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British Association for American Studies


Issue 8, Spring 2006: Article 4


Issue 8, Spring 2006: Article 4

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 8, Spring 2006

On the Use of Language in Chinese American Literature

Yan Ying
© Yan Ying. All Rights Reserved

The crucial functions of language as a means of communication, a carrier of culture, and a medium of power are always a significant part of ethnic experience and culture. The multifarious linguistic features of Chinese American literary expressions reflect the intricate linguistic situation of Chinese American existence and culture. There are roughly four categories of expressions: dominant standard American English, Pidgin English, Chinese in its various and vastly different dialects, and Pidgin Chinese, by which I refer to American-born generations’ eclectic use of Chinese. Yet the real situation can be more complicated. Gus Lee’s novel China Boy provides an interesting, if not typical, example of the linguistic disarray of a Chinese American family composed of a Chinese immigrant father, white American step-mother, two Chinese-born sisters and an American-born boy:

We sounded like elevator talk in the Tower of Babel, with a smorgasbord of Chinese dialects on the ground floor, a solid base in Songhai, a strong layer of Mandarin, and a smattering of sam yep Cantonese veneered on the top. Ascending, we found Father’s unique hybrid blend of Chinese, English, and German accents employed in his pronunciation of English. Then came Jennifer and Megan’s high English aristocratic accents—the products of Tutor Luke’s original instruction and the year of speaking Empire English in India. Of course, had we been at the fount of the tongue, in Great Britain, their speech would have represented the apex. But this was America, and Janie’s rapid grasp of American dialogue placed her just beneath the perfect enunciation of Edna, who rested at the pinnacle. My gibberish of eclectic sounds was actually not part of the structure and lay in the subbasement, in the antediluvian terrain of cave-dweller grunting. [1]

The humorous description, on the one hand, shows the heterogeneity of languages spoken by Chinese Americans as a result of the linguistic diversity of Chinese, different transnational experience, and different means of English acquisition. Mandarin is the official common speech in China; ‘Songhai’ is the transliteration of ‘Shanghai’ in Shanghai dialect; sam yep Cantonese is a sub-dialect of Cantonese spoken by early immigrants from the Sam Yep area of Canton; Father’s English is largely a result of his military training by the American military forces when he helped China fight against the Japanese invasion during the Second World War; Jennifer and Megan’s British English suggests not only the Western influence in the modernization of China but also British imperialism in India.

On the other hand, the description imagines the hierarchical relationship of the Chinese and English languages and their respective variations in American society. The hierarchy of languages, in the meantime, prescribes for their speakers a corresponding social status, with the native speaker of perfect American English ranking on the top, followed by the speaker with a good command of English, the speaker of Pidgin English coming next, and the Chinese-only speaker at the bottom. The American-born boy, confused by different forms of languages at home and in the mainly African American neighbourhood where he lives, becomes an orphan left in a pre-linguistic limbo, making unintelligible primitive noises.

The process of his acquiring a tongue of his own, I will argue, can be read as a metaphor for the struggle and dilemma Chinese American writers have faced in the representation of linguistic features of Chinese Americans. Chinese American literature in English is constructed in the English tradition, a tradition which is sharply at odds with the reality of a bilingual, multidialectal Chinese American population. In this essay, I will inquire as to how Chinese American writers reconcile the English tradition with the material conditions of Chinese Americans and their linguistic plurality, how they preserve and communicate culturally specific meanings in English, and how they employ Pidgin English, Chinese and Pidgin Chinese as an important strategy for the construction of their identity.

It is necessary to contextualize Chinese Pidgin English before we examine it as a distinctive linguistic feature in Chinese-American literature. The word ‘pidgin’ is thought to come from the Cantonese pronunciation of the English ‘business’. Pidgin English initially referred to non-standard English spoken by Chinese people, usually for business purposes in trading ports of China in the seventeenth century. Later, with the continuous invasion of foreign colonizing powers, pidgin was widely used in the treaty ports, especially in the foreign concessions, as the language of communication between foreigners and their native menials, until the disbanding of foreign settlements in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party came to power. Ashcroft et al. define pidgins as ‘languages serving as lingua franca, that is, they are used as a medium of communication between groups who have no other language in common’. [2] Whereas the definition explains the function of pidgin, it glosses over the inequality, at least in the case of Chinese Pidgin English, of the power relationship in the actual practice between two parties in which one group uses pidgin. The adoption of Pidgin English by the Chinese is based on the recognition of the power and privilege of the party who speak Standard English and do not bother to learn the native language, and the assumption of their own inferior status.

In my discussion of Chinese American culture and history, pidgin refers to the English language spoken by Chinese immigrants who have no chance of getting a formal English education and whose English is strongly accented and ungrammatical. Chinese Pidgin English is composed of a rudimentary and limited English vocabulary fitting into the spoken Chinese syntax with little regard for grammar. In Chinese, function words, prepositions and articles are often omitted and there are few pronoun forms and these are optional. Besides, verb tense in Chinese is only indicated by a few function words which are sometimes dispensable, and it does not involve any morphological change of the verb. Therefore, within the syntax of Chinese, Pidgin English seems fragmentary and illogical.

In American popular culture, there has been a long history of representing Chinese Pidgin English for its comic and often demeaning effect. Elaine H. Kim notes that the broken English spoken by the alien Chinese in American public perception is ‘characterized by high-pitched, sing-song tones, tortured syntax, the confounding of l’s and r’s, the proliferation of ee-endings, and the random omission of articles and auxiliary verbs’. [3] Her summary points out some common features of Chinese Pidgin English, yet we should note that Chinese Pidgin English itself is not a homogenized form. Especially as a spoken language, it is strongly influenced by the speaker’s dialect. Because of the heterogeneity of Chinese immigrant composition, Chinese Pidgin English differs from one group to another. In other words, Pidgin English has its own dialects. Pidgin English spoken by Cantonese, therefore, sounds different from that spoken by Shanghainese. In fact, locals of Shanghai have their own name for Pidgin English, yang-jing-bang English, named for the river which divides the British and French concessions in Shanghai. To a discerning ear, Brave Orchid, a character from Canton in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and the Joy Luck Club mothers, from different parts of China, in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club would not sound the same when they speak English, although their language might share some syntactic similarities. Nevertheless, conceived of as broken and ungrammatical, the Chinese Pidgin English spoken by the immigrant generation is taken as evidence of their intellectual as well as cultural inferiority, and perpetuates the demeaning stereotype and justifies the discrimination against them.

However, the irony is that, to Chinese immigrants, the English language is at once the language by which they are judged and of which they are dispossessed. Compared with other colonized people in colonies, Chinese immigrants in America are more compelled to use the dominant language and its culture out of both the immediate and practical need and the subjugating and homogenizing need of the mainstream society. Yet the urgent need of the language acquisition is in conflict with the actual condition of the language segregation. A major proportion of Chinese immigrants before the 1960s were from the rural, southern Chinese working class who had little or no education in China, not to mention an approach to the learning of English. Moreover, given the extreme differences between the Chinese and English linguistic systems, mastery of the language is not easy even with systematic teaching and learning, and it is all the more difficult for adult learners. When they came to America, their laborious menial work gave them neither access to informed contact with English, nor spare money or time to learn English in an educated way. Their incompetence in English, in turn, gave the white society excuses either to reject them in the job market or restrict them to a limited range of physical jobs. To the working class immigrant generation, any acquisition of English was largely the random picking-up of the words and phrases they came across. For language and cultural security, they stayed in their ethnic enclaves, the ‘Chinatowns’, which became linguistic ghettos and bred a Pidgin English that itself speaks to the life of Chinese immigrants, as shown in phrases based on the stereotypical miming, such as ‘no tickee, no washee’.

While Pidgin English is a more noticeable phenomenon among the immigrant generation, their children, affected by the linguistic situation at home and in the neighbourhood, are also likely to display a deficiency in the English language. According to the 1990 Census, ‘56 per cent of Asian Americans aged five or over did not speak English “very well” and 35 percent were “linguistically isolated”’. [4] Worries were expressed that the increasing population who could not speak English threatened the coherence and integrity of the nation, as the country might lose a common reference point that bonds all citizens. However, instead of getting assistance from the government, Chinese Americans have encountered the legal dispossession of the chances to learn English even in the 1990s. Benson Tong observes the most vexing problem within the student population of Chinese Americans is their poor English proficiency. Yet the legal decisions of the government have only exacerbated the problem:

[T]he English Fluency Act … requires the removal of limited-English proficiency (LEP) students from bilingual classrooms within two years of their entry. The law also bars funding for programs offering assistance to LEP students who have been in such programs for more than three years. [5]

While laws that have the effect of discouraging the English language acquisition have been issued, the city council of Monterey Park (the first suburban Chinatown) in Los Angeles passed an ordinance in 1986 to make English the only official language because the presence of signs in Chinese reminded the white residents that the community was no longer in their control. [6]

Chinese Americans, especially the native-born second generation, have been denied ownership of both English and Chinese. ‘Frank Chin summarizes the situation for his generation of writers in “Backtalk”: “we are a people without a native tongue”’. [7] The linguistic alienation leads to anxiety about speech and inability to use the tongue. In The Woman Warrior, for example, Maxine Hong Kingston portrays a scene in which the narrator physically and verbally abuses a quiet girl in the bathroom of a Chinese school, repeatedly forcing her to speak. The narrator demands the girl talk: ‘You do have a tongue….So use it’. [8] During the painful and protracted persecution, the girl does not utter a single meaningful word, but instead, produces ‘sobs, chokes, noises that were almost words’. [9] The description of a Chinese American child making incomprehensible pre-linguistic noises is similar to that in China Boy quoted above. While the scene has been analyzed through many different approaches, it can be interpreted as the narrator’s own fear of the dysfunction of her split tongue projected onto this quiet Chinese American girl. [10] However, as shown in these two examples, the distinctive heteroglossic feature of Chinese American literature at once owes much to and reflects tensions, suppressions and dysfunctions of the particular linguistic situation of Chinese American families. Although speaking in a different context, Judith Butler points out ‘a dual possibility’ of language that is also applicable to the linguistic situation of Chinese Americans:

[Language] can be used to assert a true and inclusive universality of persons, or it can institute a hierarchy in which only some persons are eligible to speak and others, by virtue of their exclusion from the universal point of view, cannot ‘speak’ without simultaneously deauthorizing that speech. [11]

To employ language in this sense becomes a potent and subversive act. Literary expressions of Chinese Americans can thus be seen as an act that reclaims their ownership of language and asserts their sovereignty while challenging the authorized language.

In ‘Mother Tongue’, Amy Tan recalls the different registers of English she has adopted and uses ’mother tongue’ to describe the language she uses in her writing, that is, ‘all the Englishes’ she grew up with:

the English I spoke to my mother, which for lack of a better term might be described as ‘simple’; the English she used with me, which for lack of a better term might be described as ‘broken’; my translation of her Chinese, which could certainly be described as ‘watered down’; and what I imagined to be her translation of her Chinese if she could speak in perfect English, her internal language, and for that I sought to preserve the essence, but neither an English nor a Chinese structure. [12]

The usual identification of ‘mother tongue’ to describe one’s native language and a parent’s language does not hold in the linguistic situation of second-generation Chinese Americans. Knowing two languages is, in fact, ‘a special kind of double bind’ for the child of immigrant parents. [13] The mother tongue, in Tan’s definition, is not naturally acquired and monolithic, but attributed with contingent characteristics prone to circumstantial mediation and appropriation of translation. In other words, Tan herself becomes the mother of this language; it is a language of her own creation. In addition, by incorporating her mother’s sub-standard English, Tan denies the stratification of social status based on one’s English competence. Nominally English, her ‘mother tongue’ combines both English and Chinese, and otherness is thus an inherent and integral part of this form of English. The ‘other tongue’ is embedded in ‘mother tongue’. Tan’s pluralizing of ‘English’ is analogous with Ashcroft et al.’s analysis of ‘englishes’ in post-colonial writing, although Ashcroft et al. choose to put into lower-case other forms of English, implying derivation as well as subordination. Their discussion of language in post-colonial writing theorizes what Tan’s essay explains at the experiential level and aptly applies to Chinese American literature.

In The Empire Writes Back, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin examine the gap between the experience of place and the language available to describe it in post-colonial texts. Ashcroft et al. observe that:

this gap occurs for those whose language seems inadequate to describe a new place, for those whose language is systematically destroyed by enslavement, and for those whose language has been rendered unprivileged by the imposition of the language of a colonizing power. [14]

In post-colonial writing which features the hybridized nature of post-colonial experience, the gap is employed to wield ‘textual strategies’ that ‘[seize] the language of the centre and [re-place] it in a discourse fully adapted to the colonized place’. [15] Ashcroft et al. note two distinct processes in replacing ‘English’ with ‘englishes’, the abrogation or denial of ‘English’ and the appropriation and reconstitution of the language. As a result, this literature is always:

written out of the tension between the abrogation of the received English which speaks from the centre, and the act of appropriation which brings it under the influence of a vernacular tongue, the complex of speech habits which characterize the local language, or even the evolving and distinguishing local english of a monolingual society trying to establish its link with place. [16]

In a post-colonial context, English and its variants intersect and create separation from, comparison with and subversion of the authority and authenticity of Standard English and the imperial culture and power it represents. The language variant can thus be held to be metonymic of the culture which produces it. Ashcroft et al., in the meantime, reject the essentialist view that the adoption of the vernacular or Creole, especially untranslated words, in a post-colonial text embodies an authentic indigenous culture. Instead, the important function it has is to ‘[inscribe] difference’. [17] The language variant is itself a matter of invention and construction; so are the signs of identity and of difference. Dynamic possibilities are, therefore, available to, at once, maintain distance and otherness and appropriate the language of the centre of power. While emphasizing the constitution of meaning within the text, Ashcroft et al acknowledge that a new set of presuppositions ensuing from the interchange of cultures in the text is likely to be ‘taken as the cultural reality of the Other’. [18] By according the writer the role of ‘the first interpreter’, Ashcroft et al. preclude the reading of the post-colonial writing as an authentic record of the post-colonial experience and align the writer with the reader as they share ‘that interpretive territory’. [19] The ‘interpretive territory’ suggests a dialogic relationship between the writer and the reader, and thus allows possibilities of different interpretations and re-interpretations.

However, the designation of ‘interpretive territory’, in my view, does not automatically pre-empt the ethnographical authenticity assumed in writing as well as in reading. Sau-ling Cynthia Wong’s reading of Amy Tan’s works provides a pertinent example to complicate Ashcroft et al.’s theory of ‘re-placing language’ in post-colonial writing. Situated in the context of Asian American women’s narratives and Western feminism, Wong’s attempt to account for the particular success of Amy Tan points to the problematic ethnic representation and identity construction, and their relationship to the specific readership of mainstream American feminism. [20] Teasing out the various elements of Tan’s prose style and the narrative frames that are ‘temporal distancing’ and ‘authenticity-marking’, Wong critiques the ‘quasi-ethnographic Orientalist discourse’ Tan creates in submission to ‘The Persistent Allure of Orientalism’. [21] Wong bases a large part of her argument on the discussion of Tan’s solecism in her translation of and explanation for Chinese language and culture. ‘Sugar Sisterhood’ is derived from the phrase ‘sugar sister’ used by the character Winnie in Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife. Tan translates tang jie, a term from the Chinese kinship system which refers to the elder female cousin in the paternal line, into ‘sugar sister’ as a result of confusion between two Chinese homophones. [22] The term ‘sugar sisterhood’ therefore,

[designates] the kind of readership Amy Tan has acquired, especially among white women, through acts of cultural interpreting and cultural empathy that appear to possess the authority of authenticity but are often products of the American-born writer’s own heavily mediated understanding of things Chinese. [23]

While tang jie itself is not a term of endearment as Tan suggests, the translation, Wong seems to say, is emblematic of Tan’s endearment to the mainstream white sisters. Examples of the sort that are made of romanized words and other explanatory asides are plentiful, yet most of them, according to Wong, are ‘gratuitous’ details that have ‘limited, at times nonexistent, utility in structural or informational terms’. [24] They signify that the author has adopted a stance of ‘a knowledgeable cultural insider and a competent guide’, and with her ‘declarative modality’ of narration, Tan composes quasi-ethnography about the Orient that can be readily interpreted within the existent Orientalist frame. [25] In the meantime, Wong also admits the counter-Orientalist gestures in Tan’s works, as Tan was inevitably influenced by the ethnic consciousness movement of the 1960s, the era in which she grew up. Tan’s cultural mediation, in Wong’s analysis, is a source of ambiguity, offering both Orientalist and counter-Orientalist interpretative possibilities, although the former are a far more overwhelming presence.

Reading Wong’s criticism alongside Ashcroft et al.’s theory shows, that essentialist though it might be, an ethnographic mode of writing and reading can be taken as one form of interpretation. Despite many critics’ efforts to resist the reading of Tan’s novels as lessons on Chinese culture, they are repeatedly sought for, as well as lauded for, the specificity of their authentic cultural descriptions. [26] Besides, the insertion of ‘englishes’ and other languages, while opposing the normative mode of ‘English’, does not necessarily oppose the Othering upon which the colonizing discourse is premised. In short, strategies of appropriation are not always equivalent to strategies of intervention employed to reverse the denigration of the local culture and challenge the supposedly superiority of the racial and cultural model of the dominant power. What is at issue is how ethnic linguistic practice is appropriated in the English context and what is attempted in the appropriation. On the whole, Tan’s ‘mother tongue’, in Wong’s criticism, is a strategy of invention rather than intervention, claiming the ownership of the language by being complicit with, instead of subverting, the hegemony.

I agree with Wong’s interpretation of Orientalism in Amy Tan’s writing and the Amy Tan phenomenon, especially considering the demand for signs of authenticity in the mainstream book market. However, it should be pointed out that doubts about the accuracy of the second generation’s translation of their parents’ language and culture are also implied in Chinese American texts. The daughters’ ruminations on their communications, or rather lack of them, with their mothers, and their frustrations over what is lost in translation are reflective of ‘the dilemmas’ Amy Tan ‘felt growing up in a bicultural, bilingual family’. [27] In The Joy Luck Club, Jing-mei, recalls that ‘my mother and I spoke two different languages, which we did’. [28] She talks to her mother, Suyuan, in English and her mother answers in Chinese. Jing-mei concludes that they ‘never really understood one another’: ‘We translated each other’s meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more’. [29] Another character, Lena St. Clair, makes a similar observation: ‘When we were alone, my mother would speak in Chinese, saying things my father could not possibly imagine. I could understand the words perfectly, but not the meanings’. [30] The words are depleted of their full meaning in translation. What is signified does not get across in the signifying process. Leila in Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone also notes the untranslatability literally and emotionally between the Chinese mother and the American daughter: ‘This wasn’t the first time I’d done something and not told, I have a whole different vocabulary of feeling in English than in Chinese, and not everything can be translated’. [31] Leila’s mother, too, ‘had a world of words that were beyond [Leila]’. [32] Ruth, in Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter, only comes to know the full story of her mother through the translation of a Chinese immigrant. Her understanding of the sound gu refers to different Chinese characters with vastly different meanings: ‘old’, ‘gorge’, ‘bone’, also ‘thigh’, ‘blind’, ‘grain’, ‘merchant’. [33] The meaning in this case is dispersed and, consequently, lost in the inadequate translation by the second generation. That Chinese sounds are sometimes no more than the superficial sign of cultural difference is seen in the young Mona’s ad-libbing of Chinese in Gish Gen’s Mona in the Promised Land. Having picked up random phrases of the Shanghai dialect from her mother, Mona impresses her friends with her knowledge of Chinese, telling them, ‘Byeh fa-foon’ and ‘Shee-veh. Ji-nu’, even though these translate as ‘Stop acting crazy. Rice gruel. Soy sauce’. [34] However, apart from the second generation’s incompetence in their mothers’ tongue as a result of social and educational policies and different cultural and social contexts, the different historical references and subject positions of the two generations also lead to the transfiguration and displacement of the meaning of the language. As the following analysis of Gus Lee’s China Boy will show, for the second generation language becomes a site where culture and identity are fought over, negotiated, displaced and transformed.

Gus Lee’s novel China Boy can be read as the epitome of the second generation’s forming its voice in the struggle with a master’s tongue that mutes its articulation in the cacophony of the ethnic Babel. Thinly disguised as a novel, China Boy is Lee’s autobiography recounting his turbulent childhood experience and rites of passage in San Francisco in the 1950s. The family lives in the Panhandle, ‘the dead center of the city’ populated by poor black people. (3) The narrator Kai Ting’s father, T. K. Ting, once an outstanding Nationalist army officer in China, becomes an unsuccessful banker in America. Kai’s mother, beautiful and learned, dies early of cancer. Her death leaves the two youngest children, Janie and Kai, in unredeemable mourning for their wretched lives at the hands of their stepmother, Edna. A blond Philadelphia socialite, Edna exercises an overbearing control over the family. Deprived of love and home security, Kai, frail and once the indulged ‘Only Son’, is forced to stay in the street where he is the target of bullying. His father decides to send him to the Y.M.C.A to learn to fight, and this proves to be a transforming experience. With the help of the Y.M.C.A staff member, Kai devises a plan and finally beats the most feared bully in the gang, Big Willie. The victory gives him the courage to assume a fighting stance and utter his declaration of independence to his tyrannical white stepmother: ‘You not my Mah-mee! I ain’t fo’ yo’ pickin’ on, no mo’!’ (322) Kai delivers his two-part declaration in dual dialects, the former in Pidgin English, the latter in African American street English. While the construction of racial and ethnic masculinity in the acts of violence and assimilation is the predominant theme of the novel, I would like to focus on the ways that language, mainly Chinese, functions in this novel and announces the emergence of a unique Chinese American voice and identity. [35]

Kai’s physical vulnerability correlates to his linguistic incompetence. Together with his assertion of physical strength also emerges his confidence to deny the imposition of ‘American English’ and acquire his own language. To Kai, the death of his mother means not only the loss of mother, but also of mother tongue: ‘Our mother’s absence had caught me between languages. My Song-hai was pitiful, my Mandarin worse. My English was fractured. My Cantonese was nonexistent’. (50) Edna’s arrival worsens the situation because of her ruthless imposition of the ‘English only’ policy. Kai first of all senses her power through her ‘words—an incessant, articulate torrent of elevated vocabulary uttered with careful diction and unmistakable menace’. (73) She calls Chinese ‘barbaric speech’ and refers to Kai’s mother as ‘illiterate’, announcing that ‘we are only to speak English henceforth. Absolutely no Chinese, in any form’ and ‘there will be no breaching of this policy’. (58, 78, 77) In this legal-sounding language, which Gus Lee humorously describes as having ‘the formality of a Vatican edict’, he implies the institutional exclusion of Chinese and imposition of English from American society at large. (77) Yichin Shen notes that Edna’s knowledge of English ‘becomes a mode of surveillance, regulation, and discipline’ which she intentionally ‘turns into a disciplinary power to suppress and subjugate the linguistic and cultural other’. [36] The ‘English only’ policy has to work on the premise of the removal of the other culture which can only be expressed in the other language. Hence, no Chinese food, Chinese songs, Chinese friends, or even mention of the Chinese mother are allowed in the house. Edna’s act of cultural violence culminates in her burning of the crate which contains family memories: the photo albums, mother’s wedding gown, ‘filthy foreign books’, ‘awful Chinese pens and dirty inks’, and father’s ‘identity papers, photos and letters from war buddies, his old uniforms and Sam Browne belts’. (85) By burning the crate, Edna tries to sever the family’s links to the past and ensure her privileged position by designating the linguistic and cultural hierarchy in the house. Such an act carried out with hardly any protest from T. K. Ting, the patriarchal head of the family, can only be exercised with the given notion of the inferiority of Chinese culture and the granted supremacy and statutory authority of Edna, a white American. [37] Edna personifies the relentless cultural chauvinism and containment, and elimination of the Other in the process of forced Americanization.

Under such circumstances, Kai’s, as well as Gus Lee’s, adherence to the use of Chinese is an attempt to resist the dispossession of their mother tongue, reconstruct a lost home of security and love, and salvage a few words and phrases from the ashes of the brief and ruined culture of the family. Such an effort cannot possibly lead to a recovery of some pure and unsullied cultural condition, and such practices cannot possibly embody an authentic culture. Confusion is inevitable, and errors are abundant, especially as the Chinese, as perceived by Kai, ‘are wizards at homonyms; one word has a hundred definitions’. [38] Kai’s story is scattered with romanized and italicized words of Chinese, mostly in Shanghai dialect, the tongue of Kai’s deceased mother. Different forms of Ashcroft et al’s categorization of the existence of the Other’s language and culture in a post-colonial English text can be found in this book. Lee noticeably utilizes what Ashcroft et al. consider as ‘the most common method of inscribing alterity’—code-switching, alternating between the narrator’s narration in standard English and the dialogue of the characters in other Englishes, Chinese Pidgin English and Black English. [39]

Lee uses syntactic fusion in two forms. One is the kind of syntactic fusion described by Ashcroft et al., or Pidgin English in the Chinese American context, which fuses the lexical forms of English with the syntax of Chinese and sometimes with indication of Chinese accent, such as ‘Why no use rift?’ and ‘I know I’flaid, ‘fraid. I know I feeling, velee very, big-time…’. (248, 307) The latter example shows Kai’s conscious and strenuous effort to speak ‘correct’ English, as demanded by Edna and the society she represents, yet the syntax of Pidgin English still remains. The other form of syntactic fusion Lee uses is to marry the lexical forms of Chinese with the syntax of English in a way that I would term as ‘Pidgin Chinese’. For example, Kai comments about the people in the Y.M.C.A that they are Hun hau ren, translating word for word the English expression ‘very nice people’. (168) When Kai prays to God, he uses Songhai. While Lee renders this direct speech in Pidgin English, he leaves a couple of words in Chinese. One of them is hao dao, translated verbally from the English ‘right way’. (94) That the italicized word is followed by the explanation indicates the adult narrator’s intention in this direct transcription. Examples such as these suggest that Kai is caught between the cleaving forces of the two languages and, as a result, his confusion over what is the ‘right way’. On the one hand, he wants to cling to his mother tongue, the language of love and home, or in his own words, ‘God’s language’. (94) On the other hand, the losing of his mother tongue, together with what the mother tongue signifies, is ineluctable when the adoption of stepmother and stepmother tongue is forced upon him.

Literal translation is another method Lee employs in creating a Babel-like effect in the text. One typical example is Lee’s translation of xiansheng, a common honorific meaning ‘sir’, or ‘gentleman’, or ‘Mister’ when used with the surname. At times, Lee renders it Syensheng in a transliteration of the Shanghai dialect. Occasionally, Lee literally translates it into ‘Before Born’. The purpose for the appropriation is suggested in Uncle Shim’s speech in a gathering of the Chinatown clan elders, to which Kai is invited and placed at the centre of their ceremony:

We were all born in the nineteenth century. We are men of the past age. This little boy…is our memory…. We drink to the boy…because we have our youth back again, for a night. Ha! When would we have ever stood for a child back in the Middle Kingdom? Never! But here, we have only the memory of what a child represents to us. We ask him to remember us, and thank him for being our collective Only Son. Gambei, Before Borns! (252)

‘Before Born’ can be interpreted both as ‘born before the present’ and ‘the birth yet to come’. This deliberate rendering, though almost a mistranslation, conveys paradoxically the past, represented by these elders, which is at once moribund in its disconnection from China and reincarnation in the American present. The older generation invites and views the spectacle of its own demise and the emergence of a new generation from the ruins. Under the pressure of forced assimilation, the residue of the past can only survive and be (mis)translated in the personal memory of the ‘After Born’, the little boy Kai and the adult narrator Gus Lee. [40] Mistranslation therefore becomes the evidence, the artifice as well as the metaphor of the re-contextualization of a displaced culture.

This is more clearly reflected in Lee’s many references to the traditional Chinese system of scholarship and Confucianism in what Ashcroft et al. term as ‘glossing’ and ‘untranslated’ words, such as ‘Chien Shur’, ‘chuan yuan’, and ‘Chingsu, the Forest of Brush Pens’. [41] Uncle Shim, being a Chien Shur, tries to inculcate Kai with the notion of Chinese scholarship, especially in terms of the advancing of scholars in the three levels of imperial examination. One afternoon, he speaks to Kai’s mother, ‘See here, how do you expect your son to become a Chu-ren, a Recommended Man for Metropolitan Rank, if you do not read him the Sheng-Yu, the Sacred Edict, or the Four Treasuries, on the first and fifteenth days of every month?’ (207) To that Kai’s mother replies, ‘The entire system of Hsiu-ts’ai, of Flowering Talent, is gone. What if My Son were to study to become a Chien-sher? [sic] Who would proctor the pen? What post would he assume, when we cannot even go home?’ (208) Indeed, the imperial examination is not only non-existent in America, but was abolished in China in 1905, four decades before the family came to America. These obsolete notions that are vaguely implanted in Kai’s mind and that the adult narrator recalls incorrectly only suggest the unattainability of the alternative to the violent rite of passage Kai is forced to experience on the American land. Lee polarizes the Chinese and American conception of masculinity: for the Chinese, masculinity is measured with one’s achievement in scholarship, while for the Americans, masculinity is synonymous with muscularity. The Chinese American boy Kai will eventually arrive at the pinnacle of American masculinity, West Point, the experience of which Lee recounts in a less fragmented voice in his second semi-autobiographical novel, Honor and Duty.

Standing up to Edna in two Englishes, Pidgin English and Black English, Kai also says no to her linguistic tyranny and affirms his associations with the Chinese and African American heritage in his identity formation. Ironically, Lee expresses his gratitude towards his stepmother ‘for English’ in the acknowledgements. The writer makes use of his fluency in English, traumatic as the process is, to re-voice that censoring and forge a new composite and tellingly discontinuous voice. English is simultaneously resisted and adulterated, as effected by writings such as China Boy, which are written within and against the dominant language.

As for the Chinese language, although the mark and marketing of authenticity by including incorrect Chinese translations and explanations for Chinese culture might be deplored, we should bear in mind the institutional dispossession and linguistic environment in America, and which lead to the re-contextualization of the Chinese language and, consequently, the reconfiguration of the meaning. For second-generation Chinese Americans, the separation from the mother’s tongue and the master’s tongue signifies the process of individuation in finding their own reality and space and their own language and authority. The assemblage of Englishes therefore is not only a signifier of a radical Otherness, but also forms a space for articulating identity and difference and enables a process that governs the cultural and historical reconstitution of a Chinese American subjectivity.

University of Nottingham


[1] Gus Lee, China Boy (London: Robert Hale, 1992), p.75. All further references will be made parenthetically within the body of the text.

[2] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 1998), p.176.

[3] Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), p.12.

[4] Edward Ashbee, American Society Today (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p.114.

[5] Benson Tong, The Chinese Americans (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), p.138.

[6] Tong, p.114.

[7] Cited in David Leiwei Li, Imagining the Nation: Asian American Literature and Cultural Consent (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 39.

[8] Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (London: Pan Books, 1981), p.160.

[9] Kingston, p.160.

[10] For example, Sau-ling Cynthia Wong interprets the quiet Chinese girl who the narrator tortures as her second self and interprets the scene as one about ‘the racial shadow’, while Anne Anlin Cheng, taking a psychoanalytical approach, reads the scene as ‘the narrator’s most manifest bout of hypochondriacal suffering’. Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 86-88; Anne Anlin Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.73.

[11] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1999), p.153.

[12] Amy Tan, ‘Mother Tongue’, in The Opposite of Fate (London: Flamingo, 2003), pp.271-279 (pp.278-9).

[13] Amy Tan, ‘The Language of Discretion’, in The Opposite of Fate (London: Flamingo, 2003), pp. 280-290 (p.284).

[14] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literature, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2002), p.9.

[15] Ashcroft, et al., The Empire Writes Back, p.37.

[16] Ashcroft, et al., The Empire Writes Back, p.38.

[17] Ashcroft, et al., The Empire Writes Back, p.52.

[18] Ashcroft, et al., The Empire Writes Back, p.57.

[19] Ashcroft, et al., The Empire Writes Back, p.60.

[20] Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, ‘“Sugar Sisterhood”: Situating the Amy Tan Phenomenon’ in The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, ed. by David Palumbo-Liu (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), pp.174 – 210.

[21] Wong, ‘Sugar Sisterhood’, pp.184 and 180.

[22]Amy Tan, The Kitchen God’s Wife (London: Flamingo, 1992). It is difficult to tell whether Tan’s confusion is deliberate or not. According to Wong, it is a deliberate mistranslation, while I think it is possible that such a mistranslation is due to her incompetence in Chinese.

[23] Wong, ‘Sugar Sisterhood’, p.181.

[24] Wong, ‘Sugar Sisterhood’, pp.181 and 188.

[25] Wong, ‘Sugar Sisterhood’, pp.188 and 194 – 196.

[26] While Chinese astrology, wu-hsing (the Five Elements) and feng shui have long proved scientifically unsound, and are sometimes deemed ‘superstition’ in China, Patricia L. Hamilton reads Tan’s references to these practices in The Joy Luck Club as an authentic and literal interpretation of what they mean and how instrumental they are to Chinese daily life, and a systematic employment in charting the gap and clash between Chinese mothers and their American daughters, despite the suspicions and irony Tan indicates in her works. Patricia L. Hamilton, ‘Feng Shui, Astrology, and the Five Elements: Traditional Chinese Belief in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club’, MELUS 24:2 (1999), 125- 145

[27] Tan, ‘The Language of Discretion’, p.284.

[28] Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (London: Minerva, 1994), pp.33-34.

[29] Tan, The Joy Luck Club, p.37.

[30] Tan, The Joy Luck Club, p.106.

[31] Fae Ng, Bone (New York: Hyperion, 1993), p.18.

[32] Ng, p.22.

[33] Amy Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter (London: Flamingo, 2001), p. 335.

[34] Gish Jen, Mona in the Promised Land (London, Granta Books, 1998), pp. 5-6. Even Mona’s transliteration is not correctly rendered. These words would sound more like Vyeh fa-foon, Shee-veh and Jiang-yu.

[35] For the discussion of racial and ethnic identity and masculinity, see Viet Thanh Nguyen, Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Cheryl Alexander Malcolm, ‘Going for the Knockout: Confronting Whiteness in Gus Lee’s China Boy’, MELUS 29:3/4 (2004) < >[accessed 10 May 2005]; and Yichin Shen, ‘The Site of Domestic Violence and the Altar of Phallic Sacrifice in Gus Lee’s China Boy’, College Literature 29:2 (2002) <> [accessed 10 May 2005].

[36] Shen.

[37] Ironically, this designation of the Chinese as primordial and uncivilized is also conveyed in the design of the front cover of China Boy. On the yellow background is a figure of a boy standing with his head lowered, over which is superimposed a partial side portrait of a young man with a melancholic yet determined look. The bare-footed boy wears tattered blue clothes, and half of his head is overshadowed by a cone-shaped straw hat which was usually seen in the rural areas of southern China in the past. The designer seems to ignore the fact that Kai is a Chinese American boy living in San Francisco, whose family comes from an upper-class background in Shanghai and instead imposes on Kai his own conception of a peasant-looking ‘China Boy’.

[38] Lee, p. 21. The error is most tellingly seen in Lee’s explanation of Kai’s name: ‘Kai takes eight pen strokes. It means ‘reform’, ‘educate’, ‘improve’.” (p.47-8) In fact, no Chinese character can be found that fits the pronunciation, the number of strokes and the meaning Lee describes. Other examples are the explanation for the traditional Chinese festival for the commemoration of the dead, Ching ming, as ‘shiny bright’, and the reference to ‘the Goddess of Fertility’ as ‘the Yin’. (pp. 39 and 25)

[39] Ashcroft, et al., The Empire Writes Back, p.71.

[40] ‘After Born’ is my translation of young man (housheng, 后生) in Chinese in the way Lee translates xiansheng (先生).

[41] Chien Shur (jin shi, 进士) means a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations; chuan yuan (zhuang yuan, 状元) is the title conferred on the one who came first in the highest imperial examination, Hsiu-ts’ai (xiu cai, 秀才) and Chu-ren (ju ren, 举人)’ in the following quotations are titles respectively for the one who was a successful candidate at the county and provincial level; ‘The Forest of Brush Pens’ is ‘Hanlin, (翰林)’, meaning a member of the Imperial Academy, which Gus Lee puts right in his second novel Honor and Duty; ‘Chingsu (jing shu, 经书)’ refers collectively to Confucius classics. However, Lee’s transliteration does not follow accurately Wade-Giles system for the romanization of Chinese which he seems to adopt. Pinyin system is used in my explanation.