"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I was once attacked as an imperialist for spelling the name of the Chinese province Sichuan as Szechwan. This was not totally without grounds — “Szechwan” is the “Postal pinyin” romanization, which itself was based on the Wade-Giles system cooked up by two British diplomats and Cambridge professors of Chinese, Thomas Francis Wade and Herbert Giles. Since Wade, before becoming a diplomat or a professor, was a soldier who fought in the Opium Wars, I can quite understand the sentiment that led China to reject his system and adopt its own, hanyu pinyin. But my use of the word was neither Orientalist, or a sign of anti-Communism (even though such an accusation might be a little closer to the mark, given my past residence in Taiwan and sympathy for Taiwanese independence aspirations). The real story: that’s how the word was spelled in the cookbook “Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook.” Since Mrs. Chiang’s instructions taught me how to cook, I spell the word that way as my personal enduring tribute.
In any event, as a student of Chinese I have long perforce been required to be sensitive to the intricacies involved in judging rival Romanization schemes, as well as alternative methods of writing Chinese characters and the near infinite complexity of Chinese dictionary lookup strategies. So it was with some dismay that I learned today that for almost a decade there has been a raging Chinese orthography controversy about which I knew nothing. That’s enough to get one’s Chinese geek credentials revoked, on the spot, with no chance of appeal.
From Michael Turton’s “The View From Taiwan” I have learned that expatriates in Taiwan are squabbling about the government’s attempts to put into effect yet another romanization system, known as tongyong pinyin. Unlike mainland China, Taiwan has never been able to settle upon one approved way to represent the Chinese language in the Roman alphabet. Street signs in Taiwan are a mad mix of Wade Giles, and at least three other systems: Postal System Pinyin, Yale and Gwoyeu Romatzyh — which deserves special consideration because it provides a different spelling for each of the four tonal possibilities for every Chinese phoneme.
I always kind of thrived on the confusion — a point to which I shall return in a moment — but for many foreigners, the multiplicity of Romanizations was exasperating. Since nearly all foreign students of Chinese have to learn hanyu pinyin anyway, I can understand their bridling at the government’s efforts to impose yet another system.
To some, that exasperation is its own strand of neocolonialism. I wouldn’t go that far. I understand the sensitivities of Taiwanese politics, but as one Tawainese scholar put it, “the political correctness of dechinaization” — meaning, the desire to avoid being sucked entirely into the mainland cultural maw — may still engender more confusion than clarity.
After all, come on! It’s just kooky that the single sound spelled in hanyu pinyin as “que” (hanyu pinyin) can also be represented as ch’ueh, chiue, chywe, cyue, chyue, cheue and chiueh? Who needs that kind of aggravation?
Then again, I also feel the urge to say, if you wanted to study an easy language, why didn’t you choose Esperanto? Chinese is supposed to be hard. Indeed, that’s why some of us like it.
Enough with this this minor-league griping about rival phonetic systems! You want a real major-league battle? How about the question, popular with some academics and weary dictionary flippers, as to whether or not China should just scrap its whole character-based system. There is an entire school of thought, well represented by the reading selections at Pinyin.Info, that makes that very case: the Chinese writing system holds back creativity, encourages illiteracy, and may even be responsible for China’s failure to industrialize. The Chinese Communists created a “simplified” version of the traditional character set because they felt it was holding the peasantry back from learning how to read. But why go halfway? Junk the whole thing!
On those all too rare occasions when I sit down with my dictionaries and strive to make renewed progress in my understanding of the Chinese language, I am reminded, every time I enounter a strange or forgotten character, of why I fell in love with Chinese in the first place. It is not just the depth and richness of thousands of years of culture and history that are embedded in the many thousands of intricate ideograms. It is in the very fact that I am not sure which dictionary to reach for, or which method to use for identifying a given character. This is not the place to discourse on such techniques — the point is, there is no right or even sure way to proceed. To make sense out of mystery I have to be patient, use all my wits, follow many long and winding and ultimately frutiless paths, and be ready to accept that on some occasions I’m just not going to figure it out. But for me, that very process of understanding is the fun part.
I will admit, no rational person would design a language this way. But then, no rational person designed the world we live in either, but we can’t just replace it with one based on bedrock foundational principles. As we stumble about, we can look to no dictionary or encyclopedia that has all the answers: we’re stuck with a cacophony of conflicting theses, obscure data, and irrational idiocies. A foreigner zipping through Taipei on his motorcycle might be stunned at the sight of adjacent street signs with different spellings for the same words. But what he or she should realize is that such confusion is a truer representation of reality than the idea that there is one true spelling, one truth, one lingua franca. Let a hundred romanizations bloom, and a thousand characters contend.
Which brings me back to Wade and Giles. Anyone interested in the Chinese language, whether an expert or novice, would do well to read the transcript of a lecture that Herbert Giles gave at Columbia University in 1902. It is a fascinating introduction to the Chinese language that at once illustrates both its awesome complexity and its enduring powers of seduction. The occasion of the speech is Columbia’s decision to endow a professorship in Chinese studies, something that Giles considers quite admirable, given the small number of scholars in the field at the time. He even notes that “Twenty-five years ago there was but one professor of Chinese in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; and even that one spent his time more in adorning his profession than in imparting his knowledge to classes of eager students.”
I sat bolt upright in my cubicle upon reading that statement. The only person Giles could possibly be referring to would be Wade — the first professor of Chinese at Cambridge, and the original creator of the Romanization system that Giles later modified into its enduring form. I immediately went looking for more information.
Alas, there are still limits to the Internet’s capabilities. David McMullen’s “Chinese studies at Cambridge — wide-ranging scholarship from a doubtful start”, from the Magazine of the Cambridge Society, is not yet available online, and the initially promising “The Formation and Development of Sinology at Cambridge” by Que Weimin of the Department of History, Zhejiang University, turned out to be in Chinese, and I am currently without my dictionaries. But I did find a speech given by Giles’ great grandson, Giles Pickford, in Taiwan in 2005, on the occasion of the founding of a new museum. Pickford observed that Giles had made many enemies in his life, including…. Thomas Wade.
The plot thickens! Thomas Wade may have been a soldier in the infamous Opium Wars, giving heft to any theories of Wade-Giles Romanization as a tool of neocolonialist ideological oppression. But Giles, apparently, was something else. According to Pickford, “Giles was also disliked by the Christian Missionaries whose work he despised. This antagonism was contrary to British Government policy, which saw the work of the missionaries as entirely legitimate and beneficial. Giles disagreed, and made his disagreement very open and public… Giles was also unpopular with the British traders because he opposed the overcrowding of emigrant Chinese on British ships. In 1881 he was presented with a Red Umbrella by the Hsiamen Chinese Chamber of Commerce in recognition of this service to the Chinese people.”
All my adult life, the names Wade and Giles, the first two professors of Chinese at Cambridge, have been linked inseparably in my head, as I am sure is true for countless other students of Chinese. But how many know that the two men were enemies, or that one was opposed to missionary evangelization (also a sin in my book,) or was a powerful advocate for better treatment of Chinese by the British?
Just as, when I open a dictionary to start looking up a character, I have little idea where I am really headed, or what little gem of Chinese history or culture will emerge from the journey, I also often do not know exactly where I am going when I start investigating something I am going to write about in this blog. I thought it was amusing that expatriates in Taiwan are squabbling about various versions of Chinese Romanization. I had no idea I would end up being seduced by Professor Giles, or enraged by the cockamamie idea that the Chinese should do away with one of the great wonders of the world — their own written language.
In closing, two quotes, one from Professor Giles’ introduction to his Columbia lectures, and the other from a graduate student at Michigan a century later.
Professor Herbert Giles:
“It is not pretended that Chinese scholarship will be in any way advanced by this publication. The Lectures, slight in themselves, were never meant for advanced students, but rather to draw attention to, and possibly arouse some interest in, a subject which will occupy a larger space in the future than in the present or in the past.”
“Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed.”
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)