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  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 9:57 am on September 27, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , afghanistan, buddhism, china, hinduism, , japan, korea, pop songs, , sa ding ding,   

    Same mantra, different language 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    In 2007, one of China’s biggest pop singers, Sa Ding Ding, released a hit song in Sanskrit — yes, that’s right, the dead liturgical language of Hinduism and Buddhism.

    Check it out:

    The words are taken from the 100-syllable Vajrasattva Mantra, an important prayer in Buddhism. It’s actually a pretty catchy song. But for Indians with any knowledge of Sanskrit, the words are totally unfamiliar: the Chinese pronunciation of Sanskrit is worlds away from the Indian pronunciation.

    Despite how popular the mantra is, I could only find one video of someone using the Indian Sanskrit pronunciation:

    Compare that to the Tibetan pronunciation:

    Buddhism is truly a remarkable religion in that it dominated in regions as far as Afghanistan in the west and Japan in the east. Not everyone spoke a language similar to Sanskrit, so it was inevitable that adopting peoples would adapt texts in Sanskrit and Pali (another liturgical language of Buddhism) to local pronunciations.

    But Indian tradition places the highest value on the oral transmission of sacred knowledge — ancient Indians were notoriously suspicious of written language, despising it as bad for the mind and for the soul. Because sacred scriptures were transmitted through intricate mnemonic procedures, pronunciation was highly preserved. Vedic Sanskrit was shared from generation to generation as a sort of time-capsule, even as the local vernaculars shifted in vocabulary and pronunciation.

    Sanskrit still holds an important place in Indian culture, especially for Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. Most Indian languages today (even the non-Indo-European ones) borrow heavily from Sanskrit, most obviously intatsama (literally, “that-same”) words, which are taken directly from Sanskrit without sound changes. For these reasons, many Indians today have a working knowledge of Sanskrit vocabulary, the pronunciation of which is relatively stable.

    And so we come to the curious case of Buddhism, which grew out of this Indian tradition that placed great emphasis on oral transmission.

    Should Indians really be upset that East Asian Buddhists pronounce Sanskrit mantras differently from the “correct” pronunciation? Prescriptivist Indians would shudder. I’m not so sure. Buddhism is as much “theirs” as it is “ours” — it’s been at least 1,500 years, after all. Some Buddhists would probably argue that the understood meaning of the mantras and their value as meditative devices are more valuable than faithful pronunciation. (Some strict Hindus might disagree; others would agree.) But for those who ascribe mystical power to the words themselves rather than the sentiment behind them, non-Indian pronunciation might pose problems.

    It’s a fun exercise to see the shift in pronunciation from India to far-off lands: consider the Sanskrit term dhyāna, meditation. In Pali, a historical vernacular (and later liturgical language) of India, it became jhāna. In Chinese, it’schán. Korean, seon. And in Japanese, it’s the famous zen.

    In my native Kannada, we still use dhyāna. Perhaps we’re just old fashioned.

    I’m curious to compare the situation of Arabic — which, of course, has been adopted as a liturgical language in non-Arab Muslim countries — to Sanskrit. Islam requires the use of Arabic in reciting the Qur’an, but are non-Arab pronunciations of the text (say, in Indonesia or Bangladesh) different from Standard Arabic?

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 8:15 pm on August 20, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: china, ,   

    Smack talking on the field 

    posted by Sandeep

    Duke’s men’s basketball team is currently on a tour of China, visiting Duke’s upcoming campus in Kunshan and playing a few matches with the Chinese national basketball team and others. Georgetown’s team is doing the same–on a “goodwill tour” of the country–but on Thursday, the Bayi Rockets and Georgetown got into a violent brawl, cutting the game short and forcing Georgetown to leave the stadium before anyone got seriously hurt. My friend Ben suggested that the language barrier between the Americans and Chinese could have lowered the tolerance for cooperation between the two groups.

    According to the Washington Post,

    “Immediately before the fighting began, Bayi forward-center Hu Ke was called for a foul against Georgetown’s Jason Clark. The senior guard took exception to the hard foul and said so to Hu, triggering pushing and shoving between them. At that point, players from the Georgetown and Bayi benches ran onto the court, and bedlam ensued.”

    Was it really the actual content of what Clark said to Hu that triggered the conflict? While it’s possible that Hu understood Clark–many Chinese people know at least basic English–maybe he was reacting to his tone and body language. And I’m willing to bet that few, if any, of the Georgetown players understand Chinese. Of course, a language barrier doesn’t really matter when someone is screaming and pummeling you in the chest. There’s no reasoned understanding of each other in those situations:

    I wonder if there are statistics on violence in international sports, and whether those can be correlated to histories of cultural or linguistic conflict.

    The Georgetown-Bayi brawl reminded me of another famous fight: Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutting of Marco Materazzi at the soccer World Cup in 2006. There, Zidane was allegedly responding to Materazzi’s taunts about his mother or sister (accounts vary). The BBC hired an Italian lip-reader to decode what Materazzi had said, and they seemed to find that Materazzi had indeed insulted Zidane and his family, in Italian. But Zidane is French, of Algerian origin, and there’s nothing in his biography or background that would indicate that he understands Italian.

    So what was he reacting to? The tone of Materazzi’s taunts? His body language? Or maybe he picked out a few words and just inferred the rest?

    The idea behind sports teams’ goodwill tours is to beget cross-cultural understanding without language. That’s the whole idea behind international events like the Olympics and the World Cup. We don’t all speak the same language, but we play many of the same games.

    So what happens when language does enter the mix? I can imagine a lot of situations in which language learners completely misunderstand the intentions of someone else because they can only pick out a few (unfortunate) words. Materazzi was clearly provoking Zidane, and body language and tone are generally good indicators of meaning. But I wonder if beginner language learners expose themselves to as much conflict as they do friendship, especially in heated, tense situations like sports.

    International athletic events ride on national glory as well as personal glory. Our linguistic identities are closely tied to our national loyalties. Hearing an opposing player’s smack talk, in a foreign tongue, in a foreign location, in a situation where we’re already tense and on edge, might just make us angry in unexpected ways.

    So does this mean international cooperation is doomed? No–I’m skeptical of the value of international athletic competitions as they relate to “cross-cultural understanding” because of the fundamental problem of trying to foster friendship in an inherently hostile environment. That doesn’t mean they’re not fun to watch. I’m just hesitant to find any broader linguistic or cultural conflict in a mid-game brawl at a basketball match (as some news commentators are doing now). A couple of Chinese athletes can “otherize” their American opponents based on their appearance and language without actually thinking about the broader implications (the budding U.S.-China rivalry?) of their conflict.

     
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