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Monday, 1st September 2008

Facts, reason, respect, listening

- about "early morning"

[Translator's note: the subject of this article is a Chinese term qingchen which is usually translated as "early morning". The discussion makes references to Chinese dictionaries. Thus it is not particularly easy to translate.]

After the passage of Nuri, the Observatory was criticized by some people. The Observatory said in the evening of 21 August that the chance of issuing a number 8 signal in the "early morning" (qingchen in Chinese) would be low and the signal was eventually issued at 7:40 a.m. Some considered that the Observatory had issued conflicting and misleading information. Similar criticisms were raised regarding the change from number 9 to number 8 on 23 August. The focus of the discussion was on the meaning of qingchen. (There was no corresponding criticism in the English-speaking press.)

A few days ago, I wrote about the importance of sticking to "facts, reason, respect and listening" in a free and democratic society. I shall make an attempt to illustrate this spirit in the following discussion on qingchen.

When I spoke to the press on 24 August, I explained that in my understanding of the Chinese language, qingchen and lingchen (usually translated as "the small hours") are synonymous. Criticisms that I did not know Chinese immediately followed. I was silent on this matter in the past few days because I have to do my homework before responding.I have to collect and study related reference material. I also have to discuss with my colleagues about how we might improve our service in terms of communication with the public.

Colleagues of the Official Languages Division of the Civil Service Bureau helped me locate references to qingchen and lingchen in Chinese dictionaries (see table in the Chinese version, The following discussion is written by me and so is purely my own responsibility. Anyone who does not feel happy with it please scold me and not anybody else.

For those who could read Chinese, you would see in the table that four sources treat qingchen and lingchen as equivalent. So saying that "qingchen = lingchen" is not groundless and could not be said to be completely wrong.

After studying the table in detail, I notice also a certain trend. In the table, qingchen was listed as "the period before sunrise" in the earlier years. In the 1990s, "the period around sunrise" started to appear in some references. By 2000s, some references even stated "just after sunrise". Thus qingchen increasingly stands for a later time of the day. Owing to the co-existence of several explanations, the meaning of qingchen is becoming less clear.

On the other hand, in the earlier references, qingchen was listed as equivalent to lingchen. In later years, other references treated it as "sky about to light up", which makes little difference. However, in the 1990s, some references added a note like "generally indicating the period from midnight to dawn". Thus the starting time of lingchen is shifted forward to midnight.

Contrasting the evolution of the two terms in the past few decades, qingchen and lingchen have apparently diverged somewhat. The impression is that qingchen shifts towards sunrise and lingchen, towards midnight. But this is just a generalization. A reference in 2007 still treats the two as synonyms.

Some readers might begin to feel headache with this complex mess arising from the two "simple" terms. Others might scold me for talking rubbish and refusing to admit having made a mistake. But I wish to show that it takes much effort to find out what truth is. Indeed very often all that one finds after spending an enormous amount of effort would be just a tiny little piece of truth. Truth is not derived from bluffing.

My colleagues and I have studied thoroughly what the dictionaries say. We have also considered carefully, that is, listening to the feedback from various stakeholders after the passage of Nuri. We have decided to respect the view expressed by many that the meaning of qingchen is not clear enough. From now on, we shall remove it from our working vocabulary. Whenever we wish to refer to the period after midnight and before dawn, we shall adopt lingchen, the English translation of which is "the small hours".

Some people have further suggested that from now on, the Observatory should stop using terms like "the morning" and "the afternoon" and should only talk in terms of specified clock hours. This is a totally different subject. It relates to the fundamental question of how human beings use language to communicate with one another. I shall find another occasion to discuss it.

C.Y. Lam

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>