International students visit a high school in Qiannan Bouyei and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, Guizhou Province, on June 5 (XINHUA)
As gales, torrential rain and bouts of thunder rumbled across the brightly lit nightscape of Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, a play about Princess Wencheng was about to blow audiences away. Wencheng was a member of a minor branch of the royal clan of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) who married Tibetan leader Songtsen Gampo in 641.
I'm sure there must have been the occasional linguistically induced misunderstanding back in her day, but to avoid that in May 2023, the play featured two large screens, sitting on both sides of the main stage, displaying subtitles in three languages, namely, Chinese, Tibetan and English. But the imagery unfolding before the eyes of the audience took them on a journey through history that did not call for any further linguistic explanation. Truth be told, celebrated filmmaker Zhang Yimou's carefully constructed overwhelming display of visual power did not require one to even glance over at the subtitles, but it was nice to have them there—just in case. I'm sure Princess Wencheng herself would've appreciated subtitles every now and then, too.
The language of visual imagery is one more universal than text. It is a bridge that communicates across language and cultural barriers.
Sketching the landscape
Modern-day languages are far more refined and methodical than those prevalent during the early years of humankind. They are vastly different, sophisticated, structured and, most importantly, can be used to communicate concisely and exactly. Language enables human beings to understand each other and their culture. When you interact with another language, it means that you are also interacting with the culture that speaks the language. Language is a mirror of culture and society because it reflects their dynamics, peculiarities and values. Language is related to all features of human life in society.
Now, a broader understanding of the world allows us to empathize with other people and their cultures slash experiences, and that understanding begins in adolescence. In many European countries, students are able to speak two to three languages after their studies—at least one is almost always English. I see a world where people can better communicate with each other and create friendships through language and culture, instead of perpetuating a social barrier, or deliberately discriminating because someone's mother tongue is different from theirs. Of course, becoming a cohesive society shouldn't be about favoring English or merging into one culture, but about integrating and appreciating many: from the Indo-European language family to the Trans-Himalayan one. Some "fun" facts:
Today, the individual Indo-European languages with the most native speakers are English, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish, Bengali, French, Russian, Portuguese, German and Punjabi, each with over 100 million native speakers; French, Marathi, Italian and Persian also have more than 50 million native speakers each.
The Trans-Himalayan family includes early literary languages, such as Chinese, Tibetan and Burmese, and is represented by over 400 modern languages spoken in China, India, Myanmar and Nepal. It is one of the most diverse language families in the world, second only to the Indo-European family in number of native speakers.
In today's world, fostering linguistic diversity and encouraging language learning are indispensable in the creation and regeneration of cultural identity as well as social integration.
As a Sinologist who explores China through the lens of fashion and urban culture, I would like to circle back to the language of visuals. Fashion is a wordless means to communicate a powerful message to those around you. It, in turn, becomes your language, which speaks a certain story about you.
Fashion is daily conversation between you and the world. The clothes we wear also tell stories of our culture and our heritage—things that can't easily be shrugged on and taken off at will. Tradition is also passed down in the creation and construction of our clothes. The way things are made, the materials and the process, are all embedded in our communities and cultures. One standout example here is that of traditional Chinese dress.
Traditional attires are important carriers of the historical changes of all of the country's 56 ethnic groups. Their colors, styles and patterns contain different historical culture, religious beliefs and aesthetic tastes. To understand the dress culture of different Chinese ethnic groups is to understand Chinese history and culture.
Take Tibet, for one. Making your way through the region, you can see how Tibetan clothing styles even vary from one part to another. The variety of clothes is mostly based on climatic conditions and local professions. The land of Tibet is so diverse that while one region bears the brunt of the bitter cold, the other seems humid and warm.
In the farming areas of Lhasa's environs and south Tibet, for example, the weather is warm and damp for most of the year. Here, you will see locals adorning clothes crafted from hand-woven wool and tweed. The familiar thing you will notice is that the dress of both men and women are fastened by a button on the right, making it a telltale to spot a southern Tibetan.
The Miao ethnic minority boasts the most diversified styles in terms of their traditional attire. Of particular note, Guizhou Province in the southwest is home to the most exquisite Miao costumes, featuring delicate embroidery and batik patterns, as well as the addition of silver jewelry, an important part of Miao dress. The Miao people have a long history of wearing silver ornaments, believing that they symbolize a type of blessing that can ward off evil spirits.
So however dazzling and dashing these shiny ornaments and elaborate costumes may appear, never forget: There's always so much more to fashion than meets the eye. It's always worth scratching the surface because the details are in the dress and they have unique stories to tell that can break down social and/or cultural barriers and create bridges.
And after three long years of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the World Health Organization on May 5 said no longer qualifies as a global emergency—marking a symbolic end to an era we're all pretending never happened, there's no time like the present to put words into action. We have to ZOOM out, ditch the digital gatherings and focus on face-to-face communication whenever we possibly can. For all the tech-savvy advances we are seeing, research shows time and again there's simply no substitute for meeting face to face, because it's always about more than just "meeting." It's the intangibles that matter—a new bond forged over an aperitif, a boxing class after a long day of panel discussions or just a level of trust that arises from a casual conversation and a handshake.
(Print Edition Title: The Scope of Speech)
This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the Asia-Pacific Youth Roundtable hosted by Beijing Language and Culture University on June 2
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
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