Purifying the Chinese Language – the saga continues

As you are no doubt aware, china/divide is the place to go for news on the continuing struggle to rid the Chinese language of foreign influences and maintain its cultural purity. We first became of aware of this sinister problem when a brave government official spoke out during a recent meeting of the National People’s Conference (“NPC” is no longer politically correct, so stop saying it).

Next, the unsung heroes at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (not “SARFT”) boldly issued a policy, in secret, on language purification measures. This policy document was proudly sent to television stations, magazines, newspapers and other media outlets, on a confidential basis, to make sure that everyone was firmly committed to holding the line against the corruption of China’s cultural heritage. The policy was of course hailed by everyone in the State-run media as a positive change, with a laudatory goal described by some as “aimed at protecting audiences from discrimination.” Indeed.

The only major news outlet to heed the call to arms was China Central Television (not “CCTV”), which resolutely gave its staff the following marching orders:

Anchors at China Central Television have been banned from saying the English acronyms NBA, CBA, GDP, and the like in their programs.

Presenters must abandon English initials and replace them with their full Chinese name.

The patriots at “not CCTV” deserve recognition and accolades for their sacrifices, and the word is indeed getting out. Here is a thoughtful discussion (Chinese only) of the new policy, and the participation of “not CCTV” by Phoenix Television (a Hong Kong station, so maybe we can keep calling them Phoenix TV).

Thanks to all these heroes, we are now seeing the fruition of these purity policies. The struggle continues, but some battles have already been won. For example, this set of clips, uploaded by a patriot onto Tudou, shows how the purity of the Chinese language is being upheld against the onslaught of the U.S. National Basketball Association. We at china/divide doff our hats in respect for the fine men at “not CCTV” sports who, under obviously troubling circumstances, are maintaining the purity of the language.

[Sorry, the clip is (of course) only in Chinese, although even those who can’t speak Chinese should be able to make out the stumbling, bumbling, fumbling of the commentator as he forces himself to use the formal name of the “National Basketball Association.” Keep your eye out for “NBA” and, even funnier, “NB” in the subtitles – the action starts at 19 seconds and 42 seconds of the clip.]

Well, those folks will get the hang of it eventually. In related news, “not SARFT” has fired back against petty revisionist critics of the Chinese language purity policy:

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television said Wednesday its notice of avoiding using certain English abbreviations in Chinese programs was misunderstood, the Beijing Times (not “BTV”) reported Thursday.

Gao Changli, a deputy inspector from “not SARFT” said their intention was to standardize the use of foreign words. “We are not banning the use of English abbreviations; we just want to standardize the usage and we don’t rule out alien culture,” Gao said.

Gao said “not SARFT” would stick to keeping the purity of the Chinese language and called for other TV stations to follow China Central Television “not CCTV” on this matter.

Aside from “not CCTV,” apparently those un-patriots in the media are refusing to follow the new policy. On the other hand, perhaps they never received it? If you claim that you never received a secret policy that was reportedly sent via text message to television anchors and hosts, it’s not so easy to prove the negative. Let’s hope they get the message.

On other fronts, it looks like the “purity” movement is gaining traction, and just in the nick of time. On April 14 (Chinese only, naturally), the upright citizens of the China Translators Association (not “TAC”) held a media forum, attended by media, academics, experts and scholars (patriots all) to discuss the spreading corruption of foreign terms into Chinese culture. Here is a helpful description of the event:

The Translators Association of China (TAC) [! ! !] and People’s Daily Overseas Edition held a joint symposium centered on the theme of ‘standardizing translations of foreign words and creating a harmonious language environment’ in Beijing on April 14, 2010. The attendees had in-depth discussions on the standardization of the use of foreign words in Chinese and the social duties of media workers, among other issues.

Some of the scholars thought that as the Chinese language is the cornerstone of Chinese culture, this is a matter of cultural identity, national identity, and a question of national unity (this is a loose translation). Moreover, if English terms are allowed to spread throughout the media, and then into popular culture, the subatomic forces that bind Chinese together into a coherent language would be insufficient to hold it together against the maelstrom of foreign influence (this is an extremely loose translation). In short, Chinese would cease to be a single language system, but a disaggregated set of words useful for expressing nothing much in particular, beyond ordering Beijing roast duck at a restaurant or explaining dialectical materialism (this is more of an interpretive art form than a translation).

The “not TAC” concluded that the culture is under siege, and unfortunately the woefully inadequate law in China does not allow for a systematic crackdown on the use of the English language in unsuitable situations. Therefore a new government body is needed to sort all this out.

I for one always support the call for additional culture cops. After my first two posts on this subject, which were admittedly critical and somewhat sarcastic in tone, I have seen the error of my ways.



51 Comments

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  1. I am laughing out loud (NOT LOL) at work now. And I really almost never do that. Thank you.

  2. Jones

    I bet the policymakers in charge of this are envisioning themselves standing on top of a hill, sun blaring in their face and they valiantly look to the horizon, chests puffed out, determined, holding a giant, flowing, graceful red Chinese flag. That hill is made of defeated foreign enemy. Below, all the people rally to them, singing praise and thanks for defending them and their culture from the barbarians. Then, the glorious cruise home in their BMW. Sorry, I meant “Bavarian Motor Works”. I mean “巴伐利亚汽车厂”.

  3. B-real

    Wow, that is amazing Even the guys started laughing trying not to say it. That is some good purification.

  4. whichone

    Why stop there? Arabic numerals are a terrible foreign intrusion into Chinese culture, time to switch back to good old Chinese characters when doing math.

    In fact, why the fuck are we studying mathematics in rigorous set theoretic western framework, using western medicine derived from scientific discipline of Ancient, and playing a modern western sport like basketball? Traditional Chinese culture says we cast off the cultural yoke of the barbarians including false western ideologies like communism, capitalism, and fake communism dressed up as capitalism and shove our head up our collective asses and worship an Emperor.

    You know what happens when you retire from working for the CCP? You get your brains back.

    • King Tubby

      whichone. Great post. Makes me think of the some sort of Pol Pot orchestrated schizophrenia.

      • Pol Pot? God help the world if that happens in P.R. China – given that nukes are involved.

        • Inst

          You’re being sarcastic; that happened before and China developed nuclear weapons midway through that period.

          • Sorry, but the Cultural Revolution and the Killing Fields were two different levels of FUBAR – given that the later involved “spreading the word” to another country. Not exactly seeing the Russians, Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Laotians, Burmese, Bhutanese, Indians, Pakistanis, Afganistanis, or the ‘Stanians putting up with that – especially the Russians, Koreans, Indians and Pakistanis having the ability to strike back at Beijing in the worse possible way.

    • friendo

      western medicine derived from scientific discipline of Ancient

      No. That and foreign language doesn’t serve any purpose, Arabic numerals do. They aren’t asking Europeans to go back to wiping their asses with their left hands and not using toothbrushes either.

      • Inst

        Regarding the foreign languages; by keeping the loan-word in its original form you avoid having to translate it and thus keep all the nuances of its original meaning, although in practice it doesn’t work well every time, the adoption of the term may be inaccurate, or the term may have linguistic drift from the original language. For example, esprit de corps in English refers to strong morale and solidarity in a group, whereas in French, so I’m told, it now refers to emphasizing within-group relationships above trans-society ethics, like when cops cover up each other’s malfeasance.

        Arabic numerals, in comparison to Chinese numerals (standard, huama, and accounting) are generally faster to write, especially since Arabic is an all-cursive language. They’re also distinctive within Chinese text as the different rules of composition prevent them from being mistaken for any other character.

  5. You guys are all being way too nice, particularly for a Monday. I hope everyone is feeling all right. Maybe it’s the ash?

    China/Divide has a reputation to uphold. We tell prospective writers that they need to be prepared for a fierce attack from our phalanx of learned, eager and merciless group of commentators.

    That being said, thanks for the positive comments!

    • King Tubby

      Stan. A fickle crew. They may love you tonight, but the morning after is a different story. Hangovers and regrets. “He was so good looking, bought me a drink and he looked so hot in that t-shirt”. When am I going to mature?

  6. wgj

    Is it Beijing Times or “not BTV”? Since “not BTV” would be Beijing Television.

    But more fundamentally, SARFT’s directive was regarding the use of English acronyms within the Han language, it doesn’t say anything about the use of English acronyms within the English language, even when spoken/written in China. Since this blog is in English, it needn’t be avoiding the English acronyms, but the Chinese ones equivalently, as in “China Central Television (not 央视)”.

  7. not Jay

    Acronyms, numerals…? Y’all are way not patriotic enough! As we speak there are millions of kids being taught Engrish and flocking to imperialist bastions of corruption like not KFC and calling out “halloooo” in defiance.
    This has to stop! Instead of unpatriotically stopping for red lights (or any other imperialist traffic signs for that matter), why not keep going, plough into any foreign imperialist cars you see and clip anyone who dares yell “halloooo”… Boycott any internet sites of .cn domain and above all boycott imperialist not QQ, not Expo, not Better City Better Life. Alternatively, not drink so much imperialist coffee, even on monday…. Aaaaahhhh!!!!

  8. Josh

    I actually heard that Arabic numerals were in fact banned in favor of Chinese characters from use in media sources about a year ago, but I haven’t really watched TV — shit, television, sorry — in China since then to verify it. Anyone keep up?

  9. Jones

    This is going to make it really hard for them to use the internet when they have to stop using .com or .cn. Hell, they’ll be typing in pinyin, which is the hugest bastardization ever. That is, if you’re so sensitive that foreign things get under your skin that much.

    • Inst

      Hey, DNS is a shell on top of the IP system. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the CCP tried to force Chinese ISPs to subscribe to their own DNS system where the sites for the FLG, TI, and FT movements are not listed. Hell, to tell you the truth, it would probably serve Chinese internet users to have a CDNS service that supports Chinese character use as the current DNS system isn’t awfully conducive; see all the websites with homophonic numbers in them.

  10. What comes first in the cleansing of the Chinese populace; harmonisation, re-education, or cultural purification?

    Or we could just stick all three in the blender and move straight to indoctrination.

    Here’s a thought: does the USA officially exist anymore?

    • Kris78

      I don’t think it ever did. If I tell people I’m from the US they look at me blankly. Then, slowly, I’ll get a look of understanding as they reply, “Ohhhh, America…”

  11. Inst

    You do realize that Chinese is capable of forming Chinese-language abbreviations, right? For example, 北京大学 is abbreviated 北大. This Academie Francaise-style linguistic protectionism isn’t as absurd as you may think; eventually 2-3 character abbreviations will be selected and accepted for various Roman-alphabet abbreviations and us foreigners will be even more screwed over by Chinese’s lack of cognates and phonetic loan words.

  12. Of all cultural artifacts, perhaps language best speaks to values. The cliched examples being the number of words Inuits use to describe the various states of snow and ice or Arabs use to describe various kinds of swords. Chinese, since the dawning of the modern era, has been transformed, especially since the codification of simplified characters and font–left to right–alinement.

    Notwithstanding the joys of irony, I find the humor expressed in the above blog to be a bit disingenuous. When a culture appears to have lost its Dao, that is, is changing more rapidly than it can control and/or absorb, the first foray will be to standardize its language. In the US, check out the number of right-wing groups advocating making American-English its national language.

    Chinese, more than any other major language in the world, is perhaps the least adoptable to globalization, that is, the mixing of languages, as Chinese more than any other major world language best suits its historic bureaucratic aesthetic. Consequently, should we be surprised that it is the current bureaucrats that pressed the cultural panic button?

    IMHO, what Chinese is undergoing, is far more complex and interesting than irony can explicate.

  13. Sam

    When my British co-author painstakingly changed every occurrence of color to colour and organization to organisation I said to myself, OK, we were submitting to a UK conference, so be it. I’ve gone through much more fussier formatting rules from some trade journals, as if it makes a life and death difference if the author’s last name isn’t separated from the first name by a comma, or the cited paper title isn’t italicized. Whatever, when in Rome…

    So I couldn’t figure this bursts of sarcasm on a fairly harmless and even well-intended translation rule. Is it the ultra-nationalistic tone from the Chinese language cops that particularly irritates? If so address that tone and its potential danger then. I believe you have seen much worse and cheesier things in China than that. How about start with Hu Jintao’s “there will be new homes…” show? I’d be the first to applaud you.

    But why waste your time distorting into absurdity a potentially effective measure to improve/promote sino-foreign understanding and communication? Can’t you see hardly any of your arguments against it can hold the water? Wouldn’t it be better off if CCTV eventually comes up with a better Chinese acronym for NBA than 美国职业篮球联赛? With the time complaining you couldn’t figure out 丘吉尔 refers to Churchill due to the absurd Chinese name translation rules, how about pull out the dictionary and teach your students that Confucius means 孔子 instead of a massive confusion? And who’s 常凯申 again?

    I guess I’m done with my part of the rant. Now let me try to bring out the point: Chinese may have done quite a lot of right things for the wrong reasons (e.g., family planning, Hu Kou, or even the Korean War, IMHO), or vice versa (e.g., google). If you spot one, your criticism needs to be right on, otherwise your arguments could be massively discounted in the Chinese eyes.

    But if you still prefer the sarcasm, how about try a different one? Ever heard about the story of “够淫荡”? Google it.

    • King Tubby

      Sam Korean War. Right thing for the wrong reasons. Can you explain this one please.

    • “If you spot one, your criticism needs to be right on, otherwise your arguments could be massively discounted in the Chinese eyes.”

      Do I detect the whiff of smouldering nationalism?

      • Sam

        Yeah, and from my ultra-nationalist background I know labeling people is the best tactic to win an argument, be it the capitalist-roader, 50 center, or the nationalist.

  14. LongTian

    So does this mean that Chinese are no longer allowed to transliterate English words? Awesome! In for a penny, in for a pound. I’m so tired of teaching people how to say Avatar. No, there is no N. No, there is no D. No, there is no F.

    • Inst

      化身, from the introduction of Buddhism.

      Would introduce a Buddhist tinge, but would also emphasize an interesting layer of the movie. The human from an Anglo-saxon military-industrial JV is a god who incarnates among the tribals. Would be interesting to highlight that level of occident-everything-else relationships… the way I interpret world-systems theory is by imposing my inferior understanding of Indian cosmology, with daevas, humans, and ashuras…

  15. I don’t agree with this post, as I already explained in previous comments. The real names for CCTV, NPC, or SARFT are 中央台, 人大 or 广播电影电视总局. The names you know are only the translation into English. You have all the right to use them in your language, but the Chinese also have the right to use their own. So yes, it IS “not CCTV”.

    This is the same as Spain saying “EEUU” for the USA or Americans saying USSR for what was the CCCP (SSSR). Different languages have different words and abbreviations, I don’t see why this is so difficult to get.

    To those who are so outraged because the Chinese want to say “NBA” in characters ( “a 100% American word, how dare they!!”) I would point out that there is nothing strange in that. Chinese writing NBA in characters is not more outrageous than Americans writing NPC in latin letters instead of the original abbreviation 人大 (Renda).

    The real argument against the “sinification” of NBA or F1 is the extended use of the terms already popularized by Chinese TVs beforehand. I certainly don’t think it is a good idea to change that again, just for practical reasons.

    But that same argument also justifies that new measures are taken to standardize the language on TV.
    TV today has an enormous impact on the language, and standardization is a common and understandable practice in many countries.

    The regulations have been very lax these last years and it is true that young people have got used to say CCTV (because it was the channel’s logo) instead of the 中央台 their parents grew with. This is not necessarily true of most TV channels.

    Now the Chinese want to tighten a bit the regulations to avoid turning mandarin into a carnival of English words, and I don’t see what is the problem. It is in any case entirely a Chinese decision whether they should use those abbreviations or not.

    I smell a lot of American arrogance around here. I agree there is a lot to criticize in the initiative and the way it has been implemented. But I just think you are criticizing it for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to write too much here but if you want to know where I am coming from, you can see it here

    • Actually, I pretty much agree with you. Not sure where the rant came from. I am in no way outraged that the government would want to standardize usage of terminology; I said so in the first post in this series.

      To you and other commenters – yes, I am aware that Chinese has abbreviated terms. Duh. It doesn’t matter if I use them or their English equivalents. The folks in the video were using/trying to use “NBA,” not me.

      I found those video clips highly amusing and the implementation of all this funny as hell, as have many other Netizens in China. That’s the main reason I posted this third time.

      In addition to the lame roll-out, though, I do find the “holier-than-thou” comments from nationalists and cultural purists insipid. Again, standardization is fine, but calls for cultural purity strike me as way over the top.

      I dislike nationalism, and I definitely hate people who talk about racial purity. “Cultural purity” sounds as if it’s somewhere in between the two, and not at all a good thing.

      • The NBA video was funny. And sure I see where you are coming from, it’s good material for a rant.

        It’s just sometimes I feel so completely surrounded by Americans in the China-internet that I feel the need to shout out :)

        • That’s a dangerous stereotype. I hate to break this to you, but most Americans on the China scene are the reasonable ones! If US expats bother you, then God forbid you ever actually go to the US. Believe me, you will end up picking up the nearest firearm (usually w/in a radius of 3-5 meters from any person at any time) and putting yourself down. It will not be a pretty scene.

          • B-real

            I hate to agree but I do on that 1. We are all not Americans ( I am) and we don’t all have the same views. Thank you for letting Julen know. Everybody likes to point the finger to America because we speak english. What about the other english speaking nationals?

          • LongTian

            Not to mention that due to America’s history of being a melting pot and having to cope with living next door to someone of a different race, Americans on the net are much less tolerant of racism than others, from what I’ve seen. I was shocked when I joined Aussie-dominated forums.

          • @Stan and all the others who replied behind:

            Don’t get me wrong, my intention was not to slam Americans, I know in some ways they can be more open than Europeans. But in terms of language, for obvious reasons I think we understand better what is to be a non-English speaker in the World.

            Regarding the “surrounded by Americans” bit, I didn’t mean this as some sort of sarcasm. I mean it literally: I am surrounded by Americans. Practically 100% of the English China bloggers I read are Americans, you guys just don’t realize to what extent the China-internet is an American joint.

            As an outsider there are some moments when I feel there is a need for a different point of view, and I like to raise my voice, that’s all. I hope it is useful.

          • Sam

            …for obvious reasons I think we understand better what is to be a non-English speaker in the World…

            Unshamefully revealing my ultra-nationalistic color, I’m expanding this point beyond the language issue. Behaving differently from what the “international community” (I think in the US this usually means the few street blocks in DC) expects you to behave is quite a risky thing to do. Even the ultra-nationalistic Mr. Huang Youyi had to cover his rear with 国际通用惯例 (the international general practice) by saying “国际上通用惯例是把外来语变成自己的语言吸纳进来,而不是生搬硬套地直接嵌入”, how far can non-American ultra-nationalism goes?

          • Jones

            Not every one of us are American. I’m a Texan.

    • King Tubby

      I smell a lot of American arrogance around here.

      It could be a valuable exercise to actually survey all readers and posters as to their nationality.

      This China-US axis sometimes reduces discussion to an exercise of finger pointing. Other non-China non-US views do Exist, but they are usually flattened into angry bi-polar exchanges.

      Some type of graphic understanding of readers/posters could actually lead people towards greater self-reflection when scribbling. Not sure of this suggestion, but welcome any comments. Oh yes, there is the maturity of the reader/poster factor…..

  16. Actually an acronym is when a new word is formed from the letters of a longer phrase; hence: NASA, Scuba, Nabisco. FBI and NBA are just abbreviations.
    One aspect that has yet been mentioned is the field of chemistry. Are chemical formulas now to be banned? This is an interesting response from a society that tends to conflate its nationality with its ethnicity and language. Exactly what does one mean when saying Chinese? I cannot help but thinking that this is in some way related to how the language in mainland China is becoming more distanced that in Hong Kong and Taiwan, even in Singapore. I can recall seeing a posting somewhere to show how Taiwanese advertisers even make compound words with Roman letters and TCC. Wa sai! And how many of of have not seen a certain profanity turned into a euphemism with the letter B in place of a character that many Chinese refuse to write?

    • LongTian

      The chemistry comment just made my day. I’ve thought of this topic a few times recently on the bus, since there are two billboards for a chemical company in Dalian on the route. The billboard lists all of their products, and I can’t even imagine how small the text would be if they wrote all the abbreviations in Chinese. Even simple abbreviations like PVC would probably be monsters.

      • At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I reply to this oh so funny comment. I happen to work in the chemical business in China, in particular with organics and polymers such as: PVC, PP, PE, Ethylene, etc.

        There is no problem with those terms in Chinese, they all have commonly used Chinese names, in particular: 聚氯乙烯,聚丙烯, 聚乙烯,乙烯, etc. These names are really short, well known and easy to use. In some cases like PP and PVC the English abb. name is also used in commercial situations, but I would say less than the Chinese one.

        I used to complain a lot myself when I had to study all the table of the chemical elements (each of them has a distinct character in Chinese!!, most invented in the 20th century!!) but in the end it works out relatively easy.

        Of course, a different thing is in formulas, like H2SO4, where the chemistry international (not English) symbols are used, like in every country. But the example you give PVC is not a formula, it is just a commercial abbreviation.

        It would be so nice if people on the internet knew what they are f…ing talking about before commenting.

        End rant.

        • Is it really that case that CCTV is barred from only using English abbreviations while ‘international’ ones are still allowed? I tend to think that the NBA is still called the NBA in Deutschland. The complaint seems to be, as you pointedly explain, the use of Latin letters in lieu of English characters, underlying an anxiety about the utility of Chinese characters in the modern world.
          Btw, what does one do in Chinese for newly discovered/created elements? Are you telling me there is a special Chinese character for each REE? madness…

          • There are no more REEs being discovered as far as I know. Could be wrong, but the table of elements looks just the same today as when I studied it 20 y ago.

            Regarding the abbreviations: No idea. Has anyone even seen the original note sent by the government?

        • LongTian

          If you had actually read my comment before ranting, you would have noticed that I did in fact say “abbreviation”, and never mentioned the word formula. I’d like to clarify, however, that I didn’t know the Chinese terms for various polymers, and was only speculating that some of them may have been long. Personally, I STILL don’t see why you ranted. I guess I touched a nerve somewhere related to your job with my speculative post.

Continuing the Discussion