Windows on Asia

Victor Mair, Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, provides a deep perspective on China.

Monday, August 5, 2013

By Blake Cole

Victor Mair has a thing for snails. He has hundreds—most at home, with a handful strewn across his office on campus. “I was traveling through Europe teaching, but I also went to my mom’s ancestral village in the Swiss Alps for the first time,” says the Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, whose research on ancient cultures has taken him around the globe. “I was wandering around the churchyard and I found this beautiful snail crawling around. Symbolically, they mean a lot to me. It takes determination for a snail to get across a gap.”

Mair is no stranger to determination. Throughout the 1990s, he organized an interdisciplinary research project on the Bronze Age and Iron Age mummies of Eastern Central Asia and authored a companion book, The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. His research and expeditions culminated in the popular “Silk Road” exhibition at Penn Museum in spring 2011, which featured the actual mummies from the region, some as many as 4,000 years old.

Mair’s research is not limited to the Tarim mummies, however. Several other projects have gained momentum over the years and now demand a significant portion of his time. One of these roles sees Mair embracing the internet age as a regular contributor to Penn’s own Language Log, a world-renowned language blog that was launched by Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Linguistics Mark Liberman and British-American linguist Geoffrey Pullum in 2003. As a preeminent sinologist, Mair’s expertise in Chinese languages and culture differentiates him from the blog’s pack of contributors.

“I never considered myself a pure linguist,” says Mair, "but there are so many misconceptions about the way Chinese characters work. This is a very important group of languages that demand attention due to the economic impact of China. Fortunately, I am able to bring a certain type of expertise that appeals to the large readership of Language Log.”

One of the main topics Mair fields on Language Log deals with “Chinglish,” or English translations of Chinese, whether signs in China or tattoos here in the States. These translations are often riddled with errors—teachable errors, says Mair. “People read a blog post making fun of someone’s Chinese character tattoo, but if you take the time to dissect the errors, it can provide a lot of insight. If you read these posts, you’ll end up knowing a lot of Chinese without even studying it. One thing I always do is put the Romanization in front of it, because people who don’t know Chinese tend to space out when they see characters by themselves.”

On the blog, Mair coined the term “character amnesia” in a post that received hundreds of thousands of views. The term refers to the phenomenon of Chinese speakers forgetting characters due to the fact that they now use computers and cell phones to input the sounds with Romanization. The reliance on such devices has led to a serious crisis, he says.

Another of Mair’s ambitious projects is his Sino-Platonic Papers. When he began work on them in 1986, he would bind the issues by hand and send them to libraries across the world. He has since moved all 240 issues online. “The papers include all manner of topics, everything from the history of the horse to the study of Chinese languages to all sorts of things related to eastern thought and culture.  I try to give a forum for young people or for people who are taking risky approaches to things and advance scholarship that way.”

Mair’s expertise also extends to teaching resources. He is general editor of the ABC Chinese Dictionary Series, the first Chinese-English dictionaries to be in single-sort alphabetical order. He is also co-author of the Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature, a collection researched and catalogued over 15 years. “The anthology covers many media: ballads, storytelling, narrators, riddles, popular verse. The idea is to give a representative sample of the whole sweep of Chinese folk and popular literature and to make sense of it in a coherent way for general audiences.”