之乎者也 — Particular Pedantry

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Before Cui Jian 崔健 rocked the Mainland, Lo Tayu 羅大佑 was making himself heard on Taiwan.

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In the 1910s, during the early years of the Chinese Republic, advocates in favour of replacing Literary Chinese 文言文 with the Vernacular Language 白話文 summed up the older written form of expression with a shorthand: zhi-hu-zhe-ye 之、乎、者、也. These were four ubiquitous traditional grammatical particles. Reformers declared that, for China to be a modern country, the hard-to-learn, hard-to-write and hard-to-undersatnd language of the past must be eradicated; zhi-hu-zhe-ye 之、乎、者、也 should be replaced with de-le-ne-ma 的、了、呢、嗎.

In China’s revolutionary twentieth century (1900s to 1995), the expression zhi-hu-zhe-ye would repeatedly be used to lambast the literature and culture of the past, as well as its champions. The four-character saying remains a handy, colloquial way to make fun of obscurantism, pedantry, party thinkers and media hacks, as well as postmodernists and their theory-laden parole. Third Sister Liu 劉三姐, a Mao-era musical released in 1961, famously used songs and riddles to satirise the empty book-learning of the literati and vilify the predatory landed gentry.

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The rock singer Lo Tayu (Luo Dayou 羅大佑, 1954-) used the classical Chinese grammatical particles zhi-hu-zhe-ye 之、乎、者、也 to mock cultural repression and compliance in early 1980s Taiwan.

As a youthful iconoclast in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Tayu was famous in Taipei for his look: dressed entirely in black with long hair and dark glasses, which he wore even at night. To a jaded Western eye Tayu’s image smacked of tired rock cliché, but in Taiwan his was a striking pointed-middle-finger aimed at the prim and repressive society of late-authoritarian Republican China.

In his songs Tayu mocked the KMT authorities as well as their fusty Confucian values. ‘Pedantry’ 之乎者也, the title song of the 1982 album of the same name, is the most famous of these works. We introduce it here as part of Nouvelle Chinoiserie 奇趣漢學; these are works that combine the strange or odd with the delightful translated for the diversion of our readers, as well as for the delectation of students who seek pleasure, and meaning, in a unfettered China.

Tayu employed those same four Literary Chinese particles — 之、乎、者、也 — when offering a comment on what at the time was a controversial song:

The censors examine our songs
to see whether they pass muster or not;
Those that make it through
end up copied and pirated.

歌曲審查之,
通不通過乎;
歌曲通過者,
翻版盜印也。

Lo Tayu’s Pedantry, 1982 album cover

At the time many creative figures in Taiwan tried rebelling against government censorship; for some the free port of Hong Kong provided an outlet, while one rare individual, the famous balladeer Hou Dejian 侯德健, ‘defected’ 叛逃 to the Mainland in search of artistic and patriotic possibilities.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
2 July 2018

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Related Material (in Chinese):


Pedantry 之乎者也

Lo Tayu 羅大佑

 

 

He knew exactly what he knew;
He cared for things no one else did
Who was that Fellow?
One Confucius by name

知之為知之
在乎不在乎
此人何其者
孔老夫子也

He knew knowledge was not knowing
He didn’t care one way or the other
Who was that Fellow?
One [Tang poet] Cold Mountain by name

知之為不知
在在不在乎
此人何其者
寒山之子也

He knew what he didn’t know
He didn’t care about caring at all
Who was that Fellow?
He’s the Man of Qi [Mencius, Lilou II: 61]

不知為知之
不在乎在乎
此人何其者
齊人是也

That’s what our Ancestors said long ago
That’s what our Ancestors said long ago
Look at what the young have to say
Just think about what you expect them to do

很久以前我們的祖先都曾經這麼說
很久以前我們的祖先都曾經這麼說
現在看看我們的青年他們在講什麼
但是你要想想到底你要他們怎麼做

Scissors at the ready to cut
Soup noodles [long hair] drooping
Showing respect for teachers
Is this the only way?
‘Wind, Flowers, Snow, Moon’ it
La-la-la
What they call folk songs
Is that what they are?

剪刀等待之
清湯掛面乎
尊師重道者
莫過如是也
風花雪月之
嘩啦啦啦乎
所謂民歌者
是否如是也

知知知知知
乎乎乎乎乎
者者者者者
也也也也也

That’s what our Ancestors said long ago
That’s what our Ancestors said long ago
Listen to what young people have to sing
Just think about what you expect them to do

很久以前我們的祖先都曾經這麼說
很久以前我們的祖先都曾經這麼說
現在聽聽我們的青年他們在唱什麼
但是你要想想到底你要他們怎麼做

Look askance with one eye
give a shout or two
Cover up your ears
happy happy joy joy

眼睛睜一隻
嘴巴呼一呼
耳朵遮一遮
皆大歡喜也

Everyone knows it;
Everyone cares
Whose on the sidelines:
you and me

大家都知之
大家都在乎
袖手旁觀者
你我是也

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‘Vanity of vanities; All is vanity’ 風花雪月, in the hand of Kong Xiangying 孔祥盈