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December 29, 2004

ChineseD English

3 out of 5 stars

In Ha Jin's novels, a lot of Chinese sayings in disguise of the English form has become one of the features of Ha Jin’s writing. From the content level, it can be seen as the exotic feature of ‘China’ literature. From the linguistic level, does this borrowing from Chinese language specialty symbolises that English expansion or does it mean the increasing influence of the Chinese language? While reading his novel In the Pond, I chose a few lines, which I hope will bring you some fun!

Chinese swear words:

  • That dame dog Shao Bin /Damn the mad dog!
  • Curse them and their ancestors
  • I screw your ancestors/ mothers and daughters
  • Son of a rabbit! /You son of a turtle
    (Please don’t get offended to see any of the above. Better not put the Chinese equivalences!)

Language of Chineseness:

  • knives up their sleeves (袖里藏刀)
  • His heart is that black (心黑)
  • miss a watermelon by fighting over a few sasame (丢西瓜拣芝麻)
  • Combat the unhealthy wind in society (整顿社会不正之风)
  • Suck people’s blood and taking bribes (受贿,吸老百姓的血)
  • Bin begged him to raise his noble hands (高抬贵手)
  • All the officials here are rotten! (官员腐烂-腐败烂了)
  • Your problem is that you always believe you know exactly how high the sky is and how deep the sea is. (不知道天高地厚)

Chinese Cultural Terms:

  • It’s unfair that you occupy the latrine if you don’t crap. (占着茅坑不拉屎)
  • Who could tell a golden phoenix was hatched in a henhouse? (鸡窝里飞出个金凤凰)
  • Your words are always as precious as gold. (金玉良言)
  • You can’t embrace the Buddha’s feet only in your hours of need. (临时抱佛脚)
  • You shouldn’t play the lute to a water buffalo. (对牛弹琴)

About Ha Jin’s book:
According to, In the Pond has been ‘selected as a best fiction book of 1998 by the Chicago Tribune’. His later novel Waiting, Ha Jin's first full-length novel, has won the winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for fiction.

Ha Jin and Shao Bin (main character in In the Pond):
Ha Jin received his BA in English, MA in American Literature in China and Ph.D. in English in USA. Because of the various constraints on writing in China, he decided not to come back and to pursue his writing life in the USA, where he is presently an associate professor in English at Emory University(ibid.). In concern of Ha Jin's background, Shao Bin, a brilliant and able person in the early China would certainly come out of his mind— an intellectual, who is struggling and trying to get promotion in his work place; an able man, who is unable to find his Bo Le (伯乐) (a metaphorical term, meaning those who could predict or see the potentials from certain people). This is also what Ha Jin was struggling while he was seeking his teaching job in the USA. With Shao Bin living in the pond, his experience of fighting with the unfairness is vividly described in this novel. Its humourous elements indubitably, to some extent, have added to its satirical taste.

Is it Chinese? Is it China?
I enjoyed reading In the Pond, it is just like reading a Chinese novel in the form of English. For non-Chinese, I guess it might be a very good chance to know a bit about the Chinese language, for example, the characterary Chinese 大-疯-子 in the screaming of 'Lu-na-tic' and the sentences without auxiliary in ‘If you not eat, I not eat myself'. Also, you will hook up a bit about Chinese thoughts, such as ‘Regard your teacher as a lifelong father, even if he had taught you just one day’. As Kirkus Reviews has commented on the backcover of In the Pond: ‘Ha Jin has made China available to a new world and a world of new readers’. I would say, he has made part of past China available. The China he knows is not the present China anymore but a visualized China exists in his memory.

Are his novels simple and exotic? Does his stratgy of writing symbolise a coming of a new aesthetic literature style? Or, to put it more simply, is it just a straight plain and tasteless translation took place in Ha Jin's mind, which caters for the world's China-related literature trend? You know what, I heard him making minor grammatical mistakes while he was talking in English. Shh.... did I say it? No, no......Still, he cannot change his national identity--Chinese. If you have time, have a look and see whether you can understand or like his ‘Chinese’ English. :)

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