ROC should utilize power of words

By Joe Hung, special to The China Post

It’s probably ages ago — to the ultramodern feminine person — that some wise man uttered, “Frailty, thy name is woman.” Of course, this is wrong. Otherwise, our busybody Ministry of Education couldn’t be blamed for its online Chinese dictionary where a “new good woman (新好女人)” is defined as a person “with the family as the center of life, loving and admiring the husband, taking care of children, and doing the best to preserve the happiness and harmony of married life.” Advocates for women’s rights are up in arms against the ministry, not the editor of the dictionary that was put online in July of 1997, for a macho concept of “predominance of men over women,” “subjection of women,” or to be more exact, “treatment of women as inferior to men.” The advocates call the offending definition a “modern version” of “three obediences and four virtues (三從四德)” of yore. In ancient China the woman was required to obey her father before marriage, her husband during her married life, and her sons in widowhood. These were the three “obediences.” The four virtues were fidelity, physical charm, propriety in speech and efficiency in needlework. It goes without saying that our ultramodern women would just say a fiddle-dee-dee to all the three obediences and four virtues save “physical charm.” Why? They do not belong to the weaker sex, but to the stronger one. The weak-kneed ministry admitted, just as it did many a time in the past year or so, that the definition is not up to date and promised to consult the editor for an update. To its credit, the ministry did not identify the editor, who may be a male chauvinist in the closet lamenting the fall of manhood to frailty whose name now is men. If so, he definitely shall be pilloried as the enemy of the now stronger sex. But he certainly is guilty of choosing a newly coined, infrequently used term as an entry.

But the problem the ministry faces is why it should continue publishing the Chinese dictionary, which came off the press in Nanjing in 1936. That version was the “National Pronouncing Dictionary (國音辭典)” of 1931 resurrected. The 1931 dictionary was edited by a number of lexicographers including Wu Ching-heng, who was commissioned by the ministry. The 1936 version was revised and resurrected in Taipei in 1981. Because of the high cost of printing, the ministry decided to make it available online. But the editing is the job of the National Language Committee headed by the minister of education as chairman, which contracts it out to an undesignated number of “scholars,” most probably college instructors of Chinese and Chinese literature. As a matter of fact, the ministry should either set up a truely qualified committee for compilation of the Chinese dictionary or let publishing companies do the job like in the United States. Lexicography was excellent in imperial China, one true masterpiece being the Kangxi Dictionary (康熙辭典) compiled during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1723), but no good dictionaries have been published since the Republic of China was proclaimed in Nanjing in 1912. On the other hand, Chinese dictionaries were published by publishing firms, but no private publishers like to print them because it would lead to a loss. Well, that’s the reason why the education ministry has assumed the duty unwillingly and kept the dictionary online on a shoestring budget.