Bridges and Barriers between Chinese and English: Maxine Hong Kingston’s use of (Foreign?) Language in China Men

Not knowing your people’s language, in the harshest consequence, meant excommunication from God.  “Language is much like a body limb,” his grandfather had said.  “A physical facet that speaks for the soul, the all-important shadow in its privileged journey.”  Any decision made by the incomplete, nonspeaking person to not learn the first language was taken as unkindness to Being.  These were the words you were fed to give back to the world. – Ray A. Young Bear, Black Eagle Child, p.67

China Men at Amazon

Click here to go to the Amazon page for China Men

Maxine Hong Kingston addresses issues of immigration, cross-cultural identity, and language from hundreds of perspectives in China Men.  The novel not only destroys readers’ preconceptions about these issues, but also provides countless viewpoints that resist any kind of restrictive generalization.  Particularly with her mixture of the Chinese and English languages, Kingston creates a unique linguistic world simultaneously Chinese and English.  But the language she creates is distinct from those two as well.  Even more amazingly, she combines these two languages without a single Chinese character printed on any page in the novel.  Kingston’s unique language not only beckons us to recreate our understanding of Chinese, but asks us to question our own ‘American English’ as well.  The metaphor, myth, and history replete in Kingston’s hybrid language invite the reader to contemplate both national and personal identity.  Do I belong to the country whose language I speak?  What language (or languages) does this country speak, anyway?

Within the first few pages of China Men, this interplay between languages has already revealed itself.  The first line begins, “Once upon a time,” – a clichéd phrase that refers to century upon century of storytelling history in the English language.  With this type of introduction, we expect to find English words arranged in familiar ways in the pages that follow.  Instead, we encounter unfamiliar words and phrases that don’t sound anything like vernacular English.  As that first sentence of the novel progresses, we meet “Tang Ao” a name that sounds nothing like the “John” or “Jane” we might expect, and encounter strange capitalized phrases: “Gold Mountain,” and “Land of Women.”  In the page that follows, even the familiar phrase “needle’s wide eye” transforms into the unfamiliar Chinese version: “needle’s nose.”  Not to mention the confusion and displacement in Tang Ao’s transformation into a woman, we readers have already begun to view the familiar through an unfamiliar lens.

Maxine Hong Kingston: A remarkable manipulator of the English language

This unexpected twisting and transforming of English continues coming up through the rest of the novel.  Kingston consistently explains Chinese homonyms or idioms in English phrases, translating metaphors across the two languages.  Through his jealousy, her grandfather Ah Goong “discovered why to be envious is ‘to guzzle vinegar.’”(18) For a Chinese-speaking reader, a familiar metaphor latent in an ordinary word (吃醋) appears in words foreign to it: “guzzle” and “vinegar.”  For those who do not speak Chinese, on the other hand, this foreign metaphor comes to life in familiar English words.

Kingston’s translations both emphasize the fluidity of Chinese and English and draw barriers between the two languages as well.  Though we can easily imagine how a jealous grimace might resemble the face of a vinegar drinker or how a needle’s eye could also be its nose, Kingston interrupts the flow of her sentences to explain these metaphors.  She sometimes cuts them off from the rest of the sentence as in, “(‘needle’s nose’ in Chinese)” and sometimes tries to slip them in as smoothly as possible as in “to guzzle vinegar” or “Gold Mountain”(金山).  She occasionally even interrupts the flow of her narrative to delve into the particular nature of Chinese homophones or the composition of Chinese characters.  In one such instance, she writes,

“‘We need to go-out-on-the-road again,’ Kau Goong roared. ‘We need to go to the Gold Mountain.’ And since the Chinese word for ‘need’ and ‘want’ and ‘will’ is on and the same word, he was also saying, ‘We want to go-out-on the-road again. We will go to the Gold Mountain.’”(44)

In all of these cases, despite her translation, she still places a boundary between English and Chinese.  Parentheses, quotations, italics, capital letters, or long explanations separate Chinese metaphors from their seamless transition into English.  Though she could have slipped these metaphors through the cracks and assumed that we would understand, Kingston prefers to denote their Chinese origins with punctuation or explanation.  In so doing, she taps into an expressiveness in Chinese that would be impossible to achieve with English phrases and words.  The ambiguity between ‘need’ ‘want’ and ‘will’ exists in a single Chinese character, (要) and perfectly characterizes the want-need-will mentality of Kau Goong’s journey toward Gold Mountain, where future, desire, and necessity intermingle.  At the same time that she expresses these foreign metaphors in English, she draws a boundary through her explanation or punctuation, reminding us that this language and these metaphors aren’t our own.  Reflecting the simultaneous fluidity and boundary between China and America that run throughout the novel, these translations bridge the gap between languages, but reinforce the linguistic barrier at the same time.


Image taken from the NativeWiki

Though these barriers exist, they pale in comparison to the syllabic walls Ray A. Young Bear builds between narrator and reader. In Black Eagle Child, even simple conversations in Mesquakee first greet the reader in their un-translated form: “Ken a ta we ne me kwa ke e yi ki. And she also desires you” “Ke ne tti ma a be be tte tti. You are such a liar.” (77) Even in this ordinary conversation between Ted and the narrator, Young Bear places a vast wall of foreign syllables between the reader and his or her understanding.  We find ourselves in a similar place to the girls Ted is talking about – non-Mesquakee speakers who have no idea what the boys are saying.  At the same time, our narrator divulges the secret conversation to us, showing us the boundary of the Mesquakee language from both sides.  Though the English translations appear alongside the Mesquakee, Young Bear’s style of translation places us on the English side of a clearly marked barrier. He willingly translates for us, but emphasizes our ‘outsider’ status as well.

Junot Diaz: An extraordinary author who happens to be Dominican

Other authors, such as Philip Roth and Junot Diaz, immerse us in new vocabularies, depending on our ability to learn words like “goyim” in their context.  Through repeated mixture of Yiddish and English, Roth places us in the midst of a Jewish-American household, teaching us Yiddish words through context and witty wordplay as we read along.  Similarly, Diaz sends a flurry of foreign words past the reader’s eyes, ranging from Dominican Spanish to urban slang, and from archaic ‘dictionary words’ (i.e. vertiginous, orchidaceous) to comic book lingo.  Though I doubt any reader could pick up on every word and every reference across all of these dialects, words like “fuku” and “zafa” gradually enter our vocabularies as we read along.  Because we eventually begin to learn some of their vocabularies, reading Diaz or Roth feels much more like immersion into a ‘foreign’ English than translations from insider to outsider.

In China Men, though, Kingston includes not a single Chinese character and only rarely uses Chinese words, strong Chinese influences appear in her writing and create a complex language that is neither English nor Chinese.  Although both of those languages are present in Kingston’s writing, the result differs drastically from the language mixtures discussed above.  Despite our comprehension of every word Kingston uses, we still feel like outsiders to those aspects of her language that are particularly Chinese.  Even the minutest details of our English language take on a Chinese tone in her writing. For instance, the sound of an explosion, “the bang – bahng in Chinese” (136) here has an unfamiliar sound to English-speaking ears.  Kingston replaces the ‘ay’ sound in our familiar onomatopoeia with the “ahh” sound that a Chinese person would associate with an explosion. In so doing, Kingston not only invites us to consider the Chinese language in all its metaphors and peculiarities, but reveals to us the peculiarities of English as well.  We are not only outsiders to the peculiarities of the Chinese language; we are outsiders the strangeness of the English language – and to the strangeness of any language.  Meanwhile, Kingston makes all of these languages come alive to her readers, affirming their fluidity at the same time she draws boundaries between them.

In a passage about Uncle Bun, Kingston plays with the peculiar sounds of the English language, depicting their peculiarity to non-native speakers: “In two weighty syllables, both equally accented, a spondee, he said ‘Wheat germ,’” and later in the passage, “‘Yet you can eat it by itself like cornflakes,’ which he also pronounced spondaically in his accent Coon Flex.” (191) Through her uncle’s dialect, Kingston transforms familiar English words into foreign sounds, inviting the reader to view the familiar through an unfamiliar lens. Vitamins become ‘why-huh-ming” and iron becomes ‘eye-yun.’  In all of her uncle’s attempts to pronounce English words, Kingston discovers a latent poetry.  Rather than misplaced emphasis in ‘coon flex’ she sees a fascinating word pronounced spondaically.  She uses this metrical analysis to uncover poetry latent in Chinese-accented English.  What many listeners might dismiss as ‘incorrect’ or ‘foreign,’ Kingston translates into poetic English.

These examples only skim the surface of Kingston’s play with the Chinese and English languages.  One ‘China man,’ on his journey toward the Gold Mountain, encounters Chinese dialects that he doesn’t understand – emphasizing the multiplicity of the language we tend to lump under the single word “Chinese.”  Other ‘China Men,’ “don’t even talk like China Men any more, the salt gone from their speech.” (112) Yet another ‘China Man’ refuses to use his language abilities to aid in the Vietnam War, disgusted by the politicization of a language he would rather use for poetry than to translate phrases like: “Do you believe in (1) U.S. victory (2) annihilation of Bolshevism?” (300) The use of Chinese language in China Men is as varied as the interpretations of ‘Gold Mountain’ that run throughout the novel.  In every case, however, language roots these ‘China Men’ to the cultures, histories and mythologies of the countries on either side of their immigration.  Not only that, but because these China Men straddle the line between English and Chinese, they possess their own unique histories, cultures, and mythologies unique from those of either country or either language.  In Teacher, Sylvia Ashton-Warner writes about this bridge between native and non-native language, “It’s the bridge from the known to the unknown; from a native culture to a new; and, universally speaking, from the inner man out.” (28) With the gap bridged between ‘a native culture and a new,’ Maxine Hong Kingston possesses twice the expressiveness of either Chinese or English alone.  The bilingual ‘English’ she uses in China Men allows her to present culture, history, and mythology in ways that are both American and Chinese, and unique from the two as well.

In the opening section of the novel, “On Discovery,” Kingston confronts the reader with a drastic revelation.  In this short piece, our male protagonist, Tang Ao, undergoes an unexpected gender reversal.  His captors in the ‘Land of Women’ remove his armor and boots, pierce his ears, bind his feet, and powder his face.  When the transformation is complete, they remark, “She’s pretty, don’t you agree?”  This experience foreshadows the confusion and displacement for any reader of this novel.  In addition to Chinese being transformed into ‘Americans’ in a multitude of ways, Chinese Speakers are transformed into English speakers, and the English we expect to read is transformed into its own unique language.  While the text may appear to be composed with letters from the Roman alphabet and familiar English words, underneath the surface of this language lies a vast Chinese architecture.  Kingston’s play with language proclaims the beauty and expressiveness of Chinese language in terms that English-speakers can readily understand.  In addition, it displaces us.  It forces us see ourselves as ‘foreign’ and the ‘foreign’ as familiar.  Occidental and Oriental spill in and out of each other, sometimes with surprising fluidity and other times with unmoving boundaries.  Just like the male Tang Ao transforms into a woman, so Chinese transforms into English and English into Chinese.  Together, these transformations create a bilingual language completely unique from either of the two, and as expressive as both combined.


About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
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