Yesterday, an email header in my inbox caught my eye, not because of its subject but its language. So I clicked the link. Here is the screenshot of what I saw:
Note the English word "Hold" in the middle of the otherwise all-Chinese headline that translates to: "Can Real Estate Developers Hold Any Longer?" The article is a commentary from the independent media group (a rare presence in China) Caixin's website, caixin.cn.
Though English words do show up here and there in Chinese blog posts nowadays, this is the first time I have seen a reputed Chinese publication mixing the two languages in an article.
Why does the author, who looks quite young from the photo, feel the need to repetedly use a particular English word in a Chinese article? It's possible that he thinks it expresses his meaning more accurately than Chinese; it's also possible that he thinks this mixed language could be a more attractive style of writing for his readers. But, reading his headline makes my tongue feel utterly awkward.
It reminds me of a Mao quote that sticks from my childhood memory, when reciting Mao quotations was a fashion during the Cultural Revolution. "Language and writing must be reformed to go alphabetic, the common direction of languages in the world," Mao said. And he indeed gave it a try in the 1950s. Peter Hessler had an excellent piece in the New Yorker several years ago that tells the language reform history. As it turns out, the reform attempt did not manage to alphabetize written Chinese, though it resulted in the official "pinyin" system that uses the Roman alphabet to assist the learning of Chinese pronunciation, as well as the simplification of some characters.
Since then, the debate on whether written Chinese should be replaced by an alphabet has never ceased. By birth, I'm a big fan of the square Chinese characters, which hold cultural, artistic and semantic richness in strokes and structures. I am not eager to see them go. However, today's young generation of Chinese seem to be a lot less attached to their ancestral language, one of the consequences of globalization I suspect. I had never believed our beautiful square characters would one day become obsolete; now I'm not so sure.