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A reflection on the Sinic "I"

The word “I” is arguably one of the most widely used in all modern spoken languages. But not so long ago it was taboo in China. Kin Man from Macau describes together with Mathilde what the “I” means for him in Cantonese culture.

Translated from the French by Mathilde Denison Cheong

For this reflection on the "I" in modern Chinese - a language that I prefer to call the Han language or, in Cantonese, the Hon - I try to be selfish.

I have often fooled myself that my “I” turns into a “Portuguese-speaking me” as soon as I speak Portuguese. Nevertheless, I cannot get rid of the feeling that I always keep a part of the “I” in my mother tongue. This Cantonese “I” that I carry within myself retains its peculiarities, even though its meaning has been compromised by cultural globalization. Even if this article was originally in Portuguese (and has since migrated from French to German), part of my “I” remains Confucian and Cantonese.

One of the first words I taught my Belgian wife Mathilde was the Cantonese “Ngo” (after the general Romanization), which means “I”. As a native French speaker, the word was new to her pronunciation. Its nasality can be found in Classical Chinese, Modern Hokkien, and Modern Hakka. The corresponding character 我 is also used in Mandarin (wǒ) for the same word.

The “I” of primeval times

In contrast to Western languages, with the Sinic “I” one cannot fall back on the etymology of the words. But one can look at the development of the characters since their appearance in the oracle bone script. Here the sign was in the form of a weapon and one of its original meanings was the verb "to kill". In most cases the right part of the character represents a wooden stick and the left one or more blades. Rod and blade are connected.

Could this ax blade be the origin of the “I” ...

According to the scholar Guo Moruo (who, among other things, translated Goethe into Chinese), the symbol represented an ax attached to the staff. Others saw either a three-pronged blade or a level knife, one side sharp and the other blunt, each attached to the end of a staff. The theory that assumes a horizontal knife is the most widespread today. In fact, you can still see the character of this knife erkennen in the modern character 我 on the right. This character was also used for family names. It is no coincidence that the eminent Portuguese sinologist Father Guerra chose it to translate his own name into Chinese; he then romanized it according to his own system as “Kvao” (in Pinyin, 戈 is rewritten as gē).

It makes sense to expect the structures of one's own language in foreign languages. But even though one learns to say “My name is…” in Cantonese these days, politeness once required saying something like: “Smaller (to express modesty) family name is X, with the first name Y.” Chinese courtesy was based on a necessary modesty that was either honest or merely ritual, and on the respect of other people. In most cases, one often humiliates oneself in the hierarchy towards the people to whom one is addressing, even if one is higher in the hierarchy.

The little henchman allows himself to make an awkward remark

In classical Chinese or in contemporary correspondence between scholars, one finds a very strict and complex use of forms of courtesy. These appear most clearly in the most classic of all styles, namely that of the administrative documents in Taiwan. These forms depend on the hierarchical context between recipient and sender, and on the context in which the documents are written. Courtesy forms are also very often used in historical television series and costume films from Hong Kong. Instead of speaking of oneself as “I”, one called oneself, for example, “the little brother”, “the henchman” or “the servant”. In this sense, those things that you did and thought yourself - or only related to yourself - were referred to as "stupid" and "clumsy".

... or is it this blade?

As a child in Macau, I heard my parents' generation address each other as “big brother” or “big sister” and refer to themselves as “little sister / brother” instead of saying “me”. Even if some people today jokingly refer to themselves as “little brother” or “little sister”, their use as forms of politeness has all but disappeared. I suspect people don't particularly like to hear that they are older.

If I had to impose this western idea of ​​a grammar on the Chinese language, I would be inclined to refer to the late sinologist Simon Leys (1935-2014) and give the "I" as a subject an important role. Otherwise, the “I” will remain on at least one of the more commonly used words in Chinese. In the increasing globalization, I find it worthwhile to think about the different "I's" between cultures. They are all too easily blurred into one another.

Cover picture credit: Thanks to Arseny; Images in text © National Museum of Taiwan. Photo of Kin Man and Mathilde by Lorenz Daniel.