Silly Me

Tranquil afternoon at Beihai Park in Beijing (August 2015)
Tranquil afternoon at Beihai Park in Beijing (August 2015)

I’ve been away from this blog for about half a year, during which summer came and went…as did my much-anticipated vacation to China — those simultaneously long and short two weeks were a huge boon to my teenage brother’s Chinese language skills and only a moderate one to mine…

But today I pop back in here to say that recently I keep finding myself defaulting to the narrative that modern Chinese culture contains a chock full of nonsense English and similar gaffes — that in the process of plucking desirable Western traits, something always gets lost or otherwise garbled in translation.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago I was musing (for the umpteenth time) why my mom’s alma mater, 北京师范大学 (Běijīng Shīfàn Dàxué), is called Beijing Normal University…are there abnormal universities? What could “normal” possibly mean in this case? Was it an erroneous translation that just came to be widely accepted? All I knew was that the school was historically a teachers’college…and other teachers’ colleges were also called “normal” universities in English…

This time, I finally asked my mom and she said something about how the name was based on an early teachers’ college in France. What do you know, Wikipedia confirms:

A normal school is a school created to train high school graduates to be teachers. Its purpose is to establish teaching standards or norms, hence its name. Most such schools are now called teachers’ colleges.

In 1685, Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, founded what is generally considered the first normal school, the École Normale, in Reims[source]

And this tidbit from the article on the university:

A normal school referred to an institution that aimed to train school teachers in the early twentieth century, and this terminology is preserved in the official names of such institutions in China. [source]

Laugh out loud.

So all this time I thought China was translating English weirdly…it wasn’t even about English…it’s French! I was just way limited in my knowledge.

Now, English blunders can be found all over China, but I think this is nonetheless a case for avoiding presumptuousness and the general viewpoint that the culture you’re most familiar with is the most correct and at the center of everything.