a jew in china is not a parsimonious monkey

Some uppity group called with a bad name, Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan have decided the world would be a better place if the characters for ‘Jew’ were not 猶太, you tai, which they’ve taken the liberty of extracting the radicals from and coming up with something like ‘parsimonious monkey’.

The whole thing blew up in the Taipei Times almost a month ago (still keeping to my strict regime of blogging long after anything is old news), and got covered in The Jerusalem Post also. It got really interesting though when Language Hat, a blog for linguistic geeks got hold of it, and the comments are still going strong.

Absolutely worth an hour reading if you get all wet and slippery over etymology and sinology, and enjoy laughing your arse off at the kind of people like Peacetime (sounds like decaffeinated coffee substitute) who don’t quite get that tearing a character back to its roots doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about it. The same kind of people who bludgeon 危机 crisis into its components and get “crisis = danger + opportunity’. Which Language Hat also have fun with.

Group seeks new Chinese ‘Jew’

By DAN BLOOM/JTA
TAIPEI, Taiwan

The Chinese language is comprised of thousands of characters and combinations of characters, each composed of various strokes. Now a human rights group in Taiwan is calling on Chinese journalists and academics around the world to stop the “discriminatory” way that characters for “Jewish people” are written in Mandarin.

There are many Chinese characters for ‘you-tai,’ or Jew, but the combination that is currently being used refers to an animal of the monkey species, and has the connotation of parsimoniousness,” Chien Hsi-chieh, director of the Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan, said recently.

Chien’s remarks at a news conference in Taipei, complete with illustrations of the offending characters and the new characters he recommends, were widely reported in Chinese-language media across Taiwan and China.

Chien said the biased Chinese characters were devised by Christian missionaries in China around 1830, when they were translating the Old Testament and New Testament into Chinese and needed a term for Jews.

“A better choice for the word ‘Jews’ in Chinese writing would be one that is pronounced the same, but written with a more neutral character,” he said.

Following the news conference, held in Taiwan’s Parliament, a local English-language newspaper quoted Zhou Xun, a Chinese professor at the University of London, as saying that it’s not easy to define Jews as a people using a combination of two or three Chinese characters.

“In fact, the current way of writing ‘you-tai’ to mean ‘Jews’ indicates the imagined physical difference between the Chinese and the Jews, which is rooted in the tradition of picturing all alien groups living outside the pale of Chinese society as distant savages hovering on the edge of bestiality,” Zhou said.

Chien first brought the matter to the attention of the Taiwanese government in 2003 and again in October 2004, where it was discussed by officials in the Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs and the Government Information Office, according to Dennis Lin, a public relations official at the Peacetime Foundation.

The Taiwanese government under President Chen Shui-bian said it would help promote the new way of writing the term for Jews in books, newspapers and on the Internet if local civic groups continued to promote the idea. But the government hasn’t taken any concrete action yet, Lin said, noting that the government prefers to let the Peacetime Foundation, a private, nonprofit group, lead the international campaign.

Since Taiwan has no official diplomatic ties with Israel due to Israel’s “one-China” policy, there have been no contacts with Jerusalem about the matter, Chien said, but he added that he has spoken with representatives of the Israeli trade office in Taipei on several occasions.

“The Israeli trade office in Taipei has given us its support when we spoke to them about this and said it would be delighted to see this reform succeed,” Chien said.

Members of Taiwan’s Jewish community, some of whom are fluent in Chinese but not in the ancient Mandarin writing system, are following Chien’s campaign in the media, but no one wanted to comment publicly for this article, since “the complex and varied way of writing Chinese characters is beyond most Westerners’ comprehension,” one longtime Jewish expat in Taipei explained.

The Jewish people are not the only ones that written Chinese discriminates against, Chien added. He also recommended that the Chinese world community replace the currently negative term for Islam (“hui”) with a better combination of characters (“yi-si-lan”) because the current term has a connotation of paganism.

Chinese words for Jews and Islam are demeaning: group

BY KO SHU-LING AND CHIU YU-TZU

A peace group yesterday called on the public and the government to support a campaign to change what they call “discriminatory” Chinese translations for terms related to Islam and Jews.

“There are many Chinese characters for you tai (猶太), or Jew, but they pick the you with the `dog radical’ (犬)” said Chien Hsi-chieh, executive director of the Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan. “In Chinese, [the character] refers to an animal of the monkey species, and has the connotation of `parsimoniousness.'”

A better choice for the word, Chien said, would be you (尤), which is more neutral.

Chien also urged that the hui character used in the Chinese translation for the religion of Islam (回教), be replaced with yisilan (伊斯蘭), because hui has a connotation of paganism. The earlier Chinese translation for Islam used a hui character with the “dog” radical.

Chien made the appeal at a press conference at the Legislative Yuan yesterday morning.

Zhou Xun (周迅), a history professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said it is almost impossible to find a definition for the term Jew or Jewishness in Chinese.

“As a matter of fact, the animal radical of youtai indicates the imagined physical difference between the Chinese and the Jews, which is rooted in the tradition of picturing the alien groups living outside the pale of Chinese society as distant savages hovering on the edge of bestiality,” she said.

Chien yesterday also lambasted the Presidential Office’s Human Rights Advisory Committee, headed by Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), saying it had ignored their petition.

The Presidential Office yesterday said in a statement that the foundation’s claim that Lu was using the committee as a tool to benefit her political career rather than promote human rights was a misunderstanding.

The statement said that on Oct. 4, the foundation’s petition was submitted to Chen, who ordered the committee convened by Lu to discuss the issue. On Oct. 13, the committee’s deputy convener, Liao Fu-te (廖福特), chaired a discussion of the issue with representatives from the foundation, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Government Information Office.

The committee members said that the government would gladly help out if civic groups continue to promote the idea, the statement added.

“The petition was filed by the foundation [in Taiwan] rather than by Jewish people. According to the conclusion reached by the committee on Oct. 20, it was unnecessary for the government to take such an initiative. Besides, Taiwan has no official diplomatic ties with Israel,” the statement said.