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Linguistic Engineering: Language and Politics in Mao's China. By JI FENGYUAN. [Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2004. 351 pp. $50.00. ISBN 0-8248-2536-5.]

  • Mary S. Erbaugh

Can the nightmare of language control in Orwell's 1984 work in reality? Linguistic Engineering offers a detailed look at Cultural Revolution slogans and draconian punishments for ‘incorrect’ speech, especially in schools and the workplace. Ji offers much-needed evidence from linguistics and psychology that, even for Red Guards, new vocabulary for ‘class struggle’ against ‘cow ghosts and snake gods’ could not produce a complete or permanent change in thought. Language control is fortunately impossible, however much intellectuals or propagandists may wish. Mere exposure to a phrase does not mean people will learn it, much less believe it. Humans inevitably interpret the world by experience, context and possible rewards, using humour, subversion, indifference, and simple daily routine to find ways to live around even the most oppressive propaganda.

Linguistic Engineering focuses mainly on the spoken language of political discussion groups and propaganda between 1966 and 1972, with additional examples from school textbooks, and some model literature and operas. Once labels like ‘rightist,’ ‘bad element’ or ‘capitalist roader’ became linked with everything from ostracism to job loss to prison, passionate battles erupted. Traditional four character phrases such as “confess without being pressed” (bu da zi zhao) grew heavily politicized. Other new vocabulary, however, such as ‘tractor’ or ‘work unit’ was a more benign reflection of new technology and social systems, and remains part of everyday life.

Lazy research mars what should have been a better book. Most of the Chinese examples are lifted from English language secondary sources by political scientists, then back-translated (well) into Chinese. Other examples come from English language memoirs of former Red Guards. They are rather unevenly chosen and cited, but most examples have already received meticulous discussion over the past 30 years. This book uses the term ‘Maoist worship,’ for example, very simplistically, ignoring the extensive literature on the distinctions between religious rites and political rallies. The term ‘linguistic engineering’ itself, comes not from Stalin, but from his propagandist, Zhadnov, who said writers are “engineers of human souls.” Other sections are original, but less compelling (e.g. the heroine of the model opera, “On the Docks,” gets 42 per cent of the dialogue).

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The China Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0305-7410
  • EISSN: 1468-2648
  • URL: /core/journals/china-quarterly
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