Thursday, 19 November 2009

chinese whispers

If you were to look up the entry for ‘China’ in Cassell’s Book of Knowledge, an eight-volume encyclopaedia published in London in the 1920s, you would find the following opening paragraph:
A book in China begins at the top of the last column on the last page and goes backwards till it ends with the first column on the first page. A dinner begins with fruit and sweets and ends with soup and rice. Men in China wear skirts, and women wear trousers. White is the colour for mourning, and brides dress in scarlet.…
Disregarding one or two slight inaccuracies (a dinner does not begin with fruit and sweets, and men have never worn skirts in China), the subtext of this passage is clear: ‘just look how these silly foreigners behave! Why can’t they do things correctly, like us?’ The times may have changed, but not the attitudes. In 2001, a group of Chinese residents in Britain complained to The Guardian, the country’s most liberal and presumably most enlightened newspaper, about the treatment of Chinese people in news stories. The nub of the complaint was that, whatever the context, any Chinese who appeared in a story was invariably described as ‘inscrutable’. This conception of the Chinese is so ingrained in the West that we may even fail to notice that it is a stereotype, and we would certainly overlook any idea that it might be insulting, in the same way that the quoted passage is insulting, because it conforms to the long-established tradition of the ‘mysterious Orient’, a far-off place where other rules apply. A place that exists only in the imagination.

A small and entirely insignificant part of that tradition is the Victorian parlour game commonly known as Chinese whispers, which is probably played seldom if at all nowadays. It involved passing a short verbal message down a line of players in turn, the object being to see whether the message reached the far end of the line ungarbled. Apparently, when played with the naive enthusiasm of the game’s originators it rarely did reach the end of the line intact unless the line or the message was very short, and one can imagine some anonymous fool, clearly struggling to come up with a rational explanation for the phenomenon, linking the changes in the message not to chance error but to something ineffably mysterious to do with China.

On the other hand, as has been known in horse racing for a very long time, blinkers often enable the wearer to see more clearly, to focus only on the important detail, and the long-forgotten coiner of the name ‘Chinese whispers’ may have been closer to the mark than he realized. In historical times, the Chinese rarely adopted anything from the West. In that regard, they may have been more inward-looking, more insular in their national philosophy, than even the English. But times change. Every country, even China, is now founded on a commercial and technological culture with its origins in the science of the West. A modern city is recognizably a modern city wherever in the world it is built.

Hong Kong is a good example. Viewed from a distance, it has all the trappings of a modern city—high-rise buildings, a fast and efficient subway system, streets choked with traffic—but when you look more closely you will find evidence of how the Chinese adopt and adapt ideas from the West. Take the eighteenth-century English barber’s pole as an entirely trivial example. Originally, it was painted in alternating spiral stripes of red and white, signifying blood and bandages in allusion to the barber’s secondary profession as a surgeon. This has now become the universal symbol for a hairdressing salon in Hong Kong, brought up to date in that modern poles are not wood but plastic, and they are rotated by electric motors rather than being fixed in one position.

The surprising aspect of all this is how far it is possible to depart from the original red and white stripes without affecting the recognizability of the sign. Red, white and blue striped poles are common, and poles with black and yellow or pink and yellow stripes occasionally appear. In addition to the standard stripes, blue or black and white chequerboard designs are also common. It would have been useful to have been in Hong Kong when such signs began to appear, but it does seem likely that the more radical departures from the original barber’s pole had as their models other signs in their neighbourhoods that had already made some modifications, rather than the original design. At this late stage, it is impossible to test this hypothesis, but a series of such causal links rather than a single change is the only plausible explanation for two of the most extreme examples of transmutation.

On the edge of Tsim Sha Tsui, the main tourist and entertainment district in Kowloon, there is a salon where the spirals are preserved, but as a thin black stripe alternating with a broad transparent one. This may sound prosaic, but what lifts this sign out of the ordinary is the line of closely spaced, dart-shaped asymmetrical triangles that is superimposed on the transparent stripe. These triangles are almost the width of the stripe in size, with the darts pointing in the direction of rotation of the pole, and they are an iridescent blue. However, within a quarter of a mile of this salon, another pole signals an even more radical departure from the original. This pole is bright yellow, with large green circular dots, the balance of the colours being roughly fifty–fifty. The only feature that this example has in common with the striped and chequered poles is that it constantly rotates. Were it stationary at all times, it would offer clues to no one as to its likely meaning or purpose.

The connexion of this phenomenon with Chinese whispers should now be obvious. It is merely a semiotic version of the game. And on this evidence, the Chinese would have been masters at the game that bears their name, because in making changes, serendipitously or otherwise, to a concept, they take great pains to preserve the essence of the message that they are trying to communicate. And so it is with barbers’ poles. Colour is irrelevant, with due respect to those unfortunate enough to have provided the blood that inspired the original poles. And geometry is also irrelevant. It is only necessary that a pole be rotating.

Now look at how the process works in reverse. How does a traditional Chinese idea acclimatize itself to a Western environment? How does it change, and how is it adapted to conform to Western norms? The obvious example is gunpowder. The Chinese invented the stuff, and for a thousand years they used it to make fireworks. For entertainment. Gunpowder finally made it to Europe in the thirteenth century, where it quickly escaped from the alchemist’s bench. And what did we use it for? Weapons of mass destruction.

If, therefore, we are prepared to concede that Chinese whispers, then we must also acknowledge that English shouts.

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