2013 No.3
The Prosodic Function of the Chinese Language and Literature

Professor Feng shares his interest in the "research on prosodic grammar" and points out how "prosody" solves the morphological and syntactic problems in the Chinese language.

Professor Feng Shengli, the Department of Chinese Language and Literature

Professor Feng was graduated from the Department of History at Beijing Normal University and the Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught language, culture and linguistics for more than 15 years in the University of Kansas and Harvard University. In 2010, Professor Feng joined the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests include prosodic syntax, historical syntax, and exegesis. 

"Prosody, Morphology, and Syntax" has been my first research topic for the recent 20 years and has been my interest, which is to "study languages through the perspective of prosody". For the recent seven or eight years, especially after I have joined the CUHK, my research interests also include "how to adopt linguistic methods in the study of literature". My goals are to, through my research, form a new perspective of examining Chinese historical records and culture and to eliminate some misunderstandings about certain aspects of Chinese culture, which have been around for some time and, to a large extent, have been held by Western scholars and sinologists.
When adopting linguistic methods in the study of literature, I have discovered that "register" can be a new perspective. A register is a way to determine which diction to use based on the audience, venue, content, and attitude.  In the perspective of registers, we have found a significant discovery in literature, which is Feng 《風》,  Ya 《雅》, and Song《頌》 in Shijing 《詩經》 have reflected three register forms, namely informal register, formal register and elevated register, respectively. This discovery leads us to further explore whether such affects or changes in registers exist in the history of Chinese literature, reflected in Shijing, five-character poems, seven-character poems, Ci 詞, Qu 曲, and even prose. Apart from that, the research on registers has given us many inspirations in respect of culture. We have discovered that the linguistic intuitions of classical Chinese are distinguishable by their registers and the so-called elevated register is shown in jing gui shen er yuan zhi 敬鬼神而遠之 (while respecting ancestors' spirits and Gods, to keep aloof from them) in Lunyu 《論語》. We have interpreted this line as "to be far away from spiritual beings" and the interpretation leads to the inference of Western scholars that Chinese people do not have religious beliefs as Confucius teaches us to stay away from spiritual beings. We have noted, however, from the register of the discovered texts that spiritual beings were well respected by our ancestors. When worshipping their ancestors and deities, our ancestor used the typical elevated register, in which the diction and expressions were used, not in daily lives, but in reverence. Texts such as Daya 《大雅》of Shijing and Dian 《典》and Gao 《誥》of Shangshu 《尚書》are examples of such elevated register. What was such veneration based on? We get to know the expression bu yuan bu jing不遠不敬 (If a man does not keep appropriate distance, he will not be reverent) from a discovered text, Mawangdui Boshu 《馬王堆漢墓帛書》, and it reflects an important principle of registers, which is, in daily and elevated registers, the distances between the speaker and the audience are different. In an intimate, daily occasion, it has to be jin近 "close"; in a formal, sacred occasion, it has to be yuan遠 "distant". Therefore, the word yuan in jing gui shen er yuan zhi, to my understanding, reflects such religious concept back then. To respect ancestors' spirit and Gods, we get to keep a distance, not for intimacy, but for veneration. Therefore, yuan is an assurance of jing 敬 "respect".

Moreover, in linguistics, a register is not only rhetorical but also grammatical. For instance, ungrammatical sentences in an informal register (such as wo mai he kan le yi ben shu我買和看了一本書 "*I have bought and read a book") work in a formal register (such as wo gou ma bing yue du le na ben shu我購買並閱讀了那本書 "I have bought and read that book").

In addition, the development of Old Chinese phonology and findings in discovered texts, together with the almost-comprehensive linguistic studies that involve syntax, prosody and morphology of Old Chinese, which are growing in number, have discovered that the Chinese languages before and after the Han Dynasty belong to two categories. If so, it can be deduced that literature (such as poetry) written in Old Chinese shall be obviously different from that written in Chinese in later forms and the deduction is proven as a fact. For example, three-character poems first appeared in the Han Dynasty while five-character poems, seven-character poem, pian wen駢文, ping ze 平仄 all appeared or were established in the Han Dynasty or later. Therefore, from this perspective, the simultaneous development of literature and language is backed by evidence.

To a certain extent, my interest in the "research on prosodic grammar" was inspired by a renovation in prosody brought by Mark Liberman, one of my instructors, who proposed the concept of "relative weight". Before him, the concept of prosodic weight was absolute, according to which, a stressed vowel should be a strong vowel. Liberman disagreed to this notion as he discovered the weight was relative that an unstressed element must come with a stressed element. Then, we understand that prosodic weight is structural and no stress can be formed without two syllables. Therefore, the disyllabic foot of the Chinese language is exactly the product under the relative weight. If we explore the isochrony of the Chinese language from this perspective, we will discover that prosody is in every aspect of the Chinese language including morphology and syntax. It is just everywhere.

The "prosodic morphology" and "prosodic syntax" derived from the above discovery have found and resolved many problems of the Chinese language. For instance, the "prosodic morphology" can be used to predict the external appearance of Chinese words, explaining why most Chinese words are disyllabic words, followed by trisyllabic ones. The most fascinating example is wu fei bing niu 無肺病牛 given by Yuen Ren Chao. Why is the phrase interpreted as wu fei de bing niu 無肺的病牛 (sick cattle without lungs) at first instead of wu fei bing de niu 無肺病的牛 (cattle that are free of pneumonia) or wu fei bing de niu 無肺病的牛 (there are no cattle with pneumonia)? We have also discovered several phenomena that are more significant: why are we allowed to say fu ze zhe xiang gong zuo 負責這項工作 (responsible for such work) instead of fu ze ren zhe xiang gong zuo 負責任這項工作 (*responsible for such work)? To say shou tu shao lin shi 收徒少林寺 (the disciple-taking Shaolin Temple) instead of shou tu di shao lin shi 收徒弟少林寺 (*the disciple-taking Shaolin Temple)? The "prosodic syntax" also helps explain many difficult problems in historical texts. Take Shiji: Xiangyu Benji 《史記.項羽本紀》 as an example, the phrase shao duo zhi quan 稍奪之權 has a double-object construction but, when quoted by Su Shi 蘇軾 in Fanzenglun 《范增論》, it is revised to shao duo qi quan 稍奪其權, which has a single-object construction. It is because of the misunderstanding of earlier grammar by posterity upon the syntactic development facilitated by prosody. Through "prosodic syntax" we are able to recover the original affect, and even understand and simulate the isochrony of the primitive two-character poems.

Naturally, as affect or prosody is, not only chronological, also regional, therefore I would like to, through this platform, call upon more people to understand this discipline and its ideas and rules and adopt prosodic theory in the research of their dialects after studying linguistics and becoming experts. They may discover the mechanism of how the phonological system shapes the syntax of such dialect and become aware of, in the existence of regional rules, whether general principles exist, and lead this discipline to the approach of formal science as suggested by Chomsky.  

My current research projects include Hanyu yunnü shitixue lungao《漢語韻律詩體學論稿》(Working papers on the study of prosodic of Chinese poetic forms) to be published by the Beijing Commercial Press and Hanyu lishi jufaxue 《漢語歷時句法學》(Diachronic syntax of the Chinese language) to be completed. Hanyu Yunnü Shitixue Lungao can be considered an attempt using the theory set out in Hanyu de yunlu, cifa yu ju fa《漢語的韻律、詞法與句法》 (Interactions between morphology, syntax and prosody in Chinese) to solve the problems of Chinese poetry, such as the differences between Chuci《楚辭》and Shijing, the reason of three-character poems appearing after Chuci, and the reason of five-character poems appearing before seven-character poems. The book mainly addresses various interesting problems in the history of literature. The book consists of eight chapters. The first chapter is an introduction to a new methodology of studying poetry. The second discusses the basic principles of prosody of poetic forms, such as the prosodic effects of antithesis, symmetry, even-odd contrast, etc.. The third chapter introduces the structural principles of Chinese poetry, such as dan yin bu cheng bu 單音不成步 "a monosyllabic word cannot form a foot", dan bu bu cheng hang 單步不成行 "a foot cannot form a line" and dan hang bu cheng shi 單行不成詩 "a line cannot form a stanza". The fourth chapter discusses the principle and mechanism of registers while the fifth chapter illustrates the correspondence between an informal register, a formal register and an elevated register and the Feng, Ya, and Song in Shijing. The sixth, seventh and eighth chapters discuss the respective origin of three-character poems, five-character poems and seven-character poems. I hope that this book can lay out a preliminary theoretical framework, in which each particular will be the subject for further in-depth research. 

The other book, Hanyu lishi jufaxue (Diachronic Syntax of Chinese) is an attempt of adopting Chomsky's theory to explain the evolution of grammar in the history of the Chinese language. I have identified a typological difference between the grammar of Old Chinese and that of Chinese in later forms in terms of light-verb syntax. As my academic background is exegesis, I focus on the history of the Chinese language and the syntax of Old Chinese. Upon completion, this book will be the first to explain the syntactic evolution of the Chinese language within the framework of generative syntax.

I had spent almost 25 years studying and teaching in the U.S.A. and left Harvard for the CUHK. Many people have asked me why I come here. Now, I can now say it is because the prosody is around. In cultural perspective, the essence of the Chinese language is prosody; in my opinion, regardless of which dialect it is, the disyllabic prosodic unit is the essence of the Chinese language. Upon further investigation, we note that it is the result of tone distinction of the Chinese language. I infer that prosody is the essence of the Chinese language because, not only being crucial in forming words and sentences, it is capable in literary creation. Associated with this, one focus of our future research, which is also a fascinating one, is the relationship between the dialectical thinking of Chinese people and prosody. As Yuen Ren Chao said,  if we had not been influenced by words such as ying yang 陰陽 "ying and yang" or shan e 善惡 "good and evil", which parallel two antonyms together, it was unimaginable that we had such thinking of lian ji 兩極 "two extremes" and ying yang. If that is true, our next question is whether there is a necessity that disyllabic expressions will lead to dualistic thinking. If we find such necessity, we can uncover the secrets of our thinking and culture through our prosody. Obviously, in the course of investigating these questions, we connect literature, prosody and culture together, and as a result broaden our culture.

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The Prosodic Function of the Chinese Language and Literature
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Exhibition of Paintings and Calligraphy by Peng Ximing: The Buruxian Shi Gift, Art Museum
Faculty Colloquium talks (1st term, 2013-14)
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