Tonight is our last night in Chengdu before traveling on to China’s Emei Shan, Mountain Emei. Today (Wednesday, Jan 14) at Sichuan University, Professor Cyn provided an orientation to various points of Taoist belief. After lunch we had the opportunity to visit a Taoist Temple and engage in conversation with a monk of that belief system.
As I think about the last few days I am amazed at the complexity of language and how much mere words come into play in this cross-cultural experience. As an English-speaking American coming to China, the most obvious thought about language might be the fact that I am not fluent in Chinese. “Hello” “Thank you” “You’re Welcome” and “Happy New Year” are about all I can manage. Thankfully, in this experience we have met with persons who are able to communicate in English or have had a translator, but the complexity of words goes beyond the language one is speaking. We have had several instances in which we, as students have posed questions to professors and the question does not translate, the idea is not in the vocabulary of the English language or the other way around, that idea is not represented by a word in Chinese.
For example, a fellow student posed a question about “worship” on Mt Emei for the Buddhist religion. As Professor Ye translated the question for the lecturer, he needed to pause and ask “What do you mean by worship?” The concept of worship for a Buddhist and a Christian may not only contain different rituals and intentions but may be viewed with an entirely different attitude. This is part of our discovery as we continue our experience, we may not be able to find answers to our questions or completely understand what is being said, simply because both persons in a dialogue are speaking English.
The complexity of language goes much farther than whether the word is in English or Chinese, there are nuances, attitudes, mindsets, and history behind these words and the places we have seen. As I continue on this experience, my curiosity is sparked, whether or not these concepts can be translated in their fullness. Although I may not entirely understand what is worship to Buddhist or Taoist, I am grateful the opportunity to try and gain what understanding I can with words. And when words will not suffice, I am grateful to to take in what I can of what words cannot describe.