China and Inner Asia
University of British Columbia, Canada
Pidgin English first appeared in China along the Pearl River Delta as a lingua franca composed of a mixture of English, Cantonese, Portuguese, Hindi, and Malay as early as the 18th century. This language spread to the Yangtze River delta in the mid 19th century when an increasing number of Cantonese merchants and workers traveled to Shanghai to seek opportunities after the Opium War. Focusing on a series of “Pidgin Bamboo Branch Songs,” (別琴竹枝詞) published in Shen Bao in 1873, this paper explores how Pidgin English was appropriated in Chinese classical poetry and altered the literary soundscape in the late nineteenth century. I argue that these poems embody an uncanny sonic experience of modernity, manifesting the permeable boundaries between Chinese and European languages. Through a creative arrangement of divergent literal and phonetic meanings of Sinographs, the poet uses Pidgin English words to produce diverse voices in classical Chinese poetry and open up various possibilities for interpretations. These works display a kind of “polyphonic poetics” which allows multiple languages and voices to coexist simultaneously and autonomously. Moreover, in contrast to traditional bamboo branch songs, which often transliterate foreign words in order to domesticate strangeness and confirm the old imperial world order, these poems appropriate Pidgin English in order to alienate the native, the conventional, and the familiar landscape/soundscape. This pidgin poetry, I contend, points to the paradox of modernity that foreignness lies not in a foreign land, but in one’s own poetic language and everyday life.