Friday, 4 November 2016

The Chinese Name Problem.

My love affair with traditional Chinese culture must be the stuff of legend on this blog by now. I want to go and experience some of it first hand, but I have great difficulty remembering the names. I want to see the Daming Palace and the Dunhuang caves, and I want to visit Guangdong Province because it sounds warm and quietly romantic in a warm and quietly Chinese sort of way.

But how do I remember the names? It’s as though somebody put lots of g’s and a’s and n’s and u’s and d’s and h’s in a bag, emptied some of them out wherever they went and said ‘that’s what we’ll call this place.’ Let’s face it, if I can’t remember what a parsnip is called, how the hell am I supposed to differentiate between Daming, Dunhuang and Guangdong?

And then there are others that don’t have an –ng ending in sight, like Xanxi Province and Xaanxi Province. That isn’t a typo; the two of them really do exist next to each other. I mean, would we in England have two counties called Rutland and Ruutland? No, so why must the Chinese do it? To confuse foreigners, maybe? Or maybe it’s because western popular media makes a habit of giving Chinese names to villains who are brilliant but reprehensible, like Ming the Merciless and Dr Fu Manchu. Maybe they’re just getting their own back. (I wonder whether they have comics with characters called Trump the Tyrant and Black Bessie the Wigan Werewolf in them. I would.)

And then there’s the multitude of Chinese musical instruments to sweat over. I’ve just about got the guzheng, the guqin, the erhu, the pippa and the dizzi in my memory bank, but that’s only five. I’m struggling badly with the other 5,000.

But I did learn tonight that I can get a hulusi (I had to look it up; it’s still knocking on the door of my memory bank requesting a residents’ permit, but the gatekeeper is getting deafer by the day) for the meagre sum of £14.23. The sound of it puts me in mind of sheep and summer days, and the sheep are probably the only ones who would ever hear me play it. Should any passing farmer ask ‘What’s that you’re playing?’ I would have to answer ‘Dunno, mate. It’s from China.’

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