Brush Strokes




Life in China is a struggle – at least that’s what the government says, repeatedly.

“Struggle” or fendou is a favourite word of officialdom, a verb rooted in revolution that colours the language, shaping people’s thinking and behaviour.

Once, “struggle” meant class struggle. Today, it’s often used to exhort people to achieve faster economic growth or strive for success in the campaign of the day – to get rid of pests, or stop crime.

Or even to become more cultivated. At the Party Congress in mid-October, cultural achievement in lifting spirits and inspiring greatness was declared a new priority. To achieve that people were encouraged to “struggle” again – the term was used 14 times.

There are examples in business, too. Having trouble with your joint venture partner? He may be “struggling” against you. Anti-mafia campaigns – in Chongqing in 2009, and currently in Qingdao – are also “struggles” against “evil tendencies”. And when office politics turn nasty, that may be because a colleague is “struggling” against you. There was even a hit TV show called Struggle (see WiC18).

The words “fen” and “dou” mean “vigorous” and “fight”. In their written form today in China (the government reduced the number of strokes in characters hoping to spread literacy in the 1950s) many visual clues have been lost.

Above, we return to the traditional script still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan to see the origins more clearly. There, “fen” shows a stylised man at the top wrapping a bird up in his coat. The bird, in the middle of the pictogram, struggles vigorously to return to the field, at the bottom, where it was caught. The field is the subdivided square symbolising four plots of land.

“Dou” means fight. The ancient character clearly shows two warriors wearing ceremonial, feathered headgear (at the top) with hands outstretched in combat. Those feathers are still in the traditional character, with the fill-in showing human figures.

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