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The ‘Mao suit’: One outfit for the people, but with many names

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Both in day-to-day conversation and in writing, we often need to bridge the gaps between how we express things in our own language and the way speakers of other languages say what are essentially the same things.

I was reminded of this recently when the English-language news services and television networks recently described North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un as wearing a “Mao suit.” Neither Japanese nor Chinese news services used such a term. Nor, apparently, did the North Koreans, who normally refer to Kim’s upper garment matter-of-factly as tatkin’gis yangbok, literally a “closed collar, Western-style garment.”

If Japanese were to attempt a 直訳 (chokuyaku, direct translation) of “Mao suit” — and I’m glad they didn’t — it might be 毛服 (mōfuku), which would probably not work, because it would sound too similar to 喪服 (mofuku, funeral garb).

With occasional exceptions, then, the Japanese media generally refers to the garment in question — a tunic with a closed collar and four outer pockets — as 人民服 (jinminfuku; literally, “people’s clothing”). “Jinmin” may also carry the nuance that it is worn in communist countries, which often use 人民 (jinmin, people) in their official name, such as 中華人民共和国 (Chūka Jinmin Kyōwakoku, People’s Republic of China) and 朝鮮民主主義人民共和国 (Chōsen Minshushugi Jinmin Kyōwakoku, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).

The cognoscenti of matters Asian, however, know that neither Chinese on the mainland and Taiwan, nor the 華僑 (kakyō, huaqiao or “overseas Chinese”), refer to the garment as a Mao suit or a jinmin suit, but rather as a 中山装(Zhongshan-zhuang, Sun Yat-sen suit).

Note that the character here used for “suit,” 装 (zhuang), is the sō in the word 服装 (fukusō, literally meaning “clothing attire”). I’ve touched on this subject before, but because of the large number of homonyms, Sino-Japanese nouns and verbs are often doubled up in this manner to avoid confusion.

“For the apparel oft proclaims the man,” advised Polonius in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Act 1, Scene 3, or as they say in Japanese, 着る物はしばしば人を表す (Kirumono wa shibashiba hito o arawasu).

Sun is said to have personally consulted with a guild of tailors in the port city of 寧波 (Ninpō, Ningbo) to design the garment bearing his name. Remarkably, however, the Sun suit owes its Chinese name to Japan.

During and after his life, Dr. Sun was known by numerous names and aliases, of which Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) is the most familiar to English speakers. Another, used both in Japan and China, is 孫文 (Sun Wen or Son Bun). Another is 孫中山 (Sun Zhongshan). If you read the characters for Zhongshan in Japanese, however, you get “Nakayama,” which is what it was originally intended to be.

Here’s the story: While seeking support and funding from his compatriots to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and establish a republic, Sun traveled around Japan. It was feared that agents of the Chinese imperial government might try to abduct him, so while sojourning in Kyushu, a Japanese supporter, Toten Miyazaki, bestowed Sun with a Japanese alias, 中山樵 (Nakayama Shō). The alias stuck, and in addition to the distinctive garment, nearly every city and town in China has a street named 中山路 (Zhongshan Lu, Zhongshan Road) in Sun’s honor, using his Japanese alias.

The Sun suit had its counterpart in Japan during the Pacific War, when Japan’s government campaigned against conspicuous consumption with the slogan 贅沢は敵 (Zeitaku wa teki, “Extravagance is the enemy”). Males not serving in the armed forces were obliged by a government order in November 1940 to wear a similar brown or khaki-colored tunic referred to as 国民服 (kokumin fuku, civilian clothes). A similar attempt to standardize women’s and children’s clothing was decided in April 1942 but never enforced.

On the other hand, the term マオカラースーツ (Mao karā sūtsu, Mao-collar suit) is widely used in the fashion industry as a garment with vague resemblance to the Mao suit but without the political baggage. Here for once the English and Japanese are more or less identical, but the Chinese term, “Chinese-style standing collar” (also rendered as “Mandarin collar”), remains at variance.

According to people who know these things, the Sun suit, or Mao suit if you prefer, is believed to have been at least partially inspired by the Norfolk jacket, a coat that became popular among the British upper classes from the late 1860s. So the trademark garment worn by Chinese leaders from Sun Yat-sen to Xi Jinping can take its place in history thanks to a British design and a Japanese name.

An afterthought: While we’re on the subject of this Tower of Babel as applies to Asian men’s clothing, it’s worth mentioning that translators must also deal with similarly chaotic language regarding female apparel. The form-fitting garment referred to in English as a cheongsam has become チャイナドレス (Chaina doresu, “China dress”) in Japanese. “Cheongsam,” a Cantonese word, was first out the starting gate by virtue of coming from then-British Hong Kong. To most Chinese, however, it’s known by a completely different word, pronounced chee-pao” and written 旗袍 (qipao).

Although the garment has roots going back several centuries, today’s qipao caught on in the early 20th century and has held up surprisingly well. These days, you’ll often see them gracing flight attendants and waitresses in restaurants. I for one am mystified as to why Japanese seem unable to come up with a name that better conveys its elegance than “China dress.”