In 1937, the year that George Orwell was shot in the neck while fighting fascists in Spain, Julian Chen was born in Shanghai. His parents, a music teacher and a chemist, enrolled him in a school run by Christian missionaries, and like Orwell he became fascinated by language. He studied English, Russian, and Mandarin while speaking Shanghainese at home. Later he took on French, German, and Japanese. In 1949, the year Mao Zedong came to power and Orwell published 1984, learning languages became dangerous in China. In the purges of the late 1950s, intellectuals were denounced, sent to labor camps, and even executed. Chen, who by then was a student at prestigious Peking University, was banished to a Beijing glass factory.
Chen's job was to cart wagons full of coal and ash to and from the factory's furnace. He kept his mind nimble by listening to his coworkers speak. At night, in the workers' dormitory, he compiled a sort of linguistic ethnography for the Beijing dialect. He finished the book around 1960. Soon after, Communist Party apparatchiks confiscated it.
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