'Tomb Sweeping Day' distorts Chinese meaning of Qingming

By Thorsten Pattberg
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, April 2, 2013
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Citizens present flowers to their deceased relatives at a cemetery in Kunming, capital of southwest China's Yunnan Province, April 1, 2013, ahead of the Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, which falls on April 4 this year. [Xinhua]

Citizens present flowers to their deceased relatives at a cemetery in Kunming, capital of southwest China's Yunnan Province, April 1, 2013, ahead of the Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, which falls on April 4 this year. [Xinhua]

The Qingming Festival is upon us and most foreign media conveniently translate it as "Tomb Sweeping Day." This is sweet and simple, but maybe a greater service to global knowledge could be done if China's key concepts weren't translated at all, but adopted.

Obviously, the word Qingming looks and sounds rather un-European. Most Western journalists in China prefer a Chinese-free international language, and thus bend over backwards to replace important Chinese terms with Western vocabulary.

Qingming would have made a nice loanword, like kung fu or feng shui, but it wasn't meant to be. Although there are a billion Chinese speakers, qing and ming never quite made it into any Western lexicon. Why?

Although I agree that we can call the Qingming Festival whatever we want (there is no such thing as "cultural property rights," not yet); still, any translation is just that: a replacement.

Even more dubious is the practice to affix "Chinese" to random ideas, as in "Chinese Memorial Day" or "Chinese Ancestors Day." The occasional tourist loves familiarity, but why deprive educated readers from learning something new?

It's called the Qingming Festival.

It is well documented that the European missionaries in the past attempted to convert China to Christianity and tried to coin the Qingming Festival as "All Souls Day," which then, of course, would make it perfectly resemble a Roman Catholic holiday.

From such motives we see and learn: Why not turn the table and planetize Chinese names instead? China replacing US culture with a vengeance, anyone?

The truth of things

As Confucius once said: If the names are not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. This is known as the rectification of names, and it could save Qingming, Chunjie (commonly known as Spring Festival), Duanwu (commonly known as Double Fifth or Dragon Boat Festival) and a lot more holidays.

More could be said about socio-cultural originality and the future of global language; here only so much: Nations should compete for their terminologies, just as they compete for everything else.

Take Germany and her obsession with holiness. The German vernacular is based on Martin Luther's German translation of the (Latin) Bible, and, few remember, the Germans are the direct descendants of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that wherever those German scholars and philosophers ventured, they used biblical vocabulary to describe what they encountered. That's why German scholars called Confucius a "holy man" or "saint" (Heiliger), based on Saint Jerome or Saint Nikolas (alias Santa Claus). The correct term for Confucius is shengren.

The English language is equally challenged when it comes to accurately conveying Chinese ideas. The British call junzi a gentleman, no surprise. The Americans have no gentlemen, so they translate junzi as "the superior man." The Germans have no gentlemen either, and "superior man" is reserved, so they call junzi an "edler" meaning a person of noble blood. To sum up, all Europeans call junzi anything but junzi, which is quite a scandal.

Lack of promotion

Without hesitation, I would thus argue that the Chinese do not do enough to promote their own originality to the West. They, like the Japanese and Koreans perhaps, keep their great cultural inventions all to themselves, so to speak, which is a great pity to watch.

The fact that your author knows about the Qingming Festival or Chunjie is purely a function of my living here. In fact, had I not come to China, I would have never learned that China is a wenming, that it has shengren and junzi, that it aspires to datong, and that "Confucianism" isn't a religion, that's not even its correct name, but is rujia.

Some commentators have argued that it is pointless that the Qingming Festival, which had existed since the Zhou Dynasty in the 11th to 3rd centuries BC, could survive and escape Westernization.

This, of course, is the question about what do we respect more - a translation or the original?

Let us think carefully for a moment about who we want to be remembered as. Not what, but who. No matter what China is going to become, China will never recover her true originality if she tries to please the West on Western terms.

I have always believed that all cultures contributed to human knowledge. But in order to have Chinese originality be seen, you've got to write it down. The festival's name is Qingming.

Thorsten Pattberg is a linguist and research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies (IAHS), Peking University.

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