China has been the flavor of the month for quite some time, causing many to predict that the future will be quite Sinofied. Foreigners have responded with increased PRC investment, localized staffing (the recession helped this trend), and a general push for folks to learn more about China, including the Chinese language. The recent journogasm over the size of China’s economy as compared to that of Japan got everyone even more excited.
The last time I saw this sort of thing was during the 80s, when Japan was poised to take over the world. Many of my friends studied Japanese, we all watched Sean Connery and Richard Chamberlain become Nipponified,1 and some folks even felt that they were turning Japanese, at least I think so.
To some extent, therefore, this development should come as no surprise:
The 115-year-old prestigious Oxford Dictionary will now include popular new Chinese terms like “shanzhai” “youtiao” and “fangnu”, as part of the modern Chinese language.
As China plays a more and more important role in the world economy, the Chinese language is forever evolving, attracting more attention from people who want to understand this ancient yet vibrant language.
For what it’s worth, I’m all in favor of officially adding shanzhai to our lexicon, although as an IP lawyer, I’m probably biased. As for youtiao and fangnu, I’d have to give those a thumbs down. The former is an oily breakfast food that looks sort of like a churro but doesn’t taste nearly as good — I seriously doubt this is going to catch on worldwide. As for fangnu (mortgage slave), not only is that a term that is limited to China’s real estate market, but (one hopes) it is a word that will fade away once the kinks in the market get worked out.
Anyway, I’m not here to criticize the decisions of the dictionary. I think there are entire blogs that do that. A more interesting topic is what our Chinafied world is going to look like. My first choice of course would be space opera, as envisioned by Joss Whedon in Firefly, where everyone could speak a bit of Chinese. It was never really explained why folks only spoke a little, including some rather colorful language when they got excited or pissed off, seeing as how the power structure was supposed to be equal parts American and Chinese.
But language is easy. I can certainly see a few Chinese words creep into normal use in the West. It happens all the time with foreign terms, so this is nothing new. One would hope, however, that the trend could increase to the point where tattoo artists make fewer mistakes when carving Chinese characters into the unsuspecting flesh of drunken Westerners. For all of the sturm and drang over Japanese encroachment during the 80s, however, I don’t really recall too many Japanese terms (aside from ninja — courtesy of folks like Eric Lustbader and game companies like Konami) making their way into the OED at that time. 2
Many people have predicted that foreign entertainment will make its way into the Western media market. That was mostly due to the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I suppose, and that was quite a few years ago now, wasn’t it? I’m skeptical. In the U.S., you might see a surge in Spanish-language songs or Japanese porn, but that’s about it. There’s simply no way that your average Chinese historical drama, for example, which includes roughly 40% of scenes with people shouting at each other and another 40% of scenes with people crying, will appeal to Western viewers, even if it’s dubbed in English.
Going back to the Japanese surge in the 80s, where were all the Japanese television shows and movies? Yes, the animation industry was significantly effected by Japanese firms and design styles. This started, I suppose, way back with Speed Racer (in the 70s?). But did we see any hit Japanese movies or tv shows being exported to the U.S. to be shown with dubbed English tracks? I don’t remember that happening.
Americans, and Brits to a slightly lesser extent, are not too keen on foreign influences. Call it racism, or xenophobia, or arrogance (actually, go ahead and call it all those things), but I find it difficult to see how the expansion of Chinese economic power will necessarily translate into significant cultural infiltration of the West.
That being said, the U.S. is in serious need of a good chain of fast food dumpling restaurants. Been waiting for that one for some time.
- Connery starred in the movie Rising Sun, while Chamberlain was in the earlier epic television mini-series Shogun. [↩]
- For the record, Lustbader wrote a series of novels a few decades ago about a Westerner who becomes a ninja. Sex, violence, and cultural misunderstandings ensue. Yes, I read them at the time. [↩]