We have seen the future, and it sucks.

The Future of Chinese Is English

4th February 2018

Mark Derian examines the aliens among us.

Joseph Campbell suggested as a matter of fact that Westerners do not consider the Chinese to be people. It’s why the Chinese have a portrait of Mao hanging from one “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” and we get our pictures taken in front of it like it’s the Parthenon. It’s why Mao’s regime is technically still in power yet we keep giving them the Olympics. It’s why the Pope doesn’t hold the Church in China to the same standard she holds the Church in Europe. It’s even why 87,000 Chinese died in an earthquake not ten years ago though it barely moved the needle on our cultural seismograph.

Campbell gave no explanation as to why this is, though the implication seems to be the Chinese look different than we do. This may be a factor in our “othering”—to borrow a millennial usage—but what distinguishes the Chinese more than their almond eyes is the fact that, on a fundamental level, they don’t think like we do.

Language is a tool of cognition. To understand how people think, first understand their language. The main distinction about the Chinese language is it’s symbolic as opposed to phonetic. It’s as different from English as the Koran is to the Bible. The dissimilarity runs so deep that we cannot compare them to each other, only with each other.

Throughout most of human history, the Chinese have been the most advanced civilization on earth. Why, then, do they not dominate world culture as Europeans do? Some single out the Chinese ideogrammatic writing system as to blame — it cannot serve as a tool for organizing, sorting, and retrieving information the way that phonetic languages can, nor is it convenient for encoding foreign languages with no effective native writing system. This is why no nation that lacks a native writing system is adopting ideograms (the Japanese and Koreans did so because there was no alternative, and it impedes their progress even today); almost all turn to some variant of the Latin or Cyrillic or Arabic alphabet.

Chinese has more than 50,000 pictures, each representing a concept. A picture of a flower means “flower,” a picture of a house means “house,” and a picture of a middle-aged man means “dad.” It’s the kind of language you would come up with if you were an uncreative third grader. It’s limited as a tool of cognition in that it doesn’t challenge the speaker to go beyond the perceptual level of awareness. The allure of symbolic language is that it substitutes memorization for understanding.

Not coincidentally, communism offers the same allure. It’s a concrete idea that solves every societal problem in one fell decree, so there’s no point in learning much else. When the Chinese do adopt free enterprise, they only do so because it makes sense perceptually—that is, it’s practical.

Mao was unable to make Communism work in China because it is essentially alien to the Chinese culture. Deng made it work by keeping the Communist facade and reinstating the traditional Chinese polity in a Clever Plastic Disguise. For some reason, nobody seems to remark on the fact of billionaires in a notionally equalitarian political system. We’re so used to it that nobody notices how anomalous it is.

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