swear: ancestors, sisters, children and grandchildren and even those with the same surname could be involved, it's really "limitless like the milky way" [from Zhuangzi, ch. 1]. It is used not merely on people, but can be extended to animals as well. Year before last, I came across a cart whose wheels got stuck in a deep rut. The driver angrily jumped down, and whipped the donkey while shouting at it: Ni meimei de! Ni meimei de! (lit. "your sister's, your sister's").

I do not know how it is like in other countries. But I do know that the Norwegian writer Hamsun (1859-1952) has a novel Sult (Hunger) in which can be found much vulgarity; but I did not find a swear of this sort (i.e., like tamade). The numerous bums in the many novels of Gorky (1868-1963) too did not swear in this way, at least not in the books I've read. Only Artzybashev (1878-1927) in The Worker Shevyryov had the character Aladev swear "your mother…". [2] At that time, Aladev has already decided to sacrifice his life for the sake of love, but the reader is invited to laugh at his self-contradictory courage. The translation of this swear was a very easy matter in Chinese, but rather difficult in other languages. The German translation rendered it "I have used your mother before". The Japanese one says "Your mother is my bitch". That's just too obscure--in my estimation.

So the Russians have this swear too; but it doesn't seem to have the same richness as in Chinese, so the honor still belongs to us. But this is hardly such a big honor, so they probably need not protest; nothing as scary as "Sovietization". And the wealthy, famous and powerful people of China should not be astonished. In China, those who say it are exclusively from the "lower classes": trishaw coolies and such like. Those in the upper classes, the shidafu (士大夫; "gentry and great minister"), would never say any such thing, let alone write it. "Late born was I", missing the Zhou Dynasty, not making the dafu (大夫) grade, nor shi (士), I could have freely written it. But in the end I decided to shave off a verb and a noun from the national swear, and changed it to the third person. [2b] After all, I've never pulled a trishaw before, and thus have that bit of a "whiff of nobility". Now since the use of this swear is thus limited, perhaps it should not be considered a national swear. But this need not be the case: the peony so admired by the wealthy is hardly considered "the most noble among flowers" [3] by the lower classes.

As to the origins of tamade, I do not know. The usual swears encountered in the historical classics are yifu (役夫, "slave"), sigong (死公), and such like; or the more nasty ones such as laogou (老狗; "old dog"), haozi (貉子; "raccoon dog"); and even more nasty ones, those involving one's ancestors, do not go beyond er mu bi ye (而母婢也; "your mother is a servant") or zhui yan yi chou (赘阉遗丑; "heir of a castrate") [4]. No such thing as made; perhaps the shidafu did not see fit to write them down.

But the Guanghongmingji (《广弘明集》) says of Xing Zicai (邢子才) from the Northern Wei Dynasty that he once asked his friend Yuanjing (元景): "Must your surname be Wang?" Yuanjing was aghast. Zicai said, "I too, need not have the surname 'Xing'; can it be preserved for five generations?" There may be something here. [5]

The Jin Dynasty was already a time when one's lineage counted for much, too much. Magistracies were easily within the reach of those who came from noble houses, no matter how incompetent they were. Though the northern territories were lost to the Tuoba people, the scholar-gentry were all the more crazy about an intricate social stratification and making fine distinctions between ranks. Talented people, as long as they were from a common background, could never hope to equal those from the great houses. As for the great houses: it's really a case of sheltering under the achievements of one's ancestors, and using it to lord over others; and such arrogance obviously led to much unhappiness. Since the gentry invoked their ancestors as their talisman, the oppressed commoners naturally saw their ancestors as the enemy. It's hard to say if what Xing Zicai said was motivated by anger, but it was still a fatal blow struck against all those who hid behind their family's name. Power, position, reputation--these were maintained upon the sole basis of the "ancestors"; once the "ancestors" are smashed, everything goes with it. This is the certain retribution of those who take shelter under the achievements of their ancestors.

The same thing, if said by someone from the "lower classes" without the literary talent of a Xing Zicai, would basically be tamade!

Attacking the ancient castles of the old nobility by aiming at their lineage--that truly can be considered a cunning strategy. The person who invented tamada must be considered a genius, but he is a despicable genius.

From the Tang Dynasty and after, the habit of boasting about one's lineage gradually died out; and by the time of the Jurchen (Jin Empire) and Mongolians (Yuan Dynasty), barbarians had ascended the emperor's throne, while butchers and hucksters were now ministers and gentry, and by right, the issue of rank should have become harder to establish. But some people just had to have such a desire to arduously climb to the "upper classes"… [6]

Before someone from the "lower classes" makes it rich, in general, he will naturally have many tamade to say. But given an opportunity to climb, to learn a few words, he is now wont to be elegant. Now he has title, status, and he even has the family genealogy constructed--and for that, he has to find a grand ancestor, if not a famous scholar then a famous minister. Henceforth transformed, he will be as his seniors in the "upper class": elegant and refined in speech and conduct. But even the ignorant masses can be clever enough to see through the whole charade, thus the saying "all goodness and virtue on the lips, thieves and whores in the heart" (口上仁义礼智,心里男盗女娼!). They understand.

And so they protest, saying: tamade! [7]

Even today, there are numerous "classes" in China, still many who rely upon family status or count on their ancestors. As long as this does not change, there will always be occasion for the "national swear", voiced or unvoiced. That's tamade, surrounding us, even in this time of peace.

But there exist different uses that are occasionally encountered: either to express astonishment or or that one is moved. [8] I once witnessed a farmer and his son having lunch together back in my hometown. The son pointed to a dish and said to his father: "This is not bad, made you should try it!" The father replied, "I don't want it, made you finish it!" It has basically mellowed so much as to share the same meaning with today's fashionable "my dear".

July 19, 1925

end notes

[1] Chen Xiying 陈西滢 (1896-1970), or Chen Yuan 陈源; editor of 《现代评论》 and long time critic of Lu Xun. [add:] If you read Chinese, here's what appears to be a decent article about the man. Hayek and Harbamas mentioned.

[2] Thanks to Language Hat for helping with the name--I couldn't quite figure out of what 亚拉借夫 was supposed to be a transliteration. He points to this etext of the novel, if you read Russian (I don't). He also located the exact quote: "Пошли к черту, мать вашу!... - бешено закричал Аладьев..." -– "Go to the devil, your mother! [Poshli k chortu, mat' vashu!] - cried Aladev in a rage..."

new: [2b] Lu Xun says that in talking about 他妈的, he has in fact taken off a verb and a noun, and changed it (the object, probably) to the third person. This suggests that the original, unexpurgated form is *Verb你妈的Noun, and the most likely fill in for the verb is, I suppose, 操 (see the earlier post). I have no idea what the noun is though.

[3] From Zhou Dunyi 周敦颐 (1017-1073), Neo-Confucian philosopher. This page (Chinese) has a brief introduction to the man and also the text of the Ailianshuo 《爱莲说》.

[4] The six "classical insults" cited. Unless otherwise noted, all the links for the author or book point to English pages; links to the actual text of the citation point to Chinese etexts.

- yifu (役夫, "slave") is from the Zuozhuan 《左传》 (Duke Wen, Year 1);

- sigong (死公) is from the Houhanshu 《后汉书》, in the 文苑列传;

- laogou (老狗; "old dog") is from Ban Gu 班固, Story of (Han) Emperor Xiao Wu 《汉孝武故事》;

- haozi (貉子; "raccoon dog") is from the Shishuoxinyu 《世说新语》, no. 35;

- er mu bi ye (而母婢也; "your mother is a servant") is from Zhanguoce 《战国策》, Zhao; and

- zhui yan yi chou (赘阉遗丑; "heir of a castrate") is from Chen Lin 陈琳, 《为袁绍檄豫州文》. A brief introduction to the man can be found here (in Chinese).

Yes, it's a bit rough, and many of the links point to Chinese pages. I might have to come back and do more for this one.

[5] The Guanghongmingji 《广弘明集》 is a Buddhist text compiled some time in the Tang Dynasty. It contains material from the Wei (i.e., Three Kingdom)-Jin Period through to the early Tang, by more than 130 writers. An introduction to the text is available here (in Chinese), and an etext, here. The passage cited by Lu Xun is from scroll no. #7.

[6] The following not translated: 刘时中的曲子里说:“堪笑这没见识街市匹夫,好打那好顽劣。江湖伴侣,旋将表德官名相体呼,声音多厮称,字样不寻俗。听我一个个细数:粜米的唤子良;卖肉的呼仲甫……开张卖饭的呼君宝;磨面登罗底叫德夫:何足云乎?!”(《乐府新编阳春白雪》三)这就是那时的暴发户的丑态。

[7] [The following not translated (because I'm not sure how best to translate it): 但人们不能蔑弃扫荡人我的余泽和旧荫,而硬要去做别人的祖宗,无论如何,总是卑劣的事。有时,也或加暴力于所谓“他妈的”的生命上,但大概是乘机,而不是造运会,所以无论如何,也还是卑劣的事。]

[8] The original is 或表惊异,或表感服. I'm not sure about the latter half. update: Jimmy Ho, one of the readers of Language Hat, helpfully emailed me the definition on the Hanyu Da Cidian (CD-Rom ed. 2.0) and it says:

【感服】1. 謂使人感動而悅服。 宋 秦觀 《盜賊策上》:"王者所以感服天下者,惠與威也。" 宋 李綱 《論將》:"此數子者,雖其材略過人遠甚,亦其所將皆舊部曲,威信、恩惠足以感服之,故能必其成功。"2.感動佩服。 宋 蘇軾 《謝管設副使啟》:"感服于衷,筆舌難盡。"《紅樓夢》第三七回:" 湘雲 聽了,心中自是感服。" 葉聖陶 《倪煥之》一:"'有這樣熱心的人!' 煥之 感服地說。"

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