Someone Call a Language Cop! China’s New War on English

With more and more publications mixing Chinese with English, measures and regulations should be adopted to avoid English invading Chinese, suggested Huang Youyi, director of the China International Publishing Group. “If we don’t pay attention and don’t take measures to stop the expansion of mingling Chinese and English, Chinese won’t be a pure language in a couple of years,” said Huang[.]

“In the long run, Chinese will lose its role as an independent linguistic system for passing on information and expressing human feelings.” Huang was referring to a popular phenomenon in China, in which English words are interwoven in articles and conversations. (China Daily)

Is Chinese under fire? Should something be done about it? Should China emulate French or Québécois language laws?

OK, I think we can all agree that China should not study the French on this issue, and as far as that language they speak in Québéc is concerned, well, best to leave that alone. All that aside, certainly the practices bemoaned by Huang are commonplace. Pick up any scholarly article on trade, for example, and you will definitely find it chock full of “English” acronyms, such as WTO, UN, ASEAN and GATT. To be completely accurate, these are acronyms that use Roman letters, and not English words per se, but close enough.

A Glimpse of China's Apocalyptic Future?

Leaving aside the greater issue, what about this use of acronyms? Unfortunately, these shortcuts are really useful for technical subjects, such as science, trade, law and international relations. Who wants to write “the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade” when “GATT” will suffice? We all have carpal tunnel syndrome (or Blackberry thumbs) at this point, so we desperately need to pace ourselves at the keyboard.

Therefore it makes sense to use “WTO,” three keystrokes, instead of “世界贸易组织,” six keystrokes (actually more than six, once you factor in a menu-driven Chinese character input system). We’re all busy, Mr. Huang, give us a break here! When commonly accepted nicknames and shortcuts exist in Chinese, then absolutely, let’s use them. But if we are going to replace a three-letter acronym with a long, formal name, count me out.

Turning to the use of English names, let’s see what Huang’s criticism is here:

Clarifying his stance, Huang said he was not only referring to the use of technical terms, but to the appearance of English names, places, people and companies in newspapers and other printed publications.

Recommending that translations be used instead, he said: “You rarely see Chinese characters in any English newspaper. They use pinyin, instead of Chinese characters.

“I’m not against using borrowed words,” he added, “but they must be translated, either by their sounds or their meaning, into our native language, which is Chinese characters, or else Chinese have to learn English to understand what they read.”

Huang has logic and the principle of reciprocity on his side. Foreign publications do not use Chinese characters, so Chinese publications should not use Roman letters. Case closed?

Well, to be fair, pinyin is not English. It is still Chinese, just a different way of expressing the language on paper. It certainly cuts away all the history and artistic nature of Chinese characters, but it is still a way of conveying the Chinese language. For example, when an English publication includes the name “Hu Jintao,” that is not English, it is not a translation. In comparison, Jackie Chan’s first name is English.

But still, Huang has a fair point that foreign names should be translated into Chinese. I have no problem with that because, as Huang said, not everyone in this country is familiar with English. An article about U.S. politics, for example, can use “奥巴马” instead of “Obama.” As long as there is an agreement on the translation, then fine.

However, Huang goes further, identifying three initiatives needed to keep the language pure:

  1. All documents and speeches of top government officials should be written in pure Chinese, without the use of GDP, WTO or CPI.
  2. A law or regulation should be made as a guideline for the use of foreign words in publications.
  3. A national translation committee should be organized to translate foreign names and technical terms, which can then be published on a website.

Government documents? Absolutely, keep them as pure as driven snow. Translation website to keep track of foreign names and technical terms? Sounds useful, go for it. But a new law on how one is supposed to use foreign words in publications? A bit too Orwellian for me. Thanks, but no thanks.

Huang finally tips his hand with this sentence:

Acknowledging that people increasingly like to mingle languages, Huang said:”Some of our people mistake using foreign words as being open minded and international. I don’t think so.

I think I see what’s going on here. All those publications and websites that sprinkle in English to sound more sophisticated — those just piss him off. Those arrogant, English-speaking, upper class folks should not lord their English skills over the rest of the population.

Again, I am sympathetic to Huang’s discomfort. A similar tradition existed in the U.S. until recently. Substitute French or Latin, and you had a foreign language being used by the upper crust to signal their status. And yes, the same thing is going on here with respect to English by Chinese 小资 types (sort of like “yuppie,” but for a better definition, see the now-canonical post on the subject by Elliott Ng).

Huang feels threatened. I get it. English has flooded into China in recent years, while Chinese is very slowly filtering out to the rest of world. Will there ever be a balance sufficient to make Huang comfortable? Has Huang ever seen Firefly/Serenity? Doubtful. He’s probably not a big Joss Whedon fan.

Chinese In Outer Space

The use of English does not mean that Chinese people lack confidence in their language. Using English can be very efficient and useful, and at worst is just a cool thing to do that shows off your knowledge and education. Nothing wrong with that. Expats do it all the time with the gratuitous use of Chinese, particularly when they visit home and in client meetings. It can be annoying, but it’s nothing I would outlaw by fiat.

I’m willing to meet Huang halfway on this one. Let’s make sure that translation is standardized and make sure that government publications only use Chinese. But please, don’t take it further than that, and if possible, be lenient on those acronyms. Without those, there is absolutely no way I’d ever be able to slog my way through anything written in Chinese about economics or trade.


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  1. Jones

    Damn Westerners are taking our virgins’ language!

  2. Max

    大惊小怪。All countries have their language purists. My native language is German, and it appals me every time when some Germans “protest” against the “anglicizing of our mother tongue”. You’ll find that kind of books right next to the books complaining that “the youth nowadays simply doesn’t use correct grammar anymore!”.
    However, in most countries these people are rightly ignored. I suspect it’ll be just the same in China.

  3. SteveLaudig

    This official’s argument is with the efficiency of an alphabet based written language. So, like all who argue against reality, is probably doomed to failure. But it could be fun to watch. Pull up a chair, grab some popcorn [or peppery chicken feet] and get comfortable.

  4. H.L. Mencken teaches us that language tends to mirror the course of less resistance in communications, changes bottom up, and is virtually uncontrollable.

    As for pinyin, “ma” is not “pinyin” until a tone is added. Consequently, my dearest wish is that English, which has the flexibility, should incorporate true pinyin into the language. As it is, many Americans probably wonder why Chinese call their mothers horses or their hemp mothers.

    • Josh

      I don’t think many Americans know what horse is in Chinese.

      Semantics, nothing more.

      • But this can change quickly. If the political situation takes a turn for the (insert calamitous/fortuitous outcome).

        Americans might be forced to go into Chinese immersion, perhaps like a time when certain American businesspeople and academics thought that learning Japanese was the trend of the future in the immediate pre-Cold War ending phase.

  5. Jay (a different one)

    Actually, I’ve been hearing (and getting somewhat miffed about) a trend of Chinese refusing to speak Chinese and subject me to their Engrish. Good thing I’m not French or I would really be offended… Guest or not, I claim the right to speak Chinese in China. It has gotten to the point where I simply refuse to understand what the chao they are saying and ask in Chinese what they’re on about.
    The only time I refuse to understand Chinese is when some 250 tries to tell me I can’t park there or not do something or other. In case they then try English, I of course only speak French or German or so (depends on my mood), make some hissing noise, wave my hands, and drive/walk on.

    • Ha ha. That’s not a new trend. I’ve seen that for 10+ years. You want to practice Chinese, but other people have a different agenda and want to capitalize on your presence.

      I used to work with a woman from NZ who insisted on speaking Chinese with staff. They wanted to practice their English. Bad blood ensued. Turned into an ugly situation.

      • We have that kind of situation here all the time. The only problem as Jay (a different one) notes is that their English sucks balls and you have a higher chance of getting to your conversational destination with them in Putonghua than they do in English.

        I tell Czechs: you want to practice your English, go to school or go travelling.

    • I don’t know what a “250” is — but I LoL’d hard nevertheless.

      I experience similar situations up here in Prague, when Czechs looks at my black hair, Iberian looks, and fashion sense (I am not Italian, Greek, nor Spanish incidentally) and automatically presume that I don’t speak their impossible vernacular and launch headlong into explaining something to me in English. I also find it a bit insulting (even though some Czechs might say they were trying to be polite so that I’d understand). Worse is when the street beggars bypass harassing the clearly-blonde blue-eyed locals for spare change, but “pounce” on me the instant I cross their path. I shout back at them in Czech with a very stern face: “It’s because I have black hair that you approached me, right?” To this day, I haven’t yet received a “yes” response, but we all know the bitter truth. ;-) Post-Commies don’t like to be called out for their dripping racial sentiments.

      I do like your technique though! I’ve only dabbled with the “what are you on about?” in Czech before, but I will try it again soon. Awesome!

  6. I guess some resistance against the linguistic contamination of a dominant culture is quite understandable and to a lesser degree perhaps even justifiable. Still in most cases it is useless. Many european languages nowadays are filled with all kinds of anglicisms, and not any law is able to effectively stop this. Language is not fit to be restricted by legislation, nor does it need to be. It will simply change and adapt to the needs of the latest generation. When many foreign words are incorporated into other languages, language enthusiasts and purists often look down on this phenomenon, terming such neologisms (depending on the importing language) as Denglisch, Franglais, Chinglish etc. Such conservative views are mostly based on cultural tradition, or converted nationalism. In my view if there are any problems on a communicative scale, they should be addressed on an educational level. Meanwhile it is up to the people really. In these days of globalisation, the terms of communication can hardly be introduced from above, nor can they be dictated by authorities. After all, not only language, but even its meaning is primarily determined by it’s speaker. For example, there are expressions in languages other than English which were borrowed from English but are used in a way other English speakers would not readily recognize or understand. Thus it took me a while before I figured out what ‘river crab’ really meant, as opposed to its original meaning. Some call this pseudo-anglicism. I say it only shows the organic beauty, the versatility, the fertility of language. It doesn’t need to be told what to do. It has a mind of his own. It is alive.

  7. Sam

    Therefore it makes sense to use “WTO,” three keystrokes, instead of “世界贸易组织,” six keystrokes (actually more than six, once you factor in a menu-driven Chinese character input system).

    A fair comparison would be between “世界贸易组织” and “World Trade Organization”, or between “WTO” and “世贸”, or “ASEAN” and “东盟”. And if you also factor in the cumbersome Chinese/English input method shifting (which at times calls for the use of the mouse) the keystroke saving of using English is actually quite minimum.

    More importantly, for the vast majority of Chinese who have not had sufficient English education, the mixing of English may block the understanding. They can’t make sense of WTO or WOT or VAT or whatever, but 世贸 and 东盟 is quite obvious.

    • Uln

      I was going to do the same comment. WTO is an English abbreviation, in Spanish it is OMC, and in many other languages it is different. The Chinese usually call it 世贸, which is much easier for them to pronounce and to retain.

      Similarly, for most commonly used long names there are character abbreviations that are very much in use. A different thing is complex technical terms like GDP, I see a lot of those used in economic news, perhaps because most people who can understand them are used to seeing them written like that.

      I already wrote about this, and I definitely think that mandarin needs to use more latin letters rather than less. But IMO this should be used mostly to transcribe foreign names of people and places, avoiding the weird character phonetic approximations.

      • As I said in the post, I have no problem with Chinese nicknames, just so long as there is common agreement on the abbreviation. Not sure if there is a need, like the gov’t guy suggested, for a government body to confirm that “世贸” is acceptable usage, though.

        As for other foreign organizations, I am reminded of the IP organization AIPPI. Most people don’t think about what the acronym stands for unless they are asked, and for English speakers, most of the time the acronym they use is based on English words. In the case of AIPPI, the acronym is based on French, and so whenever you ask an English speaker what the acronym means, they get flustered and hilarity ensues. Heh heh.

        • Now that you mention it, I seem to hear more 世贸组织 rather than 世贸. I don’t know for this case in particular, but in general these kind of abbreviations are pretty standardized and they are in the dictionary.

          The thing with the AIPPI is similar to GDP and other more complex terms: it is mostly specialists that use them, and they probably saw it first in international publications and learnt it that way before the Chinese form became standard. I completely support the use of English abbreviations in these cases, it makes it much easier for Chinese students to communicate and read Western material.

          In my opinion the boundary should be set between names frequently used by non-specialists and names only used by specialists. Although admittedly GDP is right there in the border case.

          • Sam

            So what’s the purpose of the translation? Is it to make the term understandable in the language being translated or make it sounds nice for the bilinguals?

            To make it understandable in the targeting language, you’ll have to consider how new terms are formed in that language. Chinese language usually doesn’t just make up new terms (e.g., 熵, hell who knows what that means), instead trying to make sense out of it, e.g., 火车,汽车,火柴,计算机, etc. The positive side effect of such translations is that they bring down the learning curve in an already complicated language. The Latin jargon acronyms makes absolutely no sense to the average Wang and Li in the first place. Keep repeating them may eventually bring in all kinds of weird associations like 鸡的屁 or 狗的屁, or 镭射 which has nothing to do with either radium or radiation but nevertheless brings fear among people of radiation. Is that what you want for a translation?

            There’s indeed a science and technology term translation standardization committee, which is why we use 激光 for laser and 因特网 for the Internet. I guess they’ve just been lazy on GDP, although 国民生产总值 is indeed the standard translation for Gross Domestic Product.

            As for the translation of the names of human and location, I think there’s a consensus to make it sounds foreign. Since phonetically many are indeed much longer than a Chinese name, they become difficult after the transcription. However I don’t think it becomes worse than simply use their Latin form. Imagine a 50-year-old with only a high school education trying to differentiate Democritus and Damocles.

  8. Alex Taggart

    Would I be correct in saying that this works both ways?

    English has loan words from Chinese too. Whilst right now, they are comparatively few, it is conceivable that with an increase in interaction with China, we could end up with a lot more Chinese words in our everyday lexicon.

    So, Mr Huang, no need to be so gung-ho (工好) about this. Phrases like ‘long time no see’ and (I think…correct me if I’m wrong…) ‘canteen’ came out of a brief period of interaction with China.

    The fact is, some languages are more adept at expressing certain concepts, and sometimes they’re just fun to say.

    Oh, and correct immediately your erroneous spelling of ‘standardised’, splittist!

    • Not to forget kuh li (coolie). :-)

    • Sam

      Actually it’s not both ways. English does loan the term gung-ho but also transform it into Latin spelling. Imagine how difficult it would be to mix Han Zi with English, e.g., “So, Mr Huang, no need to be so 工好 about this. ”

      For someone who has never learned Han Zi, this sentence becomes a puzzle. That’s exactly what Mr. Huang did not want to see.

      Apparently Mr. Huang had no objection of loaning foreign terms. His main objection is to just embed the term into Chinese language as is:


      • Syz

        Sam, glad you got this quote because it makes a good point. While I’m not an enormous fan of hanzi in the abstract (because of inefficiencies), in this case it seems right of Huang to advocate bringing foreign words into the system. Sure, I guess you could pinyinify them, but even that leaves out lots of people over 60 who never learned Pinyin. And if you just bring in a word in its native romanization, there’s no way for regular Chinese to have any idea how to pronounce it. Sure, some folks are unhappy with the way a foreign word gets “butchered” when put into hanzi, but it’s not really butchered, it’s just put into the native phonemic system. There are loads of other issues that Stan and other commenters have brought up, but if this is mostly a debate about whether to represent foreign borrowings in native script and phonemes, count me as a supporter.

  9. Syz

    Nice article, Stan. Random q: did you happen to come across the hanzi for Huang Youyi? I was going to try to follow the guy around on the internets to see what else he says, but my poor bilingual search skills are apparently not enough to find his name in Chinese. Embarrassing. Any help appreciated.

  10. Syz

    Sam, thanks for the name and link!

  11. shidawei

    Uh oh, Huang Youyi! Here they come, a few points:

    1) Breaking News: languages change over time. My question is, when was Chinese “pure,” exactly? From turtle shells and lamb bones onward? Or did the “purity” begin with the unification of the writing system two thousand years ago?

    2) Is the simplified system of Chinese less “pure” than the traditional system? For years, people in Taiwan have claimed an upper hand in this area, as they have retained much more ‘original’ meaning in terms of writing and understanding characters more readily (hell, my philosophy teacher in Beijing told me that this was his own view, and he was a Mainlander! Granted, a philosophy prof. as well, but nonetheless). This brings me to my last two points:

    3) If the traditional system is more “pure” (and it must be, if Huang’s argument is that change of language = less pure), then isn’t it ironic that the most ‘renegade province’ has retained the more “pure” culture? If I am wrong about Huang’s Language Equation, and it is only English that ‘taints’ Chinese, then Huang is nothing more than a xenophobic, paranoid racist.

    4) And the ultimate burn: Hong Kong! The Fragrant Harbour! Notice the British spelling for “Harbour”? Wait a minute: they still use the traditional writing system in Hong Kong! Could this possibly mean that a more “pure” version of Chinese was retained… UNDER THE RULE OF OPPRESSIVE FOREIGNERS!?

    I hope that my last two, more sarcastic responses have highlighted some of the stupidity surrounding all of these emotional responses to something that is only natural: languages evolve.

    Yes, emotions are natural, too, but when it comes down to it, why are they even using English acronyms in the first place when the audience is Chinese? Perhaps it is due to the fact that English just so happens to be the world’s most ‘standard’ language – if I am traveling in China from Israel, and must ask a question of my French travel buddy, which language do you think we’ll speak? Mandarin? Possibly: it’s becoming more popular, and that’s awesome. But the default so far is English.

    The sooner many Chinese people relinquish the archaic notion that any ‘foreign’ element touching their nation means a corrosion of its culture, the sooner China will sincerely be able to “reform and open,” thus allowing their full potential to contribute to world culture and society as a whole.

    Until then, sure: make a database of English acronyms and their Chinese equivalents. The two languages are somewhat awkward to translate back and forth, so this makes sense for domestic publications and for anyone who simply prefers Chinese, for whatever reason. It’s an extra step, but if it’s inside China, it’s the call of the Chinese people (read: government), so have at it. But at the same time, China, do yourself a favor and realize that the days of the Great Wall keeping foreigners out are over: we view the wall as more of a challenge, anyway.


  12. Ben Tuck

    Many U.S. newspapers, media outlets don’t have the proper printing presses to print Chinese characters. Some press outlets might not have the correct patches to properly display or type Chinese characters. Thus Huang’s point about the U.S. not using Chinese characters is moot because in some cases they cannot. With regards to using Chinese characters instead of a western name, this carries the dangers of not being understood. Western names when phoneticized into Chinese often leave out syllables. Some vowel Dipthongs and “th” sounds aren’t present in Mandarin Chinese. It is almost painful sometimes to read a 5 or 6 character sinicized Russian name. In addition many internet search for Sinicized names come up fruitless, nor are they included in dictionaries, print or online. I remember having a political discussion in China with only two years of Chinese under my belt and not understanding who someone was talking about when they said Qiujie’er (Winston Churchhill). I actually advocate the reverse, that any Chinese publication that has a western audience attempt to put the western names in parenthesis next to the Chinese characters.

  13. kevinw

    already so many loanwords in the pure chinese…shehui (society), bingjilin (ice cream), luoji (logic), pijiu (beer)…hundreds of them at least without even straining that even trying to pretend that chinese is “pure” is ludicrous.

    one more brick in the chinese wall of jingoism. remember when chinese insisted that they evolved apart from the rest of humanity and never originated in africa? my students still insist on such.

    remember when the chinese language developed inisolation without any influence from “outside” sources despite a steady stream of laowai for millenia?

    this is just more of the, the fluffing of the mythical chinese exceptionalism.

  14. “[…]and as far as that language they speak in Québéc [sic] is concerned, well, best to leave that alone.”

    What is that supposed to mean? What about the language you speak, which, taking a glimpse at your resume, I assume is American English. Hasn’t English taken a different path in its evolution from British English? And what about Australian English or even Canadian English that still retains some slight discrepancies in comparison to the English spoken in the U.S.? What about Latin American Spanish and Portuguese that evolved much more liberally than French did in Québec? Are we all wrong? Are all our languages spoken in the Americas just bastardized versions of their “pure” original european forms? If you think so, then you better start learning standard Oxford English before you diss Québécois French :-P

    Sorry, I know this is a thread about China, and you only mentioned Québec in two sentences, and one big picture, but I would think that as inhabitants of the same land, with our shared history, we should be more understanding of each other.

    I personnally prefer North American English over European or Australian English, as much as I prefer Montréal French over Parisian French and Mainland Standard Mandarin over Taiwanese Mandarin. But that’s just a matter of personal appreciation. There is no logical best dialect.

    Hey! You made a fenqing out of me, and I’m not even Chinese! Congratulations!

  15. Laurence

    I agree with Alex. It’s not about maintaining the purity of the language, which is impossible, is non-existant and is not even desirable. Languages are enriched with foreign words under the influence of neighboring countries or foreign trade partners, etc., and often in the case of minorities or populations that are in close proximity with a “more dominant” nation. What’s been occurring in the past 30 years or so, however, is a serious imbalance wherein just about every country that is participating in the globalization of trade, commerce and other activities (which is quite amazing and awesome in many ways) is being heavily influenced, linguistically, by American English. I love the US, but it’s kind of strange how unilateral this has become. Some Americans complain about the influence of Spanish on their country which is relatively insignificant considering the minority status of Latinos in the US and not an actual “threat” to the language or culture. And what about China? This is a massive country that shares no border with an anglophone country. How in the world are they being so influenced (just like others in Europe and elsewhere)? Either through trends, which are fleeting in nature, or through a more deep-seated tendency to simply replace existing words with English ones or to not even bother considering translating simple concepts into their own language. Of course it’s so much easier to just take a foreign word and use it your own language, but how simplicistic! I understand that not everything is translatable, but most things are. But why put a minimal amount of effort into translating different words when you can just take them at face value and not bother?! Yes regressing is much easier… But that’s not how the world made it this far, is it? Kinda lazy, don’t you think?
    And please leave Quebec alone. They have enough problems without ignorant people meddling. Or read a book or something before rambling so insignificantly… Might help!

  16. mona

    I love these quirky terms, like the ‘er bai wu’. But really, it has so many meanings! My mum uses it all the time.

  17. mona

    On a slight tangent – having learned to read traditional Chinese characters since I was a child, simplified characters just gives me such a headache! I remember in Mandarin class, it would make a lot of sense because of what the word is supposed to ‘look like’ (ex. the word ‘forest’ would consist of 3 woods since there a lot of trees in a forest. Or the word ‘ask’ would be a mouth inside a door because you needed to go to someone’s house to ask them…haha oh the methods that children learn!) But I must say, I prefer pinyin much more than zhuyin since it’s so similar to English.

  18. ChrisProvost

    Stan, I completely agree with Director Huang Youyi’s assessment of the danger to Chinese language, identity and sociocultural fabric. The evidence is in other natural languages that have been extincted in the Americas alone, as a result of the invasion of words from foreign languages – mostly but not limited to European languages – and modern English is at the forefront. Chris Provost

Continuing the Discussion