For the 22 Uygurs currently imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay (discussed in my preceding post), the question of repatriation is particularly problematic precisely because the very notion of a homeland has, for them, been brought into question. The prisoners hail from China’s “Xinjiang Uigur autonomous region,” and are accused of being affiliated with militant separatist groups. Therefore, they are currently caught in a somewhat paradoxical bind wherein Beijing is demanding that they be repatriated to a county (China) whose legal jurisdiction over them they themselves renounce.
These intersecting issues of homeland and political sovereignty are also reflected in the twentieth century orthographic history of Uygur (also spelled “Uighur,” “Uigur,” “Uighuir,” “Uighuir,” “Uiguir,” Weiwuer,” 维吾尔, and ئۇيغۇر; ). Between the 10th and the 15th centuries, the ancestors of present-day Uygurs and related ethnic groups gradually adopted an Arabic script, which then remained standard until the mid-twentieth century. As Arienne Dwyer discusses, Cyrillic was then officially adopted in Xinjing in 1956 , abandoned in February1957, and readopted a year later. In the 1960s, however, some Xinjiang schools started to experiment with a script using the Roman alphabet, which was then formally adopted in August 1976. In the 1980s, however, there was a return back to an Arabic script, with significant modifications (to accommodate Uygur’s Turkic phonemes) in both 1983 and 1987. As a result of these shifts in language policy, therefore, it would be quite possible for each generation in a contemporary family of Xinjiang Uygurs to have each been schooled in a different script (Arabic, Cyrillic, Roman, and modified Arabic).
A similar intersection of orthographic orthodoxies and generation gaps, meanwhile, is explored in Doug Atchison’s recent film, Akeelah and the Bee.
Borrowing from both the familiar “prohibitive underdog overcomes prohibitive odds to win a major athletic competition” as well the “idealistic outsider comes to inner city school and enables students to realize their full potential” genres (not to mention the spelling bee genre itself), Akeelah follows Akeelah Anderson’s (Keke Palmer) precipitous journey from tormented “braniac’ at her South Central LA elementary school, to the top tiers of national spelling bee circuit. This is not an easy journey, as one of the first glimpses we have of Akeelah is of her getting pummeled in a back alley by two classmates (girls) who are jealous of her intelligence. Her principal (Curtis Armstrong) has to threaten her with detention to convince her to compete in the school bee, while simultaneously introducing her to a UCLA English professor (Laurence Fishburne) who has offered to tutor her for the event.
Once Akeelah wins her school bee, her two main rivals at each stage of the competition from the district to the national are two boys from a cross-town upper middle class LA high school: the friendly and affable Mexican-American Javier Mendez (J.R. Villarreal) and the Chinese-American Dylan Chiu (Sean Michael Afable). While Javier is charismatic and charming, the portrayal of Dylan and his father is arguably one of the film’s greatest weaknesses. The movie draws liberally from facile stereotypes of Chinese Americans as hard-driven, humorless grinds specializing in rote memorization. While Dylan’s character is given additional depth and complexity at the end of the film, his father (Tzi Ma) remains a walking ethnic and racial stereotype (in goading Dylan on, for instance, he repeatedly refers to Akeelah deprecatorily as a “little black girl”).
[If the film were indeed intent on trafficking in ethnic and racial stereotypes, an argument could be made that a more realistic figure for the character of Dylan (a two-time second place winner of the national bee, who is now trying to win it all) would have been not a Chinese American, but rather a South Asian. As Eileen points out, in recent years it has actually been South Asians rather than East Asians who have excelled at the highest levels of national competition. For instance, of the 18 competitors in this year’s national bee who are competing for the third time or more, at least one third appear to have South Asian surnames, and none has an East Asian surname; similarly, the top four winners in last year’s spelling bee were of South Asian descent, while only one of the top ten had a Chinese surname)].
Issues of ethnic and racial stereotypes aside, however, the pairing of Javier and Dylan does raise interesting questions about the peculiar tradition and cultural connotations of the spelling bee itself. Javiar’s and Dylan’s success in the spelling bee is somewhat ironic given that neither of their families originally hails from a linguistic/cultural tradition in which the concept of a spelling bee is familiar, or even meaningful. A Spanish spelling bee, for instance, is a rather bizarre notion, insofar as virtually all words are spelled phonetically. Chinese, meanwhile, does not have a spelling system per se (there are several Romanization systems which are used for transliteration purposes but, like Spanish, they are all perfectly phonetic), though one could imagine a contest testing students’ ability to write Chinese characters or ideographs.
While the institution of the spelling bee stands as a testament to the cultural heterogeneousness of the English language (underscored by the practice of allowing spelling bee contestants [at the national level] to inquire about the language of origin of unfamiliar words), the ideographic structure of Chinese, by contrast, is often perceived as an implicit affirmation of the inherent continuity and homogeneity of the Chinese cultural tradition.
A Chinese film which grapples evocatively with these questions of pedagogy and orthographic orthodoxy is Chen Kaige’s 陈凯歌 early film, King of Children 孩子王 (1987). Set in the early post-Cultural Revolution period, the film features a young man by the name of Lao Gan (Xie Yuan 谢园 ) who comes to a remote rural school district during to teach (despite the fact that he himself has barely progressed further in school than the students he is to teach). Lao Gan is taken aback to discover that the students are accustomed to learning their lessons by simply copying verbatim the text which the instructor writes on the blackboard (a necessity, since the school cannot afford to provide them with textbooks, and they are too poor to buy them themselves). Laqo Gan’s best student, Wang Fu (Yang Xuewen 杨学文) meanwhile, is both his most creative and iconoclastic pupil, but at the same time is the one who is most fastidious in his memorization of new ideographs (he keeps a notebook in which he diligently records, and commits to memory, every single new ideograph he is taught). [Appropriately enough, the actor’s name literally means “learning” (学) “culture/writing” (文)]. At the heart of the film, therefore, is the question of the status of language, and specifically written language, as a fulcrum between one generation and the next. As Rey Chow observes in Primitive Passions, for Chen, the Chinese language during this period stands, “first as the cumulative, unbearable burden of the past (history) and then as the technologizing imperative to construct, in the modern world, a brand-new national culture (revolution).”
Iconically emblematic of the teacher’s (and Chen’s) attempt to negotiate a compromise between the Chinese language’s antithetical connotations of weighty tradition, on the one hand, and dynamic modernization, on the other, is Lao Gan’s accidental creation of a non-existent character during a momentary lapse of concentration while copying the text onto the blackboard. Constructed out of the characters for “cow” 牛 and “water” 水 placed one on top of another. The ideograph could, theoretically, exist, but it doesn’t. In this context, therefore, it represents the possibility of taking something as thoroughly steeped in tradition as the Chinese language, and transforming it into something new and innovative.
A contemporary artist who has pursued these questions of the cultural implications of the Chinese written language, and its position in mediating between tradition and innovation, is Xu Bing 徐冰. A Mainland Chinese artist currently based in New York, Xu Bing has established a reputation over the past two decades for his vast projects deconstructing the cultural connotations of both the Chinese and English written languages (he won an MacAurthur Award in 1999). Perhaps his best-known work, however, is one of his earliest: The Book from the Sky, which he painstakingly created over the course of more than three years (1987-1991). As he describes the work on his web site:
A Book from The Sky took the artist over three years to complete. The installation is comprised of printed volumes and scrolls containing four thousand characters individually "invented", designed and cut into wood-blocks by the artist. The result is a set of four hand-printed books, ceiling and wall scrolls that carry a huge body of test that resembles Chinese characters but is in fact unintelligible. The materials used for this production follow the tradition of classical Chinese printing, scroll-design and book-binding. This installation parodies ancient Chinese tests in the context of the modem world and questions entrenched practices such as written communication and reading or human cultures.