495: A Cultural History of the Chinese Language by Sharron Gu

by Gerard

495.109: Gu, Sharron. A Cultural History of the Chinese Language. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2012. 211 pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-6649-8.

Dewey Construction:

  • 400: Language
  • 490: Other languages
  • 495: Languages of East and Southeast Asia
  • 495.1: Chinese
  • +09: History

Chinese has existed as a language for about 5,000 years and has approximately 1.5 billion speakers. It is a language of nuance, culture, and tremendous range. Having evolved from the simple pictograms of Archaic Chinese to the complex and compact artistic and tonal structure of today’s China, the language is an incredibly difficult thing to encapsulate. The problem here, though, is neither can Sharron Gu.

Gu’s Cultural History of the Chinese Language is ostensibly about how ancient and  modern Chinese culture has informed and shepherded the creation and evolution of the language. What it becomes, however, is a muddled mess.

Her mission to show the growth of the Chinese language gets buried under all the minutiae of the culture, the names of all the instruments in ancient music, the intricacies of classical poetic devices, etc. Also, her simple staccato sentence structure gets old after a few chapters. Trust me, the tiny details of Chinese culture are interesting for a while, but the musty translations and lack of focus make this book very trying.

She claims that the reason for writing the book was that she couldn’t find an appropriately scholarly text on Chinese language and culture for her American-born son. It seems that there still aren’t any.