Selected Modern Chinese Essays: “Great Empty Verbiage”

◎ Deng Tuo

Some people have a facile tongue. They talk on and on regardless of the occasion, words pouring out of their mouths incessantly, as it were, in a torrent. But, when we try to do a bit of recalling soon after listening to them, we find we have clean forgotten what they said.

Like examples abound. Keep your eyes open, and you will find them here and there. Some of those given to verbiage feel very pleased with themselves and are more than willing to share their experience with others, saying, “Our ancients say one shouldn’t say anything but can cause great sensation. I therefore ought to follow their teachings by using nothing short of the greatest of human language. ”

See, what a baloney! Many listeners will laugh off what they are boasting about as bagu[1]. Personally, however, I think it more appropriate to call it“great empty verbiage”than bagu. Nevertheless, since it is closely related to bagu, the only way to trace its origin is perhaps from bagu.

Here is a typical example. A bagu essay begins with something like this:

O heaven and earth—the all-embracing, the cosmos, the universe! How great and everlasting it is, in existence for millions upon millions of years instead of one day!

See, the two sentences, known as poti[2], read quite smoothly, don’t they?Not only are they composed of big words like“heaven and earth”, “all-embracing”, “cosmos”, “universe”, etc. , but also sound deep and clear, hence pleasant to the ear. If you read them aloud according to the tone peculiar to a bagu essay, you may be so carried away as to start wagging your head with pleasure in spite of yourself.

Unfortunately, these big words are nothing but redundant synonyms. As you read, you don’t know what the writer is driving at with all his verbosity. And the more he talks, the more unintelligible his words become. Or you find him talking for nothing at all. All that is characteristic of great empty verbiage.

Undoubtedly, as empty verbiage is unavoidable on some specific occasions, there is need for its existence in a sense. But it would be extremely terrible to popularize it, flaunt it everywhere, or even regard it as one’s special skill. And even worse it is to educate our younger generation in the art of empty verbiage so as to develop a large number of relevant experts. We should therefore do our best to dissuade people from following such a trend whenever it happens.

Quite incidentally, a kid of my neighbour’s recently wrote a great many things in the manner of great poets, mostly in the form of modern poetry, but all were nothing but empty verbiage. Often, on finishing a new piece, he would read it aloud smugly. The other day, he wrote the following poem entitled Ode to Wild Grass, likewise packed with empty words:

The sky is our father,
The earth is our mother,
The sun is our nurse,
The east wind is our benefactor,
The west wind is our foe.
We are a tuft of wild grass,
Some people love us,
Some people hate us,
But, come what may,
We’ll keep growing.

Does it read like a poem?How I worry about the future of this kid who does nothing but write trash like that all the time! Without looking at the title, one would never know that it was a poem eulogizing wild grass. Yet, to my great surprise, the kid has been given a high compliment for the so-called poem! I wonder what has motivated the flattery.

There are in the poem eye-catching terms like“sky”, “earth”, “father”, “mother”, “sun”, “nurse”, “east wind”, “west wind”, “benefactor”, “foe”, etc. , which have become hackneyed through abuse. The kid may regard his way of writing as a means to novelty while in fact he achieves nothing novel at all.

In all language, including poetic diction, we should strive for economy of expression, i. e. , using as few words as possible to express the maximum amount of content. The language you use will be most effective only when you have an idea that you simply must put across. Otherwise, your speech will be empty of matter no matter how high-sounding the words and expressions you use. And the more you talk, the worse it is. I, therefore, advise all friends indulging in empty talk to do more reading and thinking, but less talking. Resist the urge of empty talk so that you can take a rest and meanwhile avoid wasting the time and energies of yourself and others.

[1] bagu—eight-part essay prescribed for the imperial civil service examinations (known as a stereotyped essay for its rigidity of form and paucity of ideas).

[2] poti—first two sentences of an essay giving the theme (originally said of a bagu or stereotyped essay).