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·Shen Jiaxuan

Shen Jiaxuan, male and from the Han ethnic group, born in March 1946, is a native of Shanghai and a member of the Communist Party of China. In September 1982, he graduated from the department of linguistics in the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences with a master’s degree.; He serves as Director, researcher and PhD student advisor in the Institute of Linguistics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Vice-President of the Chinese Language Society, President of the International Chinese Language Society, and Chinese representative and member of the executive council of the Permanent International Committee of Linguists. His academic expertise is in syntax and semantics, and linguistic theory. Since 1993, he has started to enjoy a special allowance awarded by the State Council; In 1996, he won the “Young and Mid-aged Expert with Outstanding Contribution” Award.


Global Foresight and Chinese Standpoint

The Way of Pursuing Studies

Tang Zhengda (hereinafter referred to as Tang): I have been told that you used to learn English and ever served as a translator. Besides, you often went abroad. After that, how did you go on the track to engage in the research of linguistics?

Shen Jiaxuan (hereinafter referred to as Shen): To a great extent, I chose to go on the track to engage in the research of linguistics by chance. I majored in broadcasting in English when I was in university. There is a high requirement for veracity of pronunciation in this major. I have made a great number of rigorous trainings for the pronunciation when I was learning in school therefore my English pronunciation is better than my Mandarin pronunciation now. I still remember the time when there was a meeting on the systemic functional grammar in the foreign language field and Han Lide also took part in the meeting. I delivered a congratulatory speech in English at the meeting. At that time, Professor Li Funing from Beijing University said my English pronunciation was very good. When I was in university, it was just in the time of “the Great Cultural Revolution” so I stopped learning after the two-year study. After that, I was sent to work on a farm and two years later I had a work in Beijing Telegraph Building where I used to hold the post of radio operator. Afterwards, I held the post of a technical translator and did the works of organizing international telecommunications. I often went abroad and used to attend the meetings of International Telecommunications Union. In addition, I was ever engaged in simultaneous interpretation therefore during this period of time, I have never stopped using English.

However, I like being stable in nature rather than moving around; in addition, I was not expert in telecommunication major and was not so interested in it. It was 1978 when the “Great Cultural Revolution” ended. At that time, there were cheers in the newspaper that the “spring of science” had come. The system of graduate record examination was restored all over the country. In 1979, I registered for the graduate record examination when I wanted to choose a major related to the English Major that I had ever learned. Therefore, I chose the Institute of Linguistics. As far as I am concerned, to a certain degree, there is some contingency when many people make choice on their major. Perhaps, the same is true to a most majority of people when they are making choice on their own way of life. There will be certain kind of contingency, but the achievements one can make depend on the diligent labor and unremitting efforts.

Tang: Would you please talk about the conditions of the exchanges between China and the foreign countries with respect to the researches on linguistics? What are your experiences and feelings?

Shen: In general, Chinese researches on linguistics always give priority to using the linguistic theories and methodologies from foreign countries for reference, especially in terms of grammar. For example, in the 1950s, the descriptive theories and methodologies of structuralism, especially the American structuralism was introduced to China. Mr. Zhu Dexi can be described as the one who made a great achievement in combining the research on the grammar of Chinese language in this aspect. There is no doubt that in consideration of the political climate at that time it was not as easy as today to use the western theories in linguistics for reference without restriction and the channels for obtaining information at that time were also not so convenient as those after the reform and opening up.

Mr. Lv Shuxiang always attaches great importance to using the western theories and methodologies in linguistics for reference. He not only pays attention to and learns the major ideas and system info of different schools, but also encourages the young scholars to be active in learning them. After I was admitted to the Institute for Linguistics, I often asked for advices from Mr. Lv when I was preparing the Master's thesis. He advised me to collect the essays published in English with respect to the overseas researches of Chinese language in a comprehensive way and to make an index of thesis. It was a task of much difficulties and great challenge. It could be seen that Mr. Lv had a global foresight at that time and hoped to introduce the foreign methods and theories to China. I spent two years in staying in the library for the whole day, including the Beijing Library, the Library of the Academy of Sciences and he Library of the Institute for Linguistics. I didn’t read the second-hand materials. All I read were primary data. I read the abstract of each essay and make cards to classify and sort them out. After that, I wrote the summary of overseas researches of Chinese language from 1950s to 1980s to serve as the preface of the index. So far, I still think that by doing so I have received a very good training and had a relatively comprehensive understanding of the situations of researches of Chinese language worldwide.

Currently, I heard the two sentences said by Mr. Zhou Youguang when he was making an interview with the journalist from the Beijing Evening News. He said everyone should have be broad-minded and have a global foresight then engage in their own trifles. As far as I am concerned, what Mr. Zhou is engaged in is not trifle as a matter of fact but matters of significance related to the national policy of language as well as the people’s language life. He is engaged in Chinese things with a global foresight. I am a little luckier since I have learned English and thus have relatively more understanding of the foreign linguistics and it can take less time for me to know them well. For us who are engaged in the linguistic researches, foreign language is not only a tool for doing researches but also the object of study. As the writer Wang Meng has ever said, mastering one more language means to have one more kind of viewing angle to observe the world. Therefore, I have more fortune.

“Global Foresight” and “Chinese Standpoint”

Tang: By reading your articles, one can feel that you have a broad academic view. You have also mentioned the “Global Foresight” and “Chinese Standpoint”. Would you please talk about the two aspects in detail?

Shen: When reading the foreign literatures, I noticed that there are a lot of literatures are worth being recommended to the counterparts in China. When I was translating the Language Universals and Linguistic Typology, Comrie 1989, there was not so much attention paid to the typology in China and everyone was not so familiar with some concepts of current typology. As far as I am concerned, my fellow countrymen have attached too much importance to the “characteristics of Chinese language to a certain degree while in lack of a global foresight. Some so called the characteristics of the Chinese language are proven by fact that they are not the characteristics of Chinese language but the general character of languages all over the world. When I told Comrie the situations in China, I invited him to write a preface for the Chinese translation. He seemed to know the situation here very well. In his preface, the first sentence said he hoped Chinese linguistic researchers can put Chinese language in the scope of language deviation all over the world so as to make investigation. This is the foresight of typology, which not only attaches importance to the general character of languages but also lays emphasis on the individuality of each language. So far, I still speak highly of this “slogan”.

As a matter of fact, the dialectic relation between the general character and the individuality is involved here. Neither aspect can be neglected or emphasized on. We should not lay emphasis on the individuality unilaterally while neglecting the general character. And on the contrary, it is also inappropriate. There is no doubt that it is normal for different people to emphasize on one aspect and neglect the other or for the same person to emphasize on one aspect and neglect the other on different stages as well. For instance, when I was young and middle-aged, I emphasized on the aspect of the “general character” more. I still remember that Professor Wang Hongjun from Beijing University went to the USA for the further study in the field of modern phonology at that time. After he returned to China, he had the feelings that the phonology in our country has reached a high level in the Qing Dynasty and could absolutely keep abreast of the counterparts in foreign countries at that time. However after that, we fell behind since we neglected the general character of different languages. The modern “autonomous segment phonology” of western countries was put forward on the basis of the intonations of some African languages and Chinese language as well. The structure of syllables in Chinese language is hierarchical and they are divided into the initial consonant and the simple or compound vowel at first and the simple or compound vowels are classified as the head vowel, the essential vowel in a compound vowel and the terminal sound of certain compound vowels etc. On the contrary, it is generally acknowledged the syllables in English language (such as book) are not hierarchical. However, as discovered in the latest research of phonology, the hierarchical structure of language is the universal law in all languages. The structure of syllables in English language is also hierarchical. The problem is why we don’t have the academic knowledge to put forward the theory and state that the hierarchical structure of syllables in Chinese language is the universal law in all languages all over the world with respect to the structure of syllables? The general character of languages is not based on a nihility but contained in the individuality of each language. Their relation is like the both sides of a coin. The major object of study for Chinese linguistic researchers is the Chinese language and the languages of Chinese national minorities. It is perfectly justified. But in my opinion, if we have the global foresight, we can absolutely put forward some laws with universality according to the fact of Chinese language.

In recent years, what I consider more is some “individualities” of Chinese language, for example the “mixture type of sentence-making of Chinese language”. As far as I am concerned, the word creation and the sentence making of Chinese language are mainly by means of mixture. They are come down in one continuous line; however, the word creation and the sentence making of English language are mainly by means of derivation. I emphasized on the characteristics of Chinese language in this way under the broad framework of typology as well. It is always stated that Chinese language is a kind of language that gives priority to the “parataxis”. However, we can still not figure out any principle that in which way the parataxis is made. We lack expounding and demonstration in a scientific way. Recently, some western linguists with breadth of vision also pay attention to the parataxis and the integration. In addition, they have stated some principles, which is worth our self-examination.

We may summarize, as it were, what we mentioned foregoing as “Global Foresight” and “Chinese Standpoint”. Recently, there are two entirely different comments on the Ma's Grammar, an important work in the history of Chinese grammar. One opinion is that this book has great merits and achievements. It takes example by the grammar system info from the western and initiates the grammar research of China; the other opinion is that at the very start, the Ma's Grammar has misled the grammar research of Chinese language. In my opinion, the Ma's Grammar introduced the western analytical methods into the research of Chinese language and it is appropriate for the fact of Chinese language by and large. Therefore, the merits outweigh demerits. Without doubt, if you blindly focus on analysis without any integration, you will also fail to grasp the overall situation as well as the generality. The integration and the mixture we state now are also based on a great number of analyses we have made. We should not abandon the original aspects which are good.

As a matter of fact, placing undue emphasis on the research of “characteristics” of Chinese language will make it difficult to dig out the actual characteristics on the contrary. If we change to take another point of view and take the view of general character, we can figure out these characteristics in a more profound way. Therefore, as it is specific for our research, we shall have a global foresight of languages and start from the Chinese language itself as well.

Tang: I think what you meant by “broad view” also contains these meanings: the learning and desultory reading of relevant subjects. We can see from your research that you also pay much attention to the development in the field of psychology, philosophy and even mathematics etc. Would you please talk something about the situations and your experience with respect to the research interests and the involvement in the relevant fields since you are engaged in the linguistic research?

Shen: When I enter into the field of linguistic research, the so called Chomsky Revolution had been on. The formal school represented by him had been the main stream of the world’s linguistics. I also did some translations and introductions. Up to now, I am still very interested in some good articles in the field of formal grammar. I often read them and also figure out the limits of formal grammar. I appreciate the functional school more. The way they take is to study language from the perspective of pragmatics, function and cognition. There are relatively a small number of morphological markers in Chinese language. As expressed in the jargon of linguistics, there is a lack of morphological markers stricto sensu. In the first ten years, I studied the grammar mainly from the perspective of pragmatics to see how the rules of language use reflect on the grammar. The Asymmetry and Labeling Theory was the result at this stage. The demarcation line between the rhetoric and the grammar as well as the demarcation line between the sentence structure and the pragmatics in Chinese language are not so clear and it is also unnecessary to distinguish them from each other. In the next ten years, I changed to focus on the cognition because some issues are difficult to be explained only by means of pragmatics. The researches in this aspect, such as the article under the title of “the Bonded and the Unbounded” the parallel relationship among the three categories of notional words including the verbs, the nouns and the  adjectives in Chinese language was summarized by means of the opposites of the bonded and the unbounded with respect to the cognition. As a matter of fact, the congruent relationship between the verbs and the nouns have been made by someone and what I did just discover there is also such kind of congruent relationship between the adjectives in Chinese languages. It also results from the characteristics of Chinese language. In general, there is a lack of morphological changes in Chinese language. However, such morphological changes exist in the adjectives. With respect to the morphology, the qualitative adjectives are different from state adjectives while the adjectives in English language do not have such characteristics.

If I have any research results in the field of the relation between the cognition and the grammar, it should be that I found the parallelism between different categories in many aspects. Take the article under the title of Three Aspects of a Sentence of Two or More Clauses – “Behavior”, “Cognition” and “Speech” for example. This article represents that the various types of sentences of two or more clauses have the distinction in those three aspects. They have a kind of parallel relation. The former researches gave priority to the linear connection and combination relation. Now, we begin to pay more attention to the parallel connection and paradigmatic relation. According to formal language, one language generates mainly by means of derivation system. As a matter of fact, when “generating” language, the human brain has another kind of system which is “metaphor”. The metaphor is a parallel projection. Such system seems to be more obvious in the Chinese language.

Nowadays, the linguistic researches lay greater and greater emphasis on the crossover study with other relevant subjects. The cognitive science is a subject under the joint cooperation between philosopher, linguists, psychologists, neuroscientists and computer scientists etc. The purpose of cognitive science is not to create a machine with intelligence but to realize the thinking mechanism of human brain. In this aspect, the linguistics can make their contribution. The cognitive scientists create cognitive psychology model by means of experiments. After that, they provide them for the neuroscientists as well as the computer scientists so as to imitate the human brain. The linguists create the language model on the basis of linguistic fact and linguistic experiments and provide them to the cognitive psychologists. These are the basis of their experiments. It is the same to the transformational generative grammar when it was put forward in the first place. It was a theoretical model of linguistics. According to this transformational generative grammar, the passive sentence is transformed by the active sentence. After that, the cognitive psychologists use it for the experiments to see whether human’s reaction process of understanding the passive sentence is longer than the reaction process of understanding the active sentence. If so, the longer part of time is used for “transformation”. In a word, one cannot keep himself in a word of his own when doing the linguistic researches. He should also keep a watchful eye on the development of the relevant subject and had better do researches by combing them with each other.

Methodology and Style of Writing

Tang: It can be seen that when doing researches, you always attach importance to the research methods. The two articles under the tiles of the Target of Grammar Research – Prediction or Explanation? and the latest Nouns and Verbs in Chinese Language have a concentrated reflection of this characteristics. Would you please talk about the issue of methodology in detail? In addition, what are your experience and understandings with respect to the style of writing?

Shen: In scientific research, the “conscientiousness” shall be a basic requirement. We should not be self-contradictory or have a vicious circle. In addition to the “conscientiousness”, there is also the “simplicity”. The “Principle of Simplicity” means that those that can be explained by one concept need not be explained by two concepts and those that can be explained by means of one principle need not be explained by two principles. As a matter of fact, the masters in linguistics such as Mr. Lv Shuxiang and Mr. Zhu Dexi in the old days laid great emphasis on such methods and principles. We should learn from them.

As a linguist, you should also be sensitive to the phenomenon of language. If you are a phonetician, you should be sensitive to pronunciation. There is a linguist called Hawkins in a drama written by Bernard Shaw. He could recognize which block in London one person came from according to his accent. As a grammarian, you should be sensitive to the phenomenon of grammar and semantics and should keep the interest in exploring why this can be said and why that cannot be said; why it is good to say it in this way and it is improper to say it in that way; why the sentence will have such meaning when it is said in this way while if it is said in a different way its meaning will be changed. I have a habit that when I heard a novel way of expression or certain kind of slip of the tongue etc., I will note them down in a small book so as not to forget them. Therefore, when I assign a topic for the examinees for graduate record examination, I will not test whether they know some theory or certain school. Since the students can learn the knowledge after they are admitted. What I wanted to see is mainly whether he has the sensibility to language and the analytical ability of language or not.

With respect to the style of writing, I have to admire Mr. Lv Shuxiang. No matter how advanced and profound the principle is, he is able to express it in a clear and simple which are easy words to understand. In this aspect, Mr. Lv does much better than me. Mr. Lv is an authentic master. As far as I am concerned, the problem concerning the style of writing is a very serious problem nowadays. It is also related to the style of study. For example, I always like reading the magazine Reading, but now I increasingly feel that it is not necessary to read it. The involved and abstruse way of expression is one of the important reasons. I still remember that Mr. Lv Shuxiang used to publish essay in this magazine as well but his article was very simple and easy to understand. Sometimes, I will meet with some people and them told me, “Your articles are very good but I cannot fully understand.” At once, my face will blush with shame and my heart will be beating quickly. It means my expression was at question. There is something that you have not fully digest so you cannot express them in a clear and coherent way. If you cannot completely understand something, you will cover the problems by means of involved and abstruse words. There are also many articles written by the western linguistics of which the expressions are involved, abstruse and difficult to understand. However, there are also a great number of works written in popular and easy-to-understand language and with profundity and an easy-to-understand approach, for example the books written by George Lakoff.

Certainly, it is also possible that the readers’ structure of knowledge should also be perfected it the readers complain that they cannot understand the meaning. For instance, if one need to read some articles about the formal grammar and he does not have the basic knowledge accumulation in terms of mathematical logic, it will be very difficult for him to understand. When I studied for the Master's degree, I spent one semester in learning the rudimentary knowledge of mathematical logic. Therefore, the readers should also enhance their study for rudimentary knowledge and constantly update their structure of knowledge.

Introduction, Exchange and Innovation

Tang: We have mentioned the communications in the circle of international linguistics in China. In addition, we have also mentioned that the connection between different subjects is very important. In that way, does the different fields in the circle of international linguistics in China need more communications and exchanges? What is the current situation?

Shen: Mr. Lv ever said that the Chinese language circle and the foreign language circle in China are “two pieces of skins”. Now the situation has been improved to a certain degree. However, generally speaking such situation has not been changed thoroughly. The foreign language circle still gives priority to introduction and even there is the phenomenon of repeated introductions. As far as I am concerned, there is a kind of misunderstanding in this aspect. Some people think the introduction of foreign linguistic theories is equal to doing research. They abandon the research on the phenomenon of language. As time passes, they are not sensitive to the phenomenon of language and on the contrary they are more and more familiar with different kinds of theories. I suggest that the people engaged in the foreign language circle shall pay more attention to the phenomenon of language and should do some positive and innovative research by means of the theories and methods they have grasped. On the other hand, the people from department of Chinese language and literature have the good tradition of laying emphasis on the phenomenon of language in a general way. As long as they have learned and grasped some theories and methods, they will be with might doubled. There is a good trend now, namely there are more and more people who have grasped the tools of foreign languages in the department of Chinese language and literature. The ability to obtain the primary data is enhanced, the approaches are increased and the theories and ideologies are improved therefore they have the opportunity to have a greater achievements. There are also several persons who do well in doing researches. The researches they have done are those that combined with linguistic fact. Compared to the past, it is a great progress. The magazine Contemporary Linguistics can show the change of this age. The current Contemporary Linguistics was called Linguistics Data at the very beginning and afterwards it was renamed to Foreign Linguistics. The aim of starting the issue of this magazine is to introduce some theories and methods from the abroad to the counterparts in China. In my opinion, the works at this aspect shall still be done now. It is doesn’t mean the works of introduction and import are of no value. They are of value and should be done. But it is not so easy to do the works well. It is not easy either to write the articles easy to understand, grasp the main point of the original works and achieve mastery through a comprehensive study of the subject. In addition, with the turn of events, there are more and more people who have a good command of foreign language and the number of people who return after pursuing the advanced studies in a foreign country becomes larger and lagers. People are not satisfied with the introduction and the translation but apply these theories in the field of researches on Chinese language. The genuine research articles appeared therefore the magazine was renamed to Contemporary Linguistics.

Tang: As for the formal grammar and the functional grammar, I think you can talk something about your opinions on the “main stream of linguistics”. What kind of attitude shall we hold towards the main stream?

Shen: As for the issue of main stream, as far as I am concerned there are two aspects: The one aspect is that you have to know what the current main stream is. The main stream represents a group of hard cores in field of academy at least currently. You should keep a watchful eye on what issues they are concerned about and what are the common ideas and languages of them. The issues you are concerned about had better be related to the issues that the main stream is concerned about and it would be best if a certain degree of communication can be made. For the other aspect, the main stream is not fixed and unchanged. The innovation is always the “reactionary” to the main stream. If the argument is only centered on that you are not main stream and I am the main stream, the state of such a kind of argument is too low. I admit that you are the main stream but I do not have a superstitious belief towards the main stream or worship the main stream blindly. I will go against the main stream. This is the high state. We need to learn the mainstream as well as the advanced theories and methods from the foreign countries. When we reach a qualified level, we can add our own innovation to it. It seems that Mr. Zhao Yuanren has also expressed the similar opinion. In addition, only in this way can it be possible for the academy to develop.

Tang: In such an era of information explosion, what attitude and method shall be take when reading and learning the previous results?

Shen: The life of one person is limited and the energy of one person is also limited. It is impossible for us to read all materials, even the materials in one field. Therefore, it is a problem which cannot be ignored to choose the materials for learning and reading. It is also a kind of knowledge. My experience is that we shall read up the classic works over and over again. Take the Problem Analysis of Grammar of Chinese Language written by Mr. Lv for example. It is only a thin book but it is the crystallization of his research results gained throughout his whole life. I have read the books for numerous times and made it broken. After that, I bought another copy and read frequently. I ponder repeatedly and each time I will gain new insights. We should treat the foreign classic works in the same way. In addition, the insight shall be relied on as well. We shall choose the books which have the important significance for the development of subject for reading. As far as I am concerned, I am very lucky. The books I have chosen for reading are very worth reading. The most important thing for reading is to understand the spirit in the books. We shall go deep in to the books and extract from the books without taking unnecessary pains to study an insignificant problem.

Reflections on Personnel Training

Tang: Would you like to give some opinions and suggestions to the young linguistic learners with respect to pursing studies and conducting themselves?

Shen: In my opinion, with respect to fostering students, it is also important to make then have a global foresight and a Chinese standpoint. In addition, they shall be fostered to have the sensibility to linguistic facts rather than only attach importance to theories. The specific instructions for students shall certainly vary from person to person. Some students have a good command of a large number of materials but are relatively weaker in the field of theory. We shall enhance their aspect of theory and method; some students have read a large amount of books and are familiar with theories but they have poor ability of collection and dealing with the specific materials. Thus, we shall make them pay more attention to the richness of language materials. The students should not adopt their good points and avoid their shortcomings, but learn from others' strong points to offset their weakness. Among our students, there are some from the department of Chinese language and literature and some from the foreign languages department. The requirements for them are different. There are some students who are interested in functional school and some who are interested in formal school. I will not discriminate against the latter. My opinion is that these are two kinds of different research approaches. They can absolutely compete with, criticize and promote each other and form a kind of “benign interaction”. I advocate that the people who are engaged in the functional grammar should also read some materials with respect to the formal grammar. At least, they should understand what the opinion and the orientation of everyone are. From my point of view, when doing the linguistic researches, whether you are doing the functional school or the formal school is not important. There are ones who do well in the functional school and also those who do badly in it. It is the same to the formal school. The most important thing is the distinction between the good and the bad. I often met with some students who asked me, “Teacher, it seems that the cognitive linguistics is relatively hot now and I am also very interested in the cognitive linguistics. I wonder whether it is promising for the development of cognitive linguistics.” I would like they did not ask the question in this way but raise the questions like that, “I am very interested in certain phenomenon of language and I am eager to wonder why we can say this but why we cannot say that. Is such phenomenon worth researching?” I don’t like that my students become interested in certain theory or in certain school. What I like is they are interested in language problems and after that consider how to solve these problems. If you think it is better to solve the problem by means of the methods from the formal school, you can use the methods from formal school to solve the problems; if you think it is more convincing to solve the problems by means of methods from functional school, you can adopt the methods from functional school. We should not follow the fashion and not try to be in the swim.

Tang Zhengda male, was born in 1973. He was a doctor and holds the post of assistant research fellow in the Institute of Language of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as well as the editor of Chinese Language. He majors in linguistic typology. He has published a total of more than ten research papers and has attended the academic meeting in the international and the domestic scope. Besides, he has read more than ten papers at the meetings. He used to engage in cooperative researches and deliver dissertations in Japan and Chinese Taiwan etc.


(Translated by Xu Jin)



Editor: Wang Daohang

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