The Language of Violence
Reading cross-culturally lets us see ourselves through comparison: it’s not objectivity, but it’s not the same subjectivity we started with, either. In An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics (2013), Perry Link talks about a phenomenon recognizable in contemporary Chinese writing: the deep level of martial analogy and war metaphor that accompanies daily language. After decades of revolution, and after a Cultural Revolution dominated in part by the People’s Liberation Army, the history of the community became visible in its language. Experiences become the raw material of our idiom, and our idiom in turn shapes the way we experience the world around us. You really do learn to “soldier on.”
I see a similar pattern in Chinese poetry after the end of the Cultural Revolution, in the first heady moments when underground literature became possible to read and circulate. Besides a linguistic record, there is a psychic, social impact to acts of violence—an infection or inscription of the violent act into the people involved. Perhaps we are made up, in part, of the violence we have seen and the violence we have done. As the idiom of the military entered twentieth-century Chinese language, so might the experience of violence enter all our works and acts.
Read the full essay in Boston Review