Is the West Becoming Chinafied?

South Park - On the cutting edge of China stereotypes

China has been the flavor of the month for quite some time, causing many to predict that the future will be quite Sinofied. Foreigners have responded with increased PRC investment, localized staffing (the recession helped this trend), and a general push for folks to learn more about China, including the Chinese language. The recent journogasm over the size of China’s economy as compared to that of Japan got everyone even more excited.

The last time I saw this sort of thing was during the 80s, when Japan was poised to take over the world. Many of my friends studied Japanese, we all watched Sean Connery and Richard Chamberlain become Nipponified,1 and some folks even felt that they were turning Japanese, at least I think so.

To some extent, therefore, this development should come as no surprise:

The 115-year-old prestigious Oxford Dictionary will now include popular new Chinese terms like “shanzhai” “youtiao” and “fangnu”, as part of the modern Chinese language.

As China plays a more and more important role in the world economy, the Chinese language is forever evolving, attracting more attention from people who want to understand this ancient yet vibrant language.

For what it’s worth, I’m all in favor of officially adding shanzhai to our lexicon, although as an IP lawyer, I’m probably biased. As for youtiao and fangnu, I’d have to give those a thumbs down. The former is an oily breakfast food that looks sort of like a churro but doesn’t taste nearly as good — I seriously doubt this is going to catch on worldwide. As for fangnu (mortgage slave), not only is that a term that is limited to China’s real estate market, but (one hopes) it is a word that will fade away once the kinks in the market get worked out.

Chinese In Outer Space

Anyway, I’m not here to criticize the decisions of the dictionary. I think there are entire blogs that do that. A more interesting topic is what our Chinafied world is going to look like. My first choice of course would be space opera, as envisioned by Joss Whedon in Firefly, where everyone could speak a bit of Chinese. It was never really explained why folks only spoke a little, including some rather colorful language when they got excited or pissed off, seeing as how the power structure was supposed to be equal parts American and Chinese.

But language is easy. I can certainly see a few Chinese words creep into normal use in the West. It happens all the time with foreign terms, so this is nothing new. One would hope, however, that the trend could increase to the point where tattoo artists make fewer mistakes when carving Chinese characters into the unsuspecting flesh of drunken Westerners. For all of the sturm and drang over Japanese encroachment during the 80s, however, I don’t really recall too many Japanese terms (aside from ninja — courtesy of folks like Eric Lustbader and game companies like Konami) making their way into the OED at that time. 2

America's #1 Crouching Tiger

Many people have predicted that foreign entertainment will make its way into the Western media market. That was mostly due to the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I suppose, and that was quite a few years ago now, wasn’t it? I’m skeptical. In the U.S., you might see a surge in Spanish-language songs or Japanese porn, but that’s about it. There’s simply no way that your average Chinese historical drama, for example, which includes roughly 40% of scenes with people shouting at each other and another 40% of scenes with people crying, will appeal to Western viewers, even if it’s dubbed in English.

Going back to the Japanese surge in the 80s, where were all the Japanese television shows and movies? Yes, the animation industry was significantly effected by Japanese firms and design styles. This started, I suppose, way back with Speed Racer (in the 70s?). But did we see any hit Japanese movies or tv shows being exported to the U.S. to be shown with dubbed English tracks? I don’t remember that happening.

Americans, and Brits to a slightly lesser extent, are not too keen on foreign influences. Call it racism, or xenophobia, or arrogance (actually, go ahead and call it all those things), but I find it difficult to see how the expansion of Chinese economic power will necessarily translate into significant cultural infiltration of the West.

That being said, the U.S. is in serious need of a good chain of fast food dumpling restaurants. Been waiting for that one for some time.


  1. Connery starred in the movie Rising Sun, while Chamberlain was in the earlier epic television mini-series Shogun. []
  2. For the record, Lustbader wrote a series of novels a few decades ago about a Westerner who becomes a ninja. Sex, violence, and cultural misunderstandings ensue. Yes, I read them at the time. []


43 Comments

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  1. Scylla

    Interesting article. One quick clarification: shanzhai, youtiao et al. are not being added to the OED, but to the Oxford English-Chinese/Chinese-English translation dictionary.

  2. reader

    These words aren’t being added to the OED, they’re being added to Oxford’s Chinese-English/English-Chinese dictionary. So the original CD article is not so much about “China-fication” (by the way, I think there’s a word for that in the OED) of the West as much as it is about having this popular bilingual dictionary used both by Chinese students of English and foreign students of Chinese reflect modern words and usages.

  3. Yes, you are both correct. Used the wrong acronym.

  4. Seems like I’m getting several comments about the translation dictionary and what it says about Chinese language adoption in other countries.

    Although online sources are probably even more important these days, traditionally these dictionaries (and the debate over new popular words) serve as gateways for foreigners to pick up on current usage.

    Once these new terms are included in such sources, they are more likely to be used worldwide, perhaps even by folks who are not Chinese speakers. They cease to become merely “local.” That’s why I find it interesting that some of these terms were included.

    Anyway, that was just an intro to my larger point about global trends with respect to Chinese culture.

  5. Before the CCP acolytes and nationalist-chip-on-shoulder-fenqing seize upon the South Park image as evidence of racism/humiliation/discrimination/bias/whatever against Chinese, consider this: the episode from which that image is taken was having a dig at American fear-mongering over China’s rise and stereotypes of China and Chinese.

    Pity the Chinese government doesn’t allow her talented pool of animators and satirists to take a similar swipe at pervading attitudes towards non-Chinese as depicted in the state media.

    As for the west becoming Chinafied, look behind you. There’s a Chinatown in every city; Chinese students at every university; Chinese supermarkets and businesses on every street; Chinese goods in every home; Chinese literature in every bookstore.

    Perhaps those evidences of ‘Chinafication’ do not fit with Stan’s definition of culture in this context. But the Chinese presence in the west is palpable, not to mention the level of economic influence.

    • Yes, the South Park show both used stereotypes for their own sake as well as making fun of them. That’s what they do. Sometimes they cross the line as well, although I don’t recall that particular show being any “worse” than usual.

      The difference between Chinafication now and Nipponification during the 80s is, as you point out, the West has been Chinafied for many years already. Chinese cuisine is probably the best example.

      So how do we measure additional Chinese cultural influence on the West due to China’s recent economic power? That might be very difficult.

      • “So how do we mea­sure addi­tional Chi­nese cul­tural influ­ence on the West due to China’s recent eco­nomic power? That might be very difficult.”

        I would imagine that the lines between what are currently regarded as ‘cultural’ Chinafication (food, architecture, arts, festivals) and CCP soft power narratives will become blurred.

        Some changes may occur through work practices as Chinese investment in western economies will increasingly come with conditions of imported labour. Alternatively, the Chinese economic bandwagon will exert ‘cultural’ influence through investment in the foreign education sector – not only via more active and influential CI’s, but also through increasing say in the content of China-related courses. In this way they can – and probably will – remove unwanted discourse from curricula.

        This, in effect, would export an element of state-mandated Chinese culture (stifled discourse), and will be far more effective than ham-fisted CCTV soft power initiatives. For example, vetoing or replacing a proposed module on Tibetan cultural heritage will do more for the Chinese government’s Tibetan agenda than attempting to force-feed an audience with tales of Serfs’ Emancipation Day.

  6. Wukailong

    I agree there’s a lot of hype over China and it certainly seems to be going in Japan’s direction, but the sheer size of the country makes it different. Even if it were to slow down later on and not reach US’ levels per capita, it would still have a larger impact on the world than Japan has ever had.

    Another factor, which is harder to quantify, is how interested China will be in its surroundings (and I’m not talking security policies here). Japan has traditionally been quite closed, and I’m not sure China is the same in that regard.

  7. Paul

    I think the West will become more aware of Chinese culture – chinese tea, tai chi, traditional Chinese medicine (as has already happened in the Uk in the Uk where a huge number of tcm shops have opened recently) but I don’t think in terms of popular culture, as you say, there will be a big impact.
    Each culture prefers it’s own movie’s and music etc. In India you have bollywood, Egypt makes around 80-100 movies a year, to name but two examples.
    I think the west will certainly learn more about what Chinese people think. However, I don’t think we’ll all start singing Chinese pop or watching the Chinese version of prison break anytime soon.
    p.s. couldn’t agree more about the dumplings, I miss my Qing Feng, three treasure’s bao zi!

    • Not to add insult to injury, but I live within a ten minute walk of a Qing Feng baozi restaurant. Went there two days ago.

      Definitely is the best place for baozi and rice soup on a cold winter’s morning, as opposed to dou jiang and you tiao (I seem to be bashing youtiao today).

      I honestly don’t know why baozi and jiaozi have not migrated from the Trader Joe’s frozen section to an actual fast food chain in the U.S. Seems like an obvious one.

  8. been waiting a long time for this….

    The song of the article is about a Da Xia

    its titled,

    “The man they call Jayne”
    – from the Mudders

    五毛党

  9. S.K. Cheung

    To Stan,
    I’m sorry that you’re not giving youtiao any love. I find it’s very good with congee (I think you’re calling that rice soup). Mind you, it’s fried so probably not that good for you. That said, there’s a snack with youtiao wrapped in flat rice noodle, quite popular in HK, not sure if it’s in BJ, and I only know the name in Cantonese.

    Nice pic of “crouching tiger”. Wonder if he’s sexting again :-)

    • I think it’s the fried thing. Too oily for me. I also don’t eat donuts.

      Congee is pretty good for breakfast, but for me it’s hard to beat jian bing — I think there are several names for this egg/pancake thing, but I only know one. Too bad I recently moved and can’t find a good place near home, though.

  10. “Amer­i­cans, and Brits to a slightly lesser extent, are not too keen on for­eign influ­ences.”
    May I take umbrage…
    Brits have a long history of embracing ‘foreign influences’ – the nation’s favourite dish is the curry for goodness sake!
    Talking of lexicography – the English language itself is arguably the most hybrid/influenced by other languages the world has.
    The last time I looked there were more languages in daily use in London than any other city in the world – circa 135.
    I’m not by any means saying there are not any bigots, racists, or xeno­pho­bes here in the UK but to glibly say that as a country we’re not open to foreign influence is patently and profoundly wrong.

    • Ha! I knew I’d get someone with that comment. No outraged Americans yet, for some reason though. Hmm.

      I’ll give you the UK post-war. Before that, though, I’ll stand behind my statement. When the UK had an empire, it didn’t need to embrace anything if it didn’t want to, and with respect to things like language learning, Brits had a terrible international reputation on that front, much like Americans today.

      As far as English is concerned, I’m not buying it. English is what it is because England was invaded 516 times before 1066 (rough estimate). It has little to nothing to do with embracing foreign tongues.

      So, any Americans wish to challenge my outrageous words?

    • If curry is the the UK’s favorite dish, does that speak to Brits embracing foreign influences or their native cuisine?

      • King Tubby

        Kai. Neither. A jolly good Madras chicken or beef curry with coconut juice is something to die for. This has bugger all to do with race or nationality.

        Add a yoghurt and cucumber side dish, plus pepper pappadons and you are in middle aged male heaven. Throw in a good Chinese beer, Hua Quan (Fujian beer) and life is good.

        Peace.

    • lolz

      As a curry lover I have to say that the Brits have done more for Curry than any other culture. It was the Brits who introduced the idea to process curry spices and package curry spices into roux so it would be easy to distribute and cook.

      Many people around the world do not think of curry as Indian but as British food. The most popular japanese curry maker (Japanese curry is by far my favorite) for example credits the Brits and not Indians for introducing Curry to Japan. http://www.house-foods.com/CurryHouse/ourfood.aspx

      Also, the most popular Indian dish outside of India is Chicken Tikka Malasa, which was invented in England.

      • King Tubby

        Okay lolz. Peace treaty after your curry comment. Surprised that Japan manufactures curry. Korean takes on curry are positively awful, not to mention the fact that you have to use starchy short-grained rice.

  11. Stan, great post.

    1. Firefly/Serenity rocks, but I always wondered why there actually weren’t a lot of Chinese *people* around despite all the gorram Chinese swear words.

    2. Don’t humiliate the Chinese people by comparing youtiao to a churro. It is the food of everyday people! May the cuisine of youtiao live 10,000 years! (but don’t eat a youtiao more than 5 min after it has been fried).

    3. Journogasm. I like it. Let’s add that to the OED instead.

    • Thanks Elliott. You know, come to think of it, I don’t recall too many Asians on Buffy or Angel either. Perhaps Joss Whedon made some poor casting choices.

      I’m not a big churro fan, but at least it’s got flavor. Anyway, I already talked up jian bing, baozi and jiaozi. You can give me a free pass on youtiao, right?

  12. Scott

    “Americans, and Brits to a slightly lesser extent, are not too keen on foreign influences”

    Can’t say I agree with that one at all. Aside from old people and the so called “Tea Party” (the latter made up almost completely of the former) I see Americans are generally open to foreign cultures. At least the Americans I grew up with with are. You may point out many Americans’ relative ignorance to international events, geography and culture. True. But based on the recent studies that show how little Americans know about their own history I doubt this has anything do to with xenophobia.

    But I digress. I comment because I am having a hard time following your logic in this post as a whole. It seems like cultural influence to you is limited to language and movies? I don’t think either are particularly important.

    Let me comment on Japan in the 80’s since you brought it up:

    Sure few Japanese words and movies have gone mainstream in the US, but looking at my own childhood in the 80’s I have to say that Japan had PROFOUND impact on American entertainment culture at the time. Except for pop music, sports and I suppose Hollywood movies and live action TV, Japanese companies, designers and ideas basically dictated what my friends and I thought was cool as kids: Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Master System, all the games available on those consoles, awesome Casio watches, Sony Walkmen, Karate, waxon waxoff!!!, Sumo fat people!, Ninja stars, Transformers, VOLTRON!!!!, Star Blazers (all three were imports or adaptations), countless arcade games, my family for a while had a Nissan Stanza that TALKED!, our TV and VCR were both Sony, later our home theatre was Pioneer, my Dad’s camera was a Canon A-1, even the best domestic cartoons in the 80’s and early 90’s (‘cept Disney) were heavily influenced by the Japanese culture and style of animation (Teenage Mutant NINJA Turtles, GI Joe, Thundercats … and the list goes on), my uncle was crazy about sushi, and nowadays so am I … That’s just stuff I can think of off the top of my head.

    Now, I can’t tell from your post if you mean that since there aren’t any really any blockbuster movies then Japan didn’t have a significant impact on entertainment in the 80’s America. I would say that from a kid’s perspective Japan came close to DEFINING entertainment. And we kids knew it. We all knew that my brother’s Sega was not American. We knew the talking Nissan was an import. That has to have had a huge impact on our my generation’s worldview and “culture.” These were the things through which we interfaced with the world. They helped define our world.

    I agree though that China is not about to influence American culture in any significant way any time soon. But it’s not even worth comparing to 80s Japan, nor implying that China’s failure somehow America’s fault. I can’t think any Chinese brands (term used loosely) that an American kid would give a crap about right now and just gave you something like 10-15 from Japan that I was obsessed with as an 8 yr old.

    • This might be a good place to leave my comment about enjoying Mr. Baseball.

    • Jones

      I believe GI Joe had a Jap in his squad. I can’t remember if there was any other foreign nationality outside of that. Maybe an Englishman or Scot, but those don’t count.

      • Quickkick, who now has a home at:

        http://www.angryasianman.com/

        Hm… new material for Ken and the crew…

      • King Tubby

        Jones. I actually read US war comics when I was a sprout at boarding school. They didn’y leave an impression, unlike Flemming’s James Bond who really knew how to overheat the pre-adolescent imagination. Ursula Undress.

        What’s with this anti Pom/Scot stuff?

        Keep this up and you are looking at a no rules Texas cagefight.

        http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/peterfoster/100052485/is-china-ready-for-cagefighting/

        • Jones

          Eh? I never got into comics. I watched GI Joe cartoons when I was about seven years old. I don’t know how you could even begin to start a career as a film or comic critic at that age.

          Not anti-Pom (what’s that?) or Scot. It’s just that they’re white and not from the 1980s rising power of Japan or the current rising power of China. England and Scotland are hardly economic or military competitors.

          Texas isn’t about cage fighting. Texas is about football. Think Trinity High School…University of Texas or sometimes Texas Tech or even Texas A&M…the ever-present God’s team, the Dallas Cowboys. When China develops a proper football team then we’ll talk.

          Case in point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OD8sOxhwQVo

          • King Tubby

            Jones A Pom comes from England. My knowledge of the Texas obsessione comes via Billy Bob Thornton’s Saturday Night Lights (not bad), and a much earlier North Dallas Forty with the brilliant Nick Nolte, a troubled individual, who one had sixteen tons of coal delivered to his front lawn after a bout with the bottle.

            And no cheap digs about China’s soccer team okay, or the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection will pay you a visit. A dose of shuanggui will sort out your bad sporting attitude.

          • Jones

            I’ll give them a chance and use the unpredictable, my beloved, Arkansas Razorbacks.

  13. Stan, bite thy tongue when it comes to fast food and Chinese Restaurants – there are hundreds of mom and pop joints across the Midwest and West Coast already starting to feel the heat from Panda Express. It is only a matter of time before Mickey D’s decides to use a couple of its Asian Rim specials in North America.

    • And before I forget again – there is a series on the Food Channel called “The Great Food Truck Race” – has a Vietnamese crew from California call the “Nom Nom Truck” – which is playing some inroads in the American Fusion of “What’s for Lunch”, like the Korean Taco Trucks in LA.

    • As for South Park… what hasn’t Matt and Terry touched when it comes to P.R. China, or that matter Chinese history. The bit they did with the Great Wall and the Mongolians was priceless!

  14. King Tubby

    Stan. Ninja did not enter the lexicon courtesy of that Eric fellow. It was via that greatest of Japanese TV exports in the sixties, Shintoro, who routinely collided with badass black clad ninja dudes.

    Scripts to die for.

    “Prepare to die, Shintaro”.
    “And now you will pay your debt to society – with your life”.
    “You will not escape so easy next time, Tombe the Mist”.
    Great memories.

    It is a pity that Japanese ciinema of the 60’s and 70’s, Seijun Suzuki, Fukasada et al, were not dubbed and exported to the west, since they would have been enormously successful. Right up there with Spaghetti Westerns.

    And if you were an adolescent, most of your hormonal needs would have been met by the Bad Girl Sukeban genre. (Bare breasted female sword fighters half dressed as nuns….I kid you not.)

  15. Jones

    If this follows the same trend as Japan in the 80s and gives birth to China-Weeaboos (Cheeaboos?) then I will…I don’t know…do something drastic.

    Gung-ho

  16. I thought the article was very funny, but it missed the main point. Chimerica has the same labor pool. The openness of the Western economy to China has depressed overall wages and shrunk the US middle class while growing the China middle class. The Mott’s foods union strike bust in New York state is a good example. Watching the union workers complain about the wage deflation today reminded me of another Chimerica trend: Both countries are getting older and fatter.

    • pug_ster

      I would say that US is getting older and fatter. The problem with America is that in certain industries is the lack of competition. Unlike the past recessions, many companies are shedding jobs, pay and benefits despite making record profits.

  17. sigh

    I disagree. Firefly/Serenity sucks, and the Chinese was super shoddy and poorly executed. Additionally: Where on earth with the East Asians if the Chinese had become so important? Ugh.

    Re: Everything else: Yawns.

  18. lolz

    Aside from “Kung Fu” and related terms such as “Qi”, I would say that the most popular English word originated from China is “kowtow”. You can see the word being used fairly often in non-China related articles even. Unlike many other Chinafied words, Kowtow can be used to describe situations pertaining to multiple cultures although it does conjure an unique Chinese image for those who understand the origin of the word.

    For the Japanese, other than martial arts (ninja, karate) and food related words (sushi), the word Kaizen is probably the most popular English word adapted from Japanese. Like Kowtow, Kaizen is a useful word which can be applied universally rather than a characterization of only the Japanese culture.

    That said, I agree with notion that it’s more difficult to culturally influence the Western nations. That probably has to do with the fact that Western nations are more powerful at the moment, and people in general want to emulate the behaviors of those who are more powerful than they are. Once China excels in something (and they are starting to), then surely you will see more people using adapted Chinese words in English and other languages.

  19. Schamotnik

    You forgot about the Karate boom and funny Japanese gameshows.. But in general I agree.
    I don’t really see any significant trends that could catch on in the U.S or Europe.
    Certain martial movies(although from HK) were already popularized in the “west”, courtesy of bruce lee and jackie chan.
    Other than that most popular Chinese TV shows that I know of are rip-offs or adaptations(with a Chinese touch) of western shows or concepts anyway.

  20. WESTERNER

    To answer your question, yes. The UK, for example, has an intrest in both china and japan. These are onging. The british version of chinese food like indian food is very very popular as is asian food in general. Also both chinese films and japanese films/anime/manga are more popular than some people think. There is also a sizable japanese and chinese population in the uk. A native british find of mine speaks almost fluent chinese and i (also native to britain) am learning japanese. The Chinese language at the moment is the most popular out of the two to learn here (unless you like manga).

  21. Octavian

    Chinese culture will spread, but will be small and mostly insignificant. Its language and historically closed culture doesn’t have the capability to appeal to the world masses. A few words here and there and the occasional, remember that time when I banged a Chinese girl, is about as far as it goes culturally.

    Business is another story. The business world will have to learn to adopt to some of their practices.