Sunday 30 October 2016

"Zhi Na"

It is rare for the taking of an oath itself to cause controversy. In the UK the only real controversy resulting from oath-taking is the long-standing refusal of members of Sinn Fein to swear the oath of allegiance to the queen to take their seats in the House of Commons - though the suspicion is that even if the oath requirement were waived they still would not take those seats much as they did not take their seats in the Irish Dail until the 1980's as this meant recognising Northern Ireland's constitutional status.

 In Hong Kong, however, this ordinarily straight-forward process has become the source of a great controversy. Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, newly elected to the LegCo seats for New Territories East and Kowloon West, both attempted to make oaths firstly to "the Hong Kong nation". Yau Wai-ching then went on to call the People's Republic of China the "People’s Re&*^%ing of Chee-na"

Believe it or not, but the part of this that appears to have caused the most offense was the description of China as "Chee-na" (支那 or "Zhi Na" in Hanyu Pinyin). Whilst this term might appear to be just another version of the term "China", and indeed comes from the same root, it taps into memories of (and more importantly, memories of education about) the so-called "Century of Humiliation". The logic is that, as this term was used for China by the Japanese ("Shina" in Japanese) to belittle China (or at least, avoid calling it the rather self-aggrandising name meaning literally "Middle Country" under which it presently goes) during the period during which the Japanese carried out a ruthless and brutal invasion of China, then the term "Shina" (and any other version of it) is itself offensive. 

Personally I avoid using terms I think might offend people even if I'm dubious about the logic under which it is supposed to be offensive, if using the term is reasonably avoidable. I would never use the term "Zhi Na" and think that using it to essentially rile the pro-Beijing camp was basically a childish and stupid act. You regularly see Japanese nationalists and others using the term "Shina" simply because they wish to cause offence, and Yau Wai-ching's acts were in the same vein. That the Pro-Beijing camp has now over-reacted in a fashion that, to people on the pan-democrat side in Hong Kong, shows what faux-nationalist puppets of Beijing they are and given HK localists a massive publicity coup beyond anything they could have achieved simply by taking their seats, does not justify what was done.

 All the same it is pretty obvious that that there is ultimately little difference between "Shina" and the name "China" itself - "China" is also a name that we English-speakers use for the country currently ruled by the Chinese Communist Party at least partly because a literal translation of the Chinese name for that country sounds ridiculously self-aggrandising and quaint, and was also the name used for China during the Opium Wars and later. However, few suggest that we should use the term "Middle Country" or "Middle Kingdom" for China* instead of the name we presently use - although I would not at all be surprised if this happens in the future.

 *The name "Great Britain" is sometimes brought up in these circumstances, but this is a misunderstanding: "Great" here merely indicates the largest island of the British isles.


Ji Xiang said...

Personally I found the localist candidate's distortion of the oath childish and bizarre. What made me wince was the way she said "refucking" instead of "republic". This is primary school stuff.

She could have made her point more cleverly, for instance saying "the Party's Republic of China" or something like that. The way she did it will just play into the hands of Beijing by reinforcing the idea that Chinese people aren't mature enough for democracy.

Gilman Grundy said...

"Personally I found the localist candidate's distortion of the oath childish and bizarre. What made me wince was the way she said "refucking" instead of "republic". This is primary school stuff."

Yeah, however much you might sympathise (or not) with Yau politically, what she did to the oath was really childish.

The thing is, it's worked: the business of LegCo, which is after all essentially an assembly whose membership is effectively rigged so that the opposition can at most block the government but never take power themselves, has been halted and Yau and Baggio Leung are now known internationally. It is quite possible that Beijing will itself intervene to prevent them being allowed to re-take their oaths through a "reinterpretation" of the Basic Law highlighting the thing that many Hong kongers know at heart but try to ignore - they live in a dictatorship, and ultimately Hong Kong independence may be the only way out of it.

justrecently said...

they live in a dictatorship, and ultimately Hong Kong independence may be the only way out of it.

This reads like an oxymoron to me. How could Hong Kong leave a dictatorship when the dictatorship controls not only the military, but post-water water supplies and garbage collection as well?

This is said to have been among the reasons as to why Britain established diplomatic relations with Beijing as early as in 1950.

These days, Beijing's sway over the HK oligarchy is likely to do the rest. This said, I'm certainly sympathetic to HK's desire to establish democracy, and if there is a way, it should be taken.

justrecently said...

post-water water supplies

What an incredible word - may I have it copyrighted? I meant to write cross-border water supplies.

Meursault said...

I'm actually going to post a serious comment for once as this topic has always interested me. I even wrote a university essay on it.

(One thing though, I was always taught that the name Great Britain derived from a need to differentiate it from Lesser Britain which was actually the Breton regions of France rather than the smaller island of Ireland)

Regarding the Zhi-na term: and I'm only looking at this from a strictly linguistical view mind, not a political one. I'm aware of the term's baggage but I'm just focusing now on the name itself. As you rightly mentioned, I've always felt a lop-sidedness in Chinese geographical terms. In the language, China gets to refer to itself as the Central Kingdom, but with a few rare exceptions (Japan/Riben being the main example) all other countries have their names stripped of any meaning and replaced with just a transliteration. I've always felt that this exacts a subtle control over the Chinese mind in raising their own sense of self-superiority. Now, I'm not suggesting that the Chinese look into the root of every country name's etymology - there's no need to call Britain the land of the tattooed people as barely any British themselves are aware of the original meaning - but I feel that through this linguistic lens it's all too easy to view other countries as nothing more than silly little potential cultureless vassals when they have transliteration names like "Horse comes from the West" (Malaysia). The Zhina title inspires such agitation with China and its government not only because of its connotations with the Japanese occupation, but because it also strips China of its supposed superiority and puts it on an equal footing with other "lesser" countries.

Gilman Grundy said...

@Meursault - Sorry your comment got caught in the filter.

Yes, actually I was just being lazy in posting the meaning of Great Britain. Brittany is also the "lesser" Britain in my understanding as well.

Your explanation of why people find "Zhi Na" so offensive might actually be true. It at least goes beyond the one I have in mind, which is simply that people are brainwashed to be offended by it, or at least know that it is something that they should at least pretend to be offended by.

Ultimately, though, the same logic applies to "China".