Tag Archives: Mubarak

Pharaohs, Cantonese and the Gang of Four

Was Mubarak Egypt’s last pharaoh? Maybe only if Putin is Russia’s last tsar. Names for strong men may say as much about public expectations as they do about a leader’s style.

There is a comfort to thinking of the year of your country as the father or mother of the nation. And it’s not just countries with dictators that name their leaders in this way. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher was the Iron Lady (soon to be a biopic of the same name starring Meryl Streep). Finland’s President Tarja Halonen is often referred to as Moominmamma— partly ironically, but also out of pride. (The Moomins are a cartoon strip and set of children’s fantasy stories that are as big as Disney in Finland).

In Mubarak’s case, the pharaoh moniker is an insult.  It’s shorthand for absolutism, state violence and destruction.

“If we go back four thousand years pharaohs were kings that ruled for life and built grand monuments to themselves,” says Joshua Stacher of Kent State University. “It’s not a good term.”

It wasn’t always that way. A few decades ago, the pharaohs were remembered proudly as demi-gods who “ensured the provision of water to the Egyptian peasants in the Nile Delta and upper Egypt,” says Tarek Osman,  author of Egypt on the Brink. That is “an extremely positive role in the deep Egyptian psyche.” Maybe that sense of the pharaohs will return, now that Mubarak is gone.

Check out this post on Language Log for Chinese signs held by protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Were these people protesting Mubarak, or sending a message to China’s Communist rulers?

Also in the podcast, fears for the future of Cantonese, once the lingua franca of many Chinatowns around the world.

Beijing is stepping up its efforts to establish Mandarin as the official tongue of China. As a result, Cantonese is spoken by fewer people — and in fewer situations outside the home — even in Cantonese-speaking parts of China. There have been protests in the cities of Guangzhou and Hong Kong about proposals to expand the use of Mandarin on TV and in other public settings.

In the rest of the world, students of the Chinese language and their teachers see the writing on the wall: they are choosing to learn Mandarin rather than Cantonese.

These days in New York’s Chinatown,  a mix of dialects is spoken. That means people often fall back on the common dialect Mandarin.  But not Kim Mui. She teaches a Cantonese class. It’s going to take many people like her to ensure that Cantonese survives in the long term.


Finally, British cultural revolutionaries Gang of Four talk about their name, which derives from a group of notorious Chinese cultural revolutionaries. The bandmembers also talk about their new CD, and about phrases that include the word farm.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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