Chang Show-foong: Blissful Human Affairs – Sing Chu Literature Lectures Chapter Three (Part 2)
By Chou Sing Chu Foundation
Human Affairs: The Importance of the Past
“I really hope that the Chinese people can form a worldwide cultural union.” A day before delivering her lecture, Chang gave another talk at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Titled “Where is the fun? About teaching the Chinese language”, Chang first broached the topic and even proposed a representative for the union: Su Shi. Also known as Su Tungpo, Chang feels that Su Shi’s noble character makes him similar to the obligatory hero of every Western drama, and he should be able to galvanise Chinese culture enthusiasts across the globe into action. Chang lamented that she would be 96 years old in 2037, Su Shi’s 1,000th birthday, but hoped that a like-minded person will step up to shoulder the responsibility of promoting Chinese culture.
Chang’s talk in NTU covered a wide spectrum of anecdotes, deftly using worldly examples to reveal the interesting origins of many Chinese words. These anecdotes included the “coconut wine” mentioned by Su Shi, the actual meaning behind “斋” – which first surfaced in Yuan Dynasty to mean a study, and the Buddhist patchwork robe. Chang also revealed the origins of the Chinese name of Surabaya in Indonesia, Ipoh’s White Coffee, and local street food Bak Kut Teh.
Every Chinese word has an origin, and is a work of art. That is why Chang insists on writing each and every word by hand. She revealed that she would admire the aesthetics of the radicals in her free time, even in the middle of the night! The Chinese words for “green” and “black” are both radicals because they are part of the five primary colours in Chinese culture, in addition to the five directions in bearing and five elements of life. These represent part of how the Chinese seek to understand the world around us. “When you give it more thought, you will realise that the Chinese people’s attitude towards all things in life is one of sincerity.”
The charm of the Chinese language is not superficial; it is the appreciation that follows after understanding its contents. Chang illustrated using the example of the Chinese word “filial“ (孝). Comprised of two distinct words representing “old” (老) and “young” (子), the combined word brings out the loneliness of parents who are growing old, and how filial piety means so much more than just obligation.
Chang also shared two of her own experiences. She once travelled back home with her husband and thought that her distant relatives were just that – distant relations. However, one of her relatives, who had spent an entire life working on the farm, exclaimed, “We all ate from the same pot!” The raw emotions in this exclamation shattered her assumption. This relative was illiterate and unable to read words on paper, but was not blind to language. There was still wisdom and power in the language that had originated from the grassroots. In another encounter, she chanced upon a herd of galloping deer on Mongolia’s grassland. The resulting dust clouds instantly made her realise why the Chinese word (尘) for “dust” (塵) originally comprised of “deer” and “soil”. This earth-shattering experience left her thinking that the simplified Chinese word is wholly inadequate in describing that encounter.
Every word and sentence carries a meaning. It was no wonder that Chang revealed that her nostalgia in her writing was “half geographical and half historical”. Her love of language and culture is a timely reminder for us to go with the flow in life, but without forgetting to cherish our cultural heritage.
(Translated by Shawn Pang)
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