Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why Do Analysts Keep Talking Nonsense About Chinese Words?

Mistaken notions of how characters work produce bad takes.

By , a researcher based in Washington.
A Long March 2F rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft for China's first crewed mission to its new space station, sits on a launch pad encased in a shield, behind the Chinese characters for China, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert in northwestern China on June 16.
A Long March 2F rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft for China's first crewed mission to its new space station, sits on a launch pad encased in a shield, behind the Chinese characters for China, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert in northwestern China on June 16. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

Imagine that you are cornered at a party when the topic of race comes up. Your interlocutor tells you that, in the English language, “race” can refer to both a competition wherein one tries to outrun the others and a visually identifiable group of people sharing common ancestry. It is no wonder that racism has been such an intractable issue in the Anglosphere; the very word embodies a sense of competition among different peoples.

You quickly spot a friend on the other side of the room because you understand using a literal reading of a vocabulary item to explain the origins, evolution, and persistence of racism in the Anglosphere is completely ridiculous.

Imagine that you are cornered at a party when the topic of race comes up. Your interlocutor tells you that, in the English language, “race” can refer to both a competition wherein one tries to outrun the others and a visually identifiable group of people sharing common ancestry. It is no wonder that racism has been such an intractable issue in the Anglosphere; the very word embodies a sense of competition among different peoples.

You quickly spot a friend on the other side of the room because you understand using a literal reading of a vocabulary item to explain the origins, evolution, and persistence of racism in the Anglosphere is completely ridiculous.

For Chinese speakers, however, this is a frustratingly common experience. The sheer novelty and exoticism of a character-based Eastern language to most English readers mean these spurious dissections of Chinese words can easily be passed off as impressive sociolinguistic insight.

The nature of characters themselves, and the common but wrong idea that they’re pictographs, makes this tempting. But most characters in Chinese consist of two—or more—elements: a semantic component that relates to the meaning of the word and a phonetic one that indicates how it sounds. That phonetic component has no relationship to its meaning. The word for “mother,” for instance, contains “horse” because the word for horse is ma and so (pronounced slightly differently) is the word for mother.

Throw in that many components have multiple meanings, and you get mistakes like claiming that a penguin is a “business goose.” (The component actually means “stand up”; it’s a tippy-toe goose.) On top of that, most words are made up of multiple characters, for a range of reasons.

None of this stops glib foreign analysts from making grand declarations about the meaning of Chinese words based on entirely false linguistic premises with a heavy splash of Orientalism. I just call it phrenology for words.

Phrenology was a pseudoscientific theory in the 19th and early 20th centuries holding that the shape and structure of one’s head—and by extension, brain—reliably reflected intellectual, moral, and behavioral traits. It was incredibly popular in the United States for decades, even gifting us words like “highbrow.” (People with higher foreheads were more intelligent than the low-browed, according to phrenologists.)

Phrenology for words, like the phrenology of the past, examines the mystic structure of characters and words themselves in an attempt to extract wider political and philosophical meaning. It often smacks of Orientalism, with proponents implicitly positing that the character-based languages of the East operate on some deeper, meta-semantic level that appears inscrutable in contrast to the logic of alphabet-based languages in the West.

In an article on One Belt, One Road (now officially translated as the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI), the Economist reiterates an argument by the China scholar Eyck Freymann based on the infrastructure policy’s four-character Chinese name. The Chinese name 一带一路 (literally, “one belt, one road”) resembles many other four-character phrases, such as 一心一意 (“one heart, one soul,” i.e., wholeheartedly) and 一夫一妻 (“one husband, one wife,” i.e., monogamy). The Economist notes that four-character phrases “are common in Chinese and imply balance, harmony, and wholeness.”

The magazine further surmises that the balanced, harmonious wholeness of One Belt, One Road “would carry echoes of the ancient concept of tianxia (literally, “all under heaven”), by which emperors ruled,” to the Chinese ear. Using this tenuous link, Freymann and the Economist argue that the switch from One Belt, One Road to BRI was not just because the former is clunky in English but because China is attempting to tone down the fanfare over its ambitious return to historical preeminence and conceal its true power.

Four-character phrases are indeed far from rare in Chinese, but most of them are anything but mystical.

I try to go to the dentist 一年一次 (“one year, one time,” i.e., annually). One time on vacation, a taxi driver told me, unsolicited, that marriage was just 一男一女 (“one man, one woman”), which felt a little bit pointed. I’ve seen a busy fishmonger limit customers by writing 一人一条 (“one person, one fish”) on a chalkboard. Perhaps One Belt, One Road is mimicking these phrases, too?

English draws heavily from foreign words in the construction of neologisms. Thus, we have “telephone,” the combination of the Greek words for “far” and “sound,” instead of the Chinese 电话, literally “electric” plus “speech.” (The word was actually coined by the Japanese and then re-borrowed into Chinese.) People seem to assume that since the two morphemes 电 and 话 are common words encountered in normal context (unlike tele and phone), then Chinese people surely must be reading them literally.

But that is not how people parse language, unless you’re the kind of person who refuses to hire a babysitter for fear of crushing your precious child.

Take the word for “compatriot,” 同胞, used by mainland Chinese (in a way sometimes considered rather patronizing) to refer to Taiwanese people. The word is literally the combination of “same” and “placenta, womb.” On this basis, Conal Boyce of Century College argues in the peer-reviewed Journal of Political Risk that the term constitutes “further evidence of a psychic illness that is built into the very bedrock of the culture, so that all Chinese are joined at the hip by a shared Same‑Womb fetish that underpins their We‑Chinese fixation.”

Another common example is for “safety” or “security,” 安全. The word is composed of the characters for “peace” and “total, complete.” David Shambaugh in his book China Goes Global: The Partial Power translates the term as “complete tranquility,” which helps us understand why China apparently views security “in more comprehensive terms” than others. The very concept and word rendered in Chinese, he writes, say “more about China’s internal order than external threats to security,” somehow. The word, pronounced anquan in Standard Mandarin, also exists in both Japanese, read as anzen, and Korean, anjeon, but Shambaugh doesn’t extend the anecdote outside Chinese borders.

By far the most popular target of Chinese word phrenology is the word for crisis, 危机. There is an entire Wikipedia entry on the Chinese word for crisis, in fact, because dating back to at least John F. Kennedy, Westerners have loved to awe at the fact that the two constituent characters are “danger” plus “opportunity.” This is technically true in the same sense that the opposite of pro-gress is Con-gress: It’s a selective interpretation of morphemes divorced from actual etymology and is best left for a fortune cookie or motivational horoscope.

Phrenology for words further echoes the once fashionable Sapir-Whorf view of language and thought. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, first formulated in the 1920s, posited that the contours of human languages specifically shape speakers’ ability to perceive and understand the world around them. In other words, how you speak and how you think are inextricably linked. Word phrenologists take this one step further: How the people speak and how a state acts are inextricably linked.

In a bold Substack letter, Bruno Maçaes, a former Portuguese official who writes frequently about China but does not read Chinese, argues that Chinese words “operate without the dualistic divide between empirical reality and a transcendental realm of language.”

This is nonsense, an English word meaning “without sense.”

He cites the poet Ezra Pound when stating that whereas English can apparently philosophically construct the word “red” de novo, the “Chinese ideogram might put together several red objects: the abbreviated pictures of a rose, a cherry, iron rust and a flamingo.” Thus for the Chinese, “red” is a mere concrete entity and “is not a philosophical construction. It uses what everyone knows from actual experience,” which is apparently unique to Chinese.

This, Maçaes concludes, shows the “absence of metaphysics” that “continues to be a defining mark of contemporary Chinese life and society.” This extends into politics: Rather than fuss about truly knowing what red is, the Chinese simply act out of a pragmatism that is reflected in their language. They are not caught up in metaphysics, and they don’t need to reason too much. Thus, Maçaes writes, in Xi Jinping’s July 2020 essay expounding on the definition of socialism with Chinese characteristics, “he never tried to defend a series of propositions or doctrinal tenets. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is simply the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.”

The Chinese word for red, 红, is actually just the radical for “silk” (糸) combined with a semiphonetic component (工).

Chinese word phrenology, to borrow an ancient Anglo-Saxon proverb, misses the forest for the trees. It is one thing to understand a word or phrase and quite another to understand it in its context, rather than fabricate whimsical arguments that just let you flaunt your knowledge of such a cryptic and arcane tongue.

Jake Eberts is a researcher based in Washington.

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