Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Contrastive Ethos: Chinese and English Rhetoric
Every culture has their own paradigm, their own way of seeing the world. They each have central values specific to their own identity, and these values play an integral role in the shaping of how members of each culture form their arguments in literary formats. For example, in China, people place a strong emphasis on who a person is and on paying the respect due that person. Therefore, a person's ethos is considerably more important in China that it is in many Western cultures.
The Ethos of the Author
The ethos of the writer, his supposed character or reliability as seen on the written page, is important in written Chinese. This comes from a tradition begun over a thousand years ago, when the masses were uneducated and only a few could claim the distinction of knowledge. Those who were educated, as part of Confucius theory, assumed the responsibility of educating those who were not in both ethics/morals and practical information. However, the educated few often never came in personal contact with the masses. To make up for this, early Chinese scholars felt that they must create a persona within their writings that would command attention and respect from those reading it. This would guarantee that they would be listened to. Thus, the national importance of ethos was born out of necessity (Li).
One way that early writers found to bridge this gap between the author and the reader with ethos was to create a sense of “sincerity” within their writings. They wanted to build a sense of mutual trust between the reader and the writer. To do this, they attempted to impart a sense of “spiritual import” to their readers—a sense which was more than simply an emotion. It was their duty. Their readers needed to know that they cared about their well-being and lifestyles. Those that were educated were required to provide a sort of betterment for those that were not; their duty was towards the society as a whole, not towards themselves. Thus, they did not make the didactic, or ethical, part of their discourses difficult to discover. This was for two reasons: the main one being that this element was a critical part of the information that they wished to convey. The second was because the conveyance of the didactic gave them a legitimacy of purpose (bettering their audience) that otherwise would have been lost. This is in strict contrast to how an American writer would seek to retain readers. In the West, the current method is to entertain readers while subtly slipping in something that might not otherwise be learned—somewhat like slipping a carrot into a chocolate brownie and hoping no one notices.
While it would be naive to think that Chinese rhetoric has remained completely unchanged in terms of ethos since its earliest origins, it has remained quite static when compared to other languages. Chinese authors still feel a duty to win the respect of their readers and, once that respect is gained, to prove that their persona was worthy of such respect through the information that they choose to impart. In the words of a modern student, “I can't let myself gossip and talk about a lot of things...useless to my audience. I have to tell them something that I think is valuable to them. Paper is not expensive, but time is” (Severino 56). The writers still have a profound respect for their readers, and do not want to waste their time on something that the reader may not consider important.
China's modern authors are also turning more to the use of emotional language to build their ethos. This emotional language shows the sincerity of the author for his topic, and thereby gives legitimacy to it. This is most commonly seen in the “sanwen”--the “loose writing” that young Chinese are becoming accustomed to (Li). It is emotional, breaking the bounds of a more conservative past to convey a new sort of ethos to their readers. It is striving to give a stronger sense to the reader of the importance the author places on a particular topic.
Thus, ethos has always been, and perhaps always will be, an important part of Chinese rhetoric. It has changed in minor ways over the ages and will undoubtedly change more as Western influences seep into its framework. But, because of the respect that the Chinese carry for their readers, it will probably remain as an important part of their literary creations for many more centuries.