This article was originally published in ITI Bulletin, the journal of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (www.iti.org.uk) in the UK. Reproduced with permission.
Most people write poetry or lyrics during their teenage years. Then
most people grow up, get proper jobs and stop. Most people don’t go so far astray as to write and record satirical songs in Chinese.
I had no interest in China until after graduating from university and am about as unlike a professional performer as it is possible to get. But after coming to China in May 2007, I was constantly experimenting with ways of learning the language.
One of these was memorising the lyrics to pop songs, karaoke being among the most popular forms of entertainment in the People’s Republic. In November 2008 I started writing my own stuff, but not until 2012 did I start writing the kinds of Chinese songs that won people’s attention.
While trying to remember that telling stories is more effective than climbing on a soapbox or pulpit, my Chinese lyrics over the past two years have touched upon social issues such as nude photo scandals, food safety and kept women. Admittedly, some are flat-out offensive.
One song, “I hate Hunan the least”, lambasts a different province of China in every line and then ends each verse by saying ‘I hate Hunan Province the least’. Another, to the tune of a rousing patriotic anthem, is titled: “China, China, at least It’s Not India!
There seem to be two main ways of getting away with this. The first is to realise that, even in this type of comedy, there is a line. Respecting this line is not so much a matter of towing the line politically, but of knowing that some issues are too sensitive to get a laugh. Taiwan, terrorism and Tiananmen Square are off limits, at least until I am skilled enough to make them funny.
One English song I wrote entitled “Billy” is about a man who thinks that the key to having an abundant sex life is to lower his standards. In China, it is not common to brag about having one-night stands, so the Chinese transposition of this song is about a woman who decides that the way to avoid being left on the shelf is to lower her standards as far as possible.
There is considerable social stigma in China to being a ‘leftover woman’, that is, a woman who is still single after the age of 27. The recently published book “Leftover Women: the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China” by sociologist Leta Hong Fincher has illustrated the seriousness of this issue, and the lengths that powerful institutions like the Xinhua state news agency have gone to perpetuate this misogyny. In hindsight, I could have handled the issue with more sensitivity and thus been funnier.
The second way to get away with satirising one’s host country is to make oneself at least 70% the butt of the joke. My songs and their videos may make China look bad, but they make their author look a lot worse. Good comedians are often unthreatening neurotics (think Woody Allen). Bad comedians are often smug bullies (think the typical office politics scenario).
The biggest criticism my lyrics come in for is not that they are offensive. It is that they are “肤浅”, which roughly translates as ‘shallow’. In traditional China, a person would take decades to master poetic form, and self-expression in poetry would disappear under a strict schematic pattern. A traditional Chinese lyric will have a rigorous rhyme scheme, under which a world of unspoken emotions is buried. The same cannot be said of my work.
Comedy, particularly satire, tends not to stand the test of time. Some lyrics I wrote 18 months ago already need tweaking because references are outdated. Some issues I sing about will hopefully be irrelevant ten years from now.
Aside from the politics of being a foreigner in China, musical comedy is one of the riskiest forms of entertainment. If a song doesn’t go down well, three minutes is an unacceptably long time for any comedian to go without a laugh. Fortunately, the successful performances have greatly outnumbered the unsuccessful ones.
However, adulation or lack of it is not the point. The point is, we translators go to all this trouble to learn languages, but most of the working opportunities that come our way involve technical copy or business environments when we can’t be ourselves. These lyrics allow an opportunity to win attention while saying something cheeky about my host country. Plus, they are an excuse to continue writing lyrics long after most people have grown out of doing any such thing.