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An Examination of Cho Chang

This blog by Freddy Lowe, a second year student in English Literature at Edinburgh, was originally pitched to The Student Newspaper, who branded it ‘unpublishable’.  They especially objected to the last line calling for respectful listening to both sides.  What do you think?

It is no secret that, among certain members of my generation, J.K. Rowling’s reputation is not exactly stellar.  This is due to some of her public statements on transgender civil liberties.  This article is not about that topic, serious as it is.

Instead, I am focusing on a more recent online phenomenon of J.K. Rowling’s critics not only criticising her views but also mapping their dislike onto her literature.  In the corners of Internet blog articles, a trend of Harry Potter bashing has emerged, based on the assumption that any work by Rowling will be problematic somehow.  One ‘problematic’ claim has gained a considerable amount of traction.  It is the allegation that the portrayal of Cho Chang is culturally insensitive.

The furore focuses on her name.  J.K. Rowling’s critics argue that ‘Cho Chang’ is too stereotypical and reminiscent of the ‘ching chong’ stereotype, and to render it doubly outrageous, “Cho” isn’t even a Chinese name!  (They are correct; it is a Korean name.) They have thus concluded that this portrayal is offensive.

I study Mandarin here in Edinburgh, so I know a modest amount about Chinese culture.  Here is why I am not in line with this belief.

Firstly, even though Cho is a Korean name, one could argue that this doesn’t matter.  Plenty of English people have French names.  Plenty of people have names that don’t align with their birth culture.  One may ask why this is problematic.

However, that is subjective.  Far more importantly, the logic underpinning this criticism is flawed.  J.K. Rowling’s critics complain that the double ‘ch’-alliteration of ‘Cho Chang’ is stereotypical and damaging.  This is not true.

‘Ch’-alliteration is a widely used, widely accepted pronunciation in Mandarin with a long linguistic tradition.  The Chinese language has a background of rich cultural heritage and contains plenty of ‘ch’-alliteration.  There is nothing wrong with this.  In a recent class, we learned the phrase 礼轻情意重 (“the thought behind a gift counts more”).  When said aloud, this contains plenty of double ch-alliteration combined with “-ing” and “-ong” suffixes.

We must reject the stereotype that this pronunciation is a bad thing.  Plenty of Chinese phrases use ‘ch’ (and many of them with ‘-ing/-ong’ suffixes!), and there is nothing wrong with that.  If a reader hears the name ‘Cho Chang’ and deems the pronunciation problematic, it may say more about that reader’s anti-Chinese prejudices than J.K. Rowling’s.

However, even if that fails to convince you, let us now consider the name’s origins.  J.K. Rowling’s critics rightly point out that ‘Cho’ is not a Chinese name.  If we were to run a census of women in China called ‘Cho’, I agree it would likely be low.  However, that is irrelevant.

The Chinese naming system consists of two to three syllables: the first syllable is your surname, and the next two (or, in some cases, just one) make up your first name. Therefore, “Cho Chang” is not the character’s Chinese name.  In her birth name, ‘Chang’ (an authentic Chinese surname) would go first.

Upon arrival in Britain, many Chinese people will temporarily adapt their names to the British system.  Specifically (and I know this from my Chinese friends at Edinburgh), some Chinese school students will change their first names to something more pronounceable for English-speaking individuals.  One of my best Chinese friends here is called Mark!  He refuses to tell me his Chinese name because he’s chosen to be called Mark.

In other words, their first names lose resemblance to their Chinese origins.  If there were any cultural non-conformity in the name of a Chinese Hogwarts student, the first name – “Cho” – is exactly where we would find it!  Indeed, many Chinese first names could plausibly be romanised as ‘Cho’, including 秋 (‘qiu’), which means autumn.  I raise this word to your attention because, in the Chinese translation of Harry Potter, her name is 張秋 (zhang qiu).

Therefore, Cho Chang is an entirely plausible romanisation of an acceptable – and beautiful – Chinese name.

I will finish with a note on J.K. Rowling generally.  If a reader disagrees with her personal beliefs, I understand the impulse to view her literature more critically.  Many of my favourite people at this university are critical of her Twitter statements, so my interest in this issue is deeply personal.  The division caused by these topics is incredibly sad to witness.  I stand in solidarity with anyone who exercises their freedom of speech and extends that right to others without abuse.  My only statement is this: if one disagrees with her views, one can make a case against her views!  There is no need to drag her literature into the discussion, especially with a topic already as significant as trans rights.  Discussing her views should be enough in itself.

Let us respectfully listen to J.K. Rowling, respectfully listen to her critics, and leave Cho Chang alone.

7 replies to “An Examination of Cho Chang”

  1. Sam Marks says:

    ^This is me when I have no life

    1. Matthew Brown says:

      ^ This is me when I have nothing useful to contribute to a conversation.

      1. Sam Marks says:

        ^This is not me.

  2. Matthew Brown says:

    A really interesting article on the shallowness of the faux compassion deployed to gain leverage in a political conversation while attacking a target; and on how we should separate the artist from the art if we take issue with their public statements after the fact of their artistic creation.

    Scratching my head as to why this was ‘unpublishable’ in The Student Newspaper… They wouldn’t be leaning into any political biases they have when curating their journalistic output? Would they?

    1. Freddy Lowe says:

      Thank you very much Matthew! That’s a good question as to why it was ‘unpublishable’. The then-Editor-in-Chief of the paper, who doesn’t study Chinese, sent me a private message full of hostile objections, including the accusation that the article was “prejudiced”. To this day, I don’t understand why she was so against it. One of the biggest criticisms was the last line: publishing a call to listen to Rowling was not possible. And I cannot agree with that: listening to all sides is the only way to find truth on any sensitive issue! I wasn’t even asking readers to agree with her.

      The ethos of The Student Newspaper is catering to the views that the readers will expect to find, which meant that if you wrote something more heterodox, they deemed it contrary to their interests to publish it. Whether that’s editing or censorship depends on your view.

      Their reaction was unpleasant and distressing, but you live and learn.

  3. Sarah says:

    The plea at the end ignores that criticism of her literature existed long before her transphobia was made public and that criticism of her literature is valid.

    ‘No need to drag her literature into it’ is a strange comment when her literature tells us so much about her and her stories are so problematic. And have been called out long before now.

    1. Carruthers says:

      Firstly, whether she’s tranpshobic is a matter of opinion so please refrain from stating it as undisputed fact. The Harry Potter game was the biggest selling of last year despite widespread and hysterical protests so clearly most of the public doesn’t care or outright disagrees with you.

      Secondly, the criticism of her literature, or rather, pathetically disguised attacks, have increased exponentially since her tweets. The goblins are meant to be Jews now? Give me a break.

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