On the Phone

It was a few years back, at some big reception at the Goethe-Institut or the British Council, in Hong Kong or Taipei– forgive me, I’ve been to a lot of parties. (The fact that I can’t remember the details doesn’t mean I had an exceptionally good time.) As my friend and I were navigating the big room, looking for anyone we knew, I heard some French being spoken over to the side, and halloed: “Bonjour les francophones!” The answer came back: “Pas francophones, nous sommes français.”

The category corrective meant this: although in principle all French-speakers are Francophones, because that’s what the word means (Frankos, “French,” plus “phonê,” voice*), in practice the word is restricted to “people who speak French or something like it, and aren’t French.” French people don’t refer to themselves as francophones, unless by chance they work for the ministerial office of Francophonie, which really exists. The office, that is, exists; it exists in order to make Francophonie, a virtual nation spread out through Europe, Africa, North America, the Caribbean and parts of Asia, exist. The large area of Francophonie is to the small country of France like a sail that pulls the boat ahead into future history and away from extinction. But when it comes down to it, to be a mere Francophone is, as my interlocutors showed with their instantaneous reaction, a second-best to being French.

It would be more normal for France to count itself among Francophone nations, but what would that take? A definitive overcoming of colonial relations between the ex-metropole and the former outposts? A stronger sense among French that their place in the world depends on that of their fellows in Francophonie?

Languages have wobbly borders that don’t usually coincide with states, citizenships, or ethnicities. It is useful– sometimes, even, useful to nations– to have a way of referring to speech communities apart from political jurisdictions. In the case of Francophonie, to mark the difference that follows (perhaps, too, that which preceded) political independence; in the case of Sinophonie, to mark the difference between the big nation that thinks of itself as the One True China and the other nations, areas or diasporic groups that use the Chinese language** while carrying a variety of passports.

Sinophonie? Does anyone say that? Sinophonia? In French, the suffix “-phonie” is what the linguists call productive, that is, it confers meaning on the compounds to which it is attached. I might refer to a Mexican village as “Tlotzilophone,” to distinguish it from the Hispanophone one just to its north. If you never heard of Tlotzil, you’d now know that it was a language, the language spoken throughout Tlotzilophonie. But the power of the suffix to make sense weakens when it’s carried over into English (as it has been probably only a handful of times).

When people talk about “the sinophone”– to back up my last assertion, the suffix seems almost exclusively destined to a career among adjectives– in English, it’s not to exclude Big China, or is it? I’ve heard people speak of “Sinophone literature” in such a way as to exclude what we might call “Chinese and Taiwanese literature,” in other words to reserve the sinophone label for cases where Chinese is used as a minority language. At other times I’ve heard people use “sinophone” in the inclusive sense, meaning all Chinese-speaking areas including the putative Chinas. (Chinese, however you define it, is hardly a minority language in China, though those who know a little more about the place will chip in here to remind us that there are plenty of non-Sinophone citizens of Big China, people who speak languages related to Turkic or Thai or Tibetan, for example, and have putonghua or another topolect of Chinese only as an auxiliary language.)

“Sinophone” operates as a calque on “Francophone,” as the application of the logic of Francophonie to the domain of Chinese extraterritorial speech. But that analogy is sure to hiccup, like all analogies, at certain points. Some, but not all, Francophone regions are populated by descendants of French emigrants, as virtually all of Sinophonia (I think) is populated by descendants of Chinese emigrants. Other regions, the majority in both area and population, are Francophone as a result of conquest or enslavement. That might be true of some areas of China too, but in a far more distant past. And at another level, the persistence of French had to do with the exportation of educational protocols by the Grande Nation herself, something that wasn’t obviously true of the Middle Kingdom in recent decades but now, with the Confucius Institutes, is perhaps taking form.

The relevance of “-phone” comes into view when there is a doubt about the coincidence of nationality and language– that much I’m sure of. But just what the relations of inclusion and exclusion are, and how they came about, and to what degree the different “-phonies” are usefully talked about as a set, are all up in the air for me. What do you say, Shu-mei Shih? Victor Mair? Can I get you on the phone?

* The residual purist in me shudders at the Latin-Greek kludge. In Greek “Frangoi” are Franks, i.e., Western Europeans. “Gallophone” would be the Greek-Greek suture, but no longer recognizable to any French speakers but perhaps Gaullists or Gaulois.
** More accurately, “a Chinese language.” And the mechanism whereby these languages are recognized as Chinese has little to do with speech, phonê, but mostly with the writing system. A poor workman blames his tools.

2 thoughts on “On the Phone

  1. Hello Haun,

    This is Darwin, whom you’ve met this past April in NYC at the “China and the Human” conference for Social Text. Hope you are doing well.

    For me personally, the use of sinophone carries an inclusive aim: as a way to combat the hierarchical claim of Big China’s literary output over those of other Chinese-language writing locales. However, it seems that – as you’ve pointed out – the concept of the sinophone ironically pushes away from what it is that really makes it a unifying thing, which is the gramo-centrism of Chinese writing. As opposed to logocentrism where writing is secondary to sound, the sounds of various Chinese topolects are conditioned and subject to the form of writing (I guess this is one of Jing Tsu’s points in “Sound and Script”). While sino-graphemic writing is unified by the lowest common denominator that it partakes in a body of Chinese script, they are also ineluctably conditioned by the local situatedness of the writing. So, for me it seems that the sinophone could be helpfully supplemented by the idea of a “minor literature” where non-Chinese languages (or its topolects) percolate into the scripts, while still retaining their quality as “sinophone” writing. The Tibetan-Sichuan writer Alai, or even Taiwan’s Wu He, would be examples where other languages – Tibetan and Taiwanese Minnan – complicate or supplement what could be constituted as the sinophone.

    For the non-Chinese script writing happening in what you call the sinophonie, perhaps “minority literature” would do just as well. Maybe there could be a category called “East Asian Continental writing” to give minority literatures on the mainland some more weight.

    Bunch of scattered thoughts, ’tis all.

  2. I just returned from the Association of Chinese & Comparative Literature conference at Academia Sinica, where the theme was “Global Sinophonia” and discussions like this roamed the halls like bison on the nineteenth century plains. Someone even asked, bluntly, “Is there a difference between ‘Chinese literature’ and ‘literature in Chinese?’”

    When I hear the division of “francophone” from French I writhe because it seems like a top-down division created to distinguish the authentic from the merely colonized, and as such reiterates those colonial distinctions as it refuses equality amongst the diversity of French speakers and writers and readers. When I hear “Sinophone” as distinct from Chinese, though, I sense that it’s motivated by a counter-hegemonic standpoint, so I’m less bothered by its politics. Less bothered, but not uncritical: if the point of the “sinophone” is, as Darwin puts it, “to combat the hierarchical claim of Big China’s literary output over those of other Chinese-language writing locales,” then shouldn’t it do so by absorbing Big China into Bigger Sinophonia, removing the centrality of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and insisting that it be just one in an centerless crowd?

    In other words, there may be a practical and political difference between “Chinese literature” and “literature in Chinese,” but we can decide to push beyond that, and insist that China not have the last word–or ideograph–in defining that distinction. Of course, if we do that, with “we” defined by a number of academics and intellectuals who may or may not live in China and speak Chinese as a first language, it’s not like (the important) people in China are going to acknowledge our collective viewpoint and enact policy changes that halt its claims to centrality and defining the breadth and depth of Chinese culture according to its own terms just because we say so.


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