Something incomprehensible, we readily say in French that “it’s Chinese.” To express the same idea, an Englishman speaks Greek, a Finnish Hebrew, an Italian Arabic and a Turk… French. Chinese, in Europe, is nonetheless the language most often associated with complexity. But is Chinese really that complicated? In two works* devoted to the teaching and the nature of Chinese, the sinologist Jean François Billeter maintains that “one cannot conceive of a simpler and more coherent system”. Think about it: Chinese does not know a conjugation, the gender or the number do not imply any agreement of the sentence, the same word can be a verb, a noun, an adjective. So what’s the problem?
“I have often been asked if Chinese is a difficult language,” writes Jean François Billeter. I have always replied that it is a language of wonderful simplicity, but which presents three difficulties: 1. this simplicity even when it is poorly understood; 2. pronunciation, especially because of the tones; 3. writing, which requires an effort that is out of all proportion to our phonetic writings. ” The pronunciation and writing of Chinese will remain an obstacle for the learner. The simplicity of Chinese, or to put it another way, its logic, is on the other hand accessible as long as we make the effort to forget our grammar.
The five “gestures” of Chinese
A language without grammar? The rules of Chinese are so simple that they remain implicit for the Chinese. They never felt the need to explain the grammar of their language. If they did, it was through contact with Europeans. China then adopted a Latin grammar, then English, for the purposes of teaching foreigners. “This resulted in a badly cut dimension”, writes Jean François Billeter, who acts as a “straitjacket”. A grammar that blocks the “real functioning of the language”.
This language, by its economy and flexibility, is “as if made for poetry”
To achieve this simplicity, the sinologist and his wife Cui Wen had developed, thirty years ago, their own method based on a few principles. They are five in number. Jean François Billeter speaks of “gestures”. “We only understand the Chinese sentence when we admit that it has no grammatical subject, but themes, and that these themes are linked to the subject by a dramaturgy which is, by nature, a gesture.” These gestures are first assimilated by the act of saying things, and not by a grammatical analysis. With Chinese, he writes, “the crucial point is the position of the words, the essential lies in the relationship of immediate proximity”.
“As made for poetry”
Former students, Chinese lovers and language curious will delight in this double reading. Language being the vehicle but also a determinant of thought, these gestures can also challenge us as Chinese is on the way to becoming the language of the new dominant power. Jean François Billeter has indicated in previous works how the ideology of Chinese power poses a threat to democratic values. He is careful not to make a link between the structure of a language and its possible political implications. He notes, however, that Chinese writing is “an essential condition for the unity of the Chinese state and its duration.” This writing is intimately linked to the idea of a unified empire.
“The Empire did not generate nations or national languages, nor consequently literary or intellectual traditions truly distinct, China did not know the reciprocal fecundations which have so considerably enriched Europe over the centuries” , underlines Jean François Billeter. Shortly before his death, Lee Kuan Yew was writing an essay on the hegemonic ambitions of China, a country which undoubtedly aims to supplant the United States. The inventor of the Singapore model concluded that it was doomed because of its language: simply because of the difficulty of its learning, Chinese could never replace English. He added that the culture associated with Chinese limited the free exchange and debate of ideas. We will add, with Jean-François Billeter, that this same language, by its economy and its extraordinary flexibility, is “as if made for poetry”. To meditate.
* Chinese Gestures and The Art of Teaching Chinese, Jean François Billeter, Editions Allia, 2021