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Sea change?
What does this headline – A sea change on immigration? – mean?
[ 2008-07-29 11:30 ]

Sea change?

Reader question:

What does this headline – A sea change on immigration? – mean?

My comments:

It means a major change in immigration policy.

Sea change is an idiom, referring to drastic change, fundamental change, a total about turn, a radical, dramatic, even mythical change, or in Chinese parley, 沧海桑田般的改变.

I don't usually explain English idioms with Chinese, as I see that as a poor habit (preventing one from thinking in terms of English when communicating in that language). But sea change is an exception. You see, it matches perfectly with the Chinese idiom, in both meaning and in terms of the mythical.

The English idiom is said to have been first used by none other than William Shakespeare.

In The Tempest, published in 1610, Shakespeare wrote:

Full fathom five thy father lies

Of his bones are coral made

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell


Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell.

The Chinese idiom 沧海桑田(literally, the sea changes into mulberry fields)is more ancient in origin, dating Shakespeare by another millennium. According to legend, 沧海桑田 first appeared in stories of Taoist immortals by Ge Hong (283-363) – To me, at any rate, all things immortal are Taoist in nature. It came up in a casual conversation between two of such immortals.

"It must have been five- or six-hundred years since I saw you last," says one, a woman known as Ma Gu. "As a matter of fact, since I became a fairy, I've seen the sea morph into mulberry fields and vice versa no less than three times. In fact, the last time I visited Penglai (a celestial mountain off the coast of Qingdao, where Olympic yachting events are to be held next month) I did not fail to notice that the waters were shallower than before. I won't be surprised if the East Sea turns into dry land once again."

"Indeed, impossible is nothing", echoes the other by the name of Wang Yuan, adding with a chuckle, "No wonder ancients often talk of whipping up a dust while riding horses in the sea. Now I see what it means."

Anyways, that's sea change. I told the stories, by the way, just for the sake of telling them, to show that I can tell tales (vain, I know). I am not suggesting that you put "sea change" into 沧海桑田 any time you see it. You'll risking sounding silly if you do. And if you do, don't blame me for not having warned you first.

Now that I've satisfied my own vanity and warned you over translations, let's see a few more examples of "sea change" in the news:

1. A sea change for swimming

In the wake of Michael Phelps' success, his sport has entered the era of the 'professional' swimmer.

- Baltimore Sun, June 29, 2008.

2. In the not-so-distant past, every summer blockbuster had to have its own chartbusting theme song...

But, musicals like Mamma Mia! aside, recent blockbusters have been bereft of big-name ballads. From X-Men to Pirates of the Caribbean, there isn't a power chord in sight.

Most striking of all is the complete absence of rock music in the rebooted Batman franchise.

Hans Zimmer, who co-wrote the soundtrack for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, says his vision of Gotham City has no room for the likes of U2, Prince and R Kelly.

"There was never any doubt that we were going to be songless," says the Oscar-winning composer.

"And, trust me, we were flooded with requests from every band in the world. I actually had to say no to some really interesting people."

Zimmer's decision, taken in collaboration with director Chris Nolan and co-composer James Newton-Howard, reflects asea-change in the way film-makers approach soundtracks.

- Where are the new movie themes? news.bbc.co.uk, 28 July 2008.

3. Nowadays, people write to Ehrenreich with their workplace horror stories. The most shocking in the new book came from an ex-employee of one large retailer, who told Ehrenreich that in 2003 the company held him captive for six hours and interrogated him for giving a colleague a discount on a videogame, before getting him to write a false confession and firing him. A former colleague alleged that such incidents were not unusual.

With Obama ascending there is hope of a sea change, although Ehrenreich remains characteristically cautious. She sees him "tacking to the right" and was disheartened by his choice of economic adviser, Jason Furman, "who was to the far right of the Democratic Party and made his reputation as a defender of Wal-Mart [one of her principal targets in Nickel and Dimed]. And so in a way, I thought, OK, I'm not going to pay [Obama] any attention for a while."

- America's last taboo, The Guardian, July 21, 2008.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

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