Wednesday June 30, 2010

Warning: This thought has almost nothing to do with what follows. The thought for the day is the title of a novel by Jefferey Chan: Eat Everything Before You Die.

I’ve been thinking about an interesting difference between the Chinese language and the English language, and because I can’t get Janet to listen to me I thought I’d inflict this on you. This difference lies in where the Chinese and English languages place the future. For example, in this famous line the future is thought of as lying in front of the audience, and presumably also the speaker: “The future lies before you, like paths of pure white snow.” Another example is the title of a movie, Back to the Future, which seems like a contradiction in its placing of the future behind rather than in front. Here’s the headline of an article about contact lenses: “The future before your eyes” And one last example: “Graduates have their future before them.”

The corollary is that the past is behind you, as in this question: “After You Have Been Cheated on Can You Put it Behind You and Trust Again?” And this one, from a popular song: “You hide the cracks, the facts will find you/ Turn your back and leave the lonely days behind you now,” where the past is explicitly placed behind the speaker.

Now, in Chinese I think it is not the case that the future is front of you and the past behind. Let me explain. There’s a very common word in Chinese, pronounced hòu, that means back, behind, rear, etc. So someone at the back door is at the “hou” door; someone in the back yard is in the “hou” yard, the back surface of an object is the “hou” surface and so forth. But when we find “hou” used in expressions of time something funny happens. For example, toward “hou” means “from now on; in the future.” That is to say towards the back means in the future. Compare this with “the future lies before you;” they’re exactly opposite. For another example, “hou” day is the day after tomorrow, a day to come, not in the past.(The opposite of the day after tomorrow is the day before yesterday, which is front (“qian”) day, since that day is past and hence in front of us.) “hou” children are our descendants, those who will come after us in the future. That is to say, whereas in English the future thought of in spatial terms is in front of us, in Chinese it is in back of us.

I think there’s a simple explanation for this phenomenon: we can’t see the future or what happened there or then, but we can see the past and what happened there and then. What we can’t see, the future, is therefore placed in back of us in Chinese (no eyes in the backs of our heads), while what we can see, the past, is in front of us, where our eyes naturally fall. I think Chinese recognizes this, while English, for whatever reason, does not.

This difference would be nothing more than an interesting oddity if it had no consequences. However, I think it does have consequences. Let me give two more quotations. The first comes from Wired magazine: “Netflix Everywhere: Sorry Cable, You’re History” The second is from Henry Ford: “History is more or less bunk.” I suggest that because of the English language’s placing the past behind us we can more easily than the Chinese ignore history, kiss it off, put it behind us and, therefore, out of sight.

I think we’re all familiar with the importance the Chinese tradition places on history. Let me close by telling you a poignant story about the greatest of all Chinese historians, Sima Qian. He lived during the Western Han dynasty, from ca. 140 BCE to 86 BCE. While working in the imperial court as a historian and advisor to the emperor Wu he incurred the emperor’s displeasure and was sentenced to death. The only way to avoid the sentence was to pay a large amount of money, of which he had very little, or submit to being castrated. So important to Sima Qian was history that, in order to continue work on the history of China he was writing, he chose to be castrated. I wonder if anyone said to him, “Put that behind you”?

Meanwhile, team 184 continues its good works in Kunming, trying to eat everything, not before we die, of course, but before we have to leave.

– Michael

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