As someone who finds the playful intricacies of language endlessly fascinating, I count myself extraordinarily lucky to have studied at schools on either side of the Pacific. In the following passages I would like to expound upon my impressions and observations, with the gargantuan caveat that I am unfortunately not a linguistics major. Additionally, I use the term “literary tradition” only in the loosest sense, understanding that exceptions often render rules obsolete.
Like many Taiwanese schoolchildren, my earliest forays into the vast world of Chinese literature began with the recitation of the San Zi Jing (Three-Character Classic) — perhaps best described as catechisms for the budding Confucianist — in addition to the more recognizable poems by the likes of Li Bai and Du Fu, in the poetic styles of traditional Shi (詩) and Ci (詞).
Even before understanding the words that I chanted obediently, I was thoroughly enchanted by the alternating rhythms and orderly stanzas. Additionally, the unique and surprising charm of these forms of poetry, which I did not grow to appreciate until much later, lies in their distinct visual aesthetics, which mirrors the auditory. Arranged in orderly lines of either four (絕句) or eight (律詩), with the number characters invariably at five (五言) or seven (七言), the beauty lays in finding the most fitting words in the most constrained of guidelines to present the most connotatively evocative imagery. While poets often played with these constraints, the stringent limiting factor is often what distills the most colorful and profound works.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t until moving to California and interacting with the English literary traditions that I gained a deeper appreciation for what I was familiar with. In a nutshell (how fantastically quaint of an expression!), the English language, for me, is defined by the concept of “flow.” While in Taiwan we were busy building up our individual repertoires of applicable words and idioms (four-character flourishes dense in etymology and connotation), in the American high school we dealt with something quite unfamiliar to me: grammar and syntax.
While essays submitted with complex sentence structures were lauded for their imaginative use of “voice,” I disdainfully regarded them as unnecessary and excessive, when the same ideas could just as easily be expressed in far fewer words. Even their poetry, which to me meant the essence of inspired thought from the masters of old, came out resembling their prose: gratuitously superfluous. Fortunately, I slowly realized that the virtues of one language should not negate those of another, and my disdain morphed into curiosity, which became interest, and finally an obsession to reconcile the two literary, and thus cultural, traditions.
English flows in ways Mandarin could never hope to imitate, and interplays of subjectivity, voice, agency and tenses create dazzlingly lively and youthful prose. Conversely, Mandarin rewards homage to the ancients, and creativity lies in the encapsulation of new meanings with scrupulous choice of words. Fortunately for me, these lessons appear to be complementary.