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Shen Jiaxuan: a leading pioneer of Chinese linguistics

WAN QUAN | 2021-12-16 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

This is a photo of Shen Jiaxuan and his wife. Shen is a renowned Chinese linguist and a Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He was the president of the International Association of Chinese Linguistics from 2006 to 2007. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

On November 15, 2020, the book Nouns and Verbs written by the Chinese linguist Shen Jiaxuan won the first place in the third Xu Guozhang Prize for Foreign Language Research. In this book, Shen put forward a theory that in Chinese all the verbs are verbal nouns, or the nouns in Chinese constitute a super-noun category which includes the verbs. For more than a decade, Shen has thoroughly demonstrated the theory that Chinese verbs are part of nouns with over 60 essays and six books, setting off a revolutionary wave in the field of Chinese linguistics, and shaking the deep-rooted tradition of applying the standards of Indo-European languages to the study of Chinese linguistics. This theory has also evoked a strong response at home and abroad.  

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Shen’s harvest was deeply rooted in the “Spring of Science” more than 40 years ago.
Spring of Science
At the National Science and Technology Convention in Beijing in 1978, Guo Moruo, then the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), delivered a speech under the title of “Spring of Science,” which poetically pronounced that the “Spring of Science” [a new era of revitalized scientific research in China] had arrived.
This declaration inspired many young people to engage in scientific careers, including Shen Jiaxuan, who was working in a telecommunication department in Beijing at that time. Shen personally sent the English manuscripts written by Edgar Snow to the United States by teleprinter after Snow interviewed Mao Zedong in 1970. He was also invited to attend Henry Kissinger’s return banquet when he worked as liaison for Chinese telecommunications during the US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in the 1970s. He went abroad many times as a simultaneous interpreter for international conferences. However, being introverted by nature, Shen would rather embrace a quiet career in academia. Inspired by the “Spring of Science,” Shen decided to apply to the Institute of Linguistics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), and was admitted to the institute with the highest score in the English exam among all the candidates.
Years of learning
As soon as Shen enrolled, his teacher Zhao Shikai gave him a long list of books, all of which were classics of Western linguistics. In a memoir written decades later, Shen recalled this and mentioned particularly that on the list was Zellig S. Harris’s Structural Linguistics. This book is a treasure that has now been neglected. Zhao advocated for interdisciplinary research and suggested Shen sit in on mathematical linguistics classes in other universities, and attend psychology seminars at the Institute of Psychology, CAS. The Chinese dialectologist Li Rong asked Shen to also study ancient Chinese. 
Lyu Shuxiang (1904–1998), founder of modern Chinese linguistic studies, was also one of Shen’s tutors. When selecting a topic for his master’s thesis, Shen came to Lyu for advice. Lyu said that many [linguistic] study programs overseas were better than at home, and gave Shen advice that seemed incredible, but was of great significance: to extensively collect articles on overseas studies of the Chinese language, which were published in English, and make a catalogue of works on the Chinese language written by foreign scholars. It was a challenging task, because in 1980, China had just opened up. Original foreign texts were scarce, and there was no database or internet. Most importantly, it was a journey to an unknown world, and a task incomprehensible to ordinary students.
During the two years of writing the paper, Shen stayed at libraries all day to read primary-source materials. He retrieved hundreds of journals. For every single article, Shen read the abstract, made notes, and indexed them. The materials he read covered almost all branches of linguistics. All his hard work paid off in the end. His master’s thesis consists of two parts: a summary of overseas studies of Chinese languages as a preface, and a detailed index to foreign texts as the content. Later, Shen’s English index was published, promoting the theoretical update of Chinese linguistics.
The three-year effort laid a solid foundation for Shen’s lifelong studies. He talked about this thesis many times, and still feels that writing such a paper was good academic training, which helped him have a comprehensive understanding of various viewpoints of international studies of Chinese languages. Furthermore, he learned how to collect and screen information. Shen has been at the cutting edge of introducing foreign linguistic theories thus far. He translated several of Noam Chomsky’s classics, introducing pragmatics, cognitive linguistics, and theories of linguistic typology, grammaticalization, and subjectification to China. He shows an extraordinary understanding of new ideas of international linguistic scholarship.
Reading classics
In the year in which Shen enrolled in the Institute of Linguistics, Lyu Shuxiang published a book titled Analysis of Chinese Grammar. This thin book, with less than 100 pages, was the crystallization of Lyu’s life-long work, which became a landmark work of modern Chinese grammar research. Shen realized the value of this book at that time and concentrated on studying it. He said, “Every time the book [Analysis of Chinese Grammar] became worn, I would buy a new one. Every time I read it and thought about it, I would learn something new.” Shen has owned four copies of Analysis of Chinese Grammar, each worn with use, from which he has benefited greatly. Many of his research topics were directly derived from this book.
Shen once said: “A person’s life is finite, so is his or her energy. It is impossible to read all the materials, even of a single discipline. So how to choose learning materials is an issue that should not be underestimated, and it takes a lot of learning. My experience is that the classics should be read repeatedly.” 
“Think out of the box”
Lyu once said: “It is crucial to think out of the box……We must temporarily throw aside the concepts such as ‘word,’ ‘verb,’ ‘adjective,’ ‘subject,’ and ‘object.’ These concepts may be ‘picked up’ again in our study later on. We will have new findings as these concepts were ‘thrown aside’ and ‘picked up’ again, because the meaning and value given to these terms have changed, and we are no longer hedged in with rules and regulations.” In the past decade or so, Shen’s work has been centered on “thinking out of the box,” “throwing aside,” and “picking up again.”
In 2007, Shen’s paper titled “Nouns and Verbs in Chinese” was published, laying the foundation for his theory that “nouns in Chinese contain verbs.” He holds the view that in Chinese, verbs are a special type of noun that express an action, an event, or a state, because Chinese verbs, like nouns, can also be used as the subject and the object. Starting from “Nouns and Verbs in Chinese,” Shen has published dozens of papers, focusing on the most important two pairs of grammatical categories—“nouns and verbs,” and “subject and predicate,” which are derived from the grammatical system of Indo-European languages. It was the practices of “thinking out of the box,” “throwing aside,” and “picking up again” that brought a revolutionary wave to Chinese linguistics, overthrowing the framework of the old theoretical system, and brewing the start of the theory that “nouns in Chinese contain verbs.”
Lyu strongly advocated making comparative studies of English and Chinese. In an interview, Shen said: “It would be hard to understand Chinese if we study it merely from the Chinese perspective. From an English perspective, however, we can find something different.” However, mechanically adopting the structural foundation and theoretical system of Indo-European languages for Chinese languages and framing Chinese language according to the pattern of Indo-European languages, is not learning from others but self-constraining. This is why Lyu called for “thinking out of the box” and getting rid of the “shackles of the Indo-European pattern.”
The theory that “nouns in Chinese contain verbs” exploded the foundation of the then-current theoretical framework of Chinese grammar, so an unprecedented storm of criticism was raised. In the face of criticism, Shen made full demonstrations and reminded himself not to be led by traditional ideas. Shen’s theory is now being recognized by more and more of his peers, as well as young people who have just started to learn linguistics.
Linguistics is everywhere
In Shen’s eyes, linguistics is everywhere. Sometimes, when he sees posters by the roadside, with Chinese above and English below, he will notice the different ways the two languages are expressed, and ponder these differences. In the years when he was studying tongue slips, he always carried a small notebook and recorded all the verbal slips he heard when watching TV or talking with others. Finally, he established a wordbook of Chinese verbal slips and wrote several important articles, such as “Types of Tongue Slips.”  
Shen once borrowed the Woxian Caotang edition of Rulin Waishi [The Scholars, a Chinese novel completed in 1750; its earliest extant edition is the 1803 Woxian Caotang edition] to read. He collected hundreds of examples from the novel and added them to the “Sentences Where the Subject is a Verb and the Predicate is a Noun,” an article he wrote to commemorate the centennial birthday of the Chinese linguist Zhu Dexi. He used these examples to demonstrate that it is very common to use verbs as the subject and nouns as the predicate in Chinese.
As a man born in Shanghai, Shen didn’t miss out on the novel Blossoms, written by Jin Yucheng in Shanghainese. Shen said: “When reading Blossoms, I have the delight of following the rhythm.” After reading the novel, Shen wrote a monograph on linguistics—Sketches of Languages in Blossoms. In a review of the monograph, Wei Gangqiang, deputy editor-in-chief of 21st Century Publishing Group, commented: “It is rare and significant for linguists to pay attention to and interpret the language of current literary works……Shen Jiaxuan’s insights are not only the achievements of his linguistic research, but also valuable reference for other people in terms of literary creation, translation, criticism, and general academic work.”
Shen mentioned the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” on multiple occasions. He found that the female special agent in this movie does not speak completely based on data, but grasps the decisive data and makes decisions intuitively. It means that people should not be overly reliant on big data, because a small fragment of data is enough to address issues as long as regularities in the data are sought out. Similarly, he often tells his students that the key to searching for linguistic instances doesn’t lie in how many instances you have collected, but how many categories that the instances cover. 
Shen believes that the key to understanding and appreciating art is through contrast, which has something in common with linguistic studies. Lyu Shuxiang also said that the characteristics of a language can only be revealed through comparison with other languages. This is an irrefutable truth. 
Wan Quan is a research fellow from the Institute of Linguistics at CASS.