In November, the Chinese State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television issued an official statement banning public wordplay – a gesture to which the western world has responded with puns blazing. Rightly so: when a government, even one as comically demonstrative as China’s, attempts to restrict discourse at such a fundamental level, it betrays motivations that must seem either ludicrous or malevolent. Though the West has reacted to the ban with irreverent hilarity, the laughter is partly nervous, because behind such restrictions is a search for national identity that all nations share.
The SAPPRFT, as the Chinese media watchdog is ponderously abbreviated, began the announcement with an explanation that it has been working for years to “clean up and rectify non-standard language usage in radio and television broadcasts,” noting that it has “achieved noticeable results in restricting the deliberate imitation of local dialect pronunciation and the indiscriminate use of foreign loan words and Internet slang.” In these sentences, most reporters have smelled a whiff of something sinister and Orwellian, particularly in the targeting of “local dialects” and “foreign loan words.”
But the reporters may be slightly off their scent: national language regulation is neither a new, nor an originally Chinese practice. France’s Académie française has now released its ninth edition of a dictionary which is explicitly calibrated to root out “familiar, popular, vulgar, trivial, slang,” and to provide a corrective force against “the faults, [and] the ridiculous language tics most commonly observed in contemporary French.” Though the Dictionary of the French Academy purportedly welcomes “some foreign terms,” it only does so only “provided they meet a genuine need, they are well rooted in use and do not already have an equivalent in French realizing the same reality.” The ultimate goal, their website insists, is to make the adoption of foreign terms into French “safer,” a sentiment that reeks of petty nationalism like over-aged rochefort.
Closer to home, many U.S. cities with large Spanish-speaking populations have resisted the official adoption of that language. As the Huffington Post reported in February of 2013, the Mayor of Doral, Florida, was “rebuffed by every council member and numerous constituents” when he attempted to make Spanish the city’s official second language. But it would be unjust to condemn those constituents as proto-conservative hard-noses or petty nationalists, because the majority of them were Spanish-speaking immigrants. Councilwoman Ana Maria Rodriguez, speaking to the Huffpost, commented that “Our parents and some of us that are up here came from Latin America and other countries knowing that the United States has English as the language…We came here knowing we had to adapt to the language of this country.” In other words, the immigrant population rejected the public adoption of Spanish as an act of solidarity with their adopted country. To be American, in their view, partly meant speaking English, and they identified as Americans.
Circumstances like these reveal just how fraught the debate over government language regulation truly is, how many cross-currents meet in those waters. Those who would encourage Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens to retain their language as an act of loyalty to their culture might well be met with a blank stare and an uncomfortable question: “What culture are you talking about, and why do you assume it is foreign to yours?” Doral’s rejection of government sponsorship for Spanish proves that the conservation of borrowed language can be used to exclude others just as effectively as its eradication. What matters is not the language a people chooses to use, but that they have the power to choose it.
Of course, a perfect version of any language does not and cannot exist. The pursuit of such a thing is always evidence of foolery or foul play. Hard as the Dictionary of the French Academy may try to be prescriptive, all records of public communication are necessarily descriptive, especially dictionaries. As the Académie knows full well, its attempt to conserve and purify spoken French is an act of sentimental idealism, and one that it must work hard to distinguish from openly racist attempts to exclude second-language French citizens from the public discourse. More viable and more horrifying is the notion of an official state version of a language. Such a language is an act of oppression, and has always gone hand-in-hand with totalitarianism.
As Clive James notes in his essay collection Cultural Amnesia, Albert Camus can be credited with probably the best quotation ever written about state language: “Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.” By this he means that, to quote Clive James, “The tyrant’s monologue doesn’t want to be interesting, and that’s the point.” The million solitudes that a totalitarian governor talks over aren’t just ignored by his monologue, they are created by it. The freedom to talk endlessly, without being interesting, original, or entertaining, can only be exercised by a government whose audience has no power to react or escape. Stalin proved this principle with the interminable speeches he delivered at the height of his power. The famous anecdote about them is that those listening had to applaud until their hands ached, afraid that if they were the first to stop, they would be noticed by the S.S. and never make it home.
The report issued by the SAPPRFT certainly has the feel of a tyrant’s monologue. It is written by a hand free from the need to be compelling, or even comprehensible. Here is one sample of it; a droning run-on that could’ve come straight out of Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” which quotes several equivalently sterile passages from the contemporary English press:
“The importance of regulating the use of the national common language and scripts must be fully realized. Utilizing radio and television to popularize and standardize the use of the national common language and scripts is a strategic requirement for transmitting outstanding Chinese traditional culture and enhancing national cultural power…
If the SAPPRFT aims to enhance “national cultural power,” it will certainly not be doing so by the force of its literature. This deeply ironic situation, in which an autocratic government exhorts its citizens to make great art while forcing that art to remain innocuous, would be hilarious if those citizens weren’t being spoken to at gunpoint. The reason for these new regulations, according to the report, is to reduce the media’s potential to “mislead the public, especially minors,” who deserve to be exposed only to the most “outstanding traditional Chinese culture.”
It need hardly be said that like all great languages, Chinese operates using a wealth of idioms and enjoys a rich exchange of puns and word-games, some of which operate between dialects. The SAPPRFT report casts these as insidious and degrading. Yet it is difficult to understand what the alternative is supposed to be, apart from a language that is entirely “safe.” That is, a language which can convey nothing subversive to the party line. “That’s the most ridiculous part of this,” David Moser, academic director for CET Chinese studies at Beijing Capital Normal University, told the Guardian, “[wordplay] is so much part and parcel of Chinese heritage.”
Of course, it is part and parcel of the heritages of all languages, and of all the people who use them, especially in those fortunate nations where many languages happen to meet. In its quest to strengthen China’s national identity, then, the Chinese government has laid an axe to its roots. What motivates such gestures is fear, the fear that haunts all totally centralized governments, of the power and flexibility of freely used language, which though it can be dressed up and manicured and punished, will always be a bastard. It is prodigal by nature, and it always returns wealthier than it left.
 “Language Log,” http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=16197.
 “Academie Francais,” http://www.academie-francaise.fr/le-dictionnaire/la-9e-edition.
 Christine Amario, “City Of Doral Votes Against Spanish As Official Second Language,” Huffington Post, February 14, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/14/fla-mayors-push-for-bilin_n_2689292.html.
 Clive James, Cultural Amnesia (New York: Norton, 2007), 88-89.
 “Language Log,” http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=16197.
 Tania Branigan, “China bans wordplay in an attempt at pun control,” The Guardian, November 28, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/28/china-media-watchdog-bans-wordplay-puns.