Dr Milena Dolezelova - from the glasses of Experience to the glasses of Symbol

Milena Dolezelova

In this week's One on One Jan Velinger's guest is the well-known Czech-Canadian Sinologist Milena Dolezelova, who has worked in the field of East Asian studies for more than thirty years, teaching at both the University of Toronto and later, at Charles University in Prague. Learn about her first experience in China during the Great Leap Forward, and don't miss the story of The Glasses, which shows how far a mistake in interpretation can go... That and more in this week's One on One.

"Well, we have to realise that it was in the 1950s - in 1949 the Chinese peoples' republic was founded - personally, I was introduced to Chinese culture long before, when, in my high school, together with several of my colleagues, we learned classical Chinese poetry. At that point I felt that this was something unusual, and since I was always interested in languages, I thought that this was probably it!"

How difficult was it when you began learning Chinese; the general impression is that it's a very difficult language to learn...

"It is a very difficult language, but what is difficult is the script, to learn simultaneously script and spoken language is rather demanding. Mainly patience is required from students', not so much talent."

There's also the fact that there are many different dialects...

"Myself and all who study Chinese now speak mainly one dialect, and this is the dialect which is spoken in Peking. But, it is not only a dialect, it gradually became the basis of modern Chinese. It is really very difficult to understand other dialects but, what made Chinese culture possible to be unified, is, again, the script, because the script can be read by anyone who learns it, and it doesn't matter how we pronounce the Chinese characters."

When you were still studying at the department for Far Eastern Studies at Charles University, you worked as an interpreter, and there's a very famous story that goes with that early part of your career now, the story of "The Glasses".

"Well, it happened in 1954, when I was an undergraduate student, and my Chinese was at that time very poor. A Chinese army ensemble of song and dance came for a visit to Czechoslovakia. I was given the position of interpreter between two generals, one Czech, one Chinese, who gave speeches before the performances."

Were you nervous about actually translating for these two important figures?

"Of course I was nervous, because it happened that I sometimes could not understand the Chinese general - he spoke Sechuanese dialect - it happened that the Czech general used these normal political phrases that we have to exchange our experiences in building Socialism, and the word, the word "experience" in Chinese is jingyan, however, I inverted jingyan with yanjing, which means "the glasses". Well, I immediately realised that I had made a tremendous mistake, so I explained to the Chinese general that it is a peculiar Czech custom that Czech people exchange glasses with friends, so that they could see the world through a new perspective. And, quietly I explained to the Czech general that this is a custom in China that exchanging experiences means changing glasses. Well, by chance both of these generals had glasses, because they were in their fifties, and so it happened, that in front of ten thousand Czech soldiers these very famous generals exchanged glasses!... Immediately after this performance the Czech secret police came to me, and, very strictly demanded an explanation because they suspected subversive action on my part. Everything was explained when I suggested we go to the Chinese general, who was very intelligent: he laughed and laughed when he learned what was the reality behind. And so it was explained with a happy end."

In 1958 you went to China for the first time - what was that experience like? Was it what you expected?

"Well, in school we got the idea that that China is extremely cultivated, more or less civilised, that people still keep the culture from the past. I must say that nothing from what I learned from the books harmonised with reality. I was, of course, in China during a very harsh time, when China decided to build communes in the countryside, and to put into practice the Great Leap Forward, which would bring China from the '50s to the year 2000 so that China would win over capitalist countries. The reality which I saw was extremely shocking to me, because people were constantly hungry, they climbed trees to get the last leaves to get their stomachs filled, I heard that children were fed with mud, to fill their stomachs. And gradually I learned that the China which I witnessed in the '50s was a completely different civilisation, and culture, and country, than I had learned in my studies."

What prevented you from despairing at a moment like that, seeing all of this social upheaval around you? Did you find it possible to communicate with local people who, say, gave you hope even in this difficult period that they would pull out of it, that the times would pass?

"I had a great fortune that my supervisor was an extremely well-versed person in classical Chinese literature. We became very close: he accepted me as a part of his family, and this was really my home in China. That was the only light which I had at that time, and I was confused, I did not understand, I had never experienced anything similar in my own country, and I did not know whether what I witnessed was needed for China to be transformed into a modern country, I was too young to understand it. But, this professor always told me to try and not take it seriously, that it would expire in a short time. Otherwise, the old Chinese culture would be destroyed. But Chinese culture can not be destroyed. I studied diligently I must say under his guidance, and I made, with his help, my own little world of trying to understand what is old Chinese culture and how it worked into modern Chinese culture."

What are some things about Chinese literature that are perhaps the things you find most exciting?

"Well, it is again the script, because the script can live on its own, it doesn't simply indicate the sound of the language, as it is with the alphabet. But, being a script which is to a certain degree a picture, a pictogram - only to a certain degree - the writer, be it modern or classical, could use the script to infuse different meanings in the same text. You can read a text in the realistic way, it looks like a realistic story for instance, this is what I discovered in my studies of the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun, but, it becomes much more interesting, if you look at it through different glasses, the glasses of "symbols", which is possible to carry out by the script.