The final word

By Lin Meilian Source:Global Times Published: 2014-5-9 5:03:01

Linguist Che Hongcai sits in his home with piles of index cards containing Chinese and Pashto terms. Photo: Li Hao/GT

When 78-year-old linguist Che Hongcai presented the 50,000-odd-entry, 2.5-million-word handwritten manuscript for his Chinese-Pashto dictionary to his publishing house in 2012, nobody knew quite what to say.

The project had been originally commissioned 36 years beforehand by the Commercial Press in 1978 when the State Council ordered 160 language dictionaries to boost China's international influence in UNESCO.

Pashto is one of the official languages of Afghanistan. It is estimated that there are 60 million people worldwide speaking Pashto. But fewer than 100 people speak the language in China, and most of them work for State-owned organizations such as news agencies and customs departments.

However, the "glorious national mission" was postponed and eventually forgotten by the authorities. Che,  a foreign-language teacher in charge of editing the dictionary, was one of the few people who still keep it in mind. The dictionary will be published later this year. Che will be paid 80 yuan ($13) per thousand words.

As most of the old government-assigned tasks have long been forgotten and abandoned, Che's commitment to his task touched many people. Internet users call him the role model of today's scholar. But Che keeps a low profile.

"It is not about money or fame, this is where my passion lies," Che told the Global Times. "Hopefully it will promote Pashto education in China."

Afghan study

In the study of his Beijing apartment, some 100,000 index cards containing Chinese and Pashto terms are piled up on his desk like a mountain. Deep inside the mountain lie a magnifying glass and a laptop, a necessity to create a dictionary in the modern age but a challenge for an old man with poor eyesight like Che.

His son Che Ran remembers that when he was little, there was a huge drawer in their living room, looking like a traditional pharmaceutical cabinet. The index cards were sorted by topic and locked there for decades. No one understands what was written on it except his father.

Che Hongcai's first interaction with Pashto started in Afghanistan back in the 1950s when China started building diplomatic relationships with newly independent Asian-African-Latin countries.

As a third-year student at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, Che was sent to Kabul, Afghanistan for a four-year exchange program at the Cultural Institute of Kabul University to study Pashto in 1959.

Che remembers being  extremely excited. "Most of the students were sent to Communist countries, while Afghanistan was a capitalist country back then, and chances like that were really rare."

His first teacher was an editor of a local magazine who could speak both Pashto and English. Che remembers on their first class, the teacher wrote down everything on the blackboard and asked them to write them down due to the lack of teaching materials.

Those years studying in Kabul were fun but not easy, Che recalls. "We were under close watch. The Afghan side was worried the country might 'go red' due to the influence of Chinese students." Chinese students were required to go out in pairs and report their whereabouts.

Three years later, Che went back to China and started his career teaching Pashto at the Communication University of China.

Mission that time forgot

As a special talent, Che was frequently borrowed by various State departments. Performing tasks from interpretation for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to broadcast for China Radio International (CRI), to translating government work reports.

In 1975 the publishing house commissioned Che and his student Song Qiangmin to compile a Chinese-Pashto dictionary. Che received the mission with great confidence that they could finish it within a few years.

As there was no funding, Che borrowed a Pashto typewriter from CRI and picked up leftover papers from a printing plant to make index cards. For the next four years, the two of them buried themselves working in a five-square-meter office and sorting out 100,000 cards.

When it came to unfamiliar terms, Che consulted with some Afghan experts working for CRI and used a Pashto-Russian dictionary as a reference.

Gradually, the university authorities and his colleagues seem to have forgotten about him. Only every half a year, he would get a call from the publishing house to check the updates.

In 1981, when 70 percent of their work had finished, the university asked him to put the dictionary project away temporarily and help to design a new correspondence course.

"I thought I would have to stock the cards in the carbines for a while," Che recalls. "The next time I opened the carbines was 20 years later."

In 1988, at the age of 52, when he finished the course and thought it was time to continue his project, Che was appointed as an analyst of Middle East policy in Pakistan, and then to Afghanistan.

Che did not want to go. He hid at home for three months to ignore the offer. And then when he appeared at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he told them he suffered from high blood pressure and had kidney stones. But the medical staff said he was good to go.

"I felt so upset about leaving my project behind that I locked them up and didn't want to look at it," Che said.

When he returned to China in 1992, everything was changed. His student Song had moved to the US. Nobody seemed to remember his project. Che retired in the mid-1990s feeling disappointed.

"He felt the world had forgotten him. He was so upset that he kept quiet all the time," his wife Xue Ping recalled.

It was the September 11 attacks that got Che's attention back to his dictionary. The Bush administration declared a worldwide "war on terror" and started to look for Pashto-speaking bilingual talents.

The university invited Che to go back to teach Pashto again. The move triggered Che's desire to finish the dictionary. In 2003, he found software made by an Afghan on the Internet that enabled him to record Pashto on the computer.

With the help of his former classmate in Kabul University, Zhang Min, they spent four years finishing all the drafts.

When he arrived at the publishing house with his manuscript, he had only one thing to say "It's finished."

Newspaper headline: Linguist completes Pashto dictionary after 36 years

Posted in: Profile, In-Depth

blog comments powered by Disqus