When I told my friends in China that I wrote two novels about Empress Wu, their favorite empress, the first thing they asked was, “Is it in Chinese?”
It’s a legitimate question, I understand, since I was born and grew up in China. I went to school in China, too, and learned the basics of the English language in college, so it’s fair to say I was educated in China as well, although how much I retain the knowledge is questionable.
It’s also true that I didn’t start to speak English on a daily basis until I came to Texas, when I was twenty four years old.
So it was surprising for my friends with whom I grew up that I actually wrote two novels in English, and for my friends in the U.S. they were surprised as well, that I could write in English, which is my second language.
“How did you write in English when it’s your second language?” they often asked me. “Do you think in Chinese and translate it into English when you write?”
Well, I wrote the two novels, The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, in the same old fashion that many fiction writers followed – by writing persistently, and I’m not the first Chinese who wrote novels in English either. I know there are many talented people who wrote in second language, and I’m sure they all have interesting insights to share.
For me, when I write, I don’t think about Chinese. I keep the two languages separate and store them in two different chambers in my head as I dive into the creative world. As I write, I follow the English grammar, immerse myself in the fictional world, thinking about the characters, plot, and the setting, and write in a style that I feel authentic to the characters. When I’m taking a break from writing, I also think, speak, and dream about my characters in English.
English is very different from Chinese, we all know that, and the two languages have their own grammatical rules and their own expressive power and beauty. I love the English grammar, the basic subject, verb, and object structure. To me, it makes a logical sense and simplifies the thinking process. The Chinese language has this structure, too, but it’s not required. For example, in English, a sentence usually goes, “Where would you like to go?” In Chinese, it’s perfectly acceptable to say “Go where?” The omission in subject is also accepted in formal Chinese writing, whereas in English academic writing, even a sentence fragment is discouraged.
There are other differences between Chinese and English, too, but this would be the major one between them, I think, that in English, it is important to use a subject; in Chinese you don’t have to.
But the Chinese language is rich, drenched in imagery – it is often called a pictographic language, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and this pictographic feature tends to evoke a vivid sense of imagery in a sentence or even in a single word. I love this feature in Chinese. I love to spend hours reading classical Chinese poetry, just to savor a kaleidescope of images sparkling before my eyes, and when I write, I prefer to have a visual scene before me.
If I try to think in Chinese and translate it into English, this is when everything messes up. The grammatical rules of Chinese and English fight in my head. I have to dig deep into the vocabulary cell to find the equivalent for each language, and sometimes I have trouble finding them, and organizing the sentences correctly takes hours. Consequently, writing in a consistent, compelling flow, creating a mood that’s essential to fiction, employing a voice that the character speaks becomes even more challenging. Also the process of characterization and plot slows down. It gets very frustrating.
I’ve been living in the U.S. for almost fifteen years now, and I’ve been speaking and writing in English for almost that long. Most of the time, the two languages mark their own colonies and reign my head peacefully: when I speak to my husband and kids, I use English, and when I speak to my friends and family in China, I switch to Chinese. When I email them, typing in Chinese, it’s fine too since it’s only for a short moment and as long as I stop thinking about Chinese after I hang up the phone, my brain reverses to English.
The problem arises when I try to interpret sentences using two, or three, languages. When I went to visit my family in China in December, 2015, I communicated as an interpretor for my husband and kids, who only speak English, my friends, who only speak Chinese, and my parents, who only speak the local dialect of my home town – different from Chinese, and also my true mother tongue. I interpreted from Chinese to English to my husband and kids, English to Chinese to my friends, and English to the local dialect to my parents. It was such an interesting experience! I paused many times, and I kept stuttering, jumbling all the languages together, and I even had trouble articulating my thoughts.
I have no doubt that living in the U.S. and speaking and writing in English daily have an immerse effect on my brain, and maybe, if I relocate to China, I would be compelled to write in Chinese as well. Jhumpa Lahiri has done that. Deciding to write in Italian, she relocated to Italy and wrote the memoir called In Other Words.
Category: On Writing
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