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China’s poisoned language

Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

Recently, while cleaning out the basement where I stored my books that I brought back from my university years in China, I came across a “Handbook of Chinese-English Vocabulary” (汉英词汇手册). It was published in December 1970 during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Its technical title already seemed unusual. With over 1,600 pages, the annotated dictionary became a major publishing feat. Commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Foreign Languages Press mobilized a group of language experts after the 9th Party Congress in 1969 to produce a reference guide for the self-expression of Cultural Revolutionary terminology. Beginning in January 1970, they compiled more than 20,000 expressions over eleven months, with examples of their use in ideology, politics, society, economics, and the military.

As was customary at the time, Mao slogans appeared on the first page. Instead of revolutionary calls, the Great Chairman demanded: “Do good publishing work” and “for the benefit of the Chinese people and the people of the whole world.” This was in line with Beijing’s desire to at least make foreign countries understand the terms the secluded nation was speaking and thinking in.

In the midst of the Cultural Revolution, the “Handbook of Chinese-English Vocabulary” was published. With more than 1,600 pages on vocabulary in the Cultural Revolution, it was more than just an encyclopedia.

Because China’s leadership wanted to open its doors to the West out of fear of its enemy, the Soviet Union. In 1969, the two states had clashed for the first time at the Amur River. In early 1971, US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger arrived in Beijing for secret negotiations.

The new dictionary was only a small signal of great change. Its hundreds of translated anti-Soviet terms reflected the deep rift with the Soviet Union. Mao’s propagandists called them “revisionist” and “social-imperialist” and their leaders “new tsars” with “Great Russian chauvinism” (大俄罗斯沙文主义). Example sentences mainly attacked Nikita Khrushchev.

Nowadays, the difference could not possibly be greater. Shortly before Moscow’s war of aggression on Ukraine, President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin pledged a friendship with “no limits” and cooperation without “forbidden areas” in a 15-page agreement. Today’s linguistic hatred is once again directed against the USA.

Unusual Mao slogans introduced the equally unusual dictionary in 1970. Mao: “Do good publishing work” and “For the benefit of the Chinese people and the people of the whole world.”

The 1970 dictionary is a testimony of a bygone era. It was not reprinted after Mao’s death. Chinese under 40 who grew up in times of reform are bewildered by expressions ranging from “snake spirits and cattle devils”(牛鬼蛇神) to the “three Mao essays to be read at all times” (老三篇). Nor do they understand why, in old party jargon, rock ‘n’ roll was called the “dance of vagabonds” (阿飞舞). Instead, they are angered when Beijing’s ideologues polemically vilify their idols, fashion trends, or live streaming stars.

China’s poisoned officious language, which once spawned the grotesque word monstrosities of the Cultural Revolution, now uses different terms, but has not changed its nature. Even though the Cultural Revolution took inhumanity and hatred to extremes, the language has remained full of malice and polemics against opponents or dissidents. This also affects social media. A debate among expatriate Chinese in the US wonders why Chinese shitstorms exceed the Internet rage of other nations. This phenomenon also manifests in the aggression and absurd conspiracy theories of the so-called “wolf warriors” of the Foreign Ministry, who have abandoned any diplomatic restraint or courtesy and denounce any critical voices as an “anti-Chinese chorus” (反华大合唱), a term also present in the 1970 manual.

Raised on wolf’s milk

Cantonese reform philosopher Yuan Weishi (袁伟时) blames the ideologized school education in the People’s Republic, which he called “being raised with wolf milk”. China’s communists have manipulated both language and education to ideologically “brainwash” and ideologize society since the beginning of their rule, writes Yu Jie, an author and dissident now living in exile in the United States. He cites the linguistic research of analyst and novelist Victor Klemperer. He warned not to ignore the critical role that language plays in the creation of a totalitarian system.

But language serves this purpose in China. This is also the logic behind the ideological speeches of autocrat Xi Jinping, writes Yu in his study “From Maoism to Xiism.” Since Mao’s death, none of China’s leaders has quoted the Great Chairman as often as Xi.

Xi not only uses Mao’s language to expand his cult of personality and power, but also copies his methods. The chairman introduced “classes for Mao Zedong thought” (办毛泽东思想学习班), a term that appears in the 1970s dictionary. Xi now forces China’s ministries and commissions to run “Research Centers on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想研究中心). Even his recent catchphrase: “The East is rising and West is declining” (东升西降) echoes Mao slogans: “the sun rises in the east – and sets in the west” (东方日盛,西方日衰), or “the east wind prevails over west wind” (东风压倒西风).

Thirty-Six Stratagems

The 1970 dictionary first revealed the concept of the ancient Chinese Thirty-Six Stratagems (三十六计) to the outside world, which had been handed down for 3,000 years. Mao used them to conquer China and later assert his power. The reference book lists all 36 intrigues individually with English translation. It even reveals which stratagem was the most effective in guerrilla warfare: “Of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, fleeing is best” ( 三十六计走为上计).

For the first time, the Cultural Revolutionary Dictionary revealed ancient Chinese war stratagems and listed all 36 individually.

Harro von Senger, a renowned sinologist and former professor of Chinese law who now lives in Switzerland and who also studied in Beijing during the mid-1970s, told me that he first found the word “stratagems” as a term for the life and survival lists in the 1970 dictionary. He has since written dozens of essays and translations on the Thirty-Six Stratagems, which have been published in 16 languages, most recently in January 2022 by a Ukrainian publishing house.

Everything changed, except China’s language

Reforms and modernization radically changed China overnight. In 2002, a series of books almost nostalgically recalled the hundreds of crafts that quietly disappeared in less than a generation along with their names. Gone were they – the scissors and knife grinder (磨刀人) who roamed the residential neighborhoods with loud chanting, the letter writer for others (代写书信), the briquette seller (卖炭) or feng shui geomancer (风水先生).

Everything changed, except China’s language. The need for reform was voiced by authors such as Ye Yanbing (叶延滨) in 2007. He called in vain for creating a dictionary on the inhumane language of the Cultural Revolution (文革说文解字), based on the classical explanatory encyclopedia for terms in ancient China.

China’s reforms and modernization caused hundreds of crafts to disappear overnight. In 2002, the first books on the subject were published. Everything was changing. Except for the ideologized inhumane official language.

Michael Kahn-Ackermann, a translator and the former director of the Beijing Goethe-Institut, says that there has never been a reappraisal of the contemporary literary language of Baihua (白话), which has existed for 100 years, much less “liberating a language that has become increasingly stereotyped since 1949.”

This issue haunted Chinese intellectuals after the end of the Cultural Revolution, says Kahn-Ackermann. A Cheng (阿城), for example, is still fighting for a humane language. Yu Hua (余华) addressed this in his book “China in Ten Words“. Others, such as the satirist Wang Shuo 王朔, tried to detoxify the official language through ironization.

Re-ideologization encrusts China’s language and thinking

If you flip through the 1970 dictionary, you will be shocked by the countless inhuman expressions that are used to this day, of the ” wolf-like nature” of the enemy (豺狼本性) who must be fought “bitterly and bloodily” (残酷的流血斗争).

The recent re-ideologization is further encrusting China’s language and thinking. How this will fit in with the modern superpower that China aspires to be is the same question that many other areas of China face, such as how innovation and initiative are to thrive under ever-stricter surveillance, control, and censorship. The answer is still missing.


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