The Out of Hunan Theory

Language Log 2019-09-13

[This is a guest post by Jichang Lulu and Filip Jirouš]

A recent post by Mark Liberman nominated the Association for the Promotion of Research on the Origin of World Civilizations (Shìjiè Wénmíng Qǐyuán Yánjiū Cùjìn Huì 世界文明起源研究促进会) for the prestigious Becky prize, bestowed on those who make "outstanding contributions to linguistic misinformation". The award, named after Goropius Becanus, who claimed all human languages derived from his own, would be fully deserved by an Association promoting a form of Goropism: the contention that multiple languages, including English, are in fact derived from Chinese. While the recent event that triggered Liberman's nomination has been widely reported in English and other Chinese dialects, it is perhaps less known that the Association's chairman has even more Goropian ideas. Just like Goropius saw his Antwerp dialect as the language of Adam and Eve, Professor Du Gangjian of Hunan University claims these languages, and a few other things, in fact come from Hunan Province.

The Association was established last July at a forum in Beijing. Besides setting itself up, the entity used the event to present recent research in historical linguistics ("English and the English originated in ancient China" (Yīngwen, Yīngguoren qǐyuán yú gǔ Huáxià 英文、英国人起源于古华夏)) and the history of civilization ("Western civilization originated in ancient China" (Xīfang wénmíng qǐyuán yú gǔ Huáxià 西方文明起源于古华夏)). titled Western Civilization Originated in Ancient China (Xifang wenming qiyuan yu gu Huaxia 西方文明起源于古华夏) and establish the Association for Promotion of World Civilization Origins Research (Shijie wenhua qiyuan yanjiu cujin hui 世界文明起源研究促进会). (On Xià , half of the name of 'China' used in these titles, cf. the papers by Mair, Behr, Beckwith and others discussed, e.g., in the comments to "Censored belly, Tibetan tattoo".)

A Sina Xinjiang report carries comments by Zhai Guiyun 翟桂鋆, vice chairman and secretary general of the newly created Association, to a puzzled reporter:

Reporter: Professor Zhai, does English really come from ancient China? This really sounds unimaginable, because these are two completely different languages.

Zhai Guiyun: Yes, English truly originated in ancient China. Many people teaching English in China have discovered that you can learn English using the so called "memorizing-through-association" method. Actually, it's because so-called "ideographic" and "implied" meanings [of words] are very close in English and Chinese. The first to research this matter in a systematic way was Professor Li Guofang 李国防, from [Baishui 白水 County, Shaanxi Province, purportedly] the hometown of Cang Jie 仓颉 [the mythical creator of Chinese characters], who has studied this for more than 20 years and discovered that the ideographic and implied meanings of English words, and even their pronunciation, are the same or close to Chinese. For example:

Yellow: It is the color of fallen leaves [yèluò 叶落] in autumn, in English the pronunciation is almost "yeluo (-lu)".

Shop: In English the pronunciation is basically that of Chinese shāngpù 商铺 ['shop'].

Heart, head: These are people's most core [héxīn 核心] organs, so the English pronunciation directly takes its meaning from Chinese: the core's [hé de 核的]… just slightly changing the sound.

(Such core-themed etymology is, incidentally, adequate to the New Era declared by CCP Secretary General Xi Jinping, which has him as the Core (héxīn 核心) of the Party.)

Li Guofang himself was also at the event hyped in the Sina article. While details about his professorship are not immediately available to us, more displays of his etymological erudition are available on the Sinology English (Guóxué Yīngyǔ 国学英语) website, owned by Li's company Henan Cangjie Education Information Consulting Co., Ltd (Hénán Cāngjié Jiàoyù Xìnxī Zīxún Yǒuxiàn Gōngsī 河南仓颉教育信息咨询有限公司), of Xinxiang 新乡, Henan Province. (The term Guoxue, translated as 'Sinology' in the name of the website, literally means 'national learning'; ironically perhaps, the term was borrowed from Japanese (pronounced kokugaku), where it had been used for centuries. Cf. Arif Dirlik, "Guoxue/National Learning in the Age of Global Modernity"; and, on Sinitic terms reentering Chinese through Japanese, Victor Mair, "East Asian round-trip words.")

Li's company's site has more etymologies than made it to the Sina article (and thence to various English-language websites), while also including some of those; they were available on Li's website before the now famous Association existed. E.g.,

As another example, the word lïngdǎo 领导 ['lead; leading; leadership; leader'] [in English] is lead. The initial letter l is the initial of lïng; the final letter d is the initial of dǎo. Fēi le 飞了, as children say when flying kites, is fly in English [similarly composed of the initials of the two Chinese syllables].

Li also claims some English words are formed by combining semantics and phonetics. This vaguely reminds one of the way most Chinese characters are constructed; moreover, in Li's theory both the phonetic and the semantic channel ultimately lead to China. For example, of the three letters of English hot, the initial and final are taken from Mandarin hǎo tàng 好烫 'quite hot'; the o is simply a pictograph for the Sun, as well as 'fire' under Li's correspondence between the vowel letters and the Five Elements.

Other etymologies provide evidence for the Chinese origins of the culture of Anglophone countries. Full refers to Buddhists (Fòjiā 佛家), rule to Confucians (Rújiā 儒家) and door to Daoists (Dàojiā 道家). Thanksgiving is in fact not a Western, but a Chinese holiday, commemorating the birth of Confucius: give is from gëi 给 'give', thank from sān kòu 三叩 'triple kowtow'.

In this vein, one could mention Samuel Wade's proposed etymology for the Party's English name, based on a similar principle: CCP < Xí-Xí pì 习习屁 'Xi-Xi fart'.

These could be taken as simple mnemonics for English words, but they are formulated as part of a revisionist global history meant to provide a channel for these loans. "English is in no way the language of England, but originally the bearer of the wisdom of Chinese characters. You just need to understand the principles of the structure of Chinese characters and Chinese character culture to then look into English vocabulary and grasp it all."

The combination of Sino-centric rhetoric with goropist reverie for advertising English language instruction might be dismissed as a curiosum, particular to Li's business and the extent to which the Association is there to hype it. In fact, a similar combination has been covered on Language Log before. In 2013, a post by Victor Mair ("English tips from Li Yang, noted wife-beater and pedagogue") quoted insights from an advert for Li Yang 李阳 Crazy English (Fēngkuáng Yīngyǔ 疯狂英语):

huānyíng hé Li Yáng lǎoshī yīqǐ fēngkuáng xué Yīngyǔ 欢迎和李阳老师一起疯狂学英语 Welcome you to crazily study English together with teacher Li Yang

zhēngfú Yīngyǔ, ràng zǔguó gèng qiángdà! 征服英语,让祖国更强大! Conquer English to make the fatherland stronger!

Yīngyǔ jiùshì Hànyǔ de pīnyīn 英语就是汉语的拼音 English is spelling for Sinitic

Yīngyǔ shì Hànyǔ xià de dàn! 英语是汉语下的蛋! English is an egg laid by Sinitic!

The Sinic oogeny of English is, as per the poster, evidenced by the striking similarity between English chicken and Mandarin chī kěn 吃啃 'eat-gnaw'. Although Li Yang's etymological lore is nowhere as elaborate as Li Guofen's, he did expatiate on the nationalistic bit when it came to explain why he beat his American (now ex-)wife:

Those who know I hit my wife, raise your hand! I am the spokesperson for domestic abuse!… This is a cultural clash between China and America; it has nothing to do with domestic abuse. One day, the Party and the state will rehabilitate me. I was doing something to educate Americans! My American wife was always criticizing China, accusing our Party of lying. In such a situation, could I not hit her?… Everyday accusing Beijing, saying that AQI (Air Quality Index) is lying. She was lucky I could bear it, in America I would have shot her with a gun!

(Translation from The World of Chinese; original, e.g., here. Li Yang's hope of rehabilitation by the "Party and state" (Dǎng hé guójiā 党和国家) was not entirely unfounded: indeed, news of his wife-beating had already been respun into support for the country's domestic-violence laws, with Li himself as a vocal advocate, by propaganda organs soon after they emerged. For more on Li Yang and the "Crazy English" craze, cf. Language Log since 2007, Evan Osnos in 2008 and 2011, and especially Amber R. Woodward, "A Survey of Li Yang Crazy English". Li Guofang's Sinology English is not, as it happens, entirely disjoint from Li Yang's Crazy English: the latter is mentioned in the bio of one of the teachers at the former.)

The propensity to invoke China's politics and position in the world in situations where they would seem irrelevant, such as advertising teaching foreign languages or beating up their speakers, is perhaps better understood after considering the political role the CCP has assigned to the teaching of Standard Mandarin. Cf., e.g., "The language impact of the Confucius institutes", and the comments.

Nor are the Party-state's policies unrelated to the English-as-a-Chinese-dialect theory proposed at the event that motivates this post. While the specific etymologies mentioned there seemed to mainly come from Li Guofang, the most senior personage in attendance was the new Association's chairman, Du Gangjian 杜钢建. Unlike Li Guofang, whose bio makes him a "people's" (mínjiān 民间) rather than an actual professor, Du has been a law professor at Hunan University. Du has repeatedly made news with versions of his 'Out of Hunan' theory, according to which various Western peoples, languages and ideas originated not just in China, but specifically in what is now Hunan province. Ideas originating in Hunan include, according to Du, constitutionalism. While Li Guofang's business might only indirectly reflect Party policy, Professor Du's theories have received a more significant endorsement: a chance to expound them at the recent "Belt and Road" Doctoral Forum. The forum was graced by a senior cadre from the Party's International Liaison Department, an organ which, as Nadège Rolland has shown, is central to the promotion of Xi's "Belt and Road" initiative to foreign academia and 'think-tanks'.

Things from Hunan notably include Mao Zedong, and an idea not quite compatible with the "governance" doctrine of Chairman Xi: Hunan self-government, as advocated by Mao's 1920 call for a "Hunan Republic". On this, cf. Robert Scalapino, "The Evolution of a Young Revolutionary — Mao Zedong in 1919-1921"; Angus McDonald, "Mao Tse-tung and the Hunan Self-Government Movement, 1920: An Introduction and FiveTranslations; Jospeh Lian Yizheng 联乙铮 "Mao used to think like HK young separatists". These ideas from Hunan are perhaps less likely to be promoted in the current New Era than Du Gangjian's latest Association.