June 15, 2004

How To Cook and Eat in Chinese

In a piece in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine [registration required] Jason Epstein, a former editor at Random House, talks about an unusal book on Chinese food that he edited. It was called How to Cook and Eat in Chinese and the author was Buwei Yang Chao, by profession a medical doctor. Mrs. Chao's husband was Yuen Ren Chao (1892-1982), a famous linguist. He is known particularly for his work on Chinese dialects, to which the Yuen Ren Society is devoted. To phonologists of a certain generation, he is known for his 1934 paper "The non-uniqueness of phonemic solutions of phonetic systems" which appeared in the Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology of the Academia Sinica, part 4: 363-397 and is reprinted in Martin Joos (ed.) (1957) Readings in Linguistics pp. 38-54. Y. R. Chao was also known for the romanization of Chinese that he promoted, the Gwoyeu Romatzyh, whose distinguishing feature is that it indicates tone by changes in the letters used, not by diacritics. For an example, you might want to look at this version of Professor Chao's famous translation of an episode from Alice in Wonderland into Chinese. The connection between linguistics and Chinese food runs deep.

Mrs. Chao described the process of the composition of the book thus:

I speak little English and write less. So I cooked my dishes in Chinese, my daughter Rulan put my Chinese into English and my husband, finding the English dull, put much of it back into Chinese again.
Her daughter Rulan, by the way, is Rulan Chao Pian, Professor Emerita of East Asian Studies and Music at Harvard. The book is considered a classic by many, arguably the first to introduce authentic Chinese food to Western readers. It is now out of print.

The article does introduce one confusion. In discussing 点心 Epstein says they are called tien-hsin but that this is now transliterated as dim sum. This might give the impression that the difference is merely a change in transliteration system. Actually, tien-hsin is the Wade-Giles romanization of the Mandarin Chinese for 点心, while dim sum is a transliteration of the Cantonese. The current pinyin transliteration of the Mandarin is diăn xīn. In Gwoyeu Romatzyh it is dien shin.

Posted by Bill Poser at June 15, 2004 03:44 PM