Don’t Confuse Mao with Mao

Most Western writers on China nowadays assume that ‘capitalism plus democracy’ should have been the answer.  Of course the blend they recommend didn’t actually exist until the 1980s, and hasn’t been very good for the West.  In the century before that, secular liberalism had told interested Chinese about all of the faults and inconsistencies within Christianity, but was also unable to remake China.  It came loaded with a vast number of assumptions about society that were not true for China.  ‘Green great dragon rules’ that they took for granted, but did not come naturally to people from a wholly different background.

In the end, a modern China was only made possible by Marxism in its Leninist version.  Leninism included an awareness that many Western liberal assumptions were assumptions and not always true.  But before that, there was some very understandable strong resistance from traditionally-minded Chinese intellectuals.  Some of them used dishonest writings to stir up popular fears:

“The pamphlets were carefully calculated to stir up the mob violence and superstitious hysteria…  Christianity was termed throughout ‘the pig-grunt religion’, a term originally derived from the unfortunate fact that the Roman Catholic word for God was Tien-chu (Lord of Heaven) and that ‘chu’ when pronounced in a different tone also meant ‘pig’.”

‘Chu’ is the older way of expressing in English a Chinese word now written as Zhu, though an English-speaker would probably transcribe it as ‘joo’.  Zhu1 is pig: Zhu3 is owner, lord or god.

As someone who has taken a lot of interest in Chinese Communism, I could not help thinking of the Chinese words ‘mao’ and ‘zhu’ in relationship to Mao Zedong and to Zhu De.  Zhu was Mao’s partner in creating the original Red Areas in China.  Originally his superior, until Mao became unofficial party leader during the Long March.  And a vital supporter right up to his death a few months before Mao.  It turned out that his name is yet another Chinese word: Zhu4, meaning vermillion.  His name could be understood as ‘Red Virtue’, a curious accident since this was his name long before he became political.  Chinese would also probably not take it so literally, just as Britons would not be literal about names like Goldsmith or Ivy Smith.  Yet alternative meanings are always there.  Agnes Smedley mentions in her biography that at school Zhu De was teased by richer pupils who said his name as Zhu1, pig.

Mao is even more interesting.  His name is Mao2, hair, but jokes are occasionally made about it being ‘cat’ when spoken in a different tone.  His full name could be translated as ‘Hair Anoints the East’, which is rather appropriate.  Even more interestingly – and I think I am the first to make this particular link – there is another noted soldier/politician whose name also means something like hair or hairy – Caesar.

(It is also worth noting when English-speakers say ‘see-sar’ for Caesar, this is an error inherited from Italian, which had a number of sound-shifts from the original Latin.  I remember one confusing conversation between myself, my brother and his Finnish-born wife, who had no idea who ‘see-sar’ was until she recognised him as Kaiser.  Kaiser, or Tsar in Russian, is probably much more like the name as spoken by Romans in the time of Julius Caesar.)

One extra: in Mandarin, even Mao2 can be the sound for more than one word, just as English has bear and bare.  I’d also recalled a Taiwanese actress called Angela Mao, best known for her short role as the sister of Bruce Lee’s character in Enter the Dragon.  She was also a star in many other lesser kung-fu films, a few of which I watched when I was a fan of the genre.  But her Mao2 is written with a completely different Chinese character, and means ‘spear’.  In Standard Chinese the names would sound the same.  They are pronounced differently in Cantonese, and perhaps also in other Chinese dialects.

Chinese once had more tones than the four used by Standard Chinese.  It keeps some of these in its many dialects.  It is believed that the North-Chinese dialect that became dominant was simplified for the benefit of barbarian conquerors of the Chinese Empire: conquerors whose original languages had mostly not been tonal.  That’s how humans keep shifting realities while communicating with other humans.


Languages have grammar.  Some people think that Chinese does not: actually it has plenty of grammar, but very little inflection.  Words normally remain the same whether they are singular or plural.  Past, present and future are all the same.  You don’t have the complexities of he/she/it/they.  The Chinese can of course express these things and much more, but usually by adding extra words.  And when they learn English, they have problems learning the correct inflections.

One nice example I overheard while working in an open-plan office.  A Chinese lady with twin daughters was asked about her daughters’ exam results.  And she replied ‘I have twin’.  That’s to say, she understood ‘daughters’’ as meaning ‘daughter’s’, a matter relating to a single daughter, and wished to correct the misunderstanding.  But she also forgot the proper inflexion for English plurals and did not say ‘twins’.

English-speakers trying to master Chinese can do just as badly.  Standard Chinese (Mandarin) has four tones, with the tones mostly distinguishing different and unrelated words.  Some time back, I came across a story about lady learning Chinese who managed to confess to having sex with cats, when she was only trying to say she had a cold.  I asked on the questions-site Quora, and was told that it was probably someone saying “wo3 gan4 mao1 le” when they meant “wo3 gan3 mao4 le”.  And that ‘had sex’ was the polite version.  “I fucked a cat” would be closer; but any Chinese would be expecting errors like that from a foreigner.

Though even Chinese can get confused between different dialects, as one of my respondents mentioned:

“A children’s song that went ‘I’m a little dragon, I have many little smiles, little smiles’

“And I heard it as: ‘I’m a little dragon, I have many little boobs, little boobs.’  As a weirdo child, I imagined dragons as COWS.”

Note that I am using numbers to represent the four tones of Standard Chinese, as they did.  Diacritical marks, commonly called accents, would be more scholarly.  But I’ve used them in the past for foreign words, mostly names such as Schrodinger, and then seen computer software turn them into something meaningless.  A document may look fine in Microsoft Word, and then turn letters with diacritical marks into weird symbols when posted to the web.

This is a from a much longer and more diverse article, Physics and the Nature of Reality,  which has relevant references.