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The Millikens in China: Three Reports
1. An American Family in Zhuang Country
Xinhua News Agency, Cable from Guilin, May 7, 2002 (Reporters Guo Yige, Hu Jiang)
The Americans Stuart Milliken and his wife, Margaret, both of whom hold Ph.Ds. in linguistics, never expected that a few words from an ordinary chef would change the direction of their lives’ research.
In 1989 the Millikens were teaching at Tianjin Normal University. They went out to a restaurant to eat and happened to hear the chef speaking a wondrous language: soft and smooth, like music to the ear. The couple was entranced. They asked and were told it was the language of the Zhuang, the most populous minority in China.
The chef told them that the homeland of the Zhuang language is in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The Zhuang nationality is centered on Wuming County in that province, where the Zhuang Cultural School is located. The Zhuang people not only have their own spoken language, but also their own system of writing.
The Millikens thereupon studied the Zhuang language for two months with Professor Wei Xinglang at Minzu University of China. They leaned even more towards this wonderful language, so thereafter, they went to Wuming County to live. Before they knew it, they’d been there for four years.
Recently this reporter went to Wuming to interview Mei Si-de (梅思德) and Bai Lizhu (白丽珠), Stuart’s and Margaret’s Chinese names, respectively. The two doctors used fluent Chinese to introduce the mysteries they’d discovered: Wuming is only 40 kilometers from Guangxi’s capital, Nanning, with a developed economy and communications, and the Zhuang people speak many languages. When they go out, they communicate with other people in Chinese, but back in the village, they speak with confidence entirely in Zhuang.
In the Zhuang language, general concepts are sometimes not expressed, but there are incomparably rich parallels of more restrictive concepts. Instead of "cow", for example, there are terms for "water buffalo", "yellow cow", "pregnant yellow cow", "patterned yellow calf" and so on which describe various kinds of cows.
The Zhuang language is particularly imaginative. Margaret used to think that only people sweat, but in the Zhuang language when water droplets condense on any object encountering heat or cold, the object is "sweating"; when steam vapor droplets form on the back of a rice cooker lid, the cooker is "sweating"; a bottle of cola taken from the refrigerator also "sweats"......
The more the couple learned, the more mysteries they found and the more interested they became. They felt more and more that it would be impossible to garner the pearls from the vast sea of the Zhuang’s wisdom without a deeper understanding of Zhuang culture and careful study of the Zhuang's customs.
So Stuart and his family went ahead and moved to a Zhuang village in the summer of 1994. They lived with the local peasants. Guangxi villages are relatively hot and humid in the summers, with no home air conditioners, and bugs and mosquitoes attack at night, but they adapted quickly and found happiness in their difficulties.
Once a mosquito bit Stuart on the arm, raising a big red welt. As he scratched it he suddenly thought he should ask someone how to say "itch" in Zhuang. When he knocked on the neighbor's door – who would have figured – before he could even explain what he wanted, the middle-aged woman told him in practiced English to "Go home". This foreign gentleman went back to his house in embarrassment and discussed the incident with his wife. They spent the whole night puzzling over how he had unknowingly offended the erudite lady. He asked someone the next day and learned that the word for "itch" in Zhuang is pronounced exactly the same as “go home” in English. The couple laughed about it for a whole week.
Stuart and Margaret are very grateful to the Guangxi Civil Affairs Committee and the Zhuang Cultural School of Wuming, and to the generosity of the Zhuang people. In recent years they’ve put their energies into compiling the "Complete Dictionary of Zhuang, Chinese and English" in cooperation with the Guangxi Ethnic Minority Languages Working Committee. It includes 30,000 entries, an imposing compilation and a pioneering work in Zhuang-English communication.
Stuart and Margaret shared with this reporter that they will also publish a 3,000-entry popular edition "Zhuang-Chinese-English Dictionary" next year before the complete dictionary is published; and will also do a computer version that will allow people to request any vocabulary at will for review. With much emotion, Stuart told your reporter that he advised four Chinese graduate students when he was in Tianjin, three of whom are now in the United States and one in Canada, while their advisor is still stuck in Zhuang country.
This pair of foreign PhDs have set up their home on the upper floor of an ordinary teachers’ dormitory at the Zhuang school in Wuming. As we enter their home, Stuart is playing a recorder of the type popular in early eighteenth century America, in a family ensemble with eldest daughter Jinlei on guitar, youngest daughter Jinhong on a Chinese instrument known as the ethnic qin, and Margaret singing. The happy music is intoxicating. When it stops, Margaret "ceremoniously presents" the eldest daughter Jinlei, who she says cooks the best Zhuang food.
Jinlei, who attends junior high at the Wuming County Experimental School, is quite happy. She tells a joke in Zhuang about her family bargaining with a vegetable vendor while shopping on the street. Younger daughter Jinhong is in second grade at Lingyuan Primary School. "My Zhuang is better than Jinlei’s." She shows no sign of being second best. Stuart and Margaret both clap: "They’re our teachers, and good ones, too." It’s a happy family.
Translated from An Associate’s Home, rauz.net
2. A Foreign PhD Couple at a Songfest
Posted by: Xi Yuan
"It’s really surprising when foreigners can sing Wuming County folk songs. The unique charm of the folk music shows through." The fellow who said this to your reporter was a member of the audience who had come down from Nanning for the songfest. His jaw dropped when he saw the foreign Ph.D. couple, blond, blue-eyed Americans Stuart and Margaret Millikan, come out on the stage in the public square. They performed a folk song from Wuming's eastern region during an artistic performance that was part of the opening ceremony.
The foreign Ph.D. couple have in fact long been friends of the people of Wuming. They are both Ph.Ds. at the World Institute for Research in Minority Languages and now live in the New Rising residential community in Wuming.
Stuart told your reporter that both of them have always been interested in languages. They majored in language-related studies at college in the United States. The couple came to China in 1988 and taught linguistics at Tianjin Normal University while studying for their Ph.Ds.
In the course of his teaching, Stuart came across a lot of information on Chinese minority languages. He learned that the Zhuang are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the country, and that dialect differences in the Zhuang language are very complex. It was like love at first sight. He immediately developed a strong interest in the Zhuang language and, in 1991, he and his wife both came to Guangxi University to teach. In 1993, the Guangxi Ethnic Minorities Language and Culture Working Committee invited them to participate in compiling a “Complete Dictionary of Zhuang, Chinese and English". With their two daughters, they moved to Wuming County – home of many Zhuang people – in order to better learn the Zhuang language for compiling the dictionary.
The Millikens not only spent their days learning the Zhuang language. They also put a lot of time into studying, translating and compiling. Before they knew it, they’d been in Wuming for ten years and had written a plethora of books and manuscripts. Their magnum opus, the “Complete Dictionary of Zhuang, Chinese and English", will be published officially in February of this year.
During this period, Margaret often did extensive research in six towns in Wuming County, including Shuangqiao, Ningwu, and Fucheng, to collect a large number of folk tales. She selected the best stories for publication in a trilingual volume – in Zhuang, Chinese and English – called "At Grandfather's Knee – Zhuang Folk Tales from Wuming".
On October 19, 2005, Stuart and Margaret Milliken, the American Ph.D. couple who by then had worked in Zhuang country in Wuming for twelve years, together with thirty-one other friends from both inside and outside China, were honored with an award of “Honorary Citizenship in the City” by the Nanning Municipal People’s Government at an “Honorary Citizenship” Awards Ceremony during the Nanning Investment and Trade Fair and Project Contract Signing Ceremony.
Margaret told your reporter that they always step up to participate in the annual "March Third" Songfest if they’re in Wuming. They feel honored that this time they were able to sing a Wuming folk song on stage. Afterwards she sang a Zhuang language song about the conclusion of a visit:
“In March when the cotton trees were red,
“Everyone hurried to the songfest,
“To enjoy the singing and the dancing;
“There was happiness and harmony everywhere." Although it couldn’t be called a very good rhyme, it was precious coming from the mouth of an American. (Huang Shaowu)
The Millikens are the first married couple from Wuming County in history to be awarded “Honorary Citizenship in the City” by the City of Nanning….
3. Bai Lizhu: Twenty Years in Zhuang Country
American Linguist Doesn’t Object to Being a Long-Term Wuminger
Guangxi News Net, March 31, 2012. (Reporters Liu Yu, Li Lan; Intern Huang Ying)
American linguist Margarct [sic, corrected hereinafter] Milliken remembers the moment she arrived in Wuming: That day she had travelled over mountains and across rivers, through Shuangqiao, Ningwu, Xiaolu, Fucheng, Yuquan and other Zhuang settlements. In the evening she read bedtime stories to her daughter, stories like "The Dog Pulls a Plow", "Killing the Python” and "Fire from Flint", until the little girl fell into sweet dreams.
In early March of this year, Margaret got some good news from the other side of the Pacific Ocean. The newly married Mei Jinhong had given birth to a daughter of her own, elevating Margaret to grandmother status. Margaret was so excited by this that she couldn’t sleep for several days. She wondered whether to follow the Zhuang tradition – a maternal grandmother should give her granddaughter an embroidered sling carrier made of locally woven cloth.
Twenty years have passed in a flash since Margaret and her husband Stuart came to Guangxi in 1993 to compile the Zhuang-Chinese-English Dictionary. They not only settled down in Wuming, but also acquired Chinese names – Margaret’s is Bai Lizhu, Stuart’s is Mei Si-de).
On the day of the interview, when your reporters asked Bai Lizhu her English name, she said: "Oh, it’s so long! It could be transliterated as ma-ga-li-te, but really I’m just Bai Lizhu!" She laughed heartily after she said that.
Bai Lizhu, the "Wuminger"
It wasn’t hard to find Bai Lizhu and her husband when we got to Wuming, the county seat. Once the locals heard us mention the “foreign” couple who’d lived in the city for nearly 20 years, they gave out long "ooohs" and hurried to tell us anecdotes about them. Mostly they’d talk about this "foreign" couple’s habit of taking their big dog out for a walk every evening. It seems to have become part of the local scene.
Two locals led us through the twists and turns to find Bai Lizhu’s home for our March 27th appointment. We knocked on the door, and the locals stuck their heads inside first to see where the big dog was. Bai Lizhu explained, in a slight "Nanning Mandarin" accent, "If we’d known when you were coming, I would have had my husband take the dog for its walk before you got here." Then she surprised your reporters by actually uttering a few words in Zhuang. Seeing our surprised expression, one of the local women who works in the community said with a laugh, "Bai Lizhu always speaks Zhuang with us. She speaks it quite well. Just now she told me in Zhuang, “You go ahead and take off. I’ll entertain the reporters.”
From her large figure and her apparel, everyone without exception would identify Bai Lizhu as a “foreigner”. However, she needs only to start talking to you about local foods like raw pressed rice noodles, raw fish and sour bamboo shoots, and you’ll not hesitate to confirm that she’s a complete Wuminger.
Not long ago she and her husband bought a baby sling carrier on a trip to Kunming in Yunnan Province. She insisted that the craftsmanship wasn’t as good as in Wuming; she got her hair cut short in Kunming and believes that the hairdresser wasn’t as skillful as the one in some nameless shop on a street in Wuming; she even believes the sugar cane produced in Wuming is sweeter.
There in Wuming, your reporters found that Bai Lizhu gets along well with people. For example, the landlord provides free housing for her to live in, and everyone’s lived in the same place harmoniously for years; The day we reporters went to her home for the interview, some local English teachers come over to ask her about the vocabulary in an English language movie, and she very patiently gave them a voluntary "class". She even steeped some very fragrant tea, which we couldn’t identify, for everyone to drink.
Bai Lizhu acknowledges that she studied Chinese for three years as a linguistics scholar in college in the United States. But by the time she’d graduated, got married and had a child, she’d "almost forgotten it." After receiving her doctorate in 1988, she and her husband went to Tianjin to teach English at a university, and she again threw herself into the study of Chinese. She frankly admits that pronunciation of the Chinese initials “zh”, “ch” and “sh” is relatively difficult for her.
In 1989 she and her husband went to eat in a restaurant and happened to hear a chef speaking a fantastic language. It was "soft and smooth, like music to the ear," and she was completely entranced. She asked about it – it was Zhuang, the language of China's largest ethnic minority. Thereafter she and her husband studied Zhuang for two months with Professor Wei of Minzu University of China and became even more enamored with this wonderful language. In 1993, taking advantage of an opportunity to come to Guangxi to compile the “Zhuang-Chinese-English Dictionary”, [jm1] the couple decided to live in Wuming “with the warm-hearted and friendly people of Zhuang country."
The Charm of Zhuang in Stories and Folk Songs
The truth is, Bai Lizhu and her husband couldn’t understand a word of Zhuang when they first arrived in Wuming. They had to begin studying the simplest dialogues from daily life. They learned sentence by sentence, from polite greetings like "Are you married," and "Do you have children," to common sayings about food and drink like "What fillings do you put in zongzi dumplings," and "Is raw fish good to eat". The couple are both gifted linguists, and within just a half a year, they were able to communicate with the locals in Zhuang.
Bai Lizhu feels that Zhuang is both charming and profound. "For example, there are many expressions to describe the color red in Zhuang. There are different terms to express ‘a little red’, ‘a large expanse of red’, ‘light pink’ and ‘deep red’; they’re especially precise. Also, Zhuang and Cantonese are alike in that both have many tones. The syllable ‘nie’ pronounced in five different tones might have five different meanings."
In 1994, Bai Lizhu collected folk stories from various parts of Wuming County. Wherever she went, she invited locals good at storytelling to get together to tell stories. "At the time, I still wasn’t so proficient in understanding Zhuang, so I stressed to the storytellers that they shouldn’t worry if I couldn’t understand and should try to be as natural as possible. That way, after they started telling the story, they’d really get into it and forget about the recorder’s microphone beside them." Later, when she was translating the stories, she discovered how lively they were. "They absolutely didn’t slow down or simplify just because they were telling the stories to an outsider."
In 2000, “At Grandfather's Knee – Zhuang Folk Tales from Wuming", edited by Bai Lizhu, was published by the Guangxi Nationalities Publishing House. Lu Dai, a national research scholar, said in the preface: "This collection of stories has gone through six Spring and Autumn Periods from its creation to its completion, and although I did not participate in compiling the book, I can imagine the ups and downs during the process. Zhuang storytellers tell their stories anytime and anyplace, whether relaxing at home, taking a break in the fields or meeting at a songfest. When laughter rings out in a village in Zhuang country, eight times out of ten it’s someone telling a story. The storytellers come along tirelessly, combining emotion and reason. They may be laudatory and generous or derogatory and contemptuous, and may sometimes include humor and sometimes pungent satire, but they portray the Zhuang people’s love of peace and love of life vividly and with artistic imagery.
Lu Dai also believes that the publication of “At Grandfather's Knee" in three languages – Zhuang, Chinese and English – “can be said to have opened a new page in the history of Zhuang cultural publishing. We all know the three languages are at bottom widely divergent from one another, as different as cattle and horses, but now they’ve been herded into the limelight together. While perusing the stories, the reader will be surprised to feel the different charms of the three languages. They seem to be both distant relatives and siblings living next door, each timelessly recounting classic Zhuang masterpieces."
In 2011 Bai Lizhu also participated in the project "Collecting and Collating Ancient Scripts of Ethnic Minorities and Creating a Storehouse of Characters”, and her methodology in collecting materials was even more diversified. The antiphonal singing of folk songs by song masters, as well as the chanting of scriptures by Daoist elders, were all materials that she researched.
Not long ago, Bai Lizhu went to Tianlin County to converse with the elderly artist Tuan Kejian and learn about the development of the North Road style of Zhuang opera. She also managed to find a Zhuang friend who was researching classical Chinese of the Qing Dynasty, from whom she got some precious first-hand information. She told your reporters that this Zhuang friend was quite collegial and often entertained her with raw fish, chicken and rice wine. When they said goodbye, he sang folk songs all along the road as he escorted her on her way.
Your reporters asked whether she could drink the local rice wine. She laughed and, imitating the "local accent", said: "Oh, I can drink a little!”
“Out of Touch" Americans
Bai Lizhu's two daughters both grew up in Wuming but returned to the United States to get married and start careers. Speaking about the girls’ experiences living in Wuming, she said happily, "When they were young they especially hoped I’d buy a TV set for the home. I told them back then that if they learned to speak Zhuang, I’d buy one for them. Look at the result. Even now there’s still no TV in my home. They didn’t meet my requirement."
First one and then the other, their daughters returned to the United States. In recent years Bai Lizhu and her husband have often had to go back, too, to help their daughters with their weddings, moving and other household matters, but she admits frankly that she and her husband no longer seem quite accustomed to American life. "We know very little about what’s been happening in the United States, and nothing at all about what’s most cool or fashionable. The last time we went back, we didn’t even know how to work the “self-service” gas. Besides, how could we get used to not having rice and pickled cabbage every day?"
While we were talking, your reporters noticed that Bai Lizhu always referred second nature to “our Wuming” or “our Zhuang country". We found her very serious expression fascinating.
Now, whenever she gets together with friends, whether in China or the United States, Bai Lizhu likes to tell a few Zhuang stories. She didn’t expect that some of the "foreigners" would enjoy them so much. When this woman, who has long considered herself a Wuminger, sees everyone perched on the edge of their seats, listening, and rocking back and forth with laughter, you can well imagine how proud feels.
If they’re in Wuming, Bai Lizhu and her husband are invited to take part in performances related to the annual "March Third" Songfest. They felt "particularly excited" when, in 2010, they sang folk songs on stage with local song masters.
During the interview your reporters also learned about the direction of Bai Lizhu's work in the future. She will invest her energies in deeper research into Zhuang literature, and at the same time will devote herself to things like preserving the ethnic minority’s intangible cultural heritage, helping the local people learn about the culture and helping Zhuang youth learn English. Your reporters asked her, “What benefit do you expect to get from all these projects?” She thought for a moment, then smiled and said, "Helping others is my greatest benefit."
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